Monday 29 January 2018

The best is the enemy of the good

The cask breather has for long been a bone of contention within CAMRA. It’s described here:
A cask breather, sometimes called an “aspirator,” is a demand valve used in conjunction with a beer engine and a carbon dioxide tank for the dispense of cask-conditioned beers. It allows beer drawn from the cask to be replaced with the equivalent amount of sterile gas at atmospheric pressure.
The objective is to extend the shelf-life of the beer by preventing outside air from coming into contact with it. If set up correctly, no CO2 should become dissolved in the beer, which thus should not become in any sense gassy. Tastings set up by CAMRA’s Technical Committee have repeatedly demonstrated that people are unable to tell the difference between beer stored under a cask breather, and that without.

However, on more than one occasion, CAMRA’s National AGM has rejected giving any approval to the device. Some of the objections seem spurious, such as arguing that the flavour actually benefits from exposure to the atmosphere after the cask has been tapped. It all seems to boil down to a generalised dislike of CO2 in any form, and a suspicion that sanctioning the use of breathers will represent the thin end of the wedge.

A cask breather should only really be necessary for pubs without sufficient trade to empty a cask within three days. Clearly, beer stored under a breather will be much preferable to either no beer at all, keg beer, or rancid cask beer. In ideal conditions, there should be no need for it if the pub can shift its beer quickly enough, but in the real world that is often not the case. The objection is a case of the best being the enemy of the good.

One concern, though, is that if CAMRA gave the green light to cask breathers, some pubs might take it as an encouragement to use them to further increase an already over-extended beer range. If a cask will last seven days rather than three, then you can have twice as many different beers on. However, while a seven-day-old cask under a breather will be far better than one exposed to the atmosphere, it’s still going to have a touch of staleness about it, and not be a patch on one that’s just been tapped. There used to be one local pub that I suspected of routinely using cask breathers, and all its beers, while drinkable enough, tasted as though a damp cloth had been thrown over them to dial down their flavour.

Some breweries have found their pubs effectively excluded from the Good Beer Guide because it has become known that they recommend licensees use a cask breather as a matter of policy. However, realistically very few GBG pubs receive a cellar inspection, and so plenty, especially independent free houses, must end up being listed even though they use the devices. So it makes sense for CAMRA’s revitalisation proposals to include the recommendation that “CAMRA should adopt a neutral position on the use of cask breathers,” neither condemning nor explicitly approving them. If the beer’s good enough, a pub will be listed; if it isn’t, it won’t be.

Thursday 25 January 2018

New blood in old casks

CAMRA have now released more detail of their Revitalisation proposals that are going to be put to a vote of the membership at the AGM in April. I’m going to hold back from commenting in detail until the wording of the Special Resolutions is published.

One aspect worth thinking about, though, is the oft-heard claim that CAMRA needs to “adapt or die”. While membership numbers continue to show a healthy increase, the organisation suffers from a declining and ageing base of active members, and unless new blood can be recruited it is likely to have to severely curtail its activities on the ground over the coming years, especially running beer festivals.

However, this isn’t a problem unique to CAMRA. Pretty much every voluntary organisation of a similar type reports the same problem, that the people doing the work are getting older and fewer, and hardly anyone is coming forward to replace them. This is really a more general phenomenon in society, that more demanding professional job roles and the rise of the Internet and social media make that kind of “committee work” much less appealing. If people do get leisure time, they want to spend it relaxing rather than attending formal meetings, doing surveys and lobbying MPs and councillors.

In the past, joining CAMRA or a similar organisation was often a good way of making social contacts for graduates who had moved to a new area for work after completing their studies. It is noticeable that many of the leading lights in local CAMRA organisations are people whose roots are elsewhere, including myself. But Facebook and Twitter make that less of an imperative.

While plenty of younger drinkers do seem to be enjoying “craft keg”, that doesn’t mean they’re actually interested in translating that into any kind of campaigning activity. It seems to be doing perfectly well without any formal support from CAMRA. And, even if CAMRA did in some way “embrace it”, many of its actual campaigning activities would remain things like surveying and attempting to preserve the very “old man” boozers that the craft drinkers had voted with their feet to avoid. People won’t be motivated into doing the hard yards of grass-roots campaigning unless it’s for a cause they’re passionate about.

