Friday, 15 September 2017

Standing at the crossroads

Outgoing Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz has called for CAMRA to embrace craft keg beers to ensure its survival into the future. It is certainly a widely expressed view that CAMRA needs to widen its original remit and, in effect “modernise or die”.

However, this raises a number of questions. The first is exactly what he means by “embrace”. It is one thing to accept that many beers that fall outside the definition of “real ale” have considerable merit, and few except a handful of diehards in CAMRA would disagree. The organisation should certainly be a lot more relaxed about praising non-“real” beers and ciders in an official context.

But to actually bring quality craft keg beers within CAMRA’s campaigning remit is something else entirely. For a start, how do you define them? Some people have suggested that you don’t really need to, and you know what is good and what is not. But you can’t seriously campaign for anything on such a woolly basis. “Real ale”, for better or worse, does have a clear-cut definition. There may be a bit of fuzziness around the edges, but broadly speaking you know what is real ale and what isn’t. Nobody can say the same about “quality keg”.

A further point is that real ale can be made by companies of any size, and indeed the old Big Six brewed some of the best real ales in the country. But, true to his Trotskyite past, there’s a lot in Protz’s interview about the threat from the giant multinational brewers, and indeed the official US definition of “craft beer” sets an (admittedly large) limit on company size. However, a beer doesn’t metamorphose overnight from good to bad purely through a change of ownership, and drinkers are unlikely to be impressed by someone judging beers on company size rather than intrinsic merit.

Closer to home, BrewDog have become a very big fish in a small craft pond, and must now exceed the production volumes of the likes of Greene King and Marston’s. Does that mean their beers no longer qualify as craft? And if they do, how about “craft” beers such as East Coast IPA and Shipyard from the established brewers?

Keg beers from the likes of Beavertown and Magic Rock are undoubtedly craft, but how about if Taylors produced a keg version of their highly-acclaimed Landlord? If that is approved, then surely that is accepting precisely what CAMRA was originally set up to fight. And if it isn’t, on what objective basis does it differ from the beers from the obvious crafties? And does that mean that cask Landlord should no longer be accepted as a quality beer either?

Maybe, of course, this is what quality craft keg needs:

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are not things that can be airily dismissed with a breezy “you know it when you see it”. The risk is that you end up with a campaign just for “beers we happen to approve of”, which would not exactly possess much credibility. Plus there remains a lingering suspicion of a hidden agenda to cut adrift many well-known cask beers on the grounds that they commit such cardinal sins as being “popular” and “easy-drinking”.

It also has to be questioned whether the development of “beer enthusiasm” since the early days of CAMRA should be regarded as a straightforward onwards-and-upwards process. As I wrote here, in the beginning it was essentially a preservationist movement, seeking to defend a valued tradition that was seen as under threat. Over the years, however, it has grown and metamorphosed into something that would have been completely unrecognisable at the start.

It is entirely reasonable that many people are somewhat uneasy about this and feel that it has moved into territory where they really don’t want to go. It is not wrong, or stick-in-the-mud, it is just a different way of looking at things. You can’t expect everyone to be interested in everything, and just because some people aren’t attracted by something as a leisure interest doesn’t mean they disapprove of it. “Hey, I got into architecture to preserve mediaeval churches. I never thought I’d be expected to enthuse over all this weird modernist stuff”.

Plus, as Boak & Bailey have said, the British craft beer movement “rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture.” Given this, it isn’t surprising that there is a certain reluctance to embrace it. It’s sometimes argued that this is basically a generational divide that will be eroded by the passage of time, but that’s akin to the common fallacy that conservative political values will fade away as older people die off. In practice, it doesn’t happen, as each generation rediscovers them anew.

The result is to end up with two camps of traditionalists and modernists who are divided more by mutual incomprehension than dislike as such. On the one hand there are enamel-stripping DIPAs and gleaming, uncomfortable craft emporia, on the other, boring twiggy brown bitter and gloomy old man pubs. Each side just doesn’t get what the other sees in it.

A case could be made for splitting CAMRA into two separate organisations – one that concentrates on the preservation of a distinctive British tradition, the other that wholeheartedly embraces the world of modern beer innovation. There would be no reason why somebody couldn’t be a member of both – they are not mutually exclusive, just different.

In practice, though, it’s unlikely to happen as, rather like the present-day Labour Party, the risk of striking out on your own is too great, so uneasy bedfellows stay together. But, while some may claim to straddle both sides, it’s hard to deny that most people who have an interest in beer and pubs at heart identify with one camp or the other. I can think of very few whom I know either through personal acquaintance or as bloggers that I would struggle to place. No doubt in the end some kind of uneasy compromise will be arranged, but the underlying tension is not going to go away.

As an aside, later in the article old Protzy is still wittering on about “unfair competition from supermarkets”, which basically, as I explained here, is nonsense. The UK has some of the most expensive off-trade alcohol in the EU, and still has one of the highest proportions of beer consumed in the on-trade. And, realistically, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Face the facts

In response to my last post about the link between supermarket pricing and the decline of pubs, I was sent a link to a fascinating document from the Brewers of Europe showing European Beer Statistics. It relates to 2015, but as it was published in November 2016 it represents the most recent figures available.

Particularly relevant to that post is Table 6 referring to on versus off-trade beer consumption. While we may bewail the decline of UK on-trade consumption to below 50%, we are in fact well above the European average. The highest is Ireland, which despite geographical proximity has a distinctly different drinking culture from the UK, and all the other major countries above us are in the Mediterranean. To summarise some of the main results for on-trade consumption:

Ireland 67%
Spain 64%
Greece 57%
UK 49%
Belgium 44%
Italy 42%
Czech Republic 40%
Netherlands 35%
Denmark 23%
Sweden 21%
France 20%
Germany 19%
Poland 15%

It’s interesting that Germany, one of the world’s great brewing nations, and famous for its big-city beer halls, has one of the lowest figures of all. And Sweden has a 79% market share for the off-trade, despite alcohol sales being restricted to state-controlled Systembolaget shops with limited hours. (I think some low-strength beers may be sold through normal shops)

Amongst other salient figures are:

  • UK receipts from beer duty were €4.4 billion. No other country apart from Turkey exceeded €1 billion. Germany, which brews twice as much as we do, was €676 million.

  • The UK has the highest number of breweries, at 1,880. Next was Germany at 1,388, then France at 793 and Italy at 688. Belgium, known for its small breweries, is only 199. But how many of those 1,880 produce any significant volume?

  • The UK is well down the league of per capita beer consumption. At 67 litres per person per year, we are only 18th in the table. Top are the Czech Republic with 143 litres and Germany with 106 litres. Our Irish neighbours manage 80 litres. I’d guess the average strength in the Czech Republic and Germany is higher too.

  • Not surprisingly, Germany has the biggest annual production at 95.6 million hectolitres. The UK is second at 44 million (equivalent to 26.9 million barrels), but Poland, despite having only 59% of our population, is third at 40.9 million. France, despite its large population, is down at 20.3 million, behind the much smaller Netherlands at 24 million and only just ahead of Belgium at 19.8 million.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The undercutting fallacy

In their new book 20th Century Pub, Boak and Bailey, in surveying the various reasons put forward for the decline of the pub trade in recent years, refer to “Left leaning campaigners” who “decry the rapacious behaviour of the supermarkets, which sell alcohol very much cheaper than any pub could hope to achieve”. This is frequently advanced as one of the key factors behind pub closures, and has become an article of faith with many CAMRA members. But, in reality, it is at best only a very limited and partial explanation for the trend.

As I explained here, there are a whole list of reasons for the shift from on-trade to off-trade consumption, amongst which relative price is only one amongst many, and not the most important at that. In general, they can be summed up as a combination of homes becoming more attractive and stimulating places to spend time, and a growing attitude in society that alcohol consumption is something that has to be ringfenced from any form of responsible activity. On top of this there is obviously the externally-imposed factor of the smoking ban. It should be remembered that, at the time when most of our pubs were built, there was no radio, no television and no recorded music, and most homes did not even take a newspaper. If you wanted any kind of mental stimulation, there was little alternative but to go to the pub.

