Friday 27 July 2018

A taxing issue

The industry-funded group behind “There’s a Beer For That” has now transformed itself into Long Live The Local, which is campaigning for a cut in beer duty. This is being championed by, amongst others, supermodel turned pub landlady Jodie Kidd. Now, cutting beer duty, and indeed alcohol duties in general, is undoubtedly a worthy cause. The UK only accounts for 12% of the beer drunk in the EU*, but pays 40% of the duty. High duties distort the market, place a burden on less well-off consumers, and mean that quality is compromised as products are tailored to meet particular price points. They’re also highly regressive in their impact on the population.

But it’s questionable to what extent a beer duty cut would do very much to increase trade in pubs. As I’ve argued before, the decline of pubs vis-a-vis the off-trade has been driven by a list of factors, most of which have nothing to with price. In broad terms, changes in social attitudes have meant that the range of occasions when people will even contemplate a visit to a pub just for a drink has steadily diminished. Responsible people who aren’t on the breadline, which is most of us, don’t go to the pub because the opportunity doesn’t arise, not because they can’t afford it. Would you really go to the pub substantially more if beer was even 50p a pint cheaper?

Well-meaning people who say they’re pub-lovers decide, for valid enough reasons, that a pub visit isn’t on the agenda in a range of situations when their predecessors thirty or forty years ago might well have done. And it must be remembered that, in the past, pubs were sustained by a core of customers who, not to put too fine a point on it, were heavy drinkers – the blokes who were getting through numerous pints on most nights of the week. That’s much less common, and much more frowned upon, now, and the people who still do drink in that way are doing it more at home with a slab of Carling. Pubs aren’t going to thrive on customers who drink a couple of two-thirds of craft beer a week.

Yes, cutting duty would help pubs a bit, not least in putting them on a firmer financial footing, even if it didn’t result in lower prices over the bar. But it’s wrong to see it as any kind of magic bullet for the trade, and “beer tax is killing pubs” is at best a gross over-simplification. And it rings rather hollow when there can be such a wide variation in beer prices between different pubs. Within a mile of my house, I can pay £2.50 or £4.00 a pint for the same or very similar beers. If the pub trade as a whole really thought price was such a significant factor, then you might expect it to make more of an effort to be price-competitive.

There are things that government could do to help pubs, specifically to relax the smoking ban somewhat and to stop the demonisation of moderate drinking in public health messages. But, realistically, it’s highly unlikely to do either of those things. If the industry wanted to concentrate in a taxation campaign that really would make a difference to the viability of pubs, then it might be better to focus on reforming the system of business rates. But that isn’t something that resonates with the drinking public in the same way.

* Until 29 March next year, obviously

Friday 20 July 2018

Sense of place

We were recently discussing the idea of “destination beers”, that is either ones that you need to journey to experience at all, or which are best drunk in a particular location. I suggested a pint of Donnington BB or SBA in one of their beautiful Cotswold pubs. “Surely you must be joking,” came the reply, “Donnington beers really aren’t up to much, are they?” Maybe they’re not, but that’s not the point. These beers, and the small estate of characterful pubs in which they are sold, represent a unique beer-drinking experience. If the beers were replaced by Doom Bar, and the pubs subjected to a pastel-shaded gastro makeover, the world would be a poorer place.

When I first became interested in real ale in the late 1970s, perhaps what fascinated me most was how there was a patchwork of independent breweries the length and breadth of the country, ranging from regional giants such as Vaux and Wolverhampton & Dudley to tiny firms like Bathams and Burts. Each had its own territory, its own distinctive beers and very often its own style of pub. It was a lesson in geography, with strongholds, heartlands and outposts. Drinkers would speak of “Gales country” or “Jennings country”. Of course some of the beers were better than others, and some more to my own taste, but there was a tremendous variety of different characters, and virtually all were enjoyable when in good condition, although I might make an exception for Gibbs Mew.

To visit an area and sample the beers of one of the more obscure breweries for the first time was a journey of discovery. You could go to a city only fifty or sixty miles away and be presented with an entirely different selection of beers, such as Home and Shipstone in Nottingham and Mitchells and Yates & Jackson in Lancaster. Often one of the pleasures of going on holiday was sampling the local brew such as St Austell in Cornwall or Adnams in Suffolk. Progress on a long road journey was marked by the changing brewers’ names on the pub signs. The distribution was patchy, and some areas such as Devon and Norfolk were devoid of independent breweries, but in others, such as Dorset, Oxfordshire and Greater Manchester, they were thick on the ground.

