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?