Tuesday 31 March 2020

Turn it down!

The Morning Advertiser recently reported on a study showing that 80% of people had cut short a visit to a pub, restaurant or café because of excessive noise, with 75% saying they would eat out more if venues were quieter. This is a particular problem for the deaf or hard of hearing who, contrary to popular belief, do not generally live in a world of total silence, but often find it a real struggle to pick out sounds.

I have to say this chimes with my experience – it’s not at all uncommon to go into an unfamiliar pub at lunchtime or early evening and find yourself confronted with a wall of sound that makes it impossible to hold a conversation. The same can even happen with televisions, which can sometimes be turned up to a deafening volume. Bar staff often seem oblivious of the effect the noise level has for people actually out in the public areas.

Obviously not all pubs are the same, and there may be a justification for loud music in a late-night venue aiming to create a lively atmosphere. But, in the general run of pubs, there’s really no reason for it at all. Of course there is a place for music in pubs, but the whole point of background music is that it should be precisely that, rather than completely dominating proceedings.

This is really a separate issue from the type of music being played. Obviously everyone has their own preferences, and will generally be happy to hear their favourite genre being played at a somewhat higher volume than other people would be. But music being played in a pub with a broad appeal needs to avoid causing too much annoyance to any customers, and it has to be accepted that some genres such as hip-hop or thrash metal are likely be less generally tolerable than others. All too often, music is chosen for the benefit of the bar staff rather than the clientele.

I’m certainly not dogmatically opposed to music in pubs, but I do feel that the widespread view that a lack of music results in a lack of atmosphere is a mistaken one. And, if you really don’t want your eardrums assailed, in plenty of places you have the choice of going to a Wetherspoon’s or Sam Smith’s pub, who don’t play any at all.

This news item has been on my list to comment on for a couple of weeks, but obviously recent events have rather curtailed the flow of blogging. At the moment I’d happily endure any kind of racket for a decent pint of Bass! I have had some thoughts on how the coronavirus crisis is likely to affect the pub and brewing industries, but I really don’t feel it appropriate to comment on this until there is at least some sign of light at the end of the tunnel. And I very much stand by my comments in the final paragraph of my post on the subject from a couple of weeks ago.

Tuesday 17 March 2020

A case of Corona

We are currently in the midst of a growing crisis caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which is unprecedented during my lifetime and comparable in many ways to the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-20. It isn’t for me to comment on the wider aspects of this, although it hasn’t stopped half the members of Twitter and Facebook becoming armchair experts overnight.

However, something that is closer to home is the potential impact on the pub and brewing industry. Yesterday, the Prime Minister made an announcement in which he advised people to avoid pubs, clubs and similar social venues, although he did not seek to close them down. Again it is not for me to say whether this is the correct course of action.

But it was immediately criticised from various quarters for leaving the pub trade in limbo, in particular meaning that, in the absence of a specific instruction from government, pubs would not be able to claim against business interruption insurance if they had to close down. This was repeated in a rather hasty press release from CAMRA. It also seems a touch ironic for CAMRA to be actually calling for pubs to be closed down.

Again I am no expert in the field of insurance, but I have to say this immediately struck me as questionable, as pandemics surely fall into the same category of risks as war and nuclear contamination, which are potentially existential perils and thus impossible to insure against on a commercial basis. And indeed this was confirmed this morning by the Association of British Insurers, who I assume do know what they’re talking about.

So the suggestion that pub owners would be better off if the government did force them to close is essentially fake news. Clearly there is a good case for government assistance for this, and other, industries that are suffering from the effects of the virus. But, as long as a pub can continue to trade and make a marginal profit, it makes financial sense to stay open. If, on the other hand, they judge that it isn’t worthwhile, then that decision must be respected.

