Saturday 30 July 2016

Keeping it local, keeping it real

Last week’s poll was on whether people would continue to visit their favourite local pub if it stopped selling real ale. There wasn’t any specific prompt for this beyond one or two reports of some Sam Smith’s pubs doing this. I also avoided trying to give any context – it was up to you how you interpreted the question. Obviously respondents weren’t too keen on the idea, with only 19% saying “Just as much” or “A bit less”, but 34% saying “Only occasionally” and 35% determined to completely shun the place. The poll results and associated comments can be viewed here.

Clearly “your favourite local” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, from just one of several pubs in the area you sometimes visit, to the only pub in your village where you’re an active member of various quiz and sports teams. But, surely, if you identify it as such, rather than just “my nearest pub” or “a pub I quite like” then you must have some social capital invested in it, and to totally turn your back on it comes across as an exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face. And, if you really can’t contemplate enjoying the occasional session in a pub or club without real ale, you’re rather missing the point. You’re a beer snob, not a pub lover.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are a few local Sam Smith’s pubs that I like going in, not specifically for the beer, but because they offer a proper pub atmosphere that few competitors can match. If they dropped cask Old Brewery Bitter, I’d probably go in a bit less. But I’d still enjoy them for the other aspects of the pub experience. But I might end up on the lager...

Thursday 28 July 2016

Off the beaten track

The Black Lion, Consall Forge, Staffordshire
I recently visited, for the first time, the Black Lion at Consall Forge in Staffordshire (pictured), a pub that early editions of the Good Beer Guide claimed was “inaccessible by road”. Now, I’m sure that was always something of an exaggeration, as I can’t see beer deliveries being made by canal or preserved railway, and I doubt whether the customers there at the declared closing hour of 10.30 pm (11.00 F,S) were walking home. Maybe it was a bit of a challenge in a Morris Marina, but I’m sure a brewery dray or an early model Range Rover would have taken it in their stride.

Over the years, I’d guess that vehicular access has been made easier, possibly connected with building a paved road to the nearby country park. It’s certainly accessible by car now, with only about the last six hundred yards being an unmade road, although I can see that becoming a touch treacherous in very wet weather. There’s also a nasty unmarked “reverse road hump” on the final paved stretch that can catch you unawares.

It’s certainly in an idyllic setting, deep in the wooded Churnet Valley, with customers having to cross the Caldon Canal and the preserved railway to reach the pub. I have to say I found the pub itself a touch underwhelming, although maybe a Sunday lunchtime when food and families predominated was not the time to see it at its best.

It was always a bit special and exciting, though, to make a trip to a pub so remote it didn’t even have a metalled road leading to its door, and many of these pubs acquired something of a legendary status. A number of other well-known examples that spring to mind – either accessible only by an unmade track, or along a dodgy no-through-road – are:

Quite a few of these seem to be associated with canals or waterways.

Obviously, over the years, our increased censoriousness about driving after drinking within the legal limit has reduced the appeal of pubs of this type, but all of the above are still going and some, especially the Double Locks, have received substantial brewery investment. I understand the Live & Let Live has been turned into something of a gastropub, although it’s still down a dirt track.

Are there any others you’re aware of, and do they bring back memories of any particular good times in the past? Or any that have bitten the dust? I believe there used be a handful of extremely basic Brakspear’s “dirt track pubs” in the Chiltern beechwoods that are now long gone.

Money, meet mouth

The Boat Inn, Penallt, Monmouthshire
Ever since the foundation of this blog, various people, most notably Cooking Lager, have said to me “you really need to do your own pub guide, Mudgie. You know, all those dismal dumps where the only sound is the ticking of the clock and the plaintive miaowing of the pub cat.”

Now, I’ve always rejected that on the grounds that I’m not a professional writer and there probably wouldn’t be much of a market for it anyway. But, on the other hand, various comments have suggested there might actually be some mileage in it.

As I said, I have no professional expertise, especially in dealing with the publishing trade. So I’m wondering if someone who is a professional or semi-professional author, with knowledge of the beer/tourism industry, and experience of publishing, might be interested in a kind of partnership?

My initial vision would be something along the lines of a book version of Campaign for Real Pubs, although obviously that is up for discussion. While by no means made of money, I am willing, within reason, to provide some initial finance, although I would hope that it can be turned into something that is commercially viable and not just an exercise in vanity publishing.

So, if you think there might be something in it, why not get in touch and we can discuss possibilities in more detail? My e-mail address is here.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Brand X vs Brand Y

Blogger Mark Wadsworth has familiarised us with the concept of Indian Bicycle Marketing, whereby manufacturers use a lot of advertising fluff to distinguish products that are largely identical.

I was reminded of this on reading this report about a new marketing initiative for Kronenbourg 1664. No mention whatsoever of product characteristics, just a lot of publicity guff and tat to create a bit of excitement. “The on-pack promotion offers shoppers thousands of chances to win a variety of prizes, including a trip for four to the Alsatian mountains, mini fridges and bottle openers.”

We seem to have a range of “premium lagers” competing for attention in both the on- and off-trades which people struggle to tell apart. Could any pub drinker really give you a meaningful description of the difference in flavour between San Miguel and Carlsberg Export?

The one exception is Peroni, which has established a clear position of the leader of the pack, and commands an appropriate price premium. In my experience, it’s the best of the bunch, with a clean, crisp taste, and a small but important advantage in terms of strength at 5.1% ABV. Significantly, it’s not available either in Wetherspoons or in cans. It’s also a genuine import, but that doesn’t seem to help Heineken very much.

The one characteristic on which it might be possible to establish a point of difference in the market, namely alcohol content, is now effectively barred as a result of government initiatives. I’ve argued in the past that, at least in the take-home market, there would be a strong opening for a premium lager *that bit* stronger than the others, maybe around 5.5% ABV. But no major brewer dares do that – just look at the aborted launch of Stella Black a few years ago.

