Monday, 25 September 2023

Not so grand

A couple of days ago saw a rather sad milestone when I posted the 1000th entry on my Closed Pubs blog. This was The Pagefield Hotel, a magnificent late Victorian or Edwardian edifice in a residential area just outside Wigan town centre. One or two of the pubs I have posted have subsequently reopened, but the vast majority haven’t, and it serves as a sad testimony to the decline of the pub trade.

I started this blog in August 2010, prompted by the creation of the Google StreetView app, which provided images of street scenes across the UK. Initially it was like shooting fish in a barrel, as I recorded all the closed pubs I was personally familiar with. In October 2010 I made 30 posts, virtually one a day. After a while, it slowed to a trickle, with only 4 posts in 2015, but after that I became more assiduous in seeking out new ones, and was helped by suggestions and photographs from various contributors.

Amongst these I will particularly thank the late Peter Allen, who was responsible for the Pubs Then And Now blog, Staffordshire resident Dan Bishop, and Yorkshire residents Luke H and Kyle Reed. In the past few years, Kyle has been a very prolific contributor, which helps explain the substantial number of entries in West Yorkshire. Yorkshire as a whole is about to overtake Staffordshire in terms of number of entries, and is not far behind Lancashire.

In general, I haven’t aimed to give any background, and just described what I see from the image, although in many cases I found about the pub from a news article which I have linked to, and which provides some more information. Many of these came from the Fullpint news aggregation Twitter account, which unfortunately stopped posting for some reason in May this year.

It was generally recognised thirty years ago that there were around 70,000 pubs in the UK, so 1,000 represents over 1% of the total, and that’s only a drop in the ocean. I have logged 117 pubs in (historical) Cheshire – assuming there were maybe 1,500 pubs in the county, that makes up 7.8%.

There can be no doubt that a slow-motion catastrophe has overtaken the British pub trade. There has been a profound change in the way people use pubs, which in most instances has meant that they no longer do any more. Most of this is down to changes in social attitudes, but of course the smoking ban was a wound deliberately inflicted by government. Some may respond that times have changed, and new pubs and bars have opened up, which is true enough. But they are on a much smaller scale than before, and overall there has undoubtedly been a huge contraction in the trade.

Ten years ago I wrote a post entitled Trying to make sense of it all which attempted to explain the tidal wave of closures. The conclusion was that pretty much all sectors of pubs were affected, with only a limited number of niche areas seemingly immune.

The most common category seems to be the post-war estate-style pubs, which for a variety of reasons never seem to have really worked, something I wrote about here. Possibly the whole concept was flawed from the start, and arose more from town planners’ tidy minds than actual drinkers’ needs. It would not surprise me if fully half the purpose-built, stand-alone pubs constructed after the war are no longer trading, in some cases lasting less than twenty years.

But the big inter-wars pubs, often built to much higher standards of design and construction, are in a sense the saddest. A prime example is The Beeches in Northfield, Birmingham, which resembles a magnificent Jacobean stately home. StreetView shows that it had been demolished by May 2011, and housing has now been built on the site.

Will there be another 1,000 pubs on the blog? Only time will tell, although there are certainly enough candidates out there waiting to be discovered. If you’re aware of any, please let me know, although I do need either a photograph or a StreetView link showing it in a boarded up or derelict state.

Tuesday, 12 September 2023

A matter of trust

It was recently reported that cask ale’s share of the on-trade beer market had fallen below 10% for the first time ever. At the same time, Greene King Abbot Ale was chosen as the runner-up in CAMRA’s annual Champion Beer of Britain contest, prompting a wave of outrage, including allegations that the contest had been rigged, and complaints that the award should not go to a beer from such a major brewery. And it’s not hard to see a connection between these two news items.

Back in 2019, I posted a list of the ten best-selling cask beers in the UK, taken from this article in the Morning Advertiser. Abbot Ale is #4 on the list. They’re probably much the same now, although the volumes will have diminished. But the notable feature of this list is that most of them are beers about which many “beer enthusiasts” won’t have a good word to say. They’re dismissed as dull, bland, dumbed-down, mass-market products. Landlord is probably the only one that would receive general approbation.

Obviously everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but if you want to promote a category of product, it seems self-defeating to disparage most of the leading brands within that category. For any product category to thrive, it needs strong, well-regarded flagship brands that people are happy to recommend. As Cooking Lager recently very perceptively said in the comments on one of my blogposts:

…It's an attempt to rationalize its decline that hints at the truth. Recognition & trust.

Drinkers are not enthusiasts, they are not thrilled by thousands of breweries dispensing beer you've never heard of.

Much cask ale, these days, is just that. It lacks trust and recognition that sees a drinker say "I know that beer, I've had it before, it's good, it's trustworthy, I like it"

The main consumer campaign for this category of ale have championed their own preference for an enthusiast cottage industry which to none enthusiasts is a commodity product they don't recognise or trust. A CAMRA micropub services their niche interest. Leave that there and let normal pubs serve a regular good quality beer drinkers trust, not 6 pumps of commodity indifferent pale ale.

Champion reliable national and regional brands, ensure those are consistent and good, and people will drink cask ale. A pint of Holts bitter is a decent pint. Remove the "when kept well", "in the right pub", and people will recognise and trust it.

It’s not good enough to grudgingly say “it’s not too bad if it’s kept well”, you need to be able to say unequivocally “This is a good beer. It’s a good example of real ale”. If you profess to be a real ale enthusiast, but if you’re asked to recommend a beer and all you can come up with is some obscure product intermittently sold in a handful of outlets, you’re not encouraging people to drink it. Maybe they’re not the absolute best beers in the world – the top selling products in any category rarely are – but to damn them with faint praise does the whole category no favours.

Some may point out that their local taproom or micropub does consistently good business without selling any of these beers, and that may well be true, but it is the acceptance of a niche existence. Most drinkers of cask beer are not enthusiasts, they just want a decent, reliable pint. If cask fails to deliver that, they will take their custom elsewhere, which is just as likely to be home drinking as another beer in the pub. A survey that I have quoted on here before found that 85% of cask drinkers want to see well-known, recognisable brands on the bar. They don’t want to have to negotiate a minefield of unfamiliar beers every time they go to the pub.

But it seems that some people are entirely relaxed about cask losing market share, provided they can still get hold of it in their local specialist outlet. If you disparage all the leading brands of cask beer, you’re disparaging cask itself.

Monday, 4 September 2023

Never-ending process

In recent weeks, there has been a wave of scaremongering in the media on the subject of ultra-processed food. The argument seems superficially plausible, that the further food is removed from its natural state the more nutrition is taken out of it. What is more, such foods are often heavily promoted for commercial gain. But do these arguments really stack up, or do they simply reflect nostalgia for a vanished pre-industrial age?

A key problem is that the net is drawn extremely widely. If you confine your diet to unadulterated fresh ingredients cooked from scratch, and snack on nothing but fresh fruit, then you won’t be eating any processed food. But as soon as you combine ingredients to make a curry or casserole, or bake a cake using flour, sugar and dried fruit, you are processing food to some extent. If this is done by a local artisan butcher or baker, it is one stage further removed from nature.