It wasn’t confined to the independents, either. All the Big Six national brewers, to a greater or lesser extent, retained some kind of regional identity in their beer range and pub branding. Indeed, in the late 70s and early 80s we saw a revival of local names, something was especially marked with Allied Breweries, who created dedicated pub estates for old brewery brands such as Peter Walker, Holt, Plant & Deakin, Friary Meux and Benskins.

Of course it wasn’t perfect, and there were beer deserts and local monopolies and duopolies. But, in the greater scheme of things, it didn’t matter too much if most of the pubs in Henley-on-Thames were Brakspear, or Palmers in Bridport, and it added to the individual character of those places. Overall it provided a rich tapestry of local and regional identity in beer, with the locality being enriched by having its own distinctive brew, and the beer enhanced by the link with a particular place.

Since those days, the number of independent family breweries has more than halved, although it needs to be emphasised that the vast majority sold up voluntarily. In the North-West alone, we have lost Boddingtons, Oldham, Greenall Whitley, Burtonwood, Higsons, Border, Matthew Brown, Mitchells, Yates & Jackson and Hartleys. Very often, those that remain see themselves more as pub companies that happen to have an ale brewery as a sideline. As the market share of ale has declined, the sign on the gable end that says “Mudgington’s Noted Ales” becomes less and less of a draw to Carling or Peroni-drinking customers.

The disruption following the Beer Orders resulted in the transfer of the former tied estates of the Big Six to pub companies and the loss of their distinct identities. While an old livery may say Bass or Courage, it’s no guarantee that particular beer may be available, and nor is its absence a sign that it won’t be. Increasingly, pub company outlets have come to offer the market-leading beers regardless of supplier, so a bar lined with Carling, Stella, John Smith’s, Guinness and Strongbow has become almost a standard feature for many ordinary pubs. The drinker of mainstream kegs and lagers has markedly less choice overall than there was prior to 1990.

Against this has to be set the dramatic rise in the number of microbrewers, and in the sheer variety of beer styles being produced. In theory, there is more choice than ever before, and for many beer enthusiasts it has opened up a cornucopia of delights. But it’s not like Amazon where every single book in existence is available to order, as a pub is limited in the number of lines it can stock, especially of cask beer. And, all too often, what you’re actually going to find in the pub becomes a lottery. It’s impossible to exercise choice in a meaningful way if you don’t know what to expect, and have little hope of being able to make a repeat purchase the next week. In effect, “beer range varies” has in itself become a single option.

I’m certainly not averse to trying new things, but I don’t want to make every visit to the pub a journey into the unknown. Pubgoing should be primarily about relaxation and sociability, not beer sampling. I would probably count myself amongst the 0.1% of people most knowledgeable about beer, but I find it dispiriting when I wander into a pub and survey a row of unknown or vaguely familiar pumpclips on the bar to try and identify something that might suit my mood and palate. Some of the new generation of breweries have established a strong regular foothold in pubs – for example, last month I was down in Dorset where many pubs served Otter beers. But there’s no sign outside saying “This is an Otter House”, and thus the visible identification between brewery and pub is broken. In 1978, if you wanted to sample an obscure beer, you might have a long journey, but you could probably find it in one of its brewer’s pubs, whereas now it can all too easily become a wild goose chase.

Of course we have gained something through the massive increase in both the number of breweries and beer styles being produced. But we have also lost something valuable in the way the link between beer and place has been eroded through the decline of family brewers and their tied estates. We should treasure the continued existence of quirky, independent companies like Donnington.

On a brighter note, it is good to see the trend being reversed in a small way by brewers such as Joules, Titanic and Wye Valley building up their own pub estates, although a cautionary note must be sounded that a similar policy in the past has caused brewers such as Smiles, Archers and Copper Dragon to come to financial grief. Joules in particular have developed a very distinct and identifiable style of pub - if I see a Joules sign, I know pretty much what to expect. And of course that is exactly what BrewDog are doing by opening a chain of bars in big cities majoring on their own beers, although they do feature some guests. But they stick to a single format, so you’re not going to come across a BrewDog estate boozer or rural gastropub.

