Thursday 30 December 2021

A taste of freedom – Part 3

This year, I have made 80 posts on my Closed Pubs blog, the highest figure since the early days of “shooting fish in a barrel” and in fact more than I did on my main blog. I have been helped by prolific suggestions from Kyle Reed in West and South Yorkshire, and Dan Bishop in and around Burton-on-Trent. I have never met either of these gentleman, but a pint will certainly be theirs if I ever get the chance. Some of the images extracted from StreetView are surprisingly picturesque, such as the one above of the Bridge Tavern in Southampton which really conjures up the feeling of a bright Spring day.

My total of Twitter followers has gone up during the year from 5,600 to just over 5,900, so obviously plenty of people find my mixture of serious and more lighthearted stuff interesting. Meanwhile, Toady, who says the things about lockdowns and Covid totalitarianism that Mudgie doesn’t, has passed the 4,000 mark. A recurring problem with Twitter is that, no sooner do you add new followers than they purge another bunch for overstepping the mark in some way. After a change in control, they even suspended their own founder Jack Dorsey, although his account seems to have been reinstated now.

The march of the dreaded posing tables in pubs seems to continue unabated. This year, the handsome Cat & Lion at Stretton, just south of Warrington reopened following a takeover and refurbishment by Holt’s. Much of it is given over to dining, but the main bar area is pretty much full of the things, as shown above. And when you walk into Joule’s impressive new Crown Wharf in Stone, Staffordshire, you are immediately confronted with a forest of them, although there are some more comfortable seats elsewhere. If pubs didn’t have any posing tables, would anyone really bemoan their absence?

In his October Budget, Rishi Sunak announced a thoroughgoing reform of the alcohol duty system. Although the absolute level of duty remains much higher than most comparable European countries, this was a sensible move that recast the system on a much more rational basis and eliminated the many inconsistencies and anomalies of the old structure. Inevitably there were complaints from some special interest groups, as there will always be losers as well as winners, and it remains to be seen to what extent these will be heeded. One aspect that hopefully will be changed is setting the minimum container size for the lower duty rate for draught beer at 40 litres, which excluded both the 4½-gallon pins that are increasingly used for cask ale, and the 30-litre kegs that are popular for craft beers.

There was sad news in August with the death just before his 65th birthday of longstanding local CAMRA member Stuart Ballantyne. Stuart was always good company, but unfortunately had to contend throughout much of his life with a couple of serious non-alcohol-related health issues. In the early 2000s he was instrumental in leading a campaign to stop Marston’s replacing their own bitter with Banks’s in their pubs in South Manchester. In 2001 I spent several weeks in hospital with a badly broken ankle and will always remember that Stuart made the effort to come and visit me.

Conscious that I had gone through the whole of 2020 without setting eyes on the sea, I made a point of visiting the nearest expanse, at New Brighton, once I was able. It was a bright sunny day and I had a walk along the promenade, but it still wasn’t possible to go in any of the pubs. I managed to have the holiday in Norfolk that I had cancelled last year, although I wasn’t able to take maximum advantage due to suffering from the dreaded post-Covid cold. You don’t actually see much sea along the North Norfolk Coast, as it tends to be a mile away across salt marshes, so the only actual sight I got was looking west over the Wash at Hunstanton. I took the striking image shown above of the King’s Lynn Conservancy Board building illuminated by the setting sun, with a couple of windows of the Crown & Mitre pub included on the right.

Once everything had opened up again, I was able to get out and visit a number of the historic tourist attractions, although nowhere significant I hadn’t visited before, albeit in some cases over forty years earlier. Probably the most noteworthy was Boscobel House in Shropshire, where Charles II hid in the Royal Oak following his defeat by the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. It’s not particularly distinguished architecturally, but it was one place where staff dressed in costume and explaining the story really managed to bring the history to life.

As last year, it’s easy to say that lockdown gives plenty of opportunity to catch up on reading, but it never quite works out like that. But one book I did enjoy was Lessons from History by Alex Deane. This is basically a compendium of short historical anecdotes which are variously inspiring, amusing, poignant, heartwarming or simply jawdropping. It’s presented in easily digestible chunks and so would be ideal for keeping at your bedside and reading two or three chapters before dropping off. It’s a bit late now, but it would make a good stocking-filler for someone with an interest in history.

The episode that made most impression on me, maybe because I had never heard about it before, was Bert Sutcliffe and Bob Blair’s cricketing heroics for New Zealand against South Africa in 1953. Sutcliffe had been hospitalised after being injured by ferocious fast bowling, and Blair’s fiancée had been killed mid-match in the worst train crash in New Zealand history. The rules certainly wouldn’t allow that now!

So we are currently in a situation where pubs in England have been allowed to remain open at least until New Year’s Eve, although there is no guarantee that further restrictions will not be imposed in the New Year, and the general loss of confidence continues to severely depress trade. However, there are plenty of signs that the Omicron variant is nowhere near as severe as many predictions, and more and more politicians and commentators are waking up to the reality of lockdown harms and calling for a more balanced view. So it’s hard to tell which way things will go, but I just hope I’m not here in a year’s time still talking about lockdowns and restrictions on what remains of the hospitality industry.

Follow these links for Part 1 and Part 2 of this review.

Wednesday 29 December 2021

A taste of freedom - Part 2

At the end of last year, I wrote “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.” So it proved, and in fact it turned out to be not until the second half of the year, on Monday 19 July.

In February, the Prime Minister announced a roadmap to reopening the country, which many felt at the time was pretty glacial in pace. However, as I said at the time, if it all went to plan, we might eventually find ourselves looking back on it all as a bad dream. Well, that worked out well, didn’t it?

The first key milestone was allowing pubs to open outdoors only from 12 April, but unfortunately that presaged a spell of wet and windy weather that prevented them taking maximum advantage. I’m never a great fan of outdoor drinking at the best of times, and in fact the sole occasion on which I took advantage of this was a trip to Stonehouse Brewery in Shropshire on a cool but dry day, where I was made very welcome by proprietor Shane Parr.

The next milestone on the roadmap came on 17 May, when pubs were finally allowed to open indoors, albeit under such severe restrictions that, as I wrote, “created a regimented, cheerless experience that largely destroys the pleasure of the swift, casual pint.” A further problem was that it seems that many licensees missed a vocation as a prison warder, and chose to gold-plate these rules and add some extra of their own. Yes, rules are rules, but it is a choice whether to apply them with a light touch or a heavy hand. This attitude seemed to be more common in independent venues than corporate ones.

As I wrote at the time, I don’t go to pubs to be told off, and when every visit involves a potential confrontation I’m really not inclined to bother. One exception was Wetherspoon’s, who don’t have the staff to micromanage the behaviour of their customers, but the amount of atmosphere in a Spoons operating table service only is on a par with that of the celestial body that gives its name to many of their pubs. I did find one local pub that wasn’t laying it on with a trowel, but in general speculative pub visits were off the agenda.

The end of the tunnel was supposed to come on 21 June, and I was looking forward to a birthday pub crawl of Stockport three days later. However, following doom-mongering predictions from SAGE – which unsurprisingly turned out to be wildly pessimistic – it ended up being postponed by another four weeks. But it did happen at last on Monday 19 July, despite warnings from all the usual suspects that opening up would be a recipe for disaster.

So I was in the Boar’s Head in Stockport before noon on that day, and was pleased to see that the normal habits of pub life had resumed. In the following weeks I was able to resume my usual pattern of pubgoing. While a handful of pubs still adhered to the “old religion”, resulting in giving them a swerve, in general pubs seemed to be the area of society where Covid paranoia had most receded.

