Friday 28 December 2018

Replacing apples with oranges

The Manchester Evening News has recently published figures showing the shocking extent of pub closures across the region since 2001, as shown in the table below. Seven of the ten local authority areas in Greater Manchester have lost a third or more of their pubs, with Stockport, which has lost 36%, actually doing slightly better than average.

Top of the list is Rochdale, where an astonishing 45% of pubs have closed their doors. This does have to be seen, however, in the context of what might be described as “changing ethnic mix”, which must surely also be a major factor in Accrington, which the Guardian recently reported on as The town where half the pubs have vanished. This also applies to a lesser extent in many of the other areas.

Neither does the decline apply evenly across areas. Tameside has done second worst across the board, but within the area on its south-eastern fringe around Mottram and Hattersley must have lost at least 80% of its pubs.

Of course this trend has to be seen in the context of the overall decline in the pub trade. Over the period from 2001 to the present day, according to the statistics produced by the British Beer and Pub Association, the amount of beer sold in the on-trade has fallen by 45%. Sometimes it seems surprising, not that so many pubs have closed, but that so many remain open, although it has to be said that some of those that remain exist on very slim pickings for much of the week.

Whenever this subject comes up, inevitably some Pollyannas will pipe up saying that, while we may have lost a lot of pubs, plenty of new bars have sprung up in their place. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, and I’m sure if you took into account the total movement in establishments with a full on-licence, it wouldn’t show anything like a 36% fall in Stockport. The liberalisation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has led to a more fluid market that is more capable of responding to changes in customer demand.

However, the overall figures on the decline of the trade do not lie, just as you can’t point to the rise in the number of breweries as an indicator of the general health of the brewing industry. These new places cannot really be considered a like-for-like replacement for the pubs we have lost. They are typically much smaller, for a start, appeal to a narrower customer base, and tend to be in entirely different locations. As I wrote back in 2011, “How can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees?”

This also raises a question mark about these statistics and how they are compiled. On the face of it, they don’t appear to take full account of new bar openings. But, on the other hand, neither are they simply gross figures of pubs lost that were in existence in 2001, as otherwise Manchester would surely record a much higher figure than 7%. Outside the inner ring road, Chorlton and the Wilmslow Road corridor, large parts of the city have become virtual pub deserts. So it would be interesting to know exactly what these figures are showing. Are they including some new openings, but not others, and how is the distinction drawn?

Thursday 20 December 2018

When is a pub not a pub?

When it’s a bar, of course. While there’s no specific legal distinction, the two carry very different connotations. However, it’s notoriously difficult to come up with a hard-and-fast definition separating one from the other. Now Martyn Cornell has had another stab at it on his Zythophile blog. He suggests that a key distinction is that pubs tend to have a bar at right angles to the entrance door, whereas bars have their counter running along a side wall. Often, this is indeed the case, but it rather breaks down when you have a multi-roomed interior with different entrances. But perhaps bars don’t tend to have multi-roomed interiors anyway.

In general, while you can point to various characteristics that pubs usually have, and bars don’t, it’s always possible to come up with exceptions to the role. Overall, it’s often a case of “you know one when you see one”. I’ve suggested in the past that pubs are often specific buildings designed for the purpose, while bars tend to be part of a larger building. Pubs make use of the upper floors of the building, while a bar may be underneath something entirely different. The licensees of a pub are likely to live on the premises, but with a bar they hardly ever do. And, at least outside urban centres, pubs often have car parks, but I can’t think of a single bar that does. A pub retains its identity through various changes of ownership, while that of a bar is very much tied up with its current trading format.

Sometimes it’s less a question of physical aspects but how businesses choose to define themselves. On Stockport Market Place there are two recently-opened establishments right next door to each other – the Angel and Project 53. Both have a somewhat “crafty” ethos, but the Angel definitely comes across as a pub, whereas Project 53 is unquestionably a bar. With a new name and a different paint scheme, the Angel could be considered a bar, though.

Some Wetherspoon’s, particularly those in their more modern design idiom that are conversions of former retail units, do very much say “bar” rather than “pub”, whereas others than are in existing pub premises, such as the Gateway in East Didsbury, are definitely pubs. And, while their name says otherwise, I’d say that the vast majority of micropubs, going by the criteria set out above, are in reality small bars little different from the keg-only “box bars” often found in similar premises.

At the other end of the scale, there’s also the vexed question of when a pub actually turns into a restaurant. Most restaurants obviously aren’t pubs, but quite a few have the outward appearance of pubs and indeed might once have been one. Strictly speaking, if anyone can come in and have a drink without needing to buy a meal, it doesn’t qualify as just being a restaurant. However, I’d say there also needs to be a test of whether any meaningful number of people actually do.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

A costly and futile gesture

This month sees the fourth anniversary of the reduction of the drink-driving limit in Scotland, which I wrote about here. The University of Glasgow have carried out some research on the impact, which has revealed no reduction in the number of road traffic accidents.

I have to say this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. The additional level of risk involved in driving with alcohol levels between 50 and 80mg varies between pretty small and non-existent, so even if the vast majority of people who previously believed they were adhering to 80mg change their behaviour, it’s unlikely to make much difference to the overall numbers. Add to this the slow rate of absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, and the fact that the conventional wisdom about the “legal limit” does actually include a significant amount of headroom, and it’s highly likely that, even before, they weren’t actually exceeding 50mg.

On the other hand, why should those who had no compunctions about exceeding the previous limit – who accounted for the vast majority of drink-related casualties – be any more likely to adhere to the new one? The UK government’s consultation document on cutting the limit from twenty years ago claimed that it would exert a moderating influence on people in this group, but it’s hard to see how this mechanism actually works.

Not surprisingly, there have been claims that it has only failed because of a lack of enforcement, but that rather suggests that reducing the limit was, in itself, a pointless gesture. If more enforcement was needed, then wouldn’t it have achieved the same benefits without a limit cut? The linked article quotes a statistic that of 195 found over the limit, only 17 were between the old and new limits, which suggests there isn’t a large population of drivers who are just chancing their arm a bit or have made a miscalculation. Either people adhere to the law, even if they disagree with it, or they couldn’t care less.

It also must be remembered that, according to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the effects on the pub trade have been catastrophic. Apparently, in the first few months, the reduction in trade caused a small but noticable downward blip in Scotland’s headline GDP. It’s hard to see how any pub in Scotland can now be viable outside urban centres unless it effectively turns itself into a restaurant. And, given the different pub landscape in England and Wales, the results would probably be even more severe if it were ever to be implemented south of the Border. Considering that the first assessment of the impact of minimum alcohol pricing has shown a surprising increase in off-trade purchases, it seems that the Scottish government has a spectacular talent for shooting itself in the foot when it comes to anti-drink measures.

While this is ostensibly touted as a road safety measure, it’s hard to believe that, at least subconsciously, part of the motivation behind it isn’t to increase the denormalisation of alcohol consumption in society. In this respect it’s rather like the smoking ban, in that it has been ineffective in achieving its stated aim, but highly effective in undermining the pub trade. In fact, this is even worse. It was possible to argue that the smoking ban would bring new non-smoking customers into pubs, although in practice it was more a trickle than a flood. But there is no upside whatsoever for pubs in cutting the drink-drive limit. It’s easy to imagine, though, the same useful idiots who argued that pubs would take the smoking ban in their stride being in favour of it, or at least pretty relaxed.

