Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Wizard brew

At the end of last year, I reported that Robinsons had announced they were going to axe their 1892 Mild. The general verdict was that, while it was sad, the decision was understandable in view of plummeting demand, and nobody was going to be staging protest marches.

At the time, they said they planned to introduce a new 3.7% amber beer, not as a direct replacement for 1892, but to plug a gap at the bottom end of their range, something that caused many beer enthusiasts to yawn a little. This has now appeared in the form of Wizard, which did not greatly impress RedNev when he came across it. In the first two months of the year, Robinsons produced a seasonal beer called Mojo, which was also 3.7% and was thought to be a trial run of Wizard.

However, in fact Wizard is noticeably different, being paler, dryer and a little lighter on the palate. Robinsons say that they “have combined 5 English hops, pale, wheat & crystal malts to produce Wizard, a moreish, sessionable 3.7% ABV mythical amber ale. Packed full of flavour, Wizard has a spell-bounding fruity & zesty hop palate complemented by a magical full malt character.” Fair enough, but perhaps a touch of hyperbole for something that is basically an “ordinary bitter”.

As I said, it’s fairly dry, mid-amber in colour (a little darker than Unicorn), with a touch of the distinctive Robinsons house character and a good balance of malt and hops. It’s never going to set the world alight but, there again, that isn’t the point of ordinary bitter. Where available, it will probably become my usual drink in Robinsons pubs unless there’s a particularly interesting seasonal beer.

Historically, Robinsons have been in the unusual position of selling a “best bitter” as their everyday quaffing bitter. They weren’t alone in this – for example, Camerons Strongarm was their staple beer in the North-East, while the weaker Bitter was favoured in Yorkshire, Draught Bass and Marston’s Pedigree were both often the staple beer across large swathes of the Midlands, and in the South-West many breweries offered a “best bitter” at around 4.2%, and a “boys’ bitter” around 3.2%. But it was pretty much unique in the North-West.

Many people, unaware of the relative strength, used to complain that a night on Robinsons Best Bitter gave them a “bad head”, when in fact it was markedly stronger than most of its competitors. They did produce a weaker version at about 3.5%, just branded as “Bitter”, but for whatever reason it was only available in a handful of outlets, including locally the Queens in Cheadle. This was relaunched as “Old Stockport” at the same time as Best Bitter became Unicorn, but never really gained much favour and was axed a few years ago. They did introduce the 3.8% golden ale Dizzy Blonde, which can be very enjoyable when well-kept, but it has never claimed to be an ordinary bitter and indeed often sells at a premium to the stronger Unicorn.

But it seems a sensible move to launch a lower-strength ordinary bitter that will also allow Robinsons to be more price-competitive in many of their pubs where they have been struggling a bit. Then Unicorn can be repositioned as a premium beer going head-to-head with the likes of Wainwright and Doom Bar in the free trade. And it has a very recognisable brand name.

There is one worry, though. Historically, breweries in the North-West have always struggled to sell a bitter-style beer that is weaker than their standard beer, especially if the latter is automatically proferred when a customer just asks for “bitter”. Sam Smith’s Tadcaster Bitter is a prime example and, more recently, Holts IPA. The other day I was in a Robinsons pub serving a very decent pint of Wizard, but where an old boy went to the bar asking for bitter and got Unicorn. Unless Wizard overcomes that hurdle it is likely to struggle, although I’m sure the price differential will help.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Back to when pubs were pubs

I recently happened to be in Stockport town centre on a weekday lunchtime for an optician’s appointment, and afterwards thought I would call in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head on the market place for a swift pint. I’ve written about this pub before as being a bastion of the old-fashioned wet-led, pint-drinking pub culture, but in general I’ve only visited in the evenings and at weekends.

It doesn’t serve food (although it has in the past) but it was noticeable that, just before one o’clock, and not on a market day, it was busy, with a cluster of drinkers at the bar, and pretty much every table having at least one customer. The vast majority were over fifty, and most would fall into the category of being “down-to-earth”. No doubt most were either retired, unemployed or on disability, and so had time on their hands. I, by the way, am a “semi-retired gentleman of leisure” so am completely different.

The beer feminist sisterhood will no doubt point out that it was also a mostly male clientele, but it did include couples, individual women and all-female groups. I don’t see that the pub is in any way female-unfriendly, though, it’s more a generational thing whereby older women just don’t visit pubs on their own. Many widowed or divorced men will find a bit of social life in the pub, if they can get there, but women will be more inclined to sit at home and feel lonely. Maybe in twenty years’ time that will have changed.

Being a Sam’s pub, it has no piped music or TV sports, which will have encouraged the customers to chat to each other. It’s the kind of pub where complete strangers strike up conversation and even offer to buy each other drinks. The low prices will help, too. For these people, the pub is a key part of their social life, not just somewhere to go for a leisure experience. And, to cap it all, there was a large, fluffy, black-and-white pub cat, fast asleep on a bench and taking up two seats. I was warned not to be too affectionate as it had a tendency to be a bit snappy. You don’t get that in Spoons. The Old Brewery Bitter was pretty good, too.

I’ve often sung the praises of Sam Smith’s pubs in the past – cheap beer, brown decor, bench seating, no piped music, no TV sports, and proper pub customers engaging in proper pub chat. Now, they’re certainly not my ideal pubs – the limited beer range and the fact that the punters would often consider the Daily Mail to be a posh newspaper militate against that. But many other pub operators, in their quest to promote fancy food, music, TV and other distractions, seem to have forgotten what pubs were originally all about. And they have priced themselves out of the reach of many ordinary customers who once saw the pub as a valuable social resource.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Pride before a fall?