I was able to have a holiday and go on a number of pub trips, the best of which was a day out in Stockport which involved people travelling from as far away as Kent. While I wouldn’t say that levels of trade reached pre-Covid levels, there seemed to be a steady build-up of customer confidence, which was most marked in the Castle in Macclesfield on 5 November, which was standing room only and absolutely rammed.

However, this was put into sharp reverse at the end of November when concerns about the Omicron variant led to some restrictions being reimposed. While they didn’t directly affect pubs, there was a clear impact on people’s enthusiasm for going out, combined with the reintroduction of the working from home guidance which severely hit pubs in major urban centres. This led to a collapse in business, particularly in organised party bookings, although it seems that trade in community locals has held up better. There is now plenty of evidence that the worst fears about the effect of Omicron were exaggerated, but pubs in England have been left in a kind of limbo wondering whether they are going to be imminently shackled or closed down again.

During the year, I visited 79 different pubs, of which 18 were new to me, almost half of which were on one holiday in Norfolk. While I did have a number of pub days out, they were all to places I had been to before. This compares with 60 and 17 in 2020, when the pubs were open without significant restrictions for perhaps a couple of weeks less. In contrast, in 2019 I visited no less than 111 new pubs, buoyed by four days out in towns where collectively I had only previously visited one pub, and four holidays in places where there was still plenty to explore.

Of the new pubs visited, nothing really stood out as an absolute must-visit. People had spoken highly of the Crown & Mitre in King’s Lynn, but I don’t think I caught it at the best time, and I was feeling a bit out of sorts as well. Probably those that stick most in the mind are a couple of unassuming locals – the Cart & Horses in Astley in South Lancashire, where retired miner Gordon Williams had been visiting four times a week for 75 years, and the Plough in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, a cosy little Bass pub just off the town centre.

The best revisit of the year was undoubtedly the Anchor at High Offley in Staffordshire. There had been fears that this unique, unspoilt canalside pub might close permanently after the death of long-serving licensee Olive Cliff, but fortunately it has been taken over and reopened by her daughter Elaine. On a sunny Sunday lunchtime in August all the tables in the extensive beer garden were occupied. I ran into members of the Stafford & Stone Branch of CAMRA who were presenting the pub with an award recognising Olive’s long service, including Paul Mudge, who I had not met since our trip to Burton in March 2020.

On a trip to Chester, I called in at the Olde Cottage and had a chat with licensee Trevor, who has chronicled on Twitter the financial and emotional pain so many pubs have experienced during nearly two years of on/off lockdowns. Not a classic heritage pub, but a buzzing local on the edge of the city centre with a loyal band of regulars. I was unfortunate, though, to miss making the acquaintance of their pub cat Arty, who was upstairs enjoying his beauty sleep.

In contrast, I was disappointed by the Great Western in Wolverhampton, a pub that I would have classed as one of my absolute favourites, but which seemed to have been oddly sanitised by a recent refurbishment. Perhaps it would grow on me as it wears in.

I missed Arty in the Olde Cottage, and sadly Felix, the large black-and-white cat at the Boar’s Head in Stockport, had died earlier this year at the age of 16, so I didn’t encounter a single pub cat during the year. However, here’s a delightful picture of Malt and Hops in the Wellington in Birmingham city centre which was posted on Twitter by Jules Saunders.

Follow these links for Part 1 and Part 3 of this review. .

Tuesday 28 December 2021

A taste of freedom – Part 1

I was originally going to call this review of the past year “A Year of Two Halves”, reflecting the decisive transformation in the prospects of the licensed trade and environment for drinkers that occurred on 19 July. At the time, Boris Johnson stated that these changes were “irreversible”, but sadly this has not proved to be the case, with some restrictions returning from the beginning of December. Although these have not, at least in England, directly affected pubs, they led to a collapse in public confidence with an inevitably disastrous effect on the trade.

During the past year I have only made – including this one – 55 posts on this blog, which is the lowest figure ever with the exception of 2007, which only covered half a year. This wasn’t through lack of interest, but a combination of the lack of source material due to the prolonged closure or restriction of the pub trade, and a wish to avoid turning it into a general blog about Covid-related issues. I have commented on subjects directly relevant to hospitality, such as masks and vaccine passports, but tried (generally successfully) to steer clear of the wider politics, and indeed on occasions have consciously bitten my lip.

I have discussed more general topics including asking Why does nobody just go for a drink any more? and how over the past couple of decades the business of pubs has noticeably moved outdoors. Some posts have received over 2,000 page views, with the highest figure being recorded by this post about craft beer hypocrisy. There continues to be a healthy level of comments, more than on some supposedly more prestigious blogs, with a number of regular contributors, although unfortunately there remains an undercurrent of trolling and personal abuse.

As last year, I will salute the work Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UK Hospitality, who has been a strong and outspoken voice for the industry, and even gained the honour of a profile in the Guardian. I will also praise the efforts of Essex licensee Adam Brooks who has consistently been prepared to question the rationale and essential unfairness of the lockdown policies.

I don’t intend to go on about Covid beyond saying that it has seen around the world a disturbing slide into totalitarian policies. While there has been much to criticise in England, up to now we have not gone as far as many other countries. One of the most relevant comments about the whole business is Oscar Wilde’s saying that “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

I probably never thought I would be praising the work of someone responsible for a film entitled “100 Vaginas”, but strange times make strange bedfellows. So I would strongly recommend A State of Fear by Laura Dodsworth, which looks at how behavioural psychology has been used to create a state of fear and control people’s behaviour during the Covid crisis. And, of course, having created that fear, it is very difficult to unwind it.

She makes the point that the evidence that masks make any significant difference to transmission of the virus is extremely weak, and that they were basically introduced to create and maintain a feeling of crisis. Which of course is why they were brought back in shops and on public transport at the beginning of December this year. Laura is also an insightful commentator on Twitter on issues relating to Covid and lockdowns.

I have split this review into three parts to avoid it becoming too cumbersome, so please follow these links for Part 2 and Part 3.

Thursday 23 December 2021

A spike of hysteria?

Back in the Autumn, there was a wave of hysteria in the media about people supposedly being injected with “date-rape” drugs in bars and nightclubs. However, as this article argues, it is difficult to see the mechanism by which this could actually be happening.

Is it even possible to inject people with date-rape drugs? Syringes are certainly easy to obtain in this country. They can be bought in pharmacies or online. And, yes, GHB, the drug most usually associated with drink spiking, can in theory be injected.

But as a medical friend explained when I began to investigate, to drug someone effectively in this way would require a relatively high volume of the substance concerned. This would require a large syringe with a large needle, which would then need to be under someone’s skin for long enough – at least 15 seconds – to dispense enough of the drug to make a difference. It would be important to conduct this tricky process undetected, even though, as the medic explained, it would be almost impossible for the victim not to feel it. Alcohol could dampen pain, but not eliminate it.

It could be that the whole thing turns out to be something of an urban myth, with little or no foundation in reality.

It is certainly true that the spiking of people’s drinks with these drugs does happen and is a significant problem. But, even here, the scale of the problem might be exaggerated.

A 2012 study by doctors at Wrexham Maelor Hospital found something intriguing when they examined women who believed they had been drugged. Most of them, they established, had been rendered helpless not by ‘date-rape’ substances, but by binge drinking. The medics found no evidence that any of the women seeking help from emergency doctors had been spiked, although one in five instead tested positive for recreational drugs.

This was only one hospital and no such research has been conducted countrywide. Yet if it’s representative, we have to ask how we reached this state of terror.

While it may be hard to prove, the author also points out the lack of successful prosecutions for drink-spiking.

