Friday 28 December 2018

Replacing apples with oranges

The Manchester Evening News has recently published figures showing the shocking extent of pub closures across the region since 2001, as shown in the table below. Seven of the ten local authority areas in Greater Manchester have lost a third or more of their pubs, with Stockport, which has lost 36%, actually doing slightly better than average.

Top of the list is Rochdale, where an astonishing 45% of pubs have closed their doors. This does have to be seen, however, in the context of what might be described as “changing ethnic mix”, which must surely also be a major factor in Accrington, which the Guardian recently reported on as The town where half the pubs have vanished. This also applies to a lesser extent in many of the other areas.

Neither does the decline apply evenly across areas. Tameside has done second worst across the board, but within the area on its south-eastern fringe around Mottram and Hattersley must have lost at least 80% of its pubs.

Of course this trend has to be seen in the context of the overall decline in the pub trade. Over the period from 2001 to the present day, according to the statistics produced by the British Beer and Pub Association, the amount of beer sold in the on-trade has fallen by 45%. Sometimes it seems surprising, not that so many pubs have closed, but that so many remain open, although it has to be said that some of those that remain exist on very slim pickings for much of the week.

Whenever this subject comes up, inevitably some Pollyannas will pipe up saying that, while we may have lost a lot of pubs, plenty of new bars have sprung up in their place. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, and I’m sure if you took into account the total movement in establishments with a full on-licence, it wouldn’t show anything like a 36% fall in Stockport. The liberalisation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has led to a more fluid market that is more capable of responding to changes in customer demand.

However, the overall figures on the decline of the trade do not lie, just as you can’t point to the rise in the number of breweries as an indicator of the general health of the brewing industry. These new places cannot really be considered a like-for-like replacement for the pubs we have lost. They are typically much smaller, for a start, appeal to a narrower customer base, and tend to be in entirely different locations. As I wrote back in 2011, “How can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees?”

This also raises a question mark about these statistics and how they are compiled. On the face of it, they don’t appear to take full account of new bar openings. But, on the other hand, neither are they simply gross figures of pubs lost that were in existence in 2001, as otherwise Manchester would surely record a much higher figure than 7%. Outside the inner ring road, Chorlton and the Wilmslow Road corridor, large parts of the city have become virtual pub deserts. So it would be interesting to know exactly what these figures are showing. Are they including some new openings, but not others, and how is the distinction drawn?

Thursday 20 December 2018

When is a pub not a pub?

When it’s a bar, of course. While there’s no specific legal distinction, the two carry very different connotations. However, it’s notoriously difficult to come up with a hard-and-fast definition separating one from the other. Now Martyn Cornell has had another stab at it on his Zythophile blog. He suggests that a key distinction is that pubs tend to have a bar at right angles to the entrance door, whereas bars have their counter running along a side wall. Often, this is indeed the case, but it rather breaks down when you have a multi-roomed interior with different entrances. But perhaps bars don’t tend to have multi-roomed interiors anyway.

In general, while you can point to various characteristics that pubs usually have, and bars don’t, it’s always possible to come up with exceptions to the role. Overall, it’s often a case of “you know one when you see one”. I’ve suggested in the past that pubs are often specific buildings designed for the purpose, while bars tend to be part of a larger building. Pubs make use of the upper floors of the building, while a bar may be underneath something entirely different. The licensees of a pub are likely to live on the premises, but with a bar they hardly ever do. And, at least outside urban centres, pubs often have car parks, but I can’t think of a single bar that does. A pub retains its identity through various changes of ownership, while that of a bar is very much tied up with its current trading format.

Sometimes it’s less a question of physical aspects but how businesses choose to define themselves. On Stockport Market Place there are two recently-opened establishments right next door to each other – the Angel and Project 53. Both have a somewhat “crafty” ethos, but the Angel definitely comes across as a pub, whereas Project 53 is unquestionably a bar. With a new name and a different paint scheme, the Angel could be considered a bar, though.

Some Wetherspoon’s, particularly those in their more modern design idiom that are conversions of former retail units, do very much say “bar” rather than “pub”, whereas others than are in existing pub premises, such as the Gateway in East Didsbury, are definitely pubs. And, while their name says otherwise, I’d say that the vast majority of micropubs, going by the criteria set out above, are in reality small bars little different from the keg-only “box bars” often found in similar premises.

At the other end of the scale, there’s also the vexed question of when a pub actually turns into a restaurant. Most restaurants obviously aren’t pubs, but quite a few have the outward appearance of pubs and indeed might once have been one. Strictly speaking, if anyone can come in and have a drink without needing to buy a meal, it doesn’t qualify as just being a restaurant. However, I’d say there also needs to be a test of whether any meaningful number of people actually do.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

A costly and futile gesture

This month sees the fourth anniversary of the reduction of the drink-driving limit in Scotland, which I wrote about here. The University of Glasgow have carried out some research on the impact, which has revealed no reduction in the number of road traffic accidents.

