Wednesday 19 June 2019

In the land of Bass and Pedi – Part 2

We pick up our story in the back room of the Vaults in Uttoxeter. The next pub on the itinerary was the Plough on Stafford Road, but this was the best part of a mile out of the town centre, and generally in an uphill direction, which didn’t look a particularly appealing prospect on a showery afternoon. However, our luck was in as Paul Mudge had managed to persuade his wife Jackie to drive out from Stafford to give us a lift, which was extremely generous of her. He said that he was fortunate to be married to someone who literally drove him to drink!

The Plough is a white-painted roadside pub that presumably was there long before the suburban housing that now surrounds it. Inside there’s a narrow area with a few posing tables in the centre by the bar, a dining area at a lower level to the left and a plainer public bar-type area to the right, where we managed to find a table. It’s a pleasant, although not strikingly plush, pub, and taking a look at the menu some of the prices seemed rather steep, especially compared with those in the Bank House. “Carry on Wayward Son” by Kansas was playing as we walked in.

There was a little more choice of cask beers here, with Pedigree being joined by Hop Back Crop Circle, Wainwright and the local Uttoxeter American IPA. The American IPA and Pedigree were both pretty good, although the latter fell a little short of that in the Bank House. While it’s a decent pub, we weren’t convinced it would have really justified the walk out of town. Reading the description on WhatPub, it was rescued from a period of closure by new owners at the end of last year.

We were duly decanted back in the town centre and made our way to the Old Star on Queen Street, a narrow street that is separated from the main part of the market place by a block of buildings. This has been altered rather more than some of the previous pubs, but retains a rambling interior with various different areas including a pool room with a tiled floor and bench seating at the rear. The atmosphere seemed a little more lively, and we were greeted by loud music which seemed to be majoring on the Cure’s Greatest Hits. One of us changed the mood by putting “Back in Black” by AC/DC on the jukebox.

On the bar were Doom Bar and Jennings’ Cumberland Ale alongside Bass. The Bass was pretty good, but the person who chose the Cumberland found out that in Uttoxeter it’s best to stick to Bass or Pedi as they’re likely to turn over much quicker. It wasn’t returnable, but rather lacklustre.

Our next call was the Horse & Dove which is just around the corner on the aforementioned island block of buildings. While it claims to be Uttoxeter’s first micropub, it doesn’t conform to the purist Herne model, being a fairly spacious single room that in fact is larger than the front two rooms of the Vaults, with all the seating at a normal height. It has lager, spirits, piped music and separate gents’ and ladies’ WCs, so realistically is just a smallish modern bar. It was fairly busy, as you might expect at teatime on a Friday. There were six cask beers in total on the bar, from which we selected Wantsum Yellowtail, Uttoxeter Groundbreaker and S43 Raven from Country Durham, all of which were rated good.

There now followed the longest inter-pub walk of the day, taking a full four or five minutes up the pedestrianised High Street to the Smithfield. This is a substantial redbrick street-corner pub with a public bar at the front and a larger lounge stretching a fair way back along the side of the building. This was still pretty basic, with a bare wooden floor throughout, and had a distinctly lively atmosphere. This was the busiest pub of all those visited on the day.

The soundtrack seemed to be “Hits of the 70s”, including “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond and “Wig Wam Bam” by The Sweet. It could be said that Uttoxeter’s musical tastes are another aspect of the town that are stuck in something of a time warp. We encountered a very large, friendly retired greyhound, which must count as best pub animal of the day. The sole cask beer was Pedigree, which again was pretty decent.

We then returned to the market place to the Black Swan, which is on a side street very close to the Old Star. The pub names in this part of town must be a source of confusion. This has a side passageway running the length of the pub, with a single door giving access to two rooms, both of which are labelled “Bar” and contain a dartboard. We chose the small and cosy front one; the one at the rear is much more spacious, with extensive bench seating around the walls.

