Monday, 24 August 2015

A Year in the Drink

My recent visit to West Wales prompted me to dig out my copy of A Year in the Drink, a book written by Martin Green and published in 1982, which describes the author’s experiences of running a pub in a small Welsh market town. By coincidence, a few weeks later, Boak & Bailey posted about a book called We Ran a Cornish Pub which had fallen into their hands, and it seems that this is a niche literary genre of its own.

It turns out that Martin Green only died earlier this year, and was in fact born in Stockport in 1932. He led a varied and nomadic life, much of it spent in the publishing industry, and was the co-author of a couple of guides to London pubs in the 1960s. He sounds like someone I might have found a kindred spirit:

Green always looked at least 10 years younger than his actual age, while his attitudes toward anything new in the world were those of a curmudgeonly dotard. His friends used to tease him about the way he would become old. He would be grumpy, always occupying the same seat in his local at the same times, criticising the young, sipping pint after pint, seldom laughing. “I can’t wait,” he replied.
The book is set in the fictional Welsh market town of Llandampness, which is in fact is a thinly-veiled version of Llandeilo, on the River Towy about ten miles east of Carmarthen. In the book, his pub is called the Black Lion, but in fact I think it was actually the now-closed Three Tuns, which is listed in the 1980 Good Beer Guide as selling the same beers he said he’d sold. It is now the Olive Branch Delicatessen. Llandeilo is a rather slight little town, with a population of under 2,000. It has some attractive buildings, but isn’t really a tourist magnet. In the book, Green says the town had twelve pubs, whereas now I can only find five, plus a couple in the village of Ffairfach across the river, which he may or may not have included. And a boutique hotel!

Green and his wife – Stella in the book, Judy in real life – take over the lease of the closed pub early in the year, and then do it up and open at the beginning of April. Given references to the forthcoming devolution referendum, I guess that the year in question is 1978. They quickly come across the tendency of the locals to order a “bitterlemontop”, which was the staple drink in that part of the world. They have to deal with a variety of local characters including The Major, Clem-Band-of-Hope, Myra the Lady of Disaster, Ewan the Poet and Mad Dai Plumber, and their biggest challenge is handling the influx of tepee-dwelling hippies when they come into town to collect their benefit cheques. They’re quite relieved when summer comes and they start to welcome some more polite and well-behaved tourists.

They make friends with some of the other licensees in the town and form a common front against the local troublemakers. They also put on real ale, which only one other pub in the town served, in the form of Marston’s and Felinfoel, and attract the attention of the local CAMRA representatives, which gets the pub more widely known. Green praises CAMRA’s role in reviving interest in traditional beer, but says that from his experience in London he found some of them in person rather joyless and po-faced. The Owd Rodger certainly goes down well over the Christmas period!

However, by the time of the summer holidays, Martin and Stella decide that the pub trade really isn’t for them, and start making plans to sell up, which they manage to achieve by early January. It seems to be a feature of these pub memoirs that the authors only stick at it for a year. The book is a good read, and contains plenty of insights into the pub trade at that time, particularly the relationship between licensees and customers. However, it’s never laugh-out-loud funny in the manner of James Herriot’s vet books, and indeed has a generally slightly wistful and melancholy feel reminiscent of John Moore’s Brensham Trilogy. A minor irritation is that several mysteries are left up in the air – for example, he mentions a pair of well-dressed chaps he calls Tom and Jerry who come into the pub and start buying everyone drinks, but never explains who they were or what they were doing.

Llandampness is, to be honest, very much a backwater, and is described as somewhere you have to leave to make anything of your life, and where you come back to die. Drinking seems to be the principal entertainment of the local population. People wax lyrical about “community pubs” and regular customers, but in reality many pub regulars are somewhat sad individuals who have little else to do. On the other hand, the book does portray an era when pubs were much busier and more numerous than they are now, and where you could see a wide cross-section of society coming in at different times through the day and rub shoulders with each other.

All of the characters and the other pubs in the town are given fictional names, but I’m sure most would have been recognisable to locals and, given that some are portrayed in distinctly uncomplimentary terms, I wonder whether Martin Green ever received any negative feedback.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bring your own

The White Swan in North Walsham, Norfolk, has recently been in the news for stopping selling food and suggesting that customers bring their own. The licensee cited the new allergen regulations – which carry potentially unlimited fines – for no longer making it viable. In recent years, increased red tape has caused many pubs to question whether serving food is worthwhile, which may well be the reason behind the disappearance of lunchtime pub food in many smaller towns. Another rule which is likely to put pubs off knocking up a few sandwiches is the requirement to have a commercial kitchen entirely separate from your domestic one.

Pete Edge at the White Swan has put menus from local cafés and takeaways on display and is happy for customers to order food from them and eat it in the pub, so long as they buy a drink. There are already plenty of pubs across the country doing that, the Wellington in Birmingham being a well-known example. However, it’s essentially just a convenience for existing customers. People aren’t really going to see a pub where you can order a takeaway as a destination dining venue, and pubs also forgo the revenue from food, which can command a much higher margin than drinks.

There must be scope, though, for pubs to consider more innovative ways of providing food for their customers without taking on the overhead of doing it themselves. Maybe they could enter into a more formal partnership with takeaways, where the pub effectively becomes the takeaway’s own restaurant, and food is delivered rather than collected by customers. I would have thought too that pubs could similarly link up with local sandwich shops to provide a menu of straightforward lunchtime snacks which must be far better for trade than serving no food at all. If done right it could benefit the business of both pubs and food outlets.

Of course, it remains far more common for pubs to insist that you only eat food purchased on the premises, something an elderly Wetherspoons regular found to his cost – although I believe there was more to that than meets the eye.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Make your minds up!

Go back a few years, and it was common for a man ordering a round of drinks in a pub including a half-pint to be asked by the bar staff “and is that half for a lady, Sir?” If you said No, you would get a smaller version of the pub’s standard glass, probably a Nonik or tulip. If you said Yes, you would get a stemmed beer glass of various designs, or at least one with a thick, splayed base. Understandably, this was widely seen as patronising and sexist, and you don’t tend to hear it any more. Surely there is no reason why the glasses used by men and women should not be identical.

But, on the other hand, you often see articles such as this and this arguing that pint glasses put women off drinking beer, which seem to imply that women actually do have different tastes in glassware from men. I think there are several things going on here, including a dislike of traditional macho pint-drinking culture, and not really wanting to drink beer in that kind of volume. It’s not simply a dislike of Noniks and dimpled mugs.

Few pubs outside of specialist bars have taken up the recently introduced two-third pint measures, but every pub serves halves, and I’m sure most, if asked, would produce a stemmed half-pint glass of some kind. Maybe pubs should make more effort to stock stylish half-pint glasses, but other customers would object if they were offered as the default, and is that going to make much difference in the overall scheme of things anyway?

