Monday 29 August 2016

Marginal loss

In Boak & Bailey’s recent discussion about getting casual drinkers back into pubs, the old chestnut inevitably cropped up of “Use it or lose it!”

As I’ve written before, there are two sides to this. It’s certainly true that, through your own personal preferences, you play a small part in making a collective choice as to which businesses succeed and which fail. It’s called voting with your feet. But the idea that, as an individual, you can make much difference is misplaced. As I said, “Quite frankly, I have better things to do than go to pubs I wouldn’t otherwise visit in an almost certainly vain attempt to stop them from closing.” The same is true of bank branches, post offices and local bus services.

But there’s a point that’s being missed here. It’s not so much my or your choices that are affecting the success of businesses, it’s demographic churn. The existing customers may continue going, but if the new entrants to the market aren’t, then the business is going to suffer and probably ultimately fail.

I’ve often heard the view expressed that small changes in taxes or costs won’t make any meaningful difference to people’s behaviour. For those already established in the market, that is probably true, but it’s different for new people. Only a small movement will lead some to make a different choice and, over time, that can be significant. “Increase cost X by 2% - who will notice the difference?” Most won’t, but for some pubs, or other businesses, that will be the difference between success and failure.

I would never fool myself that my own contribution made any difference to the success or failure of any particular pub. Unless on holiday, it’s pretty rare that I actually drink more than about 15 pints in pubs in a week. Neither my wallet nor my liver would stand it. As I said, the average adult in Britain drinks less than two pints of beer in a pub each week. I doubt whether there has been any week since I turned 18 in which I haven’t comfortably exceeded that except when ill.

But actually I probably am spending less in pubs that I did ten years ago, for the specific reason that a combination of TV sports, loud piped music, dim evening lighting and often indifferent beer have made my local pub much less appealing than it once was, and, from what I see, less appealing to other customers as well. I try to make up for it in other ways, but the fact that I can no longer just nip round the corner for a quiet, reliable pint in congenial surroundings does have an impact.

Incidentally, kudos to Boak & Bailey for continuing to raise the big issues that so many other bloggers fight shy of in their pursuit of the latest awesome new beer.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Sugar, sugar

The government are planning to introduce a tax on sugar in carbonated soft drinks with the stated aim of reducing child obesity. On the face of it, you may ask “what’s that got to do with pubs and beer?” but of course soft drinks are a major source of pub revenue, and the ALMR have come out strongly against it.

It’s also a classic example of the slippery slope that we’re constantly told doesn’t exist.

Carbonated soft drinks only make up a very small proportion of total calories consumed, and far more are drunk by adults than children, making it a very inefficiently targeted approach. And experience has shown that taxes of this kind tend to be simply absorbed by consumers rather than prompting a change in behaviour. Effectively, it’s yet another regressive tax on the poor. I would guess that children actually take in far more calories through drinking still squashes and fruit juices, but those aren’t going to be taxed because they’re perceived as “healthy”.

By feeding through into the general rate of inflation, it would also ironically end up costing the government more, at least initially, by increasing the uprating of pensions and benefits and the yields on index-linked bonds.

The whole thing is comprehensively filleted by Christopher Snowdon:

It is bizarre to introduce a tax when you know that it will incur billions of pounds of additional costs, and the stated objective of getting soft drinks companies to reduce the amount of sugar in their products is a pipe-dream.

50 per cent of the carbonated drinks market is already made up of low calorie brands. Regular Coke and Pepsi make up a further 24 per cent of the market - and they are not going to be altered. That leaves only a quarter of the existing market that could plausibly be reformulated but it includes such brands such as Irn-Bru and Dr Pepper which are unlikely to change (both have diet versions that sell modestly) as well as brands such as Lilt and Oasis which have already been reformulated to bring them below the lower-tier 5g/100ml sugar limit. For the latter category, the levy provides no incentive to reduce sugar levels further. On the contrary, since consumers tend to prefer the taste of sugar to the taste of artificial sweeteners, the levy gives manufacturers a perverse incentive to raise sugar levels in reduced-sugar drinks up to the limit of whichever tax bracket they are in.

I think the sugar tax is a bad idea on principle but it also happens to be a terrible idea in practice.

So, a tax that won’t achieve its stated objectives and, at least, initially, will end up costing the government money. Brilliant! A classic case of “Something must be done! This is something. Let’s do it!” It’s just pathetic gesture politics to appease the likes of Jamie Oliver.

But it does give an opportunity to listen again to this unforgettable classic of Sixties bubblegum:

Saturday 27 August 2016

Real ale, real Britain

There’s an interesting piece on the Labour Uncut website by Kevin Meagher entitled The skipped over people of real Britain. The whole thing is well worth reading, but it’s particularly noteworthy that he makes the following observation:
You drink lager or real ale, not craft beer. If you go out for a meal, it’s to a Harvester pub, not a bijou Vietnamese canteen.
This is generalist writing, not specifically beer-focused, and it underlines how drinking craft beer has become associated with a particular kind of élitist metropolitan mindset. When CAMRA started, real ale was, to a large extent, consumed by working-class drinkers. To a lesser degree, it still is, for example in Holt’s and Sam Smith’s pubs around here. But how many working-class people will there be at IndyManBeerCon?

I can imagine many crafterati will have shared Emily Thornberry’s distaste for a couple of St George’s flags draped over the front of a house with a white van in the drive.

