Sunday, 27 October 2019

Pile it high and sell it cheap

As craft beer grows in popularity, it gets into a wider range of outlets. And, in the off-trade, that inevitably means that it moves out of the specialist bottle shops and into the supermarkets. Now, supermarkets are known for engaging in intensive price competition with each other and driving a hard bargain with suppliers, two things that don’t perhaps sit entirely easily with the craft ethos.

The photo above shows the range of craft beers in my local Tesco, all available at £1.80 each or 4 for £6. It’s not the absolute bleeding edge of craft, but even so it’s a pretty respectable selection, including the likes of Vocation, Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Five Points, Crate, Toast and Camden. It’s interesting that pretty much all of these beers now seem to have moved from bottles to cans. The German discounters, Aldi and Lidl, have introduced their own-brand “craft-a-likes” at even lower prices.

This has attracted a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the craft influencers, complaining that such low prices will devalue the concept and won’t give brewers a decent return. However, I can’t help thinking they’re protesting a bit too much. There’s always going to be a limit to craft’s popularity unless it can achieve a price point rather closer to that of mainstream beers. Most drinkers just want something that delivers a particular flavour and conveys a certain image, and aren’t interested in paying over the odds to “support” specific breweries. If these beers were priced at £2.50 or £3 in Tesco, they wouldn’t sell much of them, and indeed probably wouldn’t stock them at all. If those brewers weren’t making any money from selling to Tesco, they wouldn't do it, just as nobody has to sell to Wetherspoon’s.

It’s also something of a myth that craft beers are vastly more expensive to produce, as I explained here. Even if the ingredients cost half as much again (which is doubtful) the total cost still only makes up a small proportion of the final price. If anything, the higher costs are more likely to come from less efficient energy usage and administration and distribution processes. And they’re still commanding a substantial price premium over other beers – 50% above the 500ml premium bottled ales, which are in the same offer, and more than twice as much as a 4x440ml pack of Stella. This is probably at least as big as the price premium enjoyed by the major craft brands in the US.

If you want to be able to sell beer for £3 a can, you have to stay ahead of the pack and brew something that is prized by enthusiasts and isn’t on Tesco’s shelves. But, in the overall scheme of things, you won’t sell very much of it. You can either be popular, or premium and exclusive, but you can’t be both. You do have to wonder how successful some of these enthusiasts actually want the craft sector to be. It’s rather like music fans feeling sold out because their favourite indie band has appeared on Top of the Pops and had a track included on Now That’s What I Call Music.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Calling time on time

There used to be a very straightforward ritual attached to closing time in pubs. Ten minutes before the actual time, “Last orders at the bar!” would be called. Then, at the hour itself, it was “Time, Ladies and Gentlemen!” And, after ten minutes of drinking-up time, it was chucking out time, when the customers would be asked to leave the premises with varying degrees of firmness.

Drinking-up time was interpreted differently in various areas – Birmingham, for example, was very strict, while Greater Manchester tended to be much more relaxed. However, it was a standard routine that was generally understood and accepted. And, of course, with afternoon closing too, it happened twice a day. In 1988, when all-day opening was finally permitted, the permitted drinking-up time was extended to twenty minutes, which in many places was merely a recognition of what was already happening. But, otherwise, nothing changed.

However, the 2003 Licensing Act, which was implemented in 2005 and led to a much more liberal regime overall for opening hours, swept this away, and left it much more to the discretion of individual establishments as to how they managed the process. On the face of it, that may sound like a welcome measure of deregulation, but in practice it often just leaves drinkers confused and disgruntled. This is exemplified in this blogpost from Boak & Bailey and this tweet from Jules Saunders:

There are three interlinked problems. One is that it has become increasingly difficult to establish when pubs are actually expected to close, something made worse by many pubs’ habit of describing their hours as “12 till late”, which is no use to man or beast. Then, even when hours are published, they may vary them apparently capriciously from one night, and one week, to the next. And, when you’re actually in the pub, it may not be at all clear when closing time actually is, and you may be taken aback when the shutters suddenly come down without warning. If you are eating in a restaurant or watching a film in the evening, it really helps to know where you can be certain to be able to get a drink afterwards.

