Wednesday 28 December 2022

Out of the frying pan... – Part 2

July saw the fifteenth anniversary of this blog, which of course was originally sparked by the smoking ban. Sad to report that I have achieved a record low number of posts, even below the half-year of 2007. As I’ve said before, a lot of the brief comments on news items have moved to Twitter, so I’m never going to return to the heady days of 2011. The cancellation of my magazine column has meant that I no longer feel an obligation to write something about specific subjects, and there are only so many times you can say much the same thing about minimum pricing or advertising bans.

Nevertheless, I’ve come up with some substantial pieces on a variety of topics. The one I feel most proud of is this one looking at the demise of the inner-urban boozer, once a mainstay of the pub trade and the source of much of the beer volume of the past. The highest number of pageviews was actually on my post about the short life of the Fickle Mermaid, which exemplified a wider topic of how things seemed to have gone sour for the family dining pub, once hailed as a major growth area in the pub industry. It also continues to attract a healthy level of comments, sometimes much more than other supposedly higher-profile blogs.

I managed considerably more posts on my Closed Pubs blog, where I achieved the highest total after the first three years of “shooting fish in a barrel”. This serves as a sad record of the absolute devastation that has overwhelmed the pub trade in the past twenty-five years. A scattering of poky micropubs open for a few hours a week is scant compensation. For this I am indebted for the prolific input of Leeds resident Kyle Reed, and Yorkshire is rapidly catching up on Lancashire and Staffordshire as the county with the highest representation. I’ve never actually met Kyle, but a pint or two is certainly his if we can arrange to get together. I’ve also sourced many entries from the Fullpint news aggregation Twitter account, which often posts news reports of long-closed pubs about to be demolished and replaced by flats.

I’ve added a few more entries to my Campaign for Real Pubs blog, which celebrates some of the dwindling number of characterful “proper pubs” still remaining, although unfortunately at least one has fallen victim to the jackhammer during the year.

I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my Twitter account, and also exceeded the 100,000 tweets mark, which is about 27 per day. My follower count has increased from 5,900 to just short of 6,300, although it’s probably reached something of a plateau now. Mind you, I said much the same when I passed 5,000. I deliberately aim to steer clear of general political issues beyond the politics of lifestyle, and indeed some of the people who regularly interact are clearly not political soulmates, although “Opposed to the Nanny State in all forms” should give a clear idea that I’m not some kind of Commie. It’s always good to receive a bit of acclamation:

In the Autumn, Twitter was bought by tech billionaire Elon Musk. As I wrote at the time, he is perhaps more loose cannon than knight in shining armour, but the platform has not fallen over as many predicted, and indeed is recording record traffic. He has restored many accounts that were unreasonably suspended, and has released some damning evidence of political interference. And those who have noisily decamped to rival platforms have discovered their limitations. The big plus point of Twitter is the number and range of other people who are there.

Moving on to some more general points, Pub Vandals of the Year must be Robinson’s, for their destruction of the unspoilt heritage interior of the Armoury in Stockport. Previously I would have named this as one of my favourite Stockport pubs, but it’s now little different from hundreds of others. They have also (although I haven’t seen it for myself) made some pretty destructive changes to the Church House in Congleton, which had retained many original 1930s features.

Public Health Own Goal of the Year was the legislation to prevent the prominent display of so-called HFSS items in supermarkets, which has had the entirely predictable outcome of them being replaced by displays of alcoholic drinks, surely not what the purse-lipped wowsers intended. Never mind, no doubt they’ll be coming for alcohol next, as they already have in Ireland.

Pub Food Innovation of the Year was Wetherspoon’s ice cream. Very reasonably priced at only £1.55, going up to £2.30 in That London, and actually quite decent stuff and in no way obviously cheap. You could easily pay £4 for something similar in a restaurant.

Blogging Event of the Year was the return of Cooking Lager. While his activities were curtailed by family issues, he has posted some splendid stuff, particularly this account of his exploration of the keg pubs of Edgeley. He makes many wider observations about society in general and explores territory, both physically and conceptually, where few other beer bloggers dare to tread.

A major achievement of the year was Martin Taylor taking advantage of the removal of Covid restrictions to reach the epic milestone of completing the Good Beer Guide, which he did in September at the Taversoe on Rousay in Orkney. Although, once the new edition was released, he was back down the snake again with a few hundred more pubs to visit.

