Saturday 28 November 2015

Down with boring old farts!

I recently spotted an interesting post from Jules Gray, a beer blogger I hadn’t come across before, entitled Craft Beer as a Subculture. This seemed to me very insightful, drawing a comparison with the punk and indie music subcultures.

The similarities are very clear – the enthusiasm for something perceived as special, the feeling of a tight-knit community, the narrow urban focus, the fanatical enthusiasm for certain artists/brewers, the constant quest for the obscure, the adoption of specific clothing and hairstyles, and the sense of betrayal when a favourite signs with a major label/sells out to a major brewer. There is also the negative side of dismissing those who don’t conform to your particular taste as ignorant and conventional.

Manchester is driving and engaging this subcultural group; something the city has always been good at. Subcultures have values and norms that are distinct from those held by the majority. Style can be an important part (for example clothing, hairstyles) but not essential as a united ideological approach can be the binding force. Not everyone can pull off a ‘Super Gueuze’ or ‘Brettanomyces’ t-shirt but you don’t need to in order to be part of this group; just as long as you’ve drunk you’re way through enough songbooks to hold an informed opinion of your own.

Within this culture are subgroups – Beer Geeks, Traders, Tickers, Beer Evangelists, Beer Bloggers, Hop Monsters, Beer Hunters, to name a few I’d recognise. Am I missing a few obvious ones?

An affinity seems to be the urge to record, develop content, engage in conversation and debate via blogs, social media platforms, online community forums and beer focused apps. If you’re a brewery doing this you are involved, engaging and part of the beer culture. Interesting to see Indy Man’s use of a webpage to host this year’s beer list, mirroring the technological information share the community has become attuned to. Though I would have preferred a printed program to write notes all over. The physical nature of writing etches beers and memories into my soul.

Social media’s accessibility via smartphones and its prevalence due to the handy/pocket nature of those devices fuels the discovery and questing of new breweries.Teeny nano breweries like – Beak Brewery, are hosted, as an example of the festival introducing drinkers to up and coming new talent.

The music parallel is very interesting. Back in 1977, the punk movement dismissed the previous generation of rock music – Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Yes – as “boring old farts”, despite the fact that many of its leading lights were still under 30, or only just above. Ian Anderson was born in 1947, Ozzy Osbourne and Robert Plant in 1948.

That’s very like the crafty dismissal of “boring brown bitter”, and the oft-heard claim that, going back twenty years, there was scarcely any decent beer available in Britain. All the family brewers, and the longer-established micros like Butcombe and Black Sheep, are just “boring old farts”.

I was 17 when the tidal wave of punk rock broke at the end of 1976. Now, the likes of Cookie may suggest I sprang from my mother’s womb already middle-aged, and I freely admit that I wasn’t the coolest kid in school. But I was a committed rock fan, with an extensive collection of vinyl albums including the likes of Barclay James Harvest and Van der Graaf Generator. I concluded at the time that punk was basically a waste of space, and little has happened sicne to change my mind, although many bands and artists have emerged from the “New Wave” scene and embraced the mainstream. I also always thought that punk, rather like craft beer, was very much an “art school” phenomenon. I see no craft equivalent to the NWOBHM or house music.

It’s worth remembering that, in August 1977, at the height of the punk explosion, Going for the One by Yes was the Number One album on the UK charts for two weeks. And I still gain great pleasure from listening to Tull and Zeppelin.

Friday 27 November 2015

Better never than late?

I recently looked up the Facebook page of a pub that I’ve liked in the past, but haven’t visited recently. I noticed that the page had been updated just five times over the past four months. That’s far better than some, but even so it indicates a very half-hearted approach to social media, something that is unfortunately common to many pubs. By coincidence, this is a subject that the Morning Advertiser has raised this week in a piece entitled Analogue licensees unfit for digital age.

If you’re a wet-led pub mainly used by regulars, with a static beer range, then having an internet presence is unlikely to make much difference. But if you want to attract new customers to try your beer and food, or enjoy live music and special events, then in today’s world it becomes increasingly important.