Move it into a factory, even if the ingredients remain identical, and it is magically transformed into UPF. The definition is drawn extremely widely, and everything ends up being tarred with the same brush. We have already seen campaigns against so-called HFSS foods (high in fat, sugar or salt), which at least has an objective definition, even if while it leads to numerous absurdities. But here everything ends up being demonised, regardless of any consideration of what actually goes into it, or what the process is. Anything that you buy commercially in a ready-made form, whether bread, biscuits, cakes, pies, pizzas, cooked meats, ready meals, breakfast cereal or yogurts, is deemed to be UPF and thus bad for you.

However, in the pre-industrial age, people often ate very restricted diets, and keeping food fresh was a constant challenge. The invention of canning and freezing brought about a huge improvement in the standard of people’s diets, and in the choice of food available to them. The idea that populous modern societies could survive on a system of small-scale artisan or home production of food from fresh ingredients is delusional. If nothing else, it would pose an insurmountable problem for the distribution and storage system. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to improve the nutritional standards of industrial food rather than claiming everything that comes out of a factory is inherently bad?

Of course, living primarily on crisps and sausage rolls isn’t going to do you much good in the long term but, as often said, there are no bad foods, only bad diets. Eating a few indulgent treats from time to time isn’t really going to cause you much harm, and indeed there are many recorded cases of people maintaining reasonable health over a long period while eating an extremely restricted diet, often stemming from autistic spectrum conditions. The best dietary advice is to eat a wide variety of different food items and not overdo any single category.

There is also a huge amount of snobbery involved in this whole campaign. Anything that is bought in, rather than prepared from scratch, is seen as inferior. This is especially true of hot takeaway meals. Very often, of course, the people doing the judging are those who have servants to do the hard work for them

An ironic aspect of this is that the meat-free alternatives to dishes like burgers and fried fish, which are often portrayed as a “healthier” option, involve much more processing than the original items, so the two agendas find themselves in conflict with each other. And beer is pretty highly-processed, isn’t it? Should we confine our alcohol consumption to products made from natural grape and apple juices spontaneously fermented by wild yeasts?

In reality, the proportion of the food market accounted for by UPF isn’t going to significantly diminish, let alone disappear entirely, but it will always provide a way for those who regard themselves as superior to make ordinary, budget-conscious people feel guilty about their food choices.

Saturday, 26 August 2023

Out of sight, out of mind

If you asked younger drinkers what deterred them from drinking cask ale, most people would expect the replies to be a mixture of a fuddy-duddy image, inconsistent quality and too often appearing in the form of beers you’ve never heard of. However, according to new research carried out by the Drink Cask Fresh campaign, a key reason is that, unlike keg beers, cask is dispensed out of sight of the drinker. “Cask is the only beer poured beneath the bar where you can’t see what’s going on and this greatly adds to the uncertainty around it.”

I have to say I’m a little sceptical about this, as people responding to surveys often give superficial reasons for things that sound plausible but conceal their underlying motivations. But, let’s assume there is something to it. It’s certainly true now that pretty much all keg beers are served at eye level, either through T-bars or fonts that rise well above the bar. It would be possible to design a handpump with an extended neck that did the same, but it would look ungainly, create an excessive length of pipe for beer to linger in, and force bar staff to adopt an awkward posture.

Might it be more the case that this is a rationalisation of an underlying wariness of cask ale per se? Nowadays, pretty much all cask ale is served through handpumps, but if you go back a generation it was dispensed, especially in the North and Midlands, through a wide variety of bar mountings, many of which were hard to tell apart from pumps for keg beers. All of these also dispensed the beer just below bar level. But increasingly the handpump was adopted as a universal and unambiguous symbol of real ale. However, this can cut both ways – what is a clear positive indication to one drinker can be a sign of something to avoid for another.

A few years ago, Molson Coors carried out an experiment with serving cask Doom Bar through bar mountings of the type typical used for keg beers. As I said at the time, I’d certainly give it a go, and it would eliminate the risk of a poor pint being dispensed due to incompetent pulling technique on the part of the bar staff. But it suggests you don’t have much confidence in your product if you’re trying to disguise it as something else. I never saw this kind of dispense in action, so obviously it’s something that never took off.

But there does exist a historically authentic form of cask ale dispense that originally was introduced with the specific objective of serving the beer in full view of the customer, namely the Scottish tall font. These were originally associated with the traditional Scottish air pressure dispense system, but more recently have been adapted to work with electric pumps. They do have a very distinctive appearance and arguably have more bar presence than handpumps. So there’s the answer to this problem, if indeed it is a problem, but somehow I can’t see them taking off south of the Border.

Tuesday, 22 August 2023

It’s an ill wind...

Most of the discussion about the new 3.4% beer duty cut-off has centred around brewers reducing the strength of their beers to bring them below it. However, it also provides the opportunity for brewers already producing 2.8% beers to increase their strength and make them more appealing to drinkers.

Back in March, when I was discussing the possible implications of this change, I prophetically said “It will also be interesting to see if Sam Smith’s nudge up the strength of their 2.8% kegs by a few points,” and indeed so it has proved. As shown by the graphic below (courtesy of Matthew Thompson), they lost no time in increasing the strength of their Dark Mild, Light Mild and Alpine Lager from 2.8% to the full 3.4%, and giving them new and more attractive bar cowls at the same time. The Light Mild has been renamed XXXX Best (which is what it used to be in the 1970s) which may persuade some drinkers to view it more as a light bitter. The actual cowl for Dark Mild is of a more elaborate Victorian-style design than the one shown, although obviously I wasn’t able to get a photo to show it.

I have now managed to taste all of these beers in a couple of pubs. I don’t think I’d ever tried the 2.8% Alpine Lager before, but the 3.4% one is a decent low-strength lager with a little bit of flavour to it. It probably compares favourably to Bud Light (which will surely be reduced from 3.5 to 3.4%) and the new 3.4% version of Carlsberg Pilsner. At the same time, Sam’s have withdrawn the 4.0% Double Four Lager, presumably feeling that there is no longer a gap in their range to be filled. A half-and-half split of Alpine with the 4.5% Taddy will give you a 3.95% lager at the bargain price of £2.90 in their Northern pubs.

I’ve had the 2.8% Dark Mild a few times when cask Old Brewery Bitter was unavailable and found it not unpleasant, but fairly thin and bland. The 3.4% version is a great improvement, with much more body and flavour. In contrast, I think I only had the Light Mild once and found it fairly tasteless. The XXXX again is much better, with a distinct rounded malt flavour. This pair could be regarded as equivalents of Hydes’ Dark Ruby and 1863. Both of these are currently still declared at 3.5%, but surely they will be dropping a point too to come below the threshold.

These are both nitrokeg beers, although they don’t have the soapy character you associate with beers like John Smith’s Extra Smooth. In fact, are there any non-craft keg ales still available that aren’t nitrokeg? They’re also served too cold. They’re not a match for a well-kept pint of cask, but they’re palatable enough and certainly preferable to stale, tepid cask. The question does occur how cask would have fared if the keg beers available in the 1970s had been of this standard. In summary, Sam’s have turned what were a trio of very lacklustre also-rans to entirely credible beers that are available at a bargain price.

In other Sam Smith’s news, they have recently reopened the Swan in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, which had been closed since 2019. This is a well-situated pub right next to the station in a small town or large village where large numbers of new houses are being built, so it has the potential to attract a decent trade. However, when it was open before, I expressed concern that its refurbishment had left it too compartmentalised for its own good, and the layout didn’t really work in terms of how people moved around the pub.

