Sunday 27 March 2016

Cash is still king

The death of cash has often been foretold, but it still seems a very long way off happening. Much the same is true of print publications. The digital age may encroach on the territory of its analogue predecessors, but in many spheres it seems incapable of dealing the final blow.

Mark Wadsworth recently created a poll on people’s use of cash, which I was happy to share as it is a subject relevant to readers of this blog. This helps to explain the large number of respondents. I’ve shared a few other polls with Mark in the past. The results are pretty conclusive – that 96% of respondents use cash at least once a week, and 44% every day. I answered “most days” simply because I don’t necessarily spend any money every single day. The original poll and comments can be seen here.

We are constantly being urged to use credit and debit cards, especially since the introduction of contactless cards, but it seems that cash is proving very resilient. And one of its prime strongholds remains the pub trade. The kind of people who are happy to flash a card in the pub are generally those who don’t really buy many individual drinks.

Personally, I tend to use cash for all routine regular transactions, as it makes it far easier to budget and control my expenditure. I use cards for buying petrol, typically two or three times a month, internet purchases and big-ticket items such as clothes and electronics.

It’s been widely pointed out that using a contactless card rather than cash exposes you to the risk of unwise spending on a night out where your judgment might be impaired by a pint or two.

If you depend entirely on cards, you’re left at the mercy of bank computers, which recent events have shown can all too easily fail. Most of the extensive grey and black economy runs on cash, which isn’t going to disappear overnight. The same is true of most ordinary local pubs, and CAMRA beer festivals. Cash isn’t going anywhere any day soon.

There is also the point that surrendering all control of your cash to banks gives the government the opportunity to control it and, in extremis, confiscate some of it. Keeping some of your money in cash is a good way of safeguarding it.

Saturday 26 March 2016

And it still won’t

Last year, I reported on a poll showing a majority of people in favour of allowing pubs to have separate smoking rooms, under the title It won’t lie down.

And lo, and behold, this year there’s another. A Populus poll in the Scottish Mail on Sunday revealed that 54% of Scottish adults believe that pubs and clubs should be allowed to have separate smoking rooms. Yes, this is on Simon Clark’s blog, but it refers to an article that isn’t online, and he provides a snapshot of it.

As I said before, this issue isn’t going away, despite what the anti-smoking lobby would tell you. It was wrong in 2007, and it is no less wrong in 2016. This is something that the general public seem to recognise, even if the political élite don’t. There is no real public acquiescence, but a huge well of bitterness and resentment.

In 1929, despite various problems, US Prohibition was still regarded as pretty much a done deal. Four years later, the Great Depression had swept it away.

I continue to firmly hold the view that there was no need for any legislation on this issue, as the market was already responding to meet the genuine demand for non-smoking areas. But pretty much any solution short of what we have now would have been preferable to some extent. One that springs to mind is that, given the head-in-the-sand antipathy of many CAMRA members to working-class smoky pubs, smoking could only have been permitted in keg pubs. Problem solved at a stroke. What could possibly go wrong?

More seriously, why not just prohibit smoking in any areas of pubs where under-18s are admitted? That would kill two birds with one stone – protecting children from any exposure to tobacco smoke, and creating more areas of pubs where adults could enjoy a drink out of earshot of their happy laughter.

Friday 25 March 2016

Dog days

A long-standing restriction in the Republic of Ireland is that all pubs and off-licences are closed on Good Friday. Surely this is a relic of the country’s Catholic past and, if they can legalise gay marriage, it’s hard to understand why this too can’t be swept aside.

In the past, the national Irish dog show used to be held on Good Friday, and this was one of the rare places where drink could be obtained. Not surprisingly, it attracted some visitors whose interest in matters canine was limited. Apparently one, after having consumed a few jars, tripped over a pooch and exclaimed “Bloody stupid place to bring a dog!”

This article suggests that such loopholes have now been eliminated, though.

(A good excuse for a pic of an Irish Setter)

Lockout lottery

It’s an ironic fact of life that, the more pub hours have been liberalised, the more many pubs have chosen to open shorter and more irregular hours. Pub explorers Simon Everitt and Martin Taylor have often reported finding pubs closed when they expected them to be open, which can be intensely frustrating if they’ve made a special effort to get there. This story from Simon really takes the biscuit.

