May/June 2018

You Could Be Next

It is short-sighted in the extreme for anyone involved in the pub trade to welcome minimum alcohol pricing

ON 1 MAY, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce a system of Minimum Alcohol Pricing, with the rate initially set at 50p per unit (10 ml) of pure alcohol. The claimed justification for this is that it is a way of reducing problem drinking but, given that it is estimated that it will affect 70% of all alcohol sold in the off-trade, it is an extremely blunt instrument. It is in effect punishing ordinary people of limited means for the problems of a minority. A couple could easily be made £200 a year worse off without even exceeding the very low official consumption guidelines. Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown that the UK is the fourth most expensive country in Europe for alcohol, so it’s not exactly cheap in the first place.

It also comes across as a fundamentally patronising and élitist measure, implying that it is fine for the well-heeled to continue swigging single malts, claret and craft ales, but that the irresponsible proles are not to be trusted with an abundance of Carling, Glen’s Vodka and Lambrini. As the famous Victorian liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “Every increase of cost is a prohibition to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

It’s questionable to what extent it will affect the consumption patterns of problem drinkers anyway, and some may end up sacrificing other areas of expenditure. As the old Russian saying goes “Daddy, now that vodka is more expensive, will you drink less? No, my son, you will eat less.” It is also likely to lead to a whole raft of undesirable consequences, such as cross-border smuggling, bootleg brewing and distilling, and a switch to illegal drugs. Not so long ago, a Sheffield student had her eyesight permanently damaged by drinking counterfeit vodka, while five Lithuanian men were killed in Boston, Lincolnshire, by an explosion at an illegal vodka distillery. Minimum pricing could lead to more such tragedies.

Some in the licensed trade have welcomed the move as a way of redressing the price imbalance with the off-trade. However, it isn’t going to give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and it is hard to see how increasing the price of a can of lager from 60p to 90p is going to encourage anyone to spend £3.50 or more for a pint in the pub. It could even damage the pub trade by constraining household budgets and leaving people with less discretionary spending money.

It’s also an unedifying spectacle to see one part of the alcohol industry lining up alongside the anti-drink lobby in a misguided attempt to gain some short-term advantage over another section. As Winston Churchill said “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.” Surely all producers, retailers and consumers of alcoholic drinks should be united in opposing the neo-Prohibitionists rather than squabbling amongst themselves.

At a level of 50p per unit, it’s unlikely to affect any drinks sold in the on-trade, although it could hit some of the stronger guest ales sold in Wetherspoon’s after applying the 50p CAMRA discount vouchers. But the pub trade should bear in mind that the study by the University of Sheffield used to support the policy actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high. Any advantage gained from minimum pricing could turn out to be short-lived, as the spotlight turns to on-trade pricing. So, if you’re remotely inclined to support this measure, don’t forget that you could be next on the list.

March/April 2018

A Matter of Taste

Asking for tasters of beer is an affectation that is of little real value to the customer

THIRTY years ago, when most pubs just offered a fixed beer range, the idea of asking for a taster would have been greeted with derision. More recently, though, as ever-changing guest beers have increasingly become the norm, it has become much more common. If you’re confronted with an array of ten beers you’ve never heard of before, it’s not unreasonable to ask for a sample 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 said that you don’t fully appreciate a beer until you reach the bottom of the glass.

It’s also 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 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 specialises in making a nuisance of himself. With sufficient chutzpah, it can easily be exploited to get a significant quantity of beer for free.

It’s sometimes argued that offering tasters is a good way of encouraging people to try cask beer. But surely 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. And nobody should be asking for tasters to check whether the beer’s in good condition. 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?


Good Money After Bad

In spending vast sums on refurbishments, are pub operators chasing their own tail?

THE ECONOMY’S growing steadily, unemployment is at a ten-year low, and pub operators seem to have plenty of money to invest. Scarcely a day goes by without reading of some pub or other reopening after a £250,000 refurbishment. One local pub reputedly had a cool £1 million spent on doing it up. But, looking at the industry as a whole, you have to wonder what benefit it produces. Is it actually generating new business overall, or is it just dragging the same customers around the stock of pubs in a giant game of musical chairs?

