Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Buy in haste, repent at leisure

Last week, it was reported that US drinks conglomerate Constellation Brands was selling craft brewer Ballast Point, which it had bought for a jaw-dropping $1 billion in 2015. The buyer was the much smaller Illinois firm Kings & Convicts Brewing, and it was rumoured that the sale price could have been as little as $75 million. That would represent a staggering loss of value in only four years.

It brought to mind this blogpost from 2017, in which I made the point that much of the brewing industry seemed to be in the grip of “craft paranoia”, where they were frightened that the rise of craft beer posed an existential threat to their business, and they were flailing about in all directions trying to counter the trend. One aspect of this was established major companies paying what even at the time seemed inflated sums for up-and-coming craft brewers.

Two and a half years later, things look very different. There’s plenty of evidence that the seemingly inexorable rise of craft has peaked, and it’s also something that has been very much driven by novelty and innovation, and isn’t amenable to the tried and tested business strategy of building strong brands. While these deals might have provided bumper paydays for the founders of the acquired businesses, many big companies have been left feeling that they have burned their fingers, and are having to write down the value of their investments.

Brewing seems to be one of the few markets where a substantial number of customers really do put a value on the independent status of producers, and it could be argued that a large chunk of value was lost on the actual day the company was sold.

Of course the British market is very different from the American one, and it would be wrong to read the lessons across too closely. But you do have to wonder whether the big companies that have acquired stakes in British craft breweries are wondering just how far they can take the brands, and worrying that the initial spark has vanished.

One response of established British brewers to the craft trend has been to establish craft sub-brands and bring out products that ape the style of well-known craft beers. However, all too often this comes across as “dad dancing”, with the beers themselves being pale imitations, and drinkers easily able to see through it. Maybe a better response would be to play to their strengths and bring out speciality beers that build on their own heritage, such as Fuller’s Past Masters series, Greene King’s Chevallier beers and Marston’s Horninglow Street range.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Show some respect

Regular readers will know that a frequent bugbear of mine is the presence of noisy, badly-behaved children in pubs. Now, I’m not such a curmudgeon to believe that children should be excluded from pubs serving food, which has become an ever-increasing part of their business. There are now plenty of pubs dominated by the dining trade, where you would realistically expect to come across children. On the other hand, there are still many wet-led pubs where you would not expect to find them, even if they weren’t formally excluded, although they often are.

The problem tends to occur in the generalist pubs that aim to combine both drinking and dining trade, which may be dwindling in numbers, but are still fairly plentiful. I was recently in a pub of this description, just quietly sitting reading the paper (I was debarred from looking at my phone), when a family group came in looking to eat, including a baby and a little lad of about four. I have to say my heart inwardly sank a little.

They weren’t by any means the worst behaved children I’ve ever encountered in a pub, but I was heartened to hear the dad say to his son “Now calm down, that man over there's just come in for a quiet drink.” Hopefully I hadn’t looked too grumpy.

That may sound trivial, but it shows a recognition that people may have an impact on others, and need to give them consideration, and will help defuse any tension that may have been created. It’s rather like a bar person acknowledging your presence and saying “I’ll be with you in a minute”. A pub, especially a mixed-use one with a variety of customers, is a particular kind of environment, and visitors should respect that.

Friday, 6 December 2019

All pull together

I’ve described before how the British craft beer movement, while taking most of its cues from its American counterparts, chose to direct most of its fire at the established real ale culture rather than at the international brewers. Inevitably, this was returned in kind to some extent, resulting in what came across as unseemly squabbling between “crafties” and “beardies”. To a large degree, this arose more from mutual misunderstanding than genuine enmity, with those who enjoyed raspberry sours in industrial-chic tap rooms simply failing to understand the appeal of twiggy brown beer in grotty old man pubs, and vice versa.

However, there are signs that this is changing, possibly sparked by the realisation that the apparently unstoppable surge of craft was reaching its peak. It is very significant that Matthew Curtis, once seen as a prime cheerleader for the craft movement, has written here of the need for modern and traditional to come together to assert their independent status.

According to data from firms such as CGA, small, independent brewers makes up about 8% of the British Beer Market by sales volume. For some strange reason this doesn’t include the independent “family owned” regionals (it absolutely should though). If it did that figure would be somewhere closer to about 13 to 14%.

This still means that at least 86% of beer sold within the UK is produced by the multinationals. As such I am eager to see the next step in the discussion of independence, and some real progress in terms of presenting this argument to a greater number of industry members and bringing them together to form a unified front against increasingly tough competition and unfair access to established routes to market.

It’s perhaps important not to make too much of this. The strands are not simply two sides of the same coin, and arise from very different wellsprings of sentiment. One is established, traditional and rooted in locality, the other modern, innovative and international in outlook. It is very much a case of Somewhere vs Anywhere made real in beery form. However, what they do share is being relatively small in scale, individual and distinctive, not bland and uniform. And, to that extent at least, there is a commonality of interest. You also don’t have to dislike everything you don’t personally care for; there can still be mutual respect and recognition.

Independence, of course, is by no means a perfect signifier of quality. Many small breweries make poor or dull beer, while some big firms produce excellent ones. In the USA, the Brewer’s Association sets an annual production level of 6 million barrels as the ceiling for what can be regarded as a craft brewer. Scale that down by the relative population of the UK, and it becomes 1.2 million barrels, which is well above the annual production of Marston’s, our largest brewer that isn’t owned by multinationals. It’s hard to see that many people in this country would really regard them as “craft”, but surely something as quirky and individual as the Burton Unions is the very epitome of the concept. And, having been round their Wolverhampton site, it’s hardly a gleaming cathedral of brewing, but instead a mishmash of plant and fermenting vessels of various types and ages squeezed into a collection of often venerable buildings.

It seems that my Twitter followers are still reluctant to recognise any commonality.

“Craft” is notoriously difficult to define, and it’s often used to mean whatever people choose it to mean. For many, though, it is more a cultural concept than one that relates to the actual characteristics of the beer, and that is always going to be a stumbling block to bringing traditional and modern independent brewers together under the same umbrella.

Incidentally, for mobile readers, don't forget my General Election poll in the sidebar of the desktop version.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

When is a town not a town?

Certainly looks like a town to me

We recently visited Shifnal in Shropshire, which in its general feel and appearance is undoubtedly a town, with a population of 6,776, a long main street with a number of historic buildings, and nine pubs currently trading. However, the point was made that, with it being fairly close to a number of larger places, the number and range of shops was rather sparse for somewhere of that size. This raises the question of exactly what qualifies somewhere as a town. (Apologies to anyone bored by this diversion from the usual topics).

Last week, Life After Football wrote about Melbourne in Derbyshire (population 4,843) , which he described as “a village that has almost morphed into a town”, although Wikipedia describes it as a market town, and from my experience it certainly feels quite urban with a large market place and a couple of Georgian streets. WhatPub lists five open and four closed pubs. In my formative years I did a fair bit of drinking in Frodsham in Cheshire (population 9,077), which the locals always describe as a village, but certainly gives the impression of a town, with a long, tree-lined main street, another busy street leading off it at right angles, a street market, a lot more shops than either Shifnal or Melbourne, and (in around 1980) fifteen pubs.

So how can we tell what is a town and what isn’t? The first thing to consider is what it looks like: for example, does it have a market place, a prominent town hall or other civic building, and one or more streets of closely-packed commercial buildings dating back at least to the 19th century? It also needs to fulfil a role as a centre for the surrounding area beyond its own population, through such things as the number of shops, the presence of an active street market, branches of the major clearing banks (although those are now a vanishing species) and a significant number of pubs. A long-established coaching inn-type hotel can also be a good indicator.