I recently wrote about the travails of Tesco, which had expanded beyond the point at which the business was sustainable, and raised the question as to whether the same fate might eventually befall Wetherspoon’s.

Love them or loathe them, Spoons have been the great pub success story of recent years, proving that even in a declining market you can still thrive by giving customers what they want. I’ve written about the reasons behind their rise here.

They still seem to be going from strength to strength, with a solid programme of new openings in the pipeline. They reckon that their ultimate goal is about 2,000 pubs – twice as many as they have today – which would mean that few people in the UK would not be within easy reach of a branch.

It hasn’t been a seamless ascent, though. Over the years they have encountered a number of setbacks, for example

  1. in the late 90s becoming too closely associated with the “night-time economy” in major cities
  2. jumping the gun on both full measures (which never happened) and the smoking ban (which, sadly, did), both of which alienated customers
  3. more recently, trying to push prices up in some branches in more prosperous areas and meeting much customer resistance
They have also made a number of errors in site selection, most notably the Edwin Chadwick in Longsight which even I would have warned them about. However, the juggernaut keeps rolling on.

I do wonder, though, whether they are now running into the same problems as Tesco – diminishing number of suitable new sites, and the risk of new openings cannibalising trade from existing venues. There are plenty of towns – such as Preston – where one Spoons has recently become two.

I’m not saying they’re anywhere near banging their heads against the ceiling, but that day must come. Tim Martin has just turned 60, and won’t be around forever. Some have suggested that the company depends on his personality holding it all together.

But my recommendation as to when to sell the shares would be on the day they make a public announcement that they are going to segment their pubs between different categories. It may seem to make commercial sense, but it will undermine the whole concept. The fact that a Spoons is a Spoons wherever you go is, to my mind, their USP.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Bipolar beer

Last month’s CAMRA AGM passed a motion instructing branches to desist from “anti campaigns” denigrating other drinks. Many would take the view this was long overdue, and indeed founder member Michael Hardman famously said “I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something.” Over the years this has included both a blanket dismissal of whole categories of beer as worthless rubbish, and casting doubt on the intelligence of those who chose to drink them. This kind of attitude may come across as narrow-minded and dogmatic today, but it’s interesting to consider how it arose in the first place.

When CAMRA was formed in the early 70s, the British beer and pub landscape was very different from how it is today. Approximately 90% of beer was sold in pubs and clubs, and 90% of that was ale – either bitter or mild in various forms. People weren’t “keg drinkers” or “real ale drinkers”, they were bitter or mild drinkers, and what CAMRA was trying to do was to to raise awareness of whether that beer was real or pressurised in some way. It also needs to be remembered that in those days non-real beer covered a multitude of categories beyond keg as such – blanket pressure, top pressure, bright beer, tank beer etc. But, at this time, it was correct to say that cask beer, when well kept, was almost universally better than any form of pressurised beer, so the simple dichotomy of “real ale good, keg beer bad” contained a substantial element of truth.

Of course there was at that time one clearly-defined group of “keg drinkers” – those who went for the big brewers’ premium keg beers such as Watney’s Red, Double Diamond and Worthington E, but even there they identified with the brand rather than the category. These were among CAMRA’s first targets and within a period of about five years they had reduced them from being seen as an aspirational product to something irredeemably naff. “Keg drinkers” as such didn’t re-emerge until the early 90s and the rise of “smooth” as a distinct product. At first, with products like Caffrey’s, the brewers hoped to reconnect ale with a younger market, but it has been increasingly characterised as the choice of older, working-class male drinkers. They do specifically ask for “smooth”, though, whereas nobody really used to ask for keg.

In the long run, cask has won the battle against keg, which now accounts for a smaller proportion of the ale market than at any time during CAMRA’s existence. But ale has decisively lost the wider battle against lager, which has come to represent 70% of the on-trade beer market. The spectacular rise of lager is often thought to have really taken off in the hot summer of 1976. This was harder to oppose than keg ale, because it wasn’t possible to point to a direct “real” alternative, and so inevitably lager drinkers themselves began to be stereotyped. Initially they were seen as effete “shandy drinkers”, but as lager gained popularity amongst a new generation of drinkers, they metamorphosed into the laddish followers of George the Bear, and in a sense lager became the drink of the Loadsamoney generation. Obviously this was easy for the beer buffs to look down their noses at, but they started to realise that in Germany and the Czech Republic you could actually find some excellent lagers, so it became more difficult to condemn the whole category. You won’t win any converts by asking What’s the matter, Lagerboy?, and it’s noticeable how nowadays it’s vanishingly rare to see any working-class man under 40 drinking ale, either real or keg.

In the early 70s, bottled and canned beer only made up a small proportion of the market, and it didn’t matter all that much when CAMRA decided to make bottle-conditioned beer, which was down to a small handful of products, the packaged equivalent of real ale. But in the longer term, as drinking increasingly moved from the pub to the home, this proved to be a strategic error. Bottle-conditioning is great for strong speciality brews but, because of the practical difficulties of storage, pouring and consistency, it is never going to be a realistic option for everyday quaffing beers, something that the brewers had realised long before they started dropping cask on draught. So, when all the well-known real ales started appearing in bottles, CAMRA lumped them in the same category as cans of Long Life, while encouraging small breweries to produce bottle-conditioned ales which qualified for “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” but were often highly inconsistent products that did not encourage repeat purchase. It’s commonplace for the drinkers who choose cask beer in the pub to buy the bottled versions for drinking at home and refer to them as “real ales”, even though strictly speaking they aren’t. Drinkers see the two as equivalent even if CAMRA doesn’t. One CAMRA magazine notoriously declares “tins are always very, very bad”. The likes of Beavertown might have something to say about that!

