Monday 27 February 2017

Selling hippy wigs in Woolworth’s

Hydes Brewery have recently carried out a major refurbishment of one of their pubs, the Old Star on Cheadle High Street (the Cheshire one, not the Staffordshire one) and renamed it the James Watts. “Who?” you may well ask. Well, it’s not the steam engine pioneer, and it’s not the outspoken founder of BrewDog. No, it’s named after a local worthy who was Mayor of Manchester from 1855 to 1857.

And, according to the sign on the front, he was also a “Master of Craft”. Yes, that’s right, Hydes have decided to revamp an old-fashioned local as a trendy craft beer bar. Changing a long-established and familiar pub name always strikes me as a bit of a desperate attempt to appear “with it”. In the real ale boom of around 1990, I recall Whitbread rebranding some of their pubs as “Tut’n’Shive” alehouses, including the long-closed Chapel House in Heaton Chapel which couldn’t even prosper as a Tesco Express. That came across as an exercise in bandwagon-jumping at the tail end of a trend, and is this really any different?

I wasn’t taking detailed notes, but there were maybe six handpumps featuring a range of different beers, but, significantly, nothing whatsoever from the Hydes range, not even their Beer Studio “craft” range. The two I spotted were Ilkley Mary Jane (which I’d seen in Wetherspoons the other day) and a beer from Three Bs Brewery of Blackburn that I think was called Bee’s Knees. The latter, at £3.10, was a pleasant but unremarkable pale bitter. There were eight keg taps including Kozel and Jaipur. I didn’t spot any mainstream lagers, but there was a “Vier” variant of one of the well-known German brands which I suppose would have to satisfy the cooking lager enthusiast. On each table was a beer menu listing an exhaustive selection of bottled beers.

It’s years since I’d last been in the Old Star, so I’m not entirely sure what it was like before, but it can be said with total certainly that Hydes have made the interior far worse. It is dominated by barrels being used as posing tables, with a long row opposite the bar and some more in what was once the vault at the front right. There’s just a small oasis of bench seating for older customers at the front left, plus a few loose tables right at the back. There was a group who presumably were survivors from the old pub who were saying “Well, I suppose if you try all the beers, you might find one you like”. It was also, on my visit, extremely dimly lit.

No doubt the neophytes and Year Zero enthusiasts will be creaming their pants over it, but to my mind it offers a profoundly uncongenial pub environment where I wouldn’t want to linger any longer than I had to. It’s also puzzling why Hydes feel so ashamed of their own beers that they dare not show their face. If you want a decent pint in comfortable surroundings in Cheadle, you would be much better advised to choose Hydes’ other pub, the Crown, even though it is a shop conversion from a few decades ago. And it seems that some of the locals aren’t too impressed, as the pub has already been the subject of a machete attack. Hopefully not from a disillusioned Carling drinker.

At the same time, Punch Taverns have recently refurbished the Dog & Partridge in Heaton Mersey. It’s a big improvement, with plenty of comfortable seating, even including some benches, and relatively little at posing height. The d├ęcor makes extensive use of wood, etched glass and warm colours. They’ve also reintroduced cask beer, but as it’s only Doom Bar, Abbot and Dizzy Blonde, there’s nothing for the beards to get excited about. But I know which pub I think provides the nicer drinking environment.

Wednesday 22 February 2017

A rare accolade

Wow, apparently I’ve been awarded the title of The Worst Person on Beer Twitter. I’m so flattered my head will scarcely fit through the door.