The whole thing has been pretty effectively filleted in his usual style by Christopher Snowdon:

Drunk driving isn't a very popular cause, and rightly so. It is obviously wrong to risk the lives of others by driving while inebriated. By contrast, driving after consuming a small quantity of alcohol poses no threat to others and is fine, but it is this that the temperance lobby is going after. It's so much easier to hassle normal people for having a pint after work than to clamp down on the dwindling number of habitual drunk-drivers.

Friday 14 December 2018

Heritage brew

If you had said to the people who were in at the birth of CAMRA that, forty-five years later, the organisation would be promoting keg beer, cans and trendy bars, they would have laughed in your face. Yet so it has proved. What was once essentially a campaign to preserve a unique and endangered British tradition has, over time, metamorphosed into much more of an organisation that supposedly champions all good beer, however, defined, and has also in recent years introduced a much greater note of outright snobbery.

It’s often said that CAMRA is a broad church, but it has to be said that those whose interest is mainly in the traditional side get very slim pickings at present, and are often the subjects of sneering and derision. There are people who contribute to CAMRA’s Discourse discussion forum with whom I struggle to identify any commonality of interest whatsoever.

So maybe the time has come for a new organisation to cater for those whose interest in the sphere of beer and pubs is primarily in the preservationist arena, which we could perhaps call “Heritage Brew”. This would not be a rival to CAMRA so much as being complementary. Nor would it campaign in any active sense, except perhaps for the listing of heritage pubs, and to urge breweries not to discontinue traditional beer brands. It would essentially be a vehicle for people to share and pursue their particular enthusiasm. It would certainly never seek to divide anything into hard and fast categories.

As I wrote here, there is a big difference between what people buy as consumers and what they pursue as a leisure interest. Being interested in historic breweries doesn’t mean that you can’t drink craft beer, or that you’re against in any sense, just that it is essentially a consumer product to you, like cheese or washing up liquid. And the claim that some will raise that they’re equally interested in everything just doesn’t hold water, and will be contradicted by their own actions.

In terms of beer, the focus would be on the traditional British styles – light and dark mild, bitter, pale ale, stout, porter, old ale, barley wine and so forth. Much of this is produced today in cask form, but it certainly wouldn’t exclude keg beers, and indeed a surprising number of once well-known beers only live on today in keg form, especially milds. It would also encompass bottled and canned beers, where again many survivors from light ales to barley wines linger on in obscure corners of the market. And it would cover the premium bottled ale sector, which receives little attention from beer enthusiasts gushing over the latest 330ml can of American-style hop soup. Most of the beers in this category are bang in the middle of the British tradition, and often are only rarely seen on draught, or have no draught equivalent at all. And the sector does contain some underappreciated hidden gems, such as McEwan’s Special, a rare survivor of the classic Burton style. Things such as surviving old-fashioned pumpclips, keg fonts and electric meters would also come within its purview.

When it comes to breweries, at the core would undoubtedly be the surviving independent breweries who were in existence in 1972 and have kept the flag of traditional British beer styles flying ever since. There is still some traditional beer being produced in the remaining British plants of the international brewers, but that isn’t their primary focus. To these must be added the new breweries that have been established in the succeeding years and who have mainly concentrated on British styles, such as Black Sheep, Wye Valley, Butcombe and Joules. There are some breweries such as Hawkshead who successfully straddle both camps, but obviously other well-known names of the craft beer movement concentrate on constant innovation and American-influenced styles. And it certainly helps if your operation is in a magnificent historic brewhouse such as that of Hook Norton shown above.

For traditional pubs, the best place to start must be CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, which to my mind is one of the most important things the organisation has done. However, amongst the wave of enthusiasm for craft bars and brewery taps it seems to have slipped down the priority list recently, and its website has now been offline for “upgrading” for several months. Together with the various regional inventories, the total of listed pubs must come to over a thousand, but there are plenty more that may not be so unspoilt, but which still retain a broadly traditional character in terms of their layout, fittings and customer dynamics. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And, to widen the scope, there are plenty of pubs that may have been much modernised internally, but are still located in impressive historic buildings, something that is outside the remit of the National Inventory. Maybe there would be scope to publish a guidebook of “Britain’s Finest Traditional Pubs.”

Initially I just came up with this idea as a kind of thought experiment. But maybe there may be rather more to it than that. So who’s with me for a pint of keg M&B Mild in that unsung 1930s West Midlands boozer that didn’t quite make it on to the regional inventory, but still has red dralon bench seating, a meat raffle and little bags of Ploughman’s Lunch pinned to a card on the bar back?

Monday 10 December 2018

The last pint

For a number of years, something called “The Session” has been run on a monthly basis amongst beer bloggers. This is basically asking the various bloggers to write their own take on a common subject. While the results have often been interesting, I have never participated, because I don’t really see this as a “beer blog” as such. It is more a blog on the general subject of lifestyle freedom, but centred around beer and pubs. And, as a political conservative, a craft beer sceptic, and a passionate and unrepentant opponent of the smoking ban, I have never felt part of that community.

However, it was a coincidence too poignant to miss that the last outing of “The Session” came last Friday, on the subject of which beer you feel would be most appropriate for a funeral. This happened to be the day on which my dad would have been a hundred years old, had he lived. He was born on 7 December 1918, and died on 2 March 2010.

I loved him dearly, and scarcely a day goes by on which I don’t miss him. Yes, in some ways he could be a very annoying man, and I’m sure in other ways he also found me something of a disappointment. But that is probably common to most father and son relationships, and ever since I came within a year or so of legal drinking age we would regularly share a pint or two in the pub. It was where we had our best and most open conversations. I can recognise in him many of my own character traits, in particular his refusal to tug the forelock to authority, which undoubtedly hindered his career, and also probably did the same to mine. But would he – or I – really have enjoyed the advancement that came from brown-nosing? In summary, we were both awkward buggers.

In his last years, especially since he had to give up driving, I would often take him out for a pint, latterly generally to the Golden Lion * in Frodsham, a Sam Smith’s pub. Indeed, this was the pub in which he enjoyed his last ever pint, in the Autumn of 2009. Of all the pubs in the area, this was the one he felt most at home in, for all the usual reasons for which Sam’s pubs stand out from the crowd. He was a firm believer in the virtues of bench seating, and we always had the same corner in which we would sit. Ironically, while I was driving, I would have a couple of pints, while he would just have one and a half or, towards, the end, just the one.

He always enjoyed a pint, and I have shared many hundreds with him, but I never saw him drunk, or anything beyond mildly tipsy at Christmas. I converted him to the idea of real ale, and for many years, Good Beer Guide in hand, he would seek out real ale pubs when on holiday with my mum. But, in his later years, he always enjoyed a pre-lunch can of Tetley Bitter at home. He never lost his intelligence, although towards the end it could become a bit vague and sporadic. In my experience, what tends to go with your parents is more their capacity to make decisions.

I miss you, dad, but I’m glad I shared a final pint of real ale with you in a proper pub.

* The Golden Lion always had cask beer when we went there, although sadly I see it has now gone keg, like many other Sam Smith’s pubs. But, even had that been the case when my dad was alive, I suspect we would still have gone there.

Saturday 8 December 2018

The Gradgrind Arms

Regular readers will know that I have often praised the cheap prices, unspoilt character and congenial atmosphere of many Sam Smith’s pubs. However, I have certainly not been blind to the capricious and often high-handed way in which the company is run. This was starkly highlighted by this recent employment tribunal case in which a couple who had run the Roebuck in the centre of Rochdale for many years successfully made a claim against the company for constructive dismissal.

