Thursday 18 April 2024

Filling a gap

Much of the discussion around the concept of Fresh Ale has revolved around Carlsberg-Marston’s intention to dispense it via handpumps, which is unquestionably misleading given that it is a keg beer. However, what has been largely ignored is that it represents a perhaps rather clumsy attempt to provide a better choice to ale drinkers in venues where no cask beer is offered.

A substantial number of pubs, for various reasons, now do not stock any cask ale whatsoever. In Stockport, this includes pretty much all the remaining working-class wet-led locals apart from those belonging to family brewers. If you go in them and want an ale of some kind, you will be confronted with a choice of one of the widely-distributed “smooth ales”, whether John Smith’s, Worthington, Tetley’s or Boddingtons, and possibly a rarely-seen keg mild bearing a historic brewery name. In one or two there might be some form of modern keg IPA. But there will be nothing remotely resembling a premium bitter, and nothing from any independent brewer, whether family or new-generation.

When CAMRA was formed in the early 70s, it was fair to say that the vast majority of pubs had sufficient turnover to be able to keep cask ale properly. Not doing so was a choice, not a necessity. However, since then, broadly speaking, the total on-trade beer market has fallen by two-thirds, and the share of ale (excluding Guinness) within that has fallen from over 80% to below 20%. This leaves a far smaller pool of sales for ale of any kind. Added to this, pubs are pushing the boundaries of what is feasible for cask to offer an ever-wider range.

I have written before of how a simple comparison of the number of cask outlets, the average lines per pub, and the size of the overall cask market, means that much of this beer must be being kept on sale for well over the recommended three days. Given this, it is only natural that brewers will look at ways of presenting their ales in ways that aren’t so critically dependent on rapid turnover.

Arguably, as long as it doesn’t seek to mislead drinkers as to its true nature, the existence of keg ale in pubs is beyond CAMRA’s scope. And most thoughtful members would accept that, for reasons of turnover, customer profile and simple lack of commitment, there are many pubs that really shouldn’t bother with cask. However, in practice there is a tendency to badger pubs to put cask on even when it’s unlikely to find many takers, and then complain when they don’t. Plus there is the view that the existence of traditional British beer styles is inextricably bound up with that of cask, which doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.

I have mentioned before how, amongst people who see themselves as ale drinkers, there is a strong loyalty to cask as a category as opposed to individual brands. They will choose an alternative cask beer in preference to a keg version of their favourite. This helps maintain cask sales, but arguably it is detrimental to traditional ales as a whole as it inhibits people from even trying non-cask versions. There is also the strange inconsistency than many will happily drink a “craft keg” raspberry sour or marshmallow stout, but turn their noses up at a mild or best bitter.

The loyalty to cask results in a kneejerk rejection of keg ales of whatever type. In the case of the well-known smooth bitters, this may be justified, as they are all pretty lacklustre products, made even worse by being reduced to 3.4% ABV. There is a distinct lack of keg options directly comparable to the popular cask brands. On the other hand, last year Samuel Smith’s increased the strength of their keg Dark Mild and XXXX Best light mild to 3.4% and, while not on a par with a well-kept pint of Old Brewery Bitter, I’d say these are both pleasant and palatable beers that avoid the soapiness of the smooth bitters. They also produce the 5.0% India Ale, about the only premium keg bitter I can think of, although this isn’t found in any of my local Sam’s pubs. To reject keg ales out of hand on principle comes across as prejudice rather than an objective consideration of the beer’s actual characteristics.

Some keg ales seem to do well as they are perceived as something that is “modern” and thus not to be competing head-on with cask. The obvious example is IPAs, which are seen as a category in their own right, even though they are basically just a heavily-hopped type of ale. Beavertown Neck Oil appears to be very popular at present, helped by being of a more sessionable strength than Punk IPA which was the initial pioneer of the type. Boak and Bailey recently reported that keg Sharp’s Atlantic Pale Ale was widely sold in the Bristol area. This is a much “softer” beer than Neck Oil, and indeed has a direct cask equivalent.

I was recently having an interesting discussion about the development of Mild in Ireland. Cask is virtually unknown in Ireland, so pretty much all “interesting” or micro-brewed beer is keg. Obviously mild is very much a niche style, but this gives brewers a much freer hand to make beers of traditional types without having to consider whether they will be viable in cask.

There is also a comparison to be drawn with the lager market. “Most of it’s mass-market crap, and Madri isn’t even a genuine Spanish beer” say the enthusiasts. But it’s lager that enjoys a market share of over 70%, while cask languishes below 10%. Virtually all lager sold in Britain is stabilised and filtered and sold in keg form, so there is no question of dividing the market up into sheep and goats, and everything competes on a level playing field. And, while the enthusiasts may say “actually, some of those German and Czech lagers are not that bad”, they are exactly the same as Corona and Madri in type, if not in quality.

Some may argue that the introduction of better keg beers will undermine cask. But, if they go into places that currently serve no cask at all, how can that be? And I would suggest that the pub offering a single handpump of stale Doom Bar hiding at the end of the bar does cask no favours either, and a keg alternative would be better all round. The core of pubs where cask is popular and sells well wouldn’t be remotely threatened. Taking a wider perspective, the greater availability of quality keg ales would surely boost the general category of traditional British ale styles. I’m certainly not suggesting that keg is on par with well-kept cask. But, rather than saying “I’m not going there, they have no cask”, wouldn’t it be better to say “well, they have no cask, but they do have keg Landlord”?

Thursday 11 April 2024

Boom or bust?

Earlier this week, the Guardian published a rather self-contradictory article about the craft beer market. On the one hand, they say:
For the time being at least, the demand is still there. A report from the independent brewers’ trade body Siba, due for release in May but shared with the Guardian, will show double-digit growth in production volumes. Increased output correlates tightly with sales, reflecting Britain’s enduring thirst for the complex and diverse flavours that the craft sector offers, particularly compared with mass-market rivals.
But, on the other hand, they report:
But competition is fierce, customers’ budgets are squeezed and costs associated with Covid-19 – and Britain’s sluggish economic recovery from it – are piling up. “It’s like death by a thousand cuts at the moment,” said Alex Troncoso, co-founder of the award-winning Bristol-based brewer Lost & Grounded. He reels off a long but by no means exhaustive list of factors paring back the industry’s meteoric growth. Amid the inflation crisis, the cost of energy, ingredients and wages has soared. Debt repayments, including on government Covid loans, have become more punishing, as the Bank of England raises rates to keep a lid on prices.
These two statements just do not stack up. And my feeling is that, while a handful of craft brewers may be trading strongly, the second is much more generally true than the first. If the market really was buoyant, there would be scope to rebuild margins through increasing prices. Craft beer is not a homogenous commodity and there should be scope to charge more for well-regarded products. But intense and cut-throat competition in a market that is at best flat is more the reality they have to face.

A distinction also needs to be drawn between brewers mainly supplying cask ale to the one-trade, and those who concentrate more on craft keg and the off-trade. I’d guess the second category are struggling less, and there certainly still seem to be plenty of takers for garish cans priced at £3+.

Brewing differs from most other businesses, at least at the lower end, because most participants enter it to some degree as a labour of love rather than as a purely commercial proposition. The boom in brewery numbers during the 2010s was driven by a combination of low interests and the rise in interest in craft meaning that more wanted to seize the opportunity to give it a go. It wasn’t the case that consumers were saying there was a severe lack of choice when there were only 750 breweries. And, while competition is broadly a desirable thing, there is a law of diminishing returns as to what benefit to consumers an ever-increasing number of producers actually provides.

But the shock of lockdown combined with the increase in interest rates triggered by the rise in government spending to fund it brought these favourable conditions to a grinding halt. While one has to have sympathy for individual brewers left with no alternative but to cease trading, there is still considerable oversupply in the market, and there is likely to be a lot further to fall until some kind of equilibrium is restored.