Another factor to look at is its administrative status before the 1974 local government reforms – was it an urban district , or better still, a municipal borough in its own right? However, it’s not an infallible guide, as none of the three places I have previously discussed qualified. These designations had also often been overtaken by history, as Much Wenlock, now a much smaller place than Shifnal and barely qualifying as a town, had municipal borough status.

At times this could lead to some anomalies, such as Montgomery, the county town of the eponymous Welsh county, which was until its abolition the smallest municipal borough in the country. However, I suspect it only gained this status because of being the county town, as today, despite having a market place and an imposing town hall, really is no more than a village, with a population of a mere 1,295, and I doubt whether things were much different in 1832. Small size alone, though, doesn’t debar a place from being a town, as Machynlleth, on the other side of Montgomeryshire, undoubtedly qualifies on the grounds of both appearance and hub function despite its population of just 2,235.

In this grey area there are quite a few places that have some of the characteristics of a town in terms of their buildings, but don’t really act as a hub or boast any more shops than a village. In his book The Historic Towns of Britain (which I would thoroughly recommend if you can find a copy), Lewis Braithwaite uses the term “urban village” for this category, and this certainly applies, for example, to several places on the Cotswolds such as Stow-on-the-Wold and Burford. Cheshire has a number of large villages such as Holmes Chapel and Tarporley, both of which stand at major road crossings and have seen their population boosted by recent development, but still fail to achieve that quality of being a town.

But is this a town, or a village?

In the south of the county, Malpas is described as a “former market town”, and certainly in its centre, pictured above, retains a fairly urban feel. However, its population is only 1,673 and it has now regressed to just being a village. It has only two open pubs (and one closed one), and if you want a drink on a weekday lunchtime you’re stuffed, because you won’t find either of them open. Maybe a criterion for being a town should be having at the very least one lunchtime opener.

Further uncertainty can be created where large urban areas have expanded to encompass former separate villages, which have often acquired a very town-like high street lined with shops. This includes areas of Manchester such as Chorlton and Didsbury, but they are really only suburbs because they lack a hub function for a wider area. On the other hand, places such as Hyde and Radcliffe that were previously towns in their own right before being swallowed up by the conurbation can still legitimately be regarded as such. Of the various satellite places within Stockport Metropolitan Borough, the most town-like is Cheadle, which was also an urban district in its own right before 1974, although its inhabitants, as with those of Frodsham, tend to refer to it as a village.

In the end, for many places the question of whether it is a village or town is always going to be a subjective issue and one people are never going to agree on – but it may provide a stimulating topic of debate in the pub.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Everyone is welcome, nobody is judged

I was recently having a pint in Wetherspoon’s Calvert’s Court in Stockport* and spotted a group including one member with learning disabilities, something that is a fairly common sight in branches of the chain. The point has often been made that Spoons offer an environment were all types of customer are welcome, and nobody is judged, and obviously that is an attraction. In addition, being frank, the spacious nature of most Spoons means that other customers are less likely to be made to feel uncomfortable.

The lack of distractions such as music and TV football, and the predictable, standardised customer experience are further factors in making the visit less challenging. It also prompted this Twitter exchange begun by Cooking Lager:

Wetherspoon’s are often criticised for offering a somewhat impersonal pub environment, but that is precisely what many people who fall into this category may feel more comfortable with. The same is often true of the much-derided fast food chains.

* Incidentally, while the Calvert’s Court is a particularly uninspiring, box-like Spoons, the pint of Otter Claus I had would probably have been my best of the month had I not been to Shifnal. And only £1.99 too. There have been (and are) worse Spoons in the Good Beer Guide.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Have we reached Peak Craft?

The Morning Advertiser reports that the craft beer sector has started to see a decline in sales. This has started with packaged products, which have fallen by 9% in the past year, and is expected to spread to draught within the next couple of years. This was only to be expected, as craft beer, insofar as it applies to the general beer market rather than just enthusiasts, has always given the impression of being something of a fashion rather than a genuine revolution.

“We have seen for a while that craft has been pushed into outlets it isn’t right for,” says the article, and that is exactly what has happened, with pubs putting a craft tap on the bar but finding few takers for it, while supermarkets have jumped on the bandwagon and been left with a lot of out-of-date stock. The typically high prices aren’t going to help, either.

It’s doubtful how many people actually identify themselves as “craft beer drinkers” rather than just consumers of a particular product. Do they see something like Camden Hells as a craft beer, or just an upmarket type of lager? While the concept of “craft beer” has become established in the public mind, it’s generally seen in a derogatory way as something associated with hipsters, high prices and weird flavours. Beyond Punk IPA, how many craft beer brands could the average person in the pub actually name?

It’s also notoriously hard to define, with most of the major brands being produced by offshoots of the international brewers, or other substantial companies, and often not really being considered genuine craft beers by the most vocal evangelists for the category. And does it include cask, or are the two mutually exclusive? If it does, how do we know which cask beers qualify and which don’t?

I’ve made the point before that, once the craft beer wave has exhausted itself, some of it will be absorbed into the mainstream, some will live on as a niche product that is irrelevant to most drinkers, and some will wither on the vine. And what we are seeing is that the likely legacy of craft is that many pubs will offer a hoppy keg IPA as part of their beer range, of which Punk IPA is the prime example. Maybe Punk will come to be a category-defining beer in the way that Guinness is.

On that subject, James Watt of BrewDog has made the claim that IPA is likely to overtake lager in popularity within the next 10-15 years. I have to say that sounds extremely unlikely, and comes across more as an example of the company’s typical headline-grabbing approach to publicity. In any case, the broad category of lager covers a wide range of styles, while surely IPA is just one sub-set of the general category of ale.

Someone made the point that bitter superseded mild, and lager superseded bitter, so why shouldn’t IPA then supersede lager? However, those changes occurred in a British market that was largely isolated from the rest of the world. Pale lager has conquered the world, and in some form is now the staple beer in every major country. The UK and Ireland were about the last holdouts against that trend. Beer has now very much become an international market, and no country can completely stand aside from it.

One of the key attractions of lager is that it offers a cold, refreshing, undemanding drink in hot climates. It’s very hard to imagine IPA, which is typically associated with astringent hoppiness, as taking over that role. And, even if it did, surely the undemanding 3.5% keg IPA that took the place in the market currently occupied by Bud Light would be precisely the kind of thing that CAMRA was initially set up to oppose.

IPA may indeed become more popular worldwide in the coming years, very often by displacing long-established local lager styles. But the idea that it is going to eclipse lager in popularity simply isn’t credible.

Friday, 29 November 2019

A stroll around Shifnal – Part 2

We pick up the story of our day out in Shifnal with us having just left the White Hart and crossing the road in the steady rain to reach the Wheatsheaf, the only one of the pubs on the western side of the main street. Unlike most of the others which were relatively narrow and deep, this one is broad and shallow. The modern bow and dormer windows make it look newer than it actually is, as the interior reveals a genuinely old building with numerous exposed beams, quarry tiles on the floor and a welcoming real fire in the inglenook fireplace. It comprises a central bar area, where a number of afternoon drinkers had clustered, with a public bar-style room to the left and a small snug on the right.

There were four beers on the bar from the Marston’s stable – Banks’s Mild and Bitter, Wainwright and Directors - all of which were tried and proved to be pretty good. I went for the Directors as I hadn’t seen it in cask form for some time and I had only been discussing it on Twitter the previous day.

Crossing back to the eastern side of the street, we continued on to the Crown, which has recently been taken over and refurbished by Shropshire brewery Wood’s. However, this was very far from the image of a traditional alehouse, with four areas around the central bar sporting an assortment of modern furnishings and pastel colours. “Why does everything have to be grey?” one of us wondered. We had to wait quite a while for the barman to appear, and when we finally managed to settle ourselves down around a table we were assailed by earsplitting music from Pink.

