Friday 29 December 2023

A pint of whine

As a measure of deregulation made possible by leaving the European Union, the government have announced a modest extension of the permitted measures for wine bottles and cans. These will, as well as the quantities currently prescribed, allow both still and sparkling wine to be sold in containers of 200ml, 500ml and 568ml (equal to an Imperial pint).

It would be easy to dismiss this measure as something of a damp squib that didn’t add up to much, and nobody could be blamed for reacting that way. But instead it seems to have provoked paroxysms of rage amongst many who are still struggling to come to terms with the result of a democratic vote seven and a half years ago.

Nobody is going to be compelled to use these measures, despite the linked report saying “Pint-sized bottles of still and sparkling wine are to appear on shelves in the UK”, and all of the previous metric measures will be allowed. So it’s really hard to see what all the fuss is about.

Considering that most wine sold in Britain is imported, and the 750ml bottle is an international standard, it’s unlikely that most buyers will notice any change. However, there is a history of champagne being sold in pint bottles and, given that the UK is the largest consumer of it outside France, it’s possible that some suppliers might decide it is worth offering the smaller option.

While 750ml bottles are the accepted norm for wine, it has to be said that for many consumption occasions they’re inconveniently big, and the possibility of having smaller bottles in various sizes will give drinkers more flexibility. I wonder how much wine from 750ml bottles ends up either being poured down the sink or reluctantly glugged down on the basis of “I suppose I’d better drink this, then.”

It should also be noted that this is only a very modest extension of permitted sizes and stops well short of complete deregulation. Yet there are no restrictions at all on beer bottle and can sizes, which can come in a vast and sometimes confusing range of quantities, although they generally seem to settle down around particular norms. Nobody seems to raise much objection to that, though.

Further aneurysms were provoked by the news yesterday that Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin was to receive a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List. Inevitably this news stuck in many people’s craws due to his vocal support for Brexit. This tweet, from a former editor of the Sun, unbelievably, really sums up the élite-level sneering:

However, regardless of his political views, he has created an extremely successful and popular pub business from scratch, often by going against conventional wisdom. He has taken an iconoclastic approach to how pubs should be run, and attracted many customers who never went to pubs before.

If he had held more mainstream establishment opinions it’s highly likely that he would have been knighted much sooner, but of course if he had simply followed the herd he probably wouldn’t have made such a success of his pub empire in the first place.

Please keep all comments well-mannered and relevant. Any generalised ant-Brexit tirades will be rejected.

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Review of the Year 2023 – Part 2

Elon Musk did a major service to Twitter in 2022 in taking it over and removing the stifling blanket of censorship that had previously applied. Large numbers of previously banned accounts have now been restored. However, it’s hard to see that many of the changes he has made in 2023 have been positive. For a start, it’s now been renamed as “X”, although everyone still calls it Twitter. Two changes that have been particularly negative from my point of view are requiring you to log in to view it, which put paid to the display of interesting tweets that used to appear in the sidebar of this blog, and ruining the functionality of the TweetDeck app which made it easy to operate multiple accounts from one screen.

Having said that, no potential competitor has managed to establish any kind of dominance, and the big plus point of Twitter is the wide range of people and organisations signed up to it. It’s a place for interaction, not just a personal platform. Using an alternative may end up feeling like shouting into a void. During the year, I have advanced from just short of 6,300 followers to over 6,800 (6.847 as of this morning), so hitting the 7,000 mark in 2024 is entirely possible. I had a surge of followers from this tweet made from the Jolly Sailor on a pub crawl of Macclesfield earlier this month.

As I said last year, I deliberately aim to steer clear of any overtly political comments beyond the politics of lifestyle, which in a sense is the core raison d'être of both this blog and my Twitter account. If you have a personal account, then you are free to express whatever views you choose, and people will take it or leave it as they wish. But if your account is presented as being on the general topic of beer or pubs, or represents a specific pub, then using it as a political soapbox will merely alienate a substantial section of readers.

The worst public health policy of the year has undoubtedly been Rishi Sunak’s decision to implement a creeping prohibition of tobacco sales, increasing the legal purchase age by one year every year. He was following the example of New Zealand but, following a general election and a change of government, they have scrapped it, leaving the UK standing proudly alone as a world leader in bansturbation. Little hope of Labour dropping it in the UK if they should gain power next year. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, while there are undoubted health risks associated with smoking, many people actively enjoy it, and this is setting a disturbing precedent. But of course there’s no chance of anything similar ever being applied to alcohol, oh no, definitely not.

From August 1st, a new system of alcohol duties was introduced which ensured all drinks were taxed in proportion to strength. While one might object to the absolute level of duties, the general principle must be correct. It’s rare to see government carrying out a root-and-branch reform of anything nowadays, rather than merely tinkering around the edges. With any change of this kind, there will inevitably be winners and losers, and one category that did suffer an increase was stronger red wines, which perhaps tend to be disproportionately favoured by the chattering classes.

A significant aspect of these changes was to raise the threshold for a lower rate of beer duty from 2.8% ABV to 3.4%, a level at which it is much easier to brew palatable beers. As I reported earlier this month, there has been significant movement to reduce the strength of beers a little above this level, although it remains distinctly patchy, and the jury is still out on to what extent drinkers will be happy to accept lower-strength beers. The duty savings are so significant, though – over 50% – that the 3.4% category is only going to grow in future.

In a rare display of enterprise and initiative, Samuel Smith’s wasted no time in increasing the strength of their 2.8% Light and Dark Milds and Alpine Lager to 3.4%, and in the process made them much better beers. However, in general they have continued to plough their usual secretive and idiosyncratic furrow. They have reopened a few high-profile pubs, such as the Falcon in Chester and the Berkeley in Scunthorpe, plus the Windmill at Carrington in Cheshire, of which I took the photo above in Autumn sunlight. However, in that case it’s hard to see where the custom is going to come from.

On the other hand, they closed the well-known Queen’s Head (aka Turner’s Vaults) in Stockport town centre, and after a short period of reopening – which even prompted an article in the Daily Telegraph – also shuttered the Swan in Holmes Chapel. At least a third of their estate must still be closed, including several pubs in prime locations that must be potentially lucrative. The Bird in Hand in Mobberley particularly stands out in that respect.

Back in September, Boak and Bailey wrote about how Sam Smith’s were no longer a cheap option in London, which is certainly true. However, in the North, after implementing a “big bath” price increase after reopening post-lockdown in 2020, which took Old Brewery Bitter from £2 a pint to £3, prices have remained frozen, while all of their competitors apart from Wetherspoon’s have now overtaken them. They now look pretty good value again, especially for the Dark Mild and XXXX Best which are only £2.20 a pint.

Earlier this month, there was a detailed and insightful article about Sam’s in the Times, which for a while was free to view, but has now been put back behind their paywall. In hindsight, I should have scraped the text. The ridiculous policy of banning mobile phone use in their pubs remains in force and, while I understand it is widely ignored in London, it is certainly enforced in the North, with the staff at risk of being peremptorily sacked by Humphrey Smith. Having said that, I’m happy to forgo the phone for a couple of pints, and Sam’s pubs, where they are open, remain oases of calm, comfort and cosiness that few others can match.