It is undoubtedly true that the gap between the two has widened over the years and, particularly at the margins, that must be one element behind the shift. But this is as much to do with pub prices rising above inflation as with off-trade ones failing to keep place with it. The off-trade has benefited from the economies of scale and tighter margins that come with higher volumes. On the other hand, it has to be remembered that the cost of a pint in the pub contains a much greater labour element than that of a can in the supermarket – you are in effect purchasing a service, not a product. As real incomes rise over time, it is inevitable that the price of services will rise relative to that of goods.

Going to the pub for a drink requires both a reason and an opportunity – it isn’t simply a case of choosing an option for the consumption of alcohol. In the past, it was, for many people, often a matter of ritual and routine, which has been eroded over time. As I wrote here, for most responsible people, it isn’t primarily cost that is deterring them from drinking more in pubs, it is more that the opportunities do not arise so often, and they have a general concern both for their own health and maintaining standards of behaviour. Who would honestly say that they would drink significantly more in pubs if beer was 50p a pint cheaper?

In fact, Britain, due to high duty levels, has some of the most expensive off-trade alcohol in the EU. Go to a supermarket in any of our near continental neighbours, and the beer prices will be markedly lower. The attractions of the “booze cruise” may have lessened in recent years due to exchange rate movements and domestic sellers competing by cutting margins, but the gap is still there. And the UK and Ireland still have the highest proportion of on-trade beer consumption in Northern Europe, markedly higher than France, Germany and the Low Countries which have the most comparable drinking cultures. In fact, according to the Brewers of Europe Beer Statistics publication, the proportion of beer sold in the off-trade in in 2014 Germany was 81%, as opposed to 50% in the UK. Those city-centre beer halls may thrive, but in most of the country there’s precious little bar drinking going on. It is higher in Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Greece, but that is because their climate is much more conducive to sitting outside drinking in the evenings.

Supermarkets are sometimes accused of manipulating the market for their own benefit, but in reality they can only sell what people buy, and their interest is solely in maximising sales and profits. Any “agendas” are those imposed on them by government and public health lobbies. Yes, the interaction of supply and demand is a complex process, and it isn’t just a case of sitting back and waiting for people to ask for things. They try various new products and formats, most of which fail, but some succeed and end up becoming regular items on the shelves. That is decided by the customers, and at the end of the day people can’t be forced to buy anything they don’t want.

Two of the necessary preconditions for a mass off-trade beer market are home refrigeration and widespread car ownership. Without a car, it’s hard work lugging a slab of Carling home, and serving it up at room temperature isn’t going to be too appetising. I’d say that most working families ticked both boxes by the mid-Seventies, but it was only with the spread of big out-of or edge-of-town supermarkets in the 1980s that the floodgates really opened. In the 1970s it was often a case of going into the town centre and struggling to find a parking space to do your weekly shop. In the past, Davenports Brewery of Birmingham were known for their “beer at home” service but this, while it ticked over, never became a roaring nationwide success. I don’t know how their prices compared with those of pubs at the time, but possibly the refrigeration issue was one factor holding it back. Nowadays, of course, with the spread of online ordering and delivery, the car ownership aspect is becoming less important.

In some quarters, the actions of supermarkets are seen almost as a malign conspiracy to deliberately undermine the pub trade. However, all they are doing is engaging in the normal behaviour inherent in a competitive market – the free exchange of goods and services between willing seller and willing buyer to the mutual benefit of both. If they for whatever reason decided to hold back, then someone else would step into the breach. If you don’t like the prices Tesco are charging for drinks, have you seen how cheap Aldi’s own-label products are? Patterns of customer demand change with the passage of time and it’s simply a fact of life that there will be winners and losers.

You also don’t hear restaurants complaining about the unfair competition from ready meals, even though the supermarkets enjoy a further cost advantage here as they don’t pay any VAT on them. If the “cheap supermarket alcohol” argument for decline really held true for pubs, then surely it would also apply to restaurants.

Another charge often levelled at supermarkets is that they routinely engage in loss-leading on alcoholic drinks as a means of enticing customers through their doors. However, as I argued here, while I’m not saying it never happens, it would make no sense whatsoever to sell at a loss something like a slab of lager that may make up a substantial chunk of someone’s shopping bill. Yes, of course they achieve keen prices by driving a hard bargain and cutting margins, but it would make for very poor business to actually sell at a loss. The most likely situation when you might encounter it is selling off surplus stock.

It should also not be forgotten that the growth of large supermarkets has brought major benefits to consumers. They have helped people’s budgets by using their buying power and economies of scale to cut prices, something that is also encouraged by keen competition between them. They have provided shoppers with an unprecedented variety and quality of food, especially fresh produce. And they offer extended trading hours which recognise the reality of modern life where two-earner households are the norm and working hours are less and less standardised. The old model of shopping seemed to be based on the assumption that households contained a non-working housewife who had the time to traipse around a variety of local shops on a regular basis to buy something for tea. And, if both partners worked full time, they were left with no alternative but to engage in a frantic scrum on Saturdays to get all their shopping done.

Even if you accept that the argument has some validity, it’s hard to see what in practice could be done about it. The horse has bolted now and the position of supermarkets in the alcohol market is well established. Possibly, if you went back forty years, you could have implemented a much stricter licensing regime for off-trade alcohol, with severely limited hours and requiring alcohol to be sold at separate counters, if not in entirely separate shops. But, given all the various wider factors leading to a growth in demand for take-home alcohol, it would only have slightly held back the trend rather than stopping it from happening. Sweden restricts alcohol sales to state-owned shops with limited hours, but I’d expect that it has still experienced much the same switch in recent decades, and the statistics I linked to above show that the off-trade has a 79% share of beer consumption. In any case, availability tends to follow demand, not create it. In recent years, we have seen a distinct fall in overall alcohol consumption despite a more liberal licensing regime for both on and off-trades, and in the 1970s pubs did a lot better than they do now despite being closed for three hours every afternoon and five hours on Sundays.

Alternatively, you could try to narrow the gap by artificially inflating the price of off-trade drinks. An obvious means of doing this would be Minimum Unit Pricing, which has been widely discussed in recent years although not so far implemented. However, as far as I’m aware, the key justification put forward for this is to attempt to address problem drinking by raising the price of the cheapest drinks. It isn’t claimed to be a method for shifting the balance of consumption to the on-trade. And, if you think about it, the argument makes no sense, as Christopher Snowdon points out here. It wouldn’t reduce the price of beer in pubs, and would give people no extra money to spend in them. Indeed it might lead to them spending less as household budgets were squeezed. And is it really credible that, if you increased the price of the cheapest can of Carling from 50p to 88p, people would then rush to the pub to buy it at £3.50 a pint? It’s just something latched on to by people who foolishly believe that anything that damages other sections of the drinks trade must benefit them. Plus, the further you increase the price of off-trade alcohol, the more problems you have with black market selling and illegal distilling.

The conclusion must be that “undercutting by supermarkets” is something that only plays a very limited role in the long-term decline of pubs, and certainly doesn’t give any guide to future policy. It is something that conjures up a sepia-toned vision of an age when you went for a knees-up in the street-corner local, got in a couple of bottles of Emva Cream and Vat 69 for Christmas from the outdoor, and where the missus trotted round the butcher’s, baker’s and greengrocer’s several times a week to feed the family.

Of course in a sense it is sad to see the pub trade so much diminished, but it is social and legislative change that have brought that about, not competition from Tesco. Supermarkets have responded to that change, not created it. Pubs have no hope of ever being able to remotely match the off-trade on price, especially given the ever-increasing cost of labour, so, rather than moaning that life is unfair, they need to concentrate on giving customers something distinctive for which they are willing to pay a premium. The business of pubs is hospitality, not just selling alcohol.

Monday, 4 September 2017

What goes around, comes round

Hard on the heels of Heineken’s acquisition of Punch Taverns comes the news that Admiral Taverns is being sold to C&C Group, owners of Magners cider and Tennent’s brewery in Scotland. This represents a further unravelling of the industry structure created in the wake of the 1989 Beer Orders, and leaves Ei Group, formerly Enterprise Inns, as the only non-brewing pubco with over 500 pubs still standing.

