Friday 28 July 2017

Join the queue

Martin Taylor has recently reported on encountering a Post Office-style queuing system in operation in Wetherspoon’s in Cheltenham, something I have never actually seen myself, but have heard about in other locations. At first sight, this seems like an unwelcome development that subverts the usual interaction between customers and staff across the bar, and certainly my Twitter followers weren’t very keen on the idea. However, if you think about it, it does start to make sense in an establishment like Spoons. A bar counter is fine for getting your drinks handed to you immediately, and allows the customers to chat both to the staff and each other. However, in Spoons I’d guess that well over half of all orders include food, especially when you consider that many drinks will come as part of meal deals. As you don’t collect your food at the same time as ordering, the benefit of a service counter is much less, and it’s hardly surprising that cafĂ©s and restaurants in general take orders at tables. In the past, although it’s less common now, many pubs had a separate dedicated counter to order food so it didn’t get in drinkers’ way.

The typical Spoons has a very long bar counter and never quite seems to have enough staff, so with the best will in the world you can easily end up being served out of turn, and when it’s busy you may be in for a long wait. A queuing system makes sure everyone is served in order, and while it might not necessarily shorten the waiting time, it will make it more bearable, as you will be able to see clearly how long it’s likely to be before your turn comes. It will mean you won’t get stuck behind someone ordering coffees, as you’ll go to the first available member of staff, and it eliminates the problem of barflies hanging about and blocking the view of the pumps.

No, it’s not how a traditional pub works, and you do lose the contribution to pub atmosphere of interaction between staff and customers. But Wetherspoon’s aren’t really traditional pubs anyway, and in terms of how their business operates, queuing is likely to make things more efficient when it’s busy. If it takes off, you could even see the interiors of their pubs being redesigned with shorter bar counters divided into identifiable serving points, and display boards alongside the queue showing the food and drink menus. Maybe you could even separate ordering and collecting drinks, as in a McDonald’s drive-thru, so your drinks are ready when you actually reach the bar.

If anything, the Spoons smartphone app, which Boak and Bailey have written about here, undermines the traditional working of pubs considerably more than expecting customers to queue at the bar.

Monday 24 July 2017

Gone over to food

One of the most marked changes in the pub trade over the forty years of my drinking career has been the ever-growing prominence of food. In practice, there was a lot more pub food around in the 70s than the decade is often given credit for, but even so it has steadily increased in importance such that, for many pubs, it now forms the core of their business. It has become a truism to say that, outside urban centres, most pubs now could not survive without food.

The situation where this is perhaps most obvious is when away on holiday. For most people, going on holiday is about the only opportunity they get to experience pubs outside their own area in the evenings, when they are busiest, and the balance of trade is most representative. I remember in the 80s, when visiting pubs on holiday, that there tended to be a mixed economy. Yes, many now served evening meals, but there was also a good leavening of drinking customers too. Fast forward thirty years, and all too often they’re given over entirely to dining. For example, last month I visited a pub on the Isle of Wight on a Monday night. It didn’t obviously present itself as a “dining pub”, but I rapidly became conscious that I was the sole customer who wasn’t eating.

Obviously the main driver of this is changing social trends and mores, and pub operators can’t be blamed for adjusting their business model to suit the shifting winds of fashion. It may be a matter of regret, but there’s nothing really that can be done to reverse the trend. But you do have to wonder whether it has, slowly but surely, led to pubs metamorphosing into something entirely different from what they once were. Certainly, the new-build “family dining pub” that is becoming increasingly common would be unrecognisable from the perspective of 1977.

Back in the early days of this blog, I described this as “a strange hybrid kind of business that may superficially resemble a pub but in reality is just a second-rate dining outlet.” I know that particular boat has long since sailed, but I still can’t help thinking that we would have both better drinking and better eating if the two hadn’t merged into one.

Saturday 22 July 2017

The Brexit Arms

It’s taken as read amongst the beer writing fraternity that pubs, while they may be criticised for this or that, are unequivocally a Good Thing. However, out there in the wider world, this view isn’t necessarily shared by everyone, and over the years I’ve read a fair few articles by bien-pensant journalists arguing that pubs are, basically, well, a bit rubbish.

