Friday, 23 January 2015

Nanny in a bunny suit

The Green Party have recently enjoyed a marked rise in the opinion polls, and this week released a policy statement, which is well summarised here. Many might see their economic policies as occupying the middle ground between utopia and insanity, but at the same time would imagine them to be quite fun, in a waccy-baccy, rough cider, dreadlock, dog-on-a-string kind of way.

But, if you read more closely, they outdo the other major parties in their desire for nannying and social control. They say “Higher taxes will be brought in on alcohol and tobacco, and a complete alcohol advertising ban imposed.” They would also seek to encourage a “transition from diets dominated by meat”. It seems that they have a real problem with any commercial organisation profiting from people enjoying themselves.

One commentator has described their ideology as “Communism designed by middle-class women”. Nobody should imagine that voting Green will lead to a kinder, gentler, more tolerant society – indeed the opposite would be far more likely. Less free and less prosperous. Although no doubt many middle-aged beardies with a love of twiggy bitter will do so all the same.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Micro to macro?

Let’s imagine a new wave of pubs started opening in the UK. They were small, plain and unassuming, with no food, children, piped music or pay-TV, where good beer and conversation ruled the roost. Mudgie heaven, you might think, but not really very likely. However, it does seem to be happening in the form of the still small but fast-growing micropub sector. Indeed, it has now been forecast that in five years’ time their number will mushroom from a hundred or so to five thousand. We’re even shortly going to get our own local example in Cheadle Hulme.

Let me be quite clear, I’m entirely in favour of micropubs. Most of them sound like places I would find very congenial to drink in, and they also underline the point that, if existing pubs don’t provide what people want, the opportunities are there in the market to open up new venues that do. But I can’t help thinking that, as I’ve said before here and here, they have been over-hyped and their potential for expansion is exaggerated.

For many years, industry experts have been saying that the days of the old-fashioned, wet-led, adults-only, drink and chat pubs are numbered. Customers are demanding food, music (whether live or piped) and TV football, and want to take their offspring with them, and you increasingly struggle to find pubs that do none of the above. Where they still survive – often in small towns and rural locations – they seem like an anachronism whose very survival is surprising.

As I’ve often said on here, in my view this trend has been overstated, and the obvious success of many Sam Smith’s pubs suggests there remains a market for pubs without these diversions. Plenty serve some food, but many don’t, and I’d suggest the tiny Queen’s Arms (aka Turner’s Vaults) in central Stockport is the closest thing we have to a micropub at present. Maybe the Olde Vic in Edgeley too. But it’s hard to deny that, in general, the embrace of some combination of food and entertainment has dominated for several decades. Is there really a large untapped demand to buck that trend?

I also get the feeling that, from their very intimacy, micropubs may end up being somewhat cliquey, basically a drinking shop for the landlord and his mates. It’s always been an important feature of pubs that customers decide for themselves to what extent they interact with others. If you want to chat, fine, but if you just want to sit reading the paper, or browsing the smartphone, that will be respected. But if it’s just a group of blokes sitting around a single table, will that be possible?

It may seem a piddling point, but you do wonder whether small, plain pubs will also have rudimentary toilet facilities. I don’t know from personal experience how far this is true, but I would feel uncomfortable spending much time in a pub with only a single unisex WC. I’d expect as a bare minimum a gents’ with one urinal and one trap. But that level of provision – plus the ladies’ – might take up as much room as the entire bar.

Some of the early micropubs seemed to suffer from an anti-lager mentality. “A pint of real ale for the gentleman and a glass of generic white wine for the lady”. Many pubgoers are in mixed groups, some of whom will drink real ale while others prefer lager. Deliberately alienating a large section of your potential market doesn’t come across as good business practice. And lager doesn’t have to mean Carling – there are plenty of excellent British-brewed craft lagers out there. Micropubs won’t enjoy rapid growth if they just cater to a limited audience of middle-aged and elderly Real Ale Twats. But there is always the risk of metamorphosing into “trendy bars”, which have also taken over plenty of former shop units. Where do you draw the line?

Will we be seeing village micropubs too? No doubt many villages could sustain a micropub even after a full-service pub trying to attract out-of-area dining trade has failed. That may be a great opportunity.

The licensed trade is becoming increasingly diverse, with more and more different types of venues opening up to appeal to a variety of clientele. It would be wonderful if, in five years’ time, there were five thousand micropubs up and down the country. But I doubt whether Tim Martin will be quaking in his boots.

The picture is of the Bouncing Barrel in Herne Bay, Kent, which gets very good reviews on TripAdvisor.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Cloudy balls

At the turn of the year, many people offer their predictions for the year to come. At the beginning of this year, I did so too, although the results were, to say the least, mixed. Mind you, how many economists predicted the collapse in the oil price?

  • Beer duty will rise by the rate of inflation. The duty escalator will continue to apply to all other drinks categories. Wrong – Osborne slightly cut beer duty, froze cider and spirits duty, and removed the escalator from all other drinks categories. A rare example of entirely positive news – cheers George!

  • Craft keg ales will not make a significant breakthrough into mainstream pubs, but there will be a modest expansion of British-brewed “craft lager”. Again wrong – I’ve seen craft keg ales in pubco pubs in trendy locations such as Didsbury, and indeed New World Pale Ale in mainstream outlets with a Marston’s loan tie. Plus Spoons are now serving Devils Backbone. Still not seen in standard pubco houses, though.

