Saturday, 29 December 2012

Halcyon days in Poynton?

I wrote here about how Wetherspoon’s had bought the former Kings Bar and Lounge in Poynton and were busy working on it with a view to opening on Tuesday 18 December, reverting to the pub’s original name of the Kingfisher. Well, that deadline was achieved, so I popped in to have a look.

It originally opened as a Greenall’s pub in 1959, and has the typical sprawling, low-built style of estate pubs of that era. There’s a plaque inside the door with some information about the pub’s history. Untypically for the Wetherspoon’s estate, it has a small car park, maybe with about 20 spaces, which was completely full shortly after noon.

I never visited it in its previous incarnation, so I don’t know if the layout has changed at all, but it’s largely open-plan, with a long bar counter down the right-hand side, a raised seating area to the left, and an odd windowless area with a skylight full of chairs and tables right in the middle. The toilets, in typical Wetherspoon fashion, are upstairs, which I doubt was an original feature.

The food and drink are the standard Wetherspoon offer, with ten handpumps on the bar and guest beers of up to 6.0% priced at £2.09. Interestingly, in view of my previous posting, amongst the beers on the bar was Harviestoun Schiehallion craft lager on keg. Some, but not all, of the food prices were a little higher than Stockport and Didsbury.

The interior design is unashamedly modernistic, and to my eye more resembles a modern upmarket McDonalds than a traditional pub. The colour scheme is predominantly pastel, the floors are bare wood or lino with geometric patterns, and many of the chairs are tubular steel rather than wood. The only bench seating is one stretch right at the far end, and there’s no shortage of high-level posing tables. It was also, on this particular visit, heated to an uncomfortable level, with a fierce downdraught of hot air right in front of the bar counter.

There’s an extensive discussion on the Poynton web forum here, and some photos here which give a reasonable impression of the interior. Like all Spoons, it does what it says on the can, and no doubt they have researched the potential marketplace thoroughly and it will prove a success. However, as a place to have a drink or a meal, I didn’t personally find it remotely congenial. Other Spoons, such as the Gateway, have a much more “pubby” feel to them.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Complements of the season

Over the years I have been consistently critical of the dogmatic “real ale good, keg beer bad” attitude but, on the other hand, I have seen precious little evidence of “craft keg” breaking out of the beer bubble and getting into mainstream outlets.

The dinosaur view that nothing that isn’t real ale is worth drinking remains surprisingly common even now. You can see it, for example, in the postings of Richard “chemical fizz” English on the CAMRA forum, and only this month there was a letter in our local CAMRA magazine Opening Times from a prominent local member saying “I would hope that Opening Times will in future drop the ‘craft keg’ and call keg beer ‘keg’ in whatever form it is marketed (treating it with disapproval rather than tacit acquiescence)”.

In contrast, many of the proponents of craft keg, most notably BrewDog, seem to see it as a stick to beat CAMRA with for being fuddy-duddy and out-of-touch. There’s a blogpost here from Hardknott Dave in which he – I think deliberately provocatively – portrays keg as the dispense method of the future for craft beers.

There’s an interesting article by Peter Jackson in the January issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing discussing ways of attracting younger drinkers, in which he points out the negative stereotype of real ale as a drink for middle-aged men with beards, and concludes:

CAMRA should take new craft keg on board and regard it as a friend rather than the spawn of Satan: it’s often innovative, good stuff with its heart in the right place; we drink it in Belgium, Bavaria and Prague and think it can be great. So why not embrace it here, see it for what it is, a bridge to the real thing?
There are various reasons why pubs and bars might want to stock craft keg beers
  • They are venues such as small hotels, social clubs and music venues where turnover is low and/or erratic
  • They want to offer a wider choice of unusual beers which may not sell in the volumes necessary for cask
  • They want to cater for drinkers who want a beer served colder than is traditional for cask
  • They want to put a toe in the water of offering a more “interesting” beer without committing themselves to selling twenty or more pints a day of it
But, on the other hand, thirty or forty years ago, the discerning beer drinkers of Britain decisively plumped for cask over keg ale on the grounds that, when properly looked after, it was quite simply better. They wouldn’t have continued buying real ale if it actually had been warm vinegary muck. The argument that now, across the board, keg is “better” doesn’t really wash.

All of this suggests that craft keg is something that, in the overall marketplace, should complement cask beer rather than being its direct rival. It can bring good beer to places where cask cannot reach. To my mind, it will always remain a niche product, and the large majority of decent ale served on draught in British pubs will continue to be cask. And, as I’ve said before, the big opportunity for British micros to expand keg sales may well lie in lager rather than in ale.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

A cheesy gift

As someone known to have an interest in beer, over the years I’ve received my fair share of rather naff beer-related Christmas gifts. Possibly the worst was a set of four “Great British Ales”, in 275 ml bottles, three brewed by Ridgeway Brewery, the other being Elgood’s Black Dog, with strengths of 3.0%, 3.2%, 3.6% and 4.0%. Whoever got away with charging a fiver for that made a mint. And, while I’ve never received one myself, I’m sure in the past I’ve seen one of “Lagers of the World” including both Fosters and Stella. This isn’t much better – and I think all four are British-brewed.

However, I thought this gift pack of Lancashire cheese and ale which I received this year was actually very decent. Traditional farmhouse Lancashire cheese together with a couple of decent beers from a Lancashire family brewery, and oatcakes and chutney, is a good combination. In many ways the ideal gift is something that will be appreciated by the recipient, but which they wouldn’t have bought themselves, and this fitted the bill perfectly.

Gill Hall, third generation cheese maker at Butlers said of the new product, “Lancashire has a rich foodie heritage and we wanted to create a gift that showcased this. All our cheeses are made from milk from local farms so we chose to match it with two local ales that complement the soft, open texture of our traditional creamy Lancashire with their complex flavours. Cheese and beer make an excellent pairing so we hope people will enjoy this special Christmas gift!”

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Enemy within the gates

A comment by Phil alerted me to the dubious delights of CAMRA’s Nottingham Drinker magazine:

I've just got back from Nottingham, where I had a pretty foul pint of flabby, metallic-tasting beer while reading the local CAMRA magazine - which featured a column applauding the decision to bar a local offie from selling anything over 6.5%. The enemy is already within the gates, I fear. (Other odd features of the mag included what appeared to be a regular column contributed by the local police. I was glad to get back to Opening Times-land.).
Further investigation reveals that, not only does the magazine include a column from the police, it also includes one from an anti-drink pressure group. See here to download the latest issue.
News from Suffolk: The local Police, fed up with ‘offies’ selling super-strength cider and lager to known nuisance characters, are encouraging the offies to stock nothing above 6.5% ABV. It is a voluntary scheme, with a slow take up, but it is a positive step towards dealing with the products that are associated with most of the problems. Responsible drinkers will be heartened by this news and we look forward to seeing the scheme adopted locally.
Oh, sorry, I had a bottle of Duvel (8.5% ABV) the other day which I bought from Tesco on a 3 for 2 offer. Apparently I am not a responsible drinker and don’t feel in the slightest degree “heartened”.

In what weird and perverted world do those who claim to stand up for pubs, beer drinkers and breweries see it as in any way sensible to give a mouthpiece to those who abhor all those things? Has Nottingham CAMRA somehow been infiltrated and taken over by the anti-drink lobby?

And, of course, the police are no friends of pubs either.

To his credit, the editor of our local CAMRA magazine Opening Times will have no truck with such appeasing nonsense.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Smoked out

In the days of the old licensing laws, the “lock-in” where a pub continued serving after hours to a group of favoured customers was commonplace, and was often carried out with the full knowledge of the local police, if they were confident no trouble would result.

With the liberalisation of licensing hours, that probably happens much less often now but, following the 2007 smoking ban, it has been replaced by the “smoke-in”, where the doors are shut and the ashtrays come out. Various comments over the past five years have suggested this is very widespread.