Maybe I should commission a special badge – a pubcat devouring a twild human infant, flanked by foaming pints of Boring Brown Bitter, and surmounted by crossed cigarettes.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

I have a dream

Boak & Bailey recently asked on Twitter if people had had any daydreams about setting up and running a pub that, presumably, fitted in with their own particular vision and ideals. Now, I’ve gone on record in the past about listing the features of my ideal pub, and if I was serious about doing it, it probably wouldn’t be too far away from that, although obviously one particular element would now be illegal. I also said that “I suspect you'd find you did all these worthy things and no bugger would turn up!” But sometimes, maybe when in a more mischievous mood, a rather different vision flickers through my brain. Let’s say I had a multi-million Lottery win (which I won’t, as I don’t do the Lottery). I’d buy a well-known, high-end gastro dining pub in a rural, village or small town location. I’d then close off much of the interior to reduce it to three smallish rooms – a main bar, a darts room and a cosy snug or parlour. These I would have done up in a pastiche of a late Victorian National Inventory pub, with ample bench seating and plenty of dark wood and etched glass, but no bar stools. It would be strictly over-18s only.

There would be no food, apart from crisps and nuts. Likewise, there would be no piped music, although I’d have a telly that was reserved for sporting events on free-to-air TV, especially the racing. The likely level of trade wouldn’t sustain many beers, so I’d probably just have Carling and one cask bitter, something like Thwaites Original or Weetwood Best. Draught Bass would be tempting, although probably that bit too strong. If there wasn’t enough turnover, it would have to go keg. Cider and Guinness drinkers would have to put up with cans or bottles.

Outdoor signage would be limited to a plain name-board and a sign displaying the hours. If the name had been changed to something trendy and pretentious, it would revert back to the original Railway or Red Lion. It would stick to the traditional opening hours of 11-3 and 5.30-11 Monday to Saturday, and 12-3 and 7-10.30 on Sundays. The exterior would have a general appearance of benign neglect. The whole intention would be to create somewhere that people would chance on and think “Wow, I didn’t know places like this still existed”.

As it wouldn’t, realistically, be a commercial venture, I’d have to employ a manager rather than a tenant. The job wouldn’t be a particularly onerous one, so it could be taken on by someone semi-retired who was looking to write their Great Novel. They would have to look after a pub cat, though, and keep a coal fire burning in the winter.

It might prove to be surprisingly popular, as I think there’s some life in the old-fashioned drink-and-chat pub still. On the other hand, possibly it would have absolutely zero customers. But I wouldn’t care.

Sunday 19 February 2017

Love of a lifetime

In my last post about Robinson’s reminiscences, I speculated that Robinson’s Unicorn, formerly Best Bitter, was possibly the beer I’d drunk most of in my lifetime. There’s no way I can know for certain, but the contenders are fairly limited.

Until the age of about 25, it was undoubtedly Greenall’s “Local” Bitter. I grew up in Greenall Whitley Land and, even when away at university, this was the beer I drank most often when home for weekends and holidays. Although widely derided, it was, when well kept, a good pint.

However, at the age of 25, I moved to the Stockport area, where I have now permanently settled. Robinson’s were the dominant pub owners and, as a bitter drinker, Unicorn was usually my beer of choice. Over the years, I’ve drunk shedloads of the stuff, both at CAMRA events and on my private pub visits. On the other hand, when it’s available, I now tend to prefer Wizard in Robbies’ pubs.

But there’s another contender – Hydes Original. My local pub for thirty-odd years has been a Hydes pub, and I’ve certainly got through loads of it in there. At one time it was my regular Sunday lunchtime haunt. In general pubgoing, Robinsons certainly beat Hydes, but my local may have swung the balance. I rarely venture in there any more, though, as it’s impossible to avoid one or other of TV football and reserved dining tables. If neither of those figured, I could probably tolerate the piped music.

And, coming up on the rails, there’s a challenger from the broad acres of Yorkshire in the form of Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter. In terms of lifetime achievement, it’s still well down the pecking order, but I’d say over the past few years I’ve certainly had more of that than any other beer. If I maintain similar drinking habits over the next decade, it will probably take the prize.

So how about you? Or does your drinking life consist of drinking so many one-offs that it’s impossible to contemplate which may have been the most frequent?

