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.