I have to say this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. The additional level of risk involved in driving with alcohol levels between 50 and 80mg varies between pretty small and non-existent, so even if the vast majority of people who previously believed they were adhering to 80mg change their behaviour, it’s unlikely to make much difference to the overall numbers. Add to this the slow rate of absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, and the fact that the conventional wisdom about the “legal limit” does actually include a significant amount of headroom, and it’s highly likely that, even before, they weren’t actually exceeding 50mg.

On the other hand, why should those who had no compunctions about exceeding the previous limit – who accounted for the vast majority of drink-related casualties – be any more likely to adhere to the new one? The UK government’s consultation document on cutting the limit from twenty years ago claimed that it would exert a moderating influence on people in this group, but it’s hard to see how this mechanism actually works.

Not surprisingly, there have been claims that it has only failed because of a lack of enforcement, but that rather suggests that reducing the limit was, in itself, a pointless gesture. If more enforcement was needed, then wouldn’t it have achieved the same benefits without a limit cut? The linked article quotes a statistic that of 195 found over the limit, only 17 were between the old and new limits, which suggests there isn’t a large population of drivers who are just chancing their arm a bit or have made a miscalculation. Either people adhere to the law, even if they disagree with it, or they couldn’t care less.

It also must be remembered that, according to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the effects on the pub trade have been catastrophic. Apparently, in the first few months, the reduction in trade caused a small but noticable downward blip in Scotland’s headline GDP. It’s hard to see how any pub in Scotland can now be viable outside urban centres unless it effectively turns itself into a restaurant. And, given the different pub landscape in England and Wales, the results would probably be even more severe if it were ever to be implemented south of the Border. Considering that the first assessment of the impact of minimum alcohol pricing has shown a surprising increase in off-trade purchases, it seems that the Scottish government has a spectacular talent for shooting itself in the foot when it comes to anti-drink measures.

While this is ostensibly touted as a road safety measure, it’s hard to believe that, at least subconsciously, part of the motivation behind it isn’t to increase the denormalisation of alcohol consumption in society. In this respect it’s rather like the smoking ban, in that it has been ineffective in achieving its stated aim, but highly effective in undermining the pub trade. In fact, this is even worse. It was possible to argue that the smoking ban would bring new non-smoking customers into pubs, although in practice it was more a trickle than a flood. But there is no upside whatsoever for pubs in cutting the drink-drive limit. It’s easy to imagine, though, the same useful idiots who argued that pubs would take the smoking ban in their stride being in favour of it, or at least pretty relaxed.

The whole thing has been pretty effectively filleted in his usual style by Christopher Snowdon:

Drunk driving isn't a very popular cause, and rightly so. It is obviously wrong to risk the lives of others by driving while inebriated. By contrast, driving after consuming a small quantity of alcohol poses no threat to others and is fine, but it is this that the temperance lobby is going after. It's so much easier to hassle normal people for having a pint after work than to clamp down on the dwindling number of habitual drunk-drivers.

Friday 14 December 2018

Heritage brew

If you had said to the people who were in at the birth of CAMRA that, forty-five years later, the organisation would be promoting keg beer, cans and trendy bars, they would have laughed in your face. Yet so it has proved. What was once essentially a campaign to preserve a unique and endangered British tradition has, over time, metamorphosed into much more of an organisation that supposedly champions all good beer, however, defined, and has also in recent years introduced a much greater note of outright snobbery.

It’s often said that CAMRA is a broad church, but it has to be said that those whose interest is mainly in the traditional side get very slim pickings at present, and are often the subjects of sneering and derision. There are people who contribute to CAMRA’s Discourse discussion forum with whom I struggle to identify any commonality of interest whatsoever.

So maybe the time has come for a new organisation to cater for those whose interest in the sphere of beer and pubs is primarily in the preservationist arena, which we could perhaps call “Heritage Brew”. This would not be a rival to CAMRA so much as being complementary. Nor would it campaign in any active sense, except perhaps for the listing of heritage pubs, and to urge breweries not to discontinue traditional beer brands. It would essentially be a vehicle for people to share and pursue their particular enthusiasm. It would certainly never seek to divide anything into hard and fast categories.

As I wrote here, there is a big difference between what people buy as consumers and what they pursue as a leisure interest. Being interested in historic breweries doesn’t mean that you can’t drink craft beer, or that you’re against in any sense, just that it is essentially a consumer product to you, like cheese or washing up liquid. And the claim that some will raise that they’re equally interested in everything just doesn’t hold water, and will be contradicted by their own actions.

