Monday, 20 November 2017

Do I get points with that?

By removing the previous restrictions on opening new pubs and bars, the 2003 Licensing Act has certainly allowed a thousand flowers to bloom in the sector. As a lover of heritage pubs, I have to say that many of the new establishments don’t hold much appeal for me, but it can’t be denied that it has led to much more competition and diversity, most notably in the areas of micropubs, craft bars and bottle shops.

But the latest novelty has raised some eyebrows, in the form of Morrisons announcing that they have obtained a drinks licence for the café in their supermarket in Guiseley, Yorkshire. There are already thousands of licensed cafés in existence, without the sky having fallen in, but if you were to listen to some people, this is yet another front opened up by supermarkets in their war against pubs. Bizarrely, they have claimed that it is another threat to the on-trade, despite it being by definition a section of the on-trade.

I can’t say I’ve ever personally eaten a meal in a supermarket café, but if people want to wash down their ham, egg and chips with a drink, then why shouldn’t they? And it obviously invites the cliché of the husband enjoying a pint while his wife wheels the trolley round the store. But it’s hardly somewhere that people will make a point of going to just for a drink, or linger long once they have eaten their meal, and indeed Morrisons wouldn’t want to encourage them to do that. They’re not after the destination trade. So I’d say any predictions of doom are misplaced.

You do also have to wonder whether there will be sufficient turnover to maintain the cask beer in good condition. It’s rather reminiscent of the early days of CAMRA when the organisation would badger small hotels and restaurants to put real ale on even though the level of trade was never going to be sufficient to justify it. Most licensed cafés in practice manage with just bottles and cans.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Dry run

Last month, I wrote about how people had exaggerated expectations for alcohol-free beers. The problem is that, however good they taste, they’re never going to be anything more than a poor substitute for normal-strength beer, simply because they don’t contain alcohol. People choose to drink beer because it is alcoholic; they choose between beers on the grounds of taste. Therefore it makes more sense, and shows them in a better light, to consider them in comparison with soft drinks.

As I’ve been trying to have one alcohol-free day a week, I thought I would give a couple of the best-known brands a try, as an alternative to a can of Pepsi Max or suchlike while settling down to watch The Great War in Numbers or Bettany Hughes on Eight Days That Made Rome. The ones I chose, both bought from Tesco, were Beck’s Blue (6x275ml, £3.49, 58p per bottle, £2.12 per litre) and Heineken 0.0 (4x330ml, £2.49, 62p per bottle, £1.89 per litre). I think the Heineken was on a special introductory offer and the standard price would probably be £3.49.

The full-strength versions of these are not beers I would normally buy to drink at home, although I wouldn’t turn my nose up at them. The lack of volume in comparison with standard beers doesn’t really matter too much, as that’s bound up with the alcohol content. Both I found palatable enough. The Beck’s has a distinctly beery initial aroma, and is slightly the drier of the two, but has that somewhat cardboardy flavour note often found in alcohol-free beers. The Heineken, in contrast, is a little sweeter and less obviously beery, but probably the better of the two as a stand-alone drink. It possibly has a hint of lemon in it.

Are they as good as normal-strength beer? Of course not. But would I drink them again in that situation? Probably yes, although not really to wash down my lunch.

By way of comparison, I also tried an alcohol-free ale, St Peter’s Without (500ml bottle, £1.30, £2.60 per litre). This, however, was distinctly unpleasant, and most of it went down the sink. It had a thin, scummy head which quickly disappeared, and a thick, cloying, glutinous texture. I can’t disagree with Martyn Cornell when he says:

I cannot imagine what St Peter’s thought they were doing, because as a product it’s actively terrible. It smells like raw, unfermented wort, and while there is enough hop usage for it not to be sickly sweet, it’s still too much like the “strengthening medicine” Kanga fed to Roo, and nothing like the refreshing drink beer ought to be.
Martyn’s whole article is well worth reading, as he questions the periodic bouts of enthusiasm about the alcohol-free beer market. From time to time, people claim that it’s going to make substantial inroads into the sales of normal beer, but it never happens, simply because it doesn’t contain alcohol and is therefore missing the point. People will only substitute it for normal beer as a distress purchase. As he concludes,
I’m looking forward to a cool frothy pint of non-alcoholic beer tonight” said NOBODY, EVER.
They’re just not products anyone would actively seek out in the way they do normal-strength beers.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Red elephant?

Anyone who hasn’t visited Stockport for a couple of years will be surprised, to say the least, to see the new Redrock leisure complex rising up on the site of the former car park between the M60 and Princes Street. It takes its name from the red sandstone of the cliffs opposite, and is due to open on Friday 24 November, a week today. It will include a cinema, a gym and new shops and restaurants.

The intention, obviously, is to revitalise the town centre and attract more visitors, and it has to be said that much of it is in need of a shot in the arm. The former BHS store on Merseyway is still unlet over a year after the chain fell into bankruptcy, and the area of Little Underbank and Lower Hillgate, which could be a cornucopia of independent shops, is very tatty and rundown, with as many vacant units as live businesses. One clear benefit it will bring is introducing smart chain restaurants including Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Pizza Express and Zizzi, as currently there is a serious dearth of decent places to eat.

Having said this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Redrock falls into the category of “Something must be done. This is something. Let’s do it, then.” It’s unsightly, it’s out of scale with its surroundings, and, although there is a kind of piazza linking it to Princes Street, it’s poorly integrated with the rest of the town centre.

