Monday, 21 November 2022

Think of the children

The Scottish government must be disappointed by the effect of the raft of anti-alcohol measures they have already introduced, so they have decided to double down by launching a consultation on restricting or banning alcohol advertising. The full document can be read here. It covers a variety of options from prohibiting sports sponsorship all the way to placing alcohol products behind curtains in shops as with tobacco. It’s unlikely that all of these measures would be implemented at once, and in any case in a national market the scope for Scotland-only curbs is limited, but the desired direction of travel is clear.

I’ve written about this at length in the past, so I don’t propose to go over old ground. But it’s generally accepted that the primary function of all advertising is to encourage brand switching and to bring new products to the public’s attention. The effect on the overall level of demand for the category is minimal. This is especially true of problem drinkers, who will go for whatever they can get their hands on at an affordable price. Over time, removing alcohol brands from the general public consciousness might have a moderate effect on dampening demand, but it would be a very slow process. We can see this with tobacco where, despite a total advertising ban, above-inflation price hikes and severe restrictions on where it can be consumed, the total level of sales has only gradually declined.

The authors of the document seem particularly concerned about the impact of advertising on children, and indeed have come up with a cringe-inducing “easy-read” version of it, from which the image above it taken. Being exposed to alcohol images apparently has a pernicious effect on children, even though they must regularly see people drinking in pubs and restaurants.. But surely young people start drinking alcohol because they are introduced to it by family or peer group members, not because they see a poster for Madri or Smirnoff. It seems to be a case of recruiting children as soldiers in the war on alcohol.

The public health lobby must be well aware that they are exaggerating the impact of advertising restrictions on consumption levels. But it serves their purpose to foster a climate of moral panic to promote a long-term process of denormalisation.

Some smaller producers may have a sneaking sympathy for measures to prevent sports sponsorship and TV advertising. Surely that will hurt the big players and help the little guy. But that is embarking down a dangerous road. Advertising restrictions will always work against new products and new entrants to the market, and reinforce establish brands that people are familiar with. They serve to ossify the market in its previous form. Tobacco brand choice now relies entirely on word-of-mouth and folk memory of how things were before the ban. It would be completely impossible now for a new company to enter the market, or to introduce an entirely new cigarette brand.

Drinks retailers have reacted with alarm to the prospect of having to put alcohol products out of sight. And it should not be forgotten that whisky is Scotland’s biggest export earner, and I can’t imagine the industry being particularly pleased about being prevented from advertising their product in its home country.

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Losing your deposit

Next August, the Scottish Government will introduce a Deposit Return Scheme under which buyers of all glass and plastic bottles and cans used to package drinks, both alcoholic and soft, will be required to pay an additional 20p deposit which they will be able to reclaim when they return the empty container, the objective being to achieve a substantial increase in the recycling rate. While this is well-intentioned, it is likely to cause significant practical problems for both businesses and consumers which is the last thing they need at a time when everyone is struggling with a cost-of-living crisis.

Any business supplying these products in Scotland will incur additional costs in designing Scotland-specific packaging, as obviously the affected items will need to be clearly identifiable. The two categories of product will then need to be kept separate in the distribution chain. Some producers for whom Scotland only accounts for a small part of their business may well conclude it is no longer worthwhile to supply it at all, thus reducing the choice for Scottish consumers.

Retailers will need to adapt their point-of-sale systems to cope with the deposits, and there is also an unresolved question as to how they will be treated for VAT purposes. They will have to separately account for the revenue and pay it over to the government. And there will be further administration associated with repaying the deposits on returns, and storing them until they can be collected. The collections will require the creation of a whole new logistics system. Fortunately many smaller retailers have now been exempted from the need to act as collection points.

It’s all very well saying that you can reclaim the deposit when you return the container to where you bought it from, but it’s not always as simple as that. If you have a car and routinely drive to the supermarket it may not be too much trouble, but you will still have to gather the containers together and queue to have them redeemed, particularly at busy times. Each container will need to be individually checked to confirm that it falls within the scheme. With the best will in the world, there will inevitably be many car trips specifically undertaken just to return drinks containers.

There will inevitably be pressure to sign up to some kind of scheme to have the refunds paid directly into your bank account, which will further undermine the use of cash and result in more tracking of people’s activities and movements.

If you don’t have a car, you will have to physically lug all your bottles and cans to a collection point, or get someone else to do it for you. If someone else does your shopping for you, it creates a layer of negotiations between neighbours and relatives as to how the deposits are handled. If you give someone a gift of a bottle, you’re effectively gifting them the deposit too.

Where groceries are ordered online and delivered directly to the home, presumably there will be an expectation that the delivery driver will have to collect the empties too and arrange credit to your account, as it would clearly be unreasonable to expect shoppers to physically return them somewhere. That, though, will make the logistical task of deliveries much more complex, with an inevitable increase in costs.

While in theory you will be able to reclaim the deposit and so not be out of pocket, increasing the headline price of products will produce the perception that the cost of living has gone up even more. There is a question mark over whether it will affect the official inflation statistics. And it will undermine Scotland’s minimum alcohol pricing scheme by increasing the headline differential across the border. The sticker price of a 20-can slab of Tennent’s Lager will be a further £4 cheaper in Carlisle than in Dumfries.

Obviously I don’t live in Scotland, so won’t be directly affected. Currently my local council gets me to collect all bottles and cans in a brown bin which is collected monthly. There may be a question mark over how many of them actually get recycled, but it isn’t particularly onerous and seems to work smoothly. They would still need to do this, as it covers a lot of items such as milk cartons and coffee jars which won’t fall within the scope of the DRS.

I would need to separate out the items with deposits and then store them securely within my home, as their value would make them attractive to thieves. From my point of view, it would make life much simpler if someone, either the council or a private company, could collect all the deposit items directly, even if they charged a commission on it.

Many of the most thorny issues revolve around online ordering and delivery, which particularly affects the small brewery sector. I’ve not been able to find any clear answer to this in the literature I have read, but I would assume that any deliveries physically made from outside Scotland would be excluded from the scheme, as otherwise it’s likely that many vendors would simply refuse to supply Scotland entirely because of the cost and administration involved.

However, that isn’t an option for small brewers in Scotland delivering directly to customers, and that is what SIBA have been rightly concerned about and have made strong representations. Apparently the legislation includes a requirement to arrange for physical takeback of online orders, which seems completely impractical in general, but particularly for small producers. It does seem that they have achieved some progress on this, but there is still a long way to go.

“It is therefore encouraging that the Scottish Government has today recognised some of the issues facing the scheme in the Emergency Budget Review and have indicated a willingness to amend the online takeback element which currently would prevent any small producer from selling online in Scotland next year.

“However we would urge the Scottish Government to look again at the requirements for small producers which, as currently designed, are threatening business closures and jobs in Scotland and will lead to reductions in choice and an increase in price. Many small breweries have already told us they will have to stop selling beer in cans and bottles in Scotland because of the multi million pound costs of the scheme to small producers.”

Maybe there needs to be an exemption for smaller producers based in Scotland, which would predominantly be brewers, although inevitably there would be grumbles about unfair competition and edge effects.

