Tuesday 25 April 2017

The Effingham Arms

A distinctive feature of Sam Smith’s pubs is a variety of peremptory notices saying things such as:

  • “The Brewery require all customers to leave within twenty minutes of time being called”

  • “No doubling up at last orders”

  • “The use of e-cigarettes is strictly forbidden”

  • “We serve beer with a traditional Northern head, but we’ll top it up if you really want to look like a Southern Jessie”

The latest commandment to be handed down on a tablet of stone from Tadcaster is a total prohibition of swearing, which has attracted a good deal of press and social media comment.

An obvious problem is how you define swearing in the first place. Is it just the well-known c-, f- and w- words, or would it extend to “Jesus Christ, what a bloody cockwomble!” And, as Richard Coldwell points out, given the distinctly down-to-earth nature of many of Sams’ pubs and their clientele, it could prove rather difficult to enforce, not to mention alienating the regular customers. He says, with a memorable turn of phrase, “trying to enforce a swearing ban in somewhere like the very busy General Eliott or The Duncan in Leeds city centre would be like trying to plait snot.” (Incidentally, credit to Richard for the picture reproduced above)

I’m old enough not to be shocked by swearing, but I have to say that the sound of other customers continually effing and blinding can lower the tone in pubs and produce a somewhat uncomfortable atmosphere, especially when combined with a generally rather coarse line of conversation. As I reported in my Opening Times column back in 2004,

IF YOU'RE a frequent pubgoer, it doesn’t do to be a shrinking violet. Robust language and forthright opinions are commonplace, but what’s acceptable at one place and time might not go down too well across the board. One Sunday lunchtime I was in what can only be described as a rather genteel pub, when a group of lads came in to have a meal. They proceeded to engage in a conversation that nobody else in the room could have failed to overhear, liberally laced with four-letter words and including detailed accounts of their sordid holiday exploits that left little to the imagination. They weren’t at all threatening, and this was nothing that would have been out of place in a city centre at ten o’clock on Friday night, but in an environment where there were pensioners just wanting a quiet drink, and families eating lunch with children, it was distinctly jarring.

Surely in a situation like this the old-fashioned landlord would have come into his own with a well-timed intervention of “come on lads, mind your language!”

This, as you might have guessed. was in the Nursery, my local pub in Heaton Norris. I can’t say I come across such egregious swearing in pubs very often, but the one place I encounter it most is maybe in Wetherspoon’s, which tend to attract a younger and more downmarket clientele than most of the other pubs I frequent. On the other hand, a no swearing policy has long applied in Ye Olde Vic in Edgeley, the community-owned free house.

So maybe this is an area, rather like certain other issues, where there’s a good case for reinstating the traditional distinction between public bar and lounge, where there’s an expectation that different standards of conduct apply. To quote Richard Coldwell again, “Industrial clothing and language should always remain strictly within the tap room, in my opinion.”

Friday 21 April 2017

White trash

From time to time, the authorities have a go at trying to single out categories of alcoholic drinks that they think are consumed disproportionately by “problem drinkers”. A few years ago, it was high-strength “super” lagers, which gave rise to the additional “Old Tom tax” on any beers over 7.5% ABV. It doesn’t seem to have done much to eradicate them, though, and in my local corner shop you can still buy four cans for £6, which equates to 37.5p per unit. It seems that the additional tax is largely absorbed in lower margins rather than being passed on to the consumer.

Most of them do seem to have been reformulated to 8% ABV rather than 9%, but that’s basically to avoid falling foul of the alcohol nannies by having more units in a single-use can than the daily recommendation. And, of course, many high-quality “craft” products such as the aforementioned Old Tom fell into the net of the tax, underlining the point that it’s impossible to distinguish in law between what are perceived as “good” and “bad” drinks.

The latest product to hove into their sights is “white cider”, with the government currently consulting on ways of increasing the tax level on this product, which benefits from the much lower duty rate attached to cider rather than beer. A few years back, a requirement was introduced that any product classified as cider for duty purposes had to contain at least 35% apple juice amongst the fermentable materials. However, it seems that white ciders still fall within this definition, despite reputedly being mainly composed of high-fructose corn syrup.

