Monday, 26 July 2021

Back in the groove

Last Monday at last saw the arrival of the delayed “Freedom Day”, when all formal Covid-related restrictions relating to pubs were lifted. However, in the context of rising numbers of positive tests* and many businesses being crippled by workers self-isolating due to the “pingdemic”, the impact was distinctly muted. The expectation of some kind of bacchanalia being unleashed signally failed to materialise.

As I have discussed before, my personal appetite for pubgoing was very much reduced over the preceding ten months due to the combined impact of the various restrictions, which largely destroyed the pleasure of the swift pint. If you were visiting pubs on spec you had no idea of what kind of atmosphere to expect. Ironically, I found Wetherspoon’s to be one of the most tolerable, partly because they simply don’t have enough staff to micromanage the behaviour of their customers. But pub atmosphere in Spoons is limited at the best of times, let alone when they are operating table service only.

However, during the past week I have felt able to get out and visit a few more pubs, including a wander round central Stockport on a very hot afternoon. Indeed I have visited more different pubs over the past seven days than I did in the whole of the preceding ten months. Obviously my observations only reflect my own experiences, and with the exception of Wetherspoon’s these were all very much traditional “proper pubs”.

None of the pubs were operating any kind of door control, so there was no problem in gaining entry and walking up to the bar. Only one, for some reason, insisted that I write my details down for track and trace purposes. I only spotted one bar person wearing a mask, in the pub where possibly you might least expect it. One barmaid said to a customer “I bet you don’t recognise me without a mask”. A handful of customers entered in masks, but very much in the minority. One pub had a sign saying “Please wear a mask when moving round the pub”, but nobody, including the landlord, did. No pub apart from Wetherspoon’s was operating table service for drinks. I paid cash everywhere apart from ordering a meal in Wetherspoon’s – I did also buy a pint there with cash and use a CAMRA discount voucher.

In general, the pubs were fairly quiet, although that was probably more a function of visiting them at slack times than an indicator of the overall level of trade. There were clear signs of the normal kind of pub life and interaction returning. The usual crew of codgers were there in the Boar’s Head in Stockport at 11.45 am on the Monday morning as though nothing had happened over the preceding ten months, although I hear that their elderly pub cat Felix has sadly died.

The quality of cask beer was in general pretty good, especially considering the hot weather. I wasn’t served with anything I didn’t want to drink, and the temperature was fine. In fact, the warmest pint I had was in Wetherspoon’s (although still within an acceptable range) - possibly a reflection of slow turnover. In the 1976 heatwave I’m sure many broiling pints would have been served up, which anecdotally was a major factor in the shift to lager drinking during that decade.

I also travelled on a bus for the first time since August of last year, and noted that none of the ten or so passengers, of varying ages, were wearing masks, and neither was the driver.

A few establishments, mostly at the “crafty” end of the spectrum, have stated that they are continuing with the previous restrictions, including wearing face masks. Presumably this is to appeal to excessively risk-averse people who dare not brave the “cesspit” of Wetherspoon’s. Obviously it is their right to do this, just as it is my right not to favour them with my custom.

It should not be forgotten that, under the restrictions that applied previously, few pubs beyond out-and-out dining venues were able to trade profitably. The removal of the restrictions at last gives them the chance to operate as they were intended to, and they will hopefully be able to take advantage of the second half of the summer. Given a clear run through to Christmas, many of those pubs that have survived will be able to re-establish themselves on a firmer footing. There have certainly been many comments on Twitter about both the atmosphere and the trade returning, such as this one from the Olde Cottage in Chester.

However, there will surely be continued pressure from the sociopaths of Public Health for further lockdowns and restrictions. Nobody should be in any doubt, though, that any return to mandatory table service, social distancing and masks would bring about the permanent closure of many pubs that have survived so far. Fortunately though, in the past few days, there has been a sharp decline in the number of positive tests reported, very possibly because of the start of the school holidays. I don’t want to go too far in reading the tealeaves of Covid statistics, but this must give grounds for encouragement.

My feelings last Monday were certainly not ones of joy or delight, but just profound relief that an important part of my life had been restored to something approaching normality. However, at teatime I felt sick to the stomach on hearing that the government were reintroducing the abhorrent, totalitarian concept of vaccine passports. This despite the fact that vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi had categorically promised earlier in the year not to do this. The government’s relationship with the country seems to be very much that of an abusive partner, giving a little treat in the morning and then delivering a kick in the crotch later in the day, while continually lying about their intentions and making false promises.

