Wednesday 28 August 2019

The twenty-year itch - Part 1

The Lancashire city of Preston is well-known for celebrating its Guild Festival every twenty years, and it occurred to me that the last time I had been drinking there was in fact nearly twenty-four years ago. Back then, it still had numerous Thwaites pubs, and it wasn’t that long since the other major local independent brewer Matthew Brown had been taken over, but a great deal has changed on the pub scene in the intervening years, although one or two things refreshingly hadn’t. It therefore made a good venue for our latest Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out. It was a poignant thought that my last interaction on social media with the late Richard Coldwell had been discussing arrangements for this trip, which he hadn’t been able to fit in anyway.

We met up just after 11 am on the morning of Friday 23 August in the Old Vic, a large four-square pub conveniently situated right opposite the railway station. While the interior has been much opened out over the years, it retains a number of areas of comfortable seating ranged around the central bar counter, with plenty of dark wood in the decor. I’d actually say it’s a better pub than you might normally expect in such a location. There were seven of us, including a number of the usual suspects plus local boy Matthew Lawrenson of “Seeing the Lizards” fame in his trademark Paisley shirt.

For such an early hour, the pub was ticking over nicely, with a variety of customers. The Test Match was showing on various TV screens, fortunately with the sound down, and Jason Roy’s dismissal at 11.16 am proved to be the first of many throughout the day. Indeed, for the next three hours, England were averaging no less than three wickets per pub. There were four beers on the bar, including Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring, White Rat, Bombardier and Reedley Hallows Beer O’Clock. The Knowle Spring proved the most popular and was in pretty good nick. Martin Taylor’s liver was still suffering from his GBG-ticking exertions in Scotland over the previous couple of days, and he restricted himself to an alcohol-free Heineken, which was available here on draught, something I had not seen before.

On the map, the route to the next pub, the Continental down by the riverside, looked a straightforward one along the west side of the railway station, but in fact we ended up taking a wrong turn into a postal delivery depot, in contrast to some earlier trips where unpromising-looking cut-throughs turned up trumps. Don’t blame me, I wasn’t navigating. We had to retrace our steps a fair distance, and ended up about a quarter of an hour behind schedule. The pub is indeed situated right by the river in the shadow of the railway viaduct, although there is no view of the river from the extensive beer garden. By this time, after an overcast morning, the sun had come out, and it was starting to get pretty warm.

It’s a former Boddingtons pub, and still retains their characteristic external lettering. Internally it was been much modernised and extended, with a variety of seating areas, including a large conservatory. There were perhaps seven beers on the bar, including Pendle Witches’ Brew, the very hoppy Northern Monkey English Pale Ale, Ossett Treacle Stout and the hazy Pomona Island Pale, declared as such on the pumpclip. Although situated in something of a backwater, one would imagine the pub becomes pretty busy on sunny summer weekends. Here we picked up some copies of the newly-produced Preston Real Ale Trail leaflet.

Compared with many other towns and cities, Preston perhaps doesn’t make much of its river, and you could easily visit the centre without realising it had one at all. However, our walk to the next pub took us along an attractive promenade on the northern bank of the Ribble through Miller and Avenham Parks. It no doubt looks better when the tide is in, as it was today. A steep and rather lung-bursting climb followed, taking us into a area of handsome late Georgian and Victoria housing in the Avenahm district of the city, much of which now appeared to have been converted into offices. We spotted the cat shown above sunning itself in a precarious position on a window ledge.

The Wellington was our scheduled lunch top, although as some members of the party were either not particularly hungry or fancying something a touch more crafty to drink, there was a split in the camp, and it was a depleted group that crossed the threshold. The Good Beer Guide says that it is popular at lunchtimes, but even on a Friday, and close to the city centre, it plainly wasn’t, with virtually no other customers. Significantly, it didn’t appear on the Preston real ale trail leaflet, and a little birdie told us that it had failed to make it to the 2020 edition.

There’s a central bar with three distinct areas opening off it, plus a small room at the front right with a door marked “Hotel”, where we chose to sit. Of four handpumps, the only one in use dispensed Marston’s EPA, a beer that seldom rises above lacklustre; on the reversed pumpclips were Cumberland Ale and two Rosie’s Pig fruit ciders. Peter Allen couldn’t really be blamed for choosing Carlsberg instead. There’s an extensive food menu at reasonable prices, plus a range of pensioners’ specials at £4.95. From these were chose cottage pie, lasagne and a ham salad, but unfortunately they took around thirty-five minutes to appear, putting us even further behind schedule. The food was actually decent enough, but the overall experience was distinctly disappointing.