This kind of thing is easy to say, but it’s more difficult to define exactly what pubs are expected to do about it. Recently we have seen a large rise in the number of distinctive brand-specific glasses used, although they normally only come in pint sizes and are usually just for keg beers and lagers. This is a conscious attempt to make glassware more appealing, although personally I find many of the designs unattractive and over-tall, and the stemmed ones, such as the Stella goblet, are particularly horrible. I don’t think stemmed pints are really what is being requested.

I don’t believe, though, that it’s in any sense sexist or discriminatory to say that women have different tastes in glassware from men, as they do in many other spheres. And, deep down, I suspect one of the things women dislike more than men about pub glasses of any kind is that they are brim measures with the attendant risk of spillage. But that isn’t going to change any day soon, and neither is the position of the pint as the predominant beer measure.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Craft Beer: Evolution or Revolution?

I was originally going to do a rather light-hearted post on “why I don’t like craft beer”. However, in view of this post by Arthur Scargill saying Craft beer? The bubble has burst, and these from Beer Battered and Fuggled suggesting that, even for an enthusiast, innovation has become an end in itself, I felt I ought to take it a bit more seriously.

Who knows what is craft beer, and what isn’t? I’ve certainly enjoyed plenty of beer in the past few years that qualifies by one definition or another. But I have to say that introducing the concept into the British beer market has been counter-productive, provoking divisiveness and encouraging elitism. There you go, I’ve said it.

It’s easy to poke fun at the craft beer movement – the hipsters with their skinny jeans and ironic facial hair, the achingly trendy bars devoid of comfortable seating, the eye-watering prices, the insistence on child-sized measures, the conflation of strength and quality, the existential terror on entering a pub in a provincial market town, and the relentless pursuit of ever more bizarre ingredients. A pint of bitter in your local it isn’t. But the problem goes deeper than that.

I was recently involved in an Internet discussion about beers of the 1970s, in which someone said “well, we didn’t know any better then”. Obviously we didn’t have foreknowledge of 2015, but my recollection is that we had a huge range of excellent, distinctive beers, and plenty of busy, characterful pubs to drink them in. The belief that one generation has discovered something new and wonderful is very characteristic of youthful enthusiasm. It’s depressingly common to read comments like “twenty years ago it was virtually impossible to find any decent beer.”

Over time, the beer market has evolved, as I have described here. We have had golden ales, pale hop-forward beers and then beers using New World hops. I enjoy Summer Lightning and Wye Valley HPA, I regard Hawkshead and Dark Star as go-to breweries if I see them on the bar, and when it was first introduced I found Jaipur IPA a revelation. Despite the stereotype, I’m no stick-in-the-mud devotee of boring brown bitter, although I would argue that many beers in that category are seriously undervalued. But it has to be admitted that within those new styles there are many lacklustre golden ales, one-dimensional hop syrups and ridiculous grapefruit-flavoured so-called IPAs.

In the mid-1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies left in the whole of the USA, and the beer market was dominated by bland, light lager. So the conditions were ripe for the development of an “alternative beer” movement, initially referred to as microbreweries, but more recently morphing into craft breweries. They were able to draw on a wide range of brewing traditions from all around the world, including a substantial influence from British real ale, to produce a huge variety of interesting, characterful beers, and even developing their own entirely new styles. Their most distinctive contribution to the beer world has been the strong, highly-hopped American IPA which, despite the name, is really unlike any other IPA that has gone before. The craft beer sector in the US has gone from strength to strength and now accounts for 11% of the beer market by volume and a staggering 22% by value.

Not surprisingly, beer enthusiasts looked at this and thought there was a golden opportunity to extend that buzz over to this side of the pond. However, there was a little problem. Britain already had a thriving craft beer scene, comprising both the established independent breweries that CAMRA had originally been created to champion, and hundreds of micro breweries that had sprung up since then in a similar way to the US. Yes, some of it could be conservative and stick-in-the-mud, but there was a huge amount of innovation and variety in beer styles.

Yet it was this “real ale scene” that the new evangelists of craft chose to tilt against. The international mega-brewers were so far over the horizon that they weren’t worth bothering with. The first sign of this was in the “pale and hoppy” movement around the turn of the millennium, which came up with the phrase “boring brown beer”, but at least this was generally real ale and something that fell within the broad category of “bitter”.

Then it intensified with the more recent wave of explicitly US-themed craft beer, which really goes back no more than seven or eight years. If the US had mega-strong triple IPAs, then so should we. If the US universally used 355ml bottles, then we should use 330s. If the US put craft beer in cans, then why not? If the US used all kinds of weird and wonderful flavours, then we should stop being so conservative. If the US sold draught craft beer on keg, then so should we rather than that warm, flat, twiggy stuff. And if US craft brewers had check shirts and fancy beards, then surely that will make British beer taste better too.

The real tipping point was when BrewDog stopped producing cask beer entirely and deliberately portrayed themselves as standing up against everything CAMRA represented. It was them and us, it was new vs old, it was crafties vs beardies (even though the crafties were more likely to have facial hair). Now, over the years I’ve often been critical of CAMRA, not least over its dogmatic refusal to recognise merit in any beers that are not cask- or bottle-conditioned. But it’s a broad church, and has come to encompass the vast bulk of British beer enthusiasm and knowledge. By rejecting that, the craft beer movement is being unnecessarily antagonistic and dismissive of history and tradition. Of course that’s a bit simplistic, and there are many beer lovers who happily straddle both horses, but it remains a very common viewpoint, such as here.

I’ve been drinking legally in pubs for not far off forty years, and have had enough time to work out what I like and what I don’t. This is not to say I’m resistant to trying new things, but if offered something well outside my comfort zone like a 7.3% greengage and liquorice stout, I will know that, even if it’s palatable, it’s not something I would want to drink regularly, or probably ever again. I really enjoy many of the classic Belgian strong ales, but again they are just an occasional treat amongst a diet of more sessionable brews.

As I said above, I’m no single-minded devotee of boring brown bitter, and indeed my ideal pub session beer might well be something pale and hoppy (although not grapefruity) like the old Yates & Jackson Bitter or Marble Manchester Bitter. But I would have no problem spending an evening in good company on well-kept Holts or Lees Bitter or Sam Smiths OBB, whereas many crafties would be climbing the walls. I enjoy the odd drop of Punk IPA and similar hop-bombs, but I see them as something akin to peaty Islay malt whiskies, good to have occasionally but a bit extreme for everyday supping.

