Friday 31 May 2024

Vive la différence

A report by consultancy Dea Latis has revealed that the proportion of women in the UK drinking beer is well below that of men, and indeed has fallen over the past six years.
According to The Gender Pint Gap: Revisited, while 50% of UK men drink beer on a weekly basis, just 14% of women do so now, which is a three percentage points fall from research carried out by Dea Latis in 2018.
However, the question has to be asked whether this is something that really matters. Rather than being the result of discrimination, could it simply stem from differing tastes and preferences? It’s now generally accepted that women are entitled to equal treatment and esteem in society as compared with men, but that does not mean that one should simply be a mirror image of the other.

In my professional capacity, I used to audit the annual accounts of a local flower arranging society. As far as I could see, 100% of the active members were women. Likewise, the audience at a Girls Aloud concert would be predominantly female. On the other hand, the people interested in trainspotting and World of Warcraft are overwhelmingly male.

A society in which it was viewed as a desirable objective that every single activity should see equal participation from men and women would be a very uncomfortable and stifling one. Especially when it comes to leisure activities, differences in involvement simply reflect different proclivities, not any lack of opportunity.

And, as the report acknowledges, two of the reasons women are deterred from drinking beer are that it is perceived as fattening, and that it makes you pee. Maybe they are right on that, but they are factors that men do not see as being so important.

The report also found that beer advertising was a key factor deterring women from drinking it. However, as any advertising professional will tell you, the main role of advertising, especially of regularly-bought products, is to validate the decisions of existing purchasers, not to win conquest sales. Decisions on what to drink mainly come from social cues and peer group influences. The targeting of beer marketing at women also has a rather dismal track record of being cringe-inducingly patronising.

The beer sector supposedly “fails to communicate its huge range of aromas, colours and flavours in consumer friendly language”, thus making lager the default option. But, when pale lager accounts for around three-quarters of the market, that is simply a fact of life, as it is in every other major beer-drinking country.

And much of that huge range exists only in obscure niche products. The selection on the bar of the typical pub consists of various forms of lager, bitter, stout and probably now IPA, and you have to make your choice from one of those. Using terms such “grapefruit, caramel, mango, nutty, marmalade and chocolate” is more likely to come across as pretentious and offputting than informative.

A comparison is drawn with the wine market, which is said to have “navigated this education piece really successfully”. But the pretentiousness and obscurantism in wine is off the scale compared with beer, and most people who regularly buy it still find it baffling to some degree. They tend to stick with categories they are familiar with, and only venture slightly off the beaten track on to similar products. Choice is determined by trial and error, other people’s recommendations, or what is being promoted at the end of the supermarket aisle. There is also, compared with beer, far less brand identity and loyalty in wine, making it a very different market.

It’s worth noting that this report was produced by the same Annabel Smith who asserted that “Fresh Ale”, a form of keg beer, could be the saviour of cask. So maybe we need to treat her conclusions with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Friday 24 May 2024

Here we go again

So Rishi Sunak has unexpectedly called a General Election for July 4th. As with previous elections, I have created a poll on people’s voting intentions. I’ve put it in the sidebar, but for those reading this on a phone, which is probably the majority now, I’ve repeated it below.

POLL: How will you vote in the General Election on July 4th? free polls

There is a direct link to the poll here. Feel free to comment on the election, although please try to retain a modicum of politeness!

The results of my poll on the 2019 General Election can be seen here.

And there is a crumb of good news in that the appalling legislation for a generational smoking ban has fallen victim to the wrap-up process of dealing with outstanding bills. Obviously Labour, who have never seen a ban they didn’t like, are highly likely to revive it, but we have to take every win when we can.

Thursday 23 May 2024

The antisocial discount

The Coronation pub in Bristol has announced that it is introducing an unusual scheme under which customers will receive a discount for ordering their drinks from the table using a QR code rather than at the bar.

Customers who insist on ordering at the bar of the Bristol boozer will now pay up to 30p a pint more than those who order via the online menu. It means a pint of Southville Session house lager costs customers £3.50 at the bar – but only £3.20 if they order through the QR code.

A pint of Korev lager is £4.20 at the bar or £4 at the table, while Guinness is £5 at the bar or £4.80 at the table. A pint of Proper Job, the Cornish ale, will be £3.50 when ordered online, instead of £3.80 at the bar.

I would have thought carrying drinks to tables creates more work for the staff than dispensing them at the bar, so it seems counter-intuitive that table service should be cheaper. It’s illegal to impose a surcharge for paying by card rather than cash, so by the same token surely the reverse should be true as well. The report goes on to say:
‘The app gives the pub a nice atmosphere, there's no queuing at the bar, no hassle at the bar, and you don't have to interrupt your drink to go up and order’, Mr Cheshire said. He said engaging with customers could be ‘mentally draining’ over the course of an eight-hour shift, and the digital system made things easier for himself and his staff.
Oh, the poor things! If he thinks interacting with staff in a pub is “mentally draining” it sounds like he’s in the wrong business. The interaction between staff and customers, and between customers at the bar, is a crucial part of the atmosphere of pubs. Much of that is lost if people are just sitting at tables and tappingat a phone to get their drinks brought to them.

