Thursday, 22 June 2017

Top of the Moor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 June 2017

Feeling the draught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 June 2017

Unsociable drinking

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 8 June 2017

X marks the spot

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Festival fatigue

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

False memory syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The lark ascending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Gotta lotta bottle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Too much of a good thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 May 2017

Moving in mysterious ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A matter of taste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 May 2017

Wells I never!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Tough on pubs, tough on the causes of pubs

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Degradation by stealth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tablets of stone

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

Friday, 5 May 2017

Reduced to clear

If you see a product on special offer, it will usually be a good buying opportunity if it’s something you actually want. However, for perishable goods, the benefit may be more questionable, and that particularly applies to cask beer.

On New Year’s Eve last year, I accompanied American visitors Dick and Dave Southworth on a brief tour of some of Stockport’s pubby delights. We went in the Red Bull, where Hartley’s Cumbria Way was on the bar at the bargain price of £2 a pint. I was doubtful, but one of them was tempted, only to receive, as I could have predicted, a glass of beer that wasn’t off as such, but distinctly tired, stale and lacking condition. The standard full-price beers, though, were fine.

Later in January, Reading CAMRA luminary Sir Quinno and his missus made a fleeting lunchtime visit to Stockport, which they had never been to before. After a swift half in the Crown, we headed uphill to the Armoury, where again one beer, I think Robinsons’ outgoing seasonal, was available at a reduced price. Once more, one of them was tempted, and ended up with a lacklustre pint, while the standard beers were in good nick.

Realistically, cask beer is only going to be reduced if it’s getting past its best and the pub is struggling to sell it, so, however attractive the price may seem, a cut-price offer will rarely be worth the risk. The only possible exception is particularly strong beers that are likely to keep better and may be still be palatable even if they have acquired a somewhat vinous character.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Effingham Arms

A distinctive feature of Sam Smith’s pubs is a variety of peremptory notices saying things such as:

  • “The Brewery require all customers to leave within twenty minutes of time being called”

  • “No doubling up at last orders”

  • “The use of e-cigarettes is strictly forbidden”

  • “We serve beer with a traditional Northern head, but we’ll top it up if you really want to look like a Southern Jessie”

The latest commandment to be handed down on a tablet of stone from Tadcaster is a total prohibition of swearing, which has attracted a good deal of press and social media comment.

An obvious problem is how you define swearing in the first place. Is it just the well-known c-, f- and w- words, or would it extend to “Jesus Christ, what a bloody cockwomble!” And, as Richard Coldwell points out, given the distinctly down-to-earth nature of many of Sams’ pubs and their clientele, it could prove rather difficult to enforce, not to mention alienating the regular customers. He says, with a memorable turn of phrase, “trying to enforce a swearing ban in somewhere like the very busy General Eliott or The Duncan in Leeds city centre would be like trying to plait snot.” (Incidentally, credit to Richard for the picture reproduced above)

I’m old enough not to be shocked by swearing, but I have to say that the sound of other customers continually effing and blinding can lower the tone in pubs and produce a somewhat uncomfortable atmosphere, especially when combined with a generally rather coarse line of conversation. As I reported in my Opening Times column back in 2004,

IF YOU'RE a frequent pubgoer, it doesn’t do to be a shrinking violet. Robust language and forthright opinions are commonplace, but what’s acceptable at one place and time might not go down too well across the board. One Sunday lunchtime I was in what can only be described as a rather genteel pub, when a group of lads came in to have a meal. They proceeded to engage in a conversation that nobody else in the room could have failed to overhear, liberally laced with four-letter words and including detailed accounts of their sordid holiday exploits that left little to the imagination. They weren’t at all threatening, and this was nothing that would have been out of place in a city centre at ten o’clock on Friday night, but in an environment where there were pensioners just wanting a quiet drink, and families eating lunch with children, it was distinctly jarring.

Surely in a situation like this the old-fashioned landlord would have come into his own with a well-timed intervention of “come on lads, mind your language!”

This, as you might have guessed. was in the Nursery, my local pub in Heaton Norris. I can’t say I come across such egregious swearing in pubs very often, but the one place I encounter it most is maybe in Wetherspoon’s, which tend to attract a younger and more downmarket clientele than most of the other pubs I frequent. On the other hand, a no swearing policy has long applied in Ye Olde Vic in Edgeley, the community-owned free house.