Last year, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the subject of cask beer quality, much of which centred around the issue of pubs failing to get to grips with the problem of slow turnover. While obviously my experiences are not representative, I have to say I’ve experienced very few pints this year that I have had to send back. Quite a few brewers, including our local Robinson’s, have been investing in pins, and maybe more pubs are taking on board the message on turnover. But of course adopting pins has a touch of the Ian Faiths about it, that it’s a recognition that the appeal of cask beer has become more selective.

In Part 1 I mentioned a particularly poignant post on Cooking Lager’s blog. Another blog that I have found interesting during the year is Phil Wieland’s Merseyside Pub Guide, in which he visits various areas of Liverpool and the surrounding districts where most other bloggers would not think of venturing. It’s notable that Liverpool seems to have retained a lot more traditional street-corner locals than Manchester, but very few of them still have cask ale, so Carling tends to be his beer of choice. Even the new micropubs are usually keg-only.

I can’t say I’ve read any books this year so far with a direct relevance to the themes of this blog. However, as a Christmas present, I have treated myself to Dead Drunk : Tales of Intoxication and Demon Drinks, edited by Pam Lock, which is described as:

With a stiff measure of the supernatural, a dram of melodrama and a chaser of the cautionary kind, tales of drink and drunkenness can be found in a well- stocked cabinet of Victorian and early twentieth-century fiction, reflecting an anxiety about the impact of alcohol and intoxicants in society, as well as an acknowledgment of their influence on humans’ perception of reality.
So I’m looking forward to reading that.

The best new tourist attraction I visited in the year was undoubtedly Coleton Fishacre, an Art Deco rural retreat built in the 1920s by the D’Oyly Carte family on the South Devon coast between Brixham and Dartmouth, with stunning sea views. It is a relatively recent acquisition by the National Trust which I have to admit I hadn’t been aware of before. The interiors are all very beige-hued, though.

Amongst revisits, a far grander 20th century country house was Castle Drogo, on the edge of Dartmoor, built by grocery magnate Julius Drew who fancied he had ancestral roots in the area.

I also revisited Gawthorpe Hall at Padiham in Lancashire, a small-scale Jacobean “prodigy house” designed by the noted architect Robert Smythson. I had last been here about 35 years ago when it was still in the midst of being converted from its former use as a textile college.

So what will 2024 bring? It is certainly going to be a consequential year in electoral terms on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are several ongoing international conflicts that may or may not be resolved or eased. What will this mean for the brewing industry and licensed trade? Who knows? As the old Chinese proverb goes, “may you live in interesting times!”

See here for Part 1.

Friday 22 December 2023

Review of the Year 2023 – Part 1

2023 was the first full year since 2019 that the pub trade was entirely free of Covid restrictions or the threat of them being reimposed. However, the ongoing Covid enquiry is raking over the coals once again, although its purpose seems more to be the attribution of blame than any rational cost-benefit analysis of the response. It also suffers from the ongoing delusion that there could have been some kind of magical super-lockdown that would have sorted everything out.

This resulted in the best trading conditions since 2019, although the cost pressures imposed by high inflation have been an ongoing problem. There has also been continued political turmoil domestically and war in several places on the international stage. The idea that we are eventually going to return to some kind of calmer waters comes across as wishful thinking.

During the course of the year, I have visited 149 different pubs, of which 46 were new to me, with the possibility of adding one or two more to the total in the remaining days of December (The final figures were 152 and 47). This was the highest figure since 2019. As I said last year, 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.

The best new pub I visited was undoubtedly the Templar, a bustling, atmospheric pub in Leeds city centre that preserves many original internal features. I had heard good things about it from various people, which were confirmed.

An honourable mention goes to the Blue Mugge in Leek, a multi-roomed street-corner local just outside the town centre that manages to do a good lunchtime trade when most others in similar locations nowadays would be closed during the week. I also visited the Bridge Inn at Topsham in Devon, a well-known National Inventory classic although, while it undoubtedly has a wonderfully unspoilt interior, for some reason, possibly related to the time of day when I called, it failed to click with me in terms of pub atmosphere.

I revisited a couple of Cheshire classics that I hadn’t been to for too long. The Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham had recently been severely damaged by impact from a heavy lorry, confining drinkers to one room at the back, although the licensee was hopeful of being able to claim on insurance and restore it to its former glory.

The Harp at Little Neston, looking out over the marshes of the silted-up Dee estuary, was pretty much the same as I remembered it. I managed to pay my first visit since before Covid to the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano in Somerset, which lived up to my recollection that it is hard to find a better example of a characterful rural or village pub, although on this occasion their signature beer Courage Best was not available.

Five years ago, I wrote about how my father had enjoyed his last pint in a pub in the Golden Lion in Frodsham in the Autumn of 2009. I had not been back since I called in shortly after he did to tell the other customers who knew him that he was no longer with us, but I managed to get in there again this year. It’s a Sam Smith’s pub and has now lost its cask OBB, but I had a good drop of their reformulated XXXX Best light mild. It was given a tasteful refurbishment a few years ago and, with a blazing fire in the grate, it was easy to imagine escaping from the world there for a few hours on a dark November day.

I haven’t encountered a single pub cat on my travels, although I am assured there are plenty of them out there. I did call in to the Olde Cottage in Chester where Arty, who turned up unannounced in 2019, has recently celebrated his fourth birthday. However, apparently his routine is to get his beauty sleep around teatime and only venture down to the bar late in the evening.

This year, I have made 51 posts on this blog, including this one and its sequel, which is a slight increase on the 45 of 2022. Realistically, the heady days of 294 in 2011 are never coming back, as all of the brief thoughts have migrated to Twitter, but I’ve managed to keep up a steady output, with a particular rush of blood to the head in November, when I achieved 7.

The most views were for this one on why beer writers and commentators get a distorted view of cask beer quality, which ended up being widely shared. Also well-read were my thoughts on the likely outcome of the 3.4% beer duty cut-off, which is of ongoing relevance, and my post on the inadequacies of micropub toilets also proved popular for its scatological implications.

A particularly salient post was At the Sign of the Dead Horse, where I made the point that many “save-the-pub” campaigners fail to acknowledge the extent to which social and legislative changes over the years have combined to undermine the demand for pubgoing, and also reminded them that you can’t force commercial companies to keep pubs open if they do not see them as viable.

The blog continues to attract a healthy volume of comments, but sadly some fall into the category of “low-grade snark” and can’t really be said to add anything constructive, so I’ve been inclined not to approve some that are either offensive or irrelevant.

My Closed Pubs blog saw a sad milestone in its 1000th entry, the rather magnificent Pagefield Hotel in Wigan. A total of 81 pubs (there are two still to be uploaded between now and New Year) is a little below last year, but still the second-highest annual total since the early days of shooting fish in a barrel. The demise of the Fullpint news aggregration Twitter account closed off a useful source of leads, but I have continued to receive a steady stream of suggestions from Leeds resident Kyle Reed, which explains why Yorkshire has overtaken Staffordshire as the county with the second-highest number of entries, and is now hot on the heels of Lancashire.

I have also continued to add pubs from time to time to my Campaign for Real Pubs blog, including both the Templar and the Blue Mugge which I mentioned earlier.

One of the highlights of other blogs was this rather poignant piece from Cooking Lager looking back to the days of his youth while visiting the remaining pubs of Hillgate on a Sunday afternoon. He really does need to do more blogging!