Monday 16 July 2018

Heartland heritage – Part 2

This is the second half of my account of our Digbeth heritage pub crawl on Wednesday 11 July – see here for the first one.

The Anchor
Having eaten our lunch in the Big Bull’s Head, washed down with Diet Coke and keg beer, we crossed to the south side of Digbeth High Street to reach the Anchor. This is another full National Inventory entry, again with the characteristic plan of L-shaped public bar in the apex and smaller lounge/smoke room at the rear. A significant difference here is the retention of a head-height wood and glass partition dividing the public bar in two, which is a very rare survival. There was a sensibly limited range of three cask beers of differing styles – Wye Valley Bitter, Hobsons Twisted Spire and Titanic Chocolate and Vanilla Porter – all from breweries in the greater West Midlands area. I had the Wye Valley, which was pretty good. Guns’s’Roses were again playing on the sound system, albeit this time from their earlier, classic era.

The Old Crown
The plan had been for the next call to be the Old Crown, a magnificent Grade II* listed half-timbered building that claims to date from 1368 and to be the oldest extant secular building in Birmingham, although it now looks stranded amongst more modern buildings and vacant sites. We were aware that the interior didn’t match up to the exterior, but on entry we found the only cask beer to be Hobgoblin, which was being served in plastic glasses, presumably as a response to the crowd of football fans hogging the bar. The consensus was therefore to give it a miss and move on.

The Wagon & Horses
The Wagon & Horses was reached by passing under both the main railway viaduct, and another branching off it at an angle which was thought to be something of a “line to nowhere”. It stood at the furthest extremity of the route from the city centre in a real backwoods area of small workshops and car breaking yards. The pub consists of a front public bar and a more comfortable lounge set back at the right, reached through an archway. We received a friendly reception in pretty much all these pubs, but the warmth of the welcome from the barmaid here particularly stood out. The beer range consisted of Doom Bar, Ringwood Boondoggle and Hobsons Old Prickly, so named because a donation is made to hedgehog preservation from each pint. I don’t think anyone tried the Doom Bar, but the other two were in good nick.

The Ruin
As we were a pub down due to not having a drink in the Old Crown, the suggestion was made that we call in the Ruin which was roughly on the way back. This is a pub of more modern style situated in a similar industrial backwater, which we reached by cutting through the premises of the former Bird’s Custard Factory. I’m not sure if it is a conversion of an old street-corner pub, but it certainly looks like one. It has a modern, stripped-back, bare-boards feel rather different from the heritage pubs we had visited, but nevertheless offers a variety of congenial spaces around the central bar. There were two cask beers available, Oakham Citra and Sharp’s Atlantic, both of which were good, although we were told by the barman that they would have additional beers from local breweries at the weekend.

The White Swan - this is a stock photo; all the others are my own taken on the day
With the kick-off now only a couple of hours away, we made our way back to the White Swan, which we had passed before as it didn’t open until 4 pm. This was the third full National Inventory entry of the day, with a long public bar and a smaller, cosy lounge. It was now filling up for the football, but we found some seats at the far end of the bar, which has a particularly magnificent long, carved counter. Here we met up with the legendary figure of “Cooking Lager”, proving to the assembled company that he was an actual person and not just a figment of the imagination. He informed us that our planned final stop, the Spotted Dog, wasn’t going to be opening that evening, so the White Swan would be our final call. There were two cask beers on the bar – Banks’s Amber Bitter and Marston’s Fever Pitch. Everyone had the Amber, which was on excellent form and for me undoubtedly the beer of the day.

I left the pub just as the match had kicked off for the fifteen-minute walk back to New Street Station and my train home, which was considerably quieter than it normally would be. I got back in time for extra time, but as it turned out it was not to be England’s day.

In summary, an excellent day out, in which I visited seven pubs entirely new to me, including three full and three regional National Inventory entries. Virtually all the beer was good, and as always the company couldn’t be faulted. However, there was one less positive note. Clearly visiting these pubs on a Wednesday lunchtime prior to a major football match wouldn’t show them at their busiest, but it must be said that, in all except the White Swan, our party of six at least doubled the number of customers. Hopefully the ongoing regeneration of Digbeth is going to generate more trade, and more love, for them, as on that evidence you have to question whether they can enjoy a bright fututre.