  • Beer sales in the on-trade will decline by about 5%, those in the off-trade by slightly less, but still showing a negative figure. Nope, on-trade sales fell by a mere 0.7%, with the off-trade rising by 3.6% and the overall figure rising by 1.4%. Surely a result of the two-year cut in beer duty.

  • Overall per capita alcohol consumption will continue to fall. Indeed, and bears continued to shit in the woods.

  • There will be more breweries in the UK at the end of the year than at the beginning. And there were. It must peak some time, but not yet, although there seem to be more grumbles from brewers about erosion of margins

  • At least one popular beer brand currently sold at 4.8% ABV will have its strength reduced to 4.5%. “The taste will be unaffected”, its makers will claim. No – there have been numerous strength reductions, but the idea of draught Stella or whatever being cut is still to come. Indeed Tuborg in Spoons was restored to 4.6% from 4.0% following customer complaints.

  • A prominent pub in the Stockport MBC area that nobody had imagined was vulnerable will close its doors for the last time. Not really so – the most prominent was the Adswood Hotel, which had been thought to be under threat for some time. We also lost the Tiviot and Imperial/Petersgate Tavern.

  • Some bizarre concept of which I cannot even dream will become the “next big thing” amongst railway arch brewers and gushing bloggers will claim that “everyone is brewing XXXX”. Saison is so last year. So was it sour beer, or Gose?

  • England will not progress beyond the quarter-finals of the World Cup (if that), thus denying a boost to the brewing industry and pub trade. That wasn’t exactly the most difficult prediction to make.
So perhaps I’d better steer clear of making any predictions for 2015 – although I’d say it’s odds-on that Osborne won’t increase alcohol duties in the pre-election budget.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Worse than the smoking ban?

In the sidebar, I say of the possible reduction of the UK drink-driving limit that “In my, view this is at least as much a threat to pubs as the smoking ban.” And it seems that I’m not the only one. In the weeks following the limit cut in Scotland, many pubs, clubs and bars have seen their trade drop off a cliff.

Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said the law change would lead to a “complete change to drinking habits” and would be “bigger than the smoking ban.

“Rural pubs especially are at risk because people travel to them,” he said. “This definitely will be a difficult situation for many. It’s having a marked effect.

“It stops people having a glass of wine with a meal or a pint with a meal. People are not taking the chance. It’s a game-changer.

“This is a very strict ban by anyone’s standards. We have lost three pubs a week since the smoking ban and this, for many, is worse.”

It seems that bars in golf clubs, which have a much wider social base in Scotland than south of the border, are especially feeling the pinch. These are classic examples of where the primary purpose of people’s car journeys is something else, but they take the opportunity to combine it with a drink in the bar. It’s easy to say “I could have told you that”, but from my perspective it seems that the cut was nodded through with the support of all four major political parties in Scotland and little organised opposition. The point must also be made that, if drivers have cut down, they must have believed they were obeying the previous law. Existing lawbreakers would be undeterred.

I’ve written before how the growing reluctance to drive after consuming any alcohol at all has been a major and largely unrecognised factor in the decline of pubs. However, a lot of it does still take place, even though commentators within a metropolitan bubble are reluctant to acknowledge it, and across the country there must be tens of thousands of pubs that derive a substantial proportion of their trade from law-abiding drinking drivers.

In the government response to the 1998 consultation on cutting the limit across the UK, it was stated that:

Pubs and hotels can be a locally significant source of employment, and those in rural areas are particularly dependent on access by car. It is uncertain nevertheless how many are critically dependent on customers who expect to drink 3-4 units of alcohol and drive home afterwards and would be disinclined to visit the premises at all if they could not legally do this.
However, this seems to exhibit a lack of understanding of how pubs work, and how people use them. A pub may not be “critically dependent” on this source of trade, but even a 10% drop in takings could put many out of business. And, as I’ve argued before, many customers may take the view that if they’re limited to one drink it’s not worth bothering at all.

By all means put forward the case for cutting the limit on road safety grounds – although it is my belief that it is a very flimsy one. But please don’t try to pretend it wouldn’t have a severe effect on the licensed trade.

Some may say “well, countries like France and Germany have had a 50 mg limit for decades, and still seem to have a thriving brewing industry and bar scene.” Of course this is true, and nobody is suggesting that a limit cut would completely kill off the pub trade or anything near it. But if you look at these countries they have a much lower proportion of alcohol consumed in the on-trade than we do, and likewise don’t have anything like the same rural, village and suburban drinking places. Maybe they never did, but I suspect if you looked around rural areas you would find a fair number that have gone to the wall.

And, while these countries have a lower headline limit, it was generally the case in the past (although it may not still be today) that a blood-alcohol level over 50 mg would be treated no more seriously than a speeding conviction in this country, and that mandatory driving bans did not kick in until some way over 80 mg.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

1892-2015

It was sad, but not entirely surprising, news that Robinson’s Brewery are planning to phase out their 1892 cask mild from the end of April next year. Going through various incarnations as Best Mild and Hatters before the current name, this was once their staple beer and must still be the biggest-selling light mild in the country. It featured in a series of classic adverts from the 1930s, often featuring a cheeky-looking mustachioed hiker. Unfortunately the graphic shown below is the only example I can find.

Over the years, while I’ve always been primarily a Bitter man, I’ve drunk a fair bit of it. It’s a pleasant, well-made beer, but to be honest not really one you would go out of your way to sample. But surely that is the point of mild – it is intended to be an undemanding beer that is consumed more for refreshment than intoxication, and deliberately avoids strong and potentially offputting flavours. That may explain why it has not enjoyed any kind of “ironic hipster” revitalisation. The same role in the beer market is now performed by the standard “cooking lagers” – Carling, Carlsberg and Foster’s.