A lot of excellent beer has been produced under the banner of “craft” But I could say that, to a large extent, “craft” represents to me beers with weird flavours, at offputting strengths, in measures I find too small, and prices too steep, sold in bars where I don’t feel comfortable to people I have little in common with. Surely championing the cause of good beer should involve making better beer more widely available in a form many people will find appealing, not deliberately cutting yourself off from the experience of the vast majority of beer drinkers. To be frank, that vast majority don’t want to chop and change beers within the pub. Have you ever seen a lager drinker go into Spoons and go round the pumps from Carlsberg to Heineken? No, me neither.

Very few are ever going to see a good night out as drinking your way through six beers of wildly different styles at strengths up to 10%. But maybe that’s the way the craft evangelists want it.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

It just doesn’t stop

Last week, the Royal Society for Public Health came up with a set of proposals to further restrict smoking in public places, including a ban in pub beer gardens and outdoor eating areas. In the past, indoor smoking bans have been justified on the somewhat spurious grounds of protecting workers’ health, but this throws away that figleaf and openly admits that the objective is not health but is explicitly the denormalisation of smoking.

Not surprisingly, this plan immediately drew condemnation from various quarters, amongst which my favourite was this impassioned rant from beer blogger Mark N. Johnson, and the government was quick to make it clear it had no plans to bring in such a restriction.

When the indoor smoking ban was introduced in 2007, many of its supporters made the point that pubs would still be able to accommodate smokers, but they would have to smoke outside. This may have seemed to smokers like putting them in the open carriage with hard seats at the back of the train, but at least they were still allowed on board, and in the intervening years some pubs have made the effort to provide welcoming smoking areas as far as the law allows. Indeed, smokers continue to make up a considerably higher proportion of pubgoers than of the general population.

However, if smoking was prohibited in any outdoor areas of pubs too, then they would not be able to cater for smokers in any way. A smoker might occasionally go to a pub for a meal but, as for socialising, forget it. This could well have an even more catastrophic effect on the pub trade than the current indoor ban. There are plenty of wet-led pubs where half the customers seem to spend most of their time outside, even in bad weather. And it’s very noticeable how, when the sun shines, a good outdoor smoking area can really bring in the customers. A few years back, I remember visiting the Barrels pub in Hereford on a sunny Monday evening and seeing its extensive rear yard-cum-patio, which has plenty of seating, much under cover, absolutely rammed with groups of smokers and their friends.

There is one positive aspect to the report, though, in that the public health establishment is at last grudgingly recognising that e-cigarettes can make a significant contribution to cutting smoking rates. Initially, they were highly sceptical, viewing them as something “not invented here” that mimicked the act of smoking and could be a gateway to tobacco. This problem is well described by Christopher Snowdon as The Prohibitionist’s Dilemma. However, as the evidence mounts that existing smokers are turning to e-cigs, their stance is gradually softening. If the authorities don’t stand in their way, e-cigs have the potential to reduce tobacco smoking to a small rump in a generation.

Rather than calling for further restrictions on smoking, surely the public health lobby should now be strongly opposing moves by bodies such as the Welsh Government to impose the same curbs on e-cigs as on tobacco. But, even though it’s recognised that nicotine on its own is no more harmful than caffeine, they still have a big problem in accepting e-cigs as a recreational product that people actually enjoy, rather than simply a medical aid to stopping smoking.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Dull metal?

I recently came across a post on a US heavy metal website asking Does Anybody Actually Like IRON MAIDEN's Trooper Beer? It’s over a year old, but still makes interesting reading. The author didn’t like it at all, saying it was “incredibly bitter”, a verdict that most British readers will find surprising. There are a lot more favourable views in the comments below, and in the poll 80% of those who had tried it said they liked it.

When it was first launched a couple of years ago, my initial verdict was that it was a bit lacklustre, and several tastings since in both cask and bottle haven’t really changed that opinion. It’s important to remember, though, that Iron Maiden are one of the few rock bands to make a big point of their British identity, and it was Bruce Dickinson’s intention to produce a classic British-style ale like those he enjoyed around 1980, not an international lager or a US-style hop-bomb IPA. Incidentally, Bruce Dickinson is about a year older than me, and has certainly flown more aeroplanes, although probably driven fewer Morris Marinas.

Trooper has certainly been a great success for Robinsons, with the ten millionth pint mark recently being passed, and contributing to the brewery recording its highest production level for fifteen years. It’s good to see a long-established family brewery enjoying such success and exporting beer all round the world.

Unlike some others, I really like Robinsons beers in general. When well kept, Wizard, Dizzy Blonde, Unicorn and most of their seasonals, are some of the most palatable beers around. But Trooper just seems to fall between two stools. It’s not an old-fashioned, rich, chestnut English ale, in the way that Wychwood’s Status Quo beer Piledriver was. But, on the other hand, neither is it a modern, pale, hoppy beer. In the past, Robinsons have brewed an excellent rich “winter bitter” called Robin, which could have made the basis for an English heavy metal beer to rival Hobgoblin. Or they could have made a version of Dizzy Blonde turned up to 11 – light, with distinct hop character, but not overwhelmingly so. But Trooper just seems to be neither one thing nor the other.

It will be interesting to see how the limited edition celebration version, the 6.6% ABV Trooper 666, turns out. Unfortunately Robinsons have said it will only be available as a bottled beer, but it would be nice if they could put some into casks, maybe as part of their White Label series. Also hopefully it will be sold in 500ml bottles, not just 330ml ones.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Hiding behind a cloak

This blog, like many others, is written under a nom de guerre, as is my Twitter account. I’ll explore the reasons for that later.

The other day, I tweeted a link to this blogpost by Ben Nunn. As a non-Londoner, it’s not actually an issue on which I have strong feelings one way or the other, but I thought it was an interesting, forthright piece that deserved a wider airing. As said in many Twitter bios, “Retweets and links do not imply endorsement”. However, this seems to have touched a raw nerve and, even though it wasn’t my criticism in the first place, I ended up accused of being a coward who lurks behind a pseudonym.

Well, yes, but if you read this blog you will find plenty of information about me such as where I live and which pubs I like visiting. I’ve even referred to several letters written by myself that have been published in What’s Brewing and quoted my real name. Much the same is true of bloggers such as Tandleman, Tyson and Boak and Bailey. It is quite clear that I am a real, rooted person, not some anonymous troll.

So why use a pseudonym instead of blogging and tweeting under my own name?

