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.

Saturday, 2 July 2022

Giving with one hand?

Yesterday, it was reported that the government were considering a temporary cut in the standard rate of VAT from 20% to 17½% to provide some relief from the cost of living crisis. There’s much to be said for this both in reducing the pressure on household budgets and giving hard-pressed businesses a little financial headroom.

However, people need to be careful what they wish for. Something very similar was done in December 2008 as a response to the financial crisis, when the standard rate was reduced from the then 17½% to 15%. However, at the same time the rates of alcohol, tobacco and fuel duties were increased to offset the VAT cut, as it was felt that buyers of these “undesirable” products should not benefit. But when VAT was restored to 17½% in January 2010, the duties were not cut again, resulting in what was in effect a stealth increase.

If the same were to be repeated this time, it would represent a kick in the teeth for the hospitality trade and negate much of the benefit. At least it would probably be politically impossible to raise fuel duty when prices are at record levels, but the poor old smokers would no doubt end up being kicked in the wallet yet again.

If any such policy is announced, it will be very important to read the small print below the headline.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Solitary confinement

I live on my own, and from time to time find myself eating alone in restaurants. Over the years, I’ve experienced quite a number of examples of absolutely diabolical service, glacially slow, forgetful and unobservant, some of which I’ve described on this blog. There seems be something about solo diners that restaurants struggle with. I’ve received a few discounbts and refunds and, if I had infinite reserves of time and patience I’m sure I could have obtained plenty more. Closing time comes, and they ask what I’m still doing there. “Oh, I’m just waiting for my main course to arrive.”

I accept that most of this isn’t deliberate. By definition, a single diner will probably want to get through his meal more quickly than a group engaged in conversation, and also may be more easily overlooked. But I can’t help feeling that there is a touch of resentment that they don’t fit the desired customer profile, and a middle-aged bloke isn’t going to look so good to potential customers as a foxy single business lady.

The process of going through the steps of ordering and being served with food in a restaurant should be straightforward and predictable. A server should be aware of the tables they’re allocated to, and regularly check how the occupants are getting on. When they’ve obviously finished one stage, they should be fairly promptly invited to move on to the next. The aim of service should be to speak to the customer before they’ve even started to think about where the waiter has got to.

If you’re on the ball, you should be able to get a single diner eating a two-course meal through the entire process in an hour, provided that the main course can be cooked in 15-20 minutes. An hour and a quarter isn’t too bad, but anything more suggests you’re not really paying attention. Yet recently, in a place that wasn’t anywhere near packed, it took me an hour and fifty minutes. Fortunately I had brought some reading matter along with me. It certainly isn’t a phenomenon confined to busy restaurants. While some customers may be happy with spending most of the afternoon or evening in a restaurant, others will have trains to catch, or meetings or shows to attend.

Obviously the primary responsibility has to lie with management, for failing to recruit and train staff properly and make sure they are keeping their eyes open. However, it can’t be denied that some staff come across as lackadaisical, disengaged and unobservant, and almost seem to resent actually being asked to do anything. If I was doing a job, however mundane, I’d make an effort to do it as well as I could, but evidently this isn’t a universal sentiment. In fact, it could be argued that it’s easier to do a job properly than to deliberately slack.

Even after youvre actually eaten your food, there are still the multiple hurdles of getting and paying the bill to negotiate. This requires three separate interactions with the staff – asking for it, receiving it (after which they invariably walk away) and then actually proferring your preferred means of payment and having it processed. If you need change, there’s a fourth step to add on. At least now they will bring a card terminal to the table rather than vanishing into the back with it. On several occasions, I’ve felt that I’ve got through a meal in decent time only to have to wait a further half an hour before I’ve actually paid for it.

All these things also apply to parties of diners, but they do seem to be notably worse for solo customers. It’s all very well to say that you should attract the attention of a passing waiter, but having to do that always seems a touch ill-mannered and a last resort, and you need to have one to hail in the first place.

This problem is avoided in most pubs by operating a system of ordering at the bar and paying at the same time. This means you can leave more quickly once you have finished your meal, although it may make it more difficult to have problems rectified. Some casual dining restaurants such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Nando’s operate a similar system with the exception of bar service for drinks. It also doesn’t occur in buffet restaurants where you pay a single price upfront. If you want a reasonably quick meal it may make sense to choose one of these places.

And, while it may seem a bit ill-mannered and brutal, surely there’s a case for restaurants having service bells in the same way as pubs operating waiter service used to.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Day of reckoning

The first five months of this year have seen a spate of closures of small independent breweries, many long-established and well-respected. They include, amongst others, Woods, Exe Valley, Beatnikz Republic, Kelham Island and Cheshire Brewhouse.

The immediate trigger for this has been the wave of cost increases resulting from money printing to fund world-wide Covid bailouts, exacerbated more recently by the conflict in Ukraine. However, it was evident well before Covid that all was not well in the microbrewery sector, and that there was a significant problem of oversupply. It seems that many breweries hunkered down during the prolonged lockdowns when nobody could make any money, but now that the pub trade has returned to something like normal are now finding themselves in a precarious position. It was often said that at some point there would inevitably have to be a shakeout, and that is now happening.

Brewing differs from most other businesses in that many people go into it as something of a labour of love rather than seeing it as a strictly commercial venture. There are many in the industry who have an additional source of income, being retired, having a working partner or a rich parent, and thus are not looking to make a full-time living out of it. This makes life more difficult for those for whom it is their livelihood, and there were numerous reports of cut-throat price competition.

Brewers of cask ale are handicapped by the widespread culture of rotating guest beers, which leads to a perception of it being a homogenous, interchangeable product, and makes it difficult to command any kind of price premium. Small Brewers’ Relief, while well-intentioned, has in practice often been used simply to fund lower prices rather than reinforcing brewers’ financial position.

Obviously the people who have taken the difficult decision to close their breweries are deserving of sympathy. There often seems to be little correlation with how nice they are as individuals or how good their beer was. But the basic facts of the marketplace cannot be denied – there are simply too many breweries chasing too little volume.

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) have proudly proclaimed the fact that there are now over 2,500* breweries in the UK as a significant achievement. However, if most of them are chasing a limited pool of free trade rather than being brewpubs it does rather suggest a dysfunctional market.

Sadly, there are likely to be further casualties in the microbrewery sector in the coming months. And anyone tempted to enter the market needs to be well aware of the harsh financial realities. And, if you enjoy tinkering about with metal pipes and vessels, you might be better advised to take up a career in plumbing.

Tandleman has also recently written about the problems of the small brewery sector here.

* 2,500 is the figure quoted by SIBA themselves. Other sources give a total of as many as 3,000 - see the discussion in the comments below.

Sunday, 12 June 2022

Sights to make the heart sink

As a counterpoint to yesterday’s post, here are a few things in pubs that for me are an instant turn-off.

