Monday 27 February 2023

Veering off the road?

The government have announced that the £2 cap on bus fares in England is going to be extended until the end of June. Some eyebrows may have been raised at the effusive welcome CAMRA gave to this policy, which they had strongly urged their members to support.
Chairman Nik Antona said:

“Cheaper bus fares are great news for the beer and pub trade, making it affordable for people to go out to visit their locals.

“Extending the £2 bus fare scheme for England is something that we had called on Transport ministers to do so that pubs, social clubs, breweries and cider producers grappling with the cost-of-business crisis can benefit from people being able to get to the pub in an affordable and environmentally friendly way.”

Whether or not it is a desirable policy is debatable. But is it really CAMRA’s role to be campaigning for generalised subsidies to public transport? It comes across as stepping outside its campaigning objectives. Yes, it may bring some benefit to pubs, although probably less than might be imagined, but that’s only a tangential effect. It would be just as logical to campaign for a cap on taxi fares, or funding research into self-driving cars.

It probably has a lot to do with the long-standing overlap between CAMRA members and public transport enthusiasts. At one point CAMRA did set up a national public transport campaign group, although mention of it seems to have disappeared from their public website. Many taxpayers on modest incomes may well question whether it is a good use of public funds to subsidise people to go to the pub.

No doubt someone will pipe up that it will act as a deterrent to drink-driving, but in reality the idea that a higher bus fare will tempt someone to offend isn’t really credible. This is akin to the suggestion that is sometimes heard of linking drink-driving with high soft drink prices.

Public transport subsidies are not a no-brainer – it is a matter of legitimate political debate as to whether they provide a worthwhile return to the taxpayer. Given this, even if they do tempt a few more customers to visit pubs, to actively support them is exceeding CAMRA’s remit. It should go no further than observing that they may be helpful to some pubgoers.

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Not all doom and gloom

Earlier this month, the local branch of CAMRA held its annual Good Beer Guide selection meeting in the upstairs room of the Magnet pub in Stockport. It was a very well-attended meeting, but on top of this the pub downstairs was rammed too. The pub themselves said that they had seen their busiest January for years, and this was continuing into February. Hopefully at least part of the motivation for this was a desire to put two fingers up to “Dry January”.

The Magnet is a pub that does what it sets out to do very well and is justifiably popular. On that particular Thursday evening it might well have been the busiest pub in Stockport town centre. But this clearly demonstrates that, despite all the hand-wringing about the cost-of-living crisis, there are still plenty of people around with money to spend in pubs. This is borne out by the Morning Advertiser, which reports that “The majority of operators I’ve spoken to have reported stronger than expected sales in January, with customers continuing to visit and spend well.”

I’m well aware that my pattern of pubgoing is hardly representative, but in the year so far I’ve visited a wide cross-section of pubs and seen levels of trade ranging from being the sole customer through nicely ticking over to standing room only. It seems no different from how it was pre-Covid. The one pub where I was the only customer was one that I’m confident would have been busy at other times*. Unsurprisingly, two of the busiest ones were branches of Wetherspoon’s.

I’m not denying for a minute that there are many people who are finding things a struggle at present, but equally there are lots who aren’t. Apparently foreign holiday bookings have exceeded the 2019 level. There is plenty of money out there to be spent, and pubs do themselves no favours by overdoing the doom and gloom.

* ironically, this one served me probably my best pint of the year so far

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Hold it in!

Simon Everitt recently spotted this sign on his GBG ticking travels in the Split Chimp micropub in Whitley Bay, Northumberland. It comes across as remarkably prissy, it can’t practically be enforced, and it’s frankly unrealistic to expect customers to adhere to it. I have heard of people deliberately arranging their routines so that they can perform their bowel movements in Wetherspoon’s, but surely if someone needs one while visiting a micropub it’s not something they had planned and they don’t have that much control over the timing.

