Sunday 31 March 2019

Here for the long term

Takeovers of up-and-coming craft breweries by international brewers have now become so commonplace that they no longer produce the gasps of amazement that they once did. The latest is Magic Rock of Huddersfield, where ironically we were only three weeks ago. They have been bought by antipodean firm Lion Global Markets, who up to now had no foothold in the UK.

Co-founder and managing director Richard Burhouse insists that he intends to remain with the firm indefinitely, and says “I’m here for the long term, as far is I’m concerned, at least four years, but hopefully many years afterwards.” However, I can’t help being reminded of the words of Anthony Avis, author of The Brewing Industry 1950-1990, on this subject, in a section entitled “Some thoughts on the quest for personal advancement.”

Sadly, individual freedom and expansion do not live together, and this is abundantly clear to anybody who had created success by his own efforts and who sells out that success, reaping the financial benefit, and then stays on to manage for his purchaser. It never works out, and if there is apparent harmony it is because he has surrendered his freedom in deference to the advantage to be gained from being part of a huge organisation, and he will fade.
I once saw Richard Burhouse speak in a “Beer Debate” at the Manchester Beer & Cider Festival, and nobody seems to have a bad word to say about him. I’m certainly not one to be crying “betrayal” over this news, and my reaction is more one of congratulating him on having grown his company to the point where he can enjoy a lucrative payday from a multinational company. But surely the time will come when he decides that he would prefer to exercise his freedom in pastures new, or when he has had to endure one corporate instruction too many. And, after he has gone, who will be there to replace him with the same spirit of adventure and innovation?

In the 1950s and 60s, the period Avis was describing, unsuccessful or stagnant breweries were taken over for their tied estates. In the 2010s, in complete contrast, successful breweries are taken over for their brands. But, at the end of the day, are the international brewers essentially acquiring a wasting asset? Breweries like Magic Rock have no tied pubs, no widely-recognised brands, simply a reputation for being cool and cutting-edge. And that is something unlikely to thrive for long in a corporate culture.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

A vanished world

The mention in my account of our trip to Huddersfield of the Sportsman pub, which had been built by local brewer Seth Senior in 1930, prompted me to revisit The Brewing Industry 1950-1990 by Anthony Avis. This is a large-format book of 274 pages, privately printed in 1997, of which my copy is Number 158 of a limited print run of 200.

Anthony Avis was born in Norfolk in 1927, and joined the ambitious Hammonds brewery company of Bradford in 1956. Through a sequence of mergers and acquisitions this eventually became part of the mighty Bass Charrington empire, with whom he enjoyed a long career in senior management roles until his retirement in 1987. The book is a combination of an account of his own experiences and wider reflections on the brewing industry in general.

There is indeed a chapter on Seth Senior, who owned a model brewery at Shepley, a few miles south of Huddersfield. The company provided houses in the village for its workforce, and also owned several farms and even a grouse moor. It was taken over by Hammonds in 1946, with an estate of a hundred pubs, upon which the workforce went on strike as a measure of desperation. They were mollified by Harry Bradfer-Lawrence, the chairman of Hammonds, but needless to say the brewery was closed within a few years.

Avis grew up in a pub in Norfolk, so he had a connection with the trade from an early age. He describes the primitive state of many of the rural pubs, and says of the local beers “All the Norwich brewed beers, before and after the last war, were much the same – thin, flat and lifeless; however, they suited, or appeared to suit, the customers.” He qualified as a solicitor, and joined Hammonds as Assistant Company Secretary through a family connection with Bradfer-Lawrence, who was a very dominant figure in the company. He is always referred to in the book by his initials as “HLBL”, something common at the time but which has now largely passed out of common usage. Most of the characters encountered in the book get a similar treatment, so it can be difficult to follow who is who.

He paints a vivid picture of Bradford in the 1950s, when it was a bustling, prosperous city and centre of the wool trade, the streets busy with heavily-laden lorries carrying bales of wool. He also describes how the directors of Hammonds would decamp in a chauffeur-driven Bentley to take their lunch in the dining room of the Alexandra Hotel in the city centre, a scene that really does belong to a vanished world.

Hammonds was a large and ambitious company, and by the end of the 1950s had acquired over 1,000 pubs through a series of takeovers. However, HLBL had by then entered his seventies, and in 1959 the company was taken over by Northern United Breweries. This was a vehicle set up by Canadian entrepreneur E. P. “Eddie” Taylor to promote the sales of Carling Black Label lager in the UK. Over the following years, there was a frantic sequence of brewery takeovers across the North of England, Scotland and South Wales, culminating in 1962 with a merger with the venerable London-based Charrington firm to form a national conglomerate called Charrington United Breweries. This in turn merged with Bass, Mitchells & Butlers in 1967 to create the Bass Charrington behemoth, familiar to drinkers from the first two decades of CAMRA as the biggest and most high-handed of the “Big Six” national brewers.

Although he was still only in his early thirties, Avis played a key role in closing these deals and assimilating the acquired breweries into the corporate fold. The most interesting passages in the book concern his experiences in getting to grips with a variety of companies with very different cultures and idiosyncracies. He says “by this time I am sure I had acquired the reputation of the undertaker’s assistant, sent to measure up the corpse” and describes feeling like the leaders of victors in war having to treat with the defeated.