I would be the last person to insist that pubs should open when there’s little or no trade. But, if they choose to adopt limited or unusual hours, it is surely incumbent on them to ensure that any potential customers are aware of that. They should publish their hours on their website, if they have one, and ensure that the hours displayed on WhatPub? are correct.

Even if they don’t have an online presence, they should make sure their hours are clearly displayed outside. It’s no use saying “if you turn up and we’re open, we’re open, and if we’re closed, we’re closed”. Passers-by may make a mental note of your hours and come back later, and the casual customer may decide to wait if they know you will be open in another half-hour, whereas if there’s no display of hours at all they’re likely to go elsewhere. And, if you declare your hours, you really need to stick to them.

It’s basic business common sense. But, sadly, some pubs still seem to exist in a world of entitlement where they have no need to communicate basic information to potential customers. Life isn’t easy for pubs nowadays, but sadly they often do themselves no favours. Shops manage to do it, even though they tend to have much more predictable hours, so why can’t pubs?

Another point Martin has made is that, in many areas, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find any pub open on Mondays outside town centres, which rather mirrors the situation in Germany.

(The sign pictured, belonging to an M&B pub in Birmingham, is interesting, as the 3 pm Saturday closing and 2.30 pm Sunday closing suggest it’s after the 1988 liberalisation, but it still sticks very closely to the old pattern)

Thursday 24 March 2016

Led astray

One of the reasons sometimes advanced in favour of the blanket smoking ban in pubs is that it’s the only realistic way to protect non-smoking customers. Before the ban, non-smoking drinkers were generally happy to associate with their smoking companions and, excluding dining sections, non-smoking areas in pubs were very much underused. If there was anything short of a total ban, the argument goes, many non-smokers would continue to keep the company of smokers and thus expose themselves to risk.

This comes across as a remarkably spurious line of reasoning. Nobody has to go in pubs, and if you are that concerned about your health, maybe it’s a good idea to avoid them entirely. Even before the ban, a large majority of restaurants and dedicated dining areas in pubs were mostly, if not entirely, non-smoking. So, if you wanted a meal out, you would not have to expose yourself to tobacco smoke. However, if you just wanted to go for a drink, you would probably be in the company of smokers, and therefore end up in an area where smoking was permitted. It’s a classic example of “revealed preference” – the concept that people’s true beliefs should be judged from what they do, not what they say. Clearly most people put their friends and their social life above some nebulous and unproven health risk.

And, taken to the extreme, this argument precludes any provision whatsoever of “collective” indoor smoking provision. It would not even allow dedicated smoking clubs that might also sell alcohol, because some non-smokers might use them. Surely any adult non-smoker can consider the evidence relating to the risk of “passive smoking” and make their own decision about the risk, or lack of. And, considering the effect the smoking ban has had, many of the smokers you used to socialise with may have abandoned the pub anyway. It’s ultimately an argument that is highly dismissive of individual responsibility and free choice. It suggests adults are weak and gullible, and need to be protected from themselves.

It’s about on a par with the ridiculous assertion that smokers are to blame for pub closures because they chose to boycott them. If you had to stand out in the cold and wet to drink a pint, would you go to the pub as much?

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Sour grapes, bottled

One of the most significant changes brought about by the 2005 Licensing Act was making it much easier to open new bars, as there was no longer any requirement to demonstrate “need”. The bandwagon was maybe a bit slow to start rolling, but once we emerged from the recession we have seen café-bars, wine bars, craft beer bars and micropubs springing up all over the place. It’s maybe something that wasn’t really expected, but it’s rapidly transforming the drinking landscape.

One particular variety that is proving increasingly popular is the combined bottle shop and bar, of which we now have three just in my neck of the woods in the Heatons area of Stockport. The one pictured is Heaton Hops. I have to say they’re not my top choice of drinking spots, but that’s entirely due to the lack of space and of comfortable seating, and there’s nothing wrong with the welcome or the beer quality. They all appear to be doing well and are a welcome increase in choice and diversity.

