Friday, 27 December 2019

Ten years further on

Although some pedants would argue that it doesn’t actually happen until the end of next year, this month marks the end of what has proved to be a momentous decade in British history, although possibly not quite so much in the sphere of beer and pubs.

Looking back through my posts in the first couple of months of January 2010, it seems that what was most concerning me was the rise in anti-drink sentiment. I was also criticising CAMRA for barking up the wrong tree. So nothing much has changed there. Home Office minister Gillian Merron was delusionally claiming that the smoking ban hadn’t affected the trade of pubs. There was quite an outbreak of antismoker bigotry in the comments on that post, although I got the last laugh by pointing out in the final comment that she lost her seat at the general election a couple of months later. And the idea of a majority Labout government seems a world away now.

On-trade beer sales declined from 16.3 million barrels in 2009 to 12.6 million in the year to June 2019 (the latest figures available on the BBPA website), a fall of 22.6%. The on-trade fell from 54.5% of the total beer market to 45.6%. By contrast, the fall during the 2000s, which included both the smoking ban and the financial crisis, was 33.4%.

This was once Robinson's Adswood Hotel in Stockport
The number of pubs has continued to decline, although not at quite as steep a pace as in the final couple of years of the 2000s, with quite a number of prominent closures. More recently it has levelled out somewhat, and there have even been reports recently of a small increase in the total number, although this always raised a question of how exactly a pub is defined. A full on-licence is not an automatic signifier of pub status. The impact of closures has also greatly varied between different areas.

On the other hand, the decade saw a rise in the number of micropubs and other small new bars, made possible by changes in licensing law that made it much easier to open new venues. In general, these places aren’t really to my taste, and my feeling is that they represent a further fragmentation of the pub trade. The concept of “a pub” as something universally understood is looking increasingy dated.

In response to the fall-off in trade, many pubs cut back their hours, often no longer opening at lunchtimes, particularly early in the week. Even when they are open, outside the traditional busy times of Friday and Saturday nights pubs can often be embarrassingly devoid of customers. Going for a pint simply isn’t the part of everyday life it once was.

The British craft beer market grew in size and prominence, and the term entered the general vocabulary. However, nobody could agree on what it actually meant, and by the end of the decade most of its leading lights had been wholly or partly taken over by the international brewers. Pretty much all the beers on this list come from brewers either owned or invested in by the big boys, or from BrewDog, which is now very much a shark itself rather than a minnow. Craft’s lasting legacy seems likely to be the presence of a hoppy keg IPA on many bars.

Part of the craft beer movement was co-opted into a political campaign with the avowed aim of increasing diversity and inclusiveness in beer, although the actual results often seemed to tend more towards a shrill, humourless intolerance of different views and outlooks.

Wetherspoon’s apparently inexorable rise was stemmed by a period of retrenchment, although to some extent this was driven by wanting to escape from expensive leases. They realised that two sites fairly close to each other in the same town would just cannibalise each other’s sales, and that some locations just didn’t suit their formula. They have now gone back to opening new pubs, but the figure of 1,000 that once seemed inevitable now looks a long way off. The company still accounts for more than one in ten pints of real ale sold in Britain, though, and remains a bellwether of what is hot and what is not in the beer market.

There were further steps in the unceasing war against smoking and smokers, including a display ban and plain packaging, together with ever-increasing duty levels. However, despite many warnings, little of this seemed to be turned in the direction of alcohol, with very little being done to increase duty, curb availability or restrict advertising and promotion. Ironically, much of the ire of public health seems to have been redirected against “junk food” and soft drinks, with the introduction of the controversial and ineffective sugar tax. However, the general climate of public opinion has become much more censorious about alcohol, and stricter anti-drink measures certainly cannot be ruled out in the next decade.

The trend in pub refurbishments very much tended towards a stripped-back, minimalist, pastel-shaded “Farrow and Ball” style. The removal of carpets, bench seating and warm colours resulted in a harsh, echoing atmosphere offering little in terms of comfort and cosiness.

