Thursday 29 September 2016

Calmed to death

Over the past thirty years, humps seem to have multiplied inexorably across the roads of Britain. Some see them as a valuable tool to improve safety and produce a calmer environment, while others regard them as essentially a malicious impediment to road users that result in nothing but frayed tempers. No prizes for guessing which camp I fall into. I’m entirely with newspaper columnist Tom Utley when he says “Just as the private car is the embodiment of the concept of freedom, in metal and rubber, so the speed bump represents in tarmac the essence of regulation, nannying and political interference.”

But, whatever you may think of them, it can’t be denied that humps are a very effective method of diverting traffic to other routes. Providing that the alternative is free-flowing, drivers will go out of their way to avoid a humped road. And – whisper it softly – this may have been a factor in the demise of more than one pub.

It may be politically incorrect to say so, but outside of town and city centres, the vast majority of customers visiting pubs who haven’t walked there will have arrived by car. Once you have decided to use the car, you will have a wider choice of potential pubs available to you than if walking, and the ease of getting there is a consideration in which you plump for. It may even be a subconscious factor, but given two pubs of roughly equal attractiveness, the one that involves crashing over a half-mile obstacle course starts to seem less appealing.

One pub where I’m sure this has been a factor is the High Grove in Gatley, which closed earlier this year. I wrote “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.” The traffic calming effectively meant it lost any chance of appealing to out-of-area customers.

In the 1980s I remember visiting the then newly-opened Shady Oak in Bramhall for lunch when working nearby, but afterwards the estate on which it was situated received “the treatment” and it wasn’t long before it went evenings-only during the week*. And the dramatic pub carnage in Mottram and Broadbottom, with seven out of eight having closed, surely can’t be entirely unrelated to another severe hump scheme installed during the Nineties.

Basically, if your pub is in a location that has been “calmed”, you effectively abandon all hope of attracting outside trade if there are any nearby alternatives.

*Although I see from the WhatPub entry that it now opens at noon every day. But, perhaps ominously, it’s owned by New River Retail

Tuesday 27 September 2016

A case in point

The Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme provides an excellent case study of the issues surrounding the viability and potential redevelopment of pubs.

It’s a large estate pub, originally built by Wilsons as the Conway to serve an extensive area of mostly fairly salubrious post-war housing development. It stands on the main road through the area rather than being tucked away off the beaten track. Around the turn of the century, it was sold by whatever company Wilsons had eventually metamorphosed into, to Hydes Brewery, who renamed it the Ryecroft Arms and gave it a smart makeover.

They never really seem to make a success of it, and it had a period of being plagued with trouble. So it wasn’t surprising that, in 2008, they submitted plans to demolish it and redevelop the site for housing. However, as I described here, the financial crisis put these plans on hold and gave the pub a stay of execution. The pub was kept ticking over but never received any significant new investment.

Now Hydes have decided to have another bite at the cherry, and have again submitted plans to demolish the pub and built ten houses on the site. As can be seen from the aerial view, there’s a substantial area of car park and garden surrounding the pub building itself. It’s the only pub for at least half a mile in any direction, but this underlines the point that nearby chimneypots are no guarantee of pub success.

As a going concern, Hydes might get £500k at most for it, but in that location ten new houses are likely to sell for £4 million. The construction costs will be less than half that, meaning there’s a massive profit on offer. If we were to listen to so-called “pub champion” Greg Mulholland, Hydes should be forced to sell it to another operator or community group for its valuation as a pub, but what’s to say that in another couple of years’ time the new owners might be equally tempted by the redevelopment value? As with many other pubs in this position, we’re not talking about just a building but also a fair-sized parcel of land.

Now, I’m not saying that nobody would be able to run a profitable pub business at the Ryecroft Arms, but my guess is that the only formula that would work there is family dining, which may not provide too much of an asset for the local community. And there are already plenty of other pubs within a short drive offering the same thing. So I can’t really see the council digging their heels in on this one, or locals clubbing together to try to buy it.