Saturday 18 February 2017

More Robinson’s reminiscences

There were obviously some things I left out from my recent blogpost about Robinson’s Brewery, otherwise it would have fallen into the category of TL;DR. Some would have amplified my points, while others were entirely tangential. So here are a few more memories and thoughts on the subject.

  • In my university holiday drinking days, we were based in Greenall Whitley Land, but a cluster of Robinson’s pubs in mid-Cheshire were just within reach, most notably the Rising Sun in Tarporley. A trip to one of these was always considered a bit of a treat.

  • In the mid-80s, the core of Robbies’ beer range was Best Mild and Best Bitter, which were available in virtually all their pubs. Plus there was the famous Old Tom, sold in selected pubs during the winter months. But there was also the “ordinary” bitter, basically a weaker version of Best, which was only in about 20 pubs (including the Queen’s in Cheadle), and a version of Best Mild darkened with caramel, which was in even fewer, at one time down to two. This underlines the rather quirky and idiosyncratic way in which the company was run. Ordinary Bitter was later relaunched as Old Stockport, with little more success, and it is only recently that Robbies have produced a proper standard bitter in the form of Wizard, which is an entirely different beer from Unicorn.

  • The company remained a bastion of old-fashioned family brewer management practices, with the three directors always referred to as Mr Peter, Mr Dennis and Mr David, and having car park spaces at the brewery labelled as such. It was their practice, as recorded in the brewery history, to open all the post, and you would get a personal reply from Mr Peter to even the most trivial query. Apparently Peter Robinson always used to order “Best Mild” long after it had been renamed Hatters, and even 1892. I’m not sure whether the staff now speak of Mr William and Mr Oliver.

  • During the 1990s, the brewery introduced a cellar competition, which had the effect of dramatically driving up standards of cellarmanship across their estate. In the bad old days, there were always some pubs where the beer quality was, to be charitable, highly variable, especially if you chose to drink anything but Unicorn, but that has long become a thing of the past.

  • In the period between the era of “Robinsonisation” and the current “Farrow & Ball” phase, they did actually carry out a number of sensitive and well-judged refurbishments. Some examples that spring to mind are the Railway at Rose Hill, Marple, the Armoury in Edgeley and the Red Bull on Hillgate.

  • Over the years, while they developed some flagship pubs, much of the estate, both rural and urban, consisted of what might be called “the ordinary Robbies’ local”. It might serve a bit of food, but had a strong core of regular customers, and very often a strong character as landlord. The interior often fell into the category of “opened out a little, but retains distinct areas”. A couple of good examples were the Waterloo just off Hillgate in Stockport, and the Traveller’s Call at Lane Ends on the road from Marple Bridge to Glossop. Both are now closed, and sadly the typical local boozer doesn’t seem to have much of a place in Robbies’ current thinking.

  • In the mid-2000s, Robinson’s installed an entirely new set of German-built brewing kit within their existing buildings, which represented a substantial investment in the future. Some people observed that it was a good way of dressing up halving their maximum brewing capacity, but apparently it still didn’t have the flexibility to brew sufficiently small batches of mild. Maybe they also need to set up a small pilot plant, as some of their competitors have done.

  • Dizzy Blonde is an excellent example of the modern “blonde ale” trend – hoppy enough to avoid blandness, but not so much that it frightens the horses. It’s very popular in the free trade, and on my recent pub tour of central Manchester it was in two of six non-Robbies pubs. I’ve heard talk that it now actually outsells Unicorn.

  • People often say of the latest seasonal “it just tastes like another Robbies’ beer”. Maybe it does, but every brewery has a house character, and to me that’s a good thing. Their beers are often dismissed as typical bland family brewer fare, but to my palate they’re very good indeed, with great depth and complexity. I don’t know for sure, but I reckon that over the years I’ve probably drunk more of Robinson’s Unicorn than any other beer. A few years ago, I often made a point of buying bottled Wychwood Goliath precisely because it was at that time contract-brewed by Robinson’s and had their distinctive flavour stamp.

