Saturday, 1 May 2021

How would you like it, then?

Al fresco drinking gets off to a storming start in Scotland

Around the time of the implementation of the smoking ban, the question was often asked of drinkers who supported it whether they would be happy go outside to have a pint. The response was usually that it was a ludicrous and implausible scenario, and that the two things are entirely different.

However, that is exactly the situation that currently prevails in Scotland. You can go into a pub to eat a meal or have a soft drink (at least until 8 pm), but if you want an alcoholic drink you have to step outside. The same applied for a short period in Wales last year, and was mooted for England too.

Yes, it is only temporary, but it is a real-life example of consuming alcohol being seen as an undesirable activity. In a pub. Let that sink in.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Local Brew

People were recently asked on Twitter to name some of their favourite beer books, and one in my collection for which I’ve always had a high regard is Local Brew – Traditional Breweries and their Ales by Mike Dunn, published in 1986 by Robert Hale. It’s a small-format hardback with a traditional layout of pages of text dotted with line drawings and interspersed with sections of glossy black and white photographs.

Mike Dunn had previously been responsible for the Penguin Guide to Real Draught Beer, published in 1979, which I also still have on my shelves. The main part of this was descriptions of all the breweries then producing real ale, and in Local Brew he expands on this to concentrate on the independent family brewers. At this time, microbreweries were in their infancy and, while the “Big Six” national brewers did produce some well-regarded real ales, most of the beers that were enjoyed and celebrated by CAMRA members came from the family brewers.

After introductory chapters outlining the historical development of the brewing industry, the wave of mergers and takeovers in the post-war period, and the revival of interest in small-scale local production, the book goes on to provide a pen portrait of each of the surviving breweries spread over two or three pages. The author describes its historical origins, takeovers of other firms along the way, the current ownership structure, the extent of its tied estate and the various beers produced. The style is crisp and readable and interest never drags.

In total, there are over 90 breweries listed, over half of which are no longer with us today. However, it is important to remember that, while some such as Vaux were undone by family feuds, only one – Matthew Brown – fell victim to a predatory takeover. The author expresses his concerns over the future of breweries such as Hartley’s and Oldham, which were still in operation bu had been acquired by other family brewers, and Border, which at the time of writing was subject to a takeover battle between Marston’s and Burtonwood.

In my home region of North-West England, there are fourteen breweries listed: Boddington’s, Matthew Brown, Burtonwood, Greenall Whitley, Hartley’s, Higson’s, Holt’s, Hyde’s, Jennings, Lees, Mitchell’s, Oldham, Robinson’s, Thwaites. Theakston’s of Carlisle is listed under the owning company based in Masham, Yorkshire, although by that time it had been acquired by Matthew Brown, who themselves were soon to fall into the hands of Scottish & Newcastle. Yates & Jackson of Lancaster, noted for their superb pale bitter, had been a relatively recent loss to Thwaites, with local rivals Mitchell’s moving into their former brewery which was much better laid out than their own cramped premises.

Only seven of those fourteen plants are still in - existence five as independent companies, Jennings as a subsidiary of the Carlsberg-Marston’s joint venture, and Burtonwood in the shadowy world of contract brewing, having disposed of all its tied pubs to Marston’s and no longer producing any beers under its own brand. Border in Wrexham, also now defunct, can also be considered as an honorary member of the North-West breweries, as it was much closer to them than the other four Welsh breweries in South Wales.

Some eyebrows may be raised at the inclusion of Greenall Whitley but, although CAMRA for a while attempted to include them as a member of an expanded “Big Seven”, in reality they always had much more in common with the bigger family brewers like Wolverhampton & Dudley and Greene King, and of course their empire has now disappeared off the face of the earth. They were the biggest minnow in the pond, not the smallest shark.

By today’s flowery standards, the descriptions of the various beers are fairly terse, but give a general idea of what to expect. Robinson’s Best Bitter (now Unicorn) is described as “a magnificent beer, very pale, but full-flavoured and well-hopped”, but Hydes Bitter (now Original) is “a well-balanced if not especially memorable brew” while the long-defunct Oldham Bitter was “a light-coloured ale with an unusual taste – an acquired taste, in fact.”

The author goes to town with Holt’s Bitter, saying that it is “widely regarded as one of Britain’s truly great draught beers, very dry and bitter, pale straw-coloured and bursting with flavour, it shocks the tastebuds of those accustomed to bland, ordinary bitters, but it is well worth the effort of familiarisation.” I first enjoyed an extended acquaintance with it in 1985 and have to say that, while it was certainly much more bitter than it is now, even then I would have described it as mid-brown rather than straw-coloured. He also refers to Holt’s “extremely low prices”, which are another thing of the past.

In the thirty-five years since the publication of the book, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Over half the family breweries listed have disappeared, and many of those that remain have sold off numerous smaller pubs and concentrated on an affluent dining trade. Finding a proper down-to-earth boozer tied to a family brewer is much rarer than it once was, although they still do exist, especially in the estate of a certain idiosyncratic Yorkshire brewery. It is much less the case now that your progress on a journey through the country would be marked by the changing brewers’ names on the pub signboards. “Ooh, there’s a Devenish pub, we must be in Cornwall”.

A few years ago on this subject, I wrote:

Of course we have gained something through the massive increase in both the number of breweries and beer styles being produced. But we have also lost something valuable in the way the link between beer and place has been eroded through the decline of family brewers and their tied estates. We should treasure the continued existence of quirky, independent companies like Donnington.
While the family brewery sector is much diminished from 1986, we are fortunate that we still have companies like Palmer’s, Hook Norton, Bateman’s and the two tiny Black Country survivors – Batham’s and Holden’s – who enhance the beer landscape through both their distinctive beers and the character of their tied estates, and provide a continued link with the traditions of the past.

There are plenty of copies of Local Brew available on eBay if you want to get hold of one yourself.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Pricking the bubble

This satirical craft beer skit from comedian Alistair Green has been widely circulated recently:

It does pick up on two common themes, that craft brewing can be an opportunity to make a fortune from a big brewery buyout, and that it reflects a kind of midlife crisis neediness. I have to say I found it mildly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, and it did come across as trying a bit too hard.

However, it certainly seems to have raised some defensive hackles within the craft beer community. It’s all been done before, it’s a bit reactionary and gammon-y, and surely craft beer is such a fragile fledgling sector that it doesn’t deserve such ridicule. But this kind of prickly reaction suggests that it has touched a nerve.

Surely satire should be punching up, not punching down, the argument goes. Up to a point, yes – it has always played an important part in challenging the powerful and entitled. But it isn’t exclusively political and, over the years, satire has also had a role in turning the spotlight on the currently fashionable, the humourless, snobbish, self-righteous and self-important, all of which are tendencies that can be detected to a greater or lesser extent within the sphere of craft beer. Maybe the key factor distinguishing satire from simply poking fun is that satire is identifying a moral failing in its targets.

Much criticism of craft brewers revolves around them supposedly being just in it for the money and not practising what they preach. The same charge is often levelled at climate campaigners. But, in both cases, surely the sense of unshakeable moral certainty is equally worthy of satire. Within craft beer there are strong elements of wanting to change the world and stick it to the man, and self-congratulatory mantras such as “beer people are good people” which are frankly inviting ridicule. If it was just a case of a bunch of geeks who liked weird beers but kept themselves to themselves nobody would be bothered. You can’t really satirise bellringers or metal detectorists.

A parallel could be drawn with the Real Ale Twats comic strip that has appeared for many years in Viz comic. However, this is more in the nature of an affectionate lampoon than biting satire, and obviously arises from fairly detailed knowledge of the community it refers to. It generally ends with the titular Twats getting their comeuppance from their misreading of the situation. While the strip only appeared in the present century, it often seemed to reflect the world of twenty years earlier. I can’t remember anyone in CAMRA getting particularly upset about it, and indeed many will recognise aspects of themselves or their friends. But somehow I can’t imagine The Craft Beer Wankers making an appearance any day soon.

