September 2016

Doing What it Says on the Tin

The clue to what CAMRA should concentrate on can be found in its name

CAMRA is currently in the midst of a Revitalisation Project, which aims to take a root-and-branch look at the organisation’s objectives and priorities. One frequent complaint is that it is too dogmatic in refusing to embrace high-quality beers that do not qualify as “real”. However, that is missing the point of what it’s all about.

When CAMRA was formed, its core purpose was to promote and champion the independent breweries and their distinctive beers that had survived the takeover frenzy of the 1960s.That decade saw probably the most dramatic transformation in business structures, popular culture and the physical appearance of this country of any in the past hundred years. Modernity, progress and renewal were the watchwords, and anyone who sought to stand in the way was condemned as negative and fuddy-duddy. This, after all, was the era of the New Britain that was to be forged in the white heat of the scientific revolution, and was keenly embraced by both of the major political parties.

However, as the Sixties turned into the Seventies, the downsides in terms of the destruction of the traditional and familiar became increasingly apparent, and there was a backlash in popular sentiment. E. F. Schumacher’s bestselling book “Small is Beautiful” is often seen as epitomising this trend, and it gained wide public recognition in the TV sitcom “The Good Life”. CAMRA obviously was a major part of this, and there is a strong parallel with steam railway preservation, which shared many of the same motivations and personnel. It was as much about a sense of cultural loss as about a specific technical definition of beer. This was well summed up in a recent Internet comment from one Ian H who said:

“CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA”.
Arguably CAMRA went too far down the road of trying to tie down a precise definition of “real ale”, ending up excluding products and dispense methods that fitted the broader concept perfectly well. The outright refusal to countenance cask breathers is a prime example. The long-defunct Hull Brewery used to store lightly-filtered, unpasteurised beer in large ceramic cellar jars in its pubs. Now how quirky and traditional was that, but it was judged not to be “real”. Sadly, this gave rise to a widespread view that real ale was inherently superior to all other forms of beer, which was never really a defensible position and ended up causing a great deal of resentment.

But the problem with any formal embrace of “non-real” beers is that, once you abandon an objective standard, even if an imperfect one, then what are you left with apart from “beers I happen to like”? The famous 20th century writer and commentator G. K. Chesterton once said “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” It just opens the door for subjective favouritism and outright beer snobbery.

CAMRA is not, and never has been, a generalised campaign for All Good Beer. If some of its members have at times given that impression, they have been wrong. It is a campaign to preserve and champion a unique British brewing and cultural institution. The clue is in the name, and it does what it says on the tin. There are plenty of great non-“real” beers out there, and CAMRA members should feel no shame in enjoying and celebrating them. But they don’t need campaigning for. Real ale does.

August 2016

Hear, Hear

Contemporary pub designers ignore the needs of the deaf, and of people with other disa­bilities

A FEW years ago, the well-known beer writer Pete Brown bemoaned the tendency in modern, crafty bars to remove all carpets and soft furnishings, leading to an environment in which all sounds were echoed rather than absorbed, thus creating an often unacceptable level of general background noise. I have to say I wholeheartedly agreed with this.

This view has now been reinforced by a recent report produced to coincide with Lipreading Awareness Week, which makes the point that pubs with loud music and a lack of sound-absorbing materials can provide a very hostile environment for the deaf and hard of hearing. A common problem with mild hearing loss is that it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish conversation with people close by from background hubbub. Hearing aids may amplify the general level of sound, but they do little to help with this.

The report suggests that pubs should turn down the music and introduce more carpets, curtains and soft upholstery. They should also add more alcoves, booths and room dividers. That’s certainly music to my ears! It points out that half of all over-65s have measurable hearing loss, and I’d bet that most of the rest have at least a small amount of degradation. I’m in my mid-fifties and, while I wouldn’t say I have any major hearing problems, I do find it increasingly difficult to follow pub conversations when there’s a substantial level of background noise.

The contemporary trend of pub refurbishments seems to very much involve replacing carpets with wood or parquet floors, and cloth upholstery with faux-leather. Personally, even if done tastefully, I find this a touch alienating. I prefer pubs to be cosy, but apparently that isn’t desirable now. And it greatly reduces the ability of the pub interior to absorb sound.

