Friday 27 December 2019

Ten years further on

Although some pedants would argue that it doesn’t actually happen until the end of next year, this month marks the end of what has proved to be a momentous decade in British history, although possibly not quite so much in the sphere of beer and pubs.

Looking back through my posts in the first couple of months of January 2010, it seems that what was most concerning me was the rise in anti-drink sentiment. I was also criticising CAMRA for barking up the wrong tree. So nothing much has changed there. Home Office minister Gillian Merron was delusionally claiming that the smoking ban hadn’t affected the trade of pubs. There was quite an outbreak of antismoker bigotry in the comments on that post, although I got the last laugh by pointing out in the final comment that she lost her seat at the general election a couple of months later. And the idea of a majority Labout government seems a world away now.

On-trade beer sales declined from 16.3 million barrels in 2009 to 12.6 million in the year to June 2019 (the latest figures available on the BBPA website), a fall of 22.6%. The on-trade fell from 54.5% of the total beer market to 45.6%. By contrast, the fall during the 2000s, which included both the smoking ban and the financial crisis, was 33.4%.

This was once Robinson's Adswood Hotel in Stockport
The number of pubs has continued to decline, although not at quite as steep a pace as in the final couple of years of the 2000s, with quite a number of prominent closures. More recently it has levelled out somewhat, and there have even been reports recently of a small increase in the total number, although this always raised a question of how exactly a pub is defined. A full on-licence is not an automatic signifier of pub status. The impact of closures has also greatly varied between different areas.

On the other hand, the decade saw a rise in the number of micropubs and other small new bars, made possible by changes in licensing law that made it much easier to open new venues. In general, these places aren’t really to my taste, and my feeling is that they represent a further fragmentation of the pub trade. The concept of “a pub” as something universally understood is looking increasingy dated.

In response to the fall-off in trade, many pubs cut back their hours, often no longer opening at lunchtimes, particularly early in the week. Even when they are open, outside the traditional busy times of Friday and Saturday nights pubs can often be embarrassingly devoid of customers. Going for a pint simply isn’t the part of everyday life it once was.

The British craft beer market grew in size and prominence, and the term entered the general vocabulary. However, nobody could agree on what it actually meant, and by the end of the decade most of its leading lights had been wholly or partly taken over by the international brewers. Pretty much all the beers on this list come from brewers either owned or invested in by the big boys, or from BrewDog, which is now very much a shark itself rather than a minnow. Craft’s lasting legacy seems likely to be the presence of a hoppy keg IPA on many bars.

Part of the craft beer movement was co-opted into a political campaign with the avowed aim of increasing diversity and inclusiveness in beer, although the actual results often seemed to tend more towards a shrill, humourless intolerance of different views and outlooks.

Wetherspoon’s apparently inexorable rise was stemmed by a period of retrenchment, although to some extent this was driven by wanting to escape from expensive leases. They realised that two sites fairly close to each other in the same town would just cannibalise each other’s sales, and that some locations just didn’t suit their formula. They have now gone back to opening new pubs, but the figure of 1,000 that once seemed inevitable now looks a long way off. The company still accounts for more than one in ten pints of real ale sold in Britain, though, and remains a bellwether of what is hot and what is not in the beer market.

There were further steps in the unceasing war against smoking and smokers, including a display ban and plain packaging, together with ever-increasing duty levels. However, despite many warnings, little of this seemed to be turned in the direction of alcohol, with very little being done to increase duty, curb availability or restrict advertising and promotion. Ironically, much of the ire of public health seems to have been redirected against “junk food” and soft drinks, with the introduction of the controversial and ineffective sugar tax. However, the general climate of public opinion has become much more censorious about alcohol, and stricter anti-drink measures certainly cannot be ruled out in the next decade.

The trend in pub refurbishments very much tended towards a stripped-back, minimalist, pastel-shaded “Farrow and Ball” style. The removal of carpets, bench seating and warm colours resulted in a harsh, echoing atmosphere offering little in terms of comfort and cosiness.