It also has to be accepted that there are no broad sunlit uplands awaiting just over the horizon. The current conditions of higher interest rates (although still only normal by historic standards) and suppressed demand are likely to persist for some time. This is the “new normal” we were told we had to adjust to. There is also the likelihood that an incoming Labour government, faced with pressure to fund various areas of spending, will return to annual inflationary increases in beer duty, which has been fairly flat for the past eight years.

There are some parallels with the situation at Stonegate, Britain’s biggest pub company, which is currently struggling to refinance its enormous debts. While trading in many cases is reasonably healthy, the company is being overwhelmed by the huge burden of debt it took on to acquire Enterprise Inns just before Covid struck. This situation can be traced back as far as the 1989 Beer Orders, which resulted in the “Big Six” brewers selling off their tied estates, much of which were freehold, to debt-financed pubcos. Debt has been a millstone around the neck of the pub industry ever since, and company failures are in most cases caused far more by excessive debt than by poor trading.

I suspect at the end of the day a way will be found to kick Stonegate’s debt can further down the road. However, even if it were to become insolvent, many of its properties are sound businesses and would find willing buyers, so would not be permanently lost as pubs. But such an event would cast a shadow over the whole industry.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Falling short of success

At CAMRA’s annual National Conference being held in Dundee later this month, the following motion has been put forward by Swale branch:
This Conference agrees that oversized lined glasses should be mandatory for pubs and clubs to be entered into the Good Beer Guide. It therefore instructs the National Executive to ensure that licensees are aware of this change and shall be given until the 2026 edition to comply.
My immediate reaction is “Good luck with that!” A better way of reducing the number of entries to double figures is hard to imagine, although obviously it would make life a lot easier for the intrepid people trying to tick off every pub in the guide. It also greatly overestimates CAMRA’s influence on the licensed trade.

I wrote about this back in 2014, and nothing has changed since then. It’s something that just isn’t seen as a significant issue any more. If it was, pubs might seek to gain a competitive advantage by using lined glasses, but in practice vanishingly few do. If there was already a critical mass of pubs using them, then such a motion might stand some chance of success, but there isn’t. A full measures law was included in the Labour manifesto in 2001, and indeed Wetherspoon’s jumped the gun on it, but in the end it never happened, and its time has now surely passed. I ran a quick poll on Twitter that shows it isn’t at all commonplace.

It also seems to be the case that British drinkers have an attachment to the concept of a brimming pint glass. Back in the days when oversize glasses were commonplace, a lot of drinkers didn't actually like them because of the air space left at the top of the glass, and described them as “glass buckets”. Somehow it just doesn’t look right.

You also have to be very careful what you wish for. Serving a pint to the line, and excluding the head above the line, is by definition giving a certain amount of over-measure due to the amount of liquid contained in the head. Plus it is difficult to achieve with any degree of accuracy in a busy pub. So, if such a law was brought in, it is inevitable that the major pub operators would lobby to be allowed to use metered dispense, to ensure they don’t give over-measure.

Now I used to like metered dispense when it was commonplace, because it ensured you got a full pint and prevented your beer being spoilt by barstaff with an incompetent pulling technique. But I imagine losing out on thirds and tasters would not go down too well, and nor would the loss of the “theatre of the serve” associated both with dispensing Draught Guinness and pulling cask pints.

And it’s impossible to discuss this subject without recalling that, in the 1980s and 90s, there was a large-scale replacement of oversize glasses with brim measures that CAMRA didn’t raise a peep about, because it also happened to involve the replacement of metered dispense with handpumps.

There is another motion on the order paper from Edinburgh and South-East Scotland Branch instructing CAMRA to abandon any campaigning for full pints on the grounds that it has been “by any metric, a failure”. I can’t see that one being passed either, but maybe it is time for CAMRA to recognise that it is pissing in the wind on this issue and put it on the back burner.

CAMRA beer festivals are often now the only places drinkers ever encounter lined glasses, and the lack of demand can make festival glasses difficult to source. It’s a gesture that comes across as “everyone’s out of step but our Johnny”, and perhaps that instruction should be quietly dropped too.

Monday 1 April 2024

Be careful out there!

Last week, we were treated to the advice from NHS doctor Andrew Kelso that over the holiday period we really shouldn’t eat an Easter egg all at once, which was greeted with predictable and justified ridicule. Yes, maybe it isn’t really a good idea, but does this really need saying?

This was then followed by a gratuitous warning from the Foreign Office to England fans travelling to Germany for Euro 2024 to be careful with German beer as it is often considerably stronger than that in the home country.

Fifty years ago, when most British beer was below 4% ABV, and many fewer people travelled abroad, this might have made sense. But, in the intervening period, British drinkers have gained much more exposure to beers of the typical German strength, with the likes of San Miguel, Heineken and Peroni, all at 5%, being big sellers. In recent years, there has been a little retrenchment but, even so, Stella and Madri still come in at 4.6%, which is in the same ballpark as the leading German beers, which tend to be in the 4.8-5.0% range.

Plus British people have gained much more opportunity to sample stronger Continental beers both on Mediterranean holidays and overseas football trips. So the strength of German beer should not really come as a surprise to anyone. The whole thing comes across as another unnecessary and patronising attempt to lecture people about the evils of drink.

England's first game in the tournament is aganst Serbia on Sunday June 16 in the Veltins-Arena at Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr. And Veltins Pilsener is a very good 4.8% ABV German beer. They used to sell it on draught in Robinson’s pubs.

Friday 29 March 2024

Killing cask to save it?

The continued debate around the subject of Fresh Ale has thrown up a rather muddled article from Annabel Smith entitled Could ‘Fresh Ale’ be cask’s saviour?. I would have expected more clarity of thought from someone who is an accredited beer sommelier. The basic proposition is fallacious, as Fresh Ale by definition is not cask ale, and so there is no way it could save it.

The question might be better posed as “Could Fresh Ale be traditional ale’s saviour?”, but loyalty to cask is likely to prove a major stumbling block. Fifty years ago, drinkers tended to give their allegiance to a particular brand of beer, and whether it was real or keg was a secondary consideration. But, over the years, they have increasingly come to identify with cask as a category. If cask Landlord wasn’t available, they would switch to cask London Pride in preference to keg Landlord, even if that existed. Most of the biggest-selling brands of cask ale are either unavailable in keg form, or only found in tiny volumes, so it isn’t a case of having the choice anyway. The only keg premium bitter I can think of is Sam Smith’s India Ale, and that isn’t in most of their pubs.

That, of course, is why the makers of Fresh Ale want to dispense it through handpumps, as drinkers, even if they appreciate that it isn’t actually genuine cask, will subconsciously view it as something “cask-like”, which they would not do if the identical beer was dispensed through a keg-style tap.

In recent years, there has been a growth in “craft keg”, and many beer enthusiasts who once would have pretty rigidly stuck to cask are prepared to dabble in the category. However, it generally confines itself to niche styles and very strong beers, and rarely treads on the toes of traditional ale. You don’t see many craft keg Best Bitters. I’d also guess that there isn’t much overlap between the craft keg-curious and volume consumers of Doom Bar and Abbot. Keg IPAs such as Punk IPA and Neck Oil have gained fairly wide distribution, but again they tend to be regarded as a category in themselves rather than a subset of “ale.”

Ms Smith repeats the oft-heard cliché that keeping cask ale is difficult, and describes it as “a bloody nightmare”. But that is a gross exaggeration. Yes, it does take some more work than keg beers, but there’s no rocket science about it , just the conscientious application of straightforward procedures. If there’s a demand for it, looking after cask is part and parcel of the business of running a pub.

She also makes a strange assertion that cask is often a mandatory “must-stock” that is enforced on the operator and ends up being a “millstone” round a business’s neck. If pub owners are genuinely forcing pubs to stock cask when there’s no demand for it, that sounds like a poor business practice. If you are a pub manager, then it’s part of your job to sell what the pubco tells you to sell, so there’s no room for complaint, although a good owner will take account of what sells and what doesn’t.