The Crown on Walney Island - not exactly cosy and welcoming
One of the worst offenders have been my local family brewer Robinson’s. The news that they are refurbishing a pub is enough to fill the heart with dread. Perhaps more than any of their competitors, they have carried out a root-and-branch reassessment of their business, involving refocusing on smart food-led pubs and getting rid of most of the smaller wet-led locals. Over the decade they must have sold off around a third of their estate.

They also withdrew 1892 Mild (formerly Hatters), which as recently as 1977 had been their best-selling beer. Given that all their local competitors still make cask mild, this was essentially a symbolic gesture that they were turning over a new leaf. Of course, they are a commercial company and are fully entitled to make whatever decisions that want to ensure their future prosperity, but it all leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. On the other hand, they have enjoyed great success with their Iron Maiden themed beer, Trooper, which has now become a mainstay of their business.

Hydes retrenched their brewing operations and moved to a new site in Salford in 2012. Of the other local family brewers, Holts are the ones who seem most committed to running pubs with a substantial wet trade and actually shifting lots of beer.

Samuel Smith’s distinctive approach to running their pubs stands out from the crowd even more today than it did in 2010, but they have scaled new and sometimes counter-productive heights of eccentricity.

On a personal note, I lost both of my parents during the decade. However, as they would now be 101 and 97, it was only to be expected. It never entirely leaves you, though.

But I confidently expect this country to enjoy a bright future during the coming decade. And, while it cannot be denied that their role in society is diminished, there will still be good times to be had in pubs. Plus, taking a wider perspective, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the 2010s were a decade of significant global progress on most aspects of human wellbeing.

Here’s an article by Matt Ridley explaining the factual background behind the above graphic.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Review of 2019

It’s now that time when people turn to reviewing the highs and lows of the year that is drawing to a close. So here are some of my thoughts. It can’t really be called “Golden Pints” as the emphasis is very much on pubs rather than beer.

Best new pub visited – the Slubbers Arms in Huddesfield. I’ve visited 111 brand-new pubs this year, probably a record total since 1985, and this narrowly claims the prize. It’s a former Timothy Taylor’s tied house that still serves their beers. Built in the sharp angle of two roads, it has an unspoilt interior and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. However, as it’s a good half-mile north of the town centre, and doesn’t open at lunchtimes, it may well be one that I never end up visiting again. An honourable runner-up was Holden’s Codsall Station Bar.

Best revisits – a joint award to the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano in Somerset and the Dolphin in Plymouth, two pubs I have really enjoyed in the past and wasn’t disappointed when I visited them both in a day, as can often be the case. Plus another honourable mention to the wonderfully unspoilt Star in Bath.

Beer of the year – it s hard to single anything out when so many are only encountered once. A couple that particularly stick in the memory in terms of their quality were Pedigree in the Bank House in Uttoxeter and Enville Ale in the White Hart in Shifnal. I’ve had quite a few good examples of Pedigree, which is a beer that has gained a reputation for often suffering from poor cellarmanship.

The beer I’ve drunk most of is undoubtedly Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter, but that’s more a function of finding the atmosphere of their local pubs congenial. Sometimes it’s excellent, sometimes no more than OK. Draught Bass and Black Sheep Bitter have both been excellent on several occasions, and I had a memorably good drop of John Smith’s Cask in the Market Tavern/Tap in Preston.

During the course of the year we organised six Proper Days Out via the Beer & Pubs Forum, together with a few more impromptu meet-ups. These covered Huddersfield, Rugby, Uttoxeter, Preston, Liverpool and Shifnal. All were good, as much for the company as the pubs themselves, but perhaps those that stand out were Uttoxeter and Shifnal, which involved visiting most of the pubs in a smallish town rather than a few selected highlights in a bigger place. The next planned trip is to Burton-on-Trent in March next year. The forum itself continues to tick over nicely as a friendly, low-key alternative to the sometimes fractious CAMRA Discourse.

Pub cat of the year – I have to say I’ve encountered very few pub cats during the past year. I did visit the famous Bag of Nails in Bristol, where the cats were delightful, but I have to say the pub itself wasn’t really to my taste, and I felt more at home amongst the old boys drinking flat Bass and watching the racing in the Myrtle Tree a few doors down.