I would have thought all that even the tattiest pubs need is a deep clean, new wallpaper, upholstery and carpets, perhaps a bit of new loose furniture and, if appropriate, some new kitchen equipment. The vast majority of refurbishments, when they involve any structural alterations, end up leaving pubs worse, not better. Maybe customers are attracted by novelty, but that soon wears off. The best pubs, in my experience, are those that haven’t been knocked around for decades, and benefit from continuity and familiarity. But maybe, if you’ve already thoroughly wrecked a pub once, you’re fatally committed to wrecking it again every five years. It’s like a drug where you have to keep on increasing the dose to get the same effect.

January/February 2018

Nobody Else Has Complained

Returning defective beer to the bar can all too easily become a minefield

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

The first thing is to be specific as to exactly what it is you’re complaining about. If the beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary, then you should have a cast-iron case, although opinions will vary on what degree of haziness is acceptable. However, there are other faults that are not so clear-cut, for example being served far too warm, lacking in condition, having a noticeable off-flavour, or simply being generally tired and end-of-barrel-ish. If you’re in a pub where you’re a regular and are known to the licensee and bar staff, such a complaint might be taken seriously, but in a strange pub you could well feel that you are chancing your arm.

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

The last two outcomes, though, imply that you’ll be bringing your visit to an end. If you’re in the middle of a pub crawl, or there’s an alternative pub nearby, that might be entirely acceptable. But in other situations, for example having a meal or social evening with a group, you might not want to do that, and thus be reluctant to create a fuss. You’ll just quietly leave the sub-standard pint, and put up with Guinness or Diet Coke for the rest of the proceedings. And, even if you gain a moral victory, creating a confrontational situation may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth and spoiling your evening.

In general, attitudes to changing sub-standard beer have improved over the years. The days of “everyone else is drinking it” or “real ale’s meant to look like soup/taste like vinegar” are largely a thing of the past. One of the worst responses I recall was “but you’ve drunk some of it!” Well, if I hadn’t drunk any, how would I know it was foul? But that kind of quibbling hasn’t entirely disappeared. Given the amount of goodwill at risk, compared with the gross profit on a pint, it’s hard to see why pubs continue to argue the toss about changing beer if customers present a reasonable case.

Some will point out that, if you stick to mass-market lagers and smooth beers, you won’t have any of this problem with variability. However, the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it reaches heights that keg never can, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem. And keg beers, especially small-batch “craft” ones, are by no means immune from faults either.

November/December 2017

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Driverless cars could give a major shot in the arm to the pub trade

RECENTLY, there has been a growing amount of interest in the development of driverless cars. The wider subject is really beyond the remit of this column, although I’m sure there are many applications where they will prove very useful. However, as with many other disruptive technologies, both government and independent commentators still seem unsure as to how they will eventually come to be used.

Looking at the subject from a more parochial perspective, one area where they could make a massive difference is in getting you home from the pub. In rural areas, with negligible public transport and distances beyond an economic taxi ride, pubgoing opportunities are currently very constrained. And, even in towns and cities, while there will be some pubs that can be reached easily on foot or by public transport, there are plenty more that can’t be. Just imagine programming your automatic chariot for an evening’s crawl round some otherwise hard-to-reach pubs!

Some have suggested that there will always need to be a sober, licensed driver on hand in case of emergencies, but that rather defeats the whole purpose, and how quickly could someone be expected to react anyway if they were busy posting on Facebook? Indeed, one of the obvious applications that has been suggested is eliminating human drivers from taxis. And surely one of the major benefits of driverless cars would be to enhance mobility for people such as the very elderly or those with chronic illnesses who are currently unable to drive themselves. However, no doubt the killjoys will be working hard on ways to prevent driverless cars being used in this way, saying “that’s not what they were intended for”.