“Fire and Ice” by Pat Benatar was playing as we walking in; Peter Allen later put “Stay With Me Till Dawn” by Judie Tzuke on the jukebox, as he was going to see her in concert in Birmingham the following night. There followed a predictable discussion about various singers’ ages – Judie Tzuke is, I was pleased to learn, three years older than me. More very palatable Bass, although Peter had by this time had his fill of BBB and plumped for that other classic product of Burton, Carling.

We thought we would finish off the day by calling in the only pub in the town centre we hadn’t yet done, the Steeplechase. Previously called the White Horse, this is a modern pub closing off the eastern end of the market place, which internally has been knocked through into a single cavernous room. However, the two pumpclips on the bar had been turned room, and the barman seemed to sense what we were looking for and told us without prompting that there was no real ale. So we returned to the Vaults for a final drop of Bass before the short walk back to the station. Unlike our last trip to Rugby, all the homeward trains were on time.

So another very enjoyable day out, with good beer, good pubs and good company. Some may balk at the limited choice of beer available, but it’s rare that you get to sample two of Britain’s classic ales on their home territory, and get to compare them between different pubs. It’s also unusual to get the opportunity to visit every pub in a town centre which gives much more of a feel for the place than just dipping in to a select handful of highlights. Obviously they were all different, and catered to some extent to a distinct clientele, but every one had something to be said for it, and, as long as you stuck to Bass and Pedi in the pubs that served them, we didn’t encounter any sub-standard beer. Uttoxeter seems a fairly prosperous place and there was little evidence of vacant shop premises on the main streets.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for all the photos used in this post.

Monday 17 June 2019

In the land of Bass and Pedi - Part 1

The Staffordshire market town of Uttoxeter is best known for its racecourse and being the home of JCB and Elkes Biscuits. The name will also be familiar to travellers from the roundabout creating a bottleneck on the A50 between Stoke and Derby. It has a reputation for being somewhat insular and behind the times, which is reflected in its pub stock still being mainly composed of traditional boozers, and dominated by the Burton classics of Draught Bass and Marston’s Pedigree. This made it a contrast with some of our earlier Beer & Fubs Forum Proper Days Out, which have aimed to cover a wide variety of beers and types of pub.

Our numbers were somewhat depleted, but four of us managed to meet up on Stoke Station, where Paul Mudge had time for a swift drop of Titanic Cherry Mild in their Bod bar on the southbound plaftform. We then had a 25-minute train ride through the lush but rather waterlogged East Staffordshire countryside to Uttoxeter, where the station lies between the racecourse and the town instelf. A short walk past Waitrose and the long-closed Wheatsheaf pub brought us to our first port of call, Wetherspoon’s Old Swan just off the market place.

The name suggests it may have been an old coaching inn, but in fact a little research reveals that it was previously a furniture store. It has a fairly typical Wetherspoon interior, with the bar along the left-hand wall, and a variety of comfortable seating areas at a slightly higher level spreading out to the right. It had a rather elegant carpet in a wavy pattern, and pictures and photos by local artists on the wall. Even just after 11 am, it was reasonably busy, although the clientele seemed to be more gentlefolk enjoying a morning coffee than the hardcore morning Spoons boozers on the John Smith’s Smooth.

It avoided the frequent Wetherspoon’s problem of having too many beers on the bar by sensibly limiting the number of cask lines to six – the usual suspects of Doom Bar, Ruddles and Abbot, together with the local Lymestone Foundation Stone, Rudgate Ruby Mild and Pheasantry Mikado Mild. Despite reports of declining beer quality in some Wetherspoon’s branches, both the Foundation Stone and Ruby Mild were in very good nick.

We then moved on to the Olde Talbot, which dominates the market place from the western end. It’s an old gabled inn claiming to date from the 16th century, with a projecting ground floor. The interior is L-shaped, with three comfortable seating areas along the front and a more Spartan public bar area to the right which seemed to be set up for live music. The wood-panelled section to the left by the bar counter was particularly congenial. There was a sign saying “Cash Only”, which the friendly barmaid told us could cause problems on race days, although there are a couple of banks with cashpoints within fifty yards.