We couldn’t help overhearing the Eastern European barmaid having something of an altercation with the manager. In retrospect, this pub probably wasn’t the best choice, but realistically the pub lunch options in this, or any other part of, the city looked rather limited unless you wanted to resort to Spoons.

Just to the north, we emerged on to Churchgate in the heart of the shopping centre, making the Wellington’s lack of customers even more surprising. Heading east past Preston Minster, the street turns into more of a “bar district” and develops a more down-market atmosphere, most noticeably with the distinctly seedy-looking Bear’s Paw pub. Just past here, but on the other side of the road, was Sam Smith’s Olde Blue Bell, with a lively group of drinkers sitting at the outside tables. I remember this pub as having been white-washed, but in more recent years this has been removed to reveal the original brickwork.

We encountered the other members of the party just as they were leaving. They were able to tell us that England were now all out for 67, although due to Sams’ mobile phone ban we were unable to confirm this for ourselves. Of course Ben Stokes was able to make amends a couple of days later. The interior has been remodelled at some time in the post-war era, with a central bar serving a long room on the left and two smaller snugs on the right, but it retains some original stained glass in the doors to the toilets. It’s all in Sams’ characteristic style, with plenty of dark wood and comfortable fixed seating. As always, there was only the one cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, which I found pretty good, but Paul Mudge felt wasn’t quite up to the standard you might find in the Boar’s Head in Stockport. Peter Allen once more went for the lager in the form of the premium Pure Brewed.

To be continued...

Monday 26 August 2019

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Last week, Boak & Bailey defended people’s right to make subjective judgments about beer without having their sincerity questioned. It was a post that raised a number of interesting issues. But one question that arose from it was whether it is possible to define in any objective sense which beers are good and which are not, something that prompted some debate on Twitter. One person thought it was in general pretty obvious, but I’m not so sure.

For a start, beer isn’t solely or even mainly a functional product. We don’t judge it in terms of the maximum alcohol content at the lowest production cost, and indeed beers that score highly on those criteria tend in general to be judged pretty poorly. Beer is, broadly speaking , evaluated in generally subjective terms.

For draught products, the influence of cellarmanship needs to be discounted. This applies particularly to cask, but to sme extent to keg beers as well. Even the finest beer in the world will be pretty unpleasant if it is served flat, stale and warm, but some people who comment on beer seem to have difficulty in distinguishing between how well it is kept and its intrinsic qualities.

In business terms, quality is generally defined as consistent adherence to specification. It’s not about how good a product is an absolute terms, but whether it achieves what it’s supposed to do. If you don’t think much of it, blame the specification. In brewing, there are a range of production faults that will mar the character of the finished product, such as diacetyl, oxidation, lack of clarity (in intentionally clear beers) and obvious off-flavours. These will be obvious to anyone with much knowledge about beer, and should manifest themselves in the taste as perceived by the drinker, although some people insist on finding redeeming features in beers that to most are blatantly off.

However, I’m not aware of any regularly-produced beers that consistently manifest such obvious brewing faults. If they do, there’s something wrong with them. But, looking at it in more fundamental terms, what makes a poor beer as opposed to a good one?

A rough correlation is often drawn between the strength of a beer, and the cost of the ingredients, and its quality, but it doesn’t necessarily always work that way. After all, Harvey’s Sussex Best, which is what prompted this discussion in the first place, is a beer of relatively modest strength that retails in pubs for normal prices; it isn’t some eyewateringly expensive, mega-strong show pony.

The mere fact that something is a mass-produced, “industrial” beer doesn’t automatically make it a bad product. It is made to satisfy a different demand from a salted caramel quadruple IPA, and needs to be judged in those terms. In absolute terms, a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari is no doubt a better car than a Toyota Corolla, but it also costs hugely more to make, and possibly doesn’t offer anything like as good value for money. For most drivers, the Corolla will meet their requirements.

There has long been a tendency in some quarters to allow your opinion of the brewer to sway your judgment of a beer – they may be plucky independents challenging the industry giants, or standing up for fashionable causes. There may be entirely valid reasons for this, but it’s always a mistake to mix up the worthiness of the brewer with the intrinsic quality of the beer. There should be no “marks for effort” in assessing beer. Nor should a beer be dismissed out of hand purely because it’s popular, or lauded for obscurity.

Much of the above may suggest that there are really no absolute standards in judging beer, and that everything is entirely subjective and a matter of personal preference. Clearly this isn’t the case where beers demonstrate obvious brewing faults, even if some people are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But, if you assemble people with some knowledge of beer and brewing, they are likely to reach a broad consensus on how good or otherwise a beer is.