I can’t say I’ve ever tried any white cider, as my student days were well before it had been invented, and I have no plans to change that. And it’s hard to argue that it falls even within the broadest definition of connoisseurship. But we have to be very careful to avoid falling into the trap of categorising some alcoholic drinks as “bad” and others as “good”, purely because the latter are more expensive. If you’re swigging cheap gutrot, you’re a pisshead, if I’m sipping expensive craft beer, malt whisky or claret, I’m a discerning connoisseur. As this Daily Mash article says:

GETTING drunk while looking after your children is fine if you are drinking Chablis rather than WKD, it has been confirmed.

Middle class mother Eleanor Shaw and her friends regularly drink ‘some’ bottles of Chablis during their children’s play dates, insisting it is a civilised approach to parenting and ‘something French people probably do’.

Shaw said: “Chablis is a cultivated drink filled with interesting ‘notes’. It’s not like we’re just getting shitfaced.

“Sometimes we describe it using words like ‘biscuity’.”

She added: “Of course, if one of my friends turned up with a bottle of Tesco own-brand vodka I would confiscate it and then report the bitch to social services. Chablis is barely alcohol at all, really.

It’s also very nice if you mix it with half a pint of artisan gin and then stand on the kitchen table singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

This is an attitude that is sadly very common amongst beer-lovers. But, at the end of the day, however much we may savour the taste and character, nobody can ignore that fact that alcohol has an effect on you. Not necessarily an instant road to oblivion, but certainly a gentle warm glow or a lubricant of sociability. You wouldn’t drink it in the same way if it didn’t.

And I would expect that most of the drinkers of white ciders, like those of super lagers, are not derelicts or hopeless alcoholics, but simply generally responsible people who prefer to go a bit higher on the volume/strength trade-off. In general, they’re no cheaper per unit than weaker drinks in the same category, so they can’t be regarded simply as being chosen on the bangs-per-buck ratio. People just don’t want to have to drink large quantities of liquid to achieve the desired effect.

So it’s good to see Gordon Johncox of Frosty Jack’s maker Aston Manor having the courage of his convictions to challenge the attempts by anti-alcohol campaigners to single out white cider.

“There is a constant barrage of criticism and unsubstantiated points made around white cider, who drinks it and why they drink it, from all sorts of bodies.

“We got frustrated with the headlines that were being achieved by some of these well-intentioned but ultimately misguided bodies, and we have actually written to some challenging them.

“The research shows that the typical white cider drinker is very different to the demon presented by some of the bodies. We have written to the Alcohol Health Alliance. They have not replied yet.

“We are going to be far more robust in our challenges than we have been in the past. It’s just wrong that these bodies should be able to get away with making unsubstantiated claims.”

It’s a pity other producers of alcoholic drinks aren’t willing to make a similarly robust response rather than just quietly appeasing the neo-Prohibitionists and hoping they will go away.

As Chris Snowdon argues in the article, if you tax white cider off the shelves, problem drinkers will simply move on to something else. And one of the most obvious destinations is normal “amber” cider where, as I’ve argued before, the line between high-quality craft product and cheap, high-strength booze can be a very fine one.

Then there are all those genuinely artisanal West County farmhouse cidermakers who win numerous awards at CAMRA festivals. But you do wonder whether they actually end up selling much of their production to red-faced old boys who turn up at the farm gate in rusty Lada Nivas with a handful of plastic containers.
In my local Home Bargains, you can buy a four-pack of 500ml cans of 7.5% ABV HCC Black cider for £2.99, which is a mere 20p per unit. But that’s proper cider, not white cider, so it would escape any crackdown that focused solely on the latter.

Of course, you can simply use a big hammer and indiscriminately apply a minimum unit price to everything. But that, as I’ve pointed out before, would kill small farmhouse cidermakers stone dead, or at least ensure that they stopped selling any commercially.

At the end of the day, any legislative attempts to single out “bad” alcoholic drinks are likely to be fraught with problems of definition and end up bringing within the net all kinds of products that weren’t intended. Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.

Monday 17 April 2017

Micro appeal

A point about this blog that some people seem to struggle with is that the fact I don’t show much enthusiasm for something doesn’t mean I actively dislike it. This is a point I made in this blogpost, where I argued that you can’t expect people to be enthusiastic about everything. If you’re a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, you’re still likely to use many examples of modern architecture, recognise some as efficient and functional and even, in a few cases, like their design. But it doesn’t mean they’re something you want to pursue or champion as a leisure interest.

