Monday 29 February 2016

That’s the way to do it

Samuel Smith’s have recently completed an expensive and thoroughgoing refurbishment of the Swan in Holmes Chapel. This is a pub in a good, prominent situation, on the main road and right next to the station, but in recent years it seemed to have been allowed to decline, with no real ale and something of a locals-only feel. I remember it serving excellent pizzas in the 1980s, but I think food had been discontinued for some time.

The new pub is something of a revelation, and in many ways represents a step back to how pubs used to be. Going in through the front door, you enter a corridor, with rooms opening off on both sides. Persevering, you eventually reach the servery at the rear of the pub, in a smallish room with a view over the lower-level car park.

In total, there are six separate rooms, each with its own character, from the vault-style area with dartboard to the plush snug with comfortable bench seating and an antique settle, which is where I took my pint picture. Obviously it has the usual advantages of low beer prices and an absence of piped music and TV sport. It also serves the new keg India Pale Ale which I hadn’t seen before in any Sam’s pubs. Holmes Chapel has a fairly well-heeled population of 5,700, and only three pubs, so there should be no shortage of local trade. The pub also offers nine letting bedrooms.

Other pub operators really should take note. Sam’s have created an interior with genuine character and individuality, with attention paid to intimate spaces, warm colours and comfortable seating. So many other refurbs seem to be intent on eradicating all three, Joules perhaps being an honourable exception.

I know that at times this blog comes across as something of a Sam’s love-in, but no other pub operator seems to have much interest in creating proper, old-fashioned pub interiors, and I have to say that in my local area few pubs come anywhere near to creating the vibrant, mixed pub atmosphere that Sam’s do.

On the other hand, I can’t really endorse their sometimes high-handed and quasi-feudal management practices and, while I like Old Brewery Bitter and think it’s a quality beer, there are other beers I’d prefer to see as the sole cask offering, such as Draught Bass and Lees Bitter, to name a couple available locally. But we have to take what we’re given, and Sam’s pubs at their best are great proper pubs in a way that few others are. Last Saturday night, the local CAMRA branch gave our Pub of the Year presentation to the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place. Great atmosphere, excellent beer, wide cross-section of customers, and licensees well chuffed. Although, inevitably, some have moaned.

I’ll add that Hydes have recently completed a sympathetic refurbishment of the Horse & Farrier in Gatley, one of my favourite Stockport pubs, which generally retains the positive features I mentioned above, so well done to them too.

(The exterior pic of the Swan leaves something to be desired, due to poor light, the back end of a white van, and roadworks barriers. But you get the idea – smart, restrained and classy.)

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Parallel lines

A frequent demand from anti-alcohol campaigners is that supermarkets should have dedicated alcohol checkouts, rather than allowing drink to be included within the main family shop. The key argument behind this is that seeing drinks on sale encourages people to buy more than they otherwise would, but the evidence behind this is very questionable. Over the past fifteen years, we have seen a substantial increase in the apparent availability of drinks, but on the other hand a significant reduction in overall consumption. It may lead to people buying different products, but it doesn’t make them buy more.

I remember when it was always the case that alcoholic drinks were sold via separate counters, either dedicated off-licences or sited within supermarkets. The first time I saw drinks being stocked on the normal self-service shelves was in the early 80s. But I don’t think this was due to a change in the law, but more to the realisation that supermarket shoppers were increasingly picking up drinks as part of their weekly shop. It was no longer the responsibility of the male of the household to make a separate visit to the offie.

Creating a separate drink sales area and checkout would not be too challenging for the typical supermarket. In fact, the giant Morrisons at Hollinwood, Oldham, seems to have been laid out with that in mind. I’ve joked on Twitter that it would help me do my shopping without having to queue behind people buying vegetables and nappies. Realistically, it would make no difference to drink sales and maybe even make life more convenient for some.

Would the alcohol section be prevented from selling related products such as bottle openers, corkscrews, crisps, nuts and scratchings? Even in the old days, the classic “offie” used to stock things like that, plus sweets and chocolate bars. And surely it would be unreasonable to apply this to convenience stores of under 3,000 sq ft, where it would simply be impractical.

So the conclusion must be that this is another example of pointless gesture politics from the anti-drink lobby, that would make no difference in practice except to subtly advance the denormalisation of alcohol. In reality you would have to have a dramatic reduction in availability to produce any decline in consumption. Availability follows demand, not the other way round.