Forty years on, the beer scene is far more diverse than it was in the early days. Lager has come to dominate the market – much dull or indifferent, some truly excellent. We have imports from all over the world, the craft beer movement has brought a bewildering array of styles and flavours, and we have high-quality beers from small new breweries appearing in keg form, some of which technically qualify as real ale. The old certainties have gone, and it no longer makes any sense to dismiss entire categories of beer out of hand or suggest that the people who drink them are ill-informed. Most of us, including most CAMRA members, are to some extent “repertoire drinkers” now, and don’t religiously stick to the same product on grounds of principle. I rarely drink anything but cask in pubs, as I make a point of choosing pubs that serve decent cask, but I’m certainly not the kind of person who sits at a wedding drinking bitter lemon with a face like a wet weekend because the only beer available is Foster’s. If you want to encourage people to try something new, denigrating their current choice is not a good way to go about it. It is good news that CAMRA has at last officially recognised that championing Britain’s unique contribution to the beer world and a key part of our national heritage requires a positive, outward-looking approach rather than refighting the doctrinaire battles of forty years ago.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Polling station, then pub

Well, here are the results of the Mudgie opinion poll for the 2015 General Election. I made a point of not sharing or promoting this anywhere else and so the results are more representative than the last one.

As I said in the comments, there’s a clear dichotomy between the two contrasting demographics that the blog appeals to:

  1. Smoking ban opponents and general advocates of “lifestyle liberty”, who are likely to be predominantly UKIP

  2. The CAMRA/beer blogging community, who mainly have left-wing sympathies, either Labour or Green
There does seem to be a something of a cognitive dissonance on the last point, given Labour’s support for various anti-pub and anti-drink measures, such as the smoking ban and the duty escalator, and the Greens’ expressed desire to considerably increase alcohol duty. Obviously it’s a rather narrow view to cast your vote purely on the basis of the interests of the beer industry, but I do wonder how many genuinely believe that a Labour government would improve its prospects, and how many still vote Labour for other reasons despite that.

I’m not going to launch into a lengthy political diatribe, but I’m sure it will come as no surprise that locally I will be voting for this chap, who is an excellent candidate. I will make a couple of further points, though:

A survey shows that the key feature distinguishing UKIP supporters from those of other parties is opposition to “lifestyle regulation”, something that goes much further than the smoking ban and represents a genuine undercurrent of anger and frustration at the ever-growing encroachment of the Nanny Bully State.

Last month, the Morning Advertiser carried out a Q & A session with Pubs Minister Kris Hopkins and his shadow Toby Perkins. Read it and see what you think. But it takes a bit of brass neck for Perkins to say “we want to see a higher proportion of Britain’s alcohol drunk in pubs” when the last Labour government did more than any since Lloyd George to achieve the opposite.

As a general rule, most of what politicians say about pubs is self-serving, hypocritical bollocks. The best thing they could do is just to leave them alone, rather than indulge in misguided attempts to “save” them which may well end up having the opposite effect.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

CAMRA – what is it good for?

Yesterday, Boak and Bailey wrote an interesting blogpost entitled Things we Love About CAMRA. Their conclusion was that, “despite its oddities, frustrations and occasional missteps”, overall it did far more good than harm. I made a similar point in a piece called Only Here for the Beer which I wrote ten years ago, before blogs and Twitter had been invented.

Recently, there have been thoughtful posts covering much of the same ground from Paul Bailey and Tandleman. Yes, CAMRA can sometimes come across as irritating, dogmatic and misguided, although very often that is more the fault of individual members rather than the organisation as a whole. At its most recent AGM a number of motions were passed indicating a desire to take a more inclusive and less narrow-minded view of the beer (and cider) world. It’s interesting how in recent years some of the strongest criticism has come from the “craft beer” community, while most of the general public would at worst dismiss CAMRA as well-meaning fuddy-duddies.

In my view, two of its greatest achievements are creating the National Inventory of historic pub interiors, and campaigning successfully to scrap the beer duty escalator and indeed get three years of small duty cuts. This, probably the biggest victory scored against the neo-Prohibitionists in recent years, was achieved through a broad-based campaign that mobilised all beer drinkers and pubgoers, not just real ale lovers.

I still feel that CAMRA could and should do more at a national level to combat the anti-drink lobby, and that it has devoted far too much effort to pubco and planning reform, which are issues that fail to resonate with most members on the ground, and are greatly overstated as reasons for pub decline. There’s also a question mark about what, in the present day, its objectives should actually be. But visit any of the many beer festivals it organises around the country and you will see happiness being spread and interest in beer being stimulated, which can’t be bad.

B&B disabled comments on their blogpost for fear of provoking an almighty row, but feel free to comment here.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

How are the mighty fallen

Last week, Tesco posted one of the largest corporate losses ever seen in the UK, at £6.4 billion. It has to be said that most of this is due to property write-offs, and they still made a trading profit, but even so it represents a spectacular example of corporate over-ambition and mismanagement.

No doubt many CAMRA activists will be experiencing a profound sense of Schadenfreude, given how they have argued over the years that Tesco has been highly destructive of the pub trade through selling beer at rock-bottom prices and buying up entirely viable pubs to convert to Tesco Express stores. Now, in my view these two issues are greatly exaggerated as reasons for pub decline. But it does underline a far more important point.

No institution, however dominant and established it may appear, is ever secure. The free market, ultimately, will wreak its revenge. History is littered with examples of apparently all-conquering businesses – General Motors, ICI, IBM, Microsoft – that have been brought down to size. The once all-powerful “Big Six” of British brewing have all either disappeared, been taken over, or turned in to companies with little interest in brewing and pubs.

