Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Quid pro quo

A couple of months ago, I reported on plans by the Portman Group to introduce portion control for strong beers and ciders. But it seems as though the producers of these drinks are understandably reluctant to give ground if they get nothing in return, especially asking the government to accept that, if the smaller sizes are brought in, that these drinks should be recognised as legitimate products and not subject to arbitrary local bans of dubious legality.

It’s impossible to say that one particular drink is intrinsically bad and another good, and there are plenty of supposedly respectable craft beers and ciders sold at a similar strength level. Problem drinkers will simply drink whatever comes to hand at a reasonable price to give them the effect they seek.

While I doubt whether many drinkers of Special Brew make any attempt to adhere to the government’s alcohol guidelines, I’m sure there are plenty of people for whom drinking three cans in an evening suits them better than six cans of Carlsberg Export. They may be heavy drinkers, but they’re not causing anyone any problem and that’s no more than many pub drinkers (including members of CAMRA) routinely put away on Friday and Saturday nights.

And if one of the brewers was to launch their super lager in 33 cl cans – with a proportionate reduction in price – no doubt the anti-drink lobby would then start moaning about making it more accessible and selling it at pocket-money prices.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a beer drinkers’ consumer organisation that was prepared to make a robust stand against nonsense such as this?

Monday, 21 July 2014

A dawdle round Didsbury

Last Friday, the local branch of CAMRA took its monthly “Stagger” around the prosperous urban village of Didsbury. This will be written up (not by me) in due course for the local magazine Opening Times, but there were a number of points of interest that I thought were worth mentioning.
  • While I have recently celebrated my 55th birthday, I was the youngest person amongst a party of nine.

  • We were allowed to have a drink in the private St Catherine’s Social Club, where Samuel Smith’s OBB was only £2 a pint. The club also had a couple of guest ales.

  • The Wetherspoon’s – the Milson Rhodes – was probably the busiest pub of the night. The cask beer range was dominated by Peerless following a “Meet the Brewer” night. The Crisp and Sweet Action Sixpoint cans (although not the stronger Bengali Tiger) had been reduced to £1.49 each.

  • The Stoker’s Arms is a new pub in the former premises of O’Neill’s. One of the party was refused admission by the door staff as contravening the dress code, although someone less likely to start a fight is hard to imagine. This underlines the point that door control is more about social selection than avoiding trouble. It’s a large, airy, open-plan place that would not be out of place in London. It had two cask beers – Doom Bar at £3.45 a pint and Pendle Witches’ Brew at an eye-watering £3.80. Also had a few “craft kegs” including Korev Lager and Brooklyn Summer Ale at £2.30 a half (which one of us tried). The music was so loud it was hard to sustain a conversation.

  • In the nearby Slug & Lettuce, the music was even more deafeningly banging – and it was one of the less busy pubs. We were served half-pints in unlined, fluted 14oz glasses, which is technically illegal. And a generous overmeasure of indifferent Greene King IPA might not be so much of a good thing!

  • In the back room of the Station, I opened a window to provide a little ventilation, but was told by the licensee to close it again as it contravened the licence conditions.

  • There was some excellent beer, including Adnams Southwold Bitter and Thornbridge Kipling, in the Dog & Partridge, the final pub.

Although these events don’t appeal to everyone – presumably on the grounds that you might have to venture into the odd indifferent pub – I always enjoy them as they enable you to “see life” in a cross-section of pubs rather than just drinking your way along the bar in your favourite free house. And yuppie Didsbury takes me out of my comfort zone amongst the seedy grotholes of Stockport. The Didsbury pubs on average were also probably much busier than those in central Stockport would have been.

Edit: it’s worth pointing out that this “Stagger” only includes half the pubs in Didsbury, so some well-known favourites such as the Royal Oak and Fletcher Moss were not visited.

Address the cause, not the symptoms

Wetherspoon’s have often been discussed on here, and my view is that while I respect their business success and sometimes find them useful, especially for food, they’re not really my kind of pubs.

Once or twice a month I venture into one of my local Spoons to take advantage of their “meal deal” offer. Sadly, I’d say that on about one out of three occasions, I’m served with a pint that has to be returned because of cloudiness, or more rarely sourness.

Every time, the duff pint has been changed without demur. The fact I’ve usually bought it with a beard club voucher may help with that. But it does raise the question of why so many duff pints are being served up. It’s one thing to deal with customer complaints effectively and politely, but something else to make sure that customers aren’t given any reason to complain in the first place. And might customers who are less inclined to speak out end up struggling through a poor pint but then grumble to others about it afterwards?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

You can’t buck the trend

Go back ten years, and ask an anti-drink campaigner what he’d like to see in the coming decade. A 20% fall in average alcohol consumption would probably seem a desirable objective, and no doubt he’d outline all kinds of restrictive measures he’d like to introduce to bring that about.

However, that’s in fact what has happened, and without any of the targeted measures favoured by the neo-Prohibitionists. The only exception was the duty escalator, which applied for five years from 2008 to 2012 and ended up increasing the level of duty by about 10% more than inflation. But that didn’t dramatically transform the affordability of alcohol, and indeed the wowsers continued to whine about drink being available at “pocket-money prices” and clamoured for minimum pricing.

On the other hand, licensing hours were further relaxed to allow more pubs and bars than ever before to open into the small hours, while there has been a proliferation of off-licences at corner shops and petrol stations that they would describe as “increasing availability”. There have been no significant curbs on alcohol advertising or promotion.

Ironically, probably the most effective anti-drink measure has been something not directly aimed at alcohol at all, namely the smoking ban. Much of the trade lost to pubs has gone entirely rather than shifting to the off-trade. Over that ten-year period, total beer consumption has fallen by 25%, with the on-trade losing 37% and the off-trade 5%. It could be argued it has done more to cut drinking than smoking.