Hearteningly, the report states that 90% of the pub’s clientele are continuing to order at the bar, so obviously they’re not impressed with the scheme. If I lived locally I’d certainly think long and hard before going there. It is worth noting, though, that the beer prices do seem pretty good value for anywhere, let alone Bristol.

Monday 20 May 2024

Raising the stakes

For as long as I can remember, the “one-armed bandit” has been an integral part of the pub scene. Starting as mechanical devices with a handle, they steadily morphed into ever more complex electronic machines. In the 1980s I did have a spell of routinely playing them, but for whatever reason lost the habit, possibly because they became increasingly hard to fathom out.

The government have now announced that, for the first time, debit card payments will be permitted for slot machines in addition to cash. This is a recognition of the declining role of cash in society, and brings them into line with other forms of gambling. Use of credit cards, which may result in players borrowing unsustainably to gamble, will still be prohibited.

It’s hard to argue against this in principle, as it simply creates a level playing field, although anti-gambling pressure groups inevitably will. Another reason is that restricting stakes to cash was adversely affecting the business of physical venues, including pubs. However, the change does have other implications for pubs.

The traditional cash slot machine was tied in with the general economy of the pub. Spare change might go in the machine, while winnings could be recirculated across the bar. Allowing card payments turns it into an entirely separate activity that just happens to take place in the pub. Pub staff will also be tasked with the responsibility of monitoring the amount of money being spent, which creates another administrative burden and could potentially lead to confrontations with punters.

It also isn’t made clear how winnings will be paid out if customers do not have some kind of registered account. If vouchers are issued that can be redeemed across the bar, it will inevitably attract the ire of anti-drink campaigners. Some people may not be happy with the fact that all card transactions are traceable, whereas just bunging a few pound coins in a slot machine is anonymous.

Restricting stakes to debit cards means that you can’t gamble with money you don’t have, but it does remove a certain level of inhibition. With cash, you can only use the money you physically have in your pocket, but it’s not hard to imagine someone getting a bit carried away and splurging next week’s grocery and petrol money, especially if they’ve got a few drinks inside them. It’s not something that’s ever really tempted me, but it’s well-established that gambling can be highly addictive.

So, while this may be a recognition of changes in society, it’s not going to come without potential problems.

Thursday 9 May 2024

Flight to the suburbs

Back in 2020, just after the end of the first Covid lockdown, I wrote about how the shift from city-centre offices to home working was likely to lead to a permanent change in the dynamics of the pub trade. And indeed so it has proved. While there has been a significant move back to offices, the level of working from home remains well above what it was before, especially in the public sector. This obviously has had a major impact on the business of city-centre pubs and bars.

In response to this trend, the Daily Telegraph reports that Star Pubs and Bars, the retailing division of Heineken UK, have announced a substantial investment in its suburban estate.

Heineken is to spend £39m on reviving hundreds of “tired” suburban pubs in a bid to attract punters working from home. The brewing giant’s retail arm, Star Pubs & Bars, is planning to improve more than 600 pubs across the UK, as bosses respond to the surge in remote working since Covid. The investment drive will include reopening 62 pubs in 2024, with 94 other sites set for full refurbishments. The remaining pubs will receive varying upgrades.
The report goes on to say:
Heineken said it wanted to “broaden each pub’s use and appeal” in response to an increase in people working from home, giving customers more reason to visit throughout the day.

Lawson Mountstevens, chief executive at Star Pubs & Bars, said: “Fundamentally, the changes in people’s working habits means that in a lot of these suburban locations, you’ve got more people who are around those areas a lot more.

“It’s not rocket science. Those people are looking for pubs of a certain standard.”

It comes as hybrid working forces the hospitality industry to divert their attention away from city centres and focus increasingly on towns and villages.

Heineken said its refurbished pubs, which will each receive an average of £200,000 in investment, will have dividing screens to help separate areas for different types of customers.

Mr Mountstevens said that many pub visits were now taking place earlier in the day, with customers arriving and leaving earlier than they used to. He also dismissed suggestions that younger customers were visiting their local less due to high living costs.

By the end of the year, Heineken is expected to have re-opened 156 pubs since the start of 2023, including in places such as Barnsley, Carlisle and Derbyshire. Its entire UK estate includes 2,400 pubs.

One fairly local pub to me that is reported to be affected is the Hesketh in Cheadle Hulme, pictured above, which has been closed since the autumn of last year, and where plans to convert it to a Pesto Italian restaurant have presumably fallen through.

The switch to visiting the pub earlier in the day as been widely observed, with pubs often busy in the late afternoon and early evening, but trade tailing off much earlier than it once used to. However, I have to say that some of my local suburban pubs still seem deathly quiet during the daytime, so maybe the trend should not be exaggerated.