  • The name of the pub displayed on the outside wall in a script font
  • It is described as “Something” & Kitchen
  • Part of the building painted in dark grey, blue, red or green
  • You are asked at the door or at the bar whether you are eating with them
  • A menu lacking pounds signs and trailing zeroes
  • Charges a substantial premium for half pints
  • Modern polished wood floors
  • An abundance of posing tables
  • Long wooden forms with no backs
  • Place settings on all or most of the tables
  • Many tables too big for a party of four
  • Motivational quotes on the walls
  • Uniformed bar staff
  • An elaborate display of wine and spirit bottles on the bar back with no clutter from notices or bags of snacks
  • An interior colour scheme of cold pastels
  • Deliberately curated “mellow” music
Although they are something of a bête noire of mine, I haven’t included scatter cushions as they’ve become pretty ubiquitous and you can easily move them out of the way.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

A sight to gladden the heart

Recently there was some discussion on Twitter about the signifiers of both rough pubs and snobby pubs. So I thought I would ask a related question of what things you come across when entering a pub that give you a positive feeling. These are a few of my personal suggestions – not the big items of beer and food offer or pricing, but the little touches. I’ve deliberately not included any that are the absence of something.
  • Frosted or etched glass windows
  • Bench seating
  • A stone-flagged or quarry-tiled floor
  • Or, failing that, a carpet
  • A jukebox
  • A glass case on the bar containing cobs/rolls
  • Small round copper-topped tables
  • Beermats
  • A pub cat or dog
  • A Sooty or similar charity box
  • A font for an obscure blast-from-the-past keg mild or bitter
  • Cards of nuts and snacks pinned up behind the bar, especially the famous “Ploughman’s Lunch”
  • Pictures or memorabilia reflecting a personal interest of the licensee
  • Lamely humorous notices such as “Free beer tomorrow!”
  • Coat hooks on the front of the bar
  • A collection of miscellaneous well-thumbed books and magazines for customers to read
  • A traditional pub game such as bar billiards, bagatelle or devil among the tailors. Even table football
I’m sure you can add one or two of your own...

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Arrested development

Given all the problems currently besetting the country, you might have thought that the government had enough on their plate at present. But apparently not, as they have now come up with a proposal to increase the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.

This would be a grossly illiberal and abhorrent measure. Smoking, while widely deprecated, remains a legal activity, and 18 is generally recognised as the age of majority. What kind of message does it send to young people that you can’t trust them with what they put in their bodies? It is also completely inconsistent with allowing them to exercise informed consent over being vaccinated, not to mention the widespread pressure to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. So you can decide who should govern the country, but not whether you can enjoy a legal product?

Some may see this as yet another stick to beat the present government, but I really can’t see the opposition parties raising much objection to it. They will do their usual nodding dog act as they did over lockdowns.

It’s not as if it would be particularly effective anyway. It would presumably only be a ban on purchase, not on possession and consumption, so there would be nothing to stop young people actually smoking. With the ban on smoking in indoor public places, the range of situations in which young smokers will stand out and subject to social stigma has already greatly reduced. And, from the aroma hanging around many bus stations and public parks, the consumption of cannabis seems to be generally tolerated even though possession is illegal at any age. It’s more a case of sending a signal that smoking is being further denormalised.

It’s estimated that 25% or more of all tobacco products consumed in the UK are already bought on the black market, so young people are unlikely to encounter much problem in getting hold of smokes. It will also place more pressure on retailers who have to enforce the restriction and lead to potential confrontations.

And don’t imagine that it wouldn’t set a precedent that would in the fullness of time be extended to alcohol. Indeed, it’s already been proposed in Scotland, which in recent years has been the standard-bearer of authoritarian public health policies.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

All about that Bass

To coincide with National Bass Day last month, Amberley Publishing released The Story of Bass – The Rise and Demise of a Brewing Great by Harry White. It should be made clear, though, that it isn’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. Harry White worked for Bass and its successor companies in various senior roles until his retirement in 2007, and is now the Chairman of the National Brewery Heritage Trust, so he should have a good knowledge of his subject matter. It’s an attractive, medium-format book with lucid text copiously illustrated by both historic photos and images of old advertising material.

The core of the book is the story of the Bass company itself. Founded in Burton in 1777 by William Bass, from the outset it looked to the wider UK and export markets rather than just supplying its local area, and by the early 1800s was sending beer all round the world. The iconic red triangle became the world’s first registered trade market in 1876, and a bottle of Bass famously appeared in Manet’s picture of a barmaid at the Folies-Bergère in Paris.

However, as with many other breweries of this era, family succession was a problem, with Michael Arthur Bass, who was ennobled as Lord Burton, the last of the Bass dynasty, dying in 1909, and in 1926 a merger was concluded with local rivals Worthington, by this time controlled by the Manners family. Although Worthington was only half the size of Bass, it supplied most of the directors, so this was a kind of reverse takeover.

The merged company was one of the largest in the industry, and was widely regarded as the Rolls-Royce of British brewing. In the 1930s, it was one of the initial constituents of the FT 30 stock market index. However, more than most of its competitors, it depended on selling its beers through other companies’ pubs, and the increasing consolidation of the industry in the 1950s meant that a growing number of outlets became closed off to it.

A solution was at hand in 1961 in the form of a merger with Mitchells & Butlers of Birmingham, who had a large tied estate and were regarded as one of the soundest companies in the industry. The two companies made a good fit with each other. M&B was led by the ambitious Alan Walker, who had joined in 1955 after previously working in the sugar industry. It is interesting that Walker was appointed at the suggestion of the company’s merchant bankers, not the only example in the book of this happening. Walker became managing director of the merged group, so this was another case of a reverse takeover.

The new company still lacked truly national scale, but this was achieved in 1967 through the climactic merger with Charrington United Breweries to create the familiar behemoth of Bass Charrington, of which Alan Walker became Chairman. CUB itself was the result of Canadian entrepreneur E.P. “Eddie” Taylor having built up a chain of British breweries as an outlet for his Carling Black Label lager. This saw a frenzied campaign of acquisitions over two years from 1960, when he merged his Sheffield-based Hope & Anchor Brewery with the large Bradford-based firm of Hammonds, to 1962, when the merger with Charrington, who had a strong presence in London and the South-East, was sealed. This process is described in detail in The Brewing Industry 1950-1990 by Anthony Avis, who was an executive at Hammonds and then CUB who was responsible for acquisitions. Interestingly, while he had considerable respect for Taylor, he had little time for Walker, who he saw as arrogant and domineering.

E. P. Taylor and Alan Walker
CUB had a rather random string of pubs and breweries across most of the UK, but were weak in the Midlands, so combining with Bass, Mitchells & Butlers was a good geographical fit. The new company had over 11,000 pubs and was the largest pub and brewing group in Britain. Opportunities for further takeover were limited, but they did carry out a handful, of which the last was Joule’s of Staffordshire, which is still resented locally to this day and was the scene of one of the earliest CAMRA protest marches when the brewery was inevitably closed.

Bass Charrington – later simply “Bass” – was the biggest beast of all amongst the “Big Six” who became the pantomime villains of the brewing scene in the eyes of CAMRA. The book describes the creation of the ill-fated Runcorn brewery, which was intended to replace a string of smaller breweries across the North, but in the end lasted less than twenty years.