Posing a Problem

So-called “posing tables” are a divisive and uncomfortable abomination in pubs

A LOCAL pub has recently received a “craft” makeoever, which involved replacing about half the seating with high-level “posing tables”. This is a plague that is afflicting more and more pubs nowadays. I suppose the thinking is that they appear modern and trendy, conjuring up visions of bright young things disporting their long, skinny-jean clad legs in a fashionable, cutting-edge bar. But, more often than not, you end up with plump middle-aged folk perched incongruously on high stools.

They spoil the look of the interior of a pub and create an artificial division between drinkers by putting them on two levels. You might say that some people prefer them and should be given the choice, but would anyone walk out of a pub if there were none, and did anyone ever suggest them when asked what they would like to see in a pub refurbishment? It also seems that they appeal to people with an exaggerated sense of their own importance who want to be the centre of attention. The formal name for them is “poseur tables”, which rather sums up their attraction.

A couple of decades ago, there was a fad for putting raised seating areas in pubs to break up large areas of flat floor. However, the realisation eventually dawned that these were very unfriendly to the disabled, by effectively closing off a substantial chunk of the pub to them. You certainly don’t see them in new schemes, and I can think of a few pubs that have had them removed during refurbishments.

Much the same is true of posing tables, which will place people in wheelchairs at a lower level than their friends, and also pose a challenge for older customers with creaky joints. They’re an ugly abomination that should have no place in pubs, and the sooner they’re all consigned to the skip the better.

September/October 2017

Slippery Slope

The anti-tobacco campaign is increasingly being used as a template for action against alcohol

LAST JULY saw the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket smoking ban in England. At the time, those of us who argued that the same kind of restrictions would increasingly be applied to alcohol and other categories of food and drink were pooh-poohed for scaremongering. Tobacco, they said, was clearly a special case. However, the claim of a slippery slope has proved to be more correct with each passing year, and it seems that producers of craft drinks have at last woken up to the threat.

Earlier this year, the “Observer” reported how Jared Brown, of craft gin distiller Sipsmith, had suddenly cottoned on to the threat to his business from graphic health warnings and plain packaging.

“Are they considering similar labels for bacon? Fish and chips? Crisps?” he asked. “It’s an absurdity. It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.”

“It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first,” said Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank. “The debates around the tobacco advertising ban 15 years ago were that this was not a precedent, it will never happen with anything else, and yet last week the there were health campaigners saying the same thing should happen with alcohol.”

Of course, what applies to craft gin will equally apply to craft beer, and any other area of the food and drink market dependent on innovation and disrupting existing business models. It’s often argued that restrictions on advertising and promotion would curb big brands, but in fact the opposite is true. They always serve to benefit established players at the expense of new entrants, as the market is in effect ossified, and customers are forced to fall back on folk memory and what they ordered before.

It would now be absolutely impossible to introduce a new legitimate cigarette brand and, if the current tobacco advertising rules and display ban applied to alcohol, there would be no craft beers and no microbreweries, apart perhaps from pubs that brewed their own beer. And would even writing magazine articles about them be prohibited as a form of indirect advertising?


A More Selective Appeal

Some brewers’ response to post-ban decline comes across as utterly delusional

IN THE ten years since the smoking ban, the amount of beer sold in pubs and clubs has fallen by well over a third. While the ban isn’t the sole cause, nobody with any knowledge of the industry can deny that it has been a major factor. The effect has been felt particularly sharply amongst the smaller, wet-led local pubs.

So it is quite astounding how so many brewers and pub operators have done their best to put a brave face on what, by any standards, has been a disaster for their industry. Some have claimed that it has increased the appeal of pubs to women, despite the fact that more women smoke than men. And one brewery director, who had presided over selling off a quarter of his company’s pubs, said that “the pub trade has evolved to become stronger and more inclusive”.

Obviously business owners have to live in the real world rather than just moaning that life isn’t fair. But this comes across as very much like the manager of the spoof rock band Spinal Tap who, when asked why they were now playing in small theatres rather than arenas, replied that “their appeal has become more selective”.

