Wednesday 29 November 2017

Unconsidered consequences (Part 97)

Whenever some headline-grabbing “public health” policy is announced, there are always some implications that haven’t been fully thought through, and minimum alcohol pricing is no exception.

One obvious one is the inclusion of alcoholic drinks in combined offers with something else, which has already caused a question mark to be raised over Marks & Spencer’s “dinner for two” deals. How will this affect the ubiquitous Wetherspoon meal deals, if the value of the alcoholic drink element can’t be accurately assessed? Are you sure you’re not undervaluing that burger to give an attractive price for the pint? The easiest answer is likely to be simply to ban such deals entirely. At least that way there will be certainty.

Then we come on to the issue of free samples. Go round any distillery in Scotland, many of which offer tours for free, and you’ll be given a dram of their own distinctive product. Obviously a nominal charge of a quid would cover it, but it’s another factor added into the equation. Is the value of the tour in itself really zero? Just the same applies to brewery tours, which historically have often provided generous hospitality in the sample room at the end.

And how about tasters in pubs, now seen as an integral part of the promotion of different beers? Individually they may be trivial, but there are plenty of reports of cheeky customers abusing the offer to get themselves a substantial amount of beer? Or the free pints sometimes given by licensees to favoured customers? It rarely happens any more, but in the past I would often get a pint in some pubs when delivering the local CAMRA magazine. There are also the free samples often provided to journalists and bloggers in the hope of a favourable write-up. I once got five cases of eight bottles each from Wells & Youngs. Will there be some definition of “fair dealing”, or will the whole concept become off-limits?

Looking at another angle, last week the beer community breathed a sigh of relief when the Chancellor decided to freeze duty in his budget. But, at the bottom end of the scale, surely the authorities will start to cast envious eyes over the gap between the value of duty+VAT and the minimum retail price. Duty+VAT on a 440ml can of Carling is 40.3p. I’m not saying anyone’s actually making a loss when they sell 40 cans for £20, but nobody’s making much profit either. But at 88p a can, there’s a massive slug of extra revenue for Tesco. Why shouldn’t more of that go to the public purse instead? And, for cheaper drinks, any inflationary effect of duty increases would be minimal, so the argument about it impoverishing customers would no longer apply.

Plenty of issues there for the Scottish government to consider. As has often been said, “legislate in haste, repent at leisure”.

Monday 27 November 2017

A cloudy cider issue

There was some confusion following last week’s Budget as to exactly what the proposals for cider were. Initial reporting gave the impression that the intention was to seek legislation to come up with a specific definition for “white cider” to introduce a higher level of duty, which prompted me to tweet the following.

However, further investigation revealed that in fact the intention was to introduce a new duty band that would encompass all forms of cider. The official Budget document says:

Following the consultation launched at Spring Budget 2017, the government will introduce a new duty band for still cider and perry from 6.9% to 7.5% alcohol by volume (abv), to target white ciders. Legislation will be brought forward in Finance Bill 2018-19, for implementation in 2019, to allow producers time to reformulate and lower their abv.
The implications have been discussed by Drinks Retailing News and the Morning Advertiser.

Now, as I wrote here, I hold no particular brief for white cider, but it’s very questionable to seek to target a particular product through higher duty purely because you believe it’s worthless crap, and in any case it would be extremely difficult to come up with a watertight legal definition to separate “white” from “amber” cider.

But it is equally unreasonable to seek to target all ciders just because one particular variant is thought to be problematic. For example, respected independent cidermakers Sheppy’s and Thatcher’s both produce Vintage Cider at 7.4% ABV, which I don’t think are particularly associated with problem drinking. It’s yet another case of an indiscriminate blanket measure with implications that go far beyond the specific issue it is intended to address.

It remains to be seen exactly what the new duty proposals will be. But, if it’s simply a case of lowering the threshold for the current duty applying to ciders between 7.5% and 8.5% ABV, it may not be all that much to worry about. Currently, cider duty is £40.38 per hectolitre up to 7.5%, then £61.04 from there to 8.5%. Don’t ask me why one isn’t exactly 50% more than the other. So the duty on a pint of 7.5% cider would increase from 22.9p to 34.7p, which still compares very favourably to the 81.3p on a pint of 7.5% beer.

The makers of white cider could simply reduce the strength of their product to 6.8% to avoid the new duty band, or they could accept a hit of 40p for a two-litre bottle and keep the strength for the same. After all, High Strength Beer Duty hasn’t caused super lagers to disappear, or to be reformulated down to 7.5%. Currently, Westons happily sell their 8.2% Henry Weston’s Vintage, which is one of the top-selling premium bottled ciders, often found in supermarket 3 for £5 offers, and there are several other similar products on the market.

Yes, it’s another undesirable increase in alcohol duties, but it’s hardly the end of the world. And you do have to wonder whether some of those calling for an increase in the minimum juice content to qualify for cider duty aren’t actually angling for the exclusion of products like Strongbow, which just isn’t going to happen.

Sunday 26 November 2017

It does happen

Last month, I wrote about how there was a collective delusion in the British pub trade in refusing to accept that over-ranging was a major factor in poor cask beer quality. One aspect of this is the very prevalent attitude in CAMRA that adding an extra handpump is pretty much always a good thing.

I am fortunate in my own branch in that one of our current Good Beer Guide entries, the Boar’s Head in Stockport, only sells one cask beer (although it shifts three full barrels of it a week) and indeed was our Pub of the Year in 2016. But other areas aren’t so enlightened.

There have been plenty of reports of pubs being told that they couldn’t go in the Good Beer Guide because they didn’t stock enough beers, or because their range was too dull and didn’t include any guest beers. “Nonsense,” people have replied, “it’s just hearsay.” But Martin Taylor has now unearthed the evidence on the ground at the Green Man at Hatton near Heathrow.

The landlady was very chatty... I congratuated her on their Beer Guide place, and told her the Starry Night (NBSS 3+) was good. Beer Guide standard. Then she told me she’d had a visit from “one of those CAMRA people” last week.