In reality, the large tied pub companies were only ever created as an expedient in response to the regulatory framework set up by the Beer Orders. Take that away, and they lose any rationale. It has taken a long time since the orders were revoked in 2003, but it was always going to happen in the end, especially after the pubcos ended up in dire financial straits after the financial crash and their disastrous misreading of the impact of the smoking ban. You have to wonder whether the other big brewers are now casting their eyes over Ei Group.

The vociferous anti-pubco campaigners have always been strangely reluctant to put forward any alternative ownership structure for the industry. They seem to have a naive, pie-in-the-sky vision of pubs all being independent freeholds. But, of course, in the real world, that isn’t going to happen, and it would leave the pub trade fragmented and starved of investment capital. The same would be true if pubs were owned by property companies whose only interest in them was collecting the rent.

Provided that there are adequate safeguards against the creation of dominant market positions, either nationally or locally, I really see no problem with pubs returning to the hands of breweries. Indeed in a way it will help safeguard their future, as their owners have a direct interest in maximising their commercial returns by selling their own products, which would not be the case if they were seen only as a financial investment.

The Beer Orders are likely to go down in history as one of the most disastrous and ill-considered interventions in an industry by any British government. As the famous economist Milton Friedman said, “The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem itself”.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Never the twain

One thing that has struck me about the comparison between the 1978 and 2018 Good Beer Guides is how much more homogenous pubs were back then. Yes, of course there were smart pubs and rough pubs, mature pubs and youngsters’ pubs, foody pubs and staunchly wet-only pubs, but the vast majority were owned by brewers and had a vested interest in selling their beer. There were very few pubs that you really didn’t feel at ease with just going in for a pint of bitter. People would often go for a wander round various local pubs in a way they rarely do now.

But now, with the breakdown of the tied house system and the rise of alternative formats, the pub scene has become much more diverse and fragmented. There are many pubs that the customers of another one wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. How many people in the average upmarket country dining pub, urban “old man” boozer or trendy craft bar would ever cross the threshold of the other two? If just wanting to “go out for a drink”, I find the range of options open to me is a lot less than it once was, even discounting the large-scale pub closures, most markedly because so many pubs are now entirely food-led. And, if they fancied a drink in Stockport Market Place, how many people would genuinely consider the Boar’s Head, and the Baker’s Vaults or Remedy Bar to be potential alternatives?

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Forty years of progress?

The 1978 edition, which came out six months after I turned eighteen, was the first Good Beer Guide I ever bought. It played a formative role in moulding my perceptions of the beer and pub landscape. After a while, I threw it away on the grounds that it was now “out of date”, a decision I later came to regret as it became a fascinating historical record and an insight into a past era of my life. So I recently acquired a copy via eBay, in impressively good condition. As they say, one man’s tat is another man’s treasure.

The cover picture, possibly the most memorable of any GBG, is a map of Great Britain made up of pints of beer, with the same on the back cover, only with beermats. It was the last guide to use the “blob” system for denoting beers, with a pale ring against a brewer’s name indicating bitter and a dark one mild. If a brewer produced more than one, there was a little number inside the blob that you needed to cross-reference to the brewery section at the back. It was also the last for many years to include a location map at the beginning of each county section – the 1979 edition switched to having a mini road atlas in the back with a little symbol against each town or village with a listed pub, which in my view was much harder to use.

It provides an interesting contrast with the 2018 edition, which dropped on to my doormat earlier this week. For a start, the latest one is much thicker – 1032 pages as opposed to 256. The brewery section has expanded from 14 to a staggering 289 pages, and that’s not including the index of beer names. On the other hand, the total number of pubs has fallen from around 5,500 to 4,500, the extra pages being accounted for by longer descriptions and a bigger typeface. The cover price has risen from £1.95 (which, according, to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator would be £10.27 in current prices) to £15.99.

Some of the descriptions are famously terse, such as “An old pub”, “A friendly local”, “An honest alehouse”, but others expand into a kind of poetry. For example, the Crown in Stockport is described as “Spotless museum piece with awesome view of the viaduct from the outside gents”, while of the Victoria in St Annes it says “A totally unspoilt Victorian building which bears some resemblance to a licensed rabbit warren”. Not surprisingly, neither of these statements still apply. Pubs are often described as “smart”, which is not really a term that would be used today. The only smart pubs now are dining pubs.

While the current longer descriptions are potentially much more informative, much of them are given over to guff such as “Standing next to the 10th century St Ethelbald’s church, the Jolly Plover has impressive views over the flood plain of the River Slutch. Lambert Simnel is reputed to have slept here in 1493” which tell you nothing about what the pub is actually like.

There are also some useful little notes about the general real ale situation in some of the towns listed. For example, “Lancaster has 18 Mitchells houses and 17 Yates & Jackson houses; all sell real ale” and “Macclesfield has 8 different brews in more than 60 pubs”.

Opening hours are shown against each location, rather than against individual pubs, and in general pubs stuck fairly religiously to them. If there were any variations, such as opening later in the mornings, or on Saturday evenings, it is noted against the pub. It was ten years before the introduction of all-day opening, but back then it was much easier to get a drink in a pub before noon.

A few towns still had the traditional market day extensions. There were none reported in Cheshire, but in Ormskirk in Lancashire the pubs were open until 4 on Thursdays, while in Ashbourne in Derbyshire you could drink from 10 to 4 on Saturdays in Marston’s White Hart, and in Oswestry in Shropshire (then called Salop) the Black Lion was open until 4.30 pm on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.

The substantial number of pubs using electric pumps to dispense real ale is very noticeable. In Cheshire, it is 28 out 92 entries, while on the page of Greater Manchester including Stockport it is 9 out of 27. On the final page of West Midlands including Wolverhampton it is 13 from 27.

The vast majority of pubs were brewery tied houses, in many cases just offering plain Bitter and Mild, but there were the first signs of the multi-beer free house. The Midway in Stockport offered Draught Bass, McEwan’s 80/-, Wilsons Brewer’s Bitter, Boddingtons Bitter, Thwaites Best Mild and Bitter and Pollards Bitter, from a mixture of electric and handpumps, while the Windmill at Whiteley Green in Cheshire has Marston’s Pedigree, Thwaites Best Mild and Bitter, Wilsons Brewer’s Bitter, Boddingtons Bitter and Robinsons Best Bitter and Best Mild, all on handpump.

Stockport has only six entries, compared with twelve in the 2018 edition. These were the long-closed Bridgewater Arms and Golden Lion, and the Arden Arms, Crown, Midway and Red Bull, which are all still going strong. There is also a comment that “Stockport is well off for real ale – with beers from 13 breweries. Robinson’s and Boddingtons’ pubs are safe; choose Wilsons’ with care”. Such later perennial favourites in the Stockport suburbs as the Nursery in Heaton Norris and the Davenport Arms at Woodford are absent, but Holts’ Griffin in Heaton Mersey offers “a good choice of rooms with traditional decor”.

There are sad reminders of fine pubs now lost, such as the Crown at Tiverton in Cheshire, described as “A fine unspoilt old pub” offering McEwan’s 70/- on gravity, which I never got to visit in its original form, Thwaites’ Highwayman at Rainow and Boddingtons’ Railway at Heatley near Lymm, described as “Large, popular and boisterous”.

Obviously a huge amount has changed in the ensuing forty years, including the dramatic expansion of micro-breweries, the rise of the specialist beer pub and the erosion of the tied house system. Probably the change that brought about the greatest improvement to my personal experience of pubgoing was all-day opening, which was introduced in 1988, but didn’t become commonplace for a few years after that.

Whether life for the beer drinker was better in 1978 than in 2018 is obviously open to debate. Some aspects are now better, others worse. But it can’t be denied that in 1978 there were more pubs, they were a lot busier, in total they sold a lot more real ale, and they were used by a wider range of people on a wider variety of occasions

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Disappearing into the ether

As an emergency cost-saving measure following some disappointing financial figures, CAMRA have announced that they are not going to send out hard copies of their monthly newspaper What’s Brewing for October and December to members for whom they hold an e-mail address. Not surprisingly, this has reignited the debate about whether such print publications should be phased out in favour of electronic communication. There is a group of “digital zealots” who see printed newspapers and magazines as a relic of the past that should be consigned to history without delay. But, in reality, things are by no means so clear-cut.

