Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Home James!

There’s a growing amount of interest in the development of driverless cars. The wider subject is really beyond the remit of this blog, 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 seem unsure as to how they will eventually come to be used, and there’s a distinct possibility that they will stand many existing certainties of transport policy on their head.

Looking at it 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 a night’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 transfixed by cat videos on Youtube? And surely one of the major benefits of driverless cars would be to enhance mobility for people such as the 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”.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hiding your light under a bushel

Boak & Bailey recently posted a picture on Twitter of a sign outside the Dock Inn in Penzance listing the beers that are on offer. This struck both them and me as a good idea, especially for pubs that don’t offer a constantly varying range of guest beers where you know you’ll be taking pot luck, but those where a particular beer might tempt you in off the street. In that case, I’d certainly fancy trying the Spingo.

This reminds me of an Opening Times column I wrote back in 2002 which remains just as true today:

Walking around a popular tourist town, I was struck by the way many pubs sell themselves short in trying to attract customers. They may have looked welcoming enough, but there was nothing at all to indicate what kind of food and drink they sold.

In the past, when most pubs belonged to specific breweries, their ownership gave them a clear identity. Not only did you know what beer was on offer inside, but you also had a good idea about what kind of pub to expect, as most brewers had a distinctive house style that ran through their estates. Now that so many are in the hands of faceless pub companies, there’s nothing outside to tell one from another. While it would be a waste of time to display “Punch Taverns” or “Enterprise Inns”, a listing of the major beer brands on offer would surely be extremely useful.

Pubs also fall down in failing to display menus outside, particularly when there is plenty of passing trade on foot. Many people don’t appreciate the wide range of good value food on offer in pubs, and seeing a particular dish on a menu may make the difference between crossing the threshold and going elsewhere. When traditional pubs face such strong competition from branded bar and restaurant chains, they really should not be hiding their light under a bushel.

Fifteen years later, it is still a puzzle as to why pubs are so coy about what is on offer inside. It’s another example of them seeming to imagine that they are exempt from the normal principles that apply to every other type of retail business – the failure to display opening hours being another. I was actually under the impression that restaurants were obliged to display menus outside, but presumably pubs don’t think that applies to them. It can often take only a very small cue to trigger the decision between going in and walking by.

It’s also interesting to reflect on the point I made in the top item.

Obviously no official publicity campaign extolling the virtues of the swift half, or saying “the world’s a better place after a couple of pints”, is likely to be forthcoming. All we can look for is that social changes will over time reduce the attractiveness of heavy drinking to the young, as the talkies did in the 1930s, and rock’n’roll and coffee bars in the 1950s, and hope that process will not drag down many traditional pubs in its wake.
It’s certainly true that social changes have led to a dramatic fall-off in drinking, both heavy and light, amongst the young, which was hard to foresee back then. But, sadly, it hasn’t resulted in a renewed vogue for the “swift half”.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Community challenge

Congratulations to the George & Dragon at Hudswell in North Yorkshire on being chosen as CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year for 2017. A significant point about this pub is that it was saved from closure a few years ago through being bought by the local community. As commercial operators continue to shed what they view as “marginal” pubs, this is a model of ownership that is going to become ever more common in the future.

However, no community group should assume that their troubles are over once they have bought their pub – indeed, the challenge is only just beginning. Obviously a community pub doesn’t have to pay rent or interest charges, so may not need to make the same margin as a commercial operation, but will still need to be run as a profitable business. The owners are unlikely to want to stump up more money every year to subsidise losses.

There’s always the risk of ending up with a “horse designed by a committee” if the owners are allowed too much say in the details of day-to-day operations. There may be a conflict of interest between those who want to turn it into some kind of community centre, as opposed to a more conventional pub operation. There could, for example, be a difference of opinion about the admission of children.

Does the community group actually want to run the pub business on their own account, or let it out to a tenant? And should the pub be run on a low-key basis as a “local pub for local people”, maybe with limited hours, or should it be more ambitious and do more to attract trade from other areas, which carries more potential reward, but also more risk? The licensee at the George & Dragon is described as “manager” – does that mean he is a salaried employee?

And, the most thorny question of all, what is going to happen if community owners reluctantly conclude that, at the end of the day, there is no way that their pub can be made viable? This is inevitably going to happen somewhere, at some time, and there could be heated debate about who stands to benefit.

This is not to say that most community-owned pubs don’t have a promising future, but nobody should delude themselves that everything will be plain sailing.

Incidentally, it’s good to see that, despite being in a small village, the George & Dragon manages to open at lunchtimes seven days a week.

I will declare an interest here, as I have a small stake in Ye Olde Vic in Stockport, which is owned by a community group. However, the situation here is untypical, as the problem was that the previous owner wished to dispose of the freehold. The pub continues in business with the same tenant and the same business model as before. I don’t, to be honest, expect any return on my contribution, but it does raise the issue of whether my heirs will inherit my stake. And, if it was CPO’d by the local council, would I stand to benefit?

Friday, 10 March 2017

Back on the escalator

In one of his budgets, maybe in 2012 or 2013, 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.