However, it seems that not everyone is quite so happy. The Publican’s Morning Advertiser recently published an article entitled Are bottle shops a bigger threat than supermarkets for pubs? Surely a classic example of a “Question to which the answer is No”! It quotes one licensee as saying that a bottle shop was “wiping the floor” with nearby pubs. “It sets a precedent. Anyone in any town can take a shop and think they can turn it into a bar as well.” Isn’t that sort of the point?

He went on to suggest that the said venue didn’t even have the proper licence, which really does smack of hysteria. Yes, an off-licence can offer small tasters to customers, but as soon as they start selling drink for consumption on the premise they need an on-licence. If any tried to trade without one, the council would rapidly come down on them like a ton of bricks.

This all comes across as just a case of sour grapes. If you’re faced with competition, the best response is to up your own game rather than moaning about how life is unfair. I’m not convinced that they’re significantly undercutting pubs – indeed the ones in my local area charge much the same as nearby pubs, if not a bit more. If you’re worried about price competition, then surely Wetherspoons are a much bigger threat.

And, in any case, small wet-only bars only compete with pubs across a small range of their offer. They don’t provide food, music or TV sport. To the pub trade in general they’re no more than a pinprick on an elephant’s backside, but some people are always looking for someone else to blame. There’s also nothing to stop pubs selling bottles to take home and offering carryouts of draught beer. Maybe it’s time that side of the trade made a comeback.

Sunday 20 March 2016

What did I tell you?

Only a couple of days ago, I posted about the government’s proposed sugar tax and suggested that this concession would just be blood in the water to the shoal of public health sharks. Needless to say, the egregious mockney twat Jamie Oliver was seen to be celebrating.

And they didn’t waste any time. Only four days after the Budget, Alex Renton came up with an article in the Guardian entitled The sugar tax is a great idea. Why not go after processed foods too? which recycles virtually every popular health fascist trope. It happily diverts on to the topic of alcohol, and pointedly says “The story of tobacco shows that this is just the first step on a very long road.” All you silly people who pooh-poohed “first they came for the smokers”, where do you stand now? Slippery slope? More like slippery precipice!

There’s a huge raft of arguments against this. The first is that it simply won’t work. It’s well-established that taxes intended to change behaviour will only be effective if they’re set at a pretty punitive level, and if there’s an obvious alternative with a lower tax rate. If people like eating crisps and biscuits, they’ll simply pay a bit more and continue to do so. There’s also plenty of scope for switching to lower-priced products – in any of these categories, there’s a huge gap between the value and premium brands. And it will have a disproportionate effect on the poor – even if they spend no more on “unhealthy” foods than the better-off, it’s still a much bigger chunk of their income.

The whole thing is also incredibly snobbish, as coruscatingly pointed out by Brendan O’Neill a few years ago. It’s basically denigrating the food choices of the less well off as compared with those of the comfortable middle classes:

People who eat junk food tend to be looked upon as "junk people". They are judged as lazy for buying microwaveable meals, and as bad parents for feeding their children "shit". Their expanding waistlines are considered a physical manifestation of their moral turpitude, evidence that they are heretics in an era of healthy living. That is why "concern" for their diet can so quickly turn into hateful comments about their child-rearing techniques or class background: because food has become the one issue through which it is acceptable to vomit bile on to the allegedly slovenly sections of society.
Setting aside any questions of practicality or class bias, the whole idea is just profoundly wrong on a moral and philosophical basis. Going back three hundred years or more, the Enlightenment promoted the concept that adult human beings were intelligent, self-aware creatures, with a responsibility for their own destiny. As the great philosopher John Locke said, “Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.”

Later on, the growth of Labour parties stemmed from the view that working people were worthy of respect and should be treated as capable of being responsible for making their own decisions. To quote Brendan O’Neill again:

Labourite parties emerged a hundred-odd years ago to represent the interests and ideas of working people. These parties were built on a conviction that "ordinary people" were also political players, were sussed, intelligent, autonomous beings whose worldview and needs deserved a political outlet. Now, in an eye-swivelling turnaround, Labour views the little people, not as political creatures worthy of representation, but as corruptible creatures in need of protection – from adverts, from alcohol, from chips, from chocolate.
It is fundamentally patronising to take the view that working people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions and have to be told what to do by the State, but sadly this seems to be the view of the modern-day Labour Party. In my experience, working-class people tend to have a pretty good idea of what makes sense for them, especially as they’re not motivated by politically correct prejudices.