The latest effort is one by Marina O’Loughlin in London Eater magazine entitled Each to their Own, which was drawn to my attention by Boak & Bailey. This is a strangely schizophrenic piece in which, on the one hand, she accepts that pubs are just not for her, saying “Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with it, just that it doesn’t work for me” , but then going on to level a list of criticisms against them.

Top of the list is that they “don’t serve good wine”, which comes across as spectacularly missing the point. As I said on Twitter, that’s rather like complaining about the lack of guitar solos in opera – it’s just not what pubs are about. Indeed, it could be argued that many, if not most, pubs don’t even serve good beer!

She goes on to describe pubs, with a metropolitan sneer, as being “offputtingly Brexity”. Well, I suppose you can sort of see what she means – pubs have always been a bit anarchic, rumbustious and politically incorrect, and you can understand why fastidious people might turn their noses up at them. I’ve said before that pubs, at heart, are more Sun reader than Guardian reader kinds of places.

It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that the rose-tinted view of pubs as cheerful, welcoming centres of community life is all too often not matched by the reality. But, if you basically see no appeal in pubs, then wouldn’t it be better just to keep quiet rather than moaning that they aren’t something they never set out to be in the first place? After all, I don’t much care for gyms or dance music clubs, but I don’t complain that you can’t get a good pint of bitter in them, I just ignore them.

Friday 21 July 2017

A fit of the vapers

I spotted the sign on the right in the Prince Rupert in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which belongs to a small pubco called Knead Pubs. Similar blanket bans on e-cigarettes are commonplace, most notably in Wetherspoon’s, but the the faux-politeness of this one is particularly grating. It’s not much consolation to vapers that using e-cigarettes indoors is legal if the pub behaves as though it isn’t.

However, it illustrates a wider issue confronting public health policy. Despite indoor smoking bans and punitive taxation, smoking prevalence in society remains stubbornly reluctant to fall. In the past few years, though, there has been more sign of movement, which has been mainly due to the rise of e-cigarettes, or vaping. While many vaping devices do mimic conventional cigarettes, it is in fact somewhat misleading to describe them as such, as they don’t involve tobacco or combustion in any way.

It is clear that simply wielding a big stick is not an effective way of reducing smoking, and smokers need to be provided with an attractive alternative. However, the public health lobby has a big problem with vaping, not only because it falls into the category of “not invented here”, but also because it can be an enjoyable activity in its own right, not just a joyless smoking cessation therapy. The result is that they have been reluctant to endorse vaping, and indeed by going on about how its risks still need further investigation are in effect telling people to continue smoking, which comes across as an extremely callous attitude. No activity is entirely without risk, but it is pretty self-evident that the health risks of vaping are lower than those of smoking tobacco by several orders of magnitude.

It seems, though, that at last the public authorities are realising that encouraging vaping is likely to be the most productive way of cutting smoking rates, and this has been recognised in the government’s latest anti-smoking campaign, which is reported to involve urging millions to switch to e-cigarettes. But there is a lot of prejudice to be overcome from organisations, both public and private, that have found it all too convenient to treat vaping in exactly the same way as smoking. For example, I recently travelled on the Isle of Wight ferry, where both smoking and vaping had been banned completely on any part of the vessel, even outdoor deck areas.

Government, both national and local, and public bodies such as the education sector and the NHS, need to set an example by ensuring that the blanket prohibition of indoor smoking is not extended to vaping. If vaping is made no more convenient than smoking, then where is the encouragement to switch? And, while the principle of “my gaff, my rules” must always prevail, it should be made clear to commercial organisations such as pub operators that imposing blanket bans is distinctly unhelpful in terms of public health and, in effect, is indirectly killing people. The Welsh government’s plans for a ban on indoor vaping identical to that on smoking must be consigned to the scrapheap.

But the idea of vaping as a valid recreational pursuit is likely to be very difficult for many in authority to accept...

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Best of the rest

Last week, to mark the tenth anniversary of this blog, I posted a list of what I considered to have been some of my best posts over that period. Obviously such a selection can only be a snapshot, so I thought I would offer a second ten which further illustrate my key themes:
  • August 2009: Happy Days – a journey of discovery of adolescent drinking.