The age profile of the potential drinking population is ever rising, and any attempt to appeal to an elusive youth market is going to be increasingly counter-productive. There have been numerous media reports about how the young are turning their backs on pubs and drinking, while older people have a growing amount of spare time and cash. Where pubs are busy, especially at lunchtimes, they’re often busy with pensioners.

I’ve always expressed a certain amount of scepticism about forcing pubs to make adjustments for disabled customers that in practice will be scarcely used. For example, I felt that recent calls for all pubs that did not provide disabled facilities to be closed down were going too far. Many pubs are in historic buildings where such adjustments are simply impractical.

But, on the other hand, if you are redesigning pub interiors and introducing new features, you should take care not to make them less friendly to the disabled. Classic examples of this are variations in floor level and high-level posing tables. Someone in a wheelchair can happily engage in a conversation at a normal-height table, but with a posing table they’re isolated at a lower level. Likewise many people with mobility problems would struggle to climb up on to a high stool.

It also shouldn’t be forgotten that many people, while not officially registered as disabled, may have some impairment to their mobility. It’s a facile assumption that everyone who is disabled is in a wheelchair. Pubs should be welcoming and accessible to all their customers.

July 2016

Out of Control

To claim that drinking in pubs is intrinsically better than at home is ill-informed special pleading

WE’RE OFTEN told nowadays that pubs provide a “controlled drinking environment”. The impli­cation is that the restraint imposed by the presence of the licensee and other customers leads people to drink in a more responsible manner than they would if they had bought a load of booze from Tesco and were drinking it at home.

This idea has only really appeared in the past couple of decades. Back in the 1970s, when pubs accounted for the vast majority of drinking, whether responsible or irresponsible, it would have been unheard of, except perhaps to distinguish well-run pubs from poorly-run ones. It’s only in recent years, when on-trade consumption has been clearly losing ground to the off-trade, that it’s become popularised as an attempt to distinguish the two.

It has some validity in the context of socialising young people into drinking in a restrained and moderate way. They’re much more likely to do that in pubs under the watchful eye of the licensee and older customers than experimenting on their own on a park bench. But, as a concept applied to general adult drinking, it’s basically special pleading that bears little relation to reality.

People drinking in pubs on average probably consume considerably more per session than those doing it at home, and are also more likely to be involved in drink-related disorder, whether as victims or perpetrators, and also to be the innocent victims of traffic accidents. For many people, a weekly pub night is an opportunity to cut loose a bit, whereas at home they would probably stick to just one or two glasses of wine or bottles or cans of beer. Even in the best-run community pub, you will find customers towards the end of Friday or Saturday night somewhat the worse for wear, if not actually drunk, and certainly guilty of binge-drinking as defined by the anti-drink lobby.

The alcohol-fuelled disorder that we see in some of our larger towns and cities is often laid at the door of “pre-loading” on cheap off-trade spirits before going out on the town. However, it seems perverse to blame the state people end up in on the first drink they had rather than the last, and people wouldn’t be pre-loading in the first place if their intention wasn’t to go out afterwards.

Anti-drink campaigners are sometimes heard praising the role of pubs and regretting that they have been allowed to decline. But this really comes across as breathtaking hypocrisy, when over the years they have consistently opposed the liberalisation of licensing hours and supported every anti-pub measure going. It wouldn’t surprise me if their equivalents of fifty years ago had advocated a move to more at-home drinking with the family and with meals, as opposed to men boozing together in the pub.

Nobody who reads this column can doubt that I view pubs as a valuable British tradition that has an important role to play in bringing people together and encouraging a sense of community, and at their best are havens of conviviality that bring pleasure to millions. But to claim that pub drinking has some kind of privileged moral status is frankly just silly and unhelpful.

Over the years, social changes have led to a marked shift away from on-trade drinking, and most people now mix the two depending on the context. The attitude of “we never have drink in the house” now comes across as quaintly old-fashioned. Each form of drinking can be done either responsibly or irresponsibly, and the vast majority of drinkers fall into the first category. The anti-drink lobby must be laughing into their sarsaparilla over this pointless squabbling about “my drink is better than yours”.