A further thought is that tobacco products have always been sold through separate counters, which in the past were often combined with the drink counters. Is this a legal requirement, or just a recognition of the risk of theft from self-service shelves?

Sunday 21 February 2016

Moral duty

The British Beer & Pub Association, together with CAMRA, have been campaigning for the Chancellor to make a further cut in beer duty in his forthcoming budget. However, a group of pub operators have suggested that this campaign is morally flawed and has not really produced the benefit for the trade that has been claimed.

One of their main points is that the duty reductions have not been passed on to pub customers. Fair enough, but given that most prices are now rounded to the nearest 10p, few pub operators are going the knock a penny off and, in an environment of generally rising costs, it simply gives pubs a bit more breathing space. Plenty of pubs have increased their prices over the last couple of years although, to their credit, Sam Smith’s have held the price of OBB firm at a very reasonable £1.80 a pint.

As I’ve said before, from a presentational point of view, it would have been better for Osborne to freeze beer duty rather than slightly cutting it, as he has done with fuel duty. That would have stopped all these complaints about “what’s the point of a penny off duty?” And, realistically, the current level of duty should be compared to what it would have been if the escalator had still been in force. Over three years, that would have led to the price of a pint in a pub being 20-30p higher, which would undoubtedly have harmed their business and led to more closures.

Given a clean sheet of paper, I would certainly set alcohol duties at a much lower level than we have at present. But, in the current situation, it may well not be the best use of the limited funds available to the Chancellor. For the time being, I would be quite happy for them to be frozen for the length of the current Parliament, and there is a risk that those supporting a reduction may be portrayed as irresponsible.

The complainers also seem to be a group of pub operators not noted for charging bargain basement prices, so you have to question exactly how bothered they are about lowering the cost to the drinker. They also come up with the usual self-serving guff about pubs being a “controlled drinking environment” and make the ludicrous claim that you can get a standard bottle of 11% ABV white wine for £3 in Tesco. Well, I’d love to see that in my local branch.

I would be happier if CAMRA and the BBPA were advocating a duty freeze, not a cut. Ending the duty escalator was perhaps CAMRA’s greatest ever success, but the momentum and goodwill are steadily diminishing. And the pub trade over the years has collectively shot itself in the foot by continually increasing prices above inflation.

Friday 19 February 2016

Pub eat pub

Two Robinson's pubs next
door to each other
A Marston’s tenant in Droitwich has complained that her business has been adversely affected by the company giving preferential discounts to other pubs in the area. On the face of it, this seems totally unreasonable – a pub operator should offer all its licensees in the same area the same terms. But, given that the other pubs were “new sites”, you have to question how far they were away, and whether they were targeting the same market. If one or both were dining pubs on the bypass two miles away, it’s doubtful how much trade they would extract from a wet-led local.

It’s an interesting question for any pub operator to what extent their pubs compete with each other. Clearly, for dining pubs, the distance will be greater as customers will be more willing to drive to them. I believe Greene King have a formula to work out the required distance between Hungry Horses so that they won’t cannibalise each other’s trade. For wet-led pubs in urban areas, it will probably be well under a mile.

But many operators have collections of pubs much closer to each other. Some of our remaining traditional brewers have a strong concentration of pubs in their home town, such as Jennings in Cockermouth, Adnams in Southwold and Palmers in Bridport. As long as it doesn’t extend too far, I’d say that’s a feature of the British brewing scene that we should cherish. It’s always good to drink a beer on its home territory.

Our local brewer, Robinsons, have never had a dominant position in central Stockport, but have ended up controlling the vast majority of pubs in some outlying areas. In Hazel Grove their position has been eroded by closures and the opening of a Wetherspoons, but they still control all five “proper” pubs in the centre of Marple, although there are a couple of micropubs in the process of opening up.

From a competition point of view, that’s less than ideal, but it doesn’t necessarily involve a bland uniformity. On the CAMRA forum, one poster suggested that, given the relative size of their estates, Wetherspoon’s were much less dominant than Punch or Enterprise, but that failed to recognise the fact that every Wetherspoons pub provides essentially the same offer. Their recent programme of closing branches close to another suggests they have recognised the risk of cannibalising sales. On the other hand, nearby Punch pubs may be very different from each other in terms of beer and food offer and general ambiance.

