Thursday 30 April 2020

Corona effect

A month ago, although it seems far longer, I wrote: “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.” However, now that there is at least talk of a progressive unwinding of the lockdown, I thought I would return to the subject. What follows is really just a series of speculative bullet points rather than fully-developed arguments.

  • Obviously, with pubs having been closed for what looks like at least three months, it is likely to do significant damage to the pub trade, and indeed the wider tourism and hospitality industry. However, it remains to be seen to what extent people are going to flock back. As Tandleman has said, some will be back in the pubs like a rat up a drainpipe, while others will be much more cautious. Ironically, in view of the previous trend, wet-led pubs may recover more quickly than food-oriented ones. There may also be a problem with pubs initially having to operate under various restrictions such as limiting capacity.

  • Some existing pubs probably won’t reopen, while many projected openings of new bars that are in the pipeline will be abandoned.

  • It will encourage the long-term shift from on- to off-trade drinking. However, I suspect it won’t give a huge boost to mail-order beer because of the increased cost aspect. Some specialist off-licences that decided to close for the duration, even though not legally compelled to, may have cause to regret that choice. Customers will remember who did stay open.

  • It is also likely to precipitate the long-heralded shakeout of the microbrewery sector, where many have been saying for some time that there is considerable oversupply. However, perhaps perversely, it may be the “hobby brewers”, who can shut down and reopen with little financial pain, who ride it out, while those a little bit bigger who relied on brewing to make a living may call it a day.

  • Some substantial breweries that depend mostly on on-trade sales may not survive. All breweries apart from the very smallest will realise that there is a benefit to offering bottled and canned beer as another string to their bow, although achieving distribution is always going to be crucial.

  • It will enforce a substantial financial retrenchment upon CAMRA, which is heavily dependent (some might say too dependent) on income from beer festivals. Given that they involve a lot of people crammed together in a small space, festivals may be one of the last things to return to full health.

  • It will accelerate the decline of High Streets, which have been pretty much dead during the lockdown. Even before, they were increasingly becoming social spaces as opposed to just retail spaces.

  • In contrast, it will strengthen the role of physical supermarkets as essential suppliers, especially given that there have often been long waits for home delivery slots.

  • It will accelerate the move from cash to card payments, which I wrote about here.

  • It will punish independent retailers in areas such as clothing, furniture and electrical goods at the expense of major supermarkets and homeware stores that were able to stay open selling a range of products.
But a lot will depend on how willing people are to resume their previous habits as opposed to exercising greatly increased caution for an extended period of time. And that, at present, we just do not know. However, while they were criticised for it at the time, some encouragement can be taken from people’s willingness to visit beauty spots and seaside resorts on some of the fine days we have had during the lockdown. Pubgoers, after all, have never been known for being amongst the most fastidious sections of society.

I’ll also add the point I made on Tandleman’s blog, that it's easy to say that pubs don't really matter in the overall scheme of things, but they are only a subset of the wider tourism and hospitality industry, which is the third biggest sector of the economy. Until that can be restored to something approaching normality, we're still going to be in the economic doldrums. And it can't really function without what could be broadly described as “eat-in catering”.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Over by Christmas?

Although it now seems only a distant memory, yesterday marked five weeks since pubs, bars and restaurants were instructed to close due to the cornonavirus crisis. However, over a month in, thoughts are now turning to the process for relaxing the lockdown. In a possibly unguarded moment, government minister Michael Gove stated that he couldn’t rule out pubs not being allowed to reopen until Christmas, although neither did he say this was likely.

However, this was seized on in the ex-newspaper known as the Independent, where one Jane Fae stated that she wouldn’t be too upset if Gove’s speculation came to pass. Reading the piece in more detail, though, it seems that this has a great deal to do with her own “long and difficult relationship” with alcohol. And it becomes evident that it’s not pubs in general that she objects to, but just ones that don’t fit her preferred model.