He’d been very upset about the beer range, as one of the three had just gone, and told her she couldn’t be in the Beer Guide with just those beers on. If we can’t support and encourage suburban dining pubs with good quality beer to keep the appropriate range of beers on, we’re stuffed.

Get your heads out of the clouds.

And, until this attitude changes, it will continue to be a major reason behind poor beer being sold to unsuspecting customers. If cask beer is to be saved, we need to go back to the days when the one- and two-beer pub was the norm.

Saturday 25 November 2017

Does dearer mean better?

“Craft beer costs more because it uses better ingredients to produce a higher quality beer.” It’s almost become received wisdom nowadays. But I was interested to read an article recently suggesting that this may well not be the case.

“A big misconception is that craft brewers use better grains or hops, or that they use superior products to create their beers than the larger-scale producers,” Fritts said. The craft brewers themselves have encouraged that misconception, but Fritts said it’s not so.

“Busch, for example, isn’t using worse grain or products, they’re probably using better or at least as good,” he said. “They’re just making a product that they know their audience wants.”

Part of the argument is about strength. The situation in the US is different from here, as beer in general is taxed at a flat rate rather than proportionate to strength, so any additional expenditure on materials will not be multiplied by additional duty. Clearly a stronger beer will need more materials per gallon, but it’s important not to confuse strength with quality. This happened in the article by Pete Brown I dicussed here, where he was arguing that a £9 pint showed how people should be prepared to pay more for top-quality beer, but omitted to mention that the main reason for it being so dear was that it was 10.5% ABV.

I have no professional involvement in the brewing industry, and so can’t speak from the horse’s mouth in terms of a cost breakdown. But I think it’s fair to say that the impact of direct costs on the price paid over the bar is considerably less than often supposed. I do, though, have information as to the prices actually paid for beers at our local beer festival.

For example, we bought some beer from a well-regarded local micro that successfully straddles the border between cask and craft. For a 3.9% beer, the price was £67 for a firkin, or £80.40 plus VAT. That is £1.12 per pint, for a beer than would usually retail at three times as much. Let us assume that direct brewing costs, excluding labour, overheads, distribution etc, account for half of that. That is 56p a pint, or a sixth of the retail price. I assume this brewery are already using pretty high-quality raw materials, but if they decided to splash out and increase that by 50%, it would still only be one-twelfth of the price the customer pays.

Of course the way the industry tends to work is that pubs apply fixed mark-up percentages, so any additional wholesale cost filters straight through to the price paid across the bar. But it does not need to be so, and in general the biggest factor affecting the retail price is not the purchase cost but the level of mark-up involved. Within a couple of miles of my house, I can easily pay 33% more for the same, or similar beers, in pubs that aren’t noticeably smarter than the cheaper ones. That has nothing to do with beer quality, and everything to do with pub operators’ financial models.

One obvious difference is that some craft breweries use a lot more hops, or exotic varieties of hops. But what proportion of the overall cost do hops represent? At a guess, no more than 10% of direct costs, and that’s probably an overestimate. Or 6p a pint. Even if you double it through buying special hops grown on the south-western slope of Mount Rainier and watered with otters’ tears, it’s hardly going to make much difference to the end price.

In fact, rather than ingredients, it’s likely to be in overheads that craft beer costs more to make per pint. Small breweries will be more labour-intensive than big ones, and also less energy-efficient. Their costs may genuinely be higher, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to a better end-product. I’m not really that interested in whether my pint is a labour of love resulting from backbreaking toil.

Returning to the original article, I’d be very sceptical that craft brewers actually are using significantly better raw materials than their bigger brethren. My guess would be that the likes of Robinsons and Fullers aren’t using any worse ingredients than the typical microbrewery, but they’re certainly paying less for them because of economies of scale and the skills of professional buyers.

I’m not saying there’s nothing in it, but in practice, once you strip out any effect of strength differentials, the impact of better ingredients and production processes is pretty trivial as a part of the over-the-bar price.

And, as I said in the blogpost I linked to above, in the early days of CAMRA there was often, broadly speaking, an inverse relationship between retail price and quality.

If anyone has any actual cost breakdowns of brewery costs, then I would be very interested to see them.

Friday 24 November 2017

Meanwhile, back in the real world

The Morning Advertiser has recently published a feature on the leading products in the on-trade for each drinks category. The top ten cask beers are as shown below:

Their combined sales volume is 814,000 hectolitres, which equates to 514,000 barrels, or over a quarter of the entire cask beer market. The leading brand alone, Doom Bar, accounts for 7.25% of the market. Their average ABV is 4.2%, and only one, Abbot Ale, is over 4.5%.

But one thing that springs out is that most of them are beers that many beer commentators and enthusiasts would describe as “bland macro crap”. In this day when all the attention is focused on limited edition single hop beers, one-off collaborations and barrel-aged stouts, it’s all too easy to dismiss out of hand well-known brews from the bigger breweries which don’t assault the tastebuds and may even commit the cardinal sin of being popular.

It wasn’t always so, though. Just flicking through the 1978 Good Beer Guide, it’s easy to find pubs offering only a single everyday beer from the Big Six brewers. For example, the Pebley at Barlborough in Derbyshire had Stones Bitter, the Half Crown at South Benfleet in Essex Charrington IPA and the Parkers Arms at Paignton in Devon Courage Best. They may not have been considered the finest beers in the land, but there was no problem in recommending them and the pubs that served them.

On the ground, it’s still the case that a large majority of the real ale drunk by ordinary people in ordinary pubs consists of beers of the kind featured in the list above. But are some sections of CAMRA* in danger of losing sight of the organisation’s core purpose by looking down their nose at them? There’s a risk that it will become perceived as the Campaign Against Most Real Ale. There’s a fundamental contradiction in an organisation that claims to campaign for something, but in practice often gives the impression of not thinking much of most of what makes up that something. It’s not difficult to imagine someone thinking that, if the local CAMRA bod doesn’t think this Doom Bar is much cop, why shouldn’t I drink Carling instead?