On his Seeing the Lizards blog, Matthew Lawrenson used to come up with little satirical takes of fictional characters’ reaction to various items of beer-related news. While these were not to my mind malicious, they could be somewhat cutting, as he had a keen eye for people’s foibles and idiosyncracies. I never recall any outrage from the real life equivalents of Greg Steakbake or Mudgie Mudgington, but some of his craft parodies seemed to get a little too close to home and generate some kickback, leading to him discontinuing that aspect of the blog, although he did revive it to look at various characters’ reaction to last year’s lockdown. And Matthew himself is partial to the odd drop of craft beer.

But I think it’s fair to say that, if anyone takes exception to finding themselves the butt of satire, they probably deserve it.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Gold-plating the lock

On Monday, I wrote about how some local councils were doing their best to put a spanner in the works of pubs reopening their outside areas. Given that this was the first opportunity that pubs had had to trade for at least three and a half months, and that most were doing their best to give customers a warm welcome, I didn’t want to strike a sour note. However, inevitably there were some that did themselves no favours by adding new restrictions of their own.

The Angel in at Corbridge in Northumberland made the national news when they turned away a pensioner because he didn’t have a smartphone onto which he could download their ordering app. To the pub’s credit, they apologised and offered him drinks on the house, and hopefully it has also resulted in them changing their policy, but they certainly weren’t the only establishment to do this. It isn’t illegal as such, although given that, as the article reports, half of those aged 65 to 74 and 70% of the over-75s do not have a smartphone, a case could be made that it represents indirect discrimination against a group protected by equalities legislation.

However, surely it is rank bad business, as it excludes a large swathe of your potential clientele, especially considering that the over-65s are amongst the most enthusiastic patrons of rural dining pubs. Even if you have a suitable phone, you may not want to download an app for a one-off visit. I have the Wetherspoon’s app on my phone because I regularly use them, but I wouldn’t see the point of having any others unless I was going to be a frequent visitor. On my previous phone, which I replaced less than two years ago, I had run out of space for downloading any new apps anyway. And who is going to want to download an app and work out how to use it if they’re just popping in for a swift pint and are unlikely to return?

Then there have been reports of pubs, and other hospitality venues such as Costa Coffee, refusing admission to people without smartphones carrying the NHS track and trace app. This seems even more self-defeating, given that surveys have shown that a majority of people who even have a suitable phone haven’t downloaded it. It also won’t work on older smartphones.

Not only is this bad business, it is also illegal. The government guidelines on the use of the app specifically say: “Venues must not make the specific use of the NHS QR code a precondition of entry (as the individual has the right to choose to provide their contact details if they prefer).” “Must” in such documents, as in the Highway Code, signifies a legal requirement. However, you can’t imagine council staff being quite so assiduous about enforcing this piece of law as they are about applying tape measures to outside shelters.

This is nothing new, either. Last September, during that brief window of reasonably unfettered opening that pubs enjoyed last summer, I wrote about the tendency for some pubs to gold-plate the government requirements and add some extra on top, suggesting it had given free rein to licensees’ inner jobsworth.

Some of the policies pubs have introduced arise simply out a lack of thought, but others clearly come across as deliberate. If you’ve decided to do away with beermats and ditch the charity boxes on the bar, if you’ve stopped taking cash payments and make everyone download an app to order, if you’re insisting on people making an advance booking just to have a drink, if you’ve festooned your pub with yellow tape and half-baked one-way systems, it’s not because the guidelines expect it, because they don’t. It’s because, deep down, you want to. And customers will remember where they were welcomed, and where they were treated like something the cat dragged in.
One obvious example that has reared its head again is refusing to accept cash, which is encouraged by compulsory table service. I have written about this trend in the past. Hopefully when bar service is resumed, then pubs will be more inclined to take cash again, and may at the same time cease to mandate app ordering. Another one that didn’t apply last September is making the wearing of masks compulsory in outside areas, where they are certainly not required by law. This is an officious, unreasonable rule that is likely to alienate customers and creates a potential flashpoint.

Most pubs aren’t doing this sort of thing, but reports suggest that a significant minority are. And, if you are visiting unfamiliar pubs, it means you can never be quite sure whether you are going to walk into somewhere with a friendly, relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, or a privately-run version of Stalag Luft XIV.

Of course all pubs and other hospitality venues should abide by the law. But they have a choice whether to implement the requirements with a light touch, or a heavy hand, and that is something that customers will remember when (or if) we finally once again reach the sunlit uplands of full reopening.

Monday, 12 April 2021

Don’t you know there’s a pandemic on?

Today at last sees the reopening of pubs in England for outdoor drinking, although the weather isn’t ideally suited to it. Obviously, this is a sign of hope, but unfortunately it seems that jobsworths in several local authorities seem to be getting in first and doing their best to put a spanner in the works. First out of the blocks was one of my local councils, Cheshire East, who decided that the “Rule of 6” and the two-household rule would not apply, and that social distancing would need to be enforced within groups, not just between them.

Fortunately government minister Paul Scully stepped in and told them that this interpretation is incorrect. However, he is yet to do the same with several authorities, including Rochdale and Ribble Valley, who have decided all customers in pub outdoor areas will have to wear masks except when seated, something that most definitely is not required by law.

It has been reported that some local authorities have set up enforcement teams to patrol pub gardens to ensure that the regulations are being adhered to. It is hard to believe that, given the squeeze on council spending, this is a good use of scarce resources.

There have also been a number of cases across the country of local authorities deciding that outdoor areas that they have been happy to accept as smoking areas for years do not qualify as “Covid-safe”, even though the rules applying to both are exactly the same. Here is an example from Brighton:

I can think of several outside smoking areas that effectively are surrounded by walls on all sides – the key determinant is whether they have a roof. Maybe on a very strict interpretation of the law some of these areas don’t qualify, but surely councils should be doing their best to encourage local businesses to reopen rather than putting obstacles in their way.

Then there have been a number of headlines that all customers in pub gardens would need to check in using the NHS track and trace app. This is absolutely not the case, and indeed the legislation specifically states that venues must offer an alternative means of providing details. Sometimes, this was corrected in the body of the article, but even so fit is putting across misleading information and spreading a climate of fear and doubt.

I wish every success to pubs who are able to open up outdoor drinking areas, but it seems that some in local government and the media do not share that feeling.

Edit 13/04/21: I have added the Telegraph cartoon at the head of the post, published in today's paper.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Moving the goalposts?

Back in February, I criticised the glacial pace of the Prime Minister’s roadmap for unlocking the country. Six weeks on, and pubs still can’t open even outdoors. However, I also said “If we are able to enjoy the second half of the year to the full, then we may look back on the preceding fifteen months as just a bad dream. A successful and prosperous reopening of the economy will erase a lot of bad memories.”

The promise was made that, subject to review, all the remaining Covid restrictions on hospitality would be removed from 21 June. I was truly looking forward to that first proper pub crawl of Stockport in the week of my birthday. And, if the restrictions on rail travel were removed too, there would be a lot of time to be made up in terms of pub days out. However, while I said I wasn’t making specific predictions, I did add the caveat that I wouldn’t count any chickens until they were hatched. In another post, I said:

There must then be a serious risk that the government would leave pubs in Tier 1 for a prolonged period. They could claim that the pubs had reopened, while ignoring the fact that they were still operating under such severe restrictions that both their ability to trade profitably and their appeal to customers had been seriously undermined. Tier 1 would be, for many pubs, a kind of living death.
I was criticised by several people for adopting an unnecessarily gloomy tone, although I could have pointed out that, so far in the pandemic, Cassandra had beaten Pollyanna about 10-2. And, when I threw down the gauntlet and offered a £10 each-way bet to a favourite charity to anyone who believed all the restrictions would go, not surprisingly, there were no takers.