Robinson’s claim that sales of 1892 have slumped by 32% during 2014, so it seems to be a product in steep decline. However, it still enjoys healthy sales in some Robinson’s pubs such as the Armoury in Edgeley, and it has to be said that its demise may have more to do with the fact that the brewery – despite a recent refitting that supposedly made it more “flexible” – has a minimum brew length of 60 barrels, which is rather too much for the current level of sales.

The other local family brewers, Holt’s, Hyde’s and Lees, all still produce cask milds at presumably even smaller volumes, so obviously don’t suffer from the same restrictions. Indeed Sam Smith’s produce both dark and light milds in keg form and appear to shift large quantities of them, helped no doubt by the bargain price. So perhaps if there remains some demand for mild in Robinson’s pubs, they could consider allowing other brewers’ milds to be sold, or even having 1892 contract-brewed by a smaller, more flexible brewery.

They also say that, when 1892 is withdrawn, they will introduce a 3.7% amber bitter as part of their core range, something that has been lacking since the demise of Old Stockport. As I generally like Robinson’s house character, I can see it being something that I will enjoy, but in many people’s eyes it is likely to become a watchword for blandness.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Growing old disgracefully

A recent study by academics from Keele University and University College London has punctured some myths about drinking amongst the middle-aged and elderly. On average, they are drinking a lot less than they did ten years ago and, contrary to popular belief, divorced women tend to cut down after splitting up rather than becoming secret dipsomaniacs.

However, there’s one significant exception. The study found that “the group most at risk of heavy drinking in later life are older single men with high levels of education and above average wealth.” I suppose that means me! Apparently the average personal wealth in the UK – including property assets – is around £147,000 and, given that I own a house that is probably worth more than that, and am a university graduate, I must fall into that category. Maybe they have more opportunity for socialising and the funds to pay for it, or perhaps they are intelligent enough to realise that the official drinking guidelines represent the bottom point on a gentle J-curve rather than a cliff of risk.

There was a rather more in-depth report in Wednesday’s Times (unfortunately hidden behind the Murdoch paywall) which quotes Professor Clare Holdsworth of Keele University as saying “We have an image of who we think problematic drinkers are, people who are lonely or down on their luck. But people who are drinking more are actually enjoying themselves.” Oh dear, that will never do, will it?

It also quotes the egregious Professor Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Heath Alliance, as continuing to insist that efforts to reduce overall alcohol consumption would be more worthwhile than specific targeting of problem groups. But attempting to control the behaviour of the whole population has a somewhat totalitarian ring, and surely if I as a responsible adult make a free choice to accept a little bit more risk as a trade-off with a bit more pleasure, that is absolutely none of his business.

The Mail is notorious for health scaremongering, but plumbs new depths today with a story describing us as a nation awash with booze. How exactly that tallies with average alcohol consumption having fallen by a fifth this century is hard to work out, especially since the biggest fall has been amongst the younger age group who are held most responsible for the much-exaggerated “town centre mayhem”. It could even be that people are encouraged to overindulge on the rare occasions they are “off the leash” by the ever-growing censoriousness about even light alcohol consumption in daily life.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Who? Me?

I was gratified to see that I had been named joint winner of the Blogger of the Year by the Boozy Procrastinator blog, saying “Best Beer Blog or WebsiteBeers Manchester for Beer/Bottle reviews and Pub Curmudgeon for all other drink/pub/liberty based thoughts.” I don’t know the author personally, but it’s a locally-based blog that is well worth following, and as well as the beery stuff sometimes touches on wider lifestyle issues such as this post about the proposed ban on smoking in cars carrying children.

At this time of year, many bloggers put together a list of “Golden Pints” – beers, pubs, books etc that have particularly impressed them during the previous twelve months. As you know, I’m not one for constantly haring after the new and unusual, and the news that a new bar had opened where I could perch on an uncomfortable stool and pay £3 a third for beer that tasted like Ronseal wouldn’t exactly fill me with an urge to visit. However, I thought a list of highlights and lowlights of the year might be interesting, although bear in mind that this doesn’t represent my definitive view on the best of anything.

  • New pubs visited – I paid a first-time visit to two excellent National Inventory pubs, the Crown & Anchor in Llanidloes, Mid-Wales (pictured) and the Cock at Broom in Bedfordshire. Both have marvellous, unspoilt, multi-roomed interiors, and the Cock has the added distinction of being a pub without a bar counter. On balance, the Crown & Anchor slightly shades it as, while the beer, service and atmosphere could not be faulted, at the Cock I was served a bacon sandwich where the bacon was so underdone as to be nearly raw. Sadly the Crown & Anchor has been put up for sale as the long-serving licensee wants to retire – let’s hope that any new owners will maintain its character.

  • Pubs (continued excellence) – the Armoury in Edgeley, Stockport. This is a classic street-corner local (now on a busy roundabout) which hosts the regular working party meetings for the Stockport Beer & Cider Festival. It retains a three-roomed layout including a darts-playing vault and always seems to be busy and bustling. It also in my experience consistently serves some of the best Robinson’s beer to be found in their estate.

  • Pub operator (up and coming)Joule’s of Market Drayton, who have continued to expand their estate and carry out high-quality refurbishments in a wood-and-mirrors style while brewing excellent traditional British beers. I still can’t help thinking it’s all a bit too good to be true, though.