Yes, we do have issues in society with obesity and poor nutrition, although they are often exaggerated. As far as I can see, the oft-threatened “obesity timebomb” has signally failed to explode. I’m just a mischievous middle-aged twat who writes a blog about pubs and beer, and I don’t regard it as my responsibility to come up with solutions to all the problems of the world. But I strongly hold to the principle that adults should be treated as being responsible for their own lives, and that whole population solutions to limited problems are invariably counter-productive.

Saturday 19 March 2016

Legalise it now!

These are the results of my poll on cannabis legalisation, stemming from my earlier post. As you can see, there’s almost a two-thirds majority for complete legalisation. With some reservations, this is the option I voted for.

However, as discussed before, the various issues around the comparison with tobacco are a major stumbling block on the path to legalisation. Many in public health believe that the complete eradication of tobacco use is a desirable long-term objective. Would the same be true of cannabis?

As Cooking Lager said in the comments on the earlier post, the question of “passive intoxication” means it’s unlikely that cannabis use would ever be widely accepted in pubs and pub gardens. It would need to confined to dedicated clubs and cafés.

I’ve also suggested in the past that legalisation might not quite be the nirvana some people imagine, and for current users the status of it being illegal but widely tolerated may in fact be preferable. Legalisation, regulation and taxation could take all the fun out of it.

Older men still feel unwelcome in pubs

The Publican’s Morning Advertiser reports that older male customers visiting pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants still experience “covert or overt animosity” and are acutely aware of being unwelcome, according to new research.

Operators have been urged to rethink staff training, accessibility and physical design of their venues in a bid to appeal to older men, who make astronomical numbers of visits to the UK's hospitality industry each year. Making a special effort to focus on the experience of codgers, such as remembering their names, not calling them “mate”, speaking loudly and clearly, and providing beermats and doggy bags meant they were more likely to be loyal to a particular pub or restaurant.

Design features like kitchens well separated from the public areas, to keep food smells away, bench seating, and plain, wood-panelled walls with tasteful pictures also added to men’s overall experiences. Lack of disabled parking, slow service, toilets up or down flights of stairs, and venues that don't cater for mobility scooters topped the list of complaints..

Being made to feel unwelcome by other customers also emerged as a major issue. Many geezers in the study by Oxford Brookes University and the Oxford School of Hospitality said they were conscious of other customers' reactions to them and "hostile" behaviour like disapproving looks, children running around and shouting, and parents saying to them “keep away from the nasty man” meant they were unlikely to visit again and would tell friends not to go.

Several blokes said they avoided places that were too noisy, choosing to visit venues which were reasonably quiet, dark and had cosy corners for reading the paper. Loud dance music and uncomfortable seating at high stools came in for particular criticism. They were happy to see televised football matches, but thought more effort should be made to show Test cricket, golf and bowls tournaments. Outdoor smoking areas were generally felt to be lacking both in seating and shelter, and should be provided with patio heaters.

Big chains didn't perform well in the research, with the experience they offered older men described as "lacking" by one respondent, who said: “It’s all a bit slapdash, there's no care taken, it doesn't feel homely, it doesn't feel comfortable and doesn't feel friendly a lot of the time.”

Researchers interviewed 59 miserable old gits about their experiences eating and drinking out in a range of venues, including pubs. However, 24 of these told them to bugger off, so the results may not be fully representative.

(photo courtesy of Martin Taylor)

Friday 18 March 2016

Then they came for the Coke drinkers

This week, George Osborne confounded many people’s expectations by introducing a new tax on sugary carbonated soft drinks in his Budget. Rather than imposing a specific charge per millilitre sold, it will take the form of a levy on producers based on the amount of sugar they use, thus making it less obvious to the buyer. But the end result will be the same – either higher prices or lower margins.

Needless to say, this was welcomed by egregious mockney food snob Jamie Oliver and various other lobbyists. But many commentators have expressed scepticism as to whether it will achieve its objective of cutting child obesity, and even that it might end up being counter-productive.