I have heard similar stories of unrealistic targets being set and a total disregard for the realities of the pub business across the bar of more than one Sam Smith’s pub. Reading the above report, it’s hardly surprising that Sam’s are struggling to recruit pub managers, with a number of their pubs currently being shut that on the face of it do not appear to be unviable.

However, it must be said that much of the company’s unique appeal does stem from their pig-headed refusal to follow the fickle winds of fashion in the pub trade. The managers of the Roebuck complained that their inability to offer piped music and TV sport made it harder for them to compete with other pubs, but for many pubgoers the absence of those features is an attraction in itself. And in some locations the formula certainly works. I’ve mentioned before how you will often find the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place standing room only at lunchtime on a non-market day, while the Roebuck was reported to be taking nearly £6,000 a week, which is pretty good going.

Could it be the case that, when the notorious Humphrey Smith is finally put out to pasture, Sam’s will end up losing their USP by trying to become more like other pub operators? After all, you once knew exactly what to expect in a Holt’s pub, whereas now it would be very difficult to say what defined them. And the biggest managed pub operator of all doesn’t have music or sports TV either, and is also known for its keen prices.

Monday 3 December 2018

Who’d ha’ thought it?

Minimum alcohol pricing has now been in effect in Scotland for six months. I wrote about this at the time. Given that nothing of this kind has ever been tried before, obviously it was hard to predict the results, but it was a reasonable assumption that overall off-trade alcohol sales would show a small decline, but the value of those sales increase.

However, it hasn’t turned out quite that way. According to a study commissioned by cider maker Aston Manor, the total volume of alcohol sales has actually increased by 4%, while the value has gone up by no less than 11%. That certainly isn’t what was meant to happen.

Obviously it’s early days yet, and this is only a survey, not a detailed analysis of actual sales. It follows a general pattern, with sales south of the border in fact rising by 7%, encouraged by the long hot summer and England’s good run in the World Cup. We will have to wait and see what the official figures show, and how cross-border sales are affecting alcohol consumption in Scotland, but it does call into question how effective a policy this is likely to be.

Not surprisingly, sales of the notorious Buckfast tonic wine have shown a marked increase. Contrary to widespread belief, this has never been particularly cheap in terms of price per alcohol unit, and its appeal is down to its high caffeine content. It no longer commands such a price premium over other drinks. In contrast, sales of white ciders have plummeted, as they had little to recommend them apart from the high “bangs-per-buck” ratio. Frankly, it’s surprising anyone is continuing to buy them when they can get far more palatable drinks at the same price.

Convenience stores have gained market share over supermarkets, as the big stores no longer enjoy the price advantage they once did. In fact, the whole thing can be regarded as a price-fixing sceheme in favour of retailers. It’s rather ironic that the useful idiots of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association were so keen to support it, when it has given such a shot in the arm to the financial health of the off-trade. Given that household incomes haven’t increased by 11% or anything like it, some other area of expenditure must have suffered, and it could well be that pubs are included within that.

What seems to be happening is that, given that all categories of drink at the lower end of market now have a level playing field in terms of price, consumers are being more discerning over their preferred method of getting their desired alcohol kick. It’s the most enjoyable way, not simply the cheapest. This helps explain the rise in sales of fortified wines. There’s no longer any place in the market for the £3.49 bottle of gutrot wine or the £9.99 bottle of paintstripper vodka.

It will take a lot longer before we really have a full picture of the impact, especially in terms of the effect it has on “problem drinkers”, who are supposedly the group being targeted. But it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to realise that, if it isn’t felt to be “working”, however that is defined, the inevitable reaction will be to increase the dose and jack up the minimum price yet further.

Friday 30 November 2018

Dancing on a pin

One of the motivations behind CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project was a widespread feeling that the organisation too often insisted on a nitpicking, pedantic definition of “real ale” that bore little relation to whether or not a beer was actually any good. Surely reform would usher in a new era of much greater acceptance and tolerance of other forms of beer. Everything would be considered without prejudice on its own merits. But things don’t seem to have worked out quite that way.

I’ve long argued that CAMRA made something of a shibboleth of bottle-conditioned beer, by drawing an exact parallel with the relationship between cask and keg. But bottle-conditioning was no longer really a live tradition when CAMRA was formed, and delivers little perceptible benefit to the drinker. Despite years of plugging away, it has never really gained much traction with the drinking public. Most people with much knowledge of beer accepted that there were many excellent bottled beers that weren’t bottle-conditioned and, for any given beer, all it often brought to the party was introducing wild inconsistency. Yet we still see regret being expressed that bottled beers aren’t bottle-conditioned, even though in the real world that is going to limit their sales prospects, and microbrewers being badgered to make their beers available in bottle-conditioned form even though that turns drinking them into a lottery. Any praise for a beer that doesn’t qualify has to be tempered with a dismissive “but it’s a pity it isn’t bottle-conditioned”.

When it comes to draught beer, the same black-and-white attitude still seems to prevail. There are beers that, in cask form, will get a pub into the Good Beer Guide. Yet, with the same beer in keg form, they are consigned to outer darkness, omitted from the branch pub crawl and failing to appear on the default search on CAMRA’s online WhatPub guide. Yes, if you are still applying the traditional binary cask vs keg dichotomy, this is fair enough. But if we want the organisation to be less “hung up about dispense”, it shouldn’t be happening. Many “modern” keg beers are praised to the rafters, so why not these? If a beer is good enough for the GBG in cask form, then putting it into kegs doesn’t immediately turn it into a bad beer.

Or maybe it’s just the wrong kind of keg. We’re often told that modern “craft” keg beers are nothing like the Watney’s Red Barrel of old. Well, neither were most of the non-real beers of that era either. It’s also pointed out that many are unpasteurised and only rough-filtered. So was much of the “bright” beer of the 1970s. And now we have keg beer that is claimed to actually qualify as real ale. But, as I argued a couple of years ago, this very much comes across as a solution looking for a problem. It’s almost as if someone has played a practical joke on CAMRA by coming up with a beer that, to all intents and purposes, presents as keg, but in fact is, technically speaking, real ale.

However, the concept of “real ale”, as developed in the 1970s, depended on a combination of several different characteristics. It just happened that undergoing a secondary fermentation in the container from which it was dispensed became the touchstone by which it was defined. The only practical benefit I can see of this is allowing keg beers to be served at CAMRA beer festivals, and even that limitation was removed by a motion at this year’s National Conference.

It’s virtually never identified as “real ale in a keg” at the point of sale, and in practice is impossible to distinguish from rough-filtered but non keg-conditioning beers of similar type. How many consumers of craft keg beers are remotely bothered, apart from a small subset of people who are keen keg drinkers but at the same time still hold to the CAMRA definition of real ale? I have to say I rarely drink craft kegs, not because I’m ideologically opposed to them, but because most of them are one or more of very strong, very expensive and having unusual and offputting flavours. I did have a pint of Punk IPA on a Spoons meal deal the other day, though. And, when I do, like that Punk IPA, I expect it to be consistent and clear, which “real ale in a keg” makes less likely on both counts.