Needless to say, there were the predictable responses expressing shock at Sam’s arbitrary house rules. It was amusing to see people complaining about the pub saying “well-behaved children welcome”, as if any pub would actively welcome badly-behaved children. It also prompted this article in the Daily Telegraph by philosophical beardy Christopher Howse, which I have to say read rather more into it than it deserved. Despite him waxing lyrical about the availability of dark mild, the landlord said that when he called he actually had a gin and tonic.

Saturday, 19 August 2023

Shield burial

Molson Coors have announced that they are “resting” production of their iconic Worthington White Shield brand, something that has caused a certain degree of anger amongst the beer writing community. In the early years of CAMRA, White Shield was, along with Guinness, one of only two widely-distributed bottle-conditioned beers in the UK. It came in half-pint bottles and was mostly sold in pubs, including those of Bass themselves, but also several independent brewers such as Greenalls, Hydes and Robinson’s.

It mainly appealed to an older demographic, who would often add one to a half-pint of draught bitter to liven it up, or have one to round off the end of a session. Most preferred to pour it carefully to leave the sediment in the bottom of the bottle, but some would deliberately put it in the glass with the aim of keeping themselves “regular”. A few would even pour the beer clear and then consume the sediment separately.

In the early 80s, I was working in Surrey and my parents came down for the weekend and stayed in a nearby hotel. The bar had no cask beer, but they did have a stock of well-aged bottles of White Shield. (Not sure whether this was before the days of best before dates on beer). These had really enjoyed a thorough secondary fermentation and, while some were distinctly lively, they tasted delicious.

However, the old-style half-pint bottles in pubs were a declining sector, and at some point, from memory around 1990, Bass, noting the interest from beer enthusiasts, decided on a big relaunch. They jacked up the price and put it in fancy 33cl bottles with an information leaflet on a little string around the neck. However, as so often happens, they had misjudged the market and failed to realise that it was predominantly drunk by old boys, not by the beer cognoscenti. Its traditional market was destroyed, while there wasn’t remotely enough interest from enthusiasts to take up the slack.

After a while, the decision was taken to move it into 500ml bottles to align it with the growing “premium bottled ales” sector, but it seemed to suffer from a rather schizophrenic approach to production and marketing. At one point, brewing was contracted out to the now-defunct King & Barnes brewery in Horsham, Sussex. While they were capable brewers, their interpretation followed their own house style and was far too sweet to properly represent its traditional Burton character.

After a while, production was brought back in house by what became Molson Coors, and it established itself as a something of a flagship product, albeit a low-volume one. At one point it even spawned a cask “little brother” called Red Shield that was intended to compete with beers like Bass and Pedigree. I also recall having a rather nice drop of cask White Shield in the Dog in Burton-on-Trent just before the 2020 lockdown.

However, distribution of the bottled product, never particularly extensive, seemed to steadily contract. Tesco stopped stocking it, and I think the last time I ever saw it was in Booths, again just before the lockdown. Now the company have decided to “pause” production of a brand that had become virtually invisible anyway. Perhaps they could have done more to promote it, but it takes two to tango, and maybe the retailers were coming back and telling them that it simply wasn’t shifting. This Twitter poll showed little enthusiasm for it:

No doubt it suffered from the same problem as other bottle-conditioned ales, that buyers saw little benefit in them over their brewery-conditioned counterparts, and were deterred by their inconsistency. I wrote recently about the withdrawal of bottle-conditioned Pedigree, and indeed the segment now seems to have virtually disappeared from major retailers, despite all the exhortations of the beer writers.

This one is particularly regrettable, as it was one of the original bottle-conditioned beers, and one where the process did confer a real benefit. When it worked, it produced an excellent, highly-distinctive beer, but unfortunately all too often the yeast didn’t really seem to take hold and you ended up with a bottle of flaccid glop. It’s a beer that I used to buy fairly often, but the high ratio of duds meant that I ended up doing so less and less.

It does seem to be the case that the multinational companies who now control what were once the crown jewels of British brewing pay scant regard to its heritage. We have seen this with the way Draught Bass has been marginalised. Hopefully Molson Coors will find a way to keep the brand going and also get to grips with the quality control issues. But there are parallels here with the fate of the Crooked House, in there has been widespread anger at the demise of something that previously fewer and fewer people were actually buying or visiting.

Friday, 11 August 2023

Up in smoke

During the last week there has been a lot of media attention over the fate of the Glynne Arms (aka “Crooked House”) at Himley on the fringes of the West Midlands. This well-known pub was severely damaged by fire and then the following day was completely demolished by its new owners in blatant contravention of planning regulations. On the face of it, it is a glaring example of the phenomenon of the “mystery fire” which can be a very convenient way of getting rid of closed pubs and, unsurprisingly, it has become something of a cause célèbre and triggered a national wave of outrage.

However, when the news was first announced that Marston’s had sold the pub off and it had closed, the general response was one of philosophical resignation. While it was a distinctive and quirky building, the actual pub operation wasn’t anything to write home about. I visited it once about ten years ago and, while it was one to tick off the list, it wasn’t a place I would go out of my way to use as a pub. Plenty of pubs close, and this was just another one to add to the total. If the new owners had simply left it to rot for a year, it would have faded from the public eye. But instead they have jumped the gun and left themselves open to prosecution.

As shown by the map extract above, the Crooked House is located at the end of a dead-end track in an unprepossessing area of disused mine workings, some of which have now been converted to a landfill site. Realistically, it’s somewhere that the vast majority of its customers will need to drive to. Over the years, pubgoers in general have become much less inclined to drive out to “character” pubs of this kind, and this will have made it less viable as a business. A similar process happened to the Royal Oak (th’Heights) in the hills above Oldham, which closed just before Covid and later received planning permission to be converted to a private house.

“After running the public house for almost three decades it has become increasingly difficult to continue running the business due to its remote location. Most customers travelled by car and as such their stay was only short due to drink driving laws. It attracted occasional walkers and people who live in and around Heights.”
Realistically, these are not good times for pubs located at the end of rural dead-ends.

Marston’s have rightly attracted opprobrium for selling the pub to the company with which they were already in dispute over access rights to the neighbouring landfill site. They can have been under no illusions about its likely fate. Possibly some other more enterprising owner might have been able to make a success of it as a pub, but realistically if there hadn’t been a pub there already it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to build one.

In the past, many family breweries may have kept on one or two pubs for sentimental reasons, being the first pub they ever bought or one that looked good on the company calendar. But nowadays a more hard-headed attitude tends to prevail, and every pub in a tied estate will be expected to earn its keep. In recent years, my local brewers Robinson’s have disposed of quite a few pubs that once might have been regarded as jewels in the company crown, such as the Cat & Fiddle in Cheshire and the Bull i’th’Thorn at Hurdlow in Derbyshire.

Pub closures are commonplace, and generally go through without anyone batting an eyelid apart from a few in the immediate vicinity. Only this week, the Manchester Evening News reports on 13 in the area that have closed permanently this year and 38 more that are long-term closed. Many once familiar landmarks such as the Saltersgate Inn on the North York Moors have gone. But people seem to have projected all their feelings about the closure of pubs on to this one particular case.