So maybe this is an area, rather like certain other issues, where there’s a good case for reinstating the traditional distinction between public bar and lounge, where there’s an expectation that different standards of conduct apply. To quote Richard Coldwell again, “Industrial clothing and language should always remain strictly within the tap room, in my opinion.”

Friday, 21 April 2017

White trash

From time to time, the authorities have a go at trying to single out categories of alcoholic drinks that they think are consumed disproportionately by “problem drinkers”. A few years ago, it was high-strength “super” lagers, which gave rise to the additional “Old Tom tax” on any beers over 7.5% ABV. It doesn’t seem to have done much to eradicate them, though, and in my local corner shop you can buy still four cans for £6, which equates to 37.5p per unit. It seems that the additional tax is largely absorbed in lower margins rather than being passed on to the consumer.

Most of them do seem to have been reformulated to 8% ABV rather than 9%, but that’s basically to avoid falling foul of the alcohol nannies by having more units in a single-use can than the daily recommendation. And, of course, many high-quality “craft” products such as the aforementioned Old Tom fell into the net of the tax, underlining the point that it’s impossible to distinguish in law between what are perceived as “good” and “bad” drinks.

The latest product to hove into their sights is “white cider”, with the government currently consulting on ways of increasing the tax level on this product, which benefits from the much lower duty rate attached to cider rather than beer. A few years back, a requirement was introduced that any product classified as cider for duty purposes had to contain at least 35% apple juice amongst the fermentable materials. However, it seems that white ciders still fall within this definition, despite reputedly being mainly composed of high-fructose corn syrup.

I can’t say I’ve ever tried any white cider, as my student days were well before it had been invented, and I have no plans to change that. And it’s hard to argue that it falls even within the broadest definition of connoisseurship. But we have to be very careful to avoid falling into the trap of categorising some alcoholic drinks as “bad” and others as “good”, purely because the latter are more expensive. If you’re swigging cheap gutrot, you’re a pisshead, if I’m sipping expensive craft beer, malt whisky or claret, I’m a discerning connoisseur. As this Daily Mash article says:

GETTING drunk while looking after your children is fine if you are drinking Chablis rather than WKD, it has been confirmed.

Middle class mother Eleanor Shaw and her friends regularly drink ‘some’ bottles of Chablis during their children’s play dates, insisting it is a civilised approach to parenting and ‘something French people probably do’.

Shaw said: “Chablis is a cultivated drink filled with interesting ‘notes’. It’s not like we’re just getting shitfaced.

“Sometimes we describe it using words like ‘biscuity’.”

She added: “Of course, if one of my friends turned up with a bottle of Tesco own-brand vodka I would confiscate it and then report the bitch to social services. Chablis is barely alcohol at all, really.

It’s also very nice if you mix it with half a pint of artisan gin and then stand on the kitchen table singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

This is an attitude that is sadly very common amongst beer-lovers. But, at the end of the day, however much we may savour the taste and character, nobody can ignore that fact that alcohol has an effect on you. Not necessarily an instant road to oblivion, but certainly a gentle warm glow or a lubricant of sociability. You wouldn’t drink it in the same way if it didn’t.

And I would expect that most of the drinkers of white ciders, like those of super lagers, are not derelicts or hopeless alcoholics, but simply generally responsible people who prefer to go a bit higher on the volume/strength trade-off. In general, they’re no cheaper per unit than weaker drinks in the same category, so they can’t be regarded simply as being chosen on the bangs-per-buck ratio. People just don’t want to have to drink large quantities of liquid to achieve the desired effect.

So it’s good to see Gordon Johncox of Frosty Jack’s maker Aston Manor having the courage of his convictions to challenge the attempts by anti-alcohol campaigners to single out white cider.

“There is a constant barrage of criticism and unsubstantiated points made around white cider, who drinks it and why they drink it, from all sorts of bodies.

“We got frustrated with the headlines that were being achieved by some of these well-intentioned but ultimately misguided bodies, and we have actually written to some challenging them.

“The research shows that the typical white cider drinker is very different to the demon presented by some of the bodies. We have written to the Alcohol Health Alliance. They have not replied yet.

“We are going to be far more robust in our challenges than we have been in the past. It’s just wrong that these bodies should be able to get away with making unsubstantiated claims.”

It’s a pity other producers of alcoholic drinks aren’t willing to make a similarly robust response rather than just quietly appeasing the neo-Prohibitionists and hoping they will go away.

