Tuesday 29 September 2015

The man who...

Earlier this year, I was in one of Sam Smith’s Cheshire pubs, which can fairly be said to attract a wide range of customers from regular boozers to National Trust visitors. A group of fairly ordinary-looking people came in, not in any way rough or chavvy, settled themselves down, and one was heard to say “Now this is more like it, isn’t it?” I didn’t catch every word of their conversation, but the gist was that they had poked their noses through the door of a pub up the road – a rather smart dining pub owned by one of the local family brewers – and felt they had been looked upon like something the cat dragged in.

It seems to be a growing phenomenon that pubs are deliberately pitching their appeal at a point so upmarket that many potential customers in the C1C2 social group will not remotely feel at home. Yes, there have always been snobby pubs, but in the past many of them still retained a public bar, and my recollection is that thirty years ago there wasn’t anything like the obvious stratification of pub menus that we have now. Also, much more smart dining was done in formal restaurants, not pubs.

Obviously this has its spiritual home in the archetypal “country dining pub”, but it has also spread into historic towns and the more prosperous suburbs of major cities. As we know, class remains a sensitive subject in this country, and has infinite subtle gradations. Now, I am unequivocally a middle-class person, but, along with Neil Kinnock and Joe Biden, I fall into the category of “the first Mudgie in a thousand generations to go to university”, so I have a foot in both camps. While I can manage it without difficulty, I have to admit feeling somewhat uneasy if I venture into one of these airy, pastel-shaded eateries with their separate tables arranged in an artfully irregular pattern. I can’t help thinking I’d be far happier somewhere with dark wood and wall benches.

Clearly this formula is making money for many pub operators, but it is opening up an unprecedented divide in the pub trade. Back in the 1950s, people would have laughed if someone had suggested that in 2015 many pubs would be too posh for a huge number of potential customers. In the past, if on holiday, or out on a day trip, or breaking a journey, you could rely on most food-serving pubs to offer some some reasonable, not too expensive pub grub. But now, unless there’s a Spoons in the vicinity, you can see many people looking at cafés or casual dining chains rather than some pub trying to charge you 8 for a fish finger sandwich on a brioche bun.

The worst thing is the greeter who asks you when you walk through the door “and will you be dining with us today, Sir?” There’s nothing so calculated to make the common folk feel ill at ease. And should you reply that you’re just after a drink, you will be made to feel like the subject of an H. M. Bateman cartoon entitled “The man who walked into a dining pub and asked for a pint of bitter”. Or maybe the character in the Fast Show played by Mark Williams who looks at the menu in a high-class restaurant and asks “So which are the turkey Kievs?” then, after a painful silence, says “I’ll get me coat”.

Edit: although the above was prompted by a particular overheard conversation, and essentially relates to food-serving pubs, possibly much the same divide is growing between craft beer bars and traditional boozers. I would doubt whether many of the customers of the George & Dragon and Heaton Hops, which are across the road from each other in Heaton Chapel, would seriously consider going to the other one.

Saturday 26 September 2015

Glass half full

Pete Brown (again) has recently produced the latest edition of the annual Cask Report, which in fact will be the last one he writes. Obviously the purpose of this publication is to take a positive view of cask beer, and encourage pubs to stock and promote it, but it does make some important points:

  • Cask is the only section of the on-trade beer market that is in growth
  • Cask is a significant driver of trade to pubs, as the cask drinker is the most likely to want to avoid pubs that don’t sell his favoured tipple
  • Cask is unique to pubs – it can’t be replicated at home in the way that most other drinks can
This has been extensively discussed on blogs and in social media, notably in this post on Stonch’s blog, so I won’t attempt any kind of general summary. However, there are a few notes of caution that need to be sounded.

Firstly, cask now appeals predominantly to an ABC1 customer base, which is a striking turnaround from the situation at the birth of CAMRA, when cask beer (albeit often served under top pressure) was the ordinary beer in pubs, and lager and keg were premium products. In a sense this is a good thing, as it attracts better-off customers into pubs, but there are risks associated with too much of an upmarket, élite image, and of course cask more than any other pub drink is critically dependent on throughput. It can’t survive as a low-volume niche product. It would be interesting to ask the C2DE drinkers why they shun cask - it certainly isn’t on price grounds.