I walked home happier than I began. My melancholy shifted with a few pints drank slowly over an afternoon. Smiling over a memory of a time 4 lads liked a drink, walked around some pubs because we were told those were the pubs you should go round and laughed a lot and enjoyed themselves and had hope and excitement at the prospect of leaving home and going to universities. Something to keep and treasure and remind myself of. The gift of still being here. That extra time I’ve been given, they were denied. There’s more to do, more to see, more memories to make. Of places, of people, of good times, of bad times, and time to enjoy a drink. Play until the whistle. Play every moment. The whistle is coming.
See here for Part 2.

Thursday 14 December 2023

A pint of two halves

There’s recently been another outbreak of discussion on the vexed issue of pubs charging more for half-pints than a strict 50% of the price of a pint. So I thought I would run a Twitter poll to gauge people’s attitude to this practice. The conclusion was pretty negative, with almost two-thirds viewing it as totally unacceptable.

In fact, I addressed this subject in my magazine column back in 2013:

RECENTLY there seems to have been a rise in the practice of pubs charging more for a half than exactly 50% of the price of pint, something that for many years has been commonplace in Ireland. Many drinkers find this irritating, especially given that the growth in the number of rare and one-off beers means that drinking halves is a lot more common than it used to be.

The usual reason given is that the overheads in terms of staff time and glass-washing are the same for a half as for a pint, and thus some kind of premium is justified. However, in general, pubs serve far more pints than halves, and the fact that they do sell a few halves is unlikely in practice to result in any measurable extra cost.

Cost should never be the sole factor in pricing – you also have to bear in mind consistency and what people feel happy to pay. The aim should be to establish a fair and reasonable pricing structure that covers your overheads without any anomalies. Pubs don’t, for example, charge more for beer in the winter to cover the additional costs of heating and lighting.

While I’m never going to man any barricades about it, charging more for halves seems to me to be something that needlessly antagonises customers for little or no benefit to the pub. It’s quite simply a bad business practice that has no place in an operation that depends so heavily on customer goodwill. Plus it’s not hard to imagine the anti-drink lobby getting up in arms over effectively giving people a discount for drinking more.

There’s not really much more I can add to that. Yes, in a narrow accounting sense it does cost a pub slightly more to serve two halves than a pint, but it’s utterly trivial and can’t add up to more than a few pence. And a pub’s rent, staffing and energy costs are pretty much fixed, so saying that a half costs more is merely the product of a method of accounting allocation.

I doubt whether any pubs doing this have carried out any kind of detailed analysis of costs – they just do it because it seems a bit on-trend. Pubs sell all kinds of products at different prices with different mark-ups – are they going to investigate each one to determine the staff labour involved in serving them and the typical customer dwell time?

It must also be remembered that cost is only one input into pricing decisions – prices must also pass a test of customer acceptability. If a pricing practice antagonises a significant subset of customers it’s probably a good indication that you shouldn’t be doing it. And draught beer in general is one of the pub products with the lowest mark-up, because it is the item that customers use to make price comparisons between pubs.

And, of course, Wetherspoon’s don’t charge a premium for halves.

Unfortunately, raising this topic on Twitter provoked a few predictable responses along the lines of “real men don’t drink halves”. I thought that kind of stereotypical machismo had been confined to the past.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Leaders of the pack

The Morning Advertiser has recently reported on the top ten best-selling cask ale brands of 2023, as shown in the table below. Doom Bar retains the leading position, which it has occupied for several years now, although its sales volumes were down by 11.7%. Taylor’s Landlord retains second place, something that would have been hard to believe only a decade ago.

There are two new entrants, Butcombe Bitter and Harvey’s Sussex Best (The article states that Butcome is a new entry, although the graphic contradicts that). Butcombe is the first entry from one of the new post-1973 breweries to make this listing. (I would exclude Doom Bar as, while it originated from a micro-brewery, it is now owned and promoted by one of the major international brewers). Harvey’s, who previously limited their sales to a fairly close radius around the brewery, have presumably made a policy decision to take a more expansionist approach to distribution, although it’s still rarely seen in the North.

Obviously, as well as having the necessary production capacity, getting the distribution is a major factor in a beer becoming a top seller. But it’s a highly competitive market, and there are very few captive customers nowadays, so drinkers always have the choice of going for something else. In the vast majority of pubs with strong cask sales, there will be at least two beers on the bar. So people are making a positive choice to drink these beers, rather than reluctantly choosing them because there’s nothing else on offer.

It’s also worth noting that, while we are often told that “everyone wants pale hoppy beers nowadays”, nine of the ten are traditional, mid-brown, balanced bitters, and the only one that is pale, Wainwright, is fairly subdued in its hoppiness.

It’s interesting to compare these figures with the equivalent table for 2019, which I reported on here. The total sales volume of the Top Ten has declined by 23.2%, which is perhaps less than I might have imagined given the damage done by protracted lockdowns. Doom Bar was still the best-seller in 2019, although Greene King IPA was second and Landlord only fifth. IPA sales are down by 39.7%, while Landlord is up by an impressive 73.4%.

Eight of the beers were the same as in 2023, with the two that have dropped out of the chart being Deuchars IPA and Ruddles Bitter. I’d say their replacements, Butcombe and Harvey’s Sussex, are both considerably better beers.

The total annual sales volume of the Top 10 in 2023 is 624,900 hl, which equates to 318,800 bulk barrels. Back in the heyday of cask in the 1970s, several individual brands would have exceeded this figure.

Monday 4 December 2023

Partial dilution

From 1 August this year, a major reform of UK alcohol duties was introduced. As far as beer is concerned, the biggest change was raising the threshold for a significantly reduced rate of duty from 2.8% ABV to 3.4%, a level which makes it much easier to brew palatable and appealing beers. Obviously this was likely to lead to major changes in the beer market, which I wrote about back in March, in what has proved to be one of my most-viewed posts of the year. As I said at the time, “It’s always difficult to make predictions on changes like this, and it should be remembered that measures such as the lower duty for 2.8% beers and permitting two-thirds measures have been damp squibs. However, the savings available are so great that it’s hard to imagine that the beer market will sail on little changed.”

And so it has proved, There have certainly been significant changes, but they haven’t approached the earth-shattering level. Few of the changes have been entirely unexpected, and it’s surprising that some beers haven’t cut their strength. It must be remembered, though, that the cost impact is very substantial. The duty+VAT saving on a pint of draught beer at 3.4% is 26.01p compared with a pint at 3.5%, which will equate to twice that at typical pub mark-ups. But there is a challenge that you have to bring drinkers with you.

A problem with investigating this subject is obtaining accurate information, as brewers are understandably not going to make a big splash about reducing the strength of their beers. Plus the beers affected are not in general ones that I personally buy. So I’ve assembled the information from a variety of news reports, brewery and supermarket websites and checking on supermarket shelves. Plus there’s the beer list on the Wetherspoon’s app, although I have certain doubts as to whether that is up-to-date. Thus I can’t guarantee that the examples I’ve listed are entirely correct, and they’re certainly not complete.