June 2017

Back on the Escalator

The Chancellor has sneaked in a return to the alcohol duty escalator

IN HIS 2011 Budget, George Osborne mentioned in passing that “there would be no changes to previously announced alcohol duties”, which many media outlets wrongly reported as meaning that they would be frozen, whereas in fact the dreaded duty escalator remained in operation.

In March this year, Philip Hammond pulled the same stunt, which led to widespread confusion as to what the duty implications actually were. One well-known brewer, who will remain nameless, even said on Twitter that they didn’t think there had been any changes. The situation was so bad that the British Beer and Pub Association felt compelled to issue a statement clarifying the position.

Even the official government announcement was distinctly disingenuous, saying “This measure increases the duty rates on alcohol manufactured in, or imported into, the UK by reference to the retail prices index (RPI).” Anyone reading this would assume that duties had been increased in line with RPI, but in fact the term “by reference to” meant that the dreaded duty escalator had returned, with rates going up by RPI plus 2%. The main rate of beer duty rose by 3.86%, meaning that a pint of 4% beer now incurs duty plus VAT on duty of 52p, a rise of 2p over the previous level.

It’s easy to dismiss such rises as trivial and say people will take them in their stride. But every price increase is a step too far for someone who is already at the limits of their budget. And, over time, successive above-inflation increases in duty will make alcoholic drinks significantly more expensive in real terms and reduce the demand. Although obviously not the sole factor, it is noticeable how the rate of decline in the pub trade in the three years since the escalator was shelved in 2014 has been considerably less than in the preceding years.

It would have been understandable, if regrettable, if the government had returned to raising duties each year in line with inflation. But it has been made clear that the duty escalator was never scrapped, merely suspended, and is now back with a vengeance.

Sadly, all the hard work that CAMRA and drinks trade bodies devoted to campaigning against it and pointing out its negative effect on one of Britain’s biggest business sectors has been thrown back in their faces. The process is going to have to be restarted, and this time it must be made clear that the objective is to drive a stake through the escalator’s heart, not just to put it into suspended animation.


Brewer before Taxman?

Higher beer prices harm pubs, regardless of whether the brewer or the Exchequer benefit

EARLIER this year, I wrote about how many small brewers were finding it a struggle to make a decent living. One answer to this has been to suggest that we’re not really paying enough over the bar for our beer. However, given that in many pubs the typical pint is now well north of £3, most people would hardly think beer was cheap, and over the years pub prices have increased by more than the general rate of inflation. If there’s a problem, it’s how the cake is distributed, not that it’s too small overall.

Given the amount of effort that has been expended in campaigning against the duty escalator, it is surely shooting yourself in the foot to want to negate all the benefits by putting the price back up again. It’s basic common sense that cheaper beer makes for healthier pubs and, regardless of where the extra money goes, higher prices are going to deter some customers, especially those who are already financially stretched.

May 2017

No Magic Bullet

Designating a pub as an Asset of Community Value is no guarantee of its survival

UNDER the Localism Act of 2011, the government made provision for land or buildings to be designated as Assets of Community Value, meaning that, if there was a proposal to sell them, they would enjoy a six-month waiting period to allow a local community to either make a bid itself or find an alternative buyer. Not surprisingly, this has since been extended to many pubs, including a number in this area.

However, it seems to be viewed by some as a magic bullet to save threatened pubs, whereas in reality all it can do is to give them a stay of execution. Even if a local community is able to make a bid, there is no requirement for the seller to accept it. And, while there have been a number of cases of successful community bids being made for smaller locals, it’s unrealistic to expect this to happen for bigger and more expensive pubs in rural locations or city centres.

Locally, we have recently lost two large Hydes’ estate pubs, the High Grove in Gatley and the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme, both of which have been sold for residential development. An ACV listing had been obtained for the High Grove, but not the Ryecroft, but at the end of the day this did not affect its fate. It’s doubtful whether a community group could have raised the £500,000 asking price, let alone run it profitably where Hydes had failed. And the question must be asked why, if it was so valued by the local community, they hadn’t previously used it more.