People may feel that their drinks have been spiked, but in fact excessive consumption of alcohol in a short time may have much the same effect. Spirits can creep up on you unawares, especially if the flavour is concealed in cocktails, and suddenly push you over a cliff. Of course it’s entirely possible that some ill-intentioned person has surreptitiously tipped a double vodka into your drink, but in many cases this will have been brought on by people’s own exuberant over-indulgence. I’m sure many of us will have similar memories from our youth.

The article points out that there is always an increase in reports of drink-tampering in the early weeks of the Autumn term at universities, where many young people will be exposed to a social environment and social pressures that they haven’t experienced before.

So, if you’re on a night out, it makes a lot of sense to choose what you drink carefully, and not to allow yourself to get into a condition where you’re no longer aware of what’s going on around you.

Monday 20 December 2021

Baby steps to prohibition

New Zealand used to have a reputation as a relaxed, free-and-easy kind of place, but more recently it seems to have succumbed to a growing authoritarian trend. This was exemplified during the Covid crisis when it tried to turn itself into a hermit kingdom in a largely vain attempt to keep itself free of the disease. They have now doubled down on this tendency by announcing the implementation of a kind of creeping prohibition of tobacco. This is something that has often been proposed around the world, but never so far put into effect in any developed country.

How it will work is that anyone born in 2008 or later will never be allowed to buy tobacco products, so in effect the legal purchase age will increase by one year every year. However, as I understand it there is no intention to criminalise possession and use, which in any case would be extremely difficult to enforce, so young people will simply obtain tobacco from older people who buy it on their behalf. As smoking in indoor public places has already been outlawed, the range of situations in which young smokers will stand out and be stigmatised has already greatly reduced.

The obvious result of this policy will be to greatly expand the size of the black market. In the article, one man says “Because right now there's a lot of young kids walking around with smokes in their mouth. Public are asking how they're getting these smokes.” But those kids are already below the legal purchase age, so raising it will only serve to intensify the problem. At the same time it is planned to reduce the number of outlets able to sell tobacco products from 8,000 to 500, which will damage the trade of many local community shops and give further encouragement to the black market.

"This is all 100% theory and 0% substance," Sunny Kaushal, chairman of the Dairy and Business Owners Group, a lobby group for local convenience stores, told New Zealand's Stuff news site. "There's going to be a crime wave. Gangs and criminals will fill the gap".
The use of many drugs that are illegal to purchase at any age is already widespread, so any hopes that this will stamp out tobacco use are likely to be dashed. It may be denormalised, but it certainly won’t be eradicated, and young people might reach the conclusion that if they can’t buy tobacco legally they might as well go for something stronger. At the same time, in New Zealand and many other countries there are moves towards a more relaxed enforcement regime for illegal drugs, and it is not hard to see the two policies meeting in the middle. Indeed, I have been told (although I don’t have a source for this) that in the US state of Colorado it is now illegal for employers to discriminate against cannabis users, but not tobacco users.

But of course such measures will never be extended to alcohol. The idea is completely unthinkable. Or is it?

Friday 10 December 2021

Breadth vs depth

Most of the single bottles and cans of beer and cider in the off-trade in this country are sold in multibuy offers, 4 for £6, 3 for £5, 2 for £4 or whatever. Unless your product is already priced below the level of the multibuy, if it’s not included your volumes are going to be dramatically reduced. From the retailer’s point of view, it increases sales throughput and presents the customer with a more attractive-looking offer, while the customer is likely to feel that they are getting a good deal.

However, it has obvious downsides. It prevents the establishment of proper price stratification, discriminating against weaker beers and making it impossible for brewers to establish a price premium. Plus it puts pressure on suppliers to come up with products that can be sold within that price framework. As Ed Wray writes here, the 4 for £6 level has been fixed for a number of years and, with rising inflation, must now be approaching breaking point.

But it is a fact of life that currently dominates the marketplace for premium beers and ciders in the off-trade. I thought it would be interesting to run a Twitter poll to see how people approached it. As you can see, the results were fairly evenly spread across the board, with all options getting strong support, although always buying different ones came out on top.

The first option is obviously the one that would appeal to the beer enthusiast, who wants to maximise the number of different ones tried. But even the more mainstream buyer may well want to try something new, or to mix and match different styles and strengths depending on the occasion.

Then there are various levels of people sometimes, or often, wanting to double up on particular favourites, until we reach the stage where buying three or four the same becomes the norm. In fact, one person replied “I always buy the same, it didn't really occur to me to mix and match in fact!” The seeker after endless variety may find this hard to understand, but it has to be remembered that most off-trade beer in the UK, in volume terms, is sold in cans in multipacks of 4 or 6, or slabs of various sizes. Most buyers are perfectly happy to have a lot that are all the same. I suspect this is also more common amongst the 3 for £5 “international lagers” than the premium bottled ales.

Personally, I fall into the second category. There are some beers that are regular favourites, and others I’ll never touch, but I do like to ring the changes, and in any case I’m generally only drinking one on each occasion rather than having a session. There are occasional beers that I may buy two of, one example being Weetwood Eastgate Ale, an excellent example of a BBB that particularly appeals to my tastebuds, and which is only available locally in Morrisons.

As an aside, I don’t believe multibuys increase the overall level of beer purchased – that is driven by the price. If all the premium bottled ales were priced at £1.50, the supermarkets would sell just as much. They are a tactic of competition between retailers to have an offer that attracts consumers. And they are banned in Scotland anyway!

Friday 3 December 2021

Collateral damage

It was dismaying, although perhaps hardly surprising, when Boris Johnson announced last Saturday teatime that some Covid restrictions would be reimposed to deal with the supposed threat from the Omicron variant. Chief amongst these were the tightening of self-isolation rules and the return of mandatory mask wearing in shops and on public transport.

While hospitality was not directly affected (for now) there was a pretty immediate impact in terms of cancelled bookings. It must be remembered that organised parties over the Festive season represent a major part of the annual revenue for many pubs and restaurants. The BBC reports here one restaurant owner saying:

We had 20 cancellations over the weekend, mostly for Christmas parties. Customers were phoning to tell us they weren't sure what was going to happen in a few weeks so they'd rather cancel now.
And Greater Manchester’s night-time economy adviser Sacha Lord reports on a “catastrophic” wave of cancellations: Here’s one very specific example: While people may grudgingly put up with wearing masks when going to the supermarket, for many they are a major deterrent to discretionary leisure activities such as shopping and travel. A fall in retail footfall in town and city centres in the run-up to Christmas will affect the pubs and restaurants located there. Amazon will once more be laughing all the way to the bank. As stated in this article on the general economic impact of the curbs:
We can also expect railway leisure travel, the only part of rail travel that’s nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, to suffer. Who wants to take a day trip to York or the seaside if it involves wearing a mask for hours on end? And the knock-on effects could be significant: train passengers spend an average of £95 per trip on things like shops, restaurants, hotels and galleries, totalling £133 billion a year.
I’ve made a number of leisure trips by train since the restrictions were lifted in July, but I certainly won’t be making any more until they are removed again. And I’m still some way of recouping the cost of my three-year Senior Railcard.

There is also a wider effect on general confidence. Since the middle of July, there had been a slow and patchy, but noticeable growth of confidence and return to normality in pubs. This has put all that into reverse, and returned us to a state of fear and trepidation about what is going to come next. This was not helped by statements from several official figures that people needed to be very cautious about socialising. This sounded disturbingly close to the messages that were coming out in the week in March last year before the pubs were closed entirely for three and a half months.

A particular example was when government medical adviser Dr Jenny Harries told people that they should only socialise where necessary, however that might be defined. This was quickly contradicted by the Prime Minister, who urged people to continue socialising as normal, but the damage had already been done.