It may be that all these issues prove to be just teething troubles, and the system will work well enough once it is bedded in. However, given the SNP government’s past track record on delivering such projects, I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.

Friday, 11 November 2022

Last orders for lout?

At the beginning of this year, Wetherspoon’s carried out a substantial revamp of their beer range, one of the major elements of which was delisting products from the Heineken Group. This meant the disappearance of two 5.0% ABV draught lagers, Heineken itself and Kronenbourg 1664, leaving the only product remaining at that the strength as San Miguel, owned in the UK by Carlsberg.

5% premium lagers were once one of the leading segments of the British beer market, but recently seem to have become very much eclipsed. What was once its flagship brand, Stella Artois, has been reduced in stages from 5.2% to its current strength of 4.6%. The draught lager range in my local Spoons is now San Miguel, Stella, Corona and Budweiser (both 4.5%), the “premium standard” Coors at 4%, Carling (4%), Carlsberg (3.8%) and Bud Light (3.5%)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with beers of any particular strength, although it’s probably fair to say that few beers are improved by being made weaker. Obviously there is a duty saving to brewers, but it may well be that less strong premium lagers suit customer preferences in making them more sessionable and keeping a slightly clearer head.

When I have written about this in the past, I have suggested there might well be some degree of customer kickback, but this doesn’t seem to have happened. But, whatever the motivation, it certainly represents a major shift in the beer market. There has been a similar movement in the cask market, where beers of 5% and above don’t find many takers nowadays, and a number have had their strength cut.

A new product category has been devised for these products – Mediterranean Lager – which encompasses those of both Spanish and Italian identity. To get a share of the action, in 2020 Molson Coors launched a new product, Madri Excepcional, which has been very heavily promoted in the succeeding two years. While this may appear to be of Spanish origin, it is in fact an entirely concocted brand that bears no relation to anything actually sold in the Spanish market, as explained in this article, which is basically a recycling of a press release.

This will cause much harrumphing amongst those still outraged by the fact the Wainwright is brewed in Wolverhampton, but the fact of the matter is most drinkers are no longer particularly concerned about authenticity and provenance, as I wrote back in 2011. This is a point reinforced by this article hanging on the recent closure of Jennings. Nobody is being deceived, as having a product with the vague trappings of Spanish or Italian style is sufficient. There are plenty of examples in the general food and drink field of products that lay claim to a particular national identity but in fact have little or no presence in their supposed home markets.

I was recently in my local convenience store where the two lager brands being heavily promoted were Madri and Moretti (owned by Heineken), both 4.6%, which certainly would not have been the case five years ago. And I suspect in the current climate it would be very difficult for any major brewer to launch a new mass-market 5.0% lager brand. If you do want an authentic British 5% lager, though, you could do a lot worse than Samuel Smith’s Pure Brewed.

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Nature abhors a vacuum

From the beginning of October, new regulations were introduced in England to restrict the display and promotion of HFSS foods (“high in fat, sugar and salt”) in larger shops. While this has been disingenuously promoted as only affecting “junk food”, in fact it covers a huge swathe of everyday food items including chocolate, sweets, crisps, cereals, cakes, biscuits, sausages, pies, cooked meats and full-fat dairy produce. It means that such products can no longer be displayed on aisle ends or free-standing islands, and have to be confined to the body of aisles.

The purported objective is to reduce the rate of obesity, although there is little evidence that it is likely to prove effective. Experience shows that advertising and promotion may affect product choice, but have little impact on the total quantity purchased. And, even if it did work to some extent, should we really be treating adult consumers like naughty children who cannot control their urges? As stated by Tom Harris in this article, which in general has been very much superseded by events:

I must accept that no one forces me to eat pizza or Mars Bars; those are my choices, made by an adult with the full knowledge of the consequences. To assume that other, mostly poorer citizens have no such agency strikes me as unforgivably patronising.
However, it has come into force, and shops have to rejig their displays to comply and find something else to replace the HFSS items. One obvious candidate is alcoholic drinks, which are not covered by the same restrictions, and Grocery Gazette reports a significant increase in such displays, something borne out by my own observation. Instead of walking in through the door and being confronted with a pyramid of Quality Street and Celebrations tubs, you will now find a pile of Corona and Madri packs. This will inevitably raise the hackles of the public health lobby, leading to them stepping up their campaign for further curbs on the placement of alcoholic drinks, something that has already been done in the Irish Republic.

At the time of the smoking ban fifteen years ago, I and many other of its opponents argued strongly that similar restrictions would inevitably be applied to alcoholic drinks sooner or later. However, in practice very little has happened in that direction, although the Irish Republic and other parts of the UK have gone somewhat further down the road than England. I wrote about this at the beginning of 2020.

What I would never have predicted is that so much of the energy of public health lobbyists would be redirected towards so-called “unhealthy” food. And there is more to come, with severe restrictions on the online advertising of HFSS products to come next year, which will make it very difficult for smaller producers to promote their businesses. So far, alcohol has escaped relatively lightly. But it would be very complacent to assume that will always be the case.

Friday, 21 October 2022

Many unhappy returns

I recently had a somewhat unedifying experience in one of my local Wetherspoon’s:

One or two people suggested that I shouldn’t have complained about it, as the pint was changed without demur, which indeed it was, although the novice barperson had to consult with his supervisor first. Indeed, Wetherspoon’s in general have a very creditable policy of changing duff beer without quibble. You never get “have you tasted it?” or “real ale’s meant to be like that”.

But surely having to return a pint is something that should only be necessary on very rare occasions. The customers shouldn’t be expected to do the pub’s quality control for them, and it shouldn’t be regarded as a regular hazard of choosing cask beer. Indeed, that was the second time in a row when ordering a guest ale in Spoons had resulted in it going straight back.

The whole business of taking beer back to be bar is fraught with difficulty. Many people are understandably very reluctant to do, on the grounds that they’ve gone out for a drink, not a confrontation. I wonder how many drinkers would have struggled through that duff pint and ordered a Shipyard or a Guinness next. On CAMRA pub crawls, when the group have returned poor beer, I’ve occasionally seen an old boy in the corner pluck up the courage to do the same.

I’m normally pretty dogmatic about it if there’s an obvious fault such as the beer being cloudy or vinegary. Beer is so expensive nowadays that you shouldn’t have to put up with poor quality. But it’s more difficult if the problem is a more subjective one, such as the beer simply being in general a bit stale, flat and warm. If I knew the landlord, I might mention it, but there again the pubs where I know the landlord are not those likely to serve poor beer very often.

In an unfamiliar pub, though, discretion can often be the better part of valour. If it’s a pub that I’ve just visited for the one pint, and am never likely to visit again, just leaving the beer and walking out may be a better option than having an argument. When making a complaint, you always need to have a clear view of what your objective is. If it’s getting a replacement, that’s fair enough, but in a pub with only one cask beer you may not want any of the replacements. A refund is also a valid aim, although that can leave a sour taste in the mouth. But if you just want to have a bit of a scene it may be wise to count to ten and walk away. And I’ve heard other customers remark “some people just come out to complain!”

Most of us who enjoy cask beer will choose most of the time to drink it either in familiar places where we have a reasonable expectation of a good pint, or in those recommended to us by friends, social media or publications such as the Good Beer Guide. But we have to recognise that our experience can be very unrepresentative. Once you venture “off grid”, the experience of drinking cask beer can too often be pretty dismal, as I found back in 2011 in and around Hereford.

