Tuesday 28 November 2023

Wasted youth

The Morning Advertiser reports that Leeds-based brewery Northern Monk has discontinued two of its seasonal products after complaints against them were upheld by the Portman Group. The brand’s Rocket Lolly IPA and Wasted Hot Cross Bun Pale Ale were “found to have a particular appeal to under-18s and did not communicate the alcoholic nature of the drink with absolute clarity”.

I have in the past criticised the Portman Group for having a po-faced and heavy-handed approach, and being all too willing to act on a single vexatious complaint. But surely it should be obvious that it is neither appropriate nor responsible to promote alcoholic drinks using images relating to childhood treats, or with references to drunkenness.

No major alcohol producer would even dream of using such themes. But there still seems to be a view in the craft beer community that it is part of their mission in life to be edgy and transgressive, and that they are not bound by the rules that apply to the stuffed shirts. Yes, there is a place for humour in alcohol marketing, something the Portman Group sometimes fails to appreciate, but there are subjects that it should steer well clear of.

At a time when there is ever-growing pressure for tighter curbs on alcohol promotion and marketing, selling products like this is offering a hostage to fortune that may well end up being flung back in the industry’s face. As I wrote back in 2020 over a similar case involving Lost & Grounded Brewery, “is defending figures reminiscent of children’s cartoon characters really the hill you want to die on when standing up for the rights of alcohol producers?”

And it’s impossible to escape the suspicion that these can designs did not stem from an innocent mistake, but were deliberately tweaking the regulator’s tail in a bid to gain publicity.

Thursday 23 November 2023

A confederation of wowsers

The Guardian reports on research that has found that British firms are earning a staggering £52.7bn a year from “smoking, excess drinking and junk food”.
…they calculated that 28.8% of all food bought by UK households is unhealthy because it breaches government dietary guidelines for fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Those sales together earn the food industry £34.2bn.

Similarly, they found that 43.4% of all alcohol consumed in the UK is drunk by people exceeding the government’s safe drinking guidelines of 14 units a week, and is thus potentially harmful. The alcohol industry makes £11.2bn from this consumption. And all of the tobacco industry’s £7.3bn annual revenue is from sales of products that are known to kill half of the people who use them, they found.

“These findings show that these health-harming industries are making obscene amounts of money from selling us products that are making us ill,” said Hazel Cheeseman, Ash’s deputy chief executive.

One hopes that Hazel is eating healthy low-fat cheese, not the kind you’re not allowed to advertise on the Tube. So who has commissioned this report? Oh, it’s the usual suspects. And you can’t help thinking “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
The research was undertaken by the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) in conjunction with Landman Economics.
It’s significant that, on top of the £52.7 bn going to companies, the government is raking in £28.8 bn through VAT and duties, making them a major source of revenue. And it is disingenuous to say that companies are “earning” £52.7 bn, as that is the figure for total sales revenue. The actual profit made on these products will be far less.

When it comes to smoking, these analyses always fail to acknowledge that, while it undoubtedly carries health risks, many people genuinely enjoy it, so it is no different in principle from many other so-called vices. And aren’t the government doing enough already to clamp down on it, by increasing the rate of duty every year by above the rate of inflation, and introducing a system of creeping prohibition that will increase the legal purchase age by one year every year?

The “safe drinking” guidelines have been repeatedly ratcheted down in recent years, turning more and more people into “problem drinkers” without anything actually changing. And, as with all policies that are supposed to address the dangers of alcohol, the proposed measures will also end up clobbering moderate consumers.

As I wrote earlier in the year, the concept of ultra-processed food is something that is pretty much entirely made up. It draws the net so widely that it ends up demonising pretty much any food item that has seen the inside of a factory, regardless of its actual recipe or nutritional content. It also has to be remembered that there is no such thing as unhealthy food, only unhealthy diets. Should people not be allowed the occasional indulgent treat?

The measures proposed to deal with these issues will inevitably involve more restrictions and higher taxation, exactly what people need at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet. The whole thing comes across as a crusade against poor people having any kind of pleasure. It is also profoundly patronising, denying people any agency in their own lives, and portraying them as unwilling dupes. Does it never occur to the campaigners that these companies are selling products that people actually want to buy?

Those who insisted at the time of the smoking ban than alcohol was different should take note of the three groups who have come together to produce this report. As far as the public health lobby are concerned, smoking, alcohol and “junk food” are three sides of the same coin, and having the temerity to make a profit from any of them is engaging in a “toxic trade”.