The biggest mover in the cask beer field has been Greene King IPA, which has been cut from 3.6% to 3.4%. This is the second biggest cask seller, but most of the rest of the Top Ten are 4.0% or above and so probably won’t be shifting. Its strength has been reduced in all formats. I don’t know whether this will cause any kickback in its traditional East Anglian heartland, but elsewhere it tends to be just dismissed as a standard “ordinary”, so it will probably make little difference. On the other hand, its stablemate Ruddles Bitter, while it has been reduced to 3.4% in bottles, remains at 3.7% in cask, presumably because the vast majority of sales go through Wetherspoons and Tim Martin has said that’s what he wants.

Other cask beers that have been cut from 3.5% are Hook Norton Hooky Bitter and Hawkshead Windermere Pale. Such a small reduction is unlikely to make much difference either to taste or the beers’ appeal. Marble Brewery have cut their Pint all the way down from 3.9%. Presumably the motivation is to give them a contender in the discount sector, and they already have a product in the full-strength Bitter category in the 4.2% Manchester Bitter.

On the other hand, it is surprising that some beers have not had their strength reduced. Obvious examples are Taylor’s Golden Best and Dark Mild, and Hyde’s 1863 and Dark Ruby, all of which remain at 3.5% according to their websites. They must have their own reasons for this, but it’s hard to believe that the reputational damage would come anywhere close to the benefits from the duty savings.

Robinson’s have a 3.4% beer in their portfolio called Citra Pale which was actually introduced last year in anticipation of this change, but I find it rather thin and astringent, and it doesn’t normally sell for much of a discount against their stronger beers. It also rather treads on the toes of the 3.8% Dizzy Blonde. There have also been more 3.4% seasonal beers from various breweries which may appeal to the guest ale market.

Amongst the well-known canned widget bitters, Tetley’s and Boddington’s have been cut to 3.4%, while John Smith’s and Worthington, as far as I can see, remain at 3.6%. From this, I’d assume draught John Smith’s is still 3.6%, and Wetherspoon’s are still declaring the strength of Worthington Creamflow at that figure. I would have thought these products, being declining brands with something of a captive market, would be ideal candidates for a strength reduction. On a related note, the other day I spotted on the supermarket shelf a 10-pack of Hobgoblin “Session IPA” at 3.4%, so someone’s introduced a new canned product in response to the duty cut.

The biggest brand by far to undergo a strength reduction is Carlsberg Danish Pilsner, where it was announced back in August that all formats were being cut from 3.8% to 3.4%. This has duly happened to the canned version, although the fact they were offering a 10-pack for £7.50 in Morrisons recently suggested it may not be selling well. However, the Wetherspoon’s app still shows the draught version as 3.8%, and indeed one example I had tasted more like 3.8% than 3.4%. But this is something of a comedown when they did a relaunch in 2019 that won considerable praise from beer writers.

There has been no movement from the other two of the Big Three of cooking lagers. Foster’s has only relatively recently been cut from 4.0% to 3.7%, so a further move might seem a step too far, and Carling, the market leader, is probably happy to stay at 4.0% as a mark of differentiation. I would have thought Bud Light, which is only ever perceived as a low-strength commodity product, would have been an ideal candidate for a cut to 3.4%, and that has certainly happened to the canned version. But, again, it is still declared at 3.5% on the Wetherspoon’s app. As with Ruddles Best, Wetherspoon’s probably make up a high proportion of total draught sales.

J. W. Lees have introduced a new 3.4% lager called Lees Light. However, the history of new products identified as “light” and positioned below the standard beer does not augur well for its success. Going back some years, they introduced a 2.8% keg light mild and lager selling at a discount price which did not last very long.

In a rare demonstration of enterprise and quick thinking, Sam Smith’s took the opportunity to raise the strength of their keg light and dark milds and Alpine lager from 2.8% to 3.4%, and in the process made them considerably better beers. I’m not aware, though, of any other brewer having made a similar move. Surely Hook Norton’s 2.8% Hooky Mild is crying out for it.

So the conclusion is that, while the new tax regime has brought significant changes, it hasn’t turned the beer market on its head. While it is entirely possible to brew good beers at 3.4%, few if any will be improved by having their strength reduced to that level, and many of the beers of that strength tend to be somewhat thin and lacklustre. It would be a depressing prospect if that was to become the norm of British beer drinking.

In my previous post, I discussed how price sensitivity applied in the beer market. It’s certainly there, but there has never been a substantial discount sector. There are discount pubs, but not discount beers. In general, people don’t want to drink beers that are perceived as cheap, and that’s especially true if they’re weak at the same time. No doubt we will see further movement towards 3.4% but it has to be questioned whether, despite the cost advantages, drinkers will be prepared to accept this as their regular tipple.

Personally I can’t see myself ever wanting to buy 3.4% beers for home consumption, although I might well drink them on occasions if I come across them in the pub – and I have tried all three of Sam Smith’s contenders.

Some of the same ground as this post is covered in this piece by Matthew Curtis on Reverse ABV Creep.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Wasted youth

The Morning Advertiser reports that Leeds-based brewery Northern Monk has discontinued two of its seasonal products after complaints against them were upheld by the Portman Group. The brand’s Rocket Lolly IPA and Wasted Hot Cross Bun Pale Ale were “found to have a particular appeal to under-18s and did not communicate the alcoholic nature of the drink with absolute clarity”.

I have in the past criticised the Portman Group for having a po-faced and heavy-handed approach, and being all too willing to act on a single vexatious complaint. But surely it should be obvious that it is neither appropriate nor responsible to promote alcoholic drinks using images relating to childhood treats, or with references to drunkenness.

No major alcohol producer would even dream of using such themes. But there still seems to be a view in the craft beer community that it is part of their mission in life to be edgy and transgressive, and that they are not bound by the rules that apply to the stuffed shirts. Yes, there is a place for humour in alcohol marketing, something the Portman Group sometimes fails to appreciate, but there are subjects that it should steer well clear of.

At a time when there is ever-growing pressure for tighter curbs on alcohol promotion and marketing, selling products like this is offering a hostage to fortune that may well end up being flung back in the industry’s face. As I wrote back in 2020 over a similar case involving Lost & Grounded Brewery, “is defending figures reminiscent of children’s cartoon characters really the hill you want to die on when standing up for the rights of alcohol producers?”

And it’s impossible to escape the suspicion that these can designs did not stem from an innocent mistake, but were deliberately tweaking the regulator’s tail in a bid to gain publicity.

Thursday 23 November 2023

A confederation of wowsers

The Guardian reports on research that has found that British firms are earning a staggering £52.7bn a year from “smoking, excess drinking and junk food”.
…they calculated that 28.8% of all food bought by UK households is unhealthy because it breaches government dietary guidelines for fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Those sales together earn the food industry £34.2bn.

Similarly, they found that 43.4% of all alcohol consumed in the UK is drunk by people exceeding the government’s safe drinking guidelines of 14 units a week, and is thus potentially harmful. The alcohol industry makes £11.2bn from this consumption. And all of the tobacco industry’s £7.3bn annual revenue is from sales of products that are known to kill half of the people who use them, they found.

“These findings show that these health-harming industries are making obscene amounts of money from selling us products that are making us ill,” said Hazel Cheeseman, Ash’s deputy chief executive.