* For the avoidance of doubt, this is emphatically not a criticism of CAMRA per se, just of the impression frequently given by some of its representatives

Tuesday 21 November 2017

The road to hell paved with good intentions, as the saying goes. And there have been quite a few people trying to make a partial defence of the Scottish minimum alcohol pricing plan by saying that at least the intentions of its supporters are good. But the question has to be asked as to how benevolent it really is to seek to control the actions of other people, against their will, to achieve a result that you, but not they, believe is in their interest? It is effectively treating others as your property, upon whom you have the right to impose your values and desires. But surely a fundamental principle of a free society is the self-ownership of mentally competent adults. In the words of John Locke,

Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.
And John Stuart Mill says on the subject:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others...

...All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.

Throughout history, some people have always sought to exercise control over how others live their lives, which was summed up by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein when he said:
The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.
The aspects over which control has been exercised have varied through the centuries, and in many cases what was once severely restricted has become a free-for-all, while in other areas the opposite is true. Often there has been an appeal to religion or some other higher moral principle. But the basic motivation has always been the same – that Person A believes he knows better than Person B how Person B should live his life.

And the end result of such a tyranny of morality may be far from the contented, harmonious society of which people dream. As C. S. Lewis wrote:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
A further issue is that people who are experts in one particular field often take a very narrow view of its application to wider society and are blind to any more general considerations. If you know all about hammers, every problem looks like a nail. So the anti-smoking zealots who cheered on the smoking ban and celebrated any reduction in smoking rates were completely indifferent to the fact that it ripped the guts out of working-class communities by destroying the institutions around which they revolved. And if minimum pricing achieves a 2.7% fall in alcohol-related hospital admissions, the anti-drink zealots won’t care that it has made one of the few pleasures available to people of limited means significantly less affordable. In the words of Friedrich Hayek,
There could hardly be a more unbearable - and more irrational - world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realisation of their ideals.
The announcement has certainly led to an outbreak of examples of the Burden of Proof Fallacy:
A: “The Scottish government are introducing minimum pricing to reduce alcohol-related health problems.”
B: “I’m not sure it’s going to be that effective, you know.”
A: “So you’re happy to see people literally die from drink, then?”
People occasionally say to me “So what would YOU do to tackle alcoholism, then?” Well, I certainly don’t breezily dismiss the subject, and fully accept that the misuse of alcohol does cause serious problems for some people. But I don’t see it as my role to address that misuse in detail, just as it isn’t the job of the restaurant critic to tackle malnutrition, or that of the motoring journalist to investigate drug-driving.

What I do know is that most people manage to deal with alcohol without it causing any serious problems, and the consumption of alcoholic drinks, especially in company, can bring great pleasure. So any attempt to tackle the specific problems of the minority by indiscriminate, whole-population measures is wrong in principle, may do little to deal with the individual issues, and is likely to have wider negative consequences which, while maybe relatively minor at the individual level, add up across the whole of society. And that applies in many other areas beyond alcohol policy.

Of course there are infinite ways in which the human condition can be improved – this is certainly not a counsel of despair. But they seldom involve curtailing the choices and responsibilities of individuals to force them on to what others see as a better path. Mankind is not perfectible by compulsion. As Karl Popper observed,

The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.

Monday 20 November 2017

Do I get points with that?

By removing the previous restrictions on opening new pubs and bars, the 2003 Licensing Act has certainly allowed a thousand flowers to bloom in the sector. As a lover of heritage pubs, I have to say that many of the new establishments don’t hold much appeal for me, but it can’t be denied that it has led to much more competition and diversity, most notably in the areas of micropubs, craft bars and bottle shops.

But the latest novelty has raised some eyebrows, in the form of Morrisons announcing that they have obtained a drinks licence for the café in their supermarket in Guiseley, Yorkshire. There are already thousands of licensed cafés in existence, without the sky having fallen in, but if you were to listen to some people, this is yet another front opened up by supermarkets in their war against pubs. Bizarrely, they have claimed that it is another threat to the on-trade, despite it being by definition a section of the on-trade.

I can’t say I’ve ever personally eaten a meal in a supermarket cafĂ©, but if people want to wash down their ham, egg and chips with a drink, then why shouldn’t they? And it obviously invites the clichĂ© of the husband enjoying a pint while his wife wheels the trolley round the store. But it’s hardly somewhere that people will make a point of going to just for a drink, or linger long once they have eaten their meal, and indeed Morrisons wouldn’t want to encourage them to do that. They’re not after the destination trade. So I’d say any predictions of doom are misplaced.

You do also have to wonder whether there will be sufficient turnover to maintain the cask beer in good condition. It’s rather reminiscent of the early days of CAMRA when the organisation would badger small hotels and restaurants to put real ale on even though the level of trade was never going to be sufficient to justify it. Most licensed cafĂ©s in practice manage with just bottles and cans.

Sunday 19 November 2017

Dry run

Last month, I wrote about how people had exaggerated expectations for alcohol-free beers. The problem is that, however good they taste, they’re never going to be anything more than a poor substitute for normal-strength beer, simply because they don’t contain alcohol. People choose to drink beer because it is alcoholic; they choose between beers on the grounds of taste. Therefore it makes more sense, and shows them in a better light, to consider them in comparison with soft drinks.

As I’ve been trying to have one alcohol-free day a week, I thought I would give a couple of the best-known brands a try, as an alternative to a can of Pepsi Max or suchlike while settling down to watch The Great War in Numbers or Bettany Hughes on Eight Days That Made Rome. The ones I chose, both bought from Tesco, were Beck’s Blue (6x275ml, £3.49, 58p per bottle, £2.12 per litre) and Heineken 0.0 (4x330ml, £2.49, 62p per bottle, £1.89 per litre). I think the Heineken was on a special introductory offer and the standard price would probably be £3.49.

