Friday, 16 February 2018

Some of my best friends are working class

This year sees the 100th anniversary of (some) women being given the right to vote in the UK. What has gained much less attention is that it is also the 100th anniversary of the introduction of universal suffrage for men. Before 1918, most working-class men couldn’t vote either. But, nowadays, as Brendan O’Neill writes here, working-class voices, especially the voices of working-class men, seem to be largely airbrushed out of public discourse.

So it is in the world of beer. We hear plenty about “beer sexism”, but much less about the exclusion of the working class. Has there ever been a more achingly right-on, middle-class endeavour as the whole project of “craft beer”? It seems that some involved in it have cottoned on to the fact that they “have a reputation as gentrification’s outriders” and, according to an article in the Guardian entitled Draft includers: how craft beer found its mission, have been “trying to bring in more women, working-class people and people with disabilities to both drink beers – and make them.”

However, the whole piece comes across as a classic example of Guardianista identity politics virtue-signalling. As an example of “reaching out”, it offers:

In Australia, the Sparkke Change Beverage Company is aiming to drive social change with its canned beers, ciders and wine, all of which raise money for charity. The pilsner, for example, is called Change the Date; it supports the campaign to move Australia Day away from 26 January, which is “a date that marks the beginning of two centuries of dispossession, theft, colonisation and violence”.
Anything less likely to win over the average ocker is hard to imagine. What does it have to say to a Stella-loving, Sun-reading, white-van driving, footy-supporting, Leave-voting working-class drinker? And yes, that is a stereotype too, but one with a strong base in reality. To a working-class beer drinker, Peroni is aspirational. Cloudwater is something beamed down from another planet.

In the early days of CAMRA, real ale was something consumed as much, if not more, by working-class drinkers as by middle-class ones, although to them it was just bitter or mild. The middle-class aficionados would go on excursions to down-to-earth pubs in Eccles and Lower Gornal to seek out rare brews. But people don’t do that now, and in many cases the pubs themselves will have either closed or lost their real ale. And how many working-class drinkers would you find in your average trendy suburban craft beer bar?

While class is a matter of identity, not just money, the oft-heard claim that beer is too cheap, and the push for the £5 pint to be normalised, are in effect putting two fingers up to any drinkers who are struggling to make ends meet.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am middle class and have never pretended to be otherwise. But, unlike some, I don’t sneer at people who drink Stella, eat at McDonald’s and shop at ASDA. Indeed on occasion I have done all three myself.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Stick to the knitting

CAMRA have now published the detailed proposals arising from their Revitalisation Project, which not surprisingly have prompted a lot of debate and discussion.

It’s worth reflecting on how we have arrived at this situation. For much of its lifetime, CAMRA was the only game in town when it came to “beer enthusiasm” in the UK. However, more recently, this has been challenged by a new wave of brewers, often influenced by the American craft beer movement. They have introduced a much greater amount of innovation in beer, and often done it by presenting their products in the keg format not approved by CAMRA. This has met with widespread success, especially amongst younger drinkers. And, very often, the narrative, most notably that of BrewDog, has been one of kicking against the established real ale culture.

There has been a growing amount of interesting, high-quality beer being brewed entirely outside the orbit of CAMRA, and in the process making the organisation look old-fashioned and stick-in-the-mud. So surely it should be looking at widening its scope to encompass all good beer and beer enthusiasts, rather than sticking within a narrow, pedantically-defined box. And thus was born the impetus for the Revitalisation project.

Now, I am certainly no cask zealot who doesn’t think any other kind of beer is worth drinking. I’m entirely relaxed about drinking non-real beers, and do from time to time, although in general I tend to visit pubs where cask is well-kept so there’s no need to. CAMRA has often been ill-served by the narrow dogmatism that bleats on about “chemical fizz” and “sealed dustbins”. It has always been much too reluctant to recognise merit in beers that fall outside its remit. But that isn’t the same as “promoting” or “embracing” them. On the other hand, I fail to summon up much enthusiasm for the new wave of “craft keg” beers, and to be honest my interest is more likely to be piqued by spotting obscure old brands of keg mild on the bar of trad pubs.

The basic underlying principle of CAMRA is that, for draught ales in the British tradition, cask-conditioning, when done properly, is the best way of presenting them. I’m entirely happy with that. But, in a sense, you don’t even need to sign up to that view to believe it’s a tradition worth holding on to. I have always seen CAMRA as essentially a preservationist organisation, stemming from the same wellspring of sentiment as steam railways and restoring historic buildings. It is about championing a unique aspect of British heritage – cask beer, the breweries that produce it and the pubs and other licensed premises that sell it. What it isn’t is a modern movement supporting “all good beer”, however defined, and to want to turn it into that would be for it to become something of a markedly different character. As one blog commenter very perceptively said:

CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA.
That doesn’t mean you need to be against other forms of beer, just as the steam enthusiast doesn’t refuse to travel on electric trains, or the champion of Victorian architecture doesn’t do his best to avoid modern buildings. But they’re not something you want to pursue as a leisure interest. As I’ve said in the past, you can’t expect everyone to be interested in everything.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to be a modern, all-encompassing beer enthusiast, just that that’s not what CAMRA’s fundamentally about. And trying to fit both into the same big tent is likely to be fraught with problems and pull in different directions.

