Thursday 25 April 2024

Suffer the little children

The subject of children in pubs never fails to spark controversy, and there was an outbreak last week when the image shown above was widely shared on social media. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the strongest objections to this came from what might be called the “Christian Right”, with one commentator on Twitter stating: “Good luck with funding your pensions and finding someone to look after you when you're old and ill. Not sure that Fido is going to be much use then.” However, it should be pointed out that the birth rate was a lot higher in the days when children were not allowed in pubs.

Historically, under-14s were not allowed in the bars of pubs, although they could be admitted to restaurants and to physically separate “family rooms”. This was frequently ignored, but it did generally apply, and gave rise to the familiar memories of children being expected to sit outside in the car with a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps. It was undermined by the rise of dining pubs, which blurred the boundary between bar and restaurant, and in the early 1990s was abolished, leaving the admission of children up to licensees’ discretion. It should be noted that a different system applies in Scotland, where pubs and bars have to get specific permission to admit children in their licensing conditions, which is often refused for wet-led establishments.

Now, children are admitted to pretty much every food-serving pub, although a minority do require that they should actually be eating a meal. However, with wet-led pubs, the picture is more mixed, with some admitting children, but others not. Yet some people seem to raise an objection if they ever come across a pub that does not welcome their offspring. This comment on Twitter sums up the sense of entitlement of a certain category of customer, often to be found in craft bars.

If you take your children for a meal in a pub, they are going there for a specific reason in which they can participate. However, to take them into a wet-led pub while you enjoy a drink is essentially putting yourself first and expecting them to put up with it for a while. Children spend much of their time tagging along with adult activities, but surely it is best to spend leisure time with them doing something in which they can be involved.

The advocates for children in pubs with give examples of caring, involved parents taking their children for a quick drink at the end of a shopping trip or country walk. But that is a rose-tinted view that fails to reflect the spectrum of human nature. All too often, adults are immersed in their own conversation and leave their children to their own devices. Bored, fractious children will inevitably start to behave in a manner that other customers find irritating. This is not their fault; it is that of their parents. Children are also often given electronic tablets to entertain themselves, but I really don’t want to have to sit in a pub listening to Peppa Pig videos or the bleeping of computer games.

The point is sometimes made that adults often engage in far worse behaviour than children in pubs. That is true, but it is generally recognised as being out of order and dealt with, whereas it can be very hard to draw the line with the natural exuberant behaviour of children. If licensees to raise an objection, they are likely to find themselves branded as a monster on Mumsnet. So it is hardly surprising that many, who are running pubs targeted at adult drinkers, take the view that it is much simpler to exclude children entirely rather than having to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

I carried out a Twitter poll on the admission of children to pubs, which received an impressive 619 votes. Nearly 70% of respondents preferred the “mixed economy” solution of some pubs being child-friendly and others adults only, thereby obviously stating that they felt it was entirely legitimate for some pubs to exclude children.

The sign draws a comparison with dogs. Obviously the issues surrounding dogs in pubs are different from those relating to children, although it’s worth pointing out that dogs will often happily sit quietly under tables, which cannot be said of children. I ran a similar poll on the admission of dogs. Again the “mixed economy” solution was the most popular, but it should be noted that 26% of people thought dogs should be admitted to all pubs, compared with only 12% for children. I would say it’s considerably easier to find a dog-free pub than a child-free one, at least in urban areas. In particular, Wetherspoon’s never admit dogs. On the other hand, most rural pubs would struggle if they excluded dogs, as Alex Polizzi pointed out in an episode of The Hotel Inspector. All Sam Smith’s pubs exclude dogs (apart, of course, from assistance dogs) and they only admit children if dining, which means that any wet-led ones are adults-only.

On a related topic, I always wonder why there isn’t the same clamour to admit children to betting shops, a comparable situation of an adults-only activity where they remain strictly excluded by law. And I can’t help thinking there’s another area of human behaviour where a similar “mixed economy” approach might be beneficial to the pub trade ;-)

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.