Over the past forty years, the pub trade as a whole has been in a long-term decline that has led to tens of thousands closing down. The reasons for this are down to a variety of changes in social trends and attitudes, although certain government actions such as the Beer Orders and the smoking ban have exacerbated matters. There is undoubtedly a profound sense of loss about this, even from people who never used pubs much, which is very perceptively explained in this article by Rowan Pelling from 2014.

At times this can turn into a kind of vaguely-directed anger, as we are seeing here, and people are keen to look for scapegoats such as pubcos, developers, supermarkets and government. But the reality is that pubs have mainly been undone by social change, not by some malign conspiracy, and there is no remotely credible alternative course of action that would have made it permanently 1978.

The suggestion has been made that the Crooked House should be rebuilt as an exact replica, as happened with the Carlton Tavern in London. However, the Carlton Tavern is in a well-populated urban area, whereas rebuilding the Crooked House would in effect be creating an expensive white elephant. If it was to be rebuilt at all it would be better located in the Black Country Living Museum at Dudley. And you have to wonder how many of the people bewailing its fate will make the effort to go out and visit a wet-led rural pub this weekend.

Sunday, 30 July 2023

Fade to black

Guinness announced last week that they were investing €25 million at their Dublin brewery to increase production of the 0.0% version of the beer by 300%. I’ve written about alcohol-free beers several times in the past, generally taking the view that, while they had a place in the market, it was difficult to produce one that was particularly palatable, and the industry and media were prone to greatly exaggerating their potential for growth.

However, I’d heard a few good reports about this one, so I bought a four-pack to try it for myself. Draught or canned Guinness is certainly a very distinctive product in terms of its appearance, mouthfeel and taste, and the canned zero-alcohol version does a pretty good job of replicating that. From its look, and the first gulp, it’s just like a glass of standard Guinness. It’s only as you get further down that you realise something is missing, and by the time you reach the bottom of the glass you’re left with something rather dull and forgettable.

However, in a sense it’s too convincing an imitation for its own good. I don’t normally buy canned Guinness to drink at home, so why should I buy an alcohol-free version except as a curiosity? Other people may take a different view, but personally I tend to see alcohol-free beers as a soft drink alternative, not a beer alternative, and thus tend to look for something, probably a lager, that is palatable but not particularly challenging. One of the best I’ve come across is actually the alcohol-free Stella Artois, which is available in Wetherspoon’s, but which I haven’t come across in the supermarkets.

I’ve tried a few of the alcohol-free British-style ales, but in general I’ve found them pretty revolting, coming across as unfermented wort laced with hop syrup. And I recently tried an alcohol-free Stowford Press cider which just tasted like standard cider severely watered down.

Canned alcohol-free Guinness is certainly a triumph of the brewing technologist’s skill, but I can’t see it becoming a regular purchase. Although “widget” bitter is now very much a declining market, it would be interesting to apply the same technology to something like John Smith’s Extra Smooth.

Monday, 24 July 2023

I see no slops

I’ve recently had a couple of discussions, both online and face-to-face, with people who I would consider fairly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about beer and pubs. Both of them have said something to the effect of “I think you’re exaggerating the problem of cask quality, Mudgie. Pretty much everywhere I go it’s pretty decent.”

Now, from their own personal drinking habits that may well be entirely correct. But it’s a common logical fallacy known as “selection bias” to seek to extrapolate general principles from personal experience, as clearly there’s no guarantee it will be representative. If you’re a beer enthusiast, by definition you are in general going to choose to drink in pubs where you know the beer is well-kept, or which others have recommended to you. My local CAMRA branch, to its credit, does organise regular monthly “Staggers” that aim over time to visit most of the cask-serving pubs in the area, but even here Friday nights are when the beer is most likely to be turning over quickly and in decent nick.

The issue is even greater if you are a beer writer. Pretty much everywhere you visit will be somewhere that has been recommended to you because it’s interesting, or new, or different, or a place with an established reputation for quality, because you want to report on it. You’re not going to waste your time going in those gastropubs, sports boozers or town-centre bars that are half-hearted about cask. “I went in the Pickled Artichoke and had a rather dull and tired pint of Greene King IPA” is not going to sell many copies.

CAMRA’s WhatPub online guide claims to list 32,189 cask ale outlets. There are currently 4,500 pubs in the Good Beer Guide, and maybe the same number again that are credible contenders. That leaves a further 23,000 that in practice never get on the radar. Some of them, particularly family brewer tied pubs, may consistently serve decent beer, but on the other hand many of them realistically won’t. In this article, Matthew Curtis reports that cask sales have fallen to 8.6% of the on-trade beer market, which is less than a million barrels a year. That’s about 24 pints a day on average for each of those 32,189 outlets.

Maybe a fair number of those 23,000 outlets would be better off dropping it entirely, but cask is still perceived as something that looks good on the bar even if few people actually drink it, and culling outlets has the effect of reducing its profile overall. I saw the question raised on Twitter (or should we now be calling it “X”?) as to why someone should give up on a product purely because of one bad example. And, of course, they shouldn’t, but on the other hand if you regularly go in a pub and the cask is rarely much cop it’s understandable why people reject it.

I have to say in recent years I’ve become much less dogmatic about ordering cask whenever it is available. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t spend my entire life single-mindedly seeking out good beer and pubs, and sometimes I will find myself somewhere where the choice of beer doesn’t particularly inspire confidence. For example, I was recently in a pub where the choice was just the standard range of kegs plus a solitary Ruddles handpump. I passed on the Ruddles and had a Carling. It might have been good, but frankly it probably wasn’t. Although not always reliable, I’ve developed a kind of “spidey sense” about whether the beer will be decent or not.

The biggest enemy of cask quality is slow turnover and, while overall volumes have fallen, the number of lines hasn’t dropped to follow suit. There’s nothing like quick sales to paper over a lack of cellarmanship skills. But, while they may be fully aware of the problem, if the people who write about beer seldom experience poor quality themselves, it won’t seem particularly urgent to them. The battle for cask quality is being fought in the outlets that the beer writers and enthusiasts never visit.

No doubt this Autumn there will be the usual round of hand-wringing about cask beer quality and declining sales. But, as usual, the industry will sagely nod, dismiss it as someone else’s problem, and move on.

Sunday, 16 July 2023

Toe the line

I recently walked into my local Wetherspoon’s and approached the bar to order a pint, only to be somewhat taken aback to be told to join a queue which hadn’t been immediately obvious. And when I eventually was served, I had to walk half the length of the bar to point out the guest ale I wanted to an inexperienced member of bar staff. I’d heard of this phenomenon happening in other places, but this was the first time I had experienced it myself. (I have been in one or two other pubs where queues tend to form because of a very short serving counter). It wasn’t even a particularly busy time of day, To be honest, had I not been wanting to exchange a CAMRA discount voucher I would have found a table and used the Wetherspoon’s App.

Queuing is something that seems to be have become much more common in pubs over the last couple of years, and indeed a Twitter account called Pub Queues has sprung up to document and bewail it. Here are a few examples, not exclusively from Wetherspoon’s:

This trend has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the impact of Covid and lockdowns. Customers have become more used to standing in line, and somewhat nervous about a crush at the bar. At the same time, pubs have often been left short-staffed by recruitment difficulties, with the staff they do have lacking the experience to know whose turn it is from a sea of faces.

