Sunday 27 December 2020

Annus horribilis

Each December, I’ve usually produced a summary of the past year’s events as they’ve affected me. This is what I wrote last year. However, from the point of view of pubs and beer, for obvious reasons 2020 has been a uniquely depressing and frustrating year. It started well, with an excellent Proper Day Out in Burton-upon-Trent in March, which I reported on here and here. One of the Burton pubs, either the Devonshire Arms or the Coopers Tavern (left and centre), would qualify as my Best New Pub Visit of the year. I’ve also added a picture of the Elms with its distinctive Bass livery, which wasn’t far behind in terms of pub quality..

There was a small cloud on the horizon, as I remember joking about seeing a Chinese student at Sheffield station wearing a face mask. Little did we know that, just two weeks later, all the pubs in the country would be closed down. They remained shut in England for a further fifteen weeks, and in this area have been closed for the last eight weeks of the year, plus two weeks before that when we were in the then Tier 3, which meant pubs could only serve alcohol to customers who were eating a substantial meal.

I’ve tried not to allow the blog just to become a running commentary on the Covid crisis, but given the way it has dominated the news agenda and the profound effect it has had on the pub trade and my own personal experience it has obviously been impossible to ignore the subject.

Exhortations to use contactless payments led to increased concerns about the possible demise of cash, which is an essential bulwark of freedom from control and surveillance.

When the pubs finally did reopen, it unleashed a surprising wave of rancid snobbery directed at those who had dared to cross the threshold. It seemed that many “beer enthusiasts”, who may in the past have given lip-service ot the idea of supporting pubs, found they quite enjoyed staying at home during lockdown enjoying supplies of draft craft beer takeouts from their local micro bar, absolved of any need to actually go out and visit any pubs and mix with the dreaded hoi polloi.

The dramatic decline of commuting into city centres raised fears that this might mark a long-term shift to remote working, with an inevitable knock-on effect on all the ancillary businesses in those areas, not least pubs.

On the other hand, some pubs really didn’t help themselves with an over-zealous interpretation of the social distancing guidelines. It seems to have brought out the inner jobsworth in some licensees.

The hospitality trade, and pubs in particular, seemed to be unjustly singled out for blame in the spread of the virus, when all the evidence suggested that their role in fact was pretty insignificant.

The new restrictions imposed toward the end of September made that swift, spontaneous pint virtually impossible, and table service was impractical and labour-intensive for wet-led pubs.

And the requirement for pub customers to wear masks except when seated was utterly insane. Even if you accept the rationale behind masks, expecting people to be repeatedly putting them on and taking them off again goes completely against the recommendations for how they should be used. At least we weren’t like some US states, where diners and drinkers were told only to remove the mask when actually having a mouthful.

It was disappointing how many trade bodies and organisations supposedly representing drinkers were happy to demand more financial help for the industry but reluctant to question the fundamental basis of the restrictions, although they have become bolder over the past couple of months. And of course there isn’t a bottomless pit of money to dole out. An honourable exception was Essex licensee Adam Brooks who was prepared to question the rationale and essential unfairness of the lockdown restrictions, especially those in the second half of the year. I’d also give a mention to Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UK Hospitality, who has been a strong and outspoken voice for the industry.

In this area, the pubs have been entirely closed for 23 weeks of the year, plus a further two weeks at the end of October where we were placed in the old Tier 3 making them dining only. This, combined with the ongoing travel restrictions and continued closure of many tourist attractions, severely curbed my activities during the year.

During 2019, I visited a total of 207 different pubs, of which 111 were entirely new to me, the latter number boosted by four days out to towns that I had either never been drinking in before, or where I had only ever visited one pub. This year the comparable totals are 60 and 17, and most of those 17 were accounted for by the aforementioned trip to Burton and one very brief holiday in September. It is probably the lowest total of different pubs I have used in any calendar year since I turned 18.

I have only spent two nights away from home not in my own bed, which is the lowest number since infancy. I had to cancel two holidays and never got round to booking another. I have travelled less far certainly than since 2001, when circumstances conspired to prevent me having a proper holiday, although I did briefly venture across the Welsh border before they closed it. And I haven’t seen the sea at all. (I know I could easily have done so if I’d really wanted to, but I didn’t in the normal course of my travels).