It’s not really as if modern keg beer needs campaigning for anyway – it seems to be doing perfectly well for itself as a purely commercial product. What exactly would CAMRA bring to the party that is any different? And, while it’s sometimes said that real ale has been “saved”, that’s a very complacent and blinkered viewpoint. The absolute amount of real ale sold now is far less than it was when CAMRA was formed. The only places where real ale can exist - pubs and clubs - continue to close at an alarming rate. And there are plenty of “real ale deserts”, often in places where, thirty or forty years ago, many of the pubs sold real ale. So there’s still plenty of work to be done without diluting the message. Arguably the biggest threat to real ale’s future is complacency.

We haven’t had sight of the precise wording of the motions yet. But my feeling is that I will be strongly inclined to vote against the main thrust of the revitalisation project. If you care about the protection of our beer, brewing and pub heritage, I would urge you to do likewise. CAMRA, in my view, should draw in its horns a bit and stick to the knitting of its core principles. I’m a Life Member, and to resign would just be an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face. But, if the resolutions are passed, I will need to question whether it is still an organisation that deserves a substantial chunk of my leisure time.

The whole process has already proved divisive, with a lot of fur and insults flying on CAMRA’s Discourse forum. Nobody knows what the outcome is going to be, and I can’t see the likes of YouGov carrying out opinion polls of CAMRA members to give us any idea. But there must be a risk that what was put forward, with good intentions, with the aim of saving CAMRA, could end up killing it, or at least permanently diminishing its influence and credibility. For example, Ian Thurman on his thewickingman blog has questioned whether it might expose CAMRA to hostile media scrutiny if it seems equivocal about its purpose.

It is a high-risk strategy on the part of CAMRA’s leadership. It’s not difficult to imagine the scenario where the Special Resolutions are passed by the necessary majority of the membership as a whole, but defeated in the hall by the physical attendees at the AGM, which would create a lot of bad blood. And, given that normal policy motions are simply approved by a straight majority of AGM attendees, it’s possible that “traditionalists” may seek to chip away at the revitalisation changes through future AGM motions. It could lead to more explicit “culture wars” in beer.

If the resolutions fail to win the necessary majority, or are even defeated outright, then there will a lot of egg on faces and serious soul-searching to be done. Will it be a case of “one more heave”, or trying to sneak changes in through the back door, or will there need to a fundamental shift to a more back-to-basics approach?

(The graphic, which seemed highly appropriate, was borrowed from Kirst Walker’s Lady Sinks the Booze blog.)

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Swings and roundabouts

The British Beer & Pub Association have published their latest Quarterly Beer Barometer statistics, bringing the series up to the end of 2017. These show an overall rise in annual beer sales of 0.7%, only the second positive figure since 2004, which must be good news for the brewing industry.

However, unsurprisingly, the total figure is made up of a 3.6% rise in off-trade sales, partially offset by a 2.4% fall in the on-trade. On-trade sales have never shown an annual rise over the entire twenty-year period covered by the figures, and now only account for 47% of the total, so that particular tipping point is long gone. Total on-trade sales are now 33% below the 2007 figure.

So it’s hardly surprising that we continue to see a steady drip drip drip of pub closures, as I recently reported in Stockport.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

A cold, dry January

“I think we’ve seen the worst of the pub closures,” said the Pollyannas. “Things seem to have stabilised now.” But how wrong could they be?

On top of Winters and the Queens in Cheadle, which I have already reported, January saw three more pub closures in Stockport – the Victoria in Offerton (pictured), the Florist on Shaw Heath and the Jolly Sailor in Davenport. It’s believed there may be a chance the Victoria may reopen, but the others are all, I would guess, gone for good.

It’s usually the case with pub closures that you think “well, I’m not entirely surprised there”, and indeed it must be said that the Florist had had the “smell of death” around it for quite a while. But the fact that once-thriving pubs have closed underlines just how much the overall level of custom has declined, and how on a knife-edge much of the pub trade is today. And, as I said last year, drinking in many of the pubs that remain too often feels like sitting in a morgue.

It seems that nowadays any pub is fair game, unless it has become a destination food house or is located in a town centre or suburban hub. This is especially true if they occupy a site that is potentially lucrative for redevelopment, as the Jolly Sailor does. The traditional multi-purpose pub, with a mixture of local and outside trade, that once was a mainstay of the pub scene, has become an endangered species. And the idea that being the only pub for half a mile around in a residential area guarantees survival is even less true than it ever was.

But, never mind, no doubt a new micropub has opened up not too far away, where you can perch on an uncomfortable stool and drink a pint of cask ale from a brewery you’ve never heard of. So long as it’s not on a Monday or Tuesday, and not before 4 pm. So things aren’t too bad, then.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Feel the quality

One of the key planks of CAMRA’s Revitalisation proposals is that, while continuing to recognise real ale as “the pinnacle of the brewer’s art”, the organisation should encourage greater acceptance of “quality” beers that do not fall within the definition of “real ale”. However, as I argued here, this opens up a potential can of worms. “Real ale”, for better or worse, is something that has an objective definition. “Quality beer” doesn’t, and can mean whatever you choose it to mean. Either you tie yourself up in knots by trying to come up with a hard-and-fast definition, or you don’t, in which case it’s no more than “beers we happen to like”.