One point that immediately sprang to mind is how the new cinema could hope to compete with those a few miles along the M60 in each direction at Ashton and the Trafford Centre, if people were expected to pay for parking. I have since learned that parking will be free for cinema and gym customers, but how many of them will go on to spend money elsewhere in the town centre? Wouldn’t a better way of revitalising the night-time economy be to allow entirely free parking after 6 pm?

Better parking isn’t an instant panacea for town centres, but making it more inconvenient and expensive is a sure-fire recipe for undermining their viability. Too many councils have treated it as a cash cow and ended up killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. And the fact that the council have introduced free parking after 3 pm and all day Sunday in their central car parks in the run-up to Christmas indicates that they recognise it is a problem.

I don’t claim to be an expert in urban regeneration, and if there was an obvious formula then many towns would have adopted it. I hope it does prove successful in drumming up more business, but I can’t help having some reservations. And it certainly is a singularly ugly set of buildings! it does, however, for those who like such things, feature a rare spiral multi-storey car park ramp.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

More minimum pricing thoughts

Following yesterday’s announcement, here are a few more thoughts off the top of my head on the minimum pricing issue.

  • None of the people praising this will be personally affected by it

  • It’s widely imagined that it will only hit cheap, bottom-end products, but in fact it will affect most beer, cider and spirits, by volume, sold in the off-trade, and about a third of wine

  • It will seriously undermine the alcohol sales model of discount supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl

  • All the benefit will accrue to producers and retailers of alcohol, not government. It is in effect a legalised price-fixing ring. No wonder some brewers like Greene King and Tennent’s are foolishly supporting it

  • It will have a marked inflationary effect. If applied across the UK, it would add a few points to the headline inflation rate

  • It will create an unprecedented differential between prices for the same product in different parts of one country, with an inevitable surge in cross-border shopping and grey-market reselling

  • Will it be possible to apply it to purchases made from Internet vendors in England but delivered in Scotland?

  • It will eliminate all the cheap value brands that currently exist, and turn minimum price alcohol into a commodity product

  • And it will also push up prices higher up the scale as producers seek to maintain a price differential

  • Paradoxically, it may encourage alcohol producers to spend more on advertising as they can no longer differentiate products by price

  • If implemented in England, it would have a devastating effect on the farmhouse cider industry, much of which currently pays no duty and sells its products at the farm gate for well below 50p/unit. Many producers would probably abandon commercial sales entirely, or just sell to friends “off the books”

  • It will negate the effect of High Strength Beer Duty, as it will no longer be possible to sell weaker beers for a lower price per unit. For the same reason, it will remove any benefit to the consumer of lower strength duty relief

  • It will result in a much closer association in consumers’ minds of “premium” with “stronger”

  • It will lead to an increase in illegal distilling, with potentially serious health consequences. By supposedly addressing one health issue, you create another

  • There will inevitably now be strong pressure to implement it in England

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Minimum effectiveness

It was disappointing, although not entirely surprising, news that the Supreme Court has rejected the Scotch Whisky Association’s appeal against the Scottish government’s plans for minimum alcohol pricing. I’ve been over all this many times before and don’t propose to go into the detail again. But it will do little or nothing to combat alcoholism, while hitting poorer households hard in the wallet. It will encourage bootlegging and illegal distilling, with all the potential health issues that causes.

Hopefully the UK government will see sense and not extend it south of the Border. But, assuming they don’t, it will obviously lead to a huge amount of cross-border shopping, with a procession of white vans trundling north up the A74(M) from Carlisle ASDA. And, if they did, it would deal a grievous blow to farmhouse cidermakers, many of who may abandon selling commercially.

There will be some useful idiots within CAMRA who will welcome the decision as getting one over on the supermarkets, but it won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs. Indeed, as Christopher Snowdon argues here, it could even lead to people spending less in pubs if they need to reallocate a fixed budget for spending on alcohol.

And don’t imagine that it will leave the on-trade completely unscathed. It’s not uncommon for Wetherspoon’s to price their guest ales, including those of 6% ABV and above, at £1.99 a pint. With the 50p CAMRA discount voucher, that would take them down to a mere 44p a unit!

Some will say “well, Mudgie, it’s ironic that this was one example of where the EU was protecting British consumers”. I will accept that its partial attempts to stop countries erecting barriers to trade in the name of health policy was one of the few good points about the EU, but even that has now been thrown out of the window. And we really shouldn’t need a supra-national body to protect us from ourselves – we should be free to make our own laws, however stupid they may be.

An all-round bad day for the interests of drinkers in the UK. Plus, of course, once it proves to be ineffective, there will be the inevitable pressure to ratchet the minimum price ever upwards...

Friday, 10 November 2017

Choice crawls

In my recent review of our trip to Leicester, I mentioned that, from my experience, I didn’t think that the city offered as a good a pub-crawling opportunity as nearby Derby and Nottingham. Where I live in Stockport is ideally placed for day trips by train to a wide variety of destinations across the North and Midlands and, over the years, I have often enjoyed journeys of pub exploration.

What I’m looking for is a combination of something distinctive on the beer front, characterful pubs, especially those with unspoilt interiors and, as someone with an interest in architecture and townscapes, somewhere with historical and tourist appeal too. I’m not averse to going in the occasional modern beer-focused pub, but very often they seem to be places that can be transplanted from one town to another and have little feel of the locality. Nor do I really want to travel sixty miles just to go in another Wetherspoon’s. I have to say, though, that I don’t care for very big cities, which I find impersonal and alienating. Yes, last year I did a pub crawl of some of the more traditional pubs in central Manchester, but in general it’s a place I do my best to avoid.