I can’t say I’m actually in pubs very often at late-night closing time, but I’ve certainly heard many complaints about it. Plus I have experienced the situation where you’re in a pub and are not sure whether to get another one in before 11, or whether to wait until you’ve finished your pint. Of course you can ask, but you really shouldn’t have to do that. If a pub ever deviates from the standard closing time, why can’t it display a sign above the bar saying “Bar closes at midnight tonight” or whatever?

This is another manifestation of the sense of entitlement still widespread in the licensed trade, a feeling that customers should feel privileged to be allowed in at all and really have no right to be provided with decent, reliable information. Another example of this is the unwillingness to display price lists. Shops tend to operate fairly standard and predictable hours, but pretty much every one displays its hours outside. Pubs’ hours are far more diverse and variable, yet equally far less likely to be on view.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Up in smoke

The impact of the 2007 smoking ban on the pub trade has been a perennial source of debate. Only the most blinkered denialist would claim that it didn’t have any negative effect at all, but it is hard to untangle this from the influence of the late 2000s recession and the general long-term downward trend.

However, Christopher Snowdon reports on some new research published in Health Policy which clearly shows that the catastrophic decline in pub numbers well predated the recession, and that previous recessions had made no difference to the general downward trend.

The whole thing is worth reading, but particularly interesting are the figures on household expenditure in pubs. The point is often made that smokers only made up 21% of the adult population, but in fact pre-ban they spent far more in pubs than non-smokers. They were pubs’ best customers.

The data show that before the smoking ban, smokers spent nearly twice as much money in pubs as nonsmokers - and nearly 50 per cent more on alcohol overall.

After the ban, average weekly expenditure in pubs by smoking households fell by 45 per cent, from £10.06 to £5.68.

Was this made up for by nonsmokers flocking to smoke-free pubs, as anti-smoking campaigners - and the useful idiots at CAMRA - promised? Not a bit of it. Expenditure by nonsmoking households also fell, from £5.70 to £4.42 a week.

Spending on alcohol from the off-trade remained pretty similar for both groups.

It is worth noting that, even though they are treated as third-class citizens, smokers still spend nearly 30% more in pubs than non-smokers. I guess that many non-smokers just don’t like the idea of pubs, full stop. While antismokers may feel that pubs offer a more congenial environment post-ban, there is no evidence that it has led to them visiting any more often or spending any more money there.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Taverns in the town

In the past many CAMRA branches produced comprehensive printed guides to real ale pubs in their local areas, and often clubbed together to cover entire counties. However, more recently these seem to have withered on the vine, caused no doubt by a combination of the general decline of print media, and the increased fluidity of the pub and beer scene in terms of both pub openings and closings, and changing beer ranges.

Something that has come along that replaces them to some extent is free leaflets listing the pubs in a particular town that is considered to be of interest to pubgoers, often produced with support from local tourist funding. I have one of St Albans from five years ago, and more recently have picked them up in Lancaster and Preston.

Now Stockport has joined the party with Stockport Beer Town, which has been part-financed by funding from the local Business Improvement District. While obviously I am somewhat biased in favour of my home town, I have to say it’s the best I’ve seen before. It lists 33 pubs within or just outside the Inner Ring Road, all pinpointed on a comprehensive map, although it doesn’t make it clear that St Petersgate crosses Little Underbank via a bridge, not a crossroads. There is a photograph for each pub.

To its credit, it lists all the current cask beer outlets, whereas some of the others have been selective to a greater or lesser degree. While it’s impossible to give details of opening hours or beer ranges, it does indicate which pubs aren’t open by 1 pm every day of the week. It also shows symbols for accommodation, real cider, dog-friendliness, live entertainment, food, outdoor drinking and wheelchair accessibility, which are unlikely to change so rapidly.