In Italy, when I socialised with friends and family, even late into the evening, it was as likely at a cafe or gelateria (ice cream parlour) as anywhere alcohol-focused. The difference, compared to the UK, was marked: most town centres boast spaces where families can and do go out on an evening.
But, of course, if she took the trouble to look, she would find that many modern British pubs sell far more food than drink and bend over backwards to be welcoming to families (much to the dismay of some of us). It is the typical negative stereotype of pubs as dysfunctional drinking dens that remains so popular with people who scarcely ever visit them. And many pubs offer a wide range of social activities, support their local communities through charitable events, and provide a social outlet for lonely people who otherwise would have very little human contact.

It’s also, as I’ve discussed before, impossible to come up with any kind of watertight distinction between “pubs” and “eating places”, given that many pubs now function primarily as restaurants anyway, while many places that present themselves as restaurants actually have a licensing and planning status that is identical to pubs. It seems that lockdown has simply given free rein to people’s censorious tendencies across a whole range of activities. “Isn’t it great that nobody’s now doing [insert particular thing I don’t like]?”

Obviously the lockdown has a severe economic cost, and the time will come when this, and the associated human suffering it creates, will be felt to exceed the benefits. Ultimately that is a political decision, but it is a decision that will have to be made. Tourism and hospitality are the third largest economic sector in Britain, and the economy won’t be able to return to anything like health until they are able to function. It goes far beyond just pubs. I’m not going to make any specific predictions, but I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to enjoy a pint in a pub well before Christmas, much to Ms Fae’s chagrin.

Meanwhile, in a faraway country of which we know nothing, the Czech Republic have published a lockdown exit timetable that will see indoor areas of bars open again on 25 May, or four weeks from next Monday. Regardless of the current swirl of speculation, are we really likely to be that far behind?

Sunday 19 April 2020

Shop your neighbour

The coronavirus lockdown has given encouragement to two of the less edifying aspects of the British character – the curtain-twitching love of informing on your neighbours, and the liking of the police for taking an over-zealous approach and making up the rules as they go along. Both of these tendencies were combined when no less than the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, Ian Hopkins, made a public statement that the Shakespeare pub in Farnworth, near Bolton, had been serving drinks during the lockdown, and would have its licence revoked.

However, egg on face was in order when, as the Manchester Evening News reports:

But council licensing officials have now confirmed they had found 'no evidence' it had broken the rules during a visit two days later.

In his radio interview, the chief constable said The Shakespeare in Farnworth would have its licence revoked for allegedly letting drinkers in through the back door.

However, when the Manchester Evening News contacted the owners of the pub, they denied any wrongdoing.

A spokesman for Hawthorn Leisure, which runs the pub, said at the time: “There is absolutely no truth to suggestions that The Shakespeare in Farnworth has been serving drinks during the lockdown.

“Hawthorn Leisure has been strictly adhering to Government guidance, and the pub has not been open since it shut its doors on Friday night.

"Furthermore, our manager and her husband are both self-isolating due to pre-existing health concerns.

I’m not denying that any pubs have been breaching the lockdown conditions, but most of these cases seem to have been false alarms. Some have been genuine mistakes arising from observing the licensees doing cleaning or repairs, or engaged in permitted trading activities such as providing takeaways. But others have undoubtedly been driven by malicious intent, with people working out a grievance against the pub in question. As reported here, the lockdown has provided a golden opportunity for people with a grudge to inflict police harassment on others , no questions asked.

And surely someone in such a senior position as a Chief Constable should make absolutely certain they are on firm ground before making public accusations of this kind against businesses. Somehow, though, I doubt whether a public apology will be forthcoming. This is only one of a long list of examples of police overreach during the lockdown, with their colleagues in Lancashire recently excelling themselves.

If we were ever to end up with something like the East German Stasi in this country, they would clearly have no problem recruiting officers – or informants.

Interestingly, the Shakespeare is a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, although from the description it sounds as though the original features have been rather garishly painted over, and it has a pretty down-market pub offer. I’ve driven past it a few times in the past, but never been tempted to venture inside.