Saturday 14 July 2018

Heartland heritage – Part 1

Last October, we had a very enjoyable Beer and Pubs Forum Proper Day Out in Birmingham. We discussed making a return visit to the city with the specific intention of visiting the cluster of unspoilt heritage pubs in the Digbeth area. However, due to a combination of difficulty on agreeing on a date and other events moving up the queue, it ended up being pushed back several times. We eventually managed to grasp the nettle and arranged it for last Wednesday, July 11th. England then went and got themselves into the semi-final of the World Cup that evening. Our peregrination would be finished by the time the match started, but it inevitably had an effect on the trade and atmosphere in the pubs earlier in the day.

Digbeth is an area to the south-east of the city centre that historically was home to a concentration of factories and workshops, with numerous pubs to serve their employees. Most of the workplaces are now gone, either demolished or derelict, and the area could be described as being on the cusp of decline and regeneration. However, an impressive number of the pubs have survived, and in many cases the decline of their surroundings prevented them from being subject to modern remodelling. The whole area is dominated by the massive purplebrick railway viaduct carrying the former Great Western main line to London. This is still in use, but looks a touch uncared for, with plenty of vegetation sprouting from the brickwork.

I was at University in Birmingham for three years from 1977 to 1980, but did very little drinking in the city centre and its environs, which were then dominated by the dreaded duopoly of Ansells and M&B. In fact, all the pubs visited apart from the first one were entirely new to me.

We met up in the Wellington, the well-known multi-beer pub close to New Street station. This is owned by Black Country Ales but has a wide range of guest beers as well as their own, with sixteen handpumps in total. I had Hook Norton Old Hooky, maybe not the ideal beer for a boiling hot day, but in pretty good nick nonetheless. Oakham Citra and Wye Valley HPA were also well-received. It is home to a famous pub cat, who goes by the Twitter handle of @Pussia_Galore, but I heard the barmaid explaining to a customer that, due to advancing years, she now spent most of her time upstairs and rarely ventured into the public areas.

The Woodman

Heading east out of the city centre, crossing the former Inner Ring Road brought a definite feeling of moving on to the wrong side of the tracks. The Woodman had been left standing in splendid isolation in a zone of dereliction, and indeed had been closed for a while, but has now been restored to life. Like several of these pubs, it was designed by prolific pub architects James and Lister Lea, and is in the front rank of National Inventory entries. It has a characteristic Birmingham plan of spacious public bar in the apex of the building, with a smaller smoke room at the rear. This is the pub’s crowning glory, with bench seating all around, an original fireplace, half-height wood panelling and tiling to the ceiling.

There were nine cask beers available, with Old Hooky again being good. Most of us, however, had the lighter Mallinson’s Bramling Cross, which some liked, but which I thought was a touch yeasty. There was a high-quality soundtrack including both Guns’n’Roses and the Stone Roses. The pub had an extensive food menu, but our plans were to eat a little later.

Passing the monumental frontage of Curzon Street Station, the original terminus of the London & Birmingham Railway dating back to the 1830s, a very short walk brought us to the Eagle & Tun. This is another pub that was closed for a number of years, but has recently been brought back to life. It may, however, be under threat from the controversial HS2 railway line.

The general plan is similar to the Woodman, and it retains some historic features, although less is original. There is an off-licence attached which contained a surprising number of exotic beers and other drinks. A menu of Indian food was available, but as the chef was delayed by trouble with his car we were unable to partake. There were four beers on the bar, including Green Duck Duck Blonde and Silhill Gold Star and North Star, but unfortunately several of those tasted had something of an end-of-barrel character. This was partially compensated for by another classy soundtrack including More Than A Feeling by Boston and Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas.

Big Bull’s Head
A ten-minute walk through an unpromising zone of small industrial units brought us to the Big Bull’s Head on the main Digbeth High Street. However, jaws dropped when we spotted a complete and unexpected absence of cask beer on the bar. But this was our scheduled lunch stop and, as none of the later pubs did food, we were committed to eating here. It’s always interesting to see the consternation of beer aficionados when required to buy a drink in a keg pub – some won’t touch the stuff, while others will sample the keg beers with a greater or lesser degree of reluctance. Amongst about fifteen different beers, there were two that could perhaps qualify as “craft keg” – Sharp’s Wolf Rock and Franciscan Well Chieftain, together with Marston’s Oyster Stout under the pub’s own brand, and the usual suspects of Carling, Guinness, Worthington Creamflow and the like.