It undoubtedly does detract from a traditional pub atmosphere, taking away the opportunity to chat with staff or other customers at the bar, and making it difficult to scan the pumps or the top shelf to see what is on offer. I don’t like it, and I’d be much less inclined to give my custom to pubs where it’s in operation. It’s just turning a pub into a retail outlet where the prime objective is the efficient processing of customers.

But, given the issues listed above, for a big, busy pub with a lot of customers who aren’t pub regulars, it may be the lesser of two evils in ensuring everyone gets dealt with fairly. Tandleman recently wrote perceptively about how it was a sensible option in a London Wetherspoon’s with a large tourist contingent.

I wrote about this back in 2017 when it was just a tiny cloud on the horizon.

No, it’s not how a traditional pub works, and you do lose the contribution to pub atmosphere of interaction between staff and customers. But Wetherspoon’s aren’t really traditional pubs anyway, and in terms of how their business operates, queuing is likely to make things more efficient when it’s busy. If it takes off, you could even see the interiors of their pubs being redesigned with shorter bar counters divided into identifiable serving points, and display boards alongside the queue showing the food and drink menus. Maybe you could even separate ordering and collecting drinks, as in a McDonald’s drive-thru, so your drinks are ready when you actually reach the bar.
Queuing is a waste of a long bar counter, and also leads to a line of customers snaking through seating areas, which isn’t ideal. So if you did decide that it was here to stay, it would make sense firstly to put up prominent “Please Queue Here” signs so nobody was left in any doubt what was going on, and rearrange the bar area so things worked more efficiently and people didn’t get in each other’s way. But it would remove a lot of the traditional pub experience.

* When I mentioned this on Twitter, I got the usual tiresome responses of “wHY DIDn't YoU GO TO thE FunKy indEpEndEnt Craft baR?” which totally ignored the fact that said establishment wasn’t open at that particular time.

Saturday, 1 July 2023

All hail Lord Lager!

The Morning Advertiser recently published some interesting statistics on beer sales in pubs, which showed that the market share of lager had reached a record 69.5%, or nearly seven out of ten of all pints sold. This was up from 65.8% six years ago. In fact, if you include “Pilsner”, which for some reason has its own separate category, lager reaches a full 70.5%.

The biggest loser over this period has been Bitter, which has fallen from 22.9% to 15.4%. Stout, which must be predominantly Guinness, has risen from 6.4% to 8.3%, while “Pale” has risen from 3.1% to 5.2%. I’d assume this includes cask pale ales like Wainwright and Sharp’s Atlantic as well as keg beers like Punk IPA and Neck Oil. It doesn’t split out a specific figure for cask, but obviously this can only be a subset of the 21% accounted for by Bitter, Pale and Mild, plus a sliver of the stout.

No doubt the usual beer snobs will attribute this trend to ordinary drinkers being brainwashed by the international brewers with glitzy advertising, but in reality it just reflects the UK increasingly aligning itself with all other major developed countries, where pale lager of some kind is the default beer. But it reflects a basic fact of life that brewers have to come to terms with.

Essentially, nearly 80% of the whole on-trade beer market is accounted for by lager and Guinness, leaving a mere 20% for everything else to pick over. My local CAMRA branch recently had a talk from Andy Slee, the new Chief Executive of SIBA, who made the point that most of the talk about beer on social media related to brands that made up less than 5% of the total market. He presented this as an opportunity, but surely it represents the reality of every market, that low-volume enthusiast products receive far more attention than mainstream ones.

This raises an issue for microbrewers. Most will have come in to the business motivated by their love of cask ale, and be geared up to produce that product, and possibly bottle a little bit of it. But they have to recognise that they are fishing in a diminishing pond. Some will be content with that, but the available market volume mostly lies in lager. This was question I asked in a Twitter poll:

It is true that lager requires more investment in processing and equipment than cask brewing, but in recent years there has been a huge expansion in the production of “craft keg” from smaller breweries, and this does not seem to struggle to find space on bars. So the barriers to entry argument doesn’t really apply.

Some new breweries have put a lot of emphasis on lager, although they have generally been snapped up by the multinationals. Camden Hells and Meantime London Lager spring to mind. But, almost by definition, in comparison with ales, it is harder to brew a lager with a highly distinctive flavour, and if you do it might be offputting to customers. So does lager represent a huge vein of opportunity, or a potential graveyard of ambition?

Thursday, 22 June 2023

Out of condition

Over the weekend, several people pointed out on Twitter that Marston’s appeared to have discontinued bottle-conditioning their flagship Pedigree Ale. The company have now confirmed this, saying “the decision had been taken in light of declining demand for bottle-conditioned beer”. There was some predictable harrumphing over this, but it’s hardly the end of a long-standing tradition, given that they only started doing it in 2016.

At the time, I have to say I thought this was a rather odd decision. I wrote back in 2016 about how I felt, for a number of reasons, that CAMRA was wrong to draw an equivalence between bottle- and cask-conditioned beers. At least for everyday quaffing beers, bottle-conditioning in practice adds very little while introducing an extra element of complexity in storage and serving and something of a lottery of how it will turn out, as Seeing the Lizards, who has worked in the retail trade, pointed out:

Although the purists may not like it, it’s a fact of life that most buyers of Premium Bottled Ales tend to avoid ones that are bottle-conditioned, so it is a sensible business decision from Marston’s. Few consumers are going to do something out of principle if it gives them no discernible benefit.

Over the years, a number of other brewers have taken the same course including, for example, Hop Back Summer Lightning. Most bottle-conditioned beers now seem to have disappeared from the major supermarkets, including Fuller’s 1845 and Bengal Lancer, Worthington White Shield and Young’s Special London Ale, and the only ones I still see regularly are Shepherd Neame 1698 and St Austell Proper Job.

As I said in the conclusion to my post,

Yes, at the end of the day, bottle-conditioning, if done well, does add something to a beer. Bottle-conditioned beers can be regarded as the crème de la crème. But, because of the practical difficulties involved, and the fact that the process adds very little to lower-strength quaffing beers, it is best reserved for higher-strength specialities.

Tuesday, 20 June 2023

Black Sheep of the family

In April of this year, eyebrows were raised by the news that Black Sheep Brewery was looking for either a buyer or new investors. This was a poster child of the real ale revolution, set up by Paul Theakston when his family firm was sold to Scottish & Newcastle, and appearing to the outside world to be a sound and well-regarded operation.

All became clear when the company entered administration in early May, news that did come as a severe shock. Sighs of relief were breathed later in the month when it was announced that it had been acquired by London-based investment company Breal Capital, thus ensuring the future of the brewery and preserving 150 jobs.

Somehow this all seemed a bit too convenient, and it must be remembered that the company’s shareholders and creditors – including HMRC – ended up losing all their money, while their lenders suffered a severe haircut. One very significant loss was that of the CAMRA Members’ Investment Club (CMIC), who at the last valuation held shares valued at £395,000, accounting for 2.39% of their whole fund and 13.57% of Black Sheep’s issued capital. As someone with a small holding in CMIC I have suffered a personal loss of a couple of hundred pounds.