Back in its heyday, Stella Artois achieved that, as Pete Brown often reminds us. It was both noticeably stronger than the competition, at 5.2% ABV, and was also a premium product made from superior ingredients. But that position has been steadily eroded, with both its strength and quality dumbed down, and now it’s down towards the bottom end of the premium lager pecking order.

Kronenbourg 1664 is the best bangs-per-buck on the Wetherspoon meal deals, by the way. Say no more.

By coincidence, Tandleman posted yesterday about craft lagers. But I’m not sure whether they’re likely to tempt many drinkers away from Peroni.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Welcome to the promised land

Well, the long-awaited Pubs Code has finally come into effect, including the Market Rent Option (MRO) for tied tenants. To listen to some, this represents the salvation of the pub trade, but of course it does nothing to address the overall lack of demand which is its most fundamental problem.

Morning Advertiser editor Ed Bedington is right to sound a note of caution. MRO may be a golden opportunity for some enterprising licensees, but it isn’t going to suit everyone, and you have to consider very carefully whether you want to take the risk of cutting yourself off from the pub company’s support system. I can also see many MRO licensees ending up sourcing the bulk of their supplies from a single wholesaler rather than shopping around for the best deal on everything.

I’ve also asked the question in the past, and never received a satisfactory answer, as to exactly what benefit there is to a pubco in owning pubs where MRO applies. The whole point of pubcos was to, in a sense, replicate the tied house model operated by the big breweries. Take away the supply of drinks, and you’re left with a pure property business, which is something entirely different. Yes, the pubcos may receive a healthy rental income but, in the long term, do they want to be in that business? We may well see MRO pubs being hived off to dedicated property companies.

I can see pubcos doing everything they can to avoid their pubs going over to MRO, for example by converting them to management, franchise agreements, or other kinds of hybrid arrangement. And, if the only revenue stream from a pub is rent, then any incentive to retain it as a pub rather than converting it to something else is removed.

As I’ve said in the past – be careful what you wish for.

Sunday 24 July 2016

In the thick of it

One of the good features of Wetherspoon’s pubs is that, as far as I’m aware, they don’t provide bar stools. However, this doesn’t deter dickheads people from standing at the bar and, in some cases, they do it with remarkable determination.

At last week’s CAMRA Revitalisation meeting, there was one oldish pony-tailed guy who insisted on clinging to his spot at the bar despite the three-deep throng of beards surrounding him desperate to be served. You really do have to wonder what possesses people to think that is a good idea.

This seems to be a common feature of Spoons, and not just the Gateway. Very often, they’re on their own, so it can’t be argued they’re doing it to be sociable, unless the objective is to buttonhole other customers and bore them to death.

And they always seem to choose to stand right in front of the bank of handpumps, making it difficult to see what’s available. Any licensee worth his salt would surely say to them “if you must stand at the bar, pal, please move down a bit to give the other customers a decent view”.

Saturday 23 July 2016

Home and away

This month’s Opening Times column criticises the oft-heard view than drinking in pubs is in some way “better” than drinking at home. So I thought I would run a poll on to what extent people drank at home versus in pubs and bars. The results are shown above.

There’s a fairly symmetrical pattern, albeit with a dip in the middle rather than a bell curve. Overall, 40% of respondents said they drank more at home; 45% more in pubs and bars.

I wouldn’t say this is representative of the population as a whole, though. In terms of total alcohol consumption, the ratio is more like 2:1 in favour of the off-trade. And, as one of the commenters suggests, it would be interesting to find out how many of those who answered “very rarely or never” were single blokes.

For the benefit of mobile users who might not have seen it, the latest poll is on whether you’d desert your favourite local if it stopped selling real ale.

Friday 22 July 2016

No so wee dram

If the only way you could get to drink your favourite beers at home was by buying a case of 12 identical bottles costing over £20, you wouldn’t be too impressed. Yet that’s the situation that drinkers of premium spirits are faced with.

I enjoy a drop of good whisky (mainly, though not exclusively, single malt Scotch) and in the past would buy a bottle from time to time. However, I realised that I was generally drinking it as well as beer, not instead, and reached the conclusion that it was something best reserved for Christmas, birthdays and special occasions.

Yet you’re pretty much entirely restricted to full-size bottles that are likely to cost the best part of £30, if not more. A handful of products are available in 35ml or 20ml bottles, but the choice is limited to a handful of the top-selling brands, and you’re generally expected to pay a hefty premium in terms of price per ml. Or you have selections of miniatures aimed squarely at the gift market that are even worse value for money.

No doubt the spirits companies would respond that concentrating on full-size bottles is a strategy that has stood the test of time and works for them. However, I can’t help thinking they’re missing a trick, especially if they want to attract new and younger customers to the sector.

It’s even more relevant now that distillers are venturing into “craft” territory with different “expressions” of their core product, for example matured or finished in different woods. It would be interesting, say, to get three versions of the same whisky finished in plain oak, sherry and port casks, but you just don’t get that opportunity at an affordable price.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Pluses and minuses

Boak and Bailey recently posted about defining a classic pub. I don’t really propose to get into that debate, except to say that to my mind a pub needs to have to some extent stood the test of time to qualify as a classic. As part of the ensuing discussion on Twitter, they posted this list of things that made them feel positive about a pub, which struck a number of chords with me.

So I thought it would be interesting to do a quick list of things that, to my eyes, make a good and bad first impression in a pub. Some of them obviously are mirror images of each other. I know some will say “you’ve done this sort of thing before”, but isn’t every blog just variations on the same handful of themes anyway?