Perhaps the best option for the local community would be for someone to open up a micropub or bar in the parade of shops opposite.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Pouring hot and cold

The serving temperature of cask beer is a perennial source of complaint. On the one hand, many people such as Martin Taylor report frequent instances of being served lukewarm beer that has been festering in the pipe and has all the appeal of dishwater. This is something that has also often been highlighted by Tandleman.

But, on the other hand, you also often hear about cask beer being served chilled down to lager temperature, which knocks all the flavour out of it. And. a while back. Cask Marque were widely criticised for apparently not applying any lower temperature threshold to their beer assessments, resulting in plenty of ice-cold pints being given their seal of approval. They no longer do this, if indeed they ever actually did.

So I thought it would be interesting to run a poll on people’s experience of encountering beer than they thought was too warm, or too cold. The results show a wide divergence of opinion, with “a bit too warm” and “a bit too cold” neck-and-neck, although rather more felt that warm pints were much more prevalent than those who found the same with cold ones. Overall, 44% went for “usually too warm”, 18% for “about the same”, and 37% for “usually too cold”.

Maybe this reflects not so much personal preference as different patterns of pubgoing, with those choosing “too warm” more likely to be visiting pubs at slack times when the beer is not turning over, while those plumping for “too cold” drinking more in busy pubs where the beer is gushing forth from a chilled cellar.

The general view of the correct serving temperature for cask beer is somewhere within the range of 10-14°C, with 12-13° being the ideal. This represents a natural cellar temperature and will result in beer that is noticeably cool, but not lager-cold. Too cold, and the beer loses its flavour, and may throw a chill haze; too warm, and it starts to lose its condition and becomes dull and flabby.

I think over the years I’ve developed a good appreciation of what the correct temperature should be, and so can roll my eyes when other CAMRA members complain that beer I think is fine being “too cold”. Often they’re the same people who dismiss beer with decent condition as being “fizzy”. Up to a point it can be argued this is a matter of personal preference, but if you really see flat, room-temperature beer as desirable then frankly you don’t know what you’re talking about.

My personal experience is definitely that I come across a lot more warm pints than cold ones, but I would say more often than not I come into the category of the slack times pub visitor. It must be said, though, that on my recent trip to the South-West, where you might expect warm beer to be commonplace, especially when on gravity dispense, that only one out of ten pubs visited didn’t dish up a pint at a decent temperature – and that was by some way the most expensive of the lot. I also recently visited a pub in the North where obviously I was the first one to order cask beer that session, as a generous amount of pulling-through resulted in a pint that was far too cold and not enjoyable at all.

However, at the end of the day, it’s important to remember than a cold pint can warm up, but a warm one can never cool down, so, while obviously best to get the temperature spot-on, it’s preferable to err slightly on the side of too cool than too warm.

Saturday 24 September 2016

A true thoroughbred

People have sometimes criticised this blog for its negative tone, although in a sense that’s the point. However, I’ve always highlighted things that I feel positive about, and one pub that is richly deserving of praise is the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano in North Somerset. I’ve reviewed this on my Real Pubs blog, and said that “I don’t think I’ve been in any other that comes closer to my personal vision of the ideal pub.” A recent visit only served to confirm this opinion.

I’m not saying that this is the best pub in the UK, or even the best pub in Somerset. But it’s hard to think of any other than more suits my personal taste. So what are the reasons for this?

  • It’s an unashamedly old-fashioned, historic pub, with dark wood, slate and tiled floors, old settles, a massive inglenook fireplace, horse brasses and old sporting guns on the walls. I don’t care how authentic it is – it just oozes tradition. Not surprisingly, it eschews piped music and television.

  • It has a sensible approach to beer range tailored to customer preference. Currently it has Courage Best, Butcombe Bitter, Otter Bitter and Bath Ales Gem as permanent beers, plus one rotating guest, often a bit stronger. All eminently drinkable local favourites, not weird experimental stuff. The Courage and Butcombe, which I assume are the best sellers, are on gravity, the others on handpump. I always like to come across well-kept, fresh beer dispensed directly from the cask. It’s good to see a nod to the pub’s brewery ownership heritage by continuing to serve Courage. And the Charles Wells version comfortably equals the one-time Bristol brew.

