Friday, 27 February 2015

Killed by red tape

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

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

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Take 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 February 2015

It won't lie down

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Victory salutations

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Grudgebearers’ Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Not fit to be out

There have been a growing number of schemes where the police have started “requesting” nightclubs to breath-test customers before allowing them entry, for example in Loughborough and more recently in Croydon, where some pubs are also included. The maximum permissible alcohol level seems to be generally set at twice the English drink-drive limit. Some have said “that’s only four pints”, but in reality two pints will keep a man below the driving limit, and two and a half or three would be needed to reach it, so realistically it’s more like six or seven pints. Even so, that’s a level many people will reach on a weekend night out.

This sets a somewhat disturbing precedent of the authorities seeking to monitor pedestrians’ alcohol levels even if they’re not obviously “drunk”. Chris Snowdon has suggested that it represents something of an unholy alliance between the puritans and the nightclub bosses, to discourage punters from pre-loading at Tesco or Wetherspoon’s, In principle, this is a good point, but the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) have come out strongly against it, and I would expect the overall result would be to deter customers from visiting nightclubs. I doubt whether on balance they will benefit from it.

As it stands, it probably won’t affect you, and it certainly won’t affect me, but it’s easy to see the principle being extended, especially as the Croydon scheme includes pubs too. In five years’ time, will we see the CAMRA posse being refused admission to the final call on the pub crawl due to having imbibed too much Old Snotgobbler earlier in the evening?

It may seem far-fetched, but there have been serious proposals to introduce drink-walk limits for pedestrians in both Australia and Spain. You can sort of see the argument behind this, as apparently 40% of all pedestrian fatalities are above the drink-drive limit, rising to 80% between 10 pm and 4 am. But it would represent a drastic curtailment of individual freedom to protect a few people from themselves, and would really put a dampener on any kind of celebration or festivities outside the house. The effect of alcohol on individuals varies widely, and some may be falling over at 160mg, while others will still be entirely compos mentis.

As with many such ideas, it may at present seem outlandish and laughable. But, by raising the subject, it has opened an Overton Window through which it becomes included within the scope of serious debate. And, twenty years ago, many would have dismissed the idea of a blanket ban on smoking in enclosed public places as equally unrealistic...

Mind you, every cloud has a silver lining, and at least it would mean that at long last cyclists were brought within the scope of breath testing.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Nowt to eat but crisps

Boak and Bailey recently did an interesting blogpost on the subject of pub snacks. This raised another question – it’s often claimed that, going back fifty years ago, the only thing you could get to eat in pubs was a packet of crisps.

My memories of legal drinking in pubs go back to 1977, but even then pub food was commonplace and varied, although there were more wet-only pubs, and food could be harder to find in the evenings and on Sunday lunchtimes. So I find it difficult to believe that, ten years earlier, little or no food was served.

This is borne out by a quotation on the Boak & Bailey post:

Here’s Maurice Gorham on central London pubs in The Local 1939:

“At midday practically every pub can supply something eatable at the bar, and many have separate dining rooms or restaurants as well… At the other end of the scale are the small houses where you can get bread and cheese and perhaps a ham sandwich and hard-boiled egg.”

So what I think is that pubs throughout that era did continue to serve plenty of food, but in general only where they had a captive market of people away from their homes – such as in city centres with numerous office workers, tourist spots and along main roads. They may have done straightforward grub for manual workers too. The big innovation in the 1960-75 period was that pubs started promoting themselves as destinations to actually go out for a meal.

I also advanced the speculative theory that, in those days, there was a kind of unacknowledged divide between “pubs” and “hotels and inns”, which has pretty much disappeared now. I certainly remember as a kid being taken into “hotels” by my parents which would now be just regarded as pubs.

People’s memories of pubs in the pre-CAMRA era are notoriously unreliable – for example it’s hard to get an idea of when top-pressure taps started to replace handpumps across the South of England. But I think it’s fair to say that plenty of food was served in pubs in the 50s and 60s, but only in those pubs that had an obvious dining clientele on their doorstep.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Bad manners

I recently spotted an article listing the 16 Most Annoying Customer Types in pubs. I’ve never personally worked behind a bar, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who have, and I can see the truth in most of them. However, I freely admit to #3 – if it’s not immediately obvious, I’ll always hold my pint up to the light to confirm its clarity.