The miscellany of independent breweries still in existence in the 1950s may encourage nostalgic feeling, but in reality many of them had been allowed to stagnate and were in effect running on empty. It was a time of declining beer sales, with the rise of television being often held to blame, and there was little capital available to upgrade either pubs or brewing plant. Chronic yeast infections were commonplace, and Avis says of one company that its pubs only seemed to be held together by the thick coat of whitewash that was applied every year.

In many cases, the founding families had retreated from any active involvement in the business, leaving the day-to-day running to professional managers, who could either be just interested in economising and keeping the place ticking over, or in some cases treating it as a personal fiefdom and acting as though they owned the place. It must be remembered that all of these takeovers were agreed by the owners – there were no hostile bids. In retrospect, one of the key distinguishing features of those family brewers who retained their independence through the 1950s and 60s must have been been continued family involvement.

Nowhere was this general torpor better exemplified than in Offilers of Derby which, despite being a substantial company with 240 pubs, was “one of the sleepiest breweries I had so far experienced, even in an era of comatose management.” This was where one of the directors had purchased a chain of small hotels in and around the city in order to set up his various lady friends in business. In one brewery, Avis expressed surprise at the large number of different brews produced for the small overall volume, only to be told be the head brewer that they were basically all the same, some darkened by the use of caramel, and some, at a time when there was no requirement to declare alcoholic strength, simply labelled as strong, ordinary or light. Another firm seemed to be unusually cost-efficient, only for it to turn out that the walls of the fermenting vessels were so thin that they bulged when full, meaning that more beer was being produced than was being declared to the exciseman, who was using the nominal dimensions.

Not surprisingly, the general climate in the brewing trade in the 1950s was a pretty boozy one, and it is perhaps hard to appreciate that, back then, per capita alcohol consumption in the UK was only half what it is now. However, at that time the amount of alcohol sold in the off-trade was very small, the proportion of beer in the total was much higher, while drinking amongst women was much lower. This meant that pubs, even though trade slowly declined through the 1950s, were much busier than they are now. Most of the directors and managers learned to cope with the drinking culture, but one who unfortunately didn’t was Tudwal Roberts, the company secretary of the small Barrow-in-Furness brewery of R. F. Case. He had sadly become a hopeless alcoholic, and Avis describes a meeting with him during which, without a word, he got up, opened a drawer in a filing cabinet, took out an open bottle of red wine, poured a glass full, downed it in one, and then returned to his desk as though nothing had happened.

On Tyneside, where Hammonds took over Westoe Breweries of South Shields, he describes how the local preference was for a pint with a foaming head standing proud of the rim, which the drinkers then proceeded to blow off on to the floor, resulting in it being awash with spilt beer by the end of the evening. The echo of this remains in the present-day liking for “bankers” in parts of the North-East. Forther north still, in Scotland things got even worse, where the pubs were “literally drinking holes with no shred of comfort. ...the bleakness had been turned into an art form – bare wooden floors with sawdust, spittoons, zinc counter tops, the customers almost entirely men, outside toilets, and beer slopping everywhere; a silent, brooding atmosphere, as though something was about to happen.”

Avis also recounts a couple of the less successful episodes of Hammonds’ own history. In 1957 they recruited a hot-shot sales manager from outside the industry who decided to do a big sales push on the well-regarded Guards Ale, in the manner of other consumer goods companies. However, he failed to understand that it was a strong barley wine that essentially was only a winter product, and the company ended up being left with six months’ unsold stock.

Then, in the early 1960s, they decided to convert all their pubs in the Bradford area to tank beer, following the successful example of Cornbrook. However, the project was rushed, the equipment was substandard and it was applied to all pubs, including low-barrelage ones to which it was unsuited. Pubs found the beer fobbing uncontrollably and ended up having to beat the tanks with broom handles to dissipate the CO2. The tanks started corroding and leaking, and pubs ended up selling cloudy and infected beer, whereas the whole point of the system was to produce more consistent quality. It took a couple of years before all the problems were resolved, and dealt a lasting blow to the company’s reputation in the area.

Although most of the detail concerns breweries that were acquired by Hammonds and their successors, Avis also describes visits to rival companies. He was particularly impressed by the efficiency and well-ordered plant of Tetley’s in Leeds, then the dominant brewers in the West Riding. He praises Samuel Smith’s for being an “exemplar among the smaller brewery companies”, and says “The custom is aimed at the older person, who relishes a good pint, with home-produced food if he wants it, and the surroundings to sit down and talk with his companions in unfashionable comfort – just like the brewery industry advertising of forty years ago represented pubs to be”.

"The last pub that's not a restuarant in England"

Avis expresses regret that the brewers undermined the traditional tenancy system which had worked so well for decades. Turning over the larger and more successful pubs to management removed the opportunity for a good tenant to progress through the ranks over the years. He also criticises the brewers for pursuing various fads which may have seemed a good idea at the time, but for which there was no customer demand and which served to alienate the existing pubgoing population. This is particularly in relation to the 1960s enthusiasm for “theme pubs”, but it continues to apply to many aspects of the present-day pub experience.

One thing that is missing from the book is much discussion of the branding and marketing of beer and pubs. Avis’ legal background meant that he was mainly interested in deal-making and property management, and so this area tends to be neglected. It would be very interesting to know to what extent the pubs belonging to acquired brewers such as Cornbrook in Manchester and Catterall & Swarbrick in Blackpool were rebranded by CUB, and whether the identities of their beers were changed. Of course, once Bass Charrington came into being, it imposed a ruthless corporate identity scheme across its empire.