There was an extensive menu of what would best be described as generous portions of cheap and cheerful food. The £5.95 roast pork dinner that one of my colleagues had looked especially filling, and it was one of those rare places where the chips are actually cooked. It’s another pub with the archetypal corner bar and rear lounge layout, and retains enough original features to merit a second-tier National Inventory entry. In fact, there was nothing really wrong with it as a pub except the beer. One interesting feature was an enormous Atkinson’s Aston Ales mirror.

I’ll cover the second half of the itinerary in a later post – watch this space...

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Pie in the sky

From time to time, someone comes up with a report claiming that food is the future of pubs, and that wet-led pubs are doomed to disappear. I remember writing about something similar ten years ago. The latest is one Christel Lane who has published a book entitled From Taverns to Gastropubs which seeks to “contextualise the rise of the gastropub through an exploration of food, drink and society over the past 500 years.”

Of course, the importance of food to pubs has greatly increased over the past few decades, and in some it has now gone so far that they have become restaurants in all but name, with few if any drinking customers. In a sense, it could be said that the rise of food has, overall, made pubs more civilised. However, it’s important not to get carried away. Pub food is nothing new, and thoughout my drinking career people always seem to have been harking back to a non-existent past era when all you could get was crisps and nuts. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if more lunchtime pub food had been sold on Mondays to Fridays in the 1970s than there is now.

These analyses always seem to reflect a very limited and partial experience of pubs confined to city centres and prosperous commuter belts. Go to any ordinary town and you will still find plenty of pubs, and not by any means just in obscure locations, where the food trade is limited or non-existent, and the vast bulk of their business is done after 9pm. How pubs like that are meant to adapt to a brave world of wall-to-wall dining is very difficult to fathom.

In fact, in recent years, in less prosperous areas the tide has been flowing the other way. Many pubs that used to serve weekday lunches for workers from local businesses have now dropped the food and often stopped opening at lunchtimes completely. As Phil of Oh Good Ale has reported, in the smaller satellite towns of Greater Manchester, it’s often difficult to find any pub food whatsoever apart from in Spoons.

And, of course, over the past few weeks, many pubs have been packed with punters watching England’s progress in the World Cup, and most certainly not sitting down to a meal. Yes, wet-led pubs may have declined, but they’re certainly not going to disappear or anything like it. There are now specialist operators like Amber Taverns who are concentrating on the sector rather than regarding it as a poor relation to the upmarket food houses.

Incidentally, although not directly related to this article, it irritates me when people limit the term “wet-led” to pubs that serve no food whatsoever. Surely all it means is a pub where the drinks trade predominates, and any food served is ancillary, not necessarily completely absent.

Saturday 7 July 2018

Into the lions’ den

All About Beer magazine has recently published an article by Boak and Bailey entitled Decoding the English Pub, about the potential pitfalls awaiting the unwary explorer if they inadvertently venture into the “wrong kind” of pub.
But if you wander into side streets, the outer suburbs, or into the shade of concrete tower blocks, you might still come across the kind of pub where it is possible for an innocent abroad to get into trouble. There aren’t many exterior clues other than a general state of disrepair, although with experience you develop a kind of sixth sense based on the state of the curtains or some subtle hint implied in the signage.
While I can identify with much of what they describe, I have to say that the article rather exaggerates the scale of the problem. I’ve been making a point of going in to unfamiliar pubs for more than forty years, and during the earlier part of the period I was very much a speccy, geeky student type who would stand out like a sore thumb in a working-class boozer. Obviously not all pubs are to everyone’s taste, but the occasions where I’ve experienced any kind of overt hostility have been extremely rare. And those have more often than not been in smart pubs, or ones that clearly set their stall out to welcome casual customers, not grotty backstreet boozers.

To some extent, the process is made easier by the passage of time. When you’re young, you tend to be more self-conscious, and often with good reason, as young people tend to be much more judgmental about their peers. The examples I referred to above in general occurred when I was under thirty, and involved people of a similar age. But, as you grow older, this dissipates, and you just blur into the generality of middle-aged people. Nobody’s looking at you, nobody’s judging you, nobody’s bothered. It only becomes an issue if you choose a slack time to venture into a pub that there’s no obvious reason for someone like you to visit.