And then we have the utter nonsense that is “real ale in a can”. This really is “real ale in a keg” with knobs on. At least with a bottle-conditioned beer, you can see that the sediment has settled to the bottom and, if you want to, pour carefully to ensure that it all remains in the bottle, giving you a clear glass of bear. Obviously you can’t do that with an opaque container, and there’s a question mark as to what extent it actually does experience any meaningful secondary fermentation. What you’re getting is more likely to be just a can of murky beer with some yeast in suspension. Again you have to ask what is the point, apart from to circumvent the CAMRA definition. As with keg beers, if I do choose to drink cans, I expect them to deliver the benefits of clarity and consistency, which this fails to do.

We were told that Revitalisation, or the sentiment behind it, would usher in a more relaxed, inclusive and tolerant environment in the world of beer. But, in fact, all it seems to have done is to expand the nitpicking pedantry for which “Old CAMRA” was criticised into new areas, and introduce an added note of snobbery.

Medieval scholars were often ridiculed for debating how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. Their modern-day equivalents seem to have transferred the focus of their attention to the 4½-gallon cask of that name.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Craft marches on

In the wake of the latest Cask Report, Pete Brown (yes, him again) has recently made some interesting observations on The Market for Flavourful Beer. He points out that, if you combine the market shares of cask ale and craft keg, together they have risen from 18.9% to 23.5% over the past four years. All of this increase has come from the craft sector, with cask showing an overall decline.

However, before the crafterati start drooling into their thirds of murky DIPA, it’s important to consider exactly what makes up this market segment. The Morning Advertiser has produced a listing of the top ten “craft” brands in the on-trade. Not surprisingly, BrewDog Punk IPA is at the top of the table, no doubt helped by being available as part of meal deals in Wetherspoon’s.

But the remainder aren’t a diet of Beavertown and Tiny Rebel, and include such noted stars of the craft firmament as Shipyard and Blue Moon. In fact, five of the ten beers on the list are from offshoots of the major international brewers, with two from long-established British family brewers, two from newer British brewers (one of which, Innis & Gunn, is often only grudgingly accepted as craft) and one from a large US independent, Brooklyn, which presumably has a UK distribution deal with one of the majors. It’s a considerably greater presence for the international brewers than on the equivalent cask list, where they only have one representative.

This underlines what I’ve said about the craft beer movement in the past, that eventually it will be assimilated into the mainstream. Some aspects of it will be taken on board by the major brewers, with US-style IPAs and “craft lagers” currently being the main beneficiaries. Some will continue at a lower, niche level, without ever troubling the top of the sales charts, while others will fade away over time. One major new challenger may appear to challenge the market dominance of the established players, but would you really put any money on BrewDog still being an independent company in twenty years’ time?

Compare this with the situation of cask ale. Above is an interesting graphic from Pete Brown’s post that illustrates the difference in perception between cask and craft. Yes, there is a substantial area of overlap, but there are also major distinguishing factors, and in some ways the two are poles apart. Cask is not an innovation in the beer market; indeed its continued existence as a system represents a reaction against innovation. And it is something pretty much entirely confined to the UK, and a market segment from which the international brewers have mostly withdrawn.

It is all very well to say that everyone interested in “good beer” should recognise a common interest but, as I wrote here, the two sectors of cask and craft carry starkly contrasting cultural associations and arise from essentially different wellsprings of sentiment.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Should I stay, or should I go?

“Are we having another one here, or do you want to move on?” is a familiar question asked in pubs on countless days and nights out. But it’s something that can produce quite a divergence of opinion. I was reminded of this subject by a post entitled The Enduring Appeal of the Pub Crawl from relatively new beer blogger Pete Drinks a Beer. In this he says:
But what of those times that lack this spur of the moment quality? Those sessions that have been meticulously planned in advance, with lists of pubs written, maps of streets scribbled, Good Beer Guides consulted? I refer, of course, to the phenomenon of the pub crawl.

Some of my favourite drinking experiences have been of this kind. Sometimes they are in a new place, a pub crawl pieced together via Google Maps and internet forums. Others are old, comfortable, routes that I've walked hundreds of times, with different pub stops being added and removed as if to a patchwork quilt.

I fully identify with what he’s talking about, and for me that’s often what pubgoing is all about. However, others don’t see it that way, and are much more in favour of staying put. My recent Twitter poll showed them to be in a clear majority.
Now, I can understand that point of view. If you know a pub where the beer, atmosphere and company are to your taste, why move on to somewhere else that may not be as good? As Cooking Lager says:
My local CAMRA branch organises regular monthly “Staggers” – organised pub-crawls around different parts of the branch area. For me, as I said here, these are one of the most interesting and enjoyable things we do, but for some who are happy enough to attend other events they are a “route march” or “a soulless trudge”. And the general public are much less likely to spend their Friday or Saturday night wandering around some of their local pubs than they once were, possibly because individual pubs have become much more segmentalised in their appeal.

Of course, a lot depends on what you’re actually looking for. If your prime objective is just to go out drinking, then there’s little point in doing it in several pubs rather than just one. And if you’re solely interested in seeking out novel beers, then you won’t have much interest in going in the Robbies’ or Holt’s pub with just their standard offer. However, for me, pubs in themselves are a subject of interest. If you’re interested in castles, you don’t just go to the one on the grounds, if you’ve seen one portcullis, you’re seen them all. As I wrote here:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
There are times when it may make sense just to stay in the same pub, especially in the context of a meet-up with people who have come from different directions. But ultimately, for me, the best pubgoing experience, if I’m having more than just a couple of pints, is to revisit a selection of old favourites or explore somewhere new.

Of course I’m not just aiming to go to pubs at random. Locally, there are some pubs that I know are reliably worth visiting, while others may be new, or have changed in a way that merits investigation. On the other hand, there are several pubs in the Heatons and in Stockport town centre that I know are unlikely to appeal in terms of beer offer or ambiance. If I’m visiting another part of the country I will remember pubs I’ve enjoyed before, and also do some research in the Good Beer Guide and via the collective wisdom of the Internet.

The local CAMRA Staggers have become more manageable than they once were, due to pub closures and the conversion of some of the historically less appealing pubs to keg, meaning that they’re now typically a leisurely saunter around maybe about six pubs that are generally of decent quality. And I’m fortunate in knowing a group of people who share an interest in exploring the pubs of towns and cities around the country.

Monday 12 November 2018

The joys of the countryside

I was recently looking at one or two lists people had compiled of their favourite pubs, or ones that had impressed them recently. One thing that struck me was how the pubs chosen were exclusively in urban locations. Now, people can only report on what they’ve personally experienced, and that tends to be where the action is in terms of beer innovation. However, it is a somewhat partial view of the overall pub landscape, so to redress the balance here’s a list of fifteen pubs in rural or village locations that I have enjoyed visiting in the current century. I’m sure you will have your own suggestions to add to the list.

Thursday 8 November 2018

At the sign of the Good Companions

I’ve discussed in the past the key role pubs can play in alleviating loneliness and social isolation, especially amongst older men. This is a theme that has now been taken up by a research project carried out by Bristol University, which reinforces what I have said:
A key finding was men's reasons for going to the pub were much broader than just drinking alcohol.

It found they wanted to interact with other people, get out of the house and break their daily routine (for those living on their own), to enjoy live music with others, and as a reward in the working week.

The changing nature of pubs was also outlined, with higher prices, fewer social activities and louder music making it harder for older men to access pubs. Men felt it was no longer acceptable to 'nurse a pint' if you were unable to afford multiple drinks.

