Friday 28 January 2022

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Not content with asking people to avoid alcohol and kill pubs for Dry January, we are also being exhorted to shun any meat-based dishes for Veganuary. Maybe it would be simpler just to rename the month NoFunuary. But, on seeing a recommendation for “Vegan Fish and Chips”, it struck me just how many of the vegan dishes that are promoted to us are actually imitating meat.

OK, if you feel a moral imperative to avoid eating anything that involves the death of animal, you may find ersatz meat a tolerable substitute, but isn’t that effectively an admission that genuine meat is actually tastier and more enjoyable? In a sense that is comparable to alcohol-free beers, which depend on people’s awareness of what normal-strength beer is like. And at least with alcohol-free beers you get the potential advantages of maintaining sobriety and legality, whereas all that imitation meat brings you is a vague sense of moral superiority.

If you want to promote the virtues of plant-based food, surely it would make sense to offer dishes that use fruits, vegetables and grains for what they are rather than pretending to be something else? And the more committed ideological vegans may well take the view that these dishes are in a sense legitimising meat. I’m not sure whether there actually many ideologically committed total abstainers around nowadays, but I doubt whether they drink alcohol-free beer.

It’s not as if imitation meat dishes are a healthier option, either. In fact, they are made in factories from a wide range of heavily processed ingredients and, it could be argued, constitute some of the worst junk food of all. Yes, a low-cost sausage or burger may also contain plenty of additives, but anything that is a recognisable cut of meat or fish won’t.

Tuesday 25 January 2022

Onwards and upwards

Last week, Robinson’s Brewery announced their intention to invest £12 million to vacate their existing premises in the centre of Stockport and concentrate all their activities on the site of their current packaging centre in Bredbury. While the timing of this news may have come as a surprise, the substance should not have done. The Bredbury facility was opened in 1975 and, as recorded in Robinson’s corporate history,

“ was recognised that the site was considered to be of sufficient size to enable all of the company’s operations to be housed there at some future time, if this was considered desirable.”
The Bredbury operation has always come across as something that would be fitting for a rather larger company than Robinson’s and, as I wrote five years ago:
This seemed to speak of expectations never quite fulfilled, and I get the impression that Sir John Robinson, who died in 1978 at the age of 82, was a very dominant and ambitious character whose determination was not matched by his three sons, Peter, Dennis and David.
For whatever reason, whether inertia or a change in the business climate, the move never took place, and indeed in the mid-2000s Robinson’s carried out a substantial investment to install an entirely new brewing plant within the existing building. While it wasn’t shouted from the rooftops at the time, this also involved halving the capacity of the brewery to take account of the fall-off in on-trade ale volumes. However, they still lacked a small-scale plant to enable them to make shorter runs of specialist beers, which is something that their local rivals, particularly Hydes, have been able to take advantage of. This was given, maybe rather questionably, as one of the reasons for dropping 1892 Mild a few years ago.

No doubt this will be remedied when the new plant is constructed, and it is also likely to involve a further reduction in the maximum brew length. In the 2017 blogpost I linked to above, I stated that they were then brewing about 30,000 barrels a year, or less than two per week for each pub they owned, and that included a lot of bottled Trooper sold in the off-trade. The figure will surely be less now – in terms of brewing volumes, they’re really not that big a company, and operating from two sites must lead to considerably inefficiency.

They have also not too long ago spent a considerable sum in creating an impressive new visitor centre and shop attached to the Stockport brewery, an investment that will now have to be written off. Bredbury is not as conveniently placed for brewery tours as central Stockport, although maybe they will regret demolishing the Horsfield Arms which once stood just outside the plant and could have served as a brewery tap.

Every brewery attaches its own distinctive character to the beers it produces and, while the beers may be just as good brewed in a new location, they are never quite the same. However, Unicorn is the only beer remaining that has a lengthy heritage with the company, the other main brands such as Dizzy Blonde and Trooper being relatively recent introductions, so it may not be felt to be a significant problem. As a low-volume seasonal product, Old Tom doesn’t really count, and in any case I doubt whether many drinkers could detect a subtle change in character from one year to the next.

This announcement certainly represents a substantial vote of confidence in the future of the company, and the current leading lights of the Robinson family, Oliver and William, have always given the impression of being committed to it in the long term. In recent years, the company has taken a number of decisions that I have found disappointing, such as the axing of 1892 Mild, the severe cull of their pub estate, and the horrible Farrow & Ball style of many of their renovation schemes. But, as I wrote in 2017,

Obviously Robinson’s is a commercial company, and its directors must take the actions they see best to secure its future prosperity, which may need to include grasping nettles and slaughtering sacred cows.
At the end of the day, they are a business, not a heritage preservation body.

