Thursday 27 February 2020

Keep it flowing

On the National Bass Day Facebook group, several pubs such as the Old Vaults in Uttoxeter, the Fountain in Leek and the Devonshire Arms and Derby Inn in Burton-on-Trent have stated that they are selling 80 to 100 gallons of Draught Bass every week. That’s nearly three full barrels and, given that Bass is supplied in 10-gallon containers, means that they’re usually emptying a container within a day.

Forty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for big, busy pubs in industrial areas, such as Holt’s in Manchester and Tetley’s in Yorkshire, to be shifting twenty barrels or more a week of Bitter. The sight of the pumps being constantly in action was usually a reliable sign of a decent pint. However, the switch to lager, especially amongst volume drinkers, and the general decline of beer sales in pubs have put paid to that, and in today’s climate three barrels of one single cask beer is pretty good going.

So often nowadays you encounter cask beer that, while not off as such, is that little bit tired, tepid and flat, and many pubs seem to be constantly operating on the edge of the maximum recommended time for keeping beer on sale. And it’s not that uncommon for beer to tip over the edge and turn to Sarson’s Best. But if you can reliably shift a container within a day, or not much more early in the week, you can at a stroke eliminate one of the main reasons behind customers receiving poor beer over the bar.

Of course, it’s not the only factor, and attention still needs to be paid to giving beer time to settle and mature, basic hygiene and maintaining temperature and condition. It’s also not as simple as saying that if a pub cut its number of cask lines it would turn the remaining beers over more quickly, as the reduction in choice might well result in customers taking their business elsewhere. However, there’s an element of chicken and egg about the trade-off between range and quality, and if you are succeeding in selling a cask a day it’s a sure sign that your customers appreciate it. No pub will be able to do that if the beer isn’t good in the first place.

It’s always worth remembering that two of the fundamental tenets of good cellar management are keeping the beer in the cellar for a decent period to allow it to settle and mature, and once it has been put on sale to empty the cask as quickly as possible. So many of the problems drinkers experience with poor beer are due to those principles being reversed.

Monday 24 February 2020

You can lead a horse to water

The latest imposition on business from the public health lobby has surfaced in Bristol, where the city’s health and wellbeing board has proposed requiring pubs to stock a non-alcoholic beer on draught. This would initially only apply to city-centre venues with a large number of taps, but presumably would eventually be rolled out to cover the rest. They claim that the idea “would increase consumption of the healthier drinks by making them more visible and socially acceptable because they would look the same in a pint glass as an ordinary beer.”

This really is an unprecedented step, not simply to prevent businesses from selling a particular product, but to force them to sell one. And, of course, while you can make pubs stock alcohol-free beer, you can’t make customers buy it. The risk is that pubs will be left with stocks of unsaleable beer that they end up having to pour down the drain, at their own cost, of course. There’s a very good reason why low-volume products are sold in bottles or cans rather than on draught.

In any case, in the past few years there has been a huge expansion in the availability and choice of alcohol-free beers in pubs, so the market is already providing a solution to the problem. I’ve recently spotted draught Heineken Zero in a couple of pubs. If the demand is there, pubs will meet it.

It brings back memories of suggestions in Glasgow a few years ago to require pubs and other eating places to offer “healthy” salads on their menus. This fortunately never came to anything, but you can see the public health lobby’s eyes lighting up at the thought of all kind of things they could mandate businesses to do, without having any responsibility for the potentially adverse effect on profitability.

It’s worth noting that the proposals also involve further ostracism of smokers by reclassifying part of outdoor smoking areas for vaping only. Given that indoor vaping remains a legal activity, wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage pubs to provide vaping rooms or sections inside their premises?