To some extent, ACV status is being used as a substitute for protecting pubs under the planning system. Under current planning law, there is what might be regarded as a loophole or anomaly whereby a pub can be converted to retail or office use without needing planning permission, although it is needed for residential conversion. There’s a good case for changing this, although surely a time limit would be needed, as it would deter people from converting shops to bars if they needed planning permission to convert them back again a couple of years later if things didn’t work out.

However, while this would ensure that any conversions from pub use were done in the open, in practice it wouldn’t really save more than a handful of pubs. All of those in this area that have been converted to supermarkets had been closed for some years previously. At the end of the day, you can’t force people to run businesses if they don’t want to, and it could all too easily lead to a staring match between pub owners and councils, with pubs left derelict for an extended period of time. And many pubs sit on a substantial patch of land which is potentially very valuable for redevelopment. Even if somehow you were able to require a pub to be sold for its value as a going concern, if the new owners couldn’t make a go of it either, who would stand to benefit from the development value at the end of the day?

Some campaigners against pub closures seem blind to the fact that the demand for pubs has dramatically declined, making it inevitable that many will become unviable. Since 1997, the total amount of beer sold in pubs has more than halved. But it is now easier to get a licence for existing premises than it ever has been, and this has resulted in a growing wave of openings of new bars and micropubs, including some in suburban shopping parades. Perhaps something smaller and more intimate would be a better option for local communities than the archetypal “beached whale” estate pub.

April 2017

Fear of the Dark

There’s no point in pubs stocking dark beers if customers don’t want to drink them

A FREQUENTLY heard complaint is that pubs should make more effort to stock darker beers. Surely, if a pub has eight or more handpumps, they could allocate one or two of them to dark beers to provide more stylistic variety. But, on the other hand, there is no point in stocking beers that don’t sell and, while you can lead a dark horse to beer, you can’t make him drink it.

One licensee of a long-standing “Good Beer Guide” entry has made the point that, while he’s made plenty of effort to put darker beers on the bar, his customers simply don’t seem to want to drink them. He’s had dark beers hanging around on the pumps for five days, while some pale ones sell out within five hours, so it’s not surprising that he tends to avoid them. I’ve spoken to several licensees of family brewer pubs who have told me that they tend to pass on any dark beers in the brewery’s seasonal range, as they simply don’t sell. And it’s always very noticeable at the end of Stockport Beer Festival that most of the beers left over are dark ones.

There is a widely-held belief that dark beers tend to be on the stronger side, which isn’t by any means always the case, but does deter people from drinking them. And all dark beers are not the same – there is a clear division between roasty, strong-flavoured stouts and porters, and sweeter, more mellow milds and old ales. Some drinkers try to avoid those roasty notes, while others will run a mile at the thought of anything with a chestnut flavour, let alone reminiscent of Christmas pudding.

I have to say I tend to prefer the more mellow side, and I have fond memories of drinking the distinctive old ales that used to be produced by breweries in the South-East such as Brakspear, Gales and King & Barnes. These typically had a strength of around 4.3 or 4.4%, so it was easy to drink a pint or two, but they still had a rich flavour and a touch of winter warmth about them. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be much brewed in that kind of category nowadays.

Yes, it would be good to see more dark beers on the bar. But all dark beers are not the same, and it has to be recognised that their absence is not due to a lack of imagination of the part of licensees, but to customer preference.


Pale Shadow

It is disrespectful of our brewing heritage to rebrand a classic Pale Ale as amber

LAST AUTUMN, Marston’s carried out a redesign of their beer brands in an attempt to make them look fresher and more contemporary, although many felt they were trying a bit too hard to appear trendy. One aspect of this was reclassifying their flagship Pedigree as an “amber ale” rather than a “pale ale”. Historically, British beers were divided between “brown ales” and “pale ales”, with the latter being broadly of the mid-brown colour you would expect from “bitter”. Nowadays, when many beers have been introduced that are markedly paler than this, it may seem sensible to draw a distinction between these and the ones of a more traditional colour.