I recently came across this blog by a disgruntled investor in Black Sheep who points out a long sequence of management failures and poor decisions. I have no knowledge of this beyond what has been publicly reported, but if even half of this is true it is extremely damning. In particular he points out that in 2016 Paul Theakston rejected an offer from Marston’s of £4 per share, whereas shortly before the company entered administration the price was only around £1.20. (Although, given Marston’s subsequent history, it’s unlikely that the brewery would have survived until now). He also suggests that, given their substantial holding, CMIC should have taken a more active role in monitoring the company’s fortunes.

The directors blamed difficult trading conditions caused by Covid lockdowns and the “cost of living crisis” for the company’s failure. Yes, times were hard, but many other companies have survived without coming anywhere close to the brink. In most business failures, not just in the brewing sector, what brings companies down is not so much poor trading as excessive borrowing that leaves them dangerously exposed.

In such situations there are no magic solutions, and it is often a case of being caught between a rock and a hard place and having to make hard choices. The business and the jobs have been saved, but the investors and creditors have been hung out to try. And you do have to wonder whether “pre-pack” administrations of this kind are in practice a kind of get out of jail free card for incompetent or reckless directors.

Saturday, 3 June 2023

Getting fresh

Otter Brewery have recently launched a new category of beer called Fresh Ale which has attracted a fair amount of media attention. They are described as “beers that are said to straddle the lager, cask ale and craft beer categories”. The article goes on to say that “fresh ales are initially brewed as cask ales, but instead of being filled into casks they are gently carbonated before being put into kegs”. The objective is to provide a longer-lasting product that will replicate some of the experience of drinking cask without exposing drinkers to the quality lottery that sadly is all to prevalent nowadays. Tandleman has also recently written about the concept here.

However, an obvious issue is that they will inevitably be judged as being just another type of keg beer. Back in the 1970s, beer tended to be categorised in terms of style and brand, and there were many different ways of serving it as well as real ale, such as bright beer, tank beer and top-pressure beer as well as the archetypal keg, all of which had their own characteristics.

But, as CAMRA sought to promote the uniqueness of real ale (or cask as we now seem to have to call it) it presented it as a category that stood apart from all other beers. If it wasn’t cask, it was keg. This is despite the fact that keg beers today are certainly not all the same – a nitrokeg is very different from a classic carbonated one, and many keykeg craft beers have a much softer level of carbonation. Fresh Ale, whatever its merits, will simply be seen as one more type of keg. Serving it through a handpump, as the illustration suggests, will be condemned as misleading.

We are often told that “everyone’s a repertoire drinker now”, as there’s certainly some truth in this. Fewer and fewer drinkers exclusively confine their drinking to one category as they may have done a few decades ago. However, many of those who account for most of the sales volume of cask are people who, while they may not drink it exclusively, do predominantly choose it and show quite a lot of loyalty to the category. If they do venture into other areas, it will be for things that stand well apart, such as Guinness, premium lagers or strong craft kegs. They won’t be tempted by something that isn’t cask, but is fairly similar, and if that’s all that’s on offer they may not be too enthusiastic.

At a time of declining volumes, this loyal customer base provides something of a cushion for cask, but it can cut both ways. There’s no denying that cask is currently fighting a rearguard action, and its main problem is inconsistent and often downright poor quality which makes drinkers reluctant to trust it. This comment on Twitter is typical of several I have seen, and he describes himself as a “cask evangelist” in his bio:

It’s not the sole reason, but the core of the problem is slow turnover and over-extended ranges, something that remains very much an elephant in the room that the industry as a whole is reluctant to confront. Sometimes even one beer can be one too many. It often used to be said in CAMRA circles that if a pub didn’t have the turnover for cask it should stop selling it, but the pubs that took them up on that then found themselves cast out in the cold.

Ironically, it’s the pubs with the lowest and most fluctuating turnover of cask, often in rural areas, that are most likely to continue stocking it. They tend to have an older and more traditionalist customer base who would be resistant to the idea of drinking keg beer. By dropping cask, they would exclude themselves from the Good Beer Guide and any other guides produced by CAMRA and place themselves in a second-tier category on WhatPub.

Yes, other pub guides are available, such as the Good Pub Guide, but even they would tend to comment negatively on the absence of cask. And many casual customers, on entering a pub with no handpumps on the bar, would immediately turn round and go out again. For some people, even if they don’t drink cask themselves, the presence of handoumps on the bar selling ales from local breweries is a reassuring part of the atmosphere along with horse brasses and old local photos.

So pubs soldier on with cask, even in the full knowledge that they’re often not presenting it at its best. Except in areas well off the tourist track, you would be hard-pressed to find any rural pubs in England and Wales that don’t at least nominally stock cask.

Something like Fresh Ale would provide a sensible solution for low-turnover pubs like that, allowing them to consistently provide a pretty decent pint, rather than occasionally offering up a really good one, but more often serving up warm slop or vinegar. But the continued loyalty to the concept of cask means that they would be ostracised if they chose to go down that path.

Wednesday, 31 May 2023

Unsafe at any level

It’s generally accepted that drinking large quantities of alcohol over a prolonged period really doesn’t do you any good. On the other hand, given its prevalence in society, it’s also pretty obvious that drinking modest quantities doesn’t do you much, if any, harm. This is something that government agencies have to wrestle with when producing guidance on healthy diets.

I vaguely remember when a figure of 50 units a week was bandied about as the level above which risk does start to increase steeply. It has then more formally stated as 28 units a week, then 21, then 21 for men and 14 for women. Most recently, it was reduced to 14 units for both sexes purely on the grounds of equality, as there was no scientific basis for this given men’s typically larger body size and different metabolism. But the basic principle remains that official bodies recognise that drinking a modest amount of alcohol isn’t inconsistent with a healthy lifestyle.

What is more, there’s a wealth of evidence that drinking a moderate quantity actually results in better health outcomes than total abstention. It’s sometimes claimed that the figures are distorted by the inclusion of “sick quitters”, people who have had to give up alcohol after it caused them serious problems but, as Christopher Snowdon explains here, the effect still applies even when they are discounted.

This presents a major problem for the anti-drink lobby, as they are unable to present alcohol as being universally bad. They also argue that it gives the alcohol industry a figleaf of respectability, as they are able to promote it as a mainstream, responsible product even when they know that many of their customers consume well above the official guidelines. Hence it becomes a kind of holy grail to be able to convert the official line to one of saying that any level of consumption is harmful.

This is a line that the World Health Organisation are currently pushing strongly, for example in this article. I’m not aware anything in the underlying science has changed, and it remains a subject of debate. Remember that these are the people who want national governments to surrender their authority to them to determine future pandemic policy.

Even accepting the underlying premise, the risk level at low levels of consumption remains very small and not something that really should concern people. People engage in all kinds of leisure activities for their own pleasure that even at minimal levels cannot be said to be entirely free of risk. You might as well say “there is no safe level of mountaineering.” There’s also a risk that it might encourage a mentality of “might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb”. The current guidelines, while extremely over-cautious, are not bad advice as such. Replace them with “even a drop is dangerous” and people are deprived of any yardstick to assess risk.

However, official acceptance of this position will over time completely change alcohol’s position in society. It will inevitably lead to moves to discourage the presentation of alcohol in a positive light. Pressure will be stepped up to further restrict advertising, and drinks will be excluded from export promotions and celebrations of local produce. Despite years of doing their best to appease the anti-drink lobby, the drinks industry will be left in the same position as tobacco, as a “toxic trade” excluded from polite society.