  1. I have been writing a column as “Curmudgeon” in Opening Times since 1993, so it’s an established fact of life

  2. There is a long and honourable tradition of pseudonymous opinion columns in the press, most notably Cassandra, although it has reduced in recent years

  3. As someone who is not professionally involved in the beer industry, and may wish to change jobs, I would rather any internet search on my name didn’t reveal a load of rantings on the subject. I know of one beer blogger who occupies a senior management position and I’m sure wouldn’t appreciate Google revealing a long list of their beery thoughts to potential recruiters. It may well be something appropriate to mention at an interview, but not as search results. Hence I post on the CAMRA forum as “PeterE” (there is someone else called curMUDGEon)

  4. “Mudgie” is to some extent a persona, not the real me. Paul Bailey writes an excellent beer blog that draws on his own experiences. I want to adopt a more argumentative and detached line that may distil or exaggerate actual events. “Mudgie” is a kind of cartoon character loosely based on me – see here for more info. That’s a bit dated, and at least one of the answers would now definitely be different, but it still basically holds true.
This is a classic slightly fictionalised account of Mudgie’s exploits. But the only Morris Marina I personally own is the one shown below, although my father did have one of similar colour and vintage.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Any colour you like, so long as it’s brown

There’s an old saying that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” This illustrates a fundamental divergence in humanity. Some people have a wide range of interests about which they have a reasonable level of knowledge, whereas others have one particular passion that dominates their life. Likewise, some businesses succeed by offering a wide range of products or services, but others do well by concentrating on the one thing at which they excel.

In recent years, the fox has been very much in the ascendant in the pub trade, with pubs aiming to offer an ever-expanding choice of beers and other drinks. In general, more choice has been greeted as a good thing, but it does have its downside, especially with cask beer, where tired beer is a common problem in pubs that try to sell more beers than they can turn over properly.

So it was interesting to see on this post on Stonch’s blog that one commenter suggested “Someone should be bold and do a single beer boozer.” This seems unthinkable in this country, but is not uncommon on the Continent. As well as the Czech examples given, many of the traditional taverns in Cologne serve just the local Kölsch beer and nothing else. It’s seen as part of the local heritage and identity.

Yes, there are handful of British pubs that just serve a single draught beer, but in general they’re out-of-the-way rural taverns where turnover is the main consideration, such as the Dyffryn Arms in Pembrokeshire, which is mentioned in that thread. In the Anchor at High Offley, the choice is basically Wadworth 6X. I think there is also a lager pumps, but scarcely anyone drinks it. I wouldn’t say Sam Smiths pubs qualify as, while they only offer the one cask beer, they also stock a wide range of keg ales and lagers which, as far as I can see, make up a substantial proportion of the sales.

But there used to be a prime example of the one-beer pub in the Athletic Arms (aka the Diggers) on the west side of Edinburgh. Close to Murrayfield and Tynecastle, this pub could at time get extremely busy. The only cask beer was McEwans 80/-, dispensed by air pressure through traditional Scottish tall fonts (shown at top), and I doubt whether much of anything else was sold. However crowded it was, if you walked through the door and held up the relevant number of fingers, the same quantity of pints would be waiting for you on the bar when you got there. Described just as “Mecca” in early Good Beer Guides, it was somewhere you would be guaranteed a fresh pint.

McEwan’s 80/- is now a thing of the past, and it has now become a more conventional multi-beer pub, although one that, according to this write-up is still well worth a visit. I was particularly struck by the picture of a cosy corner shown at the right, which epitomises what pub interiors should look like. (In a public bar environment, leatherette is acceptable). I should say that, while I have visited Edinburgh several times, I have never been in this particular pub.

Maybe, in the right British location, the one-beer pub could work. The key advantage of the concept is that you know the beer will be fresh, and won’t have been lingering in the pipes. And this can make a surprising difference to quality. Obviously it won’t work for your typical village pub, but in city centres it could prove very popular and suddenly find itself riding a trendy wave. But you have to have a beer with sufficient cachet that customers will flock to drink it. And in my view the ideal beer for the one-beer pub is not some weird crafty indulgence, but Draught Bass.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Pubbly Jubbly

Back around 2007, when beer blogging was in its infancy, there was a tendency for bloggers to gush with enthusiasm over every new development in beer. This became described as “cheery beery”, in the sense of seeing every innovation as positive and exciting without any discrimination between excellent and mediocre. Since then, people have grown up, the craft beer industry has jumped a number of sharks, and writers are more willing to be critical when it is deserved.

However, this tendency now seems to have spread into the field of pubs. After a quiet period when the country was in the economic doldrums, the last few years have seen an unprecedented wave of new bars opening and existing pubs being expensively refurbished by brewers and pubcos. Pretty much every project has been accompanied by a noticeable broadening of the beer offer – even family dining pubs now have a craft beer fridge. But, just as it was with beer, all of this seems to be met with universal, uncritical approval.

In my view, the only really acceptable form of pub refurbishment is a good spring-cleaning, a fresh coat of paint and new upholstery. However, in the real world it has to be accepted that pub owners often do think that changing the layout and appearance of a pub may yield dividends, and so you have to consider how sensitively it is done, and how congenial an environment the new pub offers. I’ve mentioned before that, all things considered, Robinsons have done a pretty good job with the Tatton Arms at Moss Nook and the Davenport Arms at Woodford.

However, I was strongly critical of the pretentious, over-designed scheme at the Farmers Arms, Poynton, even though what went before didn’t have much to be said for it either. And, after I had listed the Bakers Vaults in Stockport market place as Worst Pub Refurbishment of the Year, I was taken to task for criticising it, as it had reopened a previously closed pub and offered a more enterprising beer choice than any other Robinsons pub. That’s true, but the interior (pictured) is still to my eye utterly dreadful, making a very poor use of space and offering scarcely any seating except at high-level posing tables. Good beer does not excuse bad design.

Some may argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s all basically just a matter of personal taste. However, I would counter that an insensitive disregard for previous arrangements, and coming up with schemes that are austere and uncomfortable, or absurdly mannered and over-styled, are always very hard to justify. It’s also the case that many of the new-wave bars, while often showing admirable enterprise on the beer front, present an austere, hard-edged aspect that is reminiscent of an IKEA kitchen-diner and are not places where your backside would thank you for lingering.

In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation was happy to criticise pub operators for opening pubs out, knocking two bars into one, and generally eroding their character. Nowadays, though, you will often see interiors that are bright, airy and open-plan being spoken of as a step forward. Possibly a factor in this is that, nowadays, CAMRA scouts are likely to be much better acquainted with licensees than they were back in the 1970s, and so are reluctant to make any criticism, even if the design scheme is entirely the responsibility of the pub owner. Many licensees interpret any criticism of their pub as something personal.

Surely, though, it is high time that beer writers and CAMRA publications started to apply a more critical eye to pub refurbishments and design schemes, rather than just taking the view that, if the beer’s good, then a blind eye should be turned to any kind of aesthetic or architectural vandalism.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Three thought experiments

From time to time, especially towards the end of an evening in the pub, it’s interesting to speculate about what might be the result of certain changes to legislation or social customs. Often these aren’t things that aren’t realistically going to happen, or that we don’t support, but they can be useful in testing the validity of commonplace ideas.