But Pedigree is a classic example of a great British brewing style, namely Burton Pale Ale, and while calling it “amber” may make some sense to a marketing man, it comes across as something of a betrayal of Marston’s proud heritage.

March 2017

Collision Course

The seemingly unstoppable rise in brewery numbers can’t go on for ever

EVERY MONTH, “Opening Times” seems to report new breweries being set up, at the same time as established pubs are closing down. If you extrapolate this into the future, within a decade or two we’re going to end up with more breweries than pubs. Clearly this is unsustainable, and eventually the two trends are bound to collide.

It certainly seems to be true at present that there are too many small brewers chasing not enough business. Plenty of keen people have gone into the business without giving too much thought to where they’re going to find customers. The result is a lot of cut-throat competition, with some brewers complaining that others are selling beer for less than it costs them to make it, and several reports of beer being sold “off the books” without duty being charged. This can’t be healthy in the long term, and inevitably at some point a shake-out will happen.

One obvious factor is that, for most micro-brewers, it is to some extent a labour of love. They have taken up commercial brewing because they’re interested in beer and brewing, not just as a money-making venture. Most have either previously been enthusiastic home-brewers, or have worked for another brewery before venturing out on their own. This doesn’t mean that they don’t take the business side seriously, but inevitably, across the whole population of brewers, there is a slightly less hard-headed attitude. If your prime objective in starting a small business is to maximise your profits, you probably won’t take up brewing, and it can’t be said that people run carpet-cleaning franchises because they’re fascinated by carpets.

Added to this, a significant proportion of micro-brewers don’t rely on their business to provide a proper full-time income, either because they are retired, have another job, a rich parent, or a working partner. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, and may mean they can be more experimental and take more risks, but it does mean they can afford to take a more relaxed attitude to pricing, which may irk those who do entirely depend on brewing for their income.

The prevailing culture of ever-rotating guest beers also makes it more difficult for brewers to establish any kind of brand premium. The varying beers are just seen as a homogenous, dispensable product. Even if your beer isn’t up to much, the pub probably won’t be having it on again, so it will be quickly forgotten. All cask beer certainly isn’t of broadly uniform quality, but when customers are confronted with an array of beers, and possibly breweries, that they have never heard of before, it’s well-nigh impossible for them to make an informed judgment.

Given that the underlying market conditions are unlikely to change significantly, the objective for brewers must be to develop their reputation, so that pubs are going to make repeat orders, and that customers perceive their beers – whether individual brands or the overall output of the brewery – as something they actively want to drink. There’s no magic bullet for achieving this, but has to be the aim. Consistency, and having a product that stands out, not necessarily by being extremely distinctive, but by being of obvious quality, are vital factors.

There are plenty of examples of successful breweries who have done this, a good example being Hawkshead, where many drinkers, on seeing a Hawkshead beer on the bar, will immediately go for it in preference to others. And brewers of a more mainstream bent such as Otter have prospered through providing a consistent, well-branded product that is instantly recognisable, and rarely disappoints the drinker.

February 2017

A Little Bit of Company

The role of pubs in alleviating loneliness and depression is often undervalued

BEFORE Christmas last year, CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine highlighted the important role of pubs in combating social isolation, which can often work in surprisingly small and subtle ways. Go into a town-centre Wetherspoons in the late morning, and you’ll probably see a number of tables occupied by middle-aged or elderly men, sitting on their own, drinking a pint, reading the newspaper, with a bit of shopping in a plastic carrier bag. This may seem like a sad indictment of loneliness in our society but, looking at it the other way, what would they be doing if they weren’t there? Probably sitting at home alone with a can watching daytime TV.