Probably the place that best ticks all these boxes is York, which has an unparalleled combination of historic cityscapes, unspoilt pubs and beer interest. It’s also one of the few places that, in the centre, has seen a net gain of new “normal” pubs in recent years. Not far behind is Shrewsbury which, while not on the same scale, is a wonderfully atmospheric place and not so overwhelmed by tourists. It doesn’t have the same weight of numbers of excellent pubs, but there is a core of half-a-dozen very good ones.

Chester has a wealth of historic interest, but in the past, with its pubs dominated by Greenall’s, wasn’t such a must-visit pub destination, although things have improved in recent years. It’s also, despite being in the same county, oddly inconvenient to reach by train from Stockport. Both Derby and Nottingham have proved rewarding over the years and Stafford, while probably not in the first rank, is very easy to get to, and has seen a great improvement in its pub scene. While I don’t propose to provide a comprehensive gazetteer, there are plenty more too numerous to mention.

One thing that has detracted from the experience, though, is the erosion of geographical distinctiveness in beer, which I wrote about as far back as 1997. There was a time when there was a particular appeal of travelling to Lancaster to drink Mitchells and Yates & Jackson, to Nottingham for Home and Shipstone, and to Shrewsbury for beers from Greenall’s Wem brewery, none of which were ever seen locally. York had plenty of Cameron’s pubs, a beer never seen on this side of the Pennines.

Now, while undoubtedly the overall choice of beer has increased, in mainstream pubs you are often presented with just the same nationally-distributed brands, while in beer-focused free houses you will get a random selection drawn from across the country. Yes, there is often more of a local focus, such as finding Salopian and Three Tuns beers in Shrewsbury, but it’s not the same as knowing that you will find particular beers in brewery tied houses.

That isn’t a problem in Stockport where, despite a number of closures , there’s a still a concentration of very good Robinson’s pubs, plus the Brewery Visitor Centre where the bar is open to the public. Combine that with a wealth of unspoilt pub interiors, a cluster of beer-focused pubs, some characterful, bustling urban boozers, and attractive and underappreciated historic townscape around the Market Place and the Underbanks, and it’s hard to imagine a better destination for the pub-crawling traveller.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Overdoing the gloom

There’s been a lot of discussion about this story reporting a shock 3.6% fall in pub beer sales compared with the same quarter last year. However, quarterly figures are inevitably subject to fluctuations, and in fact the previous quarter had only shown a fall of 0.2%.

The British Beer and Pub Association have now released the detailed figures behind these statistics – see the link on this page. The annual fall, which gives a more balanced picture, is 2.5%, which obviously is nothing to celebrate, but broadly in line with the average over the previous five years. Possibly the forthcoming Budget might have encouraged the BBPA to indulge in a little scaremongering. Of course beer duty should be frozen, if not cut, but there’s no sudden crisis.

In fact, the overall beer market has increased by 0.2% over the past twelve months, with the off-trade recording a 2.8% increase. It now accounts for 52.7% of all beer sales, so the tipping point when it exceeds the on-trade is long gone.

If you look at the quarterly falls in on-trade sales over time, by far the biggest was 10.3% between the second quarters of 2007 and 2008. I can’t for the life of me think what might have happened in the meantime to affect the figures to such an extent...

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Quantity and Quality

This is a post made by Kieran Lyons, owner of the Blue Boar in Leicester (pictured), on the Beer and Pubs Forum and CAMRA Discourse, which I reproduce here with his permission. It's fair to say I agree with the general thrust if not every single detail.

I've recently had cause to think about the question of how many cask ales to offer at any one time after reading the blogs retiredmartin, pub curmudgeon and beerleeds.

I'll start by outlining what I think affects beer quality.

  1. The brewing of it. No amount of cellarmanship can make a bad beer good (although the reverse is true).
  2. Temperature. It's often said that certain beers 'don't travel well'. This is bollocks. What's happened is it's been handled badly, probably left unchilled for too long. Wholesalers are the weak link here. Also buying direct gets you a better price anyway. For most pubs temperature isn't a problem - beer goes straight in thecellar.
  3. Conditioning. Every cellar course i've ever been on has been too prescriptive about conditioning. Not a single trainer talked about actually tasting the beer. It was always: 'leave it for X time'. But that doesn't work because every beer is different.
  4. Dispense. Get a clean, oversized glass and pour so that you get a nice head. Can't be done right in a brim measure without complaint. If using hand pulls, clean the lines after each beer.
  5. Freshness. Ideally you'd sell the whole firkin the same day you put it on sale. My personal record is about an hour :) The longest you can keep a beer on is ....well every beer is different. You have to taste them at the start of each trading session. An obvious point but not something widely done. No cellar course ever recommended doing this to me, yet it seems essential. Instead they say 3 days for best quality, 5 days max. This is a good rule of thumb but cannot be relied on.
So how do you achieve best quality consistently? Well, you need people to buy it. So you have to either have or create demand. This can be a bit chicken and egg. What comes first, the ale selection or the ale drinkers?

You have got to put on what sells, and just as every beer is different, there is no typical pub and no prescriptive advice that can be given; but i'm going to have a go anyway and give my thoughts on what pubs should be doing. You may well think of real life exceptions to every rule I make here.