It has been stated that vaccine passports would only apply to nightclubs and similar crowded venues, but mission creep is inevitable, and it was certainly floated earlier in the year that they would be extended to pubs and restaurants, something that would cause huge practical problems and be severely destructive of business. Fortunately the idea has attracted a wave of political opposition, but we are certainly far from out of the woods yet, and everything remains to play for.

* Positive tests cannot be equated with cases. For something to be recorded as a “case” surely requires a formal diagnosis.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

A welcome to all ages

The trade are often keen to make the point that pubs act as a community hub for a wide cross-section of society and are far more than just commercial businesses. There could be no better illustration of this than this heartwarming story from the Manchester Evening News of 93-year old Gordon Williams, who visits the Cart and Horses at Astley near Leigh four afternoons a week, and has been using the pub for 75 years.
Gordon, a former miner, will visit the Wigan pub four afternoons a week and sticks to his classic order of two pints of Joseph Holt Black.

“I don’t understand why more people of my age don't go to the pub,” Gordon says. “It's so sociable, you never need to be lonely. And, of course, the beer is wonderful.”

And he’s right. There is a lot of congeniality and sense of belonging to be found in pubs even if you’re just exchanging a few inconsequential words with other customers.

However, a key point here is that he is able to visit the pub in the afternoon. Pensioners in general much prefer going out in the daytime, and tend to avoid the evenings, especially after it gets dark. Yet nowadays more and more pubs, especially community locals, do not open at lunchtimes during the week. Of course no pub is under any obligation to open when they don’t regard it as profitable, but by staying closed they forfeit any claim to be accommodating the older generation.

But it’s not enough just to be able to get in the pub. People like Gordon want somewhere comfortable to sit rather than having to clamber on to a high stool at a posing table. They don’t want to be hassled if they spend an hour occupying a table while nursing a pint. They expect someone will have a friendly word for them rather than being isolated amongst a sea of self-absorbed dining groups. And, of course, if the pub has already closed down during the carnage of the last couple of decades, it won’t be able to offer a welcome to anyone.

I’ve never been there personally, but it sounds as though the Cart and Horses does an excellent job of meeting all these requirements. But, while the hospitality industry may boast of fulfilling a wider social function, it has to be said that many of the establishments it represents fall a long way short.

The Cart and Horses itself has an interesting history. It has been owned by Joseph Holt throughout its life, and celebrated its centenary last year. But it was in fact a former private residence called Farnworth Lodge that was converted to a pub when Holt’s closed and demolished their former pub of the same name across the road.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Cask crisis deepens

Last week saw the untimely death on his 67th birthday of David Thompson, the former chairman of Marston’s, which, it should be remembered, in fact originated as Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries, but took on the name of the Burton-on-Trent company after taking it over in 1999. He was the last member of the founding family to run the business, and had assumed the position of Managing Director in 1986 at the age of only 32.

It also saw the retirement of his successor, Ralph Findlay, who was interviewed by Roger Protz here. He offered a sobering assessment of the current state of the cask beer market.

“Cask has taken a terrible hammering,” he says. “The beer market is no longer a cask market. It’s a changing demographic – young people are not drinking cask and brewers are putting their money behind craft beer.”

“Banks’s and Pedigree haven’t performed well,” he says bluntly. “The market is changing and the Banks’s market is disappearing. There are no mild drinkers left – the industry has gone.”

Of course, some responded that it’s hardly surprising as Marston’s beers aren’t much cop anyway, but that falls into the familiar trap of assuming that everyone else is going to like what you like. Most people who drink beer in pubs don’t drink cask anyway, and those who do aren’t in general interested in beers they’ve never heard of. The idea that keg and lager drinkers will suddenly be converted to real ale if only their local pub was able to stock Crudgington’s Old Snotgobbler is a fallacy that dates back to the early days of CAMRA.

Of course the pub trade is still operating under lockdown restrictions, and it will be some time before things return to anything like normality. Increased footfall and turnover may improve the position of cask. But overall this is a very pessimistic view of its prospects. It echoes many of the points I made three years ago when I wrote about The Cask Crisis. As I explained in that post, there’s no simple answer, but they key must be that pubs treat cask as being at the core of their offer rather than just an afterthought at the end of the bar.

Part of the problem is that the whole system of cask storage and dispense was designed for high volumes and rapid turnover. It is ill-suited to a world where endless variety is prized and there is an increasingly long tail of niche products. Quality is the Achilles Heel of cask, and it is all too easy to get into a vicious circle of declining sales leading to a lower and less consistent standard of beer. It’s not that it’s often completely off, but it’s all too common to come across pints of cask that are just that little bit warm, flat and stale.

