Thursday 30 August 2018

The cask crisis

I’m a regular follower of Martin Taylor’s blog which records his travels around the country in his Sisyphean quest to tick off every pub in the Good Beer Guide. One thing that is very noticeable is that, although he encounters plenty of excellent beer, he also comes across a surprising amount that varies between disappointing and totally undrinkable, and sometimes ends up being disposed of into a convenient plant pot. You may say that he’s often going in pubs at opening time in the morning, or at other slack times, and realistically you have to expect the first one out to be bit sub-par. But this is the Good Beer Guide, not a random selection of pubs, and it shouldn’t be happening anywhere near as frequently as it does.

He also records many pub visits where there are more handpumps on the bar than customers, or when not a single pint of cask is pulled in half an hour, sometimes when the Peroni and Prosecco are flowing like water. Clearly, despite all the efforts of CAMRA, all is not well in the realm of cask beer. In recent months there have been a number of articles seeking to analyse the problem and sometimes to try to suggest what could be done about it.

One such appeared recently on “Good Beer Hunting” entitled Critical Drinking – State of the Burton Union. Now, I certainly don’t agree with everything in this piece, and in particular it is yet another attempt to argue that cask’s woes will be helped by charging more for it, which comes across as a touch arse-about-face. Many of the points raised are rebutted here by Ed Wray. However, it is right to point out that, after a period when it seemed to be bucking the trend of declining on-trade beer volumes, it saw a 3.8% fall in 2016, which was more than the overall market. It’s clear that there is some kind of malaise; that cask is no longer seen as a happening thing.

It’s not as though cask is in imminent danger of disappearing or anything like it. Nor was it, if truth be told, in the early 1970s, despite what some mythmakers would have you believe. I visit plenty of pubs that clearly have a very healthy cask trade and where the quality is consistently good. However, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where there was a perfect storm leading to a substantial decline in availability, with a pincer movement of high-end craft bars seeing no need to stock it, while working-class locals find there’s no demand. A few ordinary boozers in Stockport have dropped it in the past few years despite having sold it consistently for a long time beforehand. In fact, much of its resilience has been due to the biggest developers of new pubs, Greene King and Marston’s, both of whom are also brewers, seeing it as a key part of their offer. But if a substantial operator of mainstream pubs decided that their business could manage perfectly well without it, it’s conceivable that the floodgates could open, especially if they could point to the presence of “craft kegs” like Punk IPA as providing something for the beer enthusiast.

A key problem that cask suffers from is that, while at its best it’s wonderful, it’s too often rather lacklustre. During the recent few days I spent in and around Carlisle, I had fourteen pints of cask in twelve different pubs. All but two were decent enough, but there was only one where you would turn to your drinking companion and say “Taste this! This is what cask’s all about!” There does seem to have been a general erosion of standards of cellarmanship following the break-up of the Big Six national brewers, but the central issue is surely the ever-increasing proliferation of handpump numbers.

The 1978 Good Beer Guide lists six pubs for Stockport. Five of them have just two beers, while the Midway, a prototype of the multi-beer free house, has seven. On the whole of the page on which it appears, there are only a couple of other pubs stocking more than two, both Tetley pubs with Draught Bass alongside Bitter and Mild. Since then, the total amount of beer sold in pubs has fallen by almost two-thirds, while the market share of lager has more than doubled. That means that the volume of cask beer sales is only a quarter of what it once was, if that. It’s hard to do a comparison with 2018, because so many pubs are just “beer range varies”, but the Magnet alone must stock more different beers than all the six 1978 pubs put together. Even with smaller cask sizes, if you keep increasing the range in a declining market something’s got to give.

The problem isn’t simply “too many beers”, though, as just decommissioning a few handpumps wouldn’t really make much difference apart from causing some to complain about reduction of choice. It’s more that cask has been held out as something that can provide infinite variety, which is something it is fundamentally ill-suited to do. By its very nature, it is a highly perishable product. It has to sell, and sell in volume, to justify its presence. It can’t just be an optional niche product on the end of the bar to satisfy a handful of enthusiasts. So it needs to play to its strengths rather than trying to compensate for its weaknesses.

Pubs should see their cask offer as central to their business model rather than being just one amongst a range of products. In a sense selling cask represents a whole system of running a pub. There’s not much you can do about lager sales, but if your best-selling ale isn’t cask you’re doing something wrong. Think carefully about which beers will appeal to your customers and draw people in. Try to stock something that has a connection to the area or the history and traditions of the pub, rather than a brand from the other end of the country that was never seen locally until a few years ago. In a sense this is what the pubs in the East Midlands serving Bass and Pedigree that Britainbeermat blogs about are doing – they are stocking a beer with a clear local identity that has loyal supporters amongst their customers in a way that Doom Bar or Wainwright in the same pubs never would.