For a start, there’s still a substantial number of mainly older people who make no use of the Internet whatsoever, something that is particularly relevant to CAMRA with its ageing membership profile. You can’t simply cut them off and consign them to oblivion. And many others, while they may have an Internet connection and e-mail address, in practice make very little use of it and can’t really be regarded as digitally literate. Sometimes I’ve said in conversation “it’s been all over the Internet”, only for people to reply “sorry, never seen it”. My local CAMRA branch has over 1,500 members, but less than 250 of them have signed up to its e-mail newsgroup, which is about the most basic form of digital engagement imaginable. I’ve read that many people, while regular Internet users, in practice only visit about ten different websites.

People also consume digital and print media in different ways – online, you will tend to head directly for the particular item that interests you, whereas with a physical magazine you are more likely to browse it randomly and find things by chance. For example, I regularly flick through the pages of a newspaper or magazine while eating my breakfast, which I wouldn’t really do with a tablet. This is why a digital facsimile of a print publication is the worst of both worlds, as it fails to reflect the way people digest digital information. Many people who might pick up a copy of What’s Brewing if it’s lying about and read the odd article will never even open the digital one. An effective online publication depends on the constant updating of information and stories, whereas a print one is a snapshot taken at a point in time.

There is still a strong attachment to printed publications, show by the fact that sales of printed books have begun to regain ground against their electronic equivalents. While newspapers continue to record declines in circulation, the print version of the Spectator magazine has recently seen record sales in its 189-year history. A printed book or magazine is an attractive artefact in its own right in a way that a webpage displayed on a screen will never be, especially if it contains illustrations and diagrams rather than just words. And, for many members of organisations of various kinds, not just CAMRA, receiving the official magazine is often the only tangible contact they ever have with it. In a sense, it makes your subs seem just that little bit more worthwhile.

Nowadays, if you have Internet access, you’re unlikely to look at print newspapers or magazines for hard facts such as sports or election results. But the same is not true of comment, analysis and reviews, which often benefit from the more contemplative approach that a physical publication encourages. And you also have to consider how people actually come across the information in the first place. It might make sense for a CAMRA branch to communicate information about meetings to its members electronically. But if it produces a magazine for public consumption, it depends on people picking it up by chance in pubs. If it was converted to a purely digital format, scarcely anyone would read it, and certainly no-one would pay to advertise in it.

It may be that, in the fullness of time, the hard information contained in a publication such as What’s Brewing will entirely migrate online. But it’s essential to proceed very cautiously to avoid alienating people and losing their support. And it’s difficult to say that the more reflective and analytical pieces should be treated the same way, as otherwise they may simply disappear into the ether.

One of the most entertaining features of What’s Brewing is the letters page, where you often see opinions expressed that never seem to be aired in online media. Just a thought, but maybe CAMRA could consider setting up an online forum where these topics could be discussed more fully...

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Many unhappy returns

Following my post last week about the pitfalls of returning beer to the bar, I thought I would run a poll on how often people actually did it.

The answer, clearly, was “not very much”, with 78% only needing to return 1 in 50 pints, or less, and 95% only returning 1 in 20. The four people who said “More than 1 in 10” must either be unusually fastidious, or unlucky in their choice of pub. It would be interesting to know what reception they got when they did it.

My experience is, if you take a bit of care as to which pubs you visit, it’s something that is only rarely necessary, and in general, when it does happen, pubs are apologetic and replace the beer without demur.

The last time I did it was in the Coach & Horses, the “other” Hook Norton pub in Banbury. As I wrote, it looks traditional from outside, but inside has received a stark, modernistic makeover. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I thought to myself “Well, I’ll be lucky to get a decent pint here.” There were two seasonal beers on the bar but, oddly, neither Hooky Bitter nor Old Hooky. I chose the weaker of the two, but it was distinctly cloudy. There was no problem in getting it changed for the other one, but that, while not returnable as such, wasn’t very brilliant either. It was a classic case of having a pint and thinking that you don’t really fancy drinking it all.

Since then, I was in a Sam Smith’s pub one day where the bitter was sufficiently hazy as to be in my view borderline returnable. In another pub, where there was an alternative on offer, I might have taken it back, but in this case, as it didn’t taste too bad, I didn’t bother, as the alternatives would either have been a pint of stout or lager, or getting a refund, which obviously would have brought my visit to an abrupt end. This underlines my point about needing to be clear as to what your objective is when taking beer back, and looking at the whole experience, not the beer in isolation.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Always look on the bright side

In their new book 20th Century Pub, Boak and Bailey reached the conclusion that “we feel unfashionably optimistic for the pub”. Now, in my usual role as Cassandra, I obviously had to respond “I have to say I’m not so sure.” But, in this context, it’s interesting to try to define exactly what being optimistic means.

The British Beer and Pub Association’s British Beer Barometer statistical series goes back to 1997. If, in that year, anyone had suggested that, over the next twenty years, the amount of beer sold in British pubs would more than halve, they would have been accused of unrealistic doom-mongering. But that is exactly what has happened. The latest figures are for the first quarter of this year, so in that period of just over 19 years, the total sales have fallen by 51%. In the first ten years, it was 28.4%, and in the following 9¼ it was 31.5%. There has been a net loss of about 20,000 pubs but, given that many new bars have opened, the gross loss of identifiable pubs that were in existence in 1997 must be at least 25,000. By any standards, that has to be regarded as a disaster for the industry.

While the pressures may have eased a little in recent years, it would be complacent to imagine that the trade is in any sense out of the woods. The average annual fall over the past four years has still been 2.1%. It’s probably fair to say that the direct effect of the smoking ban on footfall in pubs has now worked through the system, but even so many pubs that are still open will have been left in a much weaker financial position than they otherwise would be.

The general tide of anti-alcohol sentiment in society continues unabated. Employers are increasingly intolerant of any drinking whatsoever by their staff during the working day, leading to the ever further erosion of the traditional weekday lunchtime couple of pints. The idea that alcohol consumption is per se bad for you continues to gain currency, with an ever higher proportion of people claiming not to drink at all. Even when alcohol is consumed, it is increasingly seen as something that has to be ringfenced from any kind of responsible activity, which all too often means doing so at home rather than while out and about. For twenty years, a Sword of Damocles has hung over the English pub in the form of cutting the drink-drive limit, which has often been mooted, but not so far implemented south of the Border. What the precise impact would be is open to debate, but it would unquestionably be very much in the downward direction.

It’s also important not to forget the role of demographic churn as an agent of change. Many of the shifts in patterns of pubgoing are not due to existing customers changing their behaviour, but to new entrants to the population of potential pubgoers having very different habits from those whose custom has been lose due to age or infirmity.

Given all these pressures, it’s hard to see the story of the next twenty years being much different from the previous ones. Extrapolate the same trend for another 19¼ years to the middle of 2036, and annual barrelage will have shrunk from 12.8 million to 6.3 million. Even a 1% decline per year would still leave the trade 18% down come 2036. That may be considerably better than anything seen in the past twenty years, but it still wouldn’t really qualify as good news. Of course by then I will be in my late seventies, so whether I will still be in a position to be going to pubs is open to question, even assuming that there are any pubs left for me to go to.

Of course, forecasting the future by extrapolating from the past is always prone to pitfalls. It could be that the trade “bottoms out” at a level not much below where it is at present. And it’s always possible that some kind of “black swan” event could turn things right around. After all, in 1959 the continued slow decline of the pub in the face of competition from staying in to watch the telly seemed assured, but the next twenty years saw the trade almost double, despite it often being a period of economic difficulties. But if there are any straws in the wind indicating a change of direction, they’re very hard to discern.

Or is optimism maybe seen only in terms of the particular, not the general?