Another factor is the decline of the tied house system. Going back forty years, the vast majority of pubs were tied to breweries, and these estates include a wide cross-section of types of pub. In many areas, you would have to visit some pretty unpromising establishments to find a particular beer. I remember visiting the Bay Horse on Grinfield Street in Liverpool, about fifteen minutes’ uphill walk from the city centre, in search of Thwaites. It wasn’t threatening as such, but a fairly grim council estate boozer that I wouldn’t remotely have chosen to go to except for the beer.

But, as the Big Six tied estates have been broken up, and the remaining family brewers have disposed of most of their bottom-end pubs, it’s pretty rare that you will need to go anywhere “rough” in search of a specific brew. While many people may feel seriously out of place in the new generation of craft bars and micropubs, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be told to their face that they’re not welcome.

The question must also be asked how many people are actually looking to visit unfamiliar pubs at random anyway. Yes, if you’re a pub enthusiast such as Boak & Bailey or myself, you might be, but I’ve written before how the general public are much less likely to visit pubs on spec now than they used to be. And, with the growth of information on pubs available on the Internet, a couple of minutes’ research should give an indication of the flavour of the place. Pub enthusiasts will know the rules of the game and sometimes will be willing to take a chance out of curiosity.

True, the Good Beer Guide tickers are under a compulsion to visit certain pubs, like them or not, but how many of the kind of unwelcoming establishments we’re talking about actually make it into its pages nowadays? They might have done forty years ago, but not now. Ironically, you’re more likely to encounter a problem ticking off the National Inventory, which records architectural distinction, not pub quality as such. I’ve written before about how I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb when visiting the Wheatsheaf at Sutton Leach in the suburbs of St Helens, and I also felt in the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen that, while it had some interesting features, there was no conceivable reason I’d want to be there for beer, company or atmosphere.

The well-documented decline of the traditional working-class boozer, exacerbated by the smoking ban, has greatly reduced the potential for the casual pubgoer to encounter a hostile reaction. Such pubs do still exist but, as the article says, you have to actively seek them out in inner-urban backstreets, downmarket suburbs and council estates, and are unlikely to stumble upon them by accident. There are still a few in plain sight in locations with greater footfall – two that spring to mind, at least by reputation, are the Three Legs and the General Eliott in Leeds city centre. However, there is a difference between the atmosphere being a touch “raw” and actively threatening, and both of these pubs must be accustomed to the occasional casual punter wandering in off a busy city street. Having said that, I recently found no problem in the Eliott’s sister pub, the Duncan, although a keg-only, no-food boozer with an older, working-class clientele may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

For a related, although not identical, set of reasons, the “strangers in tonight” rural pub of the “Slaughtered Lamb” type is also a vanishing species, although I’m sure some do still exist in the deep countryside away from the major conurbations and off the tourist trail. They may well appear on WhatPub and other online guides, but the evenings-only opening hours and lack of food (and possibly the absence of real ale) give a clear indication that they’re not looking to appeal to outside visitors.

There can, of course, be other forms of discomfiture of a more subtle and unintentional nature. After all, not every pub is going to suit everyone, and in some you may well conclude “this just isn’t for me”. I recall when aged about 20 venturing into a Shipstone’s pub in Leicester city centre (since demolished) and finding I was the youngest customer by about thirty years. I have to say I did feel rather out of place and didn’t linger too long, but there was nothing unpleasant. You would probably feel the same today if you wandered into the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place, although how many 20-year-olds would do that just on the offchance?

A couple of decades later, I went into the National Inventory-listed Golden Cross in Cardiff to admire its magnificent tiled bar, unaware that in the evenings it was the city’s premier gay venue. It was inevitable that other customers drew the wrong conclusion about my reasons for being there. And many people may get the impression that their custom isn’t really wanted if they go into a pub and find that every single table has a place setting, or they’ve never heard to any of the beers on the bar.

In summary, the chances of the casual punter wandering into a pub where they’re made to actively feel unwelcome are actually pretty slim, and probably lower than they ever have been. If it really concerns you, there’s a simple option in most towns of any size, which is to go in Wetherspoon’s. Yes, they may contain some rough-hewn customers, but the general atmosphere is never hostile, as their whole set-up is intended to welcome casual custom. Or, very simply, don’t go in any pub that doesn’t display a food menu. On the other hand, some of the most genuinely welcoming and characterful pubs in the country, both urban and rural, may not look too promising from the outside. But, if you are curious about pubs, it’s always best to do a bit of research beforehand rather than leaving it entirely to chance.