The beer range was Doom Bar and Bass, so not surprisingly it was a round of four pints of Bass, which came to £14.20, £3.55 a pint seeming to be the going rate for that beer in the town. Perhaps surprisingly, Peter Allen, who had spent most of his life as a confirmed lager drinker, revealed that it was his first ever taste of Bass. It proved to be in excellent condition and indeed turned out to be the best Bass of the day. The soundtrack included Marianne Fathfull’s version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”.

Apart from Wetherspoon’s, there seems to be very little pub food on offer in Uttoxeter town centre, although there are a couple of modern dining pubs on the outskirts near the bypass. We had therefore arranged our lunch stop at the Bank House, a seventeen-bedroom residential hotel just to the east of the market place opposite the parish church. It’s an impressive redbrick thre-storey Georgian building dating from 1777, which in fact was the town’s first bank. Through the front door, there is a dining room on the left and a long, congenial bar area on the right with bench seating along the front windows. There was a golden retriever belonging to one of the customers asleep in the middle of the floor.

There were two cask beers on the bar, Pedigree and Bates Pale Ale from Little Eaton Brewery just north of Derby. A couple of us went for the Bates Pale Ale, but unfortunately it was well past its best. However, it was changed without demur for the Pedigree, which really was in very good form, and proved to be not only the best Pedigree of the day, but the best beer of all. This proved that this beer, although sometimes dismissed as not being what it was, can still shine when properly looked after. This was also Peter’s first ever tasting of Pedigree.

The menu featured a range of traditional British dishes, from which we selected fish, scampi and rump steak, all coming with chips, and all priced at £10 or below. We also managed to squeeze in a couple of starters and one dessert. The food was also very good, and was possibly the best we’ve had on these trips, where finding pub lunches that rise above the adequate can be difficult. We had a chat with the chef who was very keen to make us welcome.

We then returned to the market place to the Vaults, which is perhaps Uttoxeter’s classic pub. A narrow, shop-like frontage conceals a pub of great character running a long way back from the street. There’s a front bar area where most of the drinkers seem to gather, a middle room with a devil amongst the tailors game, and a larger lounge at the rear with bench seating and a dartboard. The outside toilets are yet further back on a passageway running along the side of the pub. It was fairly busy for early afternoon, with an all-too-familiar discussion about ailments taking place amongst some of the customers. “There’s no point in having Challenge 25 in here,” said the barmaid, “you wouldn’t even need Challenge 50!”

It’s renowned as a stronghold of Bass, and in the past proudly displayed a row of five Bass handpumps along the bar, as shown in the photo (not mine) above. Guest beers have been introduced in recent years, and my Twitter header photo shows one pump for Robinson’s Wizard flanked by four for Bass. Today’s guest beer was Marston’s EPA, but all of use plumped for the Bass, which didn’t disappoint, although it was slightly shaded in quality by the Olde Talbot. The jamjars to show the colour of the beer, including one for each Bass pump, seemed rather superfluous.

To be continued...

Thursday 13 June 2019

Watering down the proftis

A Bristol licensee has recently complained that her profits were being adversely affected by customers choosing just to drink tap water with their meals. At first sight, this just comes across as sour grapes. Free tap water is a legal right, and indeed on several occasions recently I have been given a carafe of water in restaurants without even asking. A business needs to adjust its pricing to ensure it makes a profit on what customers actually order, not what they think they should order.

However, on reading between the lines, it seems that the food in question is being provided by pop-up vendors, so the bar is probably making little or nothing from it. Maybe in this case the answer is to charge the pop-up businesses more commission for the right to sell their food on your premises. Or you could adopt the Wetherspoon’s approach of meal deals combined with drinks. You would have no problem getting a free glass of tap water in Spoons, but you wouldn’t get a discount off the “with soft drink” price because the two come together as a single offer.

My recollection is that the right to free tap water was introduced to give drinkers, especially in nightclubs, the opportunity to rehydrate without being charged for the privilege. Some publicans complained about it at the time, but I don’t really see that it represents a threat to anyone’s business, and indeed have occasionally taken advantage of it myself to wash down tablets. There is perhaps scope to abuse it, for example by groups of thirsty cyclists or hikers demanding rounds of water, but I doubt whether that’s at all common, and a decent licensee should be able to make it clear that is basically taking the piss if they’re not going to spend anything.