Despite being at the heart of the process, Avis does not give any general overview of E. P. Taylor’s acquisition spree which was at its height between 1959 and 1962, nor does he provide any pen portrait of the man himself. Strangely, even though he was responsible for a transformation of the British brewing industry, his Wikipedia entry makes no mention of this whatsoever, instead primarily crediting him with being the inventor of the gated housing development.

E. P. Taylor and Alan Walker

In contrast, he has plenty to say about the autocratic Alan Walker, who came from Mitchells & Butlers to become the first chairman of Bass Charrington, and he doesn’t give the impression of having much time for him. While his name seems appropriate for the image of the classless, dynamic businessman of the 1960s, in fact his first name was Horace, so he is generally referred to as HAW in the book. The small photo above shows Taylor on the left and Walker on the right, taken at the time of the merger in 1967. Despite being nine years older, Taylor in fact considerably outlived Walker.

A project by which no doubt Walker hoped to be remembered was the giant Runcorn brewery, which was opened in 1974 to replace a number of smaller breweries in the North-West and Wales. However, it never fulfilled its hopes, being bedevilled by poor industrial relations and serving to disprove the claim that it is possible to brew any beer anywhere. It eventually closed in 1991 after a mere seventeen years of operation, and turned out to be a monument to hubris rather than a lasting memorial.

The most interesting part of the book is the first two-thirds which concerns the various breweries that the author was involved with, either as takeover targets or run by rival firms. The final third covers more general topics ranging from brewery accounting systems through company histories to the use of corporate aviation by the big brewers, which is always interesting, but never grabs the attention to quite the same extent as the earlier part.

Although he was responsible for many hard-nosed business decisions, Anthony Avis comes across from the book as a thoughtful, humane man who genuinely cared for the traditions of the brewing industry. This appears to be an obituary from 2004, so sadly it would seem that he is no longer with us, although he would now be 92. If there is any lesson to be learned from his book, it is that, while many changes may be regrettable, change itself is a constant element in human life. And E. P. Taylor’s lasting memorial is that Carling (now without the Black Label), which he brought here from Canada sixty years ago, has been for many years the best-selling beer in Britain.

Incidentally, as this was a private publication with a limited print run, it doesn’t look as though any copies are readily available from internet sellers, although I believe that there are PDF copies circulating.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Nothing new under the sun

I’ve recently been re-reading The Brewing Industry 1950-1990 by Anthony Avis, a fascinating memoir to which I will devote a longer blogpost over the new few days. However, I was struck by these comments relating to beerhouses, that is drinking places with a beer-only licence, which the pub-owning brewers were striving to eliminate in the 1950s, and which had pretty much all disappeared by the end of the 1960s. They were:

...small homely places where the working man could take his ease and drink his honest ale in the company of his friends and neighbours...

...These outlets were small, usually the front rooms of private dwellinghouses, the beer often brewed on the premises, and many were run by women. They attracted a class of custom which liked ale to the exclusion of spirit, and consumed it in moderate quantity; they were places for the married workingman to escape to, and they tended to be men only establishments by custom...

...they often had primitive toilets, no proper beer cellars, no bar counters, and no proper washing up facilities.

Now this strikes me as, in several respects, remarkably similar to present-day micropubs, especially those closely following the authentic Herne model.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Only here for the beer

If you asked most people about their reasons for choosing a particular pub, they would list factors such as the company, a relaxing atmosphere, food, watching TV sports, playing pub games or quizzes, or even simply because it’s convenient to get there. But few would say that it was because it sold a specific beer, or range of beers. Yes, beer does matter – they will choose between different beers on the bar, and the beer selection may influence a marginal decision between one pub and other. But few would visit a pub they otherwise didn’t like purely because they liked the beer.

However, if you are what might be called a “beer enthusiast”, obviously the balance of decision-making shifts in the direction of beer. Just how far was tested in a couple of recent polls carried out by Tandleman and myself. On the face of it, these seemed to produce contradictory results, with Tandleman’s poll showing 67% favouring “a fantastic pub” over “a fantastic beer”, while mine, which asked a somewhat different question, said 65% favouring “great beer, dull pub” over the opposite. I then ran a poll on my blog which, with a smaller sample size, came up with one of those pesky 52-48 results in favour of pub over beer. The comments on that poll can be viewed here.

Obviously the answer to a question like this very much depends on the interpretation you put on it, which is what must account for the widely varying results. I did wonder in the comments on Tandleman’s post whether people thought I was having a go at micropubs and brewery taps, but that certainly wasn’t the intention. Certainly these places don’t appeal to everyone, as suggested in this tweet by Matthew Lawrenson:

However, the simple fact that you are in like-minded company will make you feel at home – a pub being congenial is about far more than just its physical design. I recall someone in my local branch of CAMRA saying “I don’t care what the pub’s like so long as the beer is good”, but you do have to wonder just how many aspects of what he would regard as “pub hell” he would be prepared to endure just to have a pint he liked. Of course, in general, the pubs that offer beer that appeals to enthusiasts don’t tend to have the features that would really put them off, so the conflict of interest doesn’t arise.

It’s sometimes suggested that, in the early days, CAMRA members would often make a point about going in unappealing pubs purely because of the beer. There was some truth in this, especially in areas where the only place real ale could be found was a grotty dump, but the mere fact that a pub is plain and basic doesn’t mean you won’t feel at home there. The truly threatening pubs wouldn’t tend to get much recognition, or indeed many visits. And the other side of the coin was that, far more so back then than now, many attractive pubs that outwardly ticked all the boxes were distinctly cliquey, and you wouldn’t be made welcome if you didn’t fit in.