And, of course, as usually happens, the article is illustrated by a picture of people drinking pints of cask beer in a pub garden…

Thursday 16 November 2023

Robinson’s roundup

At last week’s meeting of the local CAMRA branch at the Blossoms in Stockport, we were given a talk by Oliver and William Robinson of Robinson’s Brewery. They are cousins, but very different in both appearance and personality. These are a few of the points that I noted:
  • Oliver and William obviously have a clear vision for the future direction of the company and give the strong impression that they are in it for the long term. As John Clarke (chairing the meeting) said, it's unusual for brewery representatives not only to say what they are doing, but also to explain in detail why they are doing it.

  • Robinson's no longer supply beer in any cask sizes bigger than firkins, and are currently investing in a large number of pins. They see it as important to give customers a choice of cask beers.

  • They also saw it as very important that all their pubs opened seven days a week, as finding a pub closed can seriously damage its reputation.

  • The vessels for their new brewery are being sourced from China, which might raise a few eyebrows. However, they made the point that alternative suppliers were also overseas, in places like Bulgaria or Canada, and would be several million pounds more expensive.

  • They hoped to start production in the new brewery in the second half of next year.

  • There were no definite plans yet for the future of the old brewery - a lot depended on the view of Stockport Council.

  • They were supplying about 15,000 barrels of cask beer each to year to their 257 pubs, which is only just over one barrel per week.

  • They were targeting 35% of beer sales in their pubs to be their own production, covering both cask and keg.

  • They had sold their wholesaling business in 2019, before Covid hit. They made the point that when they sell beer to a wholesaler, it goes out of their control and quality can no longer be guaranteed.

  • They had experimented with offering a range of outside guest beers in some pubs, but with a handful of exceptions such as the Black Horse in Preston the formula hadn't worked.

  • They firmly intend to reopen the currently mothballed Bull's Head and Pineapple in Stockport town centre when the time was right.

  • They had applied restrictive covenants to pubs they had sold on rare occasions, but this was as likely to have been at the request of the buyer. It certainly is not a general policy (and indeed there are numerous examples of former Robinson’s pubs having been acquired by other operators).

Nobody asked them about pub refurbishments, but I suspect they would have given a blunt answer that they weren't running a museum, and that they needed to invest in pubs to guarantee their future.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Driven to drink

The general subject of self-driving cars is really beyond the remit of this blog, but one obvious benefit they might bring is to make it much easier for people to get to, and specifically get back from, the pub. This is a subject I discussed in my magazine column back in 2017. However, I concluded “no doubt the killjoys will be working hard on ways to prevent driverless cars being used in this way, saying ‘that’s not what they were intended for’”.

And indeed, from a recent report, it seems that this will be the case, as it is stated that Being drunk or asleep at the wheel of a driverless cars to be made illegal, and goes on to say that the user in charge must also be in the driver’s seat and stay off their mobile phone. It then says, with a distinct whiff of curled lip:

Plans to forbid drunk back-up driving come amid concerns that the technology could encourage overindulgence. Researchers at Curtin University in Australia have suggested that the public safety benefits from driverless cars could be outweighed by more binge drinking if it becomes easier to get around while inebriated. In 2020, 37 per cent of respondents in a survey said that their alcohol use would be likely to increase if they had access to driverless cars.
However, surely one of the main potential benefits of driverless cars is that they will extend mobility to people who are unable to drive themselves either through old age or medical conditions. It is also impossible to have driverless taxis – often suggested as one of the main applications – if there always needs to be a competent driver on board. If it was indeed true that driverless cars would need a capable driver on board at all times it would severely limit their usefulness, to the extent where it’s hard to see what the point would be.

I suspect this report arises from a misunderstanding of the concept of the technology. It has always been set out that progress towards automated cars will come in a number of levels, as shown in the graphic above. At Level 3, a driver may be called upon to take control in certain situations, but at Levels 4 and 5 they won’t. If an automated taxi can travel without a driver to its pick-up point, then surely it can carry a passenger who is incapable of driving, whether through age, infirmity or intoxication. And if a taxi can do it, why not your own driverless car?