Landlords and pub owners were identified as having an important role to play in creating a social space where people felt welcome. The men's group felt that it was the role of the landlord to get to know their frequent customers and provide a point of regular social interaction, particularly for pub-goers who may be experiencing loneliness.

It also highlighted how large pubcos can be damaging, as they can result in "frequent changes of staff who do not know their clientele on first name basis".

The changing nature of pubs is an important factor that erodes the way they can fulfil this function. To the aspects listed I would add the smoking ban, uncomfortable seating, dim lighting, abandonment of lunchtime opening and the feeling in many food-oriented pubs that customers who just want a drink and a chat aren’t really welcome.

As the report recognises, very often social interaction takes a very inconsequential form. For many people, it is the simple act of getting out of the house, going into a different environment and saying hello to another human being that makes all the difference. It certainly doesn’t require any kind of organised activities, which indeed in themselves can be offputting to many people. This kind of thing is brilliantly summed up in this vignette from “Stanley Blenkinsop” in the comments on my blog:

My moments of peak frisson usually occur when I walk into rather plain pubs, often in market towns that are a little rough at the edges and find myself in a proper no-nonsense boozer. Just after midday is a favourite time. If Radio 2 is on the wireless I know I've hit the motherlode. The landlord is often overweight and a bit pasty, wheezing from the half packet of John Player Blue that has got him through a late breakfast after last night's heavy session, shifting some barrels in the cellar and sending the missus off to the cash and carry for the nuts and crisps.

His hand is a little unsteady holding the glass underneath the local best bitter tap as my pint goes in but I cut him some slack as I reach for the unread newspaper on the bar. It's always the Daily Mail. He and I care little for conversation but that's fine by me. If I want a chat about inconsequential bollocks I'll start on the second person coming into the bar. He's always an old feller with a scraggy dog. He always smokes roll-ups.

I can while away a couple of hours watching this theatre of mediocre normality. The players arrive at their usual times and go through their usual performance - joshing the landlord, complaining of their aches and pains or some slight from a neighbour. Anything that justifies them getting out of the house and socialising with fellow humans. I know the same thing is happening in pubs up and down the land at that time. It makes me feel comfortable. And I really don't want much more than that at my stage of life.

The photo above shows a group of codgers enjoying a pint in the Old Blue Bell in Hull. I’d bet most of them probably don’t have any contact with each other beyond their regular meet-ups in the pub to share a bit of banter. One of them cheerfully said to his companions “If it wasn’t for all these medical treatments they have today, we’d all be dead!”

Some people have responded to this by saying “Well, it’s not just older men, is it? Loneliness can affect everyone. What about women? What about younger folks?” And that’s certainly true. But it doesn’t affect every category of society in the same way, and it’s important to recognise that different groups have varying experiences. Pubs have a particular relevance for older men as they are often the first place they look to for companionship.

People often speak of pubs in misty-eyed terms as hubs of the community and centres of warmth and sociability. At their best, this is still true. But there are fewer and fewer of them around where you can just walk in, order a pint, sit yourself down on a bench or a bar stool, and exchange a few words about the weather with a total stranger. The reality is often very different from the rose-tinted idyll.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Lost local

I have a local pub, and indeed an architecturally distinguished one. Five years ago, I wrote about how the Sunday lunchtime drinking experience had been affected by the tides of change through the years. I used to go in there most weeks, at least once, sometimes more. Yet now I hardly ever visit it apart from delivering the local CAMRA magazine. I can’t really call it my “local” in any meaningful sense.

So what has gone wrong? It’s really a steady accretion of different changes, maybe small in themselves, although one or two stand out, that over a period of time have made a very substantial difference to the customer experience. I’m not going to name it, but those who know me will know which pub I’m talking about.

  • The main lounge was converted to a designated dining room, with place settings on every table and drinkers relegated to the rear smoke room. When football is being shown, there is literally nowhere to go for a quiet drink.

  • TV football was extended from the vault into the “best” side of the pub. At first this was only a big pull-down screen for United and City matches, but now there are two massive permanent screens on either side of the smoke room, which is totally out of keeping with the historic interior.

  • After many years as a quiet pub, piped music was introduced, all too often in the form of 21st century R&B which can’t remotely be to the tastes of the typical clientele.

  • It was sensitively refurbished in a way that respected the original fabric, but unfortunately this was accompanied by installing extremely dim lighting, so at night you’re sitting in Stygian gloom.

  • Over the past five years there has been a revolving door of licensees, only one of whom really seems to have got a grip on the pub and imposed their stamp on it. The exception was an experienced management couple who came in immediately after the refurbishment, but then left suddenly within nine months, possibly because they didn’t see eye-to-eye with the brewery.

  • Guest beers from other breweries have been dropped, so the beer range is limited to the products of the owning brewery. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it reflects something of a drawing in of horns. And, perhaps due to falling trade, the quality of those is often very variable.
None of these are in themselves showstoppers, except when United or City are on the telly, but added together they make it a pub that I find much less congenial than it once was. If I was showing someone around the area, I’d take them in there for a pint, not least to show them the largely unspoilt interior, but I don’t personally care to drink in there. And it’s not as though it’s busy accommodating a clientele who want different things from me – indeed often it’s embarrassingly quiet. I know pubs in general have suffered, especially ones in residential areas that aren’t part of nightlife hubs, but the owning brewery seem to have little clue how to make it work and have alienated several different categories of customers. Given that the only other pub within reasonable walking distance has been turned into a craft/gastro extravaganza, this is something of a limitation on my drinking habits.

This may come across as wanting the world to burn, but from a personal perspective I’d go in there a lot more if it was taken over by Sam Smith’s and the TV football, piped music and place settings were banished to oblivion. Even if it didn’t serve cask beer. It doesn’t fit the Wetherspoon’s business model in terms of needing a lot of casual footfall past the door, so that just isn’t going to happen.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Something’s got to give

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about declining cask beer sales, and the vicious circle of falling turnover and lower quality across the bar that it can so easily lead to. Inevitably, if volumes continue to drop, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total on-trade beer market, there will be repercussions in terms of range and availability. But exactly what those will be is hard to say. I should stress that what follows is merely some musings on the subject, and is not intended as either a prediction or a statement of what I would personally like to see.

One outcome that is often suggested is that sales will increasingly be confined to pubs specialising in cask beer, as seen in this tweet from Gary Gillman.

However, the market doesn’t quite work like that. If cask beer sales fell evenly across the board, it would obviously be those with a higher proportion of cask in their mix that would continue to sell it. But there are plenty of generalist pubs that continue to sell a lot of cask and where it is in no sense under threat. Often it is these pubs that consistently provide the best beer quality. But their customers value them for other aspects too, and wouldn’t necessarily desert them for an alternative if cask ceased to be available. It must be remembered that pubs depend for their trade on a very specific combination of time and place. People tend to drink in mixed groups and don’t choose pubs on one single factor.

Such a move would reduce the overall visibility of cask in the marketplace and thus possibly intensify the vicious circle. And the archetypal specialist cask pubs are by no means blameless on the quality front. For example, I’ve been in one perennial GBG favourite where three beers sampled on a Tuesday lunchtime, that may have been fine the previous Saturday night, were all distinctly iffy. Indeed, those pubs that imagine they have to put on a wide cask range to compete, but don’t have the turnover to sustain it, often produce the worst beer of all.

