Saturday 27 April 2019

A load of froth

It’s generally taken as read that beer in the North has a thick creamy head, while Southern beer is flat. There’s a fair bit of truth in this – but why has this division come about? What follows are just a few reflections based on my personal experience, and I don’t claim they represent any kind of definitive answer to the question.

The first thought is that, broadly speaking, the North was much more industrialised than the South. This led to greater population density, and many more pubs needing to cater for hordes of thirsty miners and factory workers. Therefore turnover was higher, and beer in the North was, quite simply, usually fresher. Even when dispensed straight from the cask, newly tapped beer will still produce a thick, frothy head, although that will largely disappear once it has been on sale for a couple of days.

The distinction is certainly long established and not a recent phenomenon. In his book The Brewing Industry 1950-1990, Anthony Avis describes how, in the 1950s, beer in the North-East was typically served with a head standing proud of the glass which drinkers would proceed to blow off onto the floor, while in Norfolk, “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.”

Another factor is the use of electric metered dispense with oversize glasses, which obviously allows a head to form in the glass above the surface of the beer. These were widely adopted in the North and Midlands from the early 60s onwards, but never caught on to any extent in the South – the only Southern pubs I’m aware used them were a handful of Gales tied houses. I understand they were introduced by brewers because they believed that it was in principle illegal to serve any short measure, so this system would allow them to continue meeting the local customer preference for a thick head. In my early drinking years in North Cheshire in the late 1970s, metered dispense was the norm, and handpumps a relative rarity.

In my view, this was a better system than handpumps, as it ensured full measure, was much quicker in a busy pub, and largely removed the ability of bar staff to ruin a pint by poor pulling technique, although obviously that battle is now lost. From the late 1970s, following case law that allowed, within reason, the head to be defined as part of a pint, most brewers stopped installing them, and they gradually died out over the next twenty years. Their only remaining stronghold is in the club trade in the North-East, albeit pretty much always with keg rather than cask beers.

But, in the 1960s and 70s, if you went in the average pub across much of the Midlands and North, you would be likely to be served your beer in an oversize glass with a thick head reaching almost to the top, whereas in the South you would get beer from a handpump with a head no more than a quarter of an inch deep, or often just a thin coating of foam on the top. It’s also worth adding that, in the South, you would often get keg beer with little or no head as well. Getting a pint of totally flat-looking beer with plenty of CO2 still dissolved in it was a touch disconcerting.

Where handpumps were used, the difference, while still there, was not so great. Pubs in the North-West did generally use sparklers, but they were just the short stainless steel type that screwed on to the end of the pump nozzle, and could be tightened or loosened as desired. A few rural pubs still served their beer on gravity. One feature that was commonplace, both on handpumps and meters, was the “dog’s dick”, a conical white plastic device that screwed on to the pump nozzle, with an extension that emerged from the centre when beer was pulled through it to aerate it more, hence the name. You never see those any more.

However, cross the Pennines into West Yorkshire and you would encounter something completely different – a pint pulled with an incredibly tight, creamy head that initially looked like milk and took several minutes to clear. I hadn’t really done much drinking in that part of the world, and remember being taken aback when I first came across this system in a Taylor’s pub in Heptonstall in about 1984. It was also commonplace in Tetley’s pubs. This was made possible by the use of the “economiser”, a device which allowed the recycling of spilt beer collected in the drip tray, so it was possible to pull a pint and let a lot of beer cascade down the side of the glass without wasting it. This obviously raised some hygiene concerns, but it undoubtedly, with fresh, lively beer, produced an extremely smooth and distinctive pint that literally could be described as “silk in a glass”.

This system never really spread beyond West Yorkshire and Humberside, although there is a small outpost in and around Edinburgh. Even there, some local authorities took exception to it on hygiene grounds, and forced the brewers to come up with an alternative. What this involved was using a handpump with a quarter-pint rather than half-pint cylinder, and a long “swan-neck” pipe that reached to the bottom of the glass, so pretty much all of the beer was being dispensed within the liquid in the glass rather than cascading on top of it.