Sunday, 20 August 2017

News of the booze

In writing my review of Boak & Bailey’s 20th Century Pub the other day, the thought occurred to me that a strong parallel could be drawn between pubs and print newspapers. I didn’t include it there as it seemed like a sidetrack, but the idea is worth developing further.
  • Both have experienced a steady, long-drawn-out decline in custom spanning several decades

  • In each case, the number of outlets/titles has declined more slowly than total sales

  • Independent regional operators have been snapped up by national and international chains, and frequently closed down

  • There is concern over the domination of the industry by a small number of major players

  • Different brands or titles have very distinct images in the eyes of the general public. Sun=Wetherspoon’s, anyone?

  • Their customers, on average, tend to be older than the population as a whole

  • Both are widely written off as old-fashioned and a thing of the past

  • The people who use or buy them often have a strong attachment to particular brands

  • A growing proportion of the population never have any involvement with them whatsoever
Obviously it doesn’t apply in every respect, but interesting food for thought nonetheless.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The ups and downs of pubs

There have been plenty of books written on the history of the British pub, and for the most part they cover the same ground. They run through the great days of the coaching inns, the Victorian Beer House Act, the Edwardian gin palaces and Lloyd George’s temperance campaign, possibly getting on to the inter-wars improved pub and the Bolton Mass Observation studies. But, after that, they tend to peter out and go strangely quiet.

This gap has now been remedied with 20th Century Pub by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, well-known beer bloggers and authors of the widely acclaimed Brew Britannia, a study of the rise of British beer enthusiasm. This is a comprehensive survey of the development of pubs since 1900, beginning with the temperance pressures faced by brewers in the early years of the century, and moving on through the genteel improved pub, theme pubs, Irish pubs, gastropubs and Wetherspoon’s to end up in the modern-day but oddly old-fashioned environment of the micropub.

It’s organised thematically, with each chapter closed by a visit to a pub that exemplifies its topic. Most of these, in their different ways, are still thriving, a sombre exception being Marples in Sheffield, where 70 people died in a Luftwaffe raid in 1940 while sheltering in the cellars. It was rebuilt after the war, but the replacement itself is no more. Especially interesting is the chapter on the origins and development of the much-maligned estate pub of the post-war era. Will we come to cherish the few survivors in the same way as we now do the inter-wars pubs?

The book has clearly involved a lot of intensive research in archives and press clippings, especially in the earlier chapters which have more of a historical feel. It is also enlived by many anecdotes from people with direct experience of the various themes covered, so a number of names crop up that are already familiar from Twitter and the beer blogosphere. In the chapter on gastropubs, there’s even a quotation from a letter sent by one Peter Edwardson of Stockport to What’s Brewing, which adopts a familiar curmudgeonly tone:

We have all come across pubs which have effectively turned themselves into pretentious quasi-restaurants, with blackboard menus offering a julienne of this and a ragout of that at £8 a time, which no doubt make their own stock, and where a request for brown sauce would be met with a supercilious sneer.
During the writing of the book, I was involved in one or two e-mail exchanges with the authors on various points, and it’s good to see this recognised, and my true identity “outed”, in the acknowledgments section.

A recurring theme is the constant tension between the desire to reform and clean up pubs, and the opposing tendency to see them as places for people to let their hair down where the normal rules can be relaxed. Allied to this is the enduring attempt by brewers and operators to impose particular formulas on pubs, which all too often end up making them somewhat sterile, and are eroded by the conflict with warts-and-all reality. As they say in their conclusion:

Which leads us to the second challenge, the flipside to the first. The story of the pub in the 20th century is of concerted efforts from every angle to do away with ‘the mere drink shop’ by going upmarket, on trend, or both. This has undoubtedly led to many improvements – few people would want to go back to spittoons or outside toilets. But the chasing of respectability and relevance has seen breweries and pub companies apply superficial characteristics in a desperate and inauthentic attempt to win new custom. We’ve seen in the course of this book how the trade tends to be a relentless follower of fashion, leaping on whatever bandwagon is currently in town – Victoriana, theme pubs, real-ale joints, gastropubs, craft beer – but it so often fails, or at least fails to endure. There are few sights bleaker than a would-be upmarket pub all dressed up to impress only a handful of bewildered customers left over from the old days; with tea-towels draped over its redundant craft beer taps; with the menu sliding week by week away from gastro and towards the microwave while the chef twiddles her thumbs.
The book is intended to be a historical and sociological survey, not a polemic in the style of Christopher Hutt’s Death of the English Pub and the authors, while not fighting shy of expressing opinions, do not treat it as a soapbox. They offer a very balanced account of the debate surrounding the very obvious decline of the pub trade in recent years. On one particularly fraught issue, they report that:
...a 2012 survey by the trade journal the Morning Advertiser found that nearly half its readership felt that the smoking ban had had ‘a significant impact’, and we have spoken to publicans who say, quite matter-of-factly, that they certainly noticed a marked decline in footfall when it was introduced.
and go on to say:
If when people talk about the death of the pub they mean of specifically this type – primarily working-class, drink-led, male dominated pubs – then the argument that the smoking ban is significantly to blame for the decline gains credibility.
Not surprisingly, they end up with an upbeat conclusion that “we feel unfashionably optimistic for the pub”. I have to say I’m not so sure. It faces pressures from various sides which to my mind add up to an existential threat, and my fear is that we still have a lot further to fall. Pubs and bars will never entirely disappear, but we could end up seeing them occupying a very limited, niche role that is completely irrelevant to most people. In some areas, and amongst some sections of society, this is already the case.

Like pretty much every other writer about pubs, the authors do not really recognise the long boom in the pub trade between about 1960 and 1980, a period during which British beer production almost doubled. It is this that gave brewers the investment funds and self-confidence to create the often bizarre and short-lived theme pubs – they were a sign of hubris, not a desperate reaction to falling sales. It’s ironic that Hutt wrote his famous polemic at a time when the pub trade, at least in financial terms, was thriving.

There’s also a significant gap in recent years, with no mention of the rise of the new-build family dining pub, which arguably is just as important a development as Wetherspoon’s but, lacking a single identifiable banner, and tucked away on peripheral retail parks, hasn’t attracted anything like the same column inches. My rather ordinary home town of Runcorn has one Spoons, but it now has three of these. Maybe they, combined with Wetherspoon’s, represent the transformation of the traditional drink-led pub into the food-dominated “prub” referred to in an MP’s speech they mention in a recent blogpost.

However, these are omissions, not errors. It’s a thoroughly-researched and intelligently written book that nevertheless maintains a lightness of tone that prevents it becoming turgid even when the subject-matter is serious. It’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in pubs beyond just drinking in them, and is one of those books that you will return to and re-read sections again and again.

I have a couple of quibbles about the physical book itself as opposed to the contents. The first is that the text is left-aligned rather than justified, which to my eye gives a slightly low-rent feel and makes it marginally harder to read. And, while I’m well aware that books aren’t sold by the word, the cover price of £16.99 seems a little steep when compared to similar volumes. Brew Britannia, which is about the same size and format, and was published only three years ago, was £12.99. Still, no doubt it will be available at a lower price from various Internet vendors.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of this book by the publishers. As it is a book I would undoubtedly have bought anyway, I have made a donation of £10 to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which is a cause that I and my family have supported for many years, and was also suggested to me by the authors.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A view from the window

Something you won't see from the train

The point has often been made that people’s experiences in their daily lives inevitably influence their perceptions of wider issues. A thought that occurred to me is that how people see the British pub scene may well be affected by their use of the transport system.

According to the latest edition of the Department for Transport’s Transport Statistics Great Britain, 82% of all adults between the ages of 30 and 59 hold a driving licence, broken down between 86% of males and 77% of females. Although it isn’t analysed in the statistics, those who don’t are likely to be disproportionately drawn from the lower socio-economic categories, so amongst mature adults in the ABC1 groups, not having a licence is a distinct rarity.

Yet I would say those who don’t are considerably over-represented amongst those who pursue pubs and beer as a leisure interest. Before anyone jumps down my throat, this is purely an observation, not any kind of criticism. For some, it may have been a deliberate decision, as being a non-driver makes life simple and avoids a whole load of sacrifices, compromises and balancing acts. But it’s probably more a case of seeing it as an easily accessible hobby, or because being a public transport enthusiast (where there is a strong overlap wth CAMRA activism) makes the idea of taking up driving less attractive in the first place.

