Thursday, 22 June 2017

Top of the Moor

This isn’t normally a pub reviews blog, but as the Moor Top, one of only two pubs within comfortable walking distance of my house, has recently received what is reputed to have been a £1 million refurbishment, I thought I should pop along and take a look.

It’s a large estate-type pub that was built by Wilsons’ predecessors Walker & Homfrays in 1955. Being the only pub for half a mile in any direction in a fairly well-off residential area, you might expect it to have been a goldmine, but for whatever reason it never seems to have fulfilled its potential. At one point it even received the dreaded Pennine Hosts “yoof” makeover with predictably dismal results.

WhatPub? shows it as being owned by Spirit Group, who have now been taken over by Greene King, so I’m not sure what the current ownership situation is. However, it has been leased to an independent operator, who also ran the award-winning Damson restaurant opposite, although this seems to have now been converted into two separate establishments called Roost and La Cantina. It is they, and not the pubco owners, who I would say are responsible for the style of the makeover and the pub’s current offer.

It’s clearly a very expensive and thorough job which erases all vestiges of its previous “estate pub” ambiance, and even includes a couple of distinct areas separated from the rest of the pub by full-height coloured glass screens. There are plenty of bare boards, high stools and pastel colours, although there is still a bit of comfortable bench seating along the front. The entire front yard is now a well-furnished beer garden. The photo montage below gives a good impression of the general look.

As you walk in through the front door, you are met with six handpumps on the apex of the bar. On my visit there were five cask beers on: Moor Top Best Bitter (brewed by Stockport Brewing), Stockport Deluded IPA, Taylor's Landlord, Wantsum 1381 (from Canterbury) and Muirhouse Pirate's Gold (from Ilkeston, Derbyshire). The Best Bitter was in decent nick and refreshingly cool on a hot, humid day. It was a surprisingly reasonable £3.20, although I would expect the other beers to be rather dearer. All of the guest beers (although not, I suspect, the Landlord) are supplied through Stockport Brewing.

There is also a "keg wall", with seven beers, although it suffers from the boards not showing either the breweries or prices. A chalkboard for the cask beers showing prices wouldn’t go amiss either.

Not surprisingly there are no beermats, not even in holders on the bar, and my visit was rather marred by earsplitting shrieking emanating from an infant.

There’s a fairly typical menu of modern upmarket pub food, with the common contemporary problem that the zero key on the typesetter’s keyboard seems to have ceased to function. Suffice to say you’re not going to find a bacon barmcake.

The car park is now pay and display, with a £2 charge for up to 3 hours 24/7, and no refunds unless you spend at least £5, so no popping in for a swift pint. It’s understandable given the busyness of the location, but the minimum spend comes across as rather churlish.

It’s not, to be honest, really my kind of pub, and I can’t see myself making it a regular haunt any more than I did before. However, it all seems to have been thoughtfully done, including taking the beer offer seriously, and I’d say it has the ingredients to do well in that location.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Feeling the draught

The government are currently consulting on ways to change the system of alcohol duty. The main objective is to improve incentives for lower-alcohol products, but that hasn’t stopped various bodies adding their two penn’orth. One suggestion that has been made is to reduce the level of beer duty for products sold in the on-trade in an attempt to give pubs a boost. However, an obvious problem with this is the possibility of pubs selling beer for consumption off the premises, and it would clearly be administratively complex and confusing to customers to apply two separate prices.

One way of getting round this would be to confine the duty concession to draught beer, which by definition is only sold in the on-trade. While a tiny amount may be taken home in carry-outs, in the overall scheme of things it is trivial. This was proposed by SIBA in their general election manifesto.

However, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just another case of special pleading, where a trade body calls for lower taxation on the particular products made by their members. And, as I have argued before, it’s highly tendentious to argue that on-trade drinking has any claim to being intrinsically “better”.

It’s also questionable where a duty cut would make any significant difference to the balance of consumption. It’s generally recognised that minor tweaks to relative taxation levels have little effect on consumer behaviour. Despite the duty on them having been halved, sub-2.8% beers have made little progress in the market because people basically aren’t interested in drinking them.

The duty plus VAT on a pint of 4% beer comes to 52p. Even if that was completely removed, it would only reduce the price of a pint from £3.50 to £3. Is that really going to make much difference to levels of pubgoing? I’ve made the point in the past that, while relative price is a factor to some extent, the main reasons deterring people from drinking in pubs are non-financial. In any case, the likelihood is that pub operators would very often take the opportunity to fatten their margins rather than passing all the savings on to drinkers.