  1. Mid size estate or suburban working class boozer. A single beer here ain't enough but 3 could be too many. Two beers of different styles, say a dark bitter and a hoppy pale, both around 4.5%. Even tied houses could manage that. Sell 3 firkins per fortnight of each and that's enough if (and these rules apply to every pub):
    a) it's kept at 10 degrees C all the time.
    b) you use a racing spile or hard peg between sessions.
    c) you pour off some beer before each session- every line is a different length, some are chilled, but the stuff in the beer engine is definitely waste.
    Now if you start selling 2 per week you can think about adding a third beer. Make it a guest maybe, to give extra interest and allow seasonal variation eg. green hopped beers and winter warmers.
  2. Food led dining pub. Same as above really, except you're gonna want to cook with the beer to improve throughput further. Get your prices right as well. Put Landlord on if you want but don't expect to make the same margin on it. If it's overpriced it will only sell to diners and if you are only selling to diners stick to bottles.
  3. Busy city centre pub. You'll have a broader mix of customers here that will include 'beer enthusiasts' (I believe this is the polite term). You'll have an oppurtunity to convert people to cask if you want to. A broad selection is needed and for me the minimum is 5, if you are serious about it. This allows for a bitter, a session pale, a stout or porter, a mild and an IPA. Too many pubs have 3 beers of varying brownness. You don't have to have permanent beers (although it's a good idea that one or two are) so long as you get the style mix right. Now if you think you can sell more than 5 at once then go for it but don't think you can flex up and down during the week, and have more beers available at the weekend. This doesn't work. The people who want a broader range are usually mid week drinkers and at weekend punters are more infrequent (not regulars) so they go for what they've had before and can rely on. Instances of buying rounds goes up, especially on match days, with everyone drinking the same thing. If you change the amount of beers you have day to day on it just leads to disappointment and confusion, in my opinion. You have to manage expectations.
  4. Specialist ale house. Go for the biggest choice you possibly can and be prepared to pour beer down the drain when you need to. It's the cost of doing business. If you don't sometimes chuck half a firkin you're doing something wrong. Get your selection right as well. At the Blue Boar, we have 9 hand pulls but also the ability to serve direct from the cask and can go up to 20 beers available if needed. When you're a specialist, your turnover of your specialist product is higher because it makes up the majority of your sales. We are small but the space is mostly taken up by ale drinkers. We are city centre so we have a constant flow of customers from 11am to 11pm. I could tell you how many firkins a week we usually sell and you could work out how long each beer stays on the bar, on average, but that wouldn't give you the full picture. 36 Gallons of the house pale goes through the same line each week; but we've had a barley wine on sale served from stillage for a fortnight and it was at it's best on the last day. The point is we are constantly tasting it and are not afraid to take beer off sale if it's out of condition.
One final point I will make - when you serve ever changing guest beers because that's what your customers demand, you are going to get mixed quality. It's why beer scores don't bother me too much. I don't brew it and I'm not going to take offence if you don't rate it. I won't even get defensive if you say it's in poor condition - i'll try to find out what went wrong.

In general though you learn which breweries to trust and which to avoid. We wouldn't buy a beer off someone new without researching it at least a little bit, and the rule of thumb is to give a new brewery a year to get good before buying.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Hard cases make bad law

My attention was recently drawn to this particularly harrowing account of the experience of alcoholics in thrall to high-strength ciders and super lagers. Not content with the usual proposal of rationing these products by price, the author decides to go one step further.
There is a more radical solution than trying to increase the price of high strength ciders and lagers and that is to stop producing them altogether. Far from it being a pipedream divorced from financially driven realities, this has happened. One of the most well-known, indeed notorious white ciders was White Lightning, often referred to by those who had experienced its special hallucinatory qualities as ‘white frightening’. Over a decade ago we hosted a visit to one of hostels for senior executives of Heineken which produced White Lightning. Not long after the visit the company reduced the strength of White Lightning and then a few months later stopped producing it altogether. It was a brave move, made without fanfare, for which I remain supremely grateful.

There is a precedent, therefore, that other companies can follow and in doing so lives can be saved. How can it possibly be justifiable to continue producing cheap, high strength ciders and lagers for a market dominated almost exclusively by those with the most severe alcohol dependency problems when it is predicted by health experts that almost 63,000 people in England will die over the next five years from liver problems linked to heavy drinking?

What he’s talking about is not so much banning them outright, but shaming companies into ceasing to produce them. No doubt Heineken, owners of Bulmers, felt that White Lightning was a product that only made up a tiny proportion of their overall sales, and did their public image no good. However, it doesn’t look as though Aston Manor, producers of the similar Frosty Jack’s, have similar scruples, and I haven’t noticed Carlsberg Special and Tennent’s Super, both made by multinational brewers, disappearing off the shelves.

If you do actually want to ban something by law, you have to have a watertight definition, which wouldn’t be anywhere near as easy as people might think. Of course it would be straightforward simply to ban the sale of any beers or ciders above a set alcohol level, which some councils have attempted to do at a local level, but it would seem disproportionate to deprive the general public of the pleasures of Duvel and Old Tom. One solution, of course, would be one I have suggested before, but I suspect the Parliamentary draughtsmen would struggle with that:

Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.
In fact, the dividing line between “bad” and “good” is far less straightforward than might be imagined. At the upper end of the premium bottled ale and cider sectors there are several products which, with multibuy offers, can be obtained for around 40p a unit, and whose alcoholic strength must be at least a partial factor in motivating people to buy them in preference to weaker brands. And, even in the “craft” segment, nobody can tell me that the kick given by a 10.5% barrel-aged Imperial stout isn’t part of the reason for choosing it. Indeed, there have been cases where people have over time happily described their craft beer consumption on social media but in effect admitted to being not far off functioning alcoholics.

