Friday 31 July 2015

Pubbly Jubbly

Back around 2007, when beer blogging was in its infancy, there was a tendency for bloggers to gush with enthusiasm over every new development in beer. This became described as “cheery beery”, in the sense of seeing every innovation as positive and exciting without any discrimination between excellent and mediocre. Since then, people have grown up, the craft beer industry has jumped a number of sharks, and writers are more willing to be critical when it is deserved.

However, this tendency now seems to have spread into the field of pubs. After a quiet period when the country was in the economic doldrums, the last few years have seen an unprecedented wave of new bars opening and existing pubs being expensively refurbished by brewers and pubcos. Pretty much every project has been accompanied by a noticeable broadening of the beer offer – even family dining pubs now have a craft beer fridge. But, just as it was with beer, all of this seems to be met with universal, uncritical approval.

In my view, the only really acceptable form of pub refurbishment is a good spring-cleaning, a fresh coat of paint and new upholstery. However, in the real world it has to be accepted that pub owners often do think that changing the layout and appearance of a pub may yield dividends, and so you have to consider how sensitively it is done, and how congenial an environment the new pub offers. I’ve mentioned before that, all things considered, Robinsons have done a pretty good job with the Tatton Arms at Moss Nook and the Davenport Arms at Woodford.

However, I was strongly critical of the pretentious, over-designed scheme at the Farmers Arms, Poynton, even though what went before didn’t have much to be said for it either. And, after I had listed the Bakers Vaults in Stockport market place as Worst Pub Refurbishment of the Year, I was taken to task for criticising it, as it had reopened a previously closed pub and offered a more enterprising beer choice than any other Robinsons pub. That’s true, but the interior (pictured) is still to my eye utterly dreadful, making a very poor use of space and offering scarcely any seating except at high-level posing tables. Good beer does not excuse bad design.

Some may argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s all basically just a matter of personal taste. However, I would counter that an insensitive disregard for previous arrangements, and coming up with schemes that are austere and uncomfortable, or absurdly mannered and over-styled, are always very hard to justify. It’s also the case that many of the new-wave bars, while often showing admirable enterprise on the beer front, present an austere, hard-edged aspect that is reminiscent of an IKEA kitchen-diner and are not places where your backside would thank you for lingering.

In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation was happy to criticise pub operators for opening pubs out, knocking two bars into one, and generally eroding their character. Nowadays, though, you will often see interiors that are bright, airy and open-plan being spoken of as a step forward. Possibly a factor in this is that, nowadays, CAMRA scouts are likely to be much better acquainted with licensees than they were back in the 1970s, and so are reluctant to make any criticism, even if the design scheme is entirely the responsibility of the pub owner. Many licensees interpret any criticism of their pub as something personal.

Surely, though, it is high time that beer writers and CAMRA publications started to apply a more critical eye to pub refurbishments and design schemes, rather than just taking the view that, if the beer’s good, then a blind eye should be turned to any kind of aesthetic or architectural vandalism.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Three thought experiments

From time to time, especially towards the end of an evening in the pub, it’s interesting to speculate about what might be the result of certain changes to legislation or social customs. Often these aren’t things that aren’t realistically going to happen, or that we don’t support, but they can be useful in testing the validity of commonplace ideas.

These are three that have occurred to me in recent months:

1. Cut the price of on-trade beer

We’re often told that cheap supermarket beer is killing the pub. So let us assume that, somehow, the on-trade price could be cut so that nothing was over £2 a pint. This would greatly reduce the differential between on and off-trades. I’m sure it would increase the amount of bottom-end, price-conscious customers. But I can’t see it would make much difference to middle-class pubgoing.

The amount of beer I drink in pubs is constrained variously by health concerns (yes really), a wish to avoid hangovers, to be still functioning later in the day or the following morning, and the drink-drive legislation. Slashing the price would make virtually no difference. Certainly, in general, it wouldn’t remotely take us back to the glory days of the late 70s. Plus, if it encouraged more scrotes and deadlegs to drink in pubs, it could make them less appealing for more responsible customers. It would not be a magic bullet.

2. Let local groups run failed pubs

Rather than selling them off to developers, pub operators with pubs they consider to be unviable could lease them out to local community groups at a peppercorn rent. There are plenty of campaigns to “save the Canard & Conundrum”, so maybe the pubcos could call their bluff and say that provided they came up with a credible organisation and could put a few thousand pounds on the table, the pub was theirs to run. If they failed, then the title would revert to the pubco to do as they wished.