Thursday 16 February 2017

Local antihero

When I first moved into this area in 1985, I was struck by how dominant Robinson’s brewery were in and around Stockport. In the town itself they owned not far short of half the pubs, and in some suburban centres such as Hazel Grove and Marple they enjoyed a near-monopoly. Indeed, after two Wilson’s pubs closed down, they owned all six pubs in the centre of Marple. They also had concentrations of pubs in places further afield such as Sandbach in south Cheshire and large swathes of Tameside. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) their strong local position, they were never regarded with the same affection as many other independent brewers, notably Boddingtons in the 1970s.

They served real ale in virtually all their pubs, and I always thought their leading product, Best Bitter (now Unicorn) was a fine beer, but it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. There are still CAMRA members around who will say “I just don’t like Robinson’s beer”. There was also the problem of selling a 4.2% best bitter as an ordinary, which led to complaints that it gave you a bad head. And, in the 1980s, they didn’t seem to take much interest in how well their tenants kept their beer so, while many were very conscientious, in some pubs it could be highly variable.

There were also dramatic contrasts in their pub estate. In the 1960s and 70s they seemed to have had an enthusiasm for drastic and self-consciously modern interior refurbishments, featuring white artexed walls, “Spanish arches”, low-level lounge-style chairs and fake bottle-glass window panes, which became known as “Robinsonisation” and gained them a bad name for pub vandalism. By the mid-80s these schemes had become dated and came across as very unappealing. At the same time, their budget for general repairs and maintenance of their estate seemed to be limited, which did result in the preservation of a number of historic interiors, but sadly left many pubs looking just run-down and tatty.

In the 1970s, they built a large new packaging plant on an industrial estate at Bredbury, and apparently at one time there were plans, never realised, to move brewing operations there too away from the cramped town-centre site. This seemed to speak of expectations never quite fulfilled, and I get the impression that Sir John Robinson, who died in 1978 at the age of 82, was a very dominant and ambitious character whose determination was not matched by his three sons, Peter, Dennis and David.

The company certainly didn’t rest on its laurels, most notably with the acquisition of Hartley’s Brewery of Ulverston and its Lake District tied estate in 1982. There was a continued trickle of new pub acquisitions, including some from the big pub companies in the 2000s, although Lees now seem to be more active in that field. The beer range was rebranded, with Best Mild becoming Hatters and Best Bitter Unicorn, and new beers such as Frederics and Dizzy Blonde introduced, as well as seasonal guest beers. But there was always the impression that they were a conservatively-run company who tended to be behind the curve, not leading it.

However, in recent years the next generation has come to the fore, with the leading lights now being William, son of Dennis, and Oliver, son of David. Across a number of fronts they have taken drastic action to deal with the radically changed environment in which brewers now operate. One of the most high-profile was the decision two years ago to axe 1892, formerly Hatters Mild, which only forty years ago had still been the brewery’s best-selling beer. The ostensible reason was that declining volumes meant that the brewery was unable to produce sufficiently small batches. Yet this came across more as an excuse, given that Holts, Hydes and Lees still continue to produce presumably even smaller quantities of cask mild, and Robinson’s themselves brew a keg smooth mild which could surely have been used as the base of a cask product. It was more a case of sending a message that Robinson’s were a forward-looking company who wanted to put the past behind them.

To be fair, they did at the same time introduce an excellent new classic “ordinary bitter”, Wizard, which I’d say has now become my favourite Robinson’s beer. They have also enjoyed great success with the Iron Maiden-themed beer Trooper, which has been exported in bottled form all around the world. Yet, despite this, apparently the current level of production at their impressive tower brewery is a mere 30,000 barrels a year, or less than two barrels a week for each pub they own. The official History of Robinson’s Brewery book does not give any production figures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at times in the past it has exceeded 100,000 barrels.