These are three that have occurred to me in recent months:

1. Cut the price of on-trade beer

We’re often told that cheap supermarket beer is killing the pub. So let us assume that, somehow, the on-trade price could be cut so that nothing was over £2 a pint. This would greatly reduce the differential between on and off-trades. I’m sure it would increase the amount of bottom-end, price-conscious customers. But I can’t see it would make much difference to middle-class pubgoing.

The amount of beer I drink in pubs is constrained variously by health concerns (yes really), a wish to avoid hangovers, to be still functioning later in the day or the following morning, and the drink-drive legislation. Slashing the price would make virtually no difference. Certainly, in general, it wouldn’t remotely take us back to the glory days of the late 70s. Plus, if it encouraged more scrotes and deadlegs to drink in pubs, it could make them less appealing for more responsible customers. It would not be a magic bullet.

2. Let local groups run failed pubs

Rather than selling them off to developers, pub operators with pubs they consider to be unviable could lease them out to local community groups at a peppercorn rent. There are plenty of campaigns to “save the Canard & Conundrum”, so maybe the pubcos could call their bluff and say that provided they came up with a credible organisation and could put a few thousand pounds on the table, the pub was theirs to run. If they failed, then the title would revert to the pubco to do as they wished.

This would completely take the wind out of the sails of the anti-pubco campaigners. But I suspect the take-up would be very low. Realistically, despite the claims, few closed pubs really are viable, and the campaigners generally expect someone else to run it at a loss rather than take it on themselves. This would prove the point, one way or the other.

3. Make all beer the same strength

The vast majority of spirits are either 40% ABV or 37.5%, which realistically is neither here nor there. Most table wine falls within a limited strength range which is basically that between bitter and best bitter Yet beer ranges from 2.8% to over 10%.

I see this as a good thing, but what if pretty much all commercially available beer was at the same strength, say 4.0%? Brewers would have to differentiate their beers by colour, body and flavour, rather than strength. It would set them an interesting challenge and be a test of their craft. Indeed, going back a few years, the vast majority of beer in Germany was within the range of 4.8% to 5.2%, yet they still showed a huge variety. Maybe strength differentiation is an easy way out.

Oh, and just to reiterate, I’m not advocating any of these policies, just speculating as to what the effect would be. Any thoughts?

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Old soaks

It’s now the silly season for news, as shown by the widespread coverage of the increasingly surreal Labour leadership contest. Last Friday, on what was obviously a very slow news day, a story cropped up in many of the papers about an alleged Middle Class Drink Epidemic.

The whole thing is, as we have come to expect, comprehensively debunked by Christopher Snowdon. The fundamental point he makes is that, while there may in a sense be a disproportionate level of middle-class drinking (although they are still drinking less than they used to), there’s no similar epidemic of middle-class alcohol-related health problems.

Indeed, what the story does is to demonstrate the exact opposite – that while middle-class, middle-aged people may drink more than the lower orders, they stubbornly refuse to demonstrate the related health issues.

Because this group is typically healthier than other parts of the older population, they might not realise that what they are doing is putting their health in danger,
If there was any truth in it, then surely the problem would be demonstrated by the outcomes. And he makes the important point that there isn’t necessarily a direct relationship between average group behaviour and individual circumstances.
You cannot assume that an arbitrarily defined group of people is going to produce more death and disease than another group merely because their group average exceeds an arbitrary guideline. Why? Because averages tell you nothing about individuals. Yes, people on low incomes drink less than middle class people on average. They don’t have much money and alcohol is a heavily-taxed luxury, but within this group are some people who not only drink very heavily but also have a propensity for other risk-taking behaviours. It should therefore not be surprising that a disproportionate number of alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths arise in the group that drinks the least. The fact that lots of other poor people bring the group average down by drinking moderately or abstaining is neither here nor there to the low income alcoholic.
The conclusion is that, while middle-class people may on average drink more than working-class ones, in general they still only drink moderately and remain in control of their lives. There is no health epidemic or timebomb, and the government “limits” are largely meaningless.

As the novelist Kingsley Amis, a famously dedicated drinker (who, to be honest, died at the relatively young age of 73), said “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare.”

It has to be said that this report met with amused scepticism in several of the newspapers, such as here and here, which must be a positive sign.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Dangerously drinkable

It recently seems to have dawned on some beer bloggers that drinking lots of high-strength craft beers, even if only in halves or thirds, does have a tendency to get you drunk. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but in reality the availability of a wide choice of strong beers in all kinds of styles is a fairly new phenomenon on the British beer scene. Perhaps it needs a fundamental reconsideration of how beer drinking is approached.

If we go back to before CAMRA was formed, the number of beer enthusiasts in Britain, in the sense of people who would make a point of trying out new or different brews, was minimal. Of course a lot of people enjoyed drinking beer – and they drank a lot more of it than we do now – but pretty much all of it was mild and bitter of various kinds, and little much over 4% ABV. Many brewers produced old ales around Christmas time, but virtually none had a draught stout, where Guinness enjoyed an effective monopoly. The exotic (and often strong) foreign beers from Belgium and Germany that now cluster on the shelves of your local Tesco were scarcely ever seen.

In the early years of CAMRA, little changed. The organisation, after all, was primarily interested in methods of storage and dispense, not in beer styles. Yes, it did like to imply that real ale was made of authentic natural ingredients, and keg beer was made from chemicals, but that was always at best a gross exaggeration. Its first ten years were basically spent championing the products of the independent family brewers and the real ales still made by the Big Six. There was more emphasis placed on stronger premium bitters – most notably with the introduction of Ind Coope Burton Ale – but the general mix of styles remained much the same. While lager steadily gained market share, much of that was even weaker than ordinary bitters.

The 1980s saw the first wave of microbreweries, but again they were generally just trying to brew their own versions of the classic British beer styles, often well, sometimes incompetently. One noticeable change was the growing number of cask stouts and porters, but they were generally of fairly sessionable strength. Then we had the rise of golden ales, which eventually became regarded as a beer category in their own right. But they were really just a subset of “bitter”, and indeed there had previously been some distinctly pale bitters such as Boddingtons, Stones and Theakstons. Even the more recent trends of “very pale and very hoppy” and New World hops still essentially stayed within the conventional categories of style and strength.

It’s only fairly recently, spurred on by the increasing influence of US craft brewing, and the rise of craft keg, that especially strong beers and experimental flavours have become commonplace. Looking back through the archives, I don’t think I ever mentioned “craft beer” before 2010. To be honest, this trend doesn’t really float my boat, and on the rare occasions I really want something strong I’ll go for an Old Tom or something Belgian. It’s also something that runs contra to the current movement towards lower-strength beers. I’m certainly not against it, though, and enterprise and innovation always deserve celebrating even if they’re not my thing.