HOW much a pint?

In response to the recent debate over at Boak & Bailey about the apparently very poor returns available to brewers, I thought I would create a poll on whether beer was really too cheap in British pubs.

The result was a resounding “No”, with 71% taking the view that beer was generally too dear, and just a solitary person thinking it was too cheap. If you really want to pay more for your beer, of course, there are plenty of pubs only too happy to relieve you of a larger chunk of your hard-earned cash.

I don’t deny that the beer market, especially for small brewers, is extremely competitive and many struggle to make a decent living. But, by and large, that isn’t reflected in low prices paid across the bar. In most parts of the country, a typical pint of 4% beer will be well north of £3, and across much of London and the South-East it approaches or even exceeds £4. Spoons are usually a fair bit cheaper, but the general run of pubs certainly aren’t. If the brewers aren’t getting much of that, it suggests that the cake needs to be divided up differently, not that drinkers should be expected to pay even more.

Even around here, it’s common to be asked to pay £3.70 for something of fairly modest strength. Especially if the quality is indifferent, I find it hard to see that as anything other than expensive for what it is. I still tend to feel that a reasonable price is £3 or under, and I’ve certainly enjoyed several different beers up to 4.5%, most notably Draught Bass, for that kind of price in good pubs in recent weeks.

Friday 26 August 2016

Decline of the swift half

Earlier this week, Boak & Bailey did a very stimulating blogpost entitled Pubs Need Casuals, Not Stakhanovite Drinkers, in which they ask whether a major reason for the decline of pubs is that people are visiting them much less just for the occasional pint or two.

This is a point I have often made myself in the past in posts such as Whatever happened to pubs?, Socially unacceptable supping and, from the very early days of this blog in 2008, Demise of the casual drinker.

The reasons behind this can be broken down into a number of categories, but basically it boils down to one issue. Whereas once it was seen as normal for moderate drinking to be woven into the fabric of everyday life, we have become increasingly censorious about it, and it is now seen as something that has to be ringfenced from all responsible activity. “What? You’ve had a lunchtime pint? You’ll have to write off the rest of the day, then!” As I said in one of the linked posts:

Overall, we as a society drink a bit more (maybe around 10%) than we did in the late 70s, but our relationship with alcohol has changed. It is no longer something to be enjoyed in moderation (and often with a vague sense of naughtiness) as part of everyday life, but something to be consumed more deliberately when other responsibilities can be set aside. People place far more emphasis on not touching a drop in “normal” situations than they used to. Just “going to the pub”, without involving a meal, is no longer an acceptable leisure pursuit in polite society.
Realistically, this is not going to change until general social attitudes change. Nothing lasts forever, but I can’t see much chance of that happening in the near future. It certainly isn’t a question of pubs trying to make themselves more appealing – they were far busier in the past when in many respects they were much less appealing.

There’s an implicit question in Boak & Bailey’s piece that “if people say they like pubs, why don’t they visit them more?” but that’s rather missing the point. Many people would say they like local post offices and bank branches, and traditional butchers, but they’re not going to visit them just for the sake of it if they haven’t got a valid reason to do so. Boak & Bailey are pub enthusiasts who see going to pubs in itself as an interesting leisure activity. So am I, and bloggers such as Martin Taylor and Simon Everitt. But the vast majority of potential pubgoers don’t see it that way. As I said in the comments, a lot of pubgoing revolves around ritual and routine. Take that away, and many will no longer see any point.

Thursday 25 August 2016

Learning the trade

There has been much recent discussion in the media as to whether the “graduate premium” obtained from gaining a degree justifies the cost of student loans. There’s a serious point in this, that, as the proportion of people taking degrees increases, the advantage it will give them over the rest of the population is inevitably going to diminish.

It seems that, unless you take a degree in one of the intellectually demanding STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), or in one such as law and medicine that leads to a learned profession, a degree as such is not going to enhance your life prospects anywhere near as much as it once did. I did an arts degree in the 1970s which opened the door to a professional accountancy career, but if I was in the same position now I’d undoubtedly choose a different subject.

In response to this, there have been several recommendations that ambitious young people who can’t quite get on the top-level degree courses should consider apprenticeship schemes offered by major employers. One significant advantage of this is that you start earning immediately and don’t end up with student debt around your neck.

The hospitality industry has long had a reputation for low wages and lack of career development, but some of the major players have now joined in and started apprenticeship schemes of their own. There’s plenty of opportunity for advancement and, while wet-led pubs may be struggling, the trade as a whole, including hotels and restaurants, is in robust health and isn’t going to disappear any day soon.

So, if you’re considering doing a media studies degree at a former Polytechnic, taking out an apprenticeship in the hospitality trade may well prove to be a much better long-term career bet, not to mention leaving you free from student debt. But it will bring forward the evil day when you are actually expected to do some hard work.

Incidentally, there’s a well known pub in Isleworth called the London Apprentice. There used to be one of the same name in Shrewsbury – maybe implying someone who had run away to join a trade – but it was later renamed the Severn Apprentice and has now been demolished.

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Chicken and egg sandwich

In a recent blogpost, Stuart Vallantine reflects on the decline of that onetime pub staple, the cheese toastie. I’ve written myself about how, in many areas, lunchtime pub food has largely become a thing of the past.