Last week, the almost inevitable backsliding began, with the news that the collection of customer contact details for track and trace would continue at least until September. What is more, the requirement would change so that every customer was required to provide their details rather than just one person from each party. This is despite the revelation that, last year, the information collected was hardly used, so it was all a pretty pointless exercise. And, given that Covid is an easily transmissible disease that, in most cases, isn’t particularly serious, it isn’t even an effective method of infection control.

In itself, this is a relatively minor imposition and, as you were allowed to sign in manually rather than using the NHS app, it was in practice easy to spoof, so participation was in effect voluntary. However, on the margins it could be a deterrent to going to the pub – “Shall we have a quick one in the White Bear? Nah, can’t be arsed having to sign in again.” Plus some overzealous operators were insisting on use of the NHS app, thus excluding a large swathe of potential customers.

From the pub’s point of view, it imposes a significant administrative burden of collecting and keeping the manual records. Getting details from a large party arriving at a busy time probably needs dedicated door staff and could create a queue, not to mention a potential flashpoint. It’s easy to assume that most people will be using the NHS app, but this poll from a Cheltenham licensee suggests that is far from the case. And many tech-savvy people may choose not to use the app because they don’t want to have to suffer two weeks’ house arrest because a friend of someone who was in Spoons at the same time as them has had a false positive Covid test.

Given this, it’s easy to understand how many in the trade feel that the government are breaking their promises and moving the goalposts. What guarantee is there that they won’t let go on the other restrictions either? And it’s important to remember that these restrictions, especially as they affect capacity, make most pubs apart from those dedicated to dining unviable in the longer term. Many pubs would have been counting on a strong late summer and autumn to restore their finances. If this isn’t allowed to happen, a lot more are likely to go to the wall.

Then it was reported that “Johnson's 'roadmap' for lifting almost all restrictions by June 21 could now be dependent on a functioning vaccine passport programme,” which would have come as a bitter blow to the trade. This would in effect simply be replacing one regime of onerous restrictions with another, and again requiring pubs themselves to act as the enforcers.

I discussed this issue in depth last week. Fortunately, following an unprecedented level of opposition from across the political spectrum, it was announced late last night that the plans would be dropped for pubs and restaurants, and confined to large public gatherings. This was greeted with widespread relief, but on reflection it comes across as a classic bait-and-switch tactic, proposing a measure that goes well beyond what you actually want to achieve, and then being praised when you eventually announce something less extreme. Indeed, I said in my post “I suspect in reality this is something that won’t happen, as even if ministers wanted to press ahead with it, it would be derailed by the practical difficulties.” In an attempt to placate opposition, Johnson has stated that any passport scheme would only last for a maximum of one year. But where have we heard that kind of promise before?

I’ve not entirely abandoned hope of that Stockport pub crawl in my birthday week. But I’ve decided to temporarily change the blog title, and I won’t be changing it back until the day comes when I can again walk freely into a pub without being challenged or being required to provide any personal details, and order a pint at the bar. And I worry I will have a very long wait, although hopefully not until next summer.

Incidentally, the bet is still open if you think that, setting aside track and trace, the remaining restrictions of masks, table service, capacity limits and a ban on perpendicular drinking will go on 21 June. I’m not expecting my inbox to be overflowing, though.

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Death of the Premium Bottled Ale?

Westerham Brewery have recently announced that they are progressively switching all their packaged beer from bottles to cans. They say that “The future is bright, the future is refreshing beer in cans” and that “that the days of the ‘Premium Bottled Ale’ are dead.” However, from what I can see it appears very much alive and kicking, occupying a substantial section of the supermarket beer aisle and seeing a steady trickle of new product launches.

Their statement that the sector has been “de-premiumised” also misses the point about how it came about in the first place. In the 1980s, the vast majority of off-trade packaged beer was in cans, typically brands such as Stones, Tetley’s and Younger’s Tartan. Premium Bottled Ales were launched to distinguish the product from that category and gve drinkers something they would more readily associate with the beers they found in the pub. And, initially at least, it mostly encompassed what were considered “premium”, i.e., stronger beers such as Abbot Ale and Directors rather than ordinary bitters. There remains a strong overlap between the drinkers of premium bottled ales, and the drinkers of cask in the pub, and indeed the PBAs are often colloquially referred to as “real ales” even though the CAMRA purists would insist that they aren’t.

There is price pressure within the sector, as there is in every other competitive market, but that is nothing new. It is certainly true that brewers need to produce something that can be sold in a 4 for £6 offer, but quite a number of the smaller new-generation brewers are quite happy to sell what to my mind are very good beers through this channel. The same is true of Timothy Taylor’s with the bottled version of Landlord, the one widely-distributed cask ale that really can command a price premium. And the 7.3% McEwan’s Champion also happily exists there, so higher strength alone is no barrier.

They are, of course, correct to say that cans are more environmentally friendly, being lighter, more compact and more easily recyclable than bottles. They are also significantly cheaper. But there is a lingering belief that bottled beer is superior to that in cans, which goes back to days when cans were associated with Skol and Tartan, not to mention Long Life, “the beer specially brewed for the can”. Some of the more popular premium bottled ales such as Abbot Ale and Pedigree are also sold in cans, but they always come in four-packs and there really is no move to introduce individual cans into the sector (which also opens up the minefield of selling beers at price points that appeal to problem drinkers). I also haven’t noticed any increase in the shelf space given over to cans rather than bottles and, if anything, the growth area seems to be in multipack boxes of bottles along the lines of “Classic Golden Ales”.

On the other hand, over the past few years the switch in the craft sector from bottles to cans has been very marked, and cans now dominate the craft section of the beer aisle. Part of the motivation for this has to been to create a point of difference from the premium bottled ales. This was why, a few years back, many craft brewers switched from 500ml to 330ml bottles. Thornbridge were perhaps the most prominent to do this, but more recently their star seems very much to have faded. It often seems that the British craft beer movement seems to define itself by doing things differently from the established family brewers rather than the industry giants. And note that those 330ml craft cans in the photo are also in a 4 for £6 offer.

But, in switching from bottles to cans, Westerham are not just changing the method of packaging, they are changing how they want their beer to be perceived. And, if they define themselves as “craft”, there will be an expectation that they will in some way be modern and innovative. If they, or other brewers, are putting beers in traditional British styles into cans they may find few takers.

Another problem with cans is that they are opaque, so that if beers are “can-conditioned” it is impossible to determine when they have settled clear or to pour them so that none of the sediment goes into the glass, whereas that isn’t difficult with a bottle-conditioned beer. I know that “murky beer is good” has become a high-status opinion nowadays, but the vast majority of drinkers still want their beer to be clear, so that is an obvious limiting factor.

In fact, Westerham’s true motivation in going for cans is probably that they believe that, by shifting to a different market sector, they will be able to gain a higher margin. This is similar to brewers contemplating a shift from cask to craft keg, as I discussed recently in considering the threat of Covid to cask. However, the higher margins are only obtainable because the beers are in a more specialist and niche sector which, over time, is vulnerable to attack. I wonder how long it will be before we see the first single cans of “premium canned ale” appear, and drinkers might start to wonder whether it’s worth paying twice as much for something with a fancy graphic of a spaceman.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Ihre Papiere, Bitter!

Over the past few days, there has been a lot of focus in the media on vaccine passports. These are not a single concept, and obviously if another country decides to require vaccine passports for any visiting tourists there’s not a lot we can do about it. However, last week, Boris Johnson stated that he would not be averse to the idea of pubs requiring them to gain entry.

Not surprisingly, this idea went down like a cup of cold sick with both licensees and pubgoers. I ran a poll on Twitter to gauge reaction, which was widely retweeted. This showed a strong majority against, but a disappointingly large minority who didn’t see a problem.