The biggest single failing is not keeping your sites and accounts up to date. Arguably having blatantly wrong information is worse than having none at all. I get the impression that many pubs pay outside developers to create smart-looking websites for them, but are then left with no means of updating them without going back to the developer. The ability for the pub staff to change basic information such as hours, beer lists and menus is vital.

It’s important to concentrate on getting the basics right before trying anything too ambitious. A decent pub website should include:

  • Opening hours
  • Clear directions on how to get there, including by public transport if available
  • Information about disabled access and whether children and dogs are welcome
  • Contact details – phone number, e-mail address and Facebook and Twitter accounts if applicable
  • Regular beer range
  • Information about guest beers (although in a pub with high turnover a few highlights should be sufficient: a comprehensive list isn’t needed unless you are a ticker magnet)
  • Standard menu – including prices
  • Daily specials, or the latest menu if it changes daily
  • Straightforward photos of the interior and exterior of the pub
Too often, a few moody shots of food dishes or backs of chairs are provided which give no impression of what the pub is like. Also, pictures of a crowd of gurning regulars holding up pint glasses at some presentation aren’t going to appeal to the casual customer. An attractive design is important, but it shouldn’t be too fussy for its own good and navigation should be clear. It helps not to give the impression that the site was designed in 1996, though.

Above all, the information given must be accurate and up to date. Martin Taylor has complained several times of being misled by inaccurate opening hours on his travels, and if you’ve decided you fancy a particular dish on a menu, you may be disappointed if it’s no longer there when you arrive. If you go to the website on the 27th of November, and you see a headline message about a steak night that was held on the 14th of October, then you will really be unimpressed.

It can be amazing how long some pub websites linger on in the afterlife. Back in 2010, I reported how the website for the Old Bull’s Head in Little Hucklow, Derbyshire, was still there, and sounding quite appealing, even though the pub had then been closed for five years. At least it has now disappeared.

Facebook and Twitter are easier for the non-expert to pick up than creating a website, although I would say initially Twitter can be a touch confusing and counter-intuitive. If possible, it’s best to entrust pub accounts to a member of staff who is already an active user of these platforms and so has an understanding of how they work and of interaction with other users. If someone says “oh no, it’s Thursday, got to update Facebook again”, they’re unlikely to make the most of it.

Try to keep the account regularly updated with information about guest beers, new products, menu specials and live music sessions. A few pictures of staff members are good, and pub animals such as cats and dogs will always grab people’s attention. On the other hand, pictures of drunk customers are a complete no-no.

Avoid overdoing it, though, as the same thing posted every day for a week is very offputting. Regurgitating corporate promotions will just give the impression you don’t have a mind of your own and, while adding the occasional quirky observation about current events adds a touch of originality, even if you genuinely believe Iain Duncan Smith is literally murdering the poor, it’s doubtful whether all your customers will agree.

If you use Facebook and Twitter, make sure you interact with customers and respond quickly and politely to genuine questions and comments. It’s no good just checking the account twice a week. If someone makes a complaint about poor food or service in the Dog & Duck, and there’s no reply, it will quickly spread across the internet.

And, as said at the start, do not allow your web presence to wither on the vine. It’s better not done at all than stuck in a timewarp. The Great Western in Wolverhampton is one of my all-time favourite pubs, but its Twitter account is rather forlorn.

Sunday 22 November 2015

The top and bottom of it

For many years, pubs have had items on their menus that are described as “pies”, but which in fact are stews or casseroles with a pastry lid. A growing number of people have been concerned that these dishes do not really qualify as pies. Indeed, a petition to Parliament was created on the subject, which only fell because of the general election. Obviously this was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s clearly something that people have strong feelings about.

Make wrongly describing a casserole with a pastry lid as a pie a criminal offence.

For too long customers in pubs and restaurants have ordered what is described on the menu as a pie only to be served with casserole in a pot covered by a puff pastry lid. This is not a pie and is also curiously difficult to consume. A pie is defined by the OED as "A baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry." This petition urges the implementation of criminal sanctions upon the owners of food outlets that serve items described as pies without a pastry base. Exemptions will apply for Shepherds, Cottage and Fish Pies.