Regard three days’ serving time as an absolute maximum, not a target. Beer may still be acceptable then, but it won’t be at its best. And seek to make your cask offer something that defines you as a pub and makes you stand out from the crowd, rather than just the apparently random selection of beers that often crops up today. That doesn’t mean that no pub should sell a range of constantly changing guest beers, but if you want to do that have some kind of theme to it rather than just accepting what turns up. Make it so that people will say “You really need to go to the Jolly Plover – they sell a great pint of XXXX – or, maybe, they have a great range of YYYY” rather than an anodyne “they have lots of real ales”. Whatever else you do, your cask beer should be part of your USP, not just something you happen to have on the bar. But if you’re half-hearted about it, best not to bother and leave it to those who can summon up some enthusiasm.

The article I linked to above suggested that CAMRA needs to take a lead in improving standards, but that’s making too much of its role. It is, at the end of the day, a pressure group, not the custodian of cask beer, which is a commercial product made by a large and variegated collection of breweries. It shouldn’t be CAMRA’s job to run training courses on cellarmanship. And asking CAMRA to call for smaller beer ranges would be rather like asking your dog to voluntarily go on a diet. But it could take the issue of quality more seriously, rather than simply paying lip service to it and often giving a free pass to new breweries and bars that are felt to need encouragement. And it should recognise that, in a declining market where consumers demand ever more choice, there are some venues that simply are never going to have the turnover, or indeed the commitment, to do cask justice. It’s not something you just dabble with, it needs to be taken seriously. And if the bottom 20% of marginal outlets took it out, it would probably make it a stronger and more valued product overall.

Friday 24 August 2018

A mixed blessing

This week has seen the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of all-day opening for pubs, which came in on 22 August 1988. From the perspective of today, it seems hard to believe that pubs were required to close for two or three hours every afternoon. It was originally introduced by Lloyd George as an emergency measure during the First World War, but lingered on for over seventy years.

There were dire predictions of mayhem in the streets in the early evenings after people had been drinking for hours, but needless to say nothing of the kind occurred. However, it’s important to remember that pubs didn’t immediately fling their doors open. For quite a few years, most stuck to the old pattern of opening. I remember it being well-nigh impossible to find anywhere open in central Manchester on a Saturday afternoon after 3 pm. It was only the pressure from Wetherspoon’s and other pub chains that forced the generality of pubs to follow suit.

However, it’s now become well-nigh universal for pubs in urban centres, and for food-led pubs in general. Overall, it’s hard to dispute that it’s greatly benefited pubgoers, allowing pubs to tailor their hours to what their customers actually want. It enables the kind of afternoon pub crawls that have now become standard practice for those of us interested in pub exploring, while Good Beer Guide tickers liked Martin Taylor have noticed the growing phenomenon of pubs having a busy session around four in the afternoon when many tradespeople knock off, something that once would have been impossible.

The change didn’t at first apply to Sundays, where lunchtime closing was initially only extended by an hour to 3pm, and even that was considered to have been something of an oversight by Parliament. However, this was increasingly undermined by food-serving pubs declaring part of their trading space to be restaurants, where they were permitted to sell alcohol with meals throughout the day. Eventually, Sundays were brought in to line in 1995. It is very noticeable now how busy many dining pubs are late on Sunday afternoons, which once would have been a dead time.

While many pubs with footfall throughout the day benefited from the extended opening times, others found that they were spreading the same amount of customers over a greater number of hours, and thus increased costs. Therefore they had to look critically at when it actually would be financially worthwhile to be open. This is a trend that has increased in the current century when there has been a steady decline in the overall business of pubs, peaking of course in the years after July 2007.

Before 1988, the vast majority of pubs would open for every one of the fourteen legally permitted sessions. The only variations were that many didn’t open quite as early as allowed in the morning, and they often opened later on Saturday evenings. But now we have a growing number of pubs that don’t open at all on one or more days of the week. Outside town centres, wet-led pubs are more often than not deciding not to open at all at lunchtimes, either on weekdays or even seven days a week. For whatever reason, this seems more common in the North than the South, where many pubs still keep to the traditional afternoon closure.