But, apparently, Bolton Council see it as a priority to clamp down on such outrages.

Lesley O’Reilly, who is landlady of the Gilnow Arms in Deane, has been fined £500 and ordered to pay a further £510 in costs and surcharge after pleading guilty to failing to prevent smoking inside the pub.

Speaking after she was sentenced at Bolton Magistrates’ Court yesterday, Ms Reilly said: “I really think they have killed the trade with this law.

“Why can’t we give smokers a room inside where they can go instead of them having to stand outside.” The court was told the pub was visited at 1.25am on May 13 by council enforcement officers and police as part of a routine inspection.

The front door was closed and curtains shut, but the officers were allowed inside after knocking on the door and they smelled smoke.

Rebecca Kirk, prosecuting on behalf of Bolton Council, said one man was stood at the bar smoking a cigarette with an ashtray at his side and Ms O’Reilly was sitting with a woman who was smoking a hand -rolled cigarette.

Altogether there were four ashtrays out in the pub, containing a total of 18 cigarette butts.

Whatever happened to the old policy of turning a blind eye? £27.78 per butt – that is beyond harsh.

One of the comments on the article is very telling:

The smoking ban HAS killed the pub trade..fact! All the people who said they hated smoke filled pubs never went in in the first place, and they certainly don't go in now.

And what are the council doing organising a posse of officers and police at that time in the morning just to find 18 cigarette stubs and somebody smoking a cig and somebody smoking a roll up. Pathetic!

There are far worse things going on in 'the suburbs' going on...ah but council officers won't go there.

In an era of cutbacks and austerity, it is beyond belief that Bolton Council thought it worthwhile to spend council tax payers’ money on such a vindictive crusade. And I hope the scumbag who grassed the pub up feels thoroughly pleased with his efforts.

Not so black Friday

Yesterday was widely described as “black Friday” – the day of the year on which most pressure is placed on emergency services from drunken revelry. Fortunately none of this resulted from the latest occurrence of Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA’s annual Hillgate Stagger. Sadly, the number of pubs serving cask beer is now depleted to eight, but on the other hand this gives more chance to linger in each one.

There was a good turnout, all the pubs (apart, perhaps, from the Sun & Castle) seemed to be doing a healthy trade and there wasn’t a bad pint to be had. The Fairway, reborn from Robinson’s closed Flying Dutchman, seemed to be doing very well. There were some heroic drunks to be seen, especially in the first couple of pubs where presumably they had been at it all day. We were even favoured with an appearance by @CarpeZytha. And the world was duly set to rights over some stunning Old Tom in the final pub, the Blossoms.

This pub crawl may not offer the world’s widest or most exotic choice of beers, but as a way of experiencing authentic English pub life it is hard to beat. And nobody suggested that I looked like Ronnie Barker! For me, almost certainly the best pub night of a generally crappy year.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Then they came for the pub drinkers

It often seems to be assumed by people involved in the pub trade that either alcohol minimum pricing won’t affect them at all, or it may even help them by making cheap off-trade drinks less attractive.

However, it should be remembered that the University of Sheffield study which has been used as justification for the proposals actually said that the most beneficial results would come from setting differential minimum prices for the on- and off-trades, with the former more than twice as high.

And now it seems that Newcastle City Council are taking them at their word by imposing a minimum price of no less than 125p/unit as a licensing condition for two city-centre bars.

Decantus (30-32 Grey St) and the Grey St Café Bar and Grill (77 Grey St/21-27 Market St) have been awarded a premises licence subject to a condition that alcohol is sold at set prices which equate to minimum price of £1.25 per unit of alcohol.

This is nearly three times the 45p per unit price currently subject to government consultation.

These prices have been agreed as a condition in order to maintain standards and to keep the street as the city’s premier street.

The minimum prices will apply at all times during which alcohol may be supplied under the premises license and there will be no specific trading hours/evenings when alcohol is discounted below the minimum agreed price and used as a vehicle to attract customers.

This initiative by the city council, with the full cooperation of the applicants, is designed to maintain the quality of the city centre, control crime and disorder and improve health. It also seeks to end the availability of the most irresponsibly priced alcohol by controlling multi-buy promotions which lead to irresponsible drinking.

Bear in mind that this is well above the price of most draught beer sold in the North-West. It would make a pint of Robinson’s Unicorn three quid, and it’s over twice the unit price of some of the stronger guest ales sold in Spoons. It’s a fat lot of good campaigning for an end to the duty escalator if pubs are prevented from taking advantage of it anyway.

No doubt some will say that it’s only a couple of posers’ bars in the centre of Newcastle which is notorious for alcohol-fuelled disorder. But I’d like to bet there’s a Spoons within a few hundred yards that is now anxiously looking over its shoulder. And how many times have we been told that some principle will never be extended only to find ourselves rapidly sliding down a slippery slope?

This seems to be an example of a growing trend for councils to make up the law as they go along by imposing licensing conditions that go well beyond legal requirements. For example, we have just seen Perth and Kinross council prevent a new Sainsbury’s supermarket selling any beers or ciders above 5.5%, which excludes many craft favourites such as Duvel, Old Tom and even Punk IPA. Let us hope that in future the likes of Wetherspoon’s and Tesco manage to mount a robust legal challenge and leave the councils with egg on their faces.

Edit: and it seems as though the Newcastle plan may well be legally questionable.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Taking years off your life

Sometimes you get a wonderful juxtaposition of stories in the papers, and today provided a good example of this. On the one hand, we had the Daily Mail in characteristic scaremongering mode saying:

Although Christmas is a time to eat, drink and be merry, each day of over-indulgence can reduce your life expectancy by at least half an hour.

Indeed, smoking, having a couple of drinks, eating red meat and watching television at any time of the year can each knock at least 30 minutes off your life expectancy for every day you indulge.

But by taking things in moderation each day by sticking to just one alcoholic drink, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, and exercising, you could claw two hours back.

I’m sure that will go down very well over the festive season. As one commenter said “Oh dear..have just worked out how many Mince pies I have eaten and guess what ?..... I DIED 3 YEARS AGO !”

But, on the other hand, the Daily Telegraph reports that people are living longer and longer, and even exceeding previous forecasts of increasing life expectancy.

I know which report I will give more credence to. In reality, despite all the health panics and alleged timebombs, people are on average eating better diets and taking more care of themselves – it isn’t purely down to medical advances. But longevity should not be seen as an end in itself, as the medical community often seem to imply, and there is little point in living to a great old age if you never enjoy yourself along the way.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Loss (of brain) leading

Call Me Dave has recently made the claim that supermarkets are subsidising alcohol sales at the expense of wholesome food by selling alcohol cheaply, or even at a loss.

This has been vigorously debunked by Tim Worstall and by Legiron. Amongst the points they make are:

  • Supermarkets don’t make profits by selling any significant proportion of goods at a loss
  • Most discounts are in any case funded by manufacturers rather than retailers
  • Supermarkets will only make money by subsidising one part of a customer’s basket at the expense of other parts. They won’t make money by subsidising some customers at the expense of others
  • Supermarkets are in general cheaper than other retailers, even those who don’t sell alcohol, across the whole range of goods
Cameron’s comment that “there are some supermarkets that discount tins of high-strength lager down to, you know, 25-30p” is completely untrue and just shows how out-of-touch he is. In reality, you would struggle to get one below £1.50.

And I love this comment from Legiron:

It’s simple. If any shop is making a consistent loss on a product line, they stop selling it. That’s why the beer selection changes – if it’s not popular, it doesn’t get re-stocked. No shop anywhere is going to put up the price of their standard fare (McEwan’s Export in these parts) to subsidise the loss-making craft beer known as Jock McSquirty’s Bowel Purger.
To be honest, all this really proves is how disconnected Dave is from the ordinary voter.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Grape and grain

When I was a kid, we never had any drink in the house apart from at Christmas. At Christmas dinner, it was bottles of Greenall’s Bullseye Brown Ale (once I was old enough, I would get a shandy), and a glass of port to follow. It was probably the late 70s before a bottle of Lutomer Riesling actually graced the Christmas dinner table.

