Friday, 24 June 2016

The worm has turned

Yesterday, I posted the surprisingly prescient results of my unofficial blogpoll on the EU Referendum. While I was a strong supporter of Leave, I have to say I settled down to listen to the results last night feeling that a defeat was almost inevitable, and that once this had been confirmed by a few declarations I would head for bed. However, when I heard the Sunderland result – 61-39 for Leave, as opposed to a forecast of 53-47 – I realised that things might not be going entirely according to plan.

So I woke up today to the glorious news that Britain had decided to leave the European Union. It’s made especially delicious by the fact that today is my birthday. Many commentators in recent months have made the point that the motivation behind this goes well beyond a simple dissatisfaction with the EU, and represents a general feeling that the political élite have ceased to listen to or represent ordinary working people. This has been widely expressed by writers of impeccable left-wing credentials such as John Harris of the Guardian and Stephen Bush of the New Statesman – the latter reporting from Hull Wetherspoons.

It was well summed up by these comments from David Cowling, the BBC’s head of political research, in an internal memo, which were included as “Quote of the Day” on Guido Fawkes’ website (and still are, for now).

It seems to me that the London bubble has to burst if there is to be any prospect of addressing the issues that have brought us to our current situation. There are many millions of people in the UK who do not enthuse about diversity and do not embrace metropolitan values yet do not consider themselves lesser human beings for all that. Until their values and opinions are acknowledged and respected, rather than ignored and despised, our present discord will persist. Because these discontents run very wide and very deep and the metropolitan political class, confronted by them, seems completely bewildered and at a loss about how to respond (“who are these ghastly people and where do they come from?” doesn’t really hack it). The 2016 EU referendum has witnessed the cashing in of some very bitter bankable grudges but I believe that, throughout this 2016 campaign, Europe has been the shadow not the substance.
This applies especially to the Labour Party, as it was originally set up to give a voice to the working class, and still makes a claim to represent their interests in a way that no other party does. But, in recent years, it has often given the impression of regarding the attitudes, lifestyles, opinions and values of working-class people with utter contempt. A prime example of this was the smoking ban, which has absolutely devastated working-class pubs, clubs and bingo halls while leaving establishments favoured by the comfortable middle class largely unscathed. So last night I tweeted the following:
And I make no apology for that. Of course it’s only one small factor amongst many. But all these things add up, and I firmly believe it did play a part in convincing many voters that “these people no longer speak for me”. It is a connection that has been drawn by others, notably Frank Davis. Personally I really couldn’t care less whether the Labour Party lives or dies. But I do care strongly that ordinary people, the kind who keep the ordinary local pubs of Stockport and so many other towns in business, deserve a voice in the corridors of power.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Decision day

For the past month, I’ve been running a poll in the sidebar that mirrors the question we are being asked to vote on today at the ballot box. It was originally hidden away at the bottom, but a couple of weeks ago I moved it up to the top after another poll was concluded. I’ve deliberately not touted it around Twitter, as when I’ve done that before it has led to seriously distorted results. The final result shown above is not all that different from many opinion polls.

On the other hand, the Twitter poll I ran cannot really be said to give a representative cross-section of public opinion, although the number of responses is very impressive. Note how it achieved no less than 41 retweets.

Now, it won’t come as any surprise which way I will be voting. But, whatever your views, please make sure you do vote and make your voice heard.

Vast amounts have been written on the subject, but if you only read one article, make it this one by Brendan O’Neill:

What we are voting for

From a beery point of view, Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin has written in the Morning Advertiser:

Remain campaign shows contempt for the British public

While, in the interest of balance, beer writer Matthew Curtis has written:

Three Simple Reasons why the British Beer Industry needs the UK to Remain in the EU