I haven’t yet seen much evidence of pubs removing cask beer entirely, although obviously I haven’t been out and about anything like as much as normal over the past sixteen months. Yes, it is happening at the margins, but not really in the kind of pubs you would naturally expect to stock cask. The situation in this area is also affected by a high proportion of pubs belonging to family brewers which are strongly committed to cask. It is when we begin to see the high-profile pubco pubs no longer feeling that they need cask as part of their offer that we really need to start worrying.

You might well think that, if cask beer is struggling, there is already an organisation ideally placed to champion and promote it, and indeed incorporates it in its name. However, over the years, CAMRA’s objectives have multiplied and become more diffuse, and cask beer itself doesn’t seem to feature very high on its list of priorities. No doubt many members will say that Marston’s beers wouldn’t be much loss anyway, while happily sipping on a keg mango sour in the craft bar. It is a touch hypocritical to claim that you are campaigning for real ale while at the same time dismissing most of it as not really worth drinking. And if you erode the mainstream market, you reduce the number of potential recruits for the supposedly superior products.

Despite what some revisionists may claim, CAMRA’s original purpose was not one of promoting choice and innovation in the beer market. It was to champion the idea that the ordinary, everyday ales served in British pubs should be cask, not keg or top pressure. They were more than happy to list pubs selling Banks’s and Pedigree in the Good Beer Guide. And that is what the organisation seems to have lost sight of.

So possibly it is time to look more to the Society for The Preservation of Beers from the Wood, or revive this idea which I floated a few years ago. Or maybe cask will only be saved if it is freed from the clutches of “beer enthusiasts”.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Freedom beckons

There will have been a huge sigh of the relief in the hospitality industry when the Prime Minister announced last night that it was his intention to remove virtually all the remaining Covid restrictions from 19 July. This will come almost exactly sixteen months after pubs and restaurants were required to close on 20 March last year.

While restrictions have varied somewhat in different areas, around here the pubs were completely closed for eight of those sixteen months. For most of the rest, they have been limited to serving outside, or only serving alcohol with substantial meals, or operating under a strict regime that both destroyed their profitability and severely undermined the customer experience. For only eleven and a half weeks, from the beginning of July to late September last year, were they able to operate with anything approaching normality, although still labouring under capacity curbs.

However, nobody in the pub trade will imagine that they will then be out of the woods. One licensee has said that it took him three or four years for his trade to return to what it had been before the smoking ban, and he expects something similar after lockdown. Many people will have been so traumatised by sixteen months of official scaremongering that they will still be very reluctant to return to their former habits. Younger people have consistently greatly overestimated the personal risk to them of Covid.

On the other hand, many pubgoers have been deterred to a greater or lesser extent by the restrictive regime that pubs have had to operate under for the past seven weeks. Added to this, many pubs seem to have taken an unsympathetic and over-zealous approach to applying the regulations. It’s not all or most by any means, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s a substantial minority, not just a few isolated examples. It’s all very well to exhort people to support pubs, but most people go to the pub as an enjoyable leisure activity, not out of a sense of duty. I don’t want to harp on excessively about this, as it should soon be a thing of the past, but this exchange is a fairly typical example.

With the furlough scheme being wound up, many people are likely to be strapped for cash and worried about their jobs, and thus reluctant to go out and spend money. This may be offset by the reported general health of the wider economy, and the fact that many people who have remained in work will have been able to save money during lockdown. There certainly seems to be no shortage of jobs on offer in hospitality itself.

Some of the people who have been praising pubs for their strict adherence to Covid rules may feel discomfited by the new free-and-easy atmosphere, but I suspect they will very much be in the minority and, unless trade is dramatically higher than it was pre-Covid, there will still be plenty of half-empty pubs for them to rattle around in.

Earlier in the year, it was reported that pubs would still be required to collect customer details for test and trace purposes even after all other restrictions were removed, but it now seems that this is to be dropped. It had in any case become largely voluntary, with many people deleting the NHS app out of the fear of getting pinged, and pubs finding that their manual records contained a surprising number of visits by Matt Hancock and Chris Whitty. It had in effect become a pointless bureaucratic burden to both pubs and customers, and would be impossible to enforce in a busy pub with bar service and no door control. It’s also questionable whether, with something that is so endemic as Covid, applying it to hospitality is anything more than an exercise in pissing in the wind.

There will be nothing to stop pubs maintaining Covid regulations if they choose to, but I’d expect most of them will go by the board for the simple reason that they restrict capacity and thus profitability. Some dining pubs may choose to stick to an all table service model, thus effectively turning themselves into restaurants, or adopt the divisive practice of mandatory app ordering. But I really can’t see any pub insisting that customers put on a mask to go to the toilet.