But, since then, there has been a dramatic change in British drinking habits. More and more, having a bottle of wine at home has replaced having a few pints down the pub. Between 1980 and 2010, according to the BBPA statistics, wine consumption grew by 148%, while beer consumption fell by 46%. You get the impression that, for many families, and not just those in the comfortable middle classes, cracking open a bottle with the evening meal is now routine.

So I thought I would ask how often people drank wine at home. Obviously the readership of this blog is going to be more beer-focused than the average person, but even so 23% of respondents said they drank wine at home more than once a week, although 59% said they did so less than one a month. There’s a very clear polarisation between frequent drinkers and rare-or-never drinkers. It would be interesting to see what a similar survey of the general population revealed. It would also be interesting to see an analysis of singles vs couples.

Dead in the water

Or so is minimum pricing south of the Border, according to a report in today’s Sunday Telegraph. Isn’t it fun when the wheels come off a stupid and ill-considered plan? Apparently, even Cleggy finds it a bit “illiberal”.

A well-placed coalition source said: “Minimum alcohol pricing looks dead in the water and the search has begun in Whitehall for an exit strategy which will allow the maximum amount of face saving.

“You have now got an alliance which includes the current Home Secretary and the minister responsible for the policy, the former health secretary, the Education Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister. They see it as a tax on the poor.”

The odds must be shortening now on that face-saving strategy including an above-escalator duty rise in next year’s Budget. Hopefully all the useful idiots who imagined minimum pricing might help pubs will feel duly pleased with themselves when that happens. Why not just attack sky-high duties for what they are, an unreasonable imposition on all drinkers, rather than portraying a duty cut as a magic bullet for pubs?

And it makes Salmond’s position in Scotland look increasingly untenable. How long before he retreats with his tail between his legs, no doubt blaming the English as he goes?

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Whining and dining

The various CAMRA branches in Cheshire collectively produce a quarterly magazine called Out Inn Cheshire. It’s an attractive-looking A5 publication on glossy paper with colour throughout and contains a lot of pub news and features about individual pubs. If it has a fault, it is in adopting an overwhelmingly positive and upbeat tone which can eventually become a little too much.

One area in which this can become irritating is in the often fawning praise given to “dining pubs”. Now, obviously in this day and age, few pubs can survive without offering food, especially in suburban and rural locations, and if you’re doing food at all it is better done well than half-heartedly. But, if taken too far, there comes a point when a pub offers such a dusty welcome to the casual drinker that, while it still may be in technical terms a “public house”, it has forfeited the right to be regarded as such. Sadly, more and more once characterful pubs in Cheshire are falling into that category, and maybe a more critical eye is needed as to whether pubs still manage to retain their original function to any extent.

The latest issue includes a frankly gushing review of the newly refurbished Three Greyhounds at Allostock which is described as “a very welcome addition to the fine dining scene in Vale Royal”. This was the pub referred to here – sadly the memorably bad write-up I linked to is no longer online. The author waxes lyrical about his £10.95 Porterhouse Burger which he says was “a fantastic juicy, flavoursome large burger that was simply delicious and bursting with flavour”. It’s enough to make you want to rush to Spoons for that £6.69 gourmet burger with drink included! He also complains about having to go to the bar to order food rather than having a waiter come to the table to take it. Er, what does he think it is, a restaurant?

I also spotted that amongst the sandwich fillings on offer was Hen’s Egg Mayonnaise. Wow, eggs from hens! Wonders will never cease...

On the other hand, there is also a piece about the Black Swan at Hollins Green/Rixton winning the North Cheshire CAMRA Community Pub of the Year award for 2012. From the description, this seems to do a fairly good job of catering for both diners and social drinkers. Having used this as a guinea-pig to test out online pub guides I will have to make the effort to visit it some time.

The runner-up in this award was the Antrobus Arms at Antrobus, which it says “has been visited by the Cheshire Forest Hunt this season, and plays host to two gun clubs.” I can imagine that sticking in a few craws! As a complete aside, I remember calling in this pub with my father many years ago when it was called the Wheatsheaf. A guy had a dog of the bull terrier type and fed it a packet of pork scratchings which it rapidly wolfed down. A few minutes later the dog had thrown them back up again in the middle of the floor, and the look on its face was the absolute definition of a “hang-dog expression”.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Can’t say I’m surprised

I had to raise a wry smile at this report that the Scottish ban on multibuy alcohol discounts was actually leading to people buying wine more often.

Accolade Wines’ latest WineNation Report, which combines consumer insight with figures from research companies Nielsen, CGA and Kantar, claims Scottish consumers have been buying wine more often since the legislation was introduced last October.

Accolade claims this has helped to attract new drinkers to the wine category.

The report found that consumers who bought the most wine have increased purchases by 1.3% since last October, with consumers defined as ‘light shoppers’ increasing their purchase frequency by 34.4%.

Overall, wine volumes dropped 3.1% in Scotland between July 2011 and July 2012, broadly in line with a UK decline of 2.8% – despite there being no multi-buy bans in England or Wales.

It’s clear that all this has done is to shift consumption patterns around, and the idea that multibuys lead people to buy and drink more than they otherwise would is groundless. So what on earth is the point of repeating it south of the border?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Another two fingers

Following my post earlier in the week about online pub guides, commenters suggested another couple of sites that were worth looking at. Both are to a greater or lesser extent London-centred, which is maybe why they hadn’t come to my attention.

First up is Fancyapint? This describes itself as “a pub guide to London pubs and other pubs in the UK” and claims to have 33,686 pubs on its database. One of the pubs featured on the front page is the Grey Horse in Manchester. It’s a smart-looking site, although perhaps with a little too much advertising clutter. However, it’s let down by a rather clunky search facility based on Google Maps, and if you’re looking at a particular pub it doesn’t show a list of other nearby pubs. There are quite a lot of pubs listed outside London, but the selection comes across as somewhat random. The Black Swan only has a placeholder. Like most of these sites, information about pubs is entirely dependent on content submitted by users.

Then there is Pubs.com, which says that it is “an independent guide to traditional English pubs”. This is another professional-looking site, and has a better search facility which will display all listed pubs close to any selected location. However, once you’re outside London the coverage is very patchy, much more so than Fancyapint?, and often seems to add up to no more than a scattering of pubs that readers happen to have come across. For example, there are only 11 pubs listed within 20 miles of Stockport, and none in the town itself. There’s no mention whatsoever of the Black Swan. Having said that, where there is a listing the entries are reasonably informative, with a general description of the pub and also opening hours and food serving times which few of the other sites mention. See, for example, this entry for the Marble Arch in Manchester.

To my eye, Pubs.com is the better of the two, but both are very much London-oriented and so don’t really stand up as national guides. If you were only interested in pubs in London they would probably be a lot more useful.

However, as I said in my previous post, what is really needed is for one site to develop sufficient critical mass that it starts to attract all the user contributions that are currently spread too thinly in ten or more different places.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Let them drink craft beer!

Mark Daniels is a long-standing columnist for The Publican and The Morning Advertiser, and in the past I’ve sometimes linked to his comments as a good example of common sense, particularly with regard to the smoking ban.

But I have to say his latest column is very wide of the mark. Minimum Pricing won’t make alcohol expensive, he says. Well, in a sense it won’t. Anyone on a comfortable income won’t regard £3.20 for a four-pack of Carling, or £4.50 for a bottle of red, or £12.60 for a bottle of Scotch, as “expensive” in any meaningful sense. Although I’ve occasionally taken advantage of prices below that level, it won’t make any difference to the amount of off-trade drinks I buy.

But there are a lot of people, who buy a lot of drinks priced well below that level. If your £9.99 bottle of vodka goes up to £12.60, it will be an overnight increase of over 25%. It may not make it “expensive” in middle-class terms, but it will make it a lot more expensive.