As Chris Snowdon argues in the article, if you tax white cider off the shelves, problem drinkers will simply move on to something else. And one of the most obvious destinations is normal “amber” cider where, as I’ve argued before, the line between high-quality craft product and cheap, high-strength booze can be a very fine one.

Then there are all those genuinely artisanal West County farmhouse cidermakers who win numerous awards at CAMRA festivals. But you do wonder whether they actually end up selling much of their production to red-faced old boys who turn up at the farm gate in rusty Lada Nivas with a handful of plastic containers.
In my local Home Bargains, you can buy a four-pack of 500ml cans of 7.5% ABV HCC Black cider for £2.99, which is a mere 20p per unit. But that’s proper cider, not white cider, so it would escape any crackdown that focused solely on the latter.

Of course, you can simply use a big hammer and indiscriminately apply a minimum unit price to everything. But that, as I’ve pointed out before, would kill small farmhouse cidermakers stone dead, or at least ensure that they stopped selling any commercially.

At the end of the day, any legislative attempts to single out “bad” alcoholic drinks are likely to be fraught with problems of definition and end up bringing within the net all kinds of products that weren’t intended. Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Micro appeal

A point about this blog that some people seem to struggle with is that the fact I don’t show much enthusiasm for something doesn’t mean I actively dislike it. This is a point I made in this blogpost, where I argued that you can’t expect people to be enthusiastic about everything. If you’re a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, you’re still likely to use many examples of modern architecture, recognise some as efficient and functional and even, in a few cases, like their design. But it doesn’t mean they’re something you want to pursue or champion as a leisure interest.

There are plenty of things in the world of pubs and beer that for me fall into this category, including most of what has been promoted as “craft beer”. And another is the micropubs that have blossomed in recent years. Now there is one very good thing about micropubs, in that they demonstrate that free markets work. Make it easier for people to open new drinking establishments and, where there is the demand, they will spring up to replace the big, old-fashioned pubs that have struggled to prosper in a changed climate for the licensed trade. But, as places that I personally want to visit as a drinker, they tend to leave me cold.

The first problem is that they generally seem rather Spartan and lacking in comfort. They’re usually devoid of upholstered benches and comfortable chairs, and high-level posing tables and hard stools often predominate. The photo, of the Hopper’s Hut in Bexley, underlines the point, although it is perhaps at the extreme of stark functionality. Indeed, last year I walked out of one GBG-listed micropub in Deal in Kent because there was no seating on offer apart from high-level stools.

Allied to this is the enforced sociability. In traditional pubs, even the smallest ones, it’s generally recognised that it’s up to you whether you want to engage with the company or just enjoy a quiet drink on your own. But, in a micropub, it’s often difficult to avoid social interaction, whether you want it or not. Some people just prefer to mind their own business. Plus the clientele is often something of a monoculture, and lacks the variety of ages, sexes, classes and types of drinks which is often what gives a proper pub its atmosphere.

And they seem to lack that distinctive “character” that long-established pubs acquire over the years, both from their architectural and design qualities and from the steady accretion of memories and identity from a succession of licensees and customers. Partly that’s a function of newness, but you do wonder whether, in view of their narrow appeal, many micropubs will ever achieve it, and it’s certainly unlikely that it will survive passing out of the hand of their original owner. People will often travel long distances and go well out of their way to visit some traditional pubs of character, but it’s very hard to see that happening with micropubs.

On his Thewickingman blog, Ian Thurman was rather sceptical about the rise of micropubs, and I have to say I share his sentiments.

I’m unconvinced that micro pubs have increased consumer spend and therefore they must be taking money from proper pubs. I’m all for innovation and letting the market decide but for the reasons described above I’m not sure we have a level playing field for pubs v micro pubs. As increasing numbers of micro pubs hit the GBG (and hit trade in other pubs) we are, in my view, hastening the decline of proper pubs and we could be heading to a world of converted shops as our leading ontrade beer emporia.
As I said, I’m not against micropubs, and if they meet a demand and prove successful then good luck to them. I might even enjoy the occasional pint in one. But visiting them and writing about them isn’t something I choose to pursue as a leisure interest. And, to be honest, in general I’d much rather plonk myself down in Wetherspoon’s.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Turned over again

Last week, there was an interesting interview on the Morning Advertiser website with Richard Westwood, the MD of Marston’s, in which he made some salient points about cask beer turnover and quality.