The possibility has been raised of some restrictions having to return in the winter if there is a surge in Covid hospitalisations. But surely that is unlikely if the vast majority of the adult population has been vaccinated. The objective of lockdown should have been as a one-off emergency measure to prevent the health service being overwhelmed, not a routine tactic of infection control. If there is to be a surge, the government have plenty of time to plan for it. It would seem unreasonable in the extreme to pull the rug out from the hospitality industry just as soon as they had got back on their feet. No business can plan for the future if they fear being arbitrarily restricted at a moment’s notice. and cancelling Christmas again will go down like cold turkey.

This isn’t a done deal yet, as the plans still need to be formally confirmed next Monday and, predictably, all the enthusiasts for permanent lockdown have been busy attacking them. However, the government have signalled a very clear commitment and to renege on them now would involve a highly embarrassing climbdown. In fact, there was no reason why we couldn’t have unlocked a couple of weeks ago, as the SAGE forecasts of hospitalisations on which the decision to extend the lockdown was based proved to be hopelessly pessimistic. However, what is done is done and now the pub trade needs to look forward to the future.

It should be noted that all of the above applies only to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will not be unlocking on the same day, but will probably, as usual, tag along a few weeks behind just to prove that they are different. But that will mean that pubs in those regions will have lost most of the summer rather than just half of it.

Friday, 2 July 2021

Back to Imasas

When I was a child, my dad used to sing a fragment of a comic song from before the war that went “I’m going back to Imasas”. But it didn’t refer to some exotic place down Mexico way, but to “Imasas the pub next door.” You can listen to a version here.

However, it seems that the idea of having a pub next door is far from universally popular. Boak and Bailey recently ran a Twitter poll in which 58% of respondents said they wouldn’t want a pub to open next door to their house, and discussed the results here.

It’s not really surprising that most people don’t want a pub right next door, considering all the noise and comings and goings that it entails. And, compared with a generation ago, pubs are both open considerably later and conduct much more of their business outdoors. It’s unlikely to be a Herne-pattern micropub used by a handful of codgers who are all off the premises by 9.30.

However, realistically, if you live in any housing developed after the First World War, a combination of planning constraints and the limited commercial prospects mean that it’s highly unlikely that anyone actually will open a pub right next door to you. What many areas do have, though, is small suburban shopping parades where the decline of traditional types of shops has opened up an opportunity for a different type of business. But, in practice, any application for a licensed convenience store, a takeaway or a small bar is likely to meet with stiff opposition which is often tinged with snobbery on the grounds that it will “attract undesirables.”

In fact, in recent decades the trend has very much been for pubs to move out of residential areas. Many smaller wet-led pubs in villages and urban backstreets have closed, and the standalone pub in the middle of a large housing estate has been one of the most endangered categories. Where new pubs and bars have opened, it has tended to be in town centres and the more prosperous suburbs or, for dining pubs at least, on retail parks. Some desirable suburban high streets have developed whole strips of fashionable new bars.

While people may not want a pub right on their doorstep, there remains a strong attachment to the idea of having one in the neighbourhood in general. Estate agents’ surveys have consistently shown that a substantial proportion of people see having a “local” as an important criterion when choosing somewhere to live. However, the idealised vision may be in conflict with the reality, and where new housing estates are built it often seems that they generate little or no trade for the existing pubs in the area.

It’s important to remember that pubs are certainly not something with universal appeal. Surveys have shown that almost half of people never visit a pub from one month to the next, although the proportions vary across different age groups. Those who fall into that category are likely to see a local pub as a blot on the landscape rather than an appealing facility.

This discussion prompted me to run a Twitter poll on how many people have a pub or bar within comfortable walking distance of their house. This showed that almost two-thirds of respondents had somewhere that they could call a “local”, even if it might not be right next door. However, I accept that my followers probably aren’t representative of the population as a whole. More than one person replied that they wouldn’t buy a house that wasn’t within walking distance of a pub.

I chose ten minutes as I remember reading a survey that said that, for most people, ten minutes was the maximum they were prepared to walk to a pub, although I don’t have a reference for it. I know some will say “I’d happily walk an hour for a pint of Batham’s”, but most of the population don’t see it that way, and pub owners need to bear that in mind when analysing the appeal of their premises.

The picture at the top shows the Black Hose in Burton-on-Trent, an end-terrace pub where complaints from neighbours were a factor in its closure a few years ago.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Never let you go

While it had been well signalled in advance, the news yesterday that the end of lockdown restrictions was being postponed by a further four weeks will have come as a bitter blow to the hospitality trade. Business leaders have warned that the delay will ruin the industry.