With further expansion by acquisition now impossible, and the overall beer market at best stagnant, Bass increasingly saw itself as involved not so much in brewing as the wider leisure industry, and became a substantial owner of hotels. This was confirmed by the ill-judged Beer Orders of 1989 which, by requiring the big brewers to divest large swathes of their tied estates, turned the industry on its head. The pubs were progressively sold off to pubcos, while the breweries were acquired by the international lager brewing giants.

In the case of Bass, most of the brands and brewing assets, including the flagship Carling, passed to Molson Coors, leaving the eponymous Bass brand as something of an orphan of the storm in the hands of AB InBev, with production of the cask version now contracted out to Marston’s. The Bass company still exists, but has metamorphosed into Intercontinental Hotels and now has no connection with British brewing. Indeed, none of the infamous Big Six survive in anything remotely resembling their original form.

At the back of the book is a listing of the most important beers that defined the Bass Charrington empire during its existence. Pride of place has to go to Carling lager, which was the first beer in Britain to sell a million barrels a year, became the country’s best-selling beer in the late 1970s and retains that position to this day.

While it includes the classics of Draught Bass, Worthington White Shield and No. 1 Barley Wine, many of the beers included are cooking bitters such as Springfield and Charrington IPA which were popular in their areas but never approached being considered best in class. It even includes the weak keg bitter Allbright, which was promoted as “The Beer of Wales” and for a time was the best-selling beer in the Principality.

One notable omission is M&B Brew XI, which I believe at one time was the best-selling cask beer in Britain. I never thought much of it when I was at university in Birmingham in the late 70s, but surely it deserves a place in the company’s history. Interestingly, the name was invented by Alan Walker in the late 1950s as a deliberate attempt to copy automotive branding, although Bass Charrington did not enjoy similar success with Brew Ten, intended for their northern estate, which after a few years was largely replaced by Stones.

One thing that is missing from this book, and indeed from that of Anthony Avis too, is any impression of what beers were produced during the wave of merger mania, and how the pubs were branded. For example, in 1965 Charrington United took over the substantial Offiler’s brewery of Derby, which was promptly closed, with beer being supplied from the former Hammond’s plant at Tadcaster. But were these beers sold as Offiler’s, or Hammond’s, or something else? And did they put new branding on the pubs? My drinking years began after the merger mania had worked itself out, but I do remember as a child seeing Bent’s branded pubs dotted around the North-West, a company bought in the 1960s by Bass, Mitchells & Butlers.

In conclusion, it’s a fascinating and very readable book that manages to make sense of a complex and entangled corporate history. It deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the development of the brewing industry in Britain. However, at 96 pages, it’s a fairly slight volume, and even in these inflationary times the cover price of £15.99 seems a little steep, although it can be obtained more cheaply from various online retailers. I should state that I paid for my copy (although not £15.99) – I wasn’t sent a free one to review.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Drinking under the radar

In the early 1970s, whether or not a pub sold real ale was largely due to the policies of the owning brewery, and many busy, high-profile pubs didn’t. However, over the following two decades, the growing influence of CAMRA meant that real ale became seen as something desirable to have on the bar, and its absence was likely to deter potential customers. So numerous brewers started to make it much more widely available in their estates, and some started brewing it again after a lengthy gap. So-called beer deserts where it was previously very thin on the ground, such as London, Norfolk and Cornwall, were watered. In many areas, over 80% of pubs stocked it, and the remaining keg-only pubs were often a long tail of run-down, unprepossessing establishments catering only for diehard locals.

However, a key change took place in the 1990s. The transfer of pubs from breweries to pub companies took away a lot of the kudos of being able to say “85% of our pubs serve real ale”, and the pubcos found that stripping it out made life easier for licensees without any loss of trade. So a lot of the smaller, less prominent locals lost their real ale and remain without it to this day, if indeed they are still open. I wrote about these trends here. It’s easy to go round the country following the recommendations of pub and beer guides and find virtually no pubs apart from a few craft bars, without real ale, and conclude that the battle for cask has been won. But, outside the town and village centres, and off the main roads, there are stil plenty of unabashed keg-only boozers to be found.

A week ago last Sunday, our friend Cooking Lager boldly set out to try a few of them on Castle Street, the main shopping street of the Stockport district of Edgeley. Edgeley is an area to the west of the town centre that has retained most of its traditional terraced housing and is now showing the odd green shoot of gentrification. The half-mile strip of Castle Street, along what was the main road to Cheadle and Altrincham before it was bypassed by Mercian Way, developed a surprisingly extensive local shopping centre, perhaps helped by being on the other side of the main railway line and up a steep hill from the main town centre.

It used to have a Woolworth’s and branches of most of the main clearing banks. These are gone now, but it still has a supermarket, a post office, a Boots, a furniture store and a branch of Home Bargains where I am a regular visitor. Most of the shop units are still occupied, although nowadays they are more likely to be convenience stores, takeaways, cafés, nail parlours, phone repairers and bookies.

Perhaps surprisingly, it has retained most of its pubs, with five of the seven that were trading in the mid-80s still being open, although rather more pubs in the surrounding back streets have closed. The two casualties were the Grapes, a plain, traditional local that didn’t fit Robinson’s increasingly upmarket aspirations, and the Windsor Castle, a large 1930s pub that in the 1980s was converted to “Windsor Sports”, but was then allowed to go steadily downhill, and ended up being utterly squalid. On one occasion, a regular died in his seat, but nobody noticed until chucking-out time. It has now been demolished and replaced by a row of shops with flats above. Probably a factor in the pubs’ survival is that, on landlocked sites on a low-rent shopping street, the potential for redevelopment is limited.

I have certainly visited all of these pubs on various CAMRA pub crawls over the years, although only two of the five now stock cask beer of any kind. I suspect I may not have been in the Jolly Crofter and the Pineapple this century. My most recent visits were to the Prince Albert, the only pub to have cask on a CAMRA crawl, and to the “Bobby Peel” (properly the Sir Robert Peel) to redeem a voucher for a free pint of Stella issued by Punch Taverns.

Cookie’s verdict was in general fairly positive, although it was on a Sunday lunchtime, and the pubs are likely to get considerably livelier on a Friday night. The Jolly Crofter and the Bobby Peel have both fairly recently been refurbished, although in the case of the latter it seems to have been an exercise in providing an interior of posing tables for a clientele of old blokes. He was also pretty happy with all the lager he drank, although as long as you keep it cool and turn it over quickly enough it’s hard to go wrong. He doesn’t really comment on the wider beer ranges, but it would have been interesting to hear which smooth bitters these pubs sold, and whether any offered any throwback keg milds.

The one exception was the Pineapple, of which he says “A shithole is the only description required of the pub.” This is the pub that has a handwritten sign on the door saying “Strictly no shoplifters”. On my forays to Home Bargains I notice that it seems to be open from 10 am, and there’s often a mobility scooter parked outside. Many years ago, I remember writing up a CAMRA pub crawl and describing, on a very hot Friday night, how the grossly fat barman was serving with his shirt unbuttoned, “exposing a vast expanse of wobbling flesh.” But enough people seem to be happy to give it their custom and keep it going.