I can’t find an exact figure, but I recall reading that calorie intake from all soft drinks is only about 6% of the total, so even halving that will make little overall difference. And people may simply put up with it and continue drinking them. There’s plenty of evidence that tinkering with tax rates makes little difference to consumption patterns if they’re not going with the grain of what people want. Just look at all those 2.8% beers weighing down bars and supermarket shelves! Regular carbonated drinks already make up less than half of the total anyway.

Still drinks such as fruit juices and smoothies will not be affected , even though many of them contain more sugar than carbonated drinks. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that switching consumption to juice drinks may increase overall calorie consumption. And there have been numerous concerns expressed about the safety of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. We were told for decades that margarine was better for you than butter, but the balance of opinion has now swung back towards the natural product.

I’d also say from observation that most parents give their young children still juice or juice-based drinks, not fizzy pop. Cans are something they graduate on to once they’re in a position to make their own choices.

There’s also a distinct whiff of snobbery about all this, as the Sun acknowledges on yesterday’s front page. Regular fizzy drinks are something consumed by dreadful oiks, rather than nice people like us who prefer fruit smoothies and pomegranate juice. It has echoes of Osborne’s omnishambles “pasty tax”. The financial impact will clearly weigh most heavily on the less well-off, but pointing this out has attracted patronising responses along the lines of “So? Water is free.” That’s true, and I’m sure it makes a good food pairing with gruel.

The worst aspect of all, though, is that it represents an unnecessary surrender to the public health lobby. Something must be done, they cry, and this is something, so let’s do it. Even if it doesn’t work, it still sends a message. And, having smelt blood in the water, you can be sure that they will be coming back for more. As Christopher Snowdon points out, it’s not going to stop there.

Monday 14 March 2016

Weed in the garden?

Over the years, I’ve occasionally touched on the issue of cannabis legalisation. In theory, this is an idea for which I have a considerable amount of sympathy. However, I tend to be put off by the way that many pro-cannabis campaigners make a major plank of their argument the claim that cannabis is far less harmful than alcohol. Surely pro-cannabis and pro-alcohol advocates should be able to make common cause on the argument that both are substances that bring people a lot of pleasure and, if consumed responsibly, do little harm. The two are chalk and cheese and are not directly comparable.

To their credit, the Liberal Democrats have attempted to address the issue of what legalisation might look like. It’s not an issue that I have studied in depth, so I won’t attempt to give any kind of detailed commentary. However, I don’t see why ready-made cannabis joints shouldn’t be made available, and I also struggle to see why imports should be prohibited. Doesn’t cannabis from various locations have different characteristics?

Our first stop is in Bogota
To check Colombian fields
The natives smile and pass along
A sample of their yield
Sweet Jamaican pipe dreams
Golden Acapulco nights
Then Morocco, and the East
Fly by morning light

A couple of points in the report also demand attention from the pub and beer point of view. The first is that it suggests cannabis smoking is something that could be done in pub gardens. I can’t really see many licensees being happy to tolerate that, as cannabis, unlike tobacco, is to some extent a competitor product to alcohol. They might make more money from selling crisps and nuts, but it could give the pub an undesirable image. In any case, many cannabis advocates take the view that it’s not something that really belongs in the pub milieu, and it is better enjoyed separately. Why couldn’t it be smoked in council-owned parks?

The second point is that it proposes that people could set up non-profit-making “cannabis clubs” where they could get together to consume the product. All very well, but why shouldn’t tobacco users be able to create “tobacco clubs”? Which might even be allowed to sell the odd drop of alcohol too? Sounds like a good idea to me.

A fundamental issue that is skated over is that, in practice, cannabis is widely mixed in with tobacco, and the typical joint wouldn’t work without a combination of the two. The same would apply to ready-made cannabis cigarettes. See here, for example. But that creates an uneasy juxtaposition between something that the politically correct want to liberalise, and something they want to restrict. For that reason, if no other, I can’t see cannabis legalisation making much progress in this country.

And if legalisation happened, would cannabis users be subjected to the same degree of health nannying that smokers and drinkers have to endure?