Large organisations almost inevitably fall victim to a sense of arrogance and complacency, A variety of competitors have sprung up to challenge the dominance of the big supermarkets – obviously the discounters such as ALDI and Lidl, but also pound shops and value retailers such as Home Bargains and B&M. People may still go to the big stores, but they’re giving them a lower proportion of their overall spending. Clearly there’s a trade-off of time vs money, but personally I’m spending around a tenner a week at Home Bargains that otherwise would have been spent – at much higher prices – in Tesco or Morrisons.

I am the in fortunate position where all four of the major supermarkets are within a couple of miles, but I tend to favour Tesco and Morrisons – Sainsbury’s being noticeably more expensive on many everyday purchases, and ASDA giving the impression of going for the mums’ market and failing to provide smaller packs. Each has one or two things the other doesn’t, so it’s worth dividing my attention.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about supermarkets is the constantly changing offers, so that you never quite know where you are. This has got to the point where it is now being investigated by the Competition Commission. Personally, constant, steady low prices would be much more of a draw, and Tesco are far more guilty of this than Morrisons.

The price war at last seems to have got through to the realm of Premium Bottled Ales. For quite a while, they stood against the tide, but recently Morrisons have dropped their £1.89 a bottle; £5 for three offer in favour of £1.65 a bottle; £6 for four. This offer also includes various craft beers, such as Thwaites 13 Guns and three from Hardknott in 330ml bottles or cans.

Tesco have gone one step further, for a while selling quite a few PBAs for £1.25, and most of the rest for £1.50, including those such as Old Crafty Hen that normally sell for well above £2. They’ve now reverted to a general £6 for four offer, with individual bottles at £1.99 (although a few still at £1.25), but the general trend towards price-cutting remains. When you consider that they can sell 440ml cans of Carlsberg for about 55p each without making a loss, there’s obviously a lot of margin in PBAs

For many people, the PBA offer will be a major factor in choosing which supermarket to patronise, and I expect we’ll see a lot more price competition in the future.

The day will also come, although I won’t predict when, that Wetherspoon’s find out that they’ve attempted an expansion too far.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Careful cultivation

Whenever you hear that a pub is going be closed for refurbishment, there’s always a slight feeling of unease. OK, if it’s just a case of repainting and reupholstering and improving the toilets, then there’s nothing to worry about, but anything more than that and you sort of know it’s going to end up worse. Smarter, brighter, cleaner maybe, but inevitably opened out a little more, lacking a few more original features and a bit less cosy and comfortable. It will be praised in the local CAMRA magazine for being “sensitive” and “widening the pub’s appeal”, but some of what gave it character before will have gone. You can see this in some local pubs – the Spread Eagle in Bredbury particularly springs to mind – where, over the years, multiple revamps have transformed what was once an unspoilt traditional interior into an open-plan space that could be any of a hundred pubs.

It’s even more worrying when you hear rumours of work being planned at a much-loved pub that features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors. For quite a while there has been talk of changes at the Nursery in Heaton Norris, Stockport, and Hydes Brewery have now formally lodged their plans with the local council. However, having had a good look at them, it appears that there’s nothing to be concerned about. The pub, a rare original example of a 1930s design scheme, is now a listed building, which restricts the scope to make structural changes, and the fact that Stockport’s chief conservation officer lives just a few doors down the road will have ensured that the plans received careful scrutiny. The documents attached to the planning application include a large number of interior photographs and before-and-after floorplans.

The only structural alterations are to convert the disused off-sales department into a ladies’ toilet to serve the vault (which previously only had a gents’), close off a serving hatch that wasn’t an original feature anyway, and replace the modern back bar fitting. All the fixed seating and original period decorations including the stained glass windows depicting plants and garden implements are to be retained, while the decorative designs make extensive use of Thirties motifs. So all credit to Hydes for coming up with a very sympathetic scheme that if anything will improve the pub. As the planning assessment concludes:
The impact of the redecoration will therefore be to enhance the existing character and internal building features, reinforcing the separate room layout of the plan form with reference to the 1930’s in the finishes without attempting to create a museum or stage set.

The proposed refurbishment of the Nursery Inn in Heaton Norris represents a faith in the future of this public house by the brewery and will help to secure its long term future and use.

The character of the Listed Building will be enhanced internally and the fabric of the building given a new lease of life.

If only they’d take the TV screens out of the rear smoke room, though!

Hydes are also planning to refurbish the Horse & Farrier in Gatley in the coming months. This doesn’t have an original interior like the Nursery, but maybe fifteen or twenty years ago it was renovated to become a “Heritage Inn” with much dark wood and a rambling layout of several cosy areas around the central bar. To my eye it's one of the most congenial non-original pub interiors in Stockport. No plans have been published yet, so let’s hope they’re not too drastic.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Of Irish gold and gamma rays

Back in the 1990s, following the success of Guinness Draught in a can, Guinness launched “Guinness Bitter”, using the same widget technology. I remember it being advertised showing a fisherman putting his four-pack in the river to keep the cans cool, but it never seems to have been a great success and has long since disappeared from the market. To this day I still have a Guinness Bitter fridge magnet, though.

Now, as part of the initiative that has led to the introduction of Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter, Guinness have re-entered the ale market with the launch of Guinness Golden Ale. As it was on sale at £1.50 a bottle in my local Tesco, I thought I would give it a try. The first thing that strikes you is that, as Beer Viking reports here, it isn’t actually a golden ale. In colour, it’s more mid-amber, a similar hue to, say, Marston’s Pedigree, and certainly nowhere near as pale as the likes of Thwaites Wainwright. I’d broadly agree with his review that it’s a perfectly decent beer, fairly rich and “beery”, with subdued caramel notes, whereas some so-called “golden ales” have a rather insipid, lemony flavour. But I can’t see it winning many converts from lager, and the name is frankly misleading.