The restrictions on pub visiting have also curtailed my encounters with pub cats, although I did manage to spot Felix in the Boar’s Head in Stockport, who I was told is now sixteen years old. I have been following the exploits of Artemis aka Arty of the Olde Cottage in Chester, who had turned up as a stray in the Autumn of 2019. We had planned a trip out to Chester in April which would have included calling in there, but obviously this had to be cancelled. He established himself as a firm favourite with the regulars, and was puzzled when they all abruptly disappeared. Earlier this month, he suffered some kind of injury when out exploring which necessitated an operation at the vets’ costing over £1000, although this was fortunately covered by insurance. So far he seems to be well on the mend, although still wandering round an empty pub.

Including this one, I have done 81 posts on the blog this year, compared with 93 last year, the difference being almost entirely accounted for by having had only one Proper Day Out to write up, as opposed to six.

Last year, I celebrated passing the 5,000 followers mark on Twitter. This year it has edged up further to just over 5,600, but I suspect it has now reached something of a plateau. On the other hand, Toady, who has been much more outspoken about the Covid crisis, has gone up from 3,000 to over 3,800.

I’ve recorded the highest number of posts on my Closed Pubs blog since the early days when finding new ones was like shooting fish in a barrel. For this I’m mainly indebted to Yorkshire resident Kyle Reed, who has sent me a substantial number of suggestions in West and South Yorkshire. I also spotted a fair number myself on trips out once the lockdown travel restrictions were lifted.

Tourist attractions were often very slow to reopen, but I did manage to visit one new National Trust property, Newark Park in Gloucestershire, a converted hunting lodge set in a spectacular position on a ridge of the south Cotswolds. However, even here you were only allowed to walk round the grounds. Returning from this trip, I called in to the Grape Vaults in Leominster, a pub of which I have fond memories, and was pleased to find it just as good as ever, which is often not the case. Here I had my only Ploughman’s Lunch of the year, which was also a pretty good one. This was undoubtedly, from a limited field, my Best Pub Revisit of the year.

It’s easy to imagine that lockdown would free up time to read all those books you never got round to, but in practice it doesn’t seem to work out that way, However, one book that made an impression on me was Ghostland by Edward Parnell, subtitled “In Search of a Haunted Country”, which I hadn't heard of before, but came up in a Twitter conversation. It's a fascinating and moving memoir of family tragedy woven into an in-depth analysis of British ghost stories and an evocation of British landscapes, with a fair bit of bird-watching thrown in. I'd strongly recommend it, although it helps if you're familiar with the likes of M. R. James and Alan Garner and have seen “The Wicker Man”.

Last year, I expressed satisfaction at the decisive result of the December General Election which finally opened the door for the UK to leave the European Union at the end of the following month. The transition period expires at the end of this month, and at the last minute we were able to conclude a trade agreement on Christmas Eve that will allow tariff-free trade to continue while restoring our status as a fully independent, sovereign nation. Amidst all the Covid-related gloom, this gives grounds for some optimism about the future.

As I said in one of the posts I linked to above, “It’s all very well saying that people should support pubs, but if the experience has been turned from something pleasurable to a grim rigmarole it becomes increasingly hard to see the attraction. And most ordinary people go to pubs because they enjoy it, not out of a sense of duty.” At present I can’t visit local pubs at all and, until the restrictions introduced in September are lifted, I really can’t look forward to much appetite for, or pleasure in, pubgoing during the coming year.

Despite the optimism surrounding the roll-out of vaccines, I expect I will still have a long wait before I am once again able to enter a pub unchallenged, walk up to the bar to order a drink, and choose to sit wherever, and with whom, I want. And I fear that much of the pub trade will never recover.

Friday 18 December 2020

Join the club

The tier system in England as at 19 December 2020

Going back a couple of months to October, although it seems much longer ago, many people in the North were aggrieved that they seemed to be being singled out for much harsher treatment than the South in terms of Covid restrictions. Even two weeks ago when the second lockdown ended, London seemed to have been excluded from Tier 3 restrictions on very flimsy evidence.

This week, though, the boot was on the other foot, with London and large swathes of the South-East being plunged into Tier 3 at very short notice. However, tempting as it might be, it would be wrong to engage in Schadenfreude over this. “I’ve been stuffed, therefore you should be too” is not really going to help anyone.