If you’re a tenant or lessee, then you have much more discretion. Maybe it is part of the agreement that you are expected to stock certain brands, but again the owner should recognise that some beers aren’t suited to the pub. And if you work for an independent family brewer, stocking cask comes with the territory. I wonder if she can provide any concrete examples of unwilling licensees who feel they have been forced to stock cask.

The argument about low volumes is also often exaggerated. More and more brewers are now supplying cask ale in 4½ gallon pins, with Greene King just having invested in a large batch of them. Selling twelve pints a day of a given beer really isn’t all that much. But there will be pubs where the nature of the trade is such that there just isn’t much demand for cask, and in cases like that it will surely be better to drop it entirely rather than having a single pump of stale Doom Bar. If the volumes are that low, then any loss will be minimal.

There are plenty of pubs that manage perfectly well without stocking cask, but they tend to be either working-class locals or trendy high street bars. Others, though, even if they don’t actually shift much of it, see it as a key part of their overall offer. A high-end rural dining pub would look rather strange if it didn’t offer any cask. Plus, once you drop cask, you lose any exposure from CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide and WhatPub online pub guide. CAMRA’s influence on pub choice may not be all that great, but a little bad word of mouth can go a long way, and a few complaints about the lack of cask on a site like TripAdvisor will get a lot of views from potential customers. And if you swapped cask for Fresh Ale on a fake handpump, that would not be overlooked.

There is a case to be made for “better keg”, and I’ve argued in the past that CAMRA tends to be too dogmatic in dividing the beer world into black and white, with no shades of grey. All keg beers are not the same, and I would expect Fresh Ale to be a big improvement on the likes of John Smith’s Extra Smooth. I’ll certainly give it a try if I ever come across it. There are examples of pubs with limited or erratic trade where it would be a better alternative to either stale cask or classic keg.

But, for the reasons I set out earlier, the strong consumer loyalty to cask as a category means that Fresh Ale will struggle to gain acceptance, and using fake handpumps to sell it is blatantly misleading and will get it off to a bad start. And, if it does gain popularity, the risk is that it will be extended beyond marginal cases to pubs where the licensee just can’t be bothered with cask, or to extend the range on offer even though the overall turnover is entirely adequate for a smaller number of cask beers.

Sunday 10 March 2024

Not so fresh

Last year, Otter Brewery launched a concept called Fresh Ale, which was described as “beers that are said to straddle the lager, cask ale and craft beer categories”. The stated intention was to produce beers suitable for outlets without sufficient turnover for cask, but there was inevitably going to be some risk of scope creep. Otter claim to have enjoyed some success with this, although as I live well outside their trading area I haven’t personally seen any evidence of it.

However, Carlsberg-Marston’s Brewing Company (CMBC) have now announced a launch of Fresh Ale on a much larger scale covering their Wainwright Gold, Wainwright Amber and Hobgoblin brands. Vice-President of Marketing John Clements was at pains to point out that it isn’t a cask ale, and isn’t being marketed such, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is going to significantly blur the distinction.

Draught beer is often simplistically regarded as being split between “cask” and “keg”, but in fact the distinction is better expressed as “cask” vs “brewery-conditioned” – beers that undergo a secondary fermentation after leaving the brewery, versus those that are stabilised before being despatched.

In the 1970s, there were many different ways of serving it as well as real ale, such as bright beer, tank beer and top-pressure beer as well as the archetypal keg, all of which had their own characteristics. This is much less so now, but all non-cask beers certainly aren’t uniform, and many keykeg craft beers are unpasteurised and have a much softer level of carbonation than classic kegs. Fresh Ale undoubtedly falls into the brewery-conditioned category, as Clements admits.

We looked at how we could take the issue of shelf life away and how we could do the secondary fermentation in the brewery so it becomes brewery-conditioned ale. A pub can get this beer after we have filtered the yeast out yet it remains unpasteurised so consumers get the same kind of experience as cask but, for the retailer, it lasts 14 days rather than three. By no means are we claiming this to be cask beer or that it is to replace cask because we are one of Britain’s biggest cask brewers.
There’s nothing wrong that as such, and brewery-conditioned beers of various kinds happily coexist alongside cask in pretty much every pub that stocks it. But the big problem is that the intention is to dispense it through handpumps.
He added the term “cask” is not being used when it comes to the marketing of Fresh Ale, but did say the idea is to create the same look and mouthfeel. Meanwhile, along with a longer shelf life than cask ale, it also preserves the hand-pull ritual that delivers a theatre of serve so a bartender would draw a pint on a hand-pull.
The handpump has become a very clear and unmistakable indicator of real ale. If you see a handpump, that what you’d expect to get. Back in the 70s and 80s, there were a scattering of pubs that dispensed keg beers through handpumps in an attempt to mislead customers that they were real ale. CAMRA always strongly deprecated this policy and, while not illegal as such, has a long-standing policy that any pub serving non cask-conditioned beers through handpumps would not be eligible for Good Beer Guide entry or receiving any kind of award. The practice seems to have pretty much disappeared now, and I can’t say I’ve seen any examples for many years.

However, as Fresh Ale is, by CMBC’s own admission, brewery-conditioned, exactly the same is going to apply here. They could of course dispense it through a tap as with keg beers, which would eliminate the problem, but that would presumably deter most potential customers from drinking it. That in itself is a recognition that presenting it on a handpump is misleading.

In recent years, the rise of craft keg has made many enthusiasts more willing to consider beers that do not come from a handpump. However, craft keg tends to be reserved for the more experimental end of the market, and it is virtually unknown to see it applied to traditional British styles. The overlap between regular drinkers of craft keg, and regular drinkers of cask Wainwright and Hobgoblin, is probably very small.

The argument that it is only going to be supplied to low-turnover outlets comes across as distinctly disingenuous. Cask ale is now widely supplied in 36-pint pins, and CMBC’s competitors Greene King have recently invested in a large stock of these. Maybe CMBC should consider following suit. But if you can’t shift twelve pints a day of a particular beer, then it seems pretty pointless having it on draught in the first place. And CAMRA now officially turns a blind eye to the use of cask breathers, which have the potential to extent the shelf-life of cask beer. However, this comment reveals the true agenda:

CMBC added this innovation not only reduces waste and enhances profitability but also simplifies storage and upkeep, bypassing the need for specialised cleaning and conditioning. On pricing to pubs, Clements said it is slightly above current cask ales costs but it works out to be very similar after allowance for sediment and usual wastage in casks.
So it makes life easier for licensees even in situations where the turnover would make cask entirely viable. It’s just “more convenient”. It could be the thin end of the wedge for the wholesale removal of cask from pubs.

CMBC have every right to launch such a product, and it may well be considerably more palatable than the like of John Smith’s Extra Smooth. However, it is not a cask beer and they should not be leading drinkers to think it is, or something very like cask, through the style of presentation. If they chose to use free-flow taps and presented it as “nicer keg”, then it may have merited no more than a shrug of the shoulders. But by serving it on handpump they risk significant kickback. This isn’t just CAMRA being pedantic – the link between handpumps and cask is universally accepted in the industry, and indeed acknowledgment of this is implicit in CMBC’s approach. Everyone who drinks cask beer recognises the connection.

It’s worth pointing out that CMBC is a separate organisation from the Marston’s Pub Company, and is only minority owned by Marston’s. So it doesn’t automatically follow that Marston’s pubs will adopt this, although there must be a strong chance that they will.

