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).