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The price of success

In 1996, as part of a series of articles on Cheshire pubs, I reported for Opening Times on the Grosvenor Arms at Aldford a few miles south of Chester. Although at the time we did not recognise it as being part of a chain, this must have been one of the first mentions of a Brunning & Price pub in a CAMRA publication. My conclusion was:
If your ideal country pub is a down-to-earth rustic alehouse, then the Grosvenor Arms may not appeal. But it's undoubtedly an attractive, confident, stylish and successful pub which is run with a great deal of care and attention to detail, and sets high standards of food, drink and ambience. Most importantly, where many other places with similar ambitions might settle for a solitary handpump and a Caffreys dispenser, it gives beer the prominence it rightfully deserves. These qualities will surely see it before too long making an appearance in both the Good Beer Guide and the Good Pub Food Guide.
At the time, B&P was an independent chain that had been founded by Jerry Brunning and Graham Price. As their company history records, the Grosvenor Arms was one of their first pubs in the North-West. While unashamedly upmarket and food-oriented, they were in many ways a breath of fresh air in comparison to chain dining pubs, with a strong emphasis on cask beer and fresh, local ingredients, and a respectful, individual approach to renovating the pubs they acquired. Over the years, I enjoyed a fair few meals at B&P pubs, including some birthday celebrations, with the beautifully-situated Dysart Arms at Bunbury being a particular favourite.

The chain gradually expanded to fourteen pubs, most in Cheshire, Shropshire and North Wales, but with a handful in the South-East. While the essentials didn’t change, it was noticeable that the menus got a little more ambitious and gastro, and the new conversions a little less “pubby”. I remarked in my review of the Grosvenor Arms that it had what was almost a vault area with a bar billiards table – you wouldn’t see that in the new ones. More and more, they were becoming places you really wouldn’t feel at home just visiting for a swift pint.

Then, in 2007, the company was acquired by The Restaurant Group, owners of Garfunkels and Frankie & Benny, which maybe didn’t seem an ideal fit although, given that the founders were probably approaching retirement age, nobody can really blame them for cashing in. Since then, it has grown to 55 pubs, with many new openings in the South-East. I can’t say I’ve been to any of these, but Martin Taylor, who has, concludes that they’re adopting a cookie-cutter approach to interior design, and they don’t have the turnover to support their beer range.

Nothing can stop the march of Brunning and Price though, and their Packhorse at Mapledurham is exactly what you’d expect from the chain, as easy to detect from the interior now as a Wetherspoons or Ember.

Nothing wrong with smart old dining pubs with decent beer, of course, and I’ve always found somewhere pleasant to sit with a half and listen to light ’80s pop (yuk). Their ale range, with beer miles displayed, are always well judged, but I never find the quality better than average (Maggs Magnificent Mild NBSS 3).

Like Wetherspoons, their commitment to cask is meaningless when everyone is drinking wine and lager with their £15 lunches.

They have also become far more unashamedly gastro than they were when they started out – look at the menu for the Grosvenor Arms and draw your own conclusions. And nobody can tell me that menu doesn’t rely heavily on the freezer. I can’t help thinking that such places are in effect pub-themed restaurants and can’t in any meaningful sense be regarded as pubs in the normal sense of the word. They have taken over the place in the market that smart restaurants occupied thirty years ago.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

If I had a hammer

It’s often said that “if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. And much the same is true of the hardline anti-pubco campaigners, for whom all the problems of the pub trade are laid at the door of pubco greed and mismanagement. I’ve written about this here.

Beer writer Pete Brown has now tackled this in this Morning Advertiser article, which will no doubt bring him a lot of flak. I would agree that the pubcos have not been good custodians of their estates, and often give the impression of not really being interested in running pubs at all. Maybe the old pre-Beer Orders Big Six were not too bad after all. On the other hand, he is quite right to point out that many pubs fail because the people running them simply aren’t very good at it.

But underlying this is surely a much bigger point that he fails to mention. The key reason why the pub trade has declined, and so many pubs have closed, is simply because the demand for pubgoing has plummeted. For a variety of reasons, some down to legislation or public policy, others falling more into the category of general social change, people have become much less interested in visiting pubs – especially just for a drink – and the range of occasions when they will contemplate a pub visit is much diminished.

In failing to acknowledge this, the anti-pubco zealots really have their heads in the sand, if not up their own backsides. As I’ve written before, even if every pub had been run as well as the best, I doubt whether it would, over the years, have made more than a couple of percentage points difference to the total trade.

Incidentally, Pete, if you’re reading this, isn’t it time you unblocked me on Twitter? I profoundly disagree with your political views, but you do talk a lot of sense about beer. You baited me, I overreacted, but can’t we move on?

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Perfect condition

The week before last, I was alerted by Andy Gosling on Twitter to a stunning limited offer at Lidl – a pack of six strong Belgian ales in 33 cl bottles for a mere £7.99. Needless to say, I cleaned up, although I should point out that one of the three packs is earmarked for a birthday present.