Friday 8 March 2024

Better than a poke in the eye

This week’s Budget provided a crumb of comfort to drinkers in that the freeze on alcohol duties was extended from August this year to January 2025. This was given a cautious welcome by industry figures, as stated in the linked report.
Chief executive St Austell Brewery, Kevin Georgel, welcomed the decision to extend the freeze in beer duty but added it “will not see costs cut for our sector”.
In the same report, CAMRA chairman Nik Antona “welcomed the freeze in alcohol duty, as it would help to ‘mitigate an additional hike in costs’ to be passed on to pubs and pub-goers.”

However, this led to a strange wave of denialism in some quarters that alcohol duty had anything to do with the pub trade, such as this example from Ed Bedington, the editor of the Morning Advertiser, which I quickly slapped down.

Obviously, a freeze does not leave anyone better off, but neither does it make anyone worse off, which was a very real possibility if duty rates were increased in line with inflation. Clearly pubs are subject to many other cost pressures, but to dismiss the level of alcohol duties as irrelevant is ridiculous.

This was topped by the bizarre assertion that beer duty was paid by brewers and thus had nothing to do with pubs. In a very narrow sense this is true, but plainly it increases the cost of their product, which is then passed on to pubs and ultimately to drinkers. If the price increases, it may reduce the demand, and pubs may meet resistance if they try to pass on the full impact to their customers. It must be said that some people seem to have a very warped perception of the economics of the pub industry.

Compare this to twelve years ago, when CAMRA mounted a vociferous and ultimately successful campaign to scrap the hated Alcohol Duty Escalator, which raised duties every year by 2% above the rate of inflation - see the image at the top of this post. They even organised a mass lobby of Parliament to protest against it. Clearly then they saw it as a vital issue. And they are currently campaigning to widen the duty differential between draught and packaged beer from 10% to 20%. From the report I linked to above,

In response to the chancellor’s announcement, the Campaign for Real Ale chairman Nik Antona described the Budget as a “missed opportunity” to support the Great British pub by cutting tax on draught beer and cider... He said: “Making duty on draught beer and cider significantly lower would promote drinking in the regulated setting of a community local and help small and independent producers who sell mainly into pubs and taprooms to compete against the global brewing giants and the likes of supermarket alcohol. CAMRA will continue to campaign for the Treasury and all political parties to back our sensible ask of making tax on pints in pubs 20% lower than the general duty rate.”
Perhaps they shouldn’t bother.

Irrespective of any impact on pubs, there is a strong philosophical case in general for cutting alcohol duties. We have some of the highest levels in Europe, and the only places that are anywhere close are Ireland and some of the Scandinavian countries. All the other major European countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy have much lower duty levels. This places an unfair burden on consumers and makes life more difficult for producers of all kinds of alcoholic drinks. Kevin Georgel of St Austell Brewery pointed out on in the linked article that British beer duty was twelve times higher than that in Germany, and called for the government to set out a roadmap to bring current duty down to the European average.

Don’t hold your breath, though. But, in the current climate, even freezing duty is a whole lot better than the alternative.

Saturday 2 March 2024

Branded

In the early 2000s, I visited Brussels several times on business trips. I was struck by how all of the well-known Belgian beers had their own specific design of glass – Duvel, Chimay, Orval and even Kwak which needed a little wooden support to stop the glass falling over. It was a very distinctive and characterful part of the drinking experience.

At the time, this was virtually unknown in this country, but over the succeeding twenty-odd years branded glasses have become increasingly common here. At first it was simply standard designs with a brand logo, such as the well-known John Smith’s Extra Smooth tulip, but it then evolved into each brand having its own characteristic and unique form. The Stella chalice, as shown, was one of the first to become commonplace.

Now, Guinness and pretty much every leading lager brand have their own individual glass design. This obviously helps to promote the brand, and leads to drinkers having a sense of ownership and feeling they are making a statement about what they are drinking. On the other hand, it could be argued that it helps people distinguish what are essentially pretty samey beers.

One obvious problem is that branded glasses are much more likely to be stolen than plain ones, particularly ones of a highly distinctive form such as the Leffe chalices now seen in Wetherspoon’s. However, my understanding is that they tend to be provided either free or at a substantial discount by brewers, so they may not be too concerned about their promotional material ending up in people’s houses.

Personally, I have to say I’m not a fan of stemmed pint glasses, which to me come across as unwieldy. That includes many leading brands such as Stella, San Miguel and Cruzcampo. I also find gold-rimmed glasses a touch “icky”. And getting a beer in the wrong branded glass is surely much worse than getting one in a plain glass.

This tweet illustrates the pitfalls of serving beer in the wrong glassware. Surely in this case, even a plain stemmed glass (which Wetherspoon’s have large stocks of) would have been better than an unmarked conical.

As I mentioned in my post about guest ales, the lack of branded glasses arguably puts cask at something of a disadvantage. Plenty of beers do have their own glasses but, like the Bass one, they tend to be just standard designs with the appropriate logo on it. Some brewers such as Robinson’s have generic branded glasses for their own pubs, and Lees have introduced the distinctive “grip” glass for their cask ales, although personally I’m not a fan. And, by definition, ever-changing guest ales are not going to come with a branded glass. Some pubs do make up for this by having a stock of glasses with their own logo.

I recently ran a Twitter poll on this which produced some remarkably symmetrical results. Half of respondents thought that a branded glass did enhance their experience of drinking at least to some extent, while another half felt it made no difference or was actively offputting. I suspect, given the nature of my followers, the sample was heavily biased towards people who mainly drink cask.

Branded glasses are certainly here to stay, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that to some degree they do give pub drinking more of a sense of occasion. Plus a good-looking pint in its own glass might tempt others to try it. So, even when it is on as a permanent beer, this is something where cask possibly does lose out when it is competing for attention with other beers.

Saturday 24 February 2024

The premium merry-go-round

The hackneyed topic of cask beer premiumisation has recently reared its head again in the shape of comments by Georgina Young of St Austell Brewery. Tandleman rapidly provided a comprehensive and impassioned response. Cask beer, he always reminds us, has to be priced to go. Looking back I recall that back in 2019 I did similar out of something of a sense of exasperation.

The idea that increasing its selling price will improve the quality and perception of cask beer always seems to me to be a case of putting the cart before the horse. Premium positioning has to be earned over a long period of time – it can’t be achieved overnight. It’s certainly possible to achieve premium pricing for individual beer brands and pubs, and many, to a greater or lesser extent, succeed in doing this. But to premiumise an entire sector comprised of many disparate products, producers and outlets is an impossible task.

A key aspect of the market that very much works against the idea of premiumisation is the widespread culture of ever-changing guest beers. To achieve premium status, you need to be able to exercise a strong measure of control over product quality at the point of sale. You must make it possible for people to readily find your product, and to be able to make repeat purchases if they like it. And you will need to develop the perception of your product over a long period of time through a carefully considered and crafted marketing strategy.

But none of this applies to rotating guest beers. Yes, it matters that the individual pub knows how to look after its beer, but if one isn’t to your taste there will be another along in a couple of days, or even later the same evening. There’s no realistic way of having confidence that a particular brand will be available, and no opportunity to make repeat purchases. Sometimes, a guest beer may be one that you recognise and have enjoyed before, but very often they will be completely unfamiliar short-run brews. It is turning cask beer into an interchangeable, disposable, commodity product.

A further issue is branded glasses. The past ten or fifteen years have seen a major change in the on-trade beer market, as pretty much all of the leading brands have acquired their own distinctive design of glass. But obviously this cannot apply to rotating guests, which will just be served in a generic unbranded glass, or at best one with the name of the pub on it. This is also an issue for the perception of cask beer more generally.

I recognise that plenty of beer enthusiasts like this approach to selling beer, and are always on the lookout for something new. A fair number of pubs do well out of it. But it’s something that just doesn’t resonate with the 90% of pub drinkers who don’t drink cask, and indeed also a substantial proportion of those who do. Most people just don’t want to drink beers they’ve never heard of. And it goes completely against all recognised strategies of developing premium status.