Despite this, the beer was actually perfectly decent, with a choice on the bar of Wood’s Shropshire Lad and Lass, Sinbin and Born & Bred together with Wainwright. It was, however, served in unusual fluted glasses rather resembling toothmugs, and our round of five halves came to well over £10, which was well above the prices we paid anywhere else. It wasn’t surprising that this was by some way the least busy of all the pubs we visited, with the only other customers at this time being a couple of old guys who didn’t really seem to be the pub’s target customers. You do have to wonder exactly who a small independent brewer like Wood’s are aiming at with a pub of this type.

It was by now pretty dark as we returned almost to the station and then turned right along Victoria Road to reach the Jaspers Arms. WhatPub suggests that this has fairly recently been converted from a restaurant to more of a pub, and the long, low, orange-painted building with a distinctive mural on the gable end certainly looked the part. Inside it is deceptively spacious, with a central bar surrounded by a number of seating areas and a large lounge-type room at a lower level to the right, abundantly ftited out with mid-brown wood decor.

There was a cluster of customers around the bar of various ages, providing a lively atmosphere, and I met up with Carl Rothwell, who lives locally and is one of my Twitter followers. Beers available included Three Tuns XXX, Greene King IPA and Holden’s Bitter and Golden Glow, and again the quality was impressive. However, the pub slightly blotted its copybook when I spotted that an order for two halves of Bitter had been met with pulling Golden Glow. When questioned, the barmaid said “well, this is bitter”, and it seemed to be changed with slightly ill grace. You had to wonder exactly what you were supposed to ask for if you did want Bitter.

We went under the railway bridge into the most historic part of the town, with a number of old half-timbered buildings, although oddly the only pub in this area was our final Shifnal destination, the Oddfellows. This describes itself as a “wine bar”, but in fact its general feel is fairly pubby, although there is dining area cordoned off to the left. The style is more modern with bare boards and stripped pine tables. Like all the other pubs on the east side of the street, the interior goes a long way back from the street frontage.

Beers on the bar were Salopian Oracle and Lemon Dream, and Hobson’s Best, and once more gave no cause for complaint. I noted that the soundtrack included “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship. There were a good number of customers of mixed ages both drinking and eating, and in fact the healthy level of afternoon and early evening clientele was notable in all the Shifnal pubs we visited apart from the Crown. Possibly the town benefits from being sufficiently compact that most of the residential areas are within walking distance of the centre.

With one of us staying overnight in Shifnal, and another having to catch an earlier train, our numbers were depleted as we took the twenty-minute train ride back to Wolverhampton. There was still time for another drink in the Great Western, the Holden’s tied house just a short walk from the station. This is one of my favourite pubs in the country and it was as good as ever, with hardly a seat to be found early evening on a Friday, although we were able to secure a corner as another group left.

It’s notable that in this pub, unlike many others you come across, most of the customers are drinking ale, not lager. On the bar were the full Holden’s range plus Batham’s Best Bitter, which is a regular guest, although supplies are limited. The Batham’s, together with Holden’s Mild and Special, were all on very good form. My return train was delayed for about ten minutes due to some kind of incident that required the police to meet it at Stafford, but I was still back in Stockport shortly after nine.

So, another enjoyable day out, with good beer, good company, and eight new pubs visited, some of which were absolute gems. I didn’t have a beer that ranked less than good all day. While there was a constant flow of conversation covering a wide range of topics, we succeeded in steering clear of the fraught subject of politics. So here’s to our next outing to Burton-on-Trent in March next year.

Thanks to Paul Bailey for the photos of the Wheatsheaf and Crown, and Peter Allen for those of the Jaspers Arms, Oddfellows and Great Western.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

A stroll around Shifnal - Part 1

Our latest Proper Day Out organised through the Beer & Pubs Forum took us on Friday 22 November to the small Shropshire town of Shifnal. On the face of it, this may seem an unlikely destination, but it has a couple of attractive-sounding Good Beer Guide entries, on top of which research revealed a number of other pubs that sounded worth visiting, plus it’s easily accessible by train. I’ve occasionally driven through it and been struck by the number of pubs on the road (Broadway) leading north from the town centre, even though it’s not a main shopping street, but I had never actually visited any of them before. We were joined for the first time by Paul Bailey, author of Paul’s Beer and Travel Blog, who had travelled all the way from Tonbridge in Kent. Paul has produced a summary of the day here.

We broke our journey from Wolverhampton at Codsall to call in at the Station Bar, which occupies the former station buildings and has fairly recently been converted to a pub by Black Country brewers Holden’s. Although just outside the city boundary, Codsall is basically a suburb of Wolverhampton, and there are plenty of nearby houses to provide custom. It offers a spacious and tastefully-decorated interior, with a central bar area with a real fire, a cosy lounge are to one side with extensive bench seating, and a conservatory extension on the other side giving a good view of the passing trains.

There were the standard Holden’s beers on the bar – Mild, Bitter, Holden Glow and Special Bitter - together with a couple of guests from other local brewers in the shape of Enville White and Salopian Oracle. We were told that the much sought-after Old Ale would be available nearer to Christmas. All the beers we sampled were very good, despite in most cases being the first served that day, and my pint of Bitter was everything a classic “ordinary” should be.

The timetable allowed us a fairly leisurely drink before boarding the train for our short onward journey to Shifnal. The route runs past Cosford Aerodrome, now home to the RAF Museum. At Shifnal, a back exit from the station provided a short cut to our first pub, the Anvil. This whitewashed pub has recently been acquired by Black Country Ales and refurbished in their characteristic style, with a rambling interior offering a variety of cosy area. It was fairly busy just before 1 pm, with a number of groups eating.

On the bar were the usual BCA offerings of BFG, Pig on the Wall and Fireside, together with a number of guests including Enville White, Nailmaker Mild and Gothic Stout, and Green Duck Megalomania, together with a couple of real ciders. All the beers we sampled were in decent nick, but I have to say my Pig on the Wall was rather lacking in distinctive flavour and not a patch on the quality of the Holden’s. While BCA do a very good job with the fabric of their pubs, unfortunately they often suffer from the twin problems of having too many beers on the bar and their own ales being a touch lacklustre.

The rain was just setting in as we doubled back down Aston Street, passing the Winking Frog, which had been deleted from the itinerary due to reportedly not selling cask beer. However, peering in through the window, we spotted a pump for Wye Valley HPA, but it didn’t really look the kind of pub we wanted to squeeze in. Reaching the main street, we turned right to bring us to our next destination, the Plough, which was our scheduled lunch stop. This is an outwardly small terraced pub with a half-timbered frontage, which in fact runs a surprising way back from the street, reflecting the depth of the burgage plots of the mediaeval town. The interior has been opened out but retains a choice of different areas with plenty of old beams and flagged or wood floors.

Beers on the bar included Dark Star APA, two Citras – Oakham and Dark Star Hophead – Hobsons’s Mild and Bitter and Enville Ginger. Again all the beers chosen were pretty good. From the extensive menu, several of us were tempted by the Fish and Chips which was offered with a discount for two meals, one other person instead choosing the lasagne. The food, like the beer, was good, and the friendly and attentive service from the barmaid who also doubled up as waitress deserves a mention.

Heading further up Broadway and High Street in the steady rain, we passed the closed Beehive on our right to reach the White Hart, which was the northernmost pub on our list. This is an attractive old half-timbered building claiming to date back to the 17th century. Inside it retains a traditional two-bar layout, with carpet on the floor in both rooms rather than trendy bare boards. Although it was now approaching 3 pm and lunchtime food service had ended, there were still a fair number of customers, including a group playing cards in the public side.