If you have a concentration of pubs in a particular area, the key to success is to differentiate them from each other. One may be a vaguely trendy “craft” bar, another a live music venue, another a codgers’ drinking shop, another a family dining outlet. There may be a lack of choice in terms of beer, but that really isn’t something that bothers most pub customers, and they still have a wide choice of types of pub. There are still pairs of Robinsons’ pubs next door to each other, such as the Grapes and Three Tunnes in Hazel Grove (pictured), but the brewery have in recent years tried to differentiate their pubs into various “themes”. Over time, the customers often end up determining the character of each pub anyway without any deliberate influence from the owners.

And, if you’re Marston’s, or any other large pub operator, you need to ensure that any of your pubs that are in close promixity do not compete directly with each other with a very similar offer. If they do, and you give one favourable treatment over another, then you shouldn’t be surprised if your licensees cry foul.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Full marks for effort

Simon Everitt has recently ventured to the outer reaches of Doncaster in his quest to visit every pub in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide. It must be said that Simon’s blog is well worth following, not least for his no-punches-pulled assessment of pubs.

A noticeable point about these pub visits is that in two of the four pubs he went to he was given a cloudy pint. Now, every pub will have its off day, and I’ve occasionally had to return pints in some of the nailed-on GBG favourites. But two out of four on a single day suggests a problem, and surely the probability of being given a cloudy pint when walking into a GBG pub should be far less than 50%.

On Twitter, Martin Taylor suggested that in some areas with little real ale, CAMRA branches were putting pubs into the GBG on the grounds of making an effort to serve it. I’m sure he’s right, and in a way you can’t really blame them, but overall it undermines the Guide. It’s rather like giving struggling pubs an award to “show support”.

My local branch recently held its GBG selection meeting. Out of maybe 200 pubs in the area, we had 69 that met the criterion of having an average score of above the 3 (i.e. good) on CAMRA’s National Beer Scoring System. Some were debarred for various reasons, but we could easily have chosen 40 pubs rather than our allocation of 25 which would not have disgraced the Guide.

If you go in a GBG pub at a slack time, you should still have a reasonable expectation of a good pint. Cloudy beer is something you should only encounter extremely rarely. If a pub can’t meet the requirement of consistently providing a good pint it really shouldn’t be included, even if it results in large empty spaces on the map.

Turnover is a key issue – if most of your customers drink lager or smooth, then you will struggle with selling real ale. That has been a long-standing problem in areas such as the West Country, Wales and Scotland where, in many locations, the locals drink keg and real ale is something for the tourists. You can normally tell within a few minutes whether or not it’s a pub where the ale shifts. Perhaps we need another Guide to real ale oases in areas where most pubs only offer keg.

Obviously it’s not a realistic option, but it might be a good idea if selection was entirely dependent on the quality of beer encountered at the first opening time on Tuesdays, whether lunchtime or early evening.

Monday 15 February 2016

Just like any other people

There’s been a hashtag going round about Beer people are good people. But that seems to reflect a cosy camaraderie within the craft beer world rather than a more general statement.

I’ve been involved in CAMRA and the general beer world for thirty-five years, and have to say I’ve met plenty of great people, some of whom I’m happy to count as friends. The vast majority of brewers and licensees I’ve come across have been very decent, genuine and committed.

But, on the other hand, the beer world is no different from any other section of society in having its fair share of intolerance and antagonism. The idea that there is some kind of warm, cuddly, inclusive beer community that stands out from other interest groups is largely a myth propagated by those on the inside.

One particular example that, for obvious reasons, sticks in my mind is the fairly well-known beer writer who expressed the wish in my blog comments that I should suffer a heart attack. Now that’s really nice, isn’t it? He’s a lot less well-known now than he used to be.

And let us cast our minds back to 1 July 2007, when the government decided that a particular section of the population should no longer be welcome in pubs. Many “beer people” were, and are, smokers, and indeed smokers on average were much more likely to be pubgoers than non-smokers, as to a lesser degree they still are.

So you might have expected “beer people” to rally round in solidarity with their oppressed brethren, even if they had some sympathy with the legislation. But no, the amount of bile, intolerance and hatred directed by many at smokers had to be seen to be believed. Even a bit of “we understand how you feel, but ultimately it’s all for the best” might have helped. But this negative attitude persists even now.