Friday 21 February 2020

Stuff this great Bass

As many readers will already be aware, National Bass Day is being held for the first time on Saturday 11th April this year, a day that marks the 243rd anniversary of William Bass buying his first brewery in Burton-on-Trent. The thinking behind it is fully explained here by thewickingman, but basically it is an independent initiative to celebrate an iconic British beer that seems to have been sadly neglected by its current brand owners. It has attracted an impressive amount of support, with its dedicated Facebook group now approaching 700 members, and a growing number of licensees pledging to get a cask on specially for the day.

However, probably inevitably, it has attracted the usual crop of carping and naysayers. One obvious question is that of why should anyone want to give support to a brand owned by a multinational company and contracted out to another large brewery. However, it is a central part of our beer heritage, the first registered trademark, and still probably the best-known British (as opposed to Irish) beer name in the world. It’s something well worth championing, and if its owners are happy to neglect it then someone else has to stand up.

Despite an almost total lack of advertising and promotion, and the absence of the support provided by a tied house network, it still retains a strong following and huge reserves of customer loyalty, both in its home territory and across the country in pubs from Tynemouth to Falmouth. Some pubs who have joined the Facebook group are reporting selling 80 or 100 gallons a week, or nearly three full barrels, which is some going for a single cask beer in this day and age. That is surely something worthy of celebration. Without the muscle of a PR machine behind it, or any pressure to bundle it in with other products, every pub that stocks Bass has made a positive choice to have it on the bar, meaning that it’s generally well cared for.

But, of course, it’s not what it was, is it? It hasn’t been brewed in the Burton Unions since 1981, and since then it’s been passed from pillar to post and ended up being contracted out to what were once one of its main local rivals. However, memory is a very fickle thing, especially when it comes to taste, which is something that cannot be preserved. Can we honestly say that anything is really what it was? And the fact that it was once brewed in the Unions is now ancient history. I’d say it’s still a fine beer, very quaffable for its strength, with a distinctive bittersweet character and slight hint of sourness, that certainly doesn’t disgrace its proud heritage. As thewickingman says in the post linked to above,

Is Draught Bass still that beer, produced in the Burton Union system, in my memory from the days as a young bloke in Burton? Who knows, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. What is certain is that the Draught Bass, currently brewed under licence by Marston’s in Burton, is one of the most well-crafted traditional beers coming out of any brewery in England. As Roger Protz has written, “If Timothy Taylor’s Landlord…or Draught Bass are bland beers, I am a banana sandwich.” He’s not a banana sandwich, but he does support National Bass Day 2020. Thanks Roger.
And aren’t customers being misled as to its provenance? Shouldn’t it say on the pumpclip “Brewed by Marston’s”? Some people do get rather exercised about this issue, but it has to be recognised that, nowadays, most beers and other consumer products sell through strong, easily-recognised brand names. The days of “Bloggs’ Burpington Bitter” have long gone. Drinkers of Doom Bar or San Miguel really aren’t that bothered about who owns the brand or where it is brewed. There is no deliberate intention to deceive here, and it’s surely common knowledge amongst Bass drinkers where it actually comes from. At least it’s still brewed in Burton by people who care about it.

If Bass doesn’t particularly float your boat, or you see nothing to appeal to you in this initiative, that’s fair enough. Everyone has their own tastes, and it’s not compulsory to get involved. But it seems a touch churlish to carp and whinge about something that, after all, is promoting British beer and pubs. As thewickingman’s granny used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

It would perhaps be wrong to attribute too much wider cultural significance to National Bass Day, but it’s worth noting that it is a grassroots initiative to promote a traditional British cask beer, and the largely traditional pubs that sell it, that goes completely against the grain of the rejection of the past and the quest for ceaseless innovation that seem to characterise so much “beer enthusiasm” nowadays.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

In praise of boring brown beer

It’s common to hear people refer disparagingly to “boring brown beer” and dismiss it as all much of a muchness. However, as former Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling argues in this article, that is very far from the truth.