Cask now only accounts for about a seventh of all beer sold in pubs, so in many cases you won’t do your business much harm by not stocking it. In general it isn’t done as a deliberate statement, but it’s a declaration of intent that you’re happy just to serve your own customer base and aren’t really bothered what the wider world thinks of you. Yet, to my mind, much of the interest of pubgoing stems not just from the beer itself, but from the atmosphere and the characters you encounter. And you will certainly find much more of both in a keg boozer than the monoculture of the typical micropub or taproom.

You will find very little about these places in most writing about beer and pubs, and nor are they likely to appear in any pub guides. Now that Alan Winfield is no longer with us, the only person who still seems to write about them is Life After Football. Yet they remain a significant part of the British pub scene that in a sense flies under the radar of fashionable commentary.

Friday, 22 April 2022

An Easter pilgrimage

The first National Bass Day was planned for Easter Saturday 2020, 11 April, but, as we all know, the Covid lockdown intervened and it never happened. There wasn’t a chance in 2021, when you couldn’t even drink outdoors, but fortunately it was at last able to go ahead this year without restrictions. There’s no Bass in my immediate area and, while it can be found closer to home, I decided that it was worth making the trip to sample it on its home ground in Burton-on-Trent.

We had previously had a day out in Burton in March 2020, a last hurrah before the lockdown, and so I was to some extent retracing our steps then. In 2020 I travelled via Sheffield, but this year services between there and Derby were disrupted, I think by engineering works, so I went via Stoke. The fare is the same, and there’s little in it time-wise. I miss out on the spectacular scenery of the Vale of Edale, but on the other hand the line from Stoke to Derby does run through some very lush East Staffordshire countryside and gives a grandstand view of Uttoxeter racecourse.

The train was unfortunately delayed by about twenty minutes, meaning that I missed my connection at Derby, but I was still in Burton not long after noon. The two-car unit was standing room only, giving weight to the widespread view that, post-Covid, the railways have seen a noticeable shift from commuting to leisure travel.

There was a group of lads heading for a pub day out in Nottingham, who were playing dance music radio on one of their mobile phones and had an open bottle of vodka on the table with a variety of cordials to dilute it. They didn’t seem threatening as such, but nobody ventured to ask them to turn the music off, and I might not have wanted to encounter them on their return journey. It is this kind of atmosphere that makes many people uncomfortable about travelling by train.

The line from Stoke joins the main line from Birmingham some way before Derby near the five impressive cooling towers of the defunct Willington power station, meaning that you have to double back along half the distance between Derby and Burton. It was a glorious sunny Spring day, although it clouded up later on. The station is some distance from the town centre, so I decided to walk out to the furthest point of my itinerary and work my way back, about three-quarters of a mile along the long, straight Station Street. In the past, this was crossed by a bridge between two sections of the town’s breweries, but on our previous visit I noticed that it had now been demolished.

My first call was at the Burton Constitutional Club, which occupies an imposing neo-classical building on the town’s High Street. It had specially opened to the public for National Bass Day, and was selling Bass at a bargain £3 a pint, the cheapest of the day. As with the other pubs serving Bass, I was asked when I ordered “Are you one of the judges?” A special competition had been organised to find the “Best Bass in Burton” where you were expected to visit six different pubs and judge the quality of the Bass on offer. The idea had its attractions, but my time in Burton was limited, and one of the pubs, the Elms, which we visited in 2020, is a good fifteen minutes’ walk further on from the town centre, and the Waterloo another fifteen minutes beyond that, so it wasn’t really feasible. I did visit the other four, so maybe if this is run in future there could be the option only to visit some of the pubs.

The interior of the Constitutional Club is basically one grand, wood-panelled, high-ceilinged single room dominated by two full-size snooker tables. The bar is at the far end on the right and there is also some rather functional seating at that end. My pint of Bass was very good, and they had provided a finger buffet including chunks of various cheeses and slices of pork pie. The pork and black pudding pie was particularly tasty.

I then walked along the High Street past the town’s Wetherspoon’s, the Lord Burton, and the Prince of Brewers, which apparently does serve Bass, but which I had been told has a somewhat boisterous atmosphere, confirmed by the loud music blasting out of the open doors. It must be said that, as with many other medium-sized and large towns, Burton’s town centre was pretty quiet, with a substantial number of vacant shops and low-rent businesses.

I then turned left into the town’s Market Place, which is closed off at the far end by the classically-styled St Modwen’s Church, built in the early 18th century. On our previous visit, we hadn’t reached the town centre proper, and this is a part of Burton that I had never seen before. On the left is a row of 18th century buildings including the Old Royal Oak. This doesn’t serve Bass, but it had been recommended to me as worth a visit. After a somewhat chequered history, it had been taken over by Fownes Brewery at the beginning of 2020, which was rather unfortunate timing, but now at last it is able to trade without restrictions.

The interior is basically a single room, with the bar on the left, in a contemporary bare-boards style, but featuring some cosy alcoves of seating at the front. I have to say that my heart slightly sank at the array of about eight Fownes ales on offer, but my Royal Oak Bitter turned out to be in very good condition, and the cheapest beer of the day in an actual pub at £3.40, although it isn’t as a strong as Bass.

The pub had a well-chosen soundtrack of 60s and early 70s pop including a fair amount of Northern Soul, such as the original 1964 version of Tainted Love by Gloria Jones. A group of blokes sitting opposite me came out with the classic line of “Well, are we having another here, or are we moving on?” but in fact they moved on to the Dog. Unfortunately, with my level of charge down to about 35%, I discovered that I had left the cord for my power bar at home, so web browsing and live-Tweeting through the rest of the day were severely curtailed. I thought of buying one (even though I have several in a drawer at home) but the only shop I passed that seemed likely to sell one, Ryman’s stationers, had closed down.

I then headed back up Station Street for the remaining three pubs, all of which were ones we had visited a couple of years ago. First, just down Cross Street on the left, was the Coopers Tavern, possibly the best-known pub in Burton. I’ve used the picture taken by Peter Allen back in 2020, while the others were all taken by myself on the day. This trip turned out to be the penultimate occasion when I shared Peter’s company before he sadly died in January of this year.

It was originally the unofficial Bass brewery tap, but was owned for a number of years by Hardys & Hansons before recently passing into the hands of Shropshire-based Joules. It has a superb unspoilt interior that earns it a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Pride of place goes to the tap room at the rear, where you can sit on a bench in the same room where the beer is actually dispensed from casks on a stillage, although a short bar counter has been added as part of recent renovations. Further forward from this are a number of other small, characterful rooms with real fires, leading to a small beer garden at the back. While I have no problem with it, it must be said that Joule’s characteristic house style does jar with some people who see it as perhaps laying on artificial character with a trowel.

The beer range comprised Bass together with a number of other beers, both Joule’s own and guests, on a mixture of gravity dispense and handpumps. I had Bass, of course, which was the most expensive of the day £3.70. It was good, and certainly had more condition than that I had drunk in 2020, but it must be said that gravity-dispensed Bass seems more at home in the West Country or West Wales than in an urban pub in Burton.

A large group of people came in, some of whom were doing the Best Bass in Burton scoring. They collectively came up with a number of choice remarks:

“Aroma? It’s a pint of beer, not a vase of flowers. Get it down your neck!”