Any colour you like, so long as it’s brown

I’ve finally got round to closing and summarising my poll on the beers you would like to see in a pub with only one cask beer. The thinking behind this was summarised in my earlier post here. It should be pointed out that I was referring to pubs with the turnover to keep their one beer well, not the kind of pub with a single Doom Bar pump at the end of the bar where you worry, even at eight in the evening, whether you will get the first one out that day.

First was Hawkshead Windermere Pale Ale, which is a superb lower-gravity beer than you could easily imagine slaking the thirst of fell-walkers in some rugged Lake District inn, although I’m not aware that any pub actually has it as a sole beer. I was rather pleased that Draught Bass was a strong second, a beer that probably still graces more one-beer pubs than any other apart from OBB. Marble Manchester Bitter, another fine brew, was third, and Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter fourth, although in Sam’s case there’s no chance of it being anything other than a sole beer.

Some of the lower votes may reflect dislike of a particular beer, but other may simply be a matter of unfamiliarity. Weetwood Eastgate Ale is a classic English “best bitter”, but maybe not very well known. On the other hand, Bradfield Farmers Bitter got a decent score, and John Clarke mentioned in the comments that “it is in fact the sole beer at the Royal in Dungworth - a centre of the Sheffield folk carol singing tradition. I went most years with the late Rhys Jones.” Bradfield is a brewery that seems to enjoy healthy distribution around South Yorkshire and the Peak District but never gets much mention in beer blogs. The low score for Hydes Original is probably a fair reflection of it being a distinctly underwhelming beer.

The range of choices in any such poll is inevitably going to be limited by space, and I was aiming for a mixture of classic family brewer bitters, beers from newish micros, and nationally-distributed brews. Perhaps the one I really should have included as well is Taylor’s Landlord – a beer that is wonderful when well-kept, but so often disappointing in the free trade and pubco outlets.

There was a strong showing for “I wouldn’t drink in a one-beer pub” I wondered about including this option, but eventually decided to go for it. I suppose it reflects that people value choice and wouldn’t, given a range of options, go for the one-beer pub. But I suspect if, on some social occasion, they ended up in a pub serving a good drop of Bass, they wouldn’t object too much.

Sunday 13 March 2016

Drinking in a goldfish bowl

One of the most obvious changes that has taken place in pubs over the past couple of decades is the wholesale removal of etched, frosted and stained glass windows. The thinking behind this is very simple, that it allows potential customers to see inside and thus get an idea of what they’re going to encounter once they cross the threshold. It’s very noticeable that Wetherspoons’ shop conversions tend to have floor-to-ceiling windows just as a shop would.

I know from experience that, in the past, you were often taking pot luck when walking into an unfamiliar pub because you had no idea what to expect. I remember once, when I was a fresh-faced student, walking into a pub in Leicester which was absolutely rammed and where the minimum age of the customers was probably over 50. I’d probably love it now, although I doubt whether it’s still there. There also used to be a feeling that pubs were dens of ill-repute which impressionable people, especially children, shouldn’t be allowed to see inside. I’m not aware that this was ever a legal requirement, but it still is for betting shops where, of course, under-18s are not permitted.

However, there are major downsides to this trend. Much high-quality original glasswork has been lost, probably just ending up dumped in a builder’s skip. And, from the point of view of the customer, you don’t really want people in the street gawping in at you, or to be constantly distracted by the sight of lorries and double-decker buses turning just a few yards away. Also, part of the appeal of pubs has always been that they are a cosy refuge from the stresses and pressures of daily life.

Surely pub operators should show more respect for the heritage of the buildings in their possession, and recognise that a touch of seclusion is desired by many pub customers. Maybe a compromise would be to have frosted panels that hide the heads of seated customers, but still allow those standing in the street to see over them.

One particular local pub that deserves praise on this front is the Armoury in Edgeley, Stockport. A few years ago, this received a fairly sensitive refurbishment that left it with clear glass windows, albeit with slatted blinds. However, reproduction frosted panels were later restored, as shown in the photo, which improve its appearance and also help the customers inside to forget that it’s situated on a busy roundabout.

The photo below (courtesy of Martin Taylor) shows the Board Inn in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, which retains some impressive stained glass windows, probably from the early years of the twentieth century.