The conclusion must be that this is just another case of a trade body wanting a favour from the government for its members. There’s a good case for a general cut in beer duty, if it could be afforded, but having differential rates for packaged and draught beer would be ineffective and divisive gesture politics.

And, of course, most of the benefits would accrue to the brewers of Carling and Stella, not the members of SIBA!

Friday, 16 June 2017

Unsociable drinking

Boak and Bailey recently posted a story from Bailey’s mum about how one pub went about turning casuals into regulars:
The second time we went into The Cobblestones the landlady came over and said, ‘Right, if you’re going to be coming in regularly, I ought to know your names.’
Now, my response was that I wouldn’t be too keen on that approach, and RedNev’s comment further down was in agreement.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m being antisocial. People are very different – some are naturally gregarious, others more reserved, and what comes across as a friendly welcome to one may seem intrusive to another. I’d be the first to admit I’m not the person who leads the conga line, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be open and sociable in the right context.

I have written before about how one of the great glories of pubs is that, by and large, you can choose to what extent you interact with others and, if you prefer to, you will be left alone to mind your own business. For many people of a quieter disposition, the very act of going to the pub acts as a social outlet even if they don’t get drawn into a session of lively banter.

There is an art to conversation that can draw people out without needing to put them on the spot or expecting them to reveal anything they don’t feel comfortable with. Very often it starts with that old cliché, talking about the weather. I choose what I divulge to others, and at what pace. Some may regard it as showing an interest, but to my mind being quizzed as to “What’s your name? Where do you come from? What are you doing here? How did you get here?” is a sure-fire recipe for ensuring I don’t go back.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

X marks the spot

Today we’re having the second General Election in just over two years. For the past few weeks, I’ve been running an opinion poll in the sidebar of the desktop version of the blog. I deliberately haven’t promoted it at all on social media, so the results are rather more representative of wider public opinion than they were last time. Indeed, some professional opinion polls have come up with fairly similar figures. The original poll results and the associated comments are here.

If I put these through the Electoral Calculus model, assuming a uniform swing, the results are as follows, giving an overall Conservative majority of 24:

Conservative 337
Green 1
Labour 229
Liberal Democrat 7
Plaid Cymru 2
SNP 55
UKIP 1
NI Parties 18

I’ve eliminated the non-voters and bumped up the PC/SNP vote share to a more realistic 5.5%. It may seem surprising that the Conservatives end up with an overall majority on such a small lead in vote share, but, since they were wiped out in Scotland by the SNP in 2015, Labour no longer have the edge in terms of seats per vote that they once enjoyed. The one UKIP seat is Clacton, which they would retain on that vote share, but are unlikely to do in practice.

I’m not aware that lifestyle issues have featured at all in the campaign. Sadly, it seems that, whoever gets into power, more things will be banned or restricted. But it will be very interesting to see what the final results turn out to be later tonight.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Festival fatigue

Last weekend, I spent three days working at the annual Stockport Beer and Cider Festival. Now, this continues to be a very popular and financially successful event. However, it was noticeable that attendances and beer sales were a little down on the previous year, which itself showed a small drop on the one before. This is a trend that is being repeated across the country, with even CAMRA reporting a loss at a national level following disappointing sales at the Great British Beer Festival.

Obviously, compared with thirty or forty years ago, the unique attraction of beer festivals has been eroded. Most sizeable towns now have a handful of pubs selling a constantly changing range of often brand-new beers, and many pubs and voluntary organisations are staging beer festivals of their own. If you wanted to, you could probably attend a beer festival within reach of your house every weekend of the year.

In comparison with this, the attractions of putting on a random selection of real ales in a draughty public hall with unpalatable food begin to pale, especially when it’s often difficult to ensure that the beer condition is on a par with that in the pub. This doesn’t mean that the days of beer festivals as stand-alone events are numbered, but it’s no longer good enough just to view them as a doing-it-by numbers method of making easy money.