If you’re running a restaurant, you are able to insist that your customers do actually buy something, and once their meal has finished its course you can encourage them to leave. However, it’s not quite as simple in a pub, and I’ve written before about the potential for the abuse of hospitality by customers who put little or no money across the bar. One example given in the comments was people coming in the watch TV sports but not buying anything.

However, unless your pub is full, you’re not really losing any money from non-drinking customers, and if one member of a group spends all evening on tap water you will still be making money from their companions. If you really do feel that people are taking advantage, there are various tactics available to a competent licensee to make them unwelcome, and of course at the end of the day you are legally entitled to refuse to serve anyone, and ask them to leave, without giving a reason.

Tuesday 11 June 2019

Sheep in wolf’s clothing

In the early days of CAMRA, a substantial proportion of cask beer, especially in the Midlands and North of England, was served via electric pumps of various kinds. However, there was a problem with this that it could be well-nigh impossible to identify what was real and what was not. So, progressively, with a certain amount of encouragement from CAMRA, breweries replaced them with handpumps, which gave an unmistakeable sign that the beer was real. I wouldn’t want to suggest that increasing profits by, in many cases, exchanging metered dispense and oversize glasses with brim-measures ever entered into their heads. There were a scattering of cases of keg beer being dispensed via handpumps, but those now seem to have pretty much entirely disappeared. If you see a handpump, you know that the beer will be real.

However, this can cut both ways. It can also be a clear sign of something you wish to avoid, and for many drinkers it may be once bitten, twice shy with anything coming out of a handpump. Anoher problem is that handpumps may be perceived as dull and old-fashioned in comparison to the brightly-illuminated keg taps that adorn many bar tops, not to mention harder to see. As I wrote last year:

Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help...

...However, what allows you to clearly identify something also allows people to instantly reject it as something not for them. In many pubs, there’s a binary division between stuff on T-bar taps (including craft kegs) and stuff on handpumps, and many drinkers just won’t consider the beers on handpumps. So, just a thought, but might it be an idea to try dispensing cask beer though the T-bar taps (obviously with the word “cask” on the label) so it is not immediately marked out as something “other”. There’s no technical reason why it can’t be done as, in the past, many cask beers were sold using freeflow electric dispense.

This was really only a speculative thought experiment, but Nathaniel Southwood reports that Sharp’s brewery have tried just such a thing in an experiment at the Royal Cornwall show, as pictured above. It’s in conjunction with an attempt to introduce a chilled version of Doom Bar, but it also offers the normal-temperature version alongside it. It does state clearly on the font that it is cask beer.
I’m not saying that it will work, and there’s always the possibility that drinkers are so wedded to the concept of handpumps that it will deter more than it attracts. But it must be worth a try, to see whether it helps to make cask look more like everything else on the bar rather than something “other” that is to be avoided at all costs. It might eliminate some of the variability caused by incompetent bar staff having little idea how to use handpumps. Plus I would certainly be interested to see how the head and condition turn out in the absence of a swan neck and tight sparkler. However, it’s definitely not going to cover up faults in beer that has been allowed to become flat and stale. And it would probably be too much to ask for them to get some oversize glasses and attach meters to these new pumps.

Saturday 8 June 2019

Zero preparation

The other day, I was in a pub where a guy went up to the bar and very decisively ordered a Heineken Zero. Nothing unusual about that, maybe, but in general people would either ask generically for a non-alcoholic beer, or ask slightly sheepishly what non-alcoholic beers they have. That he was able to order it by name suggests it has established a strong brand identity.

Obviously a major driver behind the recent surge in interest in alcohol-free beers is a growing concern about health and wishing to cut down in general on alcohol consumption. However, this sparked the thought that there may well be another motivation on the part of brewers.