There are plenty of things in the world of pubs and beer that for me fall into this category, including most of what has been promoted as “craft beer”. And another is the micropubs that have blossomed in recent years. Now there is one very good thing about micropubs, in that they demonstrate that free markets work. Make it easier for people to open new drinking establishments and, where there is the demand, they will spring up to replace the big, old-fashioned pubs that have struggled to prosper in a changed climate for the licensed trade. But, as places that I personally want to visit as a drinker, they tend to leave me cold.

The first problem is that they generally seem rather Spartan and lacking in comfort. They’re usually devoid of upholstered benches and comfortable chairs, and high-level posing tables and hard stools often predominate. The photo, of the Hopper’s Hut in Bexley, underlines the point, although it is perhaps at the extreme of stark functionality. Indeed, last year I walked out of one GBG-listed micropub in Deal in Kent because there was no seating on offer apart from high-level stools.

Allied to this is the enforced sociability. In traditional pubs, even the smallest ones, it’s generally recognised that it’s up to you whether you want to engage with the company or just enjoy a quiet drink on your own. But, in a micropub, it’s often difficult to avoid social interaction, whether you want it or not. Some people just prefer to mind their own business. Plus the clientele is often something of a monoculture, and lacks the variety of ages, sexes, classes and types of drinks which is often what gives a proper pub its atmosphere.

And they seem to lack that distinctive “character” that long-established pubs acquire over the years, both from their architectural and design qualities and from the steady accretion of memories and identity from a succession of licensees and customers. Partly that’s a function of newness, but you do wonder whether, in view of their narrow appeal, many micropubs will ever achieve it, and it’s certainly unlikely that it will survive passing out of the hand of their original owner. People will often travel long distances and go well out of their way to visit some traditional pubs of character, but it’s very hard to see that happening with micropubs.

On his Thewickingman blog, Ian Thurman was rather sceptical about the rise of micropubs, and I have to say I share his sentiments.

I’m unconvinced that micro pubs have increased consumer spend and therefore they must be taking money from proper pubs. I’m all for innovation and letting the market decide but for the reasons described above I’m not sure we have a level playing field for pubs v micro pubs. As increasing numbers of micro pubs hit the GBG (and hit trade in other pubs) we are, in my view, hastening the decline of proper pubs and we could be heading to a world of converted shops as our leading ontrade beer emporia.
As I said, I’m not against micropubs, and if they meet a demand and prove successful then good luck to them. I might even enjoy the occasional pint in one. But visiting them and writing about them isn’t something I choose to pursue as a leisure interest. And, to be honest, in general I’d much rather plonk myself down in Wetherspoon’s.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Turned over again

Last week, there was an interesting interview on the Morning Advertiser website with Richard Westwood, the MD of Marston’s, in which he made some salient points about cask beer turnover and quality.

“There’s a big decision to be made here and that’s a balance between consumer choice and quality. When you see pubs that, maybe, sell 200 barrels a year and have, six, seven or eight handpumps, you know there is a good chance you will be served a substandard pint.”
That’s a very good point. But, in fact, for most pubs serving cask, 200 barrels a year would be pie in the sky. As I wrote here, the average is far less, with many pubs struggling to even achieve one barrel a week. And the figures haven’t got any better. CAMRA’s WhatPub site reports 35,844 pubs currently serving cask, and the BBPA reckons that about two million barrels are brewed each year. So that’s a mere 56 barrels a year per pub, and that’s before taking account of cask beer supplied to clubs and beer festivals.

Given those figures, it’s hardly surprising that it’s so common to encounter beer that is clearly past its best. Probably fewer than 10% of all cask pubs really have the turnover to sustain more than two or three beers, yet the evidence of my eyes suggests that the average number of pumps is considerably greater than that.

Although it officially makes the right noises, given its long-standing championing of “choice”, this is an issue that CAMRA remains reluctant to confront. For every reference to a “sensibly limited beer range”, there must be ten mentions in local magazines praising pubs for adding another handpump. All too often, the Good Beer Guide comes across as the “wide beer choice guide” rather than the “well-kept, fresh beer guide”.

The case is made more difficult by being able to point to pubs like the Magnet in Stockport which successfully manage to keep twelve or more beers in good nick. But those are specialist pubs attracting an overwhelmingly ale-drinking clientele, and it is delusional to imagine that the same formula would be a guarantee of success in an estate or dining pub.