  • Pub operator (established)Sam Smith’s, who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but continue to maintain an estate of proper British boozers where conversation reigns supreme over piped music and TV football and also offer unrivalled value for money. They have also carried out a number of well-judged, low-key refurbishments that have maintained the character and enhanced the appeal of their pubs.

  • Saddest pub loss – the Tiviot in the centre of Stockport, after the retirement of the long-serving licensee. While it had maybe become a little tatty in its later years, it remained a timewarp pub that was like stepping back into the Fifties, with formica tables and a wrought-iron bar mounting, and was much appreciated by the older generation at lunchtimes.

  • Beers (draught) – I’ve drunk a lot of good beers once that didn’t really stick in the mind, but locally I’ve been impressed by Robinson’s two latest seasonals, South Island and the current Indulgence. Hyde’s also deserve credit for their Beer Studio sub-brand, which has steered clear of obvious crowd-pleasers. One or two have seemed like an uneasy juxtaposition of styles, but most have been excellent, and I was particularly struck by two pale, rounded, subtle brews – I think Golden Ochre and Seared Saaz – which were not obvious hop-bombs and all the better for it.

  • Beers (bottled) – it may seem an odd choice, but one I’ve recently been taken by is Greene King’s Old Nutty Hen. I’m a sucker for winter beers with a hint of chestnut, and this delivered in spades at a relatively modest strength of 4.5% which meant you might go back for more.

  • Best pub refurbishment – with the rise in economic confidence, a lot of money has been spent on local pubs in the past year. I was particularly impressed by Robinson’s work at the Hatters Arms in Marple, where they have managed to give the pub a wider and more contemporary appeal while retaining its multi-roomed layout, extensive bench seating and wood-panelled drinking corridor.

  • Worst pub refurbishment – I’ve been critical of Robinson’s scheme at the Farmers Arms in Poynton, but to my mind they take the biscuit with the Baker’s Vaults on Stockport Market Place. The previous layout wasn’t ideal, but it had a kind of faded grandeur about it, while what has replaced it makes very poor use of space, has far too much gimmicky bric-a-brac, and is remarkably devoid of seating full stop, let alone comfortable seating. I’ve also heard reports of piped music being played at ear-splitting volume. You’ll find a far cheaper pint, a welcome absence of music and a far more authentic pub atmosphere in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head immediately opposite. I know opinions vary on this, but to my eye it’s seriously misplaced.

  • Pub cat – not a lot of competition in this category, but my favourite was the friendly coal-black cat (name not known) in the Railway at Mobberley who is happy just to curl up on your lap. An honourable mention must also go to Legolas (aka Legz) of the Charlotte Despard in London, who happily climbs up on the bar despite only having three legs, and won Outstanding Rescue Cat of the Year.

  • Blogging event – it’s been widely remarked that beer blogging has lost ground to Twitter, but one welcome development was the return of Jeffrey Bell aka Stonch, one of the pioneering beer bloggers, who took a break from it shortly after I started. I remember him as very forthright and combative, but he seems to have mellowed somewhat and is one of the dwindling number of bloggers with an appreciation and understanding of pubs.

  • Beer book – well, I’ve not really read any others apart from the Good Beer Guide, but I would thoroughly recommend Boak & Bailey’s Brew Britannia, which takes a step back from the usual in-depth profiles of beers and breweries to look at the wider trends in the British “alternative beer” market over the past forty or so years. It’s very lucid and readable and its best point is how the authors have succeeded in carrying out personal interviews with many of the key figures involved in the story.

  • Best public policy – George Osborne again making a small cut to beer duty, and on top of this freezing duty for cider and spirits and scrapping the duty escalator for all other categories of drinks. It’s excellent news that the government have at long last abandoned the policy of ever more tightening the fiscal screw on drinkers, and it’s important to remember that if the escalator had still been in place a pint in the pub would be 20-30p dearer. It’s definitely made a difference.

  • Worst public policy – cutting the Scottish drink-driving limit from 80mg to 50mg. This will erode sociability and community spirit, damage the pub trade, criminalise previously law-abiding people and possibly set an unwelcome precedent for a similar measure south of the Border. And there’s no guarantee it will save a single life. It’s essentially an anti-drink and anti-pub measure, not a road safety one.

  • Historic attractionEltham Palace in South-East London, a surprising juxtaposition of the Great Hall of the original mediaeval Royal palace with an ultra-modern Art Deco mansion built by the wealthy Courtauld family in the 1930s which, given its location, seems surprisingly under-appreciated. The lady of the house had a pet ringtailed lemur who enjoyed his own living quarters and had a tendency to bite guests.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A little of what you fancy does you good

The "Star Letter" in January's edition of the CAMRA newspaper What's Brewing comes from one Peter Edwardson of Stockport, and reads as follows:

Pete Black (What's Brewing, December) is very wide of the mark when he says "it seems extremely unlikely that there are any dangers of abstaining completely from alcohol".

In fact, there is an overwhelming weight of research evidence indicating that, even excluding those who have had to give up alcohol for specific health reasons, moderate drinkers have a lower mortality rate than total abstainers.

To give just one example, in 2006, the Archives of Internal Medicine, an American Medical Association journal, published an analysis based on 34 well-designed prospective studies and incorporating a million individual subjects, which found that "one to two drinks per day for women and two to four drinks per day for men are inversely associated with total mortality."

What is more, these benefits persist to some extent even if people drink significantly more than the offical guidelines, which in effect represent the bottom point of the risk curve.

While obviously it has to tread carefully, there is plenty of opportunity for CAMRA to take a more robust line in countering the misinformation of the anti-drink lobby.