By far the most successful example of a premium brand in the current beer market is Guinness, which I wrote about last year. Guinness ticks all the boxes of premiumisation. It is permanently available in a large number of pubs, so you know where you’ll be able to find it, and that you’ll be able to make a repeat purchase. It doesn’t occasionally crop us as a rotating guest stout. It’s distinctively different from anything else on the bar. A great deal of effort is put in to maintaining quality, and poor examples are highlighted, for example, by the ShitLondonGuinness Twitter account. And its brewers have over the years carried out a series of very well-crafted and memorable marketing campaigns to burnish its image, with a level of consistency no other brand can equal.

Going back thirty or forty years, this was matched by Stella Artois, which was carefully positioned as a premium brand using the “Reassuringly Expensive” strapline, which was introduced in 1982. But, more recently, this image has been eroded by cheapening the recipe and progressively reducing the strength, so it is now regarded as just a bog-standard product in what is described as the “premium lager” category, although in reality that just means “stronger than cooking lager”. It’s a classic example of the destruction of brand equity.

I would have said that Peroni had achieved something of the same image, being a beer that sold for a price premium, was not on draught in Spoons and was not sold in slabs of 440ml cans. I can’t say that premium lagers are something that much interests me in pubs, but I do get the impression that some of the shine has worn off more recently. And reducing its strength from 5.1% to 5.0%, while trivial in itself, is a slight chink in its image as something that stands out from other products.

In the cask sector, Timothy Taylor’s have achieved considerable success in positioning Landlord as a premium beer. It is now the second best selling cask beer and seems to consistently achieve a higher price point than other beers. It is noted for literate, gently humorous advertising placed in upmarket publications. However, Taylor’s don’t control quality at the point of sale, and it is frequently disappointing, in particular often being served too green. Unless it’s in a pub where I know I can trust the cask quality, I tend to give it a miss in favour of something else.

Ironically, one beer that has almost accidentally achieved many of the characteristics of a premium brand is Draught Bass. Pubs have to make a point of asking for it, rather than having it foisted on them by brewers, so the quality tends to be better. It has a strong reputation amongst a loyal band of devotees, so to some extent markets itself. And it has possibly the most instantly recognisable design of branded glass of any cask beer, which now seems to have got into most outlets. But it remains something of a secret in the wider beer market, and so doesn’t tend to sell for a premium price. Which, as a drinker, I’m not complaining about.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Drink for Britain!

The Daily Telegraph reports that an increasingly abstemious younger generation are blowing a large hole in the government’s revenue forecasts:
Clean-living youngsters threaten to blow a multibillion-pound hole in public finances as alcohol and tobacco tax income declines, the head of the spending watchdog has warned.

Richard Hughes, head of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), has questioned whether assumptions about future tax income from what are often dubbed “sin taxes” are realistic. He told the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee: “There are some bits of the tax system which are themselves not sustainable. In a few decades’ time we won’t collect any fuel duty because every car will be electric, and they don’t pay any fuel duty. Nowadays, you have to ask whether young people are drinking and smoking enough for us to be collecting alcohol and tobacco duties at the current rate that we are.”

Around one-third of 18 to 24-year-olds do not drink alcohol, according to surveys from YouGov, up from one in five in 2019. Some experts believe Generation Z are less interested in alcohol because they fear the fallout on social media if they embarrass themselves while drunk.

The number of smokers in Britain has also been steadily declining for years and Rishi Sunak has announced plans to ban smoking for the next generation.

Plans to balance the books are built in part on the assumption of higher incomes from sin taxes, particularly from drinking. Alcohol duty is set to bring in £13bn this year, according to the OBR’s forecasts, rising to more than £17bn in 2028-29, an increase of almost one-third in just five years. A failure to collect this level of tax could be significant for a government whose finances are already finely balanced.

It’s all very well making worthy attempts to cut down people’s consumption, but the risk is that you end up shooting yourself in the foot in terms of the public finances. Although somehow I can’t see our po-faced public health lobby being happy to follow the Japanese example and officially encourage young people to drink more to swell the Treasury coffers.

Friday 16 February 2024

Champion in your own backyard

It was reported earlier this week that the highly-regarded Elland Brewery in West Yorkshire was facing liquidation. Obviously sympathy has to go out to those involved, but it’s an unfortunate fact of life that, at a time when there is significant overcapacity in a declining market, not all breweries are going to survive.

There often seems to be little correlation between breweries’ survival prospects and the quality of the beer they produce, and this was certainly true of Elland, whose 1872 Porter is the current holder of CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain award, which was revived in 2023 after three fallow years during the Covid crisis. It was also the runner-up in this week’s Champion Winter Beer competition, which was won by Sarah Hughes’ Snowflake Barley Wine. As these awards operate on blind tastings, this cannot be said to have just been a sympathy vote.

However, this clearly shows that winning CBOB is no guarantee of long-term success. As a 6.5% dark ale, the potential market for 1872 Porter would be inherently limited, and the award would probably have only made a marginal difference to Elland’s prospects. There is a full list of all past winners on Wikipedia, and many of the successful breweries have failed to go on to bigger things. As the page says, “While the award is prestigious, winning has sometimes caused problems for smaller breweries who have been unable to meet the demand for their champion beers caused by the newfound fame and publicity.”

In the early years, many of the winners were established favourites like Taylor’s Landlord and Fuller’s ESB, and winning would only have given a small fillip to their existing reputations. And quite a lot of winners are ones that never seem to have made much of an impact. I remember Coniston Brewery running into problems after Bluebird won in 1998, when they ended up sub-contracting production out to Brakspear to increase their capacity. However, this did not stop their No. 9 Barley Wine winning in 2012.

Some past winners, such as Oakham JHB, Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted and Castle Rock Harvest Pale, are ones that at least for a while were very often seen in the free trade, and I understand that Cwtch winning in 2015 gave a major boost to the fortunes of Tiny Rebel. That was (and is) a highly distinctive beer that people would make a point of looking out for.

Awards of this kind do not exist in a vacuum, and some regard has to be paid to what their purpose is, which in this case presumably is generating column inches about cask beer and promoting the category in general. People will expect the winners to be beers that they stand a decent chance of getting hold of and might actually want to drink. Having said this, it would seem unreasonable to exclude smaller breweries purely on the grounds of limited production capacity.

Four of the past five winners have been dark beers, and it often seems to be the case that dark beers do disproportionately well in beer competitions, perhaps because they tend to have stronger and more clearly-defined flavours that make an immediate impact on the judges. But it’s been widely observed that dark cask beers don’t tend to sell well in the pub trade, and drinkers may react with “Yawn, yet another stout or porter.”

Another consideration is strength. As with dark beers, the market for cask beer over about 5.0% is fairly limited. Indeed one contributor to Twitter suggested putting a strength ceiling on CBOB contenders. The proportion of everyday cask drinkers (i.e. not the habitués of specialist taprooms) who would even consider ordering a 6.5% porter, is relatively small. But if beers are good, however strong they are, is it fair to exclude them?

I’m pretty agnostic on this issue, as I can see the arguments either way, and limiting the field for a competition may undermine its credibility. But it’s undeniable that, over time, the impact of any kind of award will be lessened if it is repeatedly given to products that, whether because of their style, strength or limited availability, aren’t going to be of much interest to the majority of consumers. If say, you were running a fiction prize, and awarded it year after year to experimental avant-garde novels, it would be hardly surprising if most of the reading public switched off.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Give me some relief

Several industry bodies have joined together to campaign for a reduction of VAT applying to hospitality and tourism from 20% to 10% in the forthcoming budget on Wednesday 6 March. This is something that would give a significant boost to a hard-pressed sector. Several other countries have a similar differential, and there is a precedent for it in this country on a temporary basis during the Covid crisis. There is a petition to support it here, which also gives more detail on the rationale behind the proposal. A petition has also recently been added to the government website here.