Large numbers of people on modest incomes will experience very substantial increases in the prices of their regular alcohol purchases.

Sadly this is yet another example of the arrogance and delusion of so many involved in the pub trade. Making cheap alcohol dearer won’t bring a single extra customer into your pubs. It might generate rather more customers for the bootleggers, though.

As Churchill once said, “an appeaser is someone who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last”. Well, good luck with that one, Mark.

The world at your fingertips

The point is often made – for example in the comments to this review of the 2013 Good Beer Guide – that there is no longer any need for printed pub guidebooks, as all the information is readily available on the Internet. However, although there is a huge amount about pubs on the Internet, how usable is it, and how do the various pub websites measure up?

An important point is that people are not always looking for the same thing from pub websites. Sometimes they might just be looking for any pubs that may be of interest in an unfamiliar area, or they may be trying to find out more detailed information on a specific pub, and that may be specifically relating to the dining experience, or concerned with broader aspects of the pub such as the general ambiance or beer range.

So let’s look at a few of the well-known pub websites and see how they measure up.

First up is Beer in the Evening, which is possibly the market leader. It describes itself as “officially the UK's biggest and busiest pub, bar and club guide,” and it certainly has a very wide coverage. It includes all types of pubs, not just food-led ones, and probably has the most reader comments of any site. The “other nearby pubs” feature works well. However, there is very little editorial information about the pubs, and the overall design is a bit like a boring pint of brown beer. The search facility also leaves something to be desired, and if you don’t know the correct name of the settlement in which a pub is located you may have difficulty finding it at all. Plus I once submitted a new - and very deserving pub - to the site and it never ended up being added.

Next is the Good Pub Guide, based on the publication of the same name. This unashamedly majors on upmarket dining pubs, but at least you know what you’re getting. The search facility is pretty good, with the ability to find all pubs within x miles of a particular location, and the database of pubs is fairly comprehensive. However, very few have any kind of editorial comment. There are some user comments, but nowhere near as many as on BITE.

Then there is Pub Explorer. This has a very good map-based search facility which enables you to home in on your chosen area quickly and easily. Once you are there, there’s a comprehensive display of all the pubs with their locations. However, the site then falls down as it appears that the only pubs with any information are those where it has been loaded by the major managed pub operators, so there’s effectively nothing about the majority. There’s also no facility for user comments.

Pubs Galore has an attractive appearance and the facility for users to add both comments and photos. There’s also a good search facility. However, it’s entirely dependent on users to add information with the result that coverage is distinctly patchy. It also says “Pubs Galore exists to promote good pubs, if your purpose is solely to leave negative reviews of pubs you dislike, they will be deleted”. This is fair enough, but does result in a rather bland site, whereas some of the negative comments on BITE can be quite amusing and also in some cases genuinely telling.

Pub Utopia uses a Google-based search method. It appears to have a pretty comprehensive listing of pubs, and does offer the facility for users to add comments. However, actual detail about pubs is dependent on being added by licensees and overall, while there’s nothing wrong with the concept, it lacks sufficient critical mass of information to be at all useful.

Finally there is Trip Advisor, which is primarily a hotel website, but also includes locations and reviews of restaurants, which covers many food-oriented pubs too. While not the place to look for unspoilt boozers, the fact that it does generate a lot of customer reviews does make it worthy of investigation if you’re after a pub meal.

So how do these sites measure up when looking for a specific pub? As an example, I have chosen the Black Swan, which was CAMRA’s North Cheshire Community Pub of the Year for 2012. It’s not one of the “usual suspects” and indeed is a pub I have never personally visited. It is situated at the extreme north-east of the modern county of Cheshire where it is perhaps easily overlooked. It also suffers from the fact that its location is variously known as Hollinfare, Hollins Green and Rixton.

Beer in the Evening doesn’t cover it at all – and also seems to have no pubs in nearby Cadishead.

The Good Pub Guide has a limited amount of information provided by the licensees, plus a photo and a lot of reader comments. This is probably the best result of the six.

Pub Explorer has nothing but the location, and neither does Pub Utopia, although the latter also gives me a rather offputting advert for a mature dating site. Pubs Galore is little better, but it does at least have a couple of photos of the pub.

Trip Advisor has some photos and a number of customer reviews of varying quality, but no editoral information.

So, in summary, an overall poor result for this pub, with only the Good Pub Guide achieving what I would call even half-way decent coverage. It is also a feature of these sites that some of the reviews, particularly of the food, can be so gushing in tone that it is hard to believe they are genuine. Would anyone really write:

"The food is now fabulous serving beautiful juicy steaks and the fish and chips are to die for. The duck is a masterpiece and we have eaten here three times in the last few months without finding a single fault. The staff deserve a special mention too because they are so friendly and helpful. It's been a long time coming but we have at last found somewhere truly outstanding to eat right on our own doorstep."

CAMRA are in the process of developing a national pubs database at www.whatpub.com, but this is currently still in beta and only available to members. It also doesn’t give much information for the Black Swan despite its recent award-winning status. Some of the coverage is actually pretty good, including that of my local area, but it is very much dependent on the level of input from local branches, and it doesn’t have any facility for users to all their own comments.

As a conclusion, some of the key features I would be looking for in a pub website are:

  • Comprehensive coverage
  • Covers all types of pub, not just dining pubs
  • As much information as possible about each pub
  • Some kind of editorial description for each pub
  • Information about beer range, not just food
  • Information about smoking facilities, or lack of
  • Link to pub websites, especially for menus
  • Photos
  • Opportunity for users to add comments
  • Flexible, easy-to-use search facility
  • Easy to use on a smartphone
  • “Other nearby pubs” feature
Personally I also think it is useful if a website makes some kind of value judgment about the information it is presenting rather than just offering a uniform database. The Good Beer Guide does this implicitly by only including pubs that CAMRA members believe serve good beer and, while it may not be your cup of tea, the Good Pub Guide also majors on a specific kind of establishment, so you know what you are getting.

In many aspects of the Internet, one service seems to end up dominating and squeezing everyone else out – just look at Google and search. But that’s still a long way off for pubs, and the pub website scene remains fragmented with nothing anywhere near reaching that killer status, and all the sites on offer seriously deficient in at least one aspect, often more. Maybe if one became more dominant it would start to build up a critical mass of user-generated information.

If there’s any better pub site out there, please let me know!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Slow food revisited

Yesterday would have been my late father’s birthday, so I took my mother to leave some flowers at the crematorium and after that we went for what we hoped would be a nice pub lunch. However, and not for the first time, the occasion was largely spoiled by an excessive wait between ordering and food being served. If you have to go back to the bar to ask about the progress of the food they have failed, big time.

The food was actually quite decent once it arrived forty-five minutes later and, to be fair, they did apologise and give us free desserts. But it shouldn’t have to be like that. As I said in the linked post, in contrast, my experience is that Spoons’ food is always served pretty promptly once ordered. I won’t name the establishment, but it’s an Ember Inn, not somewhere they go out and freshly slaughter a pig in response to your order.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Inertia rules

I was recently discussing, in an entirely different context, how people in positions of authority greatly overestimate the effect that small changes in rules and regulations will have on people’s actual behaviour. The new beer tax regime introduced in October last year is a perfect example.

Basically this halved the duty for beers of 2.8% or below, and added an extra 25% duty for beers above 7.5%. Now, I have to say I was a bit sceptical at the time about how much difference this would make, but even I expected that, at the lower end, one of the major cooking lager brands would have a go with a 2.8% brand extension, and at the top end someone would try cutting the strength of some “tramp juice” to 7.5% to sell at a substantially lower price.

But neither of these things has happened. Yes, a few new 2.8% ales have been introduced, but none seem to have gained much traction. The biggest brand would appear to be Skol, which was cut from a whacking 3.0%. This despite the fact that the duty+VAT on a 440ml can at 2.8% is only 14.4p, so surely with the right marketing four cans at £1.79 or a 12-pack for a fiver could have been a successful proposition. Although Gold Label has had its strength reduced, all of the four main super lager brands remain defiantly at 9.0%, with their prices correspondingly increased.