There is another kind of specialist pub that might stand a better chance of solving the turnover problem – those that effectively specialise in one beer. In the old days, this was the case with the legendary Athletic Arms or “Diggers” in Edinburgh, which sold prodigious quantities of McEwan’s 80/-, and very little else, and managed to coax something special out of it that few other pubs could achieve. There used to be some pubs serving Draught Bass that were much like this. Even today, I’d bet that in some Batham’s pubs, at least three-quarters of all draught sales are their peerless Best Bitter. It’s the model followed by the famous Zum Uerige in Dusseldorf, where the main attraction is their own highly-esteemed Altbier.

But this again represents cask drawing in its horns and limiting itself to a specialist appeal. Such establishments, by definition, are only going to thrive in larger urban areas where there is a critical mass of customers interested in that particular experience. For many, it might be a once-a-month treat rather than something used several times a week. While people who didn’t drink that particular beer, or indeed beer at all, would still be catered for, they would feel like second-class citizens, like non-gamblers at a racecourse. And it goes against the established British tradition of pubs providing something for all-comers.

A different kind of consequence could be a growing realisation that, if people want a wider range, it needs to be offered on keg, not cask. In its early days, CAMRA was driven by two different motivations – championing real ale in preference to keg or pressurised dispense, and fighting the erosion of choice and distinctive local beers. At the time, overall beer sales in pubs were growing, and the market share of lager was still relatively insignificant, so the two weren’t in conflict. It was so much better just to offer the same beer range in cask form, and you could be pretty confident you’d shift it. It must be remembered that, although it is sometimes described as such, “cask” is not a style of beer, it is a system of conditioning, storage and dispense. Bitter is a style, cask isn’t, and can encompass a wide variety of different styles.

However, nowadays, with declining volumes, there’s a growing conflict between range and quality. But the remaining pub-owning breweries don’t seem to have responded to that by switching slower-selling lines from cask to keg. At one time, it was common to go in pubs owned by the same brewer and find some selling their beers on keg or top pressure, and others having the same beers on cask. Today, you only really find that kind of wide range of mainstream keg ales in Sam Smith’s pubs, which can theoretically offer up to two milds, three bitters, an IPA and a stout. Go in the archetypal “keg boozer” and the bitter will be one or more of John Smith’s, Tetley’s, Boddington’s and Worthington smooth, there will be no premium bitter and the mild, if there is one, will be some obscure survivor like M&B Mild or John Smith’s Chestnut Mild, brewed who knows where.

But, in an age where keg beer has regained a certain amount of respectability, even with many in CAMRA, might it make sense for established ale brewers, and indeed some of their newer brethren, to offer a wider range of ales in keg form? Surely it would be better for a pub to have a keg mild or strong bitter, than to either have none at all or dispense pints of vinegar. Realistically, how much sales would they lose by this? A few years ago, our local brewer Robinson’s decided to drop their 1892 Mild, once their best seller, entirely on the grounds of declining sales, but might it not have made more sense to keep it on as a keg beer?

Realistically, none of these things is going to happen as I have described. It is more likely that the same kind of gradual erosion of range and quality will continue. But, looking at the overall market, inevitably at one point something’s got to give. And the likelihood is that it will be some kind of “black swan” event that nobody has foreseen. In the early and mid-1990s, a whole swathe of lower-end pubs that had passed from the ownership of the Big Six brewers to pubcos lost their cask beer, because it was no longer seen as something essential either to draw in punters or to maintain the owning company’s reputation. Nobody saw that coming. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the main factors keeping cask relatively buoyant is that the biggest developers of new pubs are Wetherspoon’s, for whom cask is a key aspect of their business proposition, and Greene King and Marston’s, who are our major cask ale brewers. But it need not always be so.

Friday 19 October 2018

Ale Britannia

Regular readers will be aware that I’ve not always seen eye to eye with beer writer Pete Brown. He can talk a lot of sense when he sticks to the subject, but unfortunately too often he can’t help bringing in his own political agenda. However, he’s recently made an important point in asking why this country has such a downer on its indigenous brewing tradition. The UK, along with Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic, is one of the world’s four great traditional brewing nations. Our beers have influenced brewers all over the world, and were the inspiration behind the original microbrewery revolution in the USA. And yet, all too often, both in popular culture and amongst beer enthusiasts, we tend to either ignore or disparage them.

It’s very common to see British beer styles dismissed as “boring brown bitters”, “twiggy” or “old man beers”. If pressed, a beer enthusiast will sometimes grudgingly say “Well, there are some really good traditional beers. Harvey’s, example. And Adnams are pretty good.” But the trail goes cold there, and it’s not long before they have returned to gushing over mega-hoppy US-style IPAs and salted caramel stouts. To be honest, it all comes across as a bit “some of my best friends are Jews”. And most of the beers that were championed by the original 1970s real ale movement are now dismissed out of hand and considered to be no longer of much interest.

Pete wonders whether this is part of the general British tendency to downgrade our own achievements. After all, self-effacing understatement is one of our national traits. He writes, slightly uncomfortably:

And I know of no other nation of people who are so quick to agree that their national cuisine is the worst in the world, when it patently isn’t. The problem is, even if we wanted to stand up for our national food and drink, being proud of what we do is undoubtedly one thing that we Brits are genuinely terrible at.

Anyone who dares to say they’re proud to be British, or of British achievements, faces the danger of being lumped in with Nigel Farage. A majority may have voted for Brexit, but even most Leave voters rankle at being compared to red-faced, racist ‘gammons’.

And what drink do you associate with Nigel Farage…?


Is it just another manifestation of the tendency described by George Orwell that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”?

However, I’m not too convinced that the answer really lies within “culture wars”. After all, the archetypal “gammon” sneered at so condescendingly by the Woke drinks lager, not traditional bitter. And the modern beer enthusiasts are keen to embrace every trend emanating from the land of Trump.

Partly it is a result of changes in fashion. The original real ale revival came in the 1970s, when there was a general tendency to embrace the old-fashioned, quirky and traditional as a response to the modernising spirit of the 1960s. The current zeitgeist, which is very much in favour of the new, shiny and innovative, runs right against that, so anything that was around in 1978 is just dull, stodgy and out-of-date.

And much of it stems from the beer world itself. After all, we don’t take the same attitude to many other aspects of our heritage from Scotch malt whisky to Shakespeare and Dickens. Pretty much every major country has adopted pale lager as its dominant beer style. The UK, with its long and honourable tradition of ale brewing, was late to that party, only really arriving at that position in the 1980s. There is still a tendency, even when many who have drunk lager from adolescence have now retired, to see traditional British ales as old-fashioned.

Within the beer community, there is a general desire to seek out the novel and experimental, which goes back to the beer ticking trend of the 1990s and long predates “craft”. Anything that is a permanent fixture on the bar, and has been for years, is just one of the “usual suspects”. And, when the craft beer movement crossed the Atlantic back from the USA in the current century, rather than taking aim at the global brewers, it set itself up in opposition the established real ale culture and the beers associated with it. Punk IPA is not so much the antidote to Carling and Stella as to Pedigree and London Pride.

But beers in traditional British styles, from the huge variety of pale ales and bitters, through milds, stouts and old ales, are one of the great glories of the beer world, and something entirely unique. Whatever your political standpoint, they are well worth celebrating and enjoying in their own right. As Pete concludes,

If we turn away from and deny our own tradition, we turn off a big flow that’s been going into the global creative mash tun. And if that happens, the whole global brewing scene is diminished.
And Marston’s have now removed the St George’s flag from Bombardier pumpclips and bottle labels!