A week or so ago, there was an article on the Morning Advertiser website celebrating the rise of pie sales in pubs, on which I commented that the illustration wasn’t actually a pie. This reignited the debate on Twitter, with Boak & Bailey pointing out that many of Mrs Beeton’s pie recipes did not specify a bottom layer of pastry. Those layers of fowl, ham, forcemeat and hard-boiled eggs sound really appetising.

So, in conjunction with Mark Wadsworth, I decided to create a poll on the subject. With an impressive 146 votes, the results show just over three-quarters in favour of the proposition that a pie needs a pastry base as well as a top, but on the other hand a significant minority taking the opposite view.

Personally, I’m not really bothered, as I don’t like “gravy pies” anyway, although I love a proper solid pork pie, preferably with jelly. But it obviously grinds many other people’s gears.

The original poll results can be seen here, which also shows some interesting comments.

Thursday 19 November 2015

History and myth

It’s become part of the folklore of CAMRA that, at the time it was formed, real ale had virtually disappeared in the UK, and was just kept going by a handful of small, fuddy-duddy breweries. Through its campaigning efforts, CAMRA succeeded in turning this situation around, resulting in a dramatic increase over a few years of both real ale production and availability.

However, this is basically a myth that has somehow ended up being the received wisdom. To be fair, I wouldn't say that Roger Protz or any other beer writers have ever claimed it to be true, but nevertheless it is now generally believed. The key thing that CAMRA has done is to stimulate an unprecedented boom in interest in beer, the number of breweries and the variety of styles produced. But, because of the decline of pubs and the switch to lager, there's a lot less real ale being brewed now than in 1973, even though it's in a higher proportion of pubs. There are probably very few years between 1973 and 2015 that have seen an absolute increase in the volume of real ale brewed, although 2014 was one of them.

While not belittling CAMRA's efforts in the 1970s, it was to some extent pushing at an open door. There was already a reaction against giant, faceless corporations and bland, homogenous products towards something more small-scale and individual, and some kind of return to popularity of "traditional" beer was always likely. Most successful campaigns of any kind are tapping in to a public sentiment that already exists.

Plus, once they looked into it more deeply, the Founding Four discovered that, across the country, there was a lot more real ale being sold than they thought from their experience in London, albeit much of it in the Midlands and North and dispensed from electric pumps. Real ale wasn't in any imminent danger of disappearing and many of the breweries producing it were well-run, forward-looking companies who had reached the conclusion that that way of brewing, distributing and serving their beer made business sense.

“What?” you may well ask. “There was really more real ale in 1973 than there is now?”

Yes, absolutely, and by a huge margin. The thing people forget is the rise of lager - 10% of the on-trade beer market in 1973, 70% now.

In 1973, the British brewing industry produced 34.7 million bulk barrels. Assume 10% of that is off-trade, and 10% lager, it leaves 27.8 million for on-trade ale. At a very rough guess, about 30% of that was real ale, with maybe another 10% being beer that started off as real ale but ended up being served under top pressure. So the amount of real ale served as such was 8.3 million barrels. If anything, I feel that may be an understatement.

Compare that with 2014, when total on-trade beer sales were 13.5 million barrels, of which real ale accounted for about 2.2 million barrels. So it's only around a quarter of the 1973 figure.

Looking at the brewery section of the 1977 Good Beer Guide, which for most brewers won't represent a huge change since 1973, we find:

  • Banks's - 800 tied houses, the vast majority of which sell unpressurised beer
  • Bass Worthington - thousands of pubs across the country sell Bass Worthington products, often in true draught form
  • Boddingtons - All 270 tied houses sell real ale
  • Home - 380 out of 400 tied houses sell real ale
  • Robinsons - 317 out of 318 tied houses serve the beer without pressure
  • Shepherd Neame - 210 of the 220 tied house sell real ale
  • Tetley - real ale is available in many of the 2,200 tied houses on both sides of the Pennines
plus plenty of others.

The big beer desert had been London and parts of the Home Counties dominated by the Big Six. Across the country, availability was far more patchy than today, but plenty of areas were teeming with it. Many of those Banks’s and Home pubs would have been big, busy, working-class boozers with the diaphragms in the pumps constantly shuttling to and fro dispensing vast quantities of mild and bitter. You just don’t see pubs like that any more.