You also run into the “Taylor’s Landlord problem”. As I wrote:

How about if Taylors produced a keg version of their highly-acclaimed Landlord? If that is approved, then surely that is accepting precisely what CAMRA was originally set up to fight. And if it isn’t, on what objective basis does it differ from the beers from the obvious crafties? And does that mean that cask Landlord should no longer be accepted as a quality beer either?
Which leads us on to another issue, that “there remains a lingering suspicion of a hidden agenda to cut adrift many well-known cask beers on the grounds that they commit such cardinal sins as being “popular” and “easy-drinking”.” I’m sure there are those in CAMRA who think that keg Cloudwater Badger Jizz DIPA is far more deserving of the accolade of “quality” than cask Marston’s Pedigree. And, when the list was published of the ten most popular cask beers, you could sense the wave of sneering descending from the lofty heights of beer snobbery.

Samuel Smith’s only brew a single cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, and do not offer any guest ales in their pubs. But there are six of their pubs in the 2018 Good Beer Guide, including one in my local branch area. Indeed, we have just voted another, the Blue Bell in Levenshulme, as our Pub of the Year. However, according to this Twitter poll, 40% of respondents don’t think that should be considered a “quality beer”, so presumably they have a problem with those pubs appearing in the GBG. And, if we’re accepting keg beers, then what’s wrong with keg OBB?

The argument is often made that the world has moved on, and today’s “craft keg” beers are nothing like the Red Barrel of old. But, in fact, neither were most of the pressurised beers around in the early 70s either. Red Barrel belonged to a specific market segment of premium keg beers whose recipes had been deliberately dumbed down and blandified to appeal to a mass market. Most non-real beers of the time were identical to their real counterparts in terms of recipe, and only differed in final processing and dispense. Indeed, those using the now-defunct top pressure system were to all intents and purposes real ale until someone connected up a CO2 cylinder. In what way did they differ from the modern-day keg beers described thus in the Revitalisation report?
In some cases, keg beer contains live yeast and is subject to secondary fermentation in the container. It is, to all intents and purposes, real ale up to the point that carbon dioxide pressure is applied in the cellar.
Fullers are now one of the most respected of the remaining independent family brewers. Back in the 1970s, their beers were still highly regarded. But, according to the 1977 Good Beer Guide, only “16 of the 111 tied houses sell unpressurised beer.” The rest sold the same beer under top pressure – it wasn’t keg as such. But, because of this, they couldn’t be recognised by CAMRA. It has always been the central plank of CAMRA’s raison d’etre that British-style ales are, by a considerable margin, best served by cask-conditioning.

Yes, many of the present-day craft keg beers are good beers in their own right and well worth drinking. To draw a Manichean distinction between real=good and non-real=bad is silly and ignorant. And, for many of them, especially the stronger ones, the “East Sheen Tennis Club” argument applies, that they allow beers to be sold on draught that would not be viable in cask because of their niche appeal. But, broadly speaking, they would still be improved if they could be sold in well-kept cask form. And to suggest otherwise is to question what has been the point of CAMRA’s efforts over the past 45 years. Maybe we should go back to 1977 and happily drink that top-pressure London Pride.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The best is the enemy of the good

The cask breather has for long been a bone of contention within CAMRA. It’s described here:
A cask breather, sometimes called an “aspirator,” is a demand valve used in conjunction with a beer engine and a carbon dioxide tank for the dispense of cask-conditioned beers. It allows beer drawn from the cask to be replaced with the equivalent amount of sterile gas at atmospheric pressure.
The objective is to extend the shelf-life of the beer by preventing outside air from coming into contact with it. If set up correctly, no CO2 should become dissolved in the beer, which thus should not become in any sense gassy. Tastings set up by CAMRA’s Technical Committee have repeatedly demonstrated that people are unable to tell the difference between beer stored under a cask breather, and that without.

However, on more than one occasion, CAMRA’s National AGM has rejected giving any approval to the device. Some of the objections seem spurious, such as arguing that the flavour actually benefits from exposure to the atmosphere after the cask has been tapped. It all seems to boil down to a generalised dislike of CO2 in any form, and a suspicion that sanctioning the use of breathers will represent the thin end of the wedge.

A cask breather should only really be necessary for pubs without sufficient trade to empty a cask within three days. Clearly, beer stored under a breather will be much preferable to either no beer at all, keg beer, or rancid cask beer. In ideal conditions, there should be no need for it if the pub can shift its beer quickly enough, but in the real world that is often not the case. The objection is a case of the best being the enemy of the good.

One concern, though, is that if CAMRA gave the green light to cask breathers, some pubs might take it as an encouragement to use them to further increase an already over-extended beer range. If a cask will last seven days rather than three, then you can have twice as many different beers on. However, while a seven-day-old cask under a breather will be far better than one exposed to the atmosphere, it’s still going to have a touch of staleness about it, and not be a patch on one that’s just been tapped. There used to be one local pub that I suspected of routinely using cask breathers, and all its beers, while drinkable enough, tasted as though a damp cloth had been thrown over them to dial down their flavour.

Some breweries have found their pubs effectively excluded from the Good Beer Guide because it has become known that they recommend licensees use a cask breather as a matter of policy. However, realistically very few GBG pubs receive a cellar inspection, and so plenty, especially independent free houses, must end up being listed even though they use the devices. So it makes sense for CAMRA’s revitalisation proposals to include the recommendation that “CAMRA should adopt a neutral position on the use of cask breathers,” neither condemning nor explicitly approving them. If the beer’s good enough, a pub will be listed; if it isn’t, it won’t be.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

New blood in old casks

CAMRA have now released more detail of their Revitalisation proposals that are going to be put to a vote of the membership at the AGM in April. I’m going to hold back from commenting in detail until the wording of the Special Resolutions is published.

