Wednesday 27 May 2015

It’s the taste, innit?

Some years ago I used to have discussions on motoring-related Usenet groups with a retired Cheshire traffic police officer called Kevin Lunn. It was tangential to the main issues at hand, but he did at one point say he was a connoisseur of malt whiskies. However, he insisted that he only had one or at most two glasses when at home, and drank them entirely for the taste, as he wasn’t aware of any alcoholic effect whatsoever.

I found this a bit strange at the time, although I have no reason to believe it wasn’t a genuine statement. But it does reflect a sentiment I’ve often heard from beer enthusiasts that the alcoholic content gets in the way of their appreciation. For example, I recently saw this comment by Nick Boley on Boak & Bailey’s blog:

“...we do need as a society to differentiate to some extent to those who drink because they enjoy the flavour and accept intoxication as an unwanted occupational hazard, and those who drink to get intoxicated regardless of what it is they’re drinking.”
But this is rather missing the point. Alcoholic drinks first developed precisely because of their intoxicating effect, and it was only later that people started to appreciate that some tasted better than others – although probably the first spontaneously fermented fruit juice wasn’t all that bad. It was only relatively recently – within the last 150 years or so – that ordinary people in developed societies got the opportunity to buy alcoholic drinks that weren’t the staple produce of their own locality. Yes, wine had been shipped long distances for thousands of years – remember the Quinquireme of Nineveh and its cargo of sweet white wine – but in countries like England it had always been a luxury product confined to the rich.

In reality, the presence of alcohol is essential to the taste of alcoholic drinks, and as they become stronger it becomes more important. The flavours become more intense and complex, but you know you must imbibe more sparingly, so it’s a fundamental limitation. There is, broadly speaking, a trade-off between taste and effect. Products deliberately produced to have a lower level of alcohol than normal usually taste rather lacking, even if palatable enough.

And it’s wrong to suggest ordinary drinkers drink purely for intoxication. Of course they are interested in the effect, but more often than not it’s for relaxation or companionship, not getting drunk for the sake of it. The average number of drinks consumed per drinking occasion is probably well under two. Even then, they choose the drinks that they like the flavour of. Only alcoholics pour stuff down their necks regardless of the taste. Yes, the enthusiast may be more selective in their choice of drinks, but if they’re routinely drinking in situations where non-enthusiasts wouldn’t, they might need to consider whether they have a problem.

And some of the brews that have sprung from the craft beer movement which are extreme in strength and/or flavour may be magnificent examples of the brewer’s art, but aren’t things that realistically any normal person is going to consume in a social setting.

Monday 25 May 2015

The monkey’s paw strikes again

I’ve made the point in the past here and here that the pubcos are not going to adopt a supine response to any government-imposed change in their business model, and that the recent “Pubco reform” was essentially a Pyrrhic victory for CAMRA and Greg Mulholland.

Now Enterprise Inns have set out their strategy following these reforms, and it’s not remotely surprising. They are planning to convert 750-850 of their most profitable sites to direct management, sell off about 1,000 bottom-end pubs and convert another 1,000 to arm’s length commercial leases. The remaining 2,200 pubs will be subject to tied agreements of up to five years, where presumably they will seek to minimise the opportunities for licensees to take up the market rent option (MRO).

As I’ve said before, it’s hard to see why any pubco would be interested in owning pubs run on an MRO basis in the long term. Enterprise are going to transfer a lot more pubs to commercial leases where they no longer have any interest as to whether the business is run as a pub or a supermarket. If any licensee on a tied agreement goes for an MRO, they will not renew his agreement and will probably either transfer the pub to management or sell it off. It’s also very doubtful whether there’s enough liquidity in the market to take up the 1,000 pubs being sold off, and many will surely end up converted to alternative use.

No doubt Punch Taverns will come up with similar plans, and we will end up with yet another Beer Orders style upheaval of the pub trade. Maybe the trade does need a further culling, but it’s hard to see that that was the objective of the campaigners for pubco reform.

And, for those who didn’t get the reference, see here. It’s the classic cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Wizard brew

At the end of last year, I reported that Robinsons had announced they were going to axe their 1892 Mild. The general verdict was that, while it was sad, the decision was understandable in view of plummeting demand, and nobody was going to be staging protest marches.

At the time, they said they planned to introduce a new 3.7% amber beer, not as a direct replacement for 1892, but to plug a gap at the bottom end of their range, something that caused many beer enthusiasts to yawn a little. This has now appeared in the form of Wizard, which did not greatly impress RedNev when he came across it. In the first two months of the year, Robinsons produced a seasonal beer called Mojo, which was also 3.7% and was thought to be a trial run of Wizard.