They have also carried out a drastic cull of under-performing pubs. The book records that, at the time of the acquisition of Hartley’s in 1982, the combined company owned 416 pubs, but it has now dropped to well below 300, with both urban locals and the smaller rural pubs falling under the axe. Locally in Stockport, well-loved favourites such as the Grapes, Waterloo and Tiviot have been lost. While this is just part of the overall trend that has led to the loss of thousands of pubs across the country, Robinson’s do seem to have been more thoroughgoing than most, and several pubs have gone that I would have thought bankers for long-term success. To their credit, they haven’t imposed restrictive covenants on any of their disposals, and a few have been brought back to life by new owners, but the majority haven’t. And there are quite a few Robinson’s pubs still open that I struggle to see enjoying a long-term future.

Part of the problem with the viability of their pubs seems to be that they seem unable, or unwilling, to provide a financial support package to their urban tenants to enable them to be price competitive. Robinson’s have never been known for being particularly cheap, but when their main competitors were Wilson’s and other members of the Big Six, this didn’t really matter. However, now they’re up against Wetherspoon’s, Sam Smith’s, Holts, independent free houses and some pub company pubs that do have seven-day low prices, they’re left very exposed. Even if both pub and beer are much better, if you’re on a budget it takes some commitment to choose to pay £2.90 in the Robbies’ pub rather than £2 for John Smith’s in the Punch house down the road.

With investment funds available, a growing number of the pubs that remain have been subjected to drastic and often highly insensitive refurbishments, with “removing obstructing internal walls” being a common element. The wholesale removal of comfortable bench seating, replacing soft carpets with hard wooden floors, and making extensive use of cold, unpubby pastel colour schemes, are typical features. One of the worst was the Bull’s Head in Halebarns, which their website describes as “a pub full of theatre and intrigue”, but I’d say is more a monument to impracticality and pretension. And their vandalism of the untouched, National Inventory-listed Holly Bush in Bollington was completely unforgiveable. Fortunately there are still some classic unspoilt pubs in their estate such as the Armoury, Blossoms and Arden Arms, in Stockport, but their numbers are steadily dwindling.

I was distinctly unimpressed by the comments of William Robinson about the smoking ban that “The pub trade has evolved to become much stronger and more inclusive”. Given that the level of beer sales has fallen off a cliff, that comes across as an exercise in self-delusion on a par with Spinal Tap claiming that their appeal had become “more exclusive”. Working-class beer drinkers were once the bedrock of their pubs, but apparently they no longer matter. Sir John must have been turning in his grave.

Obviously Robinson’s is a commercial company, and its directors must take the actions they see best to secure its future prosperity, which may need to include grasping nettles and slaughtering sacred cows. But, by their policies in recent years, I’m afraid the current generation have forfeited a lot of goodwill.

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Sloping pitch

The British system of alcohol duty is a confusing dog’s dinner. There are four completely different tax regimes for beer, cider, wine and spirits, and arguably a fifth for that bizarre taxman’s invention “made wine”. Beer and spirits are taxed by alcohol content, but cider and wine are taxed at a flat rate. The same amount of alcohol in different drinks can attract a widely varying level of duty.

Surely the time has come, as Christopher Snowdon argues, to sweep all this away, and introduce a single, flat-rate, across-the-board level of duty per unit of alcohol. On the face of it, this sounds like a very sensible and attractive idea. However, there is a significant drawback. In practice, it would end up discriminating in favour of producers of stronger drinks, especially spirits, because they are cheaper to distribute and store and, at least at the bottom end of the market, cheaper to produce than beer and wine.

“Well, you would say that, Mudgie, because you’re overwhelmingly a beer drinker.” Of course, but I’d say that a fair system would be one that, broadly speaking, ensured a relatively level unit price to the drinker at the point of sale for mainstream products. And, while there are perils in the excessive consumption of all kinds of alcoholic drinks, you can do yourself serious harm more swiftly and easily drinking spirits than beer or wine. A tax regime loaded in favour of spirits would not be a good idea. It could also be argued that brewing and winemaking provide much more employment and general economic stimulation than distilling.