Of the 33 pubs listed, only eight first opened their doors in the current century, so there hasn’t been the rapid churn of licensed premises that some other towns have experienced, and some of those eight are as much traditional pubs as contemporary bars. There are eight Robinson’s pubs plus the Brewery Visitor Centre, but at least half as many again have closed within the area over the same period of time.

If you’re in the town, it’s well worth picking up a copy from one of the listed pubs or from the Tourist Information Centre. It can also be downloaded here.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Declaration of independence

Writing in the Morning Advertiser, Pete Brown wonders whether this is the last time he will have to drop the c-bomb? It is certainly true that the term “craft beer” has proved confusing and impossible to define in the UK context. The key to the problem is that its advocates tried to read it across directly from the USA, but that just doesn’t work as the markets are very different. In the US, the established stratum of medium-sized independent breweries had largely disappeared, so it was easy to pitch craft as anything that wasn’t Big Beer.

But, in this country, there was a long-standing group of independent brewers, mostly majoring on cask beer, who had in more recent years been joined by a growing number of new microbreweries. By the definition in general usage, “craft” would have encompassed pretty much all of these. But the British craft movement deliberately chose to ignore them, and indeed pitched itself as being in contrast to “real ale culture”.

Thus we have arrived at the situation I described here, where “cask” and “craft” are polar opposites, and I wrote:

...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.
Or, as Cooking Lager said in the comments, “Craft means a hoppy keg fizzy IPA. Cask means that old man handpump stuff.” In British terms, “craft beer” has become just another market segment, and one increasingly dominated, to a greater extent than real ale, by the products of the international brewers or their offshoots. Something similar has happened in European countries with a long-established brewing tradition, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, where “craft beer” is often seem as a hoppy, US-style IPA in contrast to their indigenous styles.

To avoid these issues, Pete is proposing a move to defining craft beer as that produced by independent companies rather than the industry giants, which indeed is what already is accepted in the USA. However, this cuts across how the concept is viewed in this country, as he writes:

Applied to the UK, every single beer from one of our traditional family-owned breweries would count as a craft beer. I would have no problem with that, but I know a lot of craft drinkers who would.
There is much to be said for championing independent producers – it encourages both competition and a more heterogenous beer market. It’s also a good idea to promote transparency in terms of who owns what. But it’s a lazy assumption that independent beer and good beer are synonymous. Many of the world’s great beer brands, such as Pilsner Urquell, are owned by multinational brewers, and Fuller’s ESB didn’t become any less worth drinking when it was acquired by Asahi. In contrast, plenty of unbalanced, low-quality homebrew comes out of inexperienced brewers’ garages.

In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation made great play of promoting the independent brewers in preference to the “Big Six”. After all, it had been their commitment (or inertia) that had been largely responsible for keeping real ale in existence in this country. But it always recognised that the major brewers could, and did, produce good real ales, and indeed one of them was responsible for Ind Coope Burton Ale, one of the poster boys of the initial real ale revolution. CAMRA always recognised that the product was distinct from the corporate ownership: it never sought to claim that the only beer worth drinking came from independent brewers.

The concept of independence is also very hard to define. The US definition from the Brewers’ Association sets a figure of 6 million barrels a year, but scaled down to the size of the British market that would comfortably encompass Marston’s. Yet I doubt whether many craft beer enthusiasts would accept Marston’s as craft brewers. They’d even feel uncomfortable about Palmer’s and Holt’s. How how much of a stake are multinationals allowed to hold in breweries such as Beavertown before they no longer qualify? The Brewer’s Association says no more than 25%. And how big would BrewDog have to become before it turns from a minnow into a shark? In some people’s eyes, it already has.

It’s questionable to what extent ownership really matters to most drinkers anyway. People judge beer, or indeed any other product, by what it tastes like, not who owns it. They recognise that most of the products they buy are made by multinational companies – who ever heard of an independent smartphone, or toilet paper? Indeed, the person who strives as far as possible to eliminate anything “corporate” from their lifestyle comes across as an obsessive bore. The traction this will gain amongst the great majority of drinkers is exaggerated.