The door to the lounge was not a self-closer, so we were told to shut it behind us when we walked in. Beers available, split between the two bars, included Enville Ale, Abbot Ale, Wye Valley Butty Bach and HPA, and Holden’s Mild. Enville Ale, which is a personal favourite anyway, did not disappoint, although opinions were divided about the Mild. On reflection, I think of all the pubs we visited in Shifnal this would be my first choice to drink in in terms of its overall atmosphere.

To be continued...

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos, with the exception of that of Codsall Station Bar, which is my own.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Keeping it in the family

At a recent meeting of the local CAMRA branch at the Sun & Castle in Stockport, we had a very interesting talk from Jane Kershaw of Holt's Brewery. She is the sixth generation of the founding family to be involved in the company, and gave us a potted history of the Holt and Kershaw families. Along with her younger brother Andrew she has recently joined the company after gaining experience working for other firms, something that used to be commonplace amongst brewing families. While clearly a clued-up business person, she came across as more authentic than some other scions of family brewers I have encountered who can be rather given to corporate-speak.

Among the points she made were:

  • Holt’s don't do regular brewery tours or have a visitor centre because the brewery is on a cramped site in the middle of a "grotty" area.

  • They place great store by the integrity of the brewing process, for example by using whole hops and avoiding high-gravity brewing.

  • Their own-brewed lagers make up a substantial part of their business and keep the plant a lot busier than some of their competitors.

  • While they recognise that an attractive food offer is important for many pubs nowadays, as a brewer they always aim to run pubs with a substantial wet trade rather than ones that are predominantly dining venues.

  • They currently own 127 pubs, up from 80 in 1980 when her father Richard Kershaw joined the company.

  • They are currently producing a range of seasonal beers to mark their 170th anniversary (which I never see in the Holts pubs I visit). The current one is basically a 5% version of their Bitter, which I would certainly like to try.
She was insistent that the recipe of the Bitter has not changed, although there is a widespread perception that it is a noticeably mellower and less assertively bitter beer than it was a generation ago. Someone suggested it may be because it has been overshadowed by the rise in very highly hopped beers in recent years, but I think there's more to it than that, and other beers haven’t undergone such a marked change. It is probably more a gradual accretion of subtle variations in the malt and hop bill than any deliberate attempt to dumb it down, but you never get one nowadays that really attacks your tastebuds as it once sometimes did. It is still an excellent beer when on form, though, as we found, for example, last month in the Hare & Hounds in Manchester.

There wasn't a lot of time for questions, but she did say that they didn't fill pins, which rather restricted the possibilities for cask Sixex (their strong winter ale). We know that they stopped using hogsheads a few years ago, but I'd bet they still fill plenty of full barrels. Some of the bigger Holts pubs could well have the largest sales of a single cask beer in the country.

Their most recent major investment project has been the Goat’s Gate in Whitefield, on which they have spent £500,000 “to turn what was solely a drinkers pub into a "Beer and Pizza House".” However, hopefully they have recognised the need to retain the wet trade too – some of their refurbishments in my local area such as the Griffin in Heald Green, Platform 5 in Cheadle Hulme and the Five Ways in Hazel Grove give the impression of being overwhelmingly aimed at the dining trade, and drinkers don’t seem to be made particularly welcome.

Someone asked about the rather threadbare condition of the famous Lamb in Eccles. She took the point, and said it was on the list for a bit of TLC, but made the point that many locals actually felt at home in somewhere that felt "lived-in".

It has to be said that in the mid-1980s Holts often gave the impression of being stuck in a timewarp, with an estate of largely unimproved pubs and a reputation for incredibly low prices. That has now changed, with many pubs having been upgraded, and prices now often no different from the other local family brewers. It is now Sam Smith’s who wear the value crown. To a large extent, these changes have probably been inevitable as a response to shifts in market conditions, but it can’t be denied that Holt’s have lost the distinctive USP they once enjoyed.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Suit yourself

A new bar has recently opened in Nottingham called the Tap House where customers are allowed to pour their own beer. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is basically a gimmick rather than a glimpse into a brave new world, but it does raise a number of issues. One obvious one is whether customers are entitled to a fresh glass each time they want to pour a different beer, as they now expect in conventional bars. This would increase the staff workload and make the process less streamlined than it might at first appear, as they would need to visit a glass exchange point and then the actual tap.

There would also be a need to guard against serving alcohol to minors, and on providing it to people who were already drunk. The first presumably can be achieved fairly easily simply by restricting entry to over-18s. However, the second may be more challenging, especially as the bar allows you to build up a tab on a card and settle at the end of the evening. It is much easier to assess whether someone is drunk by looking them in the eye when ordering a drink, than from observing their general behaviour. And people can always serve beer to their friends and not just themselves. I’m not sure what the answer is, but clearly it will require a level of staff supervision that erodes any potential savings from self-service.

The most important issue, though, is that of the measures served. The report says “Customers can select a range of drink sizes from a sample of around 50ml to a schooner (three quarters of a pint).” On the face of it, this would appear to be illegal, as the law only permits draught beer to be sold in thirds and halves of a pint and multiples thereof. Indeed, there’s an example of pub in Stockton-on-Tees using the same model being compelled to restrict themselves to the prescribed measures.

Some people have commented that “surely their operating plan will have been checked out by the council before they opened”, but that reflects a very optimistic assessment of how much time hard-pressed staff have to review such things. Anyway, it seems that they have received a visit, although it’s not made clear what the outcome was.

(Click on the image to read the text)

It’s conceivable that there is an exemption for cases where customers are serving themselves using a measured flow, as with petrol pumps, rather than the bar offering specific quantities for sale. I have my doubts, though. In any case, clear guidance would be useful. This would also apply to the growing number of single-price “all you can drink” craft beer festivals which often use a standard measure that is less than a third of a pint. As with several other examples in different areas, it suggests there is a need for clearer national standards on trading standards issues.

Some people have gone on from this to argue that it is time for the complete deregulation of measures – shouldn’t pubs and bars be allowed to serve beer in whatever measures they deem most appropriate? I suspect that much of this comes from those who simply object to the use of Imperial measures and would prefer metric ones. I’d hazard a guess that such people don’t tend to be Leave voters.

However, it’s important to remember that standardised measures were introduced for reasons of consumer protection. They make price comparison more straightforward and allow people to keep track of consumption of an intoxicating product. Deregulation of measures would lead to confusion amongst customers and open the door to all kinds of rip-offs. While there is a strong identification with pints, as soon as this was relaxed bars would be selling beer in all kinds of sizes, and it wouldn’t be long before people were simply asking for a large or a small one. Who would benefit if bars were able to define “a whisky” as 22ml, or 18ml, or whatever, and only declare this on an obscure sign somewhere?

We already see this on the price boards in some craft bars such as BrewDog, where a single price is given for each beer, with the quantity it relates to being shown beside it in smaller print. How often in practice does this lead to customers ordering a specific beer by name without stating the desired quantity? Not “a half of Elvis Juice” but just “an Elvis Juice”.

Whether the measures are Imperial or metric is irrelevant to the argument for standardisation. A comparison is sometimes drawn with petrol, where customers are free to dispense any quantity they choose. However, this doesn’t really stand up, as petrol is bought for consumption over a period of time rather than as a single serve to be used immediately. A bar is, in effect, serving “a drink”, not x amount of a particular product. Sheer practicality, such as the glassware required, would require a bar to define which were the normal quantities of beer it sold to customers. And petrol is in any case always very clearly priced per litre, so there is never any doubt about the actual unit price.