We have had vaccinations of various kinds in this country for over a century, but they have never been compulsory, and nor have we ever sought to restrict the freedoms of those who have not been vaccinated, so this would be completely unprecedented. Indeed, Johnson’s former ministerial colleague David Davis has suggested it might well be illegal, and would be likely to lead to court cases. On the face of it, he certainly seems to be correct, both in terms of medical discrimination and indirect discrimination against less vaccinated groups. It would probably need to be implemented either under the emergency Covid legislation or by an amendment of the Equality Act to create a specific exemption.

People would be up in arms if it was proposed that pubs should be able to refuse admission to those who could not prove they were HIV negative. Of course some smartarse will pipe up that the two are completely different, and indeed they are. But if you accept the concept of passports for Covid vaccinations, you have accepted the principle of discrimination on grounds of medical status, you are just arguing about where the line should be drawn.

There also seems to have been a considerable amount of moving the goalposts. Back last Autumn, vaccine supremo Kate Bingham stated that the objective would only be to vaccinate the over-60s and the clinically vulnerable, not the entire population. In January, newspapers were suggesting that 15 million jabs would do the trick, whereas we have already done twice that. As a general rule, vaccines don’t require anything like universal take-up to be effective across the whole population and achieve “herd immunity”. And the evidence so far is that under 10% of people are declining vaccination.

Creating such a vaccine passport would involve considerable practical difficulties. It would have to be made very difficult to forge. How would people who do not own smartphones be catered for? It seems that those without smartphones are increasingly being relegated to the status of second-class citizens in contemporary society. Some method would have to be found of registering people who have legitimate medical exemptions from vaccination.

Would it also have to apply to pub staff, or to people coming in to make deliveries or service equipment? How about the customer from the beer garden who just wants to come it to use the toilet? How would it apply to food courts in shopping centres and motorway service areas served by numerous outlets? A means would have to be found to incorporate tourists and other short-term visitors within the scheme. And there are plenty of people living in this country who for various reasons are off the radar of the NHS, and would be even more excluded from mainstream society.

The comparison has been made with track and trace, which pubs operated last summer, but in reality the two things are very different. Track and trace only applied to one person in each party, not everyone, and it was completed once people had entered pubs. There was no requirement to prove identity and, in reality, it was easy to spoof if you were so inclined. Participation was effectively voluntary.

Having to check every single customer’s details would place an onerous administrative burden on pubs. How would a small bar with one member of staff cope? And remember it wouldn’t just apply to pubs, but to restaurants, cafés, coffee shops and even takeaways with a few inside seats and tables. And should pubs really be expected to act as the government’s enforcement agents?

After the initial suggestion, the government have to some extent rowed back on the idea, saying it would be entirely voluntary and would only come into effect once all adults had been offered a vaccine. Wetherspoon’s and Shepherd Neame have, to their credit, rejected the idea. However, it would be conceivable that pubs would be offered the carrot of relaxed social distancing rules if they implemented it.

If it did end up being adopted by some pub operators, I suspect it would tend to be just the high-end gastropubs and a few up-their-own-arse craft bars. It’s very hard to see backstreet boozers in industrial towns wanting to take it up. And it could end up with the two-tier pub trade that might have come about if the proposal to exempt wet-only pubs from the smoking ban had come to reality, with some being pious, dull and joyless, and others lively, fun and rumbustious.

I suspect in reality this is something that won’t happen, as even if ministers wanted to press ahead with it, it would be derailed by the practical difficulties. And surely, assuming that the vaccines are effective, by the Autumn the number of Covid deaths and hospitalisations should in any case be minuscule and it would seem unnecessary and disproportionate.

But the idea that you should require a government-issued pass to take part in normal everyday activities is profoundly totalitarian. And where is the guarantee that it would not be extended to other medical statuses, or even become a generalised Chinese-style social credit pass? It has been very depressing to see how, during the Covid crisis, so many people seem to have accepted or even positively welcomed a restriction of their freedoms that in some respects has gone beyond even that which applied during World War II. It becomes easier to understand how the Nazis were able to achieve such a level of public acquiescence in their totalitarian programme.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Turn of the tide?

Back in 2016, I reported on how the imminent introduction of the ill-considered “sugar tax” was likely to lead to some popular soft drinks brands being reformulated to bring them below the threshold. In a sense it is understandable, as otherwise the drinks would have had to suffer a price increase, but it was highly disingenuous of the manufacturers to pretend that it wouldn’t make any difference to the taste, and that they were even doing it in response to customer demand. This is similar to the weasel words of brewers who insist that the flavour will be unaffected when they reduce the strength of their products.

Christopher Snowdon was wrong in his prediction that Irn-Bru would be unaffected, as inevitably it was, with the accompanying guff from its makers A. G. Barr that nothing would change. However, this is a product that is regarded as something of a Scottish national icon, and its drinkers weren’t going to take it lying down. Whether or not the new version was actually better for you, there was no doubt that it didn’t taste the same.

So, after a long campaign, last year Barr’s released on a trial basis a product called Irn-Bru 1901, which claimed to follow the original recipe from when the drink was first introduced. This proved very successful, and so they have announced that it will become a permanent product. It will only be available in the classic glass bottle, not in slabs of cans, and I’d expect it will be sold at something of a premium, so it will remain a niche product. But there is clearly a demand there which the company have decided to meet. This shows that consumer pressure, if vocal and sustained enough, can change companies’ policies over moves like this.

The brand that really should now follow suit is, of course, Lucozade. This was specifically developed in the first place as a high-glucose drink and served a very specific purpose in helping Type 1 diabetics counter the effects of “hypos”, something that was lost when the sugar content was cut. Surely it would not harm them in the slightest to introduce a “Lucozade Classic” that met its original remit.

In recent years, a number of well-known beer and cider brands have had their alcoholic strength cut. In some cases, such as Stella Artois, the drinkers seem to have grudgingly accepted it, but I can think of others, mainly in the packaged sphere, which have lost their distinctive appeal and disappeared from the shelves. The only beer I can think of where a reduction in strength has been reversed is Bateman’s XXXB, which was cut, at least in the draught version, from 4.8% to 4.5%, but later put back up again. I can imagine a “Stella Classic” at 5.2% would find plenty of takers, even at a premium price, but somehow I can’t see AB InBev being keen to take that idea up.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Will Covid kill cask?

With the prospect of three long, dreary months still ahead of us before pubs in England (allegedly) return to anything like the normality we knew before lockdown, I have to say inspiration for blogging has rather dried up, unless it was to metamorphose into a general blog about Covid policy, which really isn’t my intention.

However, with a limited measure of reopening now in sight, the thoughts of some brewers and commentators have begun to turn to what role cask beer will play in the post-Covid environment. A particularly provocative take came from Ben Nunn aka Ben Viveur who, at the end of last year, asked Will it be COVID that finally kills off cask beer? A similar question was posed here by Beer Drive-Thru. I think the conclusion is very much that it is a classic “question to which the answer is no”, but it is certainly true that, in that brief window of opening last summer, cask ranges were very much trimmed to meet lower demand, and the chances of the beer ticker finding something rare or unusual on cask were greatly diminished. I didn’t notice any pubs dropping it entirely, though.

With the minuscule amount of business currently available from off-licences and pubs doing cask deliveries, some breweries seem to be falling over themselves to grab a share of that market and keep their name in the public eye, with reports of suicidal discounting which surely isn’t sustainable. The cask market has for some years been characterised by oversupply and fierce competition, and it’s hardly surprising that we have seen a revival of calls for the premiumisation of the category. However, as I have repeatedly argued, such as here, this is putting the cart before the horse and isn’t remotely realistic. It may be possible to secure a certain amount of price premium for specific brands or outlets, but for the sector as a whole it simply isn’t going to happen.

