Saturday 27 July 2019

Stubbing out the habit

The government have, perhaps rashly, pledged to end smoking in England by 2030, as part of “a range of measures to tackle the causes of preventable ill health.” If this was some kind of infectious disease, that might be a reasonable objective. However, let’s think about this a little more deeply. While it is known to carry significant health risks, smoking is a legal activity that large numbers of people enjoy. Many of them don’t actually want to quit, as Pat Nurse explains in this article. And, if they are adults in full command of their mental faculties, why should they? Many commentators seem to forget that, whatever the risks, smoking is a very soothing and relaxing activity.

There are plenty of other activities people engage in that carry substantial risks of death, injury and ill-health, but the government seems happy to tolerate them, possibly because it would be seen as politically incorrect to criticise them. Prejudice against people on a wide range of grounds has now rightly become socially unacceptable, but it seems that much of that bile has now been redirected against smokers.

The plan doesn’t seem to involve outright prohibition, just an ongoing campaign of denormalisation and exclusion of smokers from more and more public places. However, while that may apply a continuing downward ratchet on smoking levels, it’s not going to eliminate it entirely. People would still be able to import tobacco or buy it on the black market, and smoke it in private homes or secluded areas. Even outright prohibition wouldn’t really work, as it has been so notably unsuccessful with various kinds of illegal drugs.

Of course we now have the means at our disposal to achieve a substantial reduction in smoking, by encouraging vaping as an alternative. However, this tends to be pooh-poohed by the public health lobby, both because of “not invented here” syndrome, and because it is often espoused as a recreational activity in its own right rather than simply a smoking cessation therapy. Indeed, some countries such as Australia have banned vaping altogether while continuing to tolerate smoking, which by any reasonable calculation is surely considerably more dangerous.

As has often been said, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone, but because something better came along. The same could be true of smoking and vaping, but it’s not going to be achieved unless the government takes a markedly more positive attitude towards vaping. The licensed trade could also play its part by ceasing to take such an absolute and dim-witted attitude – Wetherspooon’s, I’m looking at you! But it’s much easier just to continue to demonise smokers, and all too readily lump vapers in with them.

There’s currently a lot of talk of legalising, or relaxing the prohibitions, on cannabis, but it would be interesting to know how many of those who support these campaigns at the same time also want to see a further crackdown on smoking, something that comes across as a distinctly hypocritical stance. Apparently the US state of Colorado, which has legalised recreational cannabis, has passed an ordinance preventing employers from discriminating against cannabis users. But they haven’t done the same for smokers, or drinkers.

Of course, some will say, smoking is a special case, something uniquely harmful, and these tactics are never going to be turned against any other activity. Or are they? The cartoon at the top is borrowed from this blogpost by Christopher Snowdon, but it seems that nowadays the tables have been reversed. If we can eliminate smoking by 2030, then why not fatty and sugary food by 2040, and then alcohol by 2050?

Tuesday 16 July 2019

A whiff of intolerance

It happens as regular as clockwork at this time of year. A few days of hot, sunny weather bring people out into beer gardens for the first time since last summer, and they discover to their horror that they are already populated by filthy, smelly smokers. This results in the inevitable cries for smokers to be banned from outdoor areas of pubs. The latest to jump on this bandwagon was radio presenter Jeremy Vine, although fortunately 50% of respondents to his Twitter poll were prepared to stand up for tolerance. Frankly this attitude displays one hell of a cheek, when these people have presumably supported the legislation that forces smokers to be in the beer garden in the first place. You have a choice as to whether to be inside or outside, while they don’t. They have no alternative but to go outside, regardless of how unpleasant the weather is, but on the few hot days a year you think they should be banished just for your convenience. Vine talks of smokers’ lack of consideration for others. Well, if you had been more considerate to smokers, you wouldn’t have compelled them to go outside in the first place.

It’s sometimes argued that, even after the ban, pubs can still cater for smokers. Yes, this is true to a limited extent, but they are still treated as third-class citizens. Yet, despite this, smokers on average still spend more time and money in pubs than non-smokers, presumably because many non-smokers are prissy, health-obsessed people who would never be seen dead in a pub in the first place. To prevent smokers even using outdoor areas would do severe damage to the business of pubs.