Yes, there is a strong case for making alcohol duties simpler and more consistent. But there are good public policy reasons for stronger drinks bearing a heavier rate of duty per unit. Remember Hogarth’s comparison of Gin Lane and Beer Street?

Monday 13 February 2017

What is left unsaid

One of the proposals included in CAMRA’s Revitalisation Report is that “CAMRA should permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.” Now, this is a significant concession, although it must be said that CAMRA festivals are already allowed to stock non-“real” foreign beers, in both keg and bottled form, and some interpret that pretty widely.

But it is interesting as much for what it doesn’t say. Does it extend to bottled as well as keg beers, meaning that a festival would be entirely within its rights to offer bottled Old Tom, Boltmaker and Ghost Ship? Does it also extend to ciders, where the definition of “real” is far more obscurantist than that for beer? And does it go wider to encompass a more general acceptance that quality may be recognised and celebrated in beers that don’t quality as “real”?

I find myself aligning neither with the “all non-real beer is crap” diehards, nor with the modernisers who wish to extend CAMRA’s remit. I firmly believe that, in terms of campaigning, CAMRA should limit itself to doing what it says on the tin – supporting real ale, the breweries that produce it and the pub culture that surrounds it. But, on the other hand, I feel it has always been too narrow-minded in refusing to accept merit in any beers that fall outside the definition, and in too often insisting that “real ale” is inherently superior to any other form of beer. I would welcome a relaxation in the rules about what CAMRA spokespeople and publications can praise, but danger lies in any attempt to draw a hard-and-fast line somewhere else.

As I suggested in the linked post, while I wouldn’t expect to see CAMRA branches rushing to stock Carling at festivals, surely they’d be fully entitled to have a British Craft Lager Bar featuring the likes of Leeds Brewery Leodis and Hawkshead Lakeland, which could be a good way of attracting both publicity and punters.

And it would be interesting to see how this would affect CAMRA’s quarterly glossy magazine BEER. Currently, I find this to be a profoundly unimpressive publication, full of vapid puff-pieces and more like an in-flight magazine than anything with pretensions to serious journalism. It is hamstrung by its inability to discuss any products that fall outside the definition of real beer and cider. So might its perception be improved by being able to extend its remit to include some wider-ranging drinks journalism? As referred to above, a big feature on British craft lagers would be a good example. And maybe a feature interviewing licensees of keg-only pubs asking them why they don’t stock cask?

Saturday 11 February 2017

Money chasing customers

You may not be feeling it much yourself, but things aren’t too bad at the moment. The economy’s growing steadily, unemployment is at a ten-year low, and companies have plenty of money to invest. Scarcely a day goes by without reading of some pub reopening after a £250,000 refurbishment. Near to me, the owners are planning to invest a cool £1 million on doing up one pub.

But, looking at the industry as a whole, you have to wonder what is the benefit of all this spending. Is it actually generating new business overall, or is it just dragging the same customers around the stock of pubs in an increasingly desperate giant game of musical chairs?

From my point of view, all that even the tattiest pubs need is a deep clean, new upholstery and carpets, and maybe a bit of new loose furniture. The vast majority of refurbishments, when they involve any structural alterations, end up leaving pubs worse, not better. Maybe customers are attracted by novelty, but that soon wears off.

The best pubs, in my experience, are those that haven’t been knocked around for decades, and benefit from continuity and familiarity. But maybe, if you’ve already thoroughly wrecked a pub once, you’re fatally committed to wrecking it again every five years. It’s like a drug where you have to keep on increasing the dose to get the same effects.

Friday 10 February 2017

Is small beautiful?

Last year, we lost a Hydes’ estate pub, the High Grove in Gatley, to residential development. This year, it looks as though we are going to lose another, the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme. Something that occurred to me is that both pubs were next door to shopping parades, and a micropub in one of the shop units might stand a better chance of success than the archetypal “beached whale” estate pub, and provide some kind of drinking facility for the considerable local population. Indeed, the big, all-singing, all-dancing pub was probably something that always appealed more to the tidy minds of planners than to drinkers, who might have preferred something smaller and more intimate.