I do make a point of sometimes seeking out new pubs, or ones I haven’t visited for years, and I have to say sometimes it’s very disappointing. For example, I recently called in at a pub that had been described as a community local but in fact was more of a smart dining pub. Four beers on the bar, all good ones from the better-known micros. I chose my favourite amongst them, but it was terrible – hazy, no head, full of bubbles, slightly off aroma. It was changed for another, which to be honest wasn’t all that much better. But it always takes a lot of moral courage to return two beers in succession as frankly, however, justified, it tends to make you look like a bit of an arse. So I drank it and went on my way, and I don’t think I’ll be going back there in the near future. That isn’t at all untypical of going “off grid” and, very often, the pubs where that happens also have the dearest beer.

And, every time someone feels the need to return a pint to the bar - or indeed chickens out of it - the reputation of cask beer takes another little knock.

(There are some reflections on the issues around returning beer on this post by Martin Taylor.)

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Closed for you

In recent years, we have seen many pubs and bars adopt much shorter opening hours than in the past, often opening at what may seem odd times of the day and not at all on several days of the week. Given the financial and staffing pressures pubs are under, no individual pub should be criticised for doing this, provided that they publicise their hours clearly and don’t vary them on a whim from day to day.

However, they need to be aware that they are limiting their appeal to regulars who are in the know, and deterring casual trade. You may feel that there is little value in being open for certain hours of the day, but in fact giving potential customers the confidence that you are going to be open at all is likely to increase trade overall. Although it relates to cafés, this is a point made in this article by Rory Sutherland in the Spectator.

It cannot escape the notice of café operators that one reason why both chains and immigrant-run businesses do well is that they are open consistently and open late. But this isn’t simply because they sell more stuff later in the day by dint of being open: the reality is more complicated. If you stay open two hours more, even if you sell little in those two extra hours, you will still profit over time, because you will get far more business in your core hours. Firstly people are more confident that you are open: nobody plans to rendezvous in a café where there is a 20 per cent chance it’ll be shut. And no one really enjoys eating in cafés in the hour before closing, because once the staff start ostentatiously delactating the nozzle on the coffee machine, it ruins the vibe.
An important factor in Wetherspoon’s appeal is that they are open all day, every day. You can arrange to meet someone in Spoons at any time and have the confidence they will be open. You don’t need to go online to check what their hours are. The same is true of other managed house chains – locally, for example, with Holts.

And the increasing unpredictability of opening hours must be a factor deterring people from visiting pubs in general. Limited hours may make sense at the level of the individual venue, but overall it results in a kind of “tragedy of the commons”. “Pubs? You’re lucky to find one open!”

As an aside, fairly recently a craft beer shop opened in my local suburban shopping centre. I’m sure they open the hours that they feel suit their business. But most times when I’m visiting the area, it’s closed, so I can’t even have a browse.

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

Reculer pour mieux sauter

Pete Brown has weighed in to the discussion about the future of cask by suggesting that one of the best ways of improving its perception is to take it out of a whole swathe of marginal outlets. He correctly identifies that poor turnover is the single biggest problem it faces.

One of the biggest of the many issues facing cask is throughput... This is a huge problem, and it’s getting bigger. Brewers would love it if publicans who don’t sell a cask in three days take it off sale. But as cost pressures on the publican mount, that’s the last thing they’re going to do. Only 24% of pubs selling cask sell enough of it to guarantee a maximum three-day shelf life. If you were to just look at the peak selling time of Thursday to Sunday, that number is 54% – but that’s down from 62% since 2019. So pubs that can’t sell cask fresh enough are actively driving people away from drinking cask.
He has used data on beer flow produced by the Oxford Partnership to divide pubs into segments depending on how much cask they sell and what proportion of their overall draught sales it represents, as shown in the graphic below. This shows that 39.1% of pubs stocking cask only represent 13.9% of total cask volumes. Surely removing cask from these pubs, where it doesn’t sell much, and isn’t given a high priority, would do wonders for its overall perception for relatively little loss of volume.

While this kind of approach may seem persuasive, it’s important not to confuse becoming leaner and fitter with just wasting away. 13.9% is a seventh of the total market, which would leave a gaping hole that would not be solely felt by the bigger brewers. It also has to be remembered that most people who drink cask are not dedicated cask drinkers. They visit pubs for a whole variety of factors, but happen to choose cask from the range of drinks presented to them. Take it away, and they would drink something else rather than making a beeline for the nearest cask pub. It would have the further effect of reducing cask’s overall visibility, so they would see it less often, and be less likely to choose it even when they did encounter it.

The biggest problem with Brown’s analysis, though, is that he has made a fundamental schoolboy error that frankly I find surprising from someone with such long experience of writing about the industry. The figures that he is quoting look at total cask turnover in a pub, not turnover per cask line. It is entirely possible for a pub to only sell 24 pints a day, yet still keep it in decent nick if they only have one beer and get it in firkins. Indeed plenty of small rural pubs do just that and achieve entries in the Good Beer Guide. On the other hand, a pub can be selling 72 pints a day, but if that is spread over five or six different lines, customers are going to end up with a lot of stale dishwater.

Yes, you do come across a fair number of family dining pubs and sports boozers where there’s one apologetic handpump for Doom Bar or Wainwright at the end of the bar and you have to wonder how much of it they ever sell. Losing these outlets would not do cask much harm. But it is possible (although usually not the case) that these pubs have a group of dedicated regulars who provide ample turnover for that one beer.

But the true problem is all the pubs whose eyes are bigger than their belly, and put on far more lines than they can actually shift. It’s not a single type of pub – it covers the high-profile urban managed pub belonging to the likes of Stonegate or Mitchells & Butlers, rural gastropubs and of course Wetherspoon’s, many of whose outlets really don’t seem to have much cask turnover at all. As an example, I was recently in one of their local branches, admittedly not the one in the Good Beer Guide, where there were ten cask lines. Thinking I would use some of my CAMRA discount vouchers, I ordered one beer, which was cloudy and went straight back. It was replaced by another that was at least clear, but was plainly well past its best. Frankly, I approach ordering guest ales in Spoons with considerable trepidation.

The problem even spreads to the well-known specialist beer houses which we are regularly assured have the turnover to maintain freshness. But when you see a pub with more pumps than customers on a Monday or Tuesday you do have to wonder, and I have sometimes had very poor beer in multi award winning pubs. To some extent, I tend to think this is done knowingly to provide a wider choice, a trade-off that is accepted by many of their customers who are prepared to take somehing of a risk in seach of variety. But the occasional punter will still be unimpressed by getting a poor pint in the Connoisseur Tap where his mates assure him the beer is brilliant.

What is needed to improve the perception of cask is not so much a cull of outlets, but a cull of lines. We need to see a dramatic reduction in the range of beers offered by many pubs. There is no reason why this should impact on volume, as the same level of sales will simply be spread over fewer beers, thus improving quality. As the choice offered often seems to consist of a multitude of similar pale beers, it doesn’t necessarily need to result in a loss of stylistic variety either. We should get away from the poster image of cask as an array of different colourful pumpclips stretching along a bar, and move to one of two or three handpumps standing proud in the middle of the counter with a row of kegs on either side.