I have noticed an increasing numnber of pubs designating a section of their outside drinking areas, often the most attractive part, as non-smoking, and banishing smokers to a grotty yard round the back. Yet, on 330 days a year, these non-smoking areas are completely unused. And no doubt even with this arrangement the antismokers will moan that “there’s someone smoking 50 yards away! I’m going to die!” Pubs like this really don’t deserve smokers’ custom.

Saturday 13 July 2019

Woken from slumber

In the early years of my drinking career, one of the most interesting aspects was visiting new pubs and finding so many that seemed to have been little changed for many years, both in their fabric and the way they were run. Indeed many could have to been said to be stuck in something of a timewarp. Some of them were pubs that fell into the category of Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs featured by Rodney Wolfe Coe on his famous list. The Sun at Leintwardine, pictured right, was the only one to merit five stars, although since then, while the original core remains unchanged, it has received a large modern extension at the rear. I did have the privilege of seeing it in its original form in the late 1980s.

But there were also plenty of pubs that, while not meeting those standards, didn’t fall far short, and quite a lot of them were within brewery tied estates. Often it was actually the Big Six brewers who had the least spoilt pubs, as they had acquired huge swathes of pubs from often moribund family brewers over the preceding couple of decades and had not yet got round to doing much about many of them. Some of the independent brewers had, in contrast, been pretty assiduous in upgrading their pubs – I was struck in the early 80s by the contrast between Greenalls’ estate in Cheshire, and the unimproved nature of many Allied Breweries and Courage pubs in Surrey. Even at the bottom end of the size scale, most Donnington pubs had received a significant makeover in the 60s or early 70s in a style that was fashionable at the time. On the other hand, some independents had estates that seemed barely touched for decades – Brakspear particularly springs to mind.

To me, and many others, one of the key aspects of the 1970s “real ale movement” was the preservation of our beer, brewery and pub heritage, and there was certainly plenty out there to explore and discover. Back in those days, there was much less of a spotlight on the performance of individual businesses, and it was a lot easier just to plod along for many years ploughing your own furrow. But that is now all in the past, and to find any pub that can remotely be described as unspoilt is far more difficult.

Since then, a huge amount has changed. Large numbers of pubs have been drastically altered, and still more have seen their offer totally revamped, often to accommodate the seemingly inexorable advance of food. At the same time, pubgoing has become much less of a default activity for the general public. Many thousands of pubs have closed, especially in the present century, and those have often been the smaller and less altered ones. And, even when some of the classic unspoilt pubs survive, they have become in effect museum pieces owned by people with deep pockets rather than a living tradition. The original fabric of the front rooms of the Sun at Leintwardine has been preserved, but they have become little more than a curio attached to a much larger modern pub.

No more can pubs just moulder away with little attention as part of sprawling tied estates. Since the Beer Orders, pretty much all the pubs previously in the hands of the Big Six have been churned and rechurned several times through the hands of various pub companies, with each one being put under a spotlight and the less lucrative allowed to fall by the wayside. The surviving family breweries have also in most cases taken a long hard look at their estates and disposed of those pubs that don’t fit in to their desired business model.

There has also been a distinct change in public attitudes. Back in the 1970s, the fact that a pub was quirky, old-fashioned and unspoilt was often reason in itself to visit it, but that has now largely reversed, with the new, glossy and trendy finding favour. In their 1989 book, The Quest for the Perfect Pub, Nick and Charlie Hurt wrote that the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton “is often packed with young people from the nearby cities of Derby and Nottingham, where most of the pubs are now amusement arcades. They learn how to play dominoes, love the beer and the atmosphere, and revel in the quiet simplicity to be found here.” Their modern-day counterparts don’t do that, and would look at you in bafflement if you suggested they should.