  • It serves food, but doesn’t allow it to dominate. Food is only available at lunchtimes, and not on Sundays. The menu mainly comprises sandwiches and snacks, with a couple of daily specials. It’s also good value for money, with rolls with hot fillings around £4.50, and paninis £5.95. I always like to see that kind of informal, snacky food in pubs. £4.50 for a lavishly-filled black pudding and mushroom roll was very reasonable!

  • It’s unashamedly a genteel pub. While I may extol the virtues of Sam Smith’s down-to-earth urban boozers, I always feel slightly out of place there. This is somewhere that I, as a middle-class gent, feel at home. Not full of pretentious, money-obsessed tossers, just normal middle-of-the-road country people. The South of England seems to do this kind of middle-class village or rural wet-led pub far better than the north – see also the Queen’s Head at Newton. This is what I used to love about the Nursery, my local pub, before it was ruined by food, TV sport and piped music. On the other hand, in the evenings, when all the eaters are long gone, I’d bet there’s some robust country conversation. And it’s always good to see a couple of old boys chewing the fat in a cosy corner.

So, a maximum number of Mudgie boxes ticked.

Astonishingly, according to WhatPub, it’s owned by Enterprise Inns. That just goes to prove that being in pub company hands is no bar to excellence. If you’re anywhere near, and have the opportunity to make a visit, please do. You won’t be disappointed. It’s known locally as “The Kicker” and its website can be found here.

Friday 23 September 2016

Lashed to the wheel

Greg Mulholland was one of the few Liberal Democrat MPs to survive the carnage of the 2015 General Election. Since his original election in 2005, he has sought to present himself as “The Pub Champion”, but to a large extent this seems to have involved championing tenants against pubcos, and demanding tighter planning controls, rather than standing up against the more general factors that have affected the overall demand for pubs. Specifically, I’m not aware he has any particular track record on opposing the smoking ban.

He’s recently given an in-depth interview to the Morning Advertiser in which he has raised the possibility of “super-ACVs” under which pub owners would be compelled to sell pubs to community groups or alternative owners at their valuation as a pub rather than the potential redevelopment value.

Now, I recognise that pubs can have a value as community resources that transcends narrow financial considerations, and that ACV listings, if properly applied, can give them a valuable stay of execution if they are threatened. I’d also support pubs being given protection from being turned into shops or offices without needing planning permission, subject to a reasonable minimum time limit of trading as pub.

But it has to be accepted that society changes and moves on over time, and that most of the current issues around planning and redevelopment are symptoms of the general decline in the demand for pubs, not its cause. It is simply unrealistic to believe that pubs can be preserved in perpetuity if the underlying demand is no longer there. In a recent blogpost, RedNev asked the question as to who says a pub is unviable, but surely at the end of the day the only test is whether someone can succeed in running it as a profitable business.

Any economist worth his or her salt will confirm the general progress of the economy depends on shifting the allocation of assets to more productive uses. If a pub is only worth £300k as a going concern, but £2 million if the site is redeveloped as housing, then arguably society as a whole benefits if it is used more remuneratively. A pub isn’t just a building, of course, it’s also a parcel of land, and very often, on larger sites it’s that where the additional value is to be found. Mulholland’s idea is likely to lead to already struggling pubs being passed on between a succession of ever more unrealistically starry-eyed owners before someone eventually gives up the ghost.

It also raises the question of who, at the end of the day, stands to benefit from redevelopment. If a pubco is forced to sell a pub at current valuation to another operator, or a community group, but a few years down the line it proves unviable, then they will rightly feel aggrieved if they lose out on the profit. And I wonder whether, in a few years’ time, we’re going to see the trustees of some of the current crop of community buy-out pubs that are being championed by CAMRA seeking to sell them for housing or redevelopment when they realise that, with the best will in the world, they simply can’t be run profitably.