While clearly high-strength lagers and ciders do have a particular appeal to problem drinkers, they also have a strong following amongst more normal consumers of alcohol who just happen to prefer a trade-off between strength and volume a bit higher up the scale. It is less the case now but, in the past, bottled Carlsberg Special was often viewed as a premium product in the same bracket as Holsten Pils. I remember one couple who used to come into a pub I frequent, where the husband drank pints of bitter and his wife half-pint bottles of Carlsberg.

Their appeal is often not simply low price, but the fact that they provide a relatively easy means of consuming a lot of alcohol. In fact, particularly in the case of super lagers, they’re often not particularly cheap anyway. At the widely-suggested 50p per unit minimum price, a 4x440ml pack of Carlsberg Special at 8% ABV would cost £7.04, which is pretty much what it sells for in my local Tesco. The real bangs-per-buck bargains are to be found lower down the scale in multipacks of Carling and Fosters, which sometimes sell for as little as 50p per can, or 28.4p per unit. But drinking a lot of Carling is much more like hard work.

This indicates that minimum pricing would be a pretty ineffective tool to address consumption of these products, and to have much impact would have to be set at a level that would cause serious pain to the generality of alcohol purchasers. Plus, of course, the higher it was set, the more the problem would be with bootlegging and illegal distilling. As the political philosopher John Stuart Mill said,

Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price...

...To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.

There were alcoholics before these products had ever been invented, and even if they could be made to magically disappear, alcoholics would simply find something else to drink. Of course alcoholism is a serious issue that shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. But surely it should be addressed by targeted measures rather than adopting a broad-brush, whole-population approach that brings large numbers of people into the net who aren’t in any sense problem drinkers.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

I wrote up last month’s trip to Leicester with what Richard Coldwell rightly described as a “straight bat”. I adopted the style I use for reports of Staggers (local CAMRA organised pub crawls) in Opening Times, where I describe each pub as I find it, but don’t actually make any criticism unless there’s something obviously wrong in terms of quality of beer, food or service. The only thing that fell into this category was the plainly vinegary Old Original in the Globe, which was changed without demur, just as you would expect a well-run pub to do. I recognise the distinction between whether a pub is not to my personal taste, and whether it has fallen short in what it sets out to do.

I have to say I enjoy going on pub crawls of this kind as a leisure activity, visiting new pubs and reacquainting myself with more familiar ones. Every pub has something of interest, whether in its beer range, atmosphere or clientele, and so long as I’ve got a comfortable seat and a reasonable pint, and my ears are not being assailed by pounding hip-hop or screaming children, I’m happy enough. Whether it’s somewhere I’d actually choose to return to is another matter, of course.

As Richard has done an individual post on his blog for each pub we visited giving his own thoughts, I thought it might be interesting to offer some more personal opinions.

  • Ale Wagon. I had a good pint, but can’t really say I’m a great fan of that type of slightly distressed, bare-boards alehouse. It all seems a bit 1987. Plus they can on a larger scale suffer from the same issue of monocultural clientele as micropubs. It would be interesting to see it at a busier time – is it all blokes with beards and beer guts, or does it attract a wider customer base?
    Beer: Hoskins Brothers HOB Bitter. NBSS 4

  • Bowling Green. Yes, it’s something of a Wetherspoon’s clone, but it does what it sets out to do, and was the busiest pub of all those we visited. It’s still fairly characterful at the front, and I had a decent pint, although drinking Robinson’s in Leicester is a bit of a busman’s holiday. As a notoriously pernickety eater, my steak was actually very enjoyable, and good to see spiral fries offered as an alternative to the so often soggy and flabby standard chips.
    Beer: Robinson’s Dark Vader. NBSS 3

  • Blue Boar: Really more a small conventional pub than a micropub, and very nicely done in a woody style reminiscent of Joule’s interiors. Plenty of comfortable bench seating around two walls, and while the clientele was a bit monocultural, it was people like us. Eight beers seemed a little over-ambitious, but the one we had was good, and owner Kieran Lyons gives the impression of someone who knows what he’s doing. I could happily spend a fair bit of time in here.
    Beer: Titanic Kölsch. NBSS 4

  • Globe (pictured above). As a pub, probably my favourite of the day, with a rambling interior featuring plenty of nooks and crannies, and a particularly congenial snug at the front. Had the kind of mixed clientele you would hope to find in a city-centre pub at the tail end of lunchtime. One poor beer was willingly changed, but the replacement didn’t really pull up any trees. It has to be admitted that all of Everards’ beers are a touch lacking in distinctive character.
    Beer: Everards Tiger. NBSS 2.5

  • Black Horse. A nice little two-roomer with a characterful front bar featuring a wood floor. Some tasteful (to me) music playing. Friendly, chatty licensee. And it had a cat. Unfortunately, as it was four o’clock in the afternoon, we were about the only customers.
    Beer: Everards Old Original. NBSS 3