As we all know now, this dealt the pub trade a grievous blow, and the anti-smoking template is being increasingly applied to alcohol, food and soft drinks. Just as I and many others predicted. So not much evidence of an inclusive community there, let alone one capable of recognising its own interests.

(This replaces an earlier post which undermined the central point by including a long scattergun list of examples)

Pub perfection

In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph there was an interesting piece by Michael Deacon entitled My ten essential requirements for the perfect pub. Obviously it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, especially #9, but on the other hand I’m sure many of us will find much to agree with. A notable omission, which several commenters have pointed out, is any mention of beer. The comments in general are well worth reading. The pub recommended in the article – the Cock at Luddesdowne in Kent – does sound rather excellent, not least in its strict “no children” policy.

It’s not exactly the list I would draw up myself, and is rather biased towards country pubs, but there’s plenty of overlap. So, let’s look at his points one-by-one.

  1. Genuine memorabilia. Totally agreed. Should be a wide, eccentric variety of stuff assembled piecemeal over the years, not a designer collection of local Victorian photos
  2. Walls lined with books. No – a pub is not a library, and buying old books by the yard was an unfortunate design trend of the late 80s. Better to have a small collection including a road atlas, the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, several Good Beer Guides and copies of Cheshire Life or the local equivalent, all well out of date
  3. There must be at least one dog present. Can’t be guaranteed at all times, but the pub should certainly be dog-friendly. And have at least one pub cat, of course
  4. There must be a fire or wood-burning stove. Very nice to see in winter, but unless you’re the Warren House or the Tan Hill, a bit unnecessary all year round
  5. The pub must have dark wooden beams. Up to a point, but that is a bit of a “country pub” thing. Wood panelling, door surrounds, bar back etc. will do the job just as well
  6. The ceiling must not be bare. Don’t really get that. Collections of old bank notes or beer mats (or even knickers in the case of one famous pub) can be characterful, but hardly essential and a bit difficult to clean
  7. There should be no TV. Certainly not showing satellite sports, or in the lounge. But I could make a limited exception
  8. The pub should have no pretensions to being a restaurant. Absolutely. No place-settings, no reserved tables. Indeed, I don’t see that it needs to serve food at all – many of the best pubs don’t. If it does, it should have typed menus in little red plastic A5 wallets bearing the text “Snacks at the Bar”.
  9. The pub should be inexplicably unpopular. Bit of an odd one that. Should be popular enough to be convivial, but not to the extent where you can’t get a seat. Having said that, the pub where you can’t get a seat is a rarity nowadays unless some seats have been reserved for diners
  10. No-one should be permitted entry under the age of 45. Seems a bit unreasonable, but in many of the best pubs it’s largely self-selecting anyway. But he is right to say “the true spirit of a pub should at all times maintain an atmosphere of stoically accepted defeat.”
It prompted me to knock up a quick list of my own Top 10 “perfect pub” features, which regular readers could probably have written for themselves.
  1. Interior divided into a variety of rooms or sections
  2. Extensive bench seating, but no high stools
  3. Welcoming to dogs, and has at least one pub cat, the older, fatter and lazier the better
  4. No piped music. At all. Ever.
  5. Serves (amongst other beers) a traditional English ordinary bitter from an unfashionable family brewer. Or Draught Bass
  6. Much dark wood in the decor – beams, panels, bar back etc
  7. May serve straightforward, good-value food, but makes no pretence to be a restaurant
  8. Children not allowed in the main bar areas, although might have a separate dining or family room
  9. Has at least one “character” amongst the regulars
  10. The only TV is in the public bar showing the racing and any major sports events on terrestrial TV. Preferably an old CRT one
I did do this in more detail back in 2000, although obviously in one important respect that’s an ideal that no pub can achieve any longer.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Here we go again

Not surprisingly, following the reduction in the drink-drive limit in Scotland in December 2014, there have been renewed calls to follow suit south of the border. Transport Minister Andrew Jones has said that the government will consider this if there is “robust evidence” that it has improved road safety in Scotland. Well, there’s certainly robust evidence that it has been highly damaging to the licensed trade. Many would say that was the main intention in the first place.