  • April 2010: Wooden wombs – at heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer.

  • October 2010: Premiumisation – why keg beers continue to sell for more than cask.

  • January 2011: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll...and going to the pub – we don’t see the 1960s as a boom time for the pub trade, but they were.

  • August 2011: Drip, drip, drip... – the effect of the smoking ban on the pub trade has been a slow erosion of sociability, not a one-off hit.

  • November 2013: Craft vs Premium – how craft beer challenges the conventional concept of a premium product.

  • December 2013 - A brief history of electricity – it has now been airbrushed from history, but getting on for half of all cask beer was once sold through electric pumps. And, in several respects, they were preferable to handpumps.

  • October 2016: Getting out of the house – the simple act of going to the pub can provide a social outlet for the depressed and lonely.

  • January 2017: A campaign designed by a committee – will CAMRA’s “revitalisation project” end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

  • January 2017: The Sam’s factor – despite their sometimes high-handed and eccentric business practices, Samuel Smith’s continue to run an estate of proper pubs to a greater degree than any other substantial pub operator.

Tuesday 18 July 2017

Craft corner

You would imagine that craft beer, with all its ebullience and self-confidence, would want to take on its competitors head-to-head in the market place. But, in reality, it chooses to differentiate itself so that side-by-side comparison is different.

On the draught side, it was always a cause of some discomfort amongst craft brewers that their products, in cask form, were dispensed by handpumps alongside the likes of Old Tosspot which exemplified the stuffy “real ale culture” they were seeking to challenge. So it was hardly surprising that they were keen to adopt “craft keg”, not just because they thought it was better, but also as a form of differentiation.

And, while craft keg facings may fit into the common T-bar dispenser, you’ll never find any craft kegs served through the towering, illuminated bar mountings that characterise Carling, Stella and the rest. Instead, the past few years have seen the rise of the “keg wall”, which is used to showcase a rotating range of craft products. In more and more recently-refurbished pubs, the draught beers are rigidly divided into three sections – real ales on handpump, macro kegs and lagers on tall fonts or T-bars, and craft kegs on a wall at the back of the bar. Many drinkers will look exclusively at one section and mentally blank out the others.

In the take-home trade, the craft sector has very much taken the 330ml bottle (and, increasingly, can) to its heart, in contrast to the 500ml bottle characteristic of Premium Bottled Ales and the 440ml cans in four-packs or slabs favoured by mass-market lagers. While many mainstream lagers are available in packs of smaller bottles, you never see them sold singly, and 330ml mainstream cans are virtually unknown. This makes direct comparison in terms of price per unit of volume, or indeed per unit of alcohol, much more difficult.

(As an aside, mainstream lagers seem to be sold in a bewildering variety of pack sizes, which seems to be a classic example of “confusion marketing”. How different from Germany, where pretty much everything seems to be in 500ml bottles and cans)

I’ve never been to the USA, so can’t comment directly, but I get the impression that craft beers there tend to be sold in the same package sizes and formats as mainstream ones, making direct comparison much easier. This article, for example, takes it as read that six-packs are the norm for both craft and macro beers. Yes, the craft costs more, but it’s very clear what the premium for higher perceived quality is. I can’t help thinking this may have been a key factor in its success.

It may come across as clever marketing that craft beer in the UK defines its own niche in terms of presentation and packaging. It’s not the same as macro lagers or BBBs, so why should it be sold the same way? But does it rather represent a shortage of ambition and a reluctance to take the fight directly to the enemy?

Saturday 15 July 2017

Not going out

Even such a dedicated pub man as Tandleman recently reported that, on one occasion in London, the combination of high prices and probably indifferent beer meant that he and his other half decided that staying in with a bottle of red from Tesco looked like a better option.

Ever since I left the parental home, I’ve been regularly going to the pub on various occasions during the week. Not any particular pub, just pubs in general. And not for any specific reason – just to get a change of scene, relax, chill a bit, do some peoplewatching, get some mental stimulation. But, sometimes you do start to question whether you just end up doing it through force of habit.