The Crown on Walney Island - not exactly cosy and welcoming
One of the worst offenders have been my local family brewer Robinson’s. The news that they are refurbishing a pub is enough to fill the heart with dread. Perhaps more than any of their competitors, they have carried out a root-and-branch reassessment of their business, involving refocusing on smart food-led pubs and getting rid of most of the smaller wet-led locals. Over the decade they must have sold off around a third of their estate.

They also withdrew 1892 Mild (formerly Hatters), which as recently as 1977 had been their best-selling beer. Given that all their local competitors still make cask mild, this was essentially a symbolic gesture that they were turning over a new leaf. Of course, they are a commercial company and are fully entitled to make whatever decisions that want to ensure their future prosperity, but it all leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. On the other hand, they have enjoyed great success with their Iron Maiden themed beer, Trooper, which has now become a mainstay of their business.

Hydes retrenched their brewing operations and moved to a new site in Salford in 2012. Of the other local family brewers, Holts are the ones who seem most committed to running pubs with a substantial wet trade and actually shifting lots of beer.

Samuel Smith’s distinctive approach to running their pubs stands out from the crowd even more today than it did in 2010, but they have scaled new and sometimes counter-productive heights of eccentricity.

On a personal note, I lost both of my parents during the decade. However, as they would now be 101 and 97, it was only to be expected. It never entirely leaves you, though.

But I confidently expect this country to enjoy a bright future during the coming decade. And, while it cannot be denied that their role in society is diminished, there will still be good times to be had in pubs. Plus, taking a wider perspective, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the 2010s were a decade of significant global progress on most aspects of human wellbeing.

Here’s an article by Matt Ridley explaining the factual background behind the above graphic.

Friday 20 December 2019

Review of 2019

It’s now that time when people turn to reviewing the highs and lows of the year that is drawing to a close. So here are some of my thoughts. It can’t really be called “Golden Pints” as the emphasis is very much on pubs rather than beer.

Best new pub visited – the Slubbers Arms in Huddesfield. I’ve visited 111 brand-new pubs this year, probably a record total since 1985, and this narrowly claims the prize. It’s a former Timothy Taylor’s tied house that still serves their beers. Built in the sharp angle of two roads, it has an unspoilt interior and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. However, as it’s a good half-mile north of the town centre, and doesn’t open at lunchtimes, it may well be one that I never end up visiting again. An honourable runner-up was Holden’s Codsall Station Bar.

Best revisits – a joint award to the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano in Somerset and the Dolphin in Plymouth, two pubs I have really enjoyed in the past and wasn’t disappointed when I visited them both in a day, as can often be the case. Plus another honourable mention to the wonderfully unspoilt Star in Bath.

Beer of the year – it s hard to single anything out when so many are only encountered once. A couple that particularly stick in the memory in terms of their quality were Pedigree in the Bank House in Uttoxeter and Enville Ale in the White Hart in Shifnal. I’ve had quite a few good examples of Pedigree, which is a beer that has gained a reputation for often suffering from poor cellarmanship.

The beer I’ve drunk most of is undoubtedly Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter, but that’s more a function of finding the atmosphere of their local pubs congenial. Sometimes it’s excellent, sometimes no more than OK. Draught Bass and Black Sheep Bitter have both been excellent on several occasions, and I had a memorably good drop of John Smith’s Cask in the Market Tavern/Tap in Preston.

During the course of the year we organised six Proper Days Out via the Beer & Pubs Forum, together with a few more impromptu meet-ups. These covered Huddersfield, Rugby, Uttoxeter, Preston, Liverpool and Shifnal. All were good, as much for the company as the pubs themselves, but perhaps those that stand out were Uttoxeter and Shifnal, which involved visiting most of the pubs in a smallish town rather than a few selected highlights in a bigger place. The next planned trip is to Burton-on-Trent in March next year. The forum itself continues to tick over nicely as a friendly, low-key alternative to the sometimes fractious CAMRA Discourse.