As a non-driver, virtually all of your long-distance journeys will probably be by train between the centres of towns and cities, even travelling relatively short distances such as between Manchester and Rochdale. There’s a lot that you will see, but also, by not using the roads, a lot that you will miss. It’s really only through travelling by road that you will witness for yourself the scale of the devastation of the British pub trade in recent years.

Journey from the centre of Manchester to any of its major satellite towns and you’ll see a whole parade of closed and boarded pubs. Over time, some will be demolished or converted to alternative use, but plenty still remain. On some trips, such as that to Oldham, there may well be more closed pubs than open ones. Continue over the tops to Huddersfield, and you’ll see plenty more. And on any longer journey away from the motorway network, the evidence of pub closures in rural areas, villages and small towns is inescapable. Often, each trip made every year or so will reveal yet another one that has bitten the dust. If your experience was confined to your own local area, and the centres of towns and cities in other parts of the country, you could be forgiven for concluding that the trade continued to enjoy fairly rude health

On the other hand, you will also miss a major advance in the pub trade. On the outskirts of pretty much every town of any size, you will now find a modern retail park, and alongside this, more often than not, you will find a new-build family dining pub, often, although not always, owned by Greene King or Marston’s. They may not be your cup of tea, or mine, but they must represent about the biggest category of bricks-and-mortar investment in the sector in recent years.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Nobody else has complained

Cask beer is a natural, living, variable product and, as such, with the best will in the world, it’s inevitable that very occasionally you’ll be served with a sub-standard pint. What matters is not that it’s happened in the first place, but that the pub deals with the issue swiftly, politely and without quibble. Unfortunately, though, as Martin Taylor recently experienced, it doesn’t always work out that way, and an ill-mannered and unhelpful response can easily put a dampener on an enjoyable evening. Indeed, the whole business of returning beer to the bar can be something of a minefield.

The first thing is to be specific as to exactly what it is you’re complaining about. If the beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary, then you should have a cast-iron case, although opinions will vary on what degree of haziness is acceptable. Personally, unless it’s declared as a beer that is intentionally hazy, I’m pretty dogmatic on the issue, and will reject anything with more than a slight cast. But, of course, if it is a deliberately hazy beer, how do you or the bar staff know how much haze is too much?

However, there are other faults that are not so clear-cut, for example being served far too warm, lacking in condition, having a noticeable off-flavour such as diacetyl, or simply being generally tired and end-of-barrel-ish. If you’re in a pub where you’re a regular and are known to the licensee and bar staff, such a complaint might be taken seriously, but in a strange pub you could well feel that you are chancing your arm.

It’s also important to be clear about your objective when making a complaint. Obviously the best solution is to be given an acceptable replacement, either the same beer which has been pulled through, or a new cask tapped, or a suitable alternative. Failing that, the aim should be to be given a refund, which you may well prefer if it’s the only cask beer on sale and you don’t fancy a Carling as a replacement. Or, in some cases, just venting your spleen will leave you with a sense of moral satisfaction.

The last two outcomes, though, imply that you’ll be bringing your visit to an end. If you’re in the middle of a pub crawl, or there’s an alternative pub nearby, or you’ve just popped in for a swift pint, that might be entirely acceptable. But in other situations, for example having a meal or social evening with a group, or watching a football match or live music performance, you might not want to do that, and thus be reluctant to create a fuss. You’ll just quietly leave the sub-standard pint, and put up with Guinness or Diet Coke for the rest of the proceedings. The point has also been made in the past by Tandleman that you’re going out for a pleasant social evening, and creating a confrontational situation may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth even if you gain a moral victory.

I’d say in general that attitudes to changing sub-standard beer have improved over the years, although it may simply be that as a more mature chap I command more respect than a pimply youth. The days of “everyone else is drinking it” or “real ale’s meant to look like soup/taste like vinegar” are largely a thing of the past. One of the worst responses I recall was “but you’ve drunk some of it!” Well, if I hadn’t drunk any, how would I know it was foul?

However, as Martin and his friends found out, that kind of quibbling hasn’t entirely disappeared. In that case, although they had spent £60 in the pub, they would now think twice about going back and he has disseminated his experience over the Internet. Given the amount of goodwill at risk, compared with the gross profit on a pint, it’s hard to see why pubs continue to argue the toss about changing beer if customers present a reasonable case. After all, I don’t think anyone beyond a handful of troublemakers deliberately sets out to wind pubs up by returning perfectly good pints.

To their credit, Wetherspoon’s seem to have adopted a no-quibble policy when it comes to exchanging cask beer. Bar staff who are not beer experts will be in no position to decide whether or not a complaint is valid, and they must recognise how much goodwill they stand to lose. If any customer established a reputation as a “vexatious complainant”, I’m sure it would be brought to management’s attention.

No doubt someone will point out that that, if you stick to mass-market lagers and smooth beers, you won’t have any of this problem with variability. However, the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it’s much superior to kegs and lagers, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem. The only returnable pints I’ve had in recent months have been when drinking off-grid in pubs that I happened to like the look of, but came with no recommendation. And keg beers, especially small-batch “craft” ones, are by no means immune from faults either.

But, if you go into a food- or sports-oriented pub with a solitary Doom Bar handpump at the end of a long line of kegs, it’s entirely understandable if you decide to give it a swerve. And, at least once, we’ve all been there with that pint of slightly warm, slightly flat, slightly stale, slightly hazy beer, where no one fault really makes a convincing case for taking it back, but we conclude the best solution is just to leave it unfinished on the table...

Edit: I’ve added a poll on taking beer back in the sidebar, which mobile users won’t see.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Hooked on Hooky

In the late Seventies, when I was at university in Birmingham, one of the most common beers to be found in the handful of free houses that had started to relieve the duopoly of Ansells and M&B was Hook Norton Bitter from Oxfordshire. It was a classic “country bitter” – distinctive, well-rounded, bittersweet, with a slight earthy note, which offered a very welcome contrast to our usual big brewery fare.

Fortunately, while many other of the family brewers of that era have fallen by the wayside, Hook Norton is still very much with us. It stands in the extreme north-west of the county, in the village of the same name a few miles west of Banbury. While it claims to offer “beer from the Cotswolds”, in fact it’s just outside the area generally regarded as bearing that name, and in fact is more in ironstone country, distinguished by the notably darker and redder hue of the local stone.

Hook Norton is a long, straggling village that is pretty quiet compared with some of the nearby Cotswold honeypots. At the west end is the area known as Scotland End, and at the side of the attractive Pear Tree Inn is a lane leading to the handsome Victorian tower brewery, dating from 1899. It’s a resolutely traditional affair, retaining a steam engine dating from the time of its construction that can still be used to power the brewery, and still using shire horses to deliver beer to local pubs.

Even if you’re not going on a tour, the brewery’s visitor centre is still well worth a visit. It includes a small museum covering both the history of the brewery itself and of the village and the surrounding area. I was interested to learn that the village used to by a major centre of ironstone quarrying and processing, served by a number of narrow-gauge railways, and that, before the introduction of mains water in the 1950s, the deficiency of iodine in the local water led to a disproportionate number of people in the area suffering from goitres. There’s also a café and a shop where you can pick up the full range of bottled beers together with other merchandise.

The current beer range comprises Mild, Hooky Bitter and the stronger Old Hooky as permanent beers, as well as a number of seasonals, of which Haymaker is perhaps the best known. Old Hooky was introduced in the late 1970s as a traditional dark old ale, and is listed as such in the Good Beer Guides of that time, but at some point in the intervening period was repositioned as a premium bitter, albeit definitely at the darker and sweeter end of the range. The company history recounts how the brewery used to enjoy a strong trade for their dark mild in working men’s clubs in Coventry and North Warwickshire which only eventually came to an end in 2000. Hooky Bitter remains one of the finest British balanced “ordinary” bitters, and indeed reached the final of my recent Twitter poll on the best of the breed.

The 1977 Good Beer Guide shows Hook Norton as having 34 tied houses, but the number grew slightly in subsequent years through the occasional purchase of additional pubs. Wikipedia says it currently has 47, but the brewery’s own website states 40, which is probably a more accurate figure. Some of the smaller wet-led pubs will have been lost, in towns as much as in the countryside, but this has been offset by buying up pubs in towns where there is likely to be more trade on offer. Both Hook Norton and Donnington now have pubs in the small South Warwickshire town of Shipston-on-Stour, as, indeed, do Brakspear.