More attention needs to be paid to the details that often put customers off, such as ensuring there are adequate, clean toilets, providing extensive seating, replacing stodgy institutional catering with street food and – most important of all – doing your best to keep the beer cool and serve it in peak condition. Using a festival to launch brand-new beers is a good way of attracting punters. Plus the objective should be to make it an occasion in its own right in the local social calendar that will appeal beyond the community of “beer buffs”, for example by associating it with special events and hiring entertainment that fans will travel to see.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

False memory syndrome

To listen to a lot of people, you would imagine that, before 1 July 2007, the interior of English pubs was a wall-to-wall fug of tobacco fumes, and non-smoking provision varied between extremely rare and non-existent. Indeed, in many quarters, this has become the received wisdom. But, in reality, it simply isn’t true.

For a start, my recollection is that pretty much all pubs majoring on food were either predominantly non-smoking in dining areas, or at least had a substantial non-smoking section. Added to this, every single Wetherspoon’s had a non-smoking area, and in some of them Tim Martin had jumped the gun and imposed a complete ban, albeit at the cost of wet sales plummeting.

While less general, non-smoking areas were also far from unknown in pubs of a more wet-led nature. To give three examples familiar to me, the staunchly traditional Griffin in Heaton Mersey had designated one of five rooms as non-smoking, the customers of the Davenport Arms at Woodford had voted to make all of the interior non-smoking apart from the tap room, and the main bar area in the Railway at Heatley (now sadly demolished) was also non-smoking.

In the absence of a time machine, it’s difficult to prove this conclusively. However, we do have a kind of time machine at hand in the shape of the 2007 Good Beer Guide, the last one to be published before the ban. Selecting a few counties gives us, for example:

Cheshire: 73 pubs, 34 (47%) with a non-smoking area
Isle of Wight: 22 pubs, 11 (50%)
East Yorkshire: 43 pubs, 20 (47%)

Now, I’ve got better things to do than trawl through the entire book, but the picture is clear. In most areas, getting on for half of pubs provided a non-smoking area, so if that was important to you it wasn’t too difficult to find one. People made considerably more effort to seek out pubs with real ale in the early 70s. Maybe the GBG isn’t representative of the entire pub stock, but I’d say it goes light on both backstreet boozers and family dining pubs, so overall things balance out.

Clearly it was the case that you were much more likely to find a non-smoking area in a dining section than in one for general drinking. It was often observed that, in wet-led pubs, even when non-smoking areas were provided, they tended to get little use, as most people were in mixed groups including smokers. “Why do I have to use a smoking area to be with my friends?” the cry would go up.

However, it’s hardly very amicable to seek to deny your friends the ability to smoke just because you don’t like it. Friendship surely involves a bit of give and take. If your mates like going to a pub that plays loud rock music, then it’s up to you whether you go with them or not. It’s a classic case of revealed preference – that what people actually choose to do is more important than what they say. And it was quite clear that the vast majority put sociability ahead of avoiding tobacco smoke. At the end of the day, if you weren’t happy with your friends taking you to smoky places, maybe it was time to find some new friends.

The claim is also often heard that having a no-smoking section in a pub is like having a no-pissing section in a swimming pool. However, as Michael J. McFadden demonstrates in his book Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains, the two bear no comparison. “This claim is off by a factor of at least 15,000 air/water changes. In percentage terms, the antismokers are exaggerating by one million, five hundred thousand percent.” It’s loaded language akin to cyclists (both motor and pedal) describing car users as “cagers”, or people referring to isinglass in beer as “fish guts”. If these phrases come out, you know that you’re not going to get a measured, rational argument. And, really, if you think someone smoking thirty feet away is going to do you any harm whatsoever, you are being utterly hysterical.

Despite the claims, it wasn’t generally difficult to find non-smoking provision in pubs before 2007 if that mattered to you. But it seems that self-delusion, if not outright lying, is a defining characteristic of homo antismokerus.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The lark ascending

Well, I reached the milestone the other day of achieving 3,500 followers on Twitter. Now, I know it doesn’t really mean very much, as a good chunk of them are probably bots or porn accounts, but it does suggest I must be doing something right. It’s particularly pleasing considering how I must have lost about 25 followers in a day on my birthday last year after expressing pleasure at the result of the Brexit referendum, and a number were shed in the wake of the “Beersexismgate” controversy earlier this year. After passing a mark of this kind, the figure usually slips back again, but I’m pleased to report it’s currently standing on 3,509.