These two photos (the second again from Martin) show the Posada in Wolverhampton. I’d guess that this pub originally had frosted windows but, by the time the first was taken, probably in the nineties when it was in Holt, Plant & Deakin livery, these had gone. However, they had been replaced by a curtain that gave drinkers some privacy. The second, on the other hand, shows the front window completely clear, which, to my mind, leaves customers uncomfortably exposed in a pub with a protruding bay on a busy city-centre street.

(any excuse for a cat picture, obviously)

Sunday 6 March 2016

Great stuff this Bass

The well-known Bass red triangle was famously the first trademark ever registered, and it remains a distinctive beer symbol almost 150 years later.

When CAMRA was formed in the early 1970s, Draught Bass was the only nationally-distributed cask beer. Outside its Midlands stronghold, it had a strong following in rural Wales, the West Coutnry and the North-East, and was also well-regarded from London to Edinburgh. It was always a free-trade favourite even where the owning company had no tied houses. The late Rhys Jones reported how there remained a lingering resentment in Anglesey about Stockport brewer Robinsons buying up free houses selling Bass in the 1950s.

Across large swathes of Derbyshire and Staffordshire it (along with Marston’s Pedigree, of similar strength) was often sold in pubs as the standard bitter. Bass also entered into trading agreements with a number of independent brewers that led to the beer being sold in some of their tied houses, a notable example being Higsons of Liverpool, with it being available in the George in Stockport, a once-great pub now thoroughly trashed.

In the mid-1970s, its original gravity was increased from 1039 to 1044 to make it a stronger competitor against the popular premium ales of that period. It was never an in-your-face beer, with a distinctive subtle, bittersweet palate, but was generally reckoned to be amongst the beer aristocracy. In the 1970s, the parent company controlled over half the pubs in Birmingham, but only condescended to make Bass available in six of them. Fortunately, when I was at University, one of my local pubs, the Bull’s Head in King’s Norton, was one of those six, and I enjoyed many pints of it, dispensed into oversize glasses through metered pumps.

As the number of nationally distributed beers mushroomed in the 1980s, it lost some of its status, although it remained a widely available and popular beer. At some point, Bass stopped using the distinctive Burton Union fermentation system, which was felt to rob it of some of its character. The late, great beer writer Michael Jackson certainly reckoned Pedigree, not Bass, to be the Burton classic. Ironically, Bass is now contract-brewed by Marston’s.

The upheaval in the brewing industry following the Beer Orders inevitably took its toll. The Bass brewery at Burton-upon-Trent ended up being taken over by Molson Coors, but the rights to the Bass name went to ABInBev. The cask version of Bass is now contract-brewed by Marston’s, home of its historic rival Pedigree. The bottled and canned versions are now brewed by ABInBev at Samlesbury, and are not from the same brewing stock, although they do have a slight echo of the cask original. The keg Bass widely available in Northern Ireland is a completely different product with a lower strength. Ironically, Pedigree seems in recent years to have lost a lot of ground in the free trade, and I have to say I’ve struggled to find decent examples recently.

I wouldn’t claim that the Marston’s-brewed Draught Bass is a patch on the 1970s original, but it is hard to compare things over a forty-year gap. But it does carry an echo of its essential character – complex, subtle, bitter-sweet, slightly sour and lactic, and not really drinking its strength. Its understatement makes it a classic English beer. Unlike many other 4.4% beers, you could happily sink several pints in a session. It’s one of my favourite real ales, and one I always like to see on the bar, and will go for in preference to other widely-distributed premium beers.

While its distribution is diminished compared with what it once was, it still enjoys a strong following in its traditional Midlands heartland and in other areas such as the North-East, Wales and the South-West. I read of one new pub opening in the North-East putting Bass as the core of its beer range, and visited a pub in West Wales proudly advertising it as their next guest beer. It remains the signature beer in classic pubs such as the Star in Bath and the Seven Stars in Falmouth. And, wherever I see it, I get the feeling it’s a pub that keeps in touch with its heritage and tradition.

  • The photo of multiple Bass pumps is in the Vaults in Uttoxeter, a classic Bass pub in its home territory.

  • I did consider giving this post the title All About That Bass but, on second thoughts, I really don’t want to promote one of the most annoying pop songs of all time.

Friday 4 March 2016

It’s just not fair!