This would completely take the wind out of the sails of the anti-pubco campaigners. But I suspect the take-up would be very low. Realistically, despite the claims, few closed pubs really are viable, and the campaigners generally expect someone else to run it at a loss rather than take it on themselves. This would prove the point, one way or the other.

3. Make all beer the same strength

The vast majority of spirits are either 40% ABV or 37.5%, which realistically is neither here nor there. Most table wine falls within a limited strength range which is basically that between bitter and best bitter Yet beer ranges from 2.8% to over 10%.

I see this as a good thing, but what if pretty much all commercially available beer was at the same strength, say 4.0%? Brewers would have to differentiate their beers by colour, body and flavour, rather than strength. It would set them an interesting challenge and be a test of their craft. Indeed, going back a few years, the vast majority of beer in Germany was within the range of 4.8% to 5.2%, yet they still showed a huge variety. Maybe strength differentiation is an easy way out.

Oh, and just to reiterate, I’m not advocating any of these policies, just speculating as to what the effect would be. Any thoughts?

Sunday 26 July 2015

Old soaks

It’s now the silly season for news, as shown by the widespread coverage of the increasingly surreal Labour leadership contest. Last Friday, on what was obviously a very slow news day, a story cropped up in many of the papers about an alleged Middle Class Drink Epidemic.

The whole thing is, as we have come to expect, comprehensively debunked by Christopher Snowdon. The fundamental point he makes is that, while there may in a sense be a disproportionate level of middle-class drinking (although they are still drinking less than they used to), there’s no similar epidemic of middle-class alcohol-related health problems.

Indeed, what the story does is to demonstrate the exact opposite – that while middle-class, middle-aged people may drink more than the lower orders, they stubbornly refuse to demonstrate the related health issues.

Because this group is typically healthier than other parts of the older population, they might not realise that what they are doing is putting their health in danger,
If there was any truth in it, then surely the problem would be demonstrated by the outcomes. And he makes the important point that there isn’t necessarily a direct relationship between average group behaviour and individual circumstances.
You cannot assume that an arbitrarily defined group of people is going to produce more death and disease than another group merely because their group average exceeds an arbitrary guideline. Why? Because averages tell you nothing about individuals. Yes, people on low incomes drink less than middle class people on average. They don’t have much money and alcohol is a heavily-taxed luxury, but within this group are some people who not only drink very heavily but also have a propensity for other risk-taking behaviours. It should therefore not be surprising that a disproportionate number of alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths arise in the group that drinks the least. The fact that lots of other poor people bring the group average down by drinking moderately or abstaining is neither here nor there to the low income alcoholic.
The conclusion is that, while middle-class people may on average drink more than working-class ones, in general they still only drink moderately and remain in control of their lives. There is no health epidemic or timebomb, and the government “limits” are largely meaningless.

As the novelist Kingsley Amis, a famously dedicated drinker (who, to be honest, died at the relatively young age of 73), said “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare.”

It has to be said that this report met with amused scepticism in several of the newspapers, such as here and here, which must be a positive sign.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Dangerously drinkable

It recently seems to have dawned on some beer bloggers that drinking lots of high-strength craft beers, even if only in halves or thirds, does have a tendency to get you drunk. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but in reality the availability of a wide choice of strong beers in all kinds of styles is a fairly new phenomenon on the British beer scene. Perhaps it needs a fundamental reconsideration of how beer drinking is approached.

If we go back to before CAMRA was formed, the number of beer enthusiasts in Britain, in the sense of people who would make a point of trying out new or different brews, was minimal. Of course a lot of people enjoyed drinking beer – and they drank a lot more of it than we do now – but pretty much all of it was mild and bitter of various kinds, and little much over 4% ABV. Many brewers produced old ales around Christmas time, but virtually none had a draught stout, where Guinness enjoyed an effective monopoly. The exotic (and often strong) foreign beers from Belgium and Germany that now cluster on the shelves of your local Tesco were scarcely ever seen.

In the early years of CAMRA, little changed. The organisation, after all, was primarily interested in methods of storage and dispense, not in beer styles. Yes, it did like to imply that real ale was made of authentic natural ingredients, and keg beer was made from chemicals, but that was always at best a gross exaggeration. Its first ten years were basically spent championing the products of the independent family brewers and the real ales still made by the Big Six. There was more emphasis placed on stronger premium bitters – most notably with the introduction of Ind Coope Burton Ale – but the general mix of styles remained much the same. While lager steadily gained market share, much of that was even weaker than ordinary bitters.