Sounds like a sensible and well-informed chap. I'll buy him a pint if our paths ever cross...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Who’s killing the British pub?

Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs has produced a new paper called Closing Time? which looks at the reasons for the sharp decline in the pub trade in recent years and considers possible remedies. There’s a summary here and the full document can be downloaded here.

He points out that, since 1980, Britain has lost 21,000 pubs, with half of that coming since 2006. While some of that has been due to long-term social changes, more than half is the result of excessive taxation, unnecessary regulation and government meddling. Beer, and especially beer in pubs, has borne the brunt of the fall in per capita alcohol consumption. He argues that, while the pubcos may not represent a sound business model, their role in pub closures has been much exaggerated.

To claim that people are not going to the pub because PubCos are closing them down is to confuse cause with effect. In truth, pubs in every part of the sector are struggling from a fundamental lack of demand.
This point is reinforced by his blogpost How not to lie with pub closure statistics.

In conclusion, he says

Pubs are struggling from a lack of demand for pubs which has been largely due to government policy. The government cannot - and should not - undo the cultural changes that have led to people choosing alternative leisure activities, but it can undo the damage it has caused through taxation and regulation. If it is genuinely concerned about the future of the pub trade, it should significantly reduce alcohol duty, relax the smoking ban, reduce VAT to 15 per cent (and lower it further for food sales), abolish cumulative impact zones and scrap the late night levy.
Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, it’s well worth downloading and reading. And no doubt it will raise a few hackles amongst those who can’t see any cause of pub decline beyond the evil pubcos.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Give me strength

Once it has emerged from the still, Scotch whisky is put into oak casks to mature for a minimum of three years, often much more. When it is ready for bottling, it has an alcoholic strength of around 60% ABV, but is typically watered down to 40% (sometimes a little higher) for public sale. Occasionally, limited edition bottlings are made of undiluted whiskies at cask strength, which are obviously much more expensive than the standard product, and are much prized by connoisseurs.

I recently spotted that Jennings had sneakily reduced the strength of bottled Cumberland Ale from 4.7% to 4.0%, to bring it into line with the cask version, and now describe it on the bottle as “cask strength”. Likewise, bottled Marston’s Pedigree, from the same brewing group, which was increased from 4.5% to 5.0% and then reduced again, has “Brewed to cask strength” on the label. While this isn’t untrue as such, it comes across as distinctly disingenuous, given that a cask strength whisky is much stronger than the norm, but a cask strength bottled beer seems to be one that is weaker than it used to be.

Needless to say, there’s no price reduction, even though there’s a saving of about 8p per bottle duty plus VAT on duty. Given that this seems to be happening with more and more beers, isn’t it perhaps time for a two-tier pricing structure to be brought in for premium bottled ales? There’s nothing wrong as such with beers of 4.0% or less, but at present there tends to be no benefit in choosing one in preference to one of 5.0% or more. I would also say that, subjectively, sub-4% beers often taste a bit watery in bottle whereas they are fine on cask, which is maybe a reason why the bottled versions were made a bit stronger in the first place.

I wonder if we’ll see the same happening with other beers like Bombardier, London Pride and Spitfire where the bottled version is currently significantly stronger than the cask.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Culture shift

Over the years, I’ve sometimes listed a change in ethnic make-up as a cause of pub decline in inner-urban working-class areas. Now Tory peer Lord Hodgson has acknowledged this trend, but has rather inevitably been accused of “scapegoating Muslims”.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who was previously a director at one of Britain's biggest brewers, said that the "tides of history" have led to large numbers of Muslims in Britain's cities who do not drink.

He said that "socioeconomic change" is more responsible for the decline of pubs than "rapacious" pub chains.

He said: "I identify three fundamental features behind this. The first is the rapid rate of socioeconomic change in Britain. Twenty-five years ago, the company of which I was a director would have operated probably a dozen pubs in Kidderminster, the home of the carpet trade.

"The carpet trade has gone and there are three pubs left. In areas of Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham the increase in the Muslim population, who do not drink, leads to many pub closures. It is exceptionally hard for a publican who has put 10 years of his life into trying to build up a business to accept the inevitabilities of these tides of history."

But surely it’s simply stating a fact of life, not a case of “look at these bloody Muslims coming over here and shutting our pubs”. If an area becomes largely populated by people who for cultural reasons do not drink alcohol, then inevitably the potential customer base for its pubs will reduce. It’s not a uniform nationwide effect, but it is very obvious that this factor has led to large inner-urban areas of places like Oldham, Rochdale, Blackburn and Bradford losing most, if not all, of their pubs. In the comments to my blogpost, Simon Cooke says:
In sunny Bradford - and I suspect some other areas too - there's a further factor. Bradford's working class is now overwhelmingly Muslim and they don't drink (or rather they don't drink in pubs - almost all the Asians I know drink).
It has also been mentioned in relation to the Gateway in East Didsbury, where it’s not so much Muslims but middle-class Hindus moving in locally.

I wonder which bright spark will be the first to come up with the idea that pubs need to “broaden their appeal” by stopping selling alcohol. And it’s interesting that comments have been disabled on the news article.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Taking the low road

Today sees the implementation of the lower drive-drive limit in Scotland. I’ve discussed the rights and wrongs of this at length in the past, so don’t propose to revisit that now. What is done is done. But here are some miscellaneous reflections on the topic.

Scotland has a distinctively different and more urban pub landscape than England and Wales. It doesn’t really have the characteristic village and country pubs that are commonplace south of the Border. For many people, the archetypal English pub is a thatched and half-timbered rural inn, whereas in Scotland it’s more likely to be a wood-and-mirrors city gin palace or a grim stand-up bar in the ground floor of a tenement block.