Is it really worth forking out in excess of three quid for a pint that may well turn out to be a bit lacklustre, especially if you have to drink it listening to screaming children and thumping R&B music chosen for the benefit of the staff? Or feel that you’re the only drinker in a sea of people chomping their way through mounds of chips? Or conversely, while there’s nothing wrong with a bit of peace and quiet in pubs, sometimes the place is so deserted that you feel uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience in plenty of pubs is still good, but it can’t be denied that all too often it leaves much to be desired. And it’s not so much a case of pubs needing to do more to attract customers, but to do less to deter them.

Or is just going to the pub for a pint or two itself becoming a thing of the past?

Friday 14 July 2017

Declaration of independence

A key element of the craft beer movement, starting in the USA, and now transplanted across to this country, has been championing small, independent brewers against the multinational giants. Not surprisingly, the news of craft brewers being bought out by those same mega-brewers has been met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth and claims of a sell-out. In response to this, SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) has begun a fightback by launching a scheme to indicate which beers come from genuinely independent breweries.

Now, I'm all in favour of transparency in terms of who brews what, and of standing up for independent producers. But it must be pointed out that all this will do is to show whether a brewery is a member of SIBA. Many independent brewers of both the family and tiny micro varieties aren't, but that doesn’t make them any less independent, or their beer any less good. It’s just a membership badge for a trade association.

It also has to be questioned how many drinkers are really that concerned about who brews their beer, as opposed to what it tastes like. Consumers are more sophisticated than they’re often given credit for, and I don’t believe that they’re genuinely being deceived into thinking that Camden or Goose Island come from independent producers. They’re entirely comfortable with the fact that big companies have lower-volume, specialist offshoots. Most of the finest Scotch malt whiskies come from distilleries owned by multinational drinks companies, but that doesn’t make them inferior, or deter people from drinking them.

In the early years of CAMRA, while it stuck up for the independent brewers who had kept the real ale flag flying, it always acknowledged that plenty of real ale, some of it very good, was brewed by the Big Six. Any kind of precise definition of “craft beer” is notoriously elusive, but are SIBA really saying that it cannot be produced by a multinational company, full stop? Not to mention the fact that there’s no shortage of low-quality slop made by small, artisanal brewers. Small isn’t always beautfiful.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Now we are ten

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, the creation of which was prompted by a certain event that had occurred eleven days previously. The very first post, which set the tone for the next ten years, was on the subject of Bansturbation. This is post number 1907, so I have made an average of 190.7 posts per year.

It is noticeable how many of the early posts were brief bullet points that nowadays would probably be reserved for Twitter. It was a couple of years before the blog started to attract any significant number of comments, or that I became aware of the wider existence of something called the “blogosphere”.

So here’s a personal selection of ten of my most significant posts broadly spread over the past ten years. It’s odd how some of my most serious and thoughtful posts have been the ones attracting fewest comments.

  • February 2009: Winds of change – the reasons for the decline of the pub trade in favour of home drinking go far beyond just relative price.

  • December 2009: Don’t call me stupid – drinkers of mainstream beers aren’t ill-informed, they just have different priorities from the enthusiast.

  • February 2011: Who wants customers? – would the pub trade as a whole really be much more successful if it did more to meet customer tastes? Strangely, despite making a very important point, this one drew no comments whatsoever.

  • September 2011: Taste the difference – contrary to received wisdom, pub food was often more diverse and of better quality thirty years ago.

  • July 2012: Whatever happened to pubs? – how did regular pubgoing stop being an integral part of ordinary people’s lives?

  • August 2012: The real reason why – changing attitudes to drink-driving within the law are one of the biggest factors behind the decline in the pub trade, especially outside major urban centres. And possibly a major part of the answer to the question posed in the previous post.

  • January 2014: Out of control – claiming that on-trade drinking is somehow more responsible than the off-trade is divisive special pleading that simply helps the anti-drink lobby.

  • March 2015: Last pub standing – in some less prosperous areas, pub decline has been devastating, yet beer bubble denizens just don’t see it.