Indeed this kind of dog-in-the-manger attitude has been a feature of the whole Covid crisis, with too many people apparently far keener to wish misery on others rather than protesting about their own predicament. A prime example of this is people in hospitality complaining about shops not being required to operate track and trace, something that would be completely inappropriate and impractical.

What is particularly infuriating about the latest round of restrictions is that the rise in infections clearly cannot be laid at the door or hospitality, as the sector was entirely closed during the lockdown that ended less than two weeks earlier. Yet closing or opening hospitality is the main difference between Tiers 2 and 3. It seems that, yet again, it is being used as a sacrificial lamb. The government’s approach is that of a one-club golfer and, what is more, a club that doesn’t even succeed in hitting the ball.

It is also completely unreasonable to impose closures on businesses with a mere twenty-four hours’ notice. This might be justifiable as a one-off action in a dire emergency, as was arguably the case back in March, but it is no way to treat business on an ongoing basis. Just think of all the food and drink that had been bought in for the busiest trading week of the year, and will now end up being thrown away.

It seems that people in government severely overestimate the extent to which lockdowns actually succeed in influencing the spread of infection. A seventeen-day “circuit-breaker” was imposed in Wales a couple of months ago, which was held out as an example that England should have followed. Yet Wales currently has the highest growth in cases in the whole of the UK, and is heading back into a fresh lockdown of indeterminate length immediately after Christmas. As Einstein is reputed to have said, but probably didn’t, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

On one level, the cartoon by Bob Moran above is pointing the finger at the willingness to impose restrictions on areas that are physically and culturally remote from the seat of government. But it is also highlighting the pre-Enlightenment view that Covid is a threat that has to be propitiated by human sacrifice.

Monday 7 December 2020

Top of the heap

While writing my post last week about Stella Artois, I did a little research to find out where it stood in the league table of British beer sales. This came up with this very interesting report from the Morning Advertiser on the top selling drinks brands in 2019.

Stella is still well up there in the lager category, selling 717,000 hl in the year (equivalent to 437,000 barrels). But I’m sure I’ve read in the past that it was considerably closer to Carling, the market leader. It is now outsold by Peroni, which in many ways follows the “reassuringly expensive” model of Stella in the 1980s. It is sold at a premium price, at 5.1% it is that little bit stronger than the competition, and it isn’t sold on draught in Spoons or in slabs in Tesco. Look how the sales value of Peroni compares with that of Stella.

Carling, with sales of 2,940 million HL ( (1.793 million barrels) remains the market leader * by a wide margin, and accounts for one in fifteen of all pints sold in Britain. For it to be so consistently successful, it must be doing something right.

Moving into the cask category, the best-seller, Doom Bar, accounts for 237,000 hl, or only 8% of the volume of Carling. This somewhat exaggerates the market dominance of lager over cask, as cask has much more of a long tail of smaller brands that still do a worthwhile volume, but overall it’s still a 1:5 ratio. It’s interesting that, despite all the talk of the rise of pale beers, eight out of the ten best-sellers are traditional brown beers, and the two pales are ones that aren’t aggressively hoppy.

Of course, getting the distribution is a key factor here, and it’s well-known that Doom Bar gets into many pubs on the coat-tails of Carling. However, it’s patronising to suggest that people will drink any old swill that’s put in front of them, and the history of the British beer market is littered with examples of products that have fallen flat on their faces despite extensive launch publicity and distribution. Taylor’s Landlord has got into the Top Ten despite being a product of an independent family brewer, although sadly it is far too often sold too green and hasn’t had the chance for its distinctive flavour to develop properly.

The article makes no mention of keg ales and stouts, so we don’t know how Draught Guinness and John Smith’s Extra Smooth compare.

The figures also reveal of couple of interesting snippets about two sectors that receive far more attention than their market share merits. The biggest selling “craft” beer, BrewDog Punk IPA, only manages 66,000 hl, or 2.2% of the volume of Carling. And, apart from BrewDog, all of the top ten craft beers are owned by major brewers or firms they have heavily invested in. So much for the “craft beer revolution”.