Thursday 16 April 2020

We never have drink in the house

I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking whether people were drinking more or less during the lockdown, despite being unable to visit pubs. The results were mixed, but despite my readership probably containing a considerably higher proportion of regular pubgoers than the national average, a rather higher figure said they were drinking more as opposed to cutting down. On the other hand, over the past three weeks I’ve seen a number of people saying that, since the pubs have been closed, they have pretty much entirely stopped drinking. For them, the two things are inextricably bound up with each other, and if you take the surroundings of the pub away, drinking becomes a pretty pointless exercise. Now, that’s an entirely reasonable point of view, and I certainly wouldn’t criticise anyone for a minute for adopting it. However, it’s important to recognise just what an outlier it is in terms of general social attitudes.

Over the past sixty years, the UK has seen seen a steady increase in the proportion of alcohol sold through the off-trade in comparison with the on-trade. In the 1950s, the on-trade accounted for over 90% of sales, but it has now declined to only 31%. Beer in fact was the last market segment to make the switch, with the tipping point not happening until 2015. A major factor in this has been the growth in the market share of wine, which typically is not associated with pubs, and is rarely done well by them.

There are a wide range of reasons for this which I considered in this blogpost from eleven years ago. One of the key elements is changes to lifestyles, with homes having become much more pleasant, and families doing a much wider range of activities together in them. The archetypal symbol of this change is a family sharing a bottle of wine over a meal, something than would have been unknown in ordinary households in the 1960s. But it extends into many other areas, such as entertaining friends and family, holding barbecues and watching TV sport.

There was an obvious aspirational aspect to this a trend. Drinking wine with dinner was a marker of a middle-class household, as was having a cocktail cabinet. Certainly when I was a small child, my parents would never keep alcoholic drinks in the house except for the Christmas period, but that had changed by the time I reached the legal drinking age.

It was also a question of changing gender roles. The households where all drinking was done in the pub tended to be ones where it was overwhelmingly done by the husband, who might take his wife along to the pub on Saturday evening. But, with couples wanting to share roles and responsibilities and abandon such rigid demarcation, that became less and less acceptable. That, incidentally, was one of the reasons behind the decline of the traditional Sunday lunchtime session, because women were no longer happy to stay at home cooking the dinner while their menfolk were in the pub with their mates. Back in those days, too, the woman who drank at home was often viewed as someone to be pitied rather than an example of emancipation. “Has she been at the cooking sherry, then?”

There was also a moral aspect to this, with “we never have drink in the house” being seen as a statement of rectitude, even from people who drank a lot in the pub. You still sometimes hear CAMRA blokes say “I never drink at home” as though it is a good thing. Yet, as I argued here, the attitude that somehow drinking at home is inherently less worthy than drinking in the pub is old-fashioned, silly and divisive. Each can be good or bad depending on the context. And the people who say that either tend to be single men, or older married men whose children have flown the nest.

The persistence of this view means that many beer enthusiasts fail to appreciate the reality of how the vast majority of ordinary people approach the subject of drinking. Most adults in this country probably do not visit a pub or a bar to have a drink (as opposed to eating) from one month to the next. They have no inbuilt loyalty or affection towards pubs as a concept, and on many drinking occasions going to the pub is not even an option.

Sunday 12 April 2020

Mail disorder

I’ve seen a couple of messages on Twitter urging people to buy beer directly from breweries rather than from supermarkets during the lockdown. That’s all well and good, but it has to be recognised that it comes at a price. Beer is a heavy and bulky commodity, and shipping it around the country is expensive. That’s why, compared with clothing or books, mail order for beer has never really taken off outside a specialist niche. When many people will have been laid off from work and feeling the financial pinch, paying more for their beer will be the last thing on their mind. And businesses shouldn’t expect to be “supported” by the general public, unless they can provide a product people want to buy, at a price they’re happy to pay.