However, in fact Wizard is noticeably different, being paler, dryer and a little lighter on the palate. Robinsons say that they “have combined 5 English hops, pale, wheat & crystal malts to produce Wizard, a moreish, sessionable 3.7% ABV mythical amber ale. Packed full of flavour, Wizard has a spell-bounding fruity & zesty hop palate complemented by a magical full malt character.” Fair enough, but perhaps a touch of hyperbole for something that is basically an “ordinary bitter”.

As I said, it’s fairly dry, mid-amber in colour (a little darker than Unicorn), with a touch of the distinctive Robinsons house character and a good balance of malt and hops. It’s never going to set the world alight but, there again, that isn’t the point of ordinary bitter. Where available, it will probably become my usual drink in Robinsons pubs unless there’s a particularly interesting seasonal beer.

Historically, Robinsons have been in the unusual position of selling a “best bitter” as their everyday quaffing bitter. They weren’t alone in this – for example, Camerons Strongarm was their staple beer in the North-East, while the weaker Bitter was favoured in Yorkshire, Draught Bass and Marston’s Pedigree were both often the staple beer across large swathes of the Midlands, and in the South-West many breweries offered a “best bitter” at around 4.2%, and a “boys’ bitter” around 3.2%. But it was pretty much unique in the North-West.

Many people, unaware of the relative strength, used to complain that a night on Robinsons Best Bitter gave them a “bad head”, when in fact it was markedly stronger than most of its competitors. They did produce a weaker version at about 3.5%, just branded as “Bitter”, but for whatever reason it was only available in a handful of outlets, including locally the Queens in Cheadle. This was relaunched as “Old Stockport” at the same time as Best Bitter became Unicorn, but never really gained much favour and was axed a few years ago. They did introduce the 3.8% golden ale Dizzy Blonde, which can be very enjoyable when well-kept, but it has never claimed to be an ordinary bitter and indeed often sells at a premium to the stronger Unicorn.

But it seems a sensible move to launch a lower-strength ordinary bitter that will also allow Robinsons to be more price-competitive in many of their pubs where they have been struggling a bit. Then Unicorn can be repositioned as a premium beer going head-to-head with the likes of Wainwright and Doom Bar in the free trade. And it has a very recognisable brand name.

There is one worry, though. Historically, breweries in the North-West have always struggled to sell a bitter-style beer that is weaker than their standard beer, especially if the latter is automatically proferred when a customer just asks for “bitter”. Sam Smith’s Tadcaster Bitter is a prime example and, more recently, Holts IPA. The other day I was in a Robinsons pub serving a very decent pint of Wizard, but where an old boy went to the bar asking for bitter and got Unicorn. Unless Wizard overcomes that hurdle it is likely to struggle, although I’m sure the price differential will help.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Back to when pubs were pubs

I recently happened to be in Stockport town centre on a weekday lunchtime for an optician’s appointment, and afterwards thought I would call in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head on the market place for a swift pint. I’ve written about this pub before as being a bastion of the old-fashioned wet-led, pint-drinking pub culture, but in general I’ve only visited in the evenings and at weekends.

It doesn’t serve food (although it has in the past) but it was noticeable that, just before one o’clock, and not on a market day, it was busy, with a cluster of drinkers at the bar, and pretty much every table having at least one customer. The vast majority were over fifty, and most would fall into the category of being “down-to-earth”. No doubt most were either retired, unemployed or on disability, and so had time on their hands. I, by the way, am a “semi-retired gentleman of leisure” so am completely different.

The beer feminist sisterhood will no doubt point out that it was also a mostly male clientele, but it did include couples, individual women and all-female groups. I don’t see that the pub is in any way female-unfriendly, though, it’s more a generational thing whereby older women just don’t visit pubs on their own. Many widowed or divorced men will find a bit of social life in the pub, if they can get there, but women will be more inclined to sit at home and feel lonely. Maybe in twenty years’ time that will have changed.

Being a Sam’s pub, it has no piped music or TV sports, which will have encouraged the customers to chat to each other. It’s the kind of pub where complete strangers strike up conversation and even offer to buy each other drinks. The low prices will help, too. For these people, the pub is a key part of their social life, not just somewhere to go for a leisure experience. And, to cap it all, there was a large, fluffy, black-and-white pub cat, fast asleep on a bench and taking up two seats. I was warned not to be too affectionate as it had a tendency to be a bit snappy. You don’t get that in Spoons. The Old Brewery Bitter was pretty good, too.