It also illustrates a wider problem with the single-WC pub or bar, which has become much more common with the rise of micropubs and other shop conversions in recent years. When I was at school I vaguely remember studying Queuing Theory in Maths. I’ve forgotten most of it, but one bit that did stick was that reducing the number of outlets would have a much greater impact on the maximum queuing time than the average.

A single WC may be acceptable in a cafĂ©, but in a bar, where customers are likely to linger more, and where they’re consuming a product known for its diuretic and laxative properties, it’s likely to become problematical. If someone needs to occupy the single trap for ten minutes or more (which, without going into details, can happen) then other customers may be put in a very awkward and embarrassing position.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to want it banned under planning regulations, as a point of principle I won’t give my custom to any bar with a single WC. The tiny Circus Tavern in Manchester city centre manages to provide separate ladies’ and gents’ toilets, with a trap and a couple of urinals in the gents’, so why should they be any different? This is not a question of toilets being unisex (that’s a separate issue), but of the overall level of provision being seriously inadequate.

I have been told that planning rules state that, if you want to provide more than a single WC, one of them has be accessible to the disabled, which is reasonable enough in theory, but in practice may deter, or physically prevent, bar owners from expanding provision even if they feel it’s insufficient. The best becomes the enemy of the good.

On the other hand, of course, the much-derided Wetherspoon’s are noted for their ample toilet provision, although it can be something of a hike to get there. Plus they win numerous awards for toilet hygiene.

Monday 13 February 2023

Speaking with forked tongue

Back in December 2021, I reported on how New Zealand was planning to introduce a kind of creeping prohibition of tobacco, with the legal purchase age being increase by one year every year. Given that tobacco is a legal product that is enjoyed by a large number of people, this is an utterly abhorrent and illiberal measure. Yes, it carries health risks, but every adult must be aware of that, and the same applies to plenty of other things people do. Also, given that smoking in public places has already been effectively denormalised already, it’s unlikely to be much of a deterrent. The main effect is likely to be handing over government revenue to the black market. It might have been thought that the departure of Jacinda Ardern might prompt a rethink, but given that her successor is someone who said that the unvaccinated should be “hunted down” that’s probably unlikely.

Now, Labour’s health spokesperson Wes Streeting has proposed that the same should be done in UK. Exactly the same issues apply – it is objectionable in principle and is likely to be impractical and problematic in operation. It will also give small shopkeepers the problem of having to establish people’s age at an ever-increasing level, unless of course they follow New Zealand’s example and restrict to tobacco sales to a small number of approved outlets, thus destroying many independent businesses.

Maybe this will never happen, but it underlines that, when it comes to lifestyle issues, whether tobacco, alcohol, food or gambling, Labour hardly has a single libertarian bone in its body. Their thoughts naturally turn to regulation, restriction, taxation and ultimately prohibition. And, while it’s obviously a legitimate position to vote in a way that goes against your personal interests, anyone imagining that a future Labour government will be good news for the pub and brewing industries in the UK, or for the consumer of alcoholic drinks, is likely to be sorely disappointed.

Yet, at the same time, former leader Ed Miliband has stated that a Labour government would be open to the legalisation of cannabis. There’s certainly a good case for this, but my support is hardly encouraged by the tendency of cannabis lobbyists to harp on about how it’s supposedly less harmful than alcohol, and states in the US that have legalised it have experienced very mixed results and completely failed to eliminate the black market. And it comes across as grossly hypocritical to seek to legalise one drug while at the same time prohibiting another, especially when in practice the two are often mixed together.

Presumably the motivation behind this is that one is fashionable, while the other isn’t, but it hardly comes across as intellectually consistent policy. It brings to mind the report I saw* that the US state of Colorado, one of the most right-on in the country, had made it illegal for employers to discriminate against cannabis users, but not tobacco users.

And of course nothing similar is ever going to be applied to alcohol, is it?

* I have definitely read this, although I don’t have a source for it.