It’s also good that the desirability of compartmentalising pubs is at last being recognised, after many years of asserting that knocking everything through was more modern and democratic. People want to engage in a variety of activities in pubs, and there are few more dispiriting things than walking in to an echoing one-room barn entirely dominated by TV sport, often with only a small knot of customers half-heartedly watching.

You might have thought that any investment in pubs would be welcome, especially if it involves bringing closed pubs back to life. However, there were the inevitable sour grapes in some of the responses. The Drinks Business site bizarrely asked whether it would help or hinder beer. I would have thought it was obvious that enhancing the appeal of pubs would increase beer sales, but it seems that some people have an axe to grind. You get the impression that some would prefer that pubs didn’t receive any investment at all than that it was done by an international brewer.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Starting them young

A report by the World Health Organisation has claimed that Britain has the worst rate of child alcohol consumption in the world.
Great Britain has the worst rate of child alcohol abuse worldwide, and more than half of children in England, Scotland and Wales have drunk alcohol by the age of 13, according to a report.

The study, one of the largest of its kind by the World Health Organization (WHO), looked at 2021-22 data on 280,000 children aged 11, 13 and 15 from 44 countries and regions who were asked about alcohol, cigarettes and vape usage.

The analysis found that Great Britain had a significant issue with underage alcohol abuse. More than a third of boys (35%) and girls (34%) had drunk alcohol by the age of 11, and by 13, 57% of girls and 50% of boys in England had consumed alcohol – the highest rate included in the analysis.

More than half of girls (55%) and boys (56%) in England from higher-income families said they had drunk alcohol in their lifetime, compared with 50% of girls and 39% of boys from lower-income backgrounds.

However, they are conflating two very different things here. If a child has consumed alcohol in the home on a handful of occasions, it does not necessarily mean that they are drinking in an abusive or problematic manner. There is no law against adults giving alcohol to children over the age of five, and many parents may feel that, once they enter their teens, that allowing them the occasional small drink in a controlled environment is better than imposing a strict prohibition that they may well kick against. If parents are regularly drinking alcohol themselves, it comes across as hypocritical to deny their fifteen-year-olds, who may well be physically bigger than them, a small glass from time to time.

It used to be a commonplace observation that children in countries like France and Italy would be routinely given wine at family meals from an early age to accustom them to the culture. This was once regarded with slightly raised eyebrows in this country, but as cultures have grown together and drinking at home has become normal, the situation here has become much the same.

When I was a young child, the attitude was very much one of “we never have drink in the house except for Christmas”, with the exception of my dad having the occasional bottle of brown ale. But, in the 1970s, there was a cultural shift, and home drinking was seen as more normal and indeed aspirational. I remember been allowed the odd glass of bottled cider from my mid-teens, which was probably perceived as something virtually non-alcoholic at a time when strengths were never declared, and by the age of 16 I was regularly having half-pint cans of lager.

I did a couple of polls on Twitter which generally bore this out, that most people had first sampled alcoholic between the ages of 13 and 15, and most had been introduced to it in the family home.

Of course, there is another side to the picture, in that many under-18s are drinking alcohol in an uncontrolled and potentially hazardous manner, in parks, at parties and at informal gatherings. But merely having been given a glass of beer or wine by your parents does not automatically lead on to this, as bodies like the hard-line prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies, quoted in the article, allege.

We now have the tightest ever controls on underage purchasing of alcohol and, while there may be the odd dodgy backstreet shopkeeper, under-18s find it very difficult to obtain drink on their own account. So they are either getting it from older peers, unrelated adults, a black market, or parents and relatives. Some parents are not particularly bothered about their children drinking a lot once they’re 16 or 17 and see no problem with it.

This will inevitably be used as ammunition for further restrictions on the availability of alcohol and increases in the price for adult drinkers. But it is essentially caused by a decline in social cohesion and a sense of moral values, and tightening the screw even more is unlikely to do much to curb it. No doubt someone will pipe up with the bright idea, thought, that since we are increasing the legal age for buying tobacco products by one year every year, why shouldn’t we do the same with alcohol for the protection of the young?

Much tighter restrictions on underage drinking on licensed premises have perversely had a negative social effect. When I was growing up in the 1970s, it was considered entirely normal for young people to be drinking in pubs from the age of 15 or 16 onwards, and it provided a convenient social outlet for them. This helped to socialise young people into drinking in a restrained and moderate way under the watchful eye of the licensee and older customers. They knew they were only there on sufferance and had to behave themselves.

However, pubs today are required to take a very strict line on checking the age of young drinkers, and aggressive ID’ing often continues well after 18 under the aegis of schemes such as “Challenge 25”. Many evening venues will refuse to admit any under-18s due to concerns about drinks being shared within groups. This is something that has only really happened in the present century. But the result is not that young people abstain from alcohol, but that they drink it in less controlled environments such as park benches or each other’s homes. And this has had a detrimental effect both on the licensed trade and on wider society.