Some brewers of cask have cast envious eyes towards the superior margins enjoyed by “craft keg” beers. However, it doesn’t automatically follow that those returns would be available to them simply by switching their beers to keg. At present, craft keg only occupies a relatively small niche of low-volume brews, typically either of high strength or unusual flavour. It doesn’t go head-to-head with more normal quaffing beers, and there’s only a small grey area where brewers have a realistic option either to go for cask or keg.

Drinkers now tend to be loyal to cask as a category rather than to specific brands. At the time of the birth of CAMRA, many people might have seen themselves as a “Tetley Bitter drinker” and be prepared to drink it either in cask or keg form. Now, however, if a pub switched Taylor’s Landlord from cask to keg, pretty much all the people who previously drank it would either move to another cask beer or take their custom elsewhere. Few people see the two as directly competing alternatives, and the only pub operators I can think of who offer one or the other in their estates are Felinfoel and Sam Smith’s.

Nowadays, the pubs that don’t offer cask tend to fall into the categories of places that are effectively restaurants, down-at-heel boozers that only appeal to a local clientele, high-end trendy bars and some beer-focused places that think not selling cask puts across a modern image. Any pub seeking a wide appeal rather than just a captive market of locals will offer cask in some form. There is a huge amount of loyalty to the category that isn’t going to disappear any day soon. The day Wetherspoon's start dropping cask from some of their pubs in England and Wales is the day you really need to start worrying about its future. It’s not just changing a brand on the bar, it’s making a statement about what kind of pub you aim to be.

In fact, the continued health of cask is indicated by the fact that, contrary to many expectations, the number of breweries in the UK, far from falling, continued to increase during lockdown. However, it has to be questioned how many of those are really seeking to derive a full-time income from brewing, and how many are effectively “hobby brewers”. As Mike Hampshire says in this blogpost:

An interesting twist on the number of new breweries opening is that some are being run part-time, where owners and some employees have personal income from elsewhere. It’s a different kind of challenge for the full-time owners who will feel more personal financial pressure as well as the trading difficulties… My fear is, that although we have 3,000 breweries now, we will see many closures in the coming 12 months.
As I’ve argued in the past, the presence of a large number of players who have no imperative to make a proper financial return from their businesses continues to be a major problem for cask and prevents the market operating in a normal manner. Plumbers and carpet-fitters don’t have to contend with people doing it on the proceeds of a retirement lump sum or trust fund, but small-scale brewers do. It has often been suggested that a shake-out of brewery numbers, while painful for some individuals, might bring sanity back to the market. It was thought that lockdown might bring that about, but in fact the opposite seems to have been the case.

Friday, 12 March 2021

Home on the High Street

When it opened in the mid-80s, the branch of Sainsbury’s on Warren Street in the centre of Stockport, along with the ASDA directly opposite, was the first large, modern supermarket in the town. However, times change, and it closed in January of this year. Plans have now been lodged to use the 3½-acre site to construct 550 new homes.

Residential development is often viewed as a way of revitalising town centres, but in practice it doesn’t really work that way. Town centres developed into busy, bustling places not because a lot of people lived there, but because they acted as retail, employment, administrative, service and entertainment hubs for a wide surrounding area. These activities had a multiplier function, with each encouraging the others, and all providing business for hospitality. How many people actually lived within the town centre was largely irrelevant. While there may be thirty thousand people living in Manchester City Centre now, when thirty years ago there were only a few hundred, that is still only the population that would support the couple of dozen pubs in a typical medium-sized market town, and in terms of the centre’s overall pub trade is a drop in the ocean. The city centre has a thriving night-time economy because people travel in from a wide radius all around.

Being conveniently located for a large number of homes is no guarantee of success, and indeed one of the most typical patterns of pub closure is of stand-alone pubs in the midst of residential areas, or next to local shopping parades, which will often be the only pub within convenient walking distance for a large number of people. Going directly to the pub from home in the evenings is a far less typical pattern of pubgoing than is often imagined, and pubs themselves often seem to form clusters that feed off one another. The same is true of villages, where large housing developments in recent years haven’t provided any shot in the arm for their local pubs. Turning a town centre into what is basically a housing estate is likely to have a similar lack of impact.

It’s generally accepted that there is a severe shortage of housing nationwide, and therefore the redevelopment of land no longer needed for retail has to be welcomed. However, it’s questionable whether schemes of this kind are actually providing the kind of homes people want. Most people, especially those with families, aspire to live in self-contained houses with gardens, not in cramped town-centre flats. In the 1960s, there were high hopes for new tower blocks and deck access flats, but in the long term they often proved socially disastrous, and many have now been demolished. You do have to wonder whether developments such as that proposed for Stockport are in effect creating the slums of the future.

Obviously a lot of retail activity has now migrated to the Internet, accelerated by the lengthy closures during the lockdowns of the past year. Realistically, little of this is ever coming back, and so the retail function of town centres is going to be diminished. If land is no longer needed for shops, or indeed offices, it makes sense to redevelop it for housing. But, rather than being a shot in the arm for town centre economies, it is a symbol of their decline.

This does not mean that there is no future for town centres. I wrote here about the challenges for the revitalisation of central Stockport. Humans are social creatures and don’t want to spend all their time cooped up in their houses. However, town centres need to concentrate on those activities where physical presence is important or essential and that can’t be done remotely. And two of the most important elements that fit that definition are entertainment and hospitality.

Friday, 26 February 2021

A slow crawl to freedom

The contents of the Prime Minister’s announcement last Monday of the roadmap to unlocking were widely leaked in advance, so none of the contents came as a great surprise. Sometimes, these pronouncements contain some aspect that was rather better than had been trailed, but this was not to be this time, and so the hospitality trade is faced with a painful and glacially slow crawl back to full reopening in four months’ time. Not surprisingly, my Twitter followers weren’t at all impressed. Lord knows who the 8.7% were who responded “too fast”. However, we are where we are, and the pub trade have to make the best of a bad job rather than crying into their beer. The first milestone is on 12 April, no less than seven weeks away from the announcement, when outdoor opening, including off-sales, will be permitted. It is hard to understand why off-sales weren’t allowed earlier, as they continued during the two previous lockdowns. That is still a long wait, and unless significantly more support is forthcoming in next week’s Budget no doubt many more pub operators will give up the ghost. Speaking personally, the thing I’m most looking forward to is a haircut, as I’m increasingly resembling a member of an early 70s prog-rock band!

Towards the end of Lockdown #1, the possibility of outdoor-only opening was mooted, and I wrote here about the issues it raised, an obvious one being the notorious fickleness of the British weather. The Morning Advertiser reports than only 40% of pubs will be able to take advantage, and Sacha Lord, the Greater Manchester night-time economy adviser, makes the point that it represents a kind of class distinction, as urban boozers are much less likely to have extensive beer gardens than dining pubs in leafy suburbs and villages.

This stage will require pubs to operate table service – it certainly won’t just be a case of serving people pints for perpendicular drinking in the street. This makes swift, responsive service a challenge even indoors, and if you’re in the far reaches of an extensive beer garden you may have a long wait for a refill. And customers will still need to go inside to use the toilets, unless pubs install a battery of portaloos in the garden.

The government have indicated that “outdoors” will be defined in the same way as under the smoking regulations, so a covered area with two out of four sides open will be judged acceptable. So we can expect a rush on suppliers of marquees, umbrellas and temporary shelters. Inevitably this will lead to demands for even further restrictions on smokers, ignoring the fact that for thirteen years they were forced to drink outside at times when nobody else wanted to.

The fickleness of the weather will also pose a challenge for selling cask beer, as it will make the level of trade far more variable than normal. A few days of cold, wet weather may leave you with several largely unsold casks, while a heatwave could clear you out. Having said this, if pubs are in a position to make good use of outdoor facilities, as many are, it does present them with an opportunity that they should make the best use of. And a sunny weekend could prove a goldmine.