Allied to this, there is the repeated call for cask to be regarded as a “premium” product, something that is often echoed by brewers and pub operators. However, for historical reasons, cask has always sold at a discount to other beers, because it was originally the basic, staple beer sold in pubs, and there’s little sign of that changing. There’s also a “risk premium” associated with cask as, unlike other beers, there’s a small but significant chance of getting a dud pint. In most markets, the concept of “premium” is associated not just with higher quality, but with greater consistency and reliability.

This leads on to another issue – that of choice. The report urges that pubs should offer a “broad range of styles”, but only tangentially adds that “stocking too many ales can have an adverse effect on quality”. But, as often said, the worst enemy of cask beer is a bad pint of cask beer, and in recent years the quality vs quantity trade-off has veered far too much towards quantity. The good pubs still provide a reliably good pint, but in the general pub trade I’d say the chances of getting a poor one have significantly increased. CAMRA spokespeople and magazines continue to promote the idea that more choice is desirable, but we have long passed the point where it has a negative impact on beer quality. This really is an elephant in the room that CAMRA needs to confront.

The report also seems to make a lot of assumptions that may be relevant to a certain category of middle-class, cask-focused London pub, but don’t really apply elsewhere. Apparently having bar staff knowledgeable about beer, and offering tasters, are key points in encouraging cask sales. This may be true in specialist pubs, but in reality many bar staff are students and others just doing it for a short time, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to have a knowledge of the beers on sale, let alone the wines or whiskies. It’s still the case that most cask drinkers see it as their regular tipple, and to ask for a taster of Old Brewery Bitter in the Boar’s Head, or Unicorn in the Armoury, would be greeted with incomprehension.

Yes, in recent years cask beer has enjoyed a moderate success story, and when it’s on top form it trounces everything else on the bar. But there is no room for complacency, and there are serious issues its champions need to address – in particular beer quality.

Sunday 20 September 2015

If only you could bottle it

When he’s not engaging in juvenile rants against the Ebil Toriez, or claiming that a big brewery merger spells apocalyptic disaster, leftie beer writer Pete Brown can actually come up with some sensible stuff when he sticks to the knitting of beer and pubs*. Recently, he’s written an excellent piece for the Morning Advertiser about how atmosphere in pubs is arguably more important than either beer or food.

And he’s quite right, of course. No matter how good the beer or food, if you don’t feel at home in a pub you may not be inclined to linger, or to visit again. It can be very small or subtle things that deter people, or indeed make them feel welcome. He gives a couple of examples – 80s power ballads being played, and a massive plasma screen showing daytime TV. Now personally I’m more than happy for Ann Wilson to sing to me “how do I get you alone?” but I fully recognise that music needs to be tailored to the clientele. Indeed, I’ve often come across contemporary R&B/hip-hop music being played to customers with an average age well north of 50.

Clearly, “atmosphere” doesn’t just mean things I might personally like. A pub crammed with football or rugby fans watching the match will undoubtedly have atmosphere, as may one with a stand-up throng playing kickin’ music at top volume. It’s also generally the case that, regardless of the style of pub, more customers generate more atmosphere.

A while back, I tried to define Pubbiness, but it’s always something that is very difficult to nail. We all know when a pub has atmosphere, but it’s something that simply cannot be bottled. You certainly can’t easily transfer the winning formula of one pub to another, although pub operators often try. I could try to attempt a definition based on factors such as landlord involvement and interaction between customers, but that would probably fall flat on its face. It’s often the case that there’s a close correlation between atmosphere and popularity, but it doesn’t always follow. I’ve also noticed how some CAMRA members seem completely impervious to any question of pub atmosphere so long as they like the beer. I don’t think pubbiness is quite the same as atmosphere, although there is a substantial overlap.

I regularly visit a handful of Sam Smith’s pubs, mainly because they have an atmosphere that suits me. I know I can get a wider choice elsewhere, and maybe better beer too (albeit at a price), but the alternatives just don’t seem so congenial. If those pubs dropped cask OBB in favour of keg, which many Sam’s pubs have done, then, probably I’d keep going there. Because of the atmosphere.

And it can’t be a coincidence that Tim Martin has included “Moon” in so many of his Wetherspoon pub names, given that particular celestial body’s well-known lack of atmosphere.