They will look at the ingredients used, the malt and hops, and whether inferior adjuncts have been used to reduce costs. They will consider the production process, such as the nature of the fermenting vessels and how long a bottom-fermenting beer has been lagered. And they will assess the overall flavour profile – is it bland, or harsh and one-dimensional, or is it complex and well-rounded ?

Yes, of course it is possible in broad terms to say that some beers are better than others. But, as with literature or music, it’s an art, not a science, and personal taste plays a large part. It’s by no means as obvious as some seem to imagine. Beers also need to be viewed in the context of their market segment – few would dispute that Pilsner Urquell is a better beer than Carling, but Carling is a well-made, consistent product that satisfies its customers; it’s not in any sense a “poor beer”.

And ignorant blanket statements such as “all keg is piss” or “macro lagers are crap” really say much more about the people making them than the product under discussion.

Saturday 17 August 2019


Last month, I wrote about how it was becoming ever harder to find pubs whose decor and general offer hadn’t fairly recently been put under a corporate microscope. One result of this process is that, over the years, pubs have become much more differentiated in terms of the type of clientele they’re aiming to attract.

Of course, going back forty years, there were plenty of different types of pub – rough boozers and genteel middle-class haunts, those with youth appeal and those frequented by the older generation, those that did a healthy food trade and those that made a speciality of live music. And, given the typical lack of external cues, it could be all too easy to end up in the “wrong” type of pub and feed distinctly out of place.

However, they also had much more in common. The vast majority were owned by breweries and offered that firm’s standard beer range regardless of their customer base. They tended to have names like the Dog & Duck and the Northumberland Arms. Hardly any brand-new pubs had been opened since the war apart from those on new housing estates, or replacements for pubs lost to the Luftwaffe or to redevelopment schemes. There was much more commonality of interior design, with most pubs still having public and saloon or lounge bars with a distinction in furnishings. Nobody had ever heard of posing tables, and the only televised football was Match of the Day and the FA Cup Final.

Since then, though, whenever brewers and pub owners had money to spend on their estates, they started to look much more closely at exactly what kind of customer they wanted to attract. One of the first manifestations of this in the 1980s was the youth-oriented fun pub, which has now pretty much died the death but for a time was all the rage. By definition, the older person wanting a comfortable seat and a quiet pint felt excluded.

There have been a variety of other trends pulling the pub trade in different directions. The rise of satellite TV sport, especially football, has led to many pubs where that is the core of their appeal. In contrast, others have concentrated on ever more ambitious food to the extent where dining becomes their prime or even sole purpose. The growth of innovation in beer has resulted in more and more pubs and bars that deliberately set out to appeal to beer enthusiasts who may often pass many others to visit them. And the relaxation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has allowed venues to spring up that make no pretence to a generalist appeal, many of which entirely lack the “body language” you associate with a pub.

The result is that we now have different types of pub with very little overlap in clientele. There is the lively, sports-oriented boozer, the upmarket gastropub, its more plebeian family dining cousin and the specialist craft beer bar. When people are planning a pub visit, there are many more places that they won’t even consider. I’m always struck by how, in the Stockport suburb of Heaton Chapel, the Heaton Hops, a small modern craft bar, stands directly opposite the George & Dragon, a big Edwardian boozer majoring on TV sport and cheap and cheerful eating. I wonder how many customers ever go out unsure as to which one they plan to visit. It was once the case that, in many smaller towns and suburbs, having a wander round the local pubs was a popular Friday or Saturday night activity. That’s much less common now, and even if people do it many of the pubs will be ruled out because they don’t fit the bill.

Pubs with a broader appeal across different categories of customer do survive, but they tend to be the smaller and less high-profile ones, and nobody is opening new ones. The one category that is missing from the selection being developed is those specifically catering for the traditional core purpose of pubs, simply meeting and socialising over a few drinks. There is, of course, one pub operator for whom that is their USP, but at present they rather seem to be contracting rather than expanding.

It could be argued that Wetherspoon’s fill that niche, and they certainly attract a much wider range of customers than many of the other pub categories. But they are also themselves a very carefully targeted proposition that is deliberately pitched to be nothing like traditional pubs, and whose design militates against cosy conviviality.

One benefit of this segmentation is that it reduces the chance of inadvertently wandering into the “wrong” type of pub, but it doesn’t entirely eliminate it, and many independently-run dining pubs don’t obviously advertise that fact. It’s still entirely possible to end up in a pub and think “Oops, I’m the only one in here not eating!”

Pubs are often viewed through rose-tinted spectacles as hubs of the community where all classes and types of customer happily mingle together. That was always a somewhat optimistic view, and the ever- greater fragmentation of the trade further undermines social cohesion. How can a pub be the heart of its community when its business formula deliberately excludes whole sections of people?