There is, perhaps, a case for allowing a smaller measure of beer for outlets, typically festivals , that operate effectively on what is a “sample” basis. But this could easily be accommodated within the current system by legalising measures of a quarter or a sixth of pint. It’s not a proper drink to my mind, though. It’s also doubtful how much take-up there would be. After all, while thirds have always been legal, and two-thirds was permitted a few years ago, they’re still rarely seen in the generality of pubs and bars. Try asking for two-thirds of Carling in Wetherspoon’s and see what response you get. But if you do want more flexibility without upending the whole system, this is what you should be arguing for.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Here we go again

It seems as though elections have become a regular fixture nowadays. We’ve just embarked on the fifth national poll in less than five years. As on previous occasions, I’ve created an opinion poll on readers’ voting intentions. This appears in the sidebar, but more and more people are now reading blogs on mobile devices on which it doesn’t appear. Therefore, as I’ve got nothing else on the stocks in the next few days, I’ve created a dedicated post for it.

POLL: How will you vote in the General Election on December 12th?
pollcode.com free polls

The direct link to the poll is here, but I’d be grateful if you didn’t share it around indiscriminately on social media as this will make the results less representative. I’ll publish the results on the morning of polling day, December 12th. By coincidence, that’s the day of our local CAMRA branch meeting, at which I will be setting a Christmas Quiz. I will then be able to come home and watch the results.

Edit: This poll ws created before the Brexit Party announced that they would not be standing in any Conservative-held seats. Eventually, they also didn’t stand in about 40 others, some of which were Conservative targets. This will obviously affect the final outcome, although I’m not going to scrub it and start again. It shouldn’t be assumed that all, or indeed most, Brexit Party voters will automatically transfer to the Conservatives.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Sour note

The other week, I was served a pint in a pub that tasted distinctly off to me. It was a beer I’d never had before, so it’s possible that it was intended to taste like that, but I really don’t think it was. However, it was crystal clear, had a decent head and condition, and wasn’t vinegary as such, so I didn’t realistically consider it returnable. I didn’t fancy drinking it, though, so, perhaps egged on by my companions, I ended up rather theatrically tipping it into a plant pot. I’m not going to cast aspersions on this particular pub by naming it, although if you follow Simon Everitt’s BRAPA blog he will eventually get round to writing about it.

This particular off-flavour was something that I have encountered before over the years, a rather sickly, cloying, sour-cream note. Asking the question on Twitter, several people suggested it might be butyric acid, which according to various descriptions on the Internet certainly fits the bill. It is described on this website as “Rancidity, Baby vomit, cheesy, putrid, spoiled milk or butter”.

I’ve never worked in a professional capacity in the licensed trade, and I’ve never had any formal training in beer tasting. But I’ve drunk enough beer to know that sometimes it just doesn’t taste right, often for reasons that it’s hard to put your finger on. The site I linked to lists eighteen different recognised off-flavours in beer, some of which I recognise, although others don’t really ring a bell. I’ve also often encountered beers with a distinct woody note, but not served from wooden casks, which doesn’t exactly match up with any of those listed.

If you’re familiar with a beer, it’s not too difficult to tell whether or not it tastes right. Bit in these days of ever-changing guest beers, many of which you will only try once, and of unprecedented experimentation with different flavours, it can be extremely difficult to tell whether or not a beer is actually meant to taste as it does. Added to this, it’s not unknown for brewers to turn a defect into a feature in one-off beers, such as the perhaps apocryphal case of the batch that was badly affected by the common fault known as diacetyl, which results in a pronounced caramel note, but ended up being badged as “Butterscotch Porter”. It’s also the case that, in small doses, some of the off-flavours, such as phenol, can be regarded as desirable characteristics.

From time to time I’ve had pints that to my taste are distinctly off, but others found no problem with. They might have just been being ignorant or perverse, but equally it’s possible that they just didn’t notice, as people’s susceptibility to different off-flavours varies widely. In the summer of 1984, when I was living in that part of the world, Gales Brewery in Hampshire experienced a yeast infection, which to me gave their beer a very distinct and unpleasant taint. But some people couldn’t detect it at all. After about three months, it faded away, but some might argue that their beer was never the same again. There’s a well-known off-flavour in cider known as “mouse”, which actually does impart an oddly furry texture to the drink. But, again, some people can detect it and others simply can’t.

People’s aversion to different off-flavours also varies. I’m not too bothered about diacetyl in small doses, but others really can’t abide it. And, in the discussion about butyric acid, one person said that a hint of “baby sick” was one of his least disliked off-notes, whereas I find it foul in any degree.

The burgeoning range of flavours and styles, and the sheer number of brewers, means that off-flavours in beer are something that isn’t going to go away. It’s not reasonable to expect the general drinking public to be constantly on their guard to spot them, so brewers and retailers need to take ownership of the issue, be alert to it, and not just breezily dismiss it as all part of the rich tapestry of life. And maybe there is an opportunity to do more to educate interested lay drinkers in being able to identify the various taints.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Pile it high and sell it cheap

As craft beer grows in popularity, it gets into a wider range of outlets. And, in the off-trade, that inevitably means that it moves out of the specialist bottle shops and into the supermarkets. Now, supermarkets are known for engaging in intensive price competition with each other and driving a hard bargain with suppliers, two things that don’t perhaps sit entirely easily with the craft ethos.

The photo above shows the range of craft beers in my local Tesco, all available at £1.80 each or 4 for £6. It’s not the absolute bleeding edge of craft, but even so it’s a pretty respectable selection, including the likes of Vocation, Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Five Points, Crate, Toast and Camden. It’s interesting that pretty much all of these beers now seem to have moved from bottles to cans. The German discounters, Aldi and Lidl, have introduced their own-brand “craft-a-likes” at even lower prices.

This has attracted a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the craft influencers, complaining that such low prices will devalue the concept and won’t give brewers a decent return. However, I can’t help thinking they’re protesting a bit too much. There’s always going to be a limit to craft’s popularity unless it can achieve a price point rather closer to that of mainstream beers. Most drinkers just want something that delivers a particular flavour and conveys a certain image, and aren’t interested in paying over the odds to “support” specific breweries. If these beers were priced at £2.50 or £3 in Tesco, they wouldn’t sell much of them, and indeed probably wouldn’t stock them at all. If those brewers weren’t making any money from selling to Tesco, they wouldn't do it, just as nobody has to sell to Wetherspoon’s.

It’s also something of a myth that craft beers are vastly more expensive to produce, as I explained here. Even if the ingredients cost half as much again (which is doubtful) the total cost still only makes up a small proportion of the final price. If anything, the higher costs are more likely to come from less efficient energy usage and administration and distribution processes. And they’re still commanding a substantial price premium over other beers – 50% above the 500ml premium bottled ales, which are in the same offer, and more than twice as much as a 4x440ml pack of Stella. This is probably at least as big as the price premium enjoyed by the major craft brands in the US.

If you want to be able to sell beer for £3 a can, you have to stay ahead of the pack and brew something that is prized by enthusiasts and isn’t on Tesco’s shelves. But, in the overall scheme of things, you won’t sell very much of it. You can either be popular, or premium and exclusive, but you can’t be both. You do have to wonder how successful some of these enthusiasts actually want the craft sector to be. It’s rather like music fans feeling sold out because their favourite indie band has appeared on Top of the Pops and had a track included on Now That’s What I Call Music.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Calling time on time

There used to be a very straightforward ritual attached to closing time in pubs. Ten minutes before the actual time, “Last orders at the bar!” would be called. Then, at the hour itself, it was “Time, Ladies and Gentlemen!” And, after ten minutes of drinking-up time, it was chucking out time, when the customers would be asked to leave the premises with varying degrees of firmness.

Drinking-up time was interpreted differently in various areas – Birmingham, for example, was very strict, while Greater Manchester tended to be much more relaxed. However, it was a standard routine that was generally understood and accepted. And, of course, with afternoon closing too, it happened twice a day. In 1988, when all-day opening was finally permitted, the permitted drinking-up time was extended to twenty minutes, which in many places was merely a recognition of what was already happening. But, otherwise, nothing changed.