Yes, now of course there is much more choice of beer styles in absolute terms, but in practice there’s often much less variety across mainstream pubs, and we have lost the contrast provided by distinctive tied estates owned by a range of brewers, and the fascination of discovering new beers that had their own territory in limited areas. of the joys of travelling through the country was to try the local version of bitter. In fact, being `a born and bred Mancunian’ meant it was not difficult to find different versions. I grew up on Boddingtons, Robinsons, Holts, Hyde’s, and Oldham Brewery.
He forgets Lees, and within the Manchester area there was also plenty of real ale from independent brewers such as Marston’s, Higson’s, Thwaites and Samuel Smith, plus Big Six offshoots such as Tetley’s and Wilson’s, plus Bass and Whitbread to a limited extent. All the bitters, and milds, produced by these companies, had their own distinctive character and were often very different from one another. In no way was the drinking experience dull or samey. There was also far more real ale around in total than is often imagined, or than there is now, although availability was much patchier and it was very thin on the ground in London, thus leading CAMRA’s “Founding Four” to imagine that it was on the brink of disappearing.

It should also be remembered that, back then, the pubs were much busier, had a wider social mix of customers and often, despite the supposed introduction of “all-day opening”, were open for longer hours than they are now.

He also makes the important point that “CAMRA was formed to save the great beer that was being brewed and not to get people to brew great beer.” It’s often claimed today that CAMRA’s primary objective was increasing choice, but in fact this represents an attempt to rewrite history. In the early days, this was definitely not the case. Real ale was felt to be under threat, and so the core purpose was a preservationist one, to champion the beers that were already in existence, encourage people to drink them and spread the word about where they could be found.

The main focus of change was to persuade breweries to swap keg or top-pressure dispense for cask on the beers they already sold, not to add new ones. The days of microbreweries and multi-beer free houses, except in penny numbers, were still well in the future. Even new beers were virtually unheard of – the first major new beer launch of the “Real Ale Revolution” was Ind Coope Burton Ale, which didn’t come along until 1976.

Looking through the 1975 Good Beer Guide, all the entries on the page including Stockport were just selling standard beers, bitter and usually mild, from the likes of Ind Coope, Wilson’s, Whitbread, Boddington’s and Robinson’s. No premium beers (apart from one with Bass) and nowhere with more than three different ones on the bar. Of course there was choice, and there was plenty in Cheshire, but it was found across the tied houses of different brewers, rather than within individual pubs.

It may seem quaint now, but one of CAMRA’s main campaigning planks in its early years was the ending of local quasi-monopolies in the tied house market, which eventually triggered some half-hearted pub swaps between the major brewers in the late 1970s. Now, of course, the post-Beer Orders break-up of the erstwhile “Big Six” has pretty much entirely swept that local dominance away.

While CAMRA undoubtedly played an important role, it is probable that many of the changes in the beer market that it is linked with would have happened anyway to some degree with the change in emphasis from the glossy modernism of the 1960s to the more natural, traditional, “small-is-beautiful” ethos of the 1970s.