The Good

  • Appears welcoming from outside, for example displaying opening hours and menu
  • Comfortable seating, preferably benches, but certainly not café-style tables
  • Warm, rich tones in colour scheme
  • No suggestion of being unwelcome from either customers or staff
  • Some drinking customers, preferably chatting with each other
  • The presence of children is sensibly managed
  • Piped music is either absent, or tailored to the likely clientele, and is kept at a moderate volume
  • Well-kept beer
  • Real ales that show some connection with the local area or the pub’s heritage
  • Food (if available) that isn’t just the usual run-of-the-mill pub menu, and includes interesting non full meal items
  • Some aspect or feature that makes it distinctive or memorable
The Bad
  • A greeter at the door
  • High proportion of tables with place settings
  • Pale, cold colours in decor
  • Barflies making it difficult to get to the counter
  • Lackadaisical, offhand staff
  • Loud, foul-mouthed customers
  • No cask beers that I recognise
  • Lack of comfortable seating – posing tables or café-style layout
  • Uncontrolled children within the bar areas
  • Piped music too loud and/or inappropriate for clientele
  • Menu concentrating on expensive, restaurant-style meals
  • Lack of drinking customers or provision for non-diners
  • TV football dominates entire pub

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Micro to macro

Doesn't look like a microbrewery to me
In the seventy years from the beginning of the twentieth century, as far as I can see not a single new commercial brewery was established in the UK. All change and development in the industry came from consolidation and takeover, with only a small handful of new plants being constructed by existing companies.

However, things then began to change. One or two “new wave” breweries actually predated CAMRA, the Miner’s Arms in Somerset springing to mind, but after the organisation was formed the number slowly but steadily started to increase. What was at first a trickle became a steady flow and more recently a flood.

For many years we were happy to call them “micro-breweries” to distinguish them from the established independent breweries. However, as some grew bigger, this term became increasingly inappropriate. Some are now brewing considerably more than the smaller family brewers, and a growing number such as Castle Rock, Wye Valley and Butcombe have developed tied estates running into double figures. Many are now established and familiar features on bars up and down the country.

So clearly they’re not in any meaningful sense “micro” any more. Indeed, is there still any point in making a distinction between them and the pre-1970 breweries? Many younger consumers will perceive no difference in kind between Timothy Taylors and Saltaire on the bar or the PBA shelves, and would probably view Black Sheep as a long-standing Yorkshire institution.

To my mind, though, having lived through the history, there still is a clear difference. A brewery that has endured through several generations and has been rooted in a tied estate is not at all the same as one founded relatively recently and initially mostly depending on free trade for growth. I’m not saying one is better than the other, and in fact some of my favourite beers come from post-1975 breweries, but the distinction is still valid.

Maybe once some of these new breweries have survived changes of ownership or being passed on to at least one new generation it might be eroded, but there remains a big gap between “founded before 1900” and “founded since 1975”. And, if they’re no longer micro-breweries, but aren’t family breweries either, what are we supposed to call them now?

(And that’s without even touching on the thorny issue of whether they qualify as “craft”).

Mudgie pubs

The other day, Cooking Lager said on Twitter that he was going to be entertaining his young nieces next weekend, and was wondering which pubs I would be going in so he could bring them along to annoy me.

I responded with an off-the-cuff selection of spoof hostelries which I thought I would expand into a fuller list. At least four of these exist in real life, and there is a Royal Children in Nottingham, although this apparently refers to the children of Princess (later Queen) Anne rather than the Princes in the Tower. Some of the references are obvious, others less so.

  • The Bradshaw’s Head
  • The Chesterbelloc Arms
  • The Codger’s Arms
  • The Duke of Edinburgh
  • The Farage Arms
  • The Full Measure
  • The Leonard Lord
  • The Live and Let Live
  • The Mangy Cat
  • The Miser’s Hoard
  • The Old Brown Bitter Jug
  • The Old Rickety House at Home
  • The Princes in the Tower
  • The Sir George Ayscue
  • The Spit-Roast Child
  • The Viaduct
The Bradshaw’s Head appears as a spoof entry in my now mothballed Stockport Pub Guide.

Monday 18 July 2016

Safe space supping

For many years, there was a strange anomaly that the centre of Manchester, unlike that of any other major UK city outside London, was divided between three CAMRA branches. North Manchester and Trafford & Hulme both had a large chunk, with Stockport & South Manchester holding a smaller segment in the south-eastern corner. This obviously made it more difficult to put across a united CAMRA voice in the city, and meant that many commuters who often drank in the city centre found themselves living in a different branch with which they felt little connection.

The reasons for this split are lost in the mists of time, but after years of narcoleptic wrangling, a separate City Centre branch was set up earlier this year. One concern that was expressed was that to some extent it represented an exercise in cherry-picking, and could potentially suck the lifeblood out of the surrounding branches. For Stockport & South Manchester, any impact was peripheral, and Trafford & Hulme, while more affected, retains substantial centres of gravity in Chorlton and the various towns of Trafford Borough.

However, the impact has been more serious on North Manchester, which incorporated the fashionable “Northern Quarter” of the city centre. Apparently, north of the inner ring road, there were only fourteen pubs serving real ale in the entire part of Manchester it covered, and some of these were ones like the Marble Arch and Crown & Kettle that are on the fringe of the centre. That clearly wasn’t the basis of a viable branch, so what has happened is that Central Manchester has taken over the northern rump of the city, although keeping its name. North Manchester has reconstituted itself as a new City of Salford Branch, an area which it already covered.

Boozy Procrastinator makes the point in this blogpost that what this represents is in effect making the beer bubble flesh. All the exciting new bars of the central area have been detached from their less appealing hinterland for the benefit of the better-off commuters who drink there. just so happens that like many apparently open minded, non-CAMRA beer drinkers, their snobby ways pushes them away from their local and apparently “rubbish” pubs and into those that serve their own narcissistic needs far more.

The very people that talk about buying local and then wonder why everything near them is closing down and boarded up.

Where and what people choose to drink as private individuals is entirely up to them, and as I’ve argued before, nobody can force people to take an interest in aspects of beer and pub culture that they don’t want to. But there does seem to be a degree of hypocrisy in an organisation that champions the value of local community pubs, but many of whose prominent members make a point of shunning them in favour of the bright lights of the big city.