In the succeeding week, there has been plenty of evidence that the Omicron variant is relatively mild, and the return of restrictions might have been an over-reaction. It seems to conform to the general evolutionary path of viruses that they become more transmissible but less severe. Many media commentators going well beyond the usual lockdown sceptics have suggested that it was a step too far, and that we couldn’t live in a permanent state of fear.

The government have stated they will review the restrictions in three weeks’ time, and we can hope that they will rescind them, although such back-tracking would lead to a lot of egg on face. But, even then, it would be just a week before Christmas, and too late to rescue much of the holiday season.

On the other hand, there have been reports that they will continue until March. If this proves to be true , it will mean a very long and hard winter for the pub trade.

Monday 29 November 2021

Always the whipping boy

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the appalling decision in Northern Ireland to introduce vaccine passports for hospitality venues. At the time, it wasn’t made clear whether this would apply to all premises, or just licensed ones. However, it has now been clarified that it will only cover licensed premises.

This comes across as yet more stigmatisation of the pub trade. Alcohol doesn’t somehow magically stimulate the virus, and surely, if the scheme is going to be effective at all, the possibility of transmission from unvaccinated customers would be just as great in cafés and coffee shops. It’s nothing to do with health or disease control, it’s just a tactic to coerce people into getting vaccinated.

It’s possible that some restaurants such as Nando’s where alcohol sales are only a minor part of their business may decide to stop selling alcohol entirely to avoid the restriction. This wouldn’t only allow them to serve unvaccinated customers, but also vaccinated people who object to passports on principle, and those who simply don’t want the faff.

And how long will it be before the booster jab is brought within the scope of the passports? And then the one after that? You’ll be signed up for life if you want to continue going to the pub.

Saturday 27 November 2021

You can lead a horse to water (again)

The other day in Tesco, I spotted ten-packs of canned Draught Guinness that were being sold with two cans of the alcohol-free version included. This may seem like an ingenious way of getting drinkers to give it a try, although apparently somebody complained because he thought at first glance it was a twelve-pack of the zero variety. However, on the other hand it perhaps comes across as having a whiff of desperation about it.

In recent years, the alcohol-free beer category has been heavily promoted, partly in response to health concerns over alcohol in general. An example of this is Heineken’s announcement of the roll-out of draught alcohol-free lager into a much greater number of pubs. Claims have been made that, within a few years, it’s likely to account for 10% or more of the entire beer market. Yet it never really seems to have taken off as hoped, and the zero alcohol section in said enormous Tesco is an apologetic two bays, also including wine, in a very long beer aisle. In fact they withdrew a “3 for £3” offer including some brands from small craft breweries, and now only feature mainstream brands.

The problem is that the marketers fail to recognise that the fundamental reason people drink beer is because it contains alcohol. Obviously in the current climate they can’t actually say this openly, and instead go on about taste and refreshment. While these are significant factors, if beer wasn’t alcoholic people wouldn’t drink it in anything like the same quantities.

I’m certainly not decrying the concept, and recognise that it has a place in the market where, for reasons of either health or wishing to maintain mental clarity, people don’t want a normal-strength beer. Indeed, I’ve tried a number of varieties myself, although I have drunk it much less since the beginning of last year’s lockdown, when my overall beer consumption significantly dropped anyway so I no longer saw much point.

But, ultimately, it’s always to a greater or lesser extent a distress purchase. People only drink it because they are familiar with normal-strength beer and see it as something that tastes and feels vaguely similar, although it’s never really quite as good, as alcohol is a key component in the flavour of beer. It is always hanging on the coat-tails of normal beers. Nobody is ever going to go on a pub crawl drinking alcohol-free beer, unless one individual is tagging along with a group of drinking mates, and nor are they going to seek out an obscure pub because it happens to sell the rare Zachariah Zodiac’s Zero Ale.

For this reason the potential of the sector is always going to be limited, and in fact may not be hugely above where it has reached at present. Many brewers who are piling effort into developing brands in the sector are going to end up with burnt fingers, and retailers won’t be interested in finding shelf space for a me-too alcohol-free version of every major lager brand.

You might imagine that, as there’s no duty to be paid, going alcohol-free offers the possibility of saving a fair bit of money, but in practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. Brewers will point out that the de-alcoholisation process is in itself expensive and wipes out much of the duty saving, although it must be remembered that value comes from what someone is prepared to pay for a product, not what it costs to make.

In the on-trade, alcohol-free prices tend to be only a little below those of normal beer. The customers aren’t likely to be very price-sensitive anyway, and also probably won’t be regulars who shift large volumes. Plus there is the thinking that, if it is priced similarly to standard beer, it will be perceived as being of equal worth rather than just a cheap substitute. One exception to this is in Wetherspoon’s, where alcohol-free beers are priced at the same lower level as soft drinks within their inclusive meal deals, something that I’ve taken advantage of a few times myself.

In the off-trade, the fact that Tesco were offering “3 for £3” as a special offer rather illustrates the problem. There’s very little in a 330ml can that’s below 75p even in a multipack, with many at the full £1, and the 500ml single bottles tend to be £1.30, compared with 4 for £6 in the usual multibuy deal for standard bottles. Yet my local Morrisons will sell you a pack of ten 250ml stubbies of 2.8% French lager for £3.50. That’s probably on a par with the alcohol-free beers in terms of palatability, and realistically will make little difference to either health or sobriety. So if you just want a refreshing drop of something vaguely beery, it’s a much cheaper option.

I can’t help thinking that if 330ml cans of alcohol-free beer were made available at a similar price to cans of Coke and Pepsi they would find many more takers as a soft drink substitute than as a beer substitute. Possibly the future for the category should be portraying it not as something that almost tastes like normal beer, but as something that is (depending on your tastes) a lot nicer than fizzy pop, most of which tends to be extremely sweet.

I ran a Twitter poll on how often people drank alcohol-free beers which was widely circulated and got an impressive response, but didn’t show much enthusiasm. It must be said that many beer enthusiasts are very dismissive of the category, although I think, as often happens, people fail to appreciate how others’ attitudes to drinking and patterns of consumption can vary greatly from their own.

Monday 22 November 2021

A toxic conversation

Last week, Mark Johnson published a thought-provoking blogpost about how the language people use to talk about drinking can have an adverse impact on those who are having a problem with it, informed by his own experience.

He acknowledges that the traditional macho culture of “man up”, “gerrit down your neck” and “halves are for sissies” is much less prevalent now. At least within enthusiast circles, this has been helped by the way that the desire to try as many beers as possible has normalised the drinking of halves and even thirds.

But there is still the unhelpful construction that “if you’re doing THAT, then you have a problem”. This can easily make those who are struggling feel even worse about themselves. It can also serve to stigmatise those whose drinking habits don’t conform to those of the speaker. I’ve often heard people claim “I never drink at lunchtimes” as some kind of badge of honour, and it’s all too easy to sneer at those who enjoy a morning drink in Wetherspoon’s, when in reality they’re just doing it a different way from those who have a few pints in the evening.

He also discusses how some people use a reward system to control their alcohol intake:

Some people temper their beer intake by way of a personal reward system. If you do enough exercise or enough tasks from a to-do list then you earn the right to beer. You put beer in a place where it has the same value as your payslip or fixing a leak in the bath. Again, that is fine if you are whole but it puts pressure on the more vulnerable.
As he says, it works for some, but can be unhelpful for others. If you’ve had a bad day, then you may feel you have to deny yourself that soothing pint that might just take the edge off. It has parallels with the alternation of dieting and bingeing that many people trying to control their weight experience. In general, it isn’t really a good idea to make it a guilt trip.

