Wednesday 20 February 2019

Beer and whine

Whenever people best known for their writing on wine venture on to the subject of beer, they invariably shoot themselves in the foot. And rarely has this been done with such spectacular effect as by Bruce Anderson in the latest edition of the Spectator, in a piece entitled Only the south offers beer lovers a decent pint. He writes:

In recent years, the quality of civic life in Britain has steadily deteriorated. Change has become synonymous with decay. But there is one delightful exception. In southern England these days, it is almost impossible to find a bad pint of beer. Matters may be different in other parts of the United Kingdom. From my limited experience, we Scots are not good at beer. It is something that is only drunk to eke out the whisky. North of the Tweed, bitter is known as ‘heavy’, which is a fair description and not an encouraging one. In the north of England, too, beer is often excessively sweet. As for Wales, I believe that there is a brew called sheepshag, in which the hops are mixed with mistletoe, but we should leave the west Celts to their… bardic… rituals.
And, after this, he concludes:
Decent pints come almost exclusively from the southern parts of the Heptarchy.
Such a complete load of ill-informed, xenophobic nonsense hardly deserves a rejoinder. While there is indeed plenty of potentially good beer in the South, all too often it is overpriced and poorly kept. Come to the North, though, and you will find just as much, if not more, and what’s more it will in general be much cheaper and in much better condition. “My limited experience” indeed!

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Raise a pint to celebrate

There was good news for the British brewing industry in the beer sales figures for 2018 released yesterday by the British Beer & Pub Association. The detailed tables can be downloaded here. These showed that, over the full year, there had been an overall rise in beer sales of 2.6%, the largest single increase in the 21 years covered by this statistical series. This was made up of a 4.7% rise in off-trade sales, and a 0.1% rise in the on-trade.

This has been widely attributed to England’s lengthy run in the World Cup, but in fact looking at the detailed figures they don’t show a dramatic peak. On-trade sales rose by 0.9% in the third quarter, but 2.2% in the fourth, while off-trade sales were up by 7.7% in the second and 7.6% in the third. The prolonged spell of hot weather in June and July probably had more of an impact.

Inevitably there were a few sour grapes complaining that this represented a further erosion of the market share of the on-trade vis-a-vis the off-trade. The on-trade accounted for 45.8% of the total, compared with 50.7% five years ago and 71.5% in 1997. But, as I have commented over the years, this is a long-term trend caused by a wide variety of social and legislative factors, and isn’t going to be reversed unless society as a whole changes. The absolute rise in on-trade sales is the only increase over the entire 21-year period, and surely it should be cause for celebration that the brewing industry in total seems to be in rude health.

However, no doubt this news will be met with gnashing of teeth from the anti-drink lobby, so expect renewed calls for the revival of the alcohol duty escalator.

Saturday 9 February 2019

The Holy Grail of pubs

A few years ago, a visit to West Wales prompted me to dig out my copy of A Year in the Drink, a book in which journalist Martin Green tells the story of how he and his wife ran a pub in a small Welsh market town. It turned out that this book ended up being withdrawn from sale because the locals objected to some of the unflattering and barely-disguised pen portraits of them that appeared in its pages, although it remains well worth reading if you can unearth a copy.

Another book in the same category that was recently drawn to my attention is The Quest for the Perfect Pub, written by Nick and Charlie Hurt and published in 1989. According to this article, this book too ended up being withdrawn because Big Six brewers Whitbread took strong exception to the way they were portrayed. So I had to get hold of a copy – there still seem to be plenty knocking around on eBay. I’ve only had it for a few days, and it’s the sort of book you dip in to rather than reading from cover to cover, so I can’t claim to have read it all. However, the worst I can find about Whitbread is the following in relation to the famous Drewe Arms in Devon:

So we issue a direct challenge to Samuel Whitbread: we challenge you to leave alone The Drewe Arms, Drewsteignton, and thus show that you still have an ounce of human feeling buried deep in the cold quartz of your corporate heart.
Fighting talk, maybe, but surely not grounds for calling in the lawyers. They are just as scathing about Robinson’s treatment of the Harrington Arms at Gawsworth, which to be honest still comes across as a largely unspoilt country pub in comparison to some of their more recent abominations. Incidentally, the Drewe Arms eventually passed into the ownership of Enterprise Inns, and remains little spoilt, although it has developed a substantial food operation and is no longer the basic village alehouse of old.

The authors never really introduce themselves, and the endpapers offer no biography, but from reading it I would assume they were a pair of youngish journalists, probably brothers, who were tasked by the publishers with doing a search to find the best and least spoilt pubs in the country. This makes it very much what the title says, a personal quest over a three-month period drawing on assorted word-of-mouth recommendations, rather than a considered and carefully-researched guidebook.