Having said that, I thought that, as I was saving money from not going out, I might take a look at what was available out there. I don’t want to buy beers I wouldn’t consider normally, or things that might turn out to be a pig in a poke, but I could see if I could find some beers from favourite breweries whose products we never see locally. So I looked at some that people had highlighted on social media, but quickly ran into the familiar problem of cost. While the headline prices may not have been that much above undiscounted prices in the local off-trade (although they always were higher), once you added on shipping costs, typically around the £8 mark, they became prohibitively so.

One twerp on Twitter predictably asked “how does that compare with prices in the pub?” but that really isn’t the point. A pub isn’t just a beer shop, it also offers atmosphere, hospitality and conviviality. The only valid comparison is with other off-trade prices, which are often only half as much for beers that may be a bit more familiar but, to be honest, are often of comparable quality. I looked at several breweries that all fell into the same category. And another problem is that the shipping cost is often not made explicit until very late in the process.

Another drawback is the time taken for delivery, so delayed gratification is inevitable. Plus you are subject to the notorious vagaries of couriers. Last year, I ordered a mixed case of ciders as a birthday treat. But I was out when it was delivered, so it was left with a newsagent in the town centre with no parking. Fortunately I was able to collect it by parking (legally) on double yellow lines, but that would have been of no use so someone who didn’t drive, or who wasn’t physically able to carry it fifty yards.

However, I did notice on Wadworth’s website that they were currently waiving delivery charges. So you can get a mixed case of twelve of their beers for £32, or £2.67 a bottle, which is still above shop prices, but not prohibitively so for something I like and never see locally. So I went for one of those, although it hasn’t arrived yet. You can also get twelve bottles of the 5.5% ABV Bishop’s Tipple for just £25, and, if that takes your fancy, 24 cans of 6X for just £38.50, or just £1.60 a can. The prices for Thatcher’s cider are also more reasonable – the main brands are available in supermarkets, but the “Cider Barn” specials aren’t.

If you’re happy to pay a substantial premium to get hold of beers that you can’t find in local shops, then that’s fair enough. Indeed I stated above that I just have. And, in the current situation, it may provide a lifeline for people for whom visiting shops is impossible or highly inconvenient. But, for reasons of cost and convenience, it has to be recognised that mail order beer is always going to remain a niche market.

And, unless you’re particularly snobby or fastidious, the range of beers that is now available in supermarkets and other off-trade outlets is such that most palates will find it at least adequate. For example, just confining it to British ales, my local branch of Home Bargains had stocks of Oakham JHB and Inferno, and Adnams’ Southwold Bitter, for £1.00 and £1.09 respectively, none of which you would sneeze at. And my local Morrisons stocks Cheshire Cat and Eastgate Ale from the Cheshire-based Weetwood Brewery for just £6 for 4.

And please don’t suggest that I should support a local business by getting a case of Tarquin Crudgington’s Bowel-Purger Railway Arch Murky IPA. If I didn’t fancy it before, I still don’t now.

Edit: The individual case prices for Hook Norton beers are pretty reasonable, but you need to add a whopping £9.50 on top of them for shipping. As with the Wadworth’s, I might have found a mixed case more tempting.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

The cash machine stops

The coronavirus crisis has resulted in people being strongly encouraged to use contactless payments wherever possible to minimise the need for physical contact associated with using notes and coins. This has led to warnings that it is likely to accelerate the widely foretold death of cash, which may have largely vanished by the summer as people never return to using it. While obviously many people value the convenience of making payments by card, the elimination of cash raises serious issues for both the general functioning of society and for individual freedom, which I touched on a couple of years ago.

It is estimated that there are 1.6 million unbanked workers in the UK, and there must be many other non-workers who have no access to banking facilities. While there may be technological solutions that can address this issue, their interests cannot simply be breezily dismissed. Added to this, there are many people, not by any means entirely elderly, who have a strong preference for using cash and are uneasy about card payments, even though they may theoretically be available to them. Is it reasonable to ride roughshod over their wishes in the name of progress?

