Saturday 24 June 2017

Forty years on

Today is my fifty-eighth birthday, and thus I’m marking forty years of legal drinking in pubs. I remember celebrating my eighteenth with a pint of Greenall’s Bitter with my dad in the Fishpool Inn at Delamere in Cheshire, a pub now hopelessly lost to gastroification. I don’t propose to do a survey of all the changes in the intervening period, although this post sums up many of the aspects of pubs and drinking that were very different back in 1977. And Matthew Lawrenson has encapsulated it with his characteristic mordant humour here: But, in the wake of the General Election result, can we even be confident we’ve got Brexit?

However, it’s worth briefly mentioning three points on which things have got markedly worse.

1. The hollowing out of the pub trade. Back in the late 70s, the total amount of beer sold in British pubs was almost three times as much as today. Since then, huge numbers of pubs have closed, many have gone over so much to food that they offer little welcome to drinkers, and many of those that remain are so quiet for much of the time that it’s like intruding on private grief. Even when pubs are still open, they have often severely curtailed their hours. The range of people who visit pubs, and the range of occasions when they visit, have both greatly diminished. This is especially evident on Sunday lunchtimes, once one of the busiest and most convivial sessions of the week, now often largely deserted except in dining pubs.

Yes, the trade has held up better on the traditional busy times of Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s possible to point out individual pubs that continue to thrive. But they’re a lot fewer than they once were, and succeed in a narrower range of locations. For most normal people, regular pubgoing just isn’t a part of their everyday lives in the way it once was. Yet many who give the impression of living their entire lives inside the “beer bubble” just don’t seem to see this at all.

There are still good times to be had in pubs, and from this year so far I remember particularly my visit to Bathams’ Royal Exchange in Stourbridge, the local CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation at Sam Smith’s Blue Bell in Levenshulme, and the excellent, bustling atmosphere in (again) Sam’s White Horse in Beverley. But it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that we’re enjoying the last rays of an Indian Summer.

2. The erosion of geographical distinctiveness in beer. Back in 1977, although some beers like Ruddles County often popped up in the free trade, Draught Bass was the only nationally-distributed cask beer. Even the “Big Six” offered regional cask beers from breweries in each specific area. There were also a lot more independent family brewers with distinctive beers and tied estates that have vanished now – companies like Camerons, Home, Tolly Cobbold, Matthew Brown and Border.

Of course there were areas such as Birmingham where there was a duopoly, and in total there is much more choice of beers now. But, in mainstream pubs, very often the beers on the bar are familiar, nationally-distributed brands such as Doom Bar, London Pride and Bombardier. And, in many pubs that do offer a wider choice, “perm any six from a thousand” means it’s pot luck what you’re actually going to find.

To my mind, something important has been lost by the dwindling of regional variation and identity. That’s why we should cherish the continued survival of breweries from Samuel Smith’s down to Batham’s and Donnington with a distinctive beer range and style of pub. And it’s good to see one or two companies like Joule’s and Titanic seeking to revive the tradition.

3. The disappearance of full measures. Back in the late 70s, across a large swathe of the Midlands and North, metered electric pumps were a very common means of dispense for cask beer, and often the norm. It wouldn’t surprise me if fully half the volume of real ale sold was electrically dispensed, if not half the number of pubs. It was, quite simply, a better system than handpumps. It ensured full measures, it was much quicker in a busy pub, and it took away from bar staff the ability to ruin a pint by poor pulling technique.

Yet it has now pretty much entirely disappeared, with only a handful of holdouts surviving. Of course handpumps give a clear symbol of real ale that electric pumps didn’t, but couldn’t CAMRA have worked with brewers to produce a distinctive meter design for cask beer? Plus, while I’ve long since given up getting too exercised over the subject, nowadays getting 95% of the measure you’ve paid for has become the norm, with smooth and Guinness drinkers often suffering most.

Thursday 22 June 2017

Top of the Moor

This isn’t normally a pub reviews blog, but as the Moor Top, one of only two pubs within comfortable walking distance of my house, has recently received what is reputed to have been a £1 million refurbishment, I thought I should pop along and take a look.