  • May 2016: A taste of tradition – there’s a gulf between what you buy as a consumer and what you follow as a leisure interest.

  • November 2016: False equivalence – It is wrong and unhelpful to regard bottle-conditioned beers as the direct packaged equivalent of cask.

Sunday 9 July 2017

The old man and the pub

A phrase you often hear bandied about nowadays in a rather disparaging sense is “old man pub”. It refers not just to the clientele, but to a particular style of pub – broadly traditional, mainly wet-led, with dark wood in the dĂ©cor, abundant, often fixed, seating and a compartmentalised layout.

However, it’s important to remember that there has always been an age divide in the customer base of particular pubs. The idea that there was a golden age when all ages mingled happily in the same pub is something of a myth. For long, there has been a general pattern that people use pubs frequently when they are young adults, but then start doing so a lot less once they settle down, start a family and try to climb the career ladder. However, once the children are off their hands, they have more time and fewer financial commitments, and the greasy pole no longer holds such attraction, they get back into the habit once more.

So, at any time over the past century, you would have found a divide between pubs with a predominantly young clientele, and those whose customers were more middle-aged and elderly. In Portrait of Elmbury, published in 1945, John Moore describes a classic “old man pub” in the Coventry Arms in his lightly fictionalised version of Tewkesbury, “which has a little back parlour where grave old citizens like to sit in semi-darkness and sip their beer and talk of old times while the shadows close in upon them.” And, while such pubs may not be to the taste of boisterous youngsters, is it such a bad thing that they exist?

Thirty years ago, the fun pub, primarily targeted at younger customers, was an established feature in most towns of any size, but as young people have tended to drink less, and in a different pattern, these establishments have largely bitten the dust. And what, nowadays, is the alternative to the “old man pub”? The gastro dining pub, which is mainly used by well-heeled older customers anyway? Or the family dining venue, which will certainly have some younger customers, but which footloose young single adults will do their best to avoid? Or the sports bar, where the lads might come in to watch the footy, but at other times be conspicuous by their absence?

While we’re seeing trendy “craft” bars springing up in many towns, their customer base is only a small subset of the whole age group, and only materialises at very limited times. Try going to Stockport Market Place on a weekday lunchtime and comparing the number of customers in the “old man” Boar’s Head with those in the Baker’s Vaults and Remedy Bar. Plus, it could be said that the micropub, given its typical clientele, is a modern recreation of the “old man pub.”

Surely all that an “old man pub” is, is a pub that has survived through the generations without bowing to every fickle wind of fashion. Obviously not every pub will appeal to everyone, but if you have a problem with them as a species, then it’s probably fair to say you don’t really care much for pubs at all.

The photo shows codgers chewing the fat in the Olde Blue Bell in Hull in May this year. “If it weren’t all for these medical treatments they have today, most of us’d be dead”, one said.

Thursday 6 July 2017

Beer from somewhere, or from anywhere?

People often draw a connection between the modern craft beer movement and the birth of CAMRA forty-odd years ago – championing small producers against big, bullying corporations and promoting choice, quality, innovation and diversity. However, I would argue that the two arise from very different roots, and that the apparent similarities are a lot less than is often supposed.

The 1960s were a period of dramatic change, where progress and modernity were the watchwords, and anyone who sought to stand in the way was condemned as negative and fuddy-duddy. It was the era of the New Britain that was to be forged in the white heat of the scientific revolution, and this spirit was keenly embraced by both of the major political parties.

However, as the 60s turned into the 70s, the downsides in terms of the destruction of the traditional and familiar became increasingly apparent, and there was a backlash in popular sentiment. E. F. Schumacher’s bestselling book Small is Beautiful is often seen as epitomising this trend, and it gained wide public recognition in the TV sitcom The Good Life. This was also reflected in greater concern for environmental issues, more interest in preserving old buildings rather than sweeping them away, the rise of railway preservation, and of course the real ale movement spearheaded by CAMRA. This movement had the virtue of spanning the political spectrum, by appealing both to left-wingers wanting to fight big corporations, and conservatives nostalgic for vanishing traditions.