“There’s a big decision to be made here and that’s a balance between consumer choice and quality. When you see pubs that, maybe, sell 200 barrels a year and have, six, seven or eight handpumps, you know there is a good chance you will be served a substandard pint.”
That’s a very good point. But, in fact, for most pubs serving cask, 200 barrels a year would be pie in the sky. As I wrote here, the average is far less, with many pubs struggling to even achieve one barrel a week. And the figures haven’t got any better. CAMRA’s WhatPub site reports 35,844 pubs currently serving cask, and the BBPA reckons that about two million barrels are brewed each year. So that’s a mere 56 barrels a year per pub, and that’s before taking account of cask beer supplied to clubs and beer festivals.

Given those figures, it’s hardly surprising that it’s so common to encounter beer that is clearly past its best. Probably fewer than 10% of all cask pubs really have the turnover to sustain more than two or three beers, yet the evidence of my eyes suggests that the average number of pumps is considerably greater than that.

Although it officially makes the right noises, given its long-standing championing of “choice”, this is an issue that CAMRA remains reluctant to confront. For every reference to a “sensibly limited beer range”, there must be ten mentions in local magazines praising pubs for adding another handpump. All too often, the Good Beer Guide comes across as the “wide beer choice guide” rather than the “well-kept, fresh beer guide”.

The case is made more difficult by being able to point to pubs like the Magnet in Stockport which successfully manage to keep twelve or more beers in good nick. But those are specialist pubs attracting an overwhelmingly ale-drinking clientele, and it is delusional to imagine that the same formula would be a guarantee of success in an estate or dining pub.

Westwood also suggests that brewers and pub operators should consider a wholesale switch from 18-gallon kilderkins to 9-gallon firkins. In some cases this is a sensible solution, and most microbrewers now seem to have adopted firkins as their normal cask size anyway. But it increases the amount of handling work, and of wastage, per pint sold, so it isn’t without cost. And, even using firkins, a pub with the average level of cask beer sales can still only sustain two beers on the bar if it is to empty each cask within four days.

Sadly, this is an issue to which everyone will continue to pay lip service, but few will really be willing to address.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Spreading yourself thinly

I recently wrote about my visit to the Royal Exchange in Stourbridge, where well over half the customers were happily drinking the one – admittedly superb – beer, Batham’s Best Bitter. The following day I called in to a pub in a nearby town that had recently been acquired by a relatively new microbrewery.

This had six or seven of their beers on handpump, some very similar to others in terms of colour and strength, alongside a couple of guests. Not being familiar with their range, I chose one almost at random that appealed to me, only to get a hazy pint with a distinct bite of yeast. I duly returned it, and asked a couple of regulars standing at the bar what they were drinking. They recommended an alternative beer, and that at least was clear, although still a bit yeasty and not particularly enjoyable.

This raises the obvious question of whether that pub ever enjoys sufficient trade to turn over nine different beers quickly enough to keep them in good nick. And you also have to wonder whether brewing a large range of beers, some of which are fairly similar to others, is the best approach for a microbrewery.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to brew fewer beers, in distinctly different styles, that would stand a better chance of both achieving decent turnover in their own pubs and gaining attention in the free trade? “It’s yet another beer from XYZ Brewery” isn’t exactly a winning formula. And my heart always sinks when I hear that small breweries have put their entire range of eight beers into bottles. Again, wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on one or two that could stand out and make a name for themselves?

Quality isn’t something that happens overnight – it needs close attention to detail and a process of tweaking and refinement over time. Breweries would stand a better chance of achieving it if they concentrated their attentions on a smaller range of beers.

It also raises another point that often seems to be overlooked in the gush of enthusiasm for the opening of new breweries. Whisper it softly, but a lot of microbreweries aren’t really that much good at it. Some are simply incompetent and produce beers with obvious flaws and glaring inconsistencies. Most of these don’t last long, but a few inexplicably manage to keep going.

Others are competent enough, but make rather dull beers lacking in any particularly distinctive character, while some do achieve distinctiveness, but at the price of being somewhat one-dimensional. It’s like comparing the bold primary colours of a naïve painter to the subtle, complex shades of an Old Master.