On a related note, while rewards aren’t something I go in for beyond maybe having a celebratory drink on my birthday, I do tend to set a rough “drinking budget”. This is not to say I feel I have a problem, but for someone from whom beer and pubs are a major interest, it makes sense to keep tabs on my consumption. I generally have a good idea what I will be doing over the next few weeks, so I can estimate my likely intake. The possible downside of this is that, if I’m running substantially below budget, then there may be a temptation to compensate by having a bit more. But, as I grow older, my appetite for (and ability to) drinking lots tends to diminish anyway.

The point that most resonates with me is that of how the censure of people who don’t, or hardly, drink, can be counterproductive. This is a theme that I have often mentioned on this blog over the years. As a society, we currently drink a fair bit more than we did in the 1970s (although less than we did fifteen years ago), but we have become increasingly censorious about it. This reduces the range of occasions when people will contemplate a visit to the pub and is a major cause of the decline of the pub trade.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the pressure that comes from people - often friends or family members - questioning why you ARE drinking. People, for whom drinking is reserved for special events or weekends, can be overbearing in their derision of those who have a more casual approach to drink.

If you don't indulge in beer as much as others, there is inquisition over the simple idea of a pint after work on a Tuesday, a bottle of beer whilst cooking a Sunday roast, a celebratory can at the top of a hill after a steep climb. The questioning as to why you are having a beer – often phrased as why you need to have it - can have the same guilt-like effect as the previous mentioned beer reward system.

Those for whom pubs are a major part of their life often forget that not far off half the adult population never visit one from one month to the next, and a substantial proportion of those who do only go there for a meal. Going to the pub for a drink is very much a minority activity.

I’ve found this myself in discussions with relatives and work colleagues. If they’re likely to say “You had a pint? Of BEER?” then it’s easier just not to mention it, which makes it seem furtive and leads to the compartmentalisation of life. If normal, moderate drinking has to become a secret activity, then where does that leave problem drinking? As he concludes:

If we could remove the guilt surrounding drink then our relationship with it would be much healthier. People will not understand unless they have been to *that* place, but if people were allowed to drink whenever they wanted then they would drink a lot less.

Thursday 18 November 2021

Apartheid comes to Northern Ireland

The hospitality industry in Northern Ireland will have been dismayed by yesterday’s news that the province’s ministers had decided to introduce vaccine passports and extend their use to pubs and restaurants. (The report doesn’t make it clear whether it will also apply to unlicensed venues such as cafés and coffee shops). The plan is to be implemented from 29 November, but not be actually enforced until 13 December, just in time for Christmas. No doubt venues will be seeing a spate of Christmas and New Year party cancellations.

Obviously this will reduce trade by denying access to the unvaccinated, but it will also prevent visits by mixed groups, and many vaccinated people will feel unease about a “Papers Please!” regime. It will change the whole dynamic of visiting a pub. At the same time as reducing footfall, it will also increase venues’ costs by requiring them to dedicate staff to door control. Only in the very smallest places will one person be able to combing serving and checking everyone who comes in.

There is also the option of taking a lateral flow test up to 48 hours before the visit, but that turns pubgoing into a planned, premeditated event and rules out the possibility of the spontaneous swift pint. While it does allow for a positive PCR test dating back up to six months, there is no recognition of the long-term existence of Covid antibodies arising from prior infection, which provide far more protection against contracting the virus and passing it on than the vaccines do.

What is more, the measure is being implemented without any proper impact assessment whatsoever. It is entirely possible that in broader terms it will do more harm than good.

DUP First Minister Paul Givan said that this regulation should be put to a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly before it takes effect. He added: “Whenever we ask questions around the economic impact assessment, none has been carried out. No equality impact assessment; no assessment in terms of human rights legislation and yet, other executive ministers felt they could support a policy that had flaws within that paper, even on the scientific evidence.”
Also no time limit or conditions for ending the scheme have been given. How long will it be before the booster jabs are added to the definition of “fully vaccinated”? And then the next booster, and the one after that? And how long before this comes to other parts of UK?

Venues will be placed in the position of being confronted by a Devil’s bargain of having to accede to something that they may feel to be grossly immoral and objectionable or be put out of business.

It’s not as if it’s likely to be effective anyway in curbing the spread of Covid. The past year has shown that, while the vaccines are effective in reducing the severity of infection and the risk of death, they do not prevent people from either contracting the virus or passing it on. They are not the magic bullet that they were first claimed to be. Across Europe at present, many countries are seeing steeply rising infection rates amongst highly vaccinated populations. It fact is possible that they could even exacerbate transmission by encouraging socialising at unlicensed gatherings in private houses.

Even if vaccine passports were an effective means of curbing the spread, that would not of itself justify their introduction. They are inherently divisive and immoral. As the philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek said, “If we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion.” An absence of forced or coerced medication is a key hallmark of a free society. It is the kind of thing that totalitarian states do. This was put very clearly on Twitter this morning by Dr. Zoe Harcombe:

Covid authoritarianism is certainly leading our society down a very dark path. If you are concerned by this direction of travel, I would urge you to sign the Together Declaration against mandatory vaccine passports, and also give your support to Big Brother Watch, who have gained a lot of media coverage for their high-profile campaigning on the issue.

Thursday 11 November 2021

Silk in a glass

Four weeks after our exploration of Stockport, our latest Proper Day Out took us to the former silk town of Macclesfield, just a 12-mile train ride away taking 11 or 12 minutes by the non-stop trains. The return far was £8.10, reduced to £5.40 with the Senior Railcard, which hopefully Andy Burnham would not consider unreasonable. Macclesfield was originally a mill town and retains large areas of terraced housing, but in more recent years has increasingly become a popular commuter location, creating something of a tension between the two. Unlike the bright sunshine of Stockport, the weather was dull and overcast, with intermittent drizzle throughout the day.

Our meeting place was the Waters Green Tavern, a four-square mock half-timbered pub commanding the triangular public space of the same name which narrows as it slopes uphill towards the town centre. I spotted a black and white cat heading purposefully across the road towards the car dealership next door. As the pub didn’t open until noon, I had some time to take a couple of photos of the Castle, which featured on the itinerary for later in the day.

Internally, the pub is basically one L-shaped room with the bar in the front left corner, and alcoves of comfortable red dralon bench seating extending ahead and to the right, where we chose to sit and enjoy the benefit of the real fire. Due to an administrative mix-up, Martin Taylor had not yet received his copy of the 2022 Good Beer Guide, which is a bit of a problem when you’re trying to tick off the entries, and so he took advantage of the opportunity to photograph some of the pages of mine, although he did occasionally talk to us too. He had thought there might be one or two new entries in Macclesfield to tick off in this year’s edition, but that didn’t prove to be the case.

We had a discussion about Boak & Bailey’s blogpost about The Timeless Institution Pub and concluded that some of the commenters had rather missed the point. A number of other customers joined us shortly after noon to take advantage of the food on offer, but few more came in over the forty-five minutes we were there. It is unusual in still observing the traditional afternoon closure from 3 to 5.

The Waters Green used to rather confusingly advertise itself as “This is NOT a free house” as an indication of a long-running dispute with the owning pubco. I think it is now a genuine free house with no restrictions on which beers it can stock. Today there were four cask beers on offer – Salopian Oracle, Oakham Heights of Oblivion and Ossett White Rat, all very much on the pale side, and the dark Whim Red House Porter, all priced at £3.60. The general verdict was that they were pretty decent, but I felt the beer I had was a little lacking in condition.