In my experience, most bar staff are polite, welcoming and competent. Even in Wetherspoons, which always seem short-staffed, the actual customer interface is usually good. But, to put the boot on the other foot, there are a few who bring them into disrepute. So I compiled a quick list of 16 Annoying Bar Staff Behaviours, covering those who...

  1. greet you with “Are you alright there?” rather than “What can I get you?”

  2. can always find something to do behind the bar like slicing lemons or rearranging glasses rather than actually serving customers

  3. totally mishear a clearly-spoken order – “Pint of Harvey’s Best, please” – goes to Foster’s tap...

  4. ask “what?” when you order one of the regular cask beers

  5. treat you with supercilious disdain as though you’re something that the cat dragged in

  6. happily gossip with customers when there are people waiting to be served

  7. have no idea in which order customers should be served

  8. hand you a blatantly short pint and then walk off

  9. have to check the till before they can tell you the price of the most popular draught beer in the pub

  10. insist on asking “Is there anything else?” when it’s clear from your order that there isn’t

  11. have no idea how to use a handpump, so you either get a totally flat pint or a glass of foam

  12. give you a pint with obvious airspace between the beer and the rim

  13. blatantly favour regulars sitting or standing at the bar

  14. ask “have you tasted it?” when you return a pint looking like raw sewage

  15. refuse to change music or heating levels despite most customers asking for it

  16. expect you to point out the dish you are ordering on the menu
Most of these fall into the two categories of poor training and rank bad manners.

Any more suggestions will be gratefully received.

I asked for ideas on Twitter, and one person replied with “lacks product knowledge”. I can see that being a problem in a specialist beer bar, but in the average pub it’s enough to expect that they’re actually familiar with which products are on sale.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Happy days are here again!

The latest British Beer Barometer statistics from the BBPA show that, in 2014, overall UK beer sales rose by 1.3% over the previous year, the first time this has happened for ten years. It also represents a landmark in that the tipping point between on- and off-trade seems to have been finally reached, with the off-trade accounting for 50.2% of sales in the full year and 52.5% in the final quarter. Having said that, the on-trade only fell by 0.8%, a rate of decline that newspaper publishers would kill for. They also make a good point that seven out of ten drinks sold in pubs are beer.

This rise results from a combination of economic recovery and two years with no increase in beer duty. If the duty escalator had still been in force, then a pint in the pub would now be 20-30p dearer and the figures would look much less healthy. No doubt the anti-drink lobby will be spluttering into their sarsaparilla, so watch out for them stepping up calls for further punitive duty increases.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Reversal of fortune

Following an accounting scandal and a dramatic downturn in trading figures, Tesco have announced the closure of 43 stores across the country and the scrapping of plans to open another 49. No doubt many who have opposed the conversion of pubs into Tesco Express stores will experience a pleasing sense of Schadenfreude.

Amongst the closures is the Tesco Express store in Heaton Chapel (pictured), which was converted from the former Chapel House pub and has only been open for about three years. I wrote about it here. To be honest, it had never been a particularly appealing pub throughout my time living in the area, going through a short-lived incarnation as a Tut’n’Shive (often disparagingly referred to as the Tub’o’Shite) and ending up as the Irish-themed and keg-only Conor’s Bar. Few tears were shed when it closed.

However, if we are to believe the narrative that greedy supermarkets and pubcos have conspired to close thriving pubs, then surely all those making this argument will be queueing up to invest in turning it back into a pub. Won’t they?

It’s also somewhat ironic how people campaign against Tesco coming to their area, but then many of the same people complain about the loss of jobs when they close a store.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Nanny in a bunny suit

The Green Party have recently enjoyed a marked rise in the opinion polls, and this week released a policy statement, which is well summarised here. Many might see their economic policies as occupying the middle ground between utopia and insanity, but at the same time would imagine them to be quite fun, in a waccy-baccy, rough cider, dreadlock, dog-on-a-string kind of way.