So allowing “craft” to be reborn as “independent beer” isn’t going to solve the issue of definition, and is fraught with problems of its own. “Craft”, ultimately, has become established as a cultural concept, not a specific type of beer or a size of brewer. Maybe it would be best to call time on all these attempts to sort the beer world into sheep and goats.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Going Down to Liverpool - Part 2

We pick up the story of our Proper Day Out in Liverpool having just left the Lion Tavern and heading down the narrow street of Hackins Hey in the direction of Dale Street. This brought us to Ye Hole In Ye Wall, which is certainly a pub that I remember from forty years ago, and seems little changed since then. It is a low, mock half-timbered building that appears obviously older than its neighbours. It claims to be the oldest pub in the city, with the facade bearing the date 1726.

Entering through a door on the left, the bar counter runs along the front of the pub, with a couple of comfortable snugs with bench seating opposite. There’s plenty of dark wood and leaded glass, including the door to the gents’ pictured. It was the last pub in the city to be men-only, and this was not joined by ladies’ facilities until 1975.

The pub also has the unusual feature of a first-floor cellar. I vaguely recall the beer being served through free-flow gravity-fed taps, although it now has conventional handpumps. Beers on the bar included Lister’s IPA, Hafod Moel Famau, which was very good, and Lancaster Noble Pilsner, which was in good condition but, like many British cask lagers, didn’t really seem to hit the spot in terms of flavour. Although it was now well past lunchtime, it was busy, with mixed-sex groups of a variety of ages.

Ye Hole in Ye Wall is one of four pubs immediately adjacent to each other, the others being the Saddle on the corner of Hackins Hey and Dale Street, the Lady of Mann tucked away in a courtyard, and Thomas Rigby’s on Dale Street itself. Now owned by Manx brewers Okell’s, it occupies the ground floor of a substantial five-storey white-painted Victorian building in the Italianate style.

There’s a busy public bar running the length of the pub on the left, and a parlour on the right that was reserved for diners, and thus empty in mid-afternoon. Beers on the bar included Okell’s Bitter and IPA, Red Star Formby IPA and Sharp’s Atlantic, the Bitter being particularly good.

There now followed the longest walk of the day, first heading down Dale Street and Water Street past Liverpool’s historic Town Hall to the Pier Head, with a memorable view of the Mersey estuary framed by the tall buildings. We then followed the waterfront past the monumental warehouses of Albert Dock to cross a river of rush-hour traffic along Wapping to reach the Baltic Fleet, a distinctive “flat-iron” style pub in the angle of two roads. We debated the origin of the name, but according to the Liverpool Historic Pub Guide it comes from a Scandinavian merchant fleet of the 1850s trading in timber, and is nothing to do with either the Russian navy or Admiral Napier’s Royal Navy squadron in the Crimean War. By this time, as you can see from the picture, the sun was shining brightly after the earlier rain.

Oddly, while there are numerous external doors, you have to go right round the back of the pub to gain entrance. Inside, there is a central bar with long rooms on either side, the walls covered with nautical memorabilia, mostly relating to Liverpool’s involvement in Transatlantic liner services. There’s an overall pastel colour scheme reflecting the exterior, and it gave the impression of being unsure whether it wanted to be a modern craft bar or a traditional pub. It also seemed in places to be straddling the dividing line between shabby chic and tatty.

For a while, the pub had its own brewery, but this had not been in operation for a few years now. There were maybe eight beers on the bar, including Beartown Polar Eclipse, Neptune Wooden Ships, Ad Hop Endeavour and Tatton Best Bitter, all of which were pretty decent.

We then returned towards the city centre through the Liverpool One shopping precinct, which is entirely new since I had last been there, and can be a touch disorientating, although we managed to find our way without mishap. The White Star on Rainford Gardens is situated in an area of narrow streets between the shopping and commercial districts, close to Matthew Street, the location of the famous Cavern Club.

Named after the shipping line, it’s a small pub with a front seating area facing the bar and a larger rear room where a band were enthusiastically playing Beatles and Oasis covers. The live music meant it was packed, and we were only able to find a seat by unstacking some plastic stools in the corridor. It was historically a Bass tied house, and still has that classic beer alongside others including, on this occasion, rugby-themed beers from Hook Norton and Wadworth’s. The Bass, we were pleased to find, was in excellent condition, but because of the crowding we didn’t stay as long as we had planned.