“How lucky we are that every pub we’ve been to today believes in beer.”

“Doom Bar must be the worst beer in Britain!”

“The Constitutional Club? They’re all old men in there.” – this from a group whose average age must have been at least 65.

It was just a short walk round the corner to the Devonshire Arms back on the main road. This is an outwardly small white-painted pub set back from the road, but in fact has a somewhat Tardis-like interior going back a long way from the front section. At the front is a traditional bar with tiled floor and bench seating around three walls, while further back are a comfortable seating area on the left at a lower level, and a spacious lounge leading through to a small outside drinking area.

As well as Bass, there are six or seven other beers on the bar, majoring on local brewers Burton Bridge and Gates. The Bass here, priced at £3.50, was very good indeed, and the best beer of the day so far. Perhaps foolishly, for a contrast I decided to try some Gates Reservoir, which was much less impressive, although it was hard to determine whether that was down to poor cellarmanship or just its inherent flavour.

Next to me were a pair of blokes who sounded as though they were members of the local Labour Party having an animated although good-natured political discussion, with a third listening in but remaining largely silent. They described this as a “four-pint discussion” and recalled occasions when an “eight-pint discussion” had become more heated. I sensibly resisted the urge to butt in, but thought that in a sense it was good to hear people engaging in the traditional pub activity of setting the world to rights.

From here it was only a short walk to the final pub, the Roebuck at the foot of the bridge carrying the main road over the station platforms. Five hours earlier, I had passed a couple of gents sitting outside who obviously recognised me as a probable Bass drinker, with one asking to be remembered to his former schoolmate Ian Thurman, one of the progenitors of National Bass Day, even though it turned out they hadn’t actually seen each other for 48 years.

The Roebuck is a street-corner pub with a distinctive curved frontage, which was originally the Ind Coope brewery tap and was the scene of the launch of Ind Coope Burton Ale in 1976. The single-room interior has the bar on the left-hand side, with seating facing it on the right. It’s one of those pubs where there seems to be relatively little seating in relation to the floor area, and it was pretty busy, although I managed to squeeze in to a space next to the door. With darts and doms being played, there was a more lively and down-to-earth atmosphere than in the previous pubs, and it could be described as more of a Life After Football pub, which is fitting because this, in 2020, was the only occasion where I actually succeeded in meeting said gentleman. I spotted a journalist from the Burton Mail interviewing some of the other customers about National Bass Day.

As well as Bass, there were about six other ales on the bar, the one that I particularly noticed being Gates’ take on Draught Burton Ale. The Bass (£3.60) didn’t disappoint, and was on a par with that in the Devonshire Arms as the best of the day, with the pints in the Constitutional Club and Coopers Tavern, while still very good, not quite reaching that standard. The Devonshire Arms was probably to my personal taste the most congenial of the pubs. All told, it was a very enjoyable day out and a fitting celebration of National Bass Day.

The trains from Burton to Derby and onwards to Stoke were both on time, with the Stoke train, while not as packed as the one in morning, still being not far off full. Unfortunately, the connecting cross-country train at Stoke was delayed, meaning that I had to catch a later stopping train and arrived in Stockport about half an hour late. This service was notable for the substantial number of mostly younger people joining at each intermediate station clearly dressed up for a night out in Manchester, one group of lads “enlivening” proceedings with a rousing rendition of “Living on a Prayer”.

Both legs of the trip being delayed by at least thirty minutes isn’t really very impressive, although it didn’t result in me missing out on anything and, to be fair, the other three long train trips I have made since the end of the lockdown were all more or less on time. I have now pretty much recouped the cost of the three-year Senior Railcard I bought in November 2019, and one more trip will certainly take me over that mark.

Some people have questioned the point of National Bass Day, as it is after all promoting a (fairly) widely distributed beer produced and marketed by major breweries. However, it is one of the most notable names in the history of British brewing, and the famous red triangle was the very first registered trademark. Today, for whatever reason, the cask version especially seems sadly neglected by the brand owner, yet it retains a huge amount of residual respect and affection from drinkers. No brewery rep will ever twist a pub’s arm to put it on, so every pub that stocks it does so as a positive choice. It has been entirely a grassroots movement with little involvement or support from either the brewing industry or the great and good of the beer commentariat – with the honourable exception of Roger Protz.

And, to my palate at least, the current incarnation of Draught Bass brewed by Marston’s is a splendid beer – highly distinctive, complex, subtle, bittersweet, potent yet surprisingly drinkable. It would be invidious to single out any individual product as “my favourite beer”, but it is certainly one of the handful that makes my eyes light up when I walk into an unfamiliar pub and spot it on the bar.

Acknowledgment is due to Ian Thurman, who first came up with the concept and has produced and maintained the national listing of Draught Bass outlets, and Ian Webster who put in a great deal of the work in actually organising the day itself. Let’s hope when it come around again on 8 April next year it will be even bigger and better.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Mountain or molehill?

I recently spotted a tap for keg Wainwright on the bar of a pub. I suppose I knew this existed (I have certainly seen keg Pedigree) but I can’t say I’d ever seen it before in the wild. What perhaps surprised me that it wasn’t in some marginal low-turnover boozer but in a prominent Good Beer Guide listed pub with several well-kept cask ales on the bar. So the question occurred as to whether this is something that lovers of cask ale should be worried about.

A significant and often under-appreciated achievement of CAMRA is that it has created a large constituency of drinkers who are loyal to cask as a category over and above individual brands. Back in the early 70s, people would probably identify first as “bitter drinkers” and then express a preference for Tetley’s, Boddington’s, Courage or whatever. But that has reversed now, and in general they will go for cask first ahead of any loyalty to a specific brand. When I mentioned this on Twitter, the general response was that people would give it a swerve purely on the grounds that it was a keg beer.

It’s not even as though they get the opportunity to switch between the different formats now anyway. Again, fifty years ago it was easy to find the same beer available in cask and keg or top pressure form, and it could be difficult to distinguish the two from the bar mountings. But now, overwhelmingly, the two are separate brands – even Tetley’s Cask is clearly distinguished from Tetley’s Smooth. The only breweries I can think of that sell keg and cask versions of the same beer in their own pubs are Felinfoel and Samuel Smith’s.

However, while a lot of drinkers do have a strong loyalty to cask as a category, many others who drink it occasionally will be “repertoire drinkers” who switch between lager, Guinness, keg ales and cask depending on mood and occasion. The growth of “craft keg” has in a sense rehabilitated the keg category. If people are routinely seeing the likes of Punk IPA and Camden Pale on the bar, then what’s to stop them trying keg Wainwright as well? Or indeed keg London Pride or Landlord?

So, while I don’t see the existence of keg versions of Wainwright and other top-selling ales is in itself a threat to cask in well-established outlets, there must be a possibility that it could damage cask by blurring its distinctiveness in more marginal venues.

And I have to say it comes across as a touch hypocritical that many beer enthusiasts are happy to embrace craft keg ales, including those that don’t qualify as “keg-conditioned”, but will turn their noses up at keg versions of ales that in cask form would be sufficient to get a pub into the Good Beer Guide.