And this, of course, is why the anti-drink lobby are so keen to push this message, and why it needs to be strongly resisted.

Sunday, 28 May 2023

Putting the bottles out

I have written a couple of times about the planned Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in Scotland, most recently here. I made the point that the Scottish Government had so far failed to apply for an Internal Market Exemption from Westminster, which they would need for the scheme to go ahead. There were serious concerns from industry that applying different rules in Scotland would impose additional costs, erode the single market within the UK and reduce choice for consumers.

The UK government have now given their response, which is not to reject the scheme outright, but to give it conditional approval on the condition that glass is excluded. Predictably, this has met with an angry response, but by removing the element that was most problematical and would cause the most problems for smaller craft producers, it could be seen as doing the Scottish Government a favour by making the scheme more realistically workable, and thus in a sense be a deft piece of politics.

Outright rejection would have been met with fury, although it might have been tempting to allow it to go ahead and let it fall flat on its face. Given the array of problems that have been pointed out, the odds must have been that it would either end up being postponed even further, or if it did go ahead in March next year, have proved disastrous. However, as the UK government are planning a nationwide scheme in 2025 they would not want the whole concept to be tarred with the brush of failure.

This may lead to some substitution of glass bottles for cans, particularly amongst craft beers but, as bottles are more expensive than cans anyway, the effect probably wouldn’t be all that great. This episode also illustrates a potential pitfall with devolution if devolved administrations are given the power to impose internal trade barriers.

It remains to be seen how the Scottish government will respond. Will they just scrap the whole thing in a fit of pique, or let it go ahead on the basis that half a loaf is better than none at all?

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Boys’ (and girls’) bitter

From time to time, you see stories about under-18s being ID’d in shops when trying to buy alcohol-free beers. On the face of it, this seems heavy-handed, as anything with an alcohol content of 0.5% ABV can be legally purchased and consumed by under-18s. However, the issue is complicated by the fact that these are products that carry the names of alcohol brands, and are specifically designed, as far as possible, to mimic the appearance and taste of normal-strength beers.

The Morning Advertiser has recently been looking at the legalities of selling these products to under-18s. The conclusion is that, while there is no law against it, as they do not legally qualify as alcohol, it does create several problems, such giving the impression to others that young people are drinking alcohol, and the fact that it may not be immediately clear to staff which products are alcoholic, and which are not. Therefore most pubs are understandably unwilling to do it, and will ID any customers wanting to buy them. You also have to wonder how often under-18s actually order anything at the bar of a pub anyway, although they might be more likely to buy meals with drinks in a casual dining restaurant.

There is a more fundamental question, though. While they certainly meet a genuine demand amongst adults, one of the key reasons alcohol-free beers exist is to act as a marketing tool for the parent brand. That’s why every major lager brand now has its own alcohol-free version. So we are asking whether under-18s should be buying a product that not only is a form of alcohol marketing, but specifically sets out to mimic the experience of consuming the standard product. It’s more than just wearing a Guinness-branded T-shirt.

When I was a kid, we used to enjoy chocolate cigarettes, and pretend we were smoking the real thing as consumed by adults. They tended to be American brands such as Camels and Chesterfields rather than British ones like Players and Rothmans, but they certainly looked pretty realistic. These obviously would be frowned on nowadays, but there is something of a read-across to under-18s and alcohol-free beers. Nobody would raise any objections if the same products were sold as something like “Malt Cola”, with no mention of beer or links to alcohol brands, but then they would lose much of their appeal to adults.

I’ve often argued that we tend to be rather heavy-handed about alcohol marketing potentially appealing to under-18s, but few people would seriously argue that it’s OK to specifically market alcoholic drinks to them. Therefore, while I see no problem with a parent giving their child an alcohol-free beer, it’s probably not a good idea for pubs or shops to sell them directly to under-18s.

Thursday, 20 April 2023

Kicking the can

Last Autumn, I wrote about the issues surrounding the Scottish Government’s plans to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for beverage containers, with effect from August this year. It has to be said that some of the comments showed a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the scheme, in particular failing to appreciate that every container would need a specific barcode to confirm it was one on which a deposit had been paid, and not realising that, unlike virtually all similar schemes in other countries, every producer would be required to register and would have their performance monitored in terms of the proportion of containers returned.

Since then, there was a growing chorus of concern from both industry and consumer groups that the scheme as designed would be inflationary, would impose significant extra costs and administrative burdens on businesses, and would severely restrict consumer choice. It also became clear that no attempt had been made to look at how such schemes operated in other countries, and that the Scottish Government had failed to apply for an Internal Market Exemption from the UK Government, which would be needed to put the scheme into operation. Plus it remained unclear how the deposits would be treated for VAT purposes, which is essential for the programming of electronic point-of-sale systems. So it started to look increasingly likely that there would be some further delay in the implementation date.

Then in the middle of February came the unexpected and precipitate resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, which turned out to put a slow-burning match under the whole edifice of the Scottish National Party. All three of the candidates to succeed her said that, to a greater or lesser extent, that they would review the scheme, and earlier his week her eventual successor Humza Yousaf duly announced that the implementation date would be pushed back until 1 March next year. However, the hapless Yousaf now seems to be inhabiting a burning building, with the whole of the SNP having imploded, so it’s anyone’s guess exactly what the situation will be then.

In any case, all that he has done is to kick the can further down road. While the extension does give the opportunity for a review, and allows businesses more time to prepare, nothing has actually changed, and the scheme remains as damaging and impractical as it was before. In the words of a statement from the Night Time Industries Association Scotland (NTIA),

“The NTIA welcomes the news that the Scottish Deposit Return Scheme has been delayed until March 2024, but we need to be clear that the scheme as designed is fundamentally flawed and remains completely unworkable for large parts of our sector. It would also be significantly inflationary and worsen the cost of living pressures being felt across society.

“Scotland’s DRS as currently proposed cannot be fixed by tweaking around the edges, and a total redesign, learning the lessons of schemes elsewhere, is needed. If there is to be a scheme it also must be identical in scope across the UK, launching at the same time UK wide, and it should be much simpler and less expensive to implement.

“We urge Scottish Government to now engage in meaningful consultation with businesses and commission a full review and redesign from scratch of the deposit return scheme.”

So, unless there are significant changes, Scotland will end up in just the same mess in March 2024 as it would have done in August this year. There must be a very severe doubt as to whether that date will be achieved either. If a DRS is to be implemented at all, surely the sensible option would be to shelve the Scotland-only plans and await the UK-wide scheme planned for 2025, which will avoid the creation of any internal trade barriers.

It also has to be questioned whether such a scheme is worthwhile in the first place. Unlike most other countries that have introduced a DRS, the UK already has an effective system of kerbside collections which handles the majority of beverage containers. Recycling is not worth doing regardless of cost and, in a report produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs, they point out that it does not make economic sense even when intangible benefits are taken into account:

A UK-wide deposit return scheme (DRS) can be expected to increase recycling rates for beverage bottles and cans from 70-75 per cent to 85-90 per cent, but at a disproportionate cost.

A DRS is expected to cost over £1 billion in its first year and £814 million per annum thereafter. The tangible economic benefits are expected to be less than £100 million per year. In financial terms, a DRS would be highly inefficient, largely because kerbside collection already recovers 72 per cent of these containers.