Traditionally, the ordinary pub drinker would rarely touch anything above about 5%, except maybe for a half of Old Tom or suchlike at the end of the evening. However, if you want to enjoy a series of Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs, you just can’t jug them back like cooking bitter. You have to pace yourself, drink thirds if available and maybe have water spacers. It’s nothing like the classic Friday night out and, if anything, more like a whisky tasting session. If that’s what you want to do to catch all these flavours, fair enough. But it bears very little resemblance to the way beer is enjoyed by the vast majority of the drinking population, and it could be seen as another way of cutting the enthusiast off from the mainstream. He’s no longer drinking just better beer, he’s drinking completely different beer.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Hearty harmonisation

Last week I attended a residents’ meeting in one of my local pubs, the Plough in Heaton Moor, to discuss M&B’s plans for refurbishment and updating the licence conditions. The pub had previously been owned by Orchid Taverns and was acquired by M&B when they took over the company around the turn of the year. Possibly this is something that the conditions oblige them to do but, even so, all credit to them for taking it seriously and letting people air their concerns. Inevitably, some hobby-horses were given an extensive airing, but the general atmosphere was amicable and there wasn’t anything in the licence application that raised serious concern.

One subject that divided opinions was the admission of dogs, although it seems that the pub will remain dog-friendly. Some attendees also expressed disapproval of M&B’s plans to remove Sky Sports, which obviously I would thoroughly applaud. “It’s always busy when City are on,” they said, which I’m sure is true, but rather ignores the counter-argument that, if you’re trying to appeal to diners and families, it may attract the wrong kind of clientele and also deter many from visiting in the first place.

Three and a half years ago, Orchid carried out a modest refurbishment and rebranded the pub as a “Pizza Kitchen & Bar.” Personally, I welcomed this, as it made a refreshing change from the usual formulaic “pub grub”, and the menu offered a number of dishes, not just pizzas, that appealed to me. However, it never seemed to do particularly well (although I generally only visited at lunchtimes) and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that they had rather overestimated how trendy and yuppieish Heaton Moor is. Yes, it’s moving that way, but it’s still far from Didsbury or Chorlton and still has a strong core of established older residents.

M&B said they were going to replace this with a more conventional menu of traditional pub favourites and “hearty dishes”, plus roast dinners on Sundays. This met with the general approval of the meeting, and indeed may well be a more appropriate option for that particular location. However, it’s another example of the tendency for more and more pubs to offer what is, with the odd tweak, basically the same menu. The days when many pubs featured a particular cuisine as a speciality of the house have long gone. And you can’t help thinking that, in these days of street food and ever-increasing interest in dishes from around the world, pubs’ food offer so often looks stodgy and dated.

The company also said they were planning to introduce a wider range of real ales and craft beers, so we’ll see how that turns out. They did, however, breezily dismiss complaints that the beer prices were too high, so we can expect it to remain one of the dearest in the area. Today is the last trading day under the old regime, and it’s scheduled to reopen on Friday 21 August.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The return of sticky bum time

Older readers will remember that dreadful vinyl upholstery in cars of the 60s and 70s, which didn't breathe at all and stuck to your clothes as soon as the sun came out. Fortunately, consumer demand has now long since banished it to the dustbin of history, and even the cheapest models now come with comfortable cloth seats.

During the same period, many pubs installed upholstered “leatherette” fixed seating, often superseding plain wooden benches, which had exactly the same effect when the temperature rose and the place was packed with sweaty bodies. In the 80s, as with the car market, there seemed to be a swing against this, with more comfortable and breathable cloth seat coverings often replacing vinyl. At the time, it was seen as giving a more up-market impression.

However, more recently, the tide seems to have turned, with many recent refurbishments ditching the velour and moquette in favour of a return to plasticky “leatherette”. I suppose there are benefits in that it is more durable and easier to clean, but it seems to be part of the vogue for giving pubs a “harder” appearance that goes against the earlier trend towards being cosy and comfy. Replacing carpets with bare boards is much the same.

And, when the weather gets a bit warm and airless, the effect on human flesh through cloth is exactly the same is it used to be, making the experience of going to the pub a bit tacky and uncomfortable. It’s designer vision being put ahead of customer convenience. Nobody’s going to walk out of a pub because it has vinyl rather than cloth seating, but, like removing beermats, it’s yet another of those little niggly annoyances.

I’ve just been out for a lunchtime pint in a pub that very much does still have cloth rather than vinyl upholstery. I’ll have to start making a note of which pubs have which.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Selling off the silver?

Given that Wetherspoons still only run about two per cent of all the pubs in Britain, some people have been known to express surprise at the prominence given to the company in online discussions about beer and pubs. It sometimes seems that Spoons is the only subject that provokes much discussion on the CAMRA Forum.

However, given the large average size of their pubs, they’re probably in sales terms the biggest single pub operator in the country, and they’re certainly the biggest retailers of real ale. They’re also intimately bound up with CAMRA through the members’ discount scheme and, unlike other pub operators, they have a pretty standard offer across their whole estate and are often seen as a bellwether of industry trends. So it’s hardly surprising they get the attention they do.

While their overall success seems to continue unabated, they’re always churned their portfolio to some extent, in some cases because they’ve acquired a better pub nearby, in others because the location did not prove as profitable as they hoped. I’m not aware, though, that they’ve ever put on sale a batch of twenty pubs, as they have this week, mostly in London and the South-East. Although I’m familiar with the location of the one in Lichfield (pictured), I’ve never actually drunk in any of them, so I can’t really offer any personal perspective on the reasons for their lack of success.

From comments made by others on Twitter, they seem to fall into four broad categories:

  1. Towns that are fertile ground for Spoons, but where they have a better-located pub, such as Lichfield and Newport, IOW
  2. Places which are mainly dormitory towns and haven’t in the long run offered sufficient footfall to make a Spoons viable, such as Sevenoaks and Haslemere, both of which have been in Spoons’ hands since before 2000. Paul Bailey has written about the Sennockian here
  3. Greater London locations where there are other branches nearby
  4. Locations in purpose-built shopping centres where the amount of evening trade may be limited
I don’t see this as signifying that Spoons are faltering in any way, just that they are doing the kind of assessment of their operations that any successful business should. Indeed, in the days before the Beer Orders, brewers of all sizes often hung on to pubs when they were no longer viable because they gained a degree of status from the size of their estate. Let’s hope as many of them as possible continue in business as pubs under new owners.

As I’ve written recently, in their quest for expansion Spoons have been opening branches in smaller market towns that previously they wouldn’t have looked at, and also opening second branches in towns such as Preston. Inevitably this will increase the risk of failure, although so far I’ve not seen much evidence of retrenchment from market towns. They seem to have burnt their fingers in Whitchurch (Shropshire) but as far as I can see are going strong in places like Market Drayton and Leominster which have a similar population.