One aspect worth thinking about, though, is the oft-heard claim that CAMRA needs to “adapt or die”. While membership numbers continue to show a healthy increase, the organisation suffers from a declining and ageing base of active members, and unless new blood can be recruited it is likely to have to severely curtail its activities on the ground over the coming years, especially running beer festivals.

However, this isn’t a problem unique to CAMRA. Pretty much every voluntary organisation of a similar type reports the same problem, that the people doing the work are getting older and fewer, and hardly anyone is coming forward to replace them. This is really a more general phenomenon in society, that more demanding professional job roles and the rise of the Internet and social media make that kind of “committee work” much less appealing. If people do get leisure time, they want to spend it relaxing rather than attending formal meetings, doing surveys and lobbying MPs and councillors.

In the past, joining CAMRA or a similar organisation was often a good way of making social contacts for graduates who had moved to a new area for work after completing their studies. It is noticeable that many of the leading lights in local CAMRA organisations are people whose roots are elsewhere, including myself. But Facebook and Twitter make that less of an imperative.

While plenty of younger drinkers do seem to be enjoying “craft keg”, that doesn’t mean they’re actually interested in translating that into any kind of campaigning activity. It seems to be doing perfectly well without any formal support from CAMRA. And, even if CAMRA did in some way “embrace it”, many of its actual campaigning activities would remain things like surveying and attempting to preserve the very “old man” boozers that the craft drinkers had voted with their feet to avoid. People won’t be motivated into doing the hard yards of grass-roots campaigning unless it’s for a cause they’re passionate about.

Voluntary organisations are not like countries, and have no divine right to survive indefinitely. In many cases over time they will wither away, either because their original purpose has been achieved, or because interest in their cause has declined. Trying to do something different purely to perpetuate the organisation’s existence comes across as putting the cart before the horse. Indeed, it could be argued that the very rise of “craft keg” makes the need to champion real ale all the more pressing. And there’s little evidence from elsewhere that the “trendy vicar” approach actually helps perpetuate organisations anyway. All too often, it alienates established supporters while coming across as patronising “getting down wiv da kids” to those to whom it is meant to appeal. Successful campaigning organisations tend to have a clear and single-minded sense of purpose.

Many of the Revitalisation proposals may well be desirable in their own right. But they should stand or fall on their own merits, rather than being adopted in a possibly mistaken belief that they will help the organisation to survive.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Social phobia

Matthew Lawrenson of Seeing the Lizards has recently done a couple of very honest blogposts on the subject of autism and pubgoing – here and here. He has Asperger’s Syndrome and finds that going to the pub poses a range of social challenges that most people simply do not appreciate.

He’s said on Twitter that he perhaps expected more of a response in the comments, but to be honest it’s a subject of which most people have little experience and feel they have nothing to contribute. Too often, ASD people are simply dismissed as being a bit weird and geeky, without any recognition that they have social needs and feelings too. And, as I said, there seems to be a widespread view that, if they can't express their feelings “appropriately” and stick to the unwritten rules, it's probably best for them to keep quiet and not embarrass themselves and others.

I’ve never been diagnosed with anything of this kind and don’t propose to launch into confessional mode, but I have to admit I have considerable sympathy with what Matthew says. I’m a fairly reserved and self-contained person, who for much of the time is content with his own company and, while I value and enjoy social interaction, it does take a certain amount of effort that many others won’t appreciate. After a while, I feel the need to withdraw for a bit to recharge my batteries, which is something that pub closing time often signals.

I’ve written before how pubs can provide a unique social opportunity for shy and reserved people, as you can control just to what extent you interact with others. The simple act of getting out of the house and being in the company of others, even if you don’t converse with them, can in itself be very valuable. I can’t think of any other situation where that is possible.

However, you can only do that in the traditional “drink and chat” environment. The enforced intimacy of many micropubs militates against it, as does, at the other extreme, the pub where “there’s always something going on.” Very often, for the ASD person, just sitting there with a pint, reading the paper or browsing the Internet, and maybe exchanging the odd word with other customers, is all the social interaction they want or need. It may not seem much but, for them, it’s far better than nothing.

By coincidence, in the same week, the government announced the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness. I couldn’t help being reminded of Ronald Reagan’s famous saying that “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”

Possibly someone in government might make the connection between an increase in loneliness and social isolation, and the closure of thousands of pubs and clubs over the past ten years as a direct result of government policy. But I wouldn’t hold out much hope.

As Grandad says in this post, “Britain has a Minister for Loneliness in the midst of God knows how many other ministries who all combine to be the Ministry for Isolation.”

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Send it back!

The Morning Advertiser has recently published the results of a YouGov survey showing that 39% of people were uncomfortable about sending food back in pubs and restaurants. If anything, I’d say that’s a surprisingly low figure, as it’s a subject that is potentially far more of a minefield than returning unsatisfactory beer to the bar.

Looking at the figures in more detail, the first two reasons, of getting the wrong meal and the food being undercooked, are fairly clear-cut, and you should have a strong case. Indeed you have to wonder who the 8% of people are who wouldn’t send the wrong meal back. But, after that, it becomes more problematical. The range of potential faults in food is much greater than that in beer, and very often it becomes a matter of subjective judgment.