It can’t be denied that Stockport’s character will be diminished by the loss of a large working brewery right in the centre, not least by losing that distinctive odour that often wafts over the town. The number of places where this can be experienced is steadily diminishing, although it can still be found in towns like Devizes, Cockermouth and Lewes.

The brewery tower only dates back to the 1920s and, apart from the decoration around the top, isn’t really of great architectural value. To the best of my knowledge, it isn’t a listed building. But it is a very distinctive landmark that adds to the town’s identity, and features in many views of Stockport, so hopefully it will prove possible to preserve it for alternative use, possibly as apartments.

Thursday 20 January 2022

Freedom restored

There was good news yesterday when Boris Johnson announced that all remaining Covid restrictions in England were to be lifted. Possibly he went a little further than originally intended because the current political turmoil meant that he wanted to avoid another embarrassing backbench rebellion, but whatever the reason the outcome is most welcome. The work from home guidance was lifted immediately and the mask mandates and vaccine passports will go from Thursday of next week.

While the latest restrictions, introduced at the beginning of December, did not directly impact pubs and restaurants, they certainly did indirectly in terms both of reducing footfall in town and city centres and creating a heightened climate of fear that led to mass cancellations of seasonal bookings, as I reported here. While Christmas and New Year normally give pubs a boost, last year this trade was largely wiped out for the second year running.

Hopefully now the removal of restrictions will give the hospitality industry a clear run to recover and rebuild customer confidence during 2022, especially over the vital summer season. It also in political terms looks increasingly unlikely that restrictions will be reimposed. But it is important that pubs contribute to this by abandoning the pointless Covid safety theatre that remains fairly common. If you want a normal trading environment, you need to embrace normality rather than helping perpetuate a climate of fear.

I wrote in December how many of the dire predictions about the effect of Omicron had been greatly exaggerated, and so it has proved.

In the succeeding week, there has been plenty of evidence that the Omicron variant is relatively mild, and the return of restrictions might have been an over-reaction. It seems to conform to the general evolutionary path of viruses that they become more transmissible but less severe. Many media commentators going well beyond the usual lockdown sceptics have suggested that it was a step too far, and that we couldn’t live in a permanent state of fear.

The government have stated they will review the restrictions in three weeks’ time, and we can hope that they will rescind them, although such back-tracking would lead to a lot of egg on face. But, even then, it would be just a week before Christmas, and too late to rescue much of the holiday season.

The pity is that it took them seven weeks to realise this rather than three, but at least they have in the end.

It has been very noticeable over the past few days how many politicians and commentators are embracing the liberalisation and backtracking on their previous support for lockdowns and restrictions. It is going to become like France after the war where it was well-nigh impossible to find anyone who didn’t claim to have been a member of the Resistance.

Scotland and Wales have not followed suit, and in fact never relaxed restrictions to the same extent as England during last year. This has not, however, resulted in any better figures for Covid deaths and infections, and has certainly produced a worse outcome for hospitality. It will be interesting to see how long they persist with this stance while seeing the English tourism and hospitality industries – and indeed the economy in general – forge ahead.

Friday 14 January 2022

Irish eyes are watering

From Tuesday January 4th, the Republic of Ireland followed in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales by introducing a Minimum Unit Price (MUP) for alcohol. There is some confusion about the actual level, as the headline rate is set at €1 per “standard drink”. This is defined in weight terms as containing 10 grams of pure alcohol, but as alcohol is lighter than water it corresponds to a volume of 12.5 millilitres. At the current exchange rate this equates to a price of about 67p per unit as understood in the UK, which is a third as much again as the 50p rate applying in Scotland and Wales.

While the 50p level leaves many popular products untouched, 67p will affect a large swathe of mainstream drinks and leave only high-priced premium products unscathed. A 4x440ml pack of Carling will be £4.72, a bottle of 13% ABV wine £6.53 and a standard bottle of spirits £18.76. Probably 85-90% of all alcohol sold in the off-trade in volume terms will be affected.

50p only impinges on the very bottom end of the UK on-trade, although it does start to affect some of the stronger guest ales sold in Wetherspoon’s for £1.99 when the 50p CAMRA discount is applied. Irish on-trade prices tend to be somewhat higher than ours, and a quick look at Wetherspoon’s website shows that in one of their Irish branches they are selling guest ales at €2.95 per pint (about 25% above the equivalent UK price), including some containing over 3 units per pint. So it won’t immediately affect the on-trade, but it is certainly snapping at its heels. I don’t think the CAMRA vouchers are valid in the Republic.