Few pubs, especially wet-led ones, are currently able to trade profitably, and many are hanging on by the skin of their teeth in the hope that things will eventually improve. Less than a quarter are confident of being able to survive three months. A delay to 19 July will mean losing over half the summer, by far the most lucrative season for most. They will also miss out on the entire Euro 2020 football tournament which, along with the World Cup, is the biggest moneyspinner in the trade.

Pubs are bleeding to death. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the government are conducting a deliberate vendetta against them. They certainly seem supremely indifferent to their fate. Yet at the same time, forced into a sanitised experience in pubs and unable to socialise there in large groups, many people will be choosing to go to house parties instead, where social distancing guidelines are well-nigh impossible to police.

I have criticised the snail-like pace of the unlocking roadmap, but at least it provided a clear timetable and hope of light at the end of the tunnel. If we had unlocked next Monday, a lot would have been forgiven and forgotten. But to kick the can down the road for a further four weeks will result in a huge erosion of trust. This will only have been compounded by the sight of large groups of world leaders socialising unmasked at the G7 summit on Cornwall. It clearly seems to be one rule for us and another for the little people.

The move has been condemned by numerous respected commentators and newspaper leading articles. I could offer a forest of links, but will just give you this unpaywalled one from David Paton of the University of Nottingham.

The delay to the reopening is a devastating blow to many businesses and sectors, such as the events industry, sports, music, theatre and hospitality. There ought to have been compelling evidence for any delay. But there is nothing in the data to justify it.
It’s quite an achievement to unite the Daily Telegraph, Theresa May and Sadiq Khan in opposition to your policy. Yet it will get through the House of Commons without difficulty because, as throughout the past fifteen months, Starmer will act as Johnson’s nodding dog. The official opposition have abdicated their responsibility. You don’t have to oppose the policy outright to scrutinise it properly and force the government to account for their decisions, and Labour have signally failed to do this.

Predictably, many from the scientific community had urged the government to delay the unlocking, and will no doubt now be feeling pleased with themselves. But, of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They have no skin in the game, and no responsibility for anything beyond their own narrow remit.

We could bandy statistics about all day, but it’s worth noting that the current level of hospitalisations is below the lowest of five scenarios produced by SAGE when the roadmap was originally announced on February 22. The average number of Covid deaths in England over the past two weeks was 7.7, or scarcely more than half of one percent of all deaths. There is plenty of evidence that vaccinations have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations. There is no realistic chance of the NHS being overwhelmed, which is what was put forward as the original justification for lockdowns, not keeping the population under the heel until Covid had virtually disappeared.

Johnson has stated that he is “confident” that the restrictions will end on July 19. Yet there has been a long trail of such broken promises before. And, as the next review date approaches, the joyless sociopaths of SAGE will no doubt be ramping up the pressure to persuade him to extend the lockdown even further. It is being seriously suggested that the partial lockdown is now likely to continue all through the winter, in which case we would have precious few pubs left at the end of it.

Last September, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made the decision to unlock the state against the advice of the scientists, and the state has never looked back. Large swathes of the US are fully open again despite a considerably lower vaccination rate than the UK. Yesterday, Denmark cancelled all mask mandates, and today Israel has scrapped all Covid restrictions. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Many foreign commentators have expressed their surprise at the high level of restrictions that persist in the UK despite the highest level of vaccinations of any major European country. In reality, SAGE will never let go willingly, and eventually Johnson is going to have to face them down, or we will never be set free. As before, I’m not making any specific predictions, but suffice to say that I will be pleasantly surprised if I am actually able to order a pint at the bar on July 19.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Never glad confident morning again

The British craft beer movement has been marked not only by a commitment to brewing interesting and innovative beer, but by taking a principled stand against various “isms” in society. However, that image has been considerably tarnished this week when 61 former workers of craft standard-bearer BrewDog published an open letter accusing the firm of hypocrisy, exploitation, and toxicity. The full text can be viewed here. This paragraph is particularly telling.
BrewDog was, and is, built on a cult of personality. Since day one, you have sought to exploit publicity, both good and bad (and usually with the faces of James and Martin front and centre) to further your own business goals. Your mission might genuinely be to make other people as passionate about craft beer as you are (and in a sense you have succeeded - your fanbase certainly has some true zealots in its ranks), but the ambitions you impressed on your team have always seemed business-led. Growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company, and the fuel you have used to achieve it is controversy.
This is not an isolated incident either. Last week, Cloudwater brewer Charlotte Cook published this angry and passionate article in which she recounted similar experiences of workers at a number of other smaller but still well-known craft breweries, and stated "These companies are not run as businesses, but as theocracies."

However, perhaps these incidents are not aberrations that betray the spirit of craft, but something whose seeds are contained in the very nature of the project.