The geographical pattern of CAMRA branches is often less than rational, and reflects ancient rivalries and loyalties. Nobody in their right mind would come up with the High Peak, Tameside and North East Cheshire Branch. Local sensibilities have to be recognised, though, and St Albans would alienate many active members if it started behaving like a bunch of Victorian colonialists drawing logical-seeming lines on a map. Starting with a clean sheet of paper, a Manchester Branch covering the entire city from Wythenshawe to Blackley would make sense, but it’s not going to happen.

However, it seems a sound principle that every branch should be expected to do its share of the hard yards in unattractive and relatively inaccessible areas, rather than just picking out the best bits and leaving the rest either to be covered by some other poor saps or, worse still, completely ignored. They shouldn’t retreat into a cosy safe space where they never have to encounter rough-arsed blokes drinking Carling and John Smith’s in grotty estate boozers, or work out how to cover the pubs that are closed at lunchtimes from Monday to Friday but only have a daytime weekday bus service.

Sunday 17 July 2016

We shall overcome

Last week, there was an utterly gobsmacking piece in the Morning Advertiser on How pubs overcame the hardest decade in the trade’s history. Now, hang on, but I’d hardly say that experiencing a decline in beer sales of 36% represents “overcoming” anything. Pubs haven’t fought back and won, they have been defeated in a series of bloody battles, not helped by many industry leaders fighting on the other side, and have had to accept a much diminished role in life.

Of course some pubs can still thrive: it’s not a uniform effect. But the range of locations where they can succeed, and the customer base they attract, are both now much narrower than they were ten years ago. Try telling the residents of Parr or Longdendale that pubs have “emerged stronger” and they will laugh in your face. Tandleman reports here that the previous ten pubs on his local estate of Langley have now come down to one or none, depending on how you draw the boundaries. It’s reminiscent of Spinal Tap, who responded to the charge that they were playing in much smaller venues by claiming that their appeal had become more selective.

The section on the smoking ban is particularly breathtaking. I reproduce the whole thing below.

It just reeks of snobbery, that pub owners have managed to replace scuzzy smoking customers with smarter, more upmarket ones who are more likely to order food. But, if you run a brewery, you’ve also lost a lot of customers for your beer. And the comment about the ban attracting more women is ridiculous when you consider that a higher proportion of women now smoke than men. Plus it would have been easy to increase pubs’ appeal to women and families (if indeed that is what has happened) by creating separate areas rather than banishing smokers to the nether circles of hell.

The comment by our local brewery director William Robinson that “the pub trade has evolved to become stronger and more inclusive” is particularly egregious. This, of course, is the company that in recent years has happily shed about a fifth of its estate, mostly the more basic boozers, and is currently gleefully engaged in wrecking a growing number of those that remain. Frankly, I’ve never read such deluded, patronising drivel in my life. It’s not my style, but I’m sorely tempted to employ a four-letter word. William, you are a disgrace to your industry. Your grandfather, Sir John Robinson, will be turning in his grave.

The pub trade continues to be in serious long-term decline. And it really doesn’t help when senior industry figures seem to believe that’s a good thing. They really should stop smirking – the Prohibition Train is heading their way before too long.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Diversity of provision

Following my recent post on the vexed subject of children in pubs, I decided to run a poll on whether the pre-1988 legal regime of barring under-14s from all bar areas of pubs should be restored. The results are pretty conclusive.

Obviously this isn’t realistically going to happen, although I can imagine the childless and hard-faced Mrs May having considerable sympathy. However, it underlines the point that this remains a major issue for the pub trade, as highlighted last year by the Good Pub Guide. It just won’t wash to paint anyone who prefers a quiet drink in a child-free atmosphere as a miserable curmudgeon who pubs are better off without. Traditional pubgoers have deserted en masse to avoid noisy, badly-behaved children.

And any intolerance on the issue comes overwhelmingly from the pro-children lobby, who seem to object to children being excluded from any area of any pub at any time. As I’ve said many times (and on another issue too), what on earth is wrong with a diversity of provision?

I can’t help thinking that a good compromise solution to the smoking issue would have been to ban smoking in all areas of pubs where under-18s were admitted. This would surely have killed two birds with one stone. We could have had pubs divided into two sections – one of booze, baccy and banter, and one of food and families. Or even individual pubs devoted to one or the other. And no prizes for guessing where the best crack would have been.

It’s also worth repeating the words of Ian MacDonald in the poll comments, who is someone I know through Twitter and Facebook, but doesn’t tend to comment here. If all parents took such a considerate and responsible view, there would be no problem

As a beer drinking father of three, my children only go to pubs that serve food. I do not allow them at the bar and generally they will be in the beer garden. I would not take them to a non-food pub nor would I expect to see other children there.
And also note this from Brian, follower of Deornoth
A few years ago I would have said, "Of Course Not, it should be a matter for individual publicans and their customers." But now I know it is perfectly acceptable to have those that disagree with my preferences arrested, so I'll vote for a ban.

Friday 15 July 2016

Crystal ball road test

When looking up my piece about the English Ethnic Restaurant, I came across an interesting set of speculations about the future of pubs and beer that I wrote for the fifth anniversary of my Opening Times column in 1998. So let’s see how the ensuing eighteen years have answered these questions...

  • Will nitrokeg make such inroads into cask beer that it becomes the standard beer in most pubs? Or can real ale continue to hold its own? The jury is still out on this one...
    No, it didn’t, although in many areas it has effectively eradicated real ale from working-class boozers. It wasn’t helped by rapidly acquiring something of a naff image, although, when first introduced, the original 5% Caffrey’s was very trendy and dangerously moreish. I don’t actually think “craft keg” will achieve this either.

  • Will the next recession finally bring about the oft-foretold cull of pubs - as it is obvious that many pubs are even now struggling along on very thin trade?
    It took the smoking ban to do that, but it certainly has been a massive cull.

  • Will the apparently inevitable reduction in the drink-drive limit lead to an upheaval in pub-going habits, and a tidal wave of closures, or just give a slight boost to existing trends?
    To widespread surprise, this didn’t happen at the time, and hasn’t since, except in Scotland, although changing attitudes amongst new entrants to the drinking population have brought about many of the predicted effects anyway.