Locally, we’ve recently seen the opening of a new combined bottle shop and bar called Bottle Heaton Moor. The owner Corin Bland is someone who is really enthusiastic about his beer, and I’m confident it will prove a successful venture for which there’s a strong demand in the area. There’s a detailed review here on Beers Manchester. My only caveat is that it’s not exactly a comfortable place to sit and have a drink, as the picture above shows. But it’s not really aimed at me anyway.

When I called in, I spotted cans of Beavertown Gamma Ray on sale and bought one out of curiosity. Don’t worry, this isn’t “Mudgie goes Craft!” When they first launched a few years ago, Beavertown were so achingly craaaaaffft that they almost came across as a parody, but they have gone from strength to strength, and Gamma Ray seems to be regarded as one of the defining beers of the current “craft beer revolution”.

It was a distinctly steep £2.60 for a 330ml can of a 5.4% beer. The can has a striking science-fiction design showing an alien with a ray gun. Incidentally, why do “craft cans” tend to have a slightly rougher surface texture than soft drink ones? It pours a bright, almost orangey colour, with vigorous carbonation and a thick white head. The taste is that classic piney, resiny American hop flavour in spades. If you like that sort of thing, it will be right up your street, but I have to say that I see beers of this kind in the same way as highly peated Islay malts – you respect them, but they’re not something you’d like to drink a lot of. Personally I also find it offputting that it’s hazy verging on cloudy. I’m sure they have the technical expertise to brew a clear beer, so it has to be assumed that they are deliberately brewing a “London murky” as a sign of just how craft they are. If I wanted to drink a beer of that type, I’d much prefer either BrewDog Punk IPA or Thwaites 13 Guns.

Apologies for lack of blogging in recent weeks – I’ve just not had my interest sparked by anything. Now that the general election is less than a month away, I’ve reinstated the voting intentions poll in the sidebar – mobile users can access it here. I’d be grateful if readers didn’t share this elsewhere on social media, as last time some did this rather over-enthusiastically, which distorted the results to the extent that they were pretty meaningless.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Glass half empty?

Well done to George Osborne for making a small cut to beer duty for the third year running, something without precedent in living memory. But inevitably some have given this a grudging reception, saying that a penny a pint duty cut is neither here nor there, and most pub operators won’t apply it anyway. I suspect many dislike Osborne so much that they would still whinge even if he totally abolished beer duty and gave everyone a flying horse to transport them to and from the pub.

In reality the comparison is not with a duty freeze, but with the continued application of the beer duty escalator, which would have resulted in a pint in the pub being 30 or 40p dearer by now. If you can’t see, or acknowledge, that, you’re either an idiot or someone who allows political partisanship to override a rational consideration of the interests of the brewing industry and pub trade. The Centre for Economic and Business Research has calculated that the beer duty reductions have already saved over 1,000 pubs from closure. Surely that’s something we can all celebrate regardless of political affiliation?

Friday, 20 March 2015

Knotty solution

When I first started going in pubs, I rapidly picked up the habit – possibly from my dad – of tying empty crisp packets into a little knot so they took up less space and so could easily be placed into an ashtray. Yes, kids, in those days every pub table had an ashtray.

A few years later, I remember doing this in a remote country pub in Sussex and the grumpy landlord saying “I bet you used to make model aeroplanes when you were younger”. Which I actually didn’t, but you understand the point. I still do it, and friends view me seizing on a stray crisp packet as a form of OCD. I never embraced folding the packets into little triangles, though.

I recently came across this article on How to Eat Crisps* and was rather gratified to read the following, which confirms my view:

In public, where you might not bin it immediately, fold the packet lengthways into a narrow strip and then tie a knot in it. People who fold the packet into a tight, precise triangle are psychopaths.
Apparently, the UK consumes more crisps than the rest of the EU put together. And, the question of what you do with your rubbish in the pub following the demise of the ashtray, which I mentioned here, has still not been solved. It seems that you just leave it on the table and wait for a member of staff to clear it away.

* what next? “How to wipe your arse”?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Plates are so last century

Go in any pub or restaurant nowadays that has the slightest aspiration to be fashionable, and the odds are that you will have your meal served, not on a plate, but on a roofing slate, a chopping board, a baking tray or even just a plank of wood. Your chips may be stacked on their end in a mug, salad under an upturned wine glass and vegetables in a flowerpot.

Some of the worst examples are shown on this page, including bread in slippers, chips in a miniature shopping trolley and steak on a meat cleaver. The picture on the right shows fish on a rectangular piece of wood, with chips in a little stainless steel bucket and mushy peas in a latté glass.

Not too long ago, people were complaining about square plates replacing round ones, but this is taking things to a whole new level. There are obvious practical objections, in that an entirely flat surface does nothing to stop food sliding or dripping off the edge, and you have to wonder how thoroughly chunks of wood are washed, especially those with cracks in them. Some types of containers may make it physically difficult to actually eat the food from them.

But ultimately this is just a rather pathetic attempt to come across as funky, artisanal and cutting-edge. Anything, no matter how absurd, is better than a boring old round plate. Come on, we all know the food’s just popped out of a microwave and they’re not actually slaughtering pigs round the back. There’s even a Twitter account @WeWantPlates to highlight some of its more laughable excesses.