I make no secret of the fact that I very much come down in the “pub” camp, and as I wrote back in 2010 in a post entitled Wooden Wombs, “at heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer”. I’m very much with Mark here:

Forty years ago, I was certainly keen to seek out unusual brews, but that was very much a question of finding them in their natural habitat, not the present-day random selection of beers you’ve never heard of that you’ll never get the chance to try again. And that doesn’t apply if you’re just looking for somewhere to have a drink in your local area. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always lived in places where there has been a good choice of decent beer in a variety of pubs so I’ve never been forced to make that choice between good pub and good beer.

I’ve described my reasons for going to the pub rather than staying at home as “just to get a change of scene, relax, chill a bit, do some peoplewatching, get some mental stimulation”. Obviously I don’t want to drink bad beer, but that’s not my chief factor in deciding where to drink. I have mentioned before that I regularly visit some Sam Smith’s pubs, not because I think their beer stands out from others generally available in the area, but because their general ambiance makes me feel at home. If they decided to convert their OBB to keg, as some others have, then I might not go so often, but I certainly wouldn’t shun them. If I’m visiting a different area, my first thought is to consult the National Inventory of heritage pubs rather than check the Good Beer Guide for micropubs and brewery taps.

At the end of the day, what makes an appealing pub is highly subjective, and varies enormously between different people. In practice, it’s very rare that people are confronted with a clear-cut choice, on their terms, between “good pub” and “good beer”. However, by putting the beer offer ahead of every other factor when choosing a pub, beer enthusiasts are further emphasising the gulf between them and the general pubgoing population.

Sunday 17 March 2019

Transpennine trip – Part 2

We pick up our visit to Huddersfield having left the Slubbers Arms and making our way back towards the town centre. Our next call was the Sportsman, a corner pub near the station in the shadow of the railway viaduct. It’s a handsome stone building, originally built by local brewer Seth Senior (what a name!) and then remodelled internally by Hammond’s of Bradford in the 1950s. Hammonds, who eventually passed into the hands of Bass, became through takeovers by far the largest owners of pubs in Huddersfield.

The interior is largely unspoilt, and merits a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. The corner door gives access to a large main bar, with a parquet floor and an impressive curved counter. On either side are a couple of snugs with bench seating. There’s a separate entrance door by the one on the left, which may in the past have been divided from the main bar by a partition. On the wall were a collection of pub plans, although I was unable to get close enough to check whether they were of this particular pub. There were maybe eight or nine beers on the bar, including Boltmaker again, Great Heck Christopher and Buxton Downfall Citra.

There then followed a rather stiff uphill walk in squally conditions to reach the Grove, the well-known multi-beer free house which overlooks the town centre from the western side. On the approach are a pair of rather sinister-looking windowless brick towers, which it turns out are ventilation shafts for the twin railway tunnels running underneath. It’s another corner pub, with a large bar on the left and a smaller, cosier one to the right. The decor is a mix between traditional and modern and quirky. Although it was late afternoon on a Tuesday, it was very busy.

There was a bewildering array of about eighteen different cask beers, from which our selections included Beatnikz Republic Beach Bum, Oakham Citra and Harveys Armada. From such a long list it can be difficult on first look to choose something that will appeal. The pub is known for offering snacks of dried insects, but we managed to avoid the temptation. The conversation turned, as it often does, to the various ailments suffered by older people, but rather surprisingly one of the most impressive catalogues came from one of the younger members of the party still in his early forties.

Fortunately it was downhill from here as we skirted the edge of the Inner Ring Road to reach the Rat & Ratchet, a large free-standing pub on the main road out to Sheffield. A long-standing free house, it is now owned by Ossett Brewery and also sells beers from its own on-site Rat Brewery. Although much opened out, it retains a spacious, rambling interior on different levels, and we managed to find a cosy corner in a room to the rear.

There were about twelve different beers on the bar, from which we selected Ilkley Moor Bah’Rat, Black Rat, White Rat and Marshmallow Mild, all of which I think were all from their own brewery. The Marshmallow Mild certainly had a very distinctive sweet, silky flavour. I made a note of Rainbow’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” playing on the jukebox. We even managed to have a discussion about Brexit without coming to blows.

The original plan had been to go on to the Star, which is a few minutes’ walk further south from the Rat &Ratchet, but as we were somewhat behind schedule, and it was a nasty, wet and and windy night, we decided to head back in the direction of the station. On the way, we passed the Commercial, which looked a lot busier than it had been seven hours before. The two pavilions on either side of the central block of the station are now both occupied by pubs – the Head of Steam on the left, and the King’s Head on the right, which is the one we chose.

This, as befits its former role as a waiting room, is a large, echoey, high-ceilinged room with a smaller ante-room off to one side. Approaching 8 pm on Friday night, it was very busy, and we had to find a seat on the end of someone else’s table. Opposite us were two mature ladies, one of whom was drinking pints of cask, the other cans of Gold Label barley wine poured into a glass. There were about eight different beers on the bar, from which we chose Bradfield Farmer’s Blonde, Oakham Green Devil and Landlord.