There seems to be a divide amongst Internet users between those who take to Twitter like a duck to water, but can’t see the point of Facebook, and those, undoubtedly greater in number, who take the opposite view. I have to say I fall firmly into the first camp. I do have a Facebook account, but it’s hard to really see much point when you have such a diverse collection of “friends” that anything you post will inevitably annoy some and bore most. Twitter, on the other hand, which I joined in the Autumn of 2012, is an endless source of entertainment and also functions very effectively as a news aggregation service.

I don’t claim any particular expertise on the subject, although I have already gained the ultimate accolade of being declared The Worst Person on Beer Twitter. But here are some thoughts on how I’ve gone about it and what has led to a modest amount of popularity.

For a start, develop a distinctive voice. A Twitter account should be *about* something, rather than just being “random thoughts of Mudgie”. The starting point is opposition to the Nanny State and the steady encroachment upon lifestyle freedom, prompted by the smoking ban, but also obviously extending to alcohol, food and soft drinks, and even activities such as playing conkers. Then there is a general interest in pubs and beer, focusing on the more traditional aspects rather than the “craft” scene, and the wider alcohol industry. There are cats and other cute and funny animals, humour, historic buildings and transport, classic rock music, and even the odd bit of sport, especially Test cricket. To some extent it’s a persona, but basically it’s me, or a subset of me, and plenty of people seem to think that mixture is worth following.

On the other hand, it’s also important what you don’t include. I’m conscious of being in a minority in the beer Twitter- and blogosphere in being a political conservative (with small “c”), and therefore don’t want to go too far to put people off. Yes, it is political, but in general it’s restricted to the politics of lifestyle and the alcohol business. There are one or two others on Twitter of whom I sometimes think “well, you talk a lot of sense about beer, so why spoil it with that crap about politics?” And, especially in the current climate, it is important that people value the interests they share and can get on even if they fundamentally disagree on some issues.

So I have another account where I can express opinions across a wider range of subjects. It may come across as a safety valve where Toady can say things that Mudgie steers clear of, but it fact its origins lie in wanting to be able to speak more forthrightly than I could on certain well-mannered web forums. Among its key themes are defence, transport and energy policy, which clearly are well outside Mudgie’s primary concerns. And the glory of Twitter is that, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.

And, on that note, it’s also a good idea to avoid arguing with people. That may seem strange, given Twitter’s reputation for rancour and vitriol. However, I prefer to regard as more like an evening down the pub, where you may discuss a variety of topics, engage in a bit of humour and banter, have a debate about this or that, but end up going home on good terms. Constructive discussion, and agreeing to differ, is fine, but if people start coming out with stuff like “haha, the filthy smokers deserve that”, then I’m not interested. You’ll end up being unfollowed and possibly even muted, which is a very useful tool. You’ll just end up spraying abuse into the ether.

I don’t think I’ve actually currently blocked anyone on beer Twitter, although one or two well-known names have blocked me, most notably Pete Brown, who is someone who would be well advised to keep beer and politics separate. At the end of the day, that says more about them than it does about me. And being blocked by Nanny-in-Chief Dr Sarah Wollaston MP is something of a badge of honour.

Basically, you get more out of Twitter if you keep on good terms with people rather than calling them names.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Gotta lotta bottle

Discussions about the recent sale of Charles Wells’ beer brands to Marston’s rather exposed the lack of knowledge about the wider beer market from many commentators whose expertise was predominantly at the cask and craft end of the spectrum. For example, some were inclined to pooh-pooh my contention that market presence in the Premium Bottled Ales sector was, if not the main driver behind the deal, a significant consideration.

One commenter said “I'd be surprised if the market for bottled brown beer is growing.” Thinking this was probably wrong, a little Googling led me to Marston’s most recent Premium Bottled Ale Market Report. Now, obviously this is written with the intention of promoting their products, but there’s no reason to believe any of the hard facts quoted in it are incorrect.

In 2015, the Premium Bottled Ales market was worth £538m, having risen by 92% over the previous six years. In the next five years, up to 2020, it is predicted to grow to £1 billion, a further rise of 86%. Now that certainly looks like a growth market to me. In contrast, the latest Cask Report states that the annual value of the cask market is £1.7 billion, but over the past five years it has only grown by 6%. Currently, the PBA sector is worth 32% of cask, but if we assume the same level of cask growth to 2020, it will then be worth 55%.

The graphic below, taken from the Marston’s report, shows the Top 20 premium bottled ales by value. Nothing much there to excite the enthusiast, but that is what people out there beyond the beer bubble are drinking. It includes four Marston’s and four Greene King products, but only one from Wells, McEwan’s No.1 Champion Ale. It isn’t widely appreciated just how big a product this is.