It has always seemed to me, though, that this technology essentially represents a solution looking for a problem. And it’s pretty certain that the authorities will never allow it to be used to its full potential, as it would be so disruptive and undermine so many vested interests.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Passing on the torch

The well-known Laurieston Bar in Glasgow has been put on the market due to the retirement of the owners John and James Clancy, who have run it for forty years. I’ve never been there, but from the description it sounds a splendid establishment, and by all accounts is something of a local institution. It also has a striking, unspoilt 1960s interior that qualifies for a three-star entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Let us hope that they can find new owners who will carry on its traditions.

However, this illustrates a fundamental problem for owner-managed pubs and bars. Whenever the time comes round for the current owners to retire, they have to find someone else to take it on, and there’s no guarantee that its character will be maintained , or indeed that it will remain as a pub at all. Obviously breweries and pub companies have a far from flawless track record in keeping pubs open, but at least when one licensee retires there is the opportunity to maintain continuity by installing a replacement. With the free house, every time a licensee retires or wants to leave the trade, it is put “in play”.

Only this week, there has been another example of this more locally with the Wharf in Macclesfield which, like the Laurieston, is a current Good Beer Guide entry.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Cleaning up your act

In one job I worked at, we were planning a Christmas lunch, and the women of the office checked out the hygiene ratings of the various restaurants in the town to decide which was best. I couldn’t help thinking that they’d rather got the cart before the horse there. It might have made sense to narrow it down to those with good scores, and then choose from amongst those, but they seemed to be using that as the primary criterion. But having an immaculate kitchen is no guarantee that the actual food will be any good, and indeed we ended up having one of the worst Italian meals I can remember.

Now Cask Marque have launched a similar scheme to give pubs star ratings for cellar hygiene. Obviously there’s everything to be said for promoting clean cellars, but it’s a touch disingenuous to suggest that it will help improve cask ale quality. Serving a good pint over the bar is a combination of various factors, not just hygiene, but also turnover, temperature control both in the cellar and in the lines, and maintaining condition through correct tapping, venting and spiling procedures. It’s not rocket science, just diligently following straightforward routines.

Good hygiene alone will not produce good beer if the other elements aren’t there. It’s significant that “One of the first pub groups to endorse the scheme and act on the findings has been named as the budget pub chain Wetherspoons, owned by Tim Martin, which now has 95% of its pubs with 4*/5* ratings.” Yet Spoons’ beer quality can be distinctly variable, and all too often their beer lacks condition and tastes as though it has been pulled through a very long pipe.

We will all have come across pubs whose public areas don’t give the impression of a scrupulous adherence to cleanliness, and yet reliably manage to serve up a good pint. Maybe they do have spotless cellars, but I have my doubts. As a product that is kept in sealed containers, and where the alcohol content has some preservative quality, beer has something of a natural resistance to contamination anyway. Schemes of this kind tend to involve a significant element of ticking boxes to confirm meticulous record-keeping. Some catering establishments end up with one-star ratings purely because they haven’t done their paperwork.

Nobody can argue against promoting hygienic cellars, but don’t imagine that a five-star rating will guarantee a five-star pint.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

At the sign of the Dead Horse

Following the case of the fire and subsequent demolition of the Crooked House, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has called for nominations for pubs that deserve additional legal protection. That’s all well and good, but it has to be remembered that the best protection for pubs is for people to actually use them. Those who claim to be campaigning to support pubs often seem to fail to acknowledge how much the trade has declined in recent years, which inevitably will render many unviable.

Nobody who follows this blog can be left in any doubt about my enduring love of pubs. As I wrote back in 2010:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
I have also devoted a separate blog to highlighting some of the best pubs I have come across.

However, it is important to be realistic and not look at the subject through rose-tinted spectacles. One of the core themes of this blog has been to highlight the various trends that have combined to undermine pubs and reduce their role in society. Obviously one of the biggest factors, and one specifically down to government action, was the 2007 smoking ban, which really ripped the guts out of wet-led community pubs. There has also been an ever-increasing stream of official messaging about the dangers of drink, which is inevitably going to have an effect on public attitudes. If people do drink, very often they will prefer to do it in private homes rather than public places.

But much of it is due to changing social attitudes, which mean that going out to pubs for a drink is looked upon much less favourably, alcohol consumption is more stigmatised, and many occasions on which people would once routinely visit pubs are now frowned upon. As I wrote back in 2013, pubgoing as a leisure activity has increasingly become socially unacceptable. It also has to be recognised that, in the past, much of the core trade of pubs came from men – and it was overwhelmingly men – who were in there several nights a week drinking multiple pints. The number of jobs where you can get away with that, or indeed afford it, has much reduced, and it’s viewed much more unfavourably. Maybe in wider terms that is a positive trend, but it doesn’t help the business of pubs.