Friday 12 October 2018

What goes around, comes around

Going back sixty years, most pubs in the UK apart from the very smallest had a compartmentalised interior layout. Typically, they would have the standard demarcation between public bar and “best room” – the term “lounge” was not yet in general use. Some had a three-level division between public, saloon and lounge, with subtle gradations in clientele and ambiance between the three. Plus, as documented in Basil Oliver’s book The Renaissance of the English Public House, there could be a whole variety of other rooms such as news rooms, tea rooms, games rooms and, at the time, ladies’ rooms.

But, in the intervening period, pretty much all this has been swept away by knocking pubs through into a single-bar layout. The only pubs that still have two “sides” are the few survivors from a past era – the last one I know of that was built in that way was Holt’s Sidings in Levenshulme about thirty years ago. The main reason always advanced for this was that it reflected a more democratic and egalitarian society in which the old class divisions no longer applied, and there’s certainly some truth in that. But it also made pubs easier to manage and supervise, and in the 1960s and early 70s there was also the factor that public bar prices were subject to government price control, which could be circumvented by turning the entire pub into a lounge bar.

However, it didn’t always work out quite as intended. In many cases, rather than everyone happily mixing together in the same pub, the class division moved from one between different bars to one between different pubs. The middle classes used one pub, the working classes another. Near me, there’s a location where a modern craft bar faces a big old sports TV and karaoke boozer on the opposite side of a crossroads. I doubt whether the two share many, if any, customers.

But now, as the Morning Advertiser reports, a growing number of pub operators are realising that there is a need to cater for different audiences within a single venue, and are thus returning to the concept of pub “zoning”. It’s all too easy if you’re not careful for one aspect of a pub to take over the whole place and alienate many potential customers. The comment that “our elderly crowd... wouldn't necessarily want to be sat in a café-style place full of kids” particularly resonated with me.

There are two obvious divisions between different customer groups that often rankle in pubs today. One is showing big-screen TV sport, which brings in a specific crowd who may well put a lot of money across the bar, but which deters those who just want a quiet drink. And allowing children, while key to the concept of family dining, is something that that those who prefer an adults-only environment feel uncomfortable with. Plus, of course, in a more tolerant society there would be a strong argument for a division in pubs between smoking and non-smoking areas.

My suggestion that this meant the wheel turning full circle met with much approval on Twitter – so far gaining no less than 61 likes.

It’s a classic example of the principle of Chesterton’s fence – that you should never get rid of anything in the interest of “improvement” without understanding why it had been put there in the first place.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

It doesn’t add up

I’ve done an analysis like this before, but it’s worth repeating in the light of the recent highlighting of the widespread quality issues with cask beer. The latest edition of the Cask Report states than one in seven pints sold in British pubs is now cask. According to the British Beer & Pub Association, total on-trade beer sales in the year to the end of June 2018 were 12.549 million bulk barrels. One-seventh of that is 1.793 million barrels. CAMRA’s WhatPub website states that there are 35,777 pubs in the country serving cask ale.

Even if we ignore sales to clubs and beer festivals, that means that the average pub sells 50 barrels a year, or just under one a week. That’s 276 pints a week, or a mere 40 per day. Assuming that beer is generally sold in 9-gallon firkins, that means the average pub can only have two cask lines if it wants to make sure it empties a cask within three or four days. Yet how many handpumps does the typical cask pub you go in have? Considerably more than two. And we wonder why so much beer ends up in poor condition.

Monday 8 October 2018

On the sauce in Worcester - Part 2

We pick up the story of our day out in Worcester having just left the Plough, which I wrote about in Part 1. Crossing over the High Street, we reached the Eagle Vaults, a street-corner pub with an impressive tiled facade advertising Mitchells & Butlers’ Gold Medal Ales. It’s one of three pubs on this crawl that appears in the 1978 Good Beer Guide, where it’s described as “A friendly pub with an unspoilt Victorian bar” and sells M&B Brew XI and Mild. It’s now a Banks’s/Marston’s pub, with Banks’s Amber Bitter, Sunbeam, Boondoggle and Eagle IPA. I had a pretty good pint of Amber, although others weren’t so impressed with the Sunbeam.

It still has the impressive, unspoilt bar and, although presumably knocked through a little, still qualifies for a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. The lounge side had a selection of traditional pub games including quoits and table skittles. We caught up here with the stragglers whose journey from Cambridge had presumably been delayed by being bogged down in the Fens. It was now mid-afternoon, and groups of traditional drinking customers were starting to drift in.

Now came the division in the camp that Martin refers to here. So far we’d successfully been relying on navigation by seat of the pants based on vague memories – “I think it’s somewhere down here.” However, this method now came unstuck. The Eagle Vaults is on Friar Street, a long historic street running parallel to the High Street, which further north morphs into New Street. Consensus was that the next pub, the Cardinal’s Hat, was somewhere to the north on the right. However, after we’d walked for five minutes and reached the next pub after that, it dawned on us that we should have been going the other way. This resulted in a breakaway group muttering “sod that for a game of soldiers” and deciding to decamp to the new craft bar, the Oil Basin Brewhouse, to rejoin us later.

However, a party of committed stalwarts were determined to stick to the script and retraced our steps back past the Eagle Vaults to the Cardinal’s Hat. This has an impressive Tudor timbered facade, with a high-quality 1930s internal refit that qualifies it for a regional entry on the National Inventory. It was once a Davenport’s pub, and featured in the 1978 Good Beer Guide, described tersely as “Timbered pub in a back street”, with Davenports Bitter on the bar. I remember coming in here on a visit in 1992 when they were playing tracks from Jethro Tull’s then-new album “Catfish Rising”.

Spotted on the wall of the gents' in the Cardinal's Hat

However, first impressions were not favourable, as the front bar had incongruously been fitted out with high-level posing tables. We retreated to the more comfortable surroundings of the wood-panelled snug at the rear, but noted that we were the only customers. The beer range was Salopian Lemon Dream, Prescott Hill Climb and Autumn, North Cotswold The Tempest and Purity Mad Goose, none of which struck us as particularly memorable. There were some amusing pictures on the wall of the gents’, but the overall impression was one of unfulfilled potential. It sounded like they had more fun in the Oil Basin.

Heading up New Street for the third time we were eventually able to pay our visit to the King Charles II. Right next door to the Georgian Swan With Two Nicks, this is another ancient half-timbered building that claims the eponymous king escaped from it following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Internally it has been more opened out than the Cardinal’s Hat, but retains plenty of dark wood and an impressive historic fireplace. There were a reasonable number of customers in, but we were able to find seats at a table by the window, where one of my companions rescued me from a beetle that was advancing menacingly up my shirt front.

It’s leased by Craddocks Brewery and offers a somewhat jawdropping array of their ales on about nine handpumps ranged around the bar. This brought to mind my visit to their other pub, the Talbot in Drotiwich, last year, where I questioned whether they were spreading themselves too thinly. Many of the beers appear to be very similar to others, and did the pub really have the turnover to keep every single one in good condition? We tried three – Saxon Gold, King’s Escape and North Star – none of which were particularly impressive, with the last-mentioned, described as an American IPA, perhaps shading it. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a bit more focus in the beer range would be desirable.

