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.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Craft corner

You would imagine that craft beer, with all its ebullience and self-confidence, would want to take on its competitors head-to-head in the market place. But, in reality, it chooses to differentiate itself so that side-by-side comparison is different.

On the draught side, it was always a cause of some discomfort amongst craft brewers that their products, in cask form, were dispensed by handpumps alongside the likes of Old Tosspot which exemplified the stuffy “real ale culture” they were seeking to challenge. So it was hardly surprising that they were keen to adopt “craft keg”, not just because they thought it was better, but also as a form of differentiation.

And, while craft keg facings may fit into the common T-bar dispenser, you’ll never find any craft kegs served through the towering, illuminated bar mountings that characterise Carling, Stella and the rest. Instead, the past few years have seen the rise of the “keg wall”, which is used to showcase a rotating range of craft products. In more and more recently-refurbished pubs, the draught beers are rigidly divided into three sections – real ales on handpump, macro kegs and lagers on tall fonts or T-bars, and craft kegs on a wall at the back of the bar. Many drinkers will look exclusively at one section and mentally blank out the others.

In the take-home trade, the craft sector has very much taken the 330ml bottle (and, increasingly, can) to its heart, in contrast to the 500ml bottle characteristic of Premium Bottled Ales and the 440ml cans in four-packs or slabs favoured by mass-market lagers. While many mainstream lagers are available in packs of smaller bottles, you never see them sold singly, and 330ml mainstream cans are virtually unknown. This makes direct comparison in terms of price per unit of volume, or indeed per unit of alcohol, much more difficult.

(As an aside, mainstream lagers seem to be sold in a bewildering variety of pack sizes, which seems to be a classic example of “confusion marketing”. How different from Germany, where pretty much everything seems to be in 500ml bottles and cans)

I’ve never been to the USA, so can’t comment directly, but I get the impression that craft beers there tend to be sold in the same package sizes and formats as mainstream ones, making direct comparison much easier. This article, for example, takes it as read that six-packs are the norm for both craft and macro beers. Yes, the craft costs more, but it’s very clear what the premium for higher perceived quality is. I can’t help thinking this may have been a key factor in its success.

It may come across as clever marketing that craft beer in the UK defines its own niche in terms of presentation and packaging. It’s not the same as macro lagers or BBBs, so why should it be sold the same way? But does it rather represent a shortage of ambition and a reluctance to take the fight directly to the enemy?

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Not going out

Even such a dedicated pub man as Tandleman recently reported that, on one occasion in London, the combination of high prices and probably indifferent beer meant that he and his other half decided that staying in with a bottle of red from Tesco looked like a better option.

Ever since I left the parental home, I’ve been regularly going to the pub on various occasions during the week. Not any particular pub, just pubs in general. And not for any specific reason – just to get a change of scene, relax, chill a bit, do some peoplewatching, get some mental stimulation. But, sometimes you do start to question whether you just end up doing it through force of habit.

Is it really worth forking out in excess of three quid for a pint that may well turn out to be a bit lacklustre, especially if you have to drink it listening to screaming children and thumping R&B music chosen for the benefit of the staff? Or feel that you’re the only drinker in a sea of people chomping their way through mounds of chips? Or conversely, while there’s nothing wrong with a bit of peace and quiet in pubs, sometimes the place is so deserted that you feel uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience in plenty of pubs is still good, but it can’t be denied that all too often it leaves much to be desired. And it’s not so much a case of pubs needing to do more to attract customers, but to do less to deter them.

Or is just going to the pub for a pint or two itself becoming a thing of the past?

Friday, 14 July 2017

Declaration of independence

A key element of the craft beer movement, starting in the USA, and now transplanted across to this country, has been championing small, independent brewers against the multinational giants. Not surprisingly, the news of craft brewers being bought out by those same mega-brewers has been met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth and claims of a sell-out. In response to this, SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) has begun a fightback by launching a scheme to indicate which beers come from genuinely independent breweries.