  • West End Brewery. Very much “brewpub by numbers”, although at least it offered comfortable seating, beermats, a Bass plaque on the wall and free comics. The beers didn’t come across as anything out of the ordinary. Not a place I would personally choose to drink.
    Beer: West End Copper Ale. NBSS 3

  • Criterion. To me, the least impressive pub of the day, and it was hard to see what it was trying to achieve. As Richard said, it came across as an odd combination of Student Union bar and run-down estate pub, and the closed-off front room was a bit offputting as you walked in through the door. But they did play Jethro Tull!
    Beer: Market Harborough Best. NBSS 3

  • King’s Head. I liked this rather more than some of the others, and thought it was a nice cosy little pub. Black Country Ales produce some tasteful pub refurbishments, but unfortunately their own beers are a bit lacklustre, and they often seem to have too many on the bar in total – ten in this case. Not surprisingly, my pint proved to be a little tired. But it did have a cat, and a celebrated one at that.
    Beer: Oakham Bishop’s Farewell. NBSS 2.5
As we were buying in pairs, I didn’t take much note of the prices. Nothing stood out as being either particularly cheap or particularly expensive. The one price I do recall is paying £3.10 for two halves in the West End Brewery, which struck me as reasonable for that type of venue.

In conclusion, I have to agree with Richard that Leicester overall proved a little disappointing. Plenty of decent pubs, but not a lot that was outstanding in terms of either beer or historic interest. From experience, I’d say that Derby and Nottingham, which are cities of a broadly similar size, have more to offer on both fronts.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Letting others do the heavy lifting

Following our recent three-blogger trip to Leicester, Richard Coldwell has done a series of posts looking at each pub in more detail. One thing that struck him was the lack of other customers in several of the pubs. While you wouldn’t expect Tuesday to be the busiest day of the week, this does seem to suggest a wider malaise, which he reflected on in his report of the Horse & Trumpet (which was after I had left to get the train home).
Sadly, half empty pubs, particularly out in the sticks are a feature of Tuesday night in modern Britain...

...Please don’t let the Great British Pub end up like Rugby Union – it’s there all around us, the chattering classes never stop talking and reading about it, but only the true supporters regularly go to watch it, unless it’s a test match!

It does seem to be a depressingly common phenomenon that people sing the praises of the Great British Pub but expect others to do the heavy lifting of actually keeping them in business, something eloquently expressed by Rowan Pelling in an article from a couple of years ago entitled We love pubs and churches, but don’t want to use them.

I blogged about this at the time, and made the comment that it was all very well to say “use them or lose them”, but what we do as individuals is unlikely to make much difference to the fate of any particular pub. However...

Collectively, it has to be acknowledged that the sum total of our decisions as a society is what has driven so many cherished institutions to the wall. As far as businesses go, people vote with their feet, and they have increasingly voted against pubs.
And people who say, entirely sincerely, that they are pub lovers are not immune from the pressures and trends of modern society that curtail the opportunities they have to actually visit them. Forty years ago, many pubs were sustained by people on drinking occasions that their present-day counterparts wouldn’t contemplate.

Nobody can accuse Richard, Martin, Paul or me of not doing our bit to keep pubs alive, but on that occasion, and many others throughout the year, we were essentially pub tourists, just having a pint or half in each. and observing whether or not they had the baseload trade to keep them ticking over. Pubs, apart from a handful in city centres or near main-line stations, are not going to make a living just from pub tourists. They need regulars, not casuals.

I would list “visiting pubs” (and specifically that, not drinking beer) as one of my main leisure interests. So far this year, I’ve been in 158 different pubs, and further planned trips are likely to take the total above 170. But, across that total, I’m unlikely to drink more than about 600 pints, or just 11½ a week. Even assuming I only drank in one pub, that would need fifty of me to give the pub a viable turnover of two barrels a week.

And, of those 600, I probably won’t have drunk more than forty in any single pub. I used to have a local which I would visit most weeks to the extent that I could be called a regular, but unfortunately various changes, mainly revolving around TV football and reserved dining tables, have made it much less congenial from my point of view, and I hardly go in there any more except to deliver the local CAMRA magazine.

Talking of which, on my distribution rounds I used to visit some pubs, such as the now-demolished Moss Rose/Four Heatons where, whatever day of the week or time of day I went in, some of the same people always seemed to be there. They gave the impression of being not only regulars, but of virtually living in the pub. This was summed up brilliantly by the article by Rob Warm from a few years back on the Pubs of Manchester blog entitled The Pub Shaman of Prestwich. If you’ve never read this, it’s absolutely essential.

The author talks of the “red-faced, slightly dishevelled men who not only drank in pubs, but lived in them”, and says of his father “the solitary pint in a smoke-filled vault poring over a fixed odds coupon and going through a packed of Bensons. That’s what he preferred.”

Drinking isn't like that any more. Drinking is now leisure, not work. The shamen are all dead or dying. Replaced by aggressive kids or bored couples. The rest of us just pour a glass of wine at home. And pubs get boarded up or sold or burnt out or demolished. They change interiors each year to try and remain interesting – but that has the exact opposite effect. Besides, the people who made them interesting are gone. And most of the stories have gone with them.
There used to be a regular cast of characters who were seen in the various pubs around the centre of Stockport. They knew all the news and gossip on the pub scene. But many of those pubs, like the Spread Eagle and the Tiviot, are now gone, and so are most of the characters who once defined their atmosphere.