On a different note, the article also refers to the tourist trap pub, where “you will end up paying over the odds for substandard food and drink consumed in a joyless, plastic setting.” Now, I’m sure such places do exist, which cynically provide a poor offer at inflated prices to a captive market, but again I’d say they are a lot less common than they once were as people become more savvy. I can’t, for example, think of a single place in the centre of Chester that falls into that category. And it shouldn’t be taken to include branches of chains such as Wetherspoon’s and Nicholson’s, that happen to be in favourable locations, but in fact just provide the organisation’s standard fare.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Hotting up for craft lager

The current spell of hot weather inevitably raises a question mark over the quality of the cask beer you’re likely to encounter in the pub. If they get their cellar and line cooling right, and achieve a decent throughput, there’s no recent why a well-run pub can’t serve you up a cool, tasty refreshing pint. In the past week or so I’ve had no problem in finding decent cask. But, unfortunately, too many pubs are left exposed on one or more of these points, and you end up with tepid dishwater.

So, the dilemma arises as to whether, if you don’t feel you can trust the cask, you’d be better playing it safe and sticking to the lager instead. And that leads on to the further question of why craft brewers can’t get more of a share of the lager market, which is currently dominated by the large international brewers. Lager accounts for two-thirds of all beer sold in British pubs; cask only a sixth, so there is a huge untapped market out there that, on the face of it, is ripe for the picking.

However, things aren’t quite that simple. Lager has long since taken over from bitter as the default beer in British pubs, the one chosen by people who aren’t really that interested in beer. What is important to its drinkers is something that is accessible, consistent and refreshing, not something with strong or unusual flavours or wild variability. But that doesn’t make them stupid. As I wrote here, “For most drinkers, beer is just a commodity, and within their terms of reference they are making a rational and sensible choice by picking well-known keg and lager brands. In no way are they deluded dupes.”

That is the barrier that has to be surmounted, and it’s noticeable how, at present, where craft lagers are available, they are more often chosen by those who usually favour cask or craft ales, not the drinkers of Carling and Stella. You don’t win converts by telling people that what they’re currently drinking is rubbish. And it always seems a touch ironic listening to CAMRA members in their practical Millets trousers berating others for their lack of taste and discernment.

It’s also often thought that lager, which by its nature is inherently a somewhat subtle type of beer, sometimes verging on blandness, is therefore easy to make, whereas in reality the opposite is true. Because of its unassuming, unadorned character, there is nowhere to hide, and you can’t mask defects by chucking in loads of hops or fruit flavours. Quite a few of the British craft lagers I’ve sampled have exhibited obvious faults, and many of them seem to have a rather sweet, malty taste that is lacking in the grassy, noble hop character found in some of the finest beers in the style. Some of them are also top-fermented ales masquerading as lagers, an updated version of the “bastard lagers” of the past like Robinson’s Einhorn.

That’s not to say that British craft lagers can’t be excellent, of course. There has been a lot of praise, for example, for Lost & Grounded’s Keller Pils, and I recently had a very good pint of their own-brew Craft Lager in Brewhouse & Kitchen. But, to gain wider acceptance, they have to progress beyond just being one of a row of rotating craft kegs on the back wall, where they will inevitably be overshadowed by beers with louder, showier flavours. They need to become permanent fixtures on bars, so they attract regular, loyal customers, to be consistent, and not to be so distinctive that people will find them offputting. Of course quality is important, but you also have to get your distribution and image right.

Clearly it’s unlikely that craft lagers are going to gain the mass following of Fosters and Kronenbourg, and if they did they would probably be disowned by the craft movement anyway. But there is a huge potential market out there if you can produce something that offers a little bit more in terms of flavour and character, and is perceived as being a cooler choice while not marking the drinker out as being a bit weird. And it has already been done in the form of Camden Hells, which I’m told is now a very common sight in more upmarket pubs and bars in London. Yes, it is now owned by AB InBev, but the foundations of its success were laid when Camden was an independent company. That’s the model that aspiring craft lager brewers should be trying to follow.