However, Wetherspoons are bucking the trend – not so long ago they replaced plain square plates with very retro-looking round ones with blue and white patterns. It might be a good idea for more pubs to follow suit and stop opening themselves up to ridicule.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Last pub standing

The Harewood Arms in the Tameside village of Broadbottom was chosen as CAMRA’s Greater Manchester Pub of the Year for 2014, and went on to be among the four finalists for the national award. Originally known as the Griffin, it was taken over in 2013 by Green Mill Brewery, and has effectively become their brewery tap, with the brewery operating in the cellar. But perhaps what is most notable about it is that it is the sole survivor of what were relatively recently no fewer than nine pubs on the road up from the bridge over the Etherow at the bottom end of Broadbottom to the A57 junction in Mottram-in-Longdendale, a distance of about two miles.

At the bottom end was the Cheshire Cheese, described in CAMRA’s 1995 guide to Tameside pubs, Nine Towns Bitter, as “easily the busiest in the village”. Heading up the hill, the Shoulder of Mutton was one of the earliest to close, but in the past had been highly regarded for its beer. I remember a new bar opening in the old station building, maybe in the late 80s, but by 1995 it seems to have disappeared. Next came the Griffin, now the Harewood Arms, and a bit further up on the same side of the road the Crescent, which the guide describes as “a mecca for the local worshippers of Duke Boddington”.

On the road between Broadbottom and Mottram was the Waggon (pictured), which closed relatively recently, a Robinson’s pub that once had ambitions as a destination food house. The centre of Mottram is a conservation area, with attractive stone-built houses lining a small triangular market square, and the church dominating the scene from its hilltop. Just off to the west was the Pack Horse, a large former Wilsons pub that has been closed for many years. On the square itself is the White Hart, most recently a Lees house, which managed to cling on but which the latest issue of Opening Times reports as imminently closing. Then down on the congested A57 crossroads was Robinsons’ Junction, which the guide describes as having an “emphasis on food in a separate dining room”, and which offered an impressive view of the Peak District hills to the rear.

And it doesn’t stop there. On the main road north from Mottram towards Stalybridge, the Roe Cross, a large roadhouse that was once a popular pub-restaurant, is now a garden centre. Heading west, there used to be an estate pub on the back road to Hattersley called the President, which eventually ended up as the Flat Cap and is now demolished. The guide describes it as having “a run down appearance catering just to a local need.” On the main A560 through Hattersley was Robinsons’ Chapman Arms, a commodious stone-built pub now converted to flats.

The roundabout at the eastern end of the M67 does boast a new family dining pub, the Mottram Wood (originally the Outside Inn), with associated Premier Inn, but you have to wonder how many residents use it as a local boozer. Down the A57 towards Hyde was Robinsons’ New Inn, a substantial rustic-styled 1930s roadhouse. On the main part of the Hattersley overspill estate, the guide lists three pubs – Centuries, the Four in Hand and the Hustage – none of which show up in web searches, and so presumably are all gone now.

In the opposite direction, heading downhill along Mottram Moor, the Gun Inn at the traffic lights where the A628 meets the A57, is still going, as are the New Inn and Organ Inn in Hollingworth village, although the Royal Oak has bitten the dust. The future of the Organ has been called into question, but as far as I know it is still open. Towards Glossop on the A57, the Woolley Bridge Inn is long-closed. Then, crossing the border into Derbyshire, there are four closed pubs, and none still open – the long-gone Spread Eagle and Plough, and the more recent casualties the Spring Tavern and the Junction.

All in all, quite an astonishing record of pub closures. Nine Towns Bitter lists nineteen pubs in the district of “Longdendale”, of which only four are still trading, with one new addition. Excluding the four in Hollingworth, it is just one out of fifteen. While Hattersley is poor and run-down, the older villages of Broadbottom and Mottram with their characterful stone-built terraces give the impression of being fairly prosperous and favoured locations for Manchester commuters.

None of these pubs, except perhaps the Roe Cross, have any shortage of nearby housing, and cannot be considered to have been critically dependent on car-borne customers. On the other hand, the endemic congestion on the unbypassed A57 through Mottram, and the rather savage traffic-calming scheme introduced in Broadbottom about fifteen years ago, can’t have helped. But the whole sad saga underlines the point that, while some city and town centres and prosperous suburbs may be seeing something of a pub and bar revival, in many areas outside that bubble the pub scene continues to be one of drastic retrenchment .

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The bland leading the bland

Greene King have recently relaunched their flagship IPA brand to give it a more contemporary and, dare I say, “craft” look. This beer is derided by many beer aficionados for being dull and bland, and various comments appeared on Twitter about “polishing a turd”. I wouldn’t go quite so far – while it’s certainly not a beer I’d go out of my way to find, when well kept it does have a bit of character and can be an enjoyable pint.

However, as Martyn Cornell points out in this blogpost, the critics are missing the point. Greene King IPA is intended as an approachable, easy-drinking beer for mass-market consumption. It’s never going to excite the tastebuds of those who are looking for extreme and challenging flavours. This illustrates a wider point, that from the early days of CAMRA, beer enthusiasts have consistently failed to understand why the general public choose to drink beers other than those they favour. Another example of this is shown by this post by Boak and Bailey about how the rise of lager in the UK has consistently been misunderstood and underestimated.

It is somewhat patronising to believe that people are gullible fools who are persuaded by expensive advertising campaigns and glitzy illuminated fonts to choose dull mass-market beers over the good stuff. Most drinkers are not enthusiasts and will apply different criteria, but, as I argued here, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They are likely to put a higher value on consistency and the absence of strong, possibly offputting flavours.

In the past, local monopolies were often blamed for brewers being able to foist dull beer on drinkers, but that has been much eroded now. There can be few significant towns where the pubs don’t offer a wide selection of different beers. But it is very noticeable that the cask beers you see everywhere tend to be the classic “brown bitters” such as Bombardier and Doom Bar, or the easy-drinking interpretations of the modern golden ale style such as Wainwright and Dizzy Blonde. There’s nothing stopping pubs stocking other beers, but in general they don’t want to frighten the horses too much.