Our four local family brewers – Holt’s, Hyde’s, Lees and Robinson’s – have all announced this morning that for the time being they are aiming to keep at least their managed pubs open. Robinson’s, for example, said:

Robinsons are keeping their managed houses open, and for the rest of their estate have agreed an immediate four-week rent-free period for all licensees with suspension of loan payments and interest charges where applicable.
I don’t consider myself to be at elevated risk of either transmitting or contracting the disease, and I will certainly continue to go to pubs for as long as I can. If I couldn’t, it would deprive me of a substantial source of social interaction.

If the government did instruct all pubs and bars to close, it would represent a massive escalation of the level of lockdown, and to be even-handed it would surely have to be extended to all other on-premises catering businesses such as restaurants and cafés. There would then inevitably be dog-in-the-manger calls for the prohibition to be extended to what might be seen as competing businesses such as takeaways and sandwich shops. This may have to happen in the coming weeks, but that kind of restriction of everyday life, while manageable in a short-term emergency, would prove difficult to sustain over a prolonged period and would inevitably lead to potentially explosive social tensions.

Friday 13 March 2020

A capital day out - Part 2

We pick up the story of our Proper Day Out in Burton-on-Trent, the capital of British brewing, having just left the Burton Bridge Inn and heading across the Trent Bridge. Originally built in 1864 and widened in 1926, this is a very long bridge spanning two channels of the river and the intervening flood plain, where there was still some standing water. The amount of rain over the previous few weeks was shown by the powerful flow of water over a shallow semicircular weir.

The south-eastern end of the bridge is dominated by Swan House, which was formerly a pub. Here we turned right and followed Stapenhill Road, which runs parallel to the river and climbs a small hill alongside the cemetery, to reach the Elms Inn. This Victorian pub with its striking Bass lettering stands in an elevated and surprisingly rural-seeming position, although trees block the view of the river. I was able to take advantage of a brief gap in the busy traffic to take the photo below.

At the front there are three small traditional rooms around the bar, with a more modern extended lounge area to the rear. The central corridor boasts a stone-flagged floor. It was now mid-afternoon, and there were a fair number of customers of mixed age groups. On the bar were Bass, Pedigree, Taylor’s Landlord and Brains Reverend James. The early arrivals were greeted with rather so-so Bass, but they may have then changed the barrel, as those of us who got there a little later found it fine. The person who generally prefers the paler, hoppier beers decided to try the Reverend James as he had never had it before, even though I did warn him it was distinctly dark brown and malty. And so it was, but it was pretty good.

From here, some of us chose to save time by getting a taxi back into the town centre, and the lengthy journey along the southern part of Stapenhill Road and across the newer St Peter’s Bridge reinforced the wisdom of this decision. Our next port of call was the Dog on Lichfield Street, a pub that has gone through various incarnations, including a spell as an O’Neill’s, but has more recently been acquired by Black Country Ales and turned back into more of a traditional pub.

It has their typical high-quality refurbishment, with a variety of comfortable areas rambling around the central bar, but also their characteristic extended beer range, with no less than eleven cask ales being advertised. These included their own house beers together with Bass (of course), and a variety of guests, most notably cask Worthington White Shield. This was pretty good, although I wasn’t sure how it compared with the bottle-conditioned version. Our hop-lover was satisfied with Salopian Safe Room, which was described as a “piney citrus IPA”.

There followed a ten-minute walk through the back streets skirting the town centre to reach the Coopers Tavern on Cross Street, a renowned classic pub that I had somehow never managed to visit previously. It was originally the unofficial Bass brewery tap, but was owned for a number of years by Hardys & Hansons before recently passing into the hands of Shropshire-based Joules.

It has a superb unspoilt interior that earns it a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Pride of place goes to the tap room at the rear, where you can sit on a bench in the same room where the beer is actually dispensed from casks on a stillage, although a short bar counter has been added as part of recent renovations. Further forward from this are a number of other small, characterful rooms with real fires, and there is a more modern extension right at the back. There was, however, some discussion as to how original it was - go in with a fresh pair of eyes, and you would be hugely impressed, but those who remembered it from how it was before maybe felt that some character had been lost.