  • Will we ever get full measures legislation?

  • Can CAMRA continue to be a broad-based consumer movement, or will it metamorphose into what is essentially a club of beer connoisseurs drinking niche products in niche outlets - something of which there are already clear signs today?
    It did manage to bring about the end of the duty escalator, which benefited all beer drinkers. But in many areas it does seem to concentrate on handpump-counting and the pursuit of obscurity, and largely ignores ordinary pubs used by non-enthusiasts.

  • Will the risks to bar staff of passive smoking lead to pubs being forced to become basically non-smoking, with the option of a separate smoking area? And how will this affect single-room pubs?
    The outcome here exceeded even my worst fears. It’s notable how at the time the worry was how smoking curbs might affect one-room pubs. Even in 2005, few seriously expected a blanket ban, and this certainly wasn’t in Labour’s election manifesto of that year.

  • Will the gap between British and French beer duty ever be reduced, or will Gordon Brown carry on screwing the British beer drinker regardless of the wider consequences?
    No and Yes. And we all know what the result was.

  • Or will the European Union start taking an interest in alcohol from a health standpoint (as it does with tobacco) leading to upward, not downward, harmonisation of duties?
    Hasn’t really happened. The UK still pays 40% of all beer duty in the EU despite only drinking 12% of the beer. Of course it’s academic following the referendum, as they can now stick any harmonisation where the sun doesn’t shine.

  • Will the health concerns which have affected the tobacco industry now increasingly be redirected at the drinks trade, making 1997 in retrospect the high water mark of a liberal licensing and taxation climate?
    Yes, with a vengeance, although the high water mark was probably the implementation of the 2003 Licensing Act in 2005.
Another point I made at the time was “Who would have imagined that half the pubs in the country would now be stocking more varieties of real ale than they can turn over properly?” I’d say that’s now well over 80% - choice has comprehensively trumped quality.

So, overall, not such an inaccurate set of speculations.

Incidentally, for those reading this on mobiles, don’t forget to answer my poll on allowing under-14s into the bars of pubs.

Thursday 14 July 2016

No foreign muck here

Contrary to popular rumour, I don’t actually spent all my leisure time sitting in dingy pubs, and last Sunday I went along to Didsbury Car Show, where a friend was exhibiting his classic car. If you have any interest in cars, this annual event is well worth attending, with free admission and over 200 cars on display, ranging from exotic supercars to the family favourites of our childhood. Here’s a rather unflattering picture of me inspecting a 1970 Renault Alpine:

At lunchtime, we wandered down to nearby Didsbury Green for a bite to eat and ended up in the Olde Cock. One thing that struck me about the menu was how resolutely “traditional British” it was, with the possible exception of the Falafel, Sweet Potato, Kale & Quinoa, which sounds like a parody dish. Not a sign of a lasagne, pizza or curry, let alone anything Chinese, Moroccan or Mexican. The typical Brunning & Price menu is far more wide-ranging. The menu in the Didsbury across the road was similar, but about £2 more for each dish.

I’ve written in the past about how pubs were in danger of boxing themselves into a corner of being the English Ethnic Restaurant. Now, obviously pubs are entitled to serve whatever menus they want, but I can’t help thinking that something that might appeal in a Cheshire village or a National Park may not be the right thing for cosmopolitan Didsbury.

It was reassuring to see a young couple sitting in the pub playing Scrabble. Didsbury wouldn’t be Didsbury without that. No doubt they have a Jenga set somewhere as well.

I had a pint of Mobberley Roadrunner which was perfectly good, although one of my companions went straight for the Greene King IPA pump. I didn’t notice the price as I wasn’t paying, but I’d bet it was considerably nearer to four pounds than three.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Wishful thinking

Passing through the Cotswolds recently, I picked up the Summer 2016 edition of the Gloucestershire CAMRA magazine The Tippler. It’s an attractively-designed A5 publication, published quarterly, although I thought it was a bit light on hard news.

One feature that took my eye was the article shown below (click to expand) about the Oddfellows Arms in Cirencester, which is an object lesson in wrongheaded CAMRA thinking about pub preservation. This is, or was, a backstreet pub in this attractive and rather smart market town. It was taken over in 2007 by Hook Norton Brewery, but various tenants have failed to make a success of it, and planning permission has now been applied for conversion to residential use.

The article argues the case for refusing planning permission on the grounds that it is (or was) a wonderful pub and a great community resource, listing no less than twelve separate reasons. It also argues that it would do much better as a free house than one with a brewery tie. However, the fact that other free houses are successful in the town doesn’t necessarily mean that another one will be, and there are also plenty of thriving tied houses around. This is a facile assumption.

So what happens if the council refuse planning permission, but nobody chooses to take it on as a pub? Or some fool does, but fails to make a success of it? The council can’t go on refusing planning permission in the vain hope of a better outcome.

How many times does it have to be said that you can’t force people to run businesses they don’t perceive as viable, and no amount of planning controls will save a pub if the underlying demand isn’t there? If the residents of Cirencester are so bothered about it, why don’t they club together and buy it themselves?

The WhatPub? entry makes some sour comments about the situation that surely are inappropriate on a site aimed at the general public. It also states that the locals weren’t sufficiently impressed to apply for an ACV, which hardly suggests it’s the valued local facility that is claimed.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Property boom

Last week, there were two somewhat similar news stories, with St Austell Brewery buying Bath Ales, and Camerons buying the pub estate of Leeds Brewery. The two deals were not exactly the same, as St Austell also bought the brewery, while Camerons didn’t, but both involved acquiring pub estates of 11 and 7 pubs respectively, mostly high-quality venues on prime sites.

Leeds Brewery's Duke of York in York
I’m confident St Austell intend to retain the Bath Ales brewery, and indeed to extend the distribution of their beers, as it will add another string to their bow, so it’s certainly not just an old-fashioned tied estate grab. But a strong portfolio of pub property is certainly a desirable asset in today’s market.