The 1980s saw the first wave of microbreweries, but again they were generally just trying to brew their own versions of the classic British beer styles, often well, sometimes incompetently. One noticeable change was the growing number of cask stouts and porters, but they were generally of fairly sessionable strength. Then we had the rise of golden ales, which eventually became regarded as a beer category in their own right. But they were really just a subset of “bitter”, and indeed there had previously been some distinctly pale bitters such as Boddingtons, Stones and Theakstons. Even the more recent trends of “very pale and very hoppy” and New World hops still essentially stayed within the conventional categories of style and strength.

It’s only fairly recently, spurred on by the increasing influence of US craft brewing, and the rise of craft keg, that especially strong beers and experimental flavours have become commonplace. Looking back through the archives, I don’t think I ever mentioned “craft beer” before 2010. To be honest, this trend doesn’t really float my boat, and on the rare occasions I really want something strong I’ll go for an Old Tom or something Belgian. It’s also something that runs contra to the current movement towards lower-strength beers. I’m certainly not against it, though, and enterprise and innovation always deserve celebrating even if they’re not my thing.

Traditionally, the ordinary pub drinker would rarely touch anything above about 5%, except maybe for a half of Old Tom or suchlike at the end of the evening. However, if you want to enjoy a series of Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs, you just can’t jug them back like cooking bitter. You have to pace yourself, drink thirds if available and maybe have water spacers. It’s nothing like the classic Friday night out and, if anything, more like a whisky tasting session. If that’s what you want to do to catch all these flavours, fair enough. But it bears very little resemblance to the way beer is enjoyed by the vast majority of the drinking population, and it could be seen as another way of cutting the enthusiast off from the mainstream. He’s no longer drinking just better beer, he’s drinking completely different beer.

Sunday 19 July 2015

Hearty harmonisation

Last week I attended a residents’ meeting in one of my local pubs, the Plough in Heaton Moor, to discuss M&B’s plans for refurbishment and updating the licence conditions. The pub had previously been owned by Orchid Taverns and was acquired by M&B when they took over the company around the turn of the year. Possibly this is something that the conditions oblige them to do but, even so, all credit to them for taking it seriously and letting people air their concerns. Inevitably, some hobby-horses were given an extensive airing, but the general atmosphere was amicable and there wasn’t anything in the licence application that raised serious concern.

One subject that divided opinions was the admission of dogs, although it seems that the pub will remain dog-friendly. Some attendees also expressed disapproval of M&B’s plans to remove Sky Sports, which obviously I would thoroughly applaud. “It’s always busy when City are on,” they said, which I’m sure is true, but rather ignores the counter-argument that, if you’re trying to appeal to diners and families, it may attract the wrong kind of clientele and also deter many from visiting in the first place.

Three and a half years ago, Orchid carried out a modest refurbishment and rebranded the pub as a “Pizza Kitchen & Bar.” Personally, I welcomed this, as it made a refreshing change from the usual formulaic “pub grub”, and the menu offered a number of dishes, not just pizzas, that appealed to me. However, it never seemed to do particularly well (although I generally only visited at lunchtimes) and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that they had rather overestimated how trendy and yuppieish Heaton Moor is. Yes, it’s moving that way, but it’s still far from Didsbury or Chorlton and still has a strong core of established older residents.

M&B said they were going to replace this with a more conventional menu of traditional pub favourites and “hearty dishes”, plus roast dinners on Sundays. This met with the general approval of the meeting, and indeed may well be a more appropriate option for that particular location. However, it’s another example of the tendency for more and more pubs to offer what is, with the odd tweak, basically the same menu. The days when many pubs featured a particular cuisine as a speciality of the house have long gone. And you can’t help thinking that, in these days of street food and ever-increasing interest in dishes from around the world, pubs’ food offer so often looks stodgy and dated.

The company also said they were planning to introduce a wider range of real ales and craft beers, so we’ll see how that turns out. They did, however, breezily dismiss complaints that the beer prices were too high, so we can expect it to remain one of the dearest in the area. Today is the last trading day under the old regime, and it’s scheduled to reopen on Friday 21 August.

Sunday 12 July 2015

The return of sticky bum time

Older readers will remember that dreadful vinyl upholstery in cars of the 60s and 70s, which didn't breathe at all and stuck to your clothes as soon as the sun came out. Fortunately, consumer demand has now long since banished it to the dustbin of history, and even the cheapest models now come with comfortable cloth seats.