Now, I'm all in favour of transparency in terms of who brews what, and of standing up for independent producers. But it must be pointed out that all this will do is to show whether a brewery is a member of SIBA. Many independent brewers of both the family and tiny micro varieties aren't, but that doesn’t make them any less independent, or their beer any less good. It’s just a membership badge for a trade association.

It also has to be questioned how many drinkers are really that concerned about who brews their beer, as opposed to what it tastes like. Consumers are more sophisticated that they’re often given credit for, and I don’t believe that they’re genuinely being deceived into thinking that Camden or Goose Island come from independent producers. They’re entirely comfortable with the fact that big companies have lower-volume, specialist offshoots. Most of the finest Scotch malt whiskies come from distilleries owned by multinational drinks companies, but that doesn’t make them inferior, or deter people from drinking them.

In the early years of CAMRA, while it stuck up for the independent brewers who had kept the real ale flag flying, it always acknowledged that plenty of real ale, some of it very good, was brewed by the Big Six. Any kind of precise definition of “craft beer” is notoriously elusive, but are SIBA really saying that it cannot be produced by a multinational company, full stop? Not to mention the fact that there’s no shortage of low-quality slop made by small, artisanal brewers. Small isn’t always beautfiful.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Now we are ten

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, the creation of which was prompted by a certain event that had occurred eleven days previously. The very first post, which set the tone for the next ten years, was on the subject of Bansturbation. This is post number 1907, so I have made an average of 190.7 posts per year.

It is noticeable how many of the early posts were brief bullet points that nowadays would probably be reserved for Twitter. It was a couple of years before the blog started to attract any significant number of comments, or that I became aware of the wider existence of something called the “blogosphere”.

So here’s a personal selection of ten of my most significant posts broadly spread over the past ten years. It’s odd how some of my most serious and thoughtful posts have been the ones attracting fewest comments.

  • February 2009: Winds of change – the reasons for the decline of the pub trade in favour of home drinking go far beyond just relative price.

  • December 2009: Don’t call me stupid – drinkers of mainstream beers aren’t ill-informed, they just have different priorities from the enthusiast.

  • February 2011: Who wants customers? – would the pub trade as a whole really be much more successful if it did more to meet customer tastes? Strangely, despite making a very important point, this one drew no comments whatsoever.

  • September 2011: Taste the difference – contrary to received wisdom, pub food was often more diverse and of better quality thirty years ago.

  • July 2012: Whatever happened to pubs? – how did regular pubgoing stop being an integral part of ordinary people’s lives?

  • August 2012: The real reason why – changing attitudes to drink-driving within the law are one of the biggest factors behind the decline in the pub trade, especially outside major urban centres. And possibly a major part of the answer to the question posed in the previous post.

  • January 2014: Out of control – claiming that on-trade drinking is somehow more responsible than the off-trade is divisive special pleading that simply helps the anti-drink lobby.

  • March 2015: Last pub standing – in some less prosperous areas, pub decline has been devastating, yet beer bubble denizens just don’t see it.

  • May 2016: A taste of tradition – there’s a gulf between what you buy as a consumer and what you follow as a leisure interest.

  • November 2016: False equivalence – It is wrong and unhelpful to regard bottle-conditioned beers as the direct packaged equivalent of cask.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

The old man and the pub

A phrase you often hear bandied about nowadays in a rather disparaging sense is “old man pub”. It refers not just to the clientele, but to a particular style of pub – broadly traditional, mainly wet-led, with dark wood in the décor, abundant, often fixed, seating and a compartmentalised layout.

However, it’s important to remember that there has always been an age divide in the customer base of particular pubs. The idea that there was a golden age when all ages mingled happily in the same pub is something of a myth. For long, there has been a general pattern that people use pubs frequently when they are young adults, but then start doing so a lot less once they settle down, start a family and try to climb the career ladder. However, once the children are off their hands, they have more time and fewer financial commitments, and the greasy pole no longer holds such attraction, they get back into the habit once more.