* I created a second Twitter account to express my more general political views, recognising that introducing too much of a political element might alienate many of my beery followers. Perhaps Pete Brown would help his cause by doing the same.

Saturday 19 September 2015

Suffer the little children

I’m not a huge fan of the Good Pub Guide, but its most recent launch highlighted the issue of children in pubs, something that has long been something of a hobbyhorse of mine. Phil Mellows, on the other hand (whose opinions I generally respect), doesn’t see what the fuss is all about. However, the fact that Good Pub Guide readers consider it their most important issue shows that it is far from being resolved. Clearly, the days of kids being left outside in the car with a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop are long gone, and that in itself is a very dated stereotype. But nowadays the boot seems to be on the other foot, with children being allowed free rein throughout pubs.

But you don’t have to be a child-hater to think that you should be allowed to enjoy a quiet pint, coffee or sandwich without the constant refrain of their happy laughter. One family dining pub I know has a clear delineation down the middle – under-11s are not allowed on one side. That seems to be a sensible model that others should follow. Also, my local pub, which has a strong emphasis on food, has taken the view that children should not be admitted into one of its three rooms. Recently, the Waterfront pub in Burton-on-Trent gained many plaudits on social media, and increased its business, by banning children under five.

Another problem is that, because of the Mumsnet lobby, licensees are extremely reluctant to confront parents over bad behaviour by children, as it will make them seem, er, curmudgeonly, and may lead to them being severely criticised on social media. So plenty of adult customers quietly make the decision to go elsewhere in future. Clearly this is not something that is just going to go away, and remains a serious issue for many pubgoers. Licensees really need to sit down and consider their policy on children, and recognise that a free-for-all is something that increasingly turns potential customers off. Not to ban children entirely, but to create a clear distinction between child-friendly and adult-only areas. As with so many other things, a one size fits all policy is not the way to go.

The late CAMRA stalwart Humphrey Higgins once found himself sitting next to a mother and baby in a pub. The mother said to him “do you mind putting out that cigarette – it’s annoying my baby?” He replied “do you mind shutting up that baby, it’s annoying me?” Needless to say, it was him who ended up being asked to leave...

Friday 18 September 2015

Keeping it regular

For many years, I’ve regularly distributed the local CAMRA magazine to a varying selection of pubs. One thing that always struck me was that, in some pubs, whatever the time or day I called in, there were always a few customers who could be relied on to be there.

The “pub regular” is often lionised as the backbone of the trade, but is he really the ideal customer? I recently wrote about the book A Year in the Drink by Martin Green. In this, he describes pub life in a small Welsh market town where, frankly, there was little else to do but go to the pub. And he makes the point that many of his regular customers were rather sad individuals who had no other social life, not cheery stalwarts.

We all want pubs to succeed, and most of us will have been regulars in some pub or other over the years, whether it is meeting up with mates on a Friday night, reading the paper on Sunday lunchtime or calling in for a couple a few nights a week on the way home from work. When I was at university, a mate and I in the same house would go down to the local (rather crappy) pub two or three nights a week.

But it has to be admitted – and most licensees will know this – that, for some people, being in the pub every night is a symptom of a sad and broken life, and there’s simply nothing else for them to do. Stonch nails it in this blogpost, where a commenter says that “the thought of listening to the bollocks that tsunamis over the bar on an average night for the rest of his life was too much for any half-intelligent person to put up with.” If you think you’re going into the pub trade to be the centre of cheery bonhomie and witty banter, you’re sadly mistaken.

This is, of course, not to say that pub companionship and conviviality isn’t generally a very good thing but, as with many other things, once it becomes your sole focus in life, it has its dark side. You do see this rather less now – the foodification of many pubs, the smoking ban, and the ever-rising price of on-trade beer must be factors. But you wonder how many of the former barstool raconteurs are now sitting at home with a packet of Bensons and a four-pack of Special Brew swearing at the telly.

I once remember overhearing a conversation in a remote pub in the Yorkshire Dales about a character called Rodney who ran a chip van on Blubberhouses Moor. When not doing this, he spent every night in the pub. Whether or not he was married I do not know. Someone once asked him “Rodney, have you ever tried staying in just for one night?” “Aye,” he replied. “It were ten year ago. Didn’t like it.” Funny, yes, but at the same time rather sad.