So probably the title has to go to Artemis in the Olde Cottage in Chester, who I have never met, although I hope to remedy that omission with a trip next year. He’s a handsome young tabby who turned up at the pub as a stray and, now duly snipped and chipped, seems to have established himself as the centre of attention.

I’ve done 92 posts on this blog so far this year, including this one, and may possibly add one or two more in the remaining days. That’s more than last year, but fewer than some previous years. As I’ve said before, many of the more ephemeral subjects now tend to go straight to Twitter rather than justifying a blogpost in their own right. I continue to get over 1000 pageviews for some of the more popular posts (usually those about craft beer in some way or other) and considerably more comments than some other supposedly more prestigious bloggers. Possibly my favourite post was my extended review of Anthony Avis’ fascinating memoir of the postwar brewing industry, although, as often happens, this one seems to have gone largely unremarked.

By restricting the ability to make unmoderated comments to a brief window, and laying down a policy of not accepting repeated comments from unregistered people unless I know who they are, I seem to have dealt with the issue of persistent malicious trolling which had bedevilled me before. If you want to debate the issues in a respectful manner, that’s fine, but if you want to have a go on a personal level that is out of order.

I’ve also continued to add new pubs to my Closed Pubs blog – a total of 45 this year so far – including in the past few weeks a series sent in by a reader on the Cross Green area in East Leeds, which in recent years has been denuded of all its pubs.

My Twitter account passed 5,000 followers earlier in the year, and is now over 5,200, so plenty of people seem to appreciate it. That is a significant milestone, as is opens the door to following more people, although in fact the number of accounts I’m following is now fewer than my followers because I’ve culled a lot of dormant accounts. I’ve said before that the secrets of success on Twitter are to define clearly what your account is about (and, by implication, what it isn’t about) and, despite the reputation of the platform, not entering into bad-tempered arguments. As with the blog, if you want to discuss things, that’s fine, but if you’re going to be personally antagonistic you will be muted. Toady, who does do the political stuff that Mudgie steers clear of, passed 3,000 followers during December. He mutes rude people too, and has been blocked by, amongst others, Stockport’s favourite young socialist Owen Jones.

If you run a Twitter account on your own behalf, you are free to say whatever you want, and people will follow or unfollow accordingly. But, if you are tweeting on behalf of a commercial business, a pub or brewery, you really are shooting yourself in the foot by engaging in political grandstanding which may alienate half your potential customers.

I turned 60 in the middle of the year, which may seem like a milestone, but in practice you don’t feel any different. Growing older often feels as though you stay the same but the rest of the world gets steadily madder around you. And I still find myself approaching new situations and experiences like a wide-eyed kid. One thing you do notice is that conversation with your peers inevitably turns to discussion of various ailments and how you’re coping with them, although to be fair we were outdone in Huddersfield by someone who is twenty years younger than some of us. A benefit, though, is that I now qualify for a Senior Railcard, giving a one-third discount off these trips out by train.

A week later, though, I was shocked to hear of the unexpected death of Leeds beer blogger Richard Coldwell, who was four years younger than me. I think I only met him on five occasions, but he was a distinctive and memorable character who gave his full commitment to everything he engaged in. At first I found him a little hard to read, but eventually I realised that stemmed from his service in the police, where he inevitably had to develop a protective carapace, and underneath he was very kind and good-natured. I could still never quite work out to what extent he was winding us up over his professed dislike of Marston’s and all their works, though.

In the public sphere, I was particularly saddened by the death earlier this month of Marie Fredriksson of Roxette, who was only a year older than me but had fought a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. While Roxette were often derided by the right-on critics, to my ear she had a beautiful voice and always came across as having a sympathetic personality. Here she is in happier times, with an uptempo song rather than a ballad:

I haven’t experienced any of the truly appalling examples of service in restaurants that I’ve suffered in previous years, although general slowness and lack of attention continue to be a problem, especially in independently-run places. If I had infinite time and infinite patience, I’m sure that sometimes I could still be sitting there at closing time without anyone having given me the opportunity to ask for the bill. Pub food, particularly that of lighter lunchtime items, continues to suffer from a failure to display menus outside and a simple lack of availability. All too often, Spoons is the best or only option.