Sadly, by seeking to ossify the current structure of the pub trade, Greg Mulholland is less the champion of pubs than the enemy of their long-term prospects.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Reasonable return

Last month, there was an outbreak of debate in the blogosphere about whether small brewers were getting a reasonable return for their efforts. Now, it’s undoubtedly true that many struggle to make a decent living but, on the other hand, when the general view of drinkers is that beer in the pub is too dear anyway, it’s hard to argue that customers’ reluctance to pay a fair price is to blame.

So what are the reasons why it’s difficult to earn a reasonable return as a micro-brewer?

One obvious factor is that, for most micro-brewers, it is to some extent a labour of love. They have taken up commercial brewing because they’re interested in beer and brewing, not just as a money-making venture. Most have either previously been enthusiastic home-brewers, or have worked for another brewery before venturing out on their own. This doesn’t mean that they don’t take the business side seriously, but inevitably, across the whole population of brewers, there is a slightly less hard-headed commercial attitude.

If your prime objective in starting a small business is to maximise your profits, you probably won’t take up brewing, and it can’t be said that people run carpet-cleaning franchises because they’re fascinated by carpets. I’ve listened to quite a few “meet the brewer” presentations over the years and, while people’s motivation and level of business expertise obviously varies widely, there’s only one I can remember (which I won’t name) that really gave the impression of having all the commercial factors thoroughly nailed down.

Added to this, it has to be said that a significant proportion of micro-brewers don’t depend on their business to provide a proper full-time income, either because they are retired, have another job, a rich daddy, or a working partner. This isn’t a bad thing, and may mean they can be more experimental and take more risks, but it does mean they can afford to take a more relaxed attitude to pricing, which may irk those who do entirely depend on brewing for their income.

It certainly seems to be true at present that there are too many small brewers chasing not enough business. A lot of keen people have gone into the business without giving too much thought to where they’re going to find customers. The result is a lot of cut-throat competition, with some brewers complaining that others are selling beer for less than it costs them to make it, and several reports of beer being sold “off the books” without duty being charged. This can’t be healthy in the long term, and inevitably at some point in the future a shake-out will happen. The two trends of an ever-increasing number of breweries, and an ever-decreasing number of pubs, are bound to collide one day.

The prevailing culture of ever-rotating guest beers also makes it more difficult for brewers to establish any kind of brand premium. The varying beers are just seen as a homogenous, dispensable product. Even if your beer isn’t up to much, the pub probably won’t be having it on again, so it will be quickly forgotten. All cask beer certainly isn’t of broadly uniform quality, but when customers are confronted with an array of beers (and possibly breweries) that they have never heard of before, it’s well-nigh impossible for them to make an informed judgment.

Given that the underlying market conditions are unlikely to change significantly, the objective for brewers must be to develop their reputation, so that pubs are going to make repeat orders, and that customers perceive their beers – whether individual brands or the overall output of the brewery – as something they actively want to drink. There’s no magic bullet for achieving this, but that is what brewers need to aim for. Consistency, and having a product that stands out, not necessarily by being extremely distinctive, but by being of obvious quality, are vital factors.

There are plenty of examples of successful breweries who have achieved this. A very good example is Hawkshead, where many drinkers, on seeing a Hawkshead beer on the bar, will immediately go for it in preference to others. And brewers of a more mainstream bent such as Otter have prospered through providing a consistent, well-branded product that is instantly recognisable, and rarely disappoints the drinker.

Friday 16 September 2016

Fish in a barrel

Do you really want this lurking in your pint?
Last week, the Good Pub Guide gave us an object lesson in how to do a press launch – pick a single, straightforward message, in this case piped music in pubs, that they knew would resonate with their target market, and which generated acres of pretty much entirely positive coverage.