This week, 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 not be named, 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%.

This means that the main rate of beer duty has increased from £18.37 per hectolitre per % of alcohol to £19.08, a rise of 3.86%. A pint of 4% beer will now incur duty plus VAT on duty of 52p, a rise of 2p over the previous level. Inevitably, once pubs have applied standard mark-ups, this will translate into 5p at the bar, and often 10p given the way many prices are now rounded up.

It’s easy to dismiss such rises are 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 for them. Although obviously it wasn’t 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.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Pointless petitions

Nowadays, you can hardly log on to Facebook or Twitter without being asked to sign a petition in favour of something or other, whether on the Government website or sites such as change.org. Although this may give the impression that you’re doing something to change the world, in reality more often than not it is just a substitute for action that achieves nothing beyond producing a mild feeling of warmth.

Many of these petitions involve protests against the closure of pubs. To pick an example at random, here’s one about the closure and potential revelopment of the Crown Hotel at Worthington near Wigan, a former runner-up in CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year award. WhatPub suggests that the pub remains closed, but hasn’t so far been demolished.

But, to stand any chance of success, a petition must be addressed to a specific body, not just be a generalised howl of despair, and must be realistically achievable. If a pub operator has concluded that a pub is no longer profitable, are they really going to be convinced by two hundred names of people who hardly went in there anyway? And, while a council can refuse planning permission for conversion or redevelopment, they run the risk of ending up with an empty, mouldering building on their hands.

It still doesn’t seem to be properly appreciated that, over the past couple of decades, the demand for pubs as drinking places has collapsed, so it is not exactly surprising that so many have struggled and shut their doors. According to the website of the British Beer & Pub Association:

Beer sold in the on-trade in the UK (million barrels):

12 months to December 1997: 26.2
12 months to December 2007: 18.7
12 months to December 2016: 12.9

So, over 19 years, beer volumes have more than halved. They fell by 29% over the first ten years, then by 31% over the next nine. Looking at those figures, what is perhaps surprising is not that we’ve lost so many pubs, but that we’ve lost so few. Sadly, all too often, petitions against pub closures are nothing more than an exercise in railing against fate.

If communities want to preserve something that approximates to a traditional pub, they are increasingly going to have to stump up themselves rather than expecting a commercial operator to do it for them. It is significant that this year’s CAMRA National Pub of Year, the George & Dragon at Hudswell in North Yorkshire, is a community-owned pub. That’s something that’s going to become more and more common in the years to come.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Fin de siècle

Jeffrey Bell wrote recently about how the brewing industry was in the grip of craft paranoia:
Almost everyone's worried they're going to become irrelevant - even those breweries that are currently doing well. This leads to lots of bizarre behaviour, such as rubbish rebrands and ill-conceived new product launches.
And I was struck by a number of recent news reports:

Gypsy brewery Beatnikz Republic is moving up from London to open its first permanent microbrewery and taproom in the Green Quarter

The Wild Beer Co is looking to raise £1.5m via crowdfunding to develop a new brewery space

Heineken is launching two beers under the Maltsmiths Brewing brand to tap into the growing trend for canned craft beers (in 330 ml cans, of course).

While coming up with these five principles of serving craft beer:

Not to mention Hydes Brewery converting a traditional local pub into a self-consciously stylised craft beer bar.

And the limits of bizarre innovation seem to have finally been reached.

I certainly get the impression that the whole craft beer phenomenon has been embraced by corporate interests desperate to climb on board the bandwagon before it leaves town, and is on the point of running out of steam. As Danny in Withnail and I says, “They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.”

The 1960s counterculture certainly left an indelible mark on society, but by the early 70s, the impetus and passion of the 1966-69 period had largely evaporated, even at the same time as the most mundane products were being labelled with psychedelic lettering. So it is likely to be with craft beer.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Posing a problem

In my recent write-up of the James Watts in Cheadle, I complained about how high-level “posing tables” accounted for more than half of the seating in the pub. This ia 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.

Around 1990, 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 effective 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. Significantly, I’ve never yet seen a posing table in a Sam Smith’s pub.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Summit of ambition

I’ve praised Hawkshead Brewery several times on here, both for brewing some excellent beers and for successfully straddling the divide between the craft beer movement and traditional real ale. Indeed, this month’s Opening Times column sings their praises as a brewery that has developed sufficient reputation that people will order their beers off the bar on name alone.

I was rather taken aback by the news that Hawkshead had agreed to sell a majority stake in the business to Halewood Wines and Spirits, which seemed to come completely out of the blue and, on the face of it, appeared an unlikely suitor. However, looking at it in a wider context, it’s not hard to understand the reasons behind the move.

The craft beer movement is often viewed as “sticking it to the man” and representing a revolt against big business and corporate interests. Thus there is often a sense of disappointment, sometimes verging on betrayal, whenever any independent brewer sells out to a larger firm. However, as I wrote here, at the end of the day, every business start-up needs an exit strategy, and very few can realistically hope to reach the broad sunlit uplands of being a large, well-financed, independent business.