The centre of Macclesfield is on two levels – the upper one where the parish church and most of the shops are, the lower one near the station. Sticking to the lower level, we followed Sunderland Street which runs parallel to the railway, passing two pubs on the route for later, to reach our lunch stop, Mandarina Bar on Park Green. This is another public space of irregular shape with Wetherspoon’s Society Rooms on the opposite side. As a café-bar style establishment, this may seem a surprising choice, but we had been well fed here back in 2017 and finding decent lunchtime food can be a problem on these trips without resorting to Wetherspoon’s. It’s also owned by Manchester brewery Hydes, so there is the prospect of some decent beer.

It’s not really a beer-focused place – and indeed you have to wonder what Hydes’ ownership brings to it – but it had two handpumps offering their California Red and Lowry, which had just run out. The barmaid noted our interest and said the Lowry would soon be replaced by Hydes Original. The California Red turned out to be very good, and ranked as one of the best beers of the day. It was £4.10 a pint, but that’s not unreasonable for a 5.2% beer.

The bar itself is an airy single room with a glass frontage, with modern furnishings including a mixture of posing tables and some seating at a normal level. Our numbers had now been reduced to two, as a couple decided on a liquid lunch while seeking out more pubs, and from the extensive menu we chose a rump steak sandwich and a main course calamari. While the quality of the food couldn’t be faulted, it must be said that the steak suffered from the common pub failing of being too thick to be easily eaten in a roll, and the portion size of the calamari suggested it was basically the same as the starter but with added accompaniments. Whatever happened to minute steaks?

The soundtrack seemed to major on some of the more obscure psychedelic music from the late 60s including Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf and Back On The Road Again by Canned Heat. I doubt whether many of the target clientele would have been alive when those songs were recorded. There was a fair scattering of customers, but it wasn’t anywhere near as busy as I remember from a Saturday lunchtime four years ago.

There then followed a fairly gentle ten-minute uphill walk to the next pub, the Park Tavern on Park Lane. The route took us along the side of Wetherspoon’s and through an underpass decorated with unusual and striking “graffiti tiles”. It’s an ex-Robinsons pub taken over a few years ago by the local Bollington Brewery. Although situated in the middle of a terrace, it’s deceptively spacious, with a long room on the right by the bar featuring modern-style bench seating, two further rooms to the left and a “cinema room” upstairs which was in total darkness. There was more 60s music playing, although there were only a handful of other customers, hardly surprising for a pub outside the town centre and not serving food at lunchtime. We did, however, run into Nick from Oxford, author of the Prop Up the Bar blog, who was spending a few days exploring Manchester and its surroundings, and who came with us for the rest of the crawl. We also joined up again with the lunch dodgers.

On the bar was a selection of Bollington beers including Best, Long Hop, Oat Mill Stout and Eastern Nights. There was also a small blackboard advertising George’s Wickedy Witch, a 3.6% English Bitter, which I decided to try, not realising it was actually a keg beer, although I don’t particularly mind and it was pleasant enough. I’m guessing it was also considerably more expensive than the cask, but it wasn’t my round. This also turned out be the first pub I have visited since reopening that didn’t accept cash, although I have been to one or two restaurants that didn’t. Had I been making a speculative visit on my own I would have taken my business elsewhere unless it had been somewhere I had my heart set on visiting, but clearly that’s not appropriate in a group.

We returned back down the hill and turned the corner on to Sunderland Street and the Jolly Sailor, a four-square, red-brick street-corner pub (The photo is a stock image, not one taken on the day). Although the interior has been opened up somewhat, it retains five distinct areas arranged around the bar, with plenty of dark wood and a roaring fire in the grate. There’s also a fascinating assortment of memorabilia and bric-a-brac. We found a cosy alcove around a polished table with an attractive marquetry inlay. There was yet more 60s music, this time more in a Northern Soul vein. I overhead an interesting conversation between the barmaid and some regulars about a couple of local alcoholics, which was amusing on one level but ultimately rather sad.

Although a very pleasant pub in its own right, its appeal is enhanced by the expected presence of Draught Bass on the bar, and we weren’t disappointed. It was my turn for four and a half pints at £17.10, possibly the most expensive round of the day, although £3.80 a pint is pretty reasonable really. It was very good indeed, although it must be said served a little too cold, and it improved as it warmed up. Other beers on the bar included Wainwright, Bradfield Farmers Blonde, Landlord and Bombardier. Possibly it is the lack of beers you’ve never heard of that keeps it out of the Good Beer Guide, because on this visit at least the quality should make it a shoo-in.

From here it was just a short level walk retracing our steps along Sunderland Street to the George & Dragon. On the way we encountered Carl, a Sunderland exile in Macclesfield who tweets as VauxWanderer and had been looking out for us. Robinson’s used to have a large holding of pubs in Macclesfield, but many have been either closed down or sold off, and the George & Dragon is one of the few remaining. About four years ago they spent a substantial sum refurbishing it, and it must be said the results are better than many of their other recent schemes, with a fair bit of bench seating remaining, but still seeming to make poor use of the available space, with one end entirely given over to the pool table. One alcove was occupied by a gentleman sitting on his own who very kindly moved elsewhere to make way for our group.

The beers on the bar were Unicorn and Dizzy Blonde, with most of us favouring the Unicorn (£3.60) which was in very good condition. Unlike the earlier pubs, this one featured a jukebox, an increasingly rare sight in pubs, and I put a quid in to provide some contrast with the previous fare. For some reason, it seemed to cut out just before reaching Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir – a track that always offers good value for money – but a complaint at the bar got it restarted and I was given an extra pound to make some more selections. Staying to listen to these slightly delayed our departure, but an additional half did not go amiss. (It will not surprise you to learn that Jethro Tull did feature).

We returned past the Waters Green Tavern to our final destination, the Castle. This is a small historic pub on a narrow street called Churchwallgate half way up the hill between Waters Green and the parish church. The bins which had been prominent in the photo I took earlier in the day had now been removed, but of course it was dark now. The pub had been closed for a number of years before being taken on by new owners and reopened in September of this year.

It has a superb unspoilt interior that qualifies it for a full entry in CAMRA’s National Inventory. There’s a tiny tap room immediately on the right, a glazed bar servery, a smoke room on the left with original bell pushes, and a cosy snug at the rear. There’s also a newer extension at a higher level to the rear that we didn’t venture into. The whole pub was absolutely packed – the busiest pub I’ve been in since at least Christmas of 2019 – and with hindsight we might have been better visiting earlier in the day. At first we had to resort to standing outside, but eventually found some seats in the rear snug.

My 1987 guide to Cheshire Ale lists it as offering Tetley Mild and Bitter and Ind Coope Bitter* on electric pumps, but today the selection was Mobberley Sidekick, Tight Head Front Row and Wantsum Red Raddle, all of which were thought to be in good nick. This was a sensibly limited range of three contrasting beers. From here it was only a short downhill walk to the station and the train home.

So another very enjoyable day out, made even better by making a couple of new acquaintances along the way. As we didn’t feel compelled to seek out new must-visit pubs, we were able to set a more leisurely pace than has been usual on these trips, allowing more pints and fewer halves to be drunk and making for a better experience all round. Again it was noticeable how pub life has moved on from Covid paranoia even if much of the rest of society has not, and the stickler for social distancing would have done well to give the Castle a wide berth. And, no, I didn’t have any John Smith’s, either cask or smooth.

* In the early days of CAMRA, Macclesfield was considered something of a mecca for real ale, with the 1977 Good Beer Guide saying that the town had “eight different brews in more than 60 real ale pubs”. I think those would have been Bass, Boddington’s, Greenall’s, Ind Coope, Marston’s, Robinson’s, Tetley’s and Wilson’s. Of course there is now much more absolute choice and, while many of those 60 pubs are no longer with us, some new venues have sprung up to take their place.