The overall beer market in the UK is declining. In the five years to the end of 2016, according to the BBPA statistics, total barrels sold fell by 6.5%. But, within this figure, the on-trade declined by 13.7%, while the off-trade rose by 1.5%, and that trend is only going to continue. The report also points out that ale and stout only account for 16% of off-trade beer sales, compared with 36% in the on-trade, so there is huge scope for growth if the figures are to be brought more in line with each other.

Of course in recent years all the excitement has been over the growth of the “craft” sector, but the report points out that the entire craft bottle and can sector only amounts to 8.7% of premium bottled ales, and 41% of that is one product – BrewDog Punk IPA. Very often, the main distinction seems to be bottle size, and there are a growing number of beers available in 500ml and stocked on the PBA shelves that, conceptually, surely qualify as “craft”, such as Saltaire Cascade Pale Ale and Adnams’ Jack Brand Ease Up IPA, which delivers a powerful dose of New World hops. And, if sales of craft ales grow and become more mainstream, then they are likely to increasingly to be subsumed within PBAs rather than sticking within their own category.

It’s also incorrect to think that the PBA sector is overwhelmingly composed of established, mature brands. There has been a substantial churn, with many new products being introduced, most notably in the category of golden ales. The biggest new product launch of 2014 was Hobgoblin Gold, worth £2.95m a year, and of 2015 Guinness Golden Ale, worth £2.16m. You may not think much of them, and indeed I find many of them to be rather wishy-washy, but that’s what drinkers are going for.

They may not set enthusiasts’ pulses racing, but in terms of market share Premium Bottled Ales continue to overshadow craft, and in the coming years they are likely to be the biggest area of growth in the ale market, if not the entire beer market.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Too much of a good thing?

Regular readers of this blog will have gathered that I strongly favour multi-roomed pubs with intimate spaces and cosy snugs over echoing, open-plan wastelands. However, the layout of any pub has to be considered in terms of how it actually works, and how the customers distribute themselves, and it has to be said that some designs, while looking good on paper, fall over in practice.

Last year, I praised Sam Smith’s for their refurbishment of the Swan at Holmes Chapel in Cheshire, which involved reinstating a number of small rooms. There’s a general description of the project here. However, even at the time, I have to say I felt a slight sense of unease that the individual rooms were too much separated from the bar. In my last post, I reported how the pub had recently dropped cask Old Brewery Bitter due to an insufficient level of sales, and my correspondent tells me that the locals are unhappy about the pub’s layout.

The plan above, courtesy of Michael Harris, (click to enlarge) shows the general arrangement. The bar counter is actually against the left-hand wall of the top right room, not the bottom, and the gents’ toilets are in a different place, but it still basically reflects how it is. Going in through the door on the left-hand side, facing the main road, there are four small rooms, two on each side of the corridor. The front bottom room was originally laid out as a vault, although I’m told the dartboard has now been removed. To the rear of that is a cosy snug with plush bench seating which to my mind is the best spot in the pub – see the photo below. This is where I encountered the amiable Porter, last year’s Pub Cat of the Year, who sadly vanished shortly afterwards.

Further back, there is the room containing the bar counter, shown below, and a further room opening off it which is used as a dining room. Many pub customers either want to stand at the bar, or sit fairly close to it, but the room it’s in is fairly small and has no fixed seating, while the four rooms at the front of the pub feel quite remote and cut off from it.

Thinking about other pubs, even those that have a complex, multi-roomed layout tend to put the bar at the centre of proceedings. This is certainly true in Stockport’s National Inventory pubs such as the Alexandra, Nursery, Swan with Two Necks and Arden Arms, plus others with a traditional layout such as the Blossoms and the Griffin in Heaton Mersey. The other week, I spent a few days in East Yorkshire during which I called in at two of Sam’s classic unspoilt gems, the Olde Blue Bell in Hull and the White Horse in Beverley. Both of these have plenty of small, cosy rooms, especially the latter, but both also have a long, centrally-located bar counter in a sizeable room with plenty of fixed seating, so customers can choose whether to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle or somewhere more secluded.