The same is true of the Premum Bottled Ale shelves, where everything is on a level playing field, but the more accessible beers, whether malty bitter or soft golden ale, still rule the roost. Indeed some of the more strong-flavoured beers, such as Thwaites Indus IPA, have struggled to maintain a listing. But this is due to consumers demonstrating an informed preference, not because they are too thick to know any better.

It’s also an interesting thought that in the early days of CAMRA, there were no extreme or challenging beers, and very few above an OG of 1050. And some of the favourite beers of the pioneering campaigners were ones such as Holts that many ordinary drinkers steered clear of because of their distinctive flavour. You wouldn’t believe it now, but my father used to tell an anecdote of going to a Rugby League match in West Yorkshire in the 1950s, calling in a Tetley’s pub (before they took over Walker’s of Warrington), and finding the beer just “too bitter”.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Irish Coffee, Sir?

It was a sign of the times that the long-running US sitcom Friends saw the main characters socialising in a coffee shop rather than a bar. It began showing in 1994 and, since then, coffee shops have enjoyed exponential growth and become a standard feature of most British High Streets.

Personally, I have never seen the point, but their success is undeniable. I would say they have created their own market rather than taking existing trade from pubs – they come across as welcoming, unthreatening and, dare I say it, female-friendly. A coffee shop is basically a window on the world, whereas a pub is a refuge from it.

Now, the market-leading operator Starbucks have announced that they are going to roll out the sale of alcohol in some of their UK outlets, following successful trials in the US. It’s part of an “evening concept” that also includes serving more substantial meals. I can’t imagine that Tim Martin will be quaking in his boots, but it’s easy to see the appeal to tourists wanting a pre-theatre snack, or office workers enjoying a glass of Chardonnay after work before getting the train home.

It’s another example of how the on-licence scene is fragmenting and diversifying. We now have large numbers of bars in former shop premises, micropubs, bottle shops with in-house bars and fully-licensed “bar and restaurant” operations. It’s becoming less and less true that you need to go to a pub to have a drink outside the house. However, I would say that trying to ape coffee shops is about the worst thing pubs could do.

But, if you do want an Irish Coffee, you’ll be disappointed, as they’re not planning to serve spirits. But perhaps liqueur coffees would be a good sales tactic...

Friday, 27 February 2015

Killed by red tape

In this blogpost, Christopher Snowdon publishes the text of a speech he gave to the Future Pubs conference. In it, he mounts a trenchant attack on the view that increased market regulation and planning controls will benefit the pub trade and keep more pubs open – something I have often argued on here in the past. He concludes:

If you believe, against all evidence and experience, that more government is the solution, then you will continue to get more government and you will get it good and hard.
Go and read the whole thing and see what you think. I made the point on Twitter that it’s interesting how the anti-pub anti-pubco lobby never seem to be up to challenging his arguments. So if you have a comment to make, please make it there rather than here.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Take 5

Last year, I expressed concern that Holt’s were planning to convert the Cheadle Hulme pub in the suburb of the same name to a “family dining venue”, and expanded on this in my Opening Times column.

The work has now been completed and the pub reopened as Platform 5 this Monday. The name comes from it being situated next door to the station, which has four platforms because it is in the fork of two lines. I put my head round the door to take a look and have to say it has turned out a lot better than was feared. I’m not sure whether it was always going to be like this, or whether they tweaked the concept somewhat in response to local concerns.

It’s certainly not a family dining pub of the Hungry Horse type, being a notch or two more upmarket in both its menu and general style. The pub is split into two halves, with that on the left being in café/restaurant style, and the right being more conventionally “pubby”. Between the two is a “waiting room” with high seating and a screen showing departures from the station. However, all the TV screens showing Sky Sports have been removed from its previous incarnation.

As the photo suggests, while it does have the usual contemporary style touches such as a lack of beermats, scatter cushions and meals served on chopping boards and roofing tiles, it does retain extensive bench seating and generally makes use of warm colours – reds and browns. While obviously mainly food-oriented, it’s certainly somewhere you could happily just sit and have a drink, and to my eye is a more congenial pub interior than Holts’ other two recent upgrades – the Five Ways in Hazel Grove and the Griffin in Heald Green.

The old pub sold a couple of guest ales and beers from Holts’ Bootleg micro-brewery, but the selection has now been pared down to their mainstream range – Bitter, IPA and Two Hoots – although it was good to see the IPA beng replaced by Mild when it went off. Possibly they will have the two on rotation. The beer names are hand-chalked on pumpclips like little blackboards.

There’s an extensive food menu of the kind of sub-gastro type often seem in such places. For pub food it’s not cheap, with most main meals some way over £10 – if you want a cheap lunch you would be better off in Wetherspoons’ King’s Hall just down the road. It also seemed to suffer from the common problem of “chips with everything”, served, of course, in a little basket of their own. And yes, there were at least a couple of pulled pork dishes.

It’s also worth mentioning that the male bar staff seemed to be decked out in hipster uniform, with beards and check shirts, the lead barperson sporting particularly impressive ginger facial hair.

Not my kind of pub by any means, but it could have been a lot worse and, unless you really hanker after Spoons’ beer range, probably the best on offer in Cheadle Hulme.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

It won't lie down

You often hear antismokers claiming that the smoking ban enjoys overwhelming public support, it has now become generally accepted, it is water under the bridge and we now need to move on. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

A new poll carried out by the Institute of Economic affairs has shown that 51% of respondents supported pubs, clubs and bars being allowed to have separate smoking rooms, with only 35% opposing, the remaining 14% being “don’t knows”. Yet only one major political party is even prepared to consider the idea.