These weren’t maybe the front rank of Belgian beers, such as Orval, Chimay and Duvel, and a quick read of bottle labels established that they all came from the Brouwerij Van Steenberge. However, they’re familiar names – Piraat, Gulden Draak and Bornem – and the strengths varied from 7.2% to 10.5%, so a lot of High Strength Beer Duty had been paid. You would be looking at paying well over £2 a bottle in a regular off-licence, so £1.33 each is a stonking bargain.

Having worked myself through the first batch (the second will be saved for the cold winter nights) I have to say I was pretty impressed. Far from being all just Duvel clones, they also varied considerably in terms of colour and flavour.

All were bottle-conditioned, but it was possible to check that the yeast had settled to the bottom of the bottle, and to pour them carefully without significantly disturbing it. All poured clear, with a dense, uneven, rocky head and visible spires of carbonation rising from the bottom of the glass, just as a good bottle-conditioned beer should be. Yes, in a sense they are “fizzy”, but it’s a different kind of fizziness from a filtered bottled beer injected with additional CO2.

But that inevitably raises the question as to why so few British bottle-conditioned beers can achieve that. All too often, you end up with a glass of flat, slightly hazy beer with a bit of gunge left in the bottom of the bottle. To get one that really shows signs of having “worked” in the bottle is a rarity.

CAMRA must shoulder a substantial part of the blame, for claiming that bottle-conditioned beers are “real ale in a bottle”. Yes, they are, in terms of undergoing a secondary fermentation, but the end result, if done properly, is completely different. A good BCA is a fine drink in its own right, but certainly not “closer to cask”, and nothing like a bottled equivalent of draught real ale.

Most British so-called “bottle-conditioned” beers are, to be honest, notable for the complete absence of actual conditioning in the bottle, and best avoided. If you want to see how bottle-conditioning should be done, look to Belgium.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

No more flowery twats

Many of our once distinguished newspapers now seem to be sadly reduced to purveyors of clickbait. However, one such piece that was worth reading was this one in the Telegraph entitled 13 things being a B&B owner has taught me about the British.

It led me to reflect on my own experience of staying in hotels and guest houses around Britain over the years. The general standard has certainly greatly improved, and the horrors of Fawlty Towers are now a thing of the past. A factor in this has been the abandonment of evening meals by most mid-range establishments, given the growth in the choice and quality of restaurants. That was a prime opportunity for getting things wrong. Chain hotels such as Premier Inn and Travelodge have also had a huge impact, by providing a consistent standard, that may never rise above the good side of adequate, but virtually never plumbs the depths.

However, an independent guest house is still better if you can find a good one – in particular I remember staying in Perth in 2010 at the Dunallan Guest House which was impossible to fault in any way. You will also tend to get a far better cooked breakfast in an independent. But it can be difficult to sort the sheep out from the goats, whereas with a Premier Inn you know what you are going to get. I can also tell some horror stories about B&Bs, such as when you realise that, despite it looking good on paper, you’re the only guest and the owner is a bit of a nutter.

In the past, you would look in the AA handbook or some other guide, or get a printed brochure from the local council, and look through the list of establishments to find some that met your requirements and were within your price range. Then you would ring a few up to see if any had rooms available. Now it’s all done on the Internet, which has many advantages, but can mean that independent places struggle for attention. Maybe they need to look at better self-promotion strategies.

These are a few suggestions I would make to hotel and guest house operators based on my experience, some minor niggles, some important. I’m sure Martin Taylor will have some thoughts on this, as he has far more extensive experience of British guest accommodation than I do.

  • Provide a hook to hang coats and jackets either on the back of the door or – if that is felt to conceal the fire escape instructions – close by.

  • Make sure the shower works, and it’s obvious how it does work. In the last (generally very good) hotel I stayed in, the knob selecting the flow between the taps and shower came off in my hand. In another, I got into the shower and then realised I had no idea how the controls worked. And why is it still beyond the wit of man to design a shower where temperature and flow can be controlled independently?

  • Rooms in modern blocks without air conditioning often lack natural ventilation and can get uncomfortably stuffy even when the weather isn’t particularly hot.

  • TV remotes – they’re not all of a standard pattern, and the functions are often far from obvious. I’ve had to call reception for an explanation more than once.