Westwood also suggests that brewers and pub operators should consider a wholesale switch from 18-gallon kilderkins to 9-gallon firkins. In some cases this is a sensible solution, and most microbrewers now seem to have adopted firkins as their normal cask size anyway. But it increases the amount of handling work, and of wastage, per pint sold, so it isn’t without cost. And, even using firkins, a pub with the average level of cask beer sales can still only sustain two beers on the bar if it is to empty each cask within four days.

Sadly, this is an issue to which everyone will continue to pay lip service, but few will really be willing to address.

Friday 14 April 2017

Spreading yourself thinly

I recently wrote about my visit to the Royal Exchange in Stourbridge, where well over half the customers were happily drinking the one – admittedly superb – beer, Batham’s Best Bitter. The following day I called in to a pub in a nearby town that had recently been acquired by a relatively new microbrewery.

This had six or seven of their beers on handpump, some very similar to others in terms of colour and strength, alongside a couple of guests. Not being familiar with their range, I chose one almost at random that appealed to me, only to get a hazy pint with a distinct bite of yeast. I duly returned it, and asked a couple of regulars standing at the bar what they were drinking. They recommended an alternative beer, and that at least was clear, although still a bit yeasty and not particularly enjoyable.

This raises the obvious question of whether that pub ever enjoys sufficient trade to turn over nine different beers quickly enough to keep them in good nick. And you also have to wonder whether brewing a large range of beers, some of which are fairly similar to others, is the best approach for a microbrewery.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to brew fewer beers, in distinctly different styles, that would stand a better chance of both achieving decent turnover in their own pubs and gaining attention in the free trade? “It’s yet another beer from XYZ Brewery” isn’t exactly a winning formula. And my heart always sinks when I hear that small breweries have put their entire range of eight beers into bottles. Again, wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on one or two that could stand out and make a name for themselves?

Quality isn’t something that happens overnight – it needs close attention to detail and a process of tweaking and refinement over time. Breweries would stand a better chance of achieving it if they concentrated their attentions on a smaller range of beers.

It also raises another point that often seems to be overlooked in the gush of enthusiasm for the opening of new breweries. Whisper it softly, but a lot of microbreweries aren’t really that much good at it. Some are simply incompetent and produce beers with obvious flaws and glaring inconsistencies. Most of these don’t last long, but a few inexplicably manage to keep going.

Others are competent enough, but make rather dull beers lacking in any particularly distinctive character, while some do achieve distinctiveness, but at the price of being somewhat one-dimensional. It’s like comparing the bold primary colours of a naïve painter to the subtle, complex shades of an Old Master.

Of course this doesn’t apply to all, and some of the finest beers in the country are made by breweries founded in the past forty years. But novelty certainly doesn’t automatically equate to quality, and often the best drinking comes from beers that have developed complexity and subtlety through steady evolution over the years, and have stood the test of time.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Put t’wood i’th’ole

The brief flurry of warm, sunny weather over the weekend reminded me of a perennial bugbear in pubs – flinging all their doors open at the slightest sign of the sun. I commented on this back in 2004. I suppose the aim is to appear open and welcoming and, well, “sunny”, but it ignores the basic principles of thermodynamics. No amount of open doors and windows is actually going to bring the warmth of outside indoors, and, at this time of year, a bright sunny afternoon often follows a chilly night, meaning that your rooms aren’t going to start the day very warm at all.

All too often, while it might be pleasantly warm if you’re sitting outside in the sun, indoors you’re exposed to a chilly draught. Pubs should only really be doing it if the sun is genuinely cracking the flags and several days’ hot weather has led to hot, stuffy conditions inside. And staff working up a sweat behind the bar may not realise how chilly it still remains in the far corners.

At least in one pub I got the impression that the people standing at the bar pointed out to the staff that wedging the doors open at both ends of the pub produced a howling gale past their backsides, and managed to get one of them closed.

Friday 7 April 2017

Curate's keg

It’s long been the received wisdom that keg beer, while it will never scale the heights that cask can, at least offers consistency. You’re much less likely to get a seriously duff pint. However, that doesn’t mean that the odds are zero, and keg beer, while it will keep longer than cask, is not immune from the constraint of shelf life and the need to keep lines cleaned. Indeed, the recently-published Beer Quality Report showed that keg beers were significantly more likely to be dispensed from dirty lines than cask.