I then needed to catch my train home, but a couple stayed on for a curry in a nearby restaurant. In summary, this was an excellent day out, possibly the best of all of these we have done. Excursions beyond the Inner Ring Road in two directions meant that we must have walked at least three miles during the day, some of it up and down some pretty steep hills. The company was as stimulating as always, despite the absence of one or two usual suspects, and the beer quality uniformly good to excellent. Although most of the pubs had a lot of different beers on, the turnover in busy town-centre locations was obviously sufficient to keep them in good nick. We didn’t have a sub-standard pint all day. The one possible caveat was that the beer ranges tended to very much major on the pale and citrusy, so the choice of traditional balanced beers was rather more limited.

Interestingly, the 1978 Good Beer Guide lists nine pubs under Huddersfield, but the only one visited on this day was the Commercial, which back then still just had Old Brewery Bitter, but on electric pump. And that’s not an entry in the current edition.

Thanks again to Peter Allen for the photos of the Sportsman and the Grove.

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Friday 15 March 2019

Transpennine trip – Part 1

Our latest Proper Day Out organised via the Beer & Pubs Forum took us across the Pennines to Huddersfield on Friday 8th March. While I’ve often passed through on the train, I had never actually been drinking in the town, so this was an entirely new experience for me. On the outward journey, the train took me along the fairly new Castlefield Curve which allows direct running between Manchester Piccadilly and Victoria. Outside Huddersfield’s imposing classically-themed station is a statue of local boy Harold Wilson, and I spotted a father (or maybe grandfather) taking a photo of his offspring as if to say “One day, son, you could be Prime Minister too!”

The walk down from the station involved passing three off-licences all advertising Polish beers almost next door to each other. The town centre features a wealth of handsome Victorian stone buildings, whose appearance has been much improved from the 1970s by cleaning away all the accumulated grime from coal smoke. Our meeting place was Sam Smith’s Commercial, a four-square, stone-built pub standing on the town’s main shopping street of New Street, but noticeably older than most of the surrounding buildings. Outside there was a blackboard advertising all the good-value beery delights to be found within. Is there any other pub operator in the country that routinely sells draught beer for as a little as £1.34 a pint?

Inside, it has two cosy rooms with bench seating on either side of the front door, plus a longer room with a pool table at the back left running along the side of the bar. It’s one of the nicest Sam Smith’s interiors I’ve come across, and if I lived locally it would certainly become a regular haunt. As always, there was just the one cask beer available, Old Brewery Bitter, at the usual bargain price of £2 a pint, although one of our party chose to have the keg Extra Stout instead. At just after noon, the pub was fairly quiet, but I have previously written about the buzzing atmosphere of booze, blokes and banter later in the day.

A short walk of no more than a couple of blocks brought us to the Albert on Victoria Lane, which had been included by virtue of its unspoilt National Inventory-listed interior. This aspect of it did not disappoint, with high ceilings and impressive wooden bar counters in both top and bottom rooms, the lower one being in a curved quadrant shape. However, as we expected, there was no real ale on, nor did it look as though there ever was any, and so we ended up with three halves of Carling and a glass of tap water, which actually only came to £3.45, suggesting a price of £2.30 a pint. Despite this, it was busy, and we stood for a few minutes until one of the drinkers in the lower room got up and left. Golf was showing on the numerous television screens, with the sound turned down, although nobody appeared to be watching.

Our next venue provided a complete contrast in the form of Mallinson’s Corner on Market Walk. As the name suggests, it occupies a rather hard-to-spot corner site on a pedestrianised alleyway. The inconspicuous door next to a health food shop opens on to a stairway that takes you up to an airy, square first-floor bar. While unashamedly modern in style, there’s a welcome absence of posing tables, and I quite liked it, finding it reminiscent of those first-floor restaurants above shops you used to see in town centres a generation ago. There’s also a spacious function room on the floor above, where you also have to ascend for the toilets.

As well as a selection of craft kegs, there were six cask beers on the bar, including a mixture of Mallinson’s own and guests. There’s also a wide range of traditional ciders. Those we had included Blue Bee Triple Hop, Mallinson’s Wappy Nick and Wishbone* Tiller Pin. It offers a shortish food menu that isn’t just the usual pub suspects, from which we chose beef brisket baguettes and chicken kebabs with aioli. The food was good, although the presentation of the kebabs was a bit “We Want Plates”. We were told off for trying to order individually rather than as a group. It was busy, with a mixed crowd rather than just obviously craft beer fans, the food presumably being an attraction on a Friday lunchtime.

There now followed a longish walk out beyond the Inner Ring Road and along the wide but quiet St John’s Road to the Magic Rock Brewery Tap, which the Good Beer Guide lists under “Birkby”, although it’s easily walkable from the town centre, and nearer than, say, the Blossoms from the centre of Stockport. This has become something of a place of pilgrimage for beer enthusiasts visiting Huddersfield, and the outside yard features a large amount of seating both outside and covered, plus a street food stall, to cater for weekend crowds.

Inside, it’s an archetypal industrial-chic brewery tap, with high ceiling, bare walls, concrete floor and seating almost entirely comprised of posing tables, although we did manage to claim one of the two at normal level. The beer range included a large selection of craft kegs and six Magic Rock cask beers, from which we had Hat Trick, described as a “classic bitter”, and Common Ground Porter. Several very small children were brought in and, although they were well-behaved, this did strike me as somewhat selfish on the part of their parents given that no food was being served, so it was solely a drinking visit. To be honest, not at all my kind of place, but the quality and choice of the beer could not be faulted and it has to be visited as part of a trip like this.