For anyone who sets up a microbrewery and grows beyond a certain size, there’s always a siren voice saying “why not buy a pub to give you a guaranteed market for some of your production?” There’s an argument for it, but you have to remember that you’re getting into an entirely different kind of business. You’re entering into a whole new world of loans and mortgages, and you have to remember that most of the sales won’t be your own production. You may also deter competing pubs from buying your product.

If a brewery wants to expand, it seems to me that there’s a clear choice between becoming primarily a free trade brewery, as opposed to a tied estate brewery. There’s a case for each strategy, but, if you try to ride both horses at the same time, you’re likely to come a cropper. Locally we have Fool Hardy, who started off as a brewpub operation in the Hope, and have now expanded to a second pub, the Spring Gardens in Compstall, but don’t really sell into the free trade. And on a larger scale, Joules have built up a substantial tied estate of maybe twenty or so pubs now, but do little free trade business.

On the other hand, the recent crop of highly-regarded local craft breweries haven’t shown much interest in acquiring pubs and bars. It must also be remembered that the financial risks associated with building up a pub portfolio have over the past few decades caused a number of breweries to come to grief for reasons unrelated to brewing performance, such as Trough, Smiles, Archers and Copper Dragon.

I’m not that familiar with Leeds Brewery’s tied estate, but on the face of it, the deal seems to make sense, to cash in to concentrate on brewery expansion. Richard Coldwell, on the other hand, is a touch sceptical. By all means, once you’ve reached a certain size, buy a bar, or even two, to serve as a brewery tap and a showcase for your products. But any new brewery needs to recognise that, in acquiring a tied estate, they’re venturing into a very different business from brewing.

I’m also rather doubtful whether, in the current marketplace, the tied estate route is really the best path to expansion. Yes, it seems to work for Joules, but, much as I like their pubs and their general approach, I continue to harbour doubts as to whether it’s really a sustainable long-term business model. In general, customer demand is ever more for choice, choice, choice. If you do want to concentrate on tied houses, you need to establish a clear concept, identify the kind of location where it’s likely to work, and maximise the amount of your own production sold through the pumps.

Friday 8 July 2016

Seen but not heard?

Something you will gather from reading this blog is that “Mudgie” is to some extent a persona, and at times can put across a somewhat exaggerated and caricature version of what “Peter” genuinely thinks. One the one hand, you have the dishevelled, semi-alcoholic, Marina-driving codger who sits on a bench in an obscure corner of the pub, mangy pub cat on his lap, nursing a pint of boring brown bitter, reading the Daily Mail and muttering something about hell and handcarts. Then, on the other hand, you have Mudgie…

Yesterday there was another outbreak of debate in the Twittersphere over the old chestnut of children in pubs, which was reflected in these blogposts by Tandleman and Boak & Bailey. Now, the old system whereby children were theoretically not allowed in any room in a pub containing a bar suited me fine, but I (speaking as Peter) would accept that, with the increased importance of food in pubs, and changing social patterns, it’s not appropriate for the present day, and more flexibility is needed.* Mudgie, on the other hand, would tend to agree more with Keith Wildman.

I don’t have any kids myself, but I do have six young cousins aged between 5 and 10, four boys and two girls. I love them dearly, and they get generous birthday and Christmas presents. You know, really big lumps of coal. They also ultimately stand to inherit that part of my ill-gotten hoard that hasn’t been bequeathed to Cats’ Protection. But the last thing I'd want is to be in a pub with them when I just want a quiet drink.

It has to be recognised that this remains a controversial and divisive issue, and it’s unrealistic to believe that in the enlightened modern era all pubs and bars should be suitable places for playing Happy Families. So I will leave the following points for your consideration.

  • All these pubs that people complain about not admitting children - where are they? The only local pub I can think of with a declared over-18s policy is a wet-only boozer that doesn’t open at lunchtimes during the week.

  • There does seem to be an issue of pubs in tourist locations in Cornwall not admitting children which is untypical of the rest of the country.

  • It doesn’t make you the Childcatcher to prefer to enjoy a quiet drink without the sound of children’s happy laughter. If there are noisy children running around, I’m entitled to vote with my feet.

  • I know I’ve been accused of being an unreconstructed politically incorrect sexist for saying this, but, unless they’re there to eat, there really is nothing for children in pubs. Yes, we can all point to examples of families on holiday and taking the kid out for a walk in the pushchair, but in general, if you’re taking your child in a pub while you have a drink, you’re not doing it for them. There are some things you have to forgo when you have children, and unrestricted boozing is one of them.

  • Drinking and chatting in pubs is basically an adult activity. As soon as you introduce children into the mix, the entire dynamic of the situation changes.

  • I really can’t see why there can’t be a diversity of provision, with some child-friendly pubs, and some adults-only pubs, or even separate areas within pubs. Now in what context have I heard that before?

  • But unfortunately, some parents seem to take exception to children being excluded from any part of any pub at any time. It’s “those parents” as described in this comment on Tandleman’s blog:
    It's obvious to you and me -- and most parents too, I'd reckon -- but there are always "Those Parents". And any pub that dares to suggests there might be better alternatives for little Sproglin and Sproglina will not only get an earful, but will suffer the sh*t-storm on Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, etc. from "Those Parents".

  • If licensees try to take any action against badly-behaved children, they run the risk of being accused of being child-hating curmudgeons. So it can be simpler to impose a blanket policy rather than a taking a case-by-case approach.

* Oh, and I also quite enjoy plenty of so-called “craft beers”

Thursday 7 July 2016

Donnington disappointment

From the description, Donnington Brewery, which I wrote about here, sounds close to perfection – occupying unspoilt rural premises in a picture-postcard location by a pond with a watermill, brewing distinctive, artisanal country beers, and selling them at bargain basement prices in a small estate of classic stone-built Cotswold pubs all within a few miles’ radius.