Voluntary organisations are not like countries, and have no divine right to survive indefinitely. In many cases over time they will wither away, either because their original purpose has been achieved, or because interest in their cause has declined. Trying to do something different purely to perpetuate the organisation’s existence comes across as putting the cart before the horse. Indeed, it could be argued that the very rise of “craft keg” makes the need to champion real ale all the more pressing. And there’s little evidence from elsewhere that the “trendy vicar” approach actually helps perpetuate organisations anyway. All too often, it alienates established supporters while coming across as patronising “getting down wiv da kids” to those to whom it is meant to appeal. Successful campaigning organisations tend to have a clear and single-minded sense of purpose.

Many of the Revitalisation proposals may well be desirable in their own right. But they should stand or fall on their own merits, rather than being adopted in a possibly mistaken belief that they will help the organisation to survive.

Saturday 20 January 2018

Social phobia

Matthew Lawrenson of Seeing the Lizards has recently done a couple of very honest blogposts on the subject of autism and pubgoing – here and here. He has Asperger’s Syndrome and finds that going to the pub poses a range of social challenges that most people simply do not appreciate.

He’s said on Twitter that he perhaps expected more of a response in the comments, but to be honest it’s a subject of which most people have little experience and feel they have nothing to contribute. Too often, ASD people are simply dismissed as being a bit weird and geeky, without any recognition that they have social needs and feelings too. And, as I said, there seems to be a widespread view that, if they can't express their feelings “appropriately” and stick to the unwritten rules, it's probably best for them to keep quiet and not embarrass themselves and others.

I’ve never been diagnosed with anything of this kind and don’t propose to launch into confessional mode, but I have to admit I have considerable sympathy with what Matthew says. I’m a fairly reserved and self-contained person, who for much of the time is content with his own company and, while I value and enjoy social interaction, it does take a certain amount of effort that many others won’t appreciate. After a while, I feel the need to withdraw for a bit to recharge my batteries, which is something that pub closing time often signals.

I’ve written before how pubs can provide a unique social opportunity for shy and reserved people, as you can control just to what extent you interact with others. The simple act of getting out of the house and being in the company of others, even if you don’t converse with them, can in itself be very valuable. I can’t think of any other situation where that is possible.

However, you can only do that in the traditional “drink and chat” environment. The enforced intimacy of many micropubs militates against it, as does, at the other extreme, the pub where “there’s always something going on.” Very often, for the ASD person, just sitting there with a pint, reading the paper or browsing the Internet, and maybe exchanging the odd word with other customers, is all the social interaction they want or need. It may not seem much but, for them, it’s far better than nothing.

By coincidence, in the same week, the government announced the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness. I couldn’t help being reminded of Ronald Reagan’s famous saying that “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”

Possibly someone in government might make the connection between an increase in loneliness and social isolation, and the closure of thousands of pubs and clubs over the past ten years as a direct result of government policy. But I wouldn’t hold out much hope.

As Grandad says in this post, “Britain has a Minister for Loneliness in the midst of God knows how many other ministries who all combine to be the Ministry for Isolation.”

Thursday 11 January 2018

Send it back!

The Morning Advertiser has recently published the results of a YouGov survey showing that 39% of people were uncomfortable about sending food back in pubs and restaurants. If anything, I’d say that’s a surprisingly low figure, as it’s a subject that is potentially far more of a minefield than returning unsatisfactory beer to the bar.

Looking at the figures in more detail, the first two reasons, of getting the wrong meal and the food being undercooked, are fairly clear-cut, and you should have a strong case. Indeed you have to wonder who the 8% of people are who wouldn’t send the wrong meal back. But, after that, it becomes more problematical. The range of potential faults in food is much greater than that in beer, and very often it becomes a matter of subjective judgment.

I freely admit to being a distinctly fussy and eccentric eater, but in general I simply try to avoid ordering dishes where there may be an issue, as I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable about returning a meal just because it wasn’t cooked to my liking. How fatty or gristly would a steak need to be before you deemed it unacceptable? And what would be your expectations of getting a better one? There have also been several occasions where a dish, while maybe not objectionable in its own right, turned out to be something very different from what the menu had led me to believe.

Plus there is the question of what happens to a meal if you send it back. With beer, it’s simply a case of replacing it with another one, but if your food is undercooked, are they going to cook it a bit more, and if they did would that overall be a satisfactory cooking process anyway? Or are they going to start again from scratch, which will cost them money, and cost you time? That may not be a good solution if you have something else to do later.

If a pub can’t provide you with an acceptable replacement beer, then it’s not really a major problem if you have to forgo a drink. But if there’s nowhere else suitable to eat nearby then you may be forced to go hungry, hence why people may often decide that struggling through unappetising food is the less bad option. And there’s always the suspicion that the kitchen staff may feel affronted by seeing their carefully-prepared dish sent back and end up spitting in it – or worse. The whole business of returning food is always likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth.

Looking back, I can think of a few occasions where I’ve returned dishes because they were grossly undercooked, although with at least one of those it seemed to be taken with ill grace. And there was the notorious ploughman’s incident in Tewkesbury. “This is ham, I asked for cheese.” Then, when it came back, “Er, isn’t a ploughman’s meant to include bread?” There were also a few others which, with hindsight, I really should have sent back.

So it’s hardly surprising that, overall, many diners tend to stick to dishes where the scope for making a mess of them is limited. And it has to be said that independently-run pubs, while they can serve up some excellent food, also seem to have a knack for putting their own spin on dishes and coming up with some truly bizarre and unappealing interpretations. In McDonald’s at least you know what you’re getting, and what it’s supposed to be like.

Monday 8 January 2018

When is a pint not a pint?

The latest example of apparently heavy-handed bureaucratic regulation to hit the beer world is the ruling by Trading Standards that it is misleading for Marble Brewery to sell their “Pint” beer in a 500 ml can with the word “Pint” prominently displayed on the side. At first sight, this has much in common with the case last year against Tiny Rebel’s “childish” can designs –a single, arguably vexatious complaint over something that, while perhaps technically in breach of standards, is not in real life going to be misinterpreted by any reasonable person. Indeed Beers Manchester worked himself up into quite a froth about it.

However, I think there’s a significant difference. I criticised the Tiny Rebel decision, but it was on the basis that it’s essential for the defender of liberty to stand up for things that he personally doesn’t particularly care for. There’s no point in only supporting the freedoms you happen to approve of. I don’t much like these garish cartoon can designs, but I don’t for a minute think Tiny Rebel were deliberately targeting children, and feel it sets a potentially worrying precedent for the further control of packaging design. If there is only one complaint on something that is a matter of subjective judgment, it suggests that the amount of genuine concern amongst the public is negligible. Plus we don’t know whether the complainant was someone with any involvement in public health lobbying.

On the other hand, when it comes to the Marble cans, a pint is an actual measure, not just a colloquial term for a beer. To put “Pint” in big letters on a can strongly implies that the contents actually are a pint. Some other beer brands are sold in pint cans, and often do prominently say “Pint Can” to make it clear to buyers that they are getting something different from a 440 or 500ml size. Yes, in practice very few people are going to be misled as to the actual size of the can, but that’s not the point. If it says “pint”, it implies that’s what’s inside. It wouldn’t be acceptable to call a beer “Shandy” (which is also a common colloquial term for beer) if it was actually of full strength, even if everybody who bought it was well aware of that.

So, in this case, the authorities, while they may come across as a touch joyless, are right. It’s a straightforward case of misrepresentation. I suggested on Twitter that maybe a design to give the actual measure equal prominence might be an option, but it remains to be seen what action Marble end up taking.

Incidentally, the same issue doesn’t apply in the pub, as measures of draught beer, unlike the sizes of bottles and cans, are specified by law, so whatever something’s called you know that it will be available in pints or fractions thereof.

And anyone designing alcohol packaging needs to be aware that their intentions are irrelevant – what counts is the prima facie impression given to members of the public who have no prior knowledge.

Friday 5 January 2018

Ring in the new

Before Christmas, the Morning Advertiser published a piece entitled What are the major beer trends for 2018? The ones it listed were:
  1. Higher ABV
  2. Double IPA
  3. Sour beer
  4. Non traditional
  5. Imperial stouts
On reading the article, it becomes clear that it is basically an extended advertorial for craft beer distributor Eebria. Had it referred to “major craft beer trends” then it might have been more accurate, although I’d say even within the sphere of craft (however defined) most of these are pretty niche.

But what it certainly isn’t is a prediction of the major trends in the overall beer market. I doubt whether any of then will have much impact on what’s on the bar in your average Wetherspoon’s, let alone the Jolly Crofter. And the general trend in the beer market continues to be to reduce strengths, not increase them.

Thursday 4 January 2018

Regeneration game

My recent post about the closure of Winters on Little Underbank highlighted the issue of the regeneration of Stockport town centre. It can’t denied that it’s in need of a shot in the arm, with a high proportion of vacant shop units, many of those that are trading occupied by rather downmarket, low-rent businesses, and a general air of neglect and tattiness hanging over the whole place. As one of the commenters says, “The town centre is somewhere that people from Stockport's wealthier suburbs shun on an increasing basis.”

We’ve been here before, of course, and I wrote on the same subject back in 2012. Stockport was nominated as a “Portas pilot” town, but Mary’s magic touch doesn’t seem to have made much difference. (Did it anywhere?) Obviously if there was any kind of instant formula, plenty of towns around the country would already have seized upon it, but it’s a complex and challenging issue. I claim no professional expertise on the subject, but I thought it would be worth offering some musings.

With the rise of out-of-town retail parks and internet shopping, a large chunk of the business once enjoyed by traditional town centres has disappeared, and realistically it’s never coming back. If you want a specific, high-value item, it’s far easier to buy it from somewhere you can easily collect it, or have it delivered to your door. But that doesn’t mean that people end up sitting in isolation in their own homes, and town centres need to concentrate on areas where they can make a difference, either in giving a personal touch or where impulse buying and actually handling goods are important. That means sectors like fashion and jewellery, hands-on services like opticians and hairdressers, eating and drinking, and entertainment.

The role of local councils in urban regeneration can often be overstated. They can create the conditions for it to happen, but the bureaucratic and entrepreneurial mindsets are ultimately poles apart. In particular, they can’t dictate what kind of businesses they want to open. What councils can easily do, though, is make town centres less attractive places to visit and do business. A few years ago, I made a post in which I included a long list of ways in which one particular council had made their shopping centre less attractive, and were then surprised when people stopped using it. Depressingly, some loon in the comments thought that many of these were actually good ideas.

The most significant area in which councils can make a difference is that perennial bugbear, parking. All too often they have regarded it as a cash cow without any regard to its contribution to the wider economy of the town centre. Clearly it isn’t possible in a major town centre to provide unlimited free parking, but if it is to compete with locations like the Trafford Centre, it is important that it is both convenient and reasonably-priced.

There isn’t really an absolute shortage of parking in central Stockport, but there are several ways in which it could be improved. The longer-stay car parks should be converted to pay-on-exit, so people don’t have to guess how long they’re going to be there, and there is no longer any risk of incurring a fine for overstaying. And it’s hardly user-friendly in this day and age that parking machines don’t give change, and don’t accept notes or cards. There should be a limited amount of short-stay free parking as close to the centre as possible, and all parking should be free after 6 pm. It would also be desirable to provide more commuter parking on the fringes of the town centre at say £4 a day to encourage employment.

It’s all very well to preach that people should be using the bus, but in reality it has to accepted that decent parking is key to attracting more visitors, especially the more affluent who are going to spend more. The fact that the council offered free parking on Sundays and after 3 pm in their own car parks in the run-up to Christmas shows that they are well aware it is a disincentive.

Another area where council policies have an effect is the provision of public toilets. This is not a statutory obligation, and many councils, including Stockport, have taken advantage of this to literally slash the number they provide. But, without toilets, people may feel the need to curtail their visit, or take their business elsewhere to out-of-town supermarkets where facilities are available. There are some decent toilets in Merseyway, albeit provided by the shopping centre operators, not the council, but the town centre would also benefit from a high-quality set on or close to the Market Place.

This raises another issue, that of connectivity. The town centre is on two levels, connected by a variety of steep banks and steps. Even if you don’t find them physically challenging, they form a psychological barrier. You could easily spend all your time in and around Merseyway and Princes Street and never realise that the Market Place and St Petersgate even existed. Likewise, the station is a fair distance from the heart of the town, and at a much higher level. It’s not immediately obvious when arriving by train that there even is a town centre, let alone how to get to it. Possibly the two could be linked better by installing an all-weather travelator between the station approach and the bus station, and another connecting Warren Street and the Market Place.

The council also has a role in maintaining the quality of the environment – clearing litter, providing adequate bins, fixing broken paving, removing growths of weeds. Small things can have a big effect on visitors. A place that looks cared for comes across as more welcoming. And the collection of tacky “Christmas market” stalls that adorned the Merseyway precinct over the festive season didn’t exactly give an upmarket impression.

The area around the Market Place and the Underbanks represents what must be the best-preserved historic townscape in the whole of Greater Manchester and, although of limited extent, in quality it stands comparison with many of the well-known architectural show towns. The bridge carrying St Petersgate over Little Underbank is a particularly unusual and distinctive feature. This has potential as a tourist destination which surely could be exploited more than it is at present. Putting informative signboards up pointing out noteworthy features would be a start. As more visitors were attracted, the footfall would generate the demand to open up businesses in some of the currently vacant units, thus creating a virtuous circle. There are areas within Greater Manchester that manage to support a variety of independent, upmarket businesses, and if Ramsbottom can do it, surely this part of Stockport can too.

To their credit, the council have produced a pub trail of the town centre in conjunction with the local CAMRA branch, and the town’s appeal as a venue for pub and beer tourism should be shouted more loudly, particularly with the opening of the Robinson’s Brewery Visitor Centre. The council should also be very careful to avoid the loss of any more of the town’s historic buildings, such as when the future of the Midland pub on Wellington Road North was threatened by a few inches of cycle lane as part of a new road scheme. Fortunately, after public protest, it was saved.

As outlined in the post I linked to above, employment is a key factor in ensuring the vitality of town centres. Workers will provide business to coffee and sandwich shops, buy gifts, cards and top-up shopping and patronise pubs and restaurants after work. They provide additional footfall and in a sense are a captive audience for retailers. Plus, if they like what they see, they may return at other times for more serious shopping trips. This is why the encouragement of employment, and providing the necessary facilities, is an important element in the mix. A town centre should not be solely seen as a retail destination.

On the other hand, while it’s sometimes claimed that increasing the amount of housing in or near town centres is a good way of reviving them, in fact, as I argued here, that only has a very limited effect and can indeed be an admission of defeat.

While there may be ten thousand people living in Manchester City Centre now, when thirty years ago there were only a few hundred, that is still only the population that would support the handful of pubs in a typical small market town, and in terms of the centre’s overall pub trade is a drop in the ocean. Pubs thrive in the centre of Manchester, and other large cities, because they function as retail, employment, business, cultural and entertainment hubs for a wide surrounding area and thus attract large numbers of people for a wide variety of reasons.
It’s their attractiveness as a hub that makes town centres thrive, not people living close by. And, in general, people, especially those with families, much prefer to live in leafy suburbs than cramped town-centre flats.

Just as small changes can easily set off a cycle of decline, it’s possible that things can go the other way. I’ve expressed a certain amount of scepticism about the Redrock development, in being unsightly and poorly integrated with the rest of the town centre. But one thing it does bring is aspirational eating places, something that previously was singularly lacking. Some may sneer at “chain restaurants”, but it was noticeable on a bright day between Christmas and New Year that Pizza Express was pretty full of fairly young and affluent people who previously might not have found anywhere to eat to their liking. Might that turn out to be just the catalyst the town centre needs, and have a halo effect in also making nearby retail sites more desirable?