This underlines the point that trends of this kind reflect wider changes in society and the ability of governments to influence them is limited. There was no deliberate anti-drink policy in the immediate post-war years, yet between 1945 and 1950, British beer consumption fell by 17% as people found other things to spend their money on.

Throughout the 1950s, it largely flatlined, but between 1960 and 1970, it rose by 26%, and the following ten years saw a further 24% rise. Possibly the one-off cut in beer duty in the 1959 Budget was a turning point, but surely a major reason was the entrance of the “baby boom” generation into the drinking population, who were more numerous and had more money to spend than their counterparts ever had before. The 1960s may be portrayed as the era of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but for many young people they were a time of spending more time and more money in the pub.

A major reason for social changes of this kind is not the existing population changing their behaviour, but new entrants acting in a different way. It has been widely reported that the recent decline in alcohol consumption has been most marked amongst the under-30s and, despite all the talk of hipsters, craft beer and trendy bars, they don’t seem to be getting into the habit of regular drinking, whether in pubs and bars or at home, that their parents did.

One reason often given for this is the rise of mobile phones and social media, which mean you don’t have to physically meet up in the pub to keep in touch with people. However, it may well be the case that it’s also an unintended consequence of another government policy that wasn’t specifically intended to reduce drinking as such, namely making it much more difficult for under-18s to buy alcohol, and at the same time making it much more of a ballache for anyone under 25. The attitudes and behaviours you learn in early adulthood will stay with you for the rest of your life.

But the lesson to governments is that, while it is possible to spot social trends and slightly help them along, if you try to stand in their way you are likely to end up suffering the fate of King Canute unless you are prepared to wield a very big stick.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Tins canned

Well, not exactly surprising, but 90% of poll respondents reckoned they would normally call then cans, not tins. I stand by my initial view that, for anyone under retirement age, to call beer cans “tins” is a deliberate, pejorative affectation. Tins are for shoe polish.

I wonder what the one person who voted “Something Else” calls them...

Friday, 18 July 2014

The red and the grey

Many years ago, I attended a work-related course in Cambridge. One night, we attendees went out to see a film and afterwards adjourned to a nearby pub for a swift pint. I distinctly recall one of the company walking in and saying “this is one of those red pubs, isn’t it?” At the time, this was a very recognisable theme of pub interior design, with red dralon benches, thick carpet and subdued lighting. If the pubs of old had been “wooden wombs” this, if anything, was even more womb-like.

It wasn’t too long before it fell out of fashion and the bare-boards alehouse style became popular again. The more recent trend, though, is to ditch the unadorned wood colour scheme in favour of painting exposed surfaces in white and pale greys, blues and greens. Originally a feature of self-consciously trendy bars, this has now spread to what you would regard as ordinary mainstream pubs. Only recently I was in a nice little village pub where the front of the bar, instead of being polished wood, had been painted a matt pale grey. It was offputting and just didn’t seem to suit the place.

I can’t help thinking that this kind of colour scheme comes across as cold and harsh and a long way from the feeling of being “at home” that you hope to find in a pub. For whatever reason, there seems to be a marked aversion nowadays to making pubs feel warm, cosy, comfortable and welcoming.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Can this be the future?

There’s nothing that the old-school CAMRA true believer despises more than canned beer. It is the spawn of the devil, it never has any redeeming features. He will probably call it “tinned beer” as a way of further belittling it. As it says in the editorial intro to the Out Inn Cheshire magazine, “anything in tins is always, very, very bad”.

However, in recent years canning has been enthusiastically taken up by the US craft beer movement, as described here. The off-trade is relatively more important in the US than in the UK and so that is a market they cannot afford to ignore. Cans offer significant advantages over bottles – they are lighter, and thus cheaper and more environmentally friendly to transport, they are more easily recycled, they prevent the contents being lightstruck, and they offer a much bigger canvas for the brewer to make a statement. The bold can designs favoured by many US craft brewers are very different from their usually much more restrained British equivalents.

So far this trend doesn’t seem to have made much impact on this side of the pond. Yes, BrewDog have produced Punk IPA in cans, and I believe it was even spotted in Sainsbury’s a few years back, although never by me. And some of the more “new wave” mainstream beers such as Old Golden Hen and Ghost Ship have appeared in cans too.

But things appear to be moving, with a growing number of British craft beers, such as Camden Hells, being made available in cans. And a line was crossed earlier this year when Wetherspoons introduced three canned US craft beers from the Sixpoint Brewery. Initially, many, including me, were sceptical about this, but their popularity seems to have steadily grown, with several beer bloggers even saying that they were the best thing to drink in Spoons.

I’ve reviewed them myself here. Not a huge fan, but it’s an interesting innovation. And, slowly but steadily, the dam seems to be breaking, and the acceptance of “quality” beer in cans is growing. Only the other day, I spotted Pistonhead Lager in one of my local pubs. OK, this may be “faux craft”, but it’s certainly aimed at the craft market.

There’s a growing population of younger drinkers who don’t recognise the old-fashioned negative connotations of cans and who are eager to embrace something that seems contemporary, funky and eco-friendly. There’s even a Twitter hashtag going #Summerofcans.

Could it turn out that it is the acceptance of cans, rather than craft keg, that turns out to be the ultimate factor leading to the sundering of the new-wave beer enthusiasts from the real ale diehards? Drinking beer from a can is a pretty decisive statement of rejection of the old certainties.

I wonder how long it will be before the first craft can turns up in my local Tesco. But I do wish they’d sell it (at least at lower strengths) in the proper 500ml cans rather than those kiddypops 330ml or 355ml sizes. Also, if craft cans are to take off, it may require the abandonment of the prejudice against selling single cans on the grounds that it makes them more accessible to problem drinkers. You’re much more likely to experiment with one can than a multipack, which is one of the reasons behind the success of bottled premium ales and world beers in the off-trade.

Edit: no sooner had I put this post up than this appeared on Twitter - surely Beavertown are the crafterati’s craft brewery...