I can think of numerous pubs in England and Wales that it would be very hard to see surviving a limit cut, but there are proportionately fewer in Scotland. Having said that, outside the Central Belt it is a far-flung and sparsely-populated country, and a lot of drink-driving of both legal and illegal varieties takes place. Trade is unlikely to suddenly fall off a cliff, but outside the big cities there’s likely to be a slow but steady fall-off.

Many of those who pontificate on this subject seem to do so from inside a London (or Edinburgh) bubble and fail to appreciate that, across large swathes of the country, there are plenty of pubs where most, if not practically all, the customers travel by car. There must be hundreds of thousands of people who scarcely ever visit a pub unless they have driven there themselves. The politically correct may be reluctant to admit it, but very often that is the reality of the pub trade.

This is an interesting perspective on the issue from New Zealand, where a similar limit reduction has recently been implemented. The author suggests that those modelling the effects have significantly underestimated the extent to which it is likely to change behaviour. If you’re going out for a meal, it probably won’t put you off, but if you’re just calling in for a drink and a chat, you may very well conclude that if you can only have one pint rather than two, it isn’t really worth bothering at all.

The effects may well be like those of the smoking ban – a slow erosion of the customer base and camaraderie of pubs as people one by one drop out from the group and their friends increasingly follow suit. And, just like the smoker exiled to a draughty outside shelter, the drinker nursing his solitary pint where for twenty or thirty years he legally enjoyed a couple is going to feel that his pubgoing experience is forever diminished. People may put up with it – indeed a higher proportion of smokers than non-smokers still visit pubs – but they will never become entirely reconciled to it and it will create an abiding legacy of bitterness.

The point is often made that, following cuts in traffic policing, the chances of getting caught are very small. There’s undoubtedly much truth in this, but if people were willing to take the chance surely they would have been doing so already with the higher limit. The vast majority of the pub customers who currently believe they are keeping within the 80mg limit will adjust their behaviour to keep within 50mg, as they fundamentally wish to abide by the law and also don’t want to be seen breaking it by others. And, even if the chances of being stopped are negligible, the potential consequences are severe and in some cases could result in loss of livelihood and home and marital breakdown. Plus police attending accidents will now routinely breathalyse all drivers involved, even if obviously not at fault, so you can end up being tested due to circumstances entirely beyond your control. And no licensee should feel happy to be depending on customers who are taking a chance on breaking the law.

The New Zealand article also makes the point that those drivers who want to make sure they don’t fall foul of the law tend to keep well below the limit rather than possibly nudging up against it. With a lower limit, they will do the same. I also get the impression that New Zealand, and Australia, are much more willing to publicise the potential effect on blood-alcohol levels of various types and quantities of drinks, while in this country we continue to parrot the head-in-sand mantra of “don’t touch a drop” which doesn’t reflect the reality of real-world behaviour and also fails to take account of the morning-after issue.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

A middle-class embrace

Here’s a perceptive and entertaining article by Peter Robins in which he looks at how the metropolitan middle classes have finally taken beer snobbery to their hearts.

Unlike many such media pieces, it’s pretty well-informed, with the rise of the railway arch brewer nailed and saisons accurately described as “what a brewer makes to show they can do something subtler than their big IPA”. The one slightly false note is where he refers to “Relatively low alcohol content (most of the time) makes it possible to complete a wine-tasting-style ‘flight’ without either spitting out or reducing yourself to a Sideways-style mess.” Well, it may have a low alcohol content compared to wine, but much “craft” beer is actually stronger than mainstream brews.

In the conclusion he looks at what the future may hold:

I’ve begun to wonder whether anything could pop this bubble, and what I think about is the force that held back middle-class beer snobbery to begin with: the fixed prejudice against real ale. No matter how many demographic surveys Cask Marque produced, no matter how many Sumerian wheat goddesses Camra dug up for its marketing, for most people real ale still meant nerdy old men with beards. Craft beer, by contrast, means nerdy young men with beards. And while nerds have a great deal more cultural capital than they used to, young men continue to grow old. Within a few years, the craft beer boom may seem as difficult to separate from the ridiculous fashions of the 2010s as the real ale boom was from the fashions of the 1970s. If we’re lucky, it will leave as many enjoyable new flavours behind.
There was a brief period in the early days of CAMRA when beer snobbery did raise its head with the middle-class gent in the saloon bar holding a dimpled mug of Ruddles County or Wadworths 6X and pontificating about its virtues, but by the 1980s it had become the opposite of aspirational.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Hiding your smoke

Last Thursday, the local CAMRA branch presented its Pub of the Month award to the Fletcher Moss in Didsbury. It’s an excellent pub well deserving of the accolade, and a good time was had by all on the night. I noticed that at the back it had a particularly well-designed outside smoking shelter, with plenty of seating and enclosed on two sides. But is that something I’m really allowed to tell people about?

As Simon Clark recounts here, Imperial Tobacco has set up a website and app called Smoke Spots which aims to show people the locations of smoker-friendly pubs, clubs and restaurants. He doesn’t actually think it makes a very good job of it, and certainly there’s very little listed in my local area.

However, the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled against an advert for Smoke Spots on the grounds that it is allegedly promoting smoking and showing it in a positive light. However, even within a context of the tobacco advertising ban, a website clearly isn’t a tobacco product, and this ruling seems to stray into the territory of restricting freedom of speech.