It’s a large estate-type pub that was built by Wilsons’ predecessors Walker & Homfrays in 1955. Being the only pub for half a mile in any direction in a fairly well-off residential area, you might expect it to have been a goldmine, but for whatever reason it never seems to have fulfilled its potential. At one point it even received the dreaded Pennine Hosts “yoof” makeover with predictably dismal results.

WhatPub? shows it as being owned by Spirit Group, who have now been taken over by Greene King, so I’m not sure what the current ownership situation is. However, it has been leased to an independent operator, who also ran the award-winning Damson restaurant opposite, although this seems to have now been converted into two separate establishments called Roost and La Cantina. It is they, and not the pubco owners, who I would say are responsible for the style of the makeover and the pub’s current offer.

It’s clearly a very expensive and thorough job which erases all vestiges of its previous “estate pub” ambiance, and even includes a couple of distinct areas separated from the rest of the pub by full-height coloured glass screens. There are plenty of bare boards, high stools and pastel colours, although there is still a bit of comfortable bench seating along the front. The entire front yard is now a well-furnished beer garden. The photo montage below gives a good impression of the general look.

As you walk in through the front door, you are met with six handpumps on the apex of the bar. On my visit there were five cask beers on: Moor Top Best Bitter (brewed by Stockport Brewing), Stockport Deluded IPA, Taylor's Landlord, Wantsum 1381 (from Canterbury) and Muirhouse Pirate's Gold (from Ilkeston, Derbyshire). The Best Bitter was in decent nick and refreshingly cool on a hot, humid day. It was a surprisingly reasonable £3.20, although I would expect the other beers to be rather dearer. All of the guest beers (although not, I suspect, the Landlord) are supplied through Stockport Brewing.

There is also a "keg wall", with seven beers, although it suffers from the boards not showing either the breweries or prices. A chalkboard for the cask beers showing prices wouldn’t go amiss either.

Not surprisingly there are no beermats, not even in holders on the bar, and my visit was rather marred by earsplitting shrieking emanating from an infant.

There’s a fairly typical menu of modern upmarket pub food, with the common contemporary problem that the zero key on the typesetter’s keyboard seems to have ceased to function. Suffice to say you’re not going to find a bacon barmcake.

The car park is now pay and display, with a £2 charge for up to 3 hours 24/7, and no refunds unless you spend at least £5, so no popping in for a swift pint. It’s understandable given the busyness of the location, but the minimum spend comes across as rather churlish.

It’s not, to be honest, really my kind of pub, and I can’t see myself making it a regular haunt any more than I did before. However, it all seems to have been thoughtfully done, including taking the beer offer seriously, and I’d say it has the ingredients to do well in that location.

Monday 19 June 2017

Feeling the draught

The government are currently consulting on ways to change the system of alcohol duty. The main objective is to improve incentives for lower-alcohol products, but that hasn’t stopped various bodies adding their two penn’orth. One suggestion that has been made is to reduce the level of beer duty for products sold in the on-trade in an attempt to give pubs a boost. However, an obvious problem with this is the possibility of pubs selling beer for consumption off the premises, and it would clearly be administratively complex and confusing to customers to apply two separate prices.

One way of getting round this would be to confine the duty concession to draught beer, which by definition is only sold in the on-trade. While a tiny amount may be taken home in carry-outs, in the overall scheme of things it is trivial. This was proposed by SIBA in their general election manifesto.

However, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just another case of special pleading, where a trade body calls for lower taxation on the particular products made by their members. And, as I have argued before, it’s highly tendentious to argue that on-trade drinking has any claim to being intrinsically “better”.

It’s also questionable whether a duty cut would make any significant difference to the balance of consumption. It’s generally recognised that minor tweaks to relative taxation levels have little effect on consumer behaviour. Despite the duty on them having been halved, sub-2.8% beers have made little progress in the market because people basically aren’t interested in drinking them.

The duty plus VAT on a pint of 4% beer comes to 52p. Even if that was completely removed, it would only reduce the price of a pint from £3.50 to £3. Is that really going to make much difference to levels of pubgoing? I’ve made the point in the past that, while relative price is a factor to some extent, the main reasons deterring people from drinking in pubs are non-financial. In any case, the likelihood is that pub operators would very often take the opportunity to fatten their margins rather than passing all the savings on to drinkers.

The conclusion must be that this is just another case of a trade body wanting a favour from the government for its members. There’s a good case for a general cut in beer duty, if it could be afforded, but having differential rates for packaged and draught beer would be ineffective and divisive gesture politics.