In the future, there is likely to be a growing trend to restrict or prohibit entirely the advertising of alcoholic drinks. So far, there hasn’t been much movement on this issue in the UK, and the public health lobby currently seems distracted by sugary and fatty foods. However, it is eventually going to happen. So creating alcohol-free range extensions could be a good way of keeping your brand name in the public view even if advertising of the main product has been banned.

Alcohol represents a much more diffuse target than tobacco, as it comes in a wide range of varieties and strengths, and it also attracts a huge amount of commentary both from journalists and non-professional writers. Thus it would be a lot more complex to impose advertising restrictions. However, the tide is clearly flowing in that direction. Maybe eventually they would prevent alcohol-free drinks sharing brand names with alcoholic ones, but it wouldn’t be a straightforward process. And alcohol-free variants may at least buy the brewers some time.

Thursday 6 June 2019

Sugary slope

Earlier this week, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a report proposing that, to combat obesity, the plain packaging currently required for tobacco should be extended to crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks. There’s little comment I can make that hasn’t already been said: it is filleted here with his usual aplomb by Christopher Snowdon. Realistically, it isn’t going to happen this year or next, but the idea is now well and truly within the “Overton window” of the acceptable range of public debate.

It underlines all too clearly that the claims that the draconian regulation of tobacco was a special case that would never be extended to other areas were patently false. It is perhaps a little surprising that snacks and soft drinks are ahead of alcohol in the queue, but that will come in time as surely as night follows day.

Presumably this would have to be accompanied by a comprehensive ban on advertising and promotion. This would have the effect of ossifying the market and preventing any innovation or new product introductions. People’s choice of product would depend on word of mouth and folk memory, as it does now with tobacco products. It would be completely impossible now to introduce a new legal cigarette brand. This would effectively leave the market in the hands of large, established players.

The point of plain packaging for tobacco was supposedly to “denormalise” its consumption. But if a whole raft of other food and drink products are also put in plain packaging, that effect largly disappears, as plain packaging becomes the norm for anything remotely enjoyable. They don’t seem to have thought that one through.

Monday 3 June 2019

Something just gave

Last Autumn, I argued in a post entitled Something’s Got to Give that the steady decline in cask beer volumes would inevitably lead to reductions in availability, which might manifest themselves in sudden and unexpected ways. And it now seems that something has given, with the news that Marston’s are going to withdraw cask from 21 of their 22 managed pubs in Scotland.

The initial reaction to this is some quarters was one of dismay at the reduction in cask availability. Surely Marston’s could have done more to promote it? However, as Britain’s leading cask ale brewer, they’re hardly going to abandon it lightly: it’s not like they’re some trendy craft brewer trying to make a point. It seems clear that, despite their best efforts, they simply can’t achieve the throughput necessary to keep it in good condition and, given this, it has to be regarded as a sensible and pragmatic, if disappointing decision.

These pubs are mostly family dining venues, not urban boozers, and so are probably never going to achieve big beer volumes, especially in view of the cut in the Scottish drink-driving limit. The photo shows the Highland Gate on the outskirts of Stirling, still shown on WhatPub with real ale, which is probably typical.

When CAMRA was formed in the 1970s, real ale had pretty much entirely disappeared from the country, so there was no established tradition of cask drinking. Since then, there has been a substantial increase in availability, and some city-centre pubs do shift a lot of it, but outside the major population centres it has always struggled, and often gives the impression of having been just put on for the tourists.

Good Beer Guide tickers such as Martin Taylor and Simon Everitt have often reported poor cask beer in Scottish entries, which probably wouldn’t get anywhere near inclusion south of the Border. This even extends to Wetherspoon’s branches, and realistically it might make sense for Spoons to do the same in the some of the smaller towns, even though it would undermine their reputation for serving cask in every pub.

I have earlier written about the Cask Crisis, where I made the point that cask needs a certain amount of commitment from a pub’s management to thrive. It can’t just be another tick-box option on the bar at the end of a row of keg taps, only there because you suppose you ought to stock it. Poor, ill-kept, stale beer is cask’s worst enemy. While this decision may seem like a retrograde step, in the longer term it would probably benefit cask if it was removed from marginal outlets which lack either the demand or the enthusiasm to present it at its best.