This led me to wonder whether, to some extent, the decline of pubs’ lunchtime trade is linked with their abandonment of straightforward sandwiches and toasties in favour of expensive, fancy ciabattas and the like. People wanting a good-value lunchtime snack have increasingly deserted them for cafés and supermarkets. It is noticeable how there has been an expansion in the number of small independent cafés in recent years.

I have to say myself that, given the increasing difficulty of finding any pubs serving lunchtime food, and the fact that you may end up paying £7.95 for something “dressed with mixed leaves and a few handcut chips”, the supermarket meal deal sometimes seems a better and more dependable option.

Monday 22 August 2016

Growing old disgracefully

Last Friday night, the local CAMRA branch did one of its regular monthly “Staggers” or pub crawls around the Shaw Heath and Higher Hillgate areas of Stockport. There were ten of us in the party, and I noticed, not for the first time, that, at 57, I was the youngest member of the party. This underlines the demographic challenge facing CAMRA, which I referred to in my post about the Revitalisation meeting. The active members of the organisation overwhelmingly come from the Baby Boomer generation, people born between about 1945 and 1965 and, as they fade from the scene, they are not being replaced. Clearly, with record membership numbers, CAMRA isn’t going to disappear any day soon but, without so many local activists on the ground, it will inevitably have to become a lot more centralised. To be fair, this is a problem faced by all kinds of other membership organisations, not just CAMRA, but few have such a bottom-up, democratic structure.

Whether or not CAMRA needs to review its basic principles to widen its appeal has been discussed at length elsewhere. But it has to be questioned whether, in an age of social media and hashtag campaigning, volunteering and “committee work” hold all that much appeal for the younger generation. At one time, this was often seen as a means of making social contacts, especially if you have moved to a new area, but, if you have Instagram and Snapchat, do people see that need any more?

It’s also the case, as David Martin points out, that younger people are increasingly turning their back on drinking alcohol, and going to pubs and bars, full stop. It’s not just that the particular variety championed by CAMRA no longer appeals. If that’s the case, they’re lost to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Obviously it may be offputting for younger people if they turn up at a CAMRA event and find the average age is thirty or forty years higher than their own. But that’s the raw material you’ve got to work with, and attempts by august institutions to “get down wiv da kids” often just come across as laughable. It’s also a narrow and patronising view to assume that all young people want to sit on chromium stools in trendy bars drinking expensive craft keg.

Some types of events will appeal more to young people than others, but it may be that they’re not that interested in formal, organised events anyway. And it’s important to maintain a mixed economy of different types of activity to have an across the board appeal. Personally I can’t see the attraction of standing in a draughty industrial unit looking at stainless steel brewing vessels, but others do.

The whole concept of Staggers has also been called into question, with some dismissing them as a “route march” or “a soulless trudge”. Basically these are a set of organised pub crawls which, taken over a period of about a two and a half years, cover the vast majority of real ale pubs within the branch area, except for a handful that are out on a limb and can’t be fitted in to a feasible route. As Tandleman said here, back in the day “walking around a handful of pubs” was a common pursuit, especially on weekend evenings, but it seems to be much less favoured now.

In the past, the Staggers could be hard work but, as the number of pubs has reduced, and those that couldn’t keep real ale well have generally either abandoned it for keg or closed, they have become more manageable, and the average quality of both pubs and beer much higher. Of the five pubs visited last Friday, four – the Blossoms, Fairway, Sun & Castle and Red Bull – have been recentish Pubs of the Month, and the fifth, the Plough, while more of a plain, down-to-earth boozer, still managed to provide a perfectly decent pint of real ale. Very few require more than a mile’s walking through the course of the evening, which shouldn’t be too strenuous for delicate youngsters given that arthritic sixtysomethings can manage it.

I’ve always been fascinated by visiting different pubs, taking in their varying atmosphere and character, and seeing what’s new. Every pub is unique and has its own story to tell. Therefore, to me, the Staggers are probably the most eagerly anticipated events in the CAMRA social calendar, on a par with the annual Good Beer Guide selection bunfight. Certainly far more attention-grabbing than yet another “Meet the Brewer” talk from an identikit bearded clone droning on about New World hops. And it seems that one of my regular correspondents agrees with me:

If you’re interested in real ale, then the Staggers cover all the places that sell it. There isn’t some parallel universe of cool bars that they studiously avoid. So, if you dismiss them as old hat and something only suited to fuddy-duddies, then you’re dismissing real ale itself in the same way.

It’s also worth remembering that, insofar as there were any trendy bars in the mid-70s, they certainly weren’t places likely to serve real ale, or where CAMRA members would have been seen dead. We may have been young, but we were deliberately seeking out that funny real ale stuff in “old man pubs” in a way that, to many contemporaries, seemed perverse. Beer enthusiasm should be a journey of discovery, not having everything handed to you on a plate. Part of the fun is the thrill of the chase.

Incidentally, my write-up of May’s highly entertaining Offerton Stagger can be read in the August edition of Opening Times (Page 17).

Saturday 20 August 2016

The pub-themed restaurant

Throughout my drinking career, the steady encroachment of food into pubs has always been a bone of contention. “It’s gone over to food” was a common howl of complaint as yet another boozer succumbed.

Of course, in the present day, most pubs depend to a greater or lesser extent on serving food, and plenty major on it. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve eaten hundreds if not thousands of meals and snacks in pubs over the years. But a line is crossed when a pub becomes so focused on food that it completely forgets the original core purpose of pubs, for people to meet and socialise over a few drinks..