Virtually the whole industry recognises that cask turnover is a major problem, but everyone thinks it’s up to someone else to do something about it, and so nothing ends up getting done. Having a very fragmented industry is a good thing in many ways, but it does reduce the scope for one operator to make a move that will shift the market.

A year on from now, that drastic cull of lines won’t have happened. Cask volumes will have declined further, and the chorus of complaints about stale beer will continue unabated. So it seems to be stuck in an endless cycle of rinse and repeat as it slowly disappears down the sink.

Tuesday, 4 October 2022

A crack in the edifice

Last week, I was taken aback to go into a Sam Smith’s pub and find that they had started accepting card payments. On everything too, not just food orders, and with no minimum spend. I had heard a rumour that this was in the pipeline, but it still comes as a shock to see it actually happen. I’m not sure whether it applies to all their pubs, or just those serving food.

There’s maybe something to be said for wet pubs being cash only, as it’s a good way of keeping twats out. But, when it comes to ordering group meals costing over £30, many people will find it much more convenient to pay by card, and if a pub will not accept that form of payment they may well take their business elsewhere.

Indeed, I once saw the licensee of a Sam’s pub give a couple a personal cash advance, which they then refunded by a payment into her own bank account made by online banking using their phone – outside the pub, of course. That’s no way to conduct a business. And it seems that Humphrey Smith has finally noticed that this policy was damaging his bottom line and decided to relent. (It’s worth noting that, beforehand, there was a minimum spend that effectively restricted card payments to food orders, plus a surcharge. Card payments were discontinued when surcharges became illegal in 2018).

However, a policy remains in charge that arguably is even more offputting to customers , namely the complete ban on using smartphones or any other kind of electronic devices. This is something that most people will regard as completely ridiculous, and is a regular source of friction between staff and customers. I’ve heard staff apologise for having to remind people about it, but they have said they’ve had a warning from Humphrey and are left with no choice.

It would be fair enough if customers were asked to keep devices on silent, and take any animated conversations outside. But to pounce on them for simply checking the time of their train home is absurd. It is just the prejudice of an eccentric old man who seems to be living in the past. I’m prepared to put up with it while I read the paper over a pint or two, but it’s hardly surprising that it leads many people – including pensioners – not even to cross the threshold of a Sam’s pub.

Being put in a position of being expected to enforce ridiculous rules is unsurprisingly a major disincentive to people wanting work for the company as managers, and at least a third of the estate is currently boarded up, including some very attractive properties in prime locations. This piece about the lovely-looking Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in North Wales underlines the point. The whole sorry situation is described in this article by Glynn Davis, although it has since been superseded by the relaxation of the card payment ban.

Life would be very dull if all pubs were much the same, and for many years Sam’s have sought to cultivate a distinctive appeal, which is summed up by Anthony Avis in his book The Brewing Industry 1950-1990: “The custom is aimed at the older person, who relishes a good pint, with home-produced food if he wants it, and the surroundings to sit down and talk with his companions in unfashionable comfort – just like the brewery industry advertising of forty years ago represented pubs to be”. And, as I wrote back in 2017, which still holds true today:

What really makes the difference is the pubs. What I’m basically looking for in pubs is to be able to enjoy a quiet drink and chat in comfortable surroundings, and Sam’s deliver that much more reliably than any of their competitors. There’s no TV football crowding out everyone who isn’t interested, and no blarting piped music played for the benefit of the bar staff. I can’t recall a single example of a high-level posing table in a Sam’s pub, while bench seating and comfortable chairs are the norm.

While plenty of Sam’s pubs serve food, you never get the overwhelming concentration on dining that makes anyone just wanting a drink feel out of place. And, while there’s no general ban on children, you don’t tend to come across too many infants screaming and running amok. Yes, a well-kept pint is important, but I don’t really want to go chasing after a slightly better beer or a wider range in otherwise uncongenial surroundings.

It should also be added that Sam’s have been very respectful custodians of their pubs’ architectural heritage, particularly in contrast to a certain Stockport brewery. They have carried out a number of very high-quality refurbishment schemes in their London estate, and other parts of the country have benefited too, such as the Queen’s Head (Turner’s Vaults) in Stockport, which is a superb example of pub conservation with a unique interior.

Humphrey Smith is now in his late seventies, and one can only hope that when the time comes that his successors will respect the company’s distinctive heritage and appeal while removing the obstacles that deter people from both visiting their pubs and working for them. But there must be a nagging fear that they will end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

A fresh approach

This week is Cask Beer Week and, as Roger Protz reports, the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) have launched a new initiative to promote cask entitled Drink Fresh Beer. At first I thought this was just another glib marketing gimmick, but on looking further there’s a lot more to it.

The Achilles heel of cask beer has always been inconsistent quality over the bar, and by far the biggest problem is slow turnover, leading to tired, lacklustre beer. At its best, fresh cask is great, but all too often it falls far short of that, and you just don’t know when ordering it. Most people in the industry acknowledge this issue, but are always very reluctant to put it into practice because they are too attached to offering a wide range of beers. As I have written in the past, it’s a case of waiting for the other guy to blink first.

Now, this SIBA scheme is seeking to address this issue head on by providing customers with the details of when a beer was put on sale.

Once they reach the bar, an AR-scannable pump clip will help beer drinkers learn more about their favourite drink, how far it has travelled to the pub and when the cask was freshly tapped.
Hopefully this information will be made more obvious than having to fiddle about with a QR code, but the principle is there. This is something that I have suggested in the past in a somewhat mischievous spirit, and I probably never thought it would actually happen. The report goes on to say:
To ensure the quality of beer across the venues involved, pubs participating in the campaign will be asked to sign up to the Fresh Beer Promise. Alongside campaign materials at the Point of Sale in their pub, they will commit to stocking at least two handpulls with a rotating third cask on tap and ensure a high standard of freshness by promptly replacing casks and take part in initiatives to improve quality.
Maybe it needs to be extended to those pubs that only have the turnover for one or two lines, but the intent is very clear. It’s unpredictable as to what effect knowing when a cask was tapped would have on customer behaviour, but people would soon find out through a process of suck it and see. They wouldn’t automatically choose the one-day beer over the two-day one, especially if it wasn’t their preferred style, but if there was nothing on the bar under five days they’d probably be looking at the lager and Guinness pumps or going elsewhere. It would give pubs a rocket up the backside and lead to a substantial and overdue curtailment of over-extended beer ranges.

It’s probably wishful thinking, but it would be good to see this initiative rolled out across the entire industry, particularly to Wetherspoon’s, who in my experience are the biggest culprits when it comes to selling stale beer. And, if a pub operator won’t sign up, it will be a clear indication that they have something to hide.

Obviously, rapid turnover is not the be all and end all of beer quality, and there are other issues that need to be addressed such as hygiene, temperature and conditioning time. There is no guarantee that a fresh beer will be a good one, but it’s pretty certain that a stale beer won’t be.