It’s not simply a question of there being a set limit for the smallest town that can sustain a Wetherspoons – you also need to consider the strength of the nearby competition and the degree to which the town acts as a magnet for the surrounding area. The smallest towns to have a Spoons would appear to be Pwllheli in North Wales (pop. 4,000) and Perranporth in Cornwall (pop. 3,000), although both of these attract a lot of summer holidaymakers and the pubs will probably be pretty quiet in winter, even to the extent of shutting part off.

What makes one pub succeed and another fail is always something of a mystery, and if Wetherspoons sometimes make a mistake it’s not entirely surprising that others often get it wrong. It’s an elusive combination of location, offer, price and standard of service.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Action not words

Market research organisation Mintel has recently published an interesting report on pubgoing in Britain. Amongst the results are that one in five people visit a pub each week, which raises the obvious question why four in five don’t. It would be illuminating to compare this with the situation thirty years ago.

It also stated that 20% would be more likely to visit pubs if drinks were cheaper, while 54% could be encouraged if pubs offered more appealing food. 72% of those dining in pubs opted for homemade dishes, and 54% preferred dishes with locally sourced ingredients, with 38% picking those with seasonal components.

But all of this has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Asking people what they would like to see in a pub is very different from what would actually motivate them to go to pubs more. As I argued here, these surveys often give disproportionate weight to the opinions of those who rarely visit pubs anyway. Before the smoking ban, large numbers of people said in surveys that they would go to pubs more often if smoking was prohibited, but in practice virtually none did. And going every three months rather than every six is unlikely to do much to help the pub trade.

There’s a well-known case study where McDonalds introduced a range of “healthier” menu options in response to customer research, only to find that sales fell well below projections. It seems that many people are happy to say what they would like to see in pubs, but that doesn’t mean they would actually consume these products, or that their availability would make them visit more often. “I think pubs should stock more alcohol free beers, but that doesn’t mean I will actually drink them.”

In market research it is far more important to track how people actually behave rather than what they say they will do viewed through a filter of political correctness. Most people surveyed would probably say that pubs should offer a wider range of soft drinks, and charge less for them, but it’s very doubtful whether that would make much difference to whether or not they chose to visit.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Tales from the front line

Last week I’ve been away for a few days in West Wales. Contrary to popular myth, a Mudgie holiday doesn’t mean an epic pub-crawl that isn’t complete without a night in the cells, but it does give the opportunity to visit a few unfamiliar pubs out there in the real world. I’ve written before how some beer bloggers seem to exist in an urban craft bubble and find their heads exploding when they find themselves in an ordinary pub out in the sticks used by non-enthusiast customers and have to cope with the dilemma of whether to drink Doom Bar or Draught Bass. This is never going to be a “what I did on my holidays” kind of blog, but I thought a couple of experiences were worth retelling.

I’ve often tended to regard CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors as a kind of informal Mudgie pub guide, that at best will lead me to unspoilt gems where the only sound is the chatter of a few old boys setting the world to rights, and in general to respectable, well-behaved pubs where I don’t feel unwelcome. But I have to say I was disappointed by the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen. Yes, everything it says about the fabric of the place is true, plus there are the historical associations with heroes of boozing such as Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Richard Burton. But, as a pub, it’s a serious let-down. No real ale (and no proper keg either, just smooth), deafening piped music and a clientele that seemed to consist mostly of barely-legal teenagers and local deadlegs. Given its situation right in the centre of the town, surely it has the potential to become something of a showpiece for Brain’s brewery.

Then, a couple of days later in Haverfordwest, a perusal of WhatPub? suggested that the Pembroke Yeoman, which was quite close to where i was staying, might be worth a visit. It is featured in the 2014 Good Beer Guide and had a previous local CAMRA Pub of the Year plaque on display. It seemed OK as I walked in, and I was pleased to see Hopback Summer Lightning on the bar. I ordered a pint, but my expectations immediately plummeted when I saw the barmaid plonk the glass on the drip tray and pull the pump with one hand to fill it. It must have taken at least fifteen pulls, during which she was distracted at several points by chatting to the customers. As I feared, it was hazy and totally devoid of condition, but not vinegary as such. In some pubs, you would take it back, but in a place that you’re unlikely to every visit again, it seems a bit pointless to cause a scene. And yes, I would have been far better going to Spoons, as I did the next night.

Having said that, I had my fair share of good pub experiences too. The Good Beer Guide listed Queens in Carmarthen, just round the corner from the Plume of Feathers, was a good, solid, traditional, wood-panelled pub where I would be happy to spend a lot of time. And I managed to fit in a visit to the legendary Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen, which is really special and everything I had hoped it would be. It was rather amusing to see a party of normal tourists venture in and be totally fazed by the experience.

In one pub, there was a cardboard box on the bar of the kind normally used to hold charity sweets, but which happened to be occupied by a small dark tortoiseshell cat curled up and fast asleep. At first I thought it was a soft toy until it moved an ear. Now that’s the sort of thing you really remember about pubs.

And in another pub a local wag suggested that I looked like Inspector Morse, which I suppose is a kind of compliment. Far better than comparing me to Ronnie Barker or Elton John.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Shunning strength

Boak & Bailey have recently been reporting on their holiday in the wonderful Yorkshire Dales. In Settle, they were taken by the Talbot Inn, where they came across the beer list shown to the right. It’s a good mix of styles, and small vs established breweries, but it’s notable that nothing is above 4.0%, something that one commenter pointed out.

It’s an obvious trend of recent years that the average strength of cask beers in pubs offering a varied range has fallen. Going back to the days before CAMRA, most draught beers in the UK were of “ordinary bitter” strength or only a little above. The popular premium kegs such as Red Barrel and Double Diamond were only about 4%, and little on draught was much stronger than that.

In the early days of CAMRA, many of the poster boys of the “real ale revolution” were beers around OG 1050 such as Ruddles County, Abbot Ale, Royal Oak and Gales HSB. Going to the real ale freehouse meant not just drinking different beers, but drinking much stronger beers that weren’t available in the general run of pubs.

Then in the 1980s came the rise of the premium lagers, with Stella to the fore, which were seen as something better than the normal Heineken or Skol, but which many used to drink as if they were session beers. By the 1990s, with many pubs in the post-Beer Orders landscape aiming to stock a wider range of cask beers, it could be difficult to find anything much below 4.5%, as I reported here.

However, things then began to change, and possibly the Beer Orders were partially responsible. Whereas before you had a choice of beers of varying strength from the same brewery, increasingly you had instead a choice of beers of similar strength from different breweries. A beer that was an outlier – either too strong or too weak – simply wouldn’t sell as much. We have also seen the rise of a number of widely-distributed premium ale brands such as London Pride, Bombardier, Doom Bar and Wainwright, which are all around 4.0–4.2% ABV, so as not to frighten the horses too much.