Hawkshead founder Alex Brodie will celebrate his 67th birthday this year, so it’s entirely reasonable that he should seek to realise some return from the business. He’s done a great job both in brewing distinctive, high-quality beers and in growing the company, so I say good luck to him. There’s a good article about what makes him tick here.

Halewood, owners of Lambrini and Crabbie’s Ginger Wine, may not seem at first sight a good fit for a company such as Hawkshead. However, as they’re not already involved in brewing in the UK, there would seem to be a better chance that Hawkshead will maintain its distinctiveness, as compared with being taken over by one of the existing international brewers. It could be seen as comparable to the Restaurant Group, owners of Frankie & Benny’s and Garnfunkel’s, taking over gastropub operator Brunning & Price. So far that has led to a significant expansion of the estate and no obvious dilution of the brand values, so let’s hope the same proves to be true of Hawkshead. Just don’t decide like Thornbridge to put all your mainstream beers in those daft little 330 ml “craft” bottles!

One thing is for certain, though – the idea that distinctive, high-quality beer can only be produced by rugged individualists ploughing their own furrow becomes less and less true as time goes by, if it ever was in the first place.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Selling hippy wigs in Woolworth’s

Hydes Brewery have recently carried out a major refurbishment of one of their pubs, the Old Star on Cheadle High Street (the Cheshire one, not the Staffordshire one) and renamed it the James Watts. “Who?” you may well ask. Well, it’s not the steam engine pioneer, and it’s not the outspoken founder of BrewDog. No, it’s named after a local worthy who was Mayor of Manchester from 1855 to 1857.

And, according to the sign on the front, he was also a “Master of Craft”. Yes, that’s right, Hydes have decided to revamp an old-fashioned local as a trendy craft beer bar. Changing a long-established and familiar pub name always strikes me as a bit of a desperate attempt to appear “with it”. In the real ale boom of around 1990, I recall Whitbread rebranding some of their pubs as “Tut’n’Shive” alehouses, including the long-closed Chapel House in Heaton Chapel which couldn’t even prosper as a Tesco Express. That came across as an exercise in bandwagon-jumping at the tail end of a trend, and is this really any different?

I wasn’t taking detailed notes, but there were maybe six handpumps featuring a range of different beers, but, significantly, nothing whatsoever from the Hydes range, not even their Beer Studio “craft” range. The two I spotted were Ilkley Mary Jane (which I’d seen in Wetherspoons the other day) and a beer from Three Bs Brewery of Blackburn that I think was called Bee’s Knees. The latter, at £3.10, was a pleasant but unremarkable pale bitter. There were eight keg taps including Kozel and Jaipur. I didn’t spot any mainstream lagers, but there was a “Vier” variant of one of the well-known German brands which I suppose would have to satisfy the cooking lager enthusiast. On each table was a beer menu listing an exhaustive selection of bottled beers.

It’s years since I’d last been in the Old Star, so I’m not entirely sure what it was like before, but it can be said with total certainly that Hydes have made the interior far worse. It is dominated by barrels being used as posing tables, with a long row opposite the bar and some more in what was once the vault at the front right. There’s just a small oasis of bench seating for older customers at the front right, plus a few loose tables right at the back. There was a group who presumably were survivors from the old pub who were saying “Well, I suppose if you try all the beers, you might find one you like”. It was also, on my visit, extremely dimly lit.

No doubt the neophytes and Year Zero enthusiasts will be creaming their pants over it, but to my mind it offers a profoundly uncongenial pub environment where I wouldn’t want to linger any longer than I had to. It’s also puzzling why Hydes feel so ashamed of their own beers that they dare not show their face. If you want a decent pint in comfortable surroundings in Cheadle, you would be much better advised to choose Hydes’ other pub, the Crown, even though it is a shop conversion from a few decades ago. And it seems that some of the locals aren’t too impressed, as the pub has already been the subject of a machete attack. Hopefully not from a disillusioned Carling drinker.

At the same time, Punch Taverns have recently refurbished the Dog & Partridge in Heaton Mersey. It’s a big improvement, with plenty of comfortable seating, even including some benches, and relatively little at posing height. The décor makes extensive use of wood, etched glass and warm colours. They’ve also reintroduced cask beer, but as it’s only Doom Bar, Abbot and Dizzy Blonde, there’s nothing for the beards to get excited about. But I know which pub I think provides the nicer drinking environment.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

A rare accolade

Wow, apparently I’ve been awarded the title of The Worst Person on Beer Twitter. I’m so flattered my head will scarcely fit through the door.

Maybe I should commission a special badge – a pubcat devouring a twild human infant, flanked by foaming pints of Boring Brown Bitter, and surmounted by crossed cigarettes.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I have a dream

Boak & Bailey recently asked on Twitter if people had had any daydreams about setting up and running a pub that, presumably, fitted in with their own particular vision and ideals. Now, I’ve gone on record in the past about listing the features of my ideal pub, and if I was serious about doing it, it probably wouldn’t be too far away from that, although obviously one particular element would now