Monday 6 February 2023

Black power

It was reported recently that Guinness had overtaken Carling* to become, for the first time, the best-selling beer brand in the UK. The makers of Carling were quick to point out that they were still selling more in volume terms, but of course this is an admission that Guinness, which is only 0.1% ABV stronger, was achieving a price premium over them.

One of the reasons behind this is that Diageo, the owners of Guinness, have over the years been very assiduous in protecting and developing the image of their product. They have linked it to sport, particularly Rugby Union, they have stressed its Irish heritage and they have protected its position as a premium product by doing their best to avoid deep discounting. They have successfully avoided any connotations of it being an old man’s drink, despite flying in the face of modern trends by being a dark beer, and they have come up with some of the most memorable and iconic advertising of any alcohol brand.

Possibly this is helped by the fact that Guinness is the only major beer brand in Diageo’s portfolio, so they can concentrate single-mindedly on it, whereas if it belonged to a brewing conglomerate attention might be diluted. This can be compared with Stella Artois, which in the 1980s enjoyed a similar position as a respected premium product, but where the brand equity has steadily been undermined by its owners through cheapening the recipe and reducing the strength, to the extent that it is just another commodity product today.

The result is that Guinness, more than any other mass-market beer, is seen as being a cool product in pubs and bars, and very much something they have to stock. In a group of people, the choice of where to go may well be determined by the Guinness drinker objecting to the place that doesn’t stock it, just as the cask drinker would. Any pub not offering Guinness will have to contend with the problem of people asking for it by name, and then having to explain “we have XXX stout, which we think is better”, just as other cola brands had to cope with customers asking for Coke. Anyone remember “It’s McDonald’s cola, is that OK?”

This means that trying to compete with Guinness is an uphill struggle. If you are a brewer with your own pub estate, you have a captive market, and Sam Smith’s have produced their own Extra Stout for years, which many people view as superior to Guinness. Holt’s have recently emulated them with Trailblazer Stout. They have also replaced all mass-market lagers with their own products. And BrewDog have recently launched their own Black Heart stout which no doubt will find favour in craft-oriented bars. But if you’re a pubco or free trader with no brewery links, ditching Guinness may seem a foolhardy move.

Guinness is often defeated by competitor products in blindfolded taste tests, such as this one carried out by Holt’s for Trailblazer. The same was true of Coke vs Pepsi. But in fact in a blind test people tend to pick out the option with the strongest flavour, which isn’t necessarily reflected in decisions across the bar. In fact, one of Guinness’s key attractions is that it is relatively bland and inoffensive, so it doesn’t put too many people off. The same is true of top-selling brands of any products. Competitor stouts tend to emphasise the roastiness more, which may appeal to beer aficionados, but is likely to deter many mainstream drinkers. I have to say I’m not really a fan of roasty beers and, while I like dark mellow ales, I tend to steer clear of cask stouts for that reason.

Possibly this news also says something about the health of the lager market. Some people have speculated that, just as bitter superseded mild as the leading beer, and lager in its turn superseded bitter, something else will eventually take over from lager. In reality, I don’t really see this happening. These changes occurred in an insular British beer market, whereas pale lager has become the default beer worldwide. In a sense, Britain was just belatedly catching up with the rest of world.

But there’s no denying that the lager sector is looking distinctly tired. The concocted Spanish lager Madri looks less like a brilliant innovation and more like a last desperate throw of the dice. Part of the problem is that the vast majority of the established lager brands are lacklustre products that for whatever reason don’t live up to the original beers they’re based on. They’re increasingly seen as just interchangeable commodity brands. The one exception is Peroni, which is intrinsically a pretty good beer and where the brand owners seem to have taken a leaf out of Guinness’s strategy book. And maybe what the sector needs is for the existing brands to be cherished on a long-term bases rather than constantly looking for a new gimmick.

* It would be interesting to know what Carling itself superseded in the 70s or 80s