I’ve discussed before at length the various issues associated with MUP – the creation of a black market, the encouragement of home brewing and illegal distilling, and making illegal drugs more attractive in price terms. The higher the level is set, the worse these problems will become.

Perhaps worst of all is the impact on people’s finances. Although the public health lobby may be reluctant to accept it, alcoholic drinks are a legitimate consumer product that are consumed responsibly by many households. If the price is increased by up to 50%, it will make a huge hole in family budgets, which is made even worse by the fact there are currently inflationary pressures from all sides. Note that the graphic above refers to “frequent users” as if they are discussing illegal drugs.

And it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will lead problem drinkers to cut down. The experience from Scotland has been that, in many households where alcohol represented a significant proportion of weekly expenditure, that share increased, so something else had to suffer. As the old Russian proverb goes, “Daddy, now that vodka is more expensive, will you drink less? – No, my son, you will eat less.”

It is also a manifestation of rank snobbery. If it was decided that increasing the price of alcohol would alleviate drink-related problems, then the intellectually respectable way of doing it would be to raise duty across the board so that the pain was spread relatively evenly. MUP, on the other hand, concentrates the entire effect on the less well-off, while the prosperous remain unscathed. It is, at heart, deeply patronising. As Christopher Snowdon says in this post:

In 'public health', the name of the game is to interfere with people's lives without having your own choices meddled with. This is straightforward with smoking since the philosopher kings of the nanny state don't smoke. Alcohol is more tricky since most of them drink, but minimum pricing - which was introduced in Ireland yesterday - offers the perfect way to penalise ordinary people while leaving fine wine and craft beer unaffected.
The opportunities for cross-border shopping are all too obvious. About 40% of the Republic’s population lives in the Greater Dublin area, which is just 71 miles, or not much more than an hour, away from Newry along a motorway. This is set out very clearly in this letter to the Irish Times.

Northern Ireland does not yet have MUP, but it is currently being consulted on. If it decided to match Scotland and Wales, the attraction of cross-border shopping would be scarcely diminished, while if it matched the Republic, ironically it could even encourage booze cruises to Stranraer!

Even if MUP did make a significant impact on drink-related problems in society, it is a very blunt instrument that causes collateral damage to many responsible consumers. It is comparable to a road safety strategy of doubling the price of petrol. And there’s little evidence from Scotland so far that it does make much difference. Ireland already has some of the most expensive off-trade prices in Europe yet, as this reformed alcoholic says:

‘Cost has nothing to do with addiction. If the price of drink was the problem, how come all the countries in Europe with cheaper drink don’t have the alcoholism issues we have? I think we’ve an educational problem, not a pricing problem,’
Historically, the Irish have a reputation of being naturally rebellious and distrustful of authority. But, more recently, this spirit seems to have become a thing of the past, as they have meekly submitted to being bled dry by EU-mandated austerity, and accepted one of the strictest Covid lockdowns in the Western world. Pubs are still struggling under an 8 pm curfew and the imposition of vaccine passports. As this article says, We have become the most subservient lickspittles on the planet.

Monday 10 January 2022

A Worthy alternative?

Late last year, Wetherspoon’s carried out a major revamp of their permanent beer range. The biggest feature of this was ditching their long-standing relationship with Heineken UK, and instead taking a greater number of beers from Molson Coors. This meant that Spoons drinkers would no longer be able to enjoy the likes of Kronenbourg, Foster’s and John Smith’s Extra Smooth, often derided as the favourite of the 9 am crowd.

The replacement is Worthington’s Creamflow, so in the interest of research I thought I would give it a try. The price was £1.99, the same as their guest ales, although in this case there was obviously no CAMRA discount available. It was served in an unbranded conical glass of the kind they use for real ales. It had a dense, creamy but fairly shallow head, so no Guinness-style short measure. The temperature was perhaps about half way between that used for ales and lagers.

Once it had warmed up a little I could detect a little in the way of malt flavour, but little evidence of hop character. It’s a long time since I had any John Smith’s, but I recall it having a slightly soapy character which was absent in the Worthington, which I would say was marginally preferable. Someone said that was damning it with faint praise, which of course it was. But the key point was not that it was actively unpleasant, but that it was very bland. Many of the old-school CAMRA activists fail to appreciate this and continue to assert that mass-market kegs and lagers are foul, which of course they aren’t – if they were, nobody would drink them.