June 2016

Great Stuff this Bass

Draught Bass is a great survivor and a link to our brewing heritage

THE WELL-KNOWN Bass red triangle was famously the first trademark ever registered, and it remains a distinctive beer symbol almost 150 years later. When CAMRA was formed in the early 1970s, Draught Bass was the only nationally-distributed cask beer. Outside its Midlands heartland, it had a strong following in rural Wales, the West Country and the North-East, and was also well-regarded from London to Edinburgh. It was always a free-trade favourite even where the owning company had no tied houses. The late Rhys Jones reported how there remained a lingering resentment in Anglesey about Stockport brewer Robinsons buying up free houses selling Bass in the 1950s.

Across large swathes of Derbyshire and Staffordshire it (along with Marston’s Pedigree, of similar strength) was often sold in pubs as the standard bitter. Bass also entered into trading agreements with a number of independent brewers that led to the beer being sold in some of their tied houses, a notable example being Higsons of Liverpool, with it being available in the George in Stockport, a once-great pub now a shadow of its former self.

In the mid-1970s, its original gravity was increased from 1039 to 1044 to make it a stronger competitor against the popular premium ales of that period. It was never an in-your-face beer, with a distinctive subtle, bittersweet palate, but was generally reckoned to be amongst the beer aristocracy. In the 1970s, the parent company controlled over half the pubs in Birmingham, but only condescended to make Bass available in six of them.

As the number of nationally distributed beers mushroomed in the 1980s, it lost some of its status, although it remained a widely available and popular beer. In the early 80s, Bass stopped using the distinctive Burton Union fermentation system, a move that was felt to rob it of some of its character. The late, great beer writer Michael Jackson certainly reckoned Pedigree, not Bass, to be the Burton classic.

The upheaval in the brewing industry following the Beer Orders inevitably took its toll. The Bass brewery at Burton-upon-Trent ended up being taken over by Molson Coors, but the rights to the Bass name went to ABInBev. The cask version of Bass is now contract-brewed by Marston’s, home of its historic rival Pedigree. The bottled and canned versions are brewed by ABInBev at Samlesbury, and are not from the same brewing stock, although they do have a slight echo of the cask original. Ironically, Pedigree seems in recent years to have lost a lot of ground in the free trade, and I have to say I’ve struggled to find decent examples recently.

I wouldn’t claim that the Marston’s-brewed Draught Bass is on a par with the 1970s original, but it is hard to compare things over a forty-year gap. But it does retain much of its essential character – complex, subtle, bitter-sweet, slightly sour and lactic, and not really drinking its strength. Its understatement makes it a classic English beer. Unlike many other 4.4% beers, you could happily sink several pints in a session.

While its distribution is diminished compared with what it once was, it is still often found in the Midlands and in other areas such as the North-East, Wales and the South-West. I read of one new pub opening in the North-East putting Bass as the core of its beer range, and visited a pub in West Wales proudly advertising it as their next guest beer. It remains the signature beer in classic unspoilt pubs such as the Star in Bath and the Seven Stars in Falmouth. And, wherever I see it on the bar, I get the feeling it’s a pub that keeps in touch with its heritage and tradition.

May 2016

Care of the Community

If people truly value pubs, they may have to stump up to save them

IN THE CENTRE of many English villages, you will find a pub and a church standing opposite each other, which are seen as institutions that define the character of the place. The problem, though, is that affection alone does not put any money over the bar or in the collection plate, and too many people, while they may like to see them there, don’t use them enough.

It’s often argued that pubs are just like any other retail business and, if they’re not successful, the best thing is to shut them down and replace them with something else. Few are likely to mourn the demise of a trendy bar in the ground floor of an office block, or a family dining pub on a retail park. But some pubs mean much more to people than that – they become part of the community, memories of good times and past landlords are handed down from generation to generation, and they are valued as a local resource even by people who don’t visit them much. Pubs, after all, are about the only kind of business that people actually visit to spend time socialising.

Some of the more strident “Save the Pub” campaigners seem to view the decline of pubs as the result of an unholy combination of asset-stripping pub companies, greedy developers, apathetic councils and lax planning laws. There’s something in this, and pub companies certainly can’t be regarded as model businesses, but these activists ignore the all too real long-term decline in the demand for pubs. At the end of the day, you can’t force operators to keep businesses going that they don’t regard as viable. Making a pub an Asset of Community Value may give it a stay of execution, but unless someone comes in to take it on, it won’t preserve it indefinitely.