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Putting your money where your mouth is

Twenty-five years ago, the CAMRA Members’ Investment Club was created, with the declared objective of investing in companies producing and selling real ale. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength, with the value of its holdings now adding up to an impressive £17.2 million. One of the benefits of investing in traditional integrated brewing companies is that their property portfolios provide a cushion against losses. If the company is successful, then its share price will rise, but if it isn’t, it won’t go bankrupt, it will be taken over by someone else with an eye on the value of the tied estate.

While obviously the genteel poverty of Curmudgeon Towers precludes any large-scale stock market speculation, I have to say I have squirrelled a few mites away in this over the years and it hasn’t done too badly. One of its fundamental principles is that, unlike a conventional unit trust, it doesn’t actively trade its holdings – they are allowed to progressively accumulate and only sold if the company concerned is taken over or ceases to be involved in the pub and brewing industry. The CMIC holding also provides a buffer against hostile bids.

However, it has now been attacked for having holdings in the pub companies that have been so heavily criticised by CAMRA. However, this rather misses the point. Owning shares in a company does not imply that you support the policies of that company, and indeed allows you to attend the Annual General Meeting and may enable you to exercise some leverage over it. In fact, the holdings in Punch and Enterprise are now of pretty trivial value, which reflects the collapse of those companies’ share prices in recent years.

Currently the club has holdings worth over £1 million in Fuller’s, Greene King, Marston’s, Shepherd Neame, Wetherspoon’s and Young’s, none of which have been entirely immune from CAMRA criticism over the years. It needs to be pointed out that the shares of some substantial brewers such as Charles Wells, Robinson’s and Samuel Smith’s are entirely privately held and so not available to outside investors.

Another criticism that in the past has appeared in the comments on this blog is that the club has been unwilling to “put its money where its mouth is” and make speculative investments in brewery and pub company start-ups. However, a key principle is that it is meant to be a serious investment, not a gamble, and only to buy shares in established companies with a sound track record. Quite a number of people (not me) have amassed individual holdings worth over £50,000, which must form a large chunk of their overall savings. If it started acting as a venture capital operation, then I’m sure a lot of people would not hesitate to whip their money out.

Having said that, it has recently made investments in a couple of micro-breweries – Black Eagle and West Berkshire – that seem to have good prospects. It has also amassed holdings of 9.6% in Hop Back and 8.7% in Black Sheep which to my mind run the risk of compromising its independence. If it was up to me I’d probably limit it to 5% of any one company.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head

G. K. Chesterton’s poem The Rolling English Road is not as well known today as it used to be, possibly because its sentiment is now considered politically incorrect:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
However, in past decades it was much anthologised and was almost part of the furniture for people of my parents’ generation. My late father would often remark, if we were out in the car and encountered a particularly twisty section of road, that it must have been made by the rolling English drunkard.

It isn’t widely realised, though, that the poem actually comes from a strange novel by Chesterton entitled The Flying Inn which was published in 1914 and is described by Charles Moore in the linked article, which oddly fails to name it in its title. As he says, “The novel is mostly quite silly, and occasionally objectionable.”

The theme of the book, which in a way is prophetic but at the same time very wide of the mark, is a takeover of England by Islam, albeit one that is sponsored by members of the ruling class in the name of order and progress. Obviously this involves a clampdown on beer and pubs, and the book chronicles a campaign of disruption and civil disobedience to undermine it. From this, though, Chesterton draws a moral:

Its patriotic and – being Chesterton – paradoxical argument is that the straightness of the English character is expressed in his rambling, drunken road. It gets you to the right place by the wrong way: “a merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread/ The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head”.

Drink, pubs, and the companionship of the meandering road express the liberty of England and imply a Christian journey: “For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen/ Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green”.

And there is a point there – that indirect, boozy muddling through is often preferable to ruler-straight, sober, logical order.

Chesterton often ends up being confused with his contemporary Hilaire Belloc, who held similar views and whose work often covered similar themes – at the time the two were sometimes lumped together as “Chesterbelloc”. I had sort of got it into my head that the famous quotation "When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, For you will have lost the last of England" in fact came from The Flying Inn (where it would not be out of place), but that is Belloc, not Chesterton.

Incidentally, a pint in a Stockport pub of your choice goes to the first person to identify the location of the particular stretch of “rolling English road” shown in the map excerpt above.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Let’s be clear about cask

Ironically, it’s Pete Brown again, but this anecdote from the Morning Advertiser about the aftermath of the Cask Marque AGM just demands a mention:

In fact, I suspect this particular situation would have been better ten years ago. Fortunately the misguided idea that murk adds character to cask beer doesn’t seem to have spread much beyond London so far. Maybe Pete should mention in his next Cask Report the risk of poor presentation putting the casual punter off the category entirely.

An offer you can’t refuse

Pete Brown writes here about how the Black Lion on Bayswater Road in central London has been sold for an astonishing £27 million. He uses this story as a peg on which to hang an argument about how things other than simply return on investment need to be taken into account when considering the future of pubs, and points out that the pub was turning an annual gross profit of £700,000. But, however much profit you’re making, there will come a point when an offer is just so tempting that you can’t turn it down. Every business owner ultimately has his price.

It is a fundamental principle of economics that overall utility is maximised if all the factors of production – capital, land, buildings, equipment and people – are used in the most effective manner. It doesn’t matter if something is already profitable – if it can be used to generate a greater profit by being used for something else, then it should be.

Obviously we realise as a society that there are some things that you can’t really put a price on, which is why we have planning restrictions, listed buildings and green belts. But in a sense these can be regarded as luxuries that prosperity enables us to afford. Stray too far from the principle of maximising returns and you end up with economic sclerosis and businesses struggling along on life support when their sites and their employees could clearly be more profitably employed doing something else.