The beer range comprised the standard Joules beers, Bass and one or two guests including the potent Elland 1872 Porter, on a mixture of handpumps and serving directly from the cask. This was the only gravity-dispensed Bass of the day and, while you would not expect it to have the creamy head of a pint pulled through a handpump, the general feeling was that, while pleasant enough, it was somewhat lacking in condition even by the standards you would expect of beer on gravity. Still a memorable pub, however, where you could happily while away many hours.

We then returned to Station Street and our starting point, passing the Devonshire Arms to reach our final destination, the Roebuck, a street-corner pub with a distinctive curved frontage. It was originally the Ind Coope brewery tap and was the scene of the launch of Ind Coope Burton Ale in 1976. It has now been opened out into a one-room interior, with the bar along the left-hand side, comfortable bench seating around the walls and plenty of dark wood in the decor. It’s one of those places that seems to have a lot of floor space in relation to the amount of seating, and initially all the seats were taken, but after about five minutes a group left leaving a table free.

The beer range was mainly comprised of familiar brews such as Bass, Pedigree, Summer Lightning and Old Peculier, and all those tried were pretty good. Peter Allen, after a day on the cask, eventually couldn’t resist the temptation and succumbed to a pint of Burton’s biggest-selling product, Carling. We were joined by the elusive Life After Football, who was impressed by how coherent the conversation was at such a late stage in the day. It comes from long years of practice, we told him. Fittingly for his former career, the urinals in the gents’ were fitted with little plastic goalposts where you could steer the ball into the goal with an appropriately directed jet!

From here, it was only a short walk back to the station for trains home. I was pleasantly surprised to find my service to Sheffield operated by a High Speed Train, which are a vanishing species nowadays, but continue to provide a superior passenger environment to pretty much all their successors. So ended another excellent day out, with a very high standard of beer, pubs and conversation, and the added bonus of meeting two long-term Internet correspondents face-to-face for the first time. Given the current worrying news about coronavirus, it remains up in the air as to when the next one is likely to be. Burton is a very rewarding place for the lover of pubs and beer, although it does involve a good bit of walking, and there were several worthwhile pubs that there simply wasn’t time to reach.

Paul Bailey has also written a detailed account of the day here and here.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then and Now for the photos of the Coopers Tavern and Roebuck. It should be pointed out that these were taken in the morning, not at the time we visited these pubs when the light was fading The one of the Roebuck, however, is shot directly against the sun.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

A capital day out - Part 1

No, not that kind of capital, Burton-on-Trent, the capital of British brewing. I went to Burton a couple of times in the 1980s, once to visit what was then the Bass Museum, but hadn’t been there for over thirty years, so it seemed a good choice for the latest Beer and Pubs Forum Proper Day Out on Friday 6 March. It also offered the opportunity of a rehearsal for National Bass Day on Saturday 11 April.

Burton grew dramatically in the 19th century due to the expansion of the brewing industry, attracted by its high-quality hard water rich in gypsum. At one point, the town was responsible for a quarter of all beer produced in Britain. It became a County Borough in 1901, but in fact did not grow significantly after that, and by the time of local government reorganisation in 1974 was the second smallest County Borough in the country after Canterbury. Today, given the decline of brewing, it gives the impression of being like a man who has lost weight and is now too small for his clothes, being rather like Bradford in that respect. I remember from my previous visits that it had an unusually sprawling and dispersed layout, with the town hall and parish church situated on the north-west side of the station, three-quarters of a mile from the main shopping centre.