Fast forward a week, and what do CAMRA do for the Good Beer Guide? That’s right, concentrate on the widespread use of isinglass (a substance derived from the swim bladders of sturgeon) as a clearing agent in real ale, and suggest brewers should try to cut down on it. Surely highlighting this doesn’t exactly enhance the public image of real ale, and it also promotes the view that brewers should do more to pander to vegans and other weirdy-beardies rather than the normal drinker in the pub.

Needless to say, it didn’t exactly generate positive publicity, with many seeing it as a call for isinglass to be outlawed in beer. Of course the message was misinterpreted, but the press, as anyone involved in public relations should know, don’t exactly do nuance and subtlety. Give them a simple, unambiguous, newsworthy message and they will run with it.

And Roger Protz was wrong to even suggest that less use should be made of isinglass. He should recognise it for what it is, a traditional, long-established ingredient in beer. Maybe it would have been more diplomatic to urge brewers to produce more beers suitable for vegans. After all, if there is a market it makes sense to cater for it. But even that, if it involves changing mainstream recipes, would be a case of the vegan tail wagging the omnivorous dog.

Sadly, even when confronted with fish in a barrel, it seems that CAMRA are more likely to shoot themselves in the foot. Whoever thought this would be a good way of publicising the GBG launch really ought to be taken outside and shot themselves.

Monday 12 September 2016

Courting favour

I was recently in Whitchurch, Shropshire, and spotted the very appealing-looking White Bear, tucked away in a courtyard just off the central square. It was briefly closed for refurbishment, so I didn’t venture in, but it certainly looked tempting.

I have always been intrigued by these rare “courtyard pubs” which convey a sense of cosiness and intimacy secluded from the hustle and bustle of the main streets. Another one is the White Horse in Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, brewery tap for Evan Evans Brewery, which I visited last year. A third one that springs to mind is the Rose & Crown in Ludlow, once tied to Wem Brewery, which has recently been taken over and reopened by Joules. They do seem to be something of a speciality of the Welsh Marches and rural Wales.

The Old Starre in York, famous for its inn sign spanning the street, used to very much of this type, although now thoroughly modernised and deprived of most of its original character. Similar, although not quite the same kind of pub, are the historic galleried coaching inns such as the George in Southwark and the New Inn in Gloucester, and Whitelock’s in Leeds is a city-centre luncheon bar down a yard off the busy shopping thoroughfare of Briggate.

The Golden Cross in Shrewsbury, now more a restaurant than a pub, is down a narrow passage off the High Street, while the Boot Inn in Chester, while now extended forwards to Eastgate Row, used to be similarly only accessible via a passageway.

Are there any more that spring to readers’ minds?

Sunday 11 September 2016

Out of time

If you read this blog via the desktop site rather than on a mobile, you will have noticed that in the left-hand sidebar there are a couple of blogrolls, showing the latest posts on blogs I think are worth reading (although not necessarily ones I always agree with), displayed in date order, with the newest first. Something similar can be found on many other blogs, such as Tandleman. In practice, this is one of the main ways people keep up with new postings on blogs that interest them.

However, in the past week, something seems to have gone wrong, with blogs hosted via WordPress apparently having lost their timestamp and dropped to the bottom of the listings. This includes both blogs in the Beer and Pubs category such as Boak & Bailey and Retired Martin, and ones in the general category such as Frank Davis and Head Rambles.

Initially, it appeared as though this was a WordPress problem, but further digging by “Grandad” from Head Rambles has unearthed the following:

It looks like it's my old friends in Google are up to their tricks again.

It seems the feed reading blogrolls take their information from a yoke called Google Feed API. Google are in the process of depreciating that so it looks like the Blogger widget [and the Wordpress plugin that I use] are very unlikely to work in the future. A massive shame!

So it doesn’t look like the problem is going to be fixed, and I’m left wondering what to do. Do I continue with the current blogrolls, in the full knowledge that they no longer work properly and unfairly relegate many good blogs to the bottom of the list? Or do I think about creating a more limited selection of “favourite” blogs ignoring the timestamps, which on the other hand could disappoint anyone left out?