It should, of course, go without saying, that the best way to promote cask ale is to ensure that it is served fresh, cool and full of condition. Cask’s worst enemy is not keg, it’s poor cask.

Friday, 8 April 2022

It all stacks up

Earlier this week, it became a legal requirement in England for all restaurants, pubs and takeaways employing over 250 people to display calorie figures for food and soft drinks on menus, websites and ordering apps. This has been widely criticised for being an unreasonable Nanny State intrusion, for potentially causing problems for people with eating disorders, and for being a pointless gesture that will make no difference in combating obesity. But do these arguments really stack up, as it were?

Yes, it is another imposition on businesses at a time when many are struggling, but on the other hand chains such as Wetherspoon’s and McDonald’s have been doing it for years. Anywhere with below 250 employers is excluded, as are one-off specials and dishes of the day. I am not an expert in this field, but I would assume that calorie counts can be assembled in a relatively straightforward manner as the figures per unit of weight for various ingredients are already established. It doesn’t require laboratory analysis.

It is true that it may cause problems for a relatively small number of people with eating disorders, but to use that as an excuse to abandon the whole idea is letting the tail wag the dog. Calorie figures have been shown on all packaged foods for many years, and that is now seen as uncontroversial. And, in a typical week, how many meals does a person with an eating disorder buy from chain dining or takeaway outlets anyway?

Similarly, displaying alcoholic strength on drinks was claimed to be problematical for alcoholics, but it has long been accepted as normal and something consumers expect to see. Indeed, if anything it has tended to lead to a reduction in strengths – the idea that most drinkers are attracted by “bangs per buck” has been disproved.

It probably won’t make much difference to obesity, but then the entire government anti-obesity strategy is misconceived anyway. And of course calories are only one figure in the overall mix of nutrition. But what it will do is to give consumers the facts to make informed decisions – it is treating them as adults.

It is hard to believe now that, going back forty years, the strength of alcoholic drinks was never declared. When CAMRA first published figures of original gravity – which is a rough approximation to alcoholic strength – in the 1970s, there was an outcry from the brewers, but it is now accepted is routine. I would expect that, in twenty years’ time, we will look back with surprise that calorie figures were ever not stated.

While there are legitimate concerns about practicality, I really don’t see that there should be any objection in principle. Hopefully a means will be found to extend it to smaller businesses without creating too much extra bureaucracy, possibly by the use of indicative figures rather than any detailed analysis. Surely it’s known approximately how many calories there are in a 4 oz burger or a portion of pilau rice.

What it may do is to shine a spotlight on the issue of portion size. As I argued here, surely a significant contributory factor in rising obesity rates is that most out-of-home catering outlets now serve up standard portions that are far more than the average person wants or needs. Yet there remains a social stigma against not clearing your plate, and if you fail to do so it contributes to food waste, which is seen as a major issue. As I said, if the catering industry fails to act on this they are likely to be faced with mandatory calorie caps in the future.

If you’re concerned about bureaucratic overreach, surely you should be far more exercised about the incredible tangle of restrictions on the placement and promotion of “HFSS” foods (i.e. the vast majority of processed food items) that are going to be introduced from 1 October this year.

Thursday, 31 March 2022

Minimum impact

Earlier this month, a study published by Public Health Scotland claimed that the amount of cross-border alcohol purchasing following the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) was “minimal”. I have to say at the time I did smell something of a rat, and felt it came into the category of “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” but I wasn’t inclined to dig any deeper. However, it has now been analysed in greater depth by Christopher Snowdon, revealing that things are by no means as clear-cut as they might seem at first.

The figure of only 3% of people having made cross-border trips specifically to purchase alcohol may seem pretty low, but it has to be remembered that in itself it represents around 130,000 people. Given the distances involved – 56 miles from Edinburgh to Berwick, and 97 miles from Glasgow to Carlisle – it’s not something that people will undertake on a whim. And it’s highly likely that each of those people will also be buying drinks for friends and relatives at the same time. Plus anyone doing it as a black market operation is unlikely to answer yes to the question anyway.

What is more, a further 13% of Scots adults, or 560,000 people, reported having bought alcohol when visiting England for other purposes. That must be a substantial proportion of the total who actually visit England in any given year anyway. Realistically, this was always how it was going to work. The economics of making specific trips may not add up for most people, but if you’re there anyway it’s something of a no-brainer.

The savings on offer are certainly not to be sniffed at. For example, I recently saw Morrisons advertising three ten-packs of various beers and ciders for £20. Depending on the specific product, this could mean a saving of up to £13 compared with the price north of the border. Anecdotal evidence is that there’s been a substantial increase in the amount of Tennent’s Lager sold in Carlisle ASDA. And, of course, people will be buying for family and friends as well as themselves. “Get us a few tinnies and a litre of Grouse while you’re there, will you?”

Total alcohol sales in Scotland have fallen by 3.5%, which has been hailed as a success by the supporters of the policy. But, at the same time, sales rose across the North of England, which has a larger population than Scotland, by 1.14%. It’s hard to believe that some of that isn’t a displacement effect. More specifically, in the North-East of England, the closest area to Scotland, sales rose by 1.46%, with cider up by 4.51% and RTDs (alcopops) up by 5.85%. The latter two categories are the ones most affected by MUP and thus of most interest to cross-border shoppers.

The overall effect may not be enough to pose a major threat to the off-licence trade in Scotland, but when you look at the figures more closely it certainly isn’t “minimal”. And the effect is likely to be significantly greater between Wales and England, where the distance from the major population centres to the border is much less.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government has released a report on the impact of MUP on homeless and street drinkers. This confirms that, to some extent, all the predictions made before its introduction have proved to be justified – a switch from cider to spirits, increased use of illicit drugs, especially cheap “street benzos”, consumption of “non-beverage alcohol”, an increase in theft and begging to fund drinking, and allocating a greater proportion of a limited budget to alcohol. As the old Russian proverb goes, “Daddy, now that vodka is dearer, will you drink less? No, my son, you will eat less.”

Maybe the policy, does, all things considered, have an overall beneficial effect. But it is certainly an indiscriminate blunt instrument that creates a lot of collateral damage. And, while it isn’t stated explicitly, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that at least part of the motivation behind MUP was to deter and denormalise alcohol consumption amongst normal drinkers of modest means. It is effectively a tax on the less well-off.

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Cask under the cosh?

The Morning Advertiser reports on a survey commissioned by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) claiming that cask sales are under serious threat due to changing consumer drinking habits during the pandemic. It’s certainly true that, for obvious reasons, there was a marked shift to off-trade drinking which is only now being rolled back. Some of those sales will never return, but if we are to have a restriction-free summer of fine weather then there’s every chance that many of them will. This week’s warm, sunny weather will certainly encourage many to go out to the pub.

Within the overall mix of beer sales in pubs it’s also suggested that cask is under pressure. This may well be true in overall terms, but I have to say it’s not something I see much evidence of on the ground. In places where it was already established pre-Covid, it very much seems to be holding its own, and locally I have seen no evidence of places dropping cask entirely. Plenty of pubs continue to shift a lot of cask and over the past couple of months have been getting increasingly busy.