Monday 14 September 2015

The Donnington Way

In the early days of CAMRA, Donnington Brewery in the Cotswolds was widely seen as the ideal of the small, rustic, country brewery. The brewery stood in a picture-postcard location by a pond with a watermill, it brewed some distinctive, although maybe a bit rough-edged, country beers, and had a small estate of classic stone-built Cotswold pubs all within a few miles. It was owned and run by Claude Arkell, a member of the Swindon brewing family, as an individual sole trader – it wasn’t even a limited company.

In the early 80s, I lived for a few years in Surrey and so regularly travelled up to visit my parents in Cheshire. The Cotswolds were roughly half-way, and so it often seemed a good idea to stop off at a Donnington pub for a pint and a bite to eat. The Coach & Horses at Ganborough, on the A424 just north of Stow-on-the-Wold, very close to the brewery, was a particularly convenient location. They used to do a very good Stilton Ploughman’s.

Over the years, I managed to visit 12 of their original 17 pubs, which must be the highest proportion for me of any brewery in the country. I’ve been to four or the original “Bathams Eight” and, over a long period of time, have been in about half of Robinsons’ much larger tied estate, but that remains a personal record. Since then, they disposed of two of the 17 – the Bell at Winchcombe and the Merrymouth Inn at Fifield – leaving 15, of which I have visited 11, or 73%.

The pubs were mostly venerable buildings of Cotswold stone, and had a distinctive, welcoming, down-to-earth atmosphere with beer prices well below the local average – this in an area noted for its snobbiness and wealthy residents. The picture on the right is the Golden Ball in Lower Swell. However, it seems that in the 1960s Mr Claude was bitten by the modernity bug, and many of them had been opened out and furnished in a faux-rustic style with wobbly-edged tables that even in the early 1980s seemed very dated. The Black Bear in Moreton-on-Marsh was particularly notable for this.

Also they had a flirtation with keg (or probably top-pressure) beer that persisted into the CAMRA era. The beers were the rare Mild, the “ordinary” BB and the “best” SBA. They were good, enjoyable beers, but, as said above, maybe a touch rustic and artisanal. In itself, that is no bad thing, but they were never going to be the best beers in the land.

I moved back to the North-West at the end of 1984 and so wasn’t passing through the Cotswolds so regularly, but I’ve tried to make the effort to visit at least one Donnington pub if in the area. For a time they seemed to have something of a beer clarity problem – I remember one particularly hazy pint in the Mount Inn at Stanton – but this appears to have been resolved, and my most recent example was fine.

In the past few years they have largely dropped off my radar, and I included them in this blogpost amongst the list of family brewers now largely ignored by CAMRA. Their pubs also feature much less in the Good Beer Guide than they once did. However, in the same week Tyson posted a review of bottled Donnington Gold, which alerted me to the fact that they had now entered the Premium Bottled Ales market. They have always brewed the old-fashioned half-pint bottled beers for their pubs.

A bit more digging revealed that they now have a website, although they haven’t yet made an appearance on Facebook or Twitter. Claude Arkell died in 2007, and the business has passed to two of his cousins, who seem to have cautiously taken a more enterprising approach. They have acquired three additional pubs just outside the fringes of Donnngton’s original trading area, and have introduced an additional beer in Donnington Gold.

I still have a little booklet from the early 1980s entitled “Donnington Brewery and the 17 Cotswold Inns”, illustrated with black-and-white photos which, from the cars depicted, probably date back at least a further ten years. It’s accompanied by a foldout map which, bizarrely, lists the pubs at the bottom with grid references, but doesn’t actually show them on the face of the map itself, so I have written them in myself by hand.

It’s a pity we don’t have more small, quirky country breweries with their own distinctive, tight-knit tied estate, whose beers can only be found in their home territory and don’t turn up in every multi-beer pub the length and breadth of the country.

The Donnington Way is a walking trail connecting all the pubs. The Wikipedia article says that “a ‘Donnington run’ means visiting all 15 pubs in a single evening.” Hopefully with a designated driver!