It’s hard to say exactly where that line is drawn, but to my mind pubs that have a greeter on the door asking whether you will be dining, and that have all tables furnished with place settings, have undoubtedly crossed it. On the other hand, many of the modern new-build “family dining” pubs, such as the Flying Horse near Manchester Airport, do have an area with pool table and TV sports where it’s clear drinkers are welcome.

It does increasingly seem to be the case, though, that there are establishments that still trade under the name of pubs, but which deliberately make anyone just wanting a drink – or even just a drink and a sandwich – feel unwelcome and out of place. I really object to walking into somewhere and being made to feel like something the cat has dragged in. And I’m a white, middle-class bloke. They have become, in effect, pub-themed restaurants, or PINOs – Pubs in Name Only. I’m not talking about places that won’t serve drinkers, full stop, but those where all the cues indicate they’re not really wanted.

Sadly, some of these places manage to creep into the Good Beer Guide, as Martin Taylor and Simon Everitt have sometimes found in their GBG-ticking travels. So I thought I would create a poll on the subject. The results aren’t overwhelming, but a clear majority of 55% voted in favour of such places being given a different designation from “pub”. Perhaps there’s a need for a “Keg Buster” test before anywhere gets in, i.e. old bloke in cap and muffler gets served a pint without demur.

Of course food is an important part of the pub offer nowadays. But if I can’t go into an establishment, walk up to the bar, order a pint, and plonk myself down into a nearby seat, without anyone batting an eyelid, then really it isn’t a pub.

Friday 19 August 2016

Mind the gap

The recent closure of the Waterloo was discussed on a Stockport-related Facebook group, and inevitably the old chestnut came up that pub closures were largely down to low supermarket prices. As I’ve discussed before, this is for the most part a complete canard. There are plenty of other reasons for the decline of the on-trade vis-à-vis the off trade that are nothing to do with relative price. If anything, it’s because, for a variety of social and legislative reasons, the range of occasions when people will even consider a visit to the pub, except if having a meal, has drastically reduced. People just don’t weave the odd one or two pints into the pattern of daily life like they once did.

Many of the customers of the Waterloo were people who visited at lunchtime from local businesses. They haven’t stopped because they can get a can of Stella for a quid from Tesco. Indeed, many pub visits happened, or used to happen, on occasions where people were out of the house and the alternative of a cheap off-trade drink simply wasn’t available. And how often do you really think “now, should I go out to the pub tonight, or stay in with a few bottles or cans?” People won’t go to the pub unless they have a good reason for doing so.

If you are someone with one or more of a job, a mortgage, a driving licence, family responsibilities and some concern for your own health, can you honestly say that you would drink substantially more beer in pubs if it was cheaper? In general, the main factor limiting how much people drink in pubs, or indeed in total, is not price. Lower prices would no doubt attract more custom from those with more time than money, but they wouldn’t bring the better-off flooding back. And simply raising the price of off-trade drinks, as would have happened under the now canned proposals for minimum alcohol pricing, would not give people a single extra penny to spend in pubs.

It’s also very wide of the mark to claim, as people often do, that supermarkets routinely engage in loss-leading on beer or other alcoholic drinks, although it’s all too easy to jump to that conclusion. Yes, they drive a hard bargain with suppliers and sometimes pare margins to the bone. But you’re simply not going to make money if you’re selling things that make up more than a tiny proportion of the average trolley-load at a loss.

There is something in it, of course, because it’s undoubtedly true that, over the years, the gap between on- and off-trade alcohol prices has considerably widened. Clearly this must have an effect at the margins. But I’ve seen some research (although I can’t put it to hand at the moment) showing that off-trade alcohol prices have in general risen in line with the overall movement in the RPI, but on-trade prices have increased by much more. If there’s a problem, it’s not low supermarket prices, it’s high pub prices.

And there’s a serious and potentially uncomfortable economic truth behind this. Over time, as living standards increase, the price of labour will obviously increase relative to that of goods. You might not feel it, but on average people are much better off than they were twenty or thirty years ago. Just look at the rise in car ownership and long-haul holidays, satellite TV subscriptions and the amount of electronic stuff in the average home.

The price of a pint in the pub includes a much greater labour element than that of a can or bottle in the supermarket, so really it’s inevitable that this relative divergence will continue. The same can be seen in the differential between the prices of supermarket ready meals, and those in pubs and restaurants. Pubs have to offer something more than just being an alcohol shop, although often that can be just the totally intangible benefits of atmosphere and companionship.

And this week we’ve also had people moaning that beer in pubs was too cheap. You can’t win!

Thursday 18 August 2016

Tell the kids that, and they’ll never believe you

Back in January 2010, to welcome the new decade, I produced a list for my Opening Times column of features of the drinking scene of 1980 that were very different from today. This recently came up in conversation on Twitter, and Tandleman gave me a whole lot more to add:
  • Cask beer was almost universal even in rough end pubs
  • Most pubs would offer free snacks on the bar on a Sunday
  • When a certain pub was suggested, someone always said “Whose ale is it?” and someone always objected on that basis
  • In addition to mixing draught and bottled, draught was often mixed
  • Bottled versions of beer were common - Brown ale, pale ale etc.
  • Every pub sold a nip bottle of strong ale, barley wine or both
  • Afternoon stay behinds or lock-ins were common in cities at least, but you had to be “known”
  • Many pubs had a bar/snug/taproom and a lounge/best room in which different prices applied
  • There was always a price list
  • Walking around a number of adjacent pubs was a common pursuit
  • Pubs were astonishingly busy most of the time
  • There was always an eagle eyed landlord watching out
  • Licensing police were common visitors
The practice of walking around a number of pubs is certainly something, once commonplace, that has largely died out. Perhaps that explains the high average age of the typical attendees on CAMRA Staggers.