Far from being accepted as a milestone that will never be reversed, the smoking ban has created an abiding legacy of bitterness and remains very much a live issue. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it has been a key factor in alienating the traditional working class from the Labour Party, when they see so many of their pubs, clubs and bingo halls going out of business.

No doubt in the middle of American Prohibition, many in the anti-drink lobby were stridently insisting that there was no going back, but eventually there was. There are some legislative changes that do mark a once and for all watershed, but this isn’t one of them.

Another interesting snippet from the same report is that considerably more people think the duty on spirits and wine is too high than think it is for beer.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Victory salutations

Congratulations to the Salutation Inn at Ham in Gloucestershire for winning CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year Award for 2015. As the article says:
Judges, who included Camra volunteers, hailed the friendly atmosphere and simple characteristics of “the definitive country alehouse”. It offers customers five real ales, eight real ciders, traditional pub games such as skittles and an unfussy lunchtime menu that includes ham rolls, made from from the pub’s own pigs.
Sounds right up my street. The skittle alley at the rear is an increasingly rare feature. It’s situated in a village rather off the main tourist track just south of the small town of Berkeley, in whose castle King Edward II was reputedly murdered in 1327 by having a red-hot poker shoved up his backside.

I actually visited the pub in the Autumn of 2008 and have to say that my feeling then was that it was pleasant enough, but nothing special, and I was disappointed by the very limited food offering. However, I suspect it’s one of those places that grows on you with familiarity, and the article suggests that the current owners, who have been there for a couple of years, have significantly upped its game.

As with last year’s winner, the Swan with Two Necks at Pendleton in Lancashire, there have been grumbles that it represents an old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy view of the ideal pub and fails to reflect the burgeoning, cutting-edge urban craft beer scene. However, as I said then, I would regard it as a positive step that they have chosen a pub with a broad appeal to the general public rather than a narrowly-focused beer bar, whether alehouse or craft emporium. The other three finalists were all definitely pubs, and none in city centres. Possibly the expectation that entries should demonstrate community involvement and a varied cross-section of clientele told against some of the more specialist venues.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Grudgebearers’ Arms

This time of year sees CAMRA branches across the country selecting the pubs they will include in the following year’s Good Beer Guide. They now have results from the National Beer Scoring System to inform their decisions* but, inevitably and rightly, other more subjective factors will come into play. A welcoming, well-run pub with good scores may well be preferred to one that has slightly better beer but is otherwise far less pleasant, and a large number of scores provide more confidence that they are representative than a small handful.

However, it’s interesting how, over the years, people have sought to bring various kinds of anecdotal evidence into the discussions in an attempt to sway the outcome. A prime example is how, many years ago, someone tried to get the local CAMRA branch to target individual pubs suspected to be returning slops to the cask. This is undoubtedly a reprehensible and insanitary practice, not to mention being illegal, but the problem is that it also is well-nigh impossible to prove through observation from the customer side of the bar. So the end result is that you just end up levelling accusations against pubs that can neither be proved nor disproved, but where some mud might stick. And the pubs singled out always seemed to be those that the complainers didn’t much like anyway.

Another pub was criticised for closing its front door on busy weekend evenings which, given that it is a very small pub in a city centre, doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me. It was pointed out that customers in the know could get in round the back, but one person claimed that when he had tried to do so, he had been attacked by a large and vicious dog. Whether or not that was the case, it was brought up for several years, by which time it had turned into a shaggy dog story.

Then there are the inevitable reports that “I had a bad pint” and “I was served short measure”. Now, I can’t think of a single pub I regularly visit where I’ve never had to return beer to the bar, and so an isolated instance tells you nothing. If people were regularly receiving bad pints it would be reflected in the scoring. Some pubs may be a bit more likely than others to serve short pints, but at the end of the day it’s up to the customer to ensure they get a full glass, and indeed on occasions I’ve seen CAMRA members take blatantly short pints off the bar which surely would have been topped up without asking if they had left them,

Another accusation levelled against certain pubs, although less so now, is that they were “cliquey”. This was essentially shorthand for saying they had a substantial contingent of regular middle-class drinking customers, amongst whom the duffle-coated ale enthusiast might not feel at home. This has now much reduced as the middle classes have become less keen on drinking (as opposed to eating) in pubs but, even so, unless a place is actively unwelcoming, you have to accept its social mix for what it is. On the other hand, more recently a pub’s suitability was questioned because some of the clientele were “a bit rough”. This didn’t mean it was in any way threatening, just that it was popular with older working-class drinkers who at times might burst into song or use some ripe language. Compared to some of the raw Holt’s boozers of thirty years ago it was like a vicarage tea party.

A perennial gripe is that some pubs charge extortionate prices for their beer. There is a wide variation in prices depending on location and the affluence of the customer base but, when it’s now commonplace to pay well over £3 for ordinary-strength beer, who is to say what is and isn’t too much? Several Brunning & Price pubs appear in the Guide despite being well-known for pricing at the top end of the scale. It often seems that people are prepared to tolerate high prices in pubs they approve of, but eager to moan about them in those they dislike.

The common thread throughout all these points is that they are only brought up by people who don’t like the pub in question in the first place. If I had had one bad pint in a pub during the year, but ten good ones, I wouldn’t bring it up. And if you have had one bad pint and never gone back, your experience can hardly be said to be representative. If, on the other hand, you went to a particular pub every month to attend meetings of a club, and never had a good pint, then your experience would be much more relevant to the discussion.

* some branches of CAMRA, including my own, created their own beer scoring systems well before the NBSS