Look at any shopping street from fifty years ago and the mix of businesses will have pretty much entirely changed. It may be a matter of regret that all those little family butchers and wool shops have been replaced by takeaways and nail parlours, but the usage of the buildings simply follows demand, and exactly the same is true of pubs. If the building would be more profitable as something else, then, subject to planning considerations, that’s what it should become. You can’t preserve businesses in aspic because people feel sentimental about them.

It also is not the case that such conversions leave whole areas denuded of pubs. It may not make economic sense to maintain a large, free-standing building as a pub in a city centre with sky-high property prices, but such areas by definition will have large numbers of residents, workers and visitors and are likely to be able to support plenty of shops, bars and cafés to meet their needs, albeit generally in units as part of a larger building. And, if a large and underused estate pub has been converted to a Tesco Express, there’s nothing to stop entrepreneurial locals turning a vacant unit in a nearby shopping parade into a box bar or micropub if they think there’s the demand, as many have already done. A small pub may succeed where a big one has failed.

Pete also comes up with the familiar canard that the Black Lion could surely have been more profitable if run in a more enterprising manner. For each individual pub taken in isolation, this may be true, but in general it would only have succeeded by taking trade from others. As I argued here, it isn’t credible to suggest that the marked long-term secular decline of demand for pubs could have been prevented or even significantly curbed by pubs as a whole being better managed. To do that would involve rewinding thirty years of social and legislative change.

It also seems to me that this is overwhelmingly a London problem, and indeed a problem of London inside the North and South Circular Roads. It’s very hard to think of any example of a pub local to me that has been sold for alternative use despite having been doing healthy business. In fact, the opposite is generally true – there are plenty of pubs that have been standing closed and boarded for years without being either brought back to life as pubs or converted to something else. £27 million could easily buy you a whole estate of pubs in the North-West!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Here we go again round the mulberry bush

I recently spotted this blogpost on the perennial issue of children in pubs. It’s basically a parents’ user-guide for how to go about introducing children into the world of pubs and, as I said in the comments, if every parent was as thoughtful and responsible as the author, there really wouldn’t be much of a problem.

However, unfortunately all too often that is not the case. Irresponsible parents allow their children to cause a nuisance and licensees are extremely reluctant to confront bad behaviour by children for fear of coming across as, well, curmudgeonly. It needs to be stressed that the problem is not children themselves, but irresponsible and thoughtless parents who take them to inappropriate places and fail to control them.

Plus, some parents take affront at the idea of their little darlings being barred from any part of any pub at any time, and refuse to accept that it is a legitimate desire for adults to want to enjoy a quiet drink in the company of other adults.

As I’ve said before, the pub trade is best served by having a variety of offers so people can make a choice – some serve food, some don’t, some have Sky Sports, some don’t, some admit children, some don’t, some allow dogs, some don’t, some allow smoking, some don’t. Oops, did I cross a line there? But too many people seem to think that their own preferred model should be imposed everywhere.

It brings to mind this blogpost and the subsequent lively comment thread from last year.

Actually, I get the impression that, as just going to the pub for a drink during the day and early evening becomes less and less popular, it is starting to become less likely to encounter young children outside the obvious dining pubs.

And it always baffles me why those who are so keen to encourage children in pubs are strangely reluctant to campaign to allow them into betting shops. After all, far from there being nothing for them there, surely it would be an excellent way to habituate them into the adult world of drinking gambling.

Crafty tinkers

Next Tuesday, Wetherspoon’s will be opening their first pub in the Republic of Ireland, the Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock, County Dublin. They have now released the initial food and drink menus, including prices. Bear in mind that everything is priced in Euros, but even making allowance for that the prices are considerably higher than those charged on this side of the border. The current £-€ exchange rate is about 1.25, which makes the €10.95 gourmet burger equate to £8.76 – but in my local Spoons it’s only £6.99.

Apart from declaring the use of Irish ingredients (although not Irish chicken), the food menu is fairly similar to what you would see over here. On the drinks side, much of the media attention has been devoted to the fact that Spoons are not offering Guinness as they have been unable to agree an acceptable price point with Diageo.

However, a striking aspect is the strong presence of “craft keg” beers, including Dogfish Head DNA, Franciscan Well Rebel Red, Shipyard American Pale Ale and Tom Crean’s Irish Lager. It has been pointed out to me that these are all from offshoots of major breweries rather than small independents, but they are definitely craft-themed rather than mainstream in the sense of John Smith’s Extra Smooth. In the UK, the equivalent products would be on cask.

This is understandable, given the lack of a recent cask-drinking tradition in Ireland, but it is a definite shift in the balance of the beer range from what we see here. Will these beers become the preferred choice of the more adventurous Irish beer drinker?

There are also three cask beers, at the cheapest pint prices on the list (€3.75=£3.00), plus the promise of further varying guest ales from Irish brewers. If Wetherspoon’s are to make a success of cask in Ireland, maintaining quality will be absolutely crucial – something where they often fall down on this side of the Irish Sea.

It will be interesting to see how the Spoons experiment in Ireland goes. It certainly has great potential to shake up that country’s often complacent and unenterprising pub trade. My understanding is that it’s common to be expected to pay €6 for a pint, so they will be offering some stiff price competition.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Stocking filler

Over the years I’ve met a number of people who buy themselves a lot of exotic bottled beers and end up with more than they can drink. Some have even held informal parties to drink up their stock. It’s not something I’ve ever really done myself, except maybe laying in a few special beers for Christmas and New Year – I tend to just buy what I intend to consume in the next week or so. No doubt Cooking Lager would say “Mudgie’s such an alkie that any grog in his gaff is going to get necked – it won’t hang around.”