Pub cat of the year – I have to say I’ve encountered very few pub cats during the past year. I did visit the famous Bag of Nails in Bristol, where the cats were delightful, but I have to say the pub itself wasn’t really to my taste, and I felt more at home amongst the old boys drinking flat Bass and watching the racing in the Myrtle Tree a few doors down.

So probably the title has to go to Artemis in the Olde Cottage in Chester, who I have never met, although I hope to remedy that omission with a trip next year. He’s a handsome young tabby who turned up at the pub as a stray and, now duly snipped and chipped, seems to have established himself as the centre of attention.

I’ve done 92 posts on this blog so far this year, including this one, and may possibly add one or two more in the remaining days. That’s more than last year, but fewer than some previous years. As I’ve said before, many of the more ephemeral subjects now tend to go straight to Twitter rather than justifying a blogpost in their own right. I continue to get over 1000 pageviews for some of the more popular posts (usually those about craft beer in some way or other) and considerably more comments than some other supposedly more prestigious bloggers. Possibly my favourite post was my extended review of Anthony Avis’ fascinating memoir of the postwar brewing industry, although, as often happens, this one seems to have gone largely unremarked.

By restricting the ability to make unmoderated comments to a brief window, and laying down a policy of not accepting repeated comments from unregistered people unless I know who they are, I seem to have dealt with the issue of persistent malicious trolling which had bedevilled me before. If you want to debate the issues in a respectful manner, that’s fine, but if you want to have a go on a personal level that is out of order.

I’ve also continued to add new pubs to my Closed Pubs blog – a total of 45 this year so far – including in the past few weeks a series sent in by a reader on the Cross Green area in East Leeds, which in recent years has been denuded of all its pubs.

My Twitter account passed 5,000 followers earlier in the year, and is now over 5,200, so plenty of people seem to appreciate it. That is a significant milestone, as is opens the door to following more people, although in fact the number of accounts I’m following is now fewer than my followers because I’ve culled a lot of dormant accounts. I’ve said before that the secrets of success on Twitter are to define clearly what your account is about (and, by implication, what it isn’t about) and, despite the reputation of the platform, not entering into bad-tempered arguments. As with the blog, if you want to discuss things, that’s fine, but if you’re going to be personally antagonistic you will be muted. Toady, who does do the political stuff that Mudgie steers clear of, passed 3,000 followers during December. He mutes rude people too, and has been blocked by, amongst others, Stockport’s favourite young socialist Owen Jones.

If you run a Twitter account on your own behalf, you are free to say whatever you want, and people will follow or unfollow accordingly. But, if you are tweeting on behalf of a commercial business, a pub or brewery, you really are shooting yourself in the foot by engaging in political grandstanding which may alienate half your potential customers.

I turned 60 in the middle of the year, which may seem like a milestone, but in practice you don’t feel any different. Growing older often feels as though you stay the same but the rest of the world gets steadily madder around you. And I still find myself approaching new situations and experiences like a wide-eyed kid. One thing you do notice is that conversation with your peers inevitably turns to discussion of various ailments and how you’re coping with them, although to be fair we were outdone in Huddersfield by someone who is twenty years younger than some of us. A benefit, though, is that I now qualify for a Senior Railcard, giving a one-third discount off these trips out by train.

A week later, though, I was shocked to hear of the unexpected death of Leeds beer blogger Richard Coldwell, who was four years younger than me. I think I only met him on five occasions, but he was a distinctive and memorable character who gave his full commitment to everything he engaged in. At first I found him a little hard to read, but eventually I realised that stemmed from his service in the police, where he inevitably had to develop a protective carapace, and underneath he was very kind and good-natured. I could still never quite work out to what extent he was winding us up over his professed dislike of Marston’s and all their works, though.