But, if you read more closely, they outdo the other major parties in their desire for nannying and social control. They say “Higher taxes will be brought in on alcohol and tobacco, and a complete alcohol advertising ban imposed.” They would also seek to encourage a “transition from diets dominated by meat”. It seems that they have a real problem with any commercial organisation profiting from people enjoying themselves.

One commentator has described their ideology as “Communism designed by middle-class women”. Nobody should imagine that voting Green will lead to a kinder, gentler, more tolerant society – indeed the opposite would be far more likely. Less free and less prosperous. Although no doubt many middle-aged beardies with a love of twiggy bitter will do so all the same.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Micro to macro?

Let’s imagine a new wave of pubs started opening in the UK. They were small, plain and unassuming, with no food, children, piped music or pay-TV, where good beer and conversation ruled the roost. Mudgie heaven, you might think, but not really very likely. However, it does seem to be happening in the form of the still small but fast-growing micropub sector. Indeed, it has now been forecast that in five years’ time their number will mushroom from a hundred or so to five thousand. We’re even shortly going to get our own local example in Cheadle Hulme.

Let me be quite clear, I’m entirely in favour of micropubs. Most of them sound like places I would find very congenial to drink in, and they also underline the point that, if existing pubs don’t provide what people want, the opportunities are there in the market to open up new venues that do. But I can’t help thinking that, as I’ve said before here and here, they have been over-hyped and their potential for expansion is exaggerated.

For many years, industry experts have been saying that the days of the old-fashioned, wet-led, adults-only, drink and chat pubs are numbered. Customers are demanding food, music (whether live or piped) and TV football, and want to take their offspring with them, and you increasingly struggle to find pubs that do none of the above. Where they still survive – often in small towns and rural locations – they seem like an anachronism whose very survival is surprising.

As I’ve often said on here, in my view this trend has been overstated, and the obvious success of many Sam Smith’s pubs suggests there remains a market for pubs without these diversions. Plenty serve some food, but many don’t, and I’d suggest the tiny Queen’s Arms (aka Turner’s Vaults) in central Stockport is the closest thing we have to a micropub at present. Maybe the Olde Vic in Edgeley too. But it’s hard to deny that, in general, the embrace of some combination of food and entertainment has dominated for several decades. Is there really a large untapped demand to buck that trend?

I also get the feeling that, from their very intimacy, micropubs may end up being somewhat cliquey, basically a drinking shop for the landlord and his mates. It’s always been an important feature of pubs that customers decide for themselves to what extent they interact with others. If you want to chat, fine, but if you just want to sit reading the paper, or browsing the smartphone, that will be respected. But if it’s just a group of blokes sitting around a single table, will that be possible?

It may seem a piddling point, but you do wonder whether small, plain pubs will also have rudimentary toilet facilities. I don’t know from personal experience how far this is true, but I would feel uncomfortable spending much time in a pub with only a single unisex WC. I’d expect as a bare minimum a gents’ with one urinal and one trap. But that level of provision – plus the ladies’ – might take up as much room as the entire bar.

Some of the early micropubs seemed to suffer from an anti-lager mentality. “A pint of real ale for the gentleman and a glass of generic white wine for the lady”. Many pubgoers are in mixed groups, some of whom will drink real ale while others prefer lager. Deliberately alienating a large section of your potential market doesn’t come across as good business practice. And lager doesn’t have to mean Carling – there are plenty of excellent British-brewed craft lagers out there. Micropubs won’t enjoy rapid growth if they just cater to a limited audience of middle-aged and elderly Real Ale Twats. But there is always the risk of metamorphosing into “trendy bars”, which have also taken over plenty of former shop units. Where do you draw the line?

Will we be seeing village micropubs too? No doubt many villages could sustain a micropub even after a full-service pub trying to attract out-of-area dining trade has failed. That may be a great opportunity.

The licensed trade is becoming increasingly diverse, with more and more different types of venues opening up to appeal to a variety of clientele. It would be wonderful if, in five years’ time, there were five thousand micropubs up and down the country. But I doubt whether Tim Martin will be quaking in his boots.