There have recently been a series of posts on the Beer Compurgation blog, such as this one, where the author says:

“The downfall of being a great beer lover and enthusiast is a tendency to hoard. Nobody I know is as guilty of this as I. As such, I've come to realise in recent months that I really need to start working through my already sizeable bottle stock before purchasing anything else this year, if for no other reason than to try the beers I’ve spent my money on whilst they’re still at their best. Added to this is the realisation over the last few months – based on certain depressive life situations – that life is too short not to drink the great beers I have available to me. I also need to find new encouragement and inspiration to write again. I have never wanted this to be a beer review blog (with the exception of Advent) but all the above factors have led me to begin a series of “Stock Clearance” posts where I drink beers within my hoard that really need drinking for reasons that will be explained.”
So this prompted me to run a poll to see just how common beer hoarding was. The results show that, while a majority of respondents only bought what they planned to drink, quite a few did allow stocks to build up, with 12% ending up in the category of ending up with more than they could drink.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Preaching from a beer crate

This blog has now been going for seven years, and I make no apology in saying that the smoking ban was what prompted its creation and, while it has touched on many other issues, that has always remained its core theme.

As it says in the sidebar,:

This is not a beer blog. It's a view of life from the saloon bar, not entirely about the saloon bar - which of course is a metaphorical place as well as a physical one. It is as much about political correctness and the erosion of lifestyle freedom as it is about pubs and beer.
At that time I had never even heard of “beer blogs” and wasn’t aware there was anyone else blogging on the same kind of subject. It took a couple of years to feel I was part of a kind of wider community. I have always regarded this as basically a blog about lifestyle freedom viewed through the bottom of a beer glass, rather than a beer blog as such. I have commented freely on areas relating to diet, drugs and smoking as well as alcohol, but in general have steered clear of wider political issues. I haven’t banged on about defence, climate change, taxation or transport, although I have well-formed views on those subjects. Most of the members of the local branch of CAMRA have considerably more left-wing views than I do, but we still manage to get on amicably.

I have created a second blog to enable me to address these wider issues, but to be honest this has only been sporadically updated and has attracted little interest.

Pete Brown is a well-respected beer writer. I own a number of his books and have given a positive review to his cider book here. We’ve always known he’s a bit of a Leftie, but so long as that doesn’t become too predominant in his writing it’s something you can put up with. Indeed it is a sign of a good writer that you are able to write intelligently about your chosen subject without letting your political stance dominate.

However, he has really blotted his copybook with this highly partisan rant against UKIP. He hangs it on the argument that many innovations in British brewing would not have taken place without immigration, but in doing so deliberately and knowingly misrepresents UKIP policy. UKIP does not seek to ban all immigration, but simply to apply a quality threshold, as happens in countries like Australia and Canada. UKIP’s immigration policy would not have excluded any of those talented brewers.

I have to admit I made one or two intemperate comments in response to that post, for which I apologise. I should have kept a clearer head. But the post is basically dishonest.

As I have said on the other blog, I have a considerable amount of sympathy for UKIP, especially over their opposition to the smoking ban, but I am certainly not an uncritical supporter. However, there’s a good argument that UKIP is the one major political party that is really prepared to stand up for pubs.

But if the likes of Pete Brown are saying that any UKIP voter is somehow beyond the pale and not part of the political mainstream, they will ultimately diminish themselves. If you turn your beer blog into a political platform covering issues well beyond beer, pubs and brewing then you are likely to alienate many of your readers. Pete is fully entitled to his views, but they are out of place on a beer focused blog.

It would be interesting if Pete was prepared to run a poll on his blog about the political allegiance of his readers. He might find rather more UKIP supporters than he feels comfortable with.

The better part of valour?

I’m in a Brains tied pub in a Welsh market town to have a bite of lunch. I order a pint of Brains Bitter, which is OK but a bit past its best. There are a couple on a nearby table – he has a half of a paler beer and says out loud “this is terrible, it’s like vinegar!” I suggest he should complain, but he demurs, saying it’s not really worth it if he’s only having a half. It turns out it is their seasonal beer, British Summer.

You can’t really blame him for not wanting to kick up a fuss, and occasionally I’ve done the same myself. As I’ve said before, people go out for a relaxing drink, not an argument. But, on the other hand, if customers don’t complain the licensee gets no feedback and the vicious circle continues. He finishes it and they leave without ordering any food – I have no idea whether they were thinking about eating there.

It’s hardly surprising the average punter is reluctant to order cask beer in unfamiliar pubs if they stand a high chance of getting a dud. And I’d very much doubt whether the pub in question has the turnover to offer four cask beers in decent nick throughout the week – although, to be fair, it did serve up a decent, good-value sandwich.

Would you have taken your half back in those circumstances?

Incidentally, on the same trip I went in a busy Wetherspoon’s, spotted a favourite beer on the bar, and was not entirely surprised to be served up with a pint of soup.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

We had to make our own entertainment

There’s a widespread view that, going back to the early days of CAMRA, pub life was pretty dull. Everyone dutifully trooped in to their local pub, to be faced with a limited choice of often poorly-kept beer (if not just keg) and, in the absence of any other form of entertainment, were actually forced to talk to each other. This is expressed in slightly tongue-in-cheek manner in this blogpost on Seeing the Lizards. Like many such examples of received wisdom, it contains a grain of truth, but in most respects things were actually very different.

1. The beer choice was poor

Of course there wasn’t anything like the choice of real ales you get now, but in many places there was still a wide selection of brews available. Within a few hundred yards in Stockport town centre, you could find real ales from nine different breweries, with three others just a short bus ride away. Plenty of other towns were similar. You could get the variety from a short pub crawl rather than working your way along the bar.

Plus, in a perverse way, if you lived in an area dominated by one brewer, it freed you from the compulsion of choosing pubs on the basis of what beer they served, and allowed you to judge them on other criteria.

2. The beer was terrible

It certainly wasn’t! Outside a few “keg deserts”, real ale was generally pretty plentiful, and pubgoers would often make their choice on the basis of how well a pub kept its beer. There was plenty of really fresh, tasty, high-quality beer. And the generally higher turnover of those days could easily make up for deficiencies in cellarmanship, whereas nowadays you get the impression that many pubs, with the best will in the world, are often struggling to cope with low sales.