Around the time of the annual Cask Beer Week, there was a great deal of handwringing around the subject of cask beer quality. But commentators continue to pussyfoot around the central issue, that of excessive ranges leading to slow turnover and stale beer. Of course that isn’t the sole reason for poor quality, but at least if you shift it quickly you give it a fighting chance. Everybody recognises that there’s a problem, but it seems that nobody is prepared to actually do anything about it.

There was a significant crack in the Sam Smith’s edifice when card payments were finally allowed in the Autumn, although the absurd ban on any use of mobile devices remains in force. Glynn Davis wrote an excellent article setting out the contrast between the often praiseworthy way in which Sam’s run their pub estate, and the damage done by their pigheaded policies.

The beginning of the year brought the sad news of the death of Peter Allen, who was less than a year older than me. He was a keen canal traveller, and the author of the Pubs Then and Now blog which was mainly focused around his waterborne journeys. He accompanied us on numerous pub days out where he was always good company. The photo above shows him in happier times, on the left, in the Slubbers Arms in Huddersfield in March 2019. I am just to the right of the fire. Sadly, that splendid pub, which was my best new pub visit of 2019, is no longer with us either.

One noteworthy book I read during the year was Northerners by Brian Groom, which is basically a history of England seen through the lens of the North. For long a poverty-stricken backwater, it did nevertheless play a crucial role in many key historical events. Then the Industrial Revolution elevated it to becoming the most prosperous region of the country, only for it to be laid low in the last century by the decline of traditional industries. It is perhaps let down towards the end by an attempt to shoehorn in as many artistic, literary and showbiz figures as possible, whereas a more limited number of extended profiles illustrating particular themes might have been better. And the North now faces the question of how it can create a distinctive identity for itself without becoming merely a subsidised colony of the South, the contradiction that is inherent in the “Levelling Up” agenda.

I also read Municipal Gothic by Ray Newman, one half of Boak & Bailey, which is a collection of ghost stories with modern and everyday settings. Some of the stories are very good and are based on inventive concepts, particularly the increasingly creepy faux gazetteer of Modern Buildings in Wessex, but it did come across as rather too obviously written by someone who has pondered on the mechanics of how ghost stories work.

A year without Covid restrictions gave me the chance to get out and about and visit many more tourist attractions of various kinds. Undoubtedly the best new one was the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight on the Wirral, which celebrated its centenary this year. Although only twenty miles from where I grew up, unaccountably I had never been here before. It’s a very impressive purpose-built gallery, with a huge and varied art collection to which a single visit cannot really do justice. The paintings on display major on Pre-Raphaelite and early 20th century figurative art which are perhaps somewhat unfashionable genres nowadays.

The striking portrait above is Jeunesse Dorée, painted in 1934 by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst and depicting his muse, and later wife, Kathleen Woodward.

I was also able to renew my acquantaince with a number of places which in many cases I had not visited for decades. Two that stand out are Rufford Old Hall in West Lancashire, a fascinating Tudor and Restoration house in a tranquil, wooded setting by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, and Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, which is far less immediately spectacular than Stonehenge, but where the National Trust have done a very good job of explaining its origins and significance.

As for 2023, who knows what it will bring? It could turn out better, but it could be a lot worse. And dare I suggest that one thing that would bring about an improvement in the situation around the world would be a swift return to peace in Ukraine?

See here for Part 1.

Tuesday 27 December 2022

Out of the frying pan... – Part 1

This time last year, pubs had been spared the Covid restrictions that had been reimposed on large sections of the economy due to concerns about the Omicron variant. However, this led to a wave of cancellations of Christmas bookings, meaning that the trade had a dismal festive season for the second year in a row. As many of us had predicted, the fears of Omicron proved to be greatly overstated, and the general restrictions were all lifted at the end of January, perhaps accelerated by the embattled government wishing to avoid a backbench rebellion. The abhorrent plans to impose vaccine mandates on NHS workers lingered on into the Spring, but they were eventually scrapped too. The lockdown narrative has steadily crumbled as the sheer scale of the economic, social, educational and medical harms it caused have become increasingly clear, and many politicians have rushed to dissociate themselves from it.

There were, however, one or two pockets of the pub trade that, like Japanese soldiers in the jungle after 1945, continued to cling stubbornly to the old religion. The Bailey Head in Oswestry, run by a chap called Duncan Borrowman, was insisting on the ludicrous and oppressive rule of requiring masks unless seated well into this year, even though this had been officially lifted in July 2021. I assume it has now been dropped, but that’s certainly one to add to the list of pubs to avoid, at least under their current management.