Historically, the Allied Breweries empire had a large pub holding in Macclesfield, including the Castle, arising from the takeover of local brewer Lonsdale & Adshead by Ind Coope in 1950, although there is now very little evidence of it remaining. At some time in the 1980s these pubs were rebranded from Ind Coope or Ansell’s to Tetley’s to align with the brand that was promoted in the Granada TV region.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Turkish delight

During the lockdown, Holt’s brewery bought and refurbished the Lower Turk’s Head on Shudehill in Manchester city centre, and reopened it in July. So I thought I would take a trip to have a look at it, and also take advantage of the opportunity to pay a visit to one or two of the other classic pubs in the city. Manchester is only ten minutes on the train from Stockport, but you have to be aware when buying a ticket that there is an evening peak period that lasts until 6.30. However, it wouldn’t be too much hardship to spin out my visit until after that, and at £3.20 after the Senior Railcard discount the off-peak return is very good value.

Outside the main entrance to Piccadilly station I was struck by a sculpture of a line of wounded soldiers that had been installed in November 2018 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. I had actually been through Piccadilly a couple of times in 2019, but on both occasions I took the tram from the undercroft and so had never noticed it before. On the walk up Piccadilly towards the city centre the heavy pedestrian traffic was very noticeable, much more so than in any of the other towns and cities I have visited since reopening, and a clear sign that Covid paranoia is receding in people’s minds.

Shudehill is a street on the northern fringe of the city centre climbing up towards Rochdale Road, where the dwindling number of Victorian buildings seem to be fighting a losing battle against the encroachment of modern steel and glass edificies. One of them is the Lower Turk’s Head, with its striking tiled frontage. After a long period of closure, it was brought back to life in 2013 and then bought and refurbished by Holt’s during the lockdown. It has now been extended into the building on the right. In the 2000s, StreetView shows this as an adult bookshop, but it later became Scuttlers Wine Bar – I’m not sure whether this was an offshoot of the pub at the time. In any case, it has now been incorporated as a part of the pub proper.

The entrance door on the left takes you into the main part of the pub which has been refurbished by Holt’s in their characteristic style with an abundance of dark wood and polished brass. There’s an alcove of bench seating at the front by the window, the long main bar on the right, and then a comfortable but rather dark seating area at the rear which widens out to the left. The extension is at a lower level, and contains another bar and some rather odd choir stall-type seating with a ridge just where you want to put your neck when leaning back.

On the bar were the full range of Holt’s cask ales – Mild, Bitter, IPA and Two Hoots – plus a guest from their Bootleg microbrewery. It’s noticeable that, nowadays, all the keg beers are their own products too, Sam Smith’s style. Unfortunately my Bitter was a little warm and lacklustre, and £3.60 is hardly the value for money we have traditionally expected from Holt’s. It was fairly quiet, although Tandleman found it heaving on a late Saturday afternoon. The soundtrack seemed to feature some of the more quirky songs from the early 80s such as The Safety Dance by Men Without Hats and Waiting For a Train by Flash and the Pan. The pub in general has been tastefully refurbished, but hopefully at busier times the beer is better.

A few doors further up is the Hare & Hounds, another Victorian pub with a tiled facade, albeit rather more subdued. The steps up to the front door take you into a superb unspoilt interior dating from a 1920s refit, which qualify it for a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. The central bar is surrounded by a front vault, a drinking lobby and a rear smoke room with a narrow bay of seating extending into the window.

There are usually three beers on, often including Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde, but two were obscured by drinkers at the bar, and the only pump I spotted was Holt’s Bitter, which was what I was after anyway. At £2.70, this was much cheaper than the Lower Turk’s Head and also of much better quality. This must be some of the cheapest cask beer in the city centre outside Wetherspoon’s.

The good value may have been a factor in it being much busier too, with a good number of customers throughout, particularly clustering in the lobby. They mostly reflected the archetypal older male clientele, and this pub could be regarded as being a local in the city centre. The music choice included Back Stabbers by the O’Jays.

I then made my way through the grid of streets in the Northern Quarter to reach another National Inventory pub, the Unicorn on Church Street. This is an altogether grander affair, a substantial street-corner pub in a kind of modern classical style built in 1924. The largely untouched interior boasts a wealth of light oak panelling and has an island bar with a seating area facing it on the left, a snug at the rear, and two cosy rooms to the right on the other side of the central corridor.

A couple of years ago, there was a threat to gut it and turn it into a sports bar, which led to its qualities being reassessed by CAMRA and promotion to the first tier of the National Inventory, together with gaining official listed building status. Sadly, it’s one of those places where the quality of the fittings does not seem to be matched by that of the actual pub operation. On this occasion, much of the bar was draped with cobwebs and other Halloween tat. There was a good scattering of drinkers occupying the seating on the bar side, and I overhead one of them suggesting to a companion that he should “get one of those fucking electric frogs.” No, I have no idea...

It was originally built by one of the companies that became part of the Bass empire, and for many years has featured Draught Bass on the bar. Indeed the Honourable Order of Bass Drinkers used to meet in the upstairs function room – I’m not sure if they still do. I was pleased to see that it was on today, as there had been reports of intermittent availability. It was reasonably priced at £3.40, but was distinctly disappointing, not off as such, but very much on the warm and flat side. Other beers on the bar were Doom Bar, Wainwright and Hobgoblin Gold, which wasn’t the world’s most enticing range. The one next to the Bass is just a notice hung on the pump handle. I’m not sure whether the sound system was a jukebox or not, but it suddenly switched to an Irish Republican anthem going on about Kilmainham Gaol, which to my ears struck a discordant note.

I headed back to Market Street and crossed what remains of Piccadilly Gardens to reach the Circus Tavern, which always seems to be further down Portland Street than I had thought. This is another National Inventory entry, a tiny, narrow-fronted pub in a row of variegated Victorian buildings that have managed to survive amongst the more modern development surrounding them. It isn’t the smallest pub in Europe, but it claims with justification to have the smallest bar, a tiny quadrant on the left half-way along the corridor.

It has two small cosy rooms with bench seating. The one at the front always seems to have a vault character and is frequented by the regulars, while the one to the rear is more of a snug. I managed to take a snap of the seating opposite in the brief interlude between it being occupied by groups of customers. Understandably, the Circus didn’t reopen until social distancing restrictions were lifted in July, and anyone concerned about getting too close to others would do well to avoid it. At teatime, it seemed to attract a wide range of customers who were just popping in for a quick one in between doing other things.

Historically a Tetley pub, it has always sold Tetley Bitter alongside another beer. Last time I visited this had been Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde, but on this occasion I think it was Wainwright. I plumped for the Tetley’s, which was in very good nick, and seems to have become less sweet and regained a hint of its old character since the brewing was moved from Wolverhampton to Cameron’s at Hartlepool. This was £4, the dearest beer of the day.

If I had been showing a stranger around the pubs of Manchester, I would then have taken them in the almost equally small Grey Horse a couple of doors down, which indeed is what I did when following a similar itinerary five years ago. However, on this occasion I wanted to take a look at the Waldorf on the way back to the station, which is a pub I hadn’t visited during this century. It used to be a Whitbread pub, and one thing that sticks in my mind was it selling the short-lived GB Lager, which was dispensed from a pump resembling an actual bath tap. What a brilliant marketing idea to get customers to associate your beer with dishwater.

It is situated on Gore Street just off the main thoroughfare of Piccadilly. I don’t really recall how the interior was before, but my memory was of a knocked-through but reasonably comfortable pub with plenty of dark wood. However, I was taken aback to be confronted by posing table hell. The only normal-height seating was one alcove of benches and a raised seating area with a few tables. It very much gave the impression of somewhere designed for customers who would have a quick one before moving somewhere else rather than settling in for the evening.