So, at any time over the past century, you would have found a divide between pubs with a predominantly young clientele, and those whose customers were more middle-aged and elderly. In Portrait of Elmbury, published in 1945, John Moore describes a classic “old man pub” in the Coventry Arms in his lightly fictionalised version of Tewkesbury, “which has a little back parlour where grave old citizens like to sit in semi-darkness and sip their beer and talk of old times while the shadows close in upon them.” And, while such pubs may not be to the taste of boisterous youngsters, is it such a bad thing that they exist?

Thirty years ago, the fun pub, primarily targeted at younger customers, was an established feature in most towns of any size, but as young people have tended to drink less, and in a different pattern, these establishments have largely bitten the dust. And what, nowadays, is the alternative to the “old man pub”? The gastro dining pub, which is mainly used by well-heeled older customers anyway? Or the family dining venue, which will certainly have some younger customers, but which footloose young single adults will do their best to avoid? Or the sports bar, where the lads might come in to watch the footy, but at other times be conspicuous by their absence?

While we’re seeing trendy “craft” bars springing up in many towns, their customer base is only a small subset of the whole age group, and only materialises at very limited times. Try going to Stockport Market Place on a weekday lunchtime and comparing the number of customers in the “old man” Boar’s Head with those in the Baker’s Vaults and Remedy Bar. Plus, it could be said that the micropub, given its typical clientele, is a modern recreation of the “old man pub.”

Surely all that an “old man pub” is, is a pub that has survived through the generations without bowing to every fickle wind of fashion. Obviously not every pub will appeal to everyone, but if you have a problem with them as a species, then it’s probably fair to say you don’t really care much for pubs at all.

The photo shows codgers chewing the fat in the Olde Blue Bell in Hull in May this year. “If it weren’t all for these medical treatments they have today, most of us’d be dead”, one said.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Beer from somewhere, or from anywhere?

People often draw a connection between the modern craft beer movement and the birth of CAMRA forty-odd years ago – championing small producers against big, bullying corporations and promoting choice, quality, innovation and diversity. However, I would argue that the two arise from very different roots, and that the apparent similarities are a lot less than is often supposed.

The 1960s were a period of dramatic change, where progress and modernity were the watchwords, and anyone who sought to stand in the way was condemned as negative and fuddy-duddy. It was the era of the New Britain that was to be forged in the white heat of the scientific revolution, and this spirit was keenly embraced by both of the major political parties.

However, as the 60s turned into the 70s, the downsides in terms of the destruction of the traditional and familiar became increasingly apparent, and there was a backlash in popular sentiment. E. F. Schumacher’s bestselling book Small is Beautiful is often seen as epitomising this trend, and it gained wide public recognition in the TV sitcom The Good Life. This was also reflected in greater concern for environmental issues, more interest in preserving old buildings rather than sweeping them away, the rise of railway preservation, and of course the real ale movement spearheaded by CAMRA. This movement had the virtue of spanning the political spectrum, by appealing both to left-wingers wanting to fight big corporations, and conservatives nostalgic for vanishing traditions.

But, at the time, CAMRA was entirely seen as trying to support something that was in danger of dying out. Real ale was something produced by small, stick-in-the-mud family breweries that had escaped the takeover frenzy, or by neglected backwaters of the Big Six, and sold in unmodernised locals to a predominantly middle-aged and elderly customer base. At this time, microbreweries scarcely figured on the agenda, and there was no product innovation, merely an attempt to keep what we already had.

Of course, as we know, this touched a wider chord, and the big brewers started reintroducing real ale to many pubs, and introducing new brands such as Ind Coope Burton Ale to meet the demand. But this wasn’t something groundbreaking – it was merely a recreation of an old recipe. It could be argued that there wasn’t really any innovation in the cask sector until the appearance of golden ales in the late 1980s.