Some beers such as Old Speckled Hen and Batemans XXXB have had their strength cut to bring them down to 4.5%. This may be seen as a way of saving duty, or appeasing the government initiative to take units out of the alcohol market, but in reality the main reason was that they simply weren’t selling at the higher strength. Robinson’s of Stockport brew a 5.0% ABV beer called Double Hop which is rarely seen in their pubs because people won’t buy it. Of course with cask beers their perishability is a limiting factor – once you start having to throw beer away it becomes unviable.

Most of the well-known premium lagers like Stella and Carlsberg Export have been cut to 4.8% (which may have more to do with government arm-twisting) and draught Budweiser was even cut from 5.0 to 4.3%. Plus there has been a switch back to the 4.0% cooking lager category with new products like Beck’s Vier and Amstel.

So we are now in the situation where the beer list shown above is very typical of what will be found in many pubs. I would say most people are more sober and responsible now and there is much more social pressure not to lose control. Even students prefer 4% fruit ciders to Old Rosie. People with money to spend are more fitness-oriented and there is less tolerance of those who are sometimes a bit “blurred at the edges”. Plus those who are still prepared to drink and drive within the legal limit are less willing to take any kind of risk and largely stick to beers of 4.0% or less, which is a significant factor outside large towns and cities.

Yes, there are still many stronger beers produced and you’ll see plenty of them at beer festivals and in beer-focused pubs in urban areas. Indeed the new wave of craft keg ales are often notably strong. But, across the country, in the more mainstream pubs, you’ll be lucky to find them, or in fact anything above the low four percents. And it’s down to good old supply and demand, not any kind of hidden anti-drink agenda.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Liquid lunch

On his Oh Good Ale blog, Phil has been recounting his experiences doing the local CAMRA Mild Magic trail, which makes interesting reading. One particular point he makes is that, in many of Manchester’s satellite towns, lunchtime pub food has largely become a thing of the past.
Lastly, I made the surprising – but perhaps predictable – discovery that pub lunches are basically a thing of the past: there are Spoons and there are high-end bars serving equally high-end food, but in between, and outside the city centre, there’s pretty much nothing. I guess that workplace puritanism has grown, and lunchtime drinking declined, to the point where serving actual lunches no longer makes sense for most places; the cheap and cheerful pub meal has gone the way of the cloche of curling sandwiches or the jar of pickled eggs.
For decades, we’ve constantly been told that food is the future of the pub, and in many of the more prosperous suburban and rural areas this has proved to be true, with it becoming increasingly difficult to find any pub that isn’t to all intents and purposes a restaurant. But, as I’ve remarked before, in urban areas, especially the less prosperous ones, the tide has flowed the other way, with many pubs that served cheap’n’cheerful food in 1985 having stopped doing so entirely, and many too having stopped opening at lunchtimes Monday to Thursday, even in shopping centres. Thirty years ago, plenty of pubs would offer a straightforward menu of sandwiches, toasties, burgers, ham, egg and chips, maybe a pot of chilli. That kind of basic food offer is now largely a thing of the past and, if shoppers want a bite to eat, they will increasingly turn to cafés, which seem to have enjoyed a surprising renaissance.

In places like Stalybridge, Hyde and Denton, you will now struggle to find any lunchtime pub food at all outside of Wetherspoon’s, if there is one. One popular and well-regarded Stockport pub just outside the town centre recently tried serving lunchtime meals, but stopped after a few months due to lack of demand. Even in Stockport town centre, while there are five or six non-Wetherspoon’s pubs offering a reasonably broad menu, there’s nothing like the choice there was thirty years ago.

The reasons behind this are all the usual suspects – the general decline of the pub trade, the reduced tolerance of employers for their workers to go to the pub at lunchtimes, and the fall-off in footfall in many of the smaller town centres. Very often, only Wetherspoon's are still flying the flag for lunchtime pub food. In recent years, I’ve been in towns which are not obvious tourist magnets where the only place I could find any reasonable-looking pub food was Spoons, which indeed was often the most upmarket-seeming venue. And, in some locations, you have to wonder how often they sell many of items on their extensive, standardised menu.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

First come, first served

It’s now almost forty years since CAMRA held its first national beer festival at Covent Garden in London. Since then, the number of beer festivals has mushroomed and, alongside the Good Beer Guide, they are the aspect of CAMRA’s activities most visible to the general public. From being an opportunity to showcase beers you might want to seek out in the pub, they have become an attraction in their own right, often featuring new and rare beers you would be lucky to find anywhere else.

In the early days of beer festivals, it made sense to stagger putting the various beers on sale, as there was always a risk of not selling out, so you might want to sell unbroached casks on to local free trade pubs. This also had the advantages that, if the festival lasted more than one day, choice would be maintained throughout and the chance of getting tired beer towards the end would be much reduced.

However, in more recent years, this approach has attracted growing criticism, partly, although not entirely, from the beer-ticking fraternity. You never know when each beer is going to be on sale, and it seems unreasonable to withhold a beer when it’s perfectly read to be served. So the preference is increasingly to put all beers on sale at the beginning of the festival, and when they run out, they run out. At one time, customers were happy that a beer festival simply a provided a decent choice of unfamiliar beers, but now some are much more insistent on being able to sample a particular new or rare beer. This way, at least they know they will be able to find it on at the start.

Obvious drawbacks are that, with the best will in the world, beer stillaged in a beer festival is likely to lose its sparkle more quickly than in a pub cellar, and the choice towards the end of the festival will be limited, with all the more appealing or unusual beers having run out. On the other hand, it has to be recognised that a beer festival is run in the interest of the customers, not for the convenience of the staff, and if there’s a strong demand for something then it makes sense to respond to it. In effect, first night punters are being favoured at the expense of final session ones.

Last month, following years of grumbling, it was finally decided to adopt this approach at the Stockport Beer & Cider Festival. The results were entirely as expected, with a magnificent range of fresh, lively brews available at Thursday teatime, but by Saturday evening many of those remaining being distinctly tired, and some customers complaining of lack of choice – although that is always going to be an issue on the final session. The festival overall showed a substantial increase in attendance over the previous year, and virtually sold out, so the punters didn’t seem to be too concerned.

Realistically, it’s an approach you can’t follow if your beer festival lasts more than three days, and even that to my mind is stretching it a bit. Quality should never be sacrificed for maximising choice. If managing beer availability is seen as a major negative factor by customers, then the only way round the issue is to have fewer individual beers but buy two or more casks of those that are expected to be more popular. In a sense, this was what was done at Stockport with the “Bar Nouveau” (pictured) which highlighted beers released for public sale for the first time. There were around ten different beers, with three firkins being ordered of each. They all went on at the start, with the last cask being emptied late on Saturday evening. That way, the principle of free choice was maintained, but the customers knew they were always getting a pint from a cask that had been tapped less than a day before.