In the public sphere, I was particularly saddened by the death earlier this month of Marie Fredriksson of Roxette, who was only a year older than me but had fought a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. While Roxette were often derided by the right-on critics, to my ear she had a beautiful voice and always came across as having a sympathetic personality. Here she is in happier times, with an uptempo song rather than a ballad:

I haven’t experienced any of the truly appalling examples of service in restaurants that I’ve suffered in previous years, although general slowness and lack of attention continue to be a problem, especially in independently-run places. If I had infinite time and infinite patience, I’m sure that sometimes I could still be sitting there at closing time without anyone having given me the opportunity to ask for the bill. Pub food, particularly that of lighter lunchtime items, continues to suffer from a failure to display menus outside and a simple lack of availability. All too often, Spoons is the best or only option.

The quality of food on our days out has been rather hit-and-miss, which I suppose is what you would expect from pub meals in town centres. Best for me in terms of quality and overall offer was the busy and bustling Railway in Liverpool; probably the most disappointing was the 45-minute wait for very ordinary food in the near-deserted Wellington in Preston.

Best food innovation – Wetherspoon’s 8-inch pizzas. Last year, Wetherspoon’s filled a gap in their menus with the introduction of pizzas, which were in fact surprisingly good for the price. However, as I mentioned here, they weighed in at a gut-busting 1100-plus calories each, which is far more than most people want or need. This year, Spoons have introduced smaller 8-inch versions at around 600 calories, which is quite enough for me and I suspect most other people who aren’t manual workers. Having said that, they’ll probably withdraw them next year.

Daft policy of the year – Samuel Smith’s phone ban. I’ve often praised Sam’s general approach to their pubs which, with comfortable seating and an absence of piped music and TV sport produces a congenial drink and chat atmosphere that suits me. However, to prohibit even silent browsing of phones is a ban too far, which has met with customer resistance and opens them up to ridicule. In what way is it any different in principle from reading the newspaper? The offices at Tadcaster must bear some resemblance to the Führerbunker in the last days of the Reich, with none of the subordinates having the courage to argue back against increasingly deranged pronouncements.

Saddest pub closure – Sam’s inexplicable refusal to employ relief managers has also led to a number of pub closures, most regrettable of all from my point of view being that of the Bird in Hand at Mobberley, which is one of the few genuine, unspoilt country pubs remaining in Cheshire and always seemed to do a decent trade. Hopefully, as with some of their other pubs, they will find it possible to reopen it in the future.

On a brighter note, they have managed to reopen the Sun in September in Burnage, close to where I live, which had been closed for the best part of two years, and so far it seems to be doing pretty well. I like to believe there is a still a demand for pubs that are, basically, just pubs.

Best political event – the decisive Conservative victory in the December general election, which after a year of ongoing political crisis finally opened the door for the UK to leave the European Union at the end of next month, three years and seven months after the referendum. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, it is a basic principle of democracy that such decisions should be respected. If that had failed to happen in one way or another, it would have led to decades of bitter division. While it hasn’t really been mentioned by commentators, my sense is that an undercurrent of resentment against the sneering attitude of so many in Labour to ordinary people's tastes, recreations and attitudes was a factor underlying the swing against them.

Best tourist attraction – Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, a fairly modest redbrick Elizabeth house which claims (probably with justification) to have the largest collection of priest-holes in the country. Plus it’s very close to the Plough at Shenstone, one of Batham’s only two country pubs.

And a mention to the aeronautical collection of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, which really does justify a full day and more, if you find that sort of thing interesting.

Most disappointing was the famous Longleat in Wiltshire, which is undoubtedly a magnificent Elizabethan house, but fails to put its story across or explain why it is special, and makes far too much of the eccentricities of the current Marquess of Bath.

Best revisits – I spent a few days in North Wales to revisit some of the castles that I had not been to for many years. However, most interesting of all were two more modern buildings – Penrhyn Castle, the Brobdingnagian mock-mediaeval castle built by the Douglas-Pennant family on the profits of the slate industry, and the Gothic Revival Plas Newydd by the Menai Strait, which I managed to catch on a beautiful sunny day when the tide was in.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Selective evidence

This month sees the fifth anniversary of the reduction of the drink-driving limit in Scotland in December 2014. At the time, the immediate impact on the licensed trade was such that it caused a noticeable downward blip in Scotland’s national GDP figure. Now, five years later a study by academics at Stirling University has examined the longer-term effect on the trade and, perhaps predictably, concluded that it hasn’t really made a great deal of difference, saying that “Most participants reported no long‐term financial impact on their business.”