In terms of beer, the focus would be on the traditional British styles – light and dark mild, bitter, pale ale, stout, porter, old ale, barley wine and so forth. Much of this is produced today in cask form, but it certainly wouldn’t exclude keg beers, and indeed a surprising number of once well-known beers only live on today in keg form, especially milds. It would also encompass bottled and canned beers, where again many survivors from light ales to barley wines linger on in obscure corners of the market. And it would cover the premium bottled ale sector, which receives little attention from beer enthusiasts gushing over the latest 330ml can of American-style hop soup. Most of the beers in this category are bang in the middle of the British tradition, and often are only rarely seen on draught, or have no draught equivalent at all. And the sector does contain some underappreciated hidden gems, such as McEwan’s Special, a rare survivor of the classic Burton style. Things such as surviving old-fashioned pumpclips, keg fonts and electric meters would also come within its purview.

When it comes to breweries, at the core would undoubtedly be the surviving independent breweries who were in existence in 1972 and have kept the flag of traditional British beer styles flying ever since. There is still some traditional beer being produced in the remaining British plants of the international brewers, but that isn’t their primary focus. To these must be added the new breweries that have been established in the succeeding years and who have mainly concentrated on British styles, such as Black Sheep, Wye Valley, Butcombe and Joules. There are some breweries such as Hawkshead who successfully straddle both camps, but obviously other well-known names of the craft beer movement concentrate on constant innovation and American-influenced styles. And it certainly helps if your operation is in a magnificent historic brewhouse such as that of Hook Norton shown above.

For traditional pubs, the best place to start must be CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, which to my mind is one of the most important things the organisation has done. However, amongst the wave of enthusiasm for craft bars and brewery taps it seems to have slipped down the priority list recently, and its website has now been offline for “upgrading” for several months. Together with the various regional inventories, the total of listed pubs must come to over a thousand, but there are plenty more that may not be so unspoilt, but which still retain a broadly traditional character in terms of their layout, fittings and customer dynamics. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And, to widen the scope, there are plenty of pubs that may have been much modernised internally, but are still located in impressive historic buildings, something that is outside the remit of the National Inventory. Maybe there would be scope to publish a guidebook of “Britain’s Finest Traditional Pubs.”

Initially I just came up with this idea as a kind of thought experiment. But maybe there may be rather more to it than that. So who’s with me for a pint of keg M&B Mild in that unsung 1930s West Midlands boozer that didn’t quite make it on to the regional inventory, but still has red dralon bench seating, a meat raffle and little bags of Ploughman’s Lunch pinned to a card on the bar back?

Monday 10 December 2018

The last pint

For a number of years, something called “The Session” has been run on a monthly basis amongst beer bloggers. This is basically asking the various bloggers to write their own take on a common subject. While the results have often been interesting, I have never participated, because I don’t really see this as a “beer blog” as such. It is more a blog on the general subject of lifestyle freedom, but centred around beer and pubs. And, as a political conservative, a craft beer sceptic, and a passionate and unrepentant opponent of the smoking ban, I have never felt part of that community.

However, it was a coincidence too poignant to miss that the last outing of “The Session” came last Friday, on the subject of which beer you feel would be most appropriate for a funeral. This happened to be the day on which my dad would have been a hundred years old, had he lived. He was born on 7 December 1918, and died on 2 March 2010.

I loved him dearly, and scarcely a day goes by on which I don’t miss him. Yes, in some ways he could be a very annoying man, and I’m sure in other ways he also found me something of a disappointment. But that is probably common to most father and son relationships, and ever since I came within a year or so of legal drinking age we would regularly share a pint or two in the pub. It was where we had our best and most open conversations. I can recognise in him many of my own character traits, in particular his refusal to tug the forelock to authority, which undoubtedly hindered his career, and also probably did the same to mine. But would he – or I – really have enjoyed the advancement that came from brown-nosing? In summary, we were both awkward buggers.

In his last years, especially since he had to give up driving, I would often take him out for a pint, latterly generally to the Golden Lion * in Frodsham, a Sam Smith’s pub. Indeed, this was the pub in which he enjoyed his last ever pint, in the Autumn of 2009. Of all the pubs in the area, this was the one he felt most at home in, for all the usual reasons for which Sam’s pubs stand out from the crowd. He was a firm believer in the virtues of bench seating, and we always had the same corner in which we would sit. Ironically, while I was driving, I would have a couple of pints, while he would just have one and a half or, towards, the end, just the one.