Over the summer there been an initiative called The Cask Project which has sought to promote the category while at the same encouraging debate about the issues surrounding it. While much of it has been very worthwhile, it has to be said that some has failed to appreciate the fundamental nature of the product. For example, one strand was “There’s a cask beer for everyone” which, in the reality of the typical pub there simply isn’t, as they won’t have the turnover to stock more than a couple, which will probably be a hoppy golden ale and a classic brown bitter. If you want that 8% mango sour you’ll have to look for it on keg.

What is needed, surely, is to go back to basics as to exactly why people should choose cask ahead of other beers. Back in the early days of CAMRA, the main priority was trying to convince people why cask ale was better than its keg counterparts. Nowadays, mainstream keg ales are a sector in steep decline, and the issue is more of how to appeal to people who drink lager, Guinness or cider. The key USP has to be saying that, at its best, cask offers far more richness, depth and complexity of flavour. And, of course, although this is very much in conflict with the current zeitgeist, it is a link with this country’s brewing traditions.

No doubt it will turn out to be a damp squib, but if the fresh beer initiative took off it could be a real shot in the arm for cask beer.

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

A picture of health

It seems an age away now, but it’s only two weeks ago that we saw the installation of a new Prime Minister and with it the selection of a new Cabinet. One appointment that raised a few eyebrows was that of Thérèse Coffey as Health Secretary. Ms Coffey is what might be politely described as a “larger lady”, and has been known to enjoy a drink and a cigar, leading some people to suggest that she would not be setting a good example. One the other hand, others felt it might not be such a bad look.

I’m the last person to criticise others for their lifestyles, and it has to be accepted that some people are simply naturally more solidly built than others. All the dieting in the world isn’t going to make her look anything like Kate Moss. Surely it is better to have someone who will get to grips with the political and administrative challenges of the job rather than simply acting as a role model. And she must be a vast improvement on the egregious Matt Hancock, who may have been more svelte, but always came across as if he was giving a middle management pep talk. It’s also interesting to note the words this week of one of her predecessors, Ken Clarke:

“I’m not denying that smoking is the biggest single cause of lung cancer. But life has risks and smoking is one I’ve willingly incurred because it’s a nice part of my lifestyle – I’ve never made any attempt to give up.”

Maybe one could compare her with Barbara Ferrer, the Los Angeles Director of Public Health, who resembles nothing so much as one of Dracula’s victims, and can hardly be regarded as a picture of health or vigour. And it’s not hard to guess who would be more fun on a night out.

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Basstories

Earlier in the year, I reviewed Harry White’s very interesting and informative book on The Story of Bass. However, I pointed out that wasn’t a history of the famous beer itself (although that would surely make for a very interesting volume) but a survey of the complex history of the giant corporation that came to bear its name. I’m not the person to write that history of the beer, but I thought it would be worth setting down a few personal memories and reflections on it.

The business model of the original Bass company was to a significant extent based on selling its beer into the free trade across the country. Before Draught Guinness, Bass was the first nationally-distributed draught beer. This still lives on to some extent in areas like the West Country and North and West Wales, in pubs like the Seven Stars in Falmouth, the Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen, the Black Boy in Caernarfon and the Bull’s Head in Beaumaric, none of which have ever actually been Bass tied houses. The late Rhys Jones recalled how, in the 1950s, Stockport brewer Robinson’s bought up a number of free houses on Anglesey that had previously sold Bass, something that was resented locally for decades.

Another aspect of this approach was concluding trading agreements with family brewers to sell Draught Bass in their pubs, giving them another string to their bow and Bass more sales. Most of these were swept away by the merger mania of the 1960s, but one that survived into more recent time was with Higson’s of Liverpool. They owned the now-closed George in the centre of Stockport, and I remember before the takeover by Boddingtons in 1985 being able to drink Bass in what was then a very characterful interior. Another pub stocking Bass was the Carnarvon Castle in Liverpool city centre, which is fortunately still with us.

In the mid-70s, the original gravity (OG) of Draught Bass was increased from 1039 to 1044 so as to be able to compete better with the popular premium beers of the time such as Ruddles County. This was a very rare example of a major beer brand increasing its strength. This was before my time, but there must be some older drinkers around who can recall what difference it made to the flavour and character of the beer. It should be remembered that, across large areas of Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, Bass was sold as the pubs’ standard bitter, as was its Burton rival Pedigree. This is still true to a limited extent.

In the early 70s, there were only seven cask beers available in the whole of the city of Birmingham and one of them was Draught Bass, which was only sold in six selected Mitchells & Butlers pubs. One of these was the Bull’s Head on King’s Norton Green in the south of the city. This wasn’t the nearest pub to where I lived as a student in the late 70s, but sometimes we would pass the local to go and drink there as something of a treat. Bass was served in oversized dimpled mugs from electric metered pumps.

The cowls for these had a distinctive design reflecting the look of a Bass mirror, used for both metered and free-flow dispense. I don’t think the image is an actual font, but it gives an impression of the general look. I believe these survive in a handful of Bristol pubs where there is a tradition of drinking “flat Bass”, usually direct from the cask, which to some extent sails under the CAMRA radar. I don’t know Bristol well, but I have experienced this in the tiny Myrtle Tree in the Hotwells district, a few doors down from the better-known Bag of Nails “cat pub”.

The Bass company had a scattering of pubs in the Stockport area which had mostly come via the Charrington branch of the mega-merger from Hardy’s Crown Brewery of Hulme. In the late 80s, they decided to promote cask Bass by introducing it into the Bull’s Head and the Reddish Vale in the downmarket suburb of Reddish. While on one level this was an initiative to be welcomed, in practice it seemed to be an experiment designed to fail. The locals tried it, but complained that it was expensive, and gave them a bad head, because it was that bit stronger than the keg Stones Bitter they were used to. Not surprisingly, it didn’t last long. If they had been serious about reintroducing cask beer, it would have made more sense to switch the Stones from keg to cask. Both pubs have long since closed, and of what I think were at one time eight Bass pubs in Stockport only two now survive.

The beer itself has gone through a number of changes in production method and location, with Bass themselves abandoning brewing in the Union system in the late 80s, and contracting it out to Marston’s in the 2000s. Pedigree is still brewed in unions, but not Bass. Inevitably some people will say it’s now a pale shadow of its former self. However, which beers can really be said to be the same as they were forty or fifty years ago, and people’s memories of what beers tasted like back then are inevitably hazy and coloured by memories of their own lives in general.

Bass had always been a beer I quite liked, but I always tended to pigeonhole it as just another brew from the Big Six national brewers. My memory of the old union Bass was that it could sometimes have a rather cloying character that is absent from the current version. It is significant that the great beer writer Michael Jackson considered that Pedigree, not Bass, was the classic of the style.

I’ve given it more attention in the present century when it has become something of an endangered species, and I have to say that to my tastebuds the current incarnation is an excellent beer that preserves its distinctive bittersweet character and does not disgrace its honourable heritage. It stands up very well against its direct competitors. If it’s not the kind of thing you like, fair enough, but if you think it’s a poor beer compared with others in the same category that really says more about you.

It’s also significant that, as it is not actively promoted either by AB InBev or by pub companies, every pub that serves it has made a positive decision to stock it rather than having it foisted on them. Compare this with Taylor’s Landlord, another excellent beer in top condition, but all too often poorly looked after and extremely lacklustre when actually drunk in the pub.