In Banbury, they have two pubs. One is the Olde Reine Deer (pictured right), historically a coaching inn, which retains the octagonal 17th century wood-panelled “Globe Room”, and has recently received a sympathetic refurbishment incorporating much dark wood and bench seating. The nearby Coach & Horses forms a sharp contrast as, while outwardly traditional, the interior has been remodelled in a rather stark modernistic scheme with loose seating and posing tables. Significantly, this was the only pub on my recent visit to the area where I had to return a cloudy pint. In another pub, I overheard some locals saying that what it needed to do was to concentrate on “basic food and basic beer”, which is very much what it doesn’t do.

Another noteworthy pub is the Elephant & Castle in the nearby village of Bloxham. This presents a rather forbidding, cliff-like aspect to the street, but once you pass through the archway you come to the main frontage of a very comfortable and welcoming two-bar pub. While in Banbury, I also visited the Wine Vaults, almost opposite the Olde Reine Deer. I remember this from a train trip while at University as a free house serving Marston’s, which was a long, narrow pub of great character with a stone-flagged floor and odd little wood-panelled snugs. Since then, it has fallen into the hands of Greene King and been dramatically remodelled. You can still see a faint echo of its original character around the bar, but otherwise it’s just another identikit pub.

Hook Norton makes an interesting pair with Donnington, another family brewer survivor, which genuinely is right in the heart of the Cotswolds. Donnington’s location and brewery buildings are arguably even prettier, and it has an estate of, externally at least, very handsome pubs in the distinctive local stone. However, few would deny that Hook Norton brew by some margin the better beers. They, and the brewery’s pubs, are well worth seeking out.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Sugaring the pill

It has been recently reported that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This is yet another contribution to the huge body of research suggesting that moderate drinking is beneficial to health, and further undermines the Public Health objective of being able to claim that any level of alcohol consumption is harmful.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook may be aware, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes earlier this year. Obviously such news takes you back a bit but, given that my father had the condition, and, in hindsight, I recognise that I had been experiencing some of the symptoms, it wasn’t a total bolt from the blue.

Well, Mudgie, you may say, you have spent forty years living on a diet mainly consisting of beer, pork scratchings and pizza, so you shouldn’t be too surprised, and really only have yourself to blame. However, risk factors are not direct causes. General lifestyle factors in society have raised the likelihood of people developing diabetes, plus diagnosis is now more likely than it once was, and people are living longer.

In the past, given that the immediate symptoms can be far from obvious, many people will have gone to their graves without it being spotted. My father wasn’t diagnosed until his late seventies. Whether you develop it has far more to do with heredity and chance than the actual lifestyle you live, and I know plenty of people who have drunk deeper and gorged more yet have remained immune. While I make no claim to have rigidly adhered to healthy living guidelines, I have for many years tried to make sure my alcohol consumption is kept under control, and have never been more than moderately overweight. Indeed, my current BMI is about 26, which I don’t think is anything to get too worried about.

As the news report indicates, drinking alcohol isn’t incompatible with diabetes, despite what some may imagine. However, obviously a bit of care is needed, and I’ve set myself a target of reducing my consumption by 25% compared with previously. On reflection, I was often going for “oh, let’s just have one more” when it added little to the experience. Over five months, I’ve achieved 23%, which isn’t too bad going. But that doesn’t in the slightest deter me from seeking out new pubs and drinking experiences.

In the past, the view was often taken that people with diabetes should completely avoid certain foods, especially those with a high sugar content. However, the current line is that nothing should be considered completely off limits, and that diabetics should basically just adhere to the dietary recommendations for the general population. But I’m a bit sceptical about that. The key factor triggering diabetes is sugar, and the sugar contained within carbohydrates, while fat, while it may not do you much good overall, has no particular implications. So it might make sense to go easy on bread and cakes, but there’s no problem with milk, butter and cheese. Indeed, in recent decades, the general dietary advice has been to eat a low-fat diet with plenty of wholegrain carbohydrates, which has been accompanied by a marked rise in cases of diabetes.

Not surprisingly, the subject is a magnet for various kinds of dietary cranks and single-issue obsessives, especially the zealots advocating a zero-carbohydrate diet. The forum at diabetes.co.uk is so infested with them as to be virtually unusable. And some people seem to have become “professional diabetics”, endlessly analysing their diet and blood sugar readings.

I certainly take the subject seriously, and I would be a fool not to. But my objective is to aim to manage it with the least amount of intrusion into my daily life, not to allow it to become an all-consuming fixation.

And pork scratchings, which contain no sugar or carbs, are in a sense the ideal diabetic food.

As a total aside, this subject gives an opportunity to listen again to this unforgettable classic of Sixties bubblegum:

Friday, 4 August 2017

Two-thirds of the way there

Alec Latham was recently musing on the subject of the two-thirds pint measure, which became legal in British pubs nearly six years ago, on 1 October 2011. At the time, I asked the question as to whether the “schooner” would float or sink. In practice, it seems to have been very much the latter. While they have gained some traction in specialist craft beer bars, they’re virtually never seen in the wider pub trade. I can only remember seeing one mainstream pub advertising their availability, and that was four years ago. Significantly, Wetherspoons, who are often seen as a bellwether for the trade in general, haven’t adopted them. In most pubs, if you asked for two-thirds, you would get a funny look and a pained explanation that they didn’t serve them.

Alec is quite right to make the point that a half never seems to quite give half as much satisfaction as a pint, and is often gone in much less than half the time. It’s just not a very appealing measure and, unless they’re doing it specifically so that they can taste more different beers, it’s rare to see blokes drinking halves in pubs. If they are, it’s usually something of a distress purchase triggered by lack of funds, lack of time or the fact they are driving. Ideally, they would prefer a pint. To put it in a blunt and politically incorrect manner, basically real men just don’t drink halves. They might be more attractive if they were served in oversize glasses, but that’s another story.

Obviously two-thirds measures make sense for the stronger beers that often feature in craft bars, where a pint may simply be too much. They are roughly in line with the 330 or 355ml bottles and cans that are popular for craft beers. But they also make sense for beers of more ordinary strength, where you just want “a glass of beer”, but a pint seems a bit too much, whereas a half comes across as a bit footling. On several occasions, I’ve ordered a pint only to find it was a bit lacklustre, and felt that I’d rather not have to drink it all. But ordering a half from the outset seems like an admission of defeat. However, as the measure has failed to take off in the general run of pubs, the option simply isn’t available. Maybe something of a pity, but a fact of life.

One deterrent, of course, is that in order to serve two-thirds measures, you have to have the appropriate glassware – either dedicated brim-measure or lined oversize two-thirds glasses, or pint glasses with a two-thirds line, or possibly specific measuring vessels. It’s not lawful to pour what you think is an approximation of two-thirds into a normal pint glass. And, given the investment needed to cater for something for which there doesn’t seem to be much demand, most pubs understandably have chosen not to bother.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Join the queue

Martin Taylor has recently reported on encountering a Post Office-style queuing system in operation in Wetherspoon’s in Cheltenham, something I have never actually seen myself, but have heard about in other locations. At first sight, this seems like an unwelcome development that subverts the usual interaction between customers and staff across the bar, and certainly my Twitter followers weren’t very keen on the idea. However, if you think about it, it does start to make sense in an establishment like Spoons. A bar counter is fine for getting your drinks handed to you immediately, and allows the customers to chat both to the staff and each other. However, in Spoons I’d guess that well over half of all orders include food, especially when you consider that many drinks will come as part of meal deals. As you don’t collect your food at the same time as ordering, the benefit of a service counter is much less, and it’s hardly surprising that cafés and restaurants in general take orders at tables. In the past, although it’s less common now, many pubs had a separate dedicated counter to order food so it didn’t get in drinkers’ way.