However, when you look at it more closely, the foundations for the study look distinctly flimsy. The authors interviewed a mere sixteen businesses, of which just four were classified as being in rural areas. Plus all of those four are described as “Hotel, pub and restaurant”, which by definition is going to be less affected than a normal pub that just maybe does a few bar meals. And it has been suggested on Twitter by licensing lawyer Stephen McGowan that at least some of the sixteen had been selected because they had received awards for taking steps to diversify their business. They seem to have deliberately chosen their subjects to support their desired conclusion.

Of course the impact of the change wasn’t going to be felt evenly across the whole of the licensed trade. Many pubs in the centres of large towns and cities would notice little or no difference. But, on the other hand, many pubgoers outside those areas would be placed in the position where their previously lawful behaviour had been declared illegal overnight. Few would want to risk the potentially severe penalties of breaking the law, and so they would respond by one or more of drinking less, visiting less often or not at all, and transferring their business to somewhere more accessible.

None of those would do anything other than to reduce the business of the establishments they used to frequent, and two out of the three would also impact the trade as a whole. It was possible to argue that the smoking ban had the potential to bring new business into pubs from anti-smokers, although we know in practice any increase was greatly outweighed by the loss of trade from smokers and their tolerant friends. However, there is no upside whatsoever for the trade in cutting the drink-drive limit.

The authors do acknowledge some the issues that may have been caused with real-world pub visitors, for example:

Especially people do not tend to come out at tea time as much whereas they used to come out at tea time and just have a couple of pints and still drive. Whereas now you do not see that’...

...So Sunday to Thursday you might get somebody coming in and having two, three, four pints up until midnight but maybe driving the next day; they would not be driving straight after leaving the pub but they'd be driving after they got up in the morning… …so they would go home earlier or reduce the amount, or just not come out at all.

However, these are dismissed as insignificant in the wider context. They also state that they did not interview any owners of closed businesses, which seems a strange omission. It’s unlikely that cutting the limit in itself would have been the sole cause of any closure, but it may well have been a significant contributory factor which tipped them over the edge. But, of course, dead men tell no tales.

Many people who pontificate about pubs seem to exist within a urban bubble and give the impression of having no conception whatsoever of how pubs actually operate outside it. There must be a large overlap with the useful idiots who still fail to recognise how much damage the smoking ban has wrought. And it’s important to remember that the vast majority of drinking drivers who visit pubs have no intention of breaking the law and indeed believe they are doing their best to stay within it.

Of course there is a road safety case for cutting the limit, although I would contend it’s a pretty flimsy one, and figures so far have suggested no reduction in the number of casualties. But nobody should delude themselves that it won’t have an adverse impact on the pub trade, and on many pubgoers themselves.

It’s rather amusing that, at the end of the study, the authors state that none of them have any conflicts of interest to declare. Shouldn’t that include being funded by the public health lobby?

Thursday 12 December 2019

Feeling a bit cross?

Today we are going to the polls in a general election for the third time in less than five years. As on previous occasions, I created an opinion poll in the sidebar, which I have also mentioned in the text of posts for those reading the blog on a mobile device. The results are shown below.

The poll was created before the announcement that the Brexit Party were not going to contest any Conservative-held seats, so the results won’t be representative of the likely outcome. However, given that a large number of people had already voted, I didn’t think it appropriate to start again from scratch. The original poll together with the associated comments can be seen here.

Running these figures through the Electoral Calculus model, and eliminating the others and non-voters, gives the following numbers of seats, and surprisingly produces a slender overall Conservative majority of 10, and no seats for the Brexit Party on a 17% vote share.

Brexit Party 0
Conservative 330
Green 1
Labour 240
Liberal Democrat 17
Plaid Cymru 3
SNP 41
Northern Ireland parties 18

This is actually not all that different in terms of seats from the latest YouGov MRP projection, which was pretty accurate in 2017.