I freely admit to being a distinctly fussy and eccentric eater, but in general I simply try to avoid ordering dishes where there may be an issue, as I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable about returning a meal just because it wasn’t cooked to my liking. How fatty or gristly would a steak need to be before you deemed it unacceptable? And what would be your expectations of getting a better one? There have also been several occasions where a dish, while maybe not objectionable in its own right, turned out to be something very different from what the menu had led me to believe.

Plus there is the question of what happens to a meal if you send it back. With beer, it’s simply a case of replacing it with another one, but if your food is undercooked, are they going to cook it a bit more, and if they did would that overall be a satisfactory cooking process anyway? Or are they going to start again from scratch, which will cost them money, and cost you time? That may not be a good solution if you have something else to do later.

If a pub can’t provide you with an acceptable replacement beer, then it’s not really a major problem if you have to forgo a drink. But if there’s nowhere else suitable to eat nearby then you may be forced to go hungry, hence why people may often decide that struggling through unappetising food is the less bad option. And there’s always the suspicion that the kitchen staff may feel affronted by seeing their carefully-prepared dish sent back and end up spitting in it – or worse. The whole business of returning food is always likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth.

Looking back, I can think of a few occasions where I’ve returned dishes because they were grossly undercooked, although with at least one of those it seemed to be taken with ill grace. And there was the notorious ploughman’s incident in Tewkesbury. “This is ham, I asked for cheese.” Then, when it came back, “Er, isn’t a ploughman’s meant to include bread?” There were also a few others which, with hindsight, I really should have sent back.

So it’s hardly surprising that, overall, many diners tend to stick to dishes where the scope for making a mess of them is limited. And it has to be said that independently-run pubs, while they can serve up some excellent food, also seem to have a knack for putting their own spin on dishes and coming up with some truly bizarre and unappealing interpretations. In McDonald’s at least you know what you’re getting, and what it’s supposed to be like.

Monday, 8 January 2018

When is a pint not a pint?

The latest example of apparently heavy-handed bureaucratic regulation to hit the beer world is the ruling by Trading Standards that it is misleading for Marble Brewery to sell their “Pint” beer in a 500 ml can with the word “Pint” prominently displayed on the side. At first sight, this has much in common with the case last year against Tiny Rebel’s “childish” can designs –a single, arguably vexatious complaint over something that, while perhaps technically in breach of standards, is not in real life going to be misinterpreted by any reasonable person. Indeed Beers Manchester worked himself up into quite a froth about it.

However, I think there’s a significant difference. I criticised the Tiny Rebel decision, but it was on the basis that it’s essential for the defender of liberty to stand up for things that he personally doesn’t particularly care for. There’s no point in only supporting the freedoms you happen to approve of. I don’t much like these garish cartoon can designs, but I don’t for a minute think Tiny Rebel were deliberately targeting children, and feel it sets a potentially worrying precedent for the further control of packaging design. If there is only one complaint on something that is a matter of subjective judgment, it suggests that the amount of genuine concern amongst the public is negligible. Plus we don’t know whether the complainant was someone with any involvement in public health lobbying.

On the other hand, when it comes to the Marble cans, a pint is an actual measure, not just a colloquial term for a beer. To put “Pint” in big letters on a can strongly implies that the contents actually are a pint. Some other beer brands are sold in pint cans, and often do prominently say “Pint Can” to make it clear to buyers that they are getting something different from a 440 or 500ml size. Yes, in practice very few people are going to be misled as to the actual size of the can, but that’s not the point. If it says “pint”, it implies that’s what’s inside. It wouldn’t be acceptable to call a beer “Shandy” (which is also a common colloquial term for beer) if it was actually of full strength, even if everybody who bought it was well aware of that.

So, in this case, the authorities, while they may come across as a touch joyless, are right. It’s a straightforward case of misrepresentation. I suggested on Twitter that maybe a design to give the actual measure equal prominence might be an option, but it remains to be seen what action Marble end up taking.

Incidentally, the same issue doesn’t apply in the pub, as measures of draught beer, unlike the sizes of bottles and cans, are specified by law, so whatever something’s called you know that it will be available in pints or fractions thereof.

And anyone designing alcohol packaging needs to be aware that their intentions are irrelevant – what counts is the prima facie impression given to members of the public who have no prior knowledge.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Ring in the new

Before Christmas, the Morning Advertiser published a piece entitled What are the major beer trends for 2018? The ones it listed were:
  1. Higher ABV
  2. Double IPA
  3. Sour beer
  4. Non traditional
  5. Imperial stouts
On reading the article, it becomes clear that it is basically an extended advertorial for craft beer distributor Eebria. Had it referred to “major craft beer trends” then it might have been more accurate, although I’d say even within the sphere of craft (however defined) most of these are pretty niche.

But what it certainly isn’t is a prediction of the major trends in the overall beer market. I doubt whether any of then will have much impact on what’s on the bar in your average Wetherspoon’s, let alone the Jolly Crofter. And the general trend in the beer market continues to be to reduce strengths, not increase them.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Regeneration game

My recent post about the closure of Winters on Little Underbank highlighted the issue of the regeneration of Stockport town centre. It can’t denied that it’s in need of a shot in the arm, with a high proportion of vacant shop units, many of those that are trading occupied by rather downmarket, low-rent businesses, and a general air of neglect and tattiness hanging over the whole place. As one of the commenters says, “The town centre is somewhere that people from Stockport's wealthier suburbs shun on an increasing basis.”