The quality of food on our days out has been rather hit-and-miss, which I suppose is what you would expect from pub meals in town centres. Best for me in terms of quality and overall offer was the busy and bustling Railway in Liverpool; probably the most disappointing was the 45-minute wait for very ordinary food in the near-deserted Wellington in Preston.

Best food innovation – Wetherspoon’s 8-inch pizzas. Last year, Wetherspoon’s filled a gap in their menus with the introduction of pizzas, which were in fact surprisingly good for the price. However, as I mentioned here, they weighed in at a gut-busting 1100-plus calories each, which is far more than most people want or need. This year, Spoons have introduced smaller 8-inch versions at around 600 calories, which is quite enough for me and I suspect most other people who aren’t manual workers. Having said that, they’ll probably withdraw them next year.

Daft policy of the year – Samuel Smith’s phone ban. I’ve often praised Sam’s general approach to their pubs which, with comfortable seating and an absence of piped music and TV sport produces a congenial drink and chat atmosphere that suits me. However, to prohibit even silent browsing of phones is a ban too far, which has met with customer resistance and opens them up to ridicule. In what way is it any different in principle from reading the newspaper? The offices at Tadcaster must bear some resemblance to the FĂŒhrerbunker in the last days of the Reich, with none of the subordinates having the courage to argue back against increasingly deranged pronouncements.

Saddest pub closure – Sam’s inexplicable refusal to employ relief managers has also led to a number of pub closures, most regrettable of all from my point of view being that of the Bird in Hand at Mobberley, which is one of the few genuine, unspoilt country pubs remaining in Cheshire and always seemed to do a decent trade. Hopefully, as with some of their other pubs, they will find it possible to reopen it in the future.

On a brighter note, they have managed to reopen the Sun in September in Burnage, close to where I live, which had been closed for the best part of two years, and so far it seems to be doing pretty well. I like to believe there is a still a demand for pubs that are, basically, just pubs.

Best political event – the decisive Conservative victory in the December general election, which after a year of ongoing political crisis finally opened the door for the UK to leave the European Union at the end of next month, three years and seven months after the referendum. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, it is a basic principle of democracy that such decisions should be respected. If that had failed to happen in one way or another, it would have led to decades of bitter division. While it hasn’t really been mentioned by commentators, my sense is that an undercurrent of resentment against the sneering attitude of so many in Labour to ordinary people's tastes, recreations and attitudes was a factor underlying the swing against them.

Best tourist attraction – Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, a fairly modest redbrick Elizabeth house which claims (probably with justification) to have the largest collection of priest-holes in the country. Plus it’s very close to the Plough at Shenstone, one of Batham’s only two country pubs.

And a mention to the aeronautical collection of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, which really does justify a full day and more, if you find that sort of thing interesting.

Most disappointing was the famous Longleat in Wiltshire, which is undoubtedly a magnificent Elizabethan house, but fails to put its story across or explain why it is special, and makes far too much of the eccentricities of the current Marquess of Bath.

Best revisits – I spent a few days in North Wales to revisit some of the castles that I had not been to for many years. However, most interesting of all were two more modern buildings – Penrhyn Castle, the Brobdingnagian mock-mediaeval castle built by the Douglas-Pennant family on the profits of the slate industry, and the Gothic Revival Plas Newydd by the Menai Strait, which I managed to catch on a beautiful sunny day when the tide was in.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Selective evidence

This month sees the fifth anniversary of the reduction of the drink-driving limit in Scotland in December 2014. At the time, the immediate impact on the licensed trade was such that it caused a noticeable downward blip in Scotland’s national GDP figure. Now, five years later a study by academics at Stirling University has examined the longer-term effect on the trade and, perhaps predictably, concluded that it hasn’t really made a great deal of difference, saying that “Most participants reported no long‐term financial impact on their business.”