The full-strength versions of these are not beers I would normally buy to drink at home, although I wouldn’t turn my nose up at them. The lack of volume in comparison with standard beers doesn’t really matter too much, as that’s bound up with the alcohol content. Both I found palatable enough. The Beck’s has a distinctly beery initial aroma, and is slightly the drier of the two, but has that somewhat cardboardy flavour note often found in alcohol-free beers. The Heineken, in contrast, is a little sweeter and less obviously beery, but probably the better of the two as a stand-alone drink. It possibly has a hint of lemon in it.

Are they as good as normal-strength beer? Of course not. But would I drink them again in that situation? Probably yes, although not really to wash down my lunch.

By way of comparison, I also tried an alcohol-free ale, St Peter’s Without (500ml bottle, £1.30, £2.60 per litre). This, however, was distinctly unpleasant, and most of it went down the sink. It had a thin, scummy head which quickly disappeared, and a thick, cloying, glutinous texture. I can’t disagree with Martyn Cornell when he says:

I cannot imagine what St Peter’s thought they were doing, because as a product it’s actively terrible. It smells like raw, unfermented wort, and while there is enough hop usage for it not to be sickly sweet, it’s still too much like the “strengthening medicine” Kanga fed to Roo, and nothing like the refreshing drink beer ought to be.
Martyn’s whole article is well worth reading, as he questions the periodic bouts of enthusiasm about the alcohol-free beer market. From time to time, people claim that it’s going to make substantial inroads into the sales of normal beer, but it never happens, simply because it doesn’t contain alcohol and is therefore missing the point. People will only substitute it for normal beer as a distress purchase. As he concludes,
I’m looking forward to a cool frothy pint of non-alcoholic beer tonight” said NOBODY, EVER.
They’re just not products anyone would actively seek out in the way they do normal-strength beers.

Friday 17 November 2017

Red elephant?

Anyone who hasn’t visited Stockport for a couple of years will be surprised, to say the least, to see the new Redrock leisure complex rising up on the site of the former car park between the M60 and Princes Street. It takes its name from the red sandstone of the cliffs opposite, and is due to open on Friday 24 November, a week today. It will include a cinema, a gym and new shops and restaurants.

The intention, obviously, is to revitalise the town centre and attract more visitors, and it has to be said that much of it is in need of a shot in the arm. The former BHS store on Merseyway is still unlet over a year after the chain fell into bankruptcy, and the area of Little Underbank and Lower Hillgate, which could be a cornucopia of independent shops, is very tatty and rundown, with as many vacant units as live businesses. One clear benefit it will bring is introducing smart chain restaurants including Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Pizza Express and Zizzi, as currently there is a serious dearth of decent places to eat.

Having said this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Redrock falls into the category of “Something must be done. This is something. Let’s do it, then.” It’s unsightly, it’s out of scale with its surroundings, and, although there is a kind of piazza linking it to Princes Street, it’s poorly integrated with the rest of the town centre.

One point that immediately sprang to mind is how the new cinema could hope to compete with those a few miles along the M60 in each direction at Ashton and the Trafford Centre, if people were expected to pay for parking. I have since learned that parking will be free for cinema and gym customers, but how many of them will go on to spend money elsewhere in the town centre? Wouldn’t a better way of revitalising the night-time economy be to allow entirely free parking after 6 pm?

Better parking isn’t an instant panacea for town centres, but making it more inconvenient and expensive is a sure-fire recipe for undermining their viability. Too many councils have treated it as a cash cow and ended up killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. And the fact that the council have introduced free parking after 3 pm and all day Sunday in their central car parks in the run-up to Christmas indicates that they recognise it is a problem.

I don’t claim to be an expert in urban regeneration, and if there was an obvious formula then many towns would have adopted it. I hope it does prove successful in drumming up more business, but I can’t help having some reservations. And it certainly is a singularly ugly set of buildings! it does, however, for those who like such things, feature a rare spiral multi-storey car park ramp.

Thursday 16 November 2017

More minimum pricing thoughts

Following yesterday’s announcement, here are a few more thoughts off the top of my head on the minimum pricing issue.

  • None of the people praising this will be personally affected by it

  • It’s widely imagined that it will only hit cheap, bottom-end products, but in fact it will affect most beer, cider and spirits, by volume, sold in the off-trade, and about a third of wine

  • It will seriously undermine the alcohol sales model of discount supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl

  • All the benefit will accrue to producers and retailers of alcohol, not government. It is in effect a legalised price-fixing ring. No wonder some brewers like Greene King and Tennent’s are foolishly supporting it

  • It will have a marked inflationary effect. If applied across the UK, it would add a few points to the headline inflation rate

  • It will create an unprecedented differential between prices for the same product in different parts of one country, with an inevitable surge in cross-border shopping and grey-market reselling

  • Will it be possible to apply it to purchases made from Internet vendors in England but delivered in Scotland?

  • It will eliminate all the cheap value brands that currently exist, and turn minimum price alcohol into a commodity product

  • And it will also push up prices higher up the scale as producers seek to maintain a price differential

  • Paradoxically, it may encourage alcohol producers to spend more on advertising as they can no longer differentiate products by price

  • If implemented in England, it would have a devastating effect on the farmhouse cider industry, much of which currently pays no duty and sells its products at the farm gate for well below 50p/unit. Many producers would probably abandon commercial sales entirely, or just sell to friends “off the books”

  • It will negate the effect of High Strength Beer Duty, as it will no longer be possible to sell weaker beers for a lower price per unit. For the same reason, it will remove any benefit to the consumer of lower strength duty relief

  • It will result in a much closer association in consumers’ minds of “premium” with “stronger”

  • It will lead to an increase in illegal distilling, with potentially serious health consequences. By supposedly addressing one health issue, you create another

  • There will inevitably now be strong pressure to implement it in England

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Minimum effectiveness

It was disappointing, although not entirely surprising, news that the Supreme Court has rejected the Scotch Whisky Association’s appeal against the Scottish government’s plans for minimum alcohol pricing. I’ve been over all this many times before and don’t propose to go into the detail again. But it will do little or nothing to combat alcoholism, while hitting poorer households hard in the wallet. It will encourage bootlegging and illegal distilling, with all the potential health issues that causes.