It is recognised that the founders of successful start-up businesses often tend to be single-minded, driven people with little regard for social niceties, who often trample roughshod over the concerns of others. Their behaviour is tolerated and excused as long as the money keeps flowing in.

In a non-beer field there was a prime example of this recently in the case of Ray Kelvin, the charismatic founder of fashionable clothing brand Ted Baker, who was ousted by the company after a catalogue of misdemeanours including the creepy forced hugging. Yet, as sales tanked without him at the helm, he was later brought back in some capacity, although not restored to the leadership of the company.

In beer we have seen the cult of the “rock star brewer”, although we don’t hear so much of that nowadays. This is very much putting the emphasis on personalities, and rock stars themselves are not noted for their sympathetic treatment of those around them.

This tendency can be compounded in organisations that lay claim to some higher moral purpose beyond merely that of making money. It is sometimes believed that charities, local government and the health service are friendly and unthreatening work environments compared with the cut and thrust of the private sector, but often they are the scene of even worse bullying and abuse, partly because the restraint of actually needing to make a profit is taken away. Any complaint is seen as undermining the noble objective. There have been many examples in non-profit organisations of a toxic atmosphere developing because individuals were afraid to challenge the dominant culture.

As companies mature, they grow out of a reliance on individual personalities, and become the impersonal corporate behemoths that are often seen as the embodiment of what craft is setting itself against. But, while the likes of Heineken may be widely derided, they have HR departments, employment policies and grievance procedures, and any abuse of this kind would probably be swiftly nipped in the bud and not allowed to fester.

Looking forward, it’s not hard to imagine that, as a response to these issues, companies create a different but just as stifling climate of fear in which a blanket of conformity is thrown over the whole organisation and people live in fear of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps it is time for craft brewing to concentrate on the beer and stop proclaiming that it is trying to change society. It needs to become less of a movement and more of just another market segment.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Smoked out

The Covid crisis has provided a golden opportunity for the Puritans and bansturbators of the public health lobby. Not content with just delivering patronising lectures to the general population about their behaviour, they have been able to actually ban people from doing a wide range of activities. The fact that pubs have either been completely closed or operating under severe restrictions for fifteen months must have gladdened their stony hearts.

However, as the Covid curbs start to be slowly and grudgingly eased, they will be looking at other ways of pursuing their joyless agenda. One obvious candidate is further limiting people’s ability to smoke outside pubs. Several local authorities tried to do this when pubs were given extra temporary pavement licences, but were told that during an emergency this would be unnecessarily divisive and further erode pubs’ ability to trade profitably.

Now, the Morning Advertiser reports that five local authorities have already included no-smoking conditions in pavement licences. And Oxfordshire is going one further and declaring an ambition to become the first smoke-free county in England. It does need to be pointed out that all these measures apply only to licensed public areas, and not to outside areas on the pubs’ own property, but the desired direction of travel is crystal clear.

After the smoking ban came in, many antismokers claimed that pubs could still cater for smokers as they could pop outside for a puff. This was always a pretty weak argument, but it is rendered completely void if they are unable to smoke anywhere near the pub.

While some people find environmental smoke unpleasant, there is no convincing evidence that it is harmful in an outdoor environment where it is rapidly dispersed. And there are many other things that people find objectionable, but aren’t banned, such as screaming children or fat sweaty blokes in T-shirts with brewery logos. In any case, pubs are quite at liberty to ban smoking in outdoor areas if they think it will benefit their business.

Although they are treated like pariahs, smokers are still more likely to visit pubs than non-smokers, possibly because they are by nature more convivial and less health-obsessed. But if they can’t smoke at all, they’re not going to be inclined to go in the first place. For landlocked pubs with no outside area apart from the street, this could a threat to their viability. And presumably licensees will be held responsible for enforcement in the area attached to their pub, just as they are with the indoor ban, as opposed to just leaving it to council jobsworths, which might positively invite mass non-compliance

The range of outdoor spaces where smokers are tolerated is steadily being diminished. It is a classic example of the technique, seen over the centuries, of “othering” despised and marginalised minorities. The targets may change, but the tactics don’t. And can we honestly believe this will never be applied to drinkers too?

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Categorising the Germans

Regular readers will be aware that I have a fondness for authentic German lagers. So I was pleased last September to see Paulaner Münchner Hell appear on the shelves of my local Tesco, priced at £2 for a 500ml bottle. Initially it was not included in any multibuy offers, which some customers might have found a deterrent, but it was later brought within the scope for their regular 3 for £5 offer on premium bottled lagers and ciders. £1.67 a bottle is a very good price, and it seems to sell pretty well.