So I was interested to read that a micropub had been proposed for a shopping parade on a housing estate in Chesterfield. However, it has met with a perhaps surprising amount of opposition, with a 162-signature petition being lodged in protest.

The petition complains that the new pub would cause an increase in anti-social behaviour, including litter, vandalism and disturbance, particularly at night. It also claims the development would not fit with the ‘young family’ demographic of the area and could cause residents to fear for their or their families safety when passing.
On the face of it, this sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration. The typical micropub is somewhere that very much appeals to well-behaved, middle-aged, middle-class drinkers and it’s hard to imagine it being a focus of trouble. The factors behind the rise of micropubs are well described in this comment on Martin Taylor’s blog. The report goes on to say:
On the social-networking website Streetlife, Geoff W said: “I’m personally in favour of such a development, a micropub is not the sort of place lager louts would be seen dead in - they don’t play music, and there are no gaming machines. “They’re used by like minded adults to meet and to use the old art of conversation over a quality beer - you would not know it was there.”

And in a business plan submitted to Chesterfield Borough Council, the man behind it says he hopes to turn the shop into a ‘community real ale pub’. He goes on to add that ‘drunken behaviour is not a hall mark of this type of premises’.

However, by definition the capacity of a micropub is limited, and the dynamics of the situation are completely changed once the customers start to spill outside, especially if that is the only “smoking solution” available. If there’s often a bunch of drinkers standing around outside the front door, it’s understandable that residents may not be entirely happy. This will especially be the case if the customers are a bit younger, more lively and, dare I say it, more working-class than those of the classic micropub.

I hope that the application goes through, and that the fears prove groundless. But I can see why some locals might be concerned about it, and maybe it will need a ban on taking drinks outside, and a closing time earlier than 11 pm.

Monday 6 February 2017

The people's pint

Britain’s best-selling beer, Carling, had recently received a design refresh which I praised on Twitter for its clean, contemporary look and avoidance of any faux-craft design cues. Not surprisingly, someone replied “but it tastes of nothing, so why drink it?” But comments like that completely miss the point about why non-enthusiasts choose to drink mainstream beers.

As I argued here, ordinary drinkers come at beer from a different perspective from enthusiasts. They aren’t interested in novel or challenging flavours; they want something palatable and consistent that serves the twin purposes of refreshment and social lubrication. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or stupid.

Carling may have originated in Canada, but it has been brewed in this country for over fifty years and has become something of a British institution. It’s a clean-tasting yet fairly full-bodied lager, with to my palate a bit more taste and character than many of its direct competitors. I believe it is an all-malt brew and is a major user of British-grown malting barley.

Yes, as a beer enthusiast it’s not something I’d normally choose to drink in the pub, but I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. I’ve occasionally had a pint on hot days in pubs where it looked as though the cask had been festering in the lines for hours, and I certainly wouldn’t refuse it on principle at a wedding reception or suchlike.

“Cooking lager”, not cask bitter, has now effectively become Britain’s national beer, and in Carling it has a worthy standard-bearer. If you choose not to drink it, fair enough. But if you’re the sort of person who thinks it’s tasteless muck, or that people only drink it because they’re fools who are taken in by advertising, then you need to take a long hard look in the mirror and consider whether you are a massive beer and social snob.

Saturday 4 February 2017

Master of none

One of the improvements over last year at the recent Manchester Beer Festival was replacing official catering with independent food stalls. One of them was the What’s Your Beef burger stall, from which I had a delicious plain cheeseburger, fresh and hand-cooked, which was probably the single nicest thing I’ve eaten out of the house this year. Yes, it cost a fiver, when in Spoons you’d get a bigger burger plus chips and a soft drink for less, but the quality was far superior.