Saturday 10 September 2016

Spreading your favours

Following my recent post about the rise of family dining pubs, I thought I would ask readers what types of pubs they had visited recently. This poll gained an impressive 156 responses.

Gratifyingly, “traditional urban pub” topped the scores, with “cask-focused multi-beer freehouse” a close second. Wetherspoon’s was third, with “traditional rural pub” encouragingly coming in fourth. Every category of pub got into double figures, with “TV sports oriented pub” coming in last with 16 votes. Obviously more a reflection of blog readers than British pubgoers in general, but interesting nonetheless.

The question was raised in the comments as to why I had elevated Spoons to a pub category in their own right rather than just a brand. The answer is that they have effectively created their own niche. I could have called it “Town-centre value pub (e.g. Wetherspoon’s) but everyone would have known what I meant. There have been limited attempts at creating clones, such as the Goose chain, and some of the pubs recently disposed of to companies such as Hawthorn Leisure have continued with a similar trading format, but basically that particular category IS Wetherspoon’s.

Friday 9 September 2016

Pipe down!

The Good Pub Guide always comes across to me as more like the “Good Middle-Class Dining Pub Guide”, and its independence has to be called into question given that they charge pubs for entry. However, it can’t be denied that they have a knack for gaining plenty of publicity for their annual launch. Last year, they highlighted the widespread irritation at badly-behaved children in pubs, and this year they have focused on another common bugbear – piped music.

I’ve written about this recently, and it’s certainly something I find a frequent annoyance, although nothing on the scale of children. I’ve started a Twitter poll to give people the chance to choose between the two:

One reader and pub reviewer told the Guide: ‘At best it is bad manners foisting a random choice of music on you that you have not chosen and do not want to hear, at worst, it interferes with people’s hearing.’

Another complained: ‘Somewhere in the past, someone has persuaded publicans that canned music relaxes customers and encourages them to spend more. It doesn’t.

‘People go to pubs to meet their friends, be sociable, have a drink or a meal and discuss the problems of the world.’

The idea that piped music creates instant atmosphere is a surprisingly pervasive myth. There are two pubs I regularly go in, both of a broadly traditional character, which in the past were proudly music-free. Now both play contemporary pop music, either from the radio or recordings, despite catering to a generally mature clientele. It isn’t so bad as to drive you out, but it certainly detracts from the atmosphere. The absence of piped music is, of course, one of the many plus points of Sam Smith’s pubs.

Ironically, the Good Pub Guide’s Pub of the Year, the Horseguards at Tillington in West Sussex, does have piped music, but that is a carefully curated selection tailored to the customer mix and the time of day. If more pubs did that, there would be much less of a problem, but unfortunately too often it’s either the latest warblings of Adele, Beyonce and Taylor Swift, or some contemporary dance music chosen by the bar staff that is totally inappropriate for the clientele.

Now what’s the betting that CAMRA’s launch of the Good Beer Guide next Thursday will have nothing like the same appeal to headline-writers, and instead be the usual worthy guff about a record number of breweries?

Sunday 4 September 2016

A swift one after work?

Jeremy Corbyn attracted a lot of flak last week for his suggestion that the practice of after-work drinks discriminated against mothers in the work place. On the one hand, it came across as an anti-fun and Puritanical pronouncement from a well-known teetotaller, while on the other it seemed to demonstrate an old-fashioned and sexist view of women’s role in society. And you have to ask where that leaves the bar staff who are working through from teatime to closing time.

It’s also the case that after-work drinking has greatly reduced in recent years, which has made a significant contribution to the overall decline of pubs. It’s one of the major aspects of the decline of casual drinking recently discussed by Boak & Bailey. Outside of major city centres, it’s largely a thing of the past now.

A distinction needs to be drawn between employees voluntarily getting together of their own accord, and quasi-official “bonding” sessions encouraged by employers. I have to say I’ve always found the latter somewhat objectionable, which may have proved over the years to be something of a career-limiting factor. You have to work with these people – the last thing you want is to have to socialise with them as well! Work should be a source of income, not the be-all and end-all of your life.