Friday, 2 September 2022

Huddling together for warmth

In response to the news of steep increases in energy prices, people inevitably started wondering for how long they would be able to get away with nursing a half of Ruddle’s in Wetherspoon’s. The appeal of lingering in a warm pub as opposed to heating your own house is only too obvious.

This may have been said partly in jest, but there are now serious suggestions that local authorities should turn vacant shops into official warm rooms for cash-strapped people to congregate instead of staying at home. There may be merit in this idea, but surely, as Richard Coles suggests here, to some extent pubs provide a ready-made solution. Plus the pub is already heated, so nobody is incurring any additional bills.

Licensees, with good reason, have always been resistant to the idea of allowing freeloaders to spend extended periods in the pub without putting any money across the bar, and to not being able to exercise control over who is allowed entry. It would not be reasonable to expect already cash-strapped pubs to extend this welcome out of the goodness of their own heart, but if this role was formally recognised it could be a reason for pubs to receive additional financial support.

It might require pubs to incur additional costs, such as by opening longer hours and paying staff to work them, as this would tend to be mostly a daytime activity. And the visitors would no doubt expect to use facilities such as toilets, wi-fi and charging points that the pub had already paid for.

Licensees would have to put up with pensioners bringing in their own sandwiches and a thermos flask of tea, but of course they might even end up actually buying some food or drink from the pub. However, a line would surely have to be drawn at bringing in their own alcoholic drinks, which undermines the whole trading basis of the pub. And I suspect that the local authority warm hubs would have to enforce a no-alcohol rule to prevent street drinkers bringing in piles of cans and causing trouble. The warm rooms would need a lot more organisation and policing than might at first be imagined.

Maybe nothing will come of this – after all, you don’t hear much nowadays of pubs providing “community toilet” facilities which were widely discussed a few years ago – but it’s something that must be worthy of serious consideration.

And, of course, people are still free to seek out the warmth and hospitality of the pub in the normal manner...

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Cowering in the safe space

It has been widely observed that today’s young people are much less likely to engage in risky and rule-breaking behaviour than previous generations. There has been a marked decline in smoking, drinking, taking illicit drugs and underage sex and pregnancy. Of course this is nothing new and was exemplified by the character of Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous in the 1990s.

These trends have been widely welcomed as representing a shift to a more health-conscious and socially responsible attitude, although on the other hand some have expressed regret that we have been raising a generation of censorious wowsers.

However, new research reported in the Guardian shows that this aversion to risk and social engagement has its negative consequences:

Many young people increasingly choose to stay within a comfort zone of a small network of like-minded friends in which much of their social activity is virtual, according to mental health experts.

While this can give them more control over some aspects of their lives, it can also lead to social anxiety when they have to interact with people offline, the experts added.

Natalie Phillips, a psychotherapist who works with children and young people aged from 11 to 25, said: “I’m seeing a disproportionate increase in referrals for social anxiety, professional anxiety, general self-confidence and relationship issues for this generation when they are confronted with the reality of being in an office, being in a nightclub, being in a pub, or being on a date.”

Obviously the widespread school and university closures and encouragement of working from home during the Covid crisis have served to exacerbate this tendency. And it has been greatly encouraged by the rise of social media over the past fifteen years, which has enabled people to have a high degree of virtual social contact without ever meeting face to face.

However, a major factor behind this withdrawal from society that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves must be the sustained campaign to discourage young people from socialising in pubs. In the 1970s, we were able to drink in pubs from the age of 16, some even earlier. The licensees knew it was happening, and so did the police, but in general they were happy to turn a blind eye unless there was any trouble. There were no mobile phones and no internet, so arranging meets in the pub was an obvious and straightforward way to socialise.

At this time, there were no fun pubs or circuit bars, so you had to mix in with other customers with a variety of different ages. Indeed it was often the smaller and less improved pubs that were the most welcoming to under-18s. Knowing that you would be out on your ear, no questions asked, if you stepped out of line helped encourage responsible behaviour. While there is a lot of pious guff talked about pubs being a controlled drinking environment, in this situation the argument did apply. Young people were learning how to drink in a social setting and keep their consumption and behaviour in check.

The same continued at university, although now with the cloud of possible underage drinking having been lifted. The pub was the natural place for students to socialise. Some may suggest I am looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles, and certainly there were examples of trouble, refusal of service and drinking far too much (although most of my bad experiences of alcohol in my teens occurred in private houses). But overall I would say this tolerated rite of passage into adulthood did far more good than harm.

However, from the 1990s onwards, things started to change as there was a growing moral panic in society about the evils of underage drinking, and so ever-increasing pressure was put on pubs to strictly enforce the law. Asking your age turned to ID cards, and Challenge 21 became Challenge 25. Not only were you unable to get a drink if you were under 18, but even if you were well over you would be treated with great suspicion. No longer were pubs available as a social venue for young people that was open to all comers and did not judge you. It should be stressed that the finger of blame should not be pointed at the pubs themselves – it is simply no longer worth them taking the risk.

Of course young people can still consume soft drinks, but licensees are understandably wary of mixed groups where it’s impossible to control who is drinking what, and many venues where under-25s gather are now strictly over-18 only. And under-18s can’t drink alcohol-free beers, as they are age-restricted products due to carrying alcohol branding.

Much socialising now takes place in parental homes, where there is likely to be a more tolerant attitude than fifty years ago, or in private flats and houses. In both of these settings, who is allowed in is controlled, so you can’t just casually walk in. It may move to the street or park benches, where adult supervision is non-existent and the alcohol may well have been bought on the black market.

Or, as the study has shown, informal, unstructured socialising between young people has just ceased to exist as they retreat into a virtual world, which carries its own dangers of people not being who they seem. This policy had undoubtedly resulted in a great reduction in underage drinking in licensed venues, but it’s very questionable whether it has brought about an overall benefit to young people’s social development. And it has damaged pubs, as if people don’t get into the habit of visiting them when young they probably never will.

In contrast, it’s interesting that Japan – which of course is a very different society – is now urging young people to drink more to boost the economy.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

Disarmed

The Armoury is a Robinson’s pub in Stockport, prominently situated on the roundabout at the junction of Greek Street and King Street West, which stands above the southern end of Stockport station. It was rebuilt in the 1920s by Bell’s Brewery and received a multi-roomed interior characteristic of its time. It also had a distinctive facade of pale blue tiling which unfortunately had to be replaced by render in the 1990s as water had got in behind the tiles.

Apart from this, its interior remained pretty much unchanged. In the early 2000s, it saw minor alterations that removed a former off-sales counter and incorporated a lobby area for a disused side entrance into the main vault room, but otherwise left the layout and fittings unchanged. It was an excellent example of a modest traditional pub interior and qualified as a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory.

While mainly a regulars’ pub, it also served visitors to the Castle Street shopping centre and, being located on the main pedestrian route between the station and Stockport County’s Edgeley Park ground, was always busy on match days. It was a classic street-corner local that also welcomed casual trade, and I would always name it as one of my favourite pubs in Stockport. For many years the planning meetings for the Stockport Beer Festival were held in the upstairs room. I wrote about it on my Campaign for Real Pubs blog.