It didn’t inspire me to go on a burger kick as such, but during the following couple of weeks I’ve had two burgers in pubs, both of which were markedly inferior and had a distinct whiff of the freezer cabinet about them. Indeed, I’d say that the archetypal McDonalds quarter-pounder, when not overdone, would be better. At least it’s moist and actually tastes of beef.

This underlined a point that many writers about pubs rather fight shy of – basically, most pub food isn’t actually much good. It may be adequate and fill a gap, but if you actually want a good curry, you’ll go to an Indian restaurant, if you want good fish and chips, you’ll go to a chippy, and if you want good pizza, you’ll go to Pizza Express.

I recently praised Friends of Ham for specialising in one area of food, and doing it very well, but what most pubs do is the exact opposite. You will virtually always dine much better in a dedicated restaurant than in a pub, even if maybe a little more expensively. Where pubs do excel is in simple dishes they have prepared themselves from fresh ingredients – such as the classic ploughman’s and traditional cheese, beef and ham sandwiches and rolls – or have bought in from local independent suppliers, such as pork pies. But those are increasingly rare nowadays.

I’ve freely admitted in the past to being a distinctly eccentric and fussy eater, so I am reluctant to offer opinions of the subject of food. Very often, the criterion for food meeting my approval is simply that it is something I can eat comfortably without gagging. I worked out the other day that I had a BMI of 26.4, which just about qualifies as overweight. But if I actually liked my food, I’d probably be the size of a house. I remember a few years ago at a wedding reception being served up with some particularly inedible “rubber chicken” – but other guests were wolfing it down as if it was manna from the Gods.

However, for dishes that do fall within my sphere of palatability, I reckon I have a pretty good nose for what is good, what is merely adequate and what is awful. And most pub food struggles to achieve second base.

Friday 3 February 2017

Never the twain shall meet

On his Oh Good Ale blog, Phil describes the stock of bottles left over after pre-Christmas over-buying. It’s very noticeable how they divide into two distinct camps in terms of both price and bottle size.
What’s the point here? Just to say that the market is segmenting, and that the prices on the ‘craft’ side of the street really are rather high, when you stop to think about it. On the other hand, having a segmented marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean that beer drinkers have to commit to one segment and no other, or even that brewers have to – although sticking to one market segment would save you the bother of managing multiple different price ranges, which would have to be a challenge. Playing both sides may even become a necessity. There may not always be enough people willing to pay the equivalent of £7-8 a pint for an unknown style from an unknown brewery (or collab); equally, there may not always be enough people willing to pay even a couple of quid for yet another familiar bitter from yet another mid-table brewery. Sadly, beer owes nobody a living.
In the typical supermarket you can see much the same thing – a large Premium Ales section of both bottles and cans, almost all in 500ml sizes, and a rather smaller Craft section, again a mixture of bottles and cans (although in this case you can buy single cans) almost all in the 330ml size. The average unit price will be much higher in the Craft section. How many beer buyers, in practice, mix and match between the two, rather than sticking exclusively to one and ignoring the other?

In a sense, the craft brewers have been successful in carving out a niche that is easily identifiable by pack size, and where they succeed in charging a relatively higher price. The same is true in pubs of “craft keg”, which is immediately marked out as something apart from cask, and again commands a noticeable price premium. While it lasts, that’s a good place to be, but ultimately a niche is self-limiting, and the time may come when people start wondering whether it’s really worth paying the same for a 330ml bottle of this as they can for a 500ml bottle of that of exactly the same strength.

Cloudwater’s retreat from cask may look like an astute business decision, but isn’t it partly a deliberate avoidance of going head-to-head with the big boys? And you do have to question whether Thornbridge’s move from 500ml to 330ml bottles, often at much the same price, and often for beers of modest strength, will prove to be limiting in the long run. I can’t honestly see that in a couple of decades’ time 330ml is going to become the standard size for off-trade beers, nor a half or two-thirds for draught in the pub.