Likewise, microbreweries didn’t really appear on the scene in any significant numbers until well after the birth of CAMRA, and when they did they were generally just brewing beers in the established styles. The appeal was that they were small-scale and local, not that they were any different. If there was any innovation, it was in reviving old styles such as cask stout and porter. And the first wave of beer exhibition pubs were just showcasing a variety of brews from around the country that hadn’t previously been available locally.

In its early days, CAMRA was basically about enjoying and championing something that already existed. The self-referential aspect of beer enthusiasm, whereby beers were brewed and pubs opened specifically to please aficionados rather than the general drinking public, was some way in the future. The multi-beer free house was a fairly early development, but in terms of beer styles I’d say it didn’t really happen until the “pale’n’hoppy” movement of the 1990s. Even golden ales were an attempt to produce a cask beer for mainstream drinkers with some of the appeal of lager.

In the USA, the rise of the large corporate brewers had pretty much entirely wiped out the independent sector, and also most stylistic variety, so the beer revival had to start from a much lower base. Prohibition had been a major contributory factor, of course – surely something similar in the UK would have seen the end of the likes of Hook Norton and Bateman’s. While it took a lot of inspiration from CAMRA, at least in its early days, I’m sure something similar would have happened in the USA anyway.

But, without any established framework of traditional styles, American brewers were much freer to experiment, with the result that there was incredible outpouring of stylistic variety. There also wasn’t the aspect of defending tradition that was a key element in this country. Eventually, of course, they came up with their own defining national style – the heavily-hopped American-style IPA. Over time “microbrewing” metamorphosed into “craft beer”, and then made it back over the Atlantic to inspire the current British craft beer movement.

Significantly, a major theme of this was kicking against not the giant international brewers, but Britain’s established real ale culture. It is very well summed up by Bailey of Boak & Bailey here:

“In the UK, used to describe a ‘movement’ arising from c.1997 onwards which rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture. Brewers aligned with this ‘movement’ will probably produce kegged beers, and may even dismiss cask-conditioned beer altogether. As much about presentation, packing and ‘lifestyle’ as the qualities of the product.”
And this is something that is very different from what is generally understood as “real ale culture”. It is heavily focused on innovation and pushing the boundaries of style, taste and strength. It broadly rejects the traditional and established. It is overwhelmingly urban - the archetypal craft brewery is in a railway arch, its real ale counterpart in a small market town or in farm outbuildings. It celebrates technological innovation such as kegging and canning. It is avowedly internationalist and, while it may sometimes claim “green” credentials, it rejects a locally-focused, “back to the land” approach in favour of sourcing both ingredients, especially hops, and inspiration, from all round the world.

As you will have gathered from reading this blog, this kind of thing doesn’t strike a chord with me at all. I’m not against it, and indeed have enjoyed many beers produced under the craft umbrella, but, as I argued here, there’s a big difference between what you like as a consumer and what you pursue as a leisure interest. There’s obviously a big area of overlap, as after all both are broadly about “quality beer”, but the wellsprings of sentiment from which real ale and craft grow are essentially different things. One is, at heart, about tradition and roots, the other about modernity and innovation. It’s basically the Somewhere versus Anywhere division expressed in beer.

It’s very difficult to put your finger on the modern “craft” movement, and I certainly make no pretence to being a general social commentator. I blog about what I like, value and understand. But Boak & Bailey tried to grasp it in this post about The craftification of everything. It’s a complete departure from the established concept of “premium” products as an expression of good taste and status, and is more a case of trying to express your personality and values through your choice of consumer goods. If you choose a craft beer, it says something about you, or you hope it does.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Murdered by the smoking ban

This is a comment left on my previous post by Liam, who is on Twitter as @LiamtheBrewer. I reproduce it without further comment.

