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.