Of course much of this would probably have happened even if we still had fixed hours, but removing them has given licensees a blank sheet of paper as to when they feel there is any point in being open. I’d guess that, if you took a set of pubs in a typical area that have been trading throughout the 1988-2018 period, the total amount of opening hours would actually be markedly less now than it used to be.

One aspect in which this is most marked is delaying lunchtime opening. Depending on the area, the old system allowed for opening at various times between 10 am and 11.30. Some pubs wouldn’t open quite as early, especially if the permitted time was before 11 am, but virtually all were open before noon. The 1978 Good Beer Guide lists ten pubs in Manchester City Centre, where lunchtime opening was 11-3. None is mentioned as opening later. Yet, in 2018, of the seventeen pubs included, only three open before noon, and some don’t open on weekdays until late afternoon. It’s a bit disingenuous to claim that you’re “open all day” when you fail to take advantage of all the hours that were available to you before 1988.

Of course pubs shouldn’t be expected to open if they don’t believe there’s sufficient business, but the whole process of curtailing hours has resulted in a disbenefit to potential pubgoers, which is made worse by the uncertainty involved. At one time, you were reasonably confident when you could expect pubs to be open, but this is less and less true, and is made worse by the fact that pubs, even though they have far more diverse hours than shops, seldom display their hours outside. It’s not exactly very helpful if you turn up at a pub and find it closed with no indication of when it will open. I’m convinced that taking away the predictability of opening times has harmed the trade as a whole.

I’ve made the point in the past that many drinking occasions have always revolved around ritual and routine, something that was underpinned by the old system of restricted hours. The approach of either closing or opening concentrated the mind, whether it was the prospect of the shutters going down in the early afternoon, the early doors opening for that after-work pint, or the narrow two-hour window of Sunday lunchtime. If the pubs are open anyway, the incentive to have a drink now rather fades away, and sometimes leads to not bothering at all. Although the traditional Sunday lunchtime session would probably have been eroded anyway by the growth of other things to do on Sundays, in particular Sunday shopping.

There can be little doubt that the extension of opening hours has expanded pubs’ opportunities to sell food, but the same isn’t true of drink. There was no evidence before that there was a huge pent-up demand for afternoon drinking, which was borne out by what happened after the reform came in. It’s more the case that people had a fairly fixed budget to spend on drinking in pubs, which was then spread out over a longer period of time. Indeed, it could be argued that, given a largely fixed demand, the pub trade actually benefited from restricted hours.

All-day opening, or the possibility of it, has now been with us for thirty years and has become accepted as a fact of life. It’s impossible to envisage going back, and indeed when anti-drink campaigners talk of restricting availability they are normally referring to cutting back hours in the early morning and late evening, not bringing back an afternoon closure. Overall, it’s been greatly beneficial to pub users, and I’ve certainly taken advantage of it on a huge number of occasions. Most of the negative trends that have affected the pub trade would have happened anyway regardless of what had been done with hours. It’s certainly dramatically changed the landscape of how pubs actually function throughout the day, but it has to be accepted that change, even when generally beneficial, is rarely entirely without any negative outcomes.

Sunday 19 August 2018

Think about the average

Jeff Alworth has recently made a very interesting post on his Beervana blog entitled What If We Just Stop Drinking? which speculates on the effect on the beer industry if everyone curbed their drinking to the average of the entire population. While this is very much oriented towards the US, he makes a number of points that have featured on this blog over the years.

Beer consumption, like most things, is subject to a Pareto distribution. In the US, way over half of all beer is drunk by the top 10% of drinkers – see the graphic above. It’s probably much the same here. We responsible “moderate drinkers” who say we love pubs have to accept that they are sustained in business by people who would generally be classed as heavy, if not problem, drinkers.

Taking a median figure, if we look at all drinkers of alcohol in the US, the average person consumes only two drinks a week, which really isn’t very much. In the UK, the average adult drinks a mere two pints of beer in pubs a week, which isn’t going to keep very many of them in business. And that’s just a third of a pint of cask beer.

And the decline of pubgoing has been to a large extent driven by the decline of the kind of social occasion that encourages the sharing of a couple of drinks.