However, the 2003 Licensing Act, which was implemented in 2005 and led to a much more liberal regime overall for opening hours, swept this away, and left it much more to the discretion of individual establishments as to how they managed the process. On the face of it, that may sound like a welcome measure of deregulation, but in practice it often just leaves drinkers confused and disgruntled. This is exemplified in this blogpost from Boak & Bailey and this tweet from Jules Saunders:

There are three interlinked problems. One is that it has become increasingly difficult to establish when pubs are actually expected to close, something made worse by many pubs’ habit of describing their hours as “12 till late”, which is no use to man or beast. Then, even when hours are published, they may vary them apparently capriciously from one night, and one week, to the next. And, when you’re actually in the pub, it may not be at all clear when closing time actually is, and you may be taken aback when the shutters suddenly come down without warning. If you are eating in a restaurant or watching a film in the evening, it really helps to know where you can be certain to be able to get a drink afterwards.

I can’t say I’m actually in pubs very often at late-night closing time, but I’ve certainly heard many complaints about it. Plus I have experienced the situation where you’re in a pub and are not sure whether to get another one in before 11, or whether to wait until you’ve finished your pint. Of course you can ask, but you really shouldn’t have to do that. If a pub ever deviates from the standard closing time, why can’t it display a sign above the bar saying “Bar closes at midnight tonight” or whatever?

This is another manifestation of the sense of entitlement still widespread in the licensed trade, a feeling that customers should feel privileged to be allowed in at all and really have no right to be provided with decent, reliable information. Another example of this is the unwillingness to display price lists. Shops tend to operate fairly standard and predictable hours, but pretty much every one displays its hours outside. Pubs’ hours are far more diverse and variable, yet equally far less likely to be on view.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Up in smoke

The impact of the 2007 smoking ban on the pub trade has been a perennial source of debate. Only the most blinkered denialist would claim that it didn’t have any negative effect at all, but it is hard to untangle this from the influence of the late 2000s recession and the general long-term downward trend.

However, Christopher Snowdon reports on some new research published in Health Policy which clearly shows that the catastrophic decline in pub numbers well predated the recession, and that previous recessions had made no difference to the general downward trend.

The whole thing is worth reading, but particularly interesting are the figures on household expenditure in pubs. The point is often made that smokers only made up 21% of the adult population, but in fact pre-ban they spent far more in pubs than non-smokers. They were pubs’ best customers.

The data show that before the smoking ban, smokers spent nearly twice as much money in pubs as nonsmokers - and nearly 50 per cent more on alcohol overall.

After the ban, average weekly expenditure in pubs by smoking households fell by 45 per cent, from £10.06 to £5.68.

Was this made up for by nonsmokers flocking to smoke-free pubs, as anti-smoking campaigners - and the useful idiots at CAMRA - promised? Not a bit of it. Expenditure by nonsmoking households also fell, from £5.70 to £4.42 a week.

Spending on alcohol from the off-trade remained pretty similar for both groups.

It is worth noting that, even though they are treated as third-class citizens, smokers still spend nearly 30% more in pubs than non-smokers. I guess that many non-smokers just don’t like the idea of pubs, full stop. While antismokers may feel that pubs offer a more congenial environment post-ban, there is no evidence that it has led to them visiting any more often or spending any more money there.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Taverns in the town

In the past many CAMRA branches produced comprehensive printed guides to real ale pubs in their local areas, and often clubbed together to cover entire counties. However, more recently these seem to have withered on the vine, caused no doubt by a combination of the general decline of print media, and the increased fluidity of the pub and beer scene in terms of both pub openings and closings, and changing beer ranges.

Something that has come along that replaces them to some extent is free leaflets listing the pubs in a particular town that is considered to be of interest to pubgoers, often produced with support from local tourist funding. I have one of St Albans from five years ago, and more recently have picked them up in Lancaster and Preston.

Now Stockport has joined the party with Stockport Beer Town, which has been part-financed by funding from the local Business Improvement District. While obviously I am somewhat biased in favour of my home town, I have to say it’s the best I’ve seen before. It lists 33 pubs within or just outside the Inner Ring Road, all pinpointed on a comprehensive map, although it doesn’t make it clear that St Petersgate crosses Little Underbank via a bridge, not a crossroads. There is a photograph for each pub.

To its credit, it lists all the current cask beer outlets, whereas some of the others have been selective to a greater or lesser degree. While it’s impossible to give details of opening hours or beer ranges, it does indicate which pubs aren’t open by 1 pm every day of the week. It also shows symbols for accommodation, real cider, dog-friendliness, live entertainment, food, outdoor drinking and wheelchair accessibility, which are unlikely to change so rapidly.

Of the 33 pubs listed, only eight first opened their doors in the current century, so there hasn’t been the rapid churn of licensed premises that some other towns have experienced, and some of those eight are as much traditional pubs as contemporary bars. There are eight Robinson’s pubs plus the Brewery Visitor Centre, but at least half as many again have closed within the area over the same period of time.

If you’re in the town, it’s well worth picking up a copy from one of the listed pubs or from the Tourist Information Centre. It can also be downloaded here.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Declaration of independence

Writing in the Morning Advertiser, Pete Brown wonders whether this is the last time he will have to drop the c-bomb? It is certainly true that the term “craft beer” has proved confusing and impossible to define in the UK context. The key to the problem is that its advocates tried to read it across directly from the USA, but that just doesn’t work as the markets are very different. In the US, the established stratum of medium-sized independent breweries had largely disappeared, so it was easy to pitch craft as anything that wasn’t Big Beer.

But, in this country, there was a long-standing group of independent brewers, mostly majoring on cask beer, who had in more recent years been joined by a growing number of new microbreweries. By the definition in general usage, “craft” would have encompassed pretty much all of these. But the British craft movement deliberately chose to ignore them, and indeed pitched itself as being in contrast to “real ale culture”.

Thus we have arrived at the situation I described here, where “cask” and “craft” are polar opposites, and I wrote:

...the cultural connotations of the two concepts remain diametrically opposed, and that is why they have become established in the public mind as mutually exclusive categories. Craft beer, essentially, is fashionable beer that does not carry the baggage of either real ale or mainstream lager.
Or, as Cooking Lager said in the comments, “Craft means a hoppy keg fizzy IPA. Cask means that old man handpump stuff.” In British terms, “craft beer” has become just another market segment, and one increasingly dominated, to a greater extent than real ale, by the products of the international brewers or their offshoots. Something similar has happened in European countries with a long-established brewing tradition, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, where “craft beer” is often seem as a hoppy, US-style IPA in contrast to their indigenous styles.

To avoid these issues, Pete is proposing a move to defining craft beer as that produced by independent companies rather than the industry giants, which indeed is what already is accepted in the USA. However, this cuts across how the concept is viewed in this country, as he writes:

Applied to the UK, every single beer from one of our traditional family-owned breweries would count as a craft beer. I would have no problem with that, but I know a lot of craft drinkers who would.
There is much to be said for championing independent producers – it encourages both competition and a more heterogenous beer market. It’s also a good idea to promote transparency in terms of who owns what. But it’s a lazy assumption that independent beer and good beer are synonymous. Many of the world’s great beer brands, such as Pilsner Urquell, are owned by multinational brewers, and Fuller’s ESB didn’t become any less worth drinking when it was acquired by Asahi. In contrast, plenty of unbalanced, low-quality homebrew comes out of inexperienced brewers’ garages.

In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation made great play of promoting the independent brewers in preference to the “Big Six”. After all, it had been their commitment (or inertia) that had been largely responsible for keeping real ale in existence in this country. But it always recognised that the major brewers could, and did, produce good real ales, and indeed one of them was responsible for Ind Coope Burton Ale, one of the poster boys of the initial real ale revolution. CAMRA always recognised that the product was distinct from the corporate ownership: it never sought to claim that the only beer worth drinking came from independent brewers.