Even at a very low level, pubs can contribute to providing a social outlet and alleviating loneliness. The simple act of getting out of the house and having a change of scenery can improve your mood. One beer blogger, who suffers from chronic depression, said:

“If you have recurrent mental health problems, being stuck in the middle of the same walls, seeing the same things and listening to the same sounds over and over and over again, well, it does your head in, basically. If you stay in your house too long, it's well documented that mood gradually lowers and you become isolated and less able to function in the world when it confronts you.”
And another added:
“I live alone and if I don't leave the house for two consecutive days, I feel hemmed in. I was declared surplus from my last job and was retired early, so I don't even have the social interaction of the workplace during weekdays. Isolation isn't good for anyone.

“Pubs are the only institutions that I can think of where you can walk in off the street, buy a drink and be entitled to sit there as long as you like, with the option of talking to strangers or not, as you prefer. Try talking to strangers in a café or restaurant and see what reaction you get. Actually, just try lingering too long in a café over one coffee without speaking to anyone and you may get suspicious looks, perhaps even be told to move on. This doesn't usually happen in a pub.”

And one guy in his twenties, who is autistic and visually impaired, said of a local micropub:
“I've started going in there when it's quiet - I really can't handle busy, noisy pubs, but I go in and have a couple of pints and maybe talk to whoever's on the bar. I find that, I really can't make conversation easily - if I don't know you, I'm lost and I feel overloaded and a bit scared. So I'll talk shop, basically, about the beer they have on and what's being going on in the news. It gets me out of the house and away from those that I see every day for a little while.”
You can see this in Samuel Smith’s Boar’s Head in Stockport, where from opening time each morning there will be a fair number of customers, mostly older men who are retired or on disability, who clearly see it as a kind of social club and engage in various kinds of inconsequential banter. Looking at the wider picture, though, slow-spending, elderly customers are not something that greedy pub-owners want to encourage, hence the trends for wall-to-wall dining and replacing comfortable benches with posing tables that are a challenge for creaky joints.

But the importance of pubs in giving people some kind of social outlet, however limited, cannot be understated. Yes, old blokes sitting on their own in the pub may seem sad. But it’s helping to alleviate a greater sadness.

January 2017

Can This Be For Real?

“Real ale in a can” is a flawed concept that undermines bottle-conditioning

EYEBROWS were raised last year at the news that CAMRA had given accreditation as “real ale” to can-conditioned beers from Moor Brewery in Bristol. While this may on the face of it sound surprising, given that CAMRA is happy to recognise bottle-conditioned beers as “real ale”, it is entirely consistent to do the same for beer that still contains live yeast, but just happens to be in a different kind of container.

Having expressed some scepticism about the concept, I was – to their credit – sent a sample of six cans to try by Moor Brewery. Now, they all came across as well-made beers, and one, the rye-infused Smokey Horyzon, particularly tickled my tastebuds. The amount of yeast and carbonation suggested that they could realistically have conditioned in the can. Having allowed them to settle for a couple of weeks, I was able to pour most of them reasonably clear. But I have to say I’m not remotely convinced by the concept.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many excellent bottle-conditioned beers. But I’ve always been able to check that the yeast has settled to the bottom, and then pour it carefully to ensure I end up with a clear drink. However, with a can, you simply can’t do that, so you have to trust to time as to whether the yeast has settled, and depend on very precise timing to minimise the amount that ends up in the glass. The whole process is turned into a lottery. For this reason, regardless of the inherent merits of the beer, I’d say cans are not an appropriate medium for container-conditioned packaged beers.

Personally, I prefer the taste of beer, not yeast, and there is far too much anecdotal evidence of murky beer playing havoc with the digestive tract for such concerns to be dismissed out of hand. The whole concept of "real ale in a can" has not been thought through properly, and I find it disappointing that CAMRA has given it its seal of approval.


Delayed Gratification

What may now seem extreme proposals could all too soon become reality

SCOTLAND seems to be doing its best to be a world leader in neo-Prohibitionism, and the latest idea to rear its ugly head is one from “public health experts” to ban the sale of alcohol in the off-trade until 5pm. This is objectionable on so many levels that I won’t even attempt to list them. It represents a collective punishment meted out on the overwhelming majority of responsible drinkers in an attempt to address the problems of the irresponsible few.