The old-fashioned, wet-led boozer is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and with it has gone the six nights a week, six pints a night men who used to keep them going. That is why so many pubs, even if they’re still in business, are so quiet for much of the week. Depending on casual trade may work for food-led pubs, but if your main business is selling drink, you will struggle without a strong core of regular customers, unless you’re in a city-centre location with a lot of footfall past the door.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Doctoring the figures

Last year, eyebrows were raised when the Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, announced that the alcohol guidelines for men were being reduced to a mere 14 units a week, the same as those for women. This is the equivalent of just six pints of ordinary-strength beer. This gave us one of the lowest maximum recommended figures in the developed world, and also made us one of the few countries not to set differential figures for men and women.

At the time, many people smelled a bit of a rat, and suspected that this was an example of “policy-based evidence-making” that rested on shaky scientific foundations. Now, after having used the Freedom of Information Act to do some digging around, Christopher Snowdon has uncovered the whole sorry saga of chicanery and arm-twisting that lies behind it.

You can read the full details here

Given such a tale of data being manipulated to suit a particular agenda, it is hardly surprising that more and more people have come to regard any official health advice with a huge amount of scepticism.

Of course, as Snowdon says in the article, many people will cheerfully ignore such guidelines. But the problem is that they will be used by government in policy-making, with one of the obvious results being to artificially inflate the number of “problem drinkers”. Plus it is highly misleading how they are so often described as “limits”, not just guidelines, and portrayed as a cliff-edge of risk rather than just a gentle uptick in the curve, if that.

Surely, in the light of such blatant massaging of the figures, it is time that Public Health England was seriously reined in, if not disbanded entirely. And I thought this would be a suitable expression of remorse from Dame Sally. Preferably using Old Tom.

Monday, 30 October 2017

A taxing differential

Tomorrow, a debate is being held in Parliament on the subject of the crippling level of beer taxation. This is an issue that has been adopted as a key campaign by CAMRA. The figures are certainly pretty damning. The UK only accounts for 12% of beer consumption in the EU, but pays 40% of the total of beer duty and, as shown by the graphic above, our duty level is more than three times higher than that of any other major brewing nation.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance has carried out an analysis which shows that the impact of beer duty falls disproportionately on lower income groups, even though they on average drink less. It is a highly regressive form of taxation.

However, while this is often presented as an issue that has a particular impact on the pub trade, it has to be remembered that exactly the same level of duty applies to the on and off-trades. If beer in the on-trade bears more tax per pint, that’s because the higher markup applied makes the total VAT figure higher.

And, looking into the detail, the proportionate burden of duty is much higher for beer sold in the off-trade. The main rate of beer duty is £19.08 per 1% per hectolitre. A pint of Carling (declared at 4.0% ABV) typically sells in a pub for £3.50, for which price you can get a pack of 4x440ml cans in the supermarket. If you break these prices down, you get the following:

1 x pint:
Duty 43.3p
VAT on Duty 8.7p
Other costs 248.3p
VAT on other costs 49.7p

Duty + VAT on duty 14.9%, total tax 29.1%

4 x 440ml cans:
Duty 134.3pp
VAT on Duty 26.9p
Other costs 157.3p
VAT on other costs 31.5p

Duty + VAT on duty 46.1%, total tax 55.1%

So, from this, it is clear that any movement in duty, either up or down, will have much more effect on the final price of beer sold in the off-trade than in the on-trade. You can see this in the way prices moved during the period of three years when duty was either slightly cut or frozen. Those in the off-trade remained fairly flat, while those in the on-trade continued to ratchet upwards, albeit at a slower rate than before, because of the impact of cost increases in other areas.

Of course the rate of beer duty is far too high, and it should be brought down if resources permit, or at the very least frozen. It’s something that affects all drinkers, and at current levels there is already a serious problem with smuggling and illegal distilling, the latter of which can have fatal consequences. But nobody should imagine that this would do anything to change the relative competitiveness of the on and off trades.

And it is also the case that two of the countries with the highest proportion of on-trade beer sales, the UK and Ireland, are also those with some of the highest rates of duty.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Horses for courses

Whenever the Good Beer Guide is discussed, someone inevitably pipes up with a comment that surely WhatPub now makes it largely redundant. This is something I thought of mentioning in my earlier post on unconventional outlets in the GBG, but felt it deserved a post of its own.

For those not familiar with it, WhatPub is CAMRA’s online pub database and guide, which represents a major achievement of volunteer effort. There’s scarcely a real ale pub that isn’t on it, and in most areas it also provides a full listing of all licensed premises open to the public, including those that only serve keg beers*. It’s probably more comprehensive than any other online pub guide. However, for various reasons it doesn’t really compete with or replace the Good Beer Guide, as it’s a completely different animal.

The first comes from its very comprehensiveness. If you look at Chester in the GBG, it lists nine pubs in a variety of styles from micropub through traditional boozer to upmarket eaterie. There should be something to suit every taste. In contrast, enter “Chester” into the WhatPub search box, and you will be presented with no less than 269 results. It’s going to be hard work to search through them to find something that appeals. With the GBG, someone has already done the work for you to produce what I suppose must be called a “curated” selection.