It’s a basic principle of economics that, in broad terms, the value that is put on land and activities reflect their overall benefit to society. Of course this cannot be viewed in isolation, and the impact on others has to be taken into account, such as, for example, avoiding pollution and preventing the building of properties with direct access to motorways. But, as a general principle, resource allocation is done much better by markets than by central direction.

If there is an underused pub occupying a large plot of land in a city, at a time of housing shortage it may well benefit society as a whole to knock it down and build flats on the site. Thus it would command a much higher price as a development site than as a going concern. If there is a demand for a pub or bar in that location, it can be provided on the ground floor of the block.

If the pub is of particular architectural quality or significance, it can be protected by being given Listed Building status, which gives it much more protection from alteration or demolition. This, in a sense, is a luxury that prosperous and civilised societies can afford, to be able to retain buildings for cultural or historical reasons even if the site could be used in a more economically advantageous way. There is always the issue, though, of finding a use for listed buildings, unless they can be presented as tourist attractions. Domestic buildings can normally be used for their original purpose, but if a pub has its interior listed as well as its exterior it cannot realistically be used for anything else. And there is a problem with large industrial or institutional buildings that have been listed, but for which no alterative use can be found.

If a pub does not qualify for listing, then it can be given some measure of protection through the planning system. The first option is to apply for it to be registered as an Asset of Community Value, which can be done if it can be demonstrated that it has played a part in the life of the community over a period of time. This does not prevent redevelopment, or change of use, but forces it to be considered in the planning process and gives the local community a six-month window of opportunity to raise funds to purchase it, although there is no obligation on the owner to sell.

To some extent this has been superseded by a relatively recent change of giving pubs their own specific use class for planning purposes, which means that any change of use or demolition has to be given permission by the local council. However, planning can only stop things from happening, it can’t actually make them happen. No operator can be forced to keep a pub open against their will. There is nothing to stop the owner simply closing a pub they do not consider to be viable, and then engaging in a Mexican stand-off with the council over its future use. Local campaigners will often put pressure on councils not to approve a change of use even if there is little realistic prospect of the building continuing to be a pub.

In some cases, it’s possible that a new owner and a change of format might breathe new life into a pub, but to what extent is that simply redistributing the customers from other pubs rather than growing demand overall? And it’s very hard to see many of the “beached whale” estate pubs having any future whoever took them over. It is this kind of planning sclerosis that leads to “mystery fires” when unscrupulous owners try to force the council’s hand. (I am not in any sense trying to excuse what happened at the Crooked House, which was prima facie entirely illegal and probably, from the point of view of the owners, self-defeating.)

It would, of course, be possible to go one step further by requiring any owner wishing to dispose of a pub to at first offer it for sale valued as a going concern for, say, a period of six months. However, this would simply tend to lead to owners closing pubs and sitting on them until any prospect of them appealing to alternative buyers had evaporated. Humphrey Smith is an expert at keeping pubs closed for years at a time. There would have to be a qualifying time period, as otherwise if your micropub in a converted shop failed to prosper, it would be much more difficult to change it back into something else. Plus there would be the question of who would eventually receive the development gains if, after one or two more throws of the dice, it did not prove possible for it to operate as a pub. Realistically, all this would do is to prolong the agony.

If cherished pubs can no longer be sustained on a commercial basis, then if people feel strongly enough about their loss they will need to stump up their own cash to take them into community ownership. This is a growing trend across the country and it is to be welcomed as a way of keeping pubs in existence. But it must be recognised that, once it has been bought, a pub must be able to operate profitably, otherwise it will be a continuing cash drain on the community. Actually buying the pub is only the beginning of the battle. I have also suggested in the past that CAMRA could set up a kind of National Trust of Pubs that could aim to acquire pubs on its National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors that are no longer able to operate commercially. Pubs will increasingly have to move from the business sector to the heritage sector.

Ultimately, the shadow hanging over pubs is not one of lack of supply, but lack of demand. If you want them to survive and prosper in future, you would be better off spending your time promoting the appeal of both pubs and moderate social drinking, rather than engaging in a constant rearguard action of fighting planning battles.

The header photo is of the Black Horse in the Stapenhill district of Burton-on-Trent, an impressive inter-wars Art Deco pub that has since been replaced by housing.