We’ve been here before, of course, and I wrote on the same subject back in 2012. Stockport was nominated as a “Portas pilot” town, but Mary’s magic touch doesn’t seem to have made much difference. (Did it anywhere?) Obviously if there was any kind of instant formula, plenty of towns around the country would already have seized upon it, but it’s a complex and challenging issue. I claim no professional expertise on the subject, but I thought it would be worth offering some musings.

With the rise of out-of-town retail parks and internet shopping, a large chunk of the business once enjoyed by traditional town centres has disappeared, and realistically it’s never coming back. If you want a specific, high-value item, it’s far easier to buy it from somewhere you can easily collect it, or have it delivered to your door. But that doesn’t mean that people end up sitting in isolation in their own homes, and town centres need to concentrate on areas where they can make a difference, either in giving a personal touch or where impulse buying and actually handling goods are important. That means sectors like fashion and jewellery, hands-on services like opticians and hairdressers, eating and drinking, and entertainment.

The role of local councils in urban regeneration can often be overstated. They can create the conditions for it to happen, but the bureaucratic and entrepreneurial mindsets are ultimately poles apart. In particular, they can’t dictate what kind of businesses they want to open. What councils can easily do, though, is make town centres less attractive places to visit and do business. A few years ago, I made a post in which I included a long list of ways in which one particular council had made their shopping centre less attractive, and were then surprised when people stopped using it. Depressingly, some loon in the comments thought that many of these were actually good ideas.

The most significant area in which councils can make a difference is that perennial bugbear, parking. All too often they have regarded it as a cash cow without any regard to its contribution to the wider economy of the town centre. Clearly it isn’t possible in a major town centre to provide unlimited free parking, but if it is to compete with locations like the Trafford Centre, it is important that it is both convenient and reasonably-priced.

There isn’t really an absolute shortage of parking in central Stockport, but there are several ways in which it could be improved. The longer-stay car parks should be converted to pay-on-exit, so people don’t have to guess how long they’re going to be there, and there is no longer any risk of incurring a fine for overstaying. And it’s hardly user-friendly in this day and age that parking machines don’t give change, and don’t accept notes or cards. There should be a limited amount of short-stay free parking as close to the centre as possible, and all parking should be free after 6 pm. It would also be desirable to provide more commuter parking on the fringes of the town centre at say £4 a day to encourage employment.

It’s all very well to preach that people should be using the bus, but in reality it has to accepted that decent parking is key to attracting more visitors, especially the more affluent who are going to spend more. The fact that the council offered free parking on Sundays and after 3 pm in their own car parks in the run-up to Christmas shows that they are well aware it is a disincentive.

Another area where council policies have an effect is the provision of public toilets. This is not a statutory obligation, and many councils, including Stockport, have taken advantage of this to literally slash the number they provide. But, without toilets, people may feel the need to curtail their visit, or take their business elsewhere to out-of-town supermarkets where facilities are available. There are some decent toilets in Merseyway, albeit provided by the shopping centre operators, not the council, but the town centre would also benefit from a high-quality set on or close to the Market Place.

This raises another issue, that of connectivity. The town centre is on two levels, connected by a variety of steep banks and steps. Even if you don’t find them physically challenging, they form a psychological barrier. You could easily spend all your time in and around Merseyway and Princes Street and never realise that the Market Place and St Petersgate even existed. Likewise, the station is a fair distance from the heart of the town, and at a much higher level. It’s not immediately obvious when arriving by train that there even is a town centre, let alone how to get to it. Possibly the two could be linked better by installing an all-weather travelator between the station approach and the bus station, and another connecting Warren Street and the Market Place.

The council also has a role in maintaining the quality of the environment – clearing litter, providing adequate bins, fixing broken paving, removing growths of weeds. Small things can have a big effect on visitors. A place that looks cared for comes across as more welcoming. And the collection of tacky “Christmas market” stalls that adorned the Merseyway precinct over the festive season didn’t exactly give an upmarket impression.

The area around the Market Place and the Underbanks represents what must be the best-preserved historic townscape in the whole of Greater Manchester and, although of limited extent, in quality it stands comparison with many of the well-known architectural show towns. The bridge carrying St Petersgate over Little Underbank is a particularly unusual and distinctive feature. This has potential as a tourist destination which surely could be exploited more than it is at present. Putting informative signboards up pointing out noteworthy features would be a start. As more visitors were attracted, the footfall would generate the demand to open up businesses in some of the currently vacant units, thus creating a virtuous circle. There are areas within Greater Manchester that manage to support a variety of independent, upmarket businesses, and if Ramsbottom can do it, surely this part of Stockport can too.

To their credit, the council have produced a pub trail of the town centre in conjunction with the local CAMRA branch, and the town’s appeal as a venue for pub and beer tourism should be shouted more loudly, particularly with the opening of the Robinson’s Brewery Visitor Centre. The council should also be very careful to avoid the loss of any more of the town’s historic buildings, such as when the future of the Midland pub on Wellington Road North was threatened by a few inches of cycle lane as part of a new road scheme. Fortunately, after public protest, it was saved.

As outlined in the post I linked to above, employment is a key factor in ensuring the vitality of town centres. Workers will provide business to coffee and sandwich shops, buy gifts, cards and top-up shopping and patronise pubs and restaurants after work. They provide additional footfall and in a sense are a captive audience for retailers. Plus, if they like what they see, they may return at other times for more serious shopping trips. This is why the encouragement of employment, and providing the necessary facilities, is an important element in the mix. A town centre should not be solely seen as a retail destination.