I grew up in Greenall Whitley Land, but south of the Ship Canal the majority of their Cheshire pubs sold real ale, plus all the Wem ones. And at university in Birmingham in the late 70s, most of the M&B pubs had real ale, albeit usually dispensed from freeflow electric pumps that were hard to tell from keg dispensers. You wouldn't really go out of your way to drink Brew XI and M&B Mild, though.

(This is a slightly expanded version of comments I made on Paul Bailey’s blog on his post Revitalising the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. The whole thing is well worth reading)

Sunday 15 November 2015

Chairs, chairs, everywhere...

...but not a place to sit. I think it was on Martin Taylor’s blog that he made a comment that he had gone into a pub and, despite a plethora of seating, couldn’t find anywhere he felt comfortable actually sitting. This very much resonated with me. In the old days, most pubs had extensive bench seating, so effectively you could sit anywhere and it was much the same. My ideal perch has always been with my back to the window and a clear view of the bar, although that hasn’t always been achieved.

But, more recently, this has been undermined, with priority being given to individual tables and loose chairs more typical of a restaurant. So, often there is a confusing mix of high-level posing tables, raised benches, large round tables, seating booths and bijou dining tables for two. I go in and feel that there’s nowhere I really fancy sitting.

A prime example of this is Robinsons’ recent refurbishment of the Bull’s Head in Hale Barns. The two south-facing, bay-windowed rooms used to be great places to sit and have a drink, but now all the fixed seating has been ripped out and replaced with vintage-style armchairs and steamer trunks in place of tables. “This is a pub full of theatre and intrigue.” Err, no. The phrase “Get in the Sea!” comes to mind.

Earlier this year I also visited a large local pub that had recently received a thorough refurbishment. A previous line of bench seating had been stripped out, and I found it difficult to choose anywhere amongst the mixture of different, edgy seating that I would feel at home.

As so often, trendy marketing bullshit from people who scarcely use pubs trumps experience and common sense. If you make drinkers feel uncomfortable, they won’t come.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Money for old ropey pubs

The High Grove is a Hydes pub in the middle of a housing estate in Gatley, one of Stockport’s satellite villages. Apparently Hydes want to sell it off for residential development, which has resulted in a successful campaign by the locals to have it registered as an Asset of Community Value.

However, I would say it is unlikely either that another pub operator will come in to bid for it, or that the locals will be able to raise enough money to buy it. Hydes have made an effort with it over the years, and I’ve been in a few times and found it pleasant enough. But there’s a general problem that pubs in the middle of residential areas, with no passing trade, just seem to be dead ducks. The widespread belief that such pubs have a guaranteed trade is what I call the “chimneypots fallacy”.

A further factor here is that the approach roads in both directions have been given a particularly savage set of road humps. That will deter all but the most determined out-of-area person from visiting, whereas Holts’ Griffin a mile away on a major road junction has no such constraints. It has to be recognised that, in suburban areas, a high proportion of pub customers arrive by car, and with few exceptions are not breaking the law by doing so.

I’ve long since learned that I have a very poor crystal ball when it comes to predicting the future of individual pubs. But, unless Hydes change their minds, I’d be amazed if the High Grove was still trading in a year’s time. ACVs give pubs a breathing space, but they are no guarantee of survival, and in some cases may simply lead to planning blight. A micropub or box bar might succeed in that location, but a big pub with all the associated overheads is going to struggle.

It would be ironic if, across the country, community groups ended up paying pubcos large sums of money to buy “threatened” pubs that in a few years’ time proved not to be viable after all. It can work for some pubs (and I speak as a shareholder in a community-owned pub), but it won’t work for all, especially the bigger ones.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Getting down wiv da kidz

Over the years, brewers have perceived many threats to the viability of their business, often associated with younger customers shunning pubs for more attractive alternatives. There have been the talkies in the 1930s, the rock’n’roll coffee bars in the 1950s, the 1960s counter-culture and the 1990s rave movement..

At times, they’ve tried to fight back, as with the late 60s “trendy” renamings and refurbishments, and the mid-80s vogue for “fun pubs”. However, these things have never stood the test of time, illustrating the point that if you go along with one short-term fad, it won’t be long before the next one comes along. I always associate the fun pub with rolled-up jacket sleeves and the Escort XR3i.

