Monday 26 February 2018

Following in the footsteps of Morse

Why don’t we have a day out in Oxford, asked someone on the Beer & Pubs Forum. It sounded right up my street, with a great selection of characterful pubs full of historical and literary associations, in a city I hadn’t visited for thirty years. The only problem was that, while entirely feasible as a day trip by train from Stockport, Oxford is 143 miles away, and the standard return fare was a rather eyewatering £78. However, came to the rescue and, taking advantage of split ticketing, I was able to get the price down to a much more reasonable £42, albeit at the cost of having a wad of thirteen tickets and reservations, as shown below.

So the tickets were duly booked, and the appointed day dawned very cold but sunny. I was able to get a through train in each direction and both trains were on time, which doesn’t always happen. I didn’t make any detailed notes, but here are some brief impressions of the pubs we visited.

  • Castle – recently acquired by Hook Norton, but rather tucked away on the “wrong” side of the Westgate Centre. Outwardly attractive but internally rather ordinary. A perhaps over-ambitious range of both Hook Norton and guest beers, but my Hooky Bitter was very good, and others were impressed with the Double Stout.

  • St Aldate’s Tavern – situated on one of the main streets just south of Carfax, this long, narrow pub was much busier. We were able to find seats in an upstairs room where tables had been reserved for the rugby from 2 pm onwards. One of those cases where you’re confronted by a row of beers you’ve never heard of before and have to make a snap decision in a crowded pub, I ended up with some Siren Undercurrent which didn’t really make much of an impression.

  • Chequers – located down a narrow passageway off High Street, this is a historic building dating back to the 16th century, with characterful drinking areas on several levels. You have to cross the courtyard form the main part of the pub to reach the toilets. Those of us who wanted to eat were well fed at reasonable prices for a city-centre location. Thornbridge Jaipur was OK, but not the best example I have ever encountered. Now under the wing of M&B offshoot Nicholsons, the plaque in the doorway reflects its former ownership by Halls Brewery. While largely forgotten nowadays, in past decades Allied Breweries through their Halls subsidiary were the biggest pub owners in Oxford, and a 1983 Oxfordside Beer Guide shows many pubs serving Halls Harvest Bitter.

  • Turf Tavern – tucked away down a couple of narrow passageways in the heart of the university, this is perhaps the most famous pub in Oxford. It has a extensive drinking courtyard, not surprisingly little used on such a cold day, and a warren of small, characterful rooms. It is now owned by Greene King, but also offered a choice of guest beers, although some felt the range was a little BBB-heavy. Nevertheless, I thought the Wadworth’s 6X was excellent, bursting with flavour and condition. Martin Taylor’s photo shows me looking suitably pleased with myself. For me, this was both the beer and the pub of the day.

  • King’s Arms – very close to the Turf Tavern, but much easier to find as it is prominently situated on a street corner. Today it was covered with scaffolding, but still very much in business. I’d been here a couple of times in the distant past, but had only been in the two more spacious front rooms, and hadn’t realised there were a couple of small, cosy snugs at the rear. It’s a Young’s pub, but most people went for St Austell Tribute, a new cask of which had just been put on. I had Young’s Special, a beer we hardly ever see around here, which was pretty decent.

  • Lamb & Flag – on the east wide of the broad, handsome St Giles, this is a free house owned by St John’s College. Like many in Oxford, it’s a narrow pub running a long way back from the street. One of its claims to fame is serving Palmers beers from Bridport in Dorset, and I wasn’t disappointed by the Palmers IPA, although there were the inevitable complaints that this rather malty beer wasn’t really representative of modern IPAs. There were also a number of beers from other breweries. I was saddened to read on Twitter of the death of comedy actress Emma Chambers, who played Alice in “The Vicar of Dibley”, at the age of only 53.