Tonight is the monthly meeting of the local CAMRA branch, at which I will be presenting a Christmas quiz. 27 years ago, in 1992, the two events (well, not the quiz) also coincided, and that election rather confounded the predictions of the pollsters. We’ll find out in the small hours of tomorrow morning whether that has happened again.

As I said last time, I’m not aware that lifestyle issues have featured at all in the campaign. Sadly, it seems that, whoever gets into power, more things will be banned or restricted.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Buy in haste, repent at leisure

Last week, it was reported that US drinks conglomerate Constellation Brands was selling craft brewer Ballast Point, which it had bought for a jaw-dropping $1 billion in 2015. The buyer was the much smaller Illinois firm Kings & Convicts Brewing, and it was rumoured that the sale price could have been as little as $75 million. That would represent a staggering loss of value in only four years.

It brought to mind this blogpost from 2017, in which I made the point that much of the brewing industry seemed to be in the grip of “craft paranoia”, where they were frightened that the rise of craft beer posed an existential threat to their business, and they were flailing about in all directions trying to counter the trend. One aspect of this was established major companies paying what even at the time seemed inflated sums for up-and-coming craft brewers.

Two and a half years later, things look very different. There’s plenty of evidence that the seemingly inexorable rise of craft has peaked, and it’s also something that has been very much driven by novelty and innovation, and isn’t amenable to the tried and tested business strategy of building strong brands. While these deals might have provided bumper paydays for the founders of the acquired businesses, many big companies have been left feeling that they have burned their fingers, and are having to write down the value of their investments.

Brewing seems to be one of the few markets where a substantial number of customers really do put a value on the independent status of producers, and it could be argued that a large chunk of value was lost on the actual day the company was sold.

Of course the British market is very different from the American one, and it would be wrong to read the lessons across too closely. But you do have to wonder whether the big companies that have acquired stakes in British craft breweries are wondering just how far they can take the brands, and worrying that the initial spark has vanished.

One response of established British brewers to the craft trend has been to establish craft sub-brands and bring out products that ape the style of well-known craft beers. However, all too often this comes across as “dad dancing”, with the beers themselves being pale imitations, and drinkers easily able to see through it. Maybe a better response would be to play to their strengths and bring out speciality beers that build on their own heritage, such as Fuller’s Past Masters series, Greene King’s Chevallier beers and Marston’s Horninglow Street range.

Sunday 8 December 2019

Show some respect

Regular readers will know that a frequent bugbear of mine is the presence of noisy, badly-behaved children in pubs. Now, I’m not such a curmudgeon to believe that children should be excluded from pubs serving food, which has become an ever-increasing part of their business. There are now plenty of pubs dominated by the dining trade, where you would realistically expect to come across children. On the other hand, there are still many wet-led pubs where you would not expect to find them, even if they weren’t formally excluded, although they often are.

The problem tends to occur in the generalist pubs that aim to combine both drinking and dining trade, which may be dwindling in numbers, but are still fairly plentiful. I was recently in a pub of this description, just quietly sitting reading the paper (I was debarred from looking at my phone), when a family group came in looking to eat, including a baby and a little lad of about four. I have to say my heart inwardly sank a little.

They weren’t by any means the worst behaved children I’ve ever encountered in a pub, but I was heartened to hear the dad say to his son “Now calm down, that man over there's just come in for a quiet drink.” Hopefully I hadn’t looked too grumpy.

That may sound trivial, but it shows a recognition that people may have an impact on others, and need to give them consideration, and will help defuse any tension that may have been created. It’s rather like a bar person acknowledging your presence and saying “I’ll be with you in a minute”. A pub, especially a mixed-use one with a variety of customers, is a particular kind of environment, and visitors should respect that.