I’ve often sung the praises of Sam Smith’s pubs in the past – cheap beer, brown decor, bench seating, no piped music, no TV sports, and proper pub customers engaging in proper pub chat. Now, they’re certainly not my ideal pubs – the limited beer range and the fact that the punters would often consider the Daily Mail to be a posh newspaper militate against that. But many other pub operators, in their quest to promote fancy food, music, TV and other distractions, seem to have forgotten what pubs were originally all about. And they have priced themselves out of the reach of many ordinary customers who once saw the pub as a valuable social resource.

Saturday 16 May 2015

Pride before a fall?

I recently wrote about the travails of Tesco, which had expanded beyond the point at which the business was sustainable, and raised the question as to whether the same fate might eventually befall Wetherspoon’s.

Love them or loathe them, Spoons have been the great pub success story of recent years, proving that even in a declining market you can still thrive by giving customers what they want. I’ve written about the reasons behind their rise here.

They still seem to be going from strength to strength, with a solid programme of new openings in the pipeline. They reckon that their ultimate goal is about 2,000 pubs – twice as many as they have today – which would mean that few people in the UK would not be within easy reach of a branch.

It hasn’t been a seamless ascent, though. Over the years they have encountered a number of setbacks, for example

  1. in the late 90s becoming too closely associated with the “night-time economy” in major cities
  2. jumping the gun on both full measures (which never happened) and the smoking ban (which, sadly, did), both of which alienated customers
  3. more recently, trying to push prices up in some branches in more prosperous areas and meeting much customer resistance
They have also made a number of errors in site selection, most notably the Edwin Chadwick in Longsight which even I would have warned them about. However, the juggernaut keeps rolling on.

I do wonder, though, whether they are now running into the same problems as Tesco – diminishing number of suitable new sites, and the risk of new openings cannibalising trade from existing venues. There are plenty of towns – such as Preston – where one Spoons has recently become two.

I’m not saying they’re anywhere near banging their heads against the ceiling, but that day must come. Tim Martin has just turned 60, and won’t be around forever. Some have suggested that the company depends on his personality holding it all together.

But my recommendation as to when to sell the shares would be on the day they make a public announcement that they are going to segment their pubs between different categories. It may seem to make commercial sense, but it will undermine the whole concept. The fact that a Spoons is a Spoons wherever you go is, to my mind, their USP.

Friday 15 May 2015

Bipolar beer

Last month’s CAMRA AGM passed a motion instructing branches to desist from “anti campaigns” denigrating other drinks. Many would take the view this was long overdue, and indeed founder member Michael Hardman famously said “I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something.” Over the years this has included both a blanket dismissal of whole categories of beer as worthless rubbish, and casting doubt on the intelligence of those who chose to drink them. This kind of attitude may come across as narrow-minded and dogmatic today, but it’s interesting to consider how it arose in the first place.

When CAMRA was formed in the early 70s, the British beer and pub landscape was very different from how it is today. Approximately 90% of beer was sold in pubs and clubs, and 90% of that was ale – either bitter or mild in various forms. People weren’t “keg drinkers” or “real ale drinkers”, they were bitter or mild drinkers, and what CAMRA was trying to do was to to raise awareness of whether that beer was real or pressurised in some way. It also needs to be remembered that in those days non-real beer covered a multitude of categories beyond keg as such – blanket pressure, top pressure, bright beer, tank beer etc. But, at this time, it was correct to say that cask beer, when well kept, was almost universally better than any form of pressurised beer, so the simple dichotomy of “real ale good, keg beer bad” contained a substantial element of truth.

Of course there was at that time one clearly-defined group of “keg drinkers” – those who went for the big brewers’ premium keg beers such as Watney’s Red, Double Diamond and Worthington E, but even there they identified with the brand rather than the category. These were among CAMRA’s first targets and within a period of about five years they had reduced them from being seen as an aspirational product to something irredeemably naff. “Keg drinkers” as such didn’t re-emerge until the early 90s and the rise of “smooth” as a distinct product. At first, with products like Caffrey’s, the brewers hoped to reconnect ale with a younger market, but it has been increasingly characterised as the choice of older, working-class male drinkers. They do specifically ask for “smooth”, though, whereas nobody really used to ask for keg.