The inevitable conclusion is that, if communities are sufficiently concerned about wanting to save endangered pubs, they will have to grasp the nettle and put up the money to take them on themselves. This may seem a daunting financial prospect, but a growing number of pubs have been saved this way. The government has now come up with a £3.6 million Community Pub Ownership scheme, which will provide loans, grants and expertise to assist with the process. It seems as though community-owned pubs will become an increasingly important part of the drinking landscape in the coming years. However, it’s important to get a tenant or manager in to run the place in a professional manner, rather than having amateurs arguing about the fine detail of the beer range and menu.

There is a precedent for this in the form of the National Trust which, from small beginnings, has expanded to have over four million members and to be custodians of hundreds of precious historic buildings, including a handful of pubs. In a sense, unspoilt pubs could be regarded as “the people’s stately homes”. You could also consider the amount of time and money that has been expended over the years on preserved steam railways.

It wouldn’t necessarily need any kind of national organisation, but there could be benefits from creating some kind of umbrella body, maybe on a regional basis, so individual groups do not have to stand alone. Maybe, for some pubs, the business potential might be very limited, and they end up only opening for a few hours a week and being staffed by volunteers, but that would be far better than no pub at all. Pubs are a key part of our national heritage and identity, and should be valued as such rather than purely considered as commercial operations.

April 2016

It’s Real, Jim, But Not As We Know It

Keg-conditioned beer may be great, but it’s not the same as cask

A FEW months ago, you may have been surprised to read an article in Opening Times about “Real Ale in a Keg”, which was trialled at the recent Manchester Beer & Cider Festival. Surely, some may think, this is the ultimate betrayal – an organisation originally set up to fight keg ending up embracing it. As George Orwell wrote in “Animal Farm”, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Of course, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. In recent years, we have seen the rise of so-called “craft keg” beers. Many of these are essentially conventional kegs, where the beer is filtered, and a cylinder of CO2 is connected up to the container to propel it to the tap at the bar. However, a growing number use a system called “KeyKeg”, in which the beer is held in an inner bag within the container, in a similar way to bag-in-box wine, and the dispense gas exerts pressure on this bag to push the beer to the bar, but doesn’t actually come into contact with it.

Maybe it wasn’t the original intention, but it was soon realised that, if the beer in the keykeg was unfiltered, and therefore retained its natural yeast, it could qualify as “real ale”, as it could undergo a secondary fermentation, and avoids all contact with the CO2 used to pressurise the outer container. This is perhaps debatable, as the beer contained in the bag does not vent to the atmosphere, and the part of the container outside the bag is pressurised with CO2 to dispense the beer, although the CO2 does not actually touch it, but it’s certainly a world away from Red Barrel.

There are two reasons often advanced in favour of craft keg beer. The first is the “East Sheen Tennis Club” argument, that keg beers are ideal for venues that have limited and infrequent turnover. The second is that they allow pubs to stock low-volume, specialist beers for longer. But I suspect that the reason most people go for craft keg is that they prefer its essential characteristics – that it is served cooler, and has more carbonation, than real ale. Bringing it within the fold of real ale is unlikely to make much difference to whether people choose to drink it.

Over the years, CAMRA has succeeded in making handpumps an unmistakable symbol of real ale, so if you go in a pub and see a bank of them, you can be confident about what you’re going to get. But if we get “real” craft keg, are we going to have to have little stickers on the taps saying “CAMRA Says this is Real Ale”? There is also the risk that the boundary with conventional filtered and carbonated keg beers such as Shipyard and East Coast IPA will be blurred.

I’ve often argued that CAMRA can be too dogmatic in making a black-and-white distinction between “good” real ale and “bad” everything else. This is not to say it shouldn’t define real ale clearly and put it at the centre of its campaigning, but it should be more willing to recognise merit in beers that do not qualify. This unfiltered, unpasteurised craft keg is certainly something I’d be happy both to drink and encourage others to. But it is confusing and unhelpful to yoke it in with cask-conditioned real ale, as understood by the general drinking public, as it is obviously a distinctly different product. Rather than arbitrarily extending the definition, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept it as a product category in its own right?