This cleared the way for a year of unrestricted trading for pubs, which was helped by some hot summer weather. Although it certainly hasn’t been uniform, many have reported sales figures approaching those of 2019 or even, in some cases, exceeding it. However, they have then been hit by a wave of inflation which has increased their costs, especially energy prices, while at the same time reducing their customers’ disposable income. This leaves many pubs in a very precarious financial situation going into the New Year, and has already led to a number of closures which have spread to breweries too. To a a large extent, this inflation was the inevitable consequence of the borrowing and money-printing to finance the Covid bailouts and furlough, although the Bank of England seemed remarkably myopic in failing to foresee it. The Ukraine conflict has exacerbated it to some degree, but it’s really no more than the icing on the cake. The situation of pubs in town and city centres has been further worsened by the wave of rail strikes in the run-up to Christmas.

During the year, I have visited 128 different pubs, of which 40 were new to me. This compares with 79/18 in 2021 and a mere 60/17 in 2020. Obviously I could have visited more new pubs if I’d really set my mind to it, but I didn’t really do more than take the opportunities that were available to me in the course of my travels. A couple of highlights were a day out in Burton-on-Trent for the first celebration of National Bass Day that was actually able to take place, and being kindly taken on a tour of rural pubs in West Berkshire by Tim Thomas of the local CAMRA branch.

My best new pub was the North Star in Steventon, Berkshire, one of the most unspoilt pubs on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with no bar counter as such and a snug formed by a high-backed settles.

Runner-up was the Magazine in New Brighton, with its spectacular views over the Mersey estuary towards Liverpool. This is one of those classic pubs that is in my general part of the world, but I’d never been near enough in recent years to think, “oh, let’s go there”. Although known as a Bass shrine, unfortunately due to the supply difficulties that have plagued Bass this year there was none available when I called. I’ll also give honourable mentions to the Boat and Horses in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the Heatons Bridge at Scarisbrick in West Lancashire, both of which have a canal connection.

On the other hand, there were one or two horror stories, the most memorable being one pub, which shall remain nameless, where my experience was completely spoilt by what appeared to be the landlord and his cronies engaging in bout of Chubby Brown-level swearing in one of the rooms. This was a pity as otherwise it was a very appealing place that came across as more genteel than rough, which made the crudity even more incongruous.

My best revisit was undoubtedly the Bell at Aldworth, again in Berkshire, another classic unspoilt pub that has won CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year on two widely-separated occasions. I had been there once in the early 80s, but never since. This was on the aforementioned tour with Tim Thomas. I was also able to renew my acquaintance with a number of pubs not visited since before Covid, such as the “symphony in brown” Cross Foxes in Shrewsbury, and the Red Lion at Dayhills in Staffordshire, a simple rural pub attached to a working farm.

Amongst all those pubs, sadly I haven’t encountered a single pub cat, although I have continued to follow the activities of Arty at the Olde Cottage in Chester, and Fiddle Pub Cat, whose pub has now closed down, but who seems to be enjoying a comfortable retirement with plenty of rodent-hunting opportunities.

To be continued...

Monday 19 December 2022

A franchise affair

A significant development of the past few years that has perhaps not received the attention it deserves is the rise of franchise models for operating pubs owned by the major pub companies. These are a kind of halfway house between a managed pub and a traditional tenancy, under which the publican remains self-employed, but the pubco pays all the bills and takes all the sales revenue, leaving a cut of typically between 18% and 22% to pay themselves and employ staff.

All of the major pubcos now offer deals of this kind, as explained in this article in the Morning Advertiser, with Marston’s being the leaders in the field with 637 sites currently operational. Probably the most visible is Stonegate’s Craft Union, which has been positioned as a standalone brand, with the pubs painted in a distinctive livery. Most of them tend to be wet-led pubs, but some of the deals allow the licensees to run their own food operation.

From the point of view of the pubco, they avoid the commitment and administrative burden of a fully managed operation while still retaining a high degree of control over how the business is run. Most significantly, all the sales are put through their own books.

The prospective publican may find this kind of arrangement an easier introduction to the pub trade than a traditional tenancy, and it requires much less of an initial financial ingoing. It provides a much more structured operating environment, which may suit many people, although others will find the lack of opportunity to use their initiative to develop the business limiting. Running a tenancy is much more complex now than it was fifty years ago. There’s a direct relationship between the success of the business and your own remuneration, although of course that is a double-edged sword.