Within Stockport, we have lost two long-standing flagship cask outlets, the Railway on Portwood and the Hope, but both of those were caused by reasons outside the reach of Covid, and we have recently seen the opening of a large brand-new pub, the Aviator, where cask beer is a central part of the drinks offer. There is also a continuing trickle of new bars opening, most of which put considerable emphasis on cask.

It may be struggling in pubco-owned outlets where it was always a touch marginal, but that doesn’t appear to have filtered through to its core market, where it seems to remain in good health. I also wonder whether these reports also stem from a London-centric perspective, whereas it’s widely recognised that the capital always marches to a different beat from the rest of the country.

One thing I have certainly noticed is that, since the pubs reopened in the middle of 2021, there has been a distinct improvement in cask beer quality as compared with pre-Covid. This may be due to a variety of factors – a reduction in the number of pumps, taking the opportunity of lockdown to give the lines a thorough spring-clean, or just stepping back and reviewing your operation – but it’s a definite trend that several other bloggers have commented on.

The reduction in the number of lines was long overdue, and hopefully it will be maintained rather than putting quantity before quality as soon as the punters start flocking through the door again. The report I linked to mentioned the concern that this would mean small brewers would no longer get a look in, but it does your product no favours if it is routinely served in poor condition. Consistently better beer will help attract drinkers back to cask.

Beer snobs have often bewailed the relatively low price of cask compared with other beers on the bar. But, ironically, this may now work to its advantage at a time when people’s budgets are under severe pressure and pub operators are raising prices by up to 45p a pint. Suddenly that £2.10 guest ale in Spoons might start to look more attractive set against a pint of Carling or Foster’s costing a full quid more.

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Taking flight

In the 1990s, I worked for five and a half years at British Aerospace in Woodford a few miles south of Stockport. The factory and associated aerodrome finally closed down in 2011, and since then a large new development of upmarket homes called Woodford Garden Village has been built on the extensive site. It has now gained its own pub in the form of the Aviator, built by local family brewers J. W. Lees, which opened a couple of weeks ago. It is, I believe, the first brand new pub to be constructed (as opposed to converted from other use) in the Stockport MBC area this century.

It is situated at the entrance to the estate on the junction with the main road, rather than being tucked away in its depths, which gives it added visibility. In fact I would have been able to see the location from my office window. Lees are reported to have spent £900,000 on the site alone, and probably at least as much again on the building itself. It’s a substantial although fairly unassuming building of traditional red brick with a pitched roof. The words “Pub and Dining” on the sign give a fair idea of what to expect.

On the south side is an extensive outdoor drinking area, although as this is entirely paved and furnished with stainless steel tables and chairs it can’t really be described as a beer garden. The spacious interior is basically L-shaped. At the rear on the left is a dedicated dining area in a conservatory-type section. Further forward is a smart, food-oriented lounge as shown in the photo, which does feature both bench seating and a carpet.

Along the front of the pub on the opposite side of the door are a more pubby area facing the bar, with more bench seating, and then at the far end a snug-type area incorporating the “corner shop” window feature, with more carpet, wood panelling and a painting of the brewery founder J. W. Lees himself over the fireplace. These latter two sections are entirely congenial places just to have a drink if you’re not dining. There were no beermats in evidence on my visit, and no TV sport. One feature that I didn’t like was that the toilets were upstairs – surely in a new-build pub on an extensive site this really isn’t necessary for space reasons. The stairwell houses a montage of photos related to the site’s aviation history as shown below.

On the bar were three cask beers – Lees MPA and Bitter, and their latest seasonal Dray Rumble. As befits the general atmosphere, the MPA was £4.25 a pint and the Bitter £4.35. The Bitter I had was in very good condition. While it does stock Carlsberg and San Miguel, Lees strongly promote their own Original and Manchester Craft Lagers. The menu is what you would expect in such an establishment, with the first main course being Braised Lamb Shank at £16.95, and a burger setting you back £13.95.

Clearly as a smart modern dining pub it’s not really my kind of place, but I’m sure it will prove very popular, and it’s probably a lot better than it would be if it had been developed by the likes of Greene King. It is positive that it has been built by a local family brewer, that it features good cask ale prominently on the bar, and that non-diners are made to feel welcome too.

The passage of time will no doubt make it feel less clinical and more lived-un. But I do have to wonder to what extent it will actually function as a social centre for the neighbouring estate as opposed to just another destination dining pub. But, as I wrote back in 2019, residents of new housing developments don’t seem to be very keen on going to the pub anyway.

Although it is similarly food-focused and also charges over £4 a pint, you will find a much better pub atmosphere at the Davenport Arms half a mile down the road, to which the local CAMRA branch had presented an award for 35 consecutive years in the Good Beer Guide only the previous weekend.

(Apart from the one of the photo montage on the stairwell, all the pictures of the Aviator are taken from the pub’s own website and Twitter page, as on my visit it was pouring with rain).

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Living to fight another day

The point is often made that, if you actually know much about a subject, you will find that press and media coverage of it is severely lacking. Not, maybe, telling outright lies, but all too often full of half-truths, misconceptions, exaggerations and grasping the wrong end of the stick. Obviously this then leads you to doubt any reports on subjects where you don’t have any specialist knowledge. This tendency is very true of reporting of the pub and beer industry.

Recently, there has been news of the closure of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, a well-known historic pub that claims, perhaps questionably, to be the oldest in England. So, for example, we have the BBC stating:

England's 'oldest pub' Ye Olde Fighting Cocks closes

While the Times reports that:

England’s ‘oldest pub’ Ye Olde Fighting Cocks closes after two years of Covid restrictions

Both of these headlines have something of an air of finality, but if you read the actual reports you will discover that, while the current lessee has gone into administration following two years of poor trading due to restrictions, the owning pubco are fully intending to find someone else to take it on.

The Daily Mirror was even more definite, stating in its headline:

Landlord forced to close 'Britain's oldest pub' which first opened in 8th century

And going on to say in the meat of the report that “A historic pub which has been serving punters for 13 centuries may have called last orders for the final time.” This report also commits the common error of describing a pubco as a brewery. Surely, more than thirty years after the Beer Orders, journalists should have cottoned on by now that most pubs are no longer owner by actual breweries.

Over the years, I have seen plenty of examples of this kind of alarmist reporting, implying that a tenant leaving a pub, possibly followed by a short period of closure, represents last orders in perpetuity, whereas in fact it is a perfectly normal occurrence. Yes, there are many pressures on the pub trade, and large numbers of pubs have closed, but these reports do not help the situation.

Given the Fighting Cocks’ claim to fame from its age, this story has been interpreted by many as an exemplar of the general decline of the pub trade, often by people who really should know better. For example, there was this tweet from someone involved in the industry for many years which I felt the need to correct.

In general, prominent pubs like the Fighting Cocks don’t just close overnight out of the blue, unless they have been affected by compulsory purchase for redevelopment. Pubs tend to die quietly in a corner, undergoing a slow spiral of decline until the final closure is met with people saying philosophically “well, it was only a matter of time.” Most of the pubs I can think of with a reputation beyond their immediate area that have closed are rural ones in landmark locations, such as the Flouch on the Woodhead Pass, which have been undone by changes in social attitudes over time. More recently, the even more famous Cat & Fiddle in Cheshire only narrowly escaped the same fate.