One hopes that Hazel is eating healthy low-fat cheese, not the kind you’re not allowed to advertise on the Tube. So who has commissioned this report? Oh, it’s the usual suspects. And you can’t help thinking “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
The research was undertaken by the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) in conjunction with Landman Economics.
It’s significant that, on top of the £52.7 bn going to companies, the government is raking in £28.8 bn through VAT and duties, making them a major source of revenue. And it is disingenuous to say that companies are “earning” £52.7 bn, as that is the figure for total sales revenue. The actual profit made on these products will be far less.

When it comes to smoking, these analyses always fail to acknowledge that, while it undoubtedly carries health risks, many people genuinely enjoy it, so it is no different in principle from many other so-called vices. And aren’t the government doing enough already to clamp down on it, by increasing the rate of duty every year by above the rate of inflation, and introducing a system of creeping prohibition that will increase the legal purchase age by one year every year?

The “safe drinking” guidelines have been repeatedly ratcheted down in recent years, turning more and more people into “problem drinkers” without anything actually changing. And, as with all policies that are supposed to address the dangers of alcohol, the proposed measures will also end up clobbering moderate consumers.

As I wrote earlier in the year, the concept of ultra-processed food is something that is pretty much entirely made up. It draws the net so widely that it ends up demonising pretty much any food item that has seen the inside of a factory, regardless of its actual recipe or nutritional content. It also has to be remembered that there is no such thing as unhealthy food, only unhealthy diets. Should people not be allowed the occasional indulgent treat?

The measures proposed to deal with these issues will inevitably involve more restrictions and higher taxation, exactly what people need at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet. The whole thing comes across as a crusade against poor people having any kind of pleasure. It is also profoundly patronising, denying people any agency in their own lives, and portraying them as unwilling dupes. Does it never occur to the campaigners that these companies are selling products that people actually want to buy?

Those who insisted at the time of the smoking ban than alcohol was different should take note of the three groups who have come together to produce this report. As far as the public health lobby are concerned, smoking, alcohol and “junk food” are three sides of the same coin, and having the temerity to make a profit from any of them is engaging in a “toxic trade”.

And, of course, as usually happens, the article is illustrated by a picture of people drinking pints of cask beer in a pub garden…

Thursday 16 November 2023

Robinson’s roundup

At last week’s meeting of the local CAMRA branch at the Blossoms in Stockport, we were given a talk by Oliver and William Robinson of Robinson’s Brewery. They are cousins, but very different in both appearance and personality. These are a few of the points that I noted:
  • Oliver and William obviously have a clear vision for the future direction of the company and give the strong impression that they are in it for the long term. As John Clarke (chairing the meeting) said, it's unusual for brewery representatives not only to say what they are doing, but also to explain in detail why they are doing it.

  • Robinson's no longer supply beer in any cask sizes bigger than firkins, and are currently investing in a large number of pins. They see it as important to give customers a choice of cask beers.

  • They also saw it as very important that all their pubs opened seven days a week, as finding a pub closed can seriously damage its reputation.

  • The vessels for their new brewery are being sourced from China, which might raise a few eyebrows. However, they made the point that alternative suppliers were also overseas, in places like Bulgaria or Canada, and would be several million pounds more expensive.

  • They hoped to start production in the new brewery in the second half of next year.

  • There were no definite plans yet for the future of the old brewery - a lot depended on the view of Stockport Council.

  • They were supplying about 15,000 barrels of cask beer each to year to their 257 pubs, which is only just over one barrel per week.

  • They were targeting 35% of beer sales in their pubs to be their own production, covering both cask and keg.

  • They had sold their wholesaling business in 2019, before Covid hit. They made the point that when they sell beer to a wholesaler, it goes out of their control and quality can no longer be guaranteed.

  • They had experimented with offering a range of outside guest beers in some pubs, but with a handful of exceptions such as the Black Horse in Preston the formula hadn't worked.

  • They firmly intend to reopen the currently mothballed Bull's Head and Pineapple in Stockport town centre when the time was right.

  • They had applied restrictive covenants to pubs they had sold on rare occasions, but this was as likely to have been at the request of the buyer. It certainly is not a general policy (and indeed there are numerous examples of former Robinson’s pubs having been acquired by other operators).

Nobody asked them about pub refurbishments, but I suspect they would have given a blunt answer that they weren't running a museum, and that they needed to invest in pubs to guarantee their future.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Driven to drink

The general subject of self-driving cars is really beyond the remit of this blog, but one obvious benefit they might bring is to make it much easier for people to get to, and specifically get back from, the pub. This is a subject I discussed in my magazine column back in 2017. However, I concluded “no doubt the killjoys will be working hard on ways to prevent driverless cars being used in this way, saying ‘that’s not what they were intended for’”.

And indeed, from a recent report, it seems that this will be the case, as it is stated that Being drunk or asleep at the wheel of a driverless cars to be made illegal, and goes on to say that the user in charge must also be in the driver’s seat and stay off their mobile phone. It then says, with a distinct whiff of curled lip:

Plans to forbid drunk back-up driving come amid concerns that the technology could encourage overindulgence. Researchers at Curtin University in Australia have suggested that the public safety benefits from driverless cars could be outweighed by more binge drinking if it becomes easier to get around while inebriated. In 2020, 37 per cent of respondents in a survey said that their alcohol use would be likely to increase if they had access to driverless cars.
However, surely one of the main potential benefits of driverless cars is that they will extend mobility to people who are unable to drive themselves either through old age or medical conditions. It is also impossible to have driverless taxis – often suggested as one of the main applications – if there always needs to be a competent driver on board. If it was indeed true that driverless cars would need a capable driver on board at all times it would severely limit their usefulness, to the extent where it’s hard to see what the point would be.

I suspect this report arises from a misunderstanding of the concept of the technology. It has always been set out that progress towards automated cars will come in a number of levels, as shown in the graphic above. At Level 3, a driver may be called upon to take control in certain situations, but at Levels 4 and 5 they won’t. If an automated taxi can travel without a driver to its pick-up point, then surely it can carry a passenger who is incapable of driving, whether through age, infirmity or intoxication. And if a taxi can do it, why not your own driverless car?

It has always seemed to me, though, that this technology essentially represents a solution looking for a problem. And it’s pretty certain that the authorities will never allow it to be used to its full potential, as it would be so disruptive and undermine so many vested interests.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Passing on the torch

The well-known Laurieston Bar in Glasgow has been put on the market due to the retirement of the owners John and James Clancy, who have run it for forty years. I’ve never been there, but from the description it sounds a splendid establishment, and by all accounts is something of a local institution. It also has a striking, unspoilt 1960s interior that qualifies for a three-star entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Let us hope that they can find new owners who will carry on its traditions.

However, this illustrates a fundamental problem for owner-managed pubs and bars. Whenever the time comes round for the current owners to retire, they have to find someone else to take it on, and there’s no guarantee that its character will be maintained , or indeed that it will remain as a pub at all. Obviously breweries and pub companies have a far from flawless track record in keeping pubs open, but at least when one licensee retires there is the opportunity to maintain continuity by installing a replacement. With the free house, every time a licensee retires or wants to leave the trade, it is put “in play”.