  • We took a brief look inside the Eagle & Child, situated opposite the Lamb & Flag, and famous for its links with Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, to see its small front snugs, before heading on to the Three Goats Heads, Sam Smith’s only pub in Oxford. Trusting to navigation from memory, maybe not the best idea at this stage of a pub crawl, we ended up heading down the wrong street before finally consulting Google Maps. This has a characterful interior on two levels and, right in the heart of the city centre, attracts a much younger and more upmarket crowd than typical of Sam’s pubs in the North. You also get to pay Sam’s southern rather than northern prices, so it isn’t quite such a bargain, although still well below the Oxford average. I went for the 5% ABV keg India Ale, never seen in my local Sam’s pubs, but the verdict on the cask Old Brewery Bitter was good too.

  • We finished up in the Pint Shop, a recent shop conversion belonging to a chain which also has a branch in Cambridge. Martin Taylor wanted to call in here is it was a possible “pre-emptive” tick for future Good Beer Guides. It was very busy, but I have to say not really my kind of place. There was a long blackboard list of craft keg beers, some at eyewatering prices, with three cask beers at the bottom. I didn’t note which brewery produced Maharaja - served in a straight-sided half-pint tankard, it was a fairly reasonable £3.50 a pint, but was to be honest somewhat forgettable.
I then had to catch my train home, but a couple who were staying a bit later also called in at the Good Beer Guide-listed White Rabbit, which they reported as being extremely busy.

In summary, it was an excellent day out, with plenty of good beer and stimulating conversation. It was good to see familiar faces again and also meet for the first time Tim Thomas from West Berks CAMRA and local resident Tim Hampson, who is currently the Acting Editor of What’s Brewing and BEER. Martin Taylor has been doing a pub-by-pub write-up of the day on his blog, starting here.

It was noticeable how busy almost all the pubs were, and how many younger people were amongst the clientele. However, this is only to be expected in such a major student and tourist city, and it would be rash to draw any lessons for estate pubs in Oldham or Oswaldtwistle. The return train was also virtually full all the way to Manchester, which shows how much times have changed since the days when, after 8 pm, you could often virtually have a carriage to yourself.

Unfortunately, it meant I had to miss my local CAMRA branch’s Pub of the Year presentation at Sam Smith’s excellent Blue Bell in Levenshulme, but the Oxford trip had been arranged, booked and paid for well in advance, and realistically you can’t have everything.

Friday 23 February 2018

Craft for the masses?

Following last week’s debate about élitism in beer, there has been a bit of pondering about whether the high price of craft beer is deterring drinkers of limited means. The owner of a community pub in Brighton has criticised craft beer for ‘pricing out’ poorer consumers, while Dave S of Brewing in a Bedsitter has mused on all the different factors that make up the price of beer over the bar, and Boak & Bailey have posed the question whether it is possible to get a decent pint of craft for £3.

Most consumer markets have a premium segment where consumers are willing to pay more for what is, or is perceived to be, higher quality. But, in general, this is “similar but better” rather than something completely different, and is done to some degree as an assertion of social or financial status. That is, at least partly, why people buy Audis rather than Skodas. This is something that brewers have always struggled to pull off – while some beers are classified as “premium”, it tends to be because they are stronger. There are some undeniably premium brands, such as Peroni and Guinness, but they’re not craft. Possibly Punk IPA is now breaking out of the craft straitjacket to join them.

Craft, on the other hand, is something that is chosen as a means of expressing one’s individuality and discernment rather than status as such. If you’re out in a mixed group, and shun the Peroni or Punk on the bar in favour of that can of Gopherville murk skulking at the back of the fridge, frankly you’ll come across as a bit of an oddball. This doesn’t just apply to beer – Boak & Bailey have recently commented on the craftification of everything. The traditional market stratification is breaking down and people are seeing consumer choices as a means of self-definition.

Where a premium does exist in beer, is is much more between establishments than between brands. Wetherspoon’s is, across the board, markedly cheaper than Brunning & Price or the Port Street Beer House, and this is reflected in the clientele they attract. The status-conscious pubgoer is much more likely to say they frequent gastropubs than that they drink Brand X.