The same could certainly not be said of the Slubbers Arms, which occupies a triangular site on the corner of Willow Lane and Halifax Old Road. The name refers to a traditional wool treatment process. Now this was a proper pub and a half, with the sign on the door giving an indication of the atmosphere to be found within. The main part of the pub is two cosy sections on either side of a horseshoe bar, with bench seating and a real fire on each side. As it didn’t open until 3 pm, we were the first customers, so the fires had just been lit. There’s also a small separate snug in the apex of the building that could be closed off for private meetings. There was a piano in the small ante-room leaing to the toilets. Bizarrely, this pub appears in the Good Beer Guide under “Hillhouse”, even though it’s only five minutes’ walk from Magic Rock.

Now a free house, it was formerly a Taylor’s tied pub, and the beer range still centres on Boltmaker and Landlord, together with, on this occasion, Heritage Tremendous and Victoria Pale Ale, and Draycott Lamb & Flag. Interestingly, the three guest beers were all from Staffordshire. The photo, taken by Alex (aka Quosh) shows the assembled company, and the by now blazing fire. All the pints are either Boltmaker or Landlord – just look at those lacings! Definitely the highlight of the day for me, although there were several more excellent pubs to come later, which I will cover in the second instalment.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos of the Corner and Magic Rock and the exterior of the Slubbers Arms. Incidentally, I haven’t made any comment on beer quality, as all of it ranged between good and excellent. We didn’t have a single sub-standard pint all day.

A reminder for those reading this on a mobile who can’t see the sidebar, please cast your vote in my new poll on whether you’re really more interested in the pub or beer experience in pubs.

* Incidentally, Wishbone Brewery spectacularly shot themselves in the foot on Twitter by referring to the Carling brewery, featured in the recent TV documentary, as a “piss factory”.

Thursday 14 March 2019

It might even catch on

While I help run my local one, I can’t say I’m much of a fan of beer festivals as a customer. Standing around in a draughty municipal hall drinking warm, flat beers that I’ve never heard of doesn’t really appeal. I’d much rather have a cool, tasty pint of something familiar in a cosy pub.

However, my attention has been drawn to a beer festival with a difference being run by the Engineers Arms at Henlow in Bedfordshire. This is basically a selection of classic ales from well-known, accomplished breweries. There certainly aren’t any duds on that list. While it might be argued that many are pretty familiar, how true is that in practice? When did you last even see Double Dragon or Tanglefoot on the bar, let alone actually try one? And there are only two permanent Bass outlets in Bedfordshire.

Clearly a beer festival isn’t going to get far if it just offers beers that are already widely available in the local area. But it could be argued it needs some points of reference for customers to latch on to, such as special editions and one-offs from familiar brewers, or beers they’re likely to encounter when visiting other parts of the country. If all they’re presented with is a long list of beers that they have never heard of before, and are unlikely to ever get the chance to purchase again, they may not be too impressed. Perhaps this very obscurity is one of the reasons behind the decline in festival attendances over the past few years.

Maybe more pubs and festival organisers should try this sort of thing. You never know, it might even catch on. If Henlow was a little bit nearer I would certainly be tempted to pay a visit.

More cider watering

On February 1st, there was another small turn of the anti-drink ratchet when a new higher band of cider duty was introduced for products between 6.9% and 7.5% ABV. The detailed duty rates can be seen on the HMRC website. This passed with surprisingly little comment. As in other cases I’ve mentioned recently, the ostensible objective was to tackle products supposedly favoured by problem drinkers, specifically white cider, but as always it is impossible to come up with a watertight legal definition so everything ends up being hit.

I don’t routinely visit any retailers who stock Frosty Jack’s or other brands of white cider, so I can’t say whether it has had its strength reduced. However, looking at other products on the shelves, the strength of a 750ml bottle of Merrydown Original has been cut from 7.5% to 6.8%, while Aspall Premier Cru has fallen from 7.0% to 6.8%, which is pretty trivial and a bit of a no-brainer really. The Merrydown does have some “bangs per buck” appeal, but the Aspall is undoubtedly positioned as a premium product. Incidentally, the Merrydown bottle has a screw cap, so even though it still contains 5.1 units of alcohol it won’t fall foul of the Portman Group.

Other premium bottled ciders are unchanged, so Thatchers Vintage remains at 7.4% for now, and Weston’s Old Rosie at 7.3%, while Henry Weston’s Vintage, which even before was in the highest band, is still proudly at 8.2%. But, as with beer, the financial attraction of making products at these higher strengths is going to diminish over time. And what’s the betting that, before too long, the threshold for Higher Strength Beer Duty will see a similar reduction?

A reminder for those reading this on a mobile who can’t see the sidebar, please cast your vote in my new poll on whether you’re really more interested in the pub or beer experience in pubs.

Monday 11 March 2019

Selling your (Dover) sole

The Morning Advertiser has recently reported how pubs have grown to rival restaurants, with no less than seventeen now possessing Michelin stars. This is presented as though it is unalloyed good news, but should it really be seen as an entirely positive development?

Of course it is a truism to say that many, perhaps most, pubs would struggle to survive without serving food of some kind. However, there is a huge difference between offering snacks and functional food for people who are already in the area, and setting yourself up as a destination dining venue that people will make a special trip to visit.

I have written before how developing a destination food trade will, over time, tend to drive away other classes of customer. And that’s not just “drinkers” in a narrow sense, but anyone else who wants to partake in an activity other than eating, such as various sports, pub quizzes and meetings of clubs and societies. If you don’t feel at home if not dining, you will stop going.