Over the past couple of years, there has been a growing trickle of pubs and bars deciding to go entirely cashless and stop accepting cash payments. This may be understandable if, as has happened in a few cases, the establishment has been the victim of multiple robberies. However, in most cases it is simply signalling that they want to be perceived as modern and forward-looking. It is essentially profoundly snobbish. It is in effect saying that they are not interested in the business, not only of people who have no access to card payments, but of those whose preference is to avoid them. They are putting up a sign that the poor, the old and the conservatively-minded are not welcome. Our friend Cooking Lager made a good point when he said:

One obvious issue is that going cashless creates a disconnect between people and money. It makes it harder for children to grasp the concept of money, if it is just numbers on a screen rather than something tangible in their hand. It also makes budgeting more difficult for adults, both in terms of limiting your spending on a night out, and also in a more general sense of managing your expenditure through the month. It’s hardly surprising that so many people seem to get into unmanageable debt when they hardly ever see the stuff.

When this concept was first mooted more than twenty years ago, what was proposed was “digital wallets” which could be topped up in the same way as a pay-as-you-go mobile phone. This would have helped to make it more manageable, but instead what has happened is that people end up using debit cards and having a multiplicity of transactions taken directly from their current accounts. I was always brought up to keep a separate record of banking transactions and reconcile this to the statement at the end of each month, but if there are dozens of cups of coffee and rounds of drinks on it, this becomes completely impractical.

I always used to find it useful to draw a distinction between significant items of expenditure that justified recording individually, and routine everyday spending that didn’t need to be identified in detail, and thus were appropriate to be paid for in cash. I knew that in a typical week I would spend £XXX or thereabouts, so that was what I would withdraw from the cash machine. Fortunately, a couple of years ago the practice of imposing credit card surcharges was outlawed, so from my point of view the most workable solution is to allocate one particular credit card to everyday contactless transactions, which I can then view the balance of online and pay it off in a single sum at the end of the month. But not everyone has the luxury of having a credit card.

Charities have reported a fall-off in donations, such as those received by bar-top collection boxes in pubs, due to the reduction in cash usage. Yes, of course you can make donations by card, but it’s a much more considered process and not remotely as spontaneous. Last year, I even saw a street beggar with a card reader, which just seems wrong. The absence of cash will also inhibit small, casual gifts and loans between friends and relatives. It will make such everyday activities as sharing out a restaurant bill, and carrying out a collection for a departing work colleague, much more formal and remove any element of anonymity. And it’s not hard to visualise people in situations such as abusive relationships wanting to build up a cash reserve that is hidden from scrutiny.

There are extensive areas of what might be called the black and grey economies that currently run on cash. Requiring all of this to operate by bank payments will obviously bring it out into the light and subject it to the scrutiny of the tax authorities. Some may see this as a good thing, but it may cause many informal or ad hoc economic activities to cease to happen entirely. And, if cash is unavailable, some form of alternative barter economy or unofficial currency may evolve to replace it.

A cashless society is dependent on connections to power and communications for every single transaction. However, the foundations of our modern technological society are more fragile than many imagine. While coronavirus has driven many to adopt cashless payments, it has also exposed our vulnerability to shocks of this kind. Many of us remember being subjected to power cuts in the 1970s, and in recent years the failure of successive governments to support the construction of new capacity has left our power generation system teetering on a knife-edge. Organised hacking attacks have sometimes brought large swathes of the Internet to a standstill, while some banks’ IT infrastructure has fallen over for days on end. In 1909, in his oddly prescient short story The Machine Stops, E. M. Forster described how a universal, interconnected, technological society could slowly but surely be brought to its knees if things stopped working.

There are also wider implications for civil liberties, which have been highlighted from both sides of the political spectrum. For example, this article in the Guardian says:

Engineering public consent for cashlessness is a subtle process. People may indeed enjoy a new payments app or contactless card, but financial institutions then use that to justify the gradual removal of the cash infrastructure – such as ATMS – in order to deliberately make cash harder to use. This feeds back, making digital seem relatively more convenient, “inspiring” more people to choose it.
While the free-market Mises Institute says:
Cash has been the target of the banking and financial elites for years. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is being used to frighten the masses into accepting a cashless society. That would mean the death of what’s left of our free society...

