Friday 30 November 2018

Dancing on a pin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Craft marches on

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Should I stay, or should I go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 12 November 2018

The joys of the countryside

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

Thursday 8 November 2018

At the sign of the Good Companions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Lost local

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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