Of course this doesn’t apply to all, and some of the finest beers in the country are made by breweries founded in the past forty years. But novelty certainly doesn’t automatically equate to quality, and often the best drinking comes from beers that have developed complexity and subtlety through steady evolution over the years, and have stood the test of time.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Put t’wood i’th’ole

The brief flurry of warm, sunny weather over the weekend reminded me of a perennial bugbear in pubs – flinging all their doors open at the slightest sign of the sun. I commented on this back in 2004. I suppose the aim is to appear open and welcoming and, well, “sunny”, but it ignores the basic principles of thermodynamics. No amount of open doors and windows is actually going to bring the warmth of outside indoors, and, at this time of year, a bright sunny afternoon often follows a chilly night, meaning that your rooms aren’t going to start the day very warm at all.

All too often, while it might be pleasantly warm if you’re sitting outside in the sun, indoors you’re exposed to a chilly draught. Pubs should only really be doing it if the sun is genuinely cracking the flags and several days’ hot weather has led to hot, stuffy conditions inside. And staff working up a sweat behind the bar may not realise how chilly it still remains in the far corners.

At least in one pub I got the impression that the people standing at the bar pointed out to the staff that wedging the doors open at both ends of the pub produced a howling gale past their backsides, and managed to get one of them closed.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Curate's keg

It’s long been the received wisdom that keg beer, while it will never scale the heights that cask can, at least offers consistency. You’re much less likely to get a seriously duff pint. However, that doesn’t mean that the odds are zero, and keg beer, while it will keep longer than cask, is not immune from the constraint of shelf life and the need to keep lines cleaned. Indeed, the recently-published Beer Quality Report showed that keg beers were significantly more likely to be dispensed from dirty lines than cask.

Substandard keg beer is less likely to exhibit the glaring faults that poor cask does, such as being cloudy or vinegary. It will probably be just a bit flat, stale-tasting and possibly slightly hazy when you would expect it to be crystal-clear. This makes it rather more difficult to have the courage of your convictions and return it to the bar. Girl Meets Pint reports here that she received a substandard pint of Charles Wells Dry Hopped Lager – possibly not the pub’s best seller – but, understandably enough, demurred.

As it turns out, the lager was distinctly past its best, and to be honest I really should have taken it back, but I’m afraid to say I didn’t.
Incidentally, that’s a blog well worth following for its superb, detailed observation of everyday pub life.

I have to say I very rarely drink keg beer in pubs, so don’t have much personal experience to draw on. However, a few months ago, I was at a CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation at the Old Cock in Didsbury and thought I would try a half of Camden Hells lager, which was on tap there. It came out as described above – flat, stale-tasting and hazy – and, after about two seconds’ thought, I went back to the bar and asked for it to be changed which, to be fair, was done willingly and the difference in cost between that and the replacement refunded. Serves me right for swerving the cask, some might say. I assume it had been stocked on the instructions of the area manager, but in practice just didn’t sell.

With the growth in craft keg offerings, many of which by definition will be low-turnover, niche products, the risk of getting sub-standard keg beer is only going to increase. A further factor is that craft kegs are likely to be unpasteurised, and may still contain live yeast, so the shelf life will be less and the risk of something going wrong increased. As with cask, drinkers need to grasp the nettle and return what appears to be faulty beer rather than just grimly struggling through it. But, if something is designed to be a murky sour in style, how are you expected to know if it’s off?

Monday, 3 April 2017

Time is not a healer

Last week saw the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket smoking ban in Wales, three months before a similar law became effective in England. Now, if you were to listen to the antismoking lobby, you would think that the debate was over, the world had moved on, and the ban now enjoyed near-universal support.

It certainly commands a high level of adherence, but that’s because penalties fall on the owners of premises for “permitting smoking”, not on individual smokers, and customers understandably don’t want to deprive the landlord of their local of his livelihood. But there are plenty of reports of things like this happening:

And, when you actually ask people for their opinions, a very different picture emerges. In a poll to mark the anniversary of the ban in Wales, 60% of respondents said that they would like to see separate smoking rooms allowed in pubs. Predictably, antismoking pressure group ASH dismissed the finding, saying that “health was not a matter of public opinion”, but this clearly demonstrates that the claimed “acceptance” simply doesn’t exist. In fact, I’m not aware that any polls have ever shown majority agreement with the blanket ban as it stands.

If something is wrong, it doesn’t become any less wrong with the passage of time. People recognise the ban for what it is – an unjust, draconian piece of legislation that has been highly damaging both to businesses and individual rights. The whole thing has been thoroughly filleted by Dick Puddlecote.