However, a note of caution is needed. It would lead to a large hole in Treasury receipts and, while it has been widely reported that there is some scope for tax cuts, this may not be seen as the highest priority. While hospitality is a major industry and a large employer, most hospitality spending is to some extent a luxury, and prioritising daily necessities may be seen as more important. So, realistically, the chances of it actually happening must be below 50-50.

A further issue is that it would apply to hot takeaway food as well as on-premises consumption. This was the case with the VAT relief during Covid, and in practical terms it would be impossible to disentangle the two. So it might be portrayed as a tax bonus for McDonald’s and kebab shops.

On the other hand, it would not apply to alcoholic drinks, so there would be little or no benefit to wet-led pubs. Again, this was the case during Covid, and it would be very difficult to rigidly segregate on- and off-sales. In any case, the proponents of the reduction aren’t calling for it to apply to alcohol. And the public health lobby would be up in arms if there was any tax reduction on drink.

The effect of a reduction in VAT from 20% to 10% would be to reduce sale prices by 8.33%, although it is probable that much of it would be used to strengthen margins rather than being given directly to customers. Of course this would provide a boost, but it isn’t really a game-changer either way. So, while a VAT reduction would be welcome, it’s probably wise not to bet the farm on it happening.

In contrast, some of the advocates of a VAT reduction have been pooh-poohing the idea of freezes or reductions in beer duty. “We never see any of it”, they complain. Well, there hasn’t been any reduction in the general rate of beer duty for several years. The differential between draught and packaged rates was achieved by freezing the draught duty while increasing that on packaged beers. So there hasn’t been anything for brewers to give to pubs. (It is true that the lower sub-3.4% duty rate doesn’t seem to have resulted in much reduction of wholesale prices for the products it applies to).

But the UK has one of the highest rates of beer duty in Europe, if not the world, so any freeze or reduction would be welcome, and would benefit all beer drinkers. It’s a lot better than the alternative - if there was to be a substantial increase, then no doubt the same people would be loudly decrying it. And to dismiss the impact of beer duty changes rather undermines CAMRA’s campaign to widen the draught discount from 10% to 20%.

There are other forms of tax relief that might benefit the licensed trade, in particular reducing the rate of employer’s National Insurance contributions, which has been widely touted as a possibility in the budget, and is probably more likely than a VAT cut.

Thursday 8 February 2024

Another turn of the screw

In a move that will surprise no-one, the Guardian reports that the Scottish government are planning to announce a 30% increase in the minimum unit price for alcohol, from 50p to 65p. I have discussed this extensively in the past, so don’t propose to go over old ground again, but I will repeat what I wrote a couple of years ago:

Meanwhile, the Scottish government has released a report on the impact of MUP on homeless and street drinkers. This confirms that, to some extent, all the predictions made before its introduction have proved to be justified – a switch from cider to spirits, increased use of illicit drugs, especially cheap “street benzos”, consumption of “non-beverage alcohol”, an increase in theft and begging to fund drinking, and allocating a greater proportion of a limited budget to alcohol. As the old Russian proverb goes, “Daddy, now that vodka is dearer, will you drink less? No, my son, you will eat less.”

Maybe the policy, does, all things considered, have an overall beneficial effect. But it is certainly an indiscriminate blunt instrument that creates a lot of collateral damage. And, while it isn’t stated explicitly, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that at least part of the motivation behind MUP was to deter and denormalise alcohol consumption amongst normal drinkers of modest means. It is effectively a tax on the less well-off.

The report states that Scotland has experienced a 25% rise in alcohol-related deaths over the past three years, which hardly suggests it’s an effective policy. But is it a case of “ the medicine isn’t working, so we must increase the dose”? The question also has to be asked why a party calling themselves the “Liberal” Democrats are supporting such an illiberal policy.

The 50p rate did increase the price of many bottom-end products, particularly cheap cider, but it only nibbled at the heels of mainstream drinks. However, 65p will increase the price of most off-trade alcohol that people buy. A four-pack of Stella or Madri will be at least £5.26, a bottle of 13% red wine £6.38 and a standard 70cl bottle of whisky £18.20. It will also put a huge amount of money into the coffers of retailers by in effect legitimising a price-fixing ring.

As I said, the fact that the main impact will be felt by normal everyday drinkers is as much a feature of the policy as a bug. It will now not only be “screw the poor”, but screw the middle class as well.

It won’t affect any drinks sold in the on-trade, with the possible exception of guest ales in Wetherspoon’s after the CAMRA discount has been deducted. But it is completely delusional to imagine that this will drive any extra trade to pubs, and indeed it may well hurt them by putting more pressure on household budgets.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Up the organisation

Following Tim Martin receiving a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List, J. D. Wetherspoon have achieved recognition as one of Britain’s Top Employers.
To achieve Top Employer certification, participating organisations are assessed by the Top Employers Institute via an analysis of their people practices. The HR Best Practices survey covers six HR domains consisting of 20 topics across the business and employee lifecycle, including people strategy, work environment, talent acquisition, learning, wellbeing, and diversity & inclusion. The information is then validated and audited independently by the Top Employers Institute to ensure the integrity of the processes and data.

JDW people director Tom Ball said: We are extremely proud to be considered among the best employers in the United Kingdom, particularly as the recognition comes from an independent organisation, which researches numerous companies. The company employs more than 41,000 staff across its pubs in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, as well as at its head office. JDW is committed to offering employees the best opportunities to succeed and grow within the company, including studying for qualifications and apprenticeships. This is evident in the number of staff progressing to more senior positions at JDW.

Some people with an axe to grind like to characterise Wetherspoon’s as a bad employer, but it fact it is clear that they take their responsibilities very seriously. It’s also obvious that, with a few exceptions, their employees give the impression of being enthusiastic and committed to their work.

While many employees just view it as a short-term opportunity to earn money while studying, as the article says there is also the possibility of advancement up the hierarchy if that is something that interests you, something that is not available if working for an independent pub or bar. This is also true of McDonald’s, another company that is often looked down on. Hospitality must have one f the highest ratios of senior staff who started at the bottom of any major industry.

Saturday 3 February 2024

The biggest domino falls

Last December, I produced a summary of changes resulting from the introduction of the new reduced duty rate for beers of 3.4% or below, which came into effect from 1 August 2023. I noted that, although Boddington’s and Tetley’s smooth beers had been reduced, John Smith’s, the market leader, hadn’t been. But it was always going to be only a matter of time, and the brand owners Heineken have unsurprisingly declared that, from the beginning of February, it too will be cut to 3.4%.

Apparently 1.3 million hectolitres (794,000 barrels) of John Smith’s are still brewed each year at Tadcaster, and it is presumably the biggest-selling ale brand in the UK, and thus the entire world. (This is excluding Guinness, which is technically a type of ale). That is a major shift in the beer market. Predictably, Heineken have come up with disingenuous claims that its has been done for health reasons, to reflect drinkers’ preferences for lower-strength beers, but it is obvious to anyone with half a brain that duty savings were the overwhelming consideration.

This news resulted in a predictable outbreak of snobbery along the lines of “who drinks John Smith’s anyway?” But a lot of people do – those 794,000 barrels represent not far off 3% of the entire beer market, far more than any individual cask brand. (Cask Doom Bar sells 88,000 barrels a year, and the bottled version will probably do at least the same.) And you cannot stand there on your little rocky island and ignore the tides of watery beer lapping ever closer to your feet.

In any case, the cask sector isn’t immune either. Greene King IPA, the third biggest-selling cask beer, was quick off the mark to reduce its strength last year. Since I wrote last December, I have learned that two more leading brands of bitter, Tetley’s and Banks’s have followed suit. Several smaller brands have done the same, most recently Taylor’s Golden Best. Ordinary bitter isn’t the dominant force that it once was, and only includes one of the top ten brands, but this is certainly a significant trend.