Maybe pubs weren’t astonishingly busy most of the time, but being unable to find a seat was far more common, and they were often busy at times when they’re now closed.

The photo is of an electric diaphragm metered beer pump - something the kids probably wouldn’t believe ever existed.

Is the price right?

The subject of whether we undervalue good beer in the price we’re prepared to pay for it has cropped up again in the past couple of days. The debate was well summed up in this blogpost by Boak & Bailey, and the subsequent debate in the comments, but I thought it would be worth adding a few thoughts of my own on the subject, in no particular order:
  • The world doesn’t owe anyone a living. No product is worth more than the price customers are willing to pay for it.

  • In general, cask beer in the UK is far from cheap. Outside Wetherspoon’s, the going rate is well over £3 a pint in most areas; in London £4 or more. If the brewers aren’t getting much of that, don’t blame drinkers for being skinflints.

  • The people drinking beer at £2 a pint in Sam’s and Spoons wouldn’t be there at all if it was a quid dearer.

  • As in most other markets, there’s room for a mixed economy of discount, mainstream and premium retailers. Think Aldi, Tesco and Waitrose.

  • High duty levels tend to reduce the returns to producers, as consumers only have so much money in total to spend on beer.

  • To some extent, the benefits of progressive beer duty have been used to offer lower prices rather than a better return to small brewers.

  • Many small brewers do not rely on brewing to provide a decent full-time income, because they are retired, have another job, a rich daddy, or a working partner. This means they can afford to take a more relaxed attitude to pricing. For the avoidance of doubt, it does not mean they are any less competent or dedicated as brewers.

  • There is a wide variety of potential wholesale purchasers of beer. If you don’t like Wetherspoons’ prices, don’t sell to them. It’s not an oligopsony like supermarket purchasers of milk.

  • If you want your products to command a price premium, you have to earn it. Look at BrewDog and Thornbridge. Or Peroni, for that matter.

  • The rotating guest beer culture in pubs militates against brewers achieving a price premium. Pubs tend to either charge a flat rate or price in strength bands.

  • For historical reasons, cask beer sells at a discount to kegs and lagers. You may well think it’s a better product and deserves a higher price, but that’s always going to be the case while it remains so variable in quality at the point of sale.

  • If artisanal beer was dearer, more people would drink industrial beer.

  • If you really can’t make a decent living at brewing, there are plenty of other careers out there. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of people willing to try their hand at it.
Incidentally, I donated all of this year’s Spoons tokens to Simon Everitt of BRAPA fame, who I’m sure will make better use of them than me. I generally only go in Spoons for the meal deals anyway, on which they’re not valid.

Monday 15 August 2016

If it quacks like a duck

There has been a lot of talk recently about some “KeyKeg” beers qualifying as real ale. Essentially, these are vessels in which the beer is held in an inner bag within the container, in a similar way to bag-in-box wine, and the dispense gas exerts pressure on this bag to push the beer to the bar, but doesn’t actually come into contact with it. If the beer in the keykeg is unfiltered, and therefore retains its natural yeast, it might qualify as “real ale”, as it could undergo a secondary fermentation, and avoid all contact with the CO2 used to pressurise the outer container.

I’m not at all convinced, though. The first objection is a technical one, that the beer contained in the bag does not vent to the atmosphere, and the part of the container outside the bag is pressurised with CO2 to dispense the beer, although the CO2 does not actually touch it. There is a distinct risk that, if the beer does actually enjoy a secondary fermentation, it will become over-gassy, especially as there is no means of removing excess pressure.

But the second objection is more deep-seated. In the early 1970s, CAMRA was formed to defend the traditional British beer that was seen as being under threat. The definition of “real ale” followed the creation of the organisation, not the other way round. It has always been problematical when it has been applied too strictly, for example in the exclusion of the Hull Brewery beers stored in ceramic cellar jars, and the refusal to accept cask breathers. Real Ale is a cultural concept, not just a technical definition.

It may be that these keg-conditioned beers qualify as “real ale” under a pedantic, nit-picking interpretation of the rules, although, as said above, in my view they don’t because of the venting issue. But, even if they do, they’re still keg, not real ale. If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, the odds are that it’s a duck. And these beers are keg beers.

As you know, I’m no narrow-minded cask-only zealot - I don’t even mind the occasional pint of Carling! I’d be happy to try them and to encourage others to do so. But it is confusing and unhelpful to yoke them in with cask-conditioned real ale, as understood by the general drinking public, as they are obviously a distinctly different product. Rather than arbitrarily extending the definition of real ale, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept keg-conditioned beers as a product category in their own right?