While it includes many of the well-known “character” pubs such as the Sun at Leintwardine and the Square & Compass at Worth Matravers, there are obvious omissions that surely would have been shoo-ins if encountered, such as the Boat at Penallt in Monmouthshire, the Old Inn at Ightham in Kent and the Anchor at High Offley is Staffordshire. There are also some where, looking back, their highlighting in such a book might seem a touch questionable.

The selected pubs cluster fairly thickly on the map in some areas such as the Welsh Marches west of Hereford, the western Chilterns and the Peak District, while other parts of the country are rather bare. This may be due to the vagaries of where the authors chose to visit, but it is generally recognised that pub quality is not uniform across the country. There are a handful of pubs in larger towns and cities, such as the Star in Bath and the Sun in Stockton-on-Tees, but their remit was very much to cover the countryside, villages and market towns. The introduction states that they also planned a companion volume covering more urban locations, but in view of their legal problems this never seems to have materialised.

They found themselves disappointed at just how few pubs had survived the inevitable march of “progress”:

The good old-fashioned English boozer is an endangered species at the mercy of many horrific modern enemies: decors of unparalleled artificiality, astonishing nylon carpets sending shockwaves through the body, appalling piped music,microwaved pizza and other Eurostodge, bleeping video-games bland jukeboxes, American “designer” beer, unsuitably flavoured potato “snax”.
And that was before anyone had even thought of pretentious gastropub food and wall-to-wall sports TV. They go on:
One by one the old pubs are being swallowed up by the catering chains, whose thrusting, Next-clad young executives are at this very moment roaming the country, Their acquisitions are speedily turned into half-hearted ‘theme’ pubs, probably called Funsters, Hank’s or the Raj, where a plastic mill-stream, bar staff in Stetsons, or a yellowing pith-helmet on the wall are considered to be bold and radical statements in ‘Leisure-time programming’. If you feel like blowing up such places, or merely hitting the landlord, then this is the book for you.
Even thirty years ago, many of the finest examples seemed to have recently disappeared:
Time and time again we would make enquires as to the best pubs only to be told in reverent tones about Grumpy Bill’s place in the next village, or of old Joan in the Red Lion down the road. Then the pause and the added rider: ‘But he/she is not there any more…it’s been revamped by the brewery…it’s now a restaurant/holiday home.”
However, all is not lost:
This book sets out to be a celebration of the fact that there are, thank God, a few proper pubs still left in England, true to the old traditions and upholding the values of privacy and simple pleasure which are so scored in modern life.
In total, the authors come up with 350 pubs worthy of listing, divided into 69 with the top star rating, 149 with two barrels, and 132 just with a single barrel. They assign them to their own categories, such as ORD (One-Room Drinker), LLL (Lively Little Local) and GGAR (Great All-Rounder) and assign various indicators to describe particular features such as FC (Flat Cap, for pubs frequented by old boys) and E for pubs of particular eccentricity. I’m not sure whether the publishers’ budget didn’t run to symbols, or whether it was felt they would be confusing. The book is dedicated “to the venerable landladies and all the old boys”.

The whole thing makes for entertaining reading although, as I said, it is probably best dipped into rather than consumed in large chunks. There are some excellent pieces of descriptive writing, such as how the entire atmosphere of the long-closed Horse & Jockey at Delph is “one of the Macmillan 1950s”, plus a variety of amusing anecdotes. The grumpy licensee of the Cows Hill Hotel in County Durham tells them “Mrs Thatcher tells me that I may remain open all day. The good lady and I do not agree on the subject,” whereas the landlady of the Queen’s Head at Cowden Pound in Kent says that she had reverted to closing at 2 pm on Sundays because the local wives got fed up with their husbands being late for lunch. This was, of course, not long after the 1988 liberalisation of licensing hours.

On the other hand, some of their longer diversionary stories do rather pall, such as the tale of the pub entertainment provided by “Dan Cavan and his Radiogram” which appears in the description of the White Horse in Beverley, or the extended description of odd and rather unlikeable characters in an unnamed pub in the wilds of Lincolnshire, which in the end did not merit an entry in its own right.

While most of the featured pubs are largely unspoilt, wet-led boozers with a distinctive cast of drinkers, some are mentioned for serving excellent food. At the time it was still possible to combine this with being a proper pub of character, but in the ensuing years it has become increasingly difficult. Over time, gaining a reputation for food tends to drive away the drinks trade, and the gastropub revolution has given many pubs culinary and social aspirations that they never had before. Places like the Star at Harome in Yorkshire have now become in effect restaurants, and it is hard to see them featuring in a modern guide to classic pubs.

