Sunday 20 November 2016

No pub left behind

It didn’t take long for someone to win the Keg Pub Challenge, when blog reader Matt found that the North Manchester district of Collyhurst recorded a perfect 10 of pubs with No Real Ale. The distinguishing feature of all those pubs is that they unashamedly cater for a local, working-class clientele, although I can remember maybe twenty-five years ago when the Queen’s Arms on Honey Street was briefly something of a real ale shrine. The photo shows the Valley on Glendower Drive, the first result of the search.

It seems to be taken as read that, nowadays, “estate pubs” are keg pubs, but it wasn’t always so. I’m not familiar with those particular pubs, as it’s not my patch, but I’d bet that thirty or forty years ago, some, if not most, of them sold cask beer. I remember in the late 80s my local branch of CAMRA mounting a series of campaigns to encourage breweries to put real ale into some of the few remaining keg pubs. One where we had no success was the Garibaldi in Abbey Hey, Manchester, which was then a Tetley’s pub. Ironically, it recently did start serving real ale before, as reported by WhatPub, being closed on the orders of police. So what happened to cause real ale and the ordinary, down-to-earth boozer to part company?

I’d say the key reason is the shift from saying “the beer in this pub is real” to “this pub sells real beer”. There’s a subtle, but vital difference. In the early days of CAMRA, pubs just sold Mild and Bitter, or two bitters, and the customers didn’t identify it as being real ale or not, although they might notice that the real beer was better. If a pub “went real” it involved changing a keg or top pressure beer over to cask, not adding another pump. Across large swathes of the Midlands and North of England, real ale was more often than not dispensed through electric pumps, so there was no obvious difference at the point of sale.

Not unreasonably, CAMRA took the view that, if real ale was to be promoted, greater differentiation was needed. Most of the well-known beers associated with the initial “real ale revival”, such as Ruddles County and Ind Coope Burton Ale, were cask-only, and CAMRA began to press for separate branding for real and keg beers to avoid confusion.

But I’d say the key changes happened in the early 90s. The transfer of pubs from breweries to pub companies took away a lot of the kudos of being able to say “85% of our pubs serve real ale”, and the pubcos found that stripping it out made life easier for licensees without any loss of trade. Plus the rise of nitrokeg created a distinctive keg product for which there was no direct real equivalent, and which, at least initially, was something that many drinkers would make a point of ordering. I wrote here in 1997 how John Smith’s Extra Smooth was increasingly taking the place of cask bitter as the default choice in many Levenshulme pubs.

Another factor was the ongoing replacement of electric pumps with handpumps, which may have provided a clear and unambiguous symbol of real ale, but at the same time marked it out as a beer apart. If you wanted to avoid something that was inconsistent, potentially cloudy or vinegary, might involve challenging flavours, and tended to be favoured by Polytechnic lecturers with woolly jumpers and beards, you knew not to touch anything that came from a handpump.

In the North-West, we still have substantial numbers of family brewer pubs – Holts, Hydes, Lees, Robinsons and Sam Smiths – where the cask bitter remains the normal ale choice, and is consumed by large numbers of working-class drinkers. But, across the country as a whole, as I wrote here, real ale is increasingly seen as a middle-class drink, and is conspicuously avoided by working-class drinkers, especially the younger ones. Would a working-class bloke under 40 ever even contemplate ordering a pint of cask? And as for “craft beer”… Some might say that just displays how thick they are, but in reality working-class people have a pretty sound nose for pseudery and pretension of all kinds.

The Bobby Peel on Castle Street in Edgeley, Stockport, received an expensive refurbishment from Punch Taverns earlier this year, which also involved restoring real ale in the form of Doom Bar. But, when John Smith’s is available at £2 a pint, all day, every day, who on earth is going to pay £2.95 for a pint? It fell victim to the inevitable vicious circle of lower demand leading to lower quality, and has now, entirely predictably, disappeared from the bar. And it seems to be very common, as for example reported by Martin Taylor here, that pubs have a token real ale, but the locals just don’t drink it. “I can’t say I saw anyone else buy it, but at least I didn’t get asked if I was CAMRA.”

The question is, if you want to “campaign for real ale”, does it really matter that pubs like the Valley don’t sell it, and realistically are highly unlikely to do so? Indeed, some hardliners might enjoy a touch of Schadenfreude when keg-only pubs close down. To be honest, real ale is only going to succeed in pubs of that kind if it becomes the default ale option, not an expensive speciality. And I don’t really see that happening.


  1. I miss my XB, lovely drop on the right day.

  2. Beautiful piece of writing, whatever Cookie says in a few minutes...

    Would add, there are good keg pubs and bad ones.

    1. Well here we go, if you insist, like ;)

      If me and thee decided to campaign for trad fish & chips we'd go out and enjoy them. Might even award the best ones and recruit fish & chip enthusiasts. We'd have debates on malt vinegar or none brewed condiment. We might even enjoy it.

      We wouldn't expect every restaurant and take away to serve them.

      Beer geeks have never had it so good. Every town has more free houses serving a wider variety of beer than ever before.

      But because they count as "pubs" all the gaffs they wouldn't touch with a barge pole, from flat roof pubs to casual dining restaurants, and that number is in decline, they think they have a problem.