And, looking at alcohol-free beers, the best-seller, Becks Blue, manages a mere 20,500 hl, or 0.7% of the annual sales of Carling. Yes, there is a place for alcohol-free beers, but all those predictions that it was going to account for 10% of the market within a few years look very misplaced. And, apart from Heineken 0.0%, nothing else manages more than 3,000 hl, which is about the output of a typical railway arch brewer.

* This prompted me to ask on Twitter when Carling became the best-selling beer in Britain. Apparently lager overtook ale in market share in 1986, so the consensus is that it was around then, or maybe a year or so earlier. But what did it replace – another lager like Carlsberg or Heineken, or an ale brand such as Double Diamond?

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Making a meal of it

From today, while the pubs remain firmly shut in over 40% of England, including my local area, in just over half the country they will be allowed to reopen under “Tier 2” provided that they serve all customers with “substantial meals”. This obviously raises a question of definition, as I discussed here, and government ministers have been tying themselves up in knots over whether Cornish pasties and Scotch eggs qualify. It’s easy to say “you know one when you see one”, but if pubs run the risk of substantial fines for non-compliance, it’s important that they know exactly where they stand.

For what it’s worth, in the couple of weeks at the end of October when this rule applied in Greater Manchester under the then “Tier 3”, Wetherspoon’s were happy to continue serving ciabattas without any accompaniment of chips or salad, although to be fair they are quite substantial. They come within the “includes a drink” meal deals, so if you choose one of the more expensive drink options such as premium draught or bottled lagers, the effective cost of the food is reduced to little more than a quid.

Given this, inevitably some pubs within Tier 2 that do not normally serve meals will be considering whether it’s worth putting on some kind of food offer to allow them to open. However, it’s important to think this through properly. They need to remember, which may not be immediately obvious, that it’s not enough simply to make the food available; every single customer will need to order and eat a meal. While it is permissible to contract for meals to be provided by an external caterer, they still need to be ordered and paid for through the pub: it isn’t sufficient just to put a kebab van on the car park.

It they aren’t already, pubs will need to register with their local authority as a food business. And they will need to be very careful to ensure that their food offer is genuine, and not something simply provided as a front to allow customers to drink. Any thoughts of just handing around a few stale sandwiches that are then passed on to the next customer – as once occurred under some strange Scottish regulations in the past – need to be put aside. Inevitably, the occasional customer will order a meal and then not fancy eating it, but if nobody is eating it appears suspicious, and the licensing authorities are likely to take a very dim view.

If you run a wet-only pub, by definition your customers are not coming in for meals, so to expect every visitor to eat is a massive change in behaviour. People might be happy to do it one night a week, but they’re unlikely to want to do so on a regular basis even if they really like the pub. And there will be little attraction to the person who just drops in for a pint or two, possibly before or after eating at home. Therefore, while it may well be legally possible to reopen, requiring every customer to eat a meal may not attract much business or make financial sense. I would expect that, in practice, very few previously wet-only pubs will take advantage of the “substantial meal” rule to reopen in Tier 2.

Clearly any dining pub that previously did the vast majority of its business from serving meals anyway will be able to reopen and see little reduction in trade, and they also won’t find the table service requirement too much of a problem. And every Wetherspoon’s in Tier 2 areas will certainly open. But many other pubs that do a mixture of drink and food trade may well look at the numbers and decide it isn’t worth it. I know a couple near me that offer extensive menus, but also attract a lot of local drinkers in the evenings, decided not to open under the old pre-lockdown Tier 3, and I read yesterday that a popular village pub in Cheshire that does attract a significant destination food trade had concluded it wouldn’t be worth it either.

It’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion, as argued in this article, that the decision to allow people to eat meals in pubs, but not to just go for a drink, is motivated a strong element of snobbery as opposed to any kind of rational analysis.

Public schoolboys, middle-class professionals and most university academics will never understand on a personal level the critical importance of a pub to the community. They drink expensive wine at home and would never think to step inside a regular hostelry unless it had re-invented itself as some kind of ‘gastro pub’, complete with chef and pretentious menu...

...This is where the deeply divisive ‘substantial meal’ condition for Tier 2 comes from. It reveals a high degree of snobbery and outright condescension for anyone who might want to drop in to a pub for just a drink. Quite possibly that is because so many ordinary people simply cannot afford a ‘substantial meal’ out on a regular basis. But they are, like myself on occasion, often quite desperate for some friendly company in comfortable surroundings.