As Simon says, “Smoke Spots provides legitimate information for consumers of a legal product, advising them where they can light up in relative comfort without inconveniencing non-smokers.” The existence of smoking shelters is a matter of observable fact, but in our censorious, politically correct society it is apparently unacceptable to tell anyone else about in a form that is visible to the public.

So, bear in mind, when the alcohol advertising ban comes in, you won’t even be allowed to publicise that beer is available in a particular pub, let alone which beers.

Oh, and off the top of my head I would say that the Armoury and Royal Oak in Edgeley, the Arden Arms in Stockport town centre and the Railway in Marple all have pretty decent covered smoking areas within what the law allows. So come on, make that complaint!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Spoonfuls of character

Over the years, the subject of Wetherspoons has been extensively discussed on here, and in general the conclusion has been that, while they may tick a number of boxes for what you’re looking for in a pub, their establishments are so devoid of pub atmosphere that it’s hardly surprising many of them have “Moon” in their name.

On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that, outside the obvious busy times, many pubs are now embarrassingly devoid of customers, where once they would have been at least ticking over nicely. Nobody wants to sit in a pub in solitary splendour.

And the thought occurs to me that much of the traditional “all human life is there” pub trade has now gravitated into Spoons. You’ll probably find a greater variety of customers there than anywhere else, from genteel pensioners having a bit of lunch to weirdos holding forth at the bar. It’s there that the pub buzz is most likely to be found, and also where nowadays you may still come across the archetypal pub “characters”, who may be annoying, but add to the interest of life. And, whatever the time of day, you’re unlikely to find Spoons deserted.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Supermarket swoop

On the right is a photo of the new Morrisons M-Local store that opened this week on the site of the former Four Heatons pub (originally the Moss Ross), shown below. There are also eight flats above the shop. I have previously written about the Four Heatons here when it originally closed almost four years ago.

In a sense it’s sad when any pub closes, but the Moss Rose was always an unappealing building from the start, and, as a wet-led, working class boozer, it’s probably fair to say it was given the ultimate coup de grâce by the smoking ban. By the end it had become very dingy and run-down, and largely devoid of customers, and to be honest a convenience store will be a useful facility for a lot more of the local population.

It also has a rather better beer selection than the average Tesco Express, including bottled ales at the same 3 for £5 offer as the main stores.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A Pyrrhic victory?

In 1989, after strenuous lobbying by CAMRA, the government of the day brought in the Beer Orders, which were widely expected to usher in a new era of competition and diversity in the pub trade. In one sense that has happened, with more breweries producing more beers in more styles than at any time in living memory. But, on the other hand, they precipitated a drastic restructuring of the industry and led to the rise of the giant, debt-fuelled pub companies, which are widely felt to exert a negative influence on the market. So the eventual outcome was very much a mixed blessing, and probably one that nobody foresaw at the time.

This week there was a vote in Parliament as part of the discussion of the government’s planned code for regulating pub companies to allow tenants and lessees of major brewers and pubcos to have a mandatory free-of-tie option at an independently assessed market rent. This was celebrated by CAMRA and others as a major step forward to free up the market and give tenants a fair deal. But will it really make all that much difference, and is there a danger there will end up being more downsides than upsides? Christopher Snowdon and Allister Heath certainly think there might be.

The pubco business model is based on charging tenants more than the market price for beer and other drinks bought from the pubco – the “wet rent”, in return for a lower than market “dry rent” for the property, and general support and advice about how to run the business. It gives people a relatively easy and low-cost route into self-employment and spreads the risks and rewards between landlord and tenant. For many people, this works well enough, but others have felt that they have been badly treated by the pubcos, subject to unreasonable rent increases, and that the support they’re given isn’t remotely worth the implicit price they pay.

So for some the market rent option may well seem attractive. However, it is inevitably going to be considerably higher than a tied rent, so it won’t necessarily suit everyone, especially those with low beer volumes or little confidence about buying on the open market. It also transfers all the risk of running the business from pubco to tenant, so all the pubco is interested in is whether the rent is paid. This means that the pubco has effectively moved from the pubs business to the property business, and it wouldn’t really matter to them if the pub was converted to a supermarket or a block of flats, as they no longer have a financial stake in it remaining as a pub.

Given that they campaigned against it, it is fair to assume that the large pubcos believe that the market rent option will damage their business, so it is inevitable that they will seek to take steps to mitigate the impact. An obvious one is to transfer more of the high-performing pubs – which would be most attractive to run under an MRO – to direct management. They could investigate other kinds of business arrangement such as franchise agreements, and sub-letting groups of pubs to multiple operators. Or they could break themselves up into smaller units that would no longer come within the scope of the code.

The plans also involve giving the responsibility for setting market rents to independent assessors, which is almost guaranteed to end up being a source of argument and ill-feeling. It’s also generally the case that if rents are set by tribunals rather than the market it tends to reduce the supply of available property. Property owners may not wish to run the risk of getting involved in time-consuming disputes. Another aspect of the proposals is that pub companies that are also brewers, such as Greene King and Marston’s, will still be able to insist that tenants stock their products, but they will be able to buy them on the open market. You can’t really see that ending well.

Now I can’t say I’ve read every single detail of the proposals, and they’re still a long way from reaching the statute book, so I may not have got everything right. But I think it’s fair to say that they won’t bring about the dramatic liberalisation of the market that some seem to believe, and the takeup of the market rent option may be fairly slow. It might give an attractive opportunity to confident and enterprising lessees, but it’s hard to see the ownership of chains of unbranded free-of-tie rented pubs making much sense as a long-term business model, and there must be a major risk that the various issues I’ve outlined above will overall make owning and running pubs a less attractive business to be in.