The concept of independence is also very hard to define. The US definition from the Brewers’ Association sets a figure of 6 million barrels a year, but scaled down to the size of the British market that would comfortably encompass Marston’s. Yet I doubt whether many craft beer enthusiasts would accept Marston’s as craft brewers. They’d even feel uncomfortable about Palmer’s and Holt’s. How how much of a stake are multinationals allowed to hold in breweries such as Beavertown before they no longer qualify? The Brewer’s Association says no more than 25%. And how big would BrewDog have to become before it turns from a minnow into a shark? In some people’s eyes, it already has.

It’s questionable to what extent ownership really matters to most drinkers anyway. People judge beer, or indeed any other product, by what it tastes like, not who owns it. They recognise that most of the products they buy are made by multinational companies – who ever heard of an independent smartphone, or toilet paper? Indeed, the person who strives as far as possible to eliminate anything “corporate” from their lifestyle comes across as an obsessive bore. The traction this will gain amongst the great majority of drinkers is exaggerated.

So allowing “craft” to be reborn as “independent beer” isn’t going to solve the issue of definition, and is fraught with problems of its own. “Craft”, ultimately, has become established as a cultural concept, not a specific type of beer or a size of brewer. Maybe it would be best to call time on all these attempts to sort the beer world into sheep and goats.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Going Down to Liverpool - Part 2

We pick up the story of our Proper Day Out in Liverpool having just left the Lion Tavern and heading down the narrow street of Hackins Hey in the direction of Dale Street. This brought us to Ye Hole In Ye Wall, which is certainly a pub that I remember from forty years ago, and seems little changed since then. It is a low, mock half-timbered building that appears obviously older than its neighbours. It claims to be the oldest pub in the city, with the facade bearing the date 1726.

Entering through a door on the left, the bar counter runs along the front of the pub, with a couple of comfortable snugs with bench seating opposite. There’s plenty of dark wood and leaded glass, including the door to the gents’ pictured. It was the last pub in the city to be men-only, and this was not joined by ladies’ facilities until 1975.

The pub also has the unusual feature of a first-floor cellar. I vaguely recall the beer being served through free-flow gravity-fed taps, although it now has conventional handpumps. Beers on the bar included Lister’s IPA, Hafod Moel Famau, which was very good, and Lancaster Noble Pilsner, which was in good condition but, like many British cask lagers, didn’t really seem to hit the spot in terms of flavour. Although it was now well past lunchtime, it was busy, with mixed-sex groups of a variety of ages.

Ye Hole in Ye Wall is one of four pubs immediately adjacent to each other, the others being the Saddle on the corner of Hackins Hey and Dale Street, the Lady of Mann tucked away in a courtyard, and Thomas Rigby’s on Dale Street itself. Now owned by Manx brewers Okell’s, it occupies the ground floor of a substantial five-storey white-painted Victorian building in the Italianate style.

There’s a busy public bar running the length of the pub on the left, and a parlour on the right that was reserved for diners, and thus empty in mid-afternoon. Beers on the bar included Okell’s Bitter and IPA, Red Star Formby IPA and Sharp’s Atlantic, the Bitter being particularly good.

There now followed the longest walk of the day, first heading down Dale Street and Water Street past Liverpool’s historic Town Hall to the Pier Head, with a memorable view of the Mersey estuary framed by the tall buildings. We then followed the waterfront past the monumental warehouses of Albert Dock to cross a river of rush-hour traffic along Wapping to reach the Baltic Fleet, a distinctive “flat-iron” style pub in the angle of two roads. We debated the origin of the name, but according to the Liverpool Historic Pub Guide it comes from a Scandinavian merchant fleet of the 1850s trading in timber, and is nothing to do with either the Russian navy or Admiral Napier’s Royal Navy squadron in the Crimean War. By this time, as you can see from the picture, the sun was shining brightly after the earlier rain.

Oddly, while there are numerous external doors, you have to go right round the back of the pub to gain entrance. Inside, there is a central bar with long rooms on either side, the walls covered with nautical memorabilia, mostly relating to Liverpool’s involvement in Transatlantic liner services. There’s an overall pastel colour scheme reflecting the exterior, and it gave the impression of being unsure whether it wanted to be a modern craft bar or a traditional pub. It also seemed in places to be straddling the dividing line between shabby chic and tatty.

For a while, the pub had its own brewery, but this had not been in operation for a few years now. There were maybe eight beers on the bar, including Beartown Polar Eclipse, Neptune Wooden Ships, Ad Hop Endeavour and Tatton Best Bitter, all of which were pretty decent.

We then returned towards the city centre through the Liverpool One shopping precinct, which is entirely new since I had last been there, and can be a touch disorientating, although we managed to find our way without mishap. The White Star on Rainford Gardens is situated in an area of narrow streets between the shopping and commercial districts, close to Matthew Street, the location of the famous Cavern Club.

Named after the shipping line, it’s a small pub with a front seating area facing the bar and a larger rear room where a band were enthusiastically playing Beatles and Oasis covers. The live music meant it was packed, and we were only able to find a seat by unstacking some plastic stools in the corridor. It was historically a Bass tied house, and still has that classic beer alongside others including, on this occasion, rugby-themed beers from Hook Norton and Wadworth’s. The Bass, we were pleased to find, was in excellent condition, but because of the crowding we didn’t stay as long as we had planned.

The route to our final call, the Globe on Cases Street close to Central Station, took us along Church Street, which was historically the main shopping zone, although I’m not sure to what extent this has been affected by Liverpool One. It was now after six and the crowds were much reduced. The small street on which it stands had been partially taken over by a new covered shopping arcade causing a moment’s confusion, but we got there in the end.

It’s a small cosy pub with a front bar area noted for its gently sloping floor, which we were pleased to see was still carpeted, plus a rear snug. It was pretty busy, again with a wide mix of customers, but we were able to find some seats opposite the bar. The soundtrack included the Beatles (again) and Roy Orbison. There were four beers on the bar – Landlord, Doom Bar, Wainwright and Griffin Rock Red., from which we all went for the Landlord, which was pretty good.

As we had not spent as long in the White Star as we had planned, two of us had time to make a quick return visit to the Crown before catching our trains home. The route involved passing the corner of Ranelagh Street and Lime Street which was once dominated by three Liverpool landmarks – the now-closed Lewis’s department store, the Adelphi Hotel, which is still in business but has lost much of its original lustre, and the impressive Vines pub, another with a National Inventory interior, which had been reported closed but seemed to be showing some signs of life tonight, although it had not sold real ale for some years.

The Crown was extremely busy, with large standing groups in the main bar, but we found some seats in the rear room. Trooper was again good, as was Gritchie Lore English Pale Ale, which we eventually worked out came from a brewery owned by film director Guy Ritchie. The general busyness of the pubs in Liverpool was very noticeable, as werr the mixed sexes and ages of the customers. We know that pubs are struggling in many areas, but in the city centre on a Friday afternoon and early evening they certainly weren’t.