Saturday 12 September 2015

Someone's gonna have to pay

In his budget in July, George Osborne announced that, from April next year, the National Minimum Wage would rise to £7.20 an hour for over-25s, and that by 2020 he intended to raise it to a “National Living Wage” of £9 an hour. Some accused him of stealing Labour’s clothes, but there can be no doubt that this represented a major commitment to raising the living standards of poorer workers.

A large number of employers have spoken out against this, claiming it will damage their business, and Tim Martin of Wetherspoons has lent his weight to their campaign. Obviously it will increase the costs of labour-intensive businesses, such as any in the catering sector, but arguably across the whole economy it will be beneficial. I’ve not so far seen any beer bloggers raise this issue.

I’m not trying to start a general debate on the merits of minimum wage policies but, as with other things such as minimum alcohol pricing, the issue is not so much the principle as the level at which it is set. Some people seem to think that an increase in the minimum wage is in effect conjuring money out of nothing, but in reality it would be a transfer of resources from one group to another, and someone would have to bear the cost. This would be a mixture of:

  1. Customers, through higher prices
  2. Employees, through reduced hours, job losses and restriction of fringe benefits
  3. Business owners, through reduction of profits and dividends
This article in the Financial Times (free to view, but you have to register) suggests that larger companies will have the power to decide where these effects are allocated, and thus will only be affected to a limited extent. However, most pubs are either tenanted or leased, or independent freeholders, not part of massive national firms, and small businesses will be damaged much more. Independent pub operators aren’t exactly rolling in money as it is.

If a company is large enough, it will have the flexibility to make choices over where the costs of the minimum wage will be met. And although big businesses may squeal — or wish they could in the case of many large retailers, who bemoan the change in private but fear speaking out publicly lest they alienate customers — it is small businesses that have a much more legitimate gripe.

After all, among people who work at large companies, fewer than 4 per cent are paid the minimum wage; at businesses employing fewer than 50 people the figure is more than one-third. The national living wage is targeted to be worth 60 per cent of the UK median by 2020. But, if you look only at people employed by “micro” businesses that have fewer than 10 workers, even the current minimum wage of £6.50 an hour already meets that objective. For these companies, the new £7.20 figure looks particularly out of whack.

Small businesses have less than a year between the announcement of the NLW and its implementation. And that is not the only new financial and administrative burden with which they are grappling. The summer budget included a change in the tax on dividends, which will hit small business owners. So will their obligation to enrol all workers into a pension scheme, unless they opt out. Small business owners argue persuasively that the NLW will force them to cut jobs and even push some into bankruptcy.

It is sometimes argued that the increased costs of a National Living Wage will be redistributed through the economy, and thus stimulate demand. However, the costs will be mostly borne by labour-intensive businesses such as pubs, whereas the benefits will be spread across the board.

It is also claimed that the current minimum wage is set at a level some way below that of a “living wage” which allows someone to live independently. Well, people have always had to make their first steps into the job market when living at home or sharing houses. It’s also not widely appreciated that many minimum wage earners are second earners in a household, or people such as the partially retired who already have another source of income. For people in that position, earning £6 an hour for 16 hours a week in an undemanding job may be an entirely rational decision. It’s estimated that well over half the benefits of an increased minimum wage would accrue to households in the top half of income distribution.

As I said, it may well be that raising the minimum wage brings benefits across the whole economy. But it can’t be denied that it would have a detrimental effect on labour-intensive businesses such as pubs. It’s not a pain-free policy. There must be some way that Osborne could relax or delay it to help small businesses.

Friday 11 September 2015

Dinorben dreams

Regular readers will be familiar with my other blog of Closed Pubs, where I take advantage of the views offered by Google StreetView to highlight pubs in a sad, derelict state, whether ones I know personally or suggested by others. An increasing proportion of the images are actually photos taken by myself or other contributors, those of pubs in and around Burton-upon-Trent taken by Dan Bishop being particularly noteworthy.

Of all the 500 plus pubs I’ve featured, by far the most comments have been made about the Dinorben Arms at Bodfari in North Wales, which obviously occupied a special place in many people’s memories. It started off as a small village pub next to the church, but steadily grew into an Alpine chalet-style extension, with a balcony giving dramatic views over the Clwydian Range. To accommodate its customers, a multi-tiered car park was carved out, which can still be discerned on Google Maps.