  • Storage space – many hotel rooms have woefully little room to store clothes and other items. If you’re staying for several days you’re really not going to want to keep all your stuff in your suitcase.

  • Efficient wi-fi is now a general expectation, so make sure it reaches all rooms and is free, fast and reliable. For a long time, Premier Inn held out against free wi-fi, until it became the overwhelming cause of customer complaints. Yes, I have defended traditional pubs that don’t provide wi-fi, but it’s not acceptable in a guest house or hotel, particularly one targeted at business customers.

  • Premier Inn self-service breakfasts are generally OK, with the exception of the ridiculously slow and unpredictable manual toasters. That lets down the whole experience, and can be embarrassing if, like me, you’re a lover of burnt toast.

  • Provide Marmite along with the jams at breakfast. Fortunately more places now seem to do this.

  • Bacon needs a bit of cooking. It isn’t acceptable to serve it up virtually raw.

  • Unless you’re in a city centre, most guests will be arriving by car and expecting onsite parking. Don’t be coy about what you can offer – it’s better to be honest rather than leaving people uncertain. If you’re in a dense urban location it may be reasonable to charge extra for parking, but if you’re on an out-of-town retail park it’s just taking the piss. Travelodge, I’m looking at you.

  • Unless you’re operating at the very bottom end of the market, nobody’s interested any more in rooms without a private shower (at least) and WC. If you’re an independent guest house and still offer them, either get them converted or take them out of use. This should be taken as read.
Another niggle, although not one that affects me personally, is the frequent appearance of this sign:

No, it is not illegal to smoke in hotel bedrooms, so please stop pretending it is. Obviously “my gaff, my rules” applies, but you do have to question whether it amounts to discrimination when all the large chains choose to impose a blanket policy. If you’re concerned, you could try looking at http://smokinghotel.co.uk/

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Tell me about it

Ghost Drinker has recently been complaining that the expansion of availability of interesting craft beers in Leeds pubs and bars has not been matched by a corresponding expansion in staff knowledge. Now, he has a point, but I can’t help thinking his expectations are a little unrealistic.

If you are running what is presented as a specialist outlet, then it’s reasonable to expect a good level of product knowledge. In a cheese shop, it wouldn’t be acceptable for a member of staff to say “No idea, mate, I don’t really eat the stuff.” In a pub like the Magnet in Stockport, customers would expect the staff to be able to say something about the guest beers on offer. However, once you get out into more mainstream venues, that level of knowledge and enthusiasm will inevitably be diluted. Plus many bar staff, however hard-working, are only doing it for a short period in their lives.

It’s entirely reasonable to expect staff to be aware of the main regular products and which categories they fall into. For example, surely all bar staff should be familiar with the expected response if a customer just asks for a “lager” or a “shandy”. I’ve had several experiences over the years of bar staff responding with bafflement when I order something clearly displayed on the bar.

But how far should they go beyond that? The average pub stocks over a hundred different varieties of alcoholic drinks – are they expected to be able to give a broad description of all of them? Many pubs have a wide range of malt whiskies, but surely nobody would expect a Polish girl on a three-month contract to be able to explain the difference between Laphroaig and Bruichladdich.

This is why, if you’re offering unusual or specialist products, it makes sense to provide tasting notes, chalkboards etc to give customers some information about them, without requiring a detailed level of staff knowledge. The knowledge will improve over time, especially if some products become regular fixtures on the bar, but it’s never going to match the dedicated specialist bar.

I also can’t agree that a coffee shop worker should be expected to be a coffee drinker. Coffee shops sell plenty of products apart from coffee, just as pubs don’t just sell alcoholic drinks. That’s no more reasonable than expecting all bar staff to be drinkers of alcohol. There are plenty of pub licensees, never mind just bar staff, who are teetotal, and even some who are practising but tolerant Muslims. It doesn’t prevent you from doing a good job provided that you are familiar with the products available and have a positive, enthusiastic attitude. “Meh! I dunno!” is never a good response in any circumstances.

Monday, 13 June 2016

On the quiet

Stonch has recently revamped the format of his blog to what to my eyes is a triumph of form over substance, where things keep abruptly jumping out at you. I took him to task about this on Twitter, but he pointed out that most people – 75%, he reckoned – would be reading it on smartphones or tablets where the desktop format made no difference.