It has been claimed in some quarters that CAMRA has now officially accepted these keg-conditioned beers as “real ale”, but I don’t see that things have gone anywhere near that far. What has been done is to give CAMRA-run beer festivals sanction to serve keg-conditioned keykeg beers if they so choose. I think the Technical Committee has still to make a definitive pronouncement, let alone the CAMRA AGM. And, frankly, I just can’t see the latter happening.

If you want a campaign for quality keg beer, or indeed for All Good Beer, start your own, don’t try to subvert an existing campaign for something entirely different. It all rather reminds me of Labour Party entryism…

Sunday 14 August 2016

Perpetual change

Manchester brewers Cloudwater have gained a lot of praise over the past couple of years for being in the forefront of the craft beer movement, for example in this piece by Martyn Cornell. One feature that he highlights is that they don’t brew any regular beers, and constantly revise and update their range.

It’s certainly true that innovation is seen as one of the keystones of the contemporary British craft beer movement. But the question has to be asked whether that is really a sustainable long-term strategy. (FWIW I am absolutely not knocking Cloudwater – they have been very successful and, unlike some others, have the brewing chops to carry off the constant innovation strategy)

Brewing is a mature industry so, unlike automotive and electronic technology, there are no significant potential gains in terms of quality or efficiency. Any innovation is basically going to be just ringing the changes on existing possibilities. Of course changes in market structure are possible, and in recent years the British beer market has been transformed by the introduction of golden ales and New World hops. But the basics remain the same.

It also has to be recognised that the vast majority of drinkers don’t regard a visit to the pub as a voyage of discovery. They are looking for tried and tested beers that they can rely on. Of course people are not totally resistant to trying new things, but their willingness to go out on a limb is limited.

Someone once baited me by asking “so you never want to try anything new, then?” but really that is a straw man. Of course I’m happy to try new things, but on the other hand I know that if I step outside my comfort zone in terms of style and strength it’s unlikely to be more than a one-off indulgence. 9% Double Mocha Stout – yes, may be interesting, but never going to become a regular drink. I’ve also reached the stage in life when I recognise that trying new things I’m very unlikely to enjoy is a waste of time and money.

It’s noticeable that even in the most cutting-edge beer pubs, such as the Magnet in Stockport, most cask ale sales are hoppy pale ales in the 3.5% - 5.0% strength band. They may have a variety of names, but at the end of the day they’re not that different overall.

The US craft beer market is often put forward as an example for the UK, but there, within the category, the big sellers are beers such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager that people choose as everyday drinks. How many British craft beers would the average punter be able to name? Just one - BrewDog Punk IPA.

There’s nothing wrong with innovation, even constant innovation. But the future of craft beer in the UK must be building strong distinctive brands that drinkers recognise and are going to be keen to order off the bar or supermarket shelf. If you keep shuffling your deck, you limit your possibilities. And the fad for perpetual change will eventually fade away.

Saturday 13 August 2016

Craft beer: snog, marry, avoid?

Well, here are the results of my poll on whether CAMRA should formally embrace non-real “craft” beers. There’s a clear majority against of almost 2:1, which has remained fairly constant throughout the period the poll has run.

My personal view, which I have often expressed on here, is that CAMRA needs to abandon the view that cask is inherently superior to all other forms of beer, but that it is a Campaign for Real Ale, and that is what it should concentrate on. However, Real Ale should be promoted as a unique British tradition worth preserving and championing, not the acme of Good Beer worldwide. Next month’s Opening Times column will trenchantly put across this point of view.

One of the key problems with embracing non-real beers is where exactly do you draw the line. It all too easily can become a subjective exercise in beer snobbery. To be honest, I just can’t see it happening, and a lot of people who bang on about the need for CAMRA to abandon its principles reform are going to be disappointed.

It’s interesting that SIBA has recently launched a project to identify genuinely independent producers of craft beer in the UK, which has been dubbed “Craft Marque”. They’ve also produced an interactive map of the member brewers. The objective is laudable, but I suspect it won’t really resonate with drinkers.

“Craft beer” means very different things to different people, but for many it represents innovation and cocking a snook at tradition. I can see many gibbing at the inclusion of brewers such as Arkells, Felinfoel, Black Sheep, Holts and Robinsons, even though they are entirely independent and come within the 200,000 hectolitre (122,000 barrels) annual production cut-off. Likewise some of our local microbreweries such as Coach House, Storm and Weetwood who mostly produce beers in traditional British styles.

Friday 12 August 2016

The 3.5% solution

Earlier this week I spotted this interesting tweet from Will Hawkes:

The existing duty relief for beers of 2.8% and under has made virtually no difference to the market. The only widely available pub products that I know take advantage of it are Sam Smith’s keg light and dark milds and Alpine lager. Clearly a 3.5% cut-off would benefit a much larger section of the market, including high-quality products such as Hawkshead Windermere Pale, Hydes 1863 and Brakspear Bitter. It would also be likely that beers with an ABV of 3.6% or 3.7%, such as Greene King IPA, would be tweaked to bring them below the threshold. Going forward, most brewers would want to have a tasty 3.5% ordinary bitter in their portfolio.

However, I wouldn’t expect to see a widespread reformulation of beers some way above 3.5%, such as Carling or Holts Bitter. In practice, people are reluctant to choose lower-strength beers purely on the grounds that they are cheap, and it comes across as something of a distress purchase. This is especially true in pubs, where drinks are often bought in rounds anyway. This has been abundantly demonstrated by the many failed attempts by brewers to introduce weaker bitters selling at a lower price than the standard bitter in their pubs. And there are no generally available weak draught lagers. So, while the government may see it as a way of encouraging us to drink weaker beers, I’d say it’s unlikely to lead to a major revolution in drinking habits.