Friday 6 December 2019

All pull together

I’ve described before how the British craft beer movement, while taking most of its cues from its American counterparts, chose to direct most of its fire at the established real ale culture rather than at the international brewers. Inevitably, this was returned in kind to some extent, resulting in what came across as unseemly squabbling between “crafties” and “beardies”. To a large degree, this arose more from mutual misunderstanding than genuine enmity, with those who enjoyed raspberry sours in industrial-chic tap rooms simply failing to understand the appeal of twiggy brown beer in grotty old man pubs, and vice versa.

However, there are signs that this is changing, possibly sparked by the realisation that the apparently unstoppable surge of craft was reaching its peak. It is very significant that Matthew Curtis, once seen as a prime cheerleader for the craft movement, has written here of the need for modern and traditional to come together to assert their independent status.

According to data from firms such as CGA, small, independent brewers makes up about 8% of the British Beer Market by sales volume. For some strange reason this doesn’t include the independent “family owned” regionals (it absolutely should though). If it did that figure would be somewhere closer to about 13 to 14%.

This still means that at least 86% of beer sold within the UK is produced by the multinationals. As such I am eager to see the next step in the discussion of independence, and some real progress in terms of presenting this argument to a greater number of industry members and bringing them together to form a unified front against increasingly tough competition and unfair access to established routes to market.

It’s perhaps important not to make too much of this. The strands are not simply two sides of the same coin, and arise from very different wellsprings of sentiment. One is established, traditional and rooted in locality, the other modern, innovative and international in outlook. It is very much a case of Somewhere vs Anywhere made real in beery form. However, what they do share is being relatively small in scale, individual and distinctive, not bland and uniform. And, to that extent at least, there is a commonality of interest. You also don’t have to dislike everything you don’t personally care for; there can still be mutual respect and recognition.

Independence, of course, is by no means a perfect signifier of quality. Many small breweries make poor or dull beer, while some big firms produce excellent ones. In the USA, the Brewer’s Association sets an annual production level of 6 million barrels as the ceiling for what can be regarded as a craft brewer. Scale that down by the relative population of the UK, and it becomes 1.2 million barrels, which is well above the annual production of Marston’s, our largest brewer that isn’t owned by multinationals. It’s hard to see that many people in this country would really regard them as “craft”, but surely something as quirky and individual as the Burton Unions is the very epitome of the concept. And, having been round their Wolverhampton site, it’s hardly a gleaming cathedral of brewing, but instead a mishmash of plant and fermenting vessels of various types and ages squeezed into a collection of often venerable buildings.

It seems that my Twitter followers are still reluctant to recognise any commonality.

“Craft” is notoriously difficult to define, and it’s often used to mean whatever people choose it to mean. For many, though, it is more a cultural concept than one that relates to the actual characteristics of the beer, and that is always going to be a stumbling block to bringing traditional and modern independent brewers together under the same umbrella.

Incidentally, for mobile readers, don't forget my General Election poll in the sidebar of the desktop version.

Thursday 5 December 2019

When is a town not a town?

Certainly looks like a town to me

We recently visited Shifnal in Shropshire, which in its general feel and appearance is undoubtedly a town, with a population of 6,776, a long main street with a number of historic buildings, and nine pubs currently trading. However, the point was made that, with it being fairly close to a number of larger places, the number and range of shops was rather sparse for somewhere of that size. This raises the question of exactly what qualifies somewhere as a town. (Apologies to anyone bored by this diversion from the usual topics).

Last week, Life After Football wrote about Melbourne in Derbyshire (population 4,843) , which he described as “a village that has almost morphed into a town”, although Wikipedia describes it as a market town, and from my experience it certainly feels quite urban with a large market place and a couple of Georgian streets. WhatPub lists five open and four closed pubs. In my formative years I did a fair bit of drinking in Frodsham in Cheshire (population 9,077), which the locals always describe as a village, but certainly gives the impression of a town, with a long, tree-lined main street, another busy street leading off it at right angles, a street market, a lot more shops than either Shifnal or Melbourne, and (in around 1980) fifteen pubs.

