Wednesday 19 June 2024

Crocodile tears for pubs

It’s noticeable how, when an election comes around, politicians suddenly discover an interest in pubs that had been notably lacking in the preceding years. The latest example of this comes from the Labour Party, who have proposed a policy to “give communities a new ‘right to buy’ shuttered pubs.”

It must be said that this is a bit rich coming from the party responsible for the smoking ban and the alcohol duty escalator, and which in the first term of the Blair administration, proposed to cut the drink-drive limit, although that was fortunately kicked into touch. They also consistently demanded longer, harder lockdowns and opposed the full reopening of pubs in July 2021.

However, setting that to one side, what would such a plan involve? Local communities already have the right to put in a bid for pubs that have been declared an Asset of Community Value, and where the owner is proposing to sell them off for alternative use. However, there is no obligation to accept such a bit.

This would seem to beef that up by extending it to pubs that are long-term closed, but where there is no intention to dispose, and potentially to include some degree of compulsory purchase. It has some elements of the idea I postulated in a post about the hard realities of pub closures last year.

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

  2. Would a pub have to have been previously open for a minimum length of time for it to apply? Surely it wouldn’t cover a micropub that had closed after nine months’ trading.

  3. How would the sale price be assessed?

  4. Would groups who expressed an interest be expected to put down a deposit to demonstrate serious intent, to avoid frivolous applications jamming up the system?

  5. How long would groups be given to raise the funds?

  6. Would there be a requirement that the premises should be operated as a pub, rather than for some other community purpose?

  7. Who would profit if it proved unsuccessful as a pub and ended up being redeveloped as housing?
For a pub to be open to a community buyout, there has to be a group of people with both sufficient means to put up the funds and a strong identification with that particular pub. In practice, this will tend to restrict it to affluent villages and suburbs. Very few high street, estate or inner-urban pubs are likely to command such loyalty.

If a pub is long-term closed, it will be because its owner wasn’t able to make a go of it. It may be the case that it will do better under community ownership, either because the cost structure is lower, or because a different trading formula is more successful, but that is by no means a given.

The question of future development rights is crucial. If there is a possibility that a pub may be subject to compulsory purchase at below its open market value, and the owner loses all rights to it, that amounts to expropriation of property. It’s conceivable that, if this scheme gets up and running, pub owners will keep pubs open on a “Parliamentary train” basis, with very limited opening hours and offer, to prevent them being snaffled from under their noses.

In any case, even if this policy becomes reality, I would expect it to have very little impact and only cover a handful of examples. It’s just headline grabbing, and no magic bullet for the pub trade. As I said last year, ultimately, the shadow hanging over pubs is not one of lack of supply, but lack of demand. If you want them to survive and prosper in future, you would be better off spending your time promoting the appeal of both pubs and moderate social drinking, rather than engaging in a constant rearguard action of fighting planning battles.

For what it’s worth, I’m not saying that any other party has better policies for pubs, just looking at the implications of this particular one. And I would suggest the best thing for pubs is to be left alone by government, with no new taxes or regulatory burdens.

Thursday 13 June 2024

False colours

The Daily Telegraph reports that the boss of Spanish brewery Estrella Galicia has accused British brewers of “dishonesty” for selling beers that appear Spanish but are brewed in the UK. His most immediate target is Madrí, a beer with a Spanish-sounding name that is in fact brewed by Molson Coors at Tadcaster, and doesn’t represent any actual brand produced or sold in Spain.
Mr de Artaza said: “There is a lack of transparency because they use a big famous city in Spain, but they don’t produce here. This is confusing for the consumer.”

Since its launch in British pubs in 2020, Madrí has quickly become one of the UK’s best-known beers. Its website claims Madrí lager is made in collaboration with La Sagra, a Spanish brewery also owned by Molson Coors since 2017. However, the beer itself is only brewed at several sites across the UK, including Tadcaster in Yorkshire.

While Madrí claims to be inspired by Spain, and its slogan means “The soul of Madrid” it is essentially a marketing exercise designed to put a Spanish gloss on a British beer. However, I’d guess that most of its drinkers are well aware of this, and don’t imagine for a minute that it is actually imported from Spain or sold there. While it no doubt will enrage those who are sent into apoplexy by the fact that Wainwright is brewed in Wolverhampton, as I reported some years ago, most drinkers of “international” lagers are actually fairly relaxed about their provenance.
Joe likes his lager beer brands for sure, and he has a reasonable idea of where they’re supposed to be from – not always spot on, but close enough. One thing’s for sure though, when you ask Joe if his Kronenbourg is certifiably ‘made in France’, the Gallic shrug that follows tells much of the story. He’s not that bothered. “It’s a global market place, mate. Volkswagens aren’t all made in Germany; these Armani jeans aren’t made in Italy”, says Joe. And he’s right of course.
Given this, the fact that Estrella Galicia is actually imported from Spain isn’t necessarily such a killer argument as its boss might imagine.

Some may argue that Madrí owes most of its success to gaining widespread distribution. However, that argument comes across as distinctly patronising towards lager drinkers. You can’t palm any old slop off on them, and in fact there are plenty of examples of new product introductions that have bombed. Not too long ago, Hop House 13 lager was heavily promoted and appeared in a large number of pubs, but has now been withdrawn from the British market. Unless a product strikes a chord with drinkers, it won’t sell, and there are plenty of other lagers on the bar for them to choose instead.