While such a move may seem like a boon for the brewing industry, to my mind the whole concept of tiered beer duty is flawed. It introduces artificial distortions into the market, may inhibit the development of of low-volume craft products in higher strength bands, and puts higher-strength beers at an arbitrary disadvantage when no such penalty applies to much stronger wines and spirits. Surely a consistent across-the-board duty rate related to ABV, as we used to have, is the fairest and simplest arrangement.

And it will probably never happen anyway...

Thursday 11 August 2016

The Blights Arms

I was recently in Uttoxeter in Staffordshire and spotted this building just off the market place which looked suspiciously like a former pub:

A quick check on Google StreetView showed that, indeed, it was the former Wheatsheaf. It was already closed in 2009, but still had its pub signage.

One person on Twitter questioned how owners can afford to leave buildings empty for so long:

But in reality it’s not as simple as that. Assuming the building has no future as a pub, it is going to cost money to convert it to anything else, and that will need both someone willing to take it on, and planning permission. In many cases, the owners are probably hanging on to get planning permission to demolish the building and redevelop the site for something else, typically housing.

Up and down the country, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of derelict pubs that have been in that state for years, many of which are featured on my Closed Pubs blog. Fortunately there aren’t too many in Stockport, but two exceptions are the Royal Mortar on Higher Hillgate and the Bow Garrett on Brinksway, both of which must have been closed for over ten years.

One that has been in this state for many years is the Horse & Jockey in Helsby. The picture dates from August 2009, and the current StreetView shows it in a much worse state. However, there is now a sign saying “14 x Two and Three Bedroom Homes Coming Soon”, so the situation has in the end been resolved. Just think of the difference in sale value between fourteen houses and one struggling pub.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Left defenceless

Sad news, although not coming as a complete surprise, that Robinson’s Waterloo just off Hillgate in Stockport has recently closed. Given that all the brewery lettering has been removed, it doesn’t look as though they have any plans for reopening it, and I’d be very surprised if any other buyer came in to run it as a pub.

It was never an unspoilt gem, and had an odd layout whereby the positions of vault and lounge had been reversed at some point in the past, leaving the long bar counter on the “best side”. But it always seemed to have a good community spirit, and won at least one CAMRA Pub of the Month award. A claim to fame was that it was opposite the erstwhile Strawberry Studios, and many famous musicians had been spotted enjoying a pint in there over the years.

Its loss will also reduce the number of pubs serving real ale on the famous Hillgate Stagger to an unprecedented low of seven. Here’s a picture of a relaxed pub dog I took in there on last year’s event.

In recent years, Robinson’s have culled a number of traditional urban locals in and around Stockport town centre – for example the Spread Eagle just down the road, the Unity, the Adswood Hotel, the Tiviot and the Grapes in Edgeley. Apart from the Flying Dutchman further up Hillgate, which has been revived as the Fairway, none of the others have been taken on as pubs by new owners. The Railway in the centre of Whaley Bridge, a similar type of pub, has also recently bitten the dust.

To be honest, they largely seem to have largely given up on this segment of the market in favour of craft beer and dining pubs, and this is shown by their apparent unwillingness to offer any kind of financial support package to their tenants to allow them to be more price-competitive. As I wrote here, Robinson’s were never a particularly cheap brewer, and now that their main competitors in Stockport are no longer the Big Six breweries but Wetherspoon’s, Sam Smith’s, Holt’s and independent free houses, their tenants are left very exposed.

On Castle Street in Edgeley, Punch Taverns have recently carried out an expensive and thoroughgoing refurbishment of the Sir Robert Peel. Not my cup of tea, but it’s smart, well-thought-out and clearly appeals to its target market. It also offers Fosters and John Smith’s Extra Smooth for £2 a pint, all day, every day. As I wrote here, while the nearby Armoury is in pretty much every respect a far superior pub, if it’s charging a quid more for a pint, how can it compete for the trade of cost-conscious drinkers? Don’t forget that, while it may be cask beer that you see as defining a pub, most beer sold in pubs is lager, and without a strong lager-drinking contingent very few pubs would be viable.

I’m not going to put the kiss of death on any particular pubs by naming them, but there are still quite a few that it’s not hard to see going the same way.

Monday 8 August 2016

Piwo od Polskiego sklepu

I was recently staying in Evesham and, feeling a bit peckish, popped out of my hotel to a nearby convenience store for a chocolate bar. It turned out this was a Polish shop, and I couldn’t help but notice the impressive array of different Polish beers, mostly at a bargain £1 for a 500ml can. So I emerged with these to do a bit of research:

Poland is one of Europe’s major brewing nations, and its output often seems to be unfairly disregarded. There was a vogue in the UK for Polish beers maybe about eight years ago, with brews such as Lech, Tyskie and Zywiec becoming popular, but that seems to have faded now. I tried some, but concluded that they tended to be rather bland lagers whose main selling point was being, typically at 5.5%, a little stronger than the norm.