The picture is of the Bouncing Barrel in Herne Bay, Kent, which gets very good reviews on TripAdvisor.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Cloudy balls

At the turn of the year, many people offer their predictions for the year to come. At the beginning of this year, I did so too, although the results were, to say the least, mixed. Mind you, how many economists predicted the collapse in the oil price?

  • Beer duty will rise by the rate of inflation. The duty escalator will continue to apply to all other drinks categories. Wrong – Osborne slightly cut beer duty, froze cider and spirits duty, and removed the escalator from all other drinks categories. A rare example of entirely positive news – cheers George!

  • Craft keg ales will not make a significant breakthrough into mainstream pubs, but there will be a modest expansion of British-brewed “craft lager”. Again wrong – I’ve seen craft keg ales in pubco pubs in trendy locations such as Didsbury, and indeed New World Pale Ale in mainstream outlets with a Marston’s loan tie. Plus Spoons are now serving Devils Backbone. Still not seen in standard pubco houses, though.

  • Beer sales in the on-trade will decline by about 5%, those in the off-trade by slightly less, but still showing a negative figure. Nope, on-trade sales fell by a mere 0.7%, with the off-trade rising by 3.6% and the overall figure rising by 1.4%. Surely a result of the two-year cut in beer duty.

  • Overall per capita alcohol consumption will continue to fall. Indeed, and bears continued to shit in the woods.

  • There will be more breweries in the UK at the end of the year than at the beginning. And there were. It must peak some time, but not yet, although there seem to be more grumbles from brewers about erosion of margins

  • At least one popular beer brand currently sold at 4.8% ABV will have its strength reduced to 4.5%. “The taste will be unaffected”, its makers will claim. No – there have been numerous strength reductions, but the idea of draught Stella or whatever being cut is still to come. Indeed Tuborg in Spoons was restored to 4.6% from 4.0% following customer complaints.

  • A prominent pub in the Stockport MBC area that nobody had imagined was vulnerable will close its doors for the last time. Not really so – the most prominent was the Adswood Hotel, which had been thought to be under threat for some time. We also lost the Tiviot and Imperial/Petersgate Tavern.

  • Some bizarre concept of which I cannot even dream will become the “next big thing” amongst railway arch brewers and gushing bloggers will claim that “everyone is brewing XXXX”. Saison is so last year. So was it sour beer, or Gose?

  • England will not progress beyond the quarter-finals of the World Cup (if that), thus denying a boost to the brewing industry and pub trade. That wasn’t exactly the most difficult prediction to make.
So perhaps I’d better steer clear of making any predictions for 2015 – although I’d say it’s odds-on that Osborne won’t increase alcohol duties in the pre-election budget.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Worse than the smoking ban?

In the sidebar, I say of the possible reduction of the UK drink-driving limit that “In my, view this is at least as much a threat to pubs as the smoking ban.” And it seems that I’m not the only one. In the weeks following the limit cut in Scotland, many pubs, clubs and bars have seen their trade drop off a cliff.

Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said the law change would lead to a “complete change to drinking habits” and would be “bigger than the smoking ban.

“Rural pubs especially are at risk because people travel to them,” he said. “This definitely will be a difficult situation for many. It’s having a marked effect.

“It stops people having a glass of wine with a meal or a pint with a meal. People are not taking the chance. It’s a game-changer.

“This is a very strict ban by anyone’s standards. We have lost three pubs a week since the smoking ban and this, for many, is worse.”

It seems that bars in golf clubs, which have a much wider social base in Scotland than south of the border, are especially feeling the pinch. These are classic examples of where the primary purpose of people’s car journeys is something else, but they take the opportunity to combine it with a drink in the bar. It’s easy to say “I could have told you that”, but from my perspective it seems that the cut was nodded through with the support of all four major political parties in Scotland and little organised opposition. The point must also be made that, if drivers have cut down, they must have believed they were obeying the previous law. Existing lawbreakers would be undeterred.

I’ve written before how the growing reluctance to drive after consuming any alcohol at all has been a major and largely unrecognised factor in the decline of pubs. However, a lot of it does still take place, even though commentators within a metropolitan bubble are reluctant to acknowledge it, and across the country there must be tens of thousands of pubs that derive a substantial proportion of their trade from law-abiding drinking drivers.