March 2016

Someone’s Gonna Have to Pay

The “National Living Wage” will have a disproportionate effect on pubs

FROM THE beginning of April, the government will be introducing a “National Living Wage” of £7.20 per hour, which will progressively rise to £9 by 2020. This has been widely welcomed as a way of reducing in-work poverty, and some have claimed that it doesn’t go far enough. However, several pub operators, most notably Wetherspoon’s, have warned that it is likely to affect their profits. This might be viewed as a demonstration of corporate greed, but isn’t it preferable that they accept a reduction in profits rather than seeking to recoup the loss through cutting staff or increasing prices?

Raising the level of the minimum wage doesn’t conjure money out of nowhere – it has to be paid for through one or more of:

  • Customers, through higher prices
  • Employees, through reduced hours, job losses and restriction of fringe benefits
  • Business owners, through reduction of profits and dividends
Big companies such as Wetherspoon’s may be able to take it in their stride with little impact on their business. But it must be remembered that most pub businesses are not run by managers, but by individual tenants, lessees and freeholders. They will have much less scope to adjust to paying higher wages, and may well see their own income suffer. And most licensees are not exactly making a fortune in the first place.

It is sometimes argued that the increased costs of a National Living Wage will be redistri­buted through the economy, and thus stimulate demand. However, the costs will be mostly borne by labour-intensive businesses such as pubs, whereas the benefits will be spread across the board. It’s also not widely appreciated that many minimum wage recipients are second earners in a household, or people such as the partially retired who already have another source of income. Economists estimate that well over half the benefits of an increased minimum wage will accrue to households in the top half of income distribution.

Across the economy as a whole, this may well be a beneficial policy. But it can’t be denied that it will have a damaging impact on many pub businesses that are already struggling.


Cutting the Strings

Paying charities from public funds to lobby the government makes no sense

IN THE PAST, I have pointed out that many so-called charities are in reality “sock-puppets”, which take government funds and then use them to lobby the government to take further action on their chosen cause. Alcohol Concern and similar anti-drink groups are prime examples of this. It’s very noticeable how all of them demand further control and restriction, rather than any kind of liberalisation.

The government have now at last addressed this issue, with Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock announcing that charities will no longer be able to spend any funds received from the public purse on lobbying activities. Predictably, some have complained that this represents a restriction on freedom of speech, but charities are still free to espouse whatever cause they want so long as they use money received from voluntary donations. This is a major step forward for transparency and a level playing field in public debate, and I’d say one of the best measures taken by the current government.

February 2016

Open All Hours?

Longer and more flexible licensing hours have been good for both pubgoers and public order

IN NOVEMBER last year, we saw the tenth anniversary of the implementation of the 2003 Licensing Act, which allowed pubs and bars to open whenever they wanted, subject to local authority approval. At the time, there were widespread scare stories about the likely effects of “24-hour drinking”. The Daily Mail predicted that it would unleash “unbridled hedonism... with all the ghastly consequences that will follow,” while the Sun told its readers to prepare for the “inevitable swarm of drunken youngsters”. The Association of Chief Police Officers warned that “people are going to drink more because of the longer hours and there will be lots more crime and disorder”. And the Royal College of Physicians said that “24 hour pub opening will lead to more excess and binge drinking, especially among young people.”

But, in practice, none of this happened, although some ill-informed politicians still go on about “rolling back the 24-hour drinking culture”. Today, we are drinking a fifth less than we did back then, with consumption in licensed premises having fallen by more than a quarter. Frequent drinking amongst young adults has fallen by more than two thirds. Rates of binge drinking have fallen amongst every age group, most sharply amongst 16 to 24 year olds.

Far from there being “lots more crime and disorder”, there is in fact much less. Criminal damage is down by 48 per cent, domestic violence by 28 per cent and violence in general by 40 per cent. Instances of drink driving not only fell after the Act came into effect, but fell more sharply in England and Wales, where the new law was applied, than in Scotland where it wasn’t. As for alcohol-related deaths, they were rising before the Licensing Act was introduced, but flattened out in 2005 and have not risen since.

We still do see some alcohol-related disorder in city centres on weekend nights, but it is a lot less than it used to be. Taking away the traditional flashpoint of moving from pub to club has helped, and from pubs’ point of view it is much better that people stay there longer and may not feel the need to move on at all. The average pub has extended its closing time by a massive 29 minutes, and in fact it’s impossible to find any example of pubs and bars where you really can drink round the clock, or anything like it.