Hopefully the UK government will see sense and not extend it south of the Border. But, assuming they don’t, it will obviously lead to a huge amount of cross-border shopping, with a procession of white vans trundling north up the A74(M) from Carlisle ASDA. And, if they did, it would deal a grievous blow to farmhouse cidermakers, many of who may abandon selling commercially.

There will be some useful idiots within CAMRA who will welcome the decision as getting one over on the supermarkets, but it won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs. Indeed, as Christopher Snowdon argues here, it could even lead to people spending less in pubs if they need to reallocate a fixed budget for spending on alcohol.

And don’t imagine that it will leave the on-trade completely unscathed. It’s not uncommon for Wetherspoon’s to price their guest ales, including those of 6% ABV and above, at £1.99 a pint. With the 50p CAMRA discount voucher, that would take them down to a mere 44p a unit!

Some will say “well, Mudgie, it’s ironic that this was one example of where the EU was protecting British consumers”. I will accept that its partial attempts to stop countries erecting barriers to trade in the name of health policy was one of the few good points about the EU, but even that has now been thrown out of the window. And we really shouldn’t need a supra-national body to protect us from ourselves – we should be free to make our own laws, however stupid they may be.

An all-round bad day for the interests of drinkers in the UK. Plus, of course, once it proves to be ineffective, there will be the inevitable pressure to ratchet the minimum price ever upwards...

Friday 10 November 2017

Choice crawls

In my recent review of our trip to Leicester, I mentioned that, from my experience, I didn’t think that the city offered as a good a pub-crawling opportunity as nearby Derby and Nottingham. Where I live in Stockport is ideally placed for day trips by train to a wide variety of destinations across the North and Midlands and, over the years, I have often enjoyed journeys of pub exploration.

What I’m looking for is a combination of something distinctive on the beer front, characterful pubs, especially those with unspoilt interiors and, as someone with an interest in architecture and townscapes, somewhere with historical and tourist appeal too. I’m not averse to going in the occasional modern beer-focused pub, but very often they seem to be places that can be transplanted from one town to another and have little feel of the locality. Nor do I really want to travel sixty miles just to go in another Wetherspoon’s. I have to say, though, that I don’t care for very big cities, which I find impersonal and alienating. Yes, last year I did a pub crawl of some of the more traditional pubs in central Manchester, but in general it’s a place I do my best to avoid.

Probably the place that best ticks all these boxes is York, which has an unparalleled combination of historic cityscapes, unspoilt pubs and beer interest. It’s also one of the few places that, in the centre, has seen a net gain of new “normal” pubs in recent years. Not far behind is Shrewsbury which, while not on the same scale, is a wonderfully atmospheric place and not so overwhelmed by tourists. It doesn’t have the same weight of numbers of excellent pubs, but there is a core of half-a-dozen very good ones.

Chester has a wealth of historic interest, but in the past, with its pubs dominated by Greenall’s, wasn’t such a must-visit pub destination, although things have improved in recent years. It’s also, despite being in the same county, oddly inconvenient to reach by train from Stockport. Both Derby and Nottingham have proved rewarding over the years and Stafford, while probably not in the first rank, is very easy to get to, and has seen a great improvement in its pub scene. While I don’t propose to provide a comprehensive gazetteer, there are plenty more too numerous to mention.

One thing that has detracted from the experience, though, is the erosion of geographical distinctiveness in beer, which I wrote about as far back as 1997. There was a time when there was a particular appeal of travelling to Lancaster to drink Mitchells and Yates & Jackson, to Nottingham for Home and Shipstone, and to Shrewsbury for beers from Greenall’s Wem brewery, none of which were ever seen locally. York had plenty of Cameron’s pubs, a beer never seen on this side of the Pennines.

Now, while undoubtedly the overall choice of beer has increased, in mainstream pubs you are often presented with just the same nationally-distributed brands, while in beer-focused free houses you will get a random selection drawn from across the country. Yes, there is often more of a local focus, such as finding Salopian and Three Tuns beers in Shrewsbury, but it’s not the same as knowing that you will find particular beers in brewery tied houses.

That isn’t a problem in Stockport where, despite a number of closures , there’s a still a concentration of very good Robinson’s pubs, plus the Brewery Visitor Centre where the bar is open to the public. Combine that with a wealth of unspoilt pub interiors, a cluster of beer-focused pubs, some characterful, bustling urban boozers, and attractive and underappreciated historic townscape around the Market Place and the Underbanks, and it’s hard to imagine a better destination for the pub-crawling traveller.

Thursday 9 November 2017

Overdoing the gloom

There’s been a lot of discussion about this story reporting a shock 3.6% fall in pub beer sales compared with the same quarter last year. However, quarterly figures are inevitably subject to fluctuations, and in fact the previous quarter had only shown a fall of 0.2%.

The British Beer and Pub Association have now released the detailed figures behind these statistics – see the link on this page. The annual fall, which gives a more balanced picture, is 2.5%, which obviously is nothing to celebrate, but broadly in line with the average over the previous five years. Possibly the forthcoming Budget might have encouraged the BBPA to indulge in a little scaremongering. Of course beer duty should be frozen, if not cut, but there’s no sudden crisis.

In fact, the overall beer market has increased by 0.2% over the past twelve months, with the off-trade recording a 2.8% increase. It now accounts for 52.7% of all beer sales, so the tipping point when it exceeds the on-trade is long gone.

If you look at the quarterly falls in on-trade sales over time, by far the biggest was 10.3% between the second quarters of 2007 and 2008. I can’t for the life of me think what might have happened in the meantime to affect the figures to such an extent...

Wednesday 8 November 2017

Quantity and Quality

This is a post made by Kieran Lyons, owner of the Blue Boar in Leicester (pictured), on the Beer and Pubs Forum and CAMRA Discourse, which I reproduce here with his permission. It's fair to say I agree with the general thrust if not every single detail.

I've recently had cause to think about the question of how many cask ales to offer at any one time after reading the blogs retiredmartin, pub curmudgeon and beerleeds.

I'll start by outlining what I think affects beer quality.