This meant that the pubs we wanted to visit were widely spread out, and some of the distances between them were a bit excessive for those with a limited amount of time to spend there. This gave rise to some debate on the forum about the itinerary, but eventually we arrived at a compromise which allowed those with more appetite for walking to follow a different route to call in a couple of the more far-flung ones. This prompted me to discover a website which enables you to calculate the walking distance and time between a pair of postcodes, which will prove useful in planning these trips in the future. It doesn’t give any indication of hills you might encounter, though, which was certainly a issue in Preston, but was unlikely to affect us in Burton, which is largely flat.

The day dawned bright and cold, a sharp contrast with the almost constant rain we had endured during the previous few weeks. The trip gave me another opportunity to take advantage of the savings available from the Senior Railcard that I acquired the previous year. On the scenic route through the Peak District between Stockport and Sheffield I noticed some snow still lying on the hilltops in the Vale of Edale. South of Sheffield, any flooding appeared to have receded, although the river levels still looked pretty high.

You are met at Burton Station by an impressive former Midland Railway grain warehouse, presumably once associated with brewing, but now converted into a Travelodge. The first pub was the Devonshire Arms, which is just a few minutes’ walk from the station. Like most of the other Burton pubs apart from Wetherspoon’s, this doesn’t open until 12 noon, and my photo shows a group of us sitting waiting outside for the door to be unbolted. It also shows what a bright, sunny day it had turned out to be. This, along with several other pubs, does not open until teatime earlier in the week, making Friday the earliest day when such a trip is feasible.

The Devonshire is a four-square, free-standing pub set back from the road and having something of the air of a “country pub in the town”. Inside it has a plain public bar at the front with bench seating down two sides, where our group slowly trickled in over the next half-hour, and a more spacious, rambling lounge at the rear. I met Ian Thurman aka thewickingman, with whom I had corresponded extensively via the Internet, for the first time. We were rapidly joined by another group of customers who we were advised were the local vicar and his family.

For a while, it had been a Burton Bridge tied house, and it still had a variety of their beers including Bridge Bitter and Stairway to Heaven, alongside Bass, which is the biggest seller, and guests such as Dark Star APA and Gates Burton Ale. Most of us went for the Bass, which was in excellent form, although our rather BBB-phobic member preferred the APA. This, for me, was both the beer and pub of the day, although there were plenty more delights to come.

From here, there was a split in the party, with some choosing to head for the Derby Inn, while others went straight to the Brewery Tap, which was the planned lunch venue. While the Derby, which is the nearest pub to Burton Albion’s ground, sounded an excellent pub, it was judged just too far in terms of both distance and walking time. The route to the Brewery Tap passed between a number of brewery buildings and conditioning tanks which dominate this part of the town. We noted that a pipe bridge spanning Station Street that had previously connected two sets of the Bass brewery premises had recently been removed.

Approaching the Brewery Tap along Guild Street, there is a preserved set of Burton Union casks with the steel trough to collect the fobbing beer running along the top. At the end of the street is the impressive former Magistrates’ Court, built, in 1909-10 in the Baroque style. The Brewery Tap is the bar attached to what is now the National Brewery Centre but was originally the Bass Museum, although time didn’t permit us taking a look around. It’s a pleasant but functional modern bar, and had quite a few customers in, who mostly seemed to be taking advantage of the food.

It has an extensive and fairly good-value menu, with most of us taking advantage of a combination of light bites and sandwiches. I got an impressive portion of whitebait for a mere £3.50, and the fish finger sandwiches, which were actually proper fish goujons, also went down well. We considered ourselves decently fed in a town that seems short on pub food options. We were less impressed by a soundtrack that seemed tailored for a much younger age group than most of the customers, including Ariana Grande and what sounded like an entire album from Scouting for Girls.

On the bar were a selection of beers brewed at their own pilot brewery, including Masterpiece, St Modwen and a recreation of Charrington IPA, plus the almost inevitable Bass and Cotleigh Snowy. The Charrington IPA was very good, although distinctly more hoppy than I remember it in the South-East in the early 1980s. Those who had detoured to the Derby Inn eventually caught up with us here.

