Sunday, 20 April 2014

Raising the bar

Eyebrows were raised by a press report last week of comments by scientist Dr Kari Poikolainen, a former World Health organisation alcohol expert, that drinking only becomes harmful when people consume more than around 13 units a day. Not surprisingly, Julia Manning, from think-tank 2020Health, countered by saying: “This is an unhelpful contribution to the debate. It makes grand claims which we don’t see evidence for. Alcohol is a toxin, the risks outweigh the benefits.” Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

Now, I’m not advising you to go out and drink 90+ units a week, but there is a kind of fundamental truth in what he says. As I’ve repeatedly said, the current health guidelines represent a kind of lowest common denominator figure that is at the bottom of a gentle U-curve of risk. You certainly don’t encounter a cliff-edge of danger if you exceed them. People’s metabolisms vary so widely that it is impossible to state with certainty that x amount of alcohol will be OK, while y will be harmful.

And there is a kind of widespread folk wisdom that it is around the levels he states – maybe an average of about six pints a day – that drinking does start to become problematic. For example, here I quoted Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s: “He rails against the government’s 21-units-a-week dictum. “The doctor who came up with it said there’s no medical foundation to it; 70 to 80 units a week.” As a limit, or a recommendation? He laughs.”

Of course it is a fundamental feature of all such public health guidelines that they are set a little below what most people would consider a “normal” level, so a majority is made to feel guilty. The “five-a-day” nonsense is just the same. And, while drinking five pints a day is maybe not a prescription for optimal health, the risk of it doing you serious harm, especially if you’re a sturdy bloke, are greatly exaggerated.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Do you ever get a feeling of déjà vu?

Sometimes I get an idea for a blogpost, only to realise I’ve said pretty much exactly the same thing before. Yesterday I was in Joule’s excellent Cross Keys in Chester and thought a few words of praise would be in order, but there’s very little I can add to my thoughts from a couple of years ago. The Cross Keys – once a Boddington’s pub – is basically a single room, but has been very tastefully refurbished with glittering mirrors, wood floors and extensive bench seating (complete with a few scatter cushions).

It’s difficult to avoid the feeling, though, that the Joule’s pub estate is ultimately dependent on some deep pockets. If taking failing pubs over and carrying out lavish refurbishments as proper pubs rather than family-focused eateries was such a good commercial prospect, then surely others would be doing it, but rather conspicuously they are not. Their recent revamp of the previously run-down Butcher’s Arms at Forsbrook in Staffordshire is a good example. Still, why not just enjoy them and not worry about who is paying for it all?

On the bar of the Cross Keys is the vintage Carling Black label font pictured on the right, now non-operational, of course. And this reminded me of another point I’ve made in the past, that the working classes almost to a man now shun cask beer. It was a beautiful sunny day, not particularly warm, but the sun was pleasant if you were out of the wind. While I was there, a sequence of fairly down-to-earth looking groups and couples came in, and pretty much every bloke went for a pint of Grolsch, even though there were six cask beers on the bar and the Joule’s Pale Ale was in excellent nick.

Is cask beer seen as just too difficult, poncey and precious? And is that maybe a reason for stocking Bombardier and Cumberland Ale rather than 57 varieties of stuff the average drinker has never heard of?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Faith in the future

We are often told that the British pub is in headlong decline, with a tidal wave of closures and pubgoing increasingly becoming irrelevant to the majority of people. However, our two largest British-owned brewers, Greene King and Marston’s, are bucking this trend by opening large numbers of new-build pubs, which are generally pretty big establishments, not dinky little niche bars. They don’t get the recognition they deserve, though, as they’re family-oriented dining pubs located on retail and leisure parks, and thus far from the CAMRA stereotype of community local or multi-beer alehouse.

My namesake (actually Paul Mudge) writes of one in Stafford on the CAMRA forum (registration required):

At a time when CAMRA quite rightly criticises the loss of pubs for conversion to other uses, such as ‘supermarkets’ ( which are neither ‘super’ nor ‘markets’ ), maybe CAMRA should do more to congratulate those companies whose confidence in the brewing and pub industries extends to building and opening new pubs. I would suggest that the three ‘New National Brewers’ are investing the most in new build pubs and a week ago Greene King opened one 2½ miles from my house. It is just half a mile from the county town’s Market Square and is the first proper pub, rather than a bar as part of a larger development, to be built in the town for nearly thirty years when the then Big Six National Brewers dominated the industry.

This new pub is well designed with plenty of the natural light that is sadly missing from those soulless high street drinking barns cheaply converted from premises such as a redundant Woolworths site, and as a spacious building on a large site it has plenty of room for toilets on the ground floor which many of us appreciate. Three cask beers were on the handpumps including Greene King IPA (winner of the Bitter category and overall runner up at CAMRA's 2004 Champion Beer Of Britain Awards) at just £1.99 a pint which is a good 10% cheaper than would be paid at either of the nearby ‘pubs’ of a chain reputed to offer low prices. It was no surprise that there’s an emphasis on food, much of which I fear will be microwaved, but the menu looked inexpensive, the beer and burger at £4.99 or two meals for £8.49 for example probably indicating the best value pub in town.

I have written about the recently-opened local example of the chain here. I concluded that it was a lot better than you might expect and in a number of respects, such as natural light, bench seating and general quality of materials, a definite cut above your average Wetherspoon’s.

And there’s a very interesting blogpost here from Phil Mellows about the Sycamore Farm in Burnley (pictured).

This represents an important shift in the make-up of the pub market and in consumer behaviour. It suggests that at least once or twice a week there are thousands of families who, rather than cook and eat at home, will go out for a meal. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed atmosphere and the price-point they need.
But he concludes – a point with which I would entirely concur:
So far, so good, but is this really the only future of the pub? I can't help but look beyond the balance-sheet and worry that to help fund its expansion into this new breed of pub-restaurant Marston's will, by the end of 2015, have sold off 500 other pubs, at least 200 of them earmarked for conversion to supermarkets.

Some thought needs to go into what we might be losing here. Much as I can admire the likes of Sycamore Farm as an industry observer, as a pub-goer I'd never go near the place.

I have visited its sister pub, the Evenwood Farm in Runcorn, a couple of times for meals with family members. Early doors on Friday evening it was absolutely rammed. But I have to say that on both occasions, while the portions were generous to the point of being overfacing, the food was pretty poor even by the standards of chain pub microwave cooking.

I have sometimes been accused by commenters of wanting all pubs to be the same, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I value and celebrate diversity in pubs, but within that I’m quite entitled to say that I prefer one type of pub to another and regret the fact that the sort of pubs I like have steadily declined, while pubs in general tend to increasingly conform to a common stereotype.

These family dining pubs obviously aren’t my kind of pub, and aren’t where I’d choose to go and read the paper on a Sunday lunchtime. But they certainly meet a demand and their success is undeniable. Surely it’s a good thing for the future of the pub trade to get people visiting somewhere that is at least a vague approximation to a pub rather than an establishment that bears no relation to one. Beer enthusiasts sneer at them at their peril.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Spoons not even on the bench

Someone said to me on Twitter: “I would have thought Spoons were right up your street – no music, cheap beer and grumpy old blokes.” I certainly recognise and appreciate those qualities in Sam Smith’s pubs, but somehow they just don’t seem to gel for me in Spoons. An obvious difference is the frequent presence of screaming kids in Spoons, which are rarely encountered in Sam’s, but, thinking about it, the key reason is that Spoons pretty much entirely avoid bench seating.

Regular readers will know that this is a long-standing hobby-horse of mine which I have written about previously here and here. Bench type seating, whether fixed or free-standing settles, has been long associated with pubs and is a characteristic feature of traditional pub interiors. It is highly flexible in accommodating groups of different sizes and, when quieter, allowing customers to spread out coats and bags. It also promotes sociability by getting drinkers to face the centre of the room and interact with each other rather than looking inward at their own little groups. You are much more likely to talk to people you don’t know where there are benches. In short, it just makes an interior seem more “pubby”. Plus it maximises total seating capacity.

I’m sure it’s a deliberate policy on the part of Spoons to furnish their pubs with free-standing chairs and tables as it is their intention to make them look less like old-fashioned pubs. Much the same is true of dining pub chains such as Brunning & Price and Vintage Inns. But a much greater use of bench seating would give them some of that atmosphere the lack of which is often considered one of Spoons’ greatest failings. Take, for example, the Waterhouse in central Manchester, which occupies a row of early 19th century terraced houses. With fixed seating, it would be a marvellous rabbit warren of cosy, characterful snugs. Without it, it’s just random loose furniture in a series of small rooms. At their worst, the bigger, open-plan Spoons with rows of tables in the centre of the room look more like works canteens.

A further issue with Spoons is that very often they seem to have eight different beers on but nothing I actually want to drink. The basic concept of a balanced beer range seems to completely elude their managers. It might be an idea if in each region they had as a permanent beer a classic “ordinary bitter” characteristic of that area such as, say, Thwaites Original in the North-West. This could replace the forgettable Ruddles and ensure there would always be something reasonable to fall back on even if everything else was either 6.5%, flavoured with coriander or as black as the Ace of Spades. It could also wean some of the regulars off John Smith’s Extra Smooth.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Chuck out your chintz

The latest bizarre interior design feature to appear in pubs is the proliferation of scatter cushions. They’ve appeared in a number of Robinson’s recent refurbishments, and they’ve even cropped up in Wetherspoon’s. And, not content with colonising the lounge side, they’ve even started spreading to the vault!

The idea, I suppose, is to make pub interiors seem more female-friendly by introducing a cosy, homely, design element. But in practice nobody ever derives any comfort from them, and they just end up being chucked on the floor to free up more seating space. Surely it is appropriate for the “public” side to have an understated, functional, even austere design ethos of a somewhat masculine character rather than being bedecked with fancy fripperies.

And isn’t it somewhat patronising to women to imagine that they will be tempted into pubs by the introduction of fussy, chintzy soft furnishings that serve no practical purpose?

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Idea vs reality

In the 1960s, there was a wave of railway branch line closures stemming from the notorious “Beeching Axe”, which often came up against passionate opposition. But it was noticeable that the commemorative “last trains” often carried more passengers than the line had done in the whole of the previous month. Many people had a lingering fondness for the idea of rural branch line railways, but they had fallen out of love with the reality.

As Rowan Pelling argues in an article entitled We love pubs and churches, but don’t want to use them, the same is increasingly happening with pubs. There are endless campaigns to “save the Red Lion from evil property developers”, and dinner party guests discuss how sad it is that the old pubs are closing, but the harsh truth is that people in general are going to them less and less often. “We love to complain about the decline of our institutions, but want someone else to do our praying and drinking,” she says.

Exactly the same can be said of many other long-established categories of business – libraries, post offices, traditional butchers, local bank branches, independent corner shops, even High Streets in general. The chattering classes embrace them in theory, but shun them in practice. You get the impression that a lot of people want large swathes of the country to become some kind of Merrie England theme park populated by cheeky Cockneys and gurning yokels, while they sit at home waiting for the Ocado delivery which they will pay for by mobile phone banking.

“Use it or lose it” is a glib phrase that is too often casually used without considering the implications. In practice, few of us are likely to be able to make any difference to the success or failure of businesses through our own custom alone, and it’s not reasonable to expect people to inconvenience themselves out of a sense of principle. But, collectively, it has to be acknowledged that the sum total of our decisions as a society is what has driven so many cherished institutions to the wall. As far as businesses go, people vote with their feet, and they have increasingly voted against pubs.

Pubs used to thrive in large numbers because pubgoing was woven into the fabric of everyday life. For a variety of reasons, that link has increasingly become disentangled over the past few decades, and that’s why so many have closed. The people writing broadsheet newspaper pieces bewailing the death of the pub are likely to find compelling reasons why popping in for a quick one three or four times a week simply isn’t practical.

Incidentally, it’s not the first time that Rowan Pelling has written perceptively about the decline of pubs – I have previously linked to one of her pieces here. A far cry from her days as “Editrice” of the Erotic Review.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Pound pubby

It was reported this week that, after having successfully trialled the concept, a company was planning to roll out its Pound Pub concept across the North of England. Basically these are no-frills, wet-led pubs where a half of standard bitter or lager goes for a quid, and a pint for a mere £1.50. The stated aim is to attract daytime drinkers who might in the past have frequented working men’s clubs. Sky TV is conspicuous by its absence.

Not surprisingly, the anti-drink lobby were up in arms, claiming that it was irresponsible marketing targeting the most vulnerable in society. Funny that, when a pint at £1.50 is about 70p a unit, well above their proposed minimum alcohol price. This gives further credence to the intention – set out in the Sheffield University research that is used to support minimum pricing – of having differential minimum prices for the on- and off-trades. And I don’t see them picketing Wetherspoon’s and Sam Smith’s pubs.

Obviously those two operators do good business from offering prices conspicuously lower than most of the competition, but their establishments also tend to have a reasonable level of creature comforts and, particularly with Sam’s, a kind of camaraderie that produces a distinctive pubby buzz. A pub where cheapness is the only attraction is unlikely to attract many punters and also risks being a magnet for the kind of people whose company you might prefer to avoid. So time will tell whether this proves to be a successful business concept.

If it does take off, as with the widely-reported rise of micropubs, it might indicate that there is a latent and unsatisfied demand for old-fashioned drink-and-chat pubs that don’t succumb to the multiple temptations of loud music, screaming kids, TV football and wall-to-wall dining.

Of course, there is one rather obvious way in which the trade of small, no-frills, wet-led pubs could be dramatically revived. What a pity the government continues to turn a deaf ear.

Incidentally, I love the description of micropubs in Zythophile’s blogpost that I linked to as “five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space”.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Planning to fail

I’ve often made the point on here that no amount of planning restrictions will save a single pub if the underlying demand isn’t there. This view is supported by Martyn Cornell in this provocative blogpost: How much is a pub worth? The Lib Dems don’t know:

Pubs don’t need their existence protecting by legislation because, as has been demonstrated hundreds of times over the past couple of decades alone, if the demand is there a pub will arise, and if the demand isn’t there, a pub will close. People get emotional when they read headlines that say “Village loses its last pub”, but almost every time the pub is closing because villagers aren’t using it in sufficient numbers – and if there really is genuine demand, there is little or nothing to stop a village entrepreneur opening a new pub, micro or otherwise, to replace the one that is closing.
He makes the important point that, if you force pub owners to sell pubs to sitting tenants at their market value as a pub, as the Lib Dems propose, then either the risk of running a failing pub is transferred to the tenant or, if redevelopment is ultimately allowed, then the tenant rather than the pubco ends up with all the benefit. And the local community still has no pub.

He also points out that it has never been easier to open new premises with full on-licences:

The debate about “protecting” pubs from closure is conducted as if there were only a finite number of sites capable of ever being pubs, and every pub that becomes a supermarket, or a private home, or even a coffee bar means a permanent reduction in the number of pubs there could ever be. But this is total nonsense, of course: even in the days when it was much harder to open a new pub than it is now, Tim Martin, to name just one entrepreneur, was putting up his signboards on premises that had all sorts of previous uses: banks, cinemas, shops, post offices, and the rest. The same process is still going on, all around the country: the micropub movement, for example, has seen pubs open in premises that were formerly, to pick just a few examples at random, a butcher’s shop, an antiques shop, a taxi firm’s offices, a hairdresser’s, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a tattoo parlour, a kitchen showroom, a bookshop, a launderette, a bakery, a health food shop … you are, I’m sure, getting the picture. There are even a couple of micropubs opened up in premises that had been pubs originally, but which had closed 80 or 100 years ago. If the will, and the demand, is there, pubs can spring into being almost as easily as nail bars and tattoo parlours, kebab outlets and coffee shops.
And he exposes the argument that pub closures may denude areas with high property values of any licensed premises as absurd. Even where rents are sky-high, there are still bars, and various other kinds of small retail outlets, but they may simply occupy the ground floors of larger blocks rather than being substantial free-standing buildings. It may happen in inner London, but I can’t think of a single pub around here that could have been regarded as thriving, but ended up being sold off for redevelopment or conversion to alternative use.

The widespread claim that lax planning controls are leading to the closure of large numbers of perfectly viable pubs has only a tenuous grounding in reality, and this particular narrative actually hinders the efforts of those who genuinely believe in pubs and wish to improve their prospects by challenging the social and legislative constraints under which they operate.

It can’t happen here

The reason cask beer dramatically turned the tables against keg in the 1970s was not some issue of principle – it was that, quite simply, when well-kept, cask was much better than keg. I remember the old-style keg beers and they were often pretty unpleasant – gassy, burp-provoking, overchilled, lacking subtlety of flavour and often surprisingly reluctant to maintain a head.

For more than three decades, pretty much everything of interest in the British draught beer market was cask. A lot of keg continued to be sold, and indeed it enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-90s in the guise of “smooth”, but in general it was a commodity product appealing to undiscerning customers.

Even now, if you go in a typical pub the alternatives to cask aren’t very inspiring. There will be a smooth bitter, such as John Smith’s, which in my experience are uniformly bland and have an unpleasant soapy feel. Then there’s cooking lager, such as Carling, which might be refreshing on a hot day and to my mind is more drinkable than smooth, but becomes boring once you’re nearing the bottom of the glass. Guinness is not to everyone’s taste and in any case is widely thought to be a shadow of its former self. In fact, your best chance of finding something with a bit of character is likely to be an imported premium lager, but that comes at a price and may be a stronger beer than you actually want to drink.

However, the growth of “craft keg” has started to change the perception that keg beers offer nothing of interest to the discerning beer drinker. At first, it was mainly confined to strong and/or exotic beers and could be regarded as a complement to cask rather than a direct rival but, more recently, there are signs that it is spreading into the field of lower-strength and more quaffable beers.

In the comments to a previous blogpost, Cookie describes how he had a keg Shipyard Pale Ale in a pub where the cask offering didn’t seem very appealing: “I'd drink the shipyard again figuring it wasn't a gamble in a pub that doesn't have a big cask turnover, and f*** all other punters appear to be drinking the cask.”

While a good cask beer is always going to be better than any keg, “craft keg” does address two of cask’s Achilles heels – that it is inconsistent, particularly in lower turnover outlets, and that it is simply served too warm for many people’s tastes. It cannot be denied that there is a large and genuine demand for draught beers served cooler than typical cask temperature.

I’ve described myself how, in hot weather, I’ve occasionally taken the view that a pint of cooking lager might be a better option than a cask beer of the Doom Bar type in a pub where nobody else appeared to be drinking it. Sometimes I’ve had the cask and wished I hadn’t because I ended up with a pint of tepid, hazy glop. If a craft keg ale at a drinkable strength of 4.5% or less was available then that would probably be preferable to the lager, and thus the perception that cask is always the beer to go for starts to be eroded.

Cask still has a huge amount of goodwill and inertia on its side – many of its non-enthusiast drinkers have scarcely come across any craft kegs and still see beer choice in a simplistic “cask good, keg bad” way. But, as craft kegs start to penetrate mainstream pubs, like the one Cookie described, and a new generation of drinkers start to take a more eclectic view of beer choice, things could start to change. Perhaps a sign of a shift in the marketplace would be if a substantial brewery decided to bring out a range of seasonal craft beers – like Hydes’ Beer Studio series – in keg rather than cask form. In a sense Marston’s are already doing that with their Revisionist beers.

And so, it’s entirely possible that, within a few years, much of the on-trade market for interesting, characterful beer will have switched from cask to new-wave keg. I’m not saying it will happen, or that it should happen. But it could happen. And a call from CAMRA to man the barricades against the keg menace would almost certainly fall on deaf ears.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Exceeding expectations

Well, the relatively small number of people who responded to my poll weren’t very optimistic about the prospects for any further duty concessions in the Budget, but they were proved completely wrong.

George Osborne surprised everyone with what was probably the budget in living memory most favourable to producers, retailers and consumers of alcoholic drinks. The duty escalator was scrapped for all drinks categories (as I urged in this month’s Opening Times column), but he went further than this by cutting the main rate of beer duty by a further penny a pint, and by freezing duty on spirits and “standard” cider, both of which are substantial British industries.

So I’ll certainly be raising a glass to that tonight!

Just wait for the chorus of whining and predictions of doom from the anti-drink lobby.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Niche to mainstream

The past couple of months have seen a flurry of articles in the media that suggest the “craft beer” phenomenon has finally escaped from the bubble and gained wider attention. As Pete Brown writes here, the beer market will never be the same as it was.

But he also makes the point that it’s important to distinguish between a fad and a revolution. A fad is a cultural phenomenon that enjoys a brief moment in the sun, and may even for a short time seem unstoppable, but eventually disappears scarcely leaving a trace. You don’t see many people now drinking beer from the bottle with a slice of lime in the neck. A revolution, on the other hand, permanently changes the landscape. Lager was a revolution in the British beer market; so, like it or not, was nitrokeg “smooth”. For a while, though, it can be hard to tell which is which.

There’s currently a ferment of innovation and experimentation in British beer. When mainstream supermarkets create “craft beer” sections and Spoons start selling American craft beer in cans, it’s obvious something’s up. Some of these new developments will fall by the wayside, some will endure while never enjoying more than a niche appeal, but some will be taken up by the mainstream so in a few years they will seem normal. It could even be, as I suggested in the comments, that a constant search for something new will become the new mainstream.

It’s interesting to reflect on what trends in the beer market over the past few decades have gone from niche to mainstream appeal. The original, now-derided, wave of keg ales certainly did, and so did standard lager. In the early years of CAMRA, actively seeking out unusual or well-regarded beers became commonplace in a way it never was before. Even bog-standard pubs saw it as worthwhile to proclaim that they sold “real ale”. More recently, a widespread expectation has developed that the general run of pubs, and not just specialist alehouses, will offer rotating guest beers.

It’s now commonplace to find “world lagers” like Budweiser Budvar, Peroni, Estrella Damm and Brahma on tap but, oddly, despite the country arguably being the home of lager brewing, German lagers have never gained mass-market popularity. And, while not everyone’s cup of tea, so-called fruit ciders have become pretty mainstream in the past few years.

The current craft beer scene encompasses a number of disparate trends, and it’s hard to discern what is really going to catch on, and what isn’t. Probably the most obvious is the rise of intensely hoppy beers using new world hops, which has been reflected in the introduction of more mainstream beers like Adnams’ Ghost Ship and even Old Golden Hen. But the sheer intensity of flavour of many beers in the American IPA style may prove to be a limiting factor. The heavily peated Islay malt whiskies are widely respected, but they don’t tend to be the regular choice of even well-heeled whisky drinkers.

And the widely-reported market trends of a move to weaker beers, and to a sweeter flavour profile, may end up inhibiting the break-out of craft beer and keeping many of its strands within a limited niche.

Ghost Drinker writes here about how one of his locals has now been rebranded as a “craft ale house” but you do have to wonder whether that will end up sharing the fate of Whitbread’s Tut’n’Shive alehouse concept of twenty-odd years ago.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Thief revived

Last year I posted some pictures of the Davenport Arms (aka the Thief’s Neck) at Woodford and made the comment that, while in most respects it was an excellent pub, it would benefit from removing the foliage at the front and restoring direct access to the road. Well, lo and behold, it has recently undergone a £100,000 refurbishment by Robinson’s Brewery and licensee Yvonne Hallworth, and my wish has been granted. It looks very appealing in today’s bright Spring sunshine.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth?

The J. D. Wetherspoon vouchers distributed by CAMRA to its members have proved to be a considerable source of controversy. To some they are a valuable membership benefit, while to others they involve a consumer organisation compromising its independence.

The point needs to be made that these vouchers are entirely funded by Spoons, and don’t cost CAMRA a penny. And to some extent they represent an offer that appears to be generous, but where in fact, by design, the take-up will be limited. They’re not perforated, so have to be cut up with scissors, they’re just that bit too big to comfortably fit in the average wallet, and they’re limited to three-month time slots. Given this, it’s my view that less than 10% of those issued are ever redeemed.

This was recently discussed on the CAMRA forum, so I decided to create a poll to test that proposition. Apologies to general blog readers who feel this subject is a bit parochial. The results show a clear U-curve, with the biggest vote for those who use none, closely followed by those who use all 10 each quarter. Overall, the responses suggest that about 45% of the vouchers end up being used but, given that the blog is far more likely to be read by enthusiasts I would say that figure is likely to greatly over-estimate the real-world take-up. The original poll results are here – there are also some interesting comments, including “I've never seen anyone under 50 using a Wetherspoon voucher in my local branch”.

In reality I would say that whether you use them or not mainly depends on whether Wetherspoon’s is part of your regular round. If you go there anyway, you’ll probably use them; if you don’t, you won’t. People aren’t really going to go out of their way just to save 50p on a pint. And, even if you do go to Spoons, if your usual habit is to drink halves, or if you’re taking advantage of the inclusive meal deals, for which they’re not valid, you might not use them either. I currently have six left for the January-March quarter, and am unlikely to use more than one more – and that’s not because I’ve been steering clear of pubs in general, or even deliberately avoiding Spoons.

It may not be the case in other towns, but in Stockport town centre there are plenty of other pubs that offer one or more of a wider choice, better-kept beer, better (if dearer) food, a more cosy and pub-like atmosphere and even keener prices (in the two Sam Smith’s pubs) than the local branch of Spoons.

If the vouchers weren’t time-limited, then they would effectively become like ten-bob drinking vouchers circulating amongst CAMRA members and their mates, but the fact is that they are limited, and so surplus ones end up getting binned at the end of each quarter. Probably many of the less engaged members just put the annual envelope to one side and forget about it.

While it’s not something I feel particularly strongly about, in my view the voucher scheme does to some extent compromise CAMRA’s integrity and may inhibit criticism of Spoons. Some non-Spoons pubs also accept the vouchers at face value and, to provide a bit of balance, it would be nice to see the Independent Family Brewers of Britain offer a similar scheme (although in practice that would be much more administratively complex). Now I’d certainly use all of those!

On a related note, Wetherspoon’s have recently introduced a policy that every branch will stock at least one of London Pride, Doom Bar and Adnams Broadside. Is that perhaps an acknowledgement that, for many of their customers, their cask ale range, apart from the staple Ruddles and Abbot, was often a bit obscure and offputting?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

A lot of bottle

Premium Bottled Ales are in a sense the older, staider relation of craft keg beers. They’ve been around for a lot longer, and have less of a cutting-edge image and a more mature customer profile. But they share the crucial factor that, while they’re certainly not “real” in CAMRA terms, neither are they never worth drinking.

The results of my latest poll show strong support, with 45% saying they drink them regularly, and 60% saying they did so at least sometimes. In contrast, only 3% exclusively confined themselves to bottle-conditioned ales, as recommended by CAMRA, while a much greater 18% said they didn’t drink anything at home.

As I wrote here, Premium Bottled Ales are one of the fastest growing categories in the beer market, and are viewed by many of their consumers as the bottled equivalent of cask ale in the pub. Pubs serve Wainwright, Pedigree, Abbot and Directors, and so do Tesco in the beer aisle. Most of them are the counterparts of cask beers, and their drinkers often refer to them as “bottles of real ale”. More and more, it’s not a case of “I saw that in the pub, I’ll drink it in bottle” but “I’ve had that in bottle, so I’ll drink it on one of my rare visits to the pub”.

I’d say that, ultimately, this is an even bigger quandary for CAMRA than “craft keg”. Drinking is increasingly shifting to the off-trade, and the discerning ale drinker, especially in the older age groups, is increasingly drinking PBAs. To argue that, say, brewery-conditioned Thornbridge Jaipur or Hawkshead Lakeland Gold are beers unworthy of any serious consideration is no more a credible position than claiming all craft keg is worthless. CAMRA’s policy of making a shibboleth of inconsistent and often undrinkable bottle-conditioned beers comes across as ludicrous.

It’s an interesting speculation as to whether, if PBAs had been around in 1973, CAMRA would have been so dogmatic in its deification of bottle-conditioning.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Passing me by?

The original reason for creating this blog was the smoking ban in July 2007 which, as I predicted, has largely ripped the guts out of the British pub trade, especially traditional, working-class pubs. Since then, it has ventured on to various other topics relating to pubs and lifestyle freedom in general. But, while I obviously enjoy beer, I’ve never claimed to be a “beer enthusiast” as such. I’ve written here about how I am basically more interested in pubs than beer.

Clearly it’s not the case that I couldn’t care less about beer and, if you did a survey of the population of the UK, I would probably qualify in the 1000th most interested in it. But, essentially, I value the atmosphere and conviviality of pubs, and as long as I can get a decent pint of bitter – whether Robinson’s, Hyde’s, Holt’s, Sam Smith’s or whatever – I’m not really too bothered. I’m not someone who is constantly chasing after new, rare and weird beers.

I’ve been a member of CAMRA for over thirty years (most of those as a Life Member) and, despite my oft-expressed reservations, am currently a responsible official of the organisation at a local level. I am pretty much in favour of everything CAMRA campaigns for, but sometimes sceptical about what it campaigns against.

There has recently seen an astonishing upsurge of interest in beer, much of which doesn’t qualify as “real” in CAMRA terms. This is basically a Good Thing, and I welcome the way that some CAMRA shibboleths are being punctured. But it seems to be very much an urban and youth-oriented phenomenon. I don’t see much evidence of this beer revolution in the kind of pubs I frequent, and I doubt whether it’s going to permeate through to places like the Bennett’s End Inn.

So I hope you will pardon me if I take the view that this is all very interesting, but it doesn’t really affect me too much.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Interesting times

The results of my poll on drinking “craft keg” beers are shown on the right. The general response was very positive, with almost a quarter saying they drank them regularly, and only 8% avoiding them on principle. Given that my usual haunts are family brewer tied houses, and Spoons, I answered “I’ll try them if I see them”. I actually had a half of Quantum American Amber the other night in the Magnet in Stockport – at a CAMRA branch meeting – and thought it was very nice. But it wasn’t something I’d want to drink numerous pints of.

The beer market is rapidly changing, and we are seeing developments such as Wetherspoon’s stocking American craft beer in cans that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. Beer is now fashionable in a way that realistically it never has been during my drinking career – see, for example, this article in the Guardian. Even in the 1970s, when real ale enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, it wasn’t really cool. And there is a serious risk that CAMRA, effectively the only membership organisation representing beer drinkers, will end up looking as relevant as a closed and boarded estate pub.

Biting the hand that feeds you

There was an interesting discussion on Twitter recently about to what extent it is acceptable to criticise beers that you, as a blogger, have been given for free. My view was that you needed to tread carefully, but on reflection I think it’s important to draw a distinction between beers (and other products) provided purely for review, and those that represent an element of hospitality.

Over the years I have been given a large number of free pints when delivering the local CAMRA magazine, although sadly that practice has ceased in both of the pubs that used to do it. I would never ask for a top-up of a free pint and, if it happened to be in poor condition (which was very rarely the case) I would abstain from giving it a score on WhatPub. It’s rank bad manners to quibble and carp over gifts.

If you are given something purely for the purpose of providing a review, then it’s fair enough to be negative, as I was about this book. But, on the other hand, some gifts surely represent a feeling of goodwill, and it doesn’t do to react in an excessively negative way. For example, a while back, I was given five eight-packs of Wells & Young’s bottled beers, which would have had a retail price of at least £60. All were reviewed, and I was a bit lukewarm about the London Gold, but I did feel that it would be rude to spit it back in their face. As it happens, I like Wells & Young’s beers, and think that, overall, they are the best of the major producers of premium bottled ales, so I didn’t feel I had to compromise my integrity.

I was also given a free review copy of this expensive coffee-table book, which is one that I probably would have bought with my own money anyway. I saw that as a gesture of goodwill, and responded accordingly.

I’ve now been blogging for nearly seven years, and have only ever received four examples of free stuff, so don’t imagine that it’s the key to the life of Riley.

Ironically, between composing this post and putting it up, Tandleman has written about his trip to BrewDog. You can judge for yourself whether the free hospitality affected his conclusions.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Micro vs Macro economics

Phil Mellows has made a very sensible and balanced post (as usual) here about the conversion of pubs to supermarkets. It’s often alleged that the supermarket chains have been deliberately targeting entirely viable pubs. I don’t claim that this has never happened, but locally the three pubs that have undergone such a conversion – the Red Lion in Gatley, the Chapel House in Heaton Chapel and the White Lion in Withington (illustrated) – had all been closed for some time before. I would guess that the vast majority of pub to supermarket conversions have been of pubs that at best were struggling. Indeed, very near to me, the site of the former Four Heatons pub is to become a Morrisons Local more than three years after it closed.

I have made the point before that it’s possible to come up with a plausible narrative for how many supposedly “failed” pubs could have been brought back to life, but it’s much harder to come up with a similar narrative for the pub market as a whole, given all the pressures that have affected it. An appealing offer in one particular pub will make little difference to overall demand, and often it’s a case of one pub succeeding at the expense of another. I know of one large village in Cheshire than in recent years has lost two of its four pubs – and the two that have closed are those that in the past I would have identified as the more attractive and viable. But, if they hadn’t closed, the odds are that the other two would have.

It’s tempting to propose that the conversion of pubs to retail use should be subject to planning consent but, in reality, isn’t that just likely to postpone the evil day and lead to greater cost and bureaucracy? The current planning system, while it requires consent for the conversion of commercial premises to residential use, broadly permits “downgrading” to use classes that are likely to create less impact on the local community. Thus, no planning consent is required for conversion of pubs to retail or office use, but it is needed in the opposite direction. Would it really serve the public good for planning permission to be required for every conversion of a box bar into a wool shop? At the end of the day, the decline of the pub trade is essentially due to a fall-off in demand, not to a failure of the planning system to protect pubs.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Is it just me?

I’ve written in the past about the highly inconsistent and generally disappointing character of British bottle-conditioned beers, especially those from small breweries that have been bottled at source using the original yeast. Indeed, in my experience the likelihood of getting one that is even half-decent is so low that I would actively warn people against buying them.

To my mind, the whole point of a bottle-conditioned beer is that it will actually undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle, in a similar way to Champagne. Thus, when you pour it, there will be a dense, rocky read and vigorous spires of natural carbonation rising through the beer. However, despite extensive experimentation, that state is rarely achieved. I’ve had it in about one in five White Shields but, apart from that, hardly ever in British beers.

For example, I recently bought a bottle of Wye Valley Butty Bach from Tesco as part of a multibuy offer. I hadn’t realised that it was bottle-conditioned, but it turned out that it was. I succeeded in pouring it clear, but it produced a very lacklustre, flat glass of beer. I’m not singling Wye Valley out for criticism (and indeed they brew some excellent cask beers) but it just happens it’s their beer I had.

They don’t, to be honest, make many inroads into the major supermarkets, but the shelves of specialist off-licences are now groaning with bottle-conditioned beers from British micro-breweries, so plenty of people must be buying them.

If that’s you, what do you expect? Is it enough for you that you get a rather flat, yeasty-tasting, possibly slightly hazy, glass of beer, with some gunge in the bottom of the bottle, that you know hasn’t been filtered or pasteurised, and that has a little logo on the label saying “CAMRA says this is real ale”? Or do you actually experience that elusive vigorous secondary fermentation? And, if you do, why does it virtually never happen to me?

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Long-tailed and legless

Here’s a pub character who literally is legless – but not in the way you would expect. He can still manage to walk along the top of the bar, though...

Inside the big beer tent

Last weekend, I quoted from a letter by Tim Webb in the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing in which he called for the organisation to take a more accommodating attitude towards the growing number of high-quality beers that did not qualify as “real ale”. I think he has a point, but I deliberately didn’t comment at the time to see what others’ thoughts were. Since then, Paul Bailey and Tandleman have both produced thoughtful posts on the subject which have attracted numerous comments.

In the context of the time, the original definition of real ale arrived at by CAMRA in the early 1970s was a pretty good way of sorting out the sheep from the goats in terms of British draught beer. But, even then, the wiser heads knew very well it wasn’t a universal yardstick for good beer. There was effectively no real ale anywhere in the world outside Great Britain, but that didn’t mean there was no good beer.

For a period of thirty years, the concept of real ale went largely unchallenged, and even in 2000 there was little “good beer” available on draught in the UK that didn’t qualify. The introduction of nitrokeg “smooth” beers in the 1990s gave a new impetus to the real vs keg battle.

However, in the 21st century, beer has suddenly become fashionable again, and there has been a huge upsurge of interest in new and different styles and flavours. But a growing proportion of this new beer falls outside the definition of real ale, and thus presents CAMRA with a dilemma. Many of these young beer enthusiasts are happily mixing cask and keg in places like the Port Street Beer House or the RedWillow bar in Macclesfield, or even sticking entirely to keg in the BrewDog bar. If you want to get them involved in CAMRA, telling them that all keg beer is chemical piss isn’t going to get you very far, and saying “that’s nothing to do with us, we campaign for real ale” isn’t much better. And if you try to explain to them why CAMRA beer festivals will happily sell German keg beers, but won’t allow similar beers brewed in the UK, then they might begin to question your sanity.

In reality, many of the most enthusiastic consumers of “craft keg” are actually CAMRA members, and the more broad-minded amongst them are well aware of the limitations of the concept of real ale. But the organisation prevents any kind of official expression of this wider beer enthusiasm. For example, one of the most noticeable trends in the current beer market is the growth of British-brewed craft lagers. But CAMRA’s magazine BEER can’t report on this or carry out a taste test because they are all keg beers.

Tim Webb is perhaps guilty of overstating the scale of the problem, as after all CAMRA is recording record membership figures and running many highly successful beer festivals like the recent one in Manchester. Many pubgoers will never encounter a craft keg tap from one month to the next, while you’ll struggle to find even a half-decent pub without real ale. But the issue isn’t going to go away, and is likely to grow in importance with the passage of time. In the long term, there is a risk that it will lead to a loss of credibility and marginalisation.

In reality, CAMRA has always campaigned on subjects well beyond real ale, such as opening hours, beer duty and licensing reform, and has also brought cider under its wing even though it has less to do with beer than whisky does. It presents itself as a champion of all beer drinkers and pubgoers, not just real ale drinkers. So I don’t see why it can’t adopt a more open-minded attitude to non-real beers while still retaining its core objective of protecting and promoting British cask beer. It simply needs to accept that CAMRA publications and spokespeople are allowed to discuss, review and praise non-real products rather than just pretending they don’t exist. As private individuals, many of its leading lights do just that (I can think of three chairmen of local branches, for a start) but officially it is beyond the pale.

In the long term, I tend to feel this will be achieved through a slow but steady grass-roots revolt rather than by passing conference motions, stemming from the turnover of the generations as the dinosaurs muttering about “chemical fizz” retire from active involvement and are replaced by younger and more open-minded activists. It could be compared with the way a majority of Catholics have come to embrace contraception despite the official hierarchy of the church remaining dead set against it. And the last thing CAMRA should be doing is attempting to come up with nitpicking technical definitions of which “craft kegs” can be deemed acceptable, and which can’t.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Swan crowned

Congratulations to the Swan With Two Necks at Pendleton in Lancashire for having been chosen as CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year for 2014. I’ve never actually been there personally, but it sounds a cracking pub and I’ll try to remedy the omission some time this year.

Situated in the shadow of Pendle Hill, it’s a traditional, stone-built village pub, described by its regulars as being “in a time warp”, that has been run by licensee Steve Dilworth for twenty-seven years. It offers Copper Dragon Golden Pippin plus four varying guest beers, mostly from local micro-breweries, two locally-produced ciders and home-made food. A further plus point is that it doesn’t show TV football. The StreetView image shows a stream running down the middle of the pretty village street.

There have been a few mutterings that selecting a pub of this type shows CAMRA in fuddy-duddy, backward-looking mode, but surely it is a positive step that they have chosen a pub that appeals to all sections of the community rather than some trendy urban craft beer bar that is of interest only to enthusiasts and would make the organisation seem exclusive. And I’m told that hop-forward golden beers feature heavily on its guest beer list – it’s not just Landlord and Lancaster Bomber.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Keep the flag flying

I recently reported the unexpected closure of the Baker’s Vaults in Stockport. While Robinson’s brewery have stated their intention to find new tenants and reopen it, it still remains firmly closed.

I can think of a few other pubs that are currently closed, but which I would confidently expect to reopen eventually. But the question has to be asked whether this is actually a good business strategy. Wouldn’t it make sense to keep the place open with a temporary licensee, even at a reduced level of service?

Many pubs have regulars who are in several days a week, who might well be sent elsewhere by a prolonged period of closure, or find that staying in isn’t that bad after all. And, for those pubs that people need to make a special journey to visit, one experience of finding it closed may deter them permanently.

It has also, from experience, often been the case that alternating periods of closure and opening under new licensees have been a harbinger of permanent closure. If a pub closed, opened again, then closed once more, I wouldn’t hold out much hope. It suggests dubious long-term viability.

So it must be a declaration of confidence in the future of a pub if its owners keep it going even under difficult and unexpected circumstances, which may reap dividends in the future.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Driving blind

In the February issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing, there’s a very interesting letter from Tim Webb that will certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. I won’t repeat the whole thing, but he concludes:

Uniquely among beer consumer groups, CAMRA has championed a bureaucratic device to inform its members what sort of beer is good – as in the term Good Beer Guide. Thirty years ago this mattered little, as decent beer and cask ale, in Britain at least, were synonymous. But then things changed and will not return to where they once were.

The challenge for the Campaign is how to adapt to the much-improved world of beer it helped create. Luke warm acceptance of, or being not against the greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century, is not a good enough stance. To younger eyes it makes CAMRA look like a much-loved grandparent who wants to keep driving even though they can’t make out the road ahead.