However, over the past couple of months it has been subjected to a thoroughgoing refurbishment by Robinson’s that has pretty much erased its previous character. It has been knocked through into one room, the original bar counters have gone, warm wood tones have been replaced by pastel grey, and the carpet, frosted glass windows and cosy alcoves of bench seating have disappeared. I took a couple of photos of the interior in 2016 which provide a good comparison with how it is now.

How it was:

How it is now:

What we are left with now isn’t a bad pub as such, and it’s undoubtedly more congenial than any of the other five along Castle Street recently visited by Cooking Lager. There’s still some bench seating in what used to be the vault side, although the former lounge side features high stools and bizarre barrel-shaped fixtures that you can’t even get your legs under. There’s also a cosy snug-type room right at the back on the left with more bench seating. But it’s much the same as hundreds of other pubs, and it has lost what previously made it distinctive. Perhaps the only redeeming feature is that the previous unwelcoming grey colour wash on the exterior walls has been replaced with two shades of beige.

Some, such as the Twitter correspondent below, will argue that we need to accept change and move with the times, and that the past cannot be preserved in aspic.

Clearly it isn’t possible or desirable to preserve everything from the past as a museum piece. But, as a prosperous, civilised society, we understand the value of keeping the best buildings from previous eras, hence the existence of the listed buildings register and conservation areas. This provides a link to earlier generations and enhances the present-day environment. Stockport would certainly be the poorer without, say, Underbank Hall and the market hall.

We preserve and celebrate many stately homes that were built and furnished by the rich and powerful and were completely divorced from the lives of ordinary people. On a more modest scale, original pub interiors can be regarded as “the people’s stately homes” and undoubtedly have much more resonance for the general population. There are now well under a thousand pubs remaining in the UK with anything resembling their original layout and fittings, and surely they, where possible, deserve to be cherished in just the same way as Bramall Hall and Lyme Park.

Was there any evidence that the previous layout of the Armoury imposed significant extra costs or held back its trading performance? Very often, pub refurbishments seem to be embarked on simply out of a sense of wishing to smarten things up and move with the times rather than any kind of rational cost-benefit analysis. And, as I have remarked before, once the initial surge of interest has subsided, refurbishment often becomes like a drug where you have to keep increasing the dose to get the same effect. The current zeitgeist is very much against the old, quirky and well-worn, but hopefully one day we will return to a time where these qualities are once again seen as desirable in pubs.

Although they still own a number of unspoilt historic pubs, over the years Robinson’s track record on pub alterations has not been a good one. Fifty years ago, they were noted for their unsympathetic “Robinsonisations” including bottle-glass window panes, full-length small-paned glass doors, “Spanish arches” and white Artexed walls. They were responsible for removing high-quality original interiors at the Royal Oak in Stockport town centre and the Woodman in Hazel Grove, both of which have now closed entirely as pubs.

More recently, they severely compromised the interior of the Holly Bush in Bollington, which previously was ranked as being of national importance on the National Inventory. They have also spoilt traditional interiors of lesser rank at the Church House in Congleton and the Grapes in Hazel Grove.

In contrast to this, Robinson’s have recently received a CAMRA award for their conservation work at the Bleeding Wolf at Scholar Green in South Cheshire, which I have yet to visit in its new form. But that seems to be an isolated example. In general, they really cannot be regarded as respectful custodians of their pub estate. And how long will it be before they decide that a pastel-shaded knock-through might help revive the trade of the Blossoms or the Alexandra?

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Hollowed out

Someone recently posted a picture on a local Facebook group of the Nip Inn in the shadow of the Lancashire Hill flats in Stockport. This former Boddingtons pub opened in 1970 and closed in 2001 so, while it had a fairly brief existence, it wasn’t as short-lived as some. In the general area of Lancashire Hill, which is partly Victorian terraced housing and partly modern redevelopment, I can remember visiting eight different pubs since I moved to Stockport in 1985. Only two still remain, the Grapes and the Navigation, both of which are older buildings rather than post-war ones.

This represents a common phenomenon that can be seen in most large towns and cities in Britain. There are still plenty of licensed premises in the centres, and very often the numbers have increased in recent years, although they don’t tend to be pubs as such. But, for a mile or two outside the centre, you will travel through a dead zone where, apart from the occasional survivor, pubs have entirely disappeared, even where there is plenty of housing. You have to travel a fair way out from Manchester’s Inner Ring Road along any of the main radial routes such as Rochdale Road, Oldham Road and Hyde Road, before you come across any at all. There is a stark example of this in this pub crawl from 1991 by the legendary Alan Winfield in which he visited 22 pubs across from Rusholme through Hulme to Old Trafford. Only one of these, Holt’s Claremont in Moss Side, still remains.

So what has happened to cause the pub stock in the inner cities to be so drastically hollowed out? There’s no simple monocausal explanation, but I will offer a few thoughts on the major factors behind it.

First, of course, there is the smoking ban. This disproportionately affected both wet-led pubs and working-class pubs, and so dealt a double whammy to inner-urban boozers. While the decline had set in well before 2007, it will have pushed many pubs over the edge.

Then there is the changing ethnic mix in many areas. Some years ago, left-wing beer bloviator Pete Brown worked himself up into a froth accusing those pointing this out of racism. But surely it is a simple fact of life that, if a growing proportion of the inhabitants do not drink alcohol for cultural or religious reasons (or at least do not drink in public), then the demand for pubs in those areas is going to decline. All of the traditional pubs in Rusholme in Manchester, famous for its “curry mile”, some of which were visited by Alan Winfield on his pub crawl, have now disappeared, and there are very few pubs left now in the inner areas of West Bradford.

Even if migrant populations do drink, such as many from Eastern Europe, the ambiance of a down-at-heel boozer may have little to appeal to them, and putting a Tyskie tap on the bar is unlikely to do much to change that.

There is a wider point about the dislocation of communities. A local pub isn’t just a retail outlet for the sale of alcohol, it depends on cultivating a sense of belonging for its success. Sometimes areas of traditional terraced housing were demolished, leaving the pubs still standing in splendid isolation. Or new housing was built without, at least initially, any pubs to serve them. Often, new modern-style pubs were built in the 60s and 70s, but this category of pub in inner-urban areas must have suffered one of the highest rates of attrition of all. They never seemed to have the appeal of the ones they replaced. More recently, there has been a marked densification of housing in these areas, but the days of planners designating plots for brewers to build pubs have long gone, and by and large they remain pub deserts. New local pubs and bars have not tended to spring up to cater for the residents of all the new housing.

It’s no coincidence that, as you head out of Manchester to the east, once you reach the areas of Gorton and Openshaw where much of the traditional terraced housing still survives, so does a fair scattering of Victorian pubs, although even here they have noticeably thinned out in recent decades.

When I first bought a pint of bitter on my own account in 1976, it cost 21p. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator that would have been £1.14 in 2021 money, but you’ll struggle to find a pint for twice that now. This tool has recently been rebased to CPI, which to my mind somewhat understates historic inflation. When it was based on RPI, the figure was more like £1.50. But the point still stands that, over the years, the price of beer sold in pubs has increased by considerably more than the general level of inflation. In contrast, off-trade beer has done no more than keep pace with it, leading to a considerable increase in the price differential between the two. This will have a particular impact in areas with lower than average incomes.