That’s as maybe, but it does underline the point that all the stuff in the sidebar of blogs doesn’t appear in the mobile view. So all those carefully-curated quotations, blogrolls and mission statements remain unread. This also covers polls.

For a few weeks now, I’ve been featuring a poll on the EU referendum, using the actual question we will be asked to answer a week on Thursday. At first it was tucked away down at the bottom, but I’ve now moved it up to the top. I have deliberately not promoted it on Twitter, and have asked others to do the same, as last time I did an election poll it was widely touted around by others and the results were thus skewed. So here it is:

POLL: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
 
pollcode.com free polls

This is the actual poll question that will be asked on 23 June.

It’s interesting that, last time I looked, the results were showing a narrow 52% to 48% lead for Leave.

This will be the last time I mention it before I close it on the morning of Thursday 23rd June.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The workers' beer

H/t to Boak and Bailey for drawing my attention to this highly evocative set of pictures of workers in the Suffolk town of Leiston enjoying a drink in the Engineer’s Arms in 1966. The photos are described as being set at the time of the construction of the Sizewell A nuclear power station on the nearby coast, but I suspect the workers are from the premises of Richard Garrett & Sons directly opposite, which is obviously where the name comes from.

The pub itself is still going strong (albeit not opening weekday lunchtimes), and the stained glass public bar window can be seen on the StreetView image. Part of the works is now the Long Shop Museum, which looks like the kind of place that would really fascinate me.

Work-related drinking, whether in the lunch break, or after knocking-off time, was once a staple of the pub trade, and a far better way of bonding with colleagues than any contrived team-building exercise. See this recent comment by Alan Winton. Now, of course, it is much diminished, due to the decline of large factories, the general anti-alcohol climate, and employers becoming increasingly intolerant of any drinking whatsoever by their employees.

The absence of lager, the number of halves being drunk, the unmarked handpumps and the universality of fags and ashtrays are all very noticeable. The clientele is also exclusively male, the only women present being behind the bar.

However, that simply reflects the make-up of the industrial workforce rather than any kind of discrimination in the pub. Even today, the manual workers in such heavy industry as we have left will be overwhelmingly male. A few years ago I worked for a spell as an accountant at a now-closed paper mill, providing maternity leave cover. The mill ran continuously 24/7, with five rotating shifts. Every single one of the 50 or so shiftworkers was male, but nobody seems to get aggrieved about that.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Freedom to irritate

One of my active Twitter followers is a chap called Fennaldo, who gives his location as North County Dublin in Ireland, although he also says he is a part-owner of Cork City FC. I understand that he is a smoker, so I was perhaps a little surprised to see this tweet from him:

Now, this might come across as a touch “Stockholm syndrome”, but I have seen similar comments from other Irish smokers, to a much greater degree than those on this side of the Irish Sea. Maybe it’s to do with the regulations governing smoking shelters in Ireland being less restrictive, and less strictly enforced, and the average Irish pub being smaller, so you don’t have to walk fifty yards for a smoke.

Everyone is entitled to their own views, even if they are intellectually inconsistent, but I can’t help thinking that the Nanny State agenda is not one from which you can pick and choose while maintaining any claim of a logical stance. “First they came for the smokers” and all that. If you value the freedom to do the things you like, you need to support others’ freedom to do the things they like, even if you find them distasteful.

In the sidebar it says that I “walk a tightrope between libertarianism and conservatism”, which I would say is a fair summary. I’m certainly no libertarian in the Murray Rothbard sense, but I do firmly believe that the basic starting point of official policy should be that adults should be allowed to live their lives as they see fit, as long as their actions do not impinge on others. Your person is your own property, not the State’s.

This view was famously expressed by the great Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty.

But Mill, who was a very wise man, recognised that, while there should be a presumption in favour of individual freedom, people do not exist in isolation and the impact of their actions on others cannot be ignored. The definition of where the line of “harm” should be drawn is a subjective one and has varied over the years following changes in the overall climate of opinion.

He drew a distinction between “offence” and “harm”. There are many things that we may find personally annoying or distasteful, but don’t actually do us any meaningful harm. Therefore these should be outside the scope of any government action, unless pursued to a degree that is covered by more general laws against harassment and nuisance. I don’t like drinking in pubs where there are howling infants, but I wouldn’t dream of wanting this to be outlawed purely for my own convenience. On the other hand, business owners may well feel that having a choice of child-friendly and child-free areas maximises their trade. And government could decide that, for their own protection, children should be kept out of wet-only bars, just as they are excluded from betting shops.