I managed to get a direct train back to Stockport, with no shortage of seats, and was back home not long after nine. Another excellent day out with, as ever, good company and conversation to go with the beer. All of these trips have their different virtues, but Liverpool stood out both for the heritage quality of the pubs we visited and their lively atmosphere. The best beers of the day were three of the more familiar ones – Trooper in the Crown, Okell’s Bitter in Thomas Rigby’s, and Bass in the White Star.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos of Ye Hole in Ye Wall, Rigby’s, the White Star and the Globe, the other two being mine.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Plain stupid

The Morning Advertiser reports that the drinks industry are becoming increasingly concerned about the potential introduction of plain packaging for alcohol, which, it is claimed, on a global basis could cost them up to £350 billion. This has been supported by bodies such as Public Health England and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Now, I can’t help being reminded that, at the time of the smoking ban, the idea that the principles of the anti-tobacco crusade would be extended into other areas was pooh-poohed. Smoking is a special case, we were told, and the likelihood of a slippery slope was just scaremongering. But, while it gives me no pleasure, it’s impossible to avoid something of a feeling of vindication to be proved right and to see the tobacco template increasingly being applied to soft drinks, so-called “unhealthy” foods and, of course, alcohol. Basically, pretty much anything people consume that they might enjoy.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen next year, or even in the next five years. And, realistically, plain packaging is pretty meaningless unless it is accompanied by a comprehensive ban on advertising and promotion, as we have seen with tobacco products. But the Overton window has now been opened and brought the subject into the sphere of public debate, and in the coming years the pressure is only going to increase.

The quoted figure of £350 billion refers to the total revenue that would come under the scope of the restriction, not the profit the industry would stand to lose. Indeed, in the short term, profits might increase as companies no longer had to spend any money on advertising or product development. However, their scope to conduct business would be greatly curtailed, and they would be reduced, like tobacco companies, to producing a declining but still lucrative product, but having very little ability to influence how the market operated or even to compete in any meaningful way with each other. Plain packaging takes away a key means of differentiating your product from others and reduces it to a generic item.

Nor would it stop people drinking, as they take up alcohol following the example of family members or peers, not because they are seduced by glitzy labels. But what it would do is to ossify the market in the form it took before the restriction came in. Product knowledge would depend on folk memory and word-of-mouth and, increasingly, price would become the main determinant of choice, as it has with tobacco products. Innovation and new product introductions would become virtually impossible. And, while measures of this kind are sometimes portrayed as a way of attacking corporate power, it is the little guys and the new entrants to the market who would suffer to a much greater extent than the big, established players.

Ultimately, this is a highly patronising and illiberal policy that seeks to control people and deny them the opportunity to make informed decisions as to how to live their lives. It is “we know better than you”, and needs to be strongly resisted by anyone who is interested in the protection of individual freedom.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Going Down to Liverpool – Part 1

Our latest Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out involved a visit to Liverpool on Friday 4 October. I grew up in Runcorn, from which Liverpool was the closest and most accessible big city, so in the late Seventies and early Eighties I became very familiar with its pubs. However, I hadn’t been back there for at least twenty-five years, probably longer than I had last visited Preston. There’s really too much in Liverpool for a single day to do it justice, so we decided to concentrate on the pubs in and around the downtown business district around Dale Street which is the original heart of the city.

While the city centre hasn’t experienced the dramatic rebuilding of Manchester in recent years, there has still been plenty of modern development, particularly along the waterfront and in the new Liverpool One shopping precinct. You are also confronted when leaving Lime Street station with some garish bright blue cladding on the St John’s Centre opposite.

Manchester to Liverpool is one of those railway journeys that could be accomplished more quickly in the Edwardian era than today, albeit with fewer stops. The fast train I caught was scheduled to take 54 minutes for the 35-mile journey, although in fact it started ten minutes late and easily made up the time without ever really seeming to put the hammer down.

I couldn’t resist a reminder of this Bangles classic from the early 80s, in fact written by Kimberley Rew of Katrina & The Waves:

Hey now, where you going with that pint of Higsons in your hand
I said: Hey now, through this green and pleasant land
I'm going down to Liverpool to do nothing
All the days of my life
Well, an afternoon spent in various pubs isn’t quite doing nothing, but probably much more fun.

After an inexplicably crowded, standing room only train journey, we met up at the Crown, which is conveniently situated right next to Lime Street station. It was still raining at this point, but it gave up while we were in the pub and in fact the sun came out later. It’s a large street-corner pub with impressive external plasterwork advertising Walker’s Warrington Ale. The interior is even more impressive, meriting a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with stunning, intricate plasterwork ceilings and a wealth of original wooden details.

There’s a spacious main bar at the front, which given the number of blocked-up external doors has presumably been opened out at some time in the distant past, although the layout has been the same for as long as I can remember it. To the rear is a comfortable lounge with bench seating around the walls, and there is an upstairs dining room. There were eight cask beers on the bar, including Doom Bar, Landlord, Trooper and Rudgate Hop for Heroes. We sampled the latter three, which were all good, although the Trooper was certainly the best of the bunch.

We then walked down St John’s Lane past the magnificent St George’s Hall, which is like a Merseyside version of the Parthenon. It was designed by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes when he was only 24, and he was dead by 33. Ever since I’ve been visiting Liverpool, it’s always struck me as odd that it’s so difficult to get from Lime Street to the commercial district on foot, and nothing seems to have changed, so we ended up having to walk across the throat of the original Queensway Mersey Tunnel, opened in 1933, to reach our target, the Ship & Mitre at the eastern end of Dale Street.

This is an impressive white-tiled Art Deco pub, built in 1937 as the brewery tap for the long-defunct Bent’s Brewery, that ended up falling into the hands of Bass Charrington. The suprising spacious, rambling interior has been mostly modernised in bare-boards alehouse style, but apparently there is an intact original function room upstairs. It positions itself as Liverpool’s premier real ale free house, and sported a very wide range of both cask and keg ales on the bar, including three form their own Flagship Brewery. We chose Flagship Lupa, Fernandes Triple O and Lees True Faith, all of which were pretty good. It also had the authentic German ABK lager which seems to be getting into a lot of beer-focused pubs.

Our next call was the Railway on Tithebarn Street opposite the former Exchange Station, which isn’t on the usual real ale/heritage pubs trail, but had been recommended to me by several people on Twitter for its food. While we rarely struggle to find good beer on these trips, decent lunchtime pub food can be more of a challenge, as we found to our cost in Preston. It’s a handsome Victorian street-corner pub that has been opened up somewhat, but extends a long way back, with no shortage of comfortable bench seating, albeit sporting the dreaded scatter cushions. It was pretty busy, with most groups eating, and seemed to be popular with city workers of various ages. It also had uniformed bar staff in aprons, and gave the general impression of being a classic bustling city-centre pub.

The beer selection of Doom Bar, Dizzy Blonde and Trooper wouldn’t excite the ticker, but three beers is quite enough for a generalist pub, and we all plumped for the Dizzy, which didn’t disappoint. It was also only £2.90 a pint. While I wasn’t keeping a detailed record, beer prices in Liverpool seemed generally reasonable, and well below central Manchester, with little over £3.50. The Railway has an extensive menu of good-value food, from which we variously chose the classic local dish of Scouse and a steak baguette with chips, both of which, by the standards of mainstream pub food, were very good.

Right next door to the Railway is the Lion Tavern on the corner of Tithebarn Street and Moorfields. Outwardly, it doesn’t look as impressive, but it has a magnificent unspoilt interior which qualifies it for a full National Inventory entry. It has a corner public bar surrounded by an L-shaped corridor giving access to a News Room at the front and a cosy toplit lounge to the rear. There’s an abundance of original etched glass and a very rare Art Nouveau tiled frontage to the bar. The only jarring feature was that any fixed seating that once existed in the bar itself had been removed and replaced by posing tables.

There were six or seven cask beers available, including Lion Mild brewed specially for the pub by the local Rock the Boat Brewery. We chose Salopian Lemon Dream, which was pretty good, and Butcombe Bitter and Lees Bitter, both of which unfortunately were rather past their best, which slightly detracted from the general experience. We also took advantage of the free jukebox, featuring real CDs, which didn’t seem to include much music recorded over the past thirty years.

To be continued....

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos, with the exception of that of the Crown, which comes from Merseyside Pub Guide.