So how can we tell what is a town and what isn’t? The first thing to consider is what it looks like: for example, does it have a market place, a prominent town hall or other civic building, and one or more streets of closely-packed commercial buildings dating back at least to the 19th century? It also needs to fulfil a role as a centre for the surrounding area beyond its own population, through such things as the number of shops, the presence of an active street market, branches of the major clearing banks (although those are now a vanishing species) and a significant number of pubs. A long-established coaching inn-type hotel can also be a good indicator.

Another factor to look at is its administrative status before the 1974 local government reforms – was it an urban district , or better still, a municipal borough in its own right? However, it’s not an infallible guide, as none of the three places I have previously discussed qualified. These designations had also often been overtaken by history, as Much Wenlock, now a much smaller place than Shifnal and barely qualifying as a town, had municipal borough status.

At times this could lead to some anomalies, such as Montgomery, the county town of the eponymous Welsh county, which was until its abolition the smallest municipal borough in the country. However, I suspect it only gained this status because of being the county town, as today, despite having a market place and an imposing town hall, really is no more than a village, with a population of a mere 1,295, and I doubt whether things were much different in 1832. Small size alone, though, doesn’t debar a place from being a town, as Machynlleth, on the other side of Montgomeryshire, undoubtedly qualifies on the grounds of both appearance and hub function despite its population of just 2,235.

In this grey area there are quite a few places that have some of the characteristics of a town in terms of their buildings, but don’t really act as a hub or boast any more shops than a village. In his book The Historic Towns of Britain (which I would thoroughly recommend if you can find a copy), Lewis Braithwaite uses the term “urban village” for this category, and this certainly applies, for example, to several places on the Cotswolds such as Stow-on-the-Wold and Burford. Cheshire has a number of large villages such as Holmes Chapel and Tarporley, both of which stand at major road crossings and have seen their population boosted by recent development, but still fail to achieve that quality of being a town.

But is this a town, or a village?

In the south of the county, Malpas is described as a “former market town”, and certainly in its centre, pictured above, retains a fairly urban feel. However, its population is only 1,673 and it has now regressed to just being a village. It has only two open pubs (and one closed one), and if you want a drink on a weekday lunchtime you’re stuffed, because you won’t find either of them open. Maybe a criterion for being a town should be having at the very least one lunchtime opener.

Further uncertainty can be created where large urban areas have expanded to encompass former separate villages, which have often acquired a very town-like high street lined with shops. This includes areas of Manchester such as Chorlton and Didsbury, but they are really only suburbs because they lack a hub function for a wider area. On the other hand, places such as Hyde and Radcliffe that were previously towns in their own right before being swallowed up by the conurbation can still legitimately be regarded as such. Of the various satellite places within Stockport Metropolitan Borough, the most town-like is Cheadle, which was also an urban district in its own right before 1974, although its inhabitants, as with those of Frodsham, tend to refer to it as a village.

In the end, for many places the question of whether it is a village or town is always going to be a subjective issue and one people are never going to agree on – but it may provide a stimulating topic of debate in the pub.

Sunday 1 December 2019

Everyone is welcome, nobody is judged

I was recently having a pint in Wetherspoon’s Calvert’s Court in Stockport* and spotted a group including one member with learning disabilities, something that is a fairly common sight in branches of the chain. The point has often been made that Spoons offer an environment were all types of customer are welcome, and nobody is judged, and obviously that is an attraction. In addition, being frank, the spacious nature of most Spoons means that other customers are less likely to be made to feel uncomfortable.

The lack of distractions such as music and TV football, and the predictable, standardised customer experience are further factors in making the visit less challenging. It also prompted this Twitter exchange begun by Cooking Lager:

Wetherspoon’s are often criticised for offering a somewhat impersonal pub environment, but that is precisely what many people who fall into this category may feel more comfortable with. The same is often true of the much-derided fast food chains.

* Incidentally, while the Calvert’s Court is a particularly uninspiring, box-like Spoons, the pint of Otter Claus I had would probably have been my best of the month had I not been to Shifnal. And only £1.99 too. There have been (and are) worse Spoons in the Good Beer Guide.