I can prove that 3 pubs shut because of the ban as the people who stopped going told me so and I know the landlords personally. All wet led, keg only pubs with substantial week-day after-work trade. Site workers after 4pm and factory after 6. They would do substantial trade up until 8-9pm Mon-Thur then quieten off.

The ban had an almost instant effect in cutting that trade because those punters were going for a very specific reason, to relax after hard (often very physical) work, before going home for dinner and preparing for another day of slog. When the smokers stopped going, their mates also stopped going and when that happened the few who were left started to thin out as there was no craic in an empty pub in the early evening. After a while some of those people also started to stop coming at the week-end.

Those, heavily working class, back-street, food-free boozers were already only just providing a living to their landlords/landladies. The tie, crazy business rates, increasing rent and constant harassment from the clipboard brigade at the council did not finish them off. These things hit their pockets, put pressure on already thin margins and increased their already ridiculous working hours as they were forced to shed staff

But the smoking ban, unlike all the other problems, actually removed punters from the bar. The domino effect began and sooner or later the savings run out and you have to walk.

It is this type of pub that has been murdered by the smoking ban. Not the sort of place that the ban's advocates would deign to visit. Not the sort of area where people talk about hop terroir or food-pairings. But the last community back-bone of already depressed areas where me and my mates would meet for a few beers, a chat and yes maybe a ciggie. Pubs that don't get in the guides, don't get covered by the self-appointed double-barreled beer gurus on the internet. Pubs that provided a meagre living to one or two people who've put their whole life into keeping them open.

The group who've been hardest hit among my acquaintances are working single men, often middle-aged (not a demographic that the crafterati think about very much) for whom the local was often the only social outlet they had. This has led to more loneliness and isolation in this group and, by their nature, they aren't a group that get covered very much.

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

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Sandwich course

A recent few days away on holiday reminded me yet again of the sad decline of the British pub sandwich, once an absolute staple of the food trade. If you’ve had a generous cooked breakfast and are looking forward to a full meal in the evening, all you want at lunchtime is a sandwich or something similar. Yet many pubs no longer offer them at all, and even when they do they often try to build them up into something approaching a main meal, with prices to match. And why do so many pubs insist on including chips with them? Sometimes it’s a better – and cheaper – option to have a sandwich in a café, despite the lack of atmosphere and decent beer.

There’s also the perennial problem of pubs failing to display menus outside. If they now see the food trade as central to their business, you would imagine this would be automatic, but apparently not. “Full menu inside” just isn’t good enough. No restaurant would dream of failing to advertise its wares, so why do pubs, especially in tourist locations with a lot of footfall past the door?

The psychological cues from information shown outside can be a major factor in tempting potential customers to venture across the threshold. In fact, I went into one pub, looked at the menu, and then walked out again, only to be pursued by the licensee who had been on the phone. “I didn’t see anything I fancied” was all I could say. I didn’t really have the heart to say “I could get much the same – plus a drink – for less money down the road in Wetherspoon’s.”

However, praise where praise is due to the Black Swan in Devizes, Wiltshire, who managed to serve up an excellent cheddar cheese and pickle sandwich – proper slices of quality cheese, enough pickle but not too much, and tasty, crusty bread that was thicker than sliced white but avoided doorstep proportions. Simple stuff, maybe, but when done well one of the glories of the British pub.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Ten years gone

Today sees the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket smoking ban in England on 1 July 2007. As the ticker in the sidebar shows, since then over 17,000 pubs have closed in the country. While it’s not the sole cause, nobody with any knowledge of the industry can deny that it has been the single biggest factor in pub closures, particularly affecting the smaller, working-class, wet-led boozers. It has been an absolute disaster for the pub trade, exceeding the best efforts of Lloyd George, the Kaiser and Hitler combined.

At the time, the advocates of the ban were insistent that smoking was very much a special case, and there was no way it would represent the start of a slippery slope. However, as time went by, this has proved to be increasingly untrue, with more and more examples of the public health lobby seeking to extend the smoking ban template to alcohol, soft drinks and “unhealthy” food. As the redoubtable Christopher Snowdon has said, “It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first.”