An important aspect is that all the bills are paid by the pubco, including the energy costs, which is a massive attraction in the current climate. However, concerns have been expressed that these deals may in practice leave people working for a pittance and can be regarded as exploitative. People are effectively entering into unsatisfactory contracts just to get a roof over their heads and their bills paid. On the other hand, several people interviewed in the Morning Advertiser article seemed happy enough with the situation. No doubt the shrill anti-pubco lobbyists will find much to criticise, but they never seem able to come up with any constructive suggestions about how pub operating companies should actually function.

When I first heard about this kind of arrangement, my initial thought was that they were a way of pubcos avoiding the possibilities of seeing their pubs lost to tenants claiming a Market Rent Option and going free-of-tie. However, that hasn’t in practice proved to be a major problem for pubcos, and in reality franchising is more a way of finding a system that works for smaller, lower-end pubs that have proved difficult to let on a traditional tenancy basis. But, whatever its pros and cons, franchising certainly seems to be here to stay as a significant part of the pub landscape, and is only likely to expand its share at the expense of tenancies. Marston’s certainly see it as a key driver of future growth.

Saturday 10 December 2022

Ailing ale

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the unintended consequence of banning displays of “HFSS” foods in supermarkets had been a mushrooming of the quantity of alcoholic drinks in prominent view. But one thing that has been conspicuous by its absence from all these mountains of bottles and cans is beers in traditional British styles. Yes, there is Guinness, and there are Punk IPA and Hazy Jane, but the vast majority of it is lager of various kinds. There is nothing remotely resembling a Bitter. Not too long ago, there would have been slabs of John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Boddingtons and Tetley’s, and even, a few years before that, Stones. But now there is nothing.

While these beers are still available in four-packs in the alcohol aisle, their absence from the piles of seasonal drinks shows that they are no longer ranked amongst the big hitters of the beer world. And yes, those styles are well covered by the Premium Bottled Ales sector, but that again is a niche market playing several divisions below the Premier League.

In the on-trade, it is overwhelmingly cask that is carrying the standard for British ales. When cask disappears from a pub, it doesn’t get keg Landlord and London Pride, it is likely to end up with an apologetic cowl on the T-bar for John Smith’s or Tetley’s Smooth, and maybe a throwback keg mild if you’re lucky. These products are now zombie brands, receiving no advertising or promotion, and selling to a dwindling band of downmarket older drinkers. Maybe there is still some love for keg ales in pockets like the North-East club trade, but in general they are unloved and overlooked.

When Cooking Lager did his tour of the keg pubs of Edgeley earlier this year, he didn’t even mention the keg ales available. I’d assume they all stocked some form of smooth beer, but I’d guess these accounted for no more than 10% of draught sales. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the more modern-themed pubs and bars that have dropped cask now no longer stock any British-style keg ales at all. I don’t tend to frequent such establishments, but earlier this year I stayed in a slightly upmarket hotel where there were eight kegs on the bar. One was some kind of craft IPA, but none were British ales.

When I started drinking in the late 70s, ale (mostly bitter, but still with a large component of mild) was the dominant category in the beer market. Lager was a trendy, upstart interloper. However, it steadily gained on ale, probably overtaking it at some time in the mid-80s, and has now for most people become the default beer. If you visited the house of someone who wasn’t a beer enthusiast, and they offered you “a beer”, odds on it would be a lager. As the Scottish Licensed Trade Network reports, lager has now become the quintessential pub product.

British-style ales are now on the verge of falling back from being a lower-volume mainstream product to something that is definitely just a niche. Over the next couple of decades it will become increasingly common in the on-trade to find them entirely absent, while in the off-trade the shelf space allocated to them will steadily diminish. Yes, there will still be places where they enjoy strong sales and appreciation, but they will be limited pockets in the general landscape. While cask may mount a determined rearguard action, its distribution is only going to contract, not increase. And, if you run a brewery that specialises in British-style ales, you may have a bleak future.

Of course it is a simple fact of life that customer preferences change over time. Porter disappeared, mild is now a tiny niche and bitter is going the same way. But it is a matter of regret that we are losing something that was the absolute cornerstone of the once-mighty British brewing industry. And you can’t help thinking that other nations such as the Germans and the Czechs would be more committed to cherishing such an important part of their heritage.

Yes, there has been a rise in craft IPAs, mainly on keg, but they are not ales of the traditional British style and their market share remains minuscule in comparison to lager.