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.