More recently, it has been widely observed that there has been a general decline in alcohol consumption, most notably amongst the younger age group, and that the growth of social media has reduced their interest in socialising in pubs. Clearly this is a concern to pub operators, and Marston’s have been conducting a Pub of the Future project to work out how they can respond to it.

Some of the responses aren’t exactly surprising:

  • “the restrictive nature of pubs puts me off”
  • “the traditional food served doesn’t appeal to me”
  • “light and airy is definitely the way forward” (I can see where this is heading - Ed)
  • “the addition of relevant technology into the pub will entice and engage a younger customer”
However, a major note of caution must be sounded over this. There is always a risk that deliberately setting out to appeal to younger customers will alienate older age groups, while coming across as patronising to the target market. And asking people “what would you like to see in pubs?” is very different from “what would actually make you go to the pub more often?” and is often more virtue-signalling than genuine market research.

Appealing to the young is a real challenge for pub operators, but history suggests that a conscious attempt to attract them is doomed to failure. It is better to see what actually works on the ground and try to replicate that.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that pubs have to be modern to attract younger customers. In my student days in Birmingham, the Great Stone was the most olde-worlde pub in Northfield, but had the youngest clientele. And recently in Durham I was struck by the sight of groups of students participating a a pub quiz in Sam Smith’s resolutely traditional Colpitts Hotel. They even might find it a novelty to visit a pub that doesn’t have wi-fi.

Does any “modern” pub interior from the 1960s still survive? But plenty do that were already old-fashioned then.

Monday 9 November 2015

The end of civilisation is nigh

Burger King have recently announced that they are going to apply for an alcohol licence for four of their outlets on an experimental basis. Apparently all they are going to sell is plastic bottles of “American Beer”, which I assume will be British-brewed Bud or Coors Light, not Lagunitas IPA.

Normally my reaction to this would have been “so what?” but I was struck by the ludicrously hyperbolic reactions from people in Hull on hearing the news. Apparently it will threaten the city’s hard-pressed pubs even more, it will make Burger King an unsuitable place to take children, and the country doesn’t need yet another place where adults can get drunk in front of children.

This ignores the fact the adults seem happy to take their children into pubs, where they might actually encounter real drunk people, and that pretty much every table-service fast food restaurant such as Nando’s and Pizza Hut already serves alcoholic drinks. Plus Burger King and McDonalds have served alcohol in their outlets on the Continent for decades without the world falling about their ears.

And is anyone going to drink enough in a Burger King to get drunk in any meaningful sense anyway? I’d also expect that the that the basic Beer and Burger deal in Spoons will still be cheaper.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Loving the lout

In a recent blogpost, Tandleman described a trip round Lees Brewery, in which the tour guide said "Of course, you won't approve of lager." His response was “He seemed surprised when I advised him that I'm a huge fan of lager and of Lees Original and that I regularly drink lager home and abroad.” He goes on to state that “most of us certainly drink lager to some extent.” Now, I certainly do, but I think he may be underestimating the dislike of lager amongst CAMRA stalwarts. I can think of several who will never touch the stuff in the UK, and if they go on holiday to somewhere hot will report back that “the only beer available was crap”.

Apparently over 90% of all beer drunk in the world is pale lager, and it probably accounts for a considerably higher proportion of dull, bland, industrial beer. But that shouldn’t blind beer enthusiasts to the recognition that it is one of the world’s classic beer styles and, when done well, is up there amongst the greats. Possibly the existence of Fosters and Sol leads people to subsconsciously devalue Pilsner Urquell, Jever and Augustiner Helles. It’s a bit like downgrading Harveys Sussex Best because John Smith’s Extra Smooth is also a “bitter”.

So I created a poll on whether blog readers drank lager. There was actually quite a negative response, with 42% overall saying either “Very rarely” or “Never”. So the anti-lager view seems to be more prevalent than Tandleman believes. But, as he says, “Well made lager is an absolute delight and those that sniff at lager are missing out in a big way.” And I’ll drink a Helles or a Pilsner to that.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Psst, wanna buy a few spoons?