Only this week, there has been another example of this more locally with the Wharf in Macclesfield which, like the Laurieston, is a current Good Beer Guide entry.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Cleaning up your act

In one job I worked at, we were planning a Christmas lunch, and the women of the office checked out the hygiene ratings of the various restaurants in the town to decide which was best. I couldn’t help thinking that they’d rather got the cart before the horse there. It might have made sense to narrow it down to those with good scores, and then choose from amongst those, but they seemed to be using that as the primary criterion. But having an immaculate kitchen is no guarantee that the actual food will be any good, and indeed we ended up having one of the worst Italian meals I can remember.

Now Cask Marque have launched a similar scheme to give pubs star ratings for cellar hygiene. Obviously there’s everything to be said for promoting clean cellars, but it’s a touch disingenuous to suggest that it will help improve cask ale quality. Serving a good pint over the bar is a combination of various factors, not just hygiene, but also turnover, temperature control both in the cellar and in the lines, and maintaining condition through correct tapping, venting and spiling procedures. It’s not rocket science, just diligently following straightforward routines.

Good hygiene alone will not produce good beer if the other elements aren’t there. It’s significant that “One of the first pub groups to endorse the scheme and act on the findings has been named as the budget pub chain Wetherspoons, owned by Tim Martin, which now has 95% of its pubs with 4*/5* ratings.” Yet Spoons’ beer quality can be distinctly variable, and all too often their beer lacks condition and tastes as though it has been pulled through a very long pipe.

We will all have come across pubs whose public areas don’t give the impression of a scrupulous adherence to cleanliness, and yet reliably manage to serve up a good pint. Maybe they do have spotless cellars, but I have my doubts. As a product that is kept in sealed containers, and where the alcohol content has some preservative quality, beer has something of a natural resistance to contamination anyway. Schemes of this kind tend to involve a significant element of ticking boxes to confirm meticulous record-keeping. Some catering establishments end up with one-star ratings purely because they haven’t done their paperwork.

Nobody can argue against promoting hygienic cellars, but don’t imagine that a five-star rating will guarantee a five-star pint.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

At the sign of the Dead Horse

Following the case of the fire and subsequent demolition of the Crooked House, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has called for nominations for pubs that deserve additional legal protection. That’s all well and good, but it has to be remembered that the best protection for pubs is for people to actually use them. Those who claim to be campaigning to support pubs often seem to fail to acknowledge how much the trade has declined in recent years, which inevitably will render many unviable.

Nobody who follows this blog can be left in any doubt about my enduring love of pubs. As I wrote back in 2010:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
I have also devoted a separate blog to highlighting some of the best pubs I have come across.

However, it is important to be realistic and not look at the subject through rose-tinted spectacles. One of the core themes of this blog has been to highlight the various trends that have combined to undermine pubs and reduce their role in society. Obviously one of the biggest factors, and one specifically down to government action, was the 2007 smoking ban, which really ripped the guts out of wet-led community pubs. There has also been an ever-increasing stream of official messaging about the dangers of drink, which is inevitably going to have an effect on public attitudes. If people do drink, very often they will prefer to do it in private homes rather than public places.

But much of it is due to changing social attitudes, which mean that going out to pubs for a drink is looked upon much less favourably, alcohol consumption is more stigmatised, and many occasions on which people would once routinely visit pubs are now frowned upon. As I wrote back in 2013, pubgoing as a leisure activity has increasingly become socially unacceptable. It also has to be recognised that, in the past, much of the core trade of pubs came from men – and it was overwhelmingly men – who were in there several nights a week drinking multiple pints. The number of jobs where you can get away with that, or indeed afford it, has much reduced, and it’s viewed much more unfavourably. Maybe in wider terms that is a positive trend, but it doesn’t help the business of pubs.

It’s a basic principle of economics that, in broad terms, the value that is put on land and activities reflect their overall benefit to society. Of course this cannot be viewed in isolation, and the impact on others has to be taken into account, such as, for example, avoiding pollution and preventing the building of properties with direct access to motorways. But, as a general principle, resource allocation is done much better by markets than by central direction.

If there is an underused pub occupying a large plot of land in a city, at a time of housing shortage it may well benefit society as a whole to knock it down and build flats on the site. Thus it would command a much higher price as a development site than as a going concern. If there is a demand for a pub or bar in that location, it can be provided on the ground floor of the block.

If the pub is of particular architectural quality or significance, it can be protected by being given Listed Building status, which gives it much more protection from alteration or demolition. This, in a sense, is a luxury that prosperous and civilised societies can afford, to be able to retain buildings for cultural or historical reasons even if the site could be used in a more economically advantageous way. There is always the issue, though, of finding a use for listed buildings, unless they can be presented as tourist attractions. Domestic buildings can normally be used for their original purpose, but if a pub has its interior listed as well as its exterior it cannot realistically be used for anything else. And there is a problem with large industrial or institutional buildings that have been listed, but for which no alterative use can be found.

If a pub does not qualify for listing, then it can be given some measure of protection through the planning system. The first option is to apply for it to be registered as an Asset of Community Value, which can be done if it can be demonstrated that it has played a part in the life of the community over a period of time. This does not prevent redevelopment, or change of use, but forces it to be considered in the planning process and gives the local community a six-month window of opportunity to raise funds to purchase it, although there is no obligation on the owner to sell.

To some extent this has been superseded by a relatively recent change of giving pubs their own specific use class for planning purposes, which means that any change of use or demolition has to be given permission by the local council. However, planning can only stop things from happening, it can’t actually make them happen. No operator can be forced to keep a pub open against their will. There is nothing to stop the owner simply closing a pub they do not consider to be viable, and then engaging in a Mexican stand-off with the council over its future use. Local campaigners will often put pressure on councils not to approve a change of use even if there is little realistic prospect of the building continuing to be a pub.

In some cases, it’s possible that a new owner and a change of format might breathe new life into a pub, but to what extent is that simply redistributing the customers from other pubs rather than growing demand overall? And it’s very hard to see many of the “beached whale” estate pubs having any future whoever took them over. It is this kind of planning sclerosis that leads to “mystery fires” when unscrupulous owners try to force the council’s hand. (I am not in any sense trying to excuse what happened at the Crooked House, which was prima facie entirely illegal and probably, from the point of view of the owners, self-defeating.)

It would, of course, be possible to go one step further by requiring any owner wishing to dispose of a pub to at first offer it for sale valued as a going concern for, say, a period of six months. However, this would simply tend to lead to owners closing pubs and sitting on them until any prospect of them appealing to alternative buyers had evaporated. Humphrey Smith is an expert at keeping pubs closed for years at a time. There would have to be a qualifying time period, as otherwise if your micropub in a converted shop failed to prosper, it would be much more difficult to change it back into something else. Plus there would be the question of who would eventually receive the development gains if, after one or two more throws of the dice, it did not prove possible for it to operate as a pub. Realistically, all this would do is to prolong the agony.

If cherished pubs can no longer be sustained on a commercial basis, then if people feel strongly enough about their loss they will need to stump up their own cash to take them into community ownership. This is a growing trend across the country and it is to be welcomed as a way of keeping pubs in existence. But it must be recognised that, once it has been bought, a pub must be able to operate profitably, otherwise it will be a continuing cash drain on the community. Actually buying the pub is only the beginning of the battle. I have also suggested in the past that CAMRA could set up a kind of National Trust of Pubs that could aim to acquire pubs on its National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors that are no longer able to operate commercially. Pubs will increasingly have to move from the business sector to the heritage sector.