I was interested to see last weekend that Morrisons had started stocking the similar Hofbräu Original, albeit at the steeper price of £2.50 and not included in any multibuys. I suspect many Morrisons customers will find that price distinctly steep, so it remains to be seen how much they will actually sell, although I and many others would not jib at paying it for German imports in independent off licences such as the Bottle Stop in Bramhall.

Personally, although both are good, I prefer the Hofbräu to the Paulaner, but a Twitter poll I ran last year found Paulaner to be the favourite amongst the six well-known Munich breweries. This was perhaps a slightly surprising result, as most of the smart money had been riding on Augustiner.

This raises the interesting question as to where supermarkets should place these beers on their shelves. I’ve discussed before how the beer aisle is divided into distinct sections such as premium bottled ales, mainstream canned lagers and craft beer, and many customers will only look at one or two areas and disregard the rest. Tesco have chosen to place the Paulaner alongside the 660ml bottles of Stella and San Miguel, and include it in the same offer, which makes logical sense according to its style.

Morrisons, on the other hand, have placed the Hofbräu together with the “world beers” such as Duvel and Sierra Nevada, where its relatively high price might not stand out so much. Possibly those browsing that section might appreciate its quality more, but on the other hand it could end up being overlooked if it is the only beer there in that general style.

It’s puzzling that German beers, despite their undoubted quality and their central role in the development of lager, never seem to have got the recognition in this country that they deserve. Our four biggest-selling lagers purport to have Canadian, Australian, Danish and Belgian origins, and the most fashionable one is Italian.

And it would be nice to see Jever Pilsener, which is very different from the Munich beers, appear in the mainstream supermarkets!

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Toying with expectations

Just over three months ago, I wrote about the government’s painfully slow roadmap to unlocking the economy, and in particular the hospitality trade. Some interpreted this as simply a moan about the glacial pace, and indeed to some extent it was. The mantra of “data not dates” seemed to only apply in one direction and, despite a very swift fall in infections and deaths, no opportunity was taken to bring the key milestones forward. However, I also said that, at the end of the day, what people will remember is whether we reached the destination in the end, rather than how quickly we got there.

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.
The first two major steps – allowing outdoor drinking on 12 April, and then indoor drinking under tight restrictions on 17 May – both happened according to plan. There were reports that some ministers had wanted to delay indoor opening due to the threat from the “Indian variant”, but this never actually seemed likely to come to fruition. But now, three weeks away from the supposed final step of removing all restrictions, things are starting to look much more cloudy. I think I was being quite prescient when I said:
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!...
Of course the Indian variant is something that shouldn’t be casually dismissed, but so far its impact seems to be fairly localised and there’s no evidence it’s getting out of control. Covid-related deaths continue to average less than ten a day across the whole of the UK, and the increase in reported cases is mainly due to a programme of surge testing in affected areas. Most of those testing positive are relatively young and thus at little or no risk. There are certainly no grounds for using it as an excuse to abandon the whole unlocking plan.

Yet we are seeing all kinds of conflicting reports coming out, which are toying with people’s expectations and leaving us none the wiser as to what is actually likely to happen. On the one hand, we are told that everything is still going according to plan:

But, on the other hand, some scientists are calling for a two-month delay: It may not be that long to wait for her, but for many pubs it would mean missing out on full trading for a second summer season in a row. And remember that “Independent SAGE” was the body set up because they felt that Chris Whitty and company were being too lax on Covid restrictions!

Today it has been reported that the government are considering diluting the plans by relaxing some of the social distancing guidelines, but maintaining the requirement for masks. Surely, though, the mask mandate is a key plank of the whole apparatus of restrictions, and no thought seems to have been given as to how this would impact on hospitality. Ending capacity limits means allowing perpendicular drinking, but that is completely incompatible with expecting people to wear masks.

Some pubs have reported fairly healthy trading in the first two weeks of indoor opening, but many others are finding things desperately quiet. Look at these two accounts from a pair of award-winning regular Good Beer Guide entries in the North-West:

Many thousands of pubs, especially wet-led ones, are completely unviable while these restrictions remain in force.

Nothing has yet been decided, so all is still to play for. But there is now a serious risk that the 21 June target will slip. This isn’t just a case of whether punters can have a drink at the bar – it is whether many people will have a viable business at all, which must be a hugely stressful situation, and makes forward planning impossible. If they lose another summer season, many pubs are unlikely to make it to Christmas. Over the past fifteen months, hospitality has consistently been treated as a scapegoat and been about the last sector to be unlocked, despite no evidence of playing a disproportionate role in spreading infection. Nothing seems to have changed. And my hoped-for birthday pub crawl of Stockport on 24 June is looking in serious doubt.