In the government response to the 1998 consultation on cutting the limit across the UK, it was stated that:

Pubs and hotels can be a locally significant source of employment, and those in rural areas are particularly dependent on access by car. It is uncertain nevertheless how many are critically dependent on customers who expect to drink 3-4 units of alcohol and drive home afterwards and would be disinclined to visit the premises at all if they could not legally do this.
However, this seems to exhibit a lack of understanding of how pubs work, and how people use them. A pub may not be “critically dependent” on this source of trade, but even a 10% drop in takings could put many out of business. And, as I’ve argued before, many customers may take the view that if they’re limited to one drink it’s not worth bothering at all.

By all means put forward the case for cutting the limit on road safety grounds – although it is my belief that it is a very flimsy one. But please don’t try to pretend it wouldn’t have a severe effect on the licensed trade.

Some may say “well, countries like France and Germany have had a 50 mg limit for decades, and still seem to have a thriving brewing industry and bar scene.” Of course this is true, and nobody is suggesting that a limit cut would completely kill off the pub trade or anything near it. But if you look at these countries they have a much lower proportion of alcohol consumed in the on-trade than we do, and likewise don’t have anything like the same rural, village and suburban drinking places. Maybe they never did, but I suspect if you looked around rural areas you would find a fair number that have gone to the wall.

And, while these countries have a lower headline limit, it was generally the case in the past (although it may not still be today) that a blood-alcohol level over 50 mg would be treated no more seriously than a speeding conviction in this country, and that mandatory driving bans did not kick in until some way over 80 mg.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

1892-2015

It was sad, but not entirely surprising, news that Robinson’s Brewery are planning to phase out their 1892 cask mild from the end of April next year. Going through various incarnations as Best Mild and Hatters before the current name, this was once their staple beer and must still be the biggest-selling light mild in the country. It featured in a series of classic adverts from the 1930s, often featuring a cheeky-looking mustachioed hiker. Unfortunately the graphic shown below is the only example I can find.

Over the years, while I’ve always been primarily a Bitter man, I’ve drunk a fair bit of it. It’s a pleasant, well-made beer, but to be honest not really one you would go out of your way to sample. But surely that is the point of mild – it is intended to be an undemanding beer that is consumed more for refreshment than intoxication, and deliberately avoids strong and potentially offputting flavours. That may explain why it has not enjoyed any kind of “ironic hipster” revitalisation. The same role in the beer market is now performed by the standard “cooking lagers” – Carling, Carlsberg and Foster’s.

Robinson’s claim that sales of 1892 have slumped by 32% during 2014, so it seems to be a product in steep decline. However, it still enjoys healthy sales in some Robinson’s pubs such as the Armoury in Edgeley, and it has to be said that its demise may have more to do with the fact that the brewery – despite a recent refitting that supposedly made it more “flexible” – has a minimum brew length of 60 barrels, which is rather too much for the current level of sales.

The other local family brewers, Holt’s, Hyde’s and Lees, all still produce cask milds at presumably even smaller volumes, so obviously don’t suffer from the same restrictions. Indeed Sam Smith’s produce both dark and light milds in keg form and appear to shift large quantities of them, helped no doubt by the bargain price. So perhaps if there remains some demand for mild in Robinson’s pubs, they could consider allowing other brewers’ milds to be sold, or even having 1892 contract-brewed by a smaller, more flexible brewery.

They also say that, when 1892 is withdrawn, they will introduce a 3.7% amber bitter as part of their core range, something that has been lacking since the demise of Old Stockport. As I generally like Robinson’s house character, I can see it being something that I will enjoy, but in many people’s eyes it is likely to become a watchword for blandness.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Growing old disgracefully

A recent study by academics from Keele University and University College London has punctured some myths about drinking amongst the middle-aged and elderly. On average, they are drinking a lot less than they did ten years ago and, contrary to popular belief, divorced women tend to cut down after splitting up rather than becoming secret dipsomaniacs.

However, there’s one significant exception. The study found that “the group most at risk of heavy drinking in later life are older single men with high levels of education and above average wealth.” I suppose that means me! Apparently the average personal wealth in the UK – including property assets – is around £147,000 and, given that I own a house that is probably worth more than that, and am a university graduate, I must fall into that category. Maybe they have more opportunity for socialising and the funds to pay for it, or perhaps they are intelligent enough to realise that the official drinking guidelines represent the bottom point on a gentle J-curve rather than a cliff of risk.