The second is again a feature rather than a bug, in that WhatPub aims to describe pubs honestly rather than criticising them. This is understandable, as it doesn’t want to needlessly antagonise licensees, and in general you do get a reasonable idea of what pubs are like. Reading between the lines, you can distinguish between those given fulsome praise, and those described in terse, neutral terms. But it’s not necessarily easy to sort the wheat from the chaff, and sometimes the WhatPub descriptions can be misleading even if not inaccurate as such. I remember once visiting an externally attractive pub that sounded reasonably appealing, only to find it entirely given over to Sunday diners and stinking of gravy.

If you were in Christchurch, Dorset, the description of the Ship says “Low ceilings, exposed beams and leaded windows combine to produce a pleasant pub. At the rear there is an enclosed garden.” From that, you would get the impression of a very traditional interior, whereas in fact, although nothing is untrue as such, it’s actually thoroughly knocked through and very modernisitic in style. The GBG would have rightly directed you instead to the Thomas Tripp, which is much more pubby.

The way many people use the GBG is not so much to search for pubs in a specific location, but to look for ones that sound interesting across a wider area, or along a particular route, something that its maps make easy to do. WhatPub does offer a facility to show listed pubs on a map, but once you zoom out a bit, the sheer numbers become a bit overwhelming. If you wanted to, say, find worthwhile pubs between Shrewsbury and Hereford, the map search would be of little use.

WhatPub? is obviously still a work in progress, and I’m not proposing to list things that could be improved. Perhaps I’d give priority to making the descriptions more consistent in style, and providing at least some facility for user input without opening it up to free-for-all comments in the manner of Beer in the Evening, maybe by allowing registered CAMRA members to leave star ratings. I’d also like a search facility for National Inventory entries. It’s an extremely useful and worthwhile enterprise. But it complements the GBG rather than replacing it.

* As an aside, in most areas in England and Wales, it lists all keg pubs as well as real ale ones, and I used it last year for my Keg Pub Challenge where I asked people to find a location where none of the first ten search results returned had real ale. But in Scotland it tends not to, possibly because the real ale outlets are so thin on the ground that the task may understandably prove dispiriting.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Limited appeal

The Good Beer Guide is including ever more unconventional outlets such as brewery taps and micropubs that fall well outside the general understanding of a “pub”. Some of them are open for quite startlingly limited hours. Two that have already been visited by Martin Taylor on his GBG-ticking quest are the Rock & Roll Brewhouse in Hockley, Birmingham, and the Well in Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire (shown), both of which are open for the grand total of ten hours a week. In fact, since the 2018 edition was published, the former has already changed its name from the Rock & Roll Tap House and reduced its hours from thirteen to ten.

It may well be the case that these are absolutely essential beer destinations that any enthusiast would be a fool to miss, but it has to be questioned exactly how much value they bring to the users of the guide. Its prime purpose is, at the end of the day, as a service to its readers, not as an award scheme to licensees, and you have to consider what people are actually looking for in it. As I said in this blogpost:

Many people use the GBG as a kind of woolly-jumpered version of the Good Pub Guide, and the food-serving pubs in the National Parks and other heavily touristed areas are likely to gain the most benefit. Likewise pubs in the centres of tourist-friendly towns like York and Stratford that don’t tend to be so well represented in the GPG.
I’m a regular buyer of the Guide, and the main purpose for which I use it is to find interesting pubs to visit when I’m away on holiday or out on day trips. One of the key things I’m looking for is pubs to have lunch when out and about. It can be very valuable in taking me to pubs that I wouldn’t otherwise have found. For example, nobody would ever come across the Crown at Churchill in Somerset by chance, but it’s a very worthwhile pub if you do find it. And, last month, it led me to the Anchor in Sevenoaks, Kent, which is a splendid little basic boozer that did me a perfectly serviceable Ploughman’s for just a fiver. Yes, as it’s on a main street, I might have chanced upon it anyway, but the GBG took me straight there.

I will look with interest at the more local entries, and sometimes they might prompt me to revisit a pub I had previously discounted, or to go somewhere that has appeared out of nowhere, but they are generally of less use to me – I already know which are the better pubs in my own area. But a pub that is only open for limited and inconvenient hours, serves no food and has no historic interest is unlikely to tempt me.

CAMRA have produced an internal document reviewing selection policy for the guide, which makes some important points:

  • Users first - not the preferences/politics of CAMRA individuals/branches
  • The range of pubs chosen for the guide has to appeal to a broad spectrum of pub goers, the majority of whom want to visit pubs with not only good beer but a good atmosphere, a warm welcome, good food, family facilities, clean toilets and comfortable surroundings.
  • Beer quality remains the cornerstone of the guide but it cannot be the only consideration in the modern and intensely competitive “leisure industry”.
Clearly, achieving a good standard of beer quality must be the starting point, but beyond that other factors also need to be taken into account. The guide should list the pubs that, if you were welcoming visitors to your area, you would say “You really need to visit the Dog & Duck”. A pub may well justify its entry in terms of being very special in one particular respect, and that’s certainly the case for some of the unspoilt heritage pubs. I certainly wouldn’t want, for example, to impose standards for minimum opening hours. But if the guide has too many entries that are very limited in terms of either their hours or their general offer, it reduces its usefulness to the people who are buying it.

CAMRA branches also should not be including pubs in the Guide as a reward for “showing commitment”. The sole criterion should be whether the entry is of benefit to the people who buy and read it, and there is no room for sentimentality or favouritism – as it says above, “Users first”. And, in my experience, if you argue that a pub should be included in recognition of making an effort, it’s generally a good sign that it shouldn’t be.