The government’s impact assessment is only able to claim a net economic gain by including intangible benefits of £968 million per annum from a reduction in litter. This figure is highly questionable. The impact assessment neglects to include the much larger costs of unpaid labour that will be incurred by households having to collect, store and return empty containers. When the full costs and benefits are included in the analysis, there seems to be no economic case for a deposit return scheme.

There also remain significant questions around the sheer practicalities of how the scheme is expected to work. The sheer volume of containers involved is enormous. I haven’t been able to find a figure for the average number people use, but if we assume it’s two per person per day, that means a two-person household will generate well over a hundred per month. People are supposedly going to use “reverse vending machines” that will give you a credit for each container but, given that they’re going to have to check the barcode on every one, they’re not exactly going to the lightning-quick. How many of these will be needed to avoid massive queues? Is there enough supply to achieve this from the start? Where will they be located, and who will be responsible for operating them? Has there even been a demonstration of one in a UK context?

Another issue is how the repayments will actually be made. In some other counties the machines issue supermarket vouchers, but I can’t see most people being happy with that. They’ll want actual money. And, while it may be possible to create a system where people create an account that sends the repayments directly to their bank, that’s not going to cover everyone and will create a barrier to claiming refunds. A foreign student who buys a can of Coke in the street is going to want actual cash, so are we going to have machines dotted around the streets containing large sums and potentially presenting a target for thieves?

As I said in my previous post, given that we already have an extensive system of kerbside collection that in general works fairly well, surely it would make sense to build on this for the majority of containers that are consumed at home, rather than making people use something entirely different. Effectively all such containers that I buy go in the recycling already, so personally I would gain nothing apart from more hassle. I, and I’d guess millions of others, would happily get a private company or charity to collect the containers from the my home and take a commission for doing so.

At the same time, the Scottish Government announced that they were withdrawing their proposals for draconian curbs on alcohol advertising and promotion and would review them. I have to say I didn’t get too worked up about these, as they always seemed too extreme to be actually implemented. Such ideas always show a failure to appreciate how advertising actually works. They would have done little or nothing to address problem drinking and would have disadvantaged small producers and new entrants to the market in favour of the big established players. The main motivation seemed to be to express a distaste for alcohol in general. And to demonise the industry that is your biggest export earner is a spectacular example of shooting yourself in the foot.

Monday, 10 April 2023

A touch of grey

We live in an ageing society, with an ever-increasing ratio of older people compared with younger ones. However, you would never guess this from the media, who seem obsessed with the youth market. Scarcely a week goes by that we do not hear of some presenter or columnist being put out to grass in the interest of “bringing in new blood”.

This can be a dangerous attitude to carry across into the business world, where companies often seem preoccupied with attracting a diminishing and fickle youth audience while loyal older customers are ignored. This article identifies this misapprehension as one of the factors behind the fall of Silicon Valley Bank:

When releasing its annual State of the Wine Industry report for 2023 (as well as lending to tech start-ups, it also had a premium wine lending arm), it came to the conclusion that the future of the wine sector depended on bringing a new generation of young drinkers into the category.

This was the wrong decision again by SVB. The reality is that great swathes of young people don’t touch wine, and they never have done. Consider that as many as 35% of people in their 20s don’t drink vino at all, whereas in contrast, the majority of wine is consumed by the over-40s. What actually happens is that many of these younger drinkers ultimately move over into the wine-drinking camp as they get older, and possibly more discerning with their alcohol choices.

The same seems to happen on a regular cycle with trying to attract younger drinkers to cask beer. However, the main thrust of Glynn Davis’ article is how this attitude applies to the pub trade. Increasingly, the over-45s are the people with both the time and money to spend in pubs, but when they do cross the threshold they encounter a variety of factors that make them feel ill at ease.

Meanwhile, 25% of the population is sitting pretty. These are aged over 45, largely mortgage-free and living rather comfortably, with plenty of disposable income. But they have moderated their behaviour in line with the rest of the country and reduced their frequency of visits to pubs, bars and restaurants.

Drawing these people out of their homes more often must surely represent a major opportunity for the hospitality industry? They need to be given more confidence, and reasons, to get spending again, and this could involve some really simple things like increasing the print size of menus, adjusting the lighting and addressing one of the biggest bugbears of older customers – the high volume of music in many venues.

The volume of music in pubs is a perennial complaint. Regardless of what genre it is, if it’s too loud to sustain a conversation many people are simply not going to want to stay. I remember on our trip to Shifnal in 2019 going in the Crown in mid-afternoon and being regaled by the greatest hits of Pink at absolutely earsplitting volume. There were very few other customers, none of them particularly young, and I’m really not sure for whose benefit it was being played. As I said, “It wasn’t surprising that this was by some way the least busy of all the pubs we visited.”

The choice of music is also an important factor. It has to be remembered that the older generation are people who have lived through the Summer of Love, punk and rave culture, and so don’t necessarily want to be given the musical equivalent of a pipe and slippers. They are people who will still put School’s Out, Back in Black and Smells Like Teen Spirit on the jukebox. There is a tendency to believe a pub appealing to a more mature clientele should offer a mixture of bland easy listening and songs from the shows, which can be very wide of the mark.

From the Beatles to the Britpop era, the popular music of the day was part of the general public consciousness. But, in the present century, the fragmentation of media and the growth of streaming has greatly undermined this, and so if a pub plays contemporary pop it will to a large extent fall on deaf ears. And a crucial factor is that music should always be selected to suit the tastes of the customers, not the bar staff.

Edit: I ran this Twitter poll which underlines the point. Only 13% of respondents said they made any effort to keep up with the current charts, including a slightly lower proportion of under-50s:

Pub seating is another important aspect. If customers aren’t comfortable, they’ll go elsewhere. A particular offender is the growing trend towards high-level posing tables. A couple of years ago, Holt’s refurbished the Cat & Lion at Stretton, a prosperous and genteel suburb just south of Warrington. Yet the bulk of the seating in the main bar area consists of posing tables, as pictured. You have to wonder where all the fit young customers are going to come from who will find that appealing. Another type of seating that is very offputting to older people is long forms with no backs, as often seen in craft bars.

Other factors that could be added are:

  • Low lighting, making reading impossible.

  • Bare wood floors, which echo and amplify noise rather than soaking it up.

  • Long flights of stairs to reach the toilets. There is a huge territory covered by “not disabled, but not as sprightly as I once was”. Wetherspoon’s do well on most of these points, but not on this one.

  • Putting your entire menu on a blackboard – maybe OK for daily specials, but regular items should on a printed menu with font of a legible size and which makes it clear how to order and exactly what comes with what.

  • Allowing noisy children a free run of the pub.

Obviously if a pub deliberately markets itself as being targeted at the older generation it is likely to have a negative effect – oldies do not want to be reminded of the fact. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for pub operators to take a few simple steps to avoid being offputting to older customers without deterring anyone else. And, at a time when younger people seem to be increasingly avoiding alcohol entirely, and preferring burying themselves in social media to actual physical socialising, it makes good business sense.

It’s easy to say “you need to catch them young”, but it has been extensively demonstrated over the years that there are many things in life that people just grow into. An excessive focus on youth is likely to prove counter-productive.