Of course there are still plenty of good experiences to be had in pubs, and the mere fact that one is modern, or has been dramatically remodelled, doesn’t meant it isn’t worth visiting. But it’s now much harder to find one where you get the impression that the decor and the food and drink offer haven’t been fairly recently put under a corporate microscope. And, all too often, in the rush to promote various “activities” in pubs – dining, watching sport, listening to music, doing quizzes – their original core purpose of just providing a space for people to meet and have a drink seems to be forgotten.

Often now, the best chance of finding genuinely unspoilt pubs is in long-established free houses, which by definition are more likely to be in market towns and rural areas rather than large towns and cities. Family ownership through multiple generations is often a factor. In my experience, the Welsh Marches (at least south of Llangollen) and Mid and West Wales are some of the most fertile hunting grounds. But, even here, it’s possible to walk into an outwardly traditional-looking pub in a small and sleepy town and be confronted by a monstrosity of chrome and mirrors.

Some may say that none of this really matters so long as the food and drink are good, but that’s rather missing the point. Pubs are far more than just retail businesses, they are part of our heritage, and it can’t be denied that something valuable has been lost in the march of progress over the past forty years.

Tuesday 9 July 2019

But where are the customers?

At the end of June, I spent a few days in Cornwall, and on the way back stayed for a night in Gloucester. While I was there, I called in to Sam Smith’s Robert Raikes’ House, which is situated on one of the main shopping streets in the city centre. This is a magnificent 16th century half-timbered building that in recent years has been very carefully and lovingly converted to pub use.

It was a sunny Saturday lunchtime, and the pub looked very appealing with boards outside advertising that it was serving food. Yet it had no more than a thin scattering of customers, when Sam’s pubs in similar central locations in Stockport, Leeds or Chester would be heaving. This has also been observed by Martin Taylor. Boak and Bailey have described Sam’s William IV in Bristol, another impressive historical building, as “a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all.” So you have to ask what is the trick Sam’s are missing.

First is the question of price. While Sam’s are noted for their low pricing policy, they apply a set of three or four fixed price bands dependent on geographical area, which don’t necessarily correspond to how affluent a particular place is. Old Brewery Bitter in this pub was £2.80 a pint, which may be about the cheapest in central Gloucester apart from Wetherspoons, but isn’t the outstanding bargain that £2 is in the North. Gloucester isn’t by any means the most well-heeled of cities, and overall is probably less prosperous than Chester.

The low prices aren’t just a matter of luring customers in purely on value for money. Once people have been tempted over the threshold, they find a distinctive ambiance that creates a critical mass of like-minded drinkers and that particular Sam’s atmosphere. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but in many places in the North it’s a very successful formula – you know what a Sam’s pub in going to be like.

There is also the issue of the unfamiliarity of the brand. In the North, Sam Smith’s is a well-established company that has been around for decades if not centuries, and the name will be familiar to most pubgoers. In the South, they’re not known at all, something that is compounded by their policy of only offering their own brand products across the entire range of drinks and snacks. The barmaid in the Robert Raikes very carefully and accurately explained to a customer the difference between the four Sam’s lagers, but in most pubs you don’t even have to ask because you will recognise some of the brands on the bar.

Plus you have to consider how the building actually works as a pub. I have written previously how Sam’s very careful remodelling of the Swan in Holmes Chapel had actually ended up too compartmentalised for its own good, with the bar tucked away in one small room right at the back of the pub. And in fact that particular pub is currently closed, and has been for some time.

Of course there is much to be said for pubs having a variety of distinct areas, but they also benefit from a substantial circulation and seating area close to the bar to promote a sociable feeling. The Robert Raikes isn’t as bad as the Swan, but even so the servery is situated in one room in the centre of the pub that doesn’t directly open on to any other rooms apart from the central corridor. It also has the toilets up a flight of stairs that Wetherspoons would be proud of, which could be another factor that older customers find offputting.

Sam’s deserve praise for taking on premises like Robert Raikes’ House and converting them to pub use in a manner that respects their fabric, and where no expense has clearly been spared. There are examples in a number of other cities – the Wortley Almshouses in Peterborough spring to mind. But, for their own sake as much as the customers’, they also need to have a look at their pricing policy and the circulation of people within the building, to make sure they actually succeed as pubs and not just as pieces of architectural restoration.