Its speciality was a lavish Scandinavian-style smorgasbord menu, which drew customers from many miles around. It was one of those special pubs whose reputation for food led to people driving fifty miles to get there, not least from Liverpool. I have to say I never actually visited it – I once parked up and took a look, but decided it was far too upmarket for me, and repaired to the ordinary pub down the hill on the main road.

From the comments, it seems to have steadily declined over the years, and one commenter reports it serving cold baked beans as part of the buffet. Nevertheless, this review from 2003 is still pretty favourable, and it features as a “lucky dip” in my 2006 edition of the Good Pub Guide - although that publication has been known to list pubs that have been closed for several years. However, it eventually closed in 2007, with a food hygiene prosecution, foot and mouth disease, and a poor summer being listed as causes.

That looked rather final, and indeed the 2009 StreetView image (above) shows it in a pretty derelict state. But all is not lost, as upmarket dining pub operator Brunning & Price have decided to take it on and are in the process of renovating it. B&P have a distinctive formula that puts local produce and local cask beers high on the agenda, and I wish them luck in bringing the Dinorben Arms back to its former glory.

Although, to be honest, any pub chain that offers "Braised shoulder of lamb served with dauphinoise potatoes, mixed vegetables and rosemary gravy" for £16.95 - as appears on one of their menus - cannot really be regarded as appealing to the ordinary punter. Cheese and onion cob, anyone? And I’d expect their beer prices are now nudging £4 a pint even for ordinary bitters.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Last in, first out?

Boak & Bailey have posted a fascinating gallery of pictures of 1960s Watneys pubs taken from the back of matchboxes. Only one out of the six is still in operation as a pub.

It’s very noticeable how few of these modern pubs that the brewers were so proud of have lasted the course. Even where they survive, they tend to be condemned as irredeemably naff. I wonder whether the wheel will turn and they come back into fashion as inter-wars pubs have done. Or maybe 1960s architecture is something that will forever be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The point is made in the comments that many post-war pubs may initially have had conventional two-bar layouts with plenty of seating, but ended up being turned into single rooms where TV sport dominated.

The thought also occurred to me that pubs built after WW1 have, in the last 20 years, probably suffered a much greater attrition rate than those built before. The classic estate pub is fast becoming an endangered species, and the roadhouse only survives where it has become a Brewer’s Fayre or Hungry Horse.

And you don’t see matchboxes much any more, do you?

Monday 7 September 2015

Limelight and shadow

I recently wrote about how some in the contemporary “craft beer movement” had set themselves up in opposition to the achievements of CAMRA and British microbreweries between about 1973 and 2005. Obviously in reality things are more nuanced, and it’s very noticeable how it’s difficult to find even the most hardline crafty who will say a bad word against Harveys of Lewes, a classic example of the traditional family brewer.

In the early 1980s, I had a spell living in the South-East, and at that time Harveys were very much considered also-rans. The star independent breweries were King & Barnes, Gales and Brakspears, plus of course Fullers and Youngs in London. Harveys brewed some decent beer, but they were an obscure company with a very small tied estate and a bizarre co-brewing arrangement with Beards. Since then, they haven’t really done anything different – they’ve stuck to the knitting, slowly expanded their pub estate, avoided any risky forays into trendy urban bars or wacky craft sub-branding and, lo and behold, Sussex Best is rightly celebrated as perhaps the archetype of the classic English “brown bitter”.

Another brewery that seems to have emerged blinking into the spotlight is Bathams, who brew the same beers they did forty years ago and have a small tied estate of resolutely traditional boozers. They may not tick any of the current “craft” boxes but they are genuinely artisanal in the proper sense of the word. To be honest, if I was marooned on a desert island, if my beer supply was limited to Harveys Sussex Best and Bathams Best I wouldn’t be too unhappy.

Their near neighbours Holdens are another small Black Country concern that has recently been gaining a lot of love, maybe to some extent on Bathams’ coat-tails, although their beer and pubs stand up in their own right. Timothy Taylors continue to be very highly regarded, even if Landlord is widely distributed and often not served in optimum condition. Their own tied estate is mostly ordinary little pubs in and around Keighley. And breweries like St Austell, Fullers and Adnams gain a lot of respect both for the standard of their core range and their willingness to experiment with bottled and seasonal beers. St Austell Proper Job and Adnams Ghost Ship are arguably the best examples of “new-style” beers produced by established companies.