There has been a marked increase in the use of illegal drugs of various kinds in inner-city areas in recent decades. This obviously offers an alternative, and often cheaper, route to intoxication than drinking in the local pub. And pubs have often been caught in the crossfire of turf wars between criminal gangs seeking to control the drugs trade. The threat of violence and intimidation will deter responsible customers, and in many cases has been the trigger for the licence being withdrawn.

Another change in the pub scene over the past thirty years has been the rise of televised football on pay-TV. On the one hand, this gives pubs a USP that they didn’t have before, and certainly some do good business out of it. But it also creates a monoculture that squeezes out other activities, and may have been a factor in the decline of the darts and pool leagues that once provided a lot of bread-and-butter trade to urban pubs. And, if one of your circle has Sky TV, it may well be a more appealing option to gather in their gaff for the big match with a slab of Carling – plus you can enjoy a smoke while you’re at it.

I’ve discussed before how the pattern of drinking in pubs has dramatically changed over the years. People are much less interested in just popping in for a quick one or two, and tend to look for something more in a pub visit. Given this, the homely local loses its appeal, and they are much more tempted by the bright lights of the town or city centre, which anyway are only a short bus or taxi ride away. Stockport Market Place is only ten minutes’ walk from the Lancashire Hill flats (although it is uphill coming back). Manchester city centre within the Inner Ring Road probably has more licensed venues now than it has had for a hundred years, but it is surrounded by a two-mile doughnut where pubs and bars are extremely sparse.

As I said earlier, there is no single factor that has led to the decline of these pubs, and there is probably something significant that I have overlooked and someone will point out. But it’s an undeniable fact that the inner-urban working-class local, once one of the mainstays of the pub trade, has seen a dramatic fall in its importance. And that is where a lot of the two-thirds of on-trade beer volumes that have been lost since the late 70s has disappeared from.

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Fifteen years

Today marks the 15th anniversary of this blog. Rather fittingly, the very first post was one about Bansturbation, which has remained a consistent theme throughout. That was very much the high summer of beer blogging, and also saw the foundation of blogs by Boak and Bailey and Tandleman which are still going, although many others have fallen by the wayside. The demise of blogging has often been declared, although I see many commentators have taken to Substack, which is basically the same thing under a different name.

The creation of this blog was prompted by the smoking ban in indoor public places, which was introduced in England on 1 July 2007. I said pretty much all that needed to be said on its tenth anniversary, and there is nothing there from which I would dissent. In the words of Lord Stoddart of Swindon, quoted in the sidebar, “This piece of legislation must be one of the most restrictive, spiteful and socially divisive imposed by any British Government.”

It had a disastrous effect on wet-led local pubs. While the immediate impact has long since worked its way through the system, it has left the pub trade permanently weaker than it otherwise would have been. And, as Christopher Snowdon writes, it was taken as a green light for all kinds of other lifestyle restrictions, although more recently the slippery slope seems to have pointed more towards food than alcohol, which is something I would not have predicted in 2007.

The photo above shows a sign still displayed on the door of the Griffin Hotel in Heaton Mersey, just down the road from me, which must have been there for at least fifteen years. This was one of the large number of pubs that did provide facilities for those who preferred a non-smoking environment.

I don’t propose to offer a summary of the developments of the past fifteen years, although suffice to say in the sphere of pubs and beer they have mostly been negative, with thousands of pubs shutting their doors for the last time. The number of pubs in Britain has now fallen to a record low and, while the BBPA seem to have ceased publishing their regular statistical updates, so has the quantity of beer sold in them.

One closure that affected me on a personal level was that of the Four Heatons (originally the Moss Rose), which was built in the early 1970s and bit the dust at the beginning of 2011. This was one of only two pubs within easy walking distance of my house and, while externally in an unattractive Brutalist style, it had a comfortable interior, and I had plenty of good times in there. It has now been replaced by a convenience store, originally Morrisons, now Co-op.

And the other pub, which was always my favourite of the two, has become progressively less appealing through a steady accretion of minor changes to the extent that I rarely go in it except to deliver the local CAMRA magazine.

I have tried via my Campaign for Real Pubs blog, which I began in September 2011, to highlight some of the characterful traditional pubs that are still out there to be enjoyed, although one or two have closed or been unsympathetically modernised since I wrote about them.

One positive development I will mention is the campaign to promote Draught Bass, the definitive beer of England, which sadly has fallen on hard times, seemingly unloved by the brand owners and seeing its distribution dramatically contract. This has been entirely a grassroots movement that has bypassed both the brewing industry and, with few exceptions, the great and good of beer commentary. This year it was finally possible to organise the first National Bass Day, after two previous attempts had been stymied by lockdowns.

Will there be another fifteen years? Only time will tell...

Incidentally, “Fifteen Years” is the title of this rather rousing song by The Levellers, although it always seems to me a touch hypocritical when potheads go on about the evils of drink.

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Rapid feedback

Last weekend there was a Channel 4 programme in the “Inside the Superbrands” series looking at Guinness. I can’t say I was expecting too much from a rather tabloidy format, but in fact it turned out to be surprisingly insightful. Plus it was presently by Carlisle-born Helen Skelton, who has an unmistakeably Northern accent.

One thing that took me by surprise was that it featured the Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter account (suitably censored), which highlights poor examples of Guinness served around the capital – see photo above. You might have thought this was bad publicity, but in fact a Guinness representative said that “as soon as we see a post on that account, we aim to be round there within four hours”. It’s performing a valuable quality control function.

And I couldn’t help thinking that cask beer wouldn’t half benefit from quality control that even remotely approached that standard. Obviously it’s different in that Guinness is a single product produced by a single company, but far too often the presentation of cask in pubs is utterly dreadful. Maybe a representative of Cask Marque should follow Martin Taylor on his GBG ticking travels and take action whenever he has to pour one in a plant pot, which seems to happen a lot more often than it should.

There has been some discussion recently over the negative image of cask, but surely its poor presentation is its major problem. All too often, outside familiar pubs, it’s a total lottery. I’ll just offer two examples.

On my trip to Berkshire in May, I was taken to a pub that isn’t in the current Good Beer Guide, but has a pretty decent reputation. Two different beers came out as total soup and were returned. If you have to return two successive pints, you start feeling like a pernickety arse, and on similar occasions in the past I’ve cut my losses and asked for a refund. Eventually we got a good, clear pint, but you shouldn’t have to go through that.

More recently, I went in a pub that had a single cask beer on one of three handpumps. It came out nice and cool, but once I took it back to my seat it was obviously pretty opaque, so it went straight back. “It’s the end of the barrel, but we’re just putting another one on. It’ll be ready in a few minutes”. Fifteen minutes later, it wasn’t, so I settled for a John Smith’s. Perhaps, on reflection, I should have had a Guinness.

I persevere with cask, because I know how good it is when it’s properly kept, but it’s understandable that plenty of others are very wary.

Another problem is that many people who write about cask beer and sing its praises only tend to drink it in “recommended” outlets, so don’t get to share the experience of the typical drinker out in the wild.