The other week, I ticked off yet another of their pubs, the Red Lion at Little Compton (pictured), right at the southern extreme of Warwickshire. A nice enough pub, and still retaining a public bar, but not really a write-home classic. This means that I have now visited 12 of their remaining original 15 pubs, a higher proportion than any other brewery in the country. I haven’t visited any of their three more recent acquisitions. Incidentally, the staff at the Red Lion must have misheard my order, and gave me the wrong kind of baguette, although when I eventually got the right one it was pretty good.

However, the reality doesn’t quite live up to the vision. For a start, while they’re almost all lovely buildings in beautiful settings, most of their pubs have been internally knocked around to a greater or lesser extent, and few can be said to have particularly characterful interiors. As I said before, “in the 1960s Mr Claude was bitten by the modernity bug, and many of them had been opened out and furnished in a faux-rustic style with wobbly-edged tables that even in the early 1980s seemed very dated.” The Black Bear in Moreton-in-Marsh, which was a particular offender, has now been further modernised and extended, and its main bar/lounge must be one of the most drab and characterless pub rooms I’ve encountered.

Plus their beers are never going to set the pulses racing. They were never outstanding, but even now BB always seems to have a slight haze on it, and any flavour, especially of hops, is very subdued. The low prices (typically £1 a pint below local competition) are some compensation, but no excuse. Sam Smith’s OBB is cheap, but it sacrifices nothing in terms of quality. Plus they now seem to have replaced SBA – a stronger best bitter version of the “ordinary” BB – with the more fashionable Cotswold Gold. I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds like something of a concession to trendiness. As far as I can see, there’s only one Donnington pub, the Fox at Broadwell, with its beautiful village green setting, in the 2016 Good Beer Guide.

It would be great if Britain had more small, long-established family brewers providing a distinctive product to a tightly-knit tied estate. And it’s also great that Donnington is still there and continues to plough its own furrow. But it has to be recognised that not all will quite reach the standards of Batham’s in terms of either pubs or beer.

Edit: Alan Winfield has now posted a trip round all 15 Donnington pubs in a day on his blog here. The photos show what beautiful buildings they all are, externally at least.

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Scores on the doors

For some years, CAMRA has been running the National Beer Scoring System (NBSS) which allows members to give scores to real ales they drink in various pubs. This provides a beer quality database that can be used in selecting Good Beer Guide entries and also local awards such as Pub of the Year.

Clearly it has its limitations, such as personal subjectivity and patchiness of coverage, which means that it can only ever be used as a guide, not the prime factor, but it’s a lot better than nothing. I remember many years back pubs being put in the GBG (not locally) on the say-so of one member who may not have been there more than a couple of times. Given this, it’s a little worrying that there are still some branches who say they make no use whatsoever of NBSS scores in their GBG selections.

Before the NBSS, several local branches had instigated their own scoring systems, and I believe my own – Stockport & South Manchester – was perhaps the first. When I first joined the branch in 1985 I was struck by the amount of effort put into this, and by the fact that separate listings of Bitter and Mild scores were maintained, something unthinkable nowadays.

In fact we thought our system was superior to the NBSS, as ours was a 0-4 scale, allowing quarter scores, whereas NBSS is a 0-5 scale only allowing halves. Both set a 3 as the yardstick for the standard of beer you would reasonable expect in a GBG, but the NBSS rather stretches out the top end of the range, thus potentially making the averages more susceptible to distortion from the odd over-generous score. However, having used it for a few years now this doesn’t really seem to create a problem in practice.

Despite being a mostly urban branch, and setting a very low bar for the number of scores required for entry into the GBG – a mere six scores from two separate scorers over the course of a year – it is not unknown for well-regarded pubs to fall by the wayside on the grounds of insufficient scores. And it is very noticeable how half the total scores are accounted for by four or five popular multi-beer pubs. The days of CAMRA members spending their leisure time checking out a variety of pubs seem to be long gone.

In the July issue of What’s Brewing there’s a letter about the NBSS – shown on the right – which raises the idea that a score of zero should be given to a pub with no real ale. This seems to me completely wrong-headed. For a start, if the scores are going to be used to calculate averages, surely they should only refer to when a beer is actually bought and tasted. To my mind, a score of zero should represent undrinkable beer where the pub refused to either change it or give a refund.

If intermittent availability of real ale is an issue, then that is better picked up from local knowledge than beer scores. How is the branch meant to know whether a score of zero represents no real ale or dreadful beer? And the principle should be that each beer score relates to an individual beer, not the pub as a whole. It is wrong to say that a zero score should not be given if the pub has other real ales available.

This is something that needs further thought and clarification. The scoring scheme cannot be used for two different and contradictory purposes. And if it is upheld that zero means no real ale, then any zero scores must be excluded from the calculation of averages.

Sunday 3 July 2016

Square deal for a square meal

I was slightly surprised to see a comment on my recent post about Brunning & Price pubs saying “That menu looks to me to be a pretty standard range of pub grub dishes at normal prices”, when to me, and many others, it looked very much towards the top end of the range. I had a similar thing here where someone described their offer as “hearty stuff at moderate prices”. B&P do what they set out to do well, but there is no way their menus or prices are run-of-the-mill.

There’s clearly a huge mismatch in perceptions here, so I thought I would run a poll on what people thought was par for the course for a non-steak main meal in a pub. The results are pretty clear, with a definite cut-off point at £10. 91% said £10 or less. I think I answered £9, but a lot of people obviously stick at £7. I would happily pay more than that for a meal in a pub that I was confident was going to be pretty good, but that would be a step outside the norm.

To get a feel for what people are paying in ordinary provincial food-oriented pubs, take a look at this Sizzling Pubs menu from the Vernon Arms in Poynton. 10oz rump steak, with chips, onions, tomato and mushrooms, £8.29. “Pub favourites” range from £5.29 to £7.99. And at the Micker Brook Crown Carvery in Cheadle Hulme, a standard carvery meal is £4.39 Monday to Saturday.