At the end of the book, the authors come up with a list of the ten favourite pubs that they encountered on their travels. Pride of place goes to what they describe as The Perfect Pub, Somewhere in Suffolk, because the licensee did not want the attention that would result from it being named. A little digging based on the description suggests it was in fact The Cock at Brent Eleigh, illustrated above.

The remaining nine are:

The Cresselly Arms, Cresswell Quay, Pembrokeshire

The King’s Head (Low House), Laxfield, Suffolk

The Tally Ho, Hatherleigh, Devon

The Tucker’s Grave, Faulkland, Somerset

The Olde Ship, Seahouses, Northumberland

The Barley Mow, Kirk Ireton, Derbyshire

The Double Locks, Alphington, Devon

The White Horse (Nellie’s), Beverley, Yorkshire

The Sun Inn, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham - complete with description of the famous “banked” Bass

All of these, maybe surprisingly, are still with us, although there was some concern recently about the survival of the Tucker’s Grave which fortunately seems to have been dispelled. Plus, most seem to be little changed, with the exception of the Double Locks, which I am told has been greatly sanitised since being taken under the corporate wing of Young’s. The Tally Ho (where I have never personally been) perhaps stands out from the others, as it was a little bit gastro even back in 1989, and perhaps comes into the category of places where they got an excellent welcome, but has never been a front-rank unspoilt classic.

The thirty years since the book was published have, not surprisingly, not been kind to the pubs listed. Some, fortunately, are still in existence in little-changed form, such as the Yew Tree at Cauldon in Staffordshire and the Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham in Cheshire. Others, such as the Stagg at Titley in Herefordshire and the Durham Ox at Shrewley in Warwickshire, have very much gone down the gastro route and can no longer be regarded as community boozers, while many, such as the Horse & Jockey at Delph in the former Saddleworth district of Yorkshire and the White Lion at Pen-y-Mynydd in Flintshire have long since closed. Indeed, I doubt whether either of those long survived the publication of the book, and the Horse & Jockey has long been a roofless, crumbling ruin.

At a time of a fairly static level of pubgoing, the authors identify the major brewers as the main villains of the piece. However, since then, the overall demand has more than halved, as a result of a toxic mixture of legislative restriction and social change, while most of the more marginal pubs have been sold off by the big companies. Added to this, the zeitgeist has very much shifted away from a love of the old-fashioned, quirky and individual to a worship of the new, fashionable and shiny. The book says that the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton “is often packed with young people from the nearby cities of Derby and Nottingham, where most of the pubs are now amusement arcades. They learn how to play dominoes, love the beer and the atmosphere, and revel in the quiet simplicity to be be found here.” I very much doubt whether that is true today.

One glimmer of hope is that the growing trend for community ownership may give some of these pubs a new lease of life. If they really are cherished by their local communities, then surely they will be prepared to stump up to keep them in being. However, as I wrote here, this isn’t going to be an instant panacea – even without the need to earn a return on the capital investment, the actual business of the pub will still need to at least break even, and there may also be the risk of community ownership leading to management by committee. But it may well offer a future where such treasured pieces of our heritage can be taken outside the purely commercial sphere.

Wednesday 6 February 2019

The bubble bursts?

Over the weekend, there was an article in the Sunday Telegraph entitled Craft beer bubble bursts with glut of new brands. It reported:
“There is still growth, but the market is now much tougher for new entrants,” says Jonny Forsyth, global drinks analyst at market research group Mintel.

“The number of brands is outstripping the growth and now people with money are wising up to the market.

“If someone asked me to invest in a craft beer company now, I’d say ‘no way, that ship has long sailed.’”...

...This view is shared by Mr Forsyth, who says that the quality of new craft beer is often not of a high standard.

“We see a lot of brands starting from scratch, and a lot of these people are not expert brewers,” he said.

“The best brewers tend to work for the bigger companies.

“The quality can leave a bit to desire and although they can charge a lot of money, it doesn’t mean it’s made by experts.”

While the reports of its death may be somewhat exaggerated, there is undoubtedly a widespread feeling that the market has become saturated and we are at or approaching a crest of the wave moment.

The article also falls into the familiar problem of definition. It states that craft only accounts for 5% of the British beer market, but surely a large proportion of the 14% of on-trade beer sales that are cask also fall into the craft category, unless you’re arguing that they are two mutually exclusive concepts.

And, as the Morning Advertiser reported last year, most of the big brands within that category are actually owned by international brewers, and so wouldn’t count as craft by the US definition.