And, of course, most of the benefits would accrue to the brewers of Carling and Stella, not the members of SIBA!

Friday 16 June 2017

Unsociable drinking

Boak and Bailey recently posted a story from Bailey’s mum about how one pub went about turning casuals into regulars:
The second time we went into The Cobblestones the landlady came over and said, ‘Right, if you’re going to be coming in regularly, I ought to know your names.’
Now, my response was that I wouldn’t be too keen on that approach, and RedNev’s comment further down was in agreement.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m being antisocial. People are very different – some are naturally gregarious, others more reserved, and what comes across as a friendly welcome to one may seem intrusive to another. I’d be the first to admit I’m not the person who leads the conga line, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be open and sociable in the right context.

I have written before about how one of the great glories of pubs is that, by and large, you can choose to what extent you interact with others and, if you prefer to, you will be left alone to mind your own business. For many people of a quieter disposition, the very act of going to the pub acts as a social outlet even if they don’t get drawn into a session of lively banter.

There is an art to conversation that can draw people out without needing to put them on the spot or expecting them to reveal anything they don’t feel comfortable with. Very often it starts with that old cliché, talking about the weather. I choose what I divulge to others, and at what pace. Some may regard it as showing an interest, but to my mind being quizzed as to “What’s your name? Where do you come from? What are you doing here? How did you get here?” is a sure-fire recipe for ensuring I don’t go back.

Thursday 8 June 2017

X marks the spot

Today we’re having the second General Election in just over two years. For the past few weeks, I’ve been running an opinion poll in the sidebar of the desktop version of the blog. I deliberately haven’t promoted it at all on social media, so the results are rather more representative of wider public opinion than they were last time. Indeed, some professional opinion polls have come up with fairly similar figures. The original poll results and the associated comments are here.

If I put these through the Electoral Calculus model, assuming a uniform swing, the results are as follows, giving an overall Conservative majority of 24:

Conservative 337
Green 1
Labour 229
Liberal Democrat 7
Plaid Cymru 2
SNP 55
NI Parties 18

I’ve eliminated the non-voters and bumped up the PC/SNP vote share to a more realistic 5.5%. It may seem surprising that the Conservatives end up with an overall majority on such a small lead in vote share, but, since they were wiped out in Scotland by the SNP in 2015, Labour no longer have the edge in terms of seats per vote that they once enjoyed. The one UKIP seat is Clacton, which they would retain on that vote share, but are unlikely to do in practice.

I’m not aware that lifestyle issues have featured at all in the campaign. Sadly, it seems that, whoever gets into power, more things will be banned or restricted. But it will be very interesting to see what the final results turn out to be later tonight.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Festival fatigue

Last weekend, I spent three days working at the annual Stockport Beer and Cider Festival. Now, this continues to be a very popular and financially successful event. However, it was noticeable that attendances and beer sales were a little down on the previous year, which itself showed a small drop on the one before. This is a trend that is being repeated across the country, with even CAMRA reporting a loss at a national level following disappointing sales at the Great British Beer Festival.

Obviously, compared with thirty or forty years ago, the unique attraction of beer festivals has been eroded. Most sizeable towns now have a handful of pubs selling a constantly changing range of often brand-new beers, and many pubs and voluntary organisations are staging beer festivals of their own. If you wanted to, you could probably attend a beer festival within reach of your house every weekend of the year.

In comparison with this, the attractions of putting on a random selection of real ales in a draughty public hall with unpalatable food begin to pale, especially when it’s often difficult to ensure that the beer condition is on a par with that in the pub. This doesn’t mean that the days of beer festivals as stand-alone events are numbered, but it’s no longer good enough just to view them as a doing-it-by numbers method of making easy money.

More attention needs to be paid to the details that often put customers off, such as ensuring there are adequate, clean toilets, providing extensive seating, replacing stodgy institutional catering with street food and – most important of all – doing your best to keep the beer cool and serve it in peak condition. Using a festival to launch brand-new beers is a good way of attracting punters. Plus the objective should be to make it an occasion in its own right in the local social calendar that will appeal beyond the community of “beer buffs”, for example by associating it with special events and hiring entertainment that fans will travel to see.