Done properly, this gave a decent approximation of the economiser-style pint, and it rapidly spread across most of the North where economisers never reached. Swan-necks are now the standard means of real ale dispense. As with economisers, if the beer is fresh and full of condition, it can produce very good results, but with beer that has been on sale for several days you can end up with a lovely-looking pint of utter glop, with the sparkler having knocked any remaining life out of it. Another problem is that they make it all too easy to serve seriously short measures.

The 1990s saw the rise of “smooth” keg ales, which were initially developed as an extension of the Guinness dispense system, first seen in Caffrey’s, but rapidly became more of an attempt to replicate the look and mouthfeel of swan-neck dispensed real ale. They certainly do look the part, but in my view have a rather “soapy” feel to them and don’t come anywhere near that actual drinking experience of cask. These have now spread across the South, retaining the same thick creamy head, but are still seen as something distinctively “Northern”, underlined by the advertising message of John Smith’s, the leading brand. Non-smooth keg ales have now largely disappeared outside the craft sector – would a pint of keg Courage Best ecountered in a South-East pub now also be smoothflow?

As I said, not the full story, just a few thoughts from my own experience on how we have arrived at the present-day situation. And it’s interesting how memory of how things used to be fades, so fewer and fewer people will even be aware that electric metered dispense was once widespread, or the typical handpump had a half-pint cylinder, or there were such things as “dog’s dicks”, and even those who were around at the time may struggle to recall them.

Sunday 21 April 2019

The craft monoculture

Last week I described how the craft beer movement had, in Europe, to a large extent ended up making its pitch against established, indigenous beer styles rather than the international brewers. This is a theme that is echoed in this recent blogpost by Will Hawkes:

What is important is variety and regional diversity: craft beer is making everything the same, everywhere. It emerged to challenge industrial pale lager’s hegemony by allowing customers to access a whole world of other flavours - but it appears to be on the way to creating a market that is almost as monocultural. I appreciate being able to get what I want to drink in London, from IPA to witbier, but it’d be better if there was more that spoke specifically of London.

What is the point of craft beer if what you get in Strasbourg tastes largely the same as what you drink in Glasgow? Mikkeller is opening a new bar in Paris later this month; Brewdog has dozens already. This is not exciting. Regional variety is exciting.

All too often, craft’s appeal seems to be that you can now have a Five Guys and not just a McDonald’s, while conveniently ignoring all the chip shops that have closed down.

He reckons that the bubble has now well and truly burst:

The shine has decisively gone off craft beer, and its previous calling card - It’s innovative! It’s new! - is all used up. (That’s why the scenesters are moving on to natural wine: it’s exciting and new and when it gets dull … well, there’ll be something else along in a few years.) The interesting stuff is happening at the fringes - coolships, barrel-aging - and the obsession with intense hop-dosed beers is dragging what remains away from the mainstream, deep into trainspotter territory.
He suggests that part of the reaction is “the fetishisation of ales like Landlord and Sussex Best”. However, I’d argue this is very limited and in general tends to be no more than paying lip service to tradition. “Oh, I really like some of those real ales”. But the trail rapidly goes cold beyond a few familiar names, and I see precious little evidence of enthusiasts actively seeking out these classic British ales on their home turf, in the way that CAMRA members did in its early years.

As he concludes, “in a world where everyone is doing the same thing, going back to where you began is the only sensible thing to do.”

Saturday 20 April 2019

Voodoo marketing

I was rather amused by the latest Foster’s ad which pokes fun at beer snobs and their liking for “fancy pants beers”. Note the sandpapering of the cricket ball.

I can’t locate the story, but I remember reading a few years back about how a mainstream lager was successfully passed off as a craft blonde beer at a beer festival in Ireland. It has certainly happened in Australia.

Saturday 13 April 2019

Never the twain

You often nowadays see “craft” and “cask” being treated as two entirely separate and mutually exclusive categories, both in discussion about beer and in publicity material. The pub advertising board shown at the right is a typical example. On the face of it, this seems nonsensical, as surely much cask beer ideally fits the textbook definition of craft production as small-scale and handcrafted.