Of course it’s a truism that, broadly speaking, there is a trade-off between price and quality. However, as I discussed here, the actual cost of ingredients is a pretty small proportion of the price you pay over the bar, and with a small brewery you’re often paying more for less efficient production, distribution and administration too. The whole issue is clouded by the question of strength, as very often that shock £9 pint turns out to be 10.5%, and thus not directly comparable with a session beer. And the biggest factor affecting the price to the consumer is retail markup, not brewery gate price. It’s very easy to find pubs charging 33% more for the same product within a couple of miles of each other.

In pretty much every consumer market, there’s a range of products at a wide range of price points, and it’s accepted that the more expensive ones are going to be beyond the mean of consumers of modest incomes. Most people, though, do have a little to set aside for luxuries or self-indulgences, and if they choose to spend that on expensive malt whiskies, or theatre trips, or restoring a classic car, that’s up to them, and they do it in the full knowledge that they’re sacrificing something else, possibly that Sky TV subscription, to pursue it. But it’s not typical behaviour of their peer group.

If someone is interested in craft beer, and chooses to buy four craft cans for a tenner rather than a slab of Carling, there’s nothing to stop them. In that sense, craft isn’t unaffordable for anyone with sufficient interest in the subject. But, possibly because craft beer continues to position itself as fighting some kind of moral crusade against corporate interests, the whole issue of affordability touches a raw nerve.

But wouldn’t it be better all round if the “craft beer movement” could accept that it was just another somewhat pricey niche middle-class enthusiasm and stop pretending it's trying to change the world? As Tandleman wisely says here:

“Craft beer isn't beer for the people, it is beer for some people - people with a few bob - so shouldn't those making it and selling it be honest enough to say so? After all, not so deep down, we all know that already.”
Me? I’m off down the pub for a pint of Sam’s.

Friday 16 February 2018

Some of my best friends are working class

This year sees the 100th anniversary of (some) women being given the right to vote in the UK. What has gained much less attention is that it is also the 100th anniversary of the introduction of universal suffrage for men. Before 1918, most working-class men couldn’t vote either. But, nowadays, as Brendan O’Neill writes here, working-class voices, especially the voices of working-class men, seem to be largely airbrushed out of public discourse.

So it is in the world of beer. We hear plenty about “beer sexism”, but much less about the exclusion of the working class. Has there ever been a more achingly right-on, middle-class endeavour as the whole project of “craft beer”? It seems that some involved in it have cottoned on to the fact that they “have a reputation as gentrification’s outriders” and, according to an article in the Guardian entitled Draft includers: how craft beer found its mission, have been “trying to bring in more women, working-class people and people with disabilities to both drink beers – and make them.”

However, the whole piece comes across as a classic example of Guardianista identity politics virtue-signalling. As an example of “reaching out”, it offers:

In Australia, the Sparkke Change Beverage Company is aiming to drive social change with its canned beers, ciders and wine, all of which raise money for charity. The pilsner, for example, is called Change the Date; it supports the campaign to move Australia Day away from 26 January, which is “a date that marks the beginning of two centuries of dispossession, theft, colonisation and violence”.
Anything less likely to win over the average ocker is hard to imagine. What does it have to say to a Stella-loving, Sun-reading, white-van driving, footy-supporting, Leave-voting working-class drinker? And yes, that is a stereotype too, but one with a strong base in reality. To a working-class beer drinker, Peroni is aspirational. Cloudwater is something beamed down from another planet.

In the early days of CAMRA, real ale was something consumed as much, if not more, by working-class drinkers as by middle-class ones, although to them it was just bitter or mild. The middle-class aficionados would go on excursions to down-to-earth pubs in Eccles and Lower Gornal to seek out rare brews. But people don’t do that now, and in many cases the pubs themselves will have either closed or lost their real ale. And how many working-class drinkers would you find in your average trendy suburban craft beer bar?