The route to our final call, the Globe on Cases Street close to Central Station, took us along Church Street, which was historically the main shopping zone, although I’m not sure to what extent this has been affected by Liverpool One. It was now after six and the crowds were much reduced. The small street on which it stands had been partially taken over by a new covered shopping arcade causing a moment’s confusion, but we got there in the end.

It’s a small cosy pub with a front bar area noted for its gently sloping floor, which we were pleased to see was still carpeted, plus a rear snug. It was pretty busy, again with a wide mix of customers, but we were able to find some seats opposite the bar. The soundtrack included the Beatles (again) and Roy Orbison. There were four beers on the bar – Landlord, Doom Bar, Wainwright and Griffin Rock Red., from which we all went for the Landlord, which was pretty good.

As we had not spent as long in the White Star as we had planned, two of us had time to make a quick return visit to the Crown before catching our trains home. The route involved passing the corner of Ranelagh Street and Lime Street which was once dominated by three Liverpool landmarks – the now-closed Lewis’s department store, the Adelphi Hotel, which is still in business but has lost much of its original lustre, and the impressive Vines pub, another with a National Inventory interior, which had been reported closed but seemed to be showing some signs of life tonight, although it had not sold real ale for some years.

The Crown was extremely busy, with large standing groups in the main bar, but we found some seats in the rear room. Trooper was again good, as was Gritchie Lore English Pale Ale, which we eventually worked out came from a brewery owned by film director Guy Ritchie. The general busyness of the pubs in Liverpool was very noticeable, as werr the mixed sexes and ages of the customers. We know that pubs are struggling in many areas, but in the city centre on a Friday afternoon and early evening they certainly weren’t.

I managed to get a direct train back to Stockport, with no shortage of seats, and was back home not long after nine. Another excellent day out with, as ever, good company and conversation to go with the beer. All of these trips have their different virtues, but Liverpool stood out both for the heritage quality of the pubs we visited and their lively atmosphere. The best beers of the day were three of the more familiar ones – Trooper in the Crown, Okell’s Bitter in Thomas Rigby’s, and Bass in the White Star.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos of Ye Hole in Ye Wall, Rigby’s, the White Star and the Globe, the other two being mine.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Plain stupid

The Morning Advertiser reports that the drinks industry are becoming increasingly concerned about the potential introduction of plain packaging for alcohol, which, it is claimed, on a global basis could cost them up to £350 billion. This has been supported by bodies such as Public Health England and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Now, I can’t help being reminded that, at the time of the smoking ban, the idea that the principles of the anti-tobacco crusade would be extended into other areas was pooh-poohed. Smoking is a special case, we were told, and the likelihood of a slippery slope was just scaremongering. But, while it gives me no pleasure, it’s impossible to avoid something of a feeling of vindication to be proved right and to see the tobacco template increasingly being applied to soft drinks, so-called “unhealthy” foods and, of course, alcohol. Basically, pretty much anything people consume that they might enjoy.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen next year, or even in the next five years. And, realistically, plain packaging is pretty meaningless unless it is accompanied by a comprehensive ban on advertising and promotion, as we have seen with tobacco products. But the Overton window has now been opened and brought the subject into the sphere of public debate, and in the coming years the pressure is only going to increase.

The quoted figure of £350 billion refers to the total revenue that would come under the scope of the restriction, not the profit the industry would stand to lose. Indeed, in the short term, profits might increase as companies no longer had to spend any money on advertising or product development. However, their scope to conduct business would be greatly curtailed, and they would be reduced, like tobacco companies, to producing a declining but still lucrative product, but having very little ability to influence how the market operated or even to compete in any meaningful way with each other. Plain packaging takes away a key means of differentiating your product from others and reduces it to a generic item.