On the other hand, while it’s sometimes claimed that increasing the amount of housing in or near town centres is a good way of reviving them, in fact, as I argued here, that only has a very limited effect and can indeed be an admission of defeat.

While there may be ten thousand people living in Manchester City Centre now, when thirty years ago there were only a few hundred, that is still only the population that would support the handful of pubs in a typical small market town, and in terms of the centre’s overall pub trade is a drop in the ocean. Pubs thrive in the centre of Manchester, and other large cities, because they function as retail, employment, business, cultural and entertainment hubs for a wide surrounding area and thus attract large numbers of people for a wide variety of reasons.
It’s their attractiveness as a hub that makes town centres thrive, not people living close by. And, in general, people, especially those with families, much prefer to live in leafy suburbs than cramped town-centre flats.

Just as small changes can easily set off a cycle of decline, it’s possible that things can go the other way. I’ve expressed a certain amount of scepticism about the Redrock development, in being unsightly and poorly integrated with the rest of the town centre. But one thing it does bring is aspirational eating places, something that previously was singularly lacking. Some may sneer at “chain restaurants”, but it was noticeable on a bright day between Christmas and New Year that Pizza Express was pretty full of fairly young and affluent people who previously might not have found anywhere to eat to their liking. Might that turn out to be just the catalyst the town centre needs, and have a halo effect in also making nearby retail sites more desirable?

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Another couple down

Over the Christmas weekend I learned that two more Stockport pubs were to close their doors in the new year. While neither could be said to be conspicuously thriving, they hadn’t appeared to be obviously on their last legs.

First is Winter’s on Little Underbank at the bottom of Hillgate. This was a former jeweller’s shop that was converted to a pub by Holts in the early 1990s. They retained the distinctive facade with its automaton clock, although this was no longer in working order. The interior was smartly fitted out on two levels, and initially they hoped to cultivate an upmarket ambiance and attract food trade. Sadly, this was not to be and, maybe in line with the decline of the surrounding area, it steadily became the haunt of some of central Stockport’s more downmarket pub clientele, says he politely. On several recent visits there has been karaoke in full swing, with a distinctly lively atmosphere.

Apparently it has been bought by Stockport Council and is expected to close during January. It presumably forms part of their plans to regenerate the Lower Hillgate and Underbanks area which, as I said in my recent post about the new Redrock entertainment complex, surely has the potential to become a cornucopia of independent businesses. However, they’re faced with an uphill struggle, as currently it’s very tatty and rundown, with as many vacant units as open ones. This will reduce the number of pubs on the famous Hillgate Stagger serving cask beer to a mere six, whereas I can remember as many as sixteen thirty years ago.

The second is the Queen’s Arms, a couple of miles away in Cheadle. This was once a traditional multi-roomed local that had the distinction of serving the rare Robinson’s “ordinary” bitter. However, towards the end of 2006 it was greatly extended and internally drastically remodelled, removing most of its previous character and leaving it feeling rather soulless. I wrote about it in my column in January 2007* in uncomplimentary terms, focusing on the dearth of fixed bench seating.

In hindsight, that wasn’t a very auspicious time to be spending a lot of money on a pub, and it never seems to have repaid the investment, although I wouldn’t have immediately named it as a prime candidate for closure. On the occasions I’ve been in, it’s never been particularly busy, and there have been reports of it becoming a magnet for trouble, with one incoming licensee having to bar a long list of customers.

It’s an attractive building in a good location, but it seems to have suffered from falling between two stools. Is it a sports pub, or an eating pub? You can’t really combine the two – you have to be one or the other. The substantial site may be one reason behind its closure, and there is an unconfirmed rumour that it may be turned into a drive-thru McDonalds. There are two other Robinson’s pubs nearby – the Printers Arms and the Red Lion – both of which I would say have a more congenial and “pubby” atmosphere.

Maybe neither pub will be hugely mourned, but the fact that they are going underlines just how fragile the general pub trade remains at present. I don’t want to put the kiss of death on any pub by mentioning it by name, but I can think of quite a few others that give the impression of living on borrowed time. Plus the prominently-situated George, opposite Debenhams on Mersey Square, is currently closed once again with an uncertain future.

* incidentally, since I wrote that piece, the Griffin at Heald Green has received a further revamp which involved the removal of the public bar and has left it much less pubby and overwhelmingly food-oriented

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

That was then, this is now

Over the past forty years, there have been dramatic and very noticeable shifts in the way pubs actually function, and in the ebb and flow of customers through the day. One of the biggest changes has been all-day opening, which was introduced in 1988 but took some time to become widespread. In principle, you can’t really argue against this, but it’s undeniable that it has transformed the drinking landscape. Before then, there was a clear division between drinking and non-drinking time, and the afternoon break defined the rhythm of the pub day. Very often, the approach of closing time at 2.30 or 3 concentrated the mind on getting that final pint in.

Nowadays, opening all day has become general in town and city centres, but many pubs in locations where there is less footfall have instead responded by ceasing to open at all at lunchtimes during the week. Oddly, this seems more common in the North than the South, where many pubs still keep to the traditional afternoon closure. But one phenomenon it has led to is a busy period of drinking in the afternoon, from 3 or 4 pm, onwards, something often noticed by Martin Taylor on his GBG-ticking travels. This is associated with the common knocking-off time of self-employed tradespeople. Many pubs are now opening their doors at exactly the time in the afternoon when they were once closing them.