A fairly short walk down Horninglow Street brought us to the Burton Bridge Inn, just short of the Old Bridge across the Trent. This is the home of Burton Bridge Brewery, and is a three-storey Georgian building with the entrance down the passageway to the right. Inside it has a rambling and surprisingly spacious interior around the central bar, with a public bar and adjacent room at the front and an extensive lounge to the rear. The brewery is at the back, and we were told there is a skittle alley on the first floor. Friday afternoon in a wet-led pub is hardly going to be the busiest time of the week, but we were the only people in apart from one other customer who left shortly after we arrived. Hopefully we didn’t drive him away!

There was a wide range of their own beers, including Bridge Bitter, Golden Delicious, Hearty Ale, Porter, Old Expensive and their own take on Burton Ale. With fond memories of the original Ind Coope Burton Ale, I tried the Burton Bridge version, but unfortunately it was rather woody-tasting and past its best. The other beers that were sampled were better, but none were particularly outstanding. The brewery is apparently up for sale, which explains why they have been disposing of their small chain of pubs, including the Devonshire Arms which we had visited earlier.

To be continued...

(Thanks to Paul Bailey for the photo of the Burton Bridge Inn)

Saturday 7 March 2020

Running with Tigger

There has been a considerable amount of outrage this week over the decision by the Portman Group to uphold a complaint against the packaging design of Lost & Grounded Running With Sceptres, which features a parade of cartoon animals. While it does not have the power to prevent the packaging being used, it can recommend that retailers do not stock it, which will obviously severely limit its distribution.

There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the Portman Group – its judgments often seem censorious and heavy-handed, it can act on no more than a simple flimsy complaint, which may have come from someone involved in the public health lobby, and it offers no appeals process. However, it’s important to remember, as Martyn Cornell points out in this blogpost, that it was set up as a voluntary body with the specific objective of staving off the possibility of statutory regulation of alcohol promotion and marketing. Some people may naively imagine that a statutory regulator may offer a more benign regime, but that is very hard to imagine, and in reality it is much more likely to result in much more severe restriction.

So: if you don’t want state regulation of the advertising and marketing of alcohol, don’t give the wowsers reasons to complain by using cartoon images on your cans and bottles that would not look out of place in the children’s section of a bookshop. And if you feel that restricts your artistic liberty, I really don’t have any sympathy: I’d rather see cartoon teddies and tigers banned from beer bottles than a Norwegian-style total prohibition on any sort of advertising or marketing.
Sometimes it may need to act in a firm manner to make it clear to the watching world that it is doing its job. And is defending figures reminiscent of children’s cartoon characters really the hill you want to die on when standing up for the rights of alcohol producers? It can’t be denied that the cartoon tiger looks very much like Tigger out of the Winnie the Pooh books. And alcohol is an adult product – why should anyone even want to use imagery that can all too easily be interpreted as appealing to children? Whether in practice it will do isn’t really the issue.

The charge has been levied against the Portman Group that, considering it is funded by large brewers and drinks producers, it discriminates against small and innovative brewers. However, surely it is simply the case that the large firms have a better awareness of the regime they are operating under and are naturally risk-averse. If small brewers fall foul of the code, it is more likely due to naivety about the nature of the regulatory environment, or indeed in some cases deliberately tweaking its tail for the publicity value, although I’m not suggesting that applies here.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, at least to some extent, craft brewers believe that they are operating on a higher moral plane than the mass-market producers and can thus push the boundaries further. You can’t really imagine George the Bear being brought back to advertise Hofmeister. And this sudden anger against the anti-drink tendency seems very selective and limited in scope – how many of those who are complaining about this have spoken out against much more serious manifestations of the trend such as minimum pricing, which was introduced in Wales only last week? At root, it’s really more concerned with getting at “big beer” than confronting the anti-drink lobby.