But, at the time, CAMRA was entirely seen as trying to support something that was in danger of dying out. Real ale was something produced by small, stick-in-the-mud family breweries that had escaped the takeover frenzy, or by neglected backwaters of the Big Six, and sold in unmodernised locals to a predominantly middle-aged and elderly customer base. At this time, microbreweries scarcely figured on the agenda, and there was no product innovation, merely an attempt to keep what we already had.

Of course, as we know, this touched a wider chord, and the big brewers started reintroducing real ale to many pubs, and introducing new brands such as Ind Coope Burton Ale to meet the demand. But this wasn’t something groundbreaking – it was merely a recreation of an old recipe. It could be argued that there wasn’t really any innovation in the cask sector until the appearance of golden ales in the late 1980s.

Likewise, microbreweries didn’t really appear on the scene in any significant numbers until well after the birth of CAMRA, and when they did they were generally just brewing beers in the established styles. The appeal was that they were small-scale and local, not that they were any different. If there was any innovation, it was in reviving old styles such as cask stout and porter. And the first wave of beer exhibition pubs were just showcasing a variety of brews from around the country that hadn’t previously been available locally.

In its early days, CAMRA was basically about enjoying and championing something that already existed. The self-referential aspect of beer enthusiasm, whereby beers were brewed and pubs opened specifically to please aficionados rather than the general drinking public, was some way in the future. The multi-beer free house was a fairly early development, but in terms of beer styles I’d say it didn’t really happen until the “pale’n’hoppy” movement of the 1990s. Even golden ales were an attempt to produce a cask beer for mainstream drinkers with some of the appeal of lager.

In the USA, the rise of the large corporate brewers had pretty much entirely wiped out the independent sector, and also most stylistic variety, so the beer revival had to start from a much lower base. Prohibition had been a major contributory factor, of course – surely something similar in the UK would have seen the end of the likes of Hook Norton and Bateman’s. While it took a lot of inspiration from CAMRA, at least in its early days, I’m sure something similar would have happened in the USA anyway.

But, without any established framework of traditional styles, American brewers were much freer to experiment, with the result that there was incredible outpouring of stylistic variety. There also wasn’t the aspect of defending tradition that was a key element in this country. Eventually, of course, they came up with their own defining national style – the heavily-hopped American-style IPA. Over time “microbrewing” metamorphosed into “craft beer”, and then made it back over the Atlantic to inspire the current British craft beer movement.

Significantly, a major theme of this was kicking against not the giant international brewers, but Britain’s established real ale culture. It is very well summed up by Bailey of Boak & Bailey here:

“In the UK, used to describe a ‘movement’ arising from c.1997 onwards which rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture. Brewers aligned with this ‘movement’ will probably produce kegged beers, and may even dismiss cask-conditioned beer altogether. As much about presentation, packing and ‘lifestyle’ as the qualities of the product.”
And this is something that is very different from what is generally understood as “real ale culture”. It is heavily focused on innovation and pushing the boundaries of style, taste and strength. It broadly rejects the traditional and established. It is overwhelmingly urban - the archetypal craft brewery is in a railway arch, its real ale counterpart in a small market town or in farm outbuildings. It celebrates technological innovation such as kegging and canning. It is avowedly internationalist and, while it may sometimes claim “green” credentials, it rejects a locally-focused, “back to the land” approach in favour of sourcing both ingredients, especially hops, and inspiration, from all round the world.

As you will have gathered from reading this blog, this kind of thing doesn’t strike a chord with me at all. I’m not against it, and indeed have enjoyed many beers produced under the craft umbrella, but, as I argued here, there’s a big difference between what you like as a consumer and what you pursue as a leisure interest. There’s obviously a big area of overlap, as after all both are broadly about “quality beer”, but the wellsprings of sentiment from which real ale and craft grow are essentially different things. One is, at heart, about tradition and roots, the other about modernity and innovation. It’s basically the Somewhere versus Anywhere division expressed in beer.