And beer writer Gary Gillman, coming to it without any preconceptions, thinks it actually isn’t too bad.

There is a wider issue involved here too. Over a period from about 1970 to 1990, the British (and Irish) beer market came into line with every other major market in the world, with pale lager becoming the dominant type of beer. In fact bitter in Great Britain and stout in Ireland were the last hold-outs of non-lager beers dominating their local markets.

There were some British-branded lagers, such as Carling, and Harp, which has now faded from the scene, but the majority were sailing under the colours of existing international brands. In the 1970s CAMRA made a major campaigning point of this, pointing out that these beers were in fact brewed in the UK, and in most cases were considerably weaker than the Continental originals. This hit home to some extent, although even then I’m not sure how many drinkers of Carlsberg and Heineken really believed those beers were brewed in Denmark and the Netherlands. And surely they didn’t when Foster’s and Castlemaine XXXX became big brands fifteen years later.

Nevertheless, the fact that beers were brewed in their country of origin and imported became a significant selling point at the higher end of the market. However, a fly in the ointment then appeared in the concept of “beer miles” where, in view of concerns about climate change, the distance travelled from the brewery to where a beer was drunk became an important factor. This was originated by CAMRA in response to brewery closures and the transfer of production to a distant location, specifically that of Hardys & Hansons in Nottinghamshire, but has acquired a wider currency.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, you should support the brewing of international lagers in the UK rather than transporting them hundreds or even thousands of miles from their place of origin. However, the response is generally harrumphing, shifting uneasily in the chair and pointing out that there are plenty of British craft brewers producing good lagers, actually. This is true, for example Utopian in Devon, but it is really something of an “if your uncle was your auntie” argument. Most lager sold in the UK will continue to be international brands brewed domestically, and the chances of Utopian British Lager supplanting Madrí are non-existent.

The emissions aspect of beer miles is in any case overdone. CO2 emissions from transport, even over long distances, pale into insignificance in comparison with those from the actual brewing process. And, given the greater energy efficiency of large plants, a beer shipped from an industrial brewery in Barcelona is likely to have lower CO2 emissions than one from a railway arch in Barnoldswick. But it isn’t very cost-effective for companies to transport what is in effect mainly water over long distances, so inevitably they will see an economic benefit from production closer to the point of sale. In fact, the only leading lager brands that I can think of that are imported are Peroni and Budweiser Budvar. Everything else, whether Heineken, Moretti or San Miguel, is brewed in the UK.

But, at a niche level, people are still willing to pay a premium for genuine imported beers. Beer isn’t really a functional product and, even if the actual flavour is comparable, it’s impossible to escape the wider associations and connotations when choosing which brand to drink. This is why supermarket own-brands enjoy limited success in comparison with supermarket groceries. I have to admit that my principal indulgence when it comes to beer is buying genuine imported German beers at a considerable price premium to British equivalents. And, even if domestic beers tasted just as good, there would still be a value placed on authenticity.

Friday 7 June 2024

Think of a number

The letter reproduced below appeared in last week’s issue of the Spectator magazine – the original (paywalled) can be seen here.

No doubt the idea of a maximum consumption guideline of 80 units a week will raise a number of eyebrows, but I have seen such a figure bandied about elsewhere as a level, not which will avoid any adverse effects whatsoever, but above which there is likely to be a serious negative health impact if routinely exceeded.

That 40 units a week has been progressively reduced, first to 28, then to 21, then to 21 for men and 14 for women, and eventually to 14 for both sexes. The final reduction was done purely on the basis of equality even though there is plenty of evidence that women’s different physiology and typically smaller size merits a lower guideline.

It can be argued that suggesting that people drink less is never going to be bad advice as such. But simply plucking figures out of the air cannot be a good way to set public policy, and there is a risk that if one piece of advice comes to regarded as excessively over-cautious it will undermine the credibility of all public health guidance.

Plus, on an individual basis, if people are encouraged to be dishonest about their alcohol consumption it may inhibit giving them appropriate medical treatment. A few months ago I was responding to some health questions and gave a somewhat understated figure of alcohol consumption to come within these guidelines, but even then I was told that maybe I should consider cutting down a bit. If you’re going to be at the receiving end of a patronising lecture if you admit to drinking fifteen pints a week, you’re just not going to say it.

There is a parallel with the widely-publicised guidance to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Apparently this was arrived at by public health professionals in California taking the average consumption across the population and doubling it. Again, suggesting that people eat more fruit and veg isn’t bad advice as such, but if you fall short of it you’re hardly going to fall off a cliff-edge of risk. I don’t think I’ve eaten five portions of fruit and veg on a single day of my life (assuming you don’t include cider) but I’m still here.

On a more serious note, US medical chief Dr Daniel Fauci has recently admitted that many Covid restrictions, such as six-foot distancing and masking of children, had been implemented without any scientific backing. While such things may have seemed desirable on a precautionary basis at a time of widespread panic, we ended up closing down large swathes of the world economy and harming many businesses on the strength of what was no more than gut feeling.

Many naturally sceptical people had severe reservations about all this at the time, but were howled down as “Covidiots”, and it took a full two years before society was free of all Covid restrictions. And we are likely to be paying the price in terms of healthcare, education and the economy for many years to come.