This is where the Swan falls down, and why a layout that looks appealing on the drawing board fails to work on the ground. I’m not quite sure how it was before, but my recollection is that it was more open-plan, with the bar counter on the left-hand side (top on the plan). To my mind, it would be better if the rearward top snug could be combined with the current bar room, and the counter moved so that it was against the left-hand wall. This would create a bigger bar area with more room for customers to circulate and mingle, and also bring the four remaining rooms into closer connection with it. But what’s done is done now.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Moving in mysterious ways

Twitter correspondent Michael Harris has recently reported that Sam Smith’s have removed cask Old Brewery Bitter from the Swan in Holmes Chapel, only just over a year after it was reinstated following the pub’s extensive refurbishment, which I described here. Apparently it just wasn’t selling quickly enough, leading to a lot of wastage. There’s nothing wrong with that approach in principle, and indeed some other pub operators would do well to follow it rather than struggling to sell cask where there’s insufficient demand.

However, looking at Sams’ mix of cask and keg pubs, it’s hard to believe that it’s applied in a consistent way. For example, surely the very popular Sinclair’s in Manchester city centre must easily have enough turnover for cask, and it’s hard to believe that the Roebuck in Rochdale town centre, which Tandleman wrote about here, doesn’t either. Likewise the well-situated and busy Duncan and General Eliott in Leeds city centre, both noted for their down-to-earth atmosphere and presumably shifting impressive barrelages.

On the other hand, cask seems to be almost ubiquitous in Sams’ clutch of rural and village pubs in Cheshire, some of which must have a much lower turnover than the urban boozers I mentioned above. Might a consideration be that some pubs have a more middle-class clientele that might be rather more resistant to the removal of cask beer? After all, how many keg –only pubs do you come across and think “that’s a missed opportunity for cask”? In general, it’s associated with inner-urban and estate pubs catering overwhelmingly for local trade.

Another curious feature of Sams’ pubs is the variation in the selection of keg beers available. They have a very wide range – I think 14 including the cider – and obviously most pubs would struggle to sell the lot, but what you get often seems quite arbitrary. Virtually all pubs seem to have OBB, whether cask or keg, Taddy Lager, Stout and Cider, but beyond that it can be pot luck.

The Boar’s Head in Stockport has pretty much the full range apart from the higher-strength India Ale and the rarely-spotted Best Bitter. The light mild is rarer than the dark, but most of the pubs Tandleman has visited in Rochdale don’t have either. One pub I visit has the excellent Double Four Lager, while another similar one doesn’t. Sovereign Bitter, which, although of similar strength, is an entirely different brew from OBB, sometimes crops up, and sometimes doesn’t.

The German Wheat Beer is, perhaps understandably, fairly rare, while the relatively strong and expensive India Ale doesn’t appear in the two Stockport town-centre pubs, and nor in most of their Cheshire estate, where presumably the fact that many customers will be driving is a consideration. I believe it is popular in their London pubs, though. In fact, finding a 5% keg bitter outside of a “craft” pub is quite a rarity. Incidentally, I recently tried this on draught for the first time in the White Horse in Beverley, and have to say it’s a beer I would drink more often if I came across it.

I wonder if anyone’s ever tried to make a serious analysis of what sells where, or whether it’s simply something that has developed arbitrarily over the years based on past trading patterns.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A matter of taste

I recently linked to an article entitled Ten Commandments for the Public House, which was a list of things that well-run pubs would do well to avoid. Perhaps surprisingly, the one that people seemed to take exception to was Number 5 – “don’t offer tasters of beer”.

In the early years of CAMRA, when the vast majority of pubs just offered a fixed beer range, the idea was unknown, and to ask for a sample would have been greeted with derision. However, as ever-changing guest beers have increasingly become the norm, the practice has become more and more common. If you go in a pub and are confronted with an array of ten beers you’ve never heard of before, it’s not unreasonable to ask for a taste before committing yourself to spending what now can often be approaching a couple of quid just for a half.

However, the range of flavours encompassed by the great majority of beers is fairly limited and predictable, so you’re unlikely to end up with something that really frightens the horses. If it doesn’t suit your palate, then just don’t buy it again. It’s also doubtful whether a small sample really gives a fair impression of what a beer is like. It’s often said that you don’t fully appreciate a beer until you reach the bottom of the glass. Recently, I was peering at the handpumps in a pub, and was offered a taster of one of them by the landlord (note that I didn’t ask for it). One sip seemed fine, but the actual pint ended up being distinctly hazy and yeasty, so the sample didn’t provide a fair representation.