Sunday 11 August 2019

Very early doors

The determined band of drinkers who assemble in Wetherspoon’s at 9 am are often viewed with a mixture of amusement, derision and pity. There’s sometimes even a whiff of moral panic about it: “just look what 24-hour drinking has led to!” However, Tandleman recently found himself in a branch of Spoons at this hour and took a considerably more sympathetic view:

By ten past nine when I leave there is a noticeable air of contentment and the genesis of a conversational buzz... Some spend quite a few hours there, but by four even the most hardcore will be gone, many resting for a repeat performance the next day. This is an interesting sub culture of pub goers. Good luck to them I say.
The last is an important point. They’re not settling in for an all-day session; many will be gone at lunchtime, and pretty much all by mid-afternoon. And is it really all that different from the regular sessions straight through from 5 or 5.30 to 11 pm that used to be commonplace and hardly remarked upon? I’d also suggest that in many cases they will only be drinking at a leisurely pace too.

The Eastern Daily Press reports how the phenomenon has spread well beyond Wetherspoon’s in Great Yarmouth, with pubs even offering happy hours for early morning drinkers. There seems to be a general feeling of conviviality and sociability. One customer said “I love the atmosphere in here and it's great to catch up with my mates. The pints are cheap and everyone is in good spirits”, while a barmaid commented “Everyone knows each other in here and they just have a laugh. There's no trouble.”

Other customers gave safety as a reason for coming out earlier. One said “I don't feel safe coming into the town any later. There are too many yobs on the streets and who knows what might happen”, and another added “It's not safe for someone like me who has health problems to come to the pub in the evening.” These fears may seem a touch exaggerated, but many towns that encourage a lively nightlife do develop a distinct “atmosphere” later in the evening that makes older drinkers feel uncomfortable.

It may not be something that appeals to you or me; it’s unlikely to meet with the approval of the public health lobby, and it’s certainly not compatible with holding down a job. But isn’t this really just a case of the liberalisation of licensing hours opening up opportunities for people to go to the pub at times that suit them? In this respect it’s similar to the busy sessions now seen in some pubs in the late afternoon when tradespeople knock off, a time of day when, before 1988, the pub doors would have been firmly shut.

Rather than laughing or sneering at the early-morning drinkers, shouldn’t we just accept that they’re taking advantage of longer opening hours to drink in a way that suits their particular pattern of life? It’s also usually going to be a calmer, more relaxed and sociable way of drinking than is typically associated with late nights. That surely is what pubs should be all about.

Friday 2 August 2019

Under pressure

The Morning Advertiser reports on a survey which claims that Millennials feel five times more likely to be pressurised into drinking alcohol when socialising than older generations. Now, this has to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt, as it has been produced on behalf of a maker of low- and zero-alcohol punches, but it completely flies in the face of my own experience.

I would say that, over the past twenty years, the pressure to drink alcohol on social occasions has greatly reduced, and in many situations not drinking has become the norm. This is particularly the case with anything connected with work, after hours as well as at lunchtime. Indeed, it is often the person who chooses an alcoholic drink who stands out and ends up being stigmatised. When visiting friends and relatives, you are much less likely to be routinely offered an alcoholic drink than you once were.

Back in 2002 I asked Can a responsible person ever be seen with an alcoholic drink in their hand?

Twelve people from my workplace went out to the pub one Friday for someone’s birthday. Apart from myself and one other, it was a round of ten Diet Cokes, including one for the person who was supposed to be celebrating. Anyone would think that a pint of bitter or a glass of wine would have them throwing up over the boss or copying their backsides on the photocopier. Is it any wonder that the licensed trade and the brewing industry are in such a bad way?
And it certainly hasn’t got any less so in the intervening years.

It would be interesting to be given examples of precisely in what kind of situations people do feel pressurised into drinking, as I really don’t see this at all. One area where this is often mentioned is in social life in higher education institutions, but they provide a huge range of activities, most of which don’t involve drinking in any way. The fact that someone has organised a Carnage pub crawl doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to go on it.

The article says that people don’t drink alcohol on two out of three social occasions, so the pressure can’t really be that intense. If they truly were having their arms twisted to drink, surely we wouldn’t be seeing so many pubs closing. And, if you really don’t much care for drinking, but most of your friends seem to do nothing else, maybe it’s time to find some new friends.

In reality, this is an example of the common phenomenon of something attracting more criticism as it becomes less popular. We have seen exactly the same happening with smoking. Forty years ago, there undoubtedly would have been more social pressure to drink, but nobody complained about it back then.