This just serves to underline how wedded consumers are to existing habits – clearly no brewer thought it worthwhile to make a big effort to respond to these new market opportunities, although surely one or two had a good look at it.

And, ironically, minimum pricing would pretty much wipe out any effect from these changes anyway, at least in the off-trade. While a 2.8% beer will attract a lot less duty than a 4.0% one, you won’t be able to sell it any cheaper in unit terms. That four-pack will need to be at least £2.22. And, when I last visited, Tesco were selling 4x440ml cans of both Carlsberg Special and Tennent’s Super for £7.09, which is pretty much bang on 45p/unit. Clearly, although the margin will be less than with a weaker beer, it will still be profitable to sell 9.0% beers at that price.

So, in retrospect, the whole exercise looks like futile tinkering that has done nothing significant to change the beer market.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Minimum windfall

One of the charges levelled against minimum alcohol pricing is that it would end up transferring money from the pockets of poor drinkers to wealthy corporations. Undoubtedly there is a certain amount of truth in that – if you were a consumer of cheap drinks, and wanted to maintain your alcohol intake, you would have to fork out more, and it would also take off a lot of the pressure of competitive discounting at the bottom end of the market. To some extent, it would be a legalised price-fixing ring by producers and retailers.

However, it’s important not to exaggerate this effect. For a start, rather than just having their prices increased, the bottom-end products would tend to disappear entirely from the market. As I’ve said before, why drink The Claymore when you can have Famous Grouse for the same price? Supermarket own-brand beers, ciders and spirits would be pretty much a thing of the past. So some of the extra spending would go on higher production costs.

Plus, if you were no longer allowed to use price as a marketing tool, then more money would be freed up to spend on other kinds of promotion. There would be increased advertising spend, competitions and maybe even – if still allowed – a rise in offers of the “buy three bottles and get a free glass” type. And it would still be entirely possible to discount higher-priced drinks, so the buyers of premium ales, malt whiskies and mid-market wines might find themselves getting a better deal at the expense of the poor.

A competitive market – which this still would be – always finds a way of eliminating windfall profits over time. And if it began to look as if alcohol producers and retailers were creaming it in from minimum pricing, then inevitably there would be a temptation for government to get more of the cake for itself by reducing the gap between the duty level and the minimum price.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Raise a glass to Drinkuary!

As a response to Alcohol Concern’s joyless Dry January initiative, a group has been set up called Drinkuary. They set out their aims as follows:
Drinkuary is a quiet counter argument to Alcohol Concern’s “Dry January”. Alcohol Concern want you to not have a drink for the whole month and raise money for them whilst you do so, I don’t care one way or another if you drink or not. I do care that tax funded charities and health organisations feel compelled to tell us how to live our lives. Quite frankly I’m fed up with it, alcohol is heading down the same slippery slope that tobacco has already been forced down with health warnings in every advert and on every label. Yet still these Killjoys and Puritans can’t just let us make up our own minds, nope they have to spend more of our money lecturing us on how we’re drinking too much and having too much fun and should stop it immediately.
Please go along and have a look – sign up to their Facebook event page, get an icon for your blog or website (as shown in the left-hand sidebar) and maybe request some free beermats for your pub or club.

Despite Alcohol Concern’s best (or should that be worst?) endeavours, January doesn’t have to be bleak and miserable.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Levelling the playing field

If alcohol was suddenly discovered then (assuming it wasn’t immediately banned) it would almost be certainly be taxed at a uniform rate depending on the amount of the alcohol in the drink. However, in practice we have a confusing and somewhat inconsistent system of alcohol duties, with different regimes applying to cider, beer, wine, and spirits, and some drinks taxed at a flat rate while others are pro rata to the alcohol content.

There is some point to this, though, as broadly speaking weaker drinks are taxed less heavily than stronger ones, Partly this is to reflect the higher production and distribution costs and also, as I said here, while it is invidious to claim that one form of alcohol is “better” than another, it is less like hard work to abuse spirits and therefore there is a case for the tax system sending a message that they need to be treated with a certain amount of respect. It’s important to remember that Hogarth contrasted the squalor of Gin Lane with the prosperity of Beer Street – the former was certainly not making a general point about the evils of drink

This is a distinction that will be seriously undermined by minimum pricing, as pointed out in this blog post by Damian McBride which was mentioned by Phil of Oh Good Ale. Yes, it is that Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s disgraced spin doctor, but he does have a background of working in the Treasury on alcohol duties and on this subject does seem to have some idea what he is talking about. Under minimum pricing, at the lower end of the market all drinks will sell at the same price per unit of alcohol, regardless of duty, thus giving a relative boost to spirits at the expense of beer and cider, maybe not quite what the anti-drink lobby are hoping to achieve.

(He’s wrong about Buckfast though – my understanding is that it generally retails for well above 45p/unit anyway, and its main appeal is not so much cheapness as its high caffeine content).

McBride makes another good point here that minimum pricing would in practice be difficult to enforce and would tend to favour the outlets that are often least controlled and responsibly run, namely small corner shops, again not perhaps the consequence sought by the anti-drink lobby.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Run aground

The Winter 2012-13 edition of Wetherspoon News has a full-page feature on the Ship of Fools in Croydon entitled “Pub provides a positive force for community good”. The article explains how the manager of the pub has worked hard to improve community relations following the 2011 riots in the town. The pub even managed to win the Pub of the Year award in Croydon Council’s “Best Bar None” scheme. What an uplifting good news story about the pub trade, you might think.

But, despite all this, it appears that Tim is selling the pub off for conversion to a Sainsbury’s Local. Oh the irony! And this is not some “beached whale” suburban roadhouse, but a pub in the centre of a supposedly busy and thriving town.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Gaining traction

Back in April, I wrote about the painfully slow progress of the e-petition opposing minimum alcohol pricing. At the beginning of this week, it had still only gained just over 200 supporters. However, following the government announcement, the pace has suddenly quickened, and in the space of a couple of days the number of signatories has tripled to not far off 700 when I last looked.

So please sign it yourself, if you haven’t already, and encourage your friends to do likewise. Also see here if you want to get the widget for your blog or website seen in the left-hand sidebar.

Multiple malaise

In a sense, the government have been quite clever in settling on 45p/unit as their proposed minimum alcohol price. 40p would have brought about a terrible howling and gnashing of teeth from the anti-drink lobby, whereas 50p would have looked like slavish copying of the Jocks and also would have impacted on enough popular drinks to fan popular discontent.

But 45p is cunningly around or just above the price at which most mainstream alcohol brands currently sell. Yesterday I had a nose around my local Tesco at categories of drink that I don’t normally buy. All the three top-selling cooking lager brands – Carling, Carlsberg and Fosters – were a full £4 for 4x440ml cans, which is well above 55p. Oddly, the supposedly premium Stella 4% and Beck’s Vier were only £3.40, although that is still comfortably above 45p. Does that suggest “premium mainstream” has had its day? Four cans of 5% Strongbow were £3.99, pretty much spot on the minimum price.

Of the top Scotches, Bell’s and Teacher’s were both £12 a bottle, a bit below the £12.60 minimum price, but I think only a short-term seasonal offer. During the year they’re normally at least £13, often more. And Grouse was £13 anyway. There was very little on the wine shelves below £4.39, which would be the minimum price for a 13% bottle. While there were a number of German wines at £3.99, those are mostly only 11% or so, and would still be OK.

Yes, if you’re buying economy brands, or discounted slabs, you will suffer. But Joe and Joanne Moderate-Drinker could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.

On the other hand, the store was brimming with multibuy offers – 4 premium bottled ales for £6, various world beers at 3 for 2, 25% off any 6 bottles of wine. Probably very little, if any, of these would take you below 45p/unit, but they will be outlawed just as surely as lower-priced drinks. And that is where the typical aspirational C1C2 voter filling up their car boot will really feel the pain. They might imagine from the media discussion that the proposals will only affect tramps and chavs, but they would be very wrong.

