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.

November 2016

Which Side Are You On?

Many people who claim to stand up for pubs and beer are more puritan than libertarian

THE GREAT American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once observed that “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” Sadly, in the past couple of decades, the first tendency very much seems to have got the upper hand, especially in the area of seeking to influence what people put in their bodies, in terms of tobacco, alcohol and food. The concept of self-ownership which was fundamental to the values of the Enlightenment has been forced to take a back seat.

It’s difficult to fathom the motivation for all of this. The idea that we need a healthy, efficient population to fulfil some kind of national destiny has disturbingly totalitarian overtones. And the argument that unhealthy lifestyles place a greater burden on state-funded health services does not stand up to analysis. While it is possible to point to individual horror stories, on average it is the clean-living people who survive into extreme old age who end up costing more. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that ultimately it stems from a simple desire to tell others how to run their lives and impose your values on them.

The controlling tendency have also been able to forge an unholy alliance with those promoting quality in food and drink. The root of the two ideas is different, but it is all too easy for advocacy of good food to slip into support for measures to deter people eating what you perceive as poor food. Thus we have supporters of “good food” hanging on Jamie Oliver’s every word, tut-tutting at the idea that McDonalds and Burger King might be considered valuable additions to the High Street, and seeking to lock children in school at lunchtime to stop them going to the chippy. It also has to be said that there is a strong element of patronising snobbery in all of this, the belief that the thick plebs can’t be trusted to look after themselves and therefore have to be told what to do by their betters.

Much the same happens in the field of drink, where those who celebrate fine wines, malt whiskies and craft ales find it all too easy to look down their noses at the hoi polloi lugging slabs of Carling home from ASDA. We are discerning connoisseurs, they are irresponsible binge-drinkers. And the health argument, which may have some limited validity in the area of food, does not apply here – a pint of Carling will be no worse for you than the equivalent amount of alcohol in a Barrel Aged Imperial Triple IPA.

This may help explain why many beer enthusiasts seem strangely reluctant to acknowledge the threat from the anti-drink lobby, and indeed in some cases may imagine that some kind of accommodation can be made with them to promote quality and responsibility. Despite more than one Conference motion, you will still see very little of this kind in CAMRA public­ations. Many activists, in their hearts, identify more with those pointing out the evils of drink – so long as it’s not real ale – than with Diageo and Molson Coors.

Of course, at the end of the day, this is a dangerous delusion. When push comes to shove, the anti-drink lobby have no interest in separating out the good and bad drinkers. It’s all just booze to them. And it has to be recognised that, in recent years, the increasing denormal­isation of moderate drinking and the negative image attached to alcohol have been amongst the main factors contributing to the decline of the pub trade. It’s no good standing up for pubs if at the same time you’re happy to stigmatise most of their customers.

October 2016

Cash is King

The pub trade remains one of the prime strongholds of the cash economy

THE DEATH of cash has often been foretold, but it still seems a long way off happening. This is something that is also true of print publications, such as the one you are reading now. The digital age may encroach on the territory of its analogue predecessors, but in most spheres it seems incapable of dealing the final blow.

We are constantly being urged to use credit and debit cards and abandon cash. This is especially true since the introduction of contactless cards, which undoubtedly make a big difference in ease of use, and have led to a surge in the number of card transactions.

However, cash is still proving very resilient, and one of its prime strongholds remains the pub trade. Yes, people may be flashing cards more to pay for meals and rounds of drinks in trendy bars and gastropubs, but in your average local you would still be looked on askance if you proffered a card to pay for a couple of pints, even if they offered the facility, which most don’t.

Using a contactless card rather than cash also exposes you to the risk of unwise spending on a night out where your judgment might be impaired by a few pints. If you want to control your spending, stick to cash. If you depend entirely on cards, you’re also left at the mercy of bank computers, which can all too easily fail, as several recent incidents have shown. Most of the extensive grey and black economy runs on cash, which isn’t going to disappear overnight. The same is true of most ordinary local pubs, and CAMRA beer festivals. Cash isn’t going anywhere any day soon.

Ring My Bell

If there are no staff at the bar, customers need to be able to summon them

THE ONGOING decline of the pub trade inevitably leads to staffing reductions, so very often one person is left to look after a serving area which can’t all be seen from one vantage point. And, even if there is just a single bar counter, there are reasons such as toilet breaks and popping into the kitchen that mean the sole server is absent.

In these situations, it’s all too easy for staff to be distracted and fail to check regularly whether there are any customers waiting. I can think of several occasions in well-regarded local pubs, including Good Beer Guide entries, where I’ve walked in, only to find nobody behind the bar, and no means of summoning them. Less patient people might well have walked out and gone elsewhere, and I have done that myself on one or two occasions in the past. It shouldn’t be too difficult, though, even if staff are hard-pressed, to say “I’ll be with you in a minute”, which will swiftly defuse a lot of frustration.

It’s tempting to argue that it makes sense to bring back the service bell, a staple of the old two-bar pubs, but rarely seen nowadays. At least that way you might stand a chance of actually getting served. However, in British culture that often comes across as a touch aggressive and peremptory, like sounding a car horn.

To get over this problem, a correspondent suggested it would be a good idea to attach a squeaky rubber duck to the bar. That would certainly defuse any confrontational element, but inevitably might be abused by some mischievous customers.

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.