While class is a matter of identity, not just money, the oft-heard claim that beer is too cheap, and the push for the £5 pint to be normalised, are in effect putting two fingers up to any drinkers who are struggling to make ends meet.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am middle class and have never pretended to be otherwise. But, unlike some, I don’t sneer at people who drink Stella, eat at McDonald’s and shop at ASDA. Indeed on occasion I have done all three myself.

Friday 9 February 2018

Stick to the knitting

CAMRA have now published the detailed proposals arising from their Revitalisation Project, which not surprisingly have prompted a lot of debate and discussion.

It’s worth reflecting on how we have arrived at this situation. For much of its lifetime, CAMRA was the only game in town when it came to “beer enthusiasm” in the UK. However, more recently, this has been challenged by a new wave of brewers, often influenced by the American craft beer movement. They have introduced a much greater amount of innovation in beer, and often done it by presenting their products in the keg format not approved by CAMRA. This has met with widespread success, especially amongst younger drinkers. And, very often, the narrative, most notably that of BrewDog, has been one of kicking against the established real ale culture.

There has been a growing amount of interesting, high-quality beer being brewed entirely outside the orbit of CAMRA, and in the process making the organisation look old-fashioned and stick-in-the-mud. So surely it should be looking at widening its scope to encompass all good beer and beer enthusiasts, rather than sticking within a narrow, pedantically-defined box. And thus was born the impetus for the Revitalisation project.

Now, I am certainly no cask zealot who doesn’t think any other kind of beer is worth drinking. I’m entirely relaxed about drinking non-real beers, and do from time to time, although in general I tend to visit pubs where cask is well-kept so there’s no need to. CAMRA has often been ill-served by the narrow dogmatism that bleats on about “chemical fizz” and “sealed dustbins”. It has always been much too reluctant to recognise merit in beers that fall outside its remit. But that isn’t the same as “promoting” or “embracing” them. On the other hand, I fail to summon up much enthusiasm for the new wave of “craft keg” beers, and to be honest my interest is more likely to be piqued by spotting obscure old brands of keg mild on the bar of trad pubs.

The basic underlying principle of CAMRA is that, for draught ales in the British tradition, cask-conditioning, when done properly, is the best way of presenting them. I’m entirely happy with that. But, in a sense, you don’t even need to sign up to that view to believe it’s a tradition worth holding on to. I have always seen CAMRA as essentially a preservationist organisation, stemming from the same wellspring of sentiment as steam railways and restoring historic buildings. It is about championing a unique aspect of British heritage – cask beer, the breweries that produce it and the pubs and other licensed premises that sell it. What it isn’t is a modern movement supporting “all good beer”, however defined, and to want to turn it into that would be for it to become something of a markedly different character. As one blog commenter very perceptively said:

CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA.
That doesn’t mean you need to be against other forms of beer, just as the steam enthusiast doesn’t refuse to travel on electric trains, or the champion of Victorian architecture doesn’t do his best to avoid modern buildings. But they’re not something you want to pursue as a leisure interest. As I’ve said in the past, you can’t expect everyone to be interested in everything.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to be a modern, all-encompassing beer enthusiast, just that that’s not what CAMRA’s fundamentally about. And trying to fit both into the same big tent is likely to be fraught with problems and pull in different directions.

It’s not really as if modern keg beer needs campaigning for anyway – it seems to be doing perfectly well for itself as a purely commercial product. What exactly would CAMRA bring to the party that is any different? And, while it’s sometimes said that real ale has been “saved”, that’s a very complacent and blinkered viewpoint. The absolute amount of real ale sold now is far less than it was when CAMRA was formed. The only places where real ale can exist - pubs and clubs - continue to close at an alarming rate. And there are plenty of “real ale deserts”, often in places where, thirty or forty years ago, many of the pubs sold real ale. So there’s still plenty of work to be done without diluting the message. Arguably the biggest threat to real ale’s future is complacency.