Saturday 15 February 2020

Solitary splendour

Martyn Cornell recently wrote a very interesting post on his Zythophile blog In defence of sitting in a pub on your own. This is a subject I have touched on in the past, for example here and here. Some people find any kind of solitude unsettling, but for others, especially those of a quieter and more introverted nature, having a couple of drinks on your own in the pub can provide a valuable opportunity to relax, recharge your batteries and order your thoughts. The idea of the pub being a valued “third space” where you can take refuge, if only for a while, from the concerns and responsibilities of home and work applies just as much to the solo pint as that enjoyed in company, As he says,
I’m entirely happy here in my own head, sitting and thinking, people-watching, enjoying my pint, getting a vicarious buzz from all the social interaction around me, and I will get up after a beer or two and go home having had all the contact with people I need right now.
And, as I said in one of the posts I linked to above,
Until various illnesses put it beyond him, my late dad used to go out for a pint or two at lunchtime a couple of days a week. My mum would ask “what’s the point of that if you never talk to anyone?” but that is missing the point. If nothing more, it provides a change of scenery, a bit of mental stimulation and something to look forward to. Sometimes you exchange a bit of conversation, other times all you do its talk to the bar staff, but anything’s better than nothing.
This is reinforced by another rather poignant comment:
This one hits the point with me. I'm old and now alone, but not lonely, my wife passed away 4 years ago. I use the pubs several times a week just to sit quietly chat, read a book and a change of scenery. Without the pubs I would be lonely but I find I get the necessary interaction with just a brief visit to charge my batteries up for another day or two. Probably seems sad to most people but we all have our own ways of coping with different and difficult situations.
This is especially important for people with Asperger’s syndrome and similar conditions, who may find any kind of social interaction challenging. However, that doesn’t mean that they want to shun all company, more that they prefer to do it in a manner that allows them to control just how much contact there is, and retreat if it becomes too much. The simple act of getting out of the house and being in the company of others, even if you don’t converse with them, can in itself be very valuable. Vicarious socialising is still socialising. I can’t think of any other situation other than the pub where that is possible.

Martyn also raise the issue of the “age of invisibility”, especially in relation to women visiting a pub on their own. That is perhaps really a separate subject but, as I said in the comments, it applies to men as well to some extent. Young people are very judgmental of their peers, and when I was younger I would occasionally attract unwelcome attention from people around my own age if I was in a pub on my own. Now I am just another indistinguishable bespectacled late middle-aged bloke, nobody seems remotely bothered.

It also must be said that there are many – probably too many – pubs where the general layout, atmosphere and offer make enjoying that solitary pint well-nigh impossible.

Thursday 13 February 2020

Double standards? I’ll bet!

As explained on this website, children under the age of 18 are not allowed in a betting shop under any circumstances. This is obviously a very different situation from the law that now applies to pubs. Following on from my post earlier this week about the links between drinking and gambling, I thought I would ask on Twitter whether people felt this restriction should be relaxed. The results, as shown below, were a pretty decisive no.

However, this comes across as more than a touch hypocritical. Is the action of taking your child with you into a pub while you have a pint really much different in principle from taking them into the bookie’s while you put a tenner on Brewer’s Droop in the 4.15 at Catterick? Obviously taking a child into a pub for a meal is a different situation, but otherwise both are a case of a child accompanying its parent while they carry out what is basically an adult activity. The child is expected to behave as well as possible while they’re there, but they’re not there for their own benefit.

Some people look on taking children to the pub through highly rose-tinted spectacles.

The reality, though, can be very different: The reason children were excluded from betting shops was to protect their own interests, not for the convenience of the punters. But are they really corrupting of the young by several orders of magnitude greater than pubs? The article I linked to above suggests that, if adults find it difficult to put a bet on with a child in tow, they should consider internet betting instead. However, that fails to recognise that, for many, physically placing a bet and then possibly watching the result on TV, is a kind of “getting out of the house” social ritual in just the same way as going to the pub.

Betting shops are also, of course, prohibited from selling alcoholic drinks. But, as well as the ban on children, they are also required to have opaque windows to stop people on the street gawping inside, something else that is now less and less common in pubs. So spending an hour or so there might not actually be all that unpleasant...

Monday 10 February 2020

Pubs and punters

I was recently in a pub in central Stockport* when a bloke quickly finished his pint and said he had to leave to put a bet on at the nearby bookie’s. “Beer and betting, that’s all I live for now,” he said. And the two activities certainly have a long and close connection. Before the legalisation of off-course betting in 1961, the pub was the favourite hangout of the bookie’s runner, and the preferred activity of the legendary Pub Shaman of Prestwich was “the solitary pint in a smoke-filled vault poring over a fixed odds coupon and going through a packet of Bensons.” One of my local pubs when I lived in Runcorn had a betting shop built in a corner of the car park for the convenience of its customers.