Asking for tasters is obviously something likely to incur the wrath of both bar staff and other customers if you do it when they’re three deep at the bar. You can imagine the H. M. Bateman cartoon of “The man who asked for a taster in Wetherspoon’s at 10.30 on Friday night”. And it does seem to appeal to a certain type of person who can only be a dignified with the title of “tosser”. As Paul Mudge said on the Beer and Pubs Forum:

“My agreement with 5 is mainly from working at beer festivals and experiencing 'tasters' being abused, a customer asking "can I have a taster of A", "oh, no, I don't like that, can I have a taster of B", "oh, no, I don't like that, can I have a taster of C", "oh, that's a bit better, I think I'll have a third of a pint of of C", then doing precisely the same every half hour with a different volunteer each time, not just the time taken but always getting well over half a pint for the cost of a third.”
I’ve sometimes seen it argued that offering tasters is a good way of encouraging people to try cask beer. But surely, if anything, it just adds a layer of mystique to the subject, and the best way of promoting cask must be to keep it in good condition and offer beers that people actually want to drink and are likely to make repeat purchases.

One person on Twitter even suggested that asking for tasters was now necessary in view of the poor standards of cellarmanship in London pubs. He may be right on that, but the point of tasters is not to check whether the beer is off, and, as said above, a taster may not give a proper impression of the beer anyway. I’d say you have a reasonable expectation in any pub of not getting a duff pint and, if you do, the remedy is to take it back and ask for it to be changed.

Yes, if a beer has an unusual or challenging flavour, then offering tasters makes sense. But, for the great majority of beers, it’s just an affectation on a par with putting little jam jars of beer alongside the pumps to indicate the colour. And you never see people ask for tasters of lager, do you?

Friday, 19 May 2017

Wells I never!

Many industry watchers were taken by surprise at yesterday’s news that Marston’s were to acquire the brewing interests of Charles Wells for £55m. While Wells are not particularly prominent as pub operators, they also own the Young’s, Courage and McEwan’s brands and are major players in both the cask and premium bottled ale sectors. Production figures are hard to come by, but my understanding is that they, alongside Greene King and Marston’s, formed the “Big Three” of British-owned brewers, and this deal will clearly propel Marston’s into first place.

Marston’s have a fairly good track record in keeping open the breweries they have acquired, as acknowledged in CAMRA’s very measured press release, and I’d say there is little immediate threat to either the brands or the Bedford brewery. It’s a large, modern plant and possibly has a brighter long-term future than some of Marston’s other sites.

However, the deal takes a major player out of the market and must, to some extent, reduce the amount of competition. Inevitably, some beers will be singled out for investment and promotion while others, while remaining in production, are allowed to linger on in zombie brand status without any active support. It isn’t an immediate hammer-blow, but in the long term it isn’t really going to be good news.

The reduction of competition will be felt less in the cask sector than in premium bottled ales, where Marston’s, as well as their own label, Banks’s, Jennings, Wychwood and Ringwood, have recently acquired Wainwright and Lancaster Bomber from Thwaites, and have now added the four Wells brands on top of that. A surprising proportion of the shelf space will now be occupied by the products of one company. And, if times become harder in the future, the pressure will come for rationalisation of both brands and production facilities.

A few years ago, I was kindly given a number of samples of Wells & Youngs’s beers (as they then were) for tasting, which I reported on here. The conclusion was that they were a generally high-quality range of beers that demonstrated accomplished brewing skills and brought something distinctive to the market. It would be a pity if that were to be eroded over time. More recently they have introduced Charlie Wells Triple Hopped IPA, which is not really the “hop monster” the name might imply, but overlays a strong hop element on Well’s characteristic dry, malty base and is one of my favourites amongst currently available bottled ales.

By disposing of their brewing interests, Charles Wells will lose what made them distinctive, and end up just becoming yet another pub company.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Tough on pubs, tough on the causes of pubs

Amongst the proposals leaked this week in Labour’s election manifesto was one to carry out an enquiry into the reasons behind the “large-scale demise” of pubs. This comes across as quite jawdropping, given that the Labour government elected in 2005 both imposed the blanket smoking ban and introduced the alcohol duty escalator. Both of these, especially the former, have been major causes of the decline in pub numbers.