The argument for banning multibuy discounts is that they encourage people to drink more than they otherwise would. However, I would have thought that in general they tend to be used by organised people to do their drink buying in the most cost-effective way. Almost by definition, problem drinkers aren’t going to be laying it in weeks in advance. Plus banning multibuys in Scotland has had no effect on overall sales levels. If the discounted price is already well above the minimum price, what is the point of banning the discount? Will offering malt whiskies at £25 a bottle, or £40 for two, really lead to an increase in binge-drinking?

If there is no minimum price, then arguably it makes a bit of sense, but with a minimum price it is utterly pointless, just another small, irritating, niggly restriction on the responsible drinker, just another notch on the denormalisation of alcohol.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tasting notes

Which well-known British beer is this?

“But the joy of ***** is in the delicate aroma. It’s subtly autumnal with a woody undercurrent, so evocative.

“Flavourwise it is a mass of delicate complexity. So many different notes coming through – a hint of peach there, perhaps the subtlest whiff of – could that be cinnamon?”

Click here to find out.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Let them drink Chablis

Well, it’s all kicked off today with the government announcing a consultation on a 45p per unit minimum alcohol price. There’s little to say that hasn’t been said before, but if you read nothing else, read this article by Chris Snowdon on Six reasons to reject minimum alcohol pricing.

Also well worth reading is this post on Heresy Corner in which the author sees it as a personal obsession of Cameron’s even though he knows it is bad politics. This quotation is a classic.

The Minimum Price, while long demanded by the health lobby (which seems to believe that reducing the chance of early death is the only goal worth striving for in life) is only being forced on England because it is Cameron's personal obsession. Cameron has a regrettable tendency - it's the most irritating thing about him - to go off on moral crusades. He likes to ride a high horse, even though it usually turns out to have been lent to him by the husband of Rebekah Brooks.
And see this from Jackart too.

You might think this offered an open goal to the Labour Party who could portray it as a snobbish move by public school toffs to curb the pleasures of the working man. But the problem is that Labour are just as keen on it as the Tories, if not more so. It has been said that the British Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx, and in the sense of their general puritanical tendencies there is much truth in that. They have always seemed to think that the working man would be much better off attending an improving lecture at the Mechanics’ Institute than down the pub or the bookie’s, or on the beach at Benidorm.

Labour now seems to be dominated by privileged Hampstead socialists who look down on the actual working classes of this country with profound contempt. As someone brilliantly put it, within one generation in the eyes of the Labour Party the working class went from "the salt of the Earth to the scum of the Earth". Whereas once you had the noble Stakhanovite coal miner, now you have white van man. So not much hope of any effective opposition from that quarter.

Edit: and here’s a blogpost on Why Labour should oppose minimum alcohol pricing. I’d be very surprised if they did, though.

I tend to think Jackart’s prediction in the post linked to above is very likely:

This policy will be declared illegal under European law as the Scottish experiment is shot down. Cameron will use that as a pretext to drop a policy in which he's invested, but on which the rest of the Cabinet is less less keen. He will use it, like the votes for prisoners, as something on which he will "stand up to Europe". We will still hear the confident assertions medical/political complex go unchallenged on the Today program.
And the risk is then that they will seek to replicate the policy through the duty system, which would at least be legally watertight. All you self-proclaimed pub-lovers who signed the duty escalator position, but still think minimum pricing might have something to be said for it, be very careful what you wish for.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Cause or effect?

There’s yet more common sense in the letters column of December’s What’s Brewing in the form of no less than three letters pointing out that the widespread conversion of pubs to supermarkets is largely a symptom of the decline of the pub trade, not a cause.

First up is no less than Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s, who peddles his favourite bizarre hobby-horse that food in shops does not bear VAT, while that in pubs and restaurants does, but is spot-on with this statement:

Once pubs become loss-making, or otherwise unviable, a change in the planning laws to prohibit their use as supermarkets is a pyrrhic victory, since an empty building is often worse for a local community than a mini-supermarket.
Next is Reg Newcombe of Derby, who says:
There has been a gradual process of attrition, until only the better pubs remain. It’s what the pre-Darwinian evolutionist Herbert Spencer called survival of the fittest.

If an unfrequented pub falls into disuse, it will not be because the shadow of a supermarket has fallen across its path. It will be because it was not one of the better pubs – not one of the fittest. Perhaps it was uninviting or inconveniently located. Perhaps the beer was poorly kept or overpriced.

And Keith Morgan of Appleby-in-Westmorland:
I am no lover of supermarkets, but wonder whether CAMRA should emphasise the threat to pubs of conversion to supermarkets. While we all regret the loss of any pub, the industry is an organic one which is constantly changing to meet consumer demand. I do not recall outrage expressed by the financial services sector when Wetherspoons was converting redundant banks to pubs.
As I’ve often said before, in most parts of the country there’s no shortage of recently-closed pubs, often attractive buildings in prominent locations, in many cases still closed and boarded up. If the pub trade was thriving, surely they would be snapped up, but they’re not. And even if beer was £1 a pint, and you had to buy bottles from a dingy offie, pubs wouldn’t be doing anything like the business they were thirty years ago because society has changed. And, of course, an elephant has come along and sat in the middle of the saloon bar.

There’s also a letter from John Payne of Warrington who wonders whether it will even get published and says:

I am fed up of coming across rows and rows of pumps selling mediocre microbrewery ales – golden, or blonde ales...

...Good pubs don’t shut down, poor ones do. I do not have a problem going to Tescos and picking up four bottles of Fullers 1845, or similar, for £6.

Is there maybe a need to recognise the realities of the modern drinks marketplace and rethink the objectives and strategy of the organisation rather than fighting a battle to stop the tide from coming in?

Mind you, last month there was a letter from a guy complaining about cask beer often being too cold and suggesting that ideally it should be served at room temperature...

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Light begins to dawn?

Over the past few years I have often been critical of the great and good of CAMRA for naively refusing to acknowledge the glaring parallels between the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol. However, in the December issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing (not online, but available for download to members) there is a perhaps surprising outbreak of common sense in the form of an opinion piece by Denzil Vallance of Great Heck Brewery entitled Packaging Legislation Plain Wrong.

This is a clear warning that the proposed legislation for plain packaging of tobacco contains a very clear potential risk for the brewing industry, which explicitly recognises the principle of the “slippery slope”:

It has now started with cigarettes, where the government is considering removing branding through so-called standardised packaging. But this opens a door, which could lead to alcohol and fast food.
Well said that man – if I ever see his beer on the bar of a pub I’ll definitely give it a try.

For many years CAMRA has had an official policy opposing the “mass-media” advertising of alcoholic drinks, which most members tended to hold their nose and ignore in the same way as Labour Party members and Clause Four. But what they don’t seem to realise is that, far from helping small producers at the expense of the big boys, restrictions on advertising and promotion inevitably tend to favour established, familiar brands over small players and new entrants. In a world where there is no advertising and no distinctive packaging, in effect there can be no new products, and the only marketing tool that remains is price.

Of course plain packaging for alcohol is still some way away, but it is already being touted by anti-drink activists as a logical next step from tobacco.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Cherry Tree to be chopped?

The Cherry Tree is a former Greenall’s pub on the Grange estate in Runcorn, Cheshire. Despite having grown up within a mile of it, and regarding it as a familiar landmark, I have never actually set foot inside the place. It has probably never sold cask beer. It’s now up for sale by Orchid Group for £400,000, presumably because they don’t see it as fitting their core strategy.

Other pubs available as part of the same batch are:

  • The Boar’s Head, Marton, Blackpool (£400k)
  • The Farmer’s Arms, Walton, Liverpool (£450k)
  • The Priory, Litherland, Liverpool (£450k)
  • The Red Lion, Worsley, Salford (£575k)
To be honest, looking at those other prices, I would say £400k was a bit steep for an estate pub like the Cherry Tree.

