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.