3. The pubs were awful

Again, completely untrue. There were many more really basic pubs than there are today, but even some of those served a good pint. And there were plenty of smart, well-kept, spick-and-span pubs that you would be happy to take your maiden aunt – or your girlfriend – to. Indeed, in many cases the “lounge side” was plusher and more comfortable than it is today, when bare boards and hard seating seem to be fashionable. There were also a fair number of decidedly upmarket wet-led pubs of a kind you simply don’t find today. It shouldn’t be forgotten that pubgoing, to the right kind of pub, was a lot more aspirational then.

4. Everyone stuck to their local

A lot of people did, mainly from the social groups that today would be at home with a slab of Foster’s. But, in general, there were more pubs to choose from, and many would spread their favours amongst a range of pubs rather than automatically just going to the one. Casual drinking – “let’s go and check out the Red Lion tonight” – was far more commonplace . I would say in those days the more middle-class pubgoers often tended to frequent a wider range of pubs than they do now.

5. Pubs were unsociable

The image presented on TV of pubs like the Rover’s Return where everyone happily mingles and chats together has always been a bit of an exaggeration. But people would often meet up with and chat to people in the pub that otherwise they never met. I remember my late father having, successively, two groups of “pub friends” that he would regularly talk to once a week but never speak to outside the pub environment. It was a kind of social ritual. And the simple matter of “going for a drink” with people that you knew in some other context tended to loosen inhibitions and allow you to get to know them in a way that you wouldn’t in any other environment. It still happens, but much less than it once did.

But tell that to the young folk nowadays, and they just won’t believe you.

Second Life

When CAMRA was formed in the early 1970s, it settled upon the definition of “real ale” as involving the beer undergoing a secondary fermentation in the container from which it was served. For most British cask beers at the time, that was the case but, taking a wider historical perspective, might it have been more of an aberration than a universal principle?

A commenter on one of the beer blogs (I think it was Tandleman’s) recently said that, going back 60 years, pretty much all draught beer in the world was cask. But, apart from the British Isles and some isolated pockets in other countries, by that time virtually all of the world had adopted the bottom-fermenting lager technique for making everyday beers. This involves a period of cold-conditioning in tanks or barrels, during which time the beer will stabilise and drop bright. By the time it is released for sale, it is no longer experiencing any kind of fermentation. It may be unpasteurised, served using its own CO2, cloudy even, but it’s inert. The same is true of German top-fermenting styles such as Alt and Kölsch.

Even if we look at British top-fermenting beers, it has been by no means always the case that they were served by the current “cask-conditioned” method. Historically, many beers, notably porters, were matured for long periods in vats, during which time, as with lagers, they would have stabilised prior to barrelling and despatch to pubs. A famous example of this was the 1814 London Beer Flood. And all that IPA sent out to India didn’t continue working away during the three-month voyage. It effectively became a barrel-aged beer that was preserved by being kept in airtight casks.

In more recent times, Martyn Cornell in his excellent book Amber, Gold and Black points out that most mild was sent out from the brewery with a minimal or zero amount of yeast with the intention of being served within a few days. It was effectively “re-racked” beer. The presence of significant secondary fermentation was the feature that distinguished bitters from milds. This is why slops were put back in the mild, as they would stir up the yeast in the bitter.

While undoubtedly in 1970 cask-conditioned British bitters experienced a significant secondary fermentation, they were pretty much the only draught beers in the world that did. And that doesn’t even venture into the territory of bottled beers.

So a test of “good beer” that could be applied more widely in other countries with different brewing and beer-drinking traditions might have focused more on the absence of pasteurisation and the non-addition of extraneous CO2, allowing beers to settle out naturally or only being rough-filtered and, yes, the quality of ingredients.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A new broom sweeps clean

I was in a local pub at lunchtime the other day delivering the monthly CAMRA magazine. The pub in question had a couple of free-standing racks displaying leaflets and flyers from local businesses and groups. There seemed to be a new manager who took exception to these and decided to get rid of them all saying that they were “a load of crap” and had nothing to do with the pub.

That may be the case, and it can often happen that pubs accumulate a lot of out-of-date clutter. They’re under no obligation to display commercial advertising for “wardrobe doctors” and dog-walking services. But, on the other hand, they need to recognise that they are part of a local community and antagonise customers at their peril. Allowing displays of this kind – within reason – is surely a good way of maintaining a connection with local people and creating goodwill, and this, I would say, while it does have a contemporary theme, is very much a pub for local residents rather than a destination venue.

She had to nip out and the two bar staff on duty, both similarly young and female, seemed to agree that she had gone a bit too far. “After all,” one said, “it’s not as if it’s only young people who come in here” – looking round at me, another guy standing at the bar and a couple sitting nearby, whose average age was probably well north of 60.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

I see no craft

To paraphrase Admiral Lord Nelson – but, in most pubs, he wouldn’t even if he put his telescope to his good eye. Over the past few weeks, the better weather and the fact I’ve had a bit more time on my hands have given me the opportunity to get out and about visiting a few new pubs and reacquainting myself with old favourites. But it’s very noticeable how, in the vast majority, there’s scarcely a sign of the much-vaunted craft beer revolution.

As I wrote here, craft beer is as much an attitude of mind as a list of specific products, and a single craft keg tap does not make a pub a craft beer venue. But, if you look at the characteristic signs – the presence on the bar of cask ales from “cutting edge” breweries, the craft keg fonts and the fridge full of weird stuff from the UK and America – they’re in general conspicuous by their absence. I’m not including, by the way, Blue Moon, “world lagers” such as Estrella Damm or keg ciders from independent producers such as Aspall, Thatcher’s and Weston’s.

A fair number follow the well-trodden “multi beer alehouse” path, but even here the main concession to changing times seems to be a higher proportion of golden ales. Obviously, over the years the product mix changes, and certainly some of the more successful micro-breweries are now getting their beers on the bars of plenty of non-specialist pubs, including those run by the major pub companies. But that’s nothing that wouldn’t come within the general orbit of “real ale” as understood twenty years ago.

In many towns there’s now a kind of dedicated craft beer outlet - Shrewsbury, for example, has the Salopian Bar. But in most of the rest of the pubs there will just be a selection of real ales, some micro, some nationally-distributed, and the usual range of kegs and lagers. I asked a couple of years back whether we would see a craft keg tap becoming a standard feature in Spoons but so far, as far as I can see, it hasn’t, despite their ill-judged dabbling with US craft cans.

I suggested here that the full-on craft beer experience is something that is unlikely to make a decisive breakout from niche to mainstream. It hasn’t shown much sign of doing so in the past few years and, frankly, I suspect it never will beyond perhaps the assimilation of a handful of high-profile products. Maybe that’s the entire point of it.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

You won’t even get bitter

Boak & Bailey’s recent blogpost on the decline and fall of Boddington’s Bitter reminded me of its erstwhile advertising slogan “If you don’t get Boddies’, you’ll just get bitter”. Well, you won’t get Boddies’ any more, at least in cask form, but in a growing number of pubs you won’t get bitter either.

OK, if you go into a tied pub of one of the independent family brewers, or Greene King or Marston’s, you will probably still find a beer on the bar in the 3.6% - 4.0% strength range describing itself as “Bitter”. But go in the vast majority of pub company outlets, or any “free house” that isn’t a specialist beer pub, and you’re likely to be confronted by three or four of the widely-distributed premium ale brands such as Doom Bar, Cumberland Ale, Bombardier, Wainwright and London Pride, which are in a slightly higher strength – and price – band. “Ordinary bitter” is conspicuous by its absence.

Indeed, very often the staple ale in these pubs is a smoothflow offering such as Worthington, John Smith’s or the dreaded nitro Boddington’s. Cask beer is reserved for the discerning “premium” customer with his deep pockets. You may even get a funny look if you walk in off the street and ask for it.

Yet, as I said here, to pack so much flavour and variety into beers of such modest strength is arguably one of the greatest achievements of British brewing. And, at a time when high pub prices are a constant source of complaint and we are being urged to curb our alcohol consumption, making a wider variety of ordinary bitters available would help both our wallets and our livers - not to mention our driving licences.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Strange brew

In the early 1970s, the British beer market was increasingly becoming dominated by a dwindling number of bland, dumbed-down beers mass-produced by a handful of giant corporations. Fast forward to the present day, and we have an unprecedented level of interest in and enthusiasm for beer, more breweries and beers than at any time since before the First World War, and more variety of beer styles than there has probably ever been. In their new book Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer (Aurum Press, £12.99) Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey tell the story of exactly how this apparently unlikely transformation came about. The book is officially released on 19 June.

They have been writing their eponymous blog since 2007. It’s one of the most consistently interesting and wide-ranging beer blogs, but does adopt a distinctively detached and observational tone that isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste. Some of their best blog pieces have been examinations of various historical trends in the beer world and that approach adapts very well to the longer book format. The end result is a very lucid and readable volume that treats the subject with due seriousness but never allows itself to get bogged down in turgid detail.

Starting with the amateurish efforts of the Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood in the 1960s, it looks at the foundation and dramatic expansion of CAMRA, the response of the big brewers, the setting-up of the first microbreweries and the pioneering work of Michael Jackson of presenting beer as something worthy of appreciation in the same way as wine. The story then runs through the politics behind the Beer Orders, which revolutionised the British beer and pub industry, the introduction of “golden ales”, the widespread adoption of American hops and beer styles, the contemporary “craft beer” movement and the growth of trendy beer-focused bars. It concludes by asking whether the tide of constant innovation has currently reached a high-point, while recalling that the same question had been widely asked back in the late 1990s.

Much contemporary beer writing is done under the auspices of CAMRA which, with the best will in the world, inevitably reflects a particular standpoint. The authors are members of CAMRA, and generally sympathetic towards it, but they don’t flinch from recording events such as the conflict over the creation of CAMRA’s own ill-fated pub chain in the late 1970s. They also give due prominence to stories such as the creation of the Firkin brewpub chain, with which CAMRA had a love-hate relationship, and the deliberately CAMRA-baiting rise of BrewDog in recent years. However, they rightly point out that, while much contemporary beer innovation has broken loose from the moorings of CAMRA, without the organisation’s ground-breaking campaigning, much of it might never have been possible.

One of the great strengths of the book is the way that, rather than just relying on secondary sources, the authors have carried out interviews with many of the individuals involved in the story. These include CAMRA founder Michael Hardman, its influential early chairman Christopher Hutt, David Bruce of Firkin fame and the mercurial Brendan Dobbin. This underlines the point that the beer revolution has very much been driven by a number of maverick personalities ploughing their own furrow rather than being an inevitable historical trend.

The aim of the book is to provide a history of the growth of beer enthusiasm and alternative beer in Britain, and so it would be unfair to criticise it for not being something it never sets out to be in the first place. However, the last few chapters do come across as a slightly breathless and narrowly-focused run through a variety of current trends and innovations. Taking a step back, there is a glaring paradox that, while we are more interested in beer than ever before, and producing a greater variety, we are in fact overall drinking less of it than at any time in that forty-year period, and especially drinking less of it in pubs, whose numbers have fallen to the lowest in living memory. It’s entirely possible, of course, that one is the mirror-image of the other, that beer becomes more appreciated the less it is part of everyday life.

Despite this slight caveat it is an excellent and enjoyable book which really is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the development of the specialist beer market in Britain over the past forty years.

Declaration of interest: I was given a review copy of this book by the publishers. As it is a book I would have bought anyway, I have made a donation equivalent to the cover price to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which is a cause that I and my family have supported for many years and seems particularly appropriate given the authors’ current location in Penzance.

Postscript: The above review has been written with a view to inclusion, maybe in a slightly modified form, in the local CAMRA magazine. It’s interesting that most of the other reviews I have read independently reach the same conclusion – the first half, up to the Beer Orders, is excellent, but after that it becomes more bitty and anecdotal. Maybe it will only be possible to put in all into context once a lot more water has flowed under the bridge.

Friday, 6 June 2014

It’s oh so quiet

It’s always good to see a pub so busy it’s standing room only, but very often a visit is more rewarding at a quieter time when you have a choice of where to sit and can get served swiftly at the bar. You can have a relaxing, contemplative drink and watch the world go by secure in the knowledge that on Friday night it will be heaving.

However, it’s one thing for a pub to be a bit quiet, but something else entirely for it to be pretty much devoid of customers. I wrote recently about calling in a prominent, classic Holt’s pub at a time when once it would have been fairly busy, and finding only about five customers in a building that could easily have accommodated thirty times that number without feeling packed.

As blog readers will realise, I’m probably more interested in seeking out new and unfamiliar pubs than new beers, but sometimes it feels like intruding on private grief. Not so long ago I visited a pub that had been on my list for a while. It used to be in the Good Beer Guide but has dropped out in the past couple of years; however, there’s nothing obviously wrong with it, with three cask beers on the bar, a comfortable, rambling interior and A-boards outside advertising a varied food menu. Yet, once a guy sat at the bar had departed, I was the sole customer. Frankly, it’s embarrassing, and is likely to deter you from visiting again, or from recommending the pub to others. It’s even worse than dining alone in a restaurant because in a pub you’re looking for at least a little social buzz. It’s not as if there are other pubs nearby to which all the customers have decamped because in neither case do I reckon that applies.

I satirised this in the description of my visit to the Feltcombers’ Arms at Arkwright’s Hillock, but many a true word is said in jest. And, if even apparently attractive and welcoming pubs are deserted at times when surely twenty or even ten years ago they would have been doing decent business, then you have to think there is much more pain to come in terms of pub closures.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A Guide of two halves

In the 1977 edition of the Good Beer Guide, the breweries section amounted to 11 pages. By 2014, with the enormous growth in new breweries and beers, it had swollen to 220 pages, albeit in slightly less dense type, making it virtually a book in its own right. The opinion has sometimes been expressed in the comments on here that it is time for CAMRA to split the book into two separate publications, listing pubs and beers, and indeed people have gone so far as to say they aren’t really interested in one half or the other.

On the one hand, the argument is that in most parts of the country there is now little difficulty in finding pubs offering a wide range of beers, so what is important is finding out what the beers you encounter are going to be like. On the other hand, and the view that I would incline more to, is that random pub choice can still be very hit and miss, but there are so many seasonal and one-off beers and new breweries that the beer listing is of little practical use. Gone are the days when an enthusiastic beer drinker could gain a reasonable impression of the character of all the brews they were likely to come across in their local area.

So I thought I would ask blog readers whether they thought it would be a good idea for CAMRA to split the Guide in two. While the pub enthusiasts almost equal the number of beer enthusiasts and those wanting both combined, it isn’t really hugely conclusive and so I doubt whether any changes are likely to be made. In practice, I suspect the non-CAMRA purchasers are overwhelmingly interested in the pubs side and so the beer-only volume would prove a slow seller.

You often read that online pub sites are going to spell the death-knell for printed guides, but there is a crucial difference, that the websites basically just offer a database while the guides provide a moderated selection. If you’re visiting, say, Chester, and look on WhatPub?, you will be presented with a list of 124 pubs, and that’s only in the city centre. The Good Beer Guide, in contrast, lists just 8, which, even if they’re not all to everyone’s taste, will probably be a lot better on average than the 124.

Even if you went through all the 124 entries to find some that sounded congenial, you might not find it too easy. Understandably, online pub guides tend to avoid needlessly antagonising pubs with negative comments, so the descriptions tend to be rather anodyne, making it hard to tell the sheep from the goats. In the past year I’ve visited at least two pubs that from online descriptions sounded at least worth investigating, but turned out to be extremely disappointing. So, until the online sites offer trustworthy ratings against various criteria, there will still be a role for the likes of the Good Beer Guide and Good Pub Guide. Positive recommendations from other people are still extremely valuable.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Mine’s a pint

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the history of electric real ale dispense. In this I mentioned that some pubs in Sheffield used to have metered pumps that dispensed a full pint rather than the usual half. This is something I have often heard mentioned but never saw with my own eyes.

With a few amendments, the blogpost appeared as an article in the May issue of the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times. In response to this, Ray Balawajder sent the editor a scan of a page from a 1977 Sheffield Pub Guide showing a metered pump of that precise kind, albeit in a Tetley’s pub, the Rutland Arms, rather than a Stone’s or Ward’s as I might have thought. The picture of the pump is shown on the right and the scanned page can be seen here. Ray says:

I visited quite a few Ward's and Stones' pubs in Sheffield in the late 70s and can't recall ever coming across a one pint meter - which doesn't mean that those company's pubs never used them. I did, though, find one in a Tetley pub - the Rutland Arms on Brown Street, just down from the station – in 1978. This was at the end of a boozy day out and a whole pint was just what we didn't want at that point. I'm told that we shared a pint and glass of lemonade.
I’m not really familiar with Sheffield so can’t comment on how those pubs compare today. The lack of choice is very noticeable – only four different beers on the whole page, and no pub with more than one cask beer available. I’m sure today there would be dozens. On the other hand, back in 1977 there would be much more cask beer being consumed in total, and in most of the pubs probably a lot more customers and a more varied clientele. The pub with “an interesting display of teapots” is very much a sign of a vanished world.