In the long run, cask has won the battle against keg, which now accounts for a smaller proportion of the ale market than at any time during CAMRA’s existence. But ale has decisively lost the wider battle against lager, which has come to represent 70% of the on-trade beer market. The spectacular rise of lager is often thought to have really taken off in the hot summer of 1976. This was harder to oppose than keg ale, because it wasn’t possible to point to a direct “real” alternative, and so inevitably lager drinkers themselves began to be stereotyped. Initially they were seen as effete “shandy drinkers”, but as lager gained popularity amongst a new generation of drinkers, they metamorphosed into the laddish followers of George the Bear, and in a sense lager became the drink of the Loadsamoney generation. Obviously this was easy for the beer buffs to look down their noses at, but they started to realise that in Germany and the Czech Republic you could actually find some excellent lagers, so it became more difficult to condemn the whole category. You won’t win any converts by asking What’s the matter, Lagerboy?, and it’s noticeable how nowadays it’s vanishingly rare to see any working-class man under 40 drinking ale, either real or keg.

In the early 70s, bottled and canned beer only made up a small proportion of the market, and it didn’t matter all that much when CAMRA decided to make bottle-conditioned beer, which was down to a small handful of products, the packaged equivalent of real ale. But in the longer term, as drinking increasingly moved from the pub to the home, this proved to be a strategic error. Bottle-conditioning is great for strong speciality brews but, because of the practical difficulties of storage, pouring and consistency, it is never going to be a realistic option for everyday quaffing beers, something that the brewers had realised long before they started dropping cask on draught. So, when all the well-known real ales started appearing in bottles, CAMRA lumped them in the same category as cans of Long Life, while encouraging small breweries to produce bottle-conditioned ales which qualified for “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” but were often highly inconsistent products that did not encourage repeat purchase. It’s commonplace for the drinkers who choose cask beer in the pub to buy the bottled versions for drinking at home and refer to them as “real ales”, even though strictly speaking they aren’t. Drinkers see the two as equivalent even if CAMRA doesn’t. One CAMRA magazine notoriously declares “tins are always very, very bad”. The likes of Beavertown might have something to say about that!

Forty years on, the beer scene is far more diverse than it was in the early days. Lager has come to dominate the market – much dull or indifferent, some truly excellent. We have imports from all over the world, the craft beer movement has brought a bewildering array of styles and flavours, and we have high-quality beers from small new breweries appearing in keg form, some of which technically qualify as real ale. The old certainties have gone, and it no longer makes any sense to dismiss entire categories of beer out of hand or suggest that the people who drink them are ill-informed. Most of us, including most CAMRA members, are to some extent “repertoire drinkers” now, and don’t religiously stick to the same product on grounds of principle. I rarely drink anything but cask in pubs, as I make a point of choosing pubs that serve decent cask, but I’m certainly not the kind of person who sits at a wedding drinking bitter lemon with a face like a wet weekend because the only beer available is Foster’s. If you want to encourage people to try something new, denigrating their current choice is not a good way to go about it. It is good news that CAMRA has at last officially recognised that championing Britain’s unique contribution to the beer world and a key part of our national heritage requires a positive, outward-looking approach rather than refighting the doctrinaire battles of forty years ago.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Polling station, then pub

Well, here are the results of the Mudgie opinion poll for the 2015 General Election. I made a point of not sharing or promoting this anywhere else and so the results are more representative than the last one.

As I said in the comments, there’s a clear dichotomy between the two contrasting demographics that the blog appeals to:

  1. Smoking ban opponents and general advocates of “lifestyle liberty”, who are likely to be predominantly UKIP

  2. The CAMRA/beer blogging community, who mainly have left-wing sympathies, either Labour or Green
There does seem to be a something of a cognitive dissonance on the last point, given Labour’s support for various anti-pub and anti-drink measures, such as the smoking ban and the duty escalator, and the Greens’ expressed desire to considerably increase alcohol duty. Obviously it’s a rather narrow view to cast your vote purely on the basis of the interests of the beer industry, but I do wonder how many genuinely believe that a Labour government would improve its prospects, and how many still vote Labour for other reasons despite that.

I’m not going to launch into a lengthy political diatribe, but I’m sure it will come as no surprise that locally I will be voting for this chap, who is an excellent candidate. I will make a couple of further points, though:

A survey shows that the key feature distinguishing UKIP supporters from those of other parties is opposition to “lifestyle regulation”, something that goes much further than the smoking ban and represents a genuine undercurrent of anger and frustration at the ever-growing encroachment of the Nanny Bully State.

Last month, the Morning Advertiser carried out a Q & A session with Pubs Minister Kris Hopkins and his shadow Toby Perkins. Read it and see what you think. But it takes a bit of brass neck for Perkins to say “we want to see a higher proportion of Britain’s alcohol drunk in pubs” when the last Labour government did more than any since Lloyd George to achieve the opposite.

As a general rule, most of what politicians say about pubs is self-serving, hypocritical bollocks. The best thing they could do is just to leave them alone, rather than indulge in misguided attempts to “save” them which may well end up having the opposite effect.