There was a rather more in-depth report in Wednesday’s Times (unfortunately hidden behind the Murdoch paywall) which quotes Professor Clare Holdsworth of Keele University as saying “We have an image of who we think problematic drinkers are, people who are lonely or down on their luck. But people who are drinking more are actually enjoying themselves.” Oh dear, that will never do, will it?

It also quotes the egregious Professor Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Heath Alliance, as continuing to insist that efforts to reduce overall alcohol consumption would be more worthwhile than specific targeting of problem groups. But attempting to control the behaviour of the whole population has a somewhat totalitarian ring, and surely if I as a responsible adult make a free choice to accept a little bit more risk as a trade-off with a bit more pleasure, that is absolutely none of his business.

The Mail is notorious for health scaremongering, but plumbs new depths today with a story describing us as a nation awash with booze. How exactly that tallies with average alcohol consumption having fallen by a fifth this century is hard to work out, especially since the biggest fall has been amongst the younger age group who are held most responsible for the much-exaggerated “town centre mayhem”. It could even be that people are encouraged to overindulge on the rare occasions they are “off the leash” by the ever-growing censoriousness about even light alcohol consumption in daily life.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Who? Me?

I was gratified to see that I had been named joint winner of the Blogger of the Year by the Boozy Procrastinator blog, saying “Best Beer Blog or WebsiteBeers Manchester for Beer/Bottle reviews and Pub Curmudgeon for all other drink/pub/liberty based thoughts.” I don’t know the author personally, but it’s a locally-based blog that is well worth following, and as well as the beery stuff sometimes touches on wider lifestyle issues such as this post about the proposed ban on smoking in cars carrying children.

At this time of year, many bloggers put together a list of “Golden Pints” – beers, pubs, books etc that have particularly impressed them during the previous twelve months. As you know, I’m not one for constantly haring after the new and unusual, and the news that a new bar had opened where I could perch on an uncomfortable stool and pay £3 a third for beer that tasted like Ronseal wouldn’t exactly fill me with an urge to visit. However, I thought a list of highlights and lowlights of the year might be interesting, although bear in mind that this doesn’t represent my definitive view on the best of anything.

  • New pubs visited – I paid a first-time visit to two excellent National Inventory pubs, the Crown & Anchor in Llanidloes, Mid-Wales (pictured) and the Cock at Broom in Bedfordshire. Both have marvellous, unspoilt, multi-roomed interiors, and the Cock has the added distinction of being a pub without a bar counter. On balance, the Crown & Anchor slightly shades it as, while the beer, service and atmosphere could not be faulted, at the Cock I was served a bacon sandwich where the bacon was so underdone as to be nearly raw. Sadly the Crown & Anchor has been put up for sale as the long-serving licensee wants to retire – let’s hope that any new owners will maintain its character.

  • Pubs (continued excellence) – the Armoury in Edgeley, Stockport. This is a classic street-corner local (now on a busy roundabout) which hosts the regular working party meetings for the Stockport Beer & Cider Festival. It retains a three-roomed layout including a darts-playing vault and always seems to be busy and bustling. It also in my experience consistently serves some of the best Robinson’s beer to be found in their estate.

  • Pub operator (up and coming)Joule’s of Market Drayton, who have continued to expand their estate and carry out high-quality refurbishments in a wood-and-mirrors style while brewing excellent traditional British beers. I still can’t help thinking it’s all a bit too good to be true, though.

  • Pub operator (established)Sam Smith’s, who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but continue to maintain an estate of proper British boozers where conversation reigns supreme over piped music and TV football and also offer unrivalled value for money. They have also carried out a number of well-judged, low-key refurbishments that have maintained the character and enhanced the appeal of their pubs.

  • Saddest pub loss – the Tiviot in the centre of Stockport, after the retirement of the long-serving licensee. While it had maybe become a little tatty in its later years, it remained a timewarp pub that was like stepping back into the Fifties, with formica tables and a wrought-iron bar mounting, and was much appreciated by the older generation at lunchtimes.