It’s also notable how most of the anti-pubco campaigners are strangely reluctant to put forward any alternative vision for the structure of the pub trade. They seem to have a kind of naive, nostalgic vision of pubs being run by stand-alone freetraders, which is about as realistic as harking back to the days of the independent corner shop. Some of the lunatic fringe even talk of pubs being taken over by the State and run as community facilities.

And it would be interesting to know how many of the self-proclaimed champions of pubs who have been crowing about this were silent when the smoking ban was being debated.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The morning after the night before

It’s a characteristic of alcohol that if you enjoy it a bit too much you will be made to pay later on in the form of a hangover. Different individuals are affected to different degrees of severity, which is what I was rather imperfectly trying to get at with this poll. Several people made the comment “it depends how much I drink”, which is a statement of the obvious really, but the same amount will affect some much worse than others, even if they are both experienced drinkers.

I’ve heard it suggested that being immune to hangovers can be a factor leading people to alcoholism as they are never made to pay for over-indulgence. There’s certainly a drinker of my acquaintance noted for his heroic consumption over many years who claimed that he never got hangovers. On the other side of the coin, if you suffer particularly badly it may lead you not to bother much with alcohol at all.

The results of the poll seem to bear this out, with a heavy weighting towards the “only slightly” category. As you grow older, you tend to learn what is enough, and what too much, but even then you might occasionally be inclined to say “oh, sod it” in full knowledge of what the following morning will bring.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The gestation of intolerance

This week there has been a sad story in the media about a case in which the Court of Appeal has been asked to rule whether a woman who drank heavily during pregnancy, causing her child to suffer from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, has committed a criminal act. The motivation seems be that the local council is trying to pass on the care costs to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, but it seems to involve the unnecessary stigmatisation of an unfortunate person. The woman in question was apparently drinking half a bottle of vodka and eight cans of “strong” lager a day, which makes her a full-blown alcoholic. Someone in that position is an addict who is no position to make a rational decision as to whether to drink or not, and surely they need help rather than prosecution.

The case also has wider implications. It has long been recognised that excessive alcohol consumption in pregnancy is likely to be damaging to unborn children, but medical experts have accepted that a couple of drinks a week is not going to be harmful. And that figure is probably erring very much on the side of caution. That always used to be the official advice, but a few years ago it was changed to drink nothing during pregnancy, not because the science had changed, but because that was felt to be a more simple and unequivocal message. This was strongly attacked by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams (not someone I usually find much to agree with):

To think this government has the brass neck to lecture women about their gestational behaviour. It is an outrage against women; against the relationship between the state and the individual; and, without wishing to be mawkish, against babies.
(By the way, she is referring to the last government, not the present one)

If the case succeeds it has been widely suggested that the principle will be enshrined in law that expectant mothers should not consume anything potentially harmful to their unborn babies. So they won’t be able to drink at all. Or to smoke, or to eat “unhealthy” foods. Now doing all of these things while pregnant may not be a good idea, but is it really appropriate for government to take away all personal responsibility on the matter and legislate to take control of women’s bodies?

This tendency is attacked by Simon Jenkins in this article in which he criticises “the mob craving to bring coercive law into every realm of human behaviour”. Some years ago the same author made the point in an article (now behind the Murdoch paywall) that the gap between the ideal and the illegal was steadily narrowing.

Voltaire and John Stuart Mill insisted there should be an ideological chasm between disapproving an act and wanting it halted. In modern Britain this chasm has become a skip and a jump. Whatever we dislike we require the government to ban...

...There is a case for educating the public to eat, drink and smoke less, drive more carefully and not to rampage through town centres at night. But there must be a limit to the translation of disapproval into repression.

And possibly all those so-called defenders of women’s rights who have been getting their knickers in a twist over a laddish marketing campaign by Lees Brewery would be better employed speaking up against such a gross invasion of female self-ownership.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Full measure revisited

The thorny subject of short measures in pubs, and whether we need legislation to ensure a full liquid pint, has once again reared its head on the CAMRA web forum (registration required, but not CAMRA membership). In the past this is something I have strongly supported but, as I warned here, the fact that it was included in Labour’s 2001 election manifesto didn’t mean it was going to happen. If it had been brought in back then, we would have got used to it and would wonder now what all the fuss was about.

But it wasn’t and, while I remain in principle in favour, its moment has now passed. There are no endemic complaints from drinkers and no appetite in government to revive the issue, added to which there is no longer – as there once was – a substantial number of pubs using oversize glasses that could be held up as examples of good practice. It’s just not going to happen, and I really struggle to summon up much indignation about it. About the only places you will now see oversize glasses are at CAMRA beer festivals.

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 doesn’t look right. I remember one or two members of the local CAMRA branch repeatedly moaning about short measure in pubs that used them, even though they must have known it wasn’t.

If you fill your car up with petrol, and the pump is dispensing less than it claims, you will be out of pocket and need to buy more at a later date. But, in a pub, if you get a “pint” of 19 fluid ounces, you won’t suffer any financial loss and indeed you might end up with a slightly less sore head the following morning. Being too pernickety about the exact quantities of food and drink consumed at the point of sale seems pretty pointless as small variations make no practical difference. In effect, what people are doing is going in a pub and asking for “a large glass of beer” which just happens to be denominated as a pint. If (heaven forbid) we were to go metric and a half-litre became the standard pub measure, pretty much everyone would be happy with one of those on the occasions where they would now ask for a pint.