The session where the effects of all-day opening have been most acutely felt is Sunday lunchtime. When it was restricted to a couple of hours, it was often one of the busiest and most convivial of the week, a time when people could relax and let their hair down before going home for a good lunch and a snooze. But, with the extension to 3 pm and then to all day, this unique, concentrated period has been progressively eroded and now, except in dining pubs, it is often completely dead. The introduction of Sunday trading in shops from the early 90s onwards has also been a factor here. I've written in the past about the changing face of Sunday lunchtime drinking in my local pub.

Sunday has also become the biggest day of the week for televised football, which inevitably changes the dynamics of pubs. As you will have gathered from reading this blog over the years, I’m not the greatest fan of football in pubs, but given that Sky Sports exists they can’t really afford to ignore it. But it has to be recognised that, when the big match is on, all other activities in pubs go out of the window, in particular just popping in for a quiet drink and a chat.

Another major change in pubs has been the ever-growing presence of food. Despite what some claim, there was no shortage of pub food in the 1970s, and in fact I’d suggest that, in absolute terms, there may well have been more food sold on weekday lunchtimes then than there is now. But it has steadily encroached into the evenings and weekends, and more and more pubs now present themselves as essentially eating houses where few go just for a drink, and would feel out of place if they did. Of course to a large extent this is a response to changing market conditions, and pubs can’t really be criticised for embracing food, but it has dramatically changed them.

In the past, there used to be plenty of pubs that had a mix of drinking and dining customers, which led to a wide-ranging customer base and could product a good atmosphere. But, as pubs have gone one way or the other, that kind of multi-purpose pub, while it can still be found, is becoming ever rarer. And a noticeable difference is that diners in pubs are much less likely to talk to other groups than drinkers. This is exacerbated by the redesign of interiors to replace wall benches, which face into the centre of the room and promote sociability, with individual tables surrounded by loose chairs, where customers only focus on the other members of their own group.

In a wider context, it is noticeable that a lot fewer people now just go to the pub for a drink, as opposed to going out drinking. A good pub can provide a valuable “third space” where people can engage with each other more freely and intimately than they can at home or in the workplace. It used to be commonplace to see various groups – friends, workmates, couples, family members – just enjoying a pint or two, but it’s now seen much less often. While this was perhaps a particular feature of the lunchtime session, it applies in the evenings too – I’ve remarked before how at one time it was common for established married couples to just go to the pub for a drink as a change of scene, but it’s much less so now. The best conversations I ever had with my father were in the pub over a pint, but how many fathers and sons do you now see there? Martin Taylor has remarked on his travels how you still see this kind of thing in city centres, particularly with reference to Sheffield, but in other areas it’s increasingly rare. And the “smart” pub, where better-off citizens would gather over a drink to discuss their BMWs, investments and foreign holidays, is pretty much entirely dead. The solid middle classes may eat in pubs, but they don’t drink in them much any more.

Now, you may say that this is just an exercise in nostalgia. Of course pubs, like everything, change over time, and perhaps I’m just lamenting that things are no longer the same as they were in the years when my view of the world was formed. And that’s really the point – to reflect on just how the dynamics of pubs have changed. I’ve enjoyed many late afternoon sessions myself, which I could never do before 1988, and the tradespeople gathering in pubs at that kind of time are finding fulfilment in pubs in a way that was once impossible. Readers will no doubt point out examples where the old-fashioned conviviality still prevails. In my experience, very often it’s in the Sam Smith’s estate that pubs still work like they used to do. But it can’t be denied that, overall, the drinking trade in pubs is much thinner and less rich and varied than it once was – the statistics on closures and the collapse of beer sales speak for themselves.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Not so dirty dozen

Following my general review of 2017, here’s a selection of my most significant posts from throughout the year. There are twelve in total, but they don’t fall conveniently into one per month.

January:

A campaign designed by a committee – some thoughts on CAMRA’s Revitalisation Report

February:

Local antihero – my love-hate relationship with our local family brewer, Robinson’s

April:

Micro appeal – micropubs are the flavour of the month, but their appeal to the wider pubgoing population is actually very limited

May:

False memory syndrome - despite what antismokers claim, it wasn’t difficult to find non-smoking provision in pubs before 1 July 2007

July:

Ten years gone – for anyone who claims to support pubs to still argue that the smoking ban was a good idea is an exercise in the most breathtaking and contemptible hypocrisy

Murdered by the smoking ban – “So as you sit in your smoke-free gastropub commenting on how delicate Pierre manages to get those organic scallops you can rest easy knowing that you've taken away one of the few nice things in the lives of people you've never met.”

Beer from somewhere, or from anywhere? - real ale and craft beer, at heart they’re basically the same, surely? Er no, actually they’re distinct concepts that arise from very different sources

August:

Nobody else has complained – the ins and outs of taking sub-standard beer back to the bar

Forty years of progress – the Good Beer Guide of 2018 is certainly very different from that of 1978, but is it, or the pub scene in general, actually better?

September:

The undercutting fallacy – the role of “cheap supermarket alcohol” in the decline of the pub trade is greatly exaggerated

Standing at the crossroads – CAMRA comprises two camps of traditionalists and modernisers divided by mutual incomprehension

November:

Quantity and Quality – a guest post from licensee Kieran Lyons on cask beer stocking and rotation policies to ensure consistent quality