  • Beers (draught) – I’ve drunk a lot of good beers once that didn’t really stick in the mind, but locally I’ve been impressed by Robinson’s two latest seasonals, South Island and the current Indulgence. Hyde’s also deserve credit for their Beer Studio sub-brand, which has steered clear of obvious crowd-pleasers. One or two have seemed like an uneasy juxtaposition of styles, but most have been excellent, and I was particularly struck by two pale, rounded, subtle brews – I think Golden Ochre and Seared Saaz – which were not obvious hop-bombs and all the better for it.

  • Beers (bottled) – it may seem an odd choice, but one I’ve recently been taken by is Greene King’s Old Nutty Hen. I’m a sucker for winter beers with a hint of chestnut, and this delivered in spades at a relatively modest strength of 4.5% which meant you might go back for more.

  • Best pub refurbishment – with the rise in economic confidence, a lot of money has been spent on local pubs in the past year. I was particularly impressed by Robinson’s work at the Hatters Arms in Marple, where they have managed to give the pub a wider and more contemporary appeal while retaining its multi-roomed layout, extensive bench seating and wood-panelled drinking corridor.

  • Worst pub refurbishment – I’ve been critical of Robinson’s scheme at the Farmers Arms in Poynton, but to my mind they take the biscuit with the Baker’s Vaults on Stockport Market Place. The previous layout wasn’t ideal, but it had a kind of faded grandeur about it, while what has replaced it makes very poor use of space, has far too much gimmicky bric-a-brac, and is remarkably devoid of seating full stop, let alone comfortable seating. I’ve also heard reports of piped music being played at ear-splitting volume. You’ll find a far cheaper pint, a welcome absence of music and a far more authentic pub atmosphere in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head immediately opposite. I know opinions vary on this, but to my eye it’s seriously misplaced.

  • Pub cat – not a lot of competition in this category, but my favourite was the friendly coal-black cat (name not known) in the Railway at Mobberley who is happy just to curl up on your lap. An honourable mention must also go to Legolas (aka Legz) of the Charlotte Despard in London, who happily climbs up on the bar despite only having three legs, and won Outstanding Rescue Cat of the Year.

  • Blogging event – it’s been widely remarked that beer blogging has lost ground to Twitter, but one welcome development was the return of Jeffrey Bell aka Stonch, one of the pioneering beer bloggers, who took a break from it shortly after I started. I remember him as very forthright and combative, but he seems to have mellowed somewhat and is one of the dwindling number of bloggers with an appreciation and understanding of pubs.

  • Beer book – well, I’ve not really read any others apart from the Good Beer Guide, but I would thoroughly recommend Boak & Bailey’s Brew Britannia, which takes a step back from the usual in-depth profiles of beers and breweries to look at the wider trends in the British “alternative beer” market over the past forty or so years. It’s very lucid and readable and its best point is how the authors have succeeded in carrying out personal interviews with many of the key figures involved in the story.

  • Best public policy – George Osborne again making a small cut to beer duty, and on top of this freezing duty for cider and spirits and scrapping the duty escalator for all other categories of drinks. It’s excellent news that the government have at long last abandoned the policy of ever more tightening the fiscal screw on drinkers, and it’s important to remember that if the escalator had still been in place a pint in the pub would be 20-30p dearer. It’s definitely made a difference.

  • Worst public policy – cutting the Scottish drink-driving limit from 80mg to 50mg. This will erode sociability and community spirit, damage the pub trade, criminalise previously law-abiding people and possibly set an unwelcome precedent for a similar measure south of the Border. And there’s no guarantee it will save a single life. It’s essentially an anti-drink and anti-pub measure, not a road safety one.

  • Historic attractionEltham Palace in South-East London, a surprising juxtaposition of the Great Hall of the original mediaeval Royal palace with an ultra-modern Art Deco mansion built by the wealthy Courtauld family in the 1930s which, given its location, seems surprisingly under-appreciated. The lady of the house had a pet ringtailed lemur who enjoyed his own living quarters and had a tendency to bite guests.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A little of what you fancy does you good

The "Star Letter" in January's edition of the CAMRA newspaper What's Brewing comes from one Peter Edwardson of Stockport, and reads as follows:

Pete Black (What's Brewing, December) is very wide of the mark when he says "it seems extremely unlikely that there are any dangers of abstaining completely from alcohol".