      A campaign looking for a cause.

      There is enough of what you enjoy. Time to enjoy it. Let others enjoy what they enjoy.

    2. Better than your last blog post, that one. Spot on.

  3. I don’t get this class thing. There aren’t any working class people in this neck of the woods!

    Being serious, for a moment, I would imagine that most of the people in the pubs you describe will be drinking lager, anyway.

    ps. Polytechnics morphed into universities years ago. Where have you been?

    1. There's load of working class people. You've just stopped noticing us. We're the ones with the nicer cars & clobber

    2. Whay does working class mean these days? Or, rather, what doe 'mudge think it means?

    3. I'm amused by the way Mudgie talks on behalf of the "working class" and presumes to know what they think when he isn't, never has been and never will be anything approaching working class (however you choose to define it).

    4. You don't have to be working-class to observe the shift from cask to keg/nitrokeg "Smooth" beer in some pubs. The break-up of the Big Six's tied estates and their takeover by pubcos is, as he suggests, probably at least part of the reason for it.

    5. Nowhere in that post do I claim that I am working class, or speak on behalf of the working class. But any excuse to have a pop, eh, John?

  4. Anyway Mudge. Didn't know you could get a £2 Fosters near Edgeley Home Bargains. Nice one. That and the Greggs. Stockport is looking up. Worth getting off the train in Stocky for the holy trinity.

  5. Most working class person ever21 November 2016 at 14:10

    For however many years you nice middle class people have been getting all nostalgic about pubs and doing CAMRA and pretending the middle class safe spaces you pretend are pubs are the "Best Pub in Britain" by giving them awards. No ones stopping you from continuing with this.

    Can we let you get on with that on the understanding you steer clear of our pubs please? The smooth bitter and fosters are a hint. Nothing for you here.

    1. "most working class person ever"? I don't think so dear. You wouldn't be blathering in blog comments. You'd only be using the interweb for facebook and shopping.

    2. Most working class person ever to comment here then21 November 2016 at 14:49

      I am prepared to accept I may not be the most working class person ever in the history of the world. Very possibly someone like Fred Dibnah was more working class than me but that is debatable as he was on the telly and they don't let working class people on the telly usually or at least they didn't before the BBC moved to Salford. I always thought he was an RSC trained actor with a double barrelled name acting the part.

      Not withstanding, I am working class. I am more working class than you. I am more working class than Mudge and I am the most working class person ever to comment on this or any other blog even if that is not what working class people usually do in the usual run of things.

    3. I'm sorry dear but's that's what the young folk call "bullshit" isn't it? You've no idea if you're the "most working class person ever to comment on this or any other blog". You're just a sad gob-shite (is that the word dear?) like the rest of us. Anyway, the lodger will be wanting his tea when he gets back from t'pit, and I've the water for his bath to heat, must dash.

  6. Getting back to the main point of Mudge’s post, are these bastions of “smooth” and Fosters worth bothering about? If you’re an avid real ale drinker, the answer is an emphatic “no”; but if you’re someone who cares about pubs, then some of these examples may well be.

    If you are of the opinion that these pubs could, under the right circumstances, be persuaded to switch to the real thing, then take heed of Mudge’s closing line, “To be honest, real ale is only going to succeed in pubs of that kind if it becomes the default ale option, not an expensive speciality.”

    It’s already been pointed out that customers in these marginal pubs are very much price driven, so there is little point in trying to persuade them to switch to a higher quality, but more expensive product.

    Obviously there are people who care about such places; especially if they drink in them regularly. For the beer enthusiast, and I include most CAMRA members here, they have very little to offer. True pub enthusiasts may disagree, but at the end of the day it really is a matter of “horses for courses.”

    There are very few pubs like this in this part of the south-east; although I’m sure Martin Taylor could recommend a few in the Medway Towns. Back in my student days, back-street locals had considerable appeal, but times change, and so do people. Pubs too have changed, and not always for the better.

    1. I think the conclusion of the article is basically that there isn't much you can do about it.

      However, it's important to remember that:

      (a) in the early days of CAMRA, real ale was often found in the downmarket, scuzzy pubs, while the smart ones were keg-only, and

      (b) it's still the case that, where cask and keg beers of similar style and strength sell alongside each other, the keg is more expensive. The Bobby Peel could no doubt have offered a cask beer in their "£2 all day, every day" offer, as Spoons do with Ruddles, but reckoned that John Smith's would attract more customers.

  7. These are the pubs i did in Collyhurst from 1992 through to 1995.

    The Milan Robinsons Real ale
    The Swan Greenalls Real ale
    Billy Greens Whitbread Chesters Real ale
    Robert Tinker Banks's Real ale
    The Wheatsheaf Bass Real ale
    Junction Inn Free House Real ale
    The Vine Boddingtons Real ale
    The Parkland Free House Keg only
    The Sparrow Tetley Real ale
    Lorimers Arms Vaux Keg only
    The Clarendon Marstons Real ale
    Queens Hotel Whitbread Chesters Real ale
    New Derby Arms Free House Real ale

    I have been in the pub pictured at the top but sure it was called something different and also think it was a Boddingtons house.

    That list of pubs i have been in just goes to show the decline of pubs in working class areas along with the few left open not doing real ale anymore.


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