However, the way it has arisen stems from the way the term “craft”, in a beer context, was borrowed from the USA. As I described here, in that country the existing tradition of small-scale, regional brewing had largely died out by the early 1970s, so what began as the microbrewery movement, and later metamorphosed into craft, was starting with a clean slate, and could concentrate all its efforts on differentiating itself from “big beer”.

The UK, though, was different, as it had preserved a substantial stratum of small and medium-sized breweries majoring on its own unique ale-brewing tradition, and had a further layer of newer microbreweries on top of this. But when the craft beer movement was transplanted from across the Atlantic in the 2000s, it decided to set out its stall in opposition to this existing tradition rather than the industry giants. Real ale, much more so than international lager, was what they were not.

Real ale culture was seen as fuddy-duddy, narrow-minded and inward-looking, whereas craft beer was modern, youthful, dynamic and international. This was most marked in BrewDog’s PR schtick, but it extended much more widely than that. And a key point of that differentiation was that craft brewers produced modern keg beers which, we were assured, were nothing like Red Barrel.

This division wasn’t entirely one-sided, and many real ale supporters have been critical of craft beer, but the initial impetus for it very much came from the craft side. This is underlined by the dimissive attitude many craft enthusiasts take towards the independent family brewers, who for many years were the principal standard-bearers of quality beer in this country.

Of course, many of what are considered as craft brewers do produce cask beers, and some major on it, but the cultural connotations of the two concepts remain diametrically opposed, and that is why they have become established in the public mind as mutually exclusive categories. Craft beer, essentially, is fashionable beer that does not carry the baggage of either real ale or mainstream lager.

Although sections of the beer commentariat may rail against it, it must be recognised that many of the products regarded by the drinking public as “craft” are in fact owned by the international brewers, to a much greater extent than real ales, and this has only been intensified by the big brewers’ craft acquisitions of recent years. And, if the US definition of craft (which has more to do with company size and independence than type of product) was extrapolated across the Atlantic, the likes of Greene King and Marston’s would certainly quality. They are smaller in terms of market share than Boston Brewing and Sierra Nevada are the USA.

It’s also noticeable how, in other countries with long-established brewing traditions such as Belgium and Germany, craft beer is usually taken to mean something different from their own indigenous styles, and very often is an international-style, heavily hopped IPA. As I said in the article I linked to above, real ale, and other countries’ own individual styles, is beer from somewhere, craft is beer from anywhere.

Sunday 7 April 2019

Supping with the devil

It was disappointing, to say the least, that, earlier today, a motion supporting minimum alcohol pricing was passed at CAMRA’s National Conference in Dundee. A similar policy had been struck down a few years ago following a motion proposed by Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, who argued that it represented “being on the wrong side of the debate”. However, it has now risen again from the dead.

I have set out the case against this in several magazine columns over the years, in April 2012, April 2013 and May last year, so I don’t propose to reiterate the arguments in detail. It’s fundamentally objectionable as it represents “prohibition by price”. It won’t do anything to boost the pub trade, and won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs. There is also the distinct possibility that any increase over the current Scottish level of 50p per unit will start to hit the cheaper end of the pub trade. And this stance comes across as distinctly hypocritical when CAMRA is handing out vouchers for 50p off a pint in Wetherspoon’s which could easily take the price of stronger beers below the Scottish minimum.

As with the support given by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, this comes across as a nihilistic, dog-in-the-manger lashing out at parts of the drinks trade CAMRA doesn’t particularly approve of. But, as alcohol industry commentator Paul Chase points out here, you can’t pick and choose from the anti-drink agenda.

The anti-drink lobby represents an existential threat to everything CAMRA holds dear. They only claim to support pubs over off-trade drinking because it suits their purposes at a particular time. By trying to cherry-pick from their policy proposals, CAMRA are allowing themselves to become their useful idiots. As Churchill famously said “an appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”.