Saturday 6 July 2019

Dispensing wisdom

I recently made a couple of posts that touched on issues of beer dispense. These spurred me to look at what was going on in pubs more closely than I had before. The first explained the development of the “swan neck” nozzle for serving cask beer, which originated as an attempt to emulate te creamy texture of beers dispensed using the “economiser” that was once commonplace in West Yorkshire.

These are often seen as something distinctly Northern, but when we went to Rugby in May pretty much every pub with handpumps seemed to be using them. Since then, I have had holidays in Bath and the surrounding area, and in Cornwall, where I observed that swan-necks seemed to have become pretty general as far south as you can get in the country. The only exceptions were pubs using gravity dispense, and those with very old sets of handpumps. A noticeable difference, though, was that they seemed to be of a thicker gauge than those usually found in the North, and were generally used without sparklers.

Someone made the point that dispense equipment was generally provided by brewers, not the pubs themselves, so the pubs had little alternative but to go along with the trend. The only exceptions would be some free houses which owned their own pumps. Swan-necks mean that, for most of the pull, you are dispensing beer in the midst of the liquid rather than on to the top, but in the absence of a sparkler it’s hard to see what difference it makes, or what advantage it offers. I would have thought it made it harder to bar staff to influence to final presentation of the head, which may or may not be a good thing.

Swan-necks by definition involve inserting the pump nozzle into the beer, but in this post on beer presentation it was strongly argued by Pete Brown that keg beers should ideally be dispensed without the nozzle touching the beer at all, a point echoed in this video:

I have to say I expressed scepticism at the time as to how often this was achieved in practice, and this was certainly borne out by my observations. Most keg beers nowadays are dispensed either from T-bars or tall fonts standing well above the bar top. The old-fashioned bar-top illuminated boxes have pretty much entirely disappeared except in Sam Smith’s pubs. They have a stainless steel nozzle about three inches long.

From what I saw, the nozzle was almost invariably inserted into the beer to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes the pint glass was moved up and down, or swirled around, to achieve the desired final appearance of the head. So clearly the ideal is scarcely ever being achieved there and, to be honest, with brim measure glasses and nozzles of that length, it would be extremely difficult to do so.

Friday 5 July 2019

Unavailable at any price

Three weeks ago, as part of our day out in Uttoxeter, we were very kindly given a lift by Paul Mudge’s wife Jacquie to the outlying Plough. She wanted a soft drink, but not being a lover of artificial sweeteners, asked for one of the full-sugar varieties. However, the pub didn’t have anything available in this category, although it was eventually able to dig out some expensive premium drink.

The sugar tax has been in the news recently, and one fact that has emerged is that it has only raised one-third of the revenue that it was predicted to. This is due to a mixture of manufacturers reformulating their products and, as in this case, outlets simply ceasing to stock the full-sugar versions. It’s certainly not just confined to pubs – in Subway, all of their draught soft drinks are diet versions, while I was recently in a branch of Waitrose where only diet drinks were included in “meal deals”. Fortunately you can still get a full-sugar Pepsi with your burger in Wetherspoon’s.

Now, as someone with Type 2 diabetes, this is academic to me, but it still represents a significant denial of choice. Some people simply don’t like the taste of artificial sweeteners, while others are allergic to them, and there are also concerns that they may lead to long-term health problems, as we have found with replacing butter with various kinds of artificial spreads. Plus there is the fact that full-sugar drinks can be a life-saver for Type 1 diabetics experiencing a “hypo”.

It is one thing to seek to deter people from consuming certain products through higher taxation, although whether that in itself is proving effective is highly questionable. But it is something else entirely to simply, through a form of official arm-twisting, make those products completely unavailable. Surely adult consumers should be treated as informed, empowered people who have the right to make their own decisions about their diet. And, if price is an issue, why can’t retailers simply include smaller measures in all-inclusive deals, such as 375ml bottles rather than 500ml?

There’s a parallel with the schemes that, not content with imposing additional duty on higher strength beers and ciders, seek to remove them from the shelves entirely.