Ultimately, the shadow hanging over pubs is not one of lack of supply, but lack of demand. If you want them to survive and prosper in future, you would be better off spending your time promoting the appeal of both pubs and moderate social drinking, rather than engaging in a constant rearguard action of fighting planning battles.

The header photo is of the Black Horse in the Stapenhill district of Burton-on-Trent, an impressive inter-wars Art Deco pub that has since been replaced by housing.

Friday 27 October 2023

Led astray in Leeds

I haven’t done any travelogues on here for a while, but I thought I’d make an exception for my trip to Leeds on Tuesday of this week. Apart from a brief foray for the press launch of Tetley’s No.3 Pale Ale (and whatever happened to that?) I hadn’t visited the city since December 2016, so I thought it was time for another exploration.

I sat down on my train from Manchester Piccadilly, only for a message to come over the PA that it had been cancelled due the lack of a driver. The next train was one that look the longer route via Manchester Victoria, and would probably be very busy due to the transferring passengers, so I took the opportunity to get on a stopping train which arrived at Huddersfield just before the express. Indeed there were plenty of seats available on this. For some reason the regular stopping service on the Standedge route, previously operated by Northern Rail, has been discontinued, and replaced with a rather intermittent service operated by Trans-Pennine Express calling at the intermediate stations. But it does give a higher standard of rolling stock.

It was a morning of heavy rain and thick, lowering clouds, so as we travelled along the steep-sided valleys of the Tame and Colne, stopping at Mossley, Greenfield, Marsden and Slaithwaite (correctly pronounced by the conductor) it was rather like a train journey into the depths of Mordor. The connection at Huddersfield was duly made, and there were a few seats still available on the express, which arrived in Leeds on time. I duly submitted my claim for compensation to the train operator and am pleased to report I was promptly refunded a quarter of the fare.

My plan had been to have some lunch in the Wetherspoon’s on the concourse of Leeds station, but this must be one of their smallest branches, and was completely full, so instead I decided to go to the Cuthbert Brodrick, which is about ten minutes’ walk away on the north side of the city centre. It was pouring with rain, so I just took a quick glance at Google Maps on my phone to establish its general whereabouts. I was walking up a street and saw a large red-brick building on my left, with the Wetherspoon’s name displayed on the wall, so I dived in out of the rain, found a seat and placed my order via the app.

Twenty minutes later, nothing had arrived, so I mentioned this to a passing member of staff and was assured in a rather offhand way that the kitchen would still be making it. Another twenty minutes passed, so I went up to the bar to complain. “We’ve got no record of any order being placed from that table,” I was told. So I showed them the confirmation e-mail on my phone, only to be told that, while I had indeed placed my order at the Cuthbert Brodrick, the pub I was in was actually the Hedley Verity.

Feeling a touch embarrassed, I duly decamped to the Cuthbert Brodrick, which is in fact only about two hundred yards away. I explained the situation to the staff there, and in fact the drink I had ordered was still on the bar. I found a table and my food was served fairly quickly, so kudos to them for sorting matters out. Possibly they had noticed the table was empty when delivering the drink, and then not actually cooked the food, as it didn’t seem as though I’d been given something that had been warmed up again. I suspect I’m not the first person to make this mistake when two branches are so close together.

Named after the local Victorian architect, the Cuthbert Brodrick is a modern Wetherspoon’s with an unusual corner tower, built on the site of former public baths and overlooking the city’s Millennium Square. While wide, it’s fairly shallow, with the ground floor mainly occupied by posing tables, but more comfortable seating upstairs. Not the most memorable of Spoons, but it had served its purpose in the end. Last time in Leeds we had eaten at Friends of Ham, which I thought was very good, but I don’t think their formula works so well for a solo diner. And, as I said on Twitter: So far, I had felt rather like Unlucky Alf from the Fast Show, but things were to get a lot better. Walking past the impressive classical façade of Leeds Town Hall, designed by the said Cuthbert Brodrick, brought me to the Town Hall Tavern. This is a Timothy Taylor’s tied house with a fairly functional one-room interior, offering the full range of their regular beers – Dark Mild, Golden Best, Boltmaker, Knowle Spring, Landlord and Landlord Dark. I went for the Landlord Dark (£4.50), as I’d never had it before on cask, and it was pretty good. In mid-afternoon, it wasn’t busy, but there were a group of lawyers talking shop. Perhaps not the most scintillating of conversations to eavesdrop on, but it’s good to see the tradition of professional people discussing business over a pint still being maintained.

There followed a long walk up The Headrow, the wide main street running through the middle of the city centre, although the rain was now easing off. The next pub was the Templar, which I had heard many good things about, and which didn’t disappoint. It’s a long, shallow corner pub with an elaborate tiled façade. Inside, while it has been opened out somewhat, it retains plenty of historical character, with wood panelling, seating booths and a cosy snug right at the far end. It was very busy, with the clientele leaning towards the older male end of the spectrum, although with both sexes and a variety of age groups represented, but I managed to find myself a seat with a good vantage point.

Although owned by Greene King, this isn’t at all obvious, and indeed I don’t think any of the eight cask ales on offer were their products. Apparently it regularly stocks Tetley Bitter, but I overhead a customer asking about it and being told it wouldn’t be available for a couple of days. I plumped for Acorn Barnsley Bitter, a bargain at £3.36, which was very good indeed. Apparently it’s one of the pubs that still uses Autovac dispense. A splendid pub with a great atmosphere, that’s certainly the best new pub I’ve visited this year and immediately shoots into my all-time Top 20.

Retracing my steps, I passed the Three Legs, which has an impressive façade and a reputation for being distinctly “lively”, although as it is reported to have no cask beer I gave it a miss. By this time the rain had fortunately stopped. Briggate, which runs North to South, was Leeds’ original high street, and still retains several Victorian shopping arcades together with four pubs on the west side situated in courtyards accessed via narrow alleyways. I had previously visited Whitelock’s and the Angel, so today decided to try the other two.

First was the Ship, which is the smallest of the four. This is reached by a very narrow passage, and is made up of a room containing the bar, and a further seating area at a slightly higher level. A good scattering of customers, and a decent drop of Black Sheep Bitter at £4.30. I walked straight past the entrance to the Pack Horse before realising I’d reached Whitelock’s and turning back. A Craft Union pub, this is rather more spacious, with the bar against the back right-hand wall. Again it was ticking over nicely, although not heaving, and offering Landlord at the bargain price of £2.90.

Neither of these are going to win prizes for historic interiors, but it’s good to see a couple of unassuming pubs hidden away down passageways thriving in such a central location. The gem of the four is of course the well-known Whitelock’s, which may well merit a visit next time. It might be nice if Timothy Taylor’s could acquire either the Ship or the Pack Horse to give them a better Leeds flagship than the rather ordinary Town Hall Tavern.

Continuing to the south, I crossed the bridge over the River Aire, somewhat swollen by the recent rains, to reach the Adelphi, an impressive Victorian pub with a curved façade, the neon sign on the roof of the former Tetley’s brewery clearly visible in the distance. This is the only pub that I also visited on my previous trip, but it features a stunning unspoilt interior that qualifies it for a three-star entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with four separate rooms ranged around the central part, and an abundance of frosted glass and wood panelling.