  1. The brewing of it. No amount of cellarmanship can make a bad beer good (although the reverse is true).
  2. Temperature. It's often said that certain beers 'don't travel well'. This is bollocks. What's happened is it's been handled badly, probably left unchilled for too long. Wholesalers are the weak link here. Also buying direct gets you a better price anyway. For most pubs temperature isn't a problem - beer goes straight in thecellar.
  3. Conditioning. Every cellar course i've ever been on has been too prescriptive about conditioning. Not a single trainer talked about actually tasting the beer. It was always: 'leave it for X time'. But that doesn't work because every beer is different.
  4. Dispense. Get a clean, oversized glass and pour so that you get a nice head. Can't be done right in a brim measure without complaint. If using hand pulls, clean the lines after each beer.
  5. Freshness. Ideally you'd sell the whole firkin the same day you put it on sale. My personal record is about an hour :) The longest you can keep a beer on is ....well every beer is different. You have to taste them at the start of each trading session. An obvious point but not something widely done. No cellar course ever recommended doing this to me, yet it seems essential. Instead they say 3 days for best quality, 5 days max. This is a good rule of thumb but cannot be relied on.
So how do you achieve best quality consistently? Well, you need people to buy it. So you have to either have or create demand. This can be a bit chicken and egg. What comes first, the ale selection or the ale drinkers?

You have got to put on what sells, and just as every beer is different, there is no typical pub and no prescriptive advice that can be given; but i'm going to have a go anyway and give my thoughts on what pubs should be doing. You may well think of real life exceptions to every rule I make here.

  1. Mid size estate or suburban working class boozer. A single beer here ain't enough but 3 could be too many. Two beers of different styles, say a dark bitter and a hoppy pale, both around 4.5%. Even tied houses could manage that. Sell 3 firkins per fortnight of each and that's enough if (and these rules apply to every pub):
    a) it's kept at 10 degrees C all the time.
    b) you use a racing spile or hard peg between sessions.
    c) you pour off some beer before each session- every line is a different length, some are chilled, but the stuff in the beer engine is definitely waste.
    Now if you start selling 2 per week you can think about adding a third beer. Make it a guest maybe, to give extra interest and allow seasonal variation eg. green hopped beers and winter warmers.
  2. Food led dining pub. Same as above really, except you're gonna want to cook with the beer to improve throughput further. Get your prices right as well. Put Landlord on if you want but don't expect to make the same margin on it. If it's overpriced it will only sell to diners and if you are only selling to diners stick to bottles.
  3. Busy city centre pub. You'll have a broader mix of customers here that will include 'beer enthusiasts' (I believe this is the polite term). You'll have an oppurtunity to convert people to cask if you want to. A broad selection is needed and for me the minimum is 5, if you are serious about it. This allows for a bitter, a session pale, a stout or porter, a mild and an IPA. Too many pubs have 3 beers of varying brownness. You don't have to have permanent beers (although it's a good idea that one or two are) so long as you get the style mix right. Now if you think you can sell more than 5 at once then go for it but don't think you can flex up and down during the week, and have more beers available at the weekend. This doesn't work. The people who want a broader range are usually mid week drinkers and at weekend punters are more infrequent (not regulars) so they go for what they've had before and can rely on. Instances of buying rounds goes up, especially on match days, with everyone drinking the same thing. If you change the amount of beers you have day to day on it just leads to disappointment and confusion, in my opinion. You have to manage expectations.
  4. Specialist ale house. Go for the biggest choice you possibly can and be prepared to pour beer down the drain when you need to. It's the cost of doing business. If you don't sometimes chuck half a firkin you're doing something wrong. Get your selection right as well. At the Blue Boar, we have 9 hand pulls but also the ability to serve direct from the cask and can go up to 20 beers available if needed. When you're a specialist, your turnover of your specialist product is higher because it makes up the majority of your sales. We are small but the space is mostly taken up by ale drinkers. We are city centre so we have a constant flow of customers from 11am to 11pm. I could tell you how many firkins a week we usually sell and you could work out how long each beer stays on the bar, on average, but that wouldn't give you the full picture. 36 Gallons of the house pale goes through the same line each week; but we've had a barley wine on sale served from stillage for a fortnight and it was at it's best on the last day. The point is we are constantly tasting it and are not afraid to take beer off sale if it's out of condition.
One final point I will make - when you serve ever changing guest beers because that's what your customers demand, you are going to get mixed quality. It's why beer scores don't bother me too much. I don't brew it and I'm not going to take offence if you don't rate it. I won't even get defensive if you say it's in poor condition - i'll try to find out what went wrong.

In general though you learn which breweries to trust and which to avoid. We wouldn't buy a beer off someone new without researching it at least a little bit, and the rule of thumb is to give a new brewery a year to get good before buying.

Sunday 5 November 2017

Hard cases make bad law

My attention was recently drawn to this particularly harrowing account of the experience of alcoholics in thrall to high-strength ciders and super lagers. Not content with the usual proposal of rationing these products by price, the author decides to go one step further.
There is a more radical solution than trying to increase the price of high strength ciders and lagers and that is to stop producing them altogether. Far from it being a pipedream divorced from financially driven realities, this has happened. One of the most well-known, indeed notorious white ciders was White Lightning, often referred to by those who had experienced its special hallucinatory qualities as ‘white frightening’. Over a decade ago we hosted a visit to one of hostels for senior executives of Heineken which produced White Lightning. Not long after the visit the company reduced the strength of White Lightning and then a few months later stopped producing it altogether. It was a brave move, made without fanfare, for which I remain supremely grateful.

There is a precedent, therefore, that other companies can follow and in doing so lives can be saved. How can it possibly be justifiable to continue producing cheap, high strength ciders and lagers for a market dominated almost exclusively by those with the most severe alcohol dependency problems when it is predicted by health experts that almost 63,000 people in England will die over the next five years from liver problems linked to heavy drinking?