It must be remembered that many in the industry, plus CAMRA, supported increasing the lower-strength cut-off from 2.8% to 3.4%. CAMRA has always had something of a soft spot for lower-gravity beers, and has for many years run campaigns to promote Mild. Giving a boost to these beers seemed an appealing idea. For example, in this press release from 2021 they said “Cutting tax for lower ABV drinks will incentivise lower strength alcoholic drinks”.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that creating such a steep duty cut-off would lead to the large-scale watering down of beers at higher strengths. On a smaller scale, it’s a repeat of the Beer Orders, where well-meaning support for a legislative change led to severe unintended consequences, in this case the British beer market being swamped with a tide of bland, watery beers. “When we said we want to support lower-strength beers, we didn’t mean there should be a lot more of them!”

It was virtually impossible to brew beers at 2.8% with much body or character, and most brewers didn’t try. But 3.4% is a different matter. A 3.4% beer can be sort of OK, palatable enough, although it’s unlikely to uproot any trees. And there were already plenty of well-regarded milds and light bitters of that strength, although subtlety tended to be a typical characteristic.

Back in the 1950s, most beers were like this. As Anthony Avis wrote in his memoir about Norfolk beers: “All the Norwich brewed beers, before and after the last war, were much the same – thin, flat and lifeless; however, they suited, or appeared to suit, the customers.” It wasn’t a matter of rapid inebriation, more of a gentle lubricant to habitual socialising. Plus at this time the actual strength of beer was never declared. So drinkers may well end up grudgingly putting up with these beers even if they’re not particularly enthusiastic about them.

As far as I can see, Worthington Creamflow remains at 3.6% both on draught and in cans, but surely it is only a matter of time before that is cut too. And I’d expect the brand owners of Fosters and Carling to be at least discussing whether they should also take the plunge. It may even have come up in the Guinness boardroom, although I can’t see that happening. As I said in my earlier blogpost, it will take some time before this change fully works its way through the beer market. It would not surprise me if, by 2026, fully half of all beer sold in Britain is 3.4% or below. You may not like it, but you’ll be left with little choice other than to lump it.

Worthington Creamflow is, of course, a staple of the Wetherspoon’s beer offer, and there remains the conundrum of the ABVs declared on the Wetherspoon’s app. Both Carlsberg and Bud Light have officially stated that their strength has been cut to 3.4%, but they are still declared at 3.8% and 3.5%. And UK supplies of Leffe have now been cut to 6.0%, but the app shows it as 6.6%. Are Wetherspoon’s being remiss in not updating their app, or are they getting special supplies of stronger brews?

Thursday 1 February 2024

Then they came for the vapers…

In its dying days, the present government seems to have developed a distinctly illiberal streak. First there was the utterly appalling creeping smoking ban announced last Autumn, following the example of New Zealand, where the policy has since been scrapped after a change in government. And now they have announced that they are going to ban disposable vapes completely, giving as a reason the protection of children. But it is already illegal to sell them to under-18s, so surely the answer should be to enforce the law more effectively, rather than to deprive adults of a legitimate pleasure.

Chris Snowdon has summed up the case against this very well, and he makes the point that:

There is also the small matter of personal liberty. Banning adults from buying products because minors sometimes buy them illegally has never been a principle of UK law. Many more 11-15 year olds drink alcohol regularly than vape regularly, but no one is talking about banning cider.
Even if the loss of liberty doesn’t concern you too much, there is a more utilitarian argument that it is likely to lead people to return to smoking tobacco. It is generally accepted that vaping is considerably safer than smoking, so this would appear to be a major own goal.

However, as Sam Bowman says on Twitter, the idea that anyone could actually take up vaping because they enjoy it, rather than as a smoking cessation tool, makes the heads of the public health establishment explode. The same applies to drinking, smoking, gambling and eating crisps and chocolates. Adult consumers are viewed as unwitting dupes with no personal agency.

We like to boast in Britain that we are a freedom-loving nation, but in fact in recent years we have increasingly turned into a ban-loving nation, as shown by the widespread enthusiasm for lockdown restrictions. As Chris Snowdon says in his article:
The British public love a ban. Last month a survey found that 29 per cent of us want to close the nightclubs to deal with the remnants of Covid-19 and 20 per cent want to re-introduce lockdown.
This tendency is likely to continue even if there is a change of government later this year, and indeed there’s a distinct possibility it will intensify. So if you are minded to support this particular prohibition, bear in mind that eventually they will come for your own preferred indulgence, and the vapers are unlikely to give you much support when they do.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Sober reflections

Last week’s issue of the Spectator magazine contained a very insightful article by Henry Jeffreys entitled How Britain sobered up, looking at how this country has fallen out of love with drinking alcohol. The whole thing is well worth reading*, but this paragraph is particularly salient:

The real losers in Britain have been pubs. Since 2000, Britain has lost more than 13,000 pubs – a quarter of its total – and the rate of closures is growing. It doesn’t help that we are all increasingly told to drink less: in 2016, recommendations for drinking levels were lowered to 14 units for men and women in Britain. The World Health Organisation even states that there is no safe level for alcohol consumption, despite numerous studies which show that in small quantities alcohol can be beneficial to our health. Not that you are likely to hear about the benefits of drinking from the alcohol industry. Instead, it is fighting a losing battle in enemy territory, up against public health officials and the NHS.
We are subjected to an ever-growing amount of anti-alcohol messaging, not just specifically health-related, but also lifestyle pieces preaching the benefits of an alcohol-free lifestyle and celebrity interviews dissecting their alcohol problems and proudly proclaiming their newly sober status. The pleasures of moderate drinking and the companionship of pubs rarely get a look-in. Inevitably, this is going to influence people’s decision-making, especially amoungst younger people who are just beginning to form their social habits.

Many people who comment on pubs and beer direct much of their ire at rapacious brewers and pub companies, while the anti-drink lobby gets off relatively lightly. Yet this must be one of the key reasons for the decline of the pub trade in recent years. You have to wonder why CAMRA allowed its Drinkers’ Voice initiative, specificially set up to combat anti-drink messaging, to wither on the vine.

The author concludes:

If we’re not careful, we might soon discover that alcohol has become an unaffordable luxury, or something bought from the supermarket, with the only place to drink it being in the home. It’s a sobering thought. The cheap pint of beer in a local pub or the £10 bottle of wine imported by that funny little chap from France can’t exist without a lively drinking culture to support them… The risk is that we throw away our infrastructure of sociable, controlled intoxication in pubs, bars and restaurants. The sort of places where we can meet others and random encounters can happen, where young people can dance, flirt and laugh. In other words, civilisation.
* The article is paywalled, but a free registration will allow you to read a couple of articles a month. If you’re really interested, I can send you the full text.

Monday 22 January 2024

Union busting

The Morning Advertiser reports that Carlsberg-Marston’s have decided to discontinue the use of traditional “Union sets” for brewing Marston’s Pedigree. This is a distinctive fermentation system, described here, which uses large wooden casks to recirculate the beer. This was met with predictable outrage about the destruction of Britain’s brewing heritage.

However, it must be remembered that Carlsberg-Marston’s are a commercial company, not the custodians of a brewing museum. Using Union sets is considerably more expensive than conventional fermenters, and they must have decided that any additional cachet conferred by this system no longer counts for much in the beer market. Yes, it is sad, but no more sad than the closure of innumerable breweries over the years. Change inevitably involves a sense of loss.

In the early days of CAMRA, Pedigree was revered as one of the top beers in the country. I remember when I was at University in Birmingham in the late 70s going on a trip into the Worcestershire countryside and being told, on entering a Marston’s pub, “Pedigree’s the one to go for here.” I have a copy of Michael Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book from as late as 1995 in which he gives it four stars as a world classic, and praises its “clean, dry, gently fruity, nutty character”, although I think by then it was already trading on past glories.