I’ve also written in the past how I’ve never remotely seen the appeal. On the occasions when I’ve had a pint or two after work, it’s always completely thrown me off my stride for the rest of the evening. Maybe you eventually get used to it, but I’ve always preferred to hold off until after I’ve had my tea.

So, while I’m certainly not going to undergo an overnight conversion to Corbynism, there may be a bit of a point lurking in there somewhere.

Saturday 3 September 2016

Sticking point

Last week, I ran a poll which showed that a large majority of respondents thought that beer in British pubs was typically too dear. So, as a follow-up, I asked exactly what they would define as “too dear” for a pint of ordinary bitter. There seems to be something of a north-south divide in the results, but two obvious spikes at £3.50 and £4.00. Overall, 48% thought a pint had become too expensive by the time it reached £3.50, while 90% felt that way at £4.00.

I was recently in a pub on the fringes of the Peak District and ordered a pint of Taylor’s Landlord. I was expecting to pay maybe £3.30 or £3.40, and was slightly taken aback to be charged £3.70. For a one-off with a meal, you wouldn’t mind too much, but if it was your local you might be inclined to cut back a bit. You have to wonder about the three people who answered “over £5”. Even in London that suggests more money than sense. Or maybe they were just wind-up merchants.

The comments also brought up a couple of tangential points. One is that, whenever such a question is asked, someone always replies “depends what beer it is”. But, in practice, there isn’t much of a price differential between cask beers of the same strength in the same pub, and surely implicit in the question is the assumption that we’re talking about a beer you’d actually want to drink and is in acceptable condition.

I was also taken aback to see both Taylor’s Boltmaker and Harvey’s Sussex Best described as “mediocre, characterless beers”, with one commenter saying “I probably wouldn't choose to pay a penny for either of these beers unless it was the only option on a cruise ship or something.” The intention was just to ask a question about people’s general view, but I deliberately chose these ahead of more commonly available brews such as Doom Bar and Bombardier as they were beers widely regarded as top examples of the style. If you really don’t think much of these, are there any pale beers of 4% or less that you actually do like, or are you such an extremophile that nothing in the category appeals to you?

Friday 2 September 2016

Follow the money to the retail park

If you want to know what’s happening in an industry, often the best way is to look at where the major players are spending their money, as that’s what’s likely to influence trends in the coming years. While we’re regularly hearing reports about pubs being given “craft makeovers”, much of the serious money in the pub trade is being spent somewhere else entirely, in new-build dining pubs on retail parks and other suburban and out-of-town locations.

I recently wrote about the delights of the Vaults in Uttoxeter, but even that small town (population 13,100) has two of them – Marston’s Dapple Grey on the retail park, and Whitbread’s Water Bridge as part of the “Service Area” on the bypass.

A couple of years ago, borrowing somewhat from a blogpost by Phil Mellows, I wrote in my Opening Times column:

While these pubs cater for a different market than your average Wetherspoon’s, they come off pretty well in a direct comparison. They often demonstrate a much higher standard of seating comfort and materials, and also beat Spoons hands down in areas such as providing natural light and toilets on the same level as the bar area.

And they’re proving extremely successful, demonstrating that there are thousands of families across the country who, rather than cook and eat at home, prefer to go out for a meal once or twice a week. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed, informal atmosphere and value for money they’re looking for. It’s noticeable how busy these pubs can get around tea-time when much of the trade that traditional pubs once enjoyed has evaporated.

They probably sell a lot of beer too – after all, only one person in a family group has to drive. And virtually all of them will offer real ale. Yet, for various reasons – no interesting beer, not somewhere they regularly if ever go – this is a phenomenon that has largely passed under the radar of the Beer Bubble denizens.