What he’s talking about is not so much banning them outright, but shaming companies into ceasing to produce them. No doubt Heineken, owners of Bulmers, felt that White Lightning was a product that only made up a tiny proportion of their overall sales, and did their public image no good. However, it doesn’t look as though Aston Manor, producers of the similar Frosty Jack’s, have similar scruples, and I haven’t noticed Carlsberg Special and Tennent’s Super, both made by multinational brewers, disappearing off the shelves.

If you do actually want to ban something by law, you have to have a watertight definition, which wouldn’t be anywhere near as easy as people might think. Of course it would be straightforward simply to ban the sale of any beers or ciders above a set alcohol level, which some councils have attempted to do at a local level, but it would seem disproportionate to deprive the general public of the pleasures of Duvel and Old Tom. One solution, of course, would be one I have suggested before, but I suspect the Parliamentary draughtsmen would struggle with that:

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.
In fact, the dividing line between “bad” and “good” is far less straightforward than might be imagined. At the upper end of the premium bottled ale and cider sectors there are several products which, with multibuy offers, can be obtained for around 40p a unit, and whose alcoholic strength must be at least a partial factor in motivating people to buy them in preference to weaker brands. And, even in the “craft” segment, nobody can tell me that the kick given by a 10.5% barrel-aged Imperial stout isn’t part of the reason for choosing it. Indeed, there have been cases where people have over time happily described their craft beer consumption on social media but in effect admitted to being not far off functioning alcoholics.

While clearly high-strength lagers and ciders do have a particular appeal to problem drinkers, they also have a strong following amongst more normal consumers of alcohol who just happen to prefer a trade-off between strength and volume a bit higher up the scale. It is less the case now but, in the past, bottled Carlsberg Special was often viewed as a premium product in the same bracket as Holsten Pils. I remember one couple who used to come into a pub I frequent, where the husband drank pints of bitter and his wife half-pint bottles of Carlsberg.

Their appeal is often not simply low price, but the fact that they provide a relatively easy means of consuming a lot of alcohol. In fact, particularly in the case of super lagers, they’re often not particularly cheap anyway. At the widely-suggested 50p per unit minimum price, a 4x440ml pack of Carlsberg Special at 8% ABV would cost £7.04, which is pretty much what it sells for in my local Tesco. The real bangs-per-buck bargains are to be found lower down the scale in multipacks of Carling and Fosters, which sometimes sell for as little as 50p per can, or 28.4p per unit. But drinking a lot of Carling is much more like hard work.

This indicates that minimum pricing would be a pretty ineffective tool to address consumption of these products, and to have much impact would have to be set at a level that would cause serious pain to the generality of alcohol purchasers. Plus, of course, the higher it was set, the more the problem would be with bootlegging and illegal distilling. As the political philosopher John Stuart Mill said,

Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price...

...To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.

There were alcoholics before these products had ever been invented, and even if they could be made to magically disappear, alcoholics would simply find something else to drink. Of course alcoholism is a serious issue that shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. But surely it should be addressed by targeted measures rather than adopting a broad-brush, whole-population approach that brings large numbers of people into the net who aren’t in any sense problem drinkers.

Saturday 4 November 2017

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

I wrote up last month’s trip to Leicester with what Richard Coldwell rightly described as a “straight bat”. I adopted the style I use for reports of Staggers (local CAMRA organised pub crawls) in Opening Times, where I describe each pub as I find it, but don’t actually make any criticism unless there’s something obviously wrong in terms of quality of beer, food or service. The only thing that fell into this category was the plainly vinegary Old Original in the Globe, which was changed without demur, just as you would expect a well-run pub to do. I recognise the distinction between whether a pub is not to my personal taste, and whether it has fallen short in what it sets out to do.

I have to say I enjoy going on pub crawls of this kind as a leisure activity, visiting new pubs and reacquainting myself with more familiar ones. Every pub has something of interest, whether in its beer range, atmosphere or clientele, and so long as I’ve got a comfortable seat and a reasonable pint, and my ears are not being assailed by pounding hip-hop or screaming children, I’m happy enough. Whether it’s somewhere I’d actually choose to return to is another matter, of course.

As Richard has done an individual post on his blog for each pub we visited giving his own thoughts, I thought it might be interesting to offer some more personal opinions.

  • Ale Wagon. I had a good pint, but can’t really say I’m a great fan of that type of slightly distressed, bare-boards alehouse. It all seems a bit 1987. Plus they can on a larger scale suffer from the same issue of monocultural clientele as micropubs. It would be interesting to see it at a busier time – is it all blokes with beards and beer guts, or does it attract a wider customer base?
    Beer: Hoskins Brothers HOB Bitter. NBSS 4

  • Bowling Green. Yes, it’s something of a Wetherspoon’s clone, but it does what it sets out to do, and was the busiest pub of all those we visited. It’s still fairly characterful at the front, and I had a decent pint, although drinking Robinson’s in Leicester is a bit of a busman’s holiday. As a notoriously pernickety eater, my steak was actually very enjoyable, and good to see spiral fries offered as an alternative to the so often soggy and flabby standard chips.
    Beer: Robinson’s Dark Vader. NBSS 3

  • Blue Boar: Really more a small conventional pub than a micropub, and very nicely done in a woody style reminiscent of Joule’s interiors. Plenty of comfortable bench seating around two walls, and while the clientele was a bit monocultural, it was people like us. Eight beers seemed a little over-ambitious, but the one we had was good, and owner Kieran Lyons gives the impression of someone who knows what he’s doing. I could happily spend a fair bit of time in here.
    Beer: Titanic Kölsch. NBSS 4

  • Globe (pictured above). As a pub, probably my favourite of the day, with a rambling interior featuring plenty of nooks and crannies, and a particularly congenial snug at the front. Had the kind of mixed clientele you would hope to find in a city-centre pub at the tail end of lunchtime. One poor beer was willingly changed, but the replacement didn’t really pull up any trees. It has to be admitted that all of Everards’ beers are a touch lacking in distinctive character.
    Beer: Everards Tiger. NBSS 2.5