I’m not really that familiar with St Albans, but I would say the location of the Fighting Cocks is less than ideal, being some way from the city centre streets on the edge of a park. But I would be extremely surprised if Mitchells & Butlers reached the conclusion that it wasn’t a viable proposition in the long term.

I see anti-meat pressure group PETA took advantage of the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and suggests that the Fighting Cocks should reopen under a new name serving a vegan menu, which I doubt would do much for its future prospects.

A common example of press nonsense that I have picked up before is the tendency to lapse into the lazy journalistic cliché of describing a pub as “popular”, even if it has just closed down and so manifestly wasn’t. And I recently spotted this report about the Poachers in Bollington, which is celebrating twenty-two years in the Good Beer Guide, but the headline refers to the Good Pub Guide, even though the correct publication is identified in the actual text.

I know journalism has been hollowed out by the digital revolution, and there just isn’t the amount of expertise and experience that there used to be. Sub-editors who would pick up on this kind of thing have become a vanishing species, with journalists filing their copy directly without having anyone to check it over. But, even so, surely it would help if they read it over again before pressing the “Send” button.

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Battered by the storm

It has been only too obvious that the pub trade has been hit extremely hard by the Covid lockdowns and restrictions of the past couple of years, but there has been something of a lack of hard figures to quantify this. Now this has been rectified by the British Beer and Pub Association, who have updated their Beer Barometer statistics to bring them up to the end of 2021.

Unfortunately, they haven’t updated the detailed downloadable spreadsheet to back this up, but the headline numbers are all too clear. In 2020, as shown by the graph above, beer sales in pubs were no less than 55% down on 2019, while in 2021, where pubs in England were able to open without restrictions for the final five and a bit months, the drop had been cut back to 38%, which is still pretty devastating.

In this environment, it is hardly surprising that most pubs have found it a financial struggle, and obviously there is a knock-on effect on the brewing industry which was only partially offset by increased off-trade sales. Beer is proportionately consumed more in the on-trade than other forms of alcoholic drinks, and so a switch to home drinking was inevitably accompanied by a movement to wines and spirits, where duty receipts rose by 8% and 13% respectively.

The removal of the remaining Covid restrictions in England from 27 January gave a positive psychological signal, and hopefully the road is now clear for the pub trade to make a sustained recovery during 2022. But they are certainly not out of the woods yet. Kate Nicholls of UK Hospitality reported yesterday that, even now, 23% of pubs and bars are still trading at a loss, and only 30% are doing any more than break even, so there is still a long way to go.

An important factor in underpinning the recovery will be maintaining the lower VAT rate of 12.5%, which is due to end in April, until at least October. While this does not directly affect beer, it does give a boost to any establishments that serve food.

It’s always hard to generalise from one’s own personal experiences, but I have got the impression that the business in pubs has noticeably picked up over the past three weeks, and in fact my local Wetherspoon’s was pretty rammed on two different occasions. In contrast, last autumn there was always, with few exceptions, the feeling of a slight shadow hanging over proceedings, which was only made worse by the overhyped Omicron scare in December. So there are grounds for optimism, and hopefully we can look forward to a good summer, especially given that a lot more people will be taking holidays in this country.

Tuesday, 1 February 2022

The fickle finger of fate

In 2009, Marston’s opened a new dining pub called the Fallow Deer prominently situated on the A6 Chapel-en-le-Frith bypass in Derbyshire. It was faced with stone to match the local environment, resulting in a more attractive and upmarket appearance than is typical of such establishments. I called in a year or so later to see what it was like, but unsurprisingly found it entirely geared up for eating, with nowhere to just sit down for a drink.

A few years later it was refurbished and renamed the Fickle Mermaid. While Fallow Deer is just a generic “rural name” this did in fact relate to the local legend of the mermaid's pool on the side of Kinder Scout, where allegedly a beautiful mermaid used to lure men and either make them immortal or end their lives. However, it’s doubtful whether many people actually knew of that – I had to look it up – and to most it would simply come across as a rather odd and whimsical name for a pub fifty miles from the sea.

I didn’t really give it much more thought, but was surprised to read a report that planning permission had been granted to demolish it and replace it with a petrol station and takeaway coffee shop. It has to be said that if a large and expensive new-build pub is to be demolished only thirteen years after it opened it is a very poor reflection on the original site selection.

I’ve written before about how these family dining pubs, while they may have little appeal to the beer enthusiast, have been something of a success story for the pub industry in recent years, and Marston’s and Greene King have both invested considerable sums in developing them. Indeed, Marston’s opened a new one in my original home town of Runcorn, the Ten Lock Flight, shortly before Covid struck. I have often noticed when passing how busy they appear to be at teatime and early evening at weekends, a time when I would never really consider going to a pub unless in the later stages of an urban pub crawl.

However, maybe the clue is in the title of that blogpost, “Follow the money to the retail park.” I don’t claim to be an expert on pub site selection, but I suspect an important factor for this type of pub is to have a substantial population within ten or fifteen minutes’ drive, and a further plus point is being able to combine the pub visit with a bit of shopping or another leisure activity such as the cinema or bowling.

The Fickle Mermaid, while it is in a prominent position on the main road heading from the Manchester area into the Peak District, doesn’t actually have all that people living nearby. If people are going out for a day in Peak, they’ll probably not want to eat until they actually get there and, while I can imagine it might become busy with returning trippers in the early evenings at weekends, that isn’t going to be enough to sustain it throughout the week.

In any case, the planning application was rejected on appeal, so it remains to be seen what Marston’s response is. They could try to make another go of it, which has not been unknown elsewhere, or find another pub operator who is interested. I don’t see that a dining pub in that location is inherently a lost cause. Or they could board it up and leave it to rot, and come back with another planning application in eighteen months, by which time it will have become an eyesore.

This prompted me to ask on Twitter for other examples of short-lived new-build pubs, and quite a few were forthcoming. Another in my local area was the Bandstand in Gorton, Manchester, which stood on a small retail park and can’t have lasted fifteen years. And, in the late 1980s, Banks’s built the Springbrook at the A50/A56 junction on the eastern fringe of Warrington, where planning permission has now been requested to redevelop the site into a care home. There were plenty of instances of brand new pubs of various types that had barely lasted twenty years.

I odn’t know how it compares with other types of retail and hospitality business, but pub operators in general seem to have a distinctly patchy record on identifying locations for new pubs. While Wetherspoon’s are not generally in the business of new-builds, they have had their fair share of missteps over the years. One of the worst was the Sir Edwin Chadwick in Longsight, Manchester, where they totally misread the character of the area and the way it was likely to develop. I think it only lasted about five years. Apparently, Tim Martin, on one of his regular tours, walked through the door, took a quick look around and instantly said “Get rid!” Also in this general area, are the Lodestar in Neston, Cheshire and the Red Lyon in Whitchurch, Shropshire, neither of which lasted long under their stewardship and are now closed. One can only assume that Wetherspoon’s misjudged the character of the towns concerned, as they seem to thrive in other places of similar size.