And it’s becoming abundantly clear that, far from smoking being treated as a special case, the tactics of tobacco control are increasingly being applied to alcohol, soft drinks and so-called “unhealthy” food. If you supported the smoking ban, but enjoy a pint, or a can of Coke, or a bacon butty, the Public Health lobby now have you firmly in their sights.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

One door closes, another one opens

Towards the end of 2008, CAMRA set up a web forum. It was initially supposed to concentrate on specific campaigns to save pubs, but quickly developed a wider remit. Many of the boards were open to non-members, and it produced some lively discussions. However, it seemed to slowly peter out, not helped by the fact that very few of the National Executive members and other senior officers got involved. Matters were not helped when one particular moderator took it upon himself to start deleting posts on sight that he thought contained excessive quoting.

Rather than take any remedial action, or try to promote it more, CAMRA eventually decided to launch a new forum using the Discourse platform and close the previous one. Many existing users didn’t really like this particular software, but I suppose it’s something you would get used to eventually. However, the Discourse forum is a very different beast from the old one – for a start, it is restricted to CAMRA members and, while senior officers have got more involved, this has led to a rather serious and admin-heavy tone. There are also reports of heavy-handed moderation and posts expressing heterodox views mysteriously vanishing.

For these reasons, some of the active members of the old forum decided to get together and create a new forum which would allow the more wide-ranging and lighthearted discussions to continue. This has now been done in the form of the Beer and Pubs Forum. The old forum was closed in the early hours of Saturday morning, so this new one has now been officially launched. Why not take a look and see if it’s something that interests you?

It should be stressed that this forum is entirely independent of CAMRA and non-members are more than welcome. And the chap with the surname of Mudge isn’t me!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Giving ground

A point I have often made on here in the past is that a key reason for the decline in pubgoing is changing attitudes to alcohol. Whereas once it was seen as normal for moderate drinking to be woven into the fabric of everyday life, we have become increasingly censorious about it, and it is now coming to be seen as something that has to be ringfenced from all responsible activity.

Many of the drinkers who used to be in pubs, and are no longer, especially at lunchtimes and early evenings, would be going on to do something else later. It was part of their routine. They weren’t kicking back once all cares could be set aside.

This change in attitudes is often reflected in remarks made by beer writers, and in comments left on blogs. For example, on one blog, someone recently wrote “I study part-time outside of work so most weekdays I have to delay my evening drink until concentration is no longer required” and was rather aggrieved when I suggested that such attitudes were contributing to the decline in pubs. I’m sure in the past many people have successfully studied at home with a glass at hand, but obviously this person doesn’t feel comfortable with it.

You frequently read people making comments such as:

  • “One pint at lunchtime and I’m good for nothing all afternoon”.
  • “I never drink at lunchtimes”.
  • “I really can’t concentrate if I’ve had a drink.”
  • “I never touch a drop if I’m driving.”
  • “I never drink on a school night.”
Now, I would strongly defend everyone’s right to make their own decisions as to how to live their lives and not be browbeaten by others. Nobody should be urged to have a drink if they don’t feel happy about it. And I can’t claim personally to make a huge contribution to the success of pubs – for example, over the past seven days, I have drunk precisely seven pints in pubs.

But I can’t help finding it a touch ironic that the same people who are lamenting the decline of pubs are at the same time exhibiting the attitudes and lifestyle traits that have contributed to bringing it about.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Meet the new boss

Many drinkers will be familiar with the jovial, rotund chap with his foaming tankard who features on the label of bottled Taylor’s Landlord.

However, I was shocked to see on the latest bottle I picked up that he had been replaced by a modern substitute in that fashionable shadow effect, with long sideys and – horror of horrors – an open-necked shirt. Some people on Twitter thought he looked like a Welsh rugby fan.

It’s yet another attempt by established breweries to appear trendy and up-to-date, but which all too often just come across as “dad dancing”. It’s not as if they don’t want to appear stuck in the past, as the previous image, which originated in the 1950s, harks back to the era of Dickens and wasn’t contemporary even then.

Maybe the real reason is that they no longer think it appropriate for their labels to feature a bloke proudly sporting an impressive beer gut - although there was uproar a few years ago when Little Chef tried to slim down their mascot.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Fair exchange

Last weekend I had an overnight stay in Stourbridge, Worcestershire. It may not seem the most likely tourist venue, but in fact it had been arranged for a pub tour of the Black Country, which unfortunately had to be cancelled at short notice because the mother of the chap organising it had been unexpectedly rushed into hospital. However, given that the weather forecast was good, I thought I might as well go ahead and do a bit of sightseeing on my own account.