Obviously a well-kept pint of Holts or Lees Bitter, or Robinson’s Unicorn, all of which are available within a short distance, would be vastly preferable. And Wetherspon’s themselves offer a range of cask beers. But, in their outlets around here, apart from Ruddles and Abbot, their selection tends to consist of pale, hoppy beers from local microbreweries, dark beers, and beers over 5% in strength. For anyone just wanting “a pint of bitter”, it’s a choice of Ruddles or Worthington, which may not be quite such a one-sided contest. Personally I’d like to see them offer some of the better-known bitters from other parts of the country that you rarely see around here, such as Butcombe, Hook Norton or Batemans, but obviously they know their market better than I do.

Then there is the question of quality. While their policy is to change sub-standard beer without demur, your chances of getting a duff pint in Spoons do seem to be significantly higher than in a family brewer tied house. And, if you’ve ordered it via the app to be brought to your table, good luck with attracting the attention of a member of staff to get it changed. So it’s entirely understandable that the non-enthusiast drinker who just wants an undemanding, reliable pint may conclude that the Worthington is the best option.

I ran a Twitter poll to ask people which of the four popular brands of “smooth” bitter they preferred (or least disliked). The results were a decisive win for Boddingtons, with the other three trailing in well behind, and Worthington last. But I wonder how many people voting have ever actually tried Boddingtons Smooth, or were swayed by memories of the now-discontinued cask beer which, many years ago, was actually very good.

It’s an interesting thought experiment whether the “real ale revolution” would ever have taken off in quite the same way if smoothflow keg ales of this kind had been available in the early Seventies.

Friday 7 January 2022

If you don’t get bitter, you’ll just get Boddies

In the US market, several beers that would be called Bitter in the UK are referred to as “Pub Ales” or some similar formulation, as in the Boddingtons Pub Ale shown in the photo. This has prompted another round of discussion on social media about how brewers, in the UK too, are increasingly reluctant to actually use the term “Bitter” to describe their products.

This was sparked off by Gary Gillman in this blogpost, to which Boak and Bailey responded here. It is a subject that I addressed back in 2019 in a post entitled The Beer That Dare Not Speak its Name. The main reason for this in North America is that they have no history of beers actually being called “bitter”, and the flavour connotations of the term are thought to be offputting.

However, in this country, as Boak and Bailey point out, it is more a case of Bitter being seen as something old-fashioned that your dad drank, which is the same problem that Mild experienced a generation before. But, as I argued, it is denying your product’s heritage, and there is no consensus as to what should replace it. “Nobody ever, when asked the question ‘what type of beer do you enjoy drinking?’ replies ‘Oh, I like amber ale’.”

Gary is very knowledgeable about the world of beer, and especially its history, but he is writing from a North American perspective, and I think he rather misses the mark in complaining than many bitters “show excessive caution in their hopping level.” That may be a matter of personal preference, but it does not mean that such beers are not true to style.

The origins of the term are obscure, but it seems to have developed in the mid-19th century as a may of distinguishing the new pale ales from the older mild beers. Yes, it was more heavily hopped than milds, but that didn’t mean it was particularly bitter.

We don’t know now whether bitters from before the First World War were more bitter than they are today (although they certainly were markedly stronger), but that is beyond the memory of any drinkers alive today. And, since the Second World War, it has always been the case that many bitters were fairly sweet, and few could be said to be particularly bitter. The term had become a generic description of a particular class of beer, not a descriptor of flavour.

In the late 1970s I went to university in Birmingham , where the main (indeed almost the only) bitters available were Ansells and M&B Brew XI, both of which are described as “sweet” in the 1977 Good Beer Guide. Brew XI then was probably the best-selling bitter in the country. The brewery section contains a number of similar references, alongside such terms as “light” and “subtle” which indicate a similar lack of heavy hopping.

There were some notably bitter beers around at the time, such as Boddington’s, Holt’s, Yates & Jackson and Youg’s Ordinary, but they were very much in the minority. There is probably some truth in the belief that the bitterness of some beers has been reduced in the intervening forty-odd years to make them palatable to a wider market, but within the memory of people drinking today there never was a golden age when Bitter really was bitter.

And today, if asked to give an example of an archetypal British Bitter, most people would suggest a “balanced” brew such as Harvey’s Sussex Best or Taylor’s Boltmaker rather than one noted for being assertively hoppy. And the current best-seller, Sharp’s Doom Bar, certainly isn’t.