Pubs like this may not be the favourite haunts of CAMRA members or crafterati, but they’re where huge numbers of normal folk eat and drink. I can’t help thinking there’s a hefty dose of snobbery at work here.

Assets of restricted value

Otley licensee Lee Pullan has protested against his pub, the Olde Cock, being designated as an Asset of Community Value, despite having been open for less than six years. He says that it is less a way of saving pubs than of placing restrictions on other people’s businesses.

Following a campaign led by anti-pub(co) campaigner Greg Mulholland MP, who bizarrely styles himself the “pub champion”, every pub in the town but one has been given ACV status. This is despite Mulholland having campaigned against the opening of the Olde Cock in the first place, saying that his role was to protect existing pubs, not to encourage the opening of new ones.

Surely this is a gross misuse of the ACV procedure, which was originally intended only to give a stay of execution to buildings such as village halls that were genuinely valued by local communities. Yes, the last pub in a village may well qualify, but to apply it to every pub in a substantial market town, many of which probably do not follow anything like a traditional trading format, is taking things much too far. Leeds City Council have also placed a restrictive covenant on the owners’ ability to sell the property, or assign the lease, which is going far beyond the original concept of ACVs.

This case was also discussed by Christopher Snowdon in this blogpost.

ACV status seems to be widely perceived as a magic bullet to preserve pubs, whereas in reality all it can ever do is give them a brief stay of execution. It is effectively being used as a proxy for planning control, which was never the original intention. The whole thing is a chimaera, and CAMRA has wasted a huge amount of time pursuing it. How many times does it have to be said that the best way to preserve pubs, as a species, is to concentrate on the demand side, not the supply? There is no way that owners can be forced to keep businesses in operation that they do not see as viable and, unless someone else is going to step into the breach, they’re going to close.

It would be more logical for CAMRA to campaign to introduce a requirement for planning permission for converting buildings from use class A4 “Drinking establishments” to use classes A2 “Financial and professional services” and A1 “Shops”. If people do value pubs as community facilities, rather than just seeing them as a source of nuisance, this should be reflected in the planning system. It wouldn’t in practice save many pubs, but at least it would ensure everything was above board.

Including use class A3 “Restaurants” would be largely pointless, as there’s nothing to stop someone running what is in effect a restaurant while still nominally operating a bar. But there would need to be a time limit, of at least ten years, and preferably twenty, otherwise it would deter people from opening up new bars and micropubs in former shop units.

We’ve recently had a local example of this with the High Grove in Gatley, an estate pub owned by Hydes Brewery. Despite considerable investment, trade had been steadily declining for years, and last autumn it was reported that Hydes were planning to sell it for alternative use. Locals persuaded the council to grant it ACV status, which gave it a six months’ stay of execution, and started a project to raise the £500,000 asking price. Recently, the six months having expired, Hydes announced they had closed the pub and sold it to a third party. It is now going to be demolished and the site redeveloped for housing, which of course does require planning permission.

This underlines the point that an ACV does not impose any requirement on business owners to even consider any community bids, and frankly I doubt whether locals had got anywhere near £500,000, given that it’s basically just a struggling and fairly typical estate pub. I’m sure that the smoking ban won’t have helped the High Grove, and its potential must have been severely damaged by the installation of a particularly vicious traffic calming scheme on both approach roads about fifteen years ago, which would have been a major deterrent to developing any destination food trade.

Saturday 2 July 2016

Southern sojourn

I’ve been away on holidays last week in the Sunny South (yes, really, apart from one day), dividing my time between quirky Thanet and comfortable West Sussex. As ever, I’m not into blow-by-blow descriptions, but these are a few observations.

The Queen's Head, Newton, Cambridgeshire
Features in every edition of the Good Beer Guide
  • The South seems to do both non-food-dominated rural and village pubs, and middle-class urban locals, better than the North. Possibly something to do with demography or settlement patterns, but still very noticeable. The Queen’s Head in Newton, Cambridgeshire, pictured above – one of only five pubs to have appeared in every Good Beer Guide – is an example of the former. You just don’t get pubs like that around here, more’s the pity.

  • The line of blokes sitting at the bar seems to be a South-East speciality. In one pub there was a solid row of stools with backs, and the only way you could reach the bar was over their shoulders. This does, however, tend to promote a bit of banter. One dubious classic of political wisdom I overhead was “if we’d kept the closed shop we wouldn’t have all this trouble with immigration”.

  • Beer prices in the small independent pubs in Thanet are often cheaper than round here, with £2.50 spotted a couple of times, and £3 being common.

  • In one Good Beer Guide pub, I was served a pint of complete vinegar. It was changed without demur, and I was given back the price difference between it and the alternative beer, but even so that shouldn’t happen. It can’t have been much better twenty-four hours earlier. In another, the barmaid said “Let me know what that’s like, it’s getting near the end.” Given that it looked like soup, I immediately asked for a replacement, but she looked slightly put out that I had made no attempt to taste it.

  • There’s a fine line in pubs between lived-in and just plain messy. Having artefacts cluttering up the seats is usually a sure sign of the latter, and you do wonder whether the cellar is the same. Martin Taylor knows which pub I’m referring to.

  • We’ve been discussing recently the need to improve cask beer quality at the point of sale. Classic example, in a non-GBG pub that I had visited for food. Pint of Shepherd Neame Master Brew. £3.80, which is normal for that part of the world. Temperature fine, but very little condition and a slight haze. No discernible off-flavours, but little hint of on-flavours either. Not returnable in my book, but you can understand why many drinkers would go for the Carling tap as a default.

  • The point can’t be reiterated too often that pubs in tourist areas with high pedestrian traffic really should display their menus outside, rather than just saying “Good food - see inside for full menu.”
The Montefiore Arms, Ramsgate, a classic backstreet local,
with classic early 60s Vauxhall Cresta

Commemorative Kent coalfield plates,
spotted in the King's Head, Deal

An oldie but a goodie - the Ship, Itchenor, West Sussex