The splinter group arrived just as we were drinking up, so we followed an initially dubious-looking short cut through ASDA’s car park to reach the Firefly on Lowesmoor. This is a pub housed in an impressive Georgian building that apparently was once the residence of the manager of the adjoining vinegar works. We hoped that wouldn’t be an augury for the quality of the beer. Reached via a short flight of steps, the interior is very much in modern craft bar style and rather belies the external appearance. The handpumps are rather oddly located, well set back from the front of the bar at a lower level, which makes them a little difficult to see. They dispensed the distinctly murky Siren Suspended in Rainbows, Mallinsons Dreaming, New Bristol Pineapple Pale and Enville White. I had at least heard of the Enville White, which was decent enough, but the others very much fell into the category of “OK if you like that sort of thing”. One person ended up with the Pineapple Pale after failing to spot the Enville, possibly because the pumpclips were a bit hard to see.

The Tything is a long Georgian street leading north from Foregate Street station away from the city centre, featuring several pubs. Our initial intention had been to make the final call the Dragon, run by Church End Brewery, but a late change of plan resulted from the Lamb & Flag, a few doors further up, appearing as a new entry in the 2019 Good Beer Guide. This was another entry in the 1978 edition, when it was a Marston’s pub serving Pedigree and Burton Bitter, described as “Lively, friendly city pub.” I vaguely recalled coming here on a train trip from university in the late 1970s.

Now it’s run by Two Crafty Brewers, and offered their American Pale and Golden Beast alongside Wye Valley HPA, which was OK, and Greene King Yardbird – I think there was some kind of partial tie with GK. It’s a long, thin pub running well back from the narrow street frontage, although the interior has been much modernised. We were able to find some seats around a table towards the rear. The soundtrack included “Horse With No Name” by America, which brought back more memories of the 1970s, but to be honest was regarded as a poor Neil Young pastiche even when originally released. From here it was a ten minute walk back to the station for the train home, which turned out to be ten minutes late, so I could have had more time in the pub. Some of those who were staying overnight called in to the Dragon afterwards.

So another highly enjoyable day out, with the quality and variety of the company as always being one of the best aspects. The pub of the day was the Plough, something on which I think all of us who visited it agreed, while the biggest disappointment was the Paul Pry, a lovely pub that let itself down by the poorest beer we had all day. Hopefully those who run it will read this, and the other blogs about it, and take note. This underlines that the Good Beer Guide is by no means infallible in terms of leading you to a consistently good pint, and the fact that it was Wednesday lunchtime and afternoon shouldn’t really be put forward as an excuse. Looking around, there were plenty of other pubs in Worcester that would merit further investigation.

Wednesday 3 October 2018

On the sauce in Worcester – Part 1

Our latest Beer and Pubs Forum Proper Day Out took place in the last week of September with a visit to the cathedral city of Worcester. It’s easily reachable in 2¼ hours on the train from Stockport, changing at Birmingham, and once again I was able to get a good discount on the fare by using the services of After several visits I still struggle with the layout of the revamped New Street station, though. I had been to Worcester before, but not for the past twenty years, so much of it would be new to me. One thing I remember from my university days is that it was one of the select band of towns and cities that suffered the very restrictive 2 pm afternoon closing, along with Northampton which we visited earlier in the year. Of course this isn’t a problem now, but a sign of the times was that some of the pubs, even on the fringes of the city centre, didn’t open until 4 pm on weekdays. It was a typical fine early Autumn day that started off rather chilly, but became pleasantly warm once the sun had got to work. Apologies for the hackneyed blog title, by the way, but it does rather write itself.

We met up at Wetherspoon’s Postal Order, which is handily situated just a stone’s throw from Foregate Street station. I had been here before in 1998 – it’s a typical old-school Spoons conversion, surprisngly enough, from a former post office, with plenty of dark wood in the decor and bench seating around the walls of the large single room. It had a fair number of customers at 11.30am, including a guy at the bar on a mobility scooter. There were about ten cask beers on the bar, with the usual mixture of regulars and guests. Amongst the guests were Woods Shropshire Lad, Acorn Old Moor Porter, Hop Farm Frizzle, Man in a Hat American Pale Ale and Boss Brave AIPA. I had the Shropshire Lad, which was pretty good, and all the others were well-received too, with the Frizzle being particularly appreciated. It claims to have one of the largest cask beer sales of any Wetherspoon’s in the West Midlands area, and is definitely in the top of the Spoons drawer.

Counter and bar back in the Paul Pry
A short walk took us to the Paul Pry, a distinctive late Victorian or Edwardian pub in the angle of two streets. After a somewhat chequered history, including a spell as a restaurant, it reopened in 2017 as a free house and in fact is a new entry in the 2019 Good Beer Guide. It features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, and pride of place goes to the magnificently unspoilt public bar in the apex, with impressive carved wooden counter and mosaic floor. There’s more mosaic and tilework in the central passageway leading to the toilets, and another room on the opposite side of the entrance which retains original wall detailing but has lost its fixed seating.

Pub dog in the Paul Pry
First impressions were good, with a friendly, helpful barman, an endearing pub dog and a number of proper pub customers including a pair of codgers sitting in a corner with pint tankards. However, unfortunately it was let down by the beer. The range was sensibly limited to three – their own Paul Pry ale brewed by Teme Valley, Salopian Picc and Animal London Porter, together with Lily the Pink cider. However, all of them were to a greater or lesser degree a touch tired, flat and tepid, which really isn’t what you expect in a GBG pub. Some of the latecomers who visited the pub in the evening had a similar experience. For me, my beer in the Paul Pry was the least good of the day.

Just around the corner on a main shopping street was the Cricketers, our scheduled lunch stop. This is a regional entry on the National Inventory, and is perhaps a little smaller inside than it looks from the street, with two areas on either side of a curved wooden bar. It was pretty busy, and we had to squeeze on to a corner table and pull a couple of extra chairs up. There was a high quality of banter from some of the other customers. The beer range was more familiar than in the Paul Pry, comprising Doom Bar, Wadworth Horizon, Sadler’s Peaky Blinder and Prescott Hill Climb. I, perhaps foolishly, went for the Doom Bar in the interests of research, which was well enough kept, but still lacking in much distinctive flavour. The other beers were all judged pretty decent. The pub has an extensive menu of good-value food – my £6.25 Ploughman’s couldn’t be faulted at the price, and the £5.95 Faggots, Chips and Peas also went down well. Upstairs, in keeping with the name, is a fascinating little museum of cricket memorabilia, which is well worth a visit.

The Plough - a Sooty charity box is always a good sign in a pub
We now had a longer walk down the busy pedestrianised High Street to reach the Plough on Fish Street near the cathedral. Worcester has a general air of prosperity about it, with very few vacant shop units in the city centre. The Plough is one of two historic pubs on this short street, being almost next door to the Farriers Arms, which also looks very inviting. Entering up a short flight of stairs, you’re immediately confronted by the short bar counter, with cosy rooms on either side with bench seating, together with a surprising suntrap beer garden, although you do find yourself sitting right next to a busy street. Meals are served from Friday to Sunday, but weren’t today. The beer range, concentrating on West Midlands beers, was Ledbury Bitter, Hobson’s Best, Swan Brewery Green Swan Green Hop, Black Pear MHB and Beowulf Finns Hall Porter. All those sampled, including my Hobson’s, were good. In terms of general atmosphere, this was my pub of the day. be continued...