I recently had cause to visit a classic example – the Corn Mill at Toton on the west side of Nottingham, owned by Greene King under their Eating Inn brand, which is pitched a little upmarket of Hungry Horse. Not surprisingly, it’s right opposite a modern retail park. As it happened, I didn’t have an alcoholic drink at all, for the combination of reasons that I was driving, it was a very hot day, and the main reason I was there was to help a friend move into their new house following a job relocation. But we enjoyed a decent, well-presented meal in congenial surroundings, and it was noticeable how it was fairly busy even mid-afternoon on a Tuesday.

It’s a very big place, with the floor area of at least twenty micropubs, ranging from a definite “vault” area at the back with pool table and dartboard (so no dusty welcome to drinkers here) through to “family dining” at the other end. I’m not sure whether that meant that children were discouraged in the area on the other side of the sign. Apart from the usual Greene King beers, there were a number of guests on the bar, including Draught Bass and some from local micros. As I didn’t try any I can’t comment on the quality. I didn’t check, but no doubt there was an East Coast IPA tap and a few bottles of Punk IPA in the fridge to give a nod to the craft beer revolution.

Certainly far from my ideal pub, but I have to admit that owes more to the concept of heritage than modern business. They’re also going to get people into pubs who otherwise wouldn’t dream of visiting them. And does the success of the new-build dining pub suggest that we are increasingly dividing into the two nations of “Retail Park Britain” and “Northern Quarter Britain”?

Thursday 1 September 2016

Doing what it says on the tin

The clue to what CAMRA should concentrate on can be found in its name

CAMRA is currently in the midst of a Revitalisation Project, which aims to take a root-and-branch look at the organisation’s objectives and priorities. One frequent complaint is that it is too dogmatic in refusing to embrace high-quality beers that do not qualify as “real”. However, that is missing the point of what it’s all about.

When CAMRA was formed, its core purpose was to promote and champion the independent breweries and their distinctive beers that had survived the takeover frenzy of the 1960s.That decade saw probably the most dramatic transformation in business structures, popular culture and the physical appearance of this country of any in the past hundred years. Modernity, progress and renewal were the watchwords, and anyone who sought to stand in the way was condemned as negative and fuddy-duddy. This, after all, was the era of the New Britain that was to be forged in the white heat of the scientific revolution, and was keenly embraced by both of the major political parties.

However, as the Sixties turned into the Seventies, the downsides in terms of the destruction of the traditional and familiar became increasingly apparent, and there was a backlash in popular sentiment. E. F. Schumacher’s bestselling book “Small is Beautiful” is often seen as epitomising this trend, and it gained wide public recognition in the TV sitcom “The Good Life”. CAMRA obviously was a major part of this, and there is a strong parallel with steam railway preservation, which shared many of the same motivations and personnel. It was as much about a sense of cultural loss as about a specific technical definition of beer. This was well summed up in a recent Internet comment from one Ian H who said:

“CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA”.
Arguably CAMRA went too far down the road of trying to tie down a precise definition of “real ale”, ending up excluding products and dispense methods that fitted the broader concept perfectly well. The outright refusal to countenance cask breathers is a prime example. The long-defunct Hull Brewery used to store lightly-filtered, unpasteurised beer in large ceramic cellar jars in its pubs. Now how quirky and traditional was that, but it was judged not to be “real”. Sadly, this gave rise to a widespread view that real ale was inherently superior to all other forms of beer, which was never really a defensible position and ended up causing a great deal of resentment.

But the problem with any formal embrace of “non-real” beers is that, once you abandon an objective standard, even if an imperfect one, then what are you left with apart from “beers I happen to like”? The famous 20th century writer and commentator G. K. Chesterton once said “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” It just opens the door for subjective favouritism and outright beer snobbery.

CAMRA is not, and never has been, a generalised campaign for All Good Beer. If some of its members have at times given that impression, they have been wrong. It is a campaign to preserve and champion a unique British brewing and cultural institution. The clue is in the name, and it does what it says on the tin. There are plenty of great non-“real” beers out there, and CAMRA members should feel no shame in enjoying and celebrating them. But they don’t need campaigning for. Real ale does.

(This is a reproduction of my column in September’s edition of the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times. I don’t normally publish these here, but thought this one deserved a wider airing)