In fact, there is an overwhelming weight of research evidence indicating that, even excluding those who have had to give up alcohol for specific health reasons, moderate drinkers have a lower mortality rate than total abstainers.

To give just one example, in 2006, the Archives of Internal Medicine, an American Medical Association journal, published an analysis based on 34 well-designed prospective studies and incorporating a million individual subjects, which found that "one to two drinks per day for women and two to four drinks per day for men are inversely associated with total mortality."

What is more, these benefits persist to some extent even if people drink significantly more than the offical guidelines, which in effect represent the bottom point of the risk curve.

While obviously it has to tread carefully, there is plenty of opportunity for CAMRA to take a more robust line in countering the misinformation of the anti-drink lobby.

Sounds like a sensible and well-informed chap. I'll buy him a pint if our paths ever cross...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Who’s killing the British pub?

Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs has produced a new paper called Closing Time? which looks at the reasons for the sharp decline in the pub trade in recent years and considers possible remedies. There’s a summary here and the full document can be downloaded here.

He points out that, since 1980, Britain has lost 21,000 pubs, with half of that coming since 2006. While some of that has been due to long-term social changes, more than half is the result of excessive taxation, unnecessary regulation and government meddling. Beer, and especially beer in pubs, has borne the brunt of the fall in per capita alcohol consumption. He argues that, while the pubcos may not represent a sound business model, their role in pub closures has been much exaggerated.

To claim that people are not going to the pub because PubCos are closing them down is to confuse cause with effect. In truth, pubs in every part of the sector are struggling from a fundamental lack of demand.
This point is reinforced by his blogpost How not to lie with pub closure statistics.

In conclusion, he says

Pubs are struggling from a lack of demand for pubs which has been largely due to government policy. The government cannot - and should not - undo the cultural changes that have led to people choosing alternative leisure activities, but it can undo the damage it has caused through taxation and regulation. If it is genuinely concerned about the future of the pub trade, it should significantly reduce alcohol duty, relax the smoking ban, reduce VAT to 15 per cent (and lower it further for food sales), abolish cumulative impact zones and scrap the late night levy.
Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, it’s well worth downloading and reading. And no doubt it will raise a few hackles amongst those who can’t see any cause of pub decline beyond the evil pubcos.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Give me strength

Once it has emerged from the still, Scotch whisky is put into oak casks to mature for a minimum of three years, often much more. When it is ready for bottling, it has an alcoholic strength of around 60% ABV, but is typically watered down to 40% (sometimes a little higher) for public sale. Occasionally, limited edition bottlings are made of undiluted whiskies at cask strength, which are obviously much more expensive than the standard product, and are much prized by connoisseurs.

I recently spotted that Jennings had sneakily reduced the strength of bottled Cumberland Ale from 4.7% to 4.0%, to bring it into line with the cask version, and now describe it on the bottle as “cask strength”. Likewise, bottled Marston’s Pedigree, from the same brewing group, which was increased from 4.5% to 5.0% and then reduced again, has “Brewed to cask strength” on the label. While this isn’t untrue as such, it comes across as distinctly disingenuous, given that a cask strength whisky is much stronger than the norm, but a cask strength bottled beer seems to be one that is weaker than it used to be.

Needless to say, there’s no price reduction, even though there’s a saving of about 8p per bottle duty plus VAT on duty. Given that this seems to be happening with more and more beers, isn’t it perhaps time for a two-tier pricing structure to be brought in for premium bottled ales? There’s nothing wrong as such with beers of 4.0% or less, but at present there tends to be no benefit in choosing one in preference to one of 5.0% or more. I would also say that, subjectively, sub-4% beers often taste a bit watery in bottle whereas they are fine on cask, which is maybe a reason why the bottled versions were made a bit stronger in the first place.

I wonder if we’ll see the same happening with other beers like Bombardier, London Pride and Spitfire where the bottled version is currently significantly stronger than the cask.