The typical Spoons has a very long bar counter and never quite seems to have enough staff, so with the best will in the world you can easily end up being served out of turn, and when it’s busy you may be in for a long wait. A queuing system makes sure everyone is served in order, and while it might not necessarily shorten the waiting time, it will make it more bearable, as you will be able to see clearly how long it’s likely to be before your turn comes. It will mean you won’t get stuck behind someone ordering coffees, as you’ll go to the first available member of staff, and it eliminates the problem of barflies hanging about and blocking the view of the pumps.

No, it’s not how a traditional pub works, and you do lose the contribution to pub atmosphere of interaction between staff and customers. But Wetherspoon’s aren’t really traditional pubs anyway, and in terms of how their business operates, queuing is likely to make things more efficient when it’s busy. If it takes off, you could even see the interiors of their pubs being redesigned with shorter bar counters divided into identifiable serving points, and display boards alongside the queue showing the food and drink menus. Maybe you could even separate ordering and collecting drinks, as in a McDonald’s drive-thru, so your drinks are ready when you actually reach the bar.

If anything, the Spoons smartphone app, which Boak and Bailey have written about here, undermines the traditional working of pubs considerably more than expecting customers to queue at the bar.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Gone over to food

One of the most marked changes in the pub trade over the forty years of my drinking career has been the ever-growing prominence of food. In practice, there was a lot more pub food around in the 70s than the decade is often given credit for, but even so it has steadily increased in importance such that, for many pubs, it now forms the core of their business. It has become a truism to say that, outside urban centres, most pubs now could not survive without food.

The situation where this is perhaps most obvious is when away on holiday. For most people, going on holiday is about the only opportunity they get to experience pubs outside their own area in the evenings, when they are busiest, and the balance of trade is most representative. I remember in the 80s, when visiting pubs on holiday, that there tended to be a mixed economy. Yes, many now served evening meals, but there was also a good leavening of drinking customers too. Fast forward thirty years, and all too often they’re given over entirely to dining. For example, last month I visited a pub on the Isle of Wight on a Monday night. It didn’t obviously present itself as a “dining pub”, but I rapidly became conscious that I was the sole customer who wasn’t eating.

Obviously the main driver of this is changing social trends and mores, and pub operators can’t be blamed for adjusting their business model to suit the shifting winds of fashion. It may be a matter of regret, but there’s nothing really that can be done to reverse the trend. But you do have to wonder whether it has, slowly but surely, led to pubs metamorphosing into something entirely different from what they once were. Certainly, the new-build “family dining pub” that is becoming increasingly common would be unrecognisable from the perspective of 1977.

Back in the early days of this blog, I described this as “a strange hybrid kind of business that may superficially resemble a pub but in reality is just a second-rate dining outlet.” I know that particular boat has long since sailed, but I still can’t help thinking that we would have both better drinking and better eating if the two hadn’t merged into one.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Brexit Arms

It’s taken as read amongst the beer writing fraternity that pubs, while they may be criticised for this or that, are unequivocally a Good Thing. However, out there in the wider world, this view isn’t necessarily shared by everyone, and over the years I’ve read a fair few articles by bien-pensant journalists arguing that pubs are, basically, well, a bit rubbish.

The latest effort is one by Marina O’Loughlin in London Eater magazine entitled Each to their Own, which was drawn to my attention by Boak & Bailey. This is a strangely schizophrenic piece in which, on the one hand, she accepts that pubs are just not for her, saying “Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with it, just that it doesn’t work for me” , but then going on to level a list of criticisms against them.

Top of the list is that they “don’t serve good wine”, which comes across as spectacularly missing the point. As I said on Twitter, that’s rather like complaining about the lack of guitar solos in opera – it’s just not what pubs are about. Indeed, it could be argued that many, if not most, pubs don’t even serve good beer!

She goes on to describe pubs, with a metropolitan sneer, as being “offputtingly Brexity”. Well, I suppose you can sort of see what she means – pubs have always been a bit anarchic, rumbustious and politically incorrect, and you can understand why fastidious people might turn their noses up at them. I’ve said before that pubs, at heart, are more Sun reader than Guardian reader kinds of places.

It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that the rose-tinted view of pubs as cheerful, welcoming centres of community life is all too often not matched by the reality. But, if you basically see no appeal in pubs, then wouldn’t it be better just to keep quiet rather than moaning that they aren’t something they never set out to be in the first place? After all, I don’t much care for gyms or dance music clubs, but I don’t complain that you can’t get a good pint of bitter in them, I just ignore them.

Friday, 21 July 2017

A fit of the vapers

I spotted the sign on the right in the Prince Rupert in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which belongs to a small pubco called Knead Pubs. Similar blanket bans on e-cigarettes are commonplace, most notably in Wetherspoon’s, but the the faux-politeness of this one is particularly grating. It’s not much consolation to vapers that using e-cigarettes indoors is legal if the pub behaves as though it isn’t.

However, it illustrates a wider issue confronting public health policy. Despite indoor smoking bans and punitive taxation, smoking prevalence in society remains stubbornly reluctant to fall. In the past few years, though, there has been more sign of movement, which has been mainly due to the rise of e-cigarettes, or vaping. While many vaping devices do mimic conventional cigarettes, it is in fact somewhat misleading to describe them as such, as they don’t involve tobacco or combustion in any way.

It is clear that simply wielding a big stick is not an effective way of reducing smoking, and smokers need to be provided with an attractive alternative. However, the public health lobby has a big problem with vaping, not only because it falls into the category of “not invented here”, but also because it can be an enjoyable activity in its own right, not just a joyless smoking cessation therapy. The result is that they have been reluctant to endorse vaping, and indeed by going on about how its risks still need further investigation are in effect telling people to continue smoking, which comes across as an extremely callous attitude. No activity is entirely without risk, but it is pretty self-evident that the health risks of vaping are lower than those of smoking tobacco by several orders of magnitude.

It seems, though, that at last the public authorities are realising that encouraging vaping is likely to be the most productive way of cutting smoking rates, and this has been recognised in the government’s latest anti-smoking campaign, which is reported to involve urging millions to switch to e-cigarettes. But there is a lot of prejudice to be overcome from organisations, both public and private, that have found it all too convenient to treat vaping in exactly the same way as smoking. For example, I recently travelled on the Isle of Wight ferry, where both smoking and vaping had been banned completely on any part of the vessel, even outdoor deck areas.

Government, both national and local, and public bodies such as the education sector and the NHS, need to set an example by ensuring that the blanket prohibition of indoor smoking is not extended to vaping. If vaping is made no more convenient than smoking, then where is the encouragement to switch? And, while the principle of “my gaff, my rules” must always prevail, it should be made clear to commercial organisations such as pub operators that imposing blanket bans is distinctly unhelpful in terms of public health and, in effect, is indirectly killing people. The Welsh government’s plans for a ban on indoor vaping identical to that on smoking must be consigned to the scrapheap.

But the idea of vaping as a valid recreational pursuit is likely to be very difficult for many in authority to accept...

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Best of the rest

Last week, to mark the tenth anniversary of this blog, I posted a list of what I considered to have been some of my best posts over that period. Obviously such a selection can only be a snapshot, so I thought I would offer a second ten which further illustrate my key themes:
  • August 2009: Happy Days – a journey of discovery of adolescent drinking.

  • April 2010: Wooden wombs – at heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer.

  • October 2010: Premiumisation – why keg beers continue to sell for more than cask.

  • January 2011: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll...and going to the pub – we don’t see the 1960s as a boom time for the pub trade, but they were.

  • August 2011: Drip, drip, drip... – the effect of the smoking ban on the pub trade has been a slow erosion of sociability, not a one-off hit.

  • November 2013: Craft vs Premium – how craft beer challenges the conventional concept of a premium product.

  • December 2013 - A brief history of electricity – it has now been airbrushed from history, but getting on for half of all cask beer was once sold through electric pumps. And, in several respects, they were preferable to handpumps.

  • October 2016: Getting out of the house – the simple act of going to the pub can provide a social outlet for the depressed and lonely.

  • January 2017: A campaign designed by a committee – will CAMRA’s “revitalisation project” end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

  • January 2017: The Sam’s factor – despite their sometimes high-handed and eccentric business practices, Samuel Smith’s continue to run an estate of proper pubs to a greater degree than any other substantial pub operator.