But, over the years, for whatever reason, it lost its allure. Possibly expanding its distribution and exposing it to more poor cellarmanship was a factor. In the 1980s it was made available in many Whtibread pubs, where it was often found in poor condition. The bitter takeover battle with Wolverhampton & Dudley in the early 2000s can’t have helped either. This ended up with Wolves triumphant, but not too long after assuming the more widely recognised identity of their target.

Quite a few people on Twitter have made comments along the lines of “I haven’t had a good pint in twenty years”, or “it’s just dishwater now”. Sadly, it seems to be widely dismissed as being just another boring brown beer to file alongside Doom Bar and Greene King IPA. It seems to be one of those beers, like Landlord, that needs a decent amount of conditioning time in the cellar and, if it’s served too green, just ends up being muddy and bland.

To be honest, it’s always been one of my favourite beers, and one that I tend to go for if I see it, which isn’t that often now. I don’t record every single beer I drink, but looking back through my notes, it seems that the last time I had it was in October last year in the Crown in Market Drayton, where I described it as “surprisingly good” and gave it an NBSS score of 3.5. I remember a particularly good pint in the Bank House in Uttoxeter in June 2019, where it was the best beer of the day. But I have to say that in recent years Draught Bass, also now brewed by Marston’s, although not in the Union sets, has been a consistently better beer. The results of this Twitter poll suggests that most drinkers have now largely forgotten about it.

Mention of Bass recalls the fact that they closed their much larger union sets back in 1981, to the accompaniment of a considerable amount of criticism, although back in those days the beer and pub industry in general was in much ruder health, and Bass were derided as one of the “Big Six”. It was widely felt that Draught Bass was never the same again.

But it is significant that no other brewery has sought to create union sets, suggesting they aren’t really an essential element of brewing a high-quality beer. There are plenty of beers in the UK that are currently rated more highly than Pedigree, none of which are brewed using unions. Indeed most Pedigree itself is not brewed in unions, with a proportion of union-brewed beer being blended in at the end of the process. So the system was, to be honest, something of an anachronism, described in the article I linked to above as “an anomaly”.

Beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones has stated on Twitter that “I’m amazed it lasted this long given the rapacious nature of global brewing.” Whether the unions would have lasted longer if Marston’s had still been in sole charge is debatable, but once the merger with Carlsberg took place it was probably inevitable sooner or later. This was in effect a shotgun wedding forced on Marston’s by their heavily indebted state, which was dangerously exposed by the impact of lockdowns. This in turn was largely the result of the mutually destructive takeover battle with Wolverhampton & Dudley back in the 2000s.

It was clear from the beginning that Carlsberg held the upper hand, and they have proceeded with a process of rationalisation, involving selling off the Bedford brewery and closing Jennings, Ringwood and Wychwood. Indeed there must be a question mark over how long they will retain two large ale breweries fairly close together in the Midlands at Burton and Wolverhampton.

Obviously the two cases are very different, but there are certain parallels with the reaction to the destruction of the Crooked House pub, where many people suddenly discovered reserves of anger about the end of something that they hadn’t particularly cared about while it was in existence.

Saturday 20 January 2024

Fancy a thimbleful?

In a result that will surprise no-one, health campaigners have found that eliminating the largest size of wine glass reduces the amount people drink.
Removing the largest glass of wine from sale cuts the total amount people drink by 7.6%, a four-week trial in 21 pubs, bars and restaurants suggests. With the largest measure, 250ml - equal to a third of a bottle - off the menu, more 125ml and 175ml glasses of wine were sold.

Customers bought the same amount of wine by the bottle, but overall, less volume of wine was sold daily. Sales of beer and cider stayed the same as did the venues' overall takings. "Value for money" was likely to have been a factor in the drop in the amount of wine sold, the University of Cambridge researchers say. However, they believe the policy should now be "considered" for trial by licensing authorities.

Most people who drink wine by the glass in bars and restaurants probably only have one, so it’s almost inevitable that reducing the maximum size available will result in lower consumption. But surely they should be treated as responsible adults who are capable of making their own decisions, and given the choice of a larger measure, rather than being subjected to these nannying “nudge” restrictions.

In the coming years we are likely to see a growing number of attempts to micromanage people’s behaviour in this kind of way “for their own good”. I fear the trend will only intensify if we see the election of a Labour government later this year.

This news prompted the publication in the Telegraph of an opinion piece by Ross Clark entitled An alcohol ban is beginning to look inevitable. Maybe this seems alarmist, but that is certainly the general direction of policy, and who would have imagined twenty years ago that in 2024 the government would be legislating for a gradual complete prohibition of smoking?

No doubt attention will turn next from wine to the size of beer glasses in pubs. From time to time, we see articles called something like “The Tyranny of the Pint”, arguing that this standard measure encourages over-consumption, and also tends to be associated with a toxic masculine drinking culture. Of course there is a strong attachment to the concept of a pint, in a way that there isn’t to a 250ml wine glass, and indeed the term has entered into the vernacular as a synonym for beer. But will we see in the future attempts to make pubs and bars adopt two-thirds as the standard beer measure? After all, most of the world already tends to consume draught beer in measures of 330ml or equivalent.

Saturday 6 January 2024

All the alcohol turns to sugar

The annual Dry January campaign inevitably turns the spotlight on non-alcoholic beers, which in recent years have been the subject of a growing amount of publicity and hype. Obviously in terms of the specific objective of reducing alcohol consumption they have an undeniable advantage. Many people, though, have come to see them as being a healthy option in a wider sense. But does this belief really have any substance? A recent study has found that many of them in fact contain considerably more sugar than their normal-strength equivalents.
…while a regular can of beer such as BrewDog IPA contains negligible amounts of sugar, alcohol-free versions from the same brewery can have 6g per 330ml can or bottle – the equivalent of a teaspoon and a half of sugar.

Old Speckled Hen Low Alcohol, meanwhile, contains 2g of sugar per 100ml, compared with just 0.2g in its regular equivalent.

Faye Thompson, a nutritional therapist, said: 'Reducing alcohol is great, but the pay-off in switching to non-alcoholic beer is the higher sugar content. 'Sugar is the real culprit, not fat, when it comes to weight gain.'

It’s fairly obvious that if you reduce one element in a drink, something else has to take its place, and bulking it out with sugar is one of the easiest options. Holsten Diät Pils used to be advertised with the slogan “All the sugar turns to alcohol” (something that would not be permitted now), but for alcohol-free beers the opposite is often the case. Likewise, yogurts advertised as “low fat” often only achieve this through a high sugar content.

If you take the view that any alcohol consumption is a health risk, then switching to alcohol-free beer is a good idea. But even the official guidelines accept that there is a “safe” level of consumption, and I would bet that most people who sometimes drink AFBs are fairly light drinkers in the first place. Choosing an AFB over a normal-strength one is effectively like switching to a full-sugar fizzy drink.

Clearly there may be a benefit in situations such as driving where reducing one’s alcohol intake is desirable. But it’s unlikely to bring much, if any, health benefit. There is also the consideration that diabetics may find it better to drink a well-attenuated alcoholic beer than a sugary alcohol-free one. If you are going to drink AFBs, it might be a good idea to look carefully at the sugar content shown on the label.

As an aside, this reminds me of a book I read back in the 1980s entitled The Food Scandal by Caroline Walker and Geoffrey Cannon, which I probably still have somewhere. At the time I found it quite eye-opening in some respects, although with hindsight it did foreshadow much of the patronising, prescriptive approach to diet and health that has come to dominate official policy. But one thing that struck me even then was that the authors didn’t seem to be in favour of any kind of drinks beyond water. Alcohol – hardly needs saying. Fizzy drinks – full of sugar. Low-cal fizzy drinks – artificial sweeteners. Milk – saturated fat. Fruit juice – yet more sugar. Tea and coffee – full of caffeine. And that attitude only seems to have intensified in the present day.