Substandard keg beer is less likely to exhibit the glaring faults that poor cask does, such as being cloudy or vinegary. It will probably be just a bit flat, stale-tasting and possibly slightly hazy when you would expect it to be crystal-clear. This makes it rather more difficult to have the courage of your convictions and return it to the bar. Girl Meets Pint reports here that she received a substandard pint of Charles Wells Dry Hopped Lager – possibly not the pub’s best seller – but, understandably enough, demurred.

As it turns out, the lager was distinctly past its best, and to be honest I really should have taken it back, but I’m afraid to say I didn’t.
Incidentally, that’s a blog well worth following for its superb, detailed observation of everyday pub life.

I have to say I very rarely drink keg beer in pubs, so don’t have much personal experience to draw on. However, a few months ago, I was at a CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation at the Old Cock in Didsbury and thought I would try a half of Camden Hells lager, which was on tap there. It came out as described above – flat, stale-tasting and hazy – and, after about two seconds’ thought, I went back to the bar and asked for it to be changed which, to be fair, was done willingly and the difference in cost between that and the replacement refunded. Serves me right for swerving the cask, some might say. I assume it had been stocked on the instructions of the area manager, but in practice just didn’t sell.

With the growth in craft keg offerings, many of which by definition will be low-turnover, niche products, the risk of getting sub-standard keg beer is only going to increase. A further factor is that craft kegs are likely to be unpasteurised, and may still contain live yeast, so the shelf life will be less and the risk of something going wrong increased. As with cask, drinkers need to grasp the nettle and return what appears to be faulty beer rather than just grimly struggling through it. But, if something is designed to be a murky sour in style, how are you expected to know if it’s off?

Monday 3 April 2017

Time is not a healer

Last week saw the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket smoking ban in Wales, three months before a similar law became effective in England. Now, if you were to listen to the antismoking lobby, you would think that the debate was over, the world had moved on, and the ban now enjoyed near-universal support.

It certainly commands a high level of adherence, but that’s because penalties fall on the owners of premises for “permitting smoking”, not on individual smokers, and customers understandably don’t want to deprive the landlord of their local of his livelihood. But there are plenty of reports of things like this happening:

And, when you actually ask people for their opinions, a very different picture emerges. In a poll to mark the anniversary of the ban in Wales, 60% of respondents said that they would like to see separate smoking rooms allowed in pubs. Predictably, antismoking pressure group ASH dismissed the finding, saying that “health was not a matter of public opinion”, but this clearly demonstrates that the claimed “acceptance” simply doesn’t exist. In fact, I’m not aware that any polls have ever shown majority agreement with the blanket ban as it stands.

If something is wrong, it doesn’t become any less wrong with the passage of time. People recognise the ban for what it is – an unjust, draconian piece of legislation that has been highly damaging both to businesses and individual rights. The whole thing has been thoroughly filleted by Dick Puddlecote.

And it’s becoming abundantly clear that, far from smoking being treated as a special case, the tactics of tobacco control are increasingly being applied to alcohol, soft drinks and so-called “unhealthy” food. If you supported the smoking ban, but enjoy a pint, or a can of Coke, or a bacon butty, the Public Health lobby now have you firmly in their sights.

Sunday 2 April 2017

One door closes, another one opens

Towards the end of 2008, CAMRA set up a web forum. It was initially supposed to concentrate on specific campaigns to save pubs, but quickly developed a wider remit. Many of the boards were open to non-members, and it produced some lively discussions. However, it seemed to slowly peter out, not helped by the fact that very few of the National Executive members and other senior officers got involved. Matters were not helped when one particular moderator took it upon himself to start deleting posts on sight that he thought contained excessive quoting.

Rather than take any remedial action, or try to promote it more, CAMRA eventually decided to launch a new forum using the Discourse platform and close the previous one. Many existing users didn’t really like this particular software, but I suppose it’s something you would get used to eventually. However, the Discourse forum is a very different beast from the old one – for a start, it is restricted to CAMRA members and, while senior officers have got more involved, this has led to a rather serious and admin-heavy tone. There are also reports of heavy-handed moderation and posts expressing heterodox views mysteriously vanishing.

For these reasons, some of the active members of the old forum decided to get together and create a new forum which would allow the more wide-ranging and lighthearted discussions to continue. This has now been done in the form of the Beer and Pubs Forum. The old forum was closed in the early hours of Saturday morning, so this new one has now been officially launched. Why not take a look and see if it’s something that interests you?

It should be stressed that this forum is entirely independent of CAMRA and non-members are more than welcome. And the chap with the surname of Mudge isn’t me!