The same applies to smoking in indoor public places. Yes, many find it pretty unpleasant, which is a good reason for business owners to provide non-smoking areas. But there is no conclusive evidence that it imposes any meaningful harm on customers who may expose themselves to it for a few hours a week. Sir Richard Doll, the eminent scientist who first demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer, is on record as saying that he personally wasn’t particularly concerned about second-hand smoke. Nobody has a right to be protected from others doing things they just find irritating.

And, even if we assume there is some demonstrable low-level harm (which I do not), then why should we prevent adults from knowingly accepting that risk in pursuit of a good time? After all, we let them play rugby, ride horses, and engage in promiscuous unprotected sex, all of which are much more conclusively proven to increase health risks. If someone wants to have a drink with their friends in a smoky bar-room, in the full knowledge that it might lead to a slightly elevated risk, then what business is it of government to stop them?

It could be argued that there is a need to protect children, who may have no choice in the matter, and adults in locations which they need to visit for essential purposes. That might be a valid reason for requiring the default in cafés, restaurants and public areas such as station and airport concourses to be non-smoking, but it would still not preclude the provision of separate adults-only smoking areas.

And there is absolutely no way Mill would have remotely approved of the current blanket smoking ban. Even given the caveats expressed above, there can be no freedom-loving argument against allowing smoking in physically separate rooms, open only to adults, where there is no bar counter and no table service. What harm does that do to any others? Nobody has to go in a wet-only bar unless they willingly choose to.

(For the avoidance of doubt, this post does not address the question of risks of environmental tobacco smoke to workers)

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

In the club

I'll have no weirdy beardies in here, thank you!

I was recently rather tickled by Simon Everitt’s account of the less than fulsome welcome he received from the Good Beer Guide-listed Royal British Legion in Penistone, Yorkshire. The inclusion of clubs and off-licences in the Guide has been a perennial source of debate, so I thought I would run a poll on the subject.

The results show strong support for off-licences with a small bar section, with brewery taps and members’ clubs not far behind. Pure off-licences, which were common in the early years of the Guide, were less favoured, and very few people thought that establishments where you have to either stay overnight or eat a meal to have a drink should be featured. Only 20% of respondents went for “none of the above”.

I suppose it depends whether you see primary purpose of the Guide as being to lead you to good real ale wherever found, or whether it should concentrate on pubs where there is a more conventional all-round welcome. To be honest, I incline to the latter view, and regard clubs and off-licences as something of a waste of page space.

As Simon found, almost by definition, clubs do not set out to appeal to casual customers, and are often places where the one-off visitor does not feel at home. “Whatever the attitude,” he writes, “you can rarely be as anonymous in a club as you can in a pub.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but they’re a fundamentally different beast from pubs.

I could also have gone on to question whether self-consciously unpubby modern bars should be included, but that’s a whole different can of worms.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Getting it right

One of the perennial themes of this blog has been that far too much cask beer is presented to the customer in a condition that falls well short of the ideal, and that this “quality lottery” is a major factor in dissuading people from choosing it. The worst enemy of cask beer is the poor pint of cask beer.

Very often, the best policy in choosing a beer is to watch what other customers are drinking, so at least you’ll get one that has been pulled through. And I have to admit that, on occasion, when I’ve gone into an unfamiliar pub and the only cask on offer is a national brand on a single apologetic handpump, I’ve decided discretion is the better part of valour and plumped for a reliable pint of Carling instead.

The point is reinforced by this letter that appeared in June’s edition of What’s Brewing.

Over the last weekend, I was buttonholed by a drinker at the Stockport Beer Festival who told me how he had called in at a Good Beer Guide-listed pub in rural Cheshire. It was just after one o’clock, but he suspected his pint was the first one pulled that session. The licensee asked him how the beer was. “Not so bad,” he replied. “Good to hear that,” said the licensee. “I thought it was a bit warm myself.” Sorry, but if you think it’s too warm, what business do you have selling it to customers?