During the same period, many pubs installed upholstered “leatherette” fixed seating, often superseding plain wooden benches, which had exactly the same effect when the temperature rose and the place was packed with sweaty bodies. In the 80s, as with the car market, there seemed to be a swing against this, with more comfortable and breathable cloth seat coverings often replacing vinyl. At the time, it was seen as giving a more up-market impression.

However, more recently, the tide seems to have turned, with many recent refurbishments ditching the velour and moquette in favour of a return to plasticky “leatherette”. I suppose there are benefits in that it is more durable and easier to clean, but it seems to be part of the vogue for giving pubs a “harder” appearance that goes against the earlier trend towards being cosy and comfy. Replacing carpets with bare boards is much the same.

And, when the weather gets a bit warm and airless, the effect on human flesh through cloth is exactly the same is it used to be, making the experience of going to the pub a bit tacky and uncomfortable. It’s designer vision being put ahead of customer convenience. Nobody’s going to walk out of a pub because it has vinyl rather than cloth seating, but, like removing beermats, it’s yet another of those little niggly annoyances.

I’ve just been out for a lunchtime pint in a pub that very much does still have cloth rather than vinyl upholstery. I’ll have to start making a note of which pubs have which.

Thursday 2 July 2015

Selling off the silver?

Given that Wetherspoons still only run about two per cent of all the pubs in Britain, some people have been known to express surprise at the prominence given to the company in online discussions about beer and pubs. It sometimes seems that Spoons is the only subject that provokes much discussion on the CAMRA Forum.

However, given the large average size of their pubs, they’re probably in sales terms the biggest single pub operator in the country, and they’re certainly the biggest retailers of real ale. They’re also intimately bound up with CAMRA through the members’ discount scheme and, unlike other pub operators, they have a pretty standard offer across their whole estate and are often seen as a bellwether of industry trends. So it’s hardly surprising they get the attention they do.

While their overall success seems to continue unabated, they’re always churned their portfolio to some extent, in some cases because they’ve acquired a better pub nearby, in others because the location did not prove as profitable as they hoped. I’m not aware, though, that they’ve ever put on sale a batch of twenty pubs, as they have this week, mostly in London and the South-East. Although I’m familiar with the location of the one in Lichfield (pictured), I’ve never actually drunk in any of them, so I can’t really offer any personal perspective on the reasons for their lack of success.

From comments made by others on Twitter, they seem to fall into four broad categories:

  1. Towns that are fertile ground for Spoons, but where they have a better-located pub, such as Lichfield and Newport, IOW
  2. Places which are mainly dormitory towns and haven’t in the long run offered sufficient footfall to make a Spoons viable, such as Sevenoaks and Haslemere, both of which have been in Spoons’ hands since before 2000. Paul Bailey has written about the Sennockian here
  3. Greater London locations where there are other branches nearby
  4. Locations in purpose-built shopping centres where the amount of evening trade may be limited
I don’t see this as signifying that Spoons are faltering in any way, just that they are doing the kind of assessment of their operations that any successful business should. Indeed, in the days before the Beer Orders, brewers of all sizes often hung on to pubs when they were no longer viable because they gained a degree of status from the size of their estate. Let’s hope as many of them as possible continue in business as pubs under new owners.

As I’ve written recently, in their quest for expansion Spoons have been opening branches in smaller market towns that previously they wouldn’t have looked at, and also opening second branches in towns such as Preston. Inevitably this will increase the risk of failure, although so far I’ve not seen much evidence of retrenchment from market towns. They seem to have burnt their fingers in Whitchurch (Shropshire) but as far as I can see are going strong in places like Market Drayton and Leominster which have a similar population.

It’s not simply a question of there being a set limit for the smallest town that can sustain a Wetherspoons – you also need to consider the strength of the nearby competition and the degree to which the town acts as a magnet for the surrounding area. The smallest towns to have a Spoons would appear to be Pwllheli in North Wales (pop. 4,000) and Perranporth in Cornwall (pop. 3,000), although both of these attract a lot of summer holidaymakers and the pubs will probably be pretty quiet in winter, even to the extent of shutting part off.

What makes one pub succeed and another fail is always something of a mystery, and if Wetherspoons sometimes make a mistake it’s not entirely surprising that others often get it wrong. It’s an elusive combination of location, offer, price and standard of service.