Unless there was clear evidence of infections rocketing, a delay would involve a major loss of credibility and political face on the part of the government, and hopefully this will lead them to draw back from the brink. The whole point of setting a leisurely timetable was that the public could have confidence it would be achieved.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Reservations about reservations

Although pubs have now been allowed to reopen indoors, the requirements for table service and continued social distancing mean that they are unable to operate at anything like full capacity. To make the best use of that capacity, many have introduced advance booking systems where they didn’t before. And this has led to the inevitable complaints about customers making bookings and failing to turn up.

If you don’t contact the pub in advance to cancel, this is of course pretty thoughtless and inconsiderate behaviour. I’m not defending it for a minute. However, if it really does cause a serious problem for pubs, then surely the remedy is in their own hands, to require people making bookings to give a deposit in advance which is not refundable unless they give sufficient notice of cancellation.

Many will reply that it isn’t quite that simple, and undoubtedly it isn’t a one size fits all situation. There are two different scenarios – making bookings for food and just for drinks. Booking for meals is well-established and any pubs operating it will be used to a certain level of no-shows.

Booking for drinks service, on the other hand, is more of a novelty, though, and something pubs may feel is forced on them by reduced capacity. I can’t say I’m a fan of the idea at all, but it’s maybe understandable that a pub feels they would prefer to serve a free-spending party of six rather than a solitary codger occupying a whole table while nursing a pint. However, people may feel less compunction about cancelling a drinks booking rather than one for a meal, and there have been stories of people making multiple bookings and choosing the one they fancy most on the night.

Pubs may feel that requiring a deposit is going to put customers off making bookings in the first place. That may be true to a limited extent, but if people are deterred by it, it suggests they weren’t entirely committed to their plans in the first place and thus more likely not to turn up. Pubs have to make a judgment of balancing one factor against the other.

And, in general, if you are accepting walk-in customers as well as bookings, a cancellation doesn’t impact all that much on your earning capacity if the space can be taken by other customers. It is a more serious issue if you are operating on an advance booking only basis. As a general rule, unless you’re supremely confident about filling all your space, operating a mix of bookings and walk-ins will minimise the downside risk.

So I return to my original point, that customers cancelling bookings is an unfortunate fact of life, and if you feel it causes a serious problem for your business the solution is a simple one of requiring deposits rather than just moaning about it on social media. And Wetherspoon’s seem to get along fine without taking any advance bookings at all.

Edit 21/05/2021: It has been pointed out on Twitter that the EPOS systems used for card payments in many pubs may not accept remote payments. That may well be true, but I’ve been making card payments over the phone for thirty years, so surely it isn’t an insurmountable problem for pubs to do it if it’s important to them.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Maskerade

As of today, pubs in England will once more be able to welcome customers indoors, although they will still have to operate table service. Pubgoers will also be legally obliged to wear a face mask on entering a pub until they are seated (unless exempt) and also if they get up to visit the toilet or go outside for a smoke. It is very hard to see how the act of putting a mask on as you walk in from the street and taking it off again thirty seconds later is going to make any difference to the spread of the virus. Are we expected to believe that it freely circulates at head height, but not at shoulder level when people are seated?

Even if you accept the rationale for masks, the way people are expected to use them in pubs goes completely against the official guidelines. “Avoid taking it off and putting it on again in quick succession,” they state. But even if you only make one toilet visit during your stay in the pub, you will still go through that sequence three times. It will be considerably more if you’re settled in for a long session.

I’ve seen teenagers in the street ask if any of the group has a mask on them so they can borrow it to go in the chippy, and it’s not hard to imagine the drinking school of codgers in Spoons dong the same for a fag break. What is more, the guidelines recommend that you should wash your hands before putting on a mask. But, in a pub, you can’t do that without visiting the toilet, for which you will need a mask. The whole way they will be used in pubs is completely at variance with the pious hopes of the official advice.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, rather than having any impact on disease control, this charade is basically a means of psychological manipulation intended to perpetuate a sense of crisis. Hopefully in practice many pubs will end up turning a blind eye to it, as plenty of shops already do, although obviously they won’t want to advertise the fact for fear of attracting a wave of censorious finger-pointing.

However, given that it has been reported that the legal requirement for masks will come to an end on 21 June, in line with the roadmap, it will be interesting to see how committed pubs remain to enforcing it, and customers to adhering to it, as the deadline approaches. This of course has now been cast into doubt by the Indian variant, but it remains to be seen whether this will actually throw the timetable off track. No doubt I will return to that subject in the coming weeks.

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.