In my experience, the trade still noticeably thins out around 11 pm, as people need to get last buses or trains, or remember they have to go to work the next morning. A few stay for another drink or two, but the evening winds down in a civilised way, and there’s no trouble or obvious drunkenness. It’s also much easier to get a cab home if everyone doesn’t call for one at the same time. The Act has not been without its problems, but overall it has improved the experience of pubgoers and contributed to less dangerous late-night streets.


Planning not Parsimony

Planning rules are preventing micropubs offering decent toilet provision

BACK IN August last year, I criticised some recently-opened micropubs for only providing a single unisex WC for their customers, which could easily become overwhelmed at busy times. However, a correspondent reports that the key reason for this is not the owners being skinflints, but planning rules. It is OK to have a single WC, but if you want to add another, it has to be one accessible to the disabled. If you only have room for two standard-sized WCs, hard luck, it’s either an accessible one or nothing. Existing pubs can avoid this requirement through “grandfather rights”, but new ones can’t. This is a classic case of well-meaning legislation ending up having unintended adverse consequences.

January 2016

A Pub is for Life, Not Just for Christmas

It’s hard not to see publicly-funded abstinence campaigns as a direct attack on the licensed trade

THE PUBLIC health lobby seem to be falling over themselves to launch as many schemes as possible to encourage people to give up alcohol for a month. No sooner has Stay Sober for October come to an end than we are bombarded with another round of publicity for Dry January. What will they come up with next? Miserable March? Arid April?

It’s up to each individual to make decisions about their own lives, and many will understandably want to cut down in January after having eaten and spent too much over the Festive season. Nobody should kid themselves that their local pub will stand and fall on their custom alone.

However, January has always been a slack time for pubs, and if you value them surely they deserve your support. Dry January comes across as an organised campaign to, in effect, encourage as many people as possible to boycott pubs at the time when they are most vulnerable. It is going beyond personal choice to become political. And it’s no good saying that people can still go to the pub and spend as much on soft drinks, because we know that in practice few will.

To counter this, sections of the brewing and pub trades have set up a couple of campaigns called “Tryanuary” and “Try January”. Someone should bang their heads together to make them combine their efforts, but the general message is clear – don’t overdo it in January, but take the opportunity to spread your wings a bit and try some different beers, drinks, dishes and pubs and bars. And the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, which falls right in the middle of January, offers a golden opportunity to do just that. Hands up if you’ve ever been to a beer festival held in GMEX! It would be a shame to miss it by sticking rigidly to a principle.


Selling off the Silver?

Does a wave of disposals mean that the wheels have started to come off the Wetherspoon juggernaut?

OVER THE YEARS, people have viewed the rise of some businesses as unstoppable, only to find them later falling flat on their face. A good example is Tesco, which not so long ago was seen as a juggernaut remorselessly tearing up Britain’s High Streets, only to run into a perfect storm of declining profits, accounting fraud, sacking the boss, closing existing stores and putting expansion plans on hold.

For long, Wetherspoons were seen in the same way, inexorably growing towards a target of a thousand pubs and represented in every substantial town. Earlier this year, they reported record sales and profits. However, there have been signs that all is not well. They have always disposed of the occasional pub, but in July they announced the sale of a job lot of twenty. Most of these either had another branch close by, or were in locations where there maybe wasn’t enough footfall, so it seemed as though it could be just a sensible bit of rationalisation.

Then, four months later, the news came out that they wanted to sell a further tranche of thirty-four, this time including what appeared to be some very successful pubs on good sites. Locally, the list featured the Milson Rhodes in Didsbury and the Bollin Fee in Wilmslow, both current Good Beer Guide entries and not close to another branch. There have been suggestions that Wetherspoons are cashing in on high-value freeholds, but their precise reasoning is very hard to pin down. But that thousand-pub target suddenly looks a lot further away.

December 2015

Close Your Eyes and Drink Up

There does not have to be a trade-off between better beer and worse pub interiors

ONE OF THE founding texts of CAMRA was Christopher Hutt’s brilliant polemic The Death of the English Pub, first published in 1973. From the perspective of 2015, the English pub back then might have seemed in rude health, but in the preceding decade it had experienced a dramatic upheaval. He describes the tidal wave of brewery takeovers and closures, the loss of distinctive local beers, the spread of pressurised dispense, and the rationalisation policies that deprived many villages of their last pub.