For years, we have heard various sections of the pub trade complaining about unfair competition from supermarkets. This always comes across to me as basically making excuses. As I explained here, there are plenty of reasons other than price why the on-trade has lost ground to the off-trade, and price probably isn’t even the main factor. Pubs are far from just alcohol shops; they are essentially selling hospitality, and they are competing as much with restaurants and cinemas for the “leisure pound” as with the off-trade. Plus, a high proportion of alcohol drinking occasions in both on- and off-trade cannot realistically be transferred to the other.

However, this week the Morning Advertiser has published an in-depth article on Are supermarkets killing pubs? which repeats all the familiar canards and exaggerations that I have debunked over the years.

Off-trade alcohol is sold at “pocket-money prices”

Pubs are centres of controlled and responsible drinking

Supermarkets get an unfair subsidy because food is zero-rated for VAT

Minimum pricing would help pubs

Supermarkets routinely sell alcohol at a loss

And there is no mention at all of the biggest single factor that has disadvantaged pubs in comparison with at-home drinking. If you have to stand out in the cold anyway, the attractions of paying £4 a pint for something you can get in a can for £1 and drink in the warmth and comfort of your sitting room seem a touch elusive.

Rather than moaning about unfair competition, surely the pub trade needs to take a collective look at what it can do about it. If you’re grumbling that customers are shunning your £3.80 pints, then you should consider how Sam Smith’s are able to sell bitter for £1.80, and Wetherspoons John Smith’s for £2.15 and real ales for not much more. OK, an individual licensee may not be able to change the pricing structure to achieve that, but pub owners and operators collectively certainly could. They have chosen to adopt a high-price, high-margin business model and the consequences are largely of their own making.

Making off-trade alcohol more expensive is not going to give people any more money to spend in pubs, as the sections of the pub and brewing trades who shamefully supported minimum pricing really should have understood. Trying to make common cause with the anti-drink lobby to skew the market in your favour is in the long run the road to disaster. As Winston Churchill famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Hobson’s Choice

In my last post, I mentioned the complaints there had been in some quarters over my local CAMRA branch making Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head in Stockport its Pub of the Year, because it only serves a single cask beer. I suspect in the 21st century this is probably a unique occurrence, but I am rather proud that my fellow members have on this occasion put pub quality over number of beers.

There are still a few one-beer pubs in the Good Beer Guide, but most are either Sam’s pubs or unspoilt rural gems such as the Anchor at High Offley. However, going back a generation, they were very common.

Leafing through the 1979 Guide, most pubs in Greater Manchester still have Mild and Bitter, but we have, for example, the Priory Arms in Salford with just Boddingtons Bitter [E] and, even more unusually, the Rockferry in Ince-in-Makerfield, with just Youngers Scotch Bitter [E]. Several pubs in Gloucestershire only offered the very weak and bland Whitbread West Country Pale Ale, such as the Coopers Arms in Cheltenham and the Butchers Arms at Sheepscombe.

The presence of the one-beer pub in the GBG is now much diminished, although in the country at large there are still plenty of them, some of which do a huge trade with that one beer. There are also plenty of pubs listed in tourist areas with a beer range of, say, “Hancock’s HB; guest beer” where during the winter months it would only be the HB.

So I thought I would do a poll on which beers people would consider acceptable in a one-beer pub. I want to restrict it to beers you are likely to encounter in the North-West, so sadly no Bathams or Harveys. Obviously I will include the familiar bitters from the local family brewers, and Sam’s OBB. Plus well-known, nationally distributed beers such as Draught Bass and Wainwright. Not Doom Bar, as nobody on the internet seems to rate that, although I have encountered it as the sole cask beer in a quite pleasant Cornish pub.

But any suggestions as to micro-brewery beers would be welcome. They need to be fairly widely distributed in the North-West, and be gold/amber/copper beers in a strength range from about 3.6% to 4.5% ABV. Marble Manchester Bitter is an obvious one that springs to mind. It needs to be something that would stand up as a sole beer, not just your personal favourite. So please fire away. I’ll be aiming to keep the poll to around 15 beers in total.

(The Hobsons beer pictured would be one I’d be happy to see, but seldom seen around here)