I have to say it’s something that has never remotely appealed to me, and I have never put a commercial bet on in my life. However, I recognise that, since the dawn of mankind, there has been an irresistible inclination to lay wagers on all kinds of activities, and gambling is an extremely popular activity worldwide, even in countries where alcohol is prohibited. It is also something that is highly susceptible to criminal activity, which is why there is a strong argument for making it legal to a greater or lesser extent, to bring it in from the cold. That, of course, was the motivation behind the legalisation of off-course betting in the UK in 1961. While strictly illegal, it was widely tolerated beforehand and indeed implicitly supported by the publication of race cards in newspapers.

In some respects, gambling is similar to alcohol in that it is something that is widely enjoyed, that most people manage to cope with and keep under control, but which does cause serious problems of addiction for a minority. Both have issues of restricting access for minors – while children are now widely admitted to pubs, betting shops are strictly over-18s only. Plus, both have for a very long time been the target of campaigns of moral disapproval. Indeed at present it seems that gambling, especially in terms of its connection with football, is the subject of a moral panic that possibly is diverting some of the prohibitionists’ attention from alcohol.

I can’t say it’s a subject that I’ve studied in any depth, and it’s not for me to say that the balance between control and permissiveness has currently been struck in the right place. But I know that Christopher Snowdon, who has been assiduous in exposing the lies and exaggerations of the anti-drink lobby on his Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog, has pointed out many of the same things about gambling, that both the prevalence of “problem gambling” and the rate of its increase have been greatly overstated by the those whose agenda is to oppose gambling per se.

This underlines one of the key problems faced by those who are opposed to increased lifestyle regulation, that people so often think in silos and, while they may perceive a threat to their favoured indulgence, fail to draw the connection with other activities towards which they are indifferent or indeed may even actively oppose. There’s no point in standing up for freedom if you’re only prepared to defend those things you personally like.

* No prizes for guessing which one.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Lowering the bar

“Dry January” always sees a surge in media interest in low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers, and they are certainly showing a substantial rise in sales, with annual increases of 6% being reported. This has led to an expansion of the selection available in supermarkets, where two or three years ago you would find very little beyond rather dull mainstream lagers and one or two rather unpleasant alcohol-free ales. My local branches of Tesco and Morrisons have both started doing three for £3 offers to appeal to customers who want to try a variety of different examples.

As I’ve reported before, this is an area of the market that I have dabbled with, so over the past couple of months I have sampled some of the newer arrivals.

  • Brew Dog Punk AF (0.5% ABV) – this seemed to me to have a one-dimensional, aggressive hoppiness, whereas in Punk IPA this is balanced by the alcohol. Not to my taste at all.

  • Coast Beer Co.(Belgium) Hazy IPA (0.0% ABV) – only subdued hoppiness, sweetish, citrusy flavour. Quite pleasant, but more like a vaguely beer-flavoured soft drink.

  • Big Drop Brewing Company Stout (0.5% ABV) (pictured) – the pronounced stout flavour rather compensates for the lack of alcohol, although you do notice it eventually. Quite decent overall, from a new brewery specialising in low-alcohol beers.

  • Brooklyn Special Effects Hoppy Lager (0.4% ABV) – darker than many IPAs, quite full-bodied, hoppy but not aggressively so. This is probably the best of these I’ve tasted – something you might well be happy to drink for its own sake.
It’s certainly true that both the range and quality of no and low-alcohol beers has shown a marked improvement over the past couple of years. I would say from these that the little bit of alcohol contained in a 0.5% beer, as opposed to a 0.0% one, does in general bring about a worthwhile improvement.

However, as I wrote around this time last year, the inherent limitations of non-alcoholic beers place a fundamental ceiling on their prospects in the marketplace, and I would say some of the more bullish projections of growth are overstated. However good they are, they will never be any more than a pale echo of normal-strength beers. They may mirror the experience of drinking it, but they omit the essential point of beer. And it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the major brewers are promoting them partly to act as a shop window for their standard products.