On Friday afternoon I enjoyed an excellent drop of Batham’s in the Plough & Harrow at Kinver, where I made the acquaintance of Max, who was happy to just sit there quietly while his owner had a pint. I was told he’s a “golden doodle” – a cross of golden retriever and poodle.

Afterwards I visited the nearby Holy Austin Rock Houses, some of which were inhabited into the 1960s, and may have been Tolkien’s inspiration for hobbit holes. A nice place to be on a sunny Spring afternoon, but I couldn’t help thinking that the National Trust have a bit of a cheek to charge £5.50 for admission. Not that it bothers me as a Life Member.

In the evening I popped into another Batham’s pub, the Royal Exchange, which is only a few minutes’ walk from Stourbridge town centre. This really is a splendid little establishment that takes you back to how pubs used to be. The exterior view even exaggerates its size, as in fact all the “pub” part is to the left of the main door – a public bar at the front, a small lounge further back and a beer garden. It was pretty busy, although I managed to squeeze into a seat. Despite it being a cold evening, there were still plenty of groups with smokers in the beer garden.

It was striking how at least 80% of drinks were pints of Best Bitter, something rarely seen nowadays. It didn’t disappoint either, and nobody could complain that it wasn’t “pulled through”. Perhaps predictably, the clientele was weighted towards middle-aged and elderly blokes, but there were younger people too and a fair proportion of women. There were several middle-aged couples just enjoying a drink, another sight becoming increasingly rare. This view of the public bar is little changed now apart from the absence of ashtrays.

It can be hard to put your finger on it, but it’s certainly noticeable how the character and clientele of pubs vary between different parts of the country. There are plenty of excellent pubs around here, but it’s hard to think of any wet-led ones that would have quite that mix of customers and single-minded focus on beer.

I had visited both of these pubs before over thirty years ago. Back then, each also had a Simpkiss pub not too far away – the Old Plough at Kinver and the Waterloo on the west side of Stourbridge - both sadly now long gone. The Waterloo is now the Bangla Touch restaurant.

Don’t get your hopes up

It’s long been an article of faith amongst many CAMRA members and anti-pubco activists that a major cause of pub decline is conversions to retail or office use that can, under the current law, be carried out without needing planning permission. They have therefore campaigned for this “loophole” to be closed, and the government has now committed to do this, an announcement that was treated by CAMRA as a major cause for celebration.

However, I’ve always argued that this has been greatly exaggerated as a reason for pub closures. You already need planning permission to convert a pub to residential use, or to demolish it and build a supermarket on the site. And, if the owner really doesn’t consider a pub to be viable, then getting planning permission to turn it into a shop may involve some extra effort, but is hardly an insurmountable barrier.

It’s interesting that in this news report, Dale Ingram, who has long been recognised as a vocal anti-pubco campaigner, reckons that, nationwide, this change is only likely to save 15 pubs a year nationwide, against a total of 1,200 closing. And I’d bet most of those will be in London where development pressure is far greater than anywhere else in the country. Frankly, it’s a drop in the ocean.

The point of the planning system is to prevent developments and changes of use that councils believe are inappropriate or would damage the character of an area. It can’t mandate that premises be used in a particular way, and if councils decide to dig their heels in over proposed retail conversions it could result in staring contests with owners and leave pubs derelict for a protracted period.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a welcome change which recognises that pubs are a distinct category of business that is often valued by local communities, and so official review is desirable before turning them into something else. It might cause pub owners to think again in a few marginal cases. But nobody should delude themselves that, in the overall scheme of things, it’s going to make much difference to the rate of pub closures. The “pub crisis” is fundamentally one of demand, not supply, and no amount of planning curbs is going to change that. To claim otherwise is putting across a false narrative about the causes of pub decline that does the prospects of pubs no favours.

We are yet to see the precise details of the plans. But if you turn a wool shop into a micropub, and then need planning permission eighteen months later to convert it back into a wool shop if it proves unsuccessful, it’s likely to deter people from opening up new pubs and bars in the first place, and could end up becoming a Pyrrhic victory. Surely there needs to be a time limit before the protection kicks in.