At the recent CAMRA AGM in Liverpool, Peter Alexander (aka Tandleman) and Graham Donning successfully proposed a motion saying:

This Conference notes that the Key Campaigns make no reference to the quality of real ale at the point of dispense. This conference agrees to add “improving the quality of real ale at the point of dispense” as a Key Campaigning Priority.
However, it’s one thing to say this, but another to do something about it.

You can’t force people to toe a particular line, but local newsletter editors need to be encouraged to take the point on board that more choice is not necessarily a good thing if it leads to slower turnover and lower quality. There is still a lazy assumption that “The George & Parakeet has added an extra handpump” is always something to be welcomed. Locally, we do it with our regular “Staggers”, but how many other branches are prepared to name and shame pubs serving up poor pints?

Newsletters could also publish a series of articles on cellarmanship provided by St Albans. And all breweries and pub-owning companies should be encouraged to run annual cellar competitions and give out well-publicised awards. The average quality of beer in Robinsons’ pubs, at one time highly variable, has greatly improved since they started doing this.

Maybe CAMRA should also organise formal training courses on how to recognise poor beer. In my experience, too many members struggle to make the distinction between the intrinsic qualities of a beer and how it is kept. I’ve never had any tuition in tasting, but I have no trouble recognising obvious faults such as beer being green, stale, sour, too warm, lacking condition, hazy, affected by diacetyl etc. Yet some people seem remarkably forgiving of downright rubbish, while condemning well-kept beer just because it’s not brewed in a railway arch.

It’s not just a question of handpump numbers, either, as very often the pubs such as the Crown and Magnet with twelve or more pumps keep their beer in consistently good nick because most of their customers are ale drinkers. The pubs that struggle tend to be the more generalist ones that feel that putting six beers on is doing cask drinkers a favour, but don’t have anything like the turnover to sustain it. And nor is it simply a matter of throughput. I’ve been in pubs where I strongly suspected I was getting the first one pulled that session, but it has still been spot-on. That should never be an excuse - it can be done with a bit of effort.

Good cellarmanship isn’t rocket science, it’s just the conscientious application of simple, basic principles. Sadly too many licensees nowadays don’t even seem to be able to manage that.

Monday, 30 May 2016

What did I tell you?

I can’t say the news on the front page of today’s Times is exactly surprising, but it’s good to see it in such a prominent spot in a national newspaper.

The article itself is of course behind the dreaded Murdoch paywall here.

I have made some suggestions before about some more sensible official alcohol guidelines. And it’s important to stress that exceeding them doesn’t immediately tip you off a cliff of risk.

These so-called “limits” are unscientific bollocks. And the more people who say so, the better.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Squeak up!

A few years ago, I posted about the growing problem of walking into a pub, finding nobody behind the bar, and having no means of summoning any service. Sadly, this phenomenon, if anything, seems to have got worse in the intervening years. Of course I appreciate that, at times, pub staff can be struggling to do three things at once. But, whatever the pressures, leaving the bar without service for five minutes or more is rank bad practice. I have on occasions walked out of pubs because of that. Even if staff are rushed off their feet, a quick acknowledgement of your presence and saying “I’ll be with you in a minute” works wonders.

The obvious answer would be to provide a service bell, as I proposed at the time. However, in British culture, that can come across as a touch aggressive and peremptory, rather like sounding a car horn. So surely the ideal solution, as one of my twitter followers has suggested, is to have a squeaky toy rubber duck on the bar. Friendly, humorous and completely non-confrontational.

Happy hours

A while back, I did a poll about what times people went to the pub. The results were really just a confirmation of the obvious so, as suggested in the comments, I created a more in-depth survey of people’s weekday pubgoing habits from Monday to Friday. I have to admit to letting this drift a bit over a few weeks, but, even so, there have been 55 responses in total.

Again it shows that people are going to pubs more often at lunchtimes from Monday to Thursday than is often supposed. Friday teatime was the most popular session of all, and beat any evening. Thursday evening was, perhaps surprisingly, slightly busier than Friday. The least popular session was Monday teatime. Teatimes and evenings built up steadily through the week, while lunchtimes showed more fluctuation.

In total, 49% of respondents had visited a pub at lunchtime, 64% at teatime and 76% in the evening.

Anyway, here are the figures in detail for you to mull over. The percentages shown in the graph are a touch misleading, as they are percentages of the number of people responding to that category rather than to the survey as a whole.