He always enjoyed a pint, and I have shared many hundreds with him, but I never saw him drunk, or anything beyond mildly tipsy at Christmas. I converted him to the idea of real ale, and for many years, Good Beer Guide in hand, he would seek out real ale pubs when on holiday with my mum. But, in his later years, he always enjoyed a pre-lunch can of Tetley Bitter at home. He never lost his intelligence, although towards the end it could become a bit vague and sporadic. In my experience, what tends to go with your parents is more their capacity to make decisions.

I miss you, dad, but I’m glad I shared a final pint of real ale with you in a proper pub.

* The Golden Lion always had cask beer when we went there, although sadly I see it has now gone keg, like many other Sam Smith’s pubs. But, even had that been the case when my dad was alive, I suspect we would still have gone there.

Saturday 8 December 2018

The Gradgrind Arms

Regular readers will know that I have often praised the cheap prices, unspoilt character and congenial atmosphere of many Sam Smith’s pubs. However, I have certainly not been blind to the capricious and often high-handed way in which the company is run. This was starkly highlighted by this recent employment tribunal case in which a couple who had run the Roebuck in the centre of Rochdale for many years successfully made a claim against the company for constructive dismissal.

I have heard similar stories of unrealistic targets being set and a total disregard for the realities of the pub business across the bar of more than one Sam Smith’s pub. Reading the above report, it’s hardly surprising that Sam’s are struggling to recruit pub managers, with a number of their pubs currently being shut that on the face of it do not appear to be unviable.

However, it must be said that much of the company’s unique appeal does stem from their pig-headed refusal to follow the fickle winds of fashion in the pub trade. The managers of the Roebuck complained that their inability to offer piped music and TV sport made it harder for them to compete with other pubs, but for many pubgoers the absence of those features is an attraction in itself. And in some locations the formula certainly works. I’ve mentioned before how you will often find the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place standing room only at lunchtime on a non-market day, while the Roebuck was reported to be taking nearly £6,000 a week, which is pretty good going.

Could it be the case that, when the notorious Humphrey Smith is finally put out to pasture, Sam’s will end up losing their USP by trying to become more like other pub operators? After all, you once knew exactly what to expect in a Holt’s pub, whereas now it would be very difficult to say what defined them. And the biggest managed pub operator of all doesn’t have music or sports TV either, and is also known for its keen prices.

Monday 3 December 2018

Who’d ha’ thought it?

Minimum alcohol pricing has now been in effect in Scotland for six months. I wrote about this at the time. Given that nothing of this kind has ever been tried before, obviously it was hard to predict the results, but it was a reasonable assumption that overall off-trade alcohol sales would show a small decline, but the value of those sales increase.

However, it hasn’t turned out quite that way. According to a study commissioned by cider maker Aston Manor, the total volume of alcohol sales has actually increased by 4%, while the value has gone up by no less than 11%. That certainly isn’t what was meant to happen.

Obviously it’s early days yet, and this is only a survey, not a detailed analysis of actual sales. It follows a general pattern, with sales south of the border in fact rising by 7%, encouraged by the long hot summer and England’s good run in the World Cup. We will have to wait and see what the official figures show, and how cross-border sales are affecting alcohol consumption in Scotland, but it does call into question how effective a policy this is likely to be.

Not surprisingly, sales of the notorious Buckfast tonic wine have shown a marked increase. Contrary to widespread belief, this has never been particularly cheap in terms of price per alcohol unit, and its appeal is down to its high caffeine content. It no longer commands such a price premium over other drinks. In contrast, sales of white ciders have plummeted, as they had little to recommend them apart from the high “bangs-per-buck” ratio. Frankly, it’s surprising anyone is continuing to buy them when they can get far more palatable drinks at the same price.

Convenience stores have gained market share over supermarkets, as the big stores no longer enjoy the price advantage they once did. In fact, the whole thing can be regarded as a price-fixing sceheme in favour of retailers. It’s rather ironic that the useful idiots of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association were so keen to support it, when it has given such a shot in the arm to the financial health of the off-trade. Given that household incomes haven’t increased by 11% or anything like it, some other area of expenditure must have suffered, and it could well be that pubs are included within that.

What seems to be happening is that, given that all categories of drink at the lower end of market now have a level playing field in terms of price, consumers are being more discerning over their preferred method of getting their desired alcohol kick. It’s the most enjoyable way, not simply the cheapest. This helps explain the rise in sales of fortified wines. There’s no longer any place in the market for the £3.49 bottle of gutrot wine or the £9.99 bottle of paintstripper vodka.

It will take a lot longer before we really have a full picture of the impact, especially in terms of the effect it has on “problem drinkers”, who are supposedly the group being targeted. But it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to realise that, if it isn’t felt to be “working”, however that is defined, the inevitable reaction will be to increase the dose and jack up the minimum price yet further.