  • Black Horse. A nice little two-roomer with a characterful front bar featuring a wood floor. Some tasteful (to me) music playing. Friendly, chatty licensee. And it had a cat. Unfortunately, as it was four o’clock in the afternoon, we were about the only customers.
    Beer: Everards Old Original. NBSS 3

  • West End Brewery. Very much “brewpub by numbers”, although at least it offered comfortable seating, beermats, a Bass plaque on the wall and free comics. The beers didn’t come across as anything out of the ordinary. Not a place I would personally choose to drink.
    Beer: West End Copper Ale. NBSS 3

  • Criterion. To me, the least impressive pub of the day, and it was hard to see what it was trying to achieve. As Richard said, it came across as an odd combination of Student Union bar and run-down estate pub, and the closed-off front room was a bit offputting as you walked in through the door. But they did play Jethro Tull!
    Beer: Market Harborough Best. NBSS 3

  • King’s Head. I liked this rather more than some of the others, and thought it was a nice cosy little pub. Black Country Ales produce some tasteful pub refurbishments, but unfortunately their own beers are a bit lacklustre, and they often seem to have too many on the bar in total – ten in this case. Not surprisingly, my pint proved to be a little tired. But it did have a cat, and a celebrated one at that.
    Beer: Oakham Bishop’s Farewell. NBSS 2.5
As we were buying in pairs, I didn’t take much note of the prices. Nothing stood out as being either particularly cheap or particularly expensive. The one price I do recall is paying £3.10 for two halves in the West End Brewery, which struck me as reasonable for that type of venue.

In conclusion, I have to agree with Richard that Leicester overall proved a little disappointing. Plenty of decent pubs, but not a lot that was outstanding in terms of either beer or historic interest. From experience, I’d say that Derby and Nottingham, which are cities of a broadly similar size, have more to offer on both fronts.

Friday 3 November 2017

Letting others do the heavy lifting

Following our recent three-blogger trip to Leicester, Richard Coldwell has done a series of posts looking at each pub in more detail. One thing that struck him was the lack of other customers in several of the pubs. While you wouldn’t expect Tuesday to be the busiest day of the week, this does seem to suggest a wider malaise, which he reflected on in his report of the Horse & Trumpet (which was after I had left to get the train home).
Sadly, half empty pubs, particularly out in the sticks are a feature of Tuesday night in modern Britain...

...Please don’t let the Great British Pub end up like Rugby Union – it’s there all around us, the chattering classes never stop talking and reading about it, but only the true supporters regularly go to watch it, unless it’s a test match!

It does seem to be a depressingly common phenomenon that people sing the praises of the Great British Pub but expect others to do the heavy lifting of actually keeping them in business, something eloquently expressed by Rowan Pelling in an article from a couple of years ago entitled We love pubs and churches, but don’t want to use them.

I blogged about this at the time, and made the comment that it was all very well to say “use them or lose them”, but what we do as individuals is unlikely to make much difference to the fate of any particular pub. However...

Collectively, it has to be acknowledged that the sum total of our decisions as a society is what has driven so many cherished institutions to the wall. As far as businesses go, people vote with their feet, and they have increasingly voted against pubs.
And people who say, entirely sincerely, that they are pub lovers are not immune from the pressures and trends of modern society that curtail the opportunities they have to actually visit them. Forty years ago, many pubs were sustained by people on drinking occasions that their present-day counterparts wouldn’t contemplate.

Nobody can accuse Richard, Martin, Paul or me of not doing our bit to keep pubs alive, but on that occasion, and many others throughout the year, we were essentially pub tourists, just having a pint or half in each. and observing whether or not they had the baseload trade to keep them ticking over. Pubs, apart from a handful in city centres or near main-line stations, are not going to make a living just from pub tourists. They need regulars, not casuals.

I would list “visiting pubs” (and specifically that, not drinking beer) as one of my main leisure interests. So far this year, I’ve been in 158 different pubs, and further planned trips are likely to take the total above 170. But, across that total, I’m unlikely to drink more than about 600 pints, or just 11½ a week. Even assuming I only drank in one pub, that would need fifty of me to give the pub a viable turnover of two barrels a week.

And, of those 600, I probably won’t have drunk more than forty in any single pub. I used to have a local which I would visit most weeks to the extent that I could be called a regular, but unfortunately various changes, mainly revolving around TV football and reserved dining tables, have made it much less congenial from my point of view, and I hardly go in there any more except to deliver the local CAMRA magazine.

Talking of which, on my distribution rounds I used to visit some pubs, such as the now-demolished Moss Rose/Four Heatons where, whatever day of the week or time of day I went in, some of the same people always seemed to be there. They gave the impression of being not only regulars, but of virtually living in the pub. This was summed up brilliantly by the article by Rob Warm from a few years back on the Pubs of Manchester blog entitled The Pub Shaman of Prestwich. If you’ve never read this, it’s absolutely essential.

The author talks of the “red-faced, slightly dishevelled men who not only drank in pubs, but lived in them”, and says of his father “the solitary pint in a smoke-filled vault poring over a fixed odds coupon and going through a packed of Bensons. That’s what he preferred.”

Drinking isn't like that any more. Drinking is now leisure, not work. The shamen are all dead or dying. Replaced by aggressive kids or bored couples. The rest of us just pour a glass of wine at home. And pubs get boarded up or sold or burnt out or demolished. They change interiors each year to try and remain interesting – but that has the exact opposite effect. Besides, the people who made them interesting are gone. And most of the stories have gone with them.
There used to be a regular cast of characters who were seen in the various pubs around the centre of Stockport. They knew all the news and gossip on the pub scene. But many of those pubs, like the Spread Eagle and the Tiviot, are now gone, and so are most of the characters who once defined their atmosphere.

The old-fashioned, wet-led boozer is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and with it has gone the six nights a week, six pints a night men who used to keep them going. That is why so many pubs, even if they’re still in business, are so quiet for much of the week. Depending on casual trade may work for food-led pubs, but if your main business is selling drink, you will struggle without a strong core of regular customers, unless you’re in a city-centre location with a lot of footfall past the door.