Although Runcorn could probably do with a Tesco Express, that’s not the ideal location for one as it isn’t on a main road and all the approach roads are bedevilled by humps. It would be interesting to learn how the commenters here who are always telling us that pubs only close because they are badly run would set about reviving the fortunes of it and similar pubs if they had that kind of money to spend.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Agent provocateur?

Shadow pubs minister Toby Perkins (good Labour name, that) has accused a local council of deliberately trying to trick licensees through test purchase operations. “The British pub trade is being targeted by over-zealous people,” he says.

He has a good point, as in many cases these stings will end up creating an offence out of thin air. Surely test purchasing, if justifiable at all, should only be done where there is strong evidence that underage sales are already being made. However, given Labour MPs’ usual frothing hysteria about underage drinking, you can’t help thinking he’s being a tad hypocritical.

Another aspect is that constantly being asked for ID even if you’re well over 18 must be a significant deterrent to young people drinking in pubs and bars.

Incidentally, the other day I was behind a lad in the queue for the till at a petrol station, and he was asked for ID for a packet of fags, which he couldn’t produce, so the sale was refused. He said he was 22, and to be honest looked it too, but took it with good grace.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Mote and beam

More complaints from the usual suspects about how supermarkets are killing pubs. But, as I’ve written before, surely if the pubs were successful in the first place there would be no pressure to convert them to alternative use. And, in most parts of the country, there’s no shortage of pubs for sale, so if there is a demand for pubs such premises will be snapped up, won’t they, even if others have closed?

Perhaps rather than whingeing about the results of the decline of pubs, those pointing the finger at Tesco should be looking at the causes. No amount of tinkering with planning law will save a single pub if the underlying demand is no longer there.

Monday, 19 November 2012

More minimum mutterings

So all the debate and speculation about minimum pricing continues to go round and round in circles. The latest report is that:

David Cameron's plans to increase the price of cheap alcohol are in turmoil as senior ministers warn they risk penalising responsible drinkers and depriving the Treasury of vital tax revenue.

Separately, other ministers are warning Number Ten that the proposed legislation risks punishing both working and middle class families unfairly, triggering a dangerous backlash against the Government among key groups who will determine the result of the next election.

Senior figures in the Home Office believe those who will be hardest hit are the 'honest working classes' who enjoy an occasional tipple but have to watch every penny they spend.

'It's the guy who buys a multi-pack of lager each week and enjoys one or two after work who is going to be hammered,' said one source.

Precisely. While often perceived as a way to “to reduce the consumption of super-strength ciders, cheap vodka and special brew lagers”, and something that would only affect alkies and “problem drinkers”, in reality most of the people hit would be Joe and Joanna Bloggs sitting in front of the telly. I would guess that buying a discounted slab of Carling, Guinness or JS Extra Smooth on a Friday and steadily drinking it through the week is actually a pretty common pattern of consumption.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the government to get a definitive opinion from the EU competition authorities as to whether it is legal before going any further? If it wasn’t legal (which it pretty definitely isn’t), then they could just forget it and tell Ian Gilmore and the rest of his crew to STFU. If it was, then it would still be utterly wrong and counterproductive, but they could press on knowing that they could actually implement it and face the political consequences.

Chateau Chunder

I have to say that wine in general rather passes me by, but even so I found last week’s BBC4 documentary Chateau Chunder on the rise of the Australian wine industry extremely interesting. It was also refreshing to come across a TV programme about alcohol that made no reference whatsoever to the evils of drink, and put it across in a wholly positive light.

Australian wine made its reputation by portraying itself as “Sunshine in a Bottle”, and undermining the mystique and stuffiness of the established wine trade by offering bold, bright wines with distinctive yet accessible flavours. When the European winemakers complained about descriptions such as “Australian Claret”, they responded by instead using the name of the vine type, which sounds much classier anyway and has now become established practice in the wine trade.

What a pity, then, that Australia, once seen as a relaxed, happy-go-lucky country, now seems to have been pretty much completely taken over by joyless wowsers. How long before a bottle of Penfold’s sold in its native land will have to have a plain label dominated by a picture of a diseased liver?

Incidentally, the script of the Monty Python sketch about Australian wines that popularised the term “Chateau Chunder” can be seen here:

Quite the reverse is true of Château Chunder, which is an appellation contrôlée, specially grown for those keen on regurgitation; a fine wine which really opens up the sluices at both ends.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Unspoilt Cheshire

There has recently been some discussion on the blogs of Paul Bailey and Wee Beefy about Rodney Wolfe Coe’s list of the “Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain”. Most of these are (or were) in remote rural locations, and the county of Cheshire is, by and large, too close to the major conurbations to give truly unspoilt pubs much chance of avoiding gentrification or being turned into commuter residences.

However, a couple did survive into the CAMRA era that would probably have qualified had they hung around for a bit longer. Both are in the 1977 Good Beer Guide but are missing from the 1979 edition.

The first was the Bird in the Hand at Kent Green, just off the A34 south of Congleton. This is described as “unspoilt, simple and homely canalside pub with a beer-only licence”, and served Burton-brewed Worthington Best Bitter on gravity. I believe this one closed in the late 70s.

The second was the Crown, situated here on the junction of the A49 and A51 at Four Lane Ends just south of Tarporley, a surprisingly prominent location for a basic unspoilt pub. This is described as “a fine, unspoilt old pub” and served McEwan’s 70/-, also on gravity. The Guide says “usually closed at lunchtime: closed all day Sunday” which hints at a slightly shambolic operation. This later was gutted and extended and became an identikit dining pub called the Red Fox; it is now an Indian restaurant as shown on the picture.

Unfortunately, I was too late on the scene to be able to experience either of these, although I did once turn up at the Crown one evening with a group of friends only to find it closed.

There were two other largely unspoilt pubs in Cheshire that I did get the chance to visit. One was the Boot at Boothsdale near Kelsall, which I wrote about here. This was a tiny, basic two-roomer in the middle of a terrace of cottages up a cul-de-sac, serving Greenall’s beer on gravity. Now, sadly but inevitably, extended, knocked-through and given over to dining.

The other was the Holly Bush at Little Leigh on the A49 south of Warrington, an ancient half-timbered cottage pub with a basic interior featuring plain wooden wall benches and quarry-tiled floors. There was no bar as such; the handpumps (dispensing Greenall’s again) were against the wall in a small room next to the main parlour, and beer was served through the top half of a door that opened separately. This had the kind of boisterous rustic atmosphere rarely encountered nowadays – I remember going in one Sunday lunchtime and one customer announcing to the assembled throng that he had been “shittin’ yeller” that morning. After being threatened with closure, ownership changed hands and again it went over to food in a big way and was extended at the rear. Much of the original fabric is still there, but it feels like a museum piece rather than a living pub. Note the sign advertising “ensuite rooms”.

Cheshire still has a couple of pubs featuring on CAMRA’s National Inventory that, while remodelled at some time during the 20th century, still give the feeling of stepping back into a bygone era – the Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham and the Commercial at Wheelock. And there are two more (also on the NI) that retain their historic fabric largely intact, but again have now largely embraced a dining format – the White Lion at Barthomley and the Harrington Arms at Gawsworth. The latter has now been extended at the rear into former living accommodation and, while it still retains a highly characterful parlour with quarry-tiled floor and long tables and settles, I once witnessed a group come into the pub and a young woman say that she didn’t want to sit there because it was “grotty”.

To my mind, a pub only truly qualifies as unspoilt in Mr Wolfe Coe’s terms if it continues to be run with something of a disregard for the commercial realities of the modern age. Sadly, that is becoming more and more difficult and rare.

