Thursday 27 October 2022

Nature abhors a vacuum

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

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 As stated by Tom Harris in this article, which in general has been very much superseded by events:

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

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

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

Friday 21 October 2022

Many unhappy returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Closed for you

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 11 October 2022

Reculer pour mieux sauter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 4 October 2022

A crack in the edifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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