He reserves some of his strongest vitriol for an attack on the brewers’ large-scale wrecking of pubs – imposing ludicrous, contrived themes that rapidly dated, knocking lounge and public bars through into one, and removing small rooms and cosy snugs to produce an easily-supervised open-plan interior. In its early years, CAMRA very much took this on board, strongly criticising pub operators for insensitive refurbishments and creating the laudable National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.

However, as the focus has shifted from tradition to innovation, priorities have changed. The economic recovery has given brewers and pub owners more money to invest, and they have been up to their old tricks again. Sadly, though, much of this has been welcomed, with praise being lavished on “light, airy, open-plan” interiors, modernity in its own right seen as a virtue, and one scheme even applauded for “removing obstructive internal walls”. Yes, beforehand, these pubs were often a bit down-at-heel, and the changes have also generally included a wider and more enterprising beer range. And, given that, some have criticised anyone raising objections for being negative and churlish. “Would you prefer it closed, then?”

But a pub isn’t just another retail outlet, it’s somewhere people actually visit to spend time socialising. It is passed down through the generations, so you will often hear older customers talking of things forty or fifty years ago. Of course pubs cannot set their face entirely against change, but destructive, gimmicky alterations will never stand the test of time. Is it time for CAMRA to return to standing up for pub interiors as well as beer?


Squeaky Bum Time is Back

The return of sticky vinyl seat coverings is a backward step for pubs

OLDER READERS will remember that dreadful vinyl upholstery in cars of the 60s and 70s, which didn't breathe at all and stuck to your clothes as soon as the sun came out. During the same period, many pubs installed upholstered “leatherette” fixed seating, often superseding plain wooden benches, which had exactly the same effect when the temperature rose and the place was packed with sweaty bodies. In the 80s, as with the car market, there was a swing against this, with more comfortable and breathable cloth seat coverings often replacing vinyl. At the time, it was seen as providing a more up-market image.

However, more recently, the tide seems to have turned, with many recent refurbishments ditching the velour and moquette in favour of a return to shiny plastic. I suppose there are benefits in that it is more durable and easier to clean, but it seems to be part of the vogue for giving pubs a “harder” appearance that goes against the earlier trend towards being cosy and comfy. Replacing carpets with bare boards is much the same.

And, when the weather gets a bit warm and humid, the effect on human flesh through cloth is exactly the same is it used to be, making the experience of going to the pub a bit tacky and uncomfortable. It’s designer vision being put ahead of customer convenience. Nobody’s going to walk out of a pub because it has vinyl rather than cloth seating, but, like removing beermats, it’s another of those little niggly annoyances.

November 2015

Craft Wars

Craft vs Real Ale is a pointless antagonism that has been largely fanned by the crafties

IN THE mid-1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies left in the whole of the USA, and the beer market was dominated by bland, light lagers. So the conditions were ripe for the develop­ment of an “alternative beer” movement, initially referred to as microbreweries, but more recently morphing into “craft”. They were able to draw on a wide range of brewing traditions from all around the world, including a substantial influence from British real ale, to produce a huge variety of interesting, characterful beers, and even developing their own entirely new styles.

Not surprisingly, beer enthusiasts looked at this and thought there was a golden opportunity to extend that buzz over to this side of the pond. However, there was a little problem. Britain already had a thriving craft beer scene, comprising both the established independent breweries that CAMRA had originally been created to champion, and hundreds of micro breweries that had sprung up since then in a similar way to the US.

Some of it could be conservative and stick-in-the-mud, but there was a huge amount of inno­vation and variety in beer styles. Yet it was this “real ale scene” that the new evangelists of craft chose to tilt against. Britain was surely ready for mega-strong beers, teeny measures, craft keg and cans, weird flavours, eyewatering prices, and check shirts and fancy beards.

A key tipping point was when BrewDog, the leading lights of the craft beer movement, stopped producing cask beer entirely and deliberately portrayed themselves as standing up against everything CAMRA represented, something that came across as a crass publicity stunt. There seems to be a continuing brush war between craft beer hipsters and real ale traditionalists, but surely everyone interested in good beer shares a huge amount of common ground. And it’s clear that most of the antagonism comes from one particular side.