It isn’t simply a case of the ban having a devastating effect on pubs, and setting a precedent for other areas – it is grossly objectionable in its own right. It is a fundamentally illiberal, intolerant and hateful piece of legislation. “But,” some people say, “smoking is utterly foul. How can you tolerate it in public places?” However, that isn’t the point. There are plenty of things that other people do that I regard as extremely unpleasant, but I don’t want to see them banned so long as they don’t impinge on me.

It was already the case by the middle of 2007 that you could easily go through life without ever encountering smoking in indoor public places. It was banned on trains and buses, in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, and in workplaces was generally confined to separate rooms. Pretty much all restaurants and food-led pubs were either predominantly non-smoking, or had a large non-smoking section.

Realistically, the only place you were likely to encounter it was in the drinking sections of pubs and bars, and even there, if it mattered sufficiently to you, it was much easier to find a non-smoking area than the antismokers now claim. Various compromises short of a full ban were proposed, but none were judged acceptable. But anything that allowed the continuation of some amount of indoor smoking, even if just confined to some areas of some pubs, would have been better than nothing. I’ve often thought that a reasonable compromise would have been to ban smoking in any areas of pubs where under-18s were admitted, which would in effect have killed two birds with one stone!

What is astonishing, though, is how so many people who claim to stand up for pubs still cling doggedly to their support of the ban, in the face of all the evidence of wholesale pub closures and the extension of the principle to alcohol. It would be welcome if they could say “Well, I was in favour of the ban back in 2007, but the effects have been far worse than I expected. With hindsight, surely some kind of compromise solution would have been better.” I don’t expect you to lift a finger to campaign against it, just have the decency to admit you were wrong. But people are remarkably reluctant to do that.

So, if anyone now is complaining about pub closures while still holding to the view that the ban was a good idea, their words ring completely hollow. It is an exercise in the most breathtaking and contemptible hypocrisy. Not happy with all those closed and boarded pubs? Well, if you supported the ban, you should be pleased to see them. You got what you wanted. And you have to wonder whether they will give similar misguided approval to other pieces of pub-destroying legislation that may be on the cards…

Some people will say “Well, the smoking ban was ten years ago. It’s water under the bridge now. Isn’t it time to accept it and move on?” But, if something is wrong, the passage of time doesn’t make it any less wrong. It was wrong in 2007, it is wrong now, and if it lasts a thousand years it will still be just as wrong. And it’s impossible to understand the current situation of the pub trade without recognising the damage that the ban has wrought.

I also can’t help feeling that, in an age when the expression of prejudice against others on the grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation is rightly very much frowned upon, a lot of the pent-up hatred ends up being directed at smokers, where it is considered not only acceptable but politically correct.

For further reading, here are three pieces from some of the ban’s staunchest and most outspoken opponents.

Dick Puddlecote: The Illiberal Ruinous And Pointless Smoking Ban

Christopher Snowdon: Myths and realities of the smoking ban - 10 years on

Rob Lyons: How the Smoking Ban Killed off the Local Boozer

As he concludes:

When we tot up the pros and cons of the ban, we should remember the damage it has done to many local pubs and the communities that they serve. It’s true that many people dislike cigarette smoke and may well be happier that they can drink in pubs more comfortably now. But it could have been possible to accommodate changing attitudes without the absolutism of the health lobby. Better ventilation, separate smoking rooms and more could have provided a perfectly workable compromise. Instead, we’ve lost many of our boozers with little benefit to health and at a substantial cost to businesses, customers and, above all, to personal choice.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Forty years on

Today is my fifty-eighth birthday, and thus I’m marking forty years of legal drinking in pubs. I remember celebrating my eighteenth with a pint of Greenall’s Bitter with my dad in the Fishpool Inn at Delamere in Cheshire, a pub now hopelessly lost to gastroification. I don’t propose to do a survey of all the changes in the intervening period, although this post sums up many of the aspects of pubs and drinking that were very different back in 1977. And Matthew Lawrenson has encapsulated it with his characteristic mordant humour here: But, in the wake of the General Election result, can we even be confident we’ve got Brexit?