This particular shop must have had about forty different varieties, so it wasn’t easy to pick some at random. I tried to avoid both the ones I’d already heard of, and any that ventured into Special Brew territory. I’d never heard of any of the brand names apart from Okocim, although the one I bought was the stronger Mocne. Needless to say, despite the usual mischievous suggestions, I didn’t drink them all at one sitting and then crash out on the sofa. My conclusions are as follows:

  • Specjal (6.0%); Tatra (6.0%) – hard to distinguish between these. Both pleasant, clean-tasting lagers that didn’t really drink their strength. Oddly, one is described as “Jasny Pelny”, the other as “Jasne Pelne”. As far as I can work out, this just means “light” or “pale”.

  • Warka Strong (6.5%) – noticeably darker and maltier than the others, and quite distinctive in flavour.

  • Okocim Mocne (7.0%) – normal pale lager colour, but at this strength the alcohol starts to overwhelm any other flavour characteristics.
Not the world’s greatest beers, maybe, but all palatable enough and, I would suggest, distinctly superior in quality to your typical British-brewed premium lager such as Stella. If you have a Polish shop near you, it may be worth popping in and seeing what they have available.

(The title, by the way, means “Beer from Polish shop”)

If Jamie Oliver got drunk on Polish lager, would he be a Mocne twat?

And, before someone else points it out, I know it’s a bit reminiscent of this:

Sunday 7 August 2016

Craft or daft?

For the benefit of mobile readers who may not have seen it in the sidebar, here’s the poll I created following my earlier post on Two tribes. It will run until Saturday 13th August.

POLL: Should CAMRA formally include non-real "craft" beers within its campaigning objectives? free polls

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Hip vs Hop

As you will gather from reading this blog, I’m a great fan of classic rock music, and nothing would give me more aural pleasure on walking into a pub than hearing Brad Delp wailing “I see my Marianne walking away”.

However, I recognise that what is music to one person’s ears may be an unholy racket to someone else, which is why in general I prefer pubs without piped music.

If there is to be music, though, the pub should at least make some effort to tailor it to the tastes of the customers. I’ve noticed a growing number of examples of pubs playing modern hip-hop/R&B music to a clientele whose average age must be well north of fifty, if not sixty. A point I’ve made in the past is that, all too often, music in pubs is played for the benefit of the bar staff, not the customers.

I fully accept that one generation may not share the previous one’s musical tastes. If that style of music floats your boat, fair enough, but it is clearly inappropriate for the more mature clientele that is typical of so many pubs. I find the widespread use of artificial-sounding “treated” vocals particularly grating.

If you have to have background noise, then either Radio 2 or an anodyne music station such as Smooth Radio is likely to cause the least annoyance. Anything, of whatever style, that is too intense doesn’t suit the generality of pubs.

There’s also plenty of music being made today in other styles. I remember a few years ago being in a pub in Hastings which was playing some cheerful, jangly indie-pop. I asked the barmaid who it was and was told that it was The Kooks. Not really my cup of tea, but to my ears much preferable to hip-hop. And also quite local.

Also see The Ultimate Curmudgeonly Jukebox from 2010. “I make no apology for liking Magnum, and for liking Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter.” Talking of which...

Two tribes

A couple of weeks ago I attended a CAMRA revitalisation meeting at Wetherspoon’s Gateway in East Didsbury, which was described by Martin Taylor here. The four people standing at the rear include Cooking Lager (1), me (2) and Martin (4). Photo courtesy of Matt from When My Feet Go Through the Door.

It was encouraging that the meeting felt that improving beer quality at the point of dispense needed to be a major priority for CAMRA, and that it accepted that social change, not evil pubcos and planners, was the major cause of the decline of pubs in recent years.

The picture gives a clear impression of the age profile of the attendees – of about 50 people there, only five admitted to being under 50, and I’d bet that, at 57, I was below the average. The ageing active membership is widely recognised as a problem for CAMRA, but it’s one they share with most other membership organisations.

It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that diluting the organisation’s principles is going to bring in new, younger people, and the result might simply be to alienate the existing activists. Maybe this is not a comparison to take too far, but it has also been widely observed that, while religious observance is declining overall, the churches that do better are often those putting across a fundamentalist message rather than trimming to modern secular trends.

It was very noticeable that, within the attendees, there were two strongly conflicting points of view. On the one hand, some took the view that CAMRA really needed to get behind all these enthusiastic new brewers producing innovative, high-quality beers, even if they didn’t technically qualify as real ale. Others, though, felt that real ale remained under serious threat and no backsliding or compromise was acceptable.

I don’t really see that these standpoints can ever be fully reconciled. And, in fact, I’d say they are both wrong. Any formal endorsement of non-real beers would end up creating all kinds of thorny questions of definition and inviting accusations of beer snobbery. But the real ale purism all too easily slides into “fighting the keg menace” and a narrow-minded refusal to recognise merit in any forms of beer that aren’t “real”.

However, surely CAMRA should be able to regard the preservation and promotion of real ale, and the pub and brewery culture surrounding it, as its core campaigning purpose, while still being able to accept that there are many other high-quality beers around that do not qualify “real ale”. As founder member Michael Hardman famously said, it should be a campaign FOR something, not AGAINST something, and “real ale” should not be regarded as synonymous with “good beer”.

And the one thing that CAMRA should do is to drop the ludicrous fetishising of bottle-conditioned beers. They had effectively died out by the time it was formed and were irrelevant to what it was set up to champion. They are not the direct equivalent of cask-conditioned beers and should not be put forward as such.