However, when you look at it more closely, the foundations for the study look distinctly flimsy. The authors interviewed a mere sixteen businesses, of which just four were classified as being in rural areas. Plus all of those four are described as “Hotel, pub and restaurant”, which by definition is going to be less affected than a normal pub that just maybe does a few bar meals. And it has been suggested on Twitter by licensing lawyer Stephen McGowan that at least some of the sixteen had been selected because they had received awards for taking steps to diversify their business. They seem to have deliberately chosen their subjects to support their desired conclusion.

Of course the impact of the change wasn’t going to be felt evenly across the whole of the licensed trade. Many pubs in the centres of large towns and cities would notice little or no difference. But, on the other hand, many pubgoers outside those areas would be placed in the position where their previously lawful behaviour had been declared illegal overnight. Few would want to risk the potentially severe penalties of breaking the law, and so they would respond by one or more of drinking less, visiting less often or not at all, and transferring their business to somewhere more accessible.

None of those would do anything other than to reduce the business of the establishments they used to frequent, and two out of the three would also impact the trade as a whole. It was possible to argue that the smoking ban had the potential to bring new business into pubs from anti-smokers, although we know in practice any increase was greatly outweighed by the loss of trade from smokers and their tolerant friends. However, there is no upside whatsoever for the trade in cutting the drink-drive limit.

The authors do acknowledge some the issues that may have been caused with real-world pub visitors, for example:

Especially people do not tend to come out at tea time as much whereas they used to come out at tea time and just have a couple of pints and still drive. Whereas now you do not see that’...

...So Sunday to Thursday you might get somebody coming in and having two, three, four pints up until midnight but maybe driving the next day; they would not be driving straight after leaving the pub but they'd be driving after they got up in the morning… …so they would go home earlier or reduce the amount, or just not come out at all.

However, these are dismissed as insignificant in the wider context. They also state that they did not interview any owners of closed businesses, which seems a strange omission. It’s unlikely that cutting the limit in itself would have been the sole cause of any closure, but it may well have been a significant contributory factor which tipped them over the edge. But, of course, dead men tell no tales.

Many people who pontificate about pubs seem to exist within a urban bubble and give the impression of having no conception whatsoever of how pubs actually operate outside it. There must be a large overlap with the useful idiots who still fail to recognise how much damage the smoking ban has wrought. And it’s important to remember that the vast majority of drinking drivers who visit pubs have no intention of breaking the law and indeed believe they are doing their best to stay within it.

Of course there is a road safety case for cutting the limit, although I would contend it’s a pretty flimsy one, and figures so far have suggested no reduction in the number of casualties. But nobody should delude themselves that it won’t have an adverse impact on the pub trade, and on many pubgoers themselves.

It’s rather amusing that, at the end of the study, the authors state that none of them have any conflicts of interest to declare. Shouldn’t that include being funded by the public health lobby?

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Feeling a bit cross?

Today we are going to the polls in a general election for the third time in less than five years. As on previous occasions, I created an opinion poll in the sidebar, which I have also mentioned in the text of posts for those reading the blog on a mobile device. The results are shown below.

The poll was created before the announcement that the Brexit Party were not going to contest any Conservative-held seats, so the results won’t be representative of the likely outcome. However, given that a large number of people had already voted, I didn’t think it appropriate to start again from scratch. The original poll together with the associated comments can be seen here.

Running these figures through the Electoral Calculus model, and eliminating the others and non-voters, gives the following numbers of seats, and surprisingly produces a slender overall Conservative majority of 10, and no seats for the Brexit Party on a 17% vote share.

Brexit Party 0
Conservative 330
Green 1
Labour 240
Liberal Democrat 17
Plaid Cymru 3
SNP 41
Northern Ireland parties 18

This is actually not all that different in terms of seats from the latest YouGov MRP projection, which was pretty accurate in 2017.

Tonight is the monthly meeting of the local CAMRA branch, at which I will be presenting a Christmas quiz. 27 years ago, in 1992, the two events (well, not the quiz) also coincided, and that election rather confounded the predictions of the pollsters. We’ll find out in the small hours of tomorrow morning whether that has happened again.

As I said last time, I’m not aware that lifestyle issues have featured at all in the campaign. Sadly, it seems that, whoever gets into power, more things will be banned or restricted.

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.