...Being bound to computers for transactions kicks the door wide open to hardcore surveillance of personal activity and location data. Being eternally on the grid means relentless taxation and negative interest rates, which the Federal Reserve is already gearing up for.

These concerns fall into two main areas. One is that people will be subject to constant surveillance of exactly where they have been and what they have spent their money on. It’s all too easy to say that the innocent have nothing to fear, but who can honestly say that they have never done anything that they would prefer not to be exposed to the light of day? And it isn’t difficult to imagine a range of scenarios where this information could be used to target or stigmatise people in various ways.

If all transactions are on the record, it also opens up many possibilities for being able to control people. For example, certain types of transactions could be blocked if they were felt to be undesirable, either for the individual or society as a whole. Businesses that were felt to be acting against the public interest could be prevented from accepting payments. And the entirety of your financial life would be potentially laid open to the grasping hand of the State, either through negative interest rates or outright confiscation.

Of course, these concerns may be dismissed by some as examples of the tinfoil hat mentality. But any student of history will know that the benevolence of those in authority is not something that can be guaranteed. And, if you lived today in Russia or China, would you be happy for the State to have such detailed oversight of your everyday activities? It’s ironic that some of those who, before Christmas, were ludicrously accusing Boris Johnson of wanting to erect some form of totalitarian state, are now amongst those who are the cheerleaders of a trend that contains such potential for making that outcome a reality.

Ultimately, the continued existence of cash represents a bulwark of freedom against both governments and corporations. Yes, many people may find contactless payments for everyday transactions convenient, but if we as a society allow cash to entirely disappear, we will have also said goodbye to a large measure of our liberties.

Friday 3 April 2020

Small isn’t beautiful

The current lockdown means that we’re reduced to drinking at home, if at all. The closest equivalent to the pub pint, at least in terms of volume, is the familiar 500ml Premium Bottled Ale, which fits comfortably into a brim-measure pint glass. OK, it isn’t an Imperial pint, but you can’t really get pint bottles of ale (lager, for some reason, is often sold in pint cans), and even if you could they would actually come right up to the brim. In fact, the typical pub pint, at least in the North, is probably closer to 500ml than 568ml. The Samuel Smith’s bottled beers, which are 550ml, certainly give you more beer than you would normally get in the pub.

However, in recent years 500ml bottles have steadily been losing ground to the smaller 330ml bottles and cans. Just three weeks ago (although it seems more like three years) we had a presentation at our local CAMRA branch meetings from representatives of Robinson’s brewery, who confirmed that the smaller size was where the growth was, while the 500ml bottles were in decline.

In particular, these have been taken up enthusiastically by the burgeoning craft sector. You won’t really find anything presented as “craft” in a 500ml bottle. Part of the motivation is to differentiate themselves from what are perceived as old-fashioned “boring brown bitters”. Plus it can’t have escaped their notice that they can get away with charging virtually the same price for a third less beer.

One argument advanced for smaller bottles is that they give the beer less chance to warm up, which is perhaps valid for chilled lagers, but hardly applies to ales and stouts. And they also allow you to try more different beers for the same given volume. However, if all you want is *one beer* while you’re sitting back to watch yet another rerun of Inspector Morse, and are happy with something familiar and trusted, that’s irrelevant.

I can see the point of smaller bottles for especially strong beers, although where the cut-off point should be set is a moot point, and maybe for specialities that you wouldn’t want to drink in quantity. But, speaking personally, for normal quaffing beers they just aren’t enough, so I end up wanting two to feel that I’ve had a decent drink, which obviously means at the end of the day I have drunk more and spent a lot more. Obviously everyone’s free to choose whatever bottle size they prefer, but I really fail to see the attraction of the smaller ones. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of choice available in the larger and more pub-like size.