The beer choice was Doom Bar, Landlord and Banks’s Amber, which was being promoted as a guest beer. I went for this at £3.95 which was actually better than I had expected from the general vibe of the pub, and I managed to find a decent spot in the raised seating area. I also asked for a glass of tap-water to wash down my anti-lycanthropy pills, for which purpose you really don’t need a whole pint. It was interesting to visit the Waldorf to see what it was like, but it’s not a pub that I’d return to in a hurry.

It was now after the witching hour of 6.30, and from here it was only a short walk back to the station and the brief train ride back to Stockport. I have to say I never really feel at home in Manchester city centre, finding it much too metropolitan and impersonal for my tastes, but it does retain some welcoming oases of traditional pub life if you know where to look.

It’s impossible to judge from one visit at what is normally a slack time anyway how trade compares with pre-lockdown, but the Hare & Hounds and Circus Tavern in particular seemed to be doing good business and there was no evidence of Covid rules in any of the pubs. The general level of activity on the streets suggested that people had now put lockdowns well out of their minds. So it would be disappointing if the government were to heed the siren calls of the usual zealots and bring the shutter of restrictions clanging back down again.

Friday 29 October 2021

Pin money

In his budget earlier this week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the most comprehensive review of alcohol duties for many years, and indeed probably the first root-and-branch overhaul of the system since duties were first imposed. One feature that immediately caught the headlines was the introduction of a new lower rate of duty for draught beer, something that CAMRA and the pub industry had been lobbying for. It’s a very straightforward and targeted means of directing financial support to the on-trade.

However, as I wrote earlier this year, it’s important not to get carried away over this. It’s only a cut of 5%, equating to about 3p per pint, and so the likelihood is that it will be used to support the margins of hard-pressed pubs rather than being passed on to the drinker. But something is better than nothing , and we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I’ve also always been somewhat sceptical of attempts to favour one sector over another via the tax system.

There was a major fly in the ointment, though, when it became evident that the benefit would only apply to containers of 40 litres or more. This excludes a huge swathe of draught products, overwhelmingly produced by smaller brewers. More and more cask ales are now being made available in 4½-gallon pins (just over 20 litres) to maintain quality in the face of declining sales. Ed Wray reports here in his tour of Palmer’s brewery (pictured above) how they are using more and more pins for both their own pubs and the free trade. Added to this, the normal size for craft kegs is 30 litres, as opposed to 50 or 100 for mainstream products.

Given this, it seemed distinctly hypocritical for Sunak and Johnson to be pictured promoting this policy pouring beers that wouldn’t benefit from it.

The charitable assumption is that this is an oversight rather than a deliberate policy, and it seems counter-productive to exclude most smaller brewers from the benefit. Plus the tax loss from reducing the threshold to 20 litres would be minimal. CAMRA and SIBA have urged their members to lobby the government to make this change, and it would be hoped they are pushing at an open door. There’s a template you can use to write to your MP here. This morning, there have been reports that the government may be heeding this pressure.

This, of course, is only a small part of a radical reform of the entire alcohol duty system. The current structure has grown up piecemeal over the years and is riddled with anomalies and inconsistencies, in particular the fact that some categories are taxed by alcohol content, whereas others are simply taxed by volume. It is, however, very rare nowadays to see the government take a clean-sheet approach to anything as opposed to just tinkering at the edges. As it states on Page 88 of the official Budget document:

The government will radically simplify the duty system, reducing the number of main rates from 15 to 6, and taxing all products in proportion to their alcohol content, enabling businesses to bring new products to market with fewer tax complications. All tax categories (e.g. beer, wine) will move to a standardised set of bands, with rates for products between 1.2-3.4% alcohol by volume (ABV), 3.5-8.4% ABV, 8.5-22% ABV, and above 22% ABV. Above 8.5% ABV, all products across all categories will pay the same rate of duty if they have the same proportion of alcohol content.
There will also be a small producers’ relief scheme for makers of products under 8.5% ABV, covering all categories, not just beer. The whole package would not have been possible had we still been members of the European Union.

It’s sometimes argued that it would be fairer if there was a single rate of duty per unit of alcohol that applied to all categories of drinks. However, the problem with this is that stronger drinks, especially spirits, are cheaper to make and distribute per unit than weaker ones such as beer, and thus the system would effectively discriminate in favour of them. As I wrote a few years ago:

A fair system would be one that, broadly speaking, ensured a relatively level unit price to the drinker at the point of sale for mainstream products. And, while there are perils in the excessive consumption of all kinds of alcoholic drinks, you can do yourself serious harm more swiftly and easily drinking spirits than beer or wine. A tax regime loaded in favour of spirits would not be a good idea. It could also be argued that brewing and winemaking provide much more employment and general economic stimulation than distilling.

Yes, there is a strong case for making alcohol duties simpler and more consistent. But there are good public policy reasons for stronger drinks bearing a heavier rate of duty per unit. Remember Hogarth’s comparison of Gin Lane and Beer Street?

It is interesting that the threshold for the lowest rate of beer duty is being increased from 2.8% ABV to 3.4%. The lower rate was introduced a few years ago, but has never gained much traction. It is difficult to make beers with much flavour and character at such a low strength and, as most beer in pubs is drunk in rounds, the attractions of saving a few pence per pint by choosing one product over another are limited. The only draught beers I regularly see in this category are Sam Smith’s light and dark milds and Alpine lager.

However, there is much more scope for making tasty beers at 3.4%, and indeed many existing milds and light bitters fall into this bracket. But there might be a temptation to lower the strength of existing products to take them below the cut-off. It would surely be a no-brainer for Hydes to reduce 1863 and Dark Ruby from 3.5% to 3.4% and, if the drinkers of John Smith’s Smooth accepted a cut from 3.8% to 3.6%, then they might not be too bothered about losing another couple of points. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, although I wouldn’t really expect a stampede of new products to take advantage of it.

The various inconsistencies of the current duty system give plenty of opportunity to sow division between the different sections of the alcohol industry. Someone else always seems to be getting a better deal than the producers of your favourite product. So we had the wine trade complaining that beer was taxed more lightly per unit, while in turn the brewers felt that cider got off very lightly. Sometimes that has been exploited by the government to favour one sector at the expense of others, which in recent years has actually tended to benefit beer. This week, Labour politicians have been quick to accuse the government of cutting the duty on champagne while screwing the poor, conveniently overlooking that prosecco, which comes under the same sparkling wine category, is now a staple of Wetherspoon’s. Placing all products under the same duty regime would eliminate all this pointless infighting and hopefully allow the alcohol industry to speak with one voice on taxation.

Inevitably any attempt to rationalise taxation will produce losers as well as winners, and the losers will tend to be more vocal. This is why governments have shied away from any wholesale reform of council tax. Once the dust had settled, it became clear that these plans would lead to duty increases for most cider and table wine. In 2010, the then Labour government attempt to raise cider duty by 10%, which provoked vocal opposition in the West Country, and ended up being abandoned by the incoming Coalition.

And the chattering classes have now started to realise what the effect on wine is likely to be. Overall, in value terms, wine now overshadows beer in the alcohol market and is very much the drink of choice at North London dinner parties. So it’s likely that these changes will not go through as smoothly as the Treasury might have hoped, and there must be a distinct possibility that opposition from various quarters will result in them running into the sand.

Edit: Here are the full details of the government proposals. In fact, they do include a lower rate of duty for cider as compared to beer below 8.5% ABV, as it was felt that equalising the duty would deal a severe blow to a historic industry that is already in decline. This was not made clear in their initial top-level statement. However, taxing cider by alcohol content rather than volume will result in an increase in duty for ciders above 4.8% ABV, which includes the vast majority of premium ciders sold in the off-trade.