While it may still have the outward appearance of a pub, it has in functional terms turned itself into a restaurant. In effect, it has sold its soul to continue in operation as a business. And is becoming a high-end gastropub really all that different from metamorphosing into an Indian restaurant or a convenience store? It certainly is unlikely to be much of a resource for its local community.

One of the Sunday papers recently ran a feature on the best pubs in Britain, and it was taken as read that each one would have, not a signature beer or cider, but a signature dish. A generation ago, that would have been unthinkable. In the early days of this blog, I asked whether it would have been better all round if pubs and restaurants had gone their separate ways. Of course, that particular ship has long since sailed, but I can’t help thinking it’s still just as true today.

Incidentally, for those reading this on a mobile who can’t see the sidebar, please cast your vote in my new poll on whether you’re really more interested in the pub or beer experience in pubs.

Friday 8 March 2019

Surely they don’t mean us

Earlier this week, I reported on how craft beer enthusiasts were outraged at being subject to the same restrictions on large containers of strong beers than were intended to deal with products favoured by problem drinkers. Now much the same is happening in the world of food.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently imposed a ban on any adverts for “junk food” being displayed on the Tube network. This is a grossly objectionable and illiberal measure which is preventing the advertising of perfectly legal products that are enjoyed by millions. Even if the supposed justification was valid, it is in any case unlikely to have any significant effect. It is just another case of “something must be done”.

The problem is that the ban is using the definition of “HFSS” food, that is food that is high in fat, salt or sugar. This includes many items than most people would regard as natural and wholesome, such as orange juice, butter, full-fat cheese and milk, and many meat products including bacon. So a company called Farmdrop who supply mixed boxes of supposedly natural fair trade foods found that they had fallen foul of this by showing a photo including bacon and butter. They wrote about it in pretty aggrieved terms on their blog:

Naturally, we were pretty shocked that a picture of some fresh groceries with a healthy mixture of fruits and vegetables, dairy, eggs and cupboard staples would flout TfL’s new junk food rules. But it turns out that TfL score foods individually according to a nutrient profiling model created by the Government. It’s a pretty crude measure and means that foods you would still think of as junk, like fizzy drinks with artificial sweeteners or low-fat fried foods, could in some scenarios comply with the new regulations.

Take McDonald’s. Last year, the fast-food chain was allowed to run a Happy Meal advert during children’s television and it passed the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA’s) standards for healthy food, which are the same standards TfL are now using for the junk food ban. According to the ASA, a McDonald’s Happy Meal is not a junk food product because 80% of the mains, and 100% of the sides are non-HFSS. But swapping out sugar for a sweetener or fruit for chips, doesn’t detract from the fact that this is still a fast food company promoting meals with fried foods to kids.

Yet they still say they support the ban on principle, just not when it happens to apply to them. Of course, “junk food” is a an extremely vague and subjective concept, and often seems to add up to nothing more than “food that working-class people enjoy”. This attitude is satirised in another Daily Mash article entitled It’s not a takeaway when we do it, say middle class people. As has very wisely been said, there is no such thing as junk food, only junk diets.

As with potentially “harmful” alcoholic drinks, any attempt to produce a hard and fast definition of “junk food” is inevitably going to be a very broad brush that will sweep up many products that nobody would have considered fell within that category. Again following the example of alcohol, maybe the answer is to employ Jamie Oliver to decide what is healthy middle-class gourmet fare, and what is artery-furring plebeian slop.

And the question must be asked whether it would be a better use of Sadiq Khan’s time and energy to concentrate on the epidemic of lethal knife crime sweeping the capital rather than engaging in such pointless and illiberal gesture politics.

Wednesday 6 March 2019

Dubbel standard

Alcohol watchdog the Portman Group have recently published new guidelines on the packaging of alcoholic drinks which seek to impose a limit of four units in any single non-resealable container. This has got SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) up in arms about the perceived threat to the new wave of very strong craft beers that are often packaged in large cans and bottles of up to 750 ml. They contrast products that “are savoured, enjoyed slowly and shared” with “super strong, super cheap lagers and ciders that are abused by some members of society.”

However, this comes across as a glaring piece of double standards, where what is seen as acceptable for well-heeled middle class connoisseurs cannot also be allowed for the irresponsible drunken plebs. While there may be a substantial amount of truth in their assertion, you can’t make policy on the basis of the intention of the producers, and the dividing line is not necessarily as clear-cut as it may seem. This is especially true in relation to ciders – is a 500ml bottle of Henry Weston’s Vintage Cider, which is 8.2% and contains 4.1 units, on sale at three for a fiver in Morrisons, a premium craft product, or just a slightly classier form of tramp juice?

I wrote about this a couple of years ago when discussing proposed restrictions on “white ciders”, and the attitude was also satirised by the Daily Mash in their report entitled Middle class alcohol ‘less alcoholic than all other alcohol’. I concluded that “Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.”

And, if price is to be the sole criterion, it brings to mind John Stuart Mill’s statement that “Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

The Portman Group proposals also include a considerable amount of flexibility taking into account factors such as the premium status, price point and the likelihood of sharing actually taking place, so it’s very hard to see exactly what SIBA are getting so worked up about. The restriction could also be avoided by using either screwcaps or wired cork stoppers, which make the bottle resealable.