It’s very difficult to put your finger on the modern “craft” movement, and I certainly make no pretence to being a general social commentator. I blog about what I like, value and understand. But Boak & Bailey tried to grasp it in this post about The craftification of everything. It’s a complete departure from the established concept of “premium” products as an expression of good taste and status, and is more a case of trying to express your personality and values through your choice of consumer goods. If you choose a craft beer, it says something about you, or you hope it does.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Murdered by the smoking ban

This is a comment left on my previous post by Liam, who is on Twitter as @LiamtheBrewer. I reproduce it without further comment.

I can prove that 3 pubs shut because of the ban as the people who stopped going told me so and I know the landlords personally. All wet led, keg only pubs with substantial week-day after-work trade. Site workers after 4pm and factory after 6. They would do substantial trade up until 8-9pm Mon-Thur then quieten off.

The ban had an almost instant effect in cutting that trade because those punters were going for a very specific reason, to relax after hard (often very physical) work, before going home for dinner and preparing for another day of slog. When the smokers stopped going, their mates also stopped going and when that happened the few who were left started to thin out as there was no craic in an empty pub in the early evening. After a while some of those people also started to stop coming at the week-end.

Those, heavily working class, back-street, food-free boozers were already only just providing a living to their landlords/landladies. The tie, crazy business rates, increasing rent and constant harassment from the clipboard brigade at the council did not finish them off. These things hit their pockets, put pressure on already thin margins and increased their already ridiculous working hours as they were forced to shed staff

But the smoking ban, unlike all the other problems, actually removed punters from the bar. The domino effect began and sooner or later the savings run out and you have to walk.

It is this type of pub that has been murdered by the smoking ban. Not the sort of place that the ban's advocates would deign to visit. Not the sort of area where people talk about hop terroir or food-pairings. But the last community back-bone of already depressed areas where me and my mates would meet for a few beers, a chat and yes maybe a ciggie. Pubs that don't get in the guides, don't get covered by the self-appointed double-barreled beer gurus on the internet. Pubs that provided a meagre living to one or two people who've put their whole life into keeping them open.

The group who've been hardest hit among my acquaintances are working single men, often middle-aged (not a demographic that the crafterati think about very much) for whom the local was often the only social outlet they had. This has led to more loneliness and isolation in this group and, by their nature, they aren't a group that get covered very much.

So as you sit in your smoke-free gastropub commenting on how delicate Pierre manages to get those organic scallops you can rest easy knowing that you've taken away one of the few nice things in the lives of people you've never met.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Sandwich course

A recent few days away on holiday reminded me yet again of the sad decline of the British pub sandwich, once an absolute staple of the food trade. If you’ve had a generous cooked breakfast and are looking forward to a full meal in the evening, all you want at lunchtime is a sandwich or something similar. Yet many pubs no longer offer them at all, and even when they do they often try to build them up into something approaching a main meal, with prices to match. And why do so many pubs insist on including chips with them? Sometimes it’s a better – and cheaper – option to have a sandwich in a cafĂ©, despite the lack of atmosphere and decent beer.

There’s also the perennial problem of pubs failing to display menus outside. If they now see the food trade as central to their business, you would imagine this would be automatic, but apparently not. “Full menu inside” just isn’t good enough. No restaurant would dream of failing to advertise its wares, so why do pubs, especially in tourist locations with a lot of footfall past the door?

The psychological cues from information shown outside can be a major factor in tempting potential customers to venture across the threshold. In fact, I went into one pub, looked at the menu, and then walked out again, only to be pursued by the licensee who had been on the phone. “I didn’t see anything I fancied” was all I could say. I didn’t really have the heart to say “I could get much the same – plus a drink – for less money down the road in Wetherspoon’s.”

However, praise where praise is due to the Black Swan in Devizes, Wiltshire, who managed to serve up an excellent cheddar cheese and pickle sandwich – proper slices of quality cheese, enough pickle but not too much, and tasty, crusty bread that was thicker than sliced white but avoided doorstep proportions. Simple stuff, maybe, but when done well one of the glories of the British pub.

Saturday 1 July 2017

Ten years gone

Today sees the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket smoking ban in England on 1 July 2007. As the ticker in the sidebar shows, since then over 17,000 pubs have closed in the country. While it’s not the sole cause, nobody with any knowledge of the industry can deny that it has been the single biggest factor in pub closures, particularly affecting the smaller, working-class, wet-led boozers. It has been an absolute disaster for the pub trade, exceeding the best efforts of Lloyd George, the Kaiser and Hitler combined.