They also twice proposed cutting the drink-drive limit in England and Wales, which would have led to the closure of thousands more pubs, and might well have gone through with it if they had been re-elected in 2010. Whether this proposal stems from a genuine lack of self-awareness, or breathtaking chutzpah, is hard to tell. It’s rather like Dr Beeching calling for an enquiry into the reduction in railway mileage.

The whole thing is comprehensively demolished by Christopher Snowdon, which concludes by saying:

There seems to be a reasonable chance that the Labour government that banned smoking in pubs is the last Labour government Britain will ever have. Tony Blair resigned just days before the legislation came into force in 2007. If so, the final 'up yours' to the working class that the smoking ban represented would be a fitting bookend for a party that was once on the side of ordinary people.
It brings to mind the occasion back in 2009 when Alan Campbell, the Labour minister responsible for regulating the licensed trade, couldn’t recall the last time he’d actually been in one. No doubt if Jeremy Corbyn dared to venture into a pub somewhere outside of North London the customers would impart some home truths to him.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Degradation by stealth

The makers of Lucozade have recently come under a barrage of criticism for changing the formula of the drink to reduce the sugar content, to bring it into the middle band under the government’s sugar tax plans. This has been done for other products, such as Irn-Bru, but seems particularly inappropriate for Lucozade. While in recent years it has been marketed more as a lifestyle drink, it was originally specifically intended to have a high glucose content. That’s why you were given it as kid when you were ill and couldn’t stomach proper food. With the sugar content halved, it will also be of much less use to diabetics who previously often kept a can handy in case of a hypoglycaemic attack.

You can read the whole sorry story over at Chris Snowdon’s blog. What is most worrying about this is that it represents part of a concerted attempt to in effect change the national diet by stealthily cutting the sugar content of food and drink. As he reports, it’s not judged acceptable to introduce a new, lower-sugar variant and give people the choice, because apparently they wouldn’t buy it. This despite the fact that diet soft drinks already account for over half the market without any government arm-twisting. And nor should manufacturers retain the old formulation in a separate “classic” brand as that would be against the spirit of the policy.

As he points out, food manufacturers do not put salt and sugar in their products out of malice, but because they make them taste better. The scope for reducing sugar content in, say, chocolate bars is fairly limited if you still want them to be palatable, so at the end of the day the only option if the targets are to be met will be further cuts in portion size.

We saw something similar a few years ago in the form of government-inspired arm-twisting to get manufacturers to “take alcohol units out of the market” by reducing the strength of popular beer and cider brands. However, more recently things seem to have gone quiet on this front. In the alcohol market, the strength is much more prominent as a headline number on the bottle or can, and there is a wide range of brands in the market so there are more opportunities to switch if you’re not happy.

There’s also only so far you can go before you completely change the nature of the product. Twenty years ago, I admit to having a sneaking liking for Stella Artois which, at 5.2% ABV, was that little bit stronger than most of its competitors and also, despite being British-brewed, was actually made of some fairly decent ingredients. However, after having been reduced to 4.8% and the quality of materials cheapened, it’s now a very forgettable and wishy-washy liquid. Cut a premium lager further to 4.5%, and it’s no longer a premium lager. It’s also noticeable how it’s always beer and cider that are singled out for these cuts, and never wine or spirits.

Government-mandated measures also make it impossible to cut drink sizes without people noticing, although I’m sure the public health lobby are looking approvingly at all those titchy little “craft cans”, while regretting that the two-thirds measure has never taken off in the mainstream pub trade.

Reading all of this, its hard to avoid agreeing with Simon Cooke when he says It's time to close down public health and get our lives back.

Tablets of stone

It’s not very often that I come across an article in the media that has me nodding vigorously in agreement throughout, but this one in Spectator Life certainly qualifies: Ten commandments for the public house. Do read the whole thing, but the ten points very much come across as a Mudgie manifesto. He’s even got posing tables in there as #6!
  1. Don’t be pretentious
  2. Don’t serve food that takes more than six words to describe
  3. Don’t change your name
  4. Don’t pipe music
  5. Don’t offer tasters of beer
  6. Don’t fill the room with those bizarre high chairs
  7. Don’t fetishise the handled glass and its quaint dimples
  8. Don’t allow tables to be reserved
  9. Don’t upgrade your toilets
  10. Don’t plaster the walls with TVs
Incidentally, for the benefit of mobile readers, I’ve recently added a General Election poll to the sidebar of the desktop version. I’ll publish the final figures on June 8th, but please don’t share it around social media as it may distort the results.