It wasn’t anywhere near as busy as the previous time, although that was later in the year in the run-up to Christmas, and I had no problem finding a comfortable seat. I had a pint of Leeds Pale and then, looking at the times of the return trains, slotted in another of Titanic Plum Porter. These were respectively £4.85 and £5.25, and this was the first time I have ever paid over £5 for sub-5% beer, although I’m sure it won’t be the last. I’ve seen the point made before that, while the Adelphi has stunning architecture inside and out, the actual pub experience doesn’t quite live up to it.

From here it was just a short walk along Swinegate, passing under the eastern throat of the station, to catch my train home, which fortunately was dead on time. After an inauspicious start it had turned out into an excellent day out. While comparisons are invidious, I always feel that Leeds has a more coherently laid out city centre than Manchester, which is somewhat disjoined, and has demonstrated more respect for its architectural heritage, as shown by the arcades and pubs off Briggate. It certainly has nothing on a par with the eyesore of Manchester’s Arndale Centre. It will certainly merit a return trip some time in the future.

Friday 20 October 2023

A very Peculier beer launch

North Yorkshire brewery Theakston have announced that they are launching a new IPA as a brand extension of the celebrated Old Peculier. The description goes:
Made with all-British ingredients, it comes in at 5.1% ABV. English-grown Harlequin, Jester, and Olicana hops deliver a zesty fruitiness with a full-bodied malty undertone. It finishes with a pronounced hop-forward flourish.
It sounds very appetising, and I’d certainly give it a try. But it’s very different from the standard Old Peculier, which is a dark, sweet, rich, warming ale. And I can’t help thinking that this has the potential to dilute the image of the original beer. You have to wonder why it couldn’t simply be branded as “Theakston IPA”.

However, it seems to be an increasing trend to extend the brand name of a popular beer to others in the hope that they will benefit from a kind of halo effect. Something similar happened to Hobgoblin, where the original beer, another dark, sweetish brew, was joined by an IPA and a Gold. Wainwright, originally a pale gold beer, has now had an Amber version added, which looks suspiciously like an ordinary bitter. Several beers have had Gold spin-offs, including Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Brains SA and Reverend James, while Timothy Taylors renamed their Ram Tam as Landlord Dark.

Going back forty years, most beers were simply identified by the name of the brewer and the type of beer, such as “Bloggs’ Best Bitter”. But, increasingly, they came to be given distinctive names, which helped with recognition when there were more different beers on the bar, and the free trade grew in importance over tied houses. Thus Robinson’s Best Bitter became Unicorn and Taylor’s Best Better Boltmaker. The actual name of the brewer tends to be downplayed in favour of the brand.

Some of these have become so recognisable that the breweries felt it would be advantageous for other beers to piggyback on their reputation. But if you add the name to something very different, you run the risk of undermining the reputation of the original beer. Old Peculier was very well known as a distinctive rich, dark beer, but if the name is now also given to a pale, hoppy IPA it blurs that image.

Monday 16 October 2023

An epidemic of loneliness

Last month, the Daily Telegraph published a very perceptive and poignant article by Melissa Twigg entitled The pub closures at the heart of Britain’s loneliness epidemic *, looking at how the decline of pubs was contributing to a worrying a rise in social isolation. This echoes many of the points I have made on this blog over the years.
Mikey Jones had been going to the Beehive pub in south London for a drink at least once a week since the 1960s. He usually ordered a pint of bitter, but on the night he met the woman who would become his wife, he had a gin and tonic to appear more sophisticated; on the afternoon his daughter was born, he had a stiff whisky.

The Beehive closed in 2018, as did another pub further up the road in South Norwood where Jones used to meet his friends. The latter is now a coffee shop serving flat whites and chai tea lattes and is crowded with young families and people with laptops – but for someone like Jones, who is 78, it doesn’t feel particularly welcoming. As a result, he mostly stays at home. “I’ve lived alone since my wife died,” he says. “My daughter does come to visit but other than that I am mostly by myself with the telly on.”

Jones is just one of the 3.83 million people in the UK who are chronically lonely – a figure that has increased by more than half a million since the pandemic hit, according to the Office for National Statistics. Technology is often treated at the bogeyman but around the country, the mass closure of pubs and community spaces is fuelling a health epidemic of epic proportions.

“Pubs are the archetype of third space – somewhere that isn’t home or work, but a place that brings people together beyond the immediate family or work,” says Thomas Thurnell-Read, an author and lecturer at the University of Loughborough researching the impact fewer pubs is having on British society. “Traditional pubs have faced very challenging trading conditions and the steady closure of them around the country rings a lot of alarm bells.”

The concept of the “third space” is a very important point. The pub provides somewhere you can get away from the constraints and responsibilities of the home and workplace, and to some extent allows you to let your hair down and lose your inhibitions. People often report that their best conversations occur in the pub. And, if you are retired or unable to work, it offers a “second space” where you can get out of the house and get and change of scene.

It isn’t necessary to have in-depth conversations, though. The simple act of going somewhere different and interacting with a member of staff to buy a drink provides some social contact. And in a pub it’s up to you to what extent you engage with others. I wrote about this back in 2016, when Red Nev made the comment that:

Pubs are the only institutions that I can think of where you can walk in off the street, buy a drink and be entitled to sit there as long as you like, with the option of talking to strangers or not, as you prefer.
However, the idea that people might want to go to the pub and simply chat, or just read the paper or sit in silent contemplation, is becoming increasingly unfashionable. People have to be doing something, whether eating a meal, watching TV sport, taking part in a quiz or listening to a band. I wrote a couple of years ago about how people less and less “just went out for a pint”.

Increasingly limited opening hours mean that pubs are often simply not open when lonely people want to visit them. Many older or vulnerable people prefer to drink during the daytime and are reluctant to venture out after dark. Yes, it’s a commercial decision, but it limits the social function of pubs. Another factor is the increasing reliance on electronic communications, whether app ordering or cashless payments, which reduces the level of human interaction in pubs.

Very often, the layout of pubs is remodelled to make them deliberately unappealing to casual social drinkers. Wetherspoon’s are often the last pub refuge available to people, but they typically have a regimented array of individual tables with loose chairs, rather than cosy alcoves of benches that encourage conversation. It’s not uncommon in Wetherspoon’s during the day to see whole rows of tables occupied by solo drinkers. If they were facing each other, they might be more likely to talk.

And one of the solutions suggested by Dr Thurnell-Read, while well-meaning, is likely to be anathema to many pubgoers just in search of a quiet drink:

…they include adapting them by day to create more of a café-like environment where women and babies and laptop workers are welcome, and by introducing innovations such as small lending libraries.
Of course pubs are commercial businesses and cannot be expected to operate at a loss to serve a social function. And the idea of a council-run mock pub would be enough to make many pubgoers run a mile. But it can’t be denied that widespread pub closures, and reductions in opening hours and changes in the offer of those that remain, have exacerbated the level of loneliness in society.

Unsurprisingly, though, there is no mention whatsoever of the smoking ban legendary elephant in the room, which has been one of the biggest factors in the closure of community pubs over the past sixteen years. The pub is hardly a welcoming refuge if you’re forced out into the cold.

* The Telegraph article is paywalled, but if you would like to e-mail me, I can send you a copy of the full taxt.