Not surprisingly, the beers produced by the giants of independent brewing, Marstons and Greene King, are often dismissed as dull and bland, although there is a definite element of “tall poppy syndrome” at work here. Charles Wells don’t seem to attract the same opprobrium, possibly because their pub estate is much less prominent. Bombardier is also one of those beers that many people think they won’t like but are pleasantly surprised when they actually taste it. While they have produced some excellent special bottled beers, many people don’t seem to have much good to say about Shepheard Neame’s regular range. And local Stockport brewers Robinsons, in terms of size of tied estate still one of the biggest, are often (in my view unjustly) dismissed as brewers of bland, samey beer.

In the past, there were a number of family breweries that may have had their local fans, but rarely got much national attention. Obvious examples include the pre-Michael Cannon Devenish, Buckleys, Border, Burtonwood, Mitchells of Lancaster, Morrells, Ridleys and North Country Breweries of Hull. All gone now, and don’t really have grown men crying into their beer. Probably the only one where beer lovers genuinely muttered “good riddance” was Gibbs Mew of Salisbury whose beer was notoriously dull.

However, there remains a stratum of breweries that seem happy to plough their own furrow and get little wider recognition. A couple of years ago, a contributor to the CAMRA forum called curMUDGEon did an analysis of Good Beer Guide entries which showed many of them coming off very poorly. Felinfoel had no entries whatsoever, Arkells of Swindon only 3 out of 78, Mc Mullen none in Hertfordshire, and Donnington one one out of 17. Others that come into this category include Palmers of Bridport and Elgoods of Wisbech. Everards Tiger continues to be widely available in the free trade, but as a brewery and pub-owner they have a very low profile, and while Badger beers are big-sellers in bottle, Hall & Woodhouse have stopped selling them in draught form outside their own tied estate.

Some people said at the time that a reason for this could be that they brewed lacklustre beer, something that specifically applied to Felinfoel and Arkells, although I don’t really have enough experience of either to comment. Donnington in particular seem to have fallen from grace, as they have a very picturesque and again truly artisanal brewery in the Gloucestershire countryside, and going back a few decades their estate of characterful Cotswold pubs featured heavily in the Good Beer Guide.

The survival of any family brewery is ultimately down to whether the family want to keep it going. Many have understandably cashed in due to a lack of heirs or a lack of interest. I’m sure many will point out that all of these breweries are very enterprising in their local areas and are certainly not just going through the motions. Donnington, for example, now have a website, and have started buying one or two new pubs on the fringes of their trading area. But it’s interesting how these companies continue to operate with so little attention from beer writers or the media in general.

(By the way, Sam Smith’s don’t count, as they have a high-profile London estate, are so much out of line that it’s noteworthy, and also have a wide and well-respected range of bottled beers)

Thursday 3 September 2015

Told you so!

For several years I’ve been arguing that minimum alcohol pricing would not only be ineffective and disproportionately affect the poor, but was also illegal anyway under EU competition law.

And it seems that the European Court of Justice agrees with me.

Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to fix a minimum price for alcohol has suffered a huge blow after the European court’s top lawyer ruled it would infringe EU law on free trade.

In a formal opinion on Sturgeon’s flagship policy, the advocate general to the European court of justice, Yves Bot, has said fixing a legal price for all alcoholic drinks could only be justified to protect public health if no other mechanism, such as tax increases, could be found.

Bot’s opinion is expected to mean a final defeat for the Scottish government’s efforts to be the first in Europe to introduce minimum pricing – supported by leading figures in the medical profession and the police, after several years of legal battles.

Let’s hope that nails the idea once and for all. Nicola Sturgeon must be looking like she’s swallowed a wasp this morning. Maybe Cameron should now throw down the gauntlet and propose devolving alcohol duty to Scotland.

Another group who won’t be happy are the prohibitionists’ useful idiots in CAMRA who deluded themselves that increasing the price of cheap lager in Tesco would bring customers flooding back to pubs to still pay four times as much. To be fair, CAMRA did drop its official support for minimum pricing a couple of years ago following a motion (co-proposed by Tandleman) rightly making the point that it put them on the wrong side of the argument.

In general, I’m no fan of the EU, but it does have its uses in standing up for free trade and fair competition.