A rough Wetherspoon's pub in a
poor, run-down neighbourhood

Back in July, I reported that Wetherspoons were planning to sell twenty of their pubs. Most of them gave the impression of either being in unsuitable locations, or close to other, busier branches, so as a whole it looked like a sensible bit of rationalisation. However, they’ve now come back with a further thirty-four planned disposals. Some of these fit into the same category, but others are apparently successful operations with no other Spoons nearby.

Locally, they include two current Good Beer Guide entries, the Milson Rhodes in Didsbury and the Bollin Fee in Wilmslow, neither of which is close to another one, and both in prosperous, busy locations. Yes, the Milson Rhodes is within a mile of the Gateway, but I don’t think by and large they compete for the same trade. On the other hand, some of them such as the Red Lion in Heanor have a poor reputation and don’t seem to have worked out. They also include the premises at 43-51 King Street, Stirling, where they fought a long licensing battle against the objections of Greene King, but have not so far got round to actually opening as a pub.

Is this a sign that the company is now struggling financially and needing to sell off some more of the family silver? Or are they cashing in some of their more valuable freeholds at the top of the market?

Tuesday 3 November 2015

I remember when this were all craft

A small, artisanal craft brewery
Last month, Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale complained about lazy journalists making a connection between the Irish craft beer sector and “hipsters”. A very fair point, although perhaps they are just doing a read-across from the English craft beer scene, which in parts, especially in London, is distinctly hipsterish. This fails to recognise that Irish craft beer actually has much more in common with the USA.

Within the post, he also makes this important point:

Before the industrial revolution, all beer was craft beer. It was produced locally using local ingredients and sold to local people. After industrialisation and the amalgamation of most breweries in to large brewing conglomerates, craft beer persisted in a small regional way in some countries but was wiped out entirely in most. Ireland was one of those countries. By the 1980s, only the big three remained and it wasn't until the late 90s that we saw our first independent breweries start to open again.

Since big beer only started a few hundred years ago, but humans have been brewing beer for at least 5000 years and probably longer, which brewing process do you think is actually the fad? The 5000+ year old small scale, small batch, independent brewing or the 200 year old industrial scale brewing? Getting back to the infographic: Compressing the earth’s history in to 46 hours shows commercial beer is 1 minute old and craft beer is a few hours.

Actually, brewing was one of the earliest processes to be industrialised, as it doesn’t really need complex machinery or much mechanical power. You simply need to hoist malt and pump water up to the top, and then gravity will do the rest. The Great London Beer Flood of 1814 clearly shows that by then beer was being produced on a truly industrial scale.

Over the years, more and more beer was produced in big industrial plants, but small-scale brewing did linger on. The period from the end of the Second World War to 1970 saw a huge attrition of both home-brew pubs and small, independent commercial brewers, but there were still a fair number around at the birth of CAMRA. By any standards, the four surviving home-brew pubs and small operations like Paine’s, Donnington and Batham’s would surely qualify as “craft”.

The normal sense of the word “craft” in British English is reflected in the terms “handcrafted” and “craftsman”. It implies small-scale production, individual skill, an absence of automation and a high level of hands-on human involvement. It will probably use mostly locally-produced raw materials, with a minimum of intermediate processing. It doesn’t have to be rooted in tradition, although it may well be. It’s E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful in practice. It is artisanal in the proper sense of the word, although I hesitate to describe it as such, given that the term is generally used nowadays to describe “a job now done by a middle-class person that used to be done by a working-class person”.

But we now have a situation where “craft beer” is used to mean something entirely different – brewers who are knowing and self-aware, and who brew beer that is deliberately iconoclastic and innovative in terms of style, strength and ingredients. BrewDog has grown into a substantial industrial brewery, but it is still widely regarded as the acme of “craft”, whereas long-established micro-breweries like Cotleigh and Banks & Taylor, and the surviving small family breweries, are dismissed as old hat, boring and nothing to do with craft. And hops flown half-way around the world are seen as essential ingredients.

The term “craft beer” was only brought into general use because many new breweries in the US had become far too big to credibly call themselves “microbreweries”. Applied to the very different brewery scene here, it’s strange how its meaning has come to be pretty much entirely turned on its head. Maybe it would be more honest if it was called something else entirely, like “new-wave beer”.