Incidentally, while I was researching this post I came across this site of Olde Worlde Pubs in Cheshire. It’s a bit out of date (for example still showing the late lamented Railway at Heatley), and has one or two surprising omissions, such as the aforementioned Traveller’s Rest and the Hatton Arms at Hatton, but is still well worth a nose round. Strangely, however, it doesn’t make any mention of the beers sold.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Ring any bells?

As posted on Twatter by @fleetstreetfox:

Let me tell you about the worst actors I ever met. It was in a south London pub not far from the Globe which was supposed to be like Shakespeare's only the real one is under an office block. Lots of actors came in. They all had beards. They all ordered halves, sat around chin-scratching and saying things like "well on the original Greek text" and then...

THEN... they started singing Tudor pub songs. In HARMONIES. Waving their halves like wassailing merry men expecting Errol Flynn to turn up. I vomited, then left. Twats.

I've avoided pubs near theatres ever since. Easier that way.

Curmudgeon distilled

Some years ago I came up with a list of bullet points that could be said to sum up the key themes of my Opening Times column.
  1. Who let those bloody kids in here?
  2. Never mind the quality, look at the number of handpumps
  3. Electric meters deliver full measures and a consistent pint
  4. This expanse of carpet used to be a wonderful little snug
  5. Two pints bad, ten pints good
  6. Chips with everything
  7. The family have been brewing good beer on this site since 1842
  8. I may dislike what you do, but I will defend your right to do it
  9. Why are there no sodding beermats?
  10. Haven’t you got anything better to do, officer?
All should be pretty self-explanatory.

This dates back to around 2000, before the blanket smoking ban was even a cloud on the horizon – remember that it was not a Labour manifesto commitment even in the 2005 General Election campaign.

Nowadays, apart from that, I don’t think it’s very different, although either #8 needs to be replaced with a more specific “First they came for the smokers...” or that added as a separate point.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Emperor of India

A decade or more ago, beers from the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh were a common sight in the off-trade. However, more recently they seem to have largely disappeared from view, at least around here, and when they do crop up they are often in unlikely outlets. This was the case on my latest visit to Home Bargains (no poncey Waitrose for me) where I came across 500ml bottles of Deuchar’s Imperial at a very reasonable £1.39.

It’s a 5.2% beer described on the bottle as “brewed to commemorate 21 years of Robert Deuchar’s Insirational Pale Ale being reborn at the Caledonian Brewery”. Indeed, it comes across very much as a big brother of the standard Deuchar’s IPA which is 4.4% in bottle.

In the 1990s, the cask version of Deuchar’s IPA became something of a cult beer, but as with many others seemed to become too popular for its own good and eventually appeared to lose a lot of its character. Whether this resulted from a dumbing-down of the recipe, or simply from being put into pubs that didn’t look after their beer well, is hard to say, but nowadays it’s certainly not a beer that would leap out at me from the bar.

The Imperial is fairly pale in colour, with good head retention. It has the unmistakeable Caledonian flavour, but within that taste palette is quite hoppy and well-attenuated. It is fairly light-bodied, so you could easily down more than one, but does have a noticeable alcohol kick

All Caledonian beers have a distinctive character with full, soft mouthfeel and notes of vanilla and butterscotch, which isn’t necessarily to everyone’s liking. But it certainly appeals to my tastebuds and surely it is a good thing that the products of a brewery have their own “signature”. Definitely a beer I will buy again if there’s any left in stock.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

History in a beer glass

Britain now has more breweries producing more different beers than at any time since the Second World War. Yet, over the past fifty years, we have lost most of the substantial breweries that were in existence in 1960. Often these were major enterprises employing large numbers of people and to some extent defining the character of the places they operated in. Unusually for large industrial plants, they tended to be situated right in the middle of towns and cities and the distinctive aroma of brewing often percolated across built-up areas.

In a new book entitled Britain’s Lost Breweries and Beers, published by Aurum Press, Chris Arnot tells the story of thirty breweries from Devenish on the South coast through Buckley’s in West Wales to Campbell, Hope and King in Edinburgh, on the way visiting onetime local institution Boddington’s and Tetley’s and Webster’s which were both major influences on our local pub scene. In a sense, the central theme of the book is the connection between brewery and community. As the description says,

This is a story of more than the disappearance of Tolly Cobbold bitter or King & Barnes’ winter ale: all too often it is part of the heart of a town like Ipswich or Nottingham dying with the brewery – something no microbrewery’s resurrection of a hallowed ale can ever restore.
It’s a handsome large-format volume extensively illustrated with old pictures of brewery buildings, workers, delivery vehicles, pubs and advertising material. Rather than just relying on secondary sources, the author has travelled to view the sites of all the breweries and interview former employees and managers. The rather spiky interview with the 85-year-old Ewart Boddington is well worth reading. There’s a wealth of fascinating anecdotes taken from the various companies’ histories. However, it isn’t just a case of looking at the past through a rose-tinted glass – he recognises that not all of these breweries produced first-class beer (although most did), and even when they did it wasn’t always served in their pubs in the best of condition.

In summary, it’s an absorbing, well-produced book that will probably be picked up again and again rather than just left on the shelf. It would be an ideal Christmas gift for anyone interested in beer and history. The cover price is a not inconsiderable £25, but you should be able to get a discount at Amazon.

We are fortunate of course in Stockport that we still have a substantial long-established brewery in the shape of Robinson’s, whose beer and pubs are important elements defining the character of the town. Long may that continue.

(And yes, I was kindly sent a review copy of this book by Aurum Press. But I certainly haven’t been entirely complimentary about everything I’ve got for free – see here and here)

Monday, 12 November 2012

We’re not being killjoys

The natural follow-on from the, er, resounding success of Stoptober, is a call from Alcohol Concern for people to abstain totally from alcohol during January. Obviously many people will be forced to cut down simply because of being skint after the festive season, but this is taking things to another level.

Alcohol Concern spokeswoman Emily Robinson said: “Many of us think the way we drink isn't a problem, but even having just a few beers after work or a few glasses of wine at home too often can take you over safe limits and store up problems for the future.

“We're challenging people to take part in Dry January and try giving up booze for 31 days, and if it sounds like a big ask you're exactly the person we want to join us and have a go.

“We're not being killjoys or telling people to never drink again. We just think this provides the perfect opportunity for all of us to take a breather and get thinking about our drinking.”

Er, surely killjoys is exactly what you are being, and what you are paid to be by the government. And those so-called “safe limits” are a load of nonsense made up by you and your Prohibitionist pals.

Of course, if every drinker took them at their word, most of the pubs in the country would be out of business by the end of the month. What a result that would be!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Returnable?

I recently opened a bottle of Oktoberfestbier bought from an independent off-licence where I have been a regular customer for many years. It was as flat as a fluke – absolutely zero carbonation – and so went straight down the sink. The lack of that tell-tale hiss when levering off the cap was an obvious giveaway before I even started pouring. So should I take the empty back and complain, or just write it off to experience?

Club not conserved

Making a change from closed and boarded pubs, here’s a photo taken this morning of the Heaton Norris Conservative Club in Heaton Norris, Stockport, an area that has also seen more than its fair share of pub closures. Note the entrance to the “Casino Lounge” on the right. While this may not seem promising territory for a Conservative Club, in fact Lancashire had a strong tradition of working-class Toryism, and there were plenty in similar areas.

Danes see sense

Just over a year ago, Denmark introduced a “fat tax” on all foods with over 2.3% saturated fat. I doubted at the time whether it would actually lead to people smuggling crisps, but such is the price differential it has created that people have been popping over the border to Germany to buy butter – ironic when Lurpak is one of Denmark’s most famous exports. I also pointed out that “it goes completely against common sense to stigmatise such natural, traditional and wholesome foods as butter and cheese.”

Now, fortunately, the Danes have come to their senses and decided to scrap the tax, and have also abandoned plans to introduce a similar tax on sugar.

Maybe fatty Salmond will see the irony if he introduces his lunatic minimum alcohol pricing scheme and sees people popping over the border to England to buy Scotland’s most famous export. Or maybe he won’t.