At the time, the advocates of the ban were insistent that smoking was very much a special case, and there was no way it would represent the start of a slippery slope. However, as time went by, this has proved to be increasingly untrue, with more and more examples of the public health lobby seeking to extend the smoking ban template to alcohol, soft drinks and “unhealthy” food. As the redoubtable Christopher Snowdon has said, “It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first.”

It isn’t simply a case of the ban having a devastating effect on pubs, and setting a precedent for other areas – it is grossly objectionable in its own right. It is a fundamentally illiberal, intolerant and hateful piece of legislation. “But,” some people say, “smoking is utterly foul. How can you tolerate it in public places?” However, that isn’t the point. There are plenty of things that other people do that I regard as extremely unpleasant, but I don’t want to see them banned so long as they don’t impinge on me.

It was already the case by the middle of 2007 that you could easily go through life without ever encountering smoking in indoor public places. It was banned on trains and buses, in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, and in workplaces was generally confined to separate rooms. Pretty much all restaurants and food-led pubs were either predominantly non-smoking, or had a large non-smoking section.

Realistically, the only place you were likely to encounter it was in the drinking sections of pubs and bars, and even there, if it mattered sufficiently to you, it was much easier to find a non-smoking area than the antismokers now claim. Various compromises short of a full ban were proposed, but none were judged acceptable. But anything that allowed the continuation of some amount of indoor smoking, even if just confined to some areas of some pubs, would have been better than nothing. I’ve often thought that a reasonable compromise would have been to ban smoking in any areas of pubs where under-18s were admitted, which would in effect have killed two birds with one stone!

What is astonishing, though, is how so many people who claim to stand up for pubs still cling doggedly to their support of the ban, in the face of all the evidence of wholesale pub closures and the extension of the principle to alcohol. It would be welcome if they could say “Well, I was in favour of the ban back in 2007, but the effects have been far worse than I expected. With hindsight, surely some kind of compromise solution would have been better.” I don’t expect you to lift a finger to campaign against it, just have the decency to admit you were wrong. But people are remarkably reluctant to do that.

So, if anyone now is complaining about pub closures while still holding to the view that the ban was a good idea, their words ring completely hollow. It is an exercise in the most breathtaking and contemptible hypocrisy. Not happy with all those closed and boarded pubs? Well, if you supported the ban, you should be pleased to see them. You got what you wanted. And you have to wonder whether they will give similar misguided approval to other pieces of pub-destroying legislation that may be on the cards…

Some people will say “Well, the smoking ban was ten years ago. It’s water under the bridge now. Isn’t it time to accept it and move on?” But, if something is wrong, the passage of time doesn’t make it any less wrong. It was wrong in 2007, it is wrong now, and if it lasts a thousand years it will still be just as wrong. And it’s impossible to understand the current situation of the pub trade without recognising the damage that the ban has wrought.

I also can’t help feeling that, in an age when the expression of prejudice against others on the grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation is rightly very much frowned upon, a lot of the pent-up hatred ends up being directed at smokers, where it is considered not only acceptable but politically correct.

For further reading, here are three pieces from some of the ban’s staunchest and most outspoken opponents.

Dick Puddlecote: The Illiberal Ruinous And Pointless Smoking Ban

Christopher Snowdon: Myths and realities of the smoking ban - 10 years on

Rob Lyons: How the Smoking Ban Killed off the Local Boozer

As he concludes:

When we tot up the pros and cons of the ban, we should remember the damage it has done to many local pubs and the communities that they serve. It’s true that many people dislike cigarette smoke and may well be happier that they can drink in pubs more comfortably now. But it could have been possible to accommodate changing attitudes without the absolutism of the health lobby. Better ventilation, separate smoking rooms and more could have provided a perfectly workable compromise. Instead, we’ve lost many of our boozers with little benefit to health and at a substantial cost to businesses, customers and, above all, to personal choice.