I’ve been a member of CAMRA for thirty-eight years, for most of that period as a Life Member. I’ve done thousands of hours of unpaid work for it. When I took up Life Membership, at a bargain price available at the time, a friend made the point that he wouldn’t do so, as it removed the potential sanction of resigning, if the organisation took a policy stance he strongly disagreed with. To jack it in would clearly be an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face, and ironically would actually save CAMRA money. But if I was an annual member, I’d certainly think long and hard about whether it was worth renewing, and it makes me much less inclined to lift a finger to help the organisation except out of loyalty to friends.

One consolation is that, in practice, CAMRA is unlikely to actually do very much to pursue such a policy and, judging by the reaction on Twitter, many local branches will be disinclined to lift a finger. It’s also worth noting that the motion was passed by 264 to 148, a total of 412 votes. That’s less than a quarter of one percent of CAMRA’s total membership. Is it really acceptable in this wired and connected age for such important policy decisions to be taken by such a tiny and unrepresentative group?

Saturday 6 April 2019

Ever decreasing circles

This week, the Morning Advertiser reported on the state of the cask market. Taking the continued commitment of CAMRA, and the re-entry of fashionable brewers such as BrewDog and Cloudwater, into account, it pronounced the overall result “a mixed bag”. However, in reality, it’s no more a mixed bag than the proverbial curate’s egg was actually “good in parts”.

The key statistic is buried half-way down the page, that in the year to January 2019, the total cask market accounted for 2.4 million hectolitres, which is 1.466 million barrels. This represents a volume decline of over 10% compared with the previous year. Given that, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, the total on-trade beer market in 2018 was 12.651 million barrels, that means that cask barely accounts for 1 in 9 pints sold, compared with 1 in 6 only a few years ago.

And that decline, while depressing in itself, contributes towards one of cask’s key problems. CAMRA’s WhatPub site states that there are 35,574 pubs in the UK serving cask beer. Even discounting clubs and beer festivals, that means that each pub only accounts for 41.2 barrels a year, or a mere 228 pints a week. That means that, assuming a pub gets its beer in the usual 9-gallon firkins, it will only be able to keep two cask lines in decent condition, whereas simple observation suggests that the average is a lot more than that.

When it’s fresh, and bursting with flavour and condition, cask can be great. But when it’s past its best, it can be distinctly underwhelming, and hardly a good advertisement for the category. So this creates a vicious circle, whereby poor pints put people off drinking it, thus contributing to even more poor pints. Everybody in the industry knows that over-ranging is a massive problem, but nobody is prepared to act alone for fear of being the person who blinked first and thus lost trade to the competition. There’s also a widespread perception that many drinkers knowingly put choice ahead of consistent quality: if one pint isn’t up to much, they just write it off to experience and move on to something else.

Cask also does itself no favours by making the category difficult to understand. A couple of weeks ago, I had a wander round a few pubs on the south side of Manchester city centre. All of these were pubco outlets, and none could really be described as specifically pitched to enthusiasts. The average number of cask lines was five, and in every one you were confronted with a seemingly random array of mostly unfamiliar beers. If someone like me, who is probably in the top 1% of beer drinkers in terms of being knowledgeable about the industry, has to ponder what might be to his liking, what chance has the average drinker?

If you are a lager drinker, in pretty much every pub you go in apart from the narrowly enthusiast-focused ones, you will see at least two or three recognisable brands on the bar and know what to expect, but if you are a cask drinker, you are expected to take pot luck. The most recent annual Cask Report said that 84% of drinkers wanted to see at least one well-known cask brand on the bar, but many pubs deliberately avoid that. That is not to say that pubs should not have varying guest beers too, but having a core of familiar beers that are regularly on makes the category more accessible and may help develop a reputation as somewhere worth visiting precisely because it does stock a particular beer.

I wrote about this in detail last year in a post entitled The Cask Crisis. There are no simple answers, especially in a fragmented and dog-eat-dog marketplace where it is all too easy to lose ground to competitors. Most of us reading this will be well aware of pubs that do manage to produce consistently good beer, and choose our drinking destinations accordingly, but the battle for cask will not be won by preaching to the converted but by winning over the marginal drinkers who are all too easily put off by stale beers they’ve never heard of.