One obvious issue is that it would be likely to lead to a kind of quasi black market of people buying drink on others’ behalf. A simple request to pick up of bottle of whisky while you’re out could easily lead on to someone carrying a small stock to supply people who find it inconvenient to buy it themselves. And I can’t see the Scotch whisky industry – the country’s leading export earner – being remotely happy about being prevented from selling bottles to coach parties on distillery tours.

In Sweden, which operates a similar hard-line attitude to alcohol sales, the state-run Systembolaget stores tend to close their doors just as the Scottish offies would be opening. You could just as well argue that earlier closing, rather than later opening, would achieve the same result, or lack of.

Of course the chances of this happening in the near future, even in Scotland, are zero. But, by laying it on the table, an “Overton Window” has been opened up in which such draconian proposals are brought within the scope of serious debate. And how long will it be before someone suggests banning pubs and bars from selling alcohol before 5pm too?

December 2016

A Place Where No-One Knows Your Name

Pubs need to respect customers’ desire for privacy, if that’s what they want

PUBS ARE typically viewed as places of raucous ribaldry, or at least of cheerful conviviality. However, there is another side to them, as wooden wombs, a third space where people – couples and groups as well as individuals – can seek temporary refuge from the stresses of home, work or just life in general.

A pub is, of course, a “public house”, a hybrid of the two where anyone can walk in off the street and spend some time there provided they put a bit of money across the bar. If you behave yourself, nobody will question your purpose or your right to be there. It’s generally accepted that it’s up to you whether you engage with other customers or not, and the only people who break that principle are those like Archie the pub bore from the “Fast Show” with his catchphrase “Hardest game in the world”. This applies even in pretty small and cosy pubs.

However, that kind of privacy is difficult to achieve in the new generation of micropubs, where everyone is put together into a small common space and intimacy is inescapable. Many customers will welcome that atmosphere of companionship, but others may feel it’s something they prefer to avoid. And there’s sometimes the feeling of intruding into a private clique.

Obviously strangers do talk to each other in pubs, and often it’s something you welcome. But, if customers don’t want to get involved, you leave them alone. There’s also an art to making conversation without appearing unduly inquisitive or prying. “What are you doing here today?” or “Where have you come from?” are questions that I see as my own business unless I choose to open up about them. And, of course, Wetherspoons, although often criticised for being impersonal, are amongst the best places for maintaining anonymity.


Closed for You

Increasingly limited and bizarre opening hours can’t do the pub trade any good

OVER THE past year, I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the adventures of bloggers Martin Taylor and Simon Everitt, who are both, in their different ways, aiming to visit every pub in the Good Beer Guide. One of the problems they frequently encounter is pubs opening very limited and strange hours, which can make it difficult to plan a visit.

It’s common now to find pubs that don’t open at lunchtime from Monday to Friday, although a fair number do open at 3 or 4 pm, when in the past pubs would have been shutting. But many go further than this, with plenty no longer bothering to open at lunchtimes at all, even at weekends. It’s very common in rural areas to find pretty much all the pubs outside town centres closed on Mondays. One well-known Cheshire dining pub is closed on both Mondays and Tuesdays, and doesn’t open until 5 pm on any other day. And it gets even weirder, with one Hertfordshire pub only open on Mondays between 3 and 6 in the afternoon, the traditional period of closure.

If you are going to open odd or restricted hours, surely it makes sense to tell potential customers exactly when those hours are, both outside the door and on your own website if you have one. You should also try to make sure that the correct hours are display on third-party sites such as CAMRA’s WhatPub? Even one case of someone turning up when they thought you were open, only to find the door firmly shut, can generate a lot of negative word-of-mouth. And, if you do open strange hours, it rather suggests you’re not very interested in attracting casual customers in the first place.