Then, on 17 May, pubs will allowed to open indoors, but it is important to remember that this will effectively be under last year’s Tier 1 restrictions, with social distancing, table service and mandatory masks. As I wrote at the time, this results in a regimented, cheerless experience that largely destroys the pleasure of the swift, casual pint. A dining pub can cope without too much problem, but many smaller wet-led pubs reported that the atmosphere was totally gone, as was their profitability. When this came in last year, I largely stopped going to pubs, certainly not to make speculative visits, and I doubt I’ll be particularly keen to rush back in May.

We are told that all restrictions will be removed on 21 June, which fortunately is three days before my birthday. But, unless the requirement for masks on public transport is dropped at the same time, my celebratory pub crawl will definitely be confined to Stockport! This will mean that the pub trade has either been shut entirely, or operating under severe limitations, for a full fifteen months. However, this has been portrayed in some quarters as giving the green light to a kind of bacchanalia, so it’s not difficult to imagine the desiccated sociopaths of SAGE having kittens and decreeing that the Tier 1 restrictions need to continue throughout the summer. I’m not making a prediction, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t happen, but don’t say you haven’t been warned!

I have seen talk of this causing a “summer wave”, but surely, given that respiratory viruses always lose their effectiveness in warmer weather, and that by then a large majority of the adult population will have been vaccinated, this is very unlikely. If it does turn out that the impact of the virus has by then become trivial, and we are able to enjoy the second half of the year to the full, then we may look back on the preceding fifteen months as just a bad dream. A successful and prosperous reopening of the economy will erase a lot of bad memories. But only time will tell.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

The Eternal Whipping Boy

I didn’t really see much point in blogging about yesterday’s announcement about the snail-like pace of reopening the country. It has all been said before. But I thought it would be worth drawing your attention to this brilliant blogpost by Scott Graham aka The Bar Biographer. Scott doesn’t blog often, but when he does he invariably hits the nail firmly on the head.

Amidst the mountains of speculation, one thing is pretty much agreed upon by all observers, pubs will be at the back of the queue for reopening. What is also widely acknowledged is that such a decision has no scientific basis. But that doesn’t matter to politicians, academics, journalists, social media commentators and all the other influencers, large and small. That the licensed trade and night-time economy occupy the lowest rung is more about worthiness than rates of transmission.
He also skewers the narrow-minded, Puritanical attitude of the Scottish government:
Pubs in Scotland will face an even less palatable menu, with Nicola Sturgeon set to look at the schedule set out by Boris Johnson and mirror most of it, particularly its sequencing, but add on five or six weeks for Scotland. That’s because the SNP has an unwritten motto, as do a chunk of the population, “never knowingly less righteous (i.e. authoritarian) than the next country”.
And his conclusion is spot –on. Yes, one day, we will get our pubs back in some form. But they will be hugely diminished from what they were before lockdowns.
Yes, eventually the pubs and social clubs will re-emerge in the UK, maybe even nightclubs and casinos. But the landscape will have changed dramatically, independent operators even more an endangered species, chains such as Wetherspoons ever more dominant. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is the inevitable outcome of the UK establishment once again casting the licensed trade as the whipping boy.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

A swift half century

Next month will see the 50th anniversary of the Campaign for Real Ale, which was started by four young English journalists in Kruger’s Bar in Dunquin in County Kerry, Ireland. Drinks writer Laura Hadland, who tweets as @Morrighani, has been commissioned to write an anniversary history, which is to be released to coincide with the actual date. It is promised to be “warts and all” but it remains to be seen whether that extends beyond a few mildly embarrassing anecdotes to a deeper examination of its objectives and achievements. I’ve pre-ordered a copy, but obviously it hasn’t arrived yet.

Since then, it has enjoyed great success as an organisation, reaching a record membership figure of over 190,000 before the Covid crisis deprived it of the opportunity of recruiting at beer festivals. It was described in the late 1970s as “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”. However, if you look at the wider picture, during CAMRA’s lifetime both the share of real ale in the overall British beer market, and its absolute sales, have shown a dramatic decline, as has the number of pubs in the country. Obviously those trends are due to wider factors largely outside its control or influence, but at least on those terms its record cannot be judged as a successful one.

At the outset, CAMRA’s mission was very clear, and could be expressed as “to encourage pubs to sell beers in established British styles (overwhelmingly Mild and Bitter) in cask-conditioned rather than pressurised (keg, tank or top-pressure) form.” Yes, it was accompanied by assorted baggage in people’s minds about defending tradition and standing up to corporate power, which gave it an appeal across the political spectrum, but it was pretty unequivocal.

However, over the ensuring fifty years there has been a steady accretion of other objectives which have served to blur the organisations’s original single-minded purpose.

These include, amongst others:

  • Encourage pubs and bars to stock real ale

  • Promote traditional British beer styles

  • Encourage new breweries and innovative beer styles

  • Support the appreciation and preservation of traditional pubs

  • Lobby for the pub trade in general

  • Stand up for the wider interests of drinkers

  • Challenge the corporate power of breweries, pubcos and supermarkets

  • Organise beer festivals and social events

  • Offer a discount scheme for pubs and beer festivals

  • Doing all the above for cider and perry as well as beer
All of these are entirely legitimate areas of interest, even if they don’t necessarily float everyone’s boat, and it has often been said that CAMRA is a broad church from which people can pick and choose the aspects that interest them. However, it leaves its objectives as a campaigning organisation distinctly blurred. Who can say, beyond a vague “supporting pubs and beer”, what CAMRA actually stands for now? Some of them even have the potential to work against each other. I have come across some people within its ranks with whom I struggle to identify any areas of common interest at all.

A few years ago, CAMRA underwent a “Revitalisation” process which was supposed to make it more fit for the 21st century and free it from the narrow-minded dogmatism that had often characterised it in the past. However, it’s hard to see what difference it has actually made, and in some ways it seems to have only served to extend that dogmatism into new areas. Does anyone outside CAMRA actually care less whether keykeg beers are “keg-conditioned” or not? And CAMRA’s stance as a generalised campaigning organisation representing all beer drinkers, pubs and brewers is undermined if it refuses to give house room to the beers that most people drink.

Many members still remain blind to the existential threat to all that they hold dear posed by the public health lobby, and much prefer to direct their ire at evil pubcos and supermarkets. It is a massive pivot from assuming your main enemy is business to realising it is government, and one many have no intention of making. Indeed, while it may claim to be promoting something that is “fun”, CAMRA members often taken a very puritanical view towards anything outside their narrow definition. They are often very much anti-smoking, anti-“junk food”, anti-popular culture and anti-gambling, and signally fail to join up the dots. As I quoted in this blogpost,

... if you do a sociological analysis on the IanB Scale, a scale of Puritanism which I invented several seconds ago, CAMRA are a heavily puritan social formation. Puritans come in a number of guises, and can, on the surface seem to be promoting something notionally libertine, such as imbibing an intoxicant. Nudists are another example of a puritan formation that you have to look more closely at to see it. Try bumming a fag in a nudist camp and see the reaction you get.
Back in 2005, before the days of blogs, I wrote an assessment of CAMRA’s achievements to date.
In conclusion, if we take the view that CAMRA has not managed to curb the power of the major breweries, increase the amount of real ale sold in Britain, or stem the tide of pub closures, then it must be judged a failure. Many of the campaigns it has mounted on wider issues have been damp squibs, or have spectacularly backfired. But, to my mind, its lasting achievement has been to greatly raise the profile of beer in the UK, and to encourage the creation a network of producers, outlets and consumers where beer is appreciated in a way that was scarcely imaginable in 1971. Real ale undeniably has to an extent become a niche product, but it occupies a large and thriving niche. And it is the positive promotion of real ale – in all its forms – and the establishments that sell it, that should form the core of its activities in the future. If that means CAMRA drawing in its horns a little, then that would be no bad thing.
And perhaps that message of sticking to the knitting is one it would do well to heed today.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Going viral

Very little in our daily lives has escaped the reach of Covid over the past year, not least in the sphere of beer and pubs. What follows is a collection of miscellaneous musings on the topic that extend beyond the usual subject matter of this blog.