Walk Before You Run

Brewers who want to experiment should master the basics first

ONE THING that the craft beer movement has brought is a marked increase in innovation in brewing. We have seen numerous variations on existing categories, mashups of multiple beer styles, and even entirely new types being dreamed up. However, innovation can be a double-edged sword, and brings with it potential pitfalls.

For one, you can never be quite sure if an experimental beer is off, or just something that isn’t to your taste. If you see a new beer in an established style such as Stout or IPA, you’ll have a reason­able idea whether or not it’s in good condition. But for something entirely new, how are you expected to know? And, for beers aping Belgian and German “sour” styles, there can be a fine line between challengingly astringent and downright vinegary.

Experienced brewers are well-placed to know whether whether something unusual makes sense or not – locally, Cloudwater are a good example of this. However, some newcomers to the industry have a tendency to chuck whatever comes to hand into the mash tun and take pot luck as to what comes out. Unless it’s utterly vile, they can generally put a positive spin on the result. Apparently one new brewery produced a batch that was heavily affected by diacetyl, a common brewing fault that, while not unpleasant as such, gives beer a pronounced caramel character. But, rather than pouring it down the drain, they marketed it as “Butterscotch IPA”.

Innovation, within reason, is a good thing, but it does help to have a sound background in conventional brewing before striking out on a more adventurous path. Picasso is famed for his distorted, abstract paintings, but in his early years he had a thorough grounding in the principles of draughtsmanship. Perhaps experimental brewers should first demonstrate a track record in producing sound beers in established styles.

October 2015

Magical or Mundane?

Robinsons’ new mythical brew has a strong grounding in reality

EARLIER this year, Robinsons discontinued their once best-selling 1892 Mild, in the face of steadily falling sales. While they could perhaps have made more effort to continue to make cask mild in some form available to their pubs, very few of them were selling enough to make it viable, so the decision, while sad, was entirely understandable.

At the same time, they launched a new 3.7% amber bitter called Wizard, not as a direct replacement for 1892, but to plug a gap at the bottom end of their range. Not surprisingly, this was not greeted with much enthusiasm by those who look down on any beer that isn’t hoppy enough to take the skin off the roof of your mouth. However, it’s intended to be a classic session bitter, not an in-your-face beer, and it fills that role very well.

It’s a fairly dry beer, mid-amber in colour (a little darker than Unicorn), with a touch of the distinctive Robinsons house character and a good balance of malt and hops. Robinsons say that they “have combined five English hops, pale, wheat & crystal malts”, and there’s certainly considerable depth and complexity in there.

Historically, Robinsons have been in the unusual position of selling a “best bitter” as their everyday quaffing bitter. Some breweries in other parts of the country also did this, but it was pretty much unique in the North-West. Many people, unaware of the relative strength, used to complain that a night on Robinsons Best Bitter gave them a “bad head”, when in fact it was markedly stronger than most of its competitors. In recent years they have introduced the 3.8% golden ale Dizzy Blonde, but it has never claimed to be an ordinary bitter and indeed often sells at a premium to the stronger Unicorn.

It seems a sensible move to bring out a lower-strength ordinary bitter that will also allow Robinsons to be more price-competitive in many of their urban pubs. And initial reports are that it has been selling very well.


Scotched

The European courts have predictably dealt a severe blow to the SNP’s minimum pricing plans

SCOTTISH drinkers will have raised a glass last month at the news that the SNP government’s plan to introduce minimum alcohol pricing has been dealt a major blow by the European Court of Justice. In a preliminary ruling, the Advocate General stated that the proposals were clearly in violation of EU rules on competition and free trade. While there may be a public health justification for it, the same objectives could be achieved by other measures that were less discriminatory. It’s very rare for the main court to overrule such decisions and, while the idea isn’t completely dead, it has certainly been kicked into the long grass, as many commentators had predicted.

Some people have argued that minimum pricing might help pubs by reducing the price different­ial against the off-trade, but it wouldn’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs and off-trade drinks would still be much cheaper. CAMRA sensibly abandoned this policy a couple of years ago following a conference motion by two prominent Greater Manchester members arguing that it was basically putting the organisation on the wrong side of the debate.

Even if it did give pubs a slight boost, which is very doubtful anyway, it would be extremely short-sighted for one section of the drinks trade to seek a temporary advantage from what is essentially an anti-drink measure. In the words of Winston Churchill, “an appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”