Nor would it stop people drinking, as they take up alcohol following the example of family members or peers, not because they are seduced by glitzy labels. But what it would do is to ossify the market in the form it took before the restriction came in. Product knowledge would depend on folk memory and word-of-mouth and, increasingly, price would become the main determinant of choice, as it has with tobacco products. Innovation and new product introductions would become virtually impossible. And, while measures of this kind are sometimes portrayed as a way of attacking corporate power, it is the little guys and the new entrants to the market who would suffer to a much greater extent than the big, established players.

Ultimately, this is a highly patronising and illiberal policy that seeks to control people and deny them the opportunity to make informed decisions as to how to live their lives. It is “we know better than you”, and needs to be strongly resisted by anyone who is interested in the protection of individual freedom.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Going Down to Liverpool – Part 1

Our latest Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out involved a visit to Liverpool on Friday 4 October. I grew up in Runcorn, from which Liverpool was the closest and most accessible big city, so in the late Seventies and early Eighties I became very familiar with its pubs. However, I hadn’t been back there for at least twenty-five years, probably longer than I had last visited Preston. There’s really too much in Liverpool for a single day to do it justice, so we decided to concentrate on the pubs in and around the downtown business district around Dale Street which is the original heart of the city.

While the city centre hasn’t experienced the dramatic rebuilding of Manchester in recent years, there has still been plenty of modern development, particularly along the waterfront and in the new Liverpool One shopping precinct. You are also confronted when leaving Lime Street station with some garish bright blue cladding on the St John’s Centre opposite.

Manchester to Liverpool is one of those railway journeys that could be accomplished more quickly in the Edwardian era than today, albeit with fewer stops. The fast train I caught was scheduled to take 54 minutes for the 35-mile journey, although in fact it started ten minutes late and easily made up the time without ever really seeming to put the hammer down.

I couldn’t resist a reminder of this Bangles classic from the early 80s, in fact written by Kimberley Rew of Katrina & The Waves:


Hey now, where you going with that pint of Higsons in your hand
I said: Hey now, through this green and pleasant land
I'm going down to Liverpool to do nothing
All the days of my life
Well, an afternoon spent in various pubs isn’t quite doing nothing, but probably much more fun.

After an inexplicably crowded, standing room only train journey, we met up at the Crown, which is conveniently situated right next to Lime Street station. It was still raining at this point, but it gave up while we were in the pub and in fact the sun came out later. It’s a large street-corner pub with impressive external plasterwork advertising Walker’s Warrington Ale. The interior is even more impressive, meriting a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with stunning, intricate plasterwork ceilings and a wealth of original wooden details.

There’s a spacious main bar at the front, which given the number of blocked-up external doors has presumably been opened out at some time in the distant past, although the layout has been the same for as long as I can remember it. To the rear is a comfortable lounge with bench seating around the walls, and there is an upstairs dining room. There were eight cask beers on the bar, including Doom Bar, Landlord, Trooper and Rudgate Hop for Heroes. We sampled the latter three, which were all good, although the Trooper was certainly the best of the bunch.

We then walked down St John’s Lane past the magnificent St George’s Hall, which is like a Merseyside version of the Parthenon. It was designed by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes when he was only 24, and he was dead by 33. Ever since I’ve been visiting Liverpool, it’s always struck me as odd that it’s so difficult to get from Lime Street to the commercial district on foot, and nothing seems to have changed, so we ended up having to walk across the throat of the original Queensway Mersey Tunnel, opened in 1933, to reach our target, the Ship & Mitre at the eastern end of Dale Street.

This is an impressive white-tiled Art Deco pub, built in 1937 as the brewery tap for the long-defunct Bent’s Brewery, that ended up falling into the hands of Bass Charrington. The suprising spacious, rambling interior has been mostly modernised in bare-boards alehouse style, but apparently there is an intact original function room upstairs. It positions itself as Liverpool’s premier real ale free house, and sported a very wide range of both cask and keg ales on the bar, including three form their own Flagship Brewery. We chose Flagship Lupa, Fernandes Triple O and Lees True Faith, all of which were pretty good. It also had the authentic German ABK lager which seems to be getting into a lot of beer-focused pubs.