We haven’t had sight of the precise wording of the motions yet. But my feeling is that I will be strongly inclined to vote against the main thrust of the revitalisation project. If you care about the protection of our beer, brewing and pub heritage, I would urge you to do likewise. CAMRA, in my view, should draw in its horns a bit and stick to the knitting of its core principles. I’m a Life Member, and to resign would just be an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face. But, if the resolutions are passed, I will need to question whether it is still an organisation that deserves a substantial chunk of my leisure time.

The whole process has already proved divisive, with a lot of fur and insults flying on CAMRA’s Discourse forum. Nobody knows what the outcome is going to be, and I can’t see the likes of YouGov carrying out opinion polls of CAMRA members to give us any idea. But there must be a risk that what was put forward, with good intentions, with the aim of saving CAMRA, could end up killing it, or at least permanently diminishing its influence and credibility. For example, Ian Thurman on his thewickingman blog has questioned whether it might expose CAMRA to hostile media scrutiny if it seems equivocal about its purpose.

It is a high-risk strategy on the part of CAMRA’s leadership. It’s not difficult to imagine the scenario where the Special Resolutions are passed by the necessary majority of the membership as a whole, but defeated in the hall by the physical attendees at the AGM, which would create a lot of bad blood. And, given that normal policy motions are simply approved by a straight majority of AGM attendees, it’s possible that “traditionalists” may seek to chip away at the revitalisation changes through future AGM motions. It could lead to more explicit “culture wars” in beer.

If the resolutions fail to win the necessary majority, or are even defeated outright, then there will a lot of egg on faces and serious soul-searching to be done. Will it be a case of “one more heave”, or trying to sneak changes in through the back door, or will there need to a fundamental shift to a more back-to-basics approach?

(The graphic, which seemed highly appropriate, was borrowed from Kirst Walker’s Lady Sinks the Booze blog.)

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Swings and roundabouts

The British Beer & Pub Association have published their latest Quarterly Beer Barometer statistics, bringing the series up to the end of 2017. These show an overall rise in annual beer sales of 0.7%, only the second positive figure since 2004, which must be good news for the brewing industry.

However, unsurprisingly, the total figure is made up of a 3.6% rise in off-trade sales, partially offset by a 2.4% fall in the on-trade. On-trade sales have never shown an annual rise over the entire twenty-year period covered by the figures, and now only account for 47% of the total, so that particular tipping point is long gone. Total on-trade sales are now 33% below the 2007 figure.

So it’s hardly surprising that we continue to see a steady drip drip drip of pub closures, as I recently reported in Stockport.

Sunday 4 February 2018

A cold, dry January

“I think we’ve seen the worst of the pub closures,” said the Pollyannas. “Things seem to have stabilised now.” But how wrong could they be?

On top of Winters and the Queens in Cheadle, which I have already reported, January saw three more pub closures in Stockport – the Victoria in Offerton (pictured), the Florist on Shaw Heath and the Jolly Sailor in Davenport. It’s believed there may be a chance the Victoria may reopen, but the others are all, I would guess, gone for good.

It’s usually the case with pub closures that you think “well, I’m not entirely surprised there”, and indeed it must be said that the Florist had had the “smell of death” around it for quite a while. But the fact that once-thriving pubs have closed underlines just how much the overall level of custom has declined, and how on a knife-edge much of the pub trade is today. And, as I said last year, drinking in many of the pubs that remain too often feels like sitting in a morgue.

It seems that nowadays any pub is fair game, unless it has become a destination food house or is located in a town centre or suburban hub. This is especially true if they occupy a site that is potentially lucrative for redevelopment, as the Jolly Sailor does. The traditional multi-purpose pub, with a mixture of local and outside trade, that once was a mainstay of the pub scene, has become an endangered species. And the idea that being the only pub for half a mile around in a residential area guarantees survival is even less true than it ever was.

But, never mind, no doubt a new micropub has opened up not too far away, where you can perch on an uncomfortable stool and drink a pint of cask ale from a brewery you’ve never heard of. So long as it’s not on a Monday or Tuesday, and not before 4 pm. So things aren’t too bad, then.

Thursday 1 February 2018

Feel the quality

One of the key planks of CAMRA’s Revitalisation proposals is that, while continuing to recognise real ale as “the pinnacle of the brewer’s art”, the organisation should encourage greater acceptance of “quality” beers that do not fall within the definition of “real ale”. However, as I argued here, this opens up a potential can of worms. “Real ale”, for better or worse, is something that has an objective definition. “Quality beer” doesn’t, and can mean whatever you choose it to mean. Either you tie yourself up in knots by trying to come up with a hard-and-fast definition, or you don’t, in which case it’s no more than “beers we happen to like”.

You also run into the “Taylor’s Landlord problem”. As I wrote:

How about if Taylors produced a keg version of their highly-acclaimed Landlord? If that is approved, then surely that is accepting precisely what CAMRA was originally set up to fight. And if it isn’t, on what objective basis does it differ from the beers from the obvious crafties? And does that mean that cask Landlord should no longer be accepted as a quality beer either?
Which leads us on to another issue, that “there remains a lingering suspicion of a hidden agenda to cut adrift many well-known cask beers on the grounds that they commit such cardinal sins as being “popular” and “easy-drinking”.” I’m sure there are those in CAMRA who think that keg Cloudwater Badger Jizz DIPA is far more deserving of the accolade of “quality” than cask Marston’s Pedigree. And, when the list was published of the ten most popular cask beers, you could sense the wave of sneering descending from the lofty heights of beer snobbery.

Samuel Smith’s only brew a single cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, and do not offer any guest ales in their pubs. But there are six of their pubs in the 2018 Good Beer Guide, including one in my local branch area. Indeed, we have just voted another, the Blue Bell in Levenshulme, as our Pub of the Year. However, according to this Twitter poll, 40% of respondents don’t think that should be considered a “quality beer”, so presumably they have a problem with those pubs appearing in the GBG. And, if we’re accepting keg beers, then what’s wrong with keg OBB?

The argument is often made that the world has moved on, and today’s “craft keg” beers are nothing like the Red Barrel of old. But, in fact, neither were most of the pressurised beers around in the early 70s either. Red Barrel belonged to a specific market segment of premium keg beers whose recipes had been deliberately dumbed down and blandified to appeal to a mass market. Most non-real beers of the time were identical to their real counterparts in terms of recipe, and only differed in final processing and dispense. Indeed, those using the now-defunct top pressure system were to all intents and purposes real ale until someone connected up a CO2 cylinder. In what way did they differ from the modern-day keg beers described thus in the Revitalisation report?
In some cases, keg beer contains live yeast and is subject to secondary fermentation in the container. It is, to all intents and purposes, real ale up to the point that carbon dioxide pressure is applied in the cellar.
Fullers are now one of the most respected of the remaining independent family brewers. Back in the 1970s, their beers were still highly regarded. But, according to the 1977 Good Beer Guide, only “16 of the 111 tied houses sell unpressurised beer.” The rest sold the same beer under top pressure – it wasn’t keg as such. But, because of this, they couldn’t be recognised by CAMRA. It has always been the central plank of CAMRA’s raison d’etre that British-style ales are, by a considerable margin, best served by cask-conditioning.

Yes, many of the present-day craft keg beers are good beers in their own right and well worth drinking. To draw a Manichean distinction between real=good and non-real=bad is silly and ignorant. And, for many of them, especially the stronger ones, the “East Sheen Tennis Club” argument applies, that they allow beers to be sold on draught that would not be viable in cask because of their niche appeal. But, broadly speaking, they would still be improved if they could be sold in well-kept cask form. And to suggest otherwise is to question what has been the point of CAMRA’s efforts over the past 45 years. Maybe we should go back to 1977 and happily drink that top-pressure London Pride.