  • The pandemic, or rather the government response to it, has divided families and sundered friendships in a way reminiscent of Leave vs Remain, although perhaps even more bitterly as it is something that is closer to home. There’s a certain amount of overlap, although far from an exact match.

  • It has provided a golden opportunity for authoritarians and puritans of all stripes to advance their hobby-horses knowing that they will receive little kickback. The Burden of Proof fallacy has been working overtime.

    A: We're going to impose Measure X to reduce the spread of Covid.
    B: I'm not sure Measure X is very effective.
    A: So you want to KILL PEOPLE, you monster!

  • There has been a disturbing amount of suppression of views that dissent from the official narrative, with people losing newspaper columns and TV slots and having their social media accounts suspended or deleted.

  • Some people in public life have executed a screeching U-turn and recanted from their previous scepticism. One of the worst examples has been Christopher Snowdon, previously the scourge of the public health establishment on alcohol, tobacco and food policy. In the middle of last year, he was staunchly defending the Swedish approach, but abruptly came round to full-blooded support of the current lockdown. He has compounded this by engaging in mockery of those who disagree with him, completely failing to appreciate the inherent irony.

  • People across all manner of sectors have displayed an unedifying dog-in-the-manger attitude, demanding to know why Business X is allowed to open when they’re not. Sadly, the pub trade and those claiming to support them have been particularly guilty of this.

  • To assert that there is a choice between protecting the economy and protecting lives is to draw a false dichotomy. A healthy economy is an essential foundation for a healthy society.

  • Business failures, economic destruction and a mental health crisis are not caused by Covid, they are caused by lockdowns. Covid is a fact of life, lockdowns are a policy choice. One does not inevitably stem from the other.

  • The police really haven’t covered themselves in glory - arresting people for singing and throwing snowballs, making up the law as they went along on mask exemptions, travel to exercise and what shops were allowed to sell, carrying out heavy-handed and unwarranted raids on pubs on the say-so of one malicious curtain-twitcher, and applying blatant double standards to public protests depending on the cause being promoted.

  • The mask law has encouraged self-righteous, judgmental individuals to feel that they have a right to bully and harass disabled and vulnerable people in public places. It’s all too easy to say “he doesn’t look very disabled”, but of course many of the conditions that entitle people to an exemption aren’t immediately obvious. Anyone tempted to have a go should heed the words of the DHSC:

    And hopefully any person who took it upon themselves to challenge this lady would feel rightly proud of themselves.

  • I don’t doubt that Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Jonathan Van-Tam are able and eminent scientists who are genuinely motivated to do good, but they are only experts in their particular field and seem blinkered to any wider considerations.

    I am reminded of the quotations by C.S. Lewis that “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”, and of F.A. Hayek that "There could hardly be a more unbearable - and more irrational - world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realisation of their ideals."

    It would be a hollow victory to succeed in eliminating Covid while being surrounded by the smoking ruins of a destroyed economy. And, frankly, the policies enacted over the past year seem to have done a much better job of achieving economic destruction. Maybe an economist should be included on SAGE to provide a wider perspective.

    Neil Ferguson, on the other hand, is a contemptible hypocrite with a long track record of failure in forecasting who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near influencing government policy.

  • Some people, with the benefit of hindsight, have argued that things would have been better if we had locked down earlier and harder. However, looking at the situation across the world, there is no correlation between the severity of lockdowns and the success in tackling Covid. Some of the countries with the strictest lockdowns, such as Peru, Argentina and Spain, have had some of the highest death rates. It seems that, in some people’s minds, lockdowns are rather like socialism, that they would work this time if only they were done properly.

  • Lockdowns have been described as middle class people staying at home on full pay making Zoom calls while working-class people bring them stuff – or lose their jobs. There is a clear correlation between the level of social deprivation in an area and the proportion of inhabitants unable to do their jobs from home.

    Media discussions on lockdown seem to be monopolised by people who have suffered no financial penalty. Maybe every panel should have to include at least one person who has been furloughed or lost their job.

  • The past few days have seen a sharp decline in daily case figures and some more positive mood music about the lifting of restrictions. However, there is unlikely to any more clarity about the road forward until the Prime Minister makes an announcement a week on Monday. In the meantime there is a welter of speculation in the media, most of which presumably originates from anonymous government sources, but only serves to spread anger and alarm amongst the population.

  • And I continue to believe that those claiming that most restrictions will be gone by the middle of the year are being hopelessly optimistic. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not making plans for any holidays further away than Argate.

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Through the looking glass

Many people have been complaining about the unreasonableness of the rule that, before the lockdown, only allowed pubs and restaurants to serve alcohol if it was accompanied by a “substantial meal”. It’s reported today that the government have recognised the unfairness of this and are now proposing to create a level playing field by allowing them to reopen, but to ban them from selling alcohol at all.

Presumably at the same time they will also allow hairdressers to reopen without being able to cut hair, and gyms without anybody being allowed to exercise. We truly are plumbing the depths of insanity.

Anyway, this seems to be a suitable theme tune for today.

Friday, 5 February 2021

Fancy a pint?

This Spring will mark forty-five years since I first bought myself a pint in a pub at the age of sixteen. Since then, obviously many things have changed in pubs, not least that that simple act, once commonplace, would now be impossible. And one thing that strikes me is that people are far less likely just to “go out for a drink”.

Back then, pubs were more numerous, they were much busier, and were busier throughout a much higher proportion of their opening hours. And a mainstay of their trade was what I described – people, either singly, or in groups, whether of friends, family or work colleagues, meeting up not to watch sport or to eat a meal, but just to enjoy a drink and a chat. It was a valued third space that was neither home nor work, where you could let your hair down, lose your inhibitions a little, and speak more freely and openly. It was also noticeable how groups would talk between each other, not just amongst themselves. Diners don’t tend to do that. They would often be of mixed ages and, while men tended to outnumber women, would also often include both sexes.

Go to those pubs, now, and the scene will be very different. Many will have closed their doors forever, while others will now be closed at times when once they were busy. It’s easy to say that there’s no point in opening if there’s no trade on offer, but that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I’ve argued before that limited and erratic opening hours are a major deterrent to people visiting pubs in general. In 1976 you knew when the pubs would be open.

Where the pubs are still open, sometimes they will be so deserted as to make casual customers feel uncomfortable. There’s a big difference between a quiet pub and an empty one. Or such a high proportion of customers will be dining that anyone just wishing to have a drink will feel like the proverbial Piffy on a rock bun, and will also have no other drinkers to chat with. Or everyone will be watching the big match, thus stymieing conversation and turning the pub into a monoculture.

This trend is encapsulated by my description of how Sunday lunchtimes in my local pub changed over the years. In the mid-1980s, with only two hours’ drinking, no food, no children, no football and no piped music, it was busy verging on packed. Now, open all day, and with all of those things, it’s virtually empty. “The heaving, wet-only, smoky Sunday lunchtime session of the mid-80s has now given way to a sanitised, smoke-free environment virtually devoid of drinking customers thirty years later.”

Of course this pattern of drinking hasn’t vanished entirely, but it’s much diminished, and pubs are the less for it. Surely conversation lubricated by a drink or two is what pubs, at root, are all about. You often hear sentimental gush about pubs being cosy, convivial places at the heart of their communities, but the reality on the ground frequently bears little resemblance to this rose-tinted vision. The sight of a couple or group coming into a pub, getting drinks and just sitting down to talk can be so rare that it is worthy of note.

One of the places where this mode of pubgoing is still in evidence is in the much-maligned Sam Smith’s pubs where, of course, many contemporary distractions are absent.

Note that I talking here about suburban, small town and village pubs that people are likely to visit directly from their own homes. The customer dynamic in the centres of large towns and cities has always been different.