However, it’s worth briefly mentioning three points on which things have got markedly worse.

1. The hollowing out of the pub trade. Back in the late 70s, the total amount of beer sold in British pubs was almost three times as much as today. Since then, huge numbers of pubs have closed, many have gone over so much to food that they offer little welcome to drinkers, and many of those that remain are so quiet for much of the time that it’s like intruding on private grief. Even when pubs are still open, they have often severely curtailed their hours. The range of people who visit pubs, and the range of occasions when they visit, have both greatly diminished. This is especially evident on Sunday lunchtimes, once one of the busiest and most convivial sessions of the week, now often largely deserted except in dining pubs.

Yes, the trade has held up better on the traditional busy times of Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s possible to point out individual pubs that continue to thrive. But they’re a lot fewer than they once were, and succeed in a narrower range of locations. For most normal people, regular pubgoing just isn’t a part of their everyday lives in the way it once was. Yet many who give the impression of living their entire lives inside the “beer bubble” just don’t seem to see this at all.

There are still good times to be had in pubs, and from this year so far I remember particularly my visit to Bathams’ Royal Exchange in Stourbridge, the local CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation at Sam Smith’s Blue Bell in Levenshulme, and the excellent, bustling atmosphere in (again) Sam’s White Horse in Beverley. But it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that we’re enjoying the last rays of an Indian Summer.

2. The erosion of geographical distinctiveness in beer. Back in 1977, although some beers like Ruddles County often popped up in the free trade, Draught Bass was the only nationally-distributed cask beer. Even the “Big Six” offered regional cask beers from breweries in each specific area. There were also a lot more independent family brewers with distinctive beers and tied estates that have vanished now – companies like Camerons, Home, Tolly Cobbold, Matthew Brown and Border.

Of course there were areas such as Birmingham where there was a duopoly, and in total there is much more choice of beers now. But, in mainstream pubs, very often the beers on the bar are familiar, nationally-distributed brands such as Doom Bar, London Pride and Bombardier. And, in many pubs that do offer a wider choice, “perm any six from a thousand” means it’s pot luck what you’re actually going to find.

To my mind, something important has been lost by the dwindling of regional variation and identity. That’s why we should cherish the continued survival of breweries from Samuel Smith’s down to Batham’s and Donnington with a distinctive beer range and style of pub. And it’s good to see one or two companies like Joule’s and Titanic seeking to revive the tradition.

3. The disappearance of full measures. Back in the late 70s, across a large swathe of the Midlands and North, metered electric pumps were a very common means of dispense for cask beer, and often the norm. It wouldn’t surprise me if fully half the volume of real ale sold was electrically dispensed, if not half the number of pubs. It was, quite simply, a better system than handpumps. It ensured full measures, it was much quicker in a busy pub, and it took away from bar staff the ability to ruin a pint by poor pulling technique.

Yet it has now pretty much entirely disappeared, with only a handful of holdouts surviving. Of course handpumps give a clear symbol of real ale that electric pumps didn’t, but couldn’t CAMRA have worked with brewers to produce a distinctive meter design for cask beer? Plus, while I’ve long since given up getting too exercised over the subject, nowadays getting 95% of the measure you’ve paid for has become the norm, with smooth and Guinness drinkers often suffering most.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Top of the Moor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 June 2017

Feeling the draught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 June 2017

Unsociable drinking

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 8 June 2017

X marks the spot

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Festival fatigue

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

False memory syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The lark ascending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Gotta lotta bottle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Too much of a good thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 May 2017

Moving in mysterious ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A matter of taste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 May 2017

Wells I never!

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

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

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

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

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

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