It also has to be questioned why it is seen as necessary to put such strong beers in large bottles anyway. For most of living memory, strong beers in Britain were sold in nip bottles, or half-pints at the most. What is the point of a bottle containing more than a normal person would want to consume at one go? Yes, of course they can be shared, and there’s plenty of evidence that they often are, but the same result could be achieved with two smaller bottles. Plus, if you do want to appreciate these beers without a like-minded companion, it limits your options. It should also be remembered that cans of Carlsberg Special and the like carry pious messages saying “ideal for sharing”.

This is another example of the sense of entitlement found amongst many in the craft beer community, which leads them to believe that they shouldn’t be bound by the rules that apply to ordinary mortals. It’s fine for crafties to have all-you-can-drink offers, childish cartoon characters on cans, and strong beers in big bottles, but extremely dangerous for the great unwashed.

By all means campaign vigorously against the Portman Group’s restrictive nannying as it applies to all beers and ciders. I’m not defending it for a minute. But objecting to it only when it affects expensive products favoured by middle-class aficionados comes across as an exercise in snobbery and hypocrisy.

Monday 4 March 2019


The March edition of CAMRA’s monthly newspaper What’s Brewing contained a long letter from seven representatives of young members’ groups complaining that the organisation wasn’t doing enough to encourage the participation of younger people. Specifically, it was accused of becoming a “pensioners’ drinking club” and being “riddled with accusations of sexism and cronyism.” Given the prominence given to the letter, it seems clear that it was to some degree encouraged by the CAMRA hierarchy.

However, it has emerged into the public domain and over the weekend generated pieces in both the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail, which didn’t exactly show the organisation in a good light. And the question must be asked whether, regardless of the substance of the complaints, the best way to advance them was in a way that came across as the divisive playing of identity politics and disrespectful of the older generation.

Like most other similar organisations, CAMRA has an ageing membership profile, and inevitably the general social ambiance and the activities it runs will reflect that. Experience has shown that events designed specifically to attract younger members have often fallen flat on their face, and run the risk of coming across as patronising. And what aspects of “campaigning for real ale” are specifically youth-oriented anyway? Do the younger members of the RSPB favour spotting different birds from their older colleagues? Is it actually helpful to create a kind of young people’s ghetto?

The general tenor of conversation will naturally follow the inclinations of those involved, but many of the accusations of sexism come across as overdone and manufactured by people who are setting out to seek offence. When we have widespread problems of rape gangs, sex trafficking and female genital mutilation, is it really worth getting worked up about a cartoon fox on a pumpclip? And it’s a bit rich complaining about sexism when you are yourself undertaking an exercise that could be regarded as an example of ageism.

While things may be different at a branch level, a visit to CAMRA’s online Discourse discussion forum will quickly reveal that the “modernisers” very much hold sway, and those of a more traditional bent are often given short shrift.

On the ground, it is true that a high proportion of positions are held by over-50s, which is going to become a growing problem in the coming years. But younger people are simply not coming forward to fill their shoes. I’d be very surprised if any branches were actively discouraging younger volunteers – they can’t afford to. It seems that kind of volunteer work in general no longer holds the attraction it once did – this isn’t a problem unique to CAMRA. In the long term, surely the best way to change things in any organisation is actually to get involved rather than just to complain from the sidelines.

Maybe this also indicates that last year’s much-vaunted Revitalisation project hasn’t actually solved anything, and indeed has left CAMRA less clear about what it actually stands for. As I’ve argued before, there is a fundamental divide between those who want it to support good beer in all forms (however defined) and those who want to concentrate on championing a particular distinctive British tradition. The two are mutually exclusive objectives, and the cracks can only be papered over so far. It could be considered to be rather like our two main political parties which recent months have shown to be composed of increasingly incompatible bedfellows.

Friday 1 March 2019

Refreshing the parts others cannot reach

Recently, somebody posed the question on Twitter as to which subjects did not get sufficient attention from beer writers. There were the predictable right-on responses championing increasingly obscure minorities, but one thing that struck me that they rarely touch on is the experience of ordinary, non-enthusiast drinkers.

This is a charge that cannot be levelled at Britainbeermat, whose Life After Football blog regularly chronicles the pubgoing experiences that others cannot, or choose not to, reach. For example, he was recently in the Bell Inn at Tile Hill, Coventry, where he observed:

...considering it is around 2pm on a Monday then there is a reasonable crowd in and a large group of 50/60/70 somethings are making their presence felt in the lounge...

...One of the group was leaving with a walking frame and he was getting plenty of stick with one particular sage warning him not to hit the accelerator button otherwise he’d end up in Canley!

the menu didn’t appear to have any food over £8...

Now, there is nothing particularly special or wonderful about this place, and to be honest it isn’t really a pub that I would choose to spend much time in. But here were people enjoying themselves in a pub at a typically slack time of the week a world away from the “beer bubble”.

Of course, if you want to concentrate on the rare, innovative, unusual and expensive in the beer world, that is your prerogative. Indeed the same can be said of most of the food writing you come across in the media. But it would help if you accepted your enthusiasm for what it is – a middle-class niche interest – and stopped trying to pretend that you were being marvellously inclusive or doing your bit to change the world for the better.

And it must be remembered that, in the early days of CAMRA, this certainly wasn’t the case. They were celebrating beers that were drunk by ordinary people, often in large quantities, without a thought as to their wider significance, and the Good Beer Guide included plenty of pubs described as “Basic drinking pub” and “Unspoilt working man’s local” (both of these in the Salford entry in the 1978 edition). It doesn’t any more.