As entertainment options multiply, people spend far less time in the larger group settings that were once a place for drinking. Blame the Millennials all you want, but whatever happened to bowling and nights at the Elks Lodge? ...It's not just drinking, either. Church attendance has plummeted in that same period, and social club membership has almost completely vanished. And all of that happened before cell phones.
Of course everyone isn’t going to stop drinking completely. But just imagine what the pub landscape would be like if they all cut down their drinking to the average level. We would be left with sanitised restaurants that happened to serve alcohol to the minority of their customers who wanted it. And that, pretty much, would be it.
Alcohol has been a feature of human life since well before we domesticated grains, and it's not going to vanish. But it is possible to imagine the amounts we drink shrinking by 50-75% in a few decades. Our focus on health has made heavy drinking a shameful thing, mirroring our attitudinal shifts on smoking. Given the shrinking number of opportunities for social drinking, an increased focus on health, the stigma against drunkenness, and the availability of other drugs—all trends that started years ago—it's hard to envision how consumption doesn't shrink.
Do read the whole thing – it’s well worth it.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Fill your boots

In recent years, licensing authorities have put a lot of pressure on pubs and bars to stamp out promotions that supposedly encourage irresponsible drinking, including offers of “all you can drink” for a fixed price. So I was rather surprised to see that, at next year's Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, CAMRA will be offering an inclusive all you can drink option called the MBCF Experience for £40. This will be limited to special sample glasses of, I believe, 120ml (just over 4 fl. oz). If an unlimited supply is available, there is no requirement to serve beer in officially-designated measures.

Clearly, given the very steep price and the small measures, this isn’t the same as “All you can drink for a tenner” at Porky’s Fun Pub, and it’s unlikely in practice that it will attract people who are simply setting out to drink as much as they can, or that it will lead to disorderly behaviour. But the difference is one of degree, not of principle, and it sits rather uneasily with CAMRA's External Policy 2.3, which states:

“CAMRA opposes promotions that encourage excessive or speed drinking, rather than providing a discount on the price of the product and allowing the consumer to determine his/her own preferred consumption.”

The reason given for this is to allow people to sample as many different beers as possible, and it follows the practice at many craft beer festivals. However, simply because someone else is doing it doesn’t automatically make it a good idea. Indeed, at some craft festivals it is the only payment option available, which really doesn’t seem consistent with responsible drinking and offers a very poor deal to those of more limited capacity. Frankly, I’m surprised that the licensing authorities haven’t questioned this. It’s another example of how the craft beer community imagines that it operates on a higher moral plane than the thick, Carling-swilling plebs.

CAMRA is always going on about encouraging “responsible consumption in a supervised environment”, so it offers up a hostage to fortune if its critics can then come back and say “well, but you allow all-you-can-drink at your festivals.” It’s rather like Jamie Oliver running an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.

Presumably an offer of this kind would not be permitted under Scottish (and soon Welsh) minimum pricing, as it is theoretically possible (although highly unlikely) that the average unit price could dip below the minimum if there is no cap on consumption.

A further concern is that apparently, when beer is sold in this way, drinkers are inclined to throw away anything that isn’t to their taste and move straight on to another beer. The amount of food waste we produce is often highlighted as a problem – doesn’t this apply equally to beer waste? Although maybe the contents of the slops bucket could then be resold to the public, and no doubt some beer communicator would declare how awesome it was.

It’s also disappointing that they will be abandoning traditional British measures in favour of metric ones – what would be wrong with a quarter or a sixth of a pint?

Saturday 11 August 2018

State of decay

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about the State Management Scheme in Carlisle and the surrounding areas, which was introduced in 1916 at the height of the First World War as a means of curbing excessive alcohol consumption amongst munitions workers in the area, and ended up enduring until 1971. During the inter-war period, the scheme’s architect, Harry Redfern, was responsible for remodelling a number of existing pubs and building entirely new ones, following the “improved” model of pub design which sought to reduce “perpendicular drinking” and encourage a more civilised and female-friendly atmosphere. These pubs were widely regarded as outstanding examples of enlightened pub design, and the scheme merited an entire chapter, together with numerous floor plans, in Basil Oliver’s Book The Renaissance of the English Public House, which was published in 1947.

Obviously times and fashions have changed, and in Carlisle as everywhere else the traditional intimate, compartmentalised interior layouts have largely been swept away by drastic knocking-through. I recently spent a few days in the city, so thought it would be interesting to take a look at what remained of what were once considered model pubs.

The twin towers of the Citadel immediately outside the station mark a dramatic contrast in Carlisle city centre. To the north, where the main shops are, it’s a dignified, genteel county town, but to the south, along Botchergate, it’s a garish, youth-oriented fun strip. Indeed, such is the level of revelry that Botchergate is closed to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights. Remember that Carlisle is sixty miles from the nearest big city, so if you’re going to have a night out, you’ll be doing it locally.