I’ve discussed the whys and wherefores of this issue at length in the past, for example here, so don’t intend to repeat myself. However, there are three specific points that spring to mind.

  1. It would be ironic if this ended up being implemented by a Conservative government, when the Tories have long been seen as the natural champions of the motorist, the licensed trade and the countryside. Many long-standing Tory voters will be distinctly unhappy about it, and I can imagine Cameron touring his constituency in rural Oxfordshire being asked by angry landlords why he wants to put them out of business. If it does happen, it will produce an abiding legacy of bitterness in rural areas. I’m convinced that the smoking ban has had a greater effect on eroding working-class support for the Labour Party than is usually acknowledged.

  2. Talk of cutting the headline limit ignores the issue of penalties. Most Continental countries that nominally have a 50mg limit do not impose driving bans until an offender is over 80mg, and sometimes even at a higher figure. In contrast, Scotland now has one of the strictest drink-drive regimes in Europe, as it imposes year-long bans at 50mg and, because of a quirk in the law, does not even allow the small margin of tolerance that applies in England and Wales. Surely a less serious offence should deserve a lower penalty.

  3. This will inevitably focus more attention on the “morning after” issue, as the threshold for the amount you can drink in the evening and be under the limit the following morning will be correspondingly reduced. Given that, outside London, well over 50% of commuters drive themselves to work, this will potentially have an impact on pubs even in dense urban areas.

    The government has also traditionally been very reluctant to explain the principle of “unit counting” which drinkers can use to give an approximation of when they will be able to legally drive after drinking. So, following the declaration of an official line that no quantity of alcohol can be considered safe in terms of health risk, might we see broad-brush, catch-all advice that, if you have drunk anything at all, you shouldn’t drive for a further 24 hours?

Saturday 6 February 2016

It’s real ale, Jim, but not as we know it

Probably the most controversial issue in CAMRA for a long time is the question of whether some “KeyKeg” beers can be classified as “real ale”. I wrote about this here, which included this admirably clear description of what a KeyKeg is.

So I thought I would do a poll on people’s attitudes to this. The results show a fairly even split between “Yes” and “No, but it’s still worth promoting” with a lesser number going for “Keg is Keg”. Overall, 59% thought that keybeg beers should not be recognised as real ale. It should be pointed out that on the blog I added the following caveat “For the avoidance of doubt, I'm referring to KeyKeg beers that are unpasteurised, unfiltered and not injected with additional CO2.” The comment by “Dickthebeer” is worth reproducing:

Good CAMRA members know the definition of real ale and know that dispenses are not always all they seem, but CAMRA has defined Real Ale very closely. A beer not meeting that definition, for brewing, storage and dispense, by definition is NOT real ale. The majority of French and Belgian ales, though clearly top-fermented, naturally conditioned etc. do not meet the definition but are fine beers. Find an honest term for what could become an international variant of the real ale that is peculiar to the UK, and one we should be proud of.
A KeyKeg
CAMRA has always been prone to having passionate debates about the minutiae of dispense methods – the Scottish air pressure system and the cask breather being two good examples. This can be classed as another in the same vein. But it is important to remember that the conditioning, storage and dispense of beer is something that fundamentally underlies CAMRA, so claims of “ignore dispense, good beer is good beer” ring hollow.

At the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, there was a dedicated “craft keg” bar, and I tried a couple. It wasn’t a big scientific survey, but both were quite nice. But it must be said that they obviously came across as keg in terms of temperature and carbonation, and very different from real ale as usually understood.

There are two arguments often advanced in favour of craft keg beer. The first is the “East Sheen Tennis Club” argument, that keg beers are ideal for venues that have limited and infrequent turnover. The second is that they allow pubs to stock low-volume beers for longer. But I get the impression that the reason most people go for craft keg is that they prefer its essential characteristics – that it is served cooler, and has more carbonation, than real ale. Bringing it within the fold of real ale may assuage some CAMRA consciences, but it’s unlikely to make much difference to whether people choose to drink it. Being a touch cynical, I wonder whether the real motivation is making it acceptable to serve keg beers at CAMRA-run beer festivals rather than improving the lot of drinkers in the pub.