If you look into it, the ruling against Oranjeboom 8.5% is actually much more worrying. It is revisiting a packaging design than had already been approved a couple of years previously, and seeking to micromanage the size and positioning of text conveying purely factual information. That is surely much more concerning than objecting to cartoon tigers. Apparently the producers were already going to withdraw this product from the British market, but the precedent has been set. One day this will come back to bite the craft brewers - who have been known to put very strong beers in large containers - on the backside.

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Chairs, chairs, everywhere...

...but not a place to sit. I concluded my recent blogpost about the pleasures of solo pub visits with “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.” And, all too often, I now find myself going into pubs, looking round, and deciding that, even though there’s plenty of seating, there’s nowhere I actually fancy sitting.

The photo above is taken from this newspaper article about Sam Smith’s Crow’s Nest pub in Cleethorpes. It was built in 1957, and has probably been little changed since then. It shows the lounge, with a pattern of seating that, a generation ago, was very typical of many pub interiors, with continuous fixed wall benches and relatively small, round-cornered tables.

I have discussed the merits of bench seating in the past – it is comfortable, with upholstered seats and backs; it is sociable, facing into the centre of the room rather than just at your companions; it is flexible, so you can spread out your coats and bags, or squeeze together to allow more people in; and it is consistent, so it is the same in each spot in the pub. It is the quintessential type of pub seating.

However, in more recent years benches have increasingly been replaced by other forms of seating. First are the dreaded posing tables, which to my mind are extremely awkward and uncomfortable, and create a division with anyone at a lower level. If I went in a pub and saw nowhere to sit but posing tables, I would go elsewhere. In a bizarre move, one fairly traditional pub not too far from me has recently replaced half the seating in what was a very pleasant and well-appointed lounge with posing tables. No, I don’t understand it either.

Then there is the introduction of much larger tables, that may be suitable for eight or ten. These dominate the interior and, compared with smaller ones make solo drinkers or groups of two or three feel out-of-place. They also make the usage of the space less flexible. My local pub had a fairly respectful refurbishment a few years ago, but it would greatly benefit from overlarge tables being replaced with twice as many smaller ones.

In contrast, other pubs feature regimented rows of small rectangular tables for two or four, with bare wood dining chairs, which produces an atmosphere more akin to a French bistro than a cosy pub. This is a particular favourite of Wetherspoon’s. You go in Wetherspoon’s in the morning, and see a fair number of the tables occupied by one solitary bloke with his newspaper and plastic carrier bag. Put them on benches facing into the middle of a room, and they’d be much more likely to talk to each other, as indeed they do in certain other pubs.

Then you get squishy sofas, which place you at the wrong angle for drinking, make a very inefficient use of space, and put you at a lower level than other customers. And don’t get me started on industrial-chic craft bars where you’re expected to sit on what is basically a plank!

While all of these forms of interior design may have their fans and their merits, to my eye all are much inferior to wall benches. Introducing a variety of them in the same space produces an awkward, unsettled interior, and means that if your favourite type is occupied you may have to put up with something you don’t care for.

Bench seating is always a positive in pubs, but it is possible to produce an appealing interior without it. A key factor is to have comfortable chairs with upholstered seats and backs, like those in the picture of the Crow’s Nest, rather than spindly bare wood ones or backless stools. And the chairs should be arranged so that half of them have their backs against the wall and face outwards into the room, rather than facing tables arranged at right-angles to the wall. Tables should be relatively small, ideally no more than four-seaters, and encourage a more sociable and pubby feeling if they are round or oval rather than rectangular. You can also move around them to get closer together or further apart. The round, three-legged Britannia table, shown at the right, is the pub classic – and, of course, three-legged tables don’t rock on uneven floors.

Speaking personally, if I don’t feel “at home” in a pub, I will be deterred from returning, no matter how good the beer is. Obviously, all the above is basically subjective personal opinion, but I think I’ve spent enough time in pubs to have a good idea of what works in promoting social interaction, and what makes people feel awkward and ill-at-ease.