Our next call was the Railway on Tithebarn Street opposite the former Exchange Station, which isn’t on the usual real ale/heritage pubs trail, but had been recommended to me by several people on Twitter for its food. While we rarely struggle to find good beer on these trips, decent lunchtime pub food can be more of a challenge, as we found to our cost in Preston. It’s a handsome Victorian street-corner pub that has been opened up somewhat, but extends a long way back, with no shortage of comfortable bench seating, albeit sporting the dreaded scatter cushions. It was pretty busy, with most groups eating, and seemed to be popular with city workers of various ages. It also had uniformed bar staff in aprons, and gave the general impression of being a classic bustling city-centre pub.

The beer selection of Doom Bar, Dizzy Blonde and Trooper wouldn’t excite the ticker, but three beers is quite enough for a generalist pub, and we all plumped for the Dizzy, which didn’t disappoint. It was also only £2.90 a pint. While I wasn’t keeping a detailed record, beer prices in Liverpool seemed generally reasonable, and well below central Manchester, with little over £3.50. The Railway has an extensive menu of good-value food, from which we variously chose the classic local dish of Scouse and a steak baguette with chips, both of which, by the standards of mainstream pub food, were very good.

Right next door to the Railway is the Lion Tavern on the corner of Tithebarn Street and Moorfields. Outwardly, it doesn’t look as impressive, but it has a magnificent unspoilt interior which qualifies it for a full National Inventory entry. It has a corner public bar surrounded by an L-shaped corridor giving access to a News Room at the front and a cosy toplit lounge to the rear. There’s an abundance of original etched glass and a very rare Art Nouveau tiled frontage to the bar. The only jarring feature was that any fixed seating that once existed in the bar itself had been removed and replaced by posing tables.

There were six or seven cask beers available, including Lion Mild brewed specially for the pub by the local Rock the Boat Brewery. We chose Salopian Lemon Dream, which was pretty good, and Butcombe Bitter and Lees Bitter, both of which unfortunately were rather past their best, which slightly detracted from the general experience. We also took advantage of the free jukebox, featuring real CDs, which didn’t seem to include much music recorded over the past thirty years.

To be continued....

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos, with the exception of that of the Crown, which comes from Merseyside Pub Guide.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

It won’t lie down

The most recent version of the annual Cask Report was published last month. Against a background of falling sales, it argued that the key to turning the sector round was premiumisation, which seems somewhat perverse to say the least. This idea really is a complete canard that for some reason keeps getting resurrected. I have written about this several times in the past, here for example, so am reluctant to produce another lengthy essay on the subject. However, here are a few quick bullet points.

  • The historical reason that cask sells at a discount to keg ales and lagers is that it was originally the standard beer in pubs. Keg ales and lagers commanded a premium both because they were new innovations and because they incurred more processing and storage costs.

  • One reason that it continues to sell at a discount is inconsistent quality. People won’t pay top dollar for a product that is something of a lottery.

  • Cask doesn’t inherently cost any more to make than keg, and it isn’t really that difficult to keep well so long as you stick to a few simple rules.

  • Cask is a perishable product that is critically dependent on turnover. It is ill-suited to occupy a low-volume niche.

  • Most cask is consumed by ordinary drinkers, not beer enthusiasts. It is usually the staple ale in pubs and is compared with lagers and smooth ales, not with craft keg.

  • Cask beer isn’t exactly cheap at the moment, with the £4 pint very common now.

  • Many cask drinkers are people on a limited budget who have no scope to absorb hefty price increases. 59% of drinkers may say in a poll that it should cost more, but in practice would they be happy to pay it?

  • The single biggest retailer of cask beer is an aggressive discounter, which makes it very difficult to shift the perception of the market.
With work, premium pricing can be achieved for individual brands and pubs, as I wrote here. But it’s just not going to happen for the whole sector, so maybe it would be best to stop trying to flog this particular dead horse.

It’s interesting to see the contrast between these two Twitter polls by Ber O’Clock Show and myself asking subtly different questions: