Friday, 21 November 2014

Supermarket swoop

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A Pyrrhic victory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The morning after the night before

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

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

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

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The gestation of intolerance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Full measure revisited

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

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

It also seems to be the case that British drinkers have an attachment to the concept of a brimming pint glass. Back in the days when oversize glasses were commonplace, a lot of drinkers didn't actually like them because of the air space left at the top of the glass, and described them as “glass buckets”. Somehow it doesn’t look right. I remember one or two members of the local CAMRA branch repeatedly moaning about short measure in pubs that used them, even though they must have known it wasn’t.

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

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Beer vs pubs

In the early years of CAMRA, it was recognised that pubs and real ale were inextricably linked. Without pubs, there would be no real ale. It was an era when the pub trade was booming, so pubs were not in general under threat as such, and one of the main campaigning priorities was increasing the proportion of pubs that sold real ale. Much effort was put into producing pub guides for the various areas of the country showing people where real ale was available.

Beer festivals steadily assumed a greater importance, but their general aim remained to highlight beers that people might want to look out for in pubs. A change started to happen in the late 1980s with the rise of multi-beer free houses, where many beer enthusiasts started to drink in preference to tied houses with only one or two beers. Another change in the marketplace was the growth in new microbreweries, which found a ready market in the multi-beer pubs, and also got a foothold in more mainstream pubs through the guest beer clause in the Beer Orders. However, at this stage they were still in general only producing their own take on the beer styles already offered by the established breweries.

Then, beginning with the development of American-influenced intensely hoppy beers, things began to change, and this led to the current explosion of different styles and flavours associated with the “craft beer revolution”. More and more, the cutting-edge beer enthusiast would find little of interest in the general run of pubs, and a growing number of specialist bars and even beer festivals have sprung up to cater for the demand.

Although it tends to grasp the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the reasons for pub decline, CAMRA has in recent years devoted a lot of effort to pub campaigning. But the new-wave beer geek may well ask what is the point of trying to stop a run-down estate boozer being converted into a Tesco Express when there are cool new bars in the centre of town offering a greater range of beers than anyone’s ever seen before. They will fail to see any attraction in spending the evening in a pub full of old blokes drinking one or two regular beers from a fuddy-duddy family brewery and, from reading some blogs, they regard a trip away from the big city into one of the more far-flung parts of the country as something akin to a journey into Darkest Africa where they might have no alternative but to drink Wainwright or some boring brown bitter from a local farmhouse brewery.

Now obviously people have the right to pursue their own interests as they see fit. It’s not really something that floats my boat – as I said here, while I’m far from uninterested in beer, ultimately I’m more interested in pubs. But it must be a cause for concern that enthusiasm for beer is becoming increasingly detached from the everyday pubgoing experience of ordinary people.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Stairway to heaven

The other week I called in to the Ship at Styal, an attractive Cheshire country pub that has recently been refurbished by multiple operators Kalton & Barlow after having become rather tired under pub company ownership. It’s been smartly done up in gastro-style, and I had quite a reasonable pint of Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker. However, one thing I noticed is that the toilets had been moved upstairs to make more room on the ground floor.

This is a familiar feature of Wetherspoons, but more recently it’s been spreading to other pubs as well. I wrote recently how pubs seemed to be increasingly turning a cold shoulder to older drinkers and, while Spoons do seem to be popular with the grey market, this is something that is far from ideal for them. There are many elderly people who are not disabled as such, but would struggle with long flights of stairs, especially if their bladder capacity is not what it was. I’ve heard it said of some Spoons that “it’s so far to the bogs, once you’ve been and come back you want to go again.”

In some Spoons I’ve seen people who struggle a bit to walk using the disabled toilet, often with the tacit approval of the staff, but to feel forced to do so involves something of a loss of dignity. So maybe, with an increasingly ageing population, this is one example of how pubs could to take the concept of being pensioner-friendly seriously.

Incidentally, I’ve never come across upstairs or basement toilets in any of the new Greene King and Marston’s dining pubs, which suggests they have a keen eye on where much of their trade comes from.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Show your colours

I happened to come across this graphic on Twitter the other day, and thought it would be worthy of a retweet.

I scarcely expected the volume of anti-smoking and anti-pub abuse I would be subjected to, which has resulted in a number of intolerant pub-hating individuals either unfollowing me or being unfollowed.

Maybe the message is a touch strident and invites accusations of Godwin’s Law. But intolerance was a key feature of Naziism, and the Nazis can be said to have begun the modern-day anti-smoking mania. Surely, since the smoking ban has been so devastating to the pub trade, pubs should be fully entitled to declare their disagreement with the law – even though they are forced to comply with it – and many would see that as a welcome manifestation of an independent, rebellious spirit.

Sowing paranoia

My last post referred to the imminent reduction of the drink-drive limit in Scotland. On a non-beer-related forum I frequent, this led to a remarkable outbreak of paranoia, with ludicrous speculation about the Scottish police carrying out “hot pursuit” of suspected offenders across the border, and people wondering when they would ever be safe to have a drink, and asking whether they needed to buy a personal breathalyser if they sometimes enjoyed a few midweek pints and drove to work the following morning.

While I yield to no-one in my opposition to this law, in fact there are well-established rules of thumb that should help to set their minds at rest, but don’t tend to have the currency they once enjoyed. When I learned to drive in the 1970s, it was drummed in to me by my father and other adults that, to avoid falling foul of the law, I should drink no more than two pints of ordinary-strength beer when driving. Of course, in those days there wasn’t much else around other than ordinary-strength beer. And two pints was a figure that would keep you comfortably below the limit, not end up nudging against it.

This is borne out by this 1986 leaflet produced by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory which states clearly that if an 11-stone man drinks two pints of ordinary-strength beer, his blood-alcohol level would reach a maximum of 60 mg. Given this, it follows that drinking just one pint should not take you anywhere near a 50mg limit, and one and a half may well be OK for gentlemen of more substantial build. Of course nowadays the picture is clouded by the availability of many stronger beers, but if you’ve lost count of how much you’ve had it’s probably fair to say you’re not fit to drive the following morning. Whether you would think it worthwhile to go to the pub just to drink one pint is another matter.

The other point is that, regardless of how much you’ve had in the first place, alcohol is cleared from the system at the rate of about one unit an hour. This explains why people who’ve had a skinful can still be over the limit the following tea-time but, on the other hand, if you’ve had four pints and stopped drinking at 11 pm, you’ll probably have a blood-alcohol level of zero by 8 am the following morning, and are vanishingly unlikely to still be over the limit. It’s also important to remember that, while various factors such as the type of drink and whether or not you’ve eaten at the same time will affect how swiftly alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, the maximum potential blood alcohol level that any particular drink will produce remains unchanged. There’s no way that a half of lager, even if drunk on an empty stomach, is going to take you anywhere near.

But this reaction underlines the point that the key motivation behind this legislation is to make normal, responsible people think twice about drinking alcohol, not just immediately before driving, but most of the time. If the real objective was improving road safety, then an honest publicity campaign about how to keep within the law, including a much greater focus on the morning after, combined with an increase in targeted enforcement activity, would be much more effective. Knowing someone who has been breathalysed, even if they passed, is the best deterrent. But reducing the limit without any increase in enforcement will do nothing to deter those who are already breaking the current limit, and indeed may be perceived as legitimising their behaviour.

At the end of the day, it’s not about safety, it’s about denormalisation, and it certainly seems to be working.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Merry Christmas Scotland!

Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny McAskill has put a dampener on Scotland’s upcoming Christmas and New Year celebrations by promising to cut the country’s drink-drive limit on 5 December. I’m sure all Scots will welcome him throwing a dark blanket of prohibitionist gloom over them.

I’ve written on this before, and there’s not much more I can add. The idea that English drivers could be banned from driving in England for doing something in Scotland that is entirely legal south of the Border is utterly disgraceful. And I continue to believe that this is essentially an anti-drink and anti-pub measure, not a road safety one.

The Scottish pub scene is distinctively different, and the country doesn’t really have the characterful rural and village pubs that are such a distinctive feature of England. However, this move will have a negative effect across the whole pub trade, and inevitably lead to renewed calls for a limit cut south of the Border.

And I don’t believe it will save a single life.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Such a nice little pub

Tandleman writes here about his very positive experience of drinking in the Mill Road area of Cambridge. This is an area of densely-packed Victorian terraced housing that has now been largely taken-over by middle-class residents, but has retained its corner pubs, although they have very much changed in character. He suggests that a large proportion of the population is students, but I would guess that many residents are professional people working in the University and the city’s booming science-based industries.

Areas – and pubs – like this can be found in many of the cathedral cities and university towns across the South and East of England. I was recently in St Albans where the Sopwell district just across the road from the Cathedral is very much like this, with pubs like the Garibaldi and White Hart Tap (pictured). They’re essentially locals, not destination ale shrines, but will offer a variety of beers and are likely to be doing good business even on evenings early in the week. They’ll serve evening meals, provide newspapers and magazines for customers to read, and host a variety of activities such as pub quizzes, folk music and themed food nights.

You don’t really find that kind of thing around here, as the historic pattern of development is different and pubs tend to cluster in local centres rather than in the back streets. Where extensive areas of Victorian terraces do survive, they’re often now largely devoid of pubs. Probably the nearest thing I can think of locally is the Olde Vic in Edgeley, which isn’t really the same, but does have a very different atmosphere from the Castle Street pubs and attracts some of Edgeley’s growing number of middle-class residents.

When done well, this can to my taste provide a very congenial style of pub. But, to those who are used to drinking in that kind of area, it would be a mistake to imagine it is representative of much of the rest of the country.

Monday, 20 October 2014

In the air tonight

With an impressive 119 votes, the poll on wi-fi in pubs shows almost two-thirds (64%) either being indifferent or seeing its absence as a positive, and only 36% considering it a must-have or highly desirable feature. The point of asking this question is not to criticise its presence as, after all, unlike such things as loud music or screaming children, it scarcely impinges on other customers, but rather those who see pubs as simply a list of “facilities” and feel aggrieved if one lacks the particular feature that interests them. Surely it’s a good thing that pubs aren’t all the same.

On a recent pub-crawl of Edgeley, one of the more down-to-earth parts of Stockport, one fairly traditional pub was advertising free wi-fi as you went in through to door, so obviously it’s becoming pretty commonplace. However, I have to say that (perhaps because I am short-sighted) that browsing the internet on a smartphone cuts you off much more from what is going on in the rest of the pub than reading a newspaper, so possibly to some extent it might promote disconnection and social isolation.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Some more equal than others?

Some years ago, it was not uncommon for pubs to employ people with mild learning disabilities as potmen to collect empty glasses. They may not have been paid very much, but it gave them something purposeful to do and increased their sense of self-worth. This is something you don’t seem to see any more. Partly, no doubt, because pub tables are no longer groaning with empty pint glasses the way they used to be, but also, I suspect, because the introduction of the national minimum wage meant that licensees felt it was no longer economic to employ them.

This was brought to mind by the recent furore over Lord Freud’s comments that it might be preferable to allow some disabled people to work for less than the minimum wage than for them not to work at all. Many of his critics seem to have missed the point that personal worth is not the same as economic worth. Of course people are all equally valuable as individuals, but it’s a fact of life in every society that some people are paid more than others because their economic contribution is greater. Wayne Rooney earns more in a day than most of us do in a year, but that doesn’t mean he works any harder or is any better a person.

The comment was also not directed at disabled people in general. Although it was not always the case in the past, it is universally acknowledged now that people with physical disabilities lack nothing in mental acuity compared to the able-bodied. But few would deny that there are people with learning disabilities who may be capable of a limited amount of straightforward work under close supervision, but whose capability falls well short of that of a non-disabled person. Given that, to employ them and pay them the full minimum wage would be an act of charity, not a rational business decision.

This point was recognised by Mencap when the minimum wage was originally introduced in 2000, when they argued that that a special category of therapeutic placements should be introduced for people whose capability was well below that of non-disabled staff. If the government wanted to preserve the principle of the minimum wage, they could top up their payments to that level, which would probably be offset anyway by a reduction in benefit payouts.

This would help in giving disabled people more of a sense of purpose and self-esteem, and it may be that experience of work would improve their abilities and self-confidence and allow them to earn more. That is surely preferable to leaving them languishing on benefits because you think they’re not just good enough to work at all. The very fact that people are paid gives them more incentive and motivation than unpaid activity. As the article says,

Steve Beyer, deputy director of the Welsh centre for learning disabilities at the University of Wales, said studies showed that people with severe disabilities could benefit "very considerably" from work in terms of motivation and skills development.

He said: "For many people, the alternative is going to a local authority day centre. Although good examples do exist, there is plenty of research around to show that day centres are generally segregated and that they provide at worst a lower level of activity, a lower level of development and a lower level of interest."

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Big-headedness

The photo attached to my previous post raises an interesting question. It shows five old boys sitting in a rural Dorset pub in 1934, each with a traditional straight-sided tankard about two-thirds full of beer, but with a head reaching almost to the top of the glass. Depictions of beer from the inter-war period, whether photos or drawings, often show foaming heads, and of course immediately after the war the Ancient Order of Front-Blowers was formed. They wouldn’t have been able to blow froth if there hadn’t been much there in the first place.

In those days there wouldn’t have been any electric pumps or swan-necks, and a lot more beer, especially in rural pubs, would have been dispensed by gravity. Nowadays we tend to associate gravity dispense and unsparklered handpumps with a fairly thin, shallow head, so you have to wonder whether they were doing something different in those days. Maybe it was a case of deliberately producing frothy pints just for the camera, but perhaps sparklers were more commonplace than we now think, or it could have been the usual practice to let the beer develop more condition, which can be done by a variation in cellar practice. It’s entirely possible to produce a thick, lasting head by gravity dispense from a newly-tapped cask.

It’s certainly my subjective impression that over the past forty years cask beer has tended, on average, to be served with less condition than it used to be, and you get a fair bit of beer that is not off as such, but just very flat and tired. Possibly the ending of the opportunity for a bit of hard-spiling offered by the afternoon break has something to do with it.

This brings to mind the North-East practice of “bankers”, which I have heard about but never actually seen. What this involved was serving a half into a pint glass and letting the head rise almost to the rim, then setting it on one side and, a few minutes later, carefully topping it up so the head protruded well above the top of the glass. Sometimes pubs would draw a whole row of these in anticipation of thirsty miners or steelworkers coming in at the end of their shift, which is where the name comes from. They might even put them in a fridge to keep them cool. I wonder if that still goes on. And was that technique once more common across the country?

No country for old men

A recent report by the International Longevity Centre has highlighted the growing problem of social isolation amongst older men living alone. Men seem to find it more difficult to make and maintain social contacts than women, and many will have largely depended on their wives or partners for their social life and found themselves cut adrift when they died or divorced. The report predicts that the number of older men living alone in England will increase by 65% by 2030.

You might have thought pubs had a role to play in tackling this issue, but in fact things have gone the other way. A generation ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see groups of old codgers in pubs, maybe playing a game of crib or doms, or just chewing the fat while nursing a pint of mild. But that wasn’t seen as a very lucrative trade, nor something that conveyed the right image. So many pubs were remodelled to appeal to a younger audience, with loud music, TV screens and uncomfortable posing tables, while others went all-out for the dining trade and made it clear that social drinkers, especially slow-spending ones, weren’t really welcome.

Then the smoking ban came along and made even more customers feel unwelcome. As one commenter often reminds us, older people will be particularly resistant to being forced out into the cold and rain, while non-smokers may have found the pub less appealing once their smoking friends had stopped going. Large numbers of pubs have closed entirely, while others have taken the commercial decision to stop opening on weekday lunchtimes, which for many pensioners was their favoured drinking session. And the remorseless drip-drip of anti-drink propaganda has created something of a stigma about pubgoing that wasn’t there twenty or thirty years ago.

Wetherspoon’s are often mocked for the number of customers using mobility scooters, but surely this should be seen as a positive sign that they are actually providing a social function for older people. I was recently in a branch in a fairly workaday town in the South-East where this was very noticeable. But Spoons tend in general to be located in town centres, so don’t act as local pubs near to where people live, and they’re also not noted for seating comfort.

The industry often claims that pubs play a vital role in communities, and in the best cases that’s undoubtedly true. But maybe they need to live up to the hype and take a long, hard look at making their venues more pensioner-friendly. After all, it’s the only growing section of the potential drinking population. And the argument that it’s encouraging excessive drinking amongst the elderly doesn’t really stand up, as most will only have a pint or two anyway.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Out of touch?

Mark Daniels complains here about pubs failing to offer free wi-fi, and reckons that “talk to each other instead” has become a hackneyed excuse that is no longer funny. Now, it’s up to each individual pub to decide whether providing wi-fi makes commercial sense, and unlike some other “features” such as Sky Sports it doesn’t really impinge on other customers’ experience.

However, this view stems from the attitude that pubs should be contemporary, wipe-clean, family-friendly retail outlets where the more “facilities” they offer the better. Surely, though, a pub is more than just a business – it is about tradition, character and community, and very often pubs are valued as places where people can escape, if only for a couple of hours, from the stresses and pressures of everyday life.

Personally, while I might avail myself of the facility in Spoons or wherever, I’d see a pub making a point of not providing wi-fi as a positive feature. You wouldn’t whinge about its absence in a church or a historic house, and the same should be true of pubs.

I’ve created a new poll on the issue here.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Here today, gone tomorrow

The latest version of Pete Brown’s Cask Report was published last week, and again it records a story of success in a declining market, with cask beer continuing to gain absolute volume, not just market share, and having reversed the proportion of the ale market it enjoys vis-a-vis keg since 2006. It’s the drinkers of traditional keg ales, not cask, who are literally a dying breed. The report can be downloaded here.

However, it has some interesting things to say about drinkers’ expectations of how rapidly beers are changed and rotated on the bar and how, maybe surprisingly, drinkers tend to be less adventurous in their tastes than publicans think they are.

But drinkers are more conservative than publicans on the optimal trade-off: the mean score from our research shows drinkers are happiest with an average of 4.9 beers over a 4-week period, versus an average of 7 for publicans...

We showed last year that publicans and drinkers have different perspectives on how often guest ales should be rotated. Publicans felt they should be rotating guest beers once a week, while drinkers wanted to see them on the bar for longer. Our new research bears this out: 76% of cask ale drinkers want to see some beers changing over time, but not as often as you might think...

In terms of the mix of range – the types of beers on the pumps – attitudes among drinkers and publicans are more uniform. If a particular pub were to have four cask ales on the bar, on average:
• Drinkers would like 2 of those beers to be permanent, and two guests. Publicans are slightly less conservative – they think they should be stocking a mean of 1.7 permanent beers and 2.3 guest beers.
• Both drinkers and publicans would like to see, on average, a 50-50 split between beers that are local and beers from further afield.
• Both drinkers and publicans would like to see, on average, a 50-50 split between brands that are familiar to them and new brands they have not seen before.

This theme is reflected in a letter in October’s What’s Brewing from Graeme Baker who complains that, if he enjoys a guest beer in his local, next time he goes back it’s no longer on the bar. And I’ve made the point myself that sometimes you can be confronted by a line of beers on the bar where you have no idea what they’re like.

I’m certainly not averse to trying new and unfamiliar beers, but sometimes it’s good to see an old favourite on the bar, particularly if you just want a dependable pint to wash down your lunch. And, from the breweries’ point of view, surely it will help their long-term prospects if they can build up a reputation for specific beers and get repeat business rather than an endless series of one-off specials. Thornbridge Jaipur is a good example of a beer that many people will immediately order if they see it. It would seem from the Cask Report that Britain’s cask ale drinkers agree.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Jurassic pub

It’s often said on beer blogs that the old-fashioned, unreconstructed CAMRA members who take a dogmatic “four legs good, two legs bad” attitude towards the real ale vs keg debate are a small and dwindling minority. But I’m not so sure. I would say these attitudes are far more entrenched than is often supposed.

Recently the issue came up the end of a pub crawl in one of our finest local pubs. The two individuals concerned are office-holders in the local branch and people who I would count as friends. But their opinions are pretty uncompromising, and I would say follow these principles:

  • Cask-conditioned (and bottle-conditioned) beer is intrinsically superior to all other forms of beer
  • Most non-real products are worthless crap
  • There may be some half-decent beer available in places like Prague and Munich, but it’s not a patch on real ale
  • So-called “craft keg” is just old-fashioned keg dressed up in a trendy suit
  • CAMRA should officially not make any favourable mention whatsoever of non-real beers
Everyone is entitled to their views, but I would say the kind of internecine squabbling that these opinions inevitably encourage does the overall cause of the appreciation of beer no favours.

As founder member Michael Hardman famously said:

“I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something,” he says, as measured as a well-poured pint. “There may be some members who give a different impression and I apologise to the general drinking public for the fact that we’ve recruited those people.”
But unfortunately there are still many members who feel that the endless war against keg is their primary purpose. Supporting something doesn’t mean that you have to condemn everything else that doesn’t fall within that category.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Forever Amber

The George & Dragon is an imposing former coaching inn in the centre of Stockport’s satellite town of Cheadle. For many years a Greenall’s house, it closed down a few years ago and, as I said here, there didn’t seem to be much prospect of it ever reopening as a pub. However, it has now been taken over by Amber Taverns, who specialise in reviving wet-led community pubs and, after a fairly thoroughgoing refurbishment, reopened its doors last week.

They’ve done a pretty good job of giving it a “pubby” atmosphere, with extensive bench seating, warm colours and much use of dark wood. It’s resolutely wet-only, with no food of any kind being served, which is a little surprising in a town-centre location. There’s also a strict over-18s only policy, so you won’t be bothered by noisy children running around. The interior is, however, dominated by numerous large screens for showing televised sport, and you can see it becoming the go-to location in the area to watch big matches. There’s an extensive ouside drinking area at the rear.

Although there have been reports of Fool Hardy beers being sold, on my visit the cask range consisted of Pedigree, Cumberland Ale, Hobgoblin and Deuchars IPA, which isn’t exactly going to encourage drinkers to go out of their way. The Pedigree was in decent nick, but at £3.20 a touch pricy for this kind of venue. There’s the usual range of kegs, but nothing of a remotely “craft” nature.

The old pub had an extensive car park, but for some reason they have decided to block this off. The excuse that they don’t want to encourage drink-driving doesn’t really hold water, and in a busy spot with no free on-street parking a car park does give you a competitive advantage. Maybe the longer-term objective is to sell it off for redevelopment. While I was in there, one group came in and asked about parking.

Given the dominance of TV sport, it’s unlikely to become a regular haunt of mine. But it will be interesting to see if Amber Taverns can buck the trend and make a success of an unashamedly down-to-earth, wet-only boozer. There’s an article about their business formula here.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Drinking is good for you

Here’s a must-read article by US addiction export Stanton Peele entitled The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy, making the point – which the health lobby do their best to sweep under the carpet – that there’s overwhelming evidence that moderate drinking (even well above official guidelines) produces better health outcomes than abstention.

The U.S. public health establishment buries overwhelming evidence that abstinence is a cause of heart disease and early death. People deserve to know that alcohol gives most of us a higher life expectancy—even if consumed above recommended limits...

In fact, the evidence that abstinence from alcohol is a cause of heart disease and early death is irrefutable—yet this is almost unmentionable in the United States. Even as health bodies like the CDC and Dietary Guidelines for Americans (prepared by Health and Human Services) now recognize the decisive benefits from moderate drinking, each such announcement is met by an onslaught of opposition and criticism, and is always at risk of being reversed.

Noting that even drinking at non-pathological levels above recommended moderate limits gives you a better chance of a longer life than abstaining draws louder protests still. Yet that’s exactly what the evidence tells us.

Driven by the cultural residue of Temperance, most Americans still view drinking as unhealthy; many call alcohol toxic. Yet, despite drinking far less than many European nations, Americans have significantly worse health outcomes than heavier-drinking countries. (For example, despite being heavily out-drunk by the English, we have almost exactly twice their levels of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.)

Well, I’ll certainly drink to that conclusion!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Standing the test of time

I was recently highly critical of Robinson’s refurbishment of the Farmer’s Arms in Poynton, with its fibreglass cow and bucket urinals. In response to this, John Clarke said in the comments:
Well, who's to say what's "appropriate" for pubs these days? If you have a certain fixed idea of what a "proper pub" should be like then maybe. However "the pub" as a concept is evolving into a variety of incarnations and what is appropriate for one won't be for another. I don't think these days you can apply a blanket "one size fits all" rule of thumb.
Of course pubs have always been designed in many different ways, but there are some design elements that stand the test of time, and some that rapidly go out of fashion and end up being changed into something else. A key point is that the primary purpose of a pub is for people to meet and socialise with each other (as opposed to just eating meals) and therefore the seating plan should promote that. It needs to be arranged so that most seats are looking in to the centre of each room or area, and the seating should preferably be mainly either fixed benches or settles as opposed to individual chairs. If you want to run a restaurant, fine, but it’s not exactly “pubby”.

If you look at the seven National Inventory entries for Stockport – the Alexandra, Arden Arms, Armoury, Blossoms, Crown, Queen’s Head and Swan with Two Necks, plus the nearby Nursery and Griffin, every single one is characterised by extensive fixed seating. These are pubs where the design scheme has lasted for at least 75 years. Indeed, you would struggle to find many National Inventory pubs that don’t have either fixed seating or settles. I can think of a few recent refurbs where eliminating comfortable seating seems to be a high priority, and I wonder how long they will last.

The second point is that colour schemes should be predominantly “warm”, to give a cosy and welcoming impression. This is well summed up by this extract from The Traditional English Pub by Ben Davies. The point that pub colours should reflect the colours of drinks is very well made.

I recently mentioned a Robinson’s refurbishment saying it used “a palette of light, neutral colours”, which basically is completely wrong. Pubs should use a palette of rich, warm colours.

Over the years, people have come up with all kinds of gimmicky pub designs, seating plans and colour schemes. They always think that the tried and trusted is old hat and they know better. But, by and large, they’ve all rapidly dated and been replaced before too long by the latest fad. If you want your refurbishment to last, you need to look at what has lasted before.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Buying on strength

I’ve often referred semi-jokingly on here to “bangs per buck” as a factor in buying alcoholic drinks, and I recently mentioned that one of the reasons advanced by the brewers for not declaring alcoholic strength was that it would tend to lead drinkers to “buy on strength”.

However, in practice the vast majority of drinkers don’t look at it that way. While obviously alcohol has an effect on you, it is generally seen as something that will aid socialising or relaxing, rather than regarding inebriation as an end in itself, to be achieved as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Apart from a few expensive premium brands, the vast majority of spirits are sold at standard strengths of 37.5% or 40% ABV which makes little odds either way – it’s the difference between Carlsberg and Fosters. Most table wines come within a range equivalent to that covering bitters and best bitters, and recently there has been something of a backlash against the richer New World reds achieving strengths above 14%.

Beer obviously covers a much wider range of strengths, but even here people in general choose products within a particular strength category rather than just looking at what’s going to get them drunk most quickly. If they do discriminate, it is usually to buy cheaper products within the same category. In the off-trade, this may well involve going for what’s on offer; in the on-trade, it’s more likely to be a case of choosing the pub charging lower prices overall.

Indeed, some beers have suffered from being a little stronger than the norm. Many drinkers used to complain that Robinson’s Best Bitter (now Unicorn) gave them a “bad head” because, at 4.2%, it was that bit stronger than the norm of ordinary bitters. More recently, a number of beers such as Old Speckled Hen and Bateman’s XXXB have had their strength reduced because pub drinkers were steering clear of beers around 5%.

It’s also a myth that the notorious “super lagers” such as Carlsberg Special Brew are particularly cheap in terms of cost per alcohol unit. It’s generally not difficult to find a lower unit price amongst the cheaper end of the 5% premium lagers. The main attraction of these products is that they offer a quick and effective alcohol delivery mechanism – drinking eight cans of Stella is much more like hard work than four cans of Spesh.

The only category where drinkers can really be said to be buying on strength is the absolute bottom end of the cider market, the 3-litre bottles of Three Hammers and suchlike. But, across the generality of the alcohol market, it isn’t a principle that holds water.