Rather marooned on Botchergate between the city’s two Wetherspoons is the Cumberland Inn (illustrated above), of which CAMRA’s heritage pub site says “Built 1929-30 to designs by Harry Redfern, this is the least altered of the Carlisle & District State Management Scheme pubs.” It has a narrow, dignified but rather austere Tudor-Gothic frontage in stone, which widens out further back. While some internal walls have been removed, it retains extensive wood panelling and a number of distinct areas which still give much of a flavour of how it once would have been. Apparently the two upstairs rooms, which are now occupied by a separate restaurant business, are even less spoilt.

However, the drawback is that its actual pub offer is pretty dismal. On the beer front, it has nothing but a selection of mainstream kegs, while various dubious entertainments such as karaoke and discos are provided. Maybe that’s what the location demands, but it seems completely out of keeping with the surroundings. I couldn’t help thinking that it would do much better, and be more true to its origins, as a Sam Smith’s pub. I had my annual half of Guinness, which reminded me that the promise is always better than the reality.

North of the Citadel on Lowther Street in the more sedate part of the city centre is the Howard Arms. This is a Victorian pub with a distinctive tiled frontage that was internally remodelled under State Management ownership. Some opening out has occurred, but it still has distinct lounge and public sides and a variety of areas surrounding the central servery. It also has that vanishing species – a jukebox. There were two cask beers on, one of which was a pretty decent drop of Theakston’s Best Bitter. It can’t be said that Carlisle is one of Britain’s great pub towns, but the Howard Arms is one of the most congenial in the central area.

The last pre-war pub to be built by the State Management Scheme was the Redfern Inn, named in Harry Redfern’s honour but actually designed by his deputy Joseph Seddon, which actually did not open until 1940. It stands in the suburb of Etterby, a mixed residential area about a mile and a half from the city centre on the north bank of the River Eden. It’s a long, low, brick-and-timber building in an Arts and Crafts style that wouldn’t look out of place in the Weald of Kent.

The interior layout, with extensive wood panelling, looks pretty traditional, but in fact a comparison with the plan in Basil Oliver’s book shows that the counter has been greatly extended on the public side, while on the lounge side the two rooms have been amalgamated and a new serving counter added. The pub originally featured a bowling green at the rear, but this has been out of use for some years and is now slated for redevelopment as housing, although as yet this hasn’t actually happened. It’s another pub where the offer doesn’t really match up to the surroundings, being just an ordinary, slightly down-at-heel local where the only cask beer available was, slightly bizarrely, a rather past-its-best drop of Brakspear Bitter.

Another pub with a bowling green is the Magpie in Botcherby on the eastern side of the city. This is in an inter-wars council estate and fits more into the mould of “estate pub” with a distinctive white-rendered design with prominent gables. It has experienced something of a chequered history, falling into the hands of Oakwell Brewery and then being closed for period before being bought and brought back to life by Sam Smith’s, who also, to their great credit, have restored the bowling green to use.

The interior layout seems little changed from the plan in the book, with the only significant alteration being replacing the off-sales area with a passage through from the public bar to the “smoking room”. Indeed, this room and the adjoining “tea room”, with the ladies’ and gents’ toilets on either side of the entrance porch, seem largely intact, so it’s a surprise to see that the pub doesn’t even feature as a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Like many Sam’s pubs now, it has no real ale, but their keg range is much more appetising than that in a pub like the Cumberland Inn, and my OBB was decent enough.

While their original interiors may have been swept away by modernisation, there remain many architectural reminders of the State Management Scheme. For example, just a few doors down from the Howard Arms on Lowther Street is the rather grand Apple Tree, while on the main road north to Scotland is the Coach & Horses, which has appeared in several past Good Beer Guides. The scope of the scheme extended a fair distance beyond Carlisle itself, and you can still see examples of distinctive SMS architecture in places such as Gretna, where the round-arched doorway of the Hunter’s Lodge is a distinctive Redfern feature.

It’s a shame that so few pub interiors remain to remind us of this unique episode in the history of the British pub trade, but sadly wholesale internal destruction has been general across the whole country. Meanwhile, we should celebrate what is left, and in particular the Redfern Inn deserves to be cherished as a memorial to the work of the great pub architect.

Incidentally, while I was in Carlisle, I took a look inside the giant ASDA on the north side of the city next to Junction 44 of the M6, but didn’t see any specific signs of catering for booze tourists from north of the border following the introduction of minimum pricing. This convenience store and off-licence in a prominent position in the centre of Dumfries had closed, but far be it from me to draw a connection between the two.