Friday, 29 January 2021

After the storm

As I said in my previous post, “It may seem a distant pipedream at present, but the day will eventually come when the pubs are allowed to open again.” Planning for the future may appear inappropriate when set against the very high daily death tolls recorded in recent days, but to retreat into panic and despair and refuse to look forward would be irresponsible. It should be remembered that, During World War 2, the Beveridge Report was published at the time of the battle of El Alamein, and the 1944 Education Act was being debated in Parliament while the D-Day landings were taking place.

Although it is still more than three weeks away, the Prime Minister has stated that some kind of roadmap for reopening the economy will be produced on February 22nd, and the past few days have seen encouraging reductions in the number of positive Covid tests and hospitalisations. Assuming the vaccines prove effective, this trend should accelerate in the coming weeks.

However, it would be naive to expect any rapid progress in the sphere of hospitality. Over the past year, it often seems to have been treated as a scapegoat even when there was no evidence it was a significant source of infection. The main differences between Tiers 1, 2 and 3 were in how hospitality was treated. The impression has been given that government is largely indifferent to hospitality and sees it as something essentially frivolous, despite the fact that of itself it is one of the largest economic sectors and oils the wheels of the entire economy.

Even though most of hospitality has been closed for longer than it has been open since March last year, the amount of financial support provided has been distinctly grudging. If the government decrees that you’re not allowed to trade, then by rights it should compensate you for the resulting loss of income. Having said that, the overall level of borrowing that has been incurred is comparable with that needed to fund a major war, and our children and grandchildren will have to bear the burden of repaying it for decades to come. If interest rates had been at historic norms rather than virtually zero, that amount of borrowing would have been impossible, although arguably that unpalatable fact would have concentrated minds.

Looking specifically at the pub sector, the prospects do not seem at all rosy. During the brief window of relatively normal trading over last summer, the vast majority of pubs locally did eventually reopen, the exceptions mainly being ones whose future looked uncertain even before the lockdown. However, I would expect many more that are currently closed never to actually open their doors again, either under their current management or completely.

Last summer, even though capacity was restricted, few pubs seemed to be anywhere near full, and it was clear that many customers were still reluctant to venture out due to continued fear of infection, although the closure of other activities often linked to pubgoing such as theatres and sports venues also had a part to play. Licensees had to walk a tightrope between ensuring that social distancing guidelines were followed and avoiding going over the top with pettifogging restrictions. Sadly, quite a few seemed to fall into the latter camp and turned their establishments into profoundly unwelcoming places. After a winter of further scaremongering from the government, these fears will only be intensified when pubs do eventually reopen, and will lead to continued subdued demand for a long time to come. Indeed, it may never return to being as strong as it once was.

The past year has shown that making predictions is a very risky business, and I’m certainly not going to go down that road. However, on past form, it’s very likely that pubs will be one of the last sectors to be allowed to reopen. It’s probable that, at least initially, the old Tier system will be resurrected. One press commentator suggested that a likely timescale would be for most areas to go into Tier 3 on 8 March (i.e. “non-essential” retail allowed to open), Tier 2 on 6 April and Tier 1 on 4 May. That would mean that wet-led pubs had been closed for a minimum of nine out of the previous thirteen months.

There must then be a serious risk that the government would leave pubs in Tier 1 for a prolonged period. They could claim that the pubs had reopened, while ignoring the fact that they were still operating under such severe restrictions that both their ability to trade profitably and their appeal to customers had been seriously undermined. Tier 1 would be, for many pubs, a kind of living death.

Last October, I wrote about how the restrictions introduced in late September had meant the death of the swift pint. After they came in, I largely stopped going, whereas in the period from the beginning of July I had been doing so quite enthusiastically. This is echoed by this article in the Morning Advertiser in which a licensee argues that having to continue to operate under severe restrictions undermines the whole point of the pub:

As a wet-led pub, my stock-in-trade is the “pub experience”. I provide a haven for single people, people unwinding after work and people out to socialise.

The very nature of a wet-led pub is the socialising and the atmosphere. Any level of restriction has a massive impact on the experience and by opening with restrictions we are effectively destroying our own long-term prospects...

...People’s most recent memories of the pub is as a soulless place.

A pub should be a carefree place where people go to relax and enjoy themselves, not somewhere you’re being repeatedly questioned and hassled by both the staff and other customers. Going to the pub is a discretionary leisure activity; people aren’t compelled to do it, and and if they become sonewhere that is perceived as unwelcoming then people just won’t bother.

Back in December, I asked my Twitter followers to what extent they expected these restrictions to be lifted by the end of 2021.

There was a wide spread of responses, which were slightly skewed towards the more positive end of the spectrum. However, only 28.5% thought the restrictions would be completely gone, and 44.7% thought that most or all would still be in place. That isn’t a prediction, and I sincerely hope these fears are unfounded, but it doesn’t bode well for the recovery of the pub trade.

The Wickingman has also set down some thoughts on the issues surrounding the reopening of pubs here.

Edit: There is a report today that the government are considering abandoning the Tier system and opting for a single system of restrictions across England. While in a sense that might seem “fairer”, it would delay reopening as all areas could only proceed at the speed of the slowest.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Feeling the draught

It may seem a distant pipedream at present, but the day will eventually come when the pubs are allowed to open again. When it does arrive, the licensed trade will be in need of all the help it can muster to get back on its feet. One idea that has been suggested by CAMRA is to reduce the rate of duty on draught beer only.

This has a number of reasons to commend it. By definition, draught beer is only served on licensed premises (apart from the occasional person buying a cask or keg for a party) and so this would be very accurately targeted. It is clearly defined and virtually impossible to evade. Plus, unlike with reducing duty for all beer, or indeed all alcohol , sold in the off-trade, there would be no possibility of seepage into the off-trade. Even if someone buys a container of draught beer to take home, the pub still gets the benefit, and it can’t really be done on an industrial scale.

However, it’s important not to get carried away. It’s likely that most pubs would use it as an opportunity to rebuild their margins rather than passing it on directly to the customer. The exception, as usual, would probably be Wetherspoon’s.

And how much difference to consumer behaviour would it actually make? The duty plus VAT on duty paid on a pint of 4% beer is 52p. Even if that was halved, it would still only be a gain of 26p, which is well under 10% of the price of most pints. That’s really neither here nor there for most pubgoers and, as I wrote here, isn’t of itself going to tempt them to drink much more in pubs. “Responsible people who aren’t on the breadline, which is most of us, don’t go to the pub because the opportunity doesn’t arise, not because they can’t afford it.”

I’m also inherently suspicious of any attempts to use the tax system to discriminate between “desirable” and “undesirable” activities. For a start, they often have little effect, especially when going against the grain of people’s behaviour. Despite the 50% duty cut, there hasn’t been any upsurge in consumption of 2.8% ABV beers, because people just don’t want to drink them. And, although there aren’t really likely to be significant issues in this case, such policies also tend to lead to “tax break specials” to get around the spirit of the legislation, and have the potential to produce adverse unintended consequences.

Some CAMRA diehards will grumble that the majority of the benefit will accrue to the drinkers of Carling and Stella, not real ale. But the objective is to support pubs, not real ale as such, and it should not be forgotten that two out of every three pints drunk in pubs are lager, while only one in seven is cask beer. It is the lager drinkers who keep the pubs going.

Another question is how such a measure would interact with the existing systems of lower duty for very weak beers, and higher duty for very strong ones, and Small Brewers’ Relief. Plus the anti-drink lobby will be up in arms at any cut in alcohol duty, no matter how worthy the motivation.

Given the current state of the public finances, the likelihood must be that, in his Budget in March, the Chancellor decides to raise alcohol duties across the board. So, even though it may in theory have much to be said for it, don’t expect a cut in draught beer duty to figure on his agenda. And I doubt whether much, if any, draught beer will end up being sold in March anyway.