In the Cask Crisis article, I made the point that the fate of cask ultimately lay in the hands of the brewing and pub industry. Nobody else is going to save it for them. But it would help if those who claim to speak up on its behalf paid more than lip-service to the idea that over-ranging was a major issue, and weren’t so ready to denigrate those well-known cask beers that drinkers are actually likely to see on the bar more than once. It might also be a good idea if someone could produce a guide to those pubs that, irrespective of breadth of range or rarity of the beer, did serve up a consistently good pint. I wonder what that could be called...

Wednesday 3 April 2019

A ban too far?

In the past, I’ve often praised the way Sam Smith’s preserve a traditional, cosy atmosphere of pub conviviality and conversation in a way that sets them apart from any of their competitors. In a Sam’s pub, you’re likely to find comfortable bench seating and a real fire, but you won’t find any TV sport or piped music and, while many do serve food, it isn’t allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all else, and you’re unlikely to suffer screaming children running around.

Much of this has been achieved by pursuing policies that come across as distinctly idiosyncratic, to say the least, but in the right location, combined with very competitive prices, it certainly does work, and results in some extremely busy and bustling pubs. But, in the past couple of years, there has been a feeling that some of the diktats emanating from Tadcaster are beginning to lose touch with reality.

First came the swearing ban. Now, most people don’t want to walk into a pub and be confronted with a wave of effing and blinding. However, surely it is something best left to individual licensees rather than being the subject of an edict from head office. It’s hard to define precisely and very difficult to enforce – away from the bar, one of the Sam’s pubs I visit still must be about the sweariest place in the locality.

Then, last Autumn, came a ban on taking card payments, so the pubs were cash only. In practice, even before, there had been a minimum spend of £20, so it only applied to groups who were eating and had no impact on drinkers. This was prompted by the EU making it illegal to impose surcharges on card payments. However, it seems perverse to turn potential business away, and I have seen groups come in to Sam’s pubs and be nonplussed that they can’t pay for a meal with a card.

They have now gone one step further by, as widely reported over the weekend, imposing a ban on using mobile phones in their pubs. A memo sent out by chairman Humphrey Smith says:

“...the brewery's policy is not to allow customers mobile phones, laptops or similar inside our pubs. If a customer receives a call then he or she should go outside to take it in the same way as is required with smoking. Whether outside or inside, tablets and iPads must be prohibited. Customers must not be allowed to receive transmitted pictures of sport or downloads music apps on the brewery's premises either inside or outside.”
When they were first introduced, mobile phones were widely derided as fashion accessories for yuppies who would shout “OK yah!” and “I’m on the train!” into them. However, like it or not, they have now become an integral part of modern life, and only a small minority of adults don’t possess one. This is especially true following the widespread takeup of smartphones over the past decade.

Perhaps it’s not that unreasonable to discourage people from holding loud phone conversations in the pub, or from listening to music or sports commentaries on their devices. But using a phone to browse the Internet in silence is little different in principle from reading the newspaper, and whether this is also prohibited is not entirely made clear. Indeed the solo drinker might well now be more likely to check their phone than to read the paper. And many a pub debate is resolved by consulting Wikipedia to check the facts. It may be hard for Humphrey Smith to comprehend, but plenty of 73-year-old blokes in Yorkshire now have smartphones.

Like the swearing ban, this policy poses an obvious issue of enforceability, and also has the potential to seriously sour relations between customers and staff if there is any serious attempt to ensure it is adhered to. What may before have come across as a laudable desire to plough your own furrow could now have turned into shooting yourself in the foot.

Last weekend, I was in one Sam Smith’s pub where I was browsing on my phone, and the licensee came round collecting glasses, but didn’t say a word. And, in another one, the licensee himself was standing behind the bar checking his phone. In one that I sometimes go in there’s no signal inside the pub anyway, so it won’t make any difference.

It’s also worth noting that both the cash-only policy and the mobile phone ban only apply in Sam’s Northern region. Maybe a little more commercial reality intrudes in the South, or it is viewed as a place of irretrievable decadence. Or, possibly, those pubs are too distant for Humphrey Smith to make a sudden unannounced visit.