When CAMRA was founded, getting on for half of the real ale sold in Britain was dispensed through electric pumps, which may have led to its founders underestimating the amount of real ale there actually was out there. While electric pumps have their advantages, one thing they don’t do is to give a clear indication of the type of beer that comes out of them. Over the years, pub operators have steadily replaced electric pumps with handpumps for this very reason, and electric dispense has now pretty much entirely died out. The once-common practice of serving keg beer through handpumps has also been largely eliminated, so if you go in a pub and see a bank of handpumps you can be confident about what you’re going to get. But if we get “real” craft keg, are we going to get little stickers on the taps saying “CAMRA Says this is Real Ale”? Will we have pubs included in the Good Beer Guide purely on the strength of their craft keg offering? There is also the risk that the boundary with conventional filtered and carbonated keg beers such as Shipyard and East Coast IPA will be blurred.

One of the recurring themes of this blog has been that CAMRA is too dogmatic in making a black-and-white distinction between “good” real ale and “bad” everything else. This is not to say it shouldn’t define real ale clearly and put it at the centre of its campaigning, but it should be far more willing to recognise merit in beers that do not qualify. Most members to some extent enjoy non-real beers, so why should the organisation officially ignore this?

I make no claim to be an expert on cellarmanship, but I would say it is questionable whether keykeg beers really fit the definition of real ale anyway. As pointed out in a letter in February’s What’s Brewing from veteran activist Peter Judge, the beer contained in the bag does not vent to the atmosphere, and the part of the container outside the bag is pressurised with CO2 to dispense the beer, although the CO2 does not actually touch it. Of course it’s vastly better than Red Barrel, and something I’d be happy both to drink and promote. But, to my mind, it isn’t “real ale” as understood by the general drinking public. Rather than arbitrarily extending the definition to encompass something you happen to like, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept that some beers that aren’t technically “real” can actually be very good?

And I can foresee some lively debate at CAMRA’s forthcoming National Conference in Liverpool at the beginning of April.

Friday 5 February 2016

I'm not eating that!

A slightly undercooked
chicken goujon
Martin Taylor recently reminded me of my very unsatisfactory bacon sandwich at the otherwise rather wonderful Cock Inn at Broom in Bedfordshire. In retrospect, I should have sent it back rather than struggling my way through it, but it illustrates a wider problem – when is it reasonable to reject food? The question of returning beer has been extensively discussed on this and other blogs, but not returning food.

I have to admit I am a somewhat eccentric and picky eater, and so I have to make a judgment as to whether something is actually horrible or just not to my taste. I often have no alternative but to order dishes in pubs in the full knowledge that I will not eat some of their components. This is why I tend to avoid eating main meals, as opposed to snacks, in pubs.

But, over the years, I’ve had plenty of utterly terrible food in pubs. The chicken burger that was a vile chunk of grey rubbery meat immediately springs to mind, likewise the supposed chicken tikka baguette where the contents were essentially just a curry-flavoured slurry. And the ploughman’s that firstly lacked cheese, and then after being sent back still lacked bread. Most of these things I’ve just left on the table and moved on.

I well remember some years back when I went out for a drive with my late father around the Shropshire Hills on the day after Boxing Day, and called in for lunch at the Green Dragon in Little Stretton. It was a sunny day, and I think there were a lot more customers than the pub expected, resulting in us having to wait a long time for our meals. My dad had plaice and chips, but was given a fish where the tail had obviously been hanging out of the pan and was completely raw. Some locals even had the cheek to say out loud “Some people only come out to complain!”

The ridiculously undercooked bacon in the Cock wasn’t an isolated example – the previous year I’d had similar in the Crown in Hawes in North Yorkshire, another good pub spoilt by crap food. Again I said after the event that the bacon was undercooked. The one example I recall when I did actually send something back was when staying in the Wellington Hotel in Boscastle, Cornwall, where I ordered a pizza from the bar menu that came out scarcely cooked at all. While the English are often accused of overcooking their food, most of my bad experiences have come from dishes that were seriously undercooked.

Tandleman has made the point in the past that you go out for a quiet drink and a meal, not for an argument. If you are given poor food or drink, the very act of complaining sours the occasion, even if you receive complete recompense. So it’s hardly surprising that people so often struggle through food that is at best borderline acceptable.

Maybe we need to take a more assertive approach. But I’d still say that returning food – as opposed to complaining about it afterwards – still requires another level of gumption above returning a poor pint.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

The old man and the pub

A phrase we’re hearing increasingly often nowadays, used in a dismissive sense, is old man pub. The connotations are pretty clear, but is it all that different from what we used to call a “traditional pub”? Going back a generation, there were some pubs that were clearly defined as “young people’s pubs” with garish colours, knocked-out walls, chrome furniture, pool tables, loud music and TVs showing music videos. These were the pubs that didn’t tend to get into CAMRA guides. That style of pub has now largely disappeared, but a different kind of divide has opened up.

From the mid-80s, there was a growing number of specialist multi-beer alehouses, but they generally adopted a bare-boards kind of ambiance and couldn’t really be said to be trendy. However, more recently, over the past ten years, we have seen the development in major city centres of “craft beer bars” which adopt a much more modernistic style of industrial chic – very open-plan, dominated by long bars, with hard textures and a dearth of comfortable upholstered seating.

The interior of a trendy pub
popular with hipsters
Many brewer and pubco refurbishments have started to follow this style, especially in urban areas with a high proportion of younger drinkers. And anything that doesn’t conform to this model is dismissed as an “old man pub”. But what is wrong with a pub that offers cosy, intimate spaces, comfortable seating and a limited role for electronic distractions? Last year I saw groups of students having a good time in Sam Smith’s Colpitts Hotel in Durham, which even by Sam’s standards is about as traditional as you can get.

It’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast distinction – things like being popular for food, welcoming children, loud piped music and live bands can all make a traditionally-styled pub less “old mannish”. Even TV football on its doesn’t debar a pub from qualifying. In Heaton Moor, not too far from me, the Crown definitely is an “old man pub”, despite showing all the football, while the nearby, much more stylised and designed Plough and Elizabethan are not.

The writer of the article has suggested that “old man pubs” should make more effort to appeal to a younger generation by putting craft beers on the bar, but that will make no difference to the pub’s overall ambience. The other night I was in the Blossoms in Stockport, where they have plenty of craft bottles in the fridge and Pilsner Urquell on the bar. But the general cosy, multi-roomed feel would still be “old man” regardless of what beers were on sale.

Surely there is a parallel here with dismissing established real ales as “boring brown beers”, another product of the US-influenced British craft evangelists deciding that their main enemy was not the mega-brewers, but the existing, successful craft real ale scene. It’s all a bit divisive and counter-productive.

Eventually, the wheel will come full circle. I remember in the 1970s seeking out the most down-to-earth, basic, old-fashioned pubs there were in the search for real ale, and being captivated by their atmosphere. In more recent years, the tide has swung against valuing tradition, but, one day, young drinkers will realise once again that “old man pubs” have a story to tell.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Two steps back, one step forward

Last year, the Labour-run Welsh Government put forward plans to ban vaping in all indoor public places in the same way as smoking has been banned. This was widely criticised as being draconian and indeed possibly counter-productive, as many people switch to vaping as a means of stopping smoking. Perhaps surprisingly, the most vocal opponents have been the Welsh Liberal Democrats under Kirsty Williams. It makes a refreshing change to see the LibDems actually standing up for something liberal.

After due consideration, health minister Mark Drakeford has come up with slightly watered-down proposals which would allow vaping in some enclosed places, including pubs that did not either serve food or allow children. That sounds suspiciously like the proposals relating to smoking in the 2005 Labour manifesto, which of course they later “welshed” on.

These would have led to a two-tier pub trade, divided between down-to-earth, working-class boozers with no kids or food, and sanitised midde-class dining outlets filled with the smell of cooking and the tinkle of children’s happy laughter. No prizes for guessing which I would have preferred! Obviously this would have been preferable to the current situation, but it still would have been far from ideal. Many pubs where food was only a sideline would have ended up dropping it to keep their drinking customers.

I’m not sure whether vapers have yet reached the critical mass where pubs would think it worthwhile to abandon food to retain their business, but it’s certainly the case that where the vaper goes, his or her friends will follow. And Wales, perhaps more than any other part of the UK, certainly still has plenty of basic, wet-led, adults-only boozers.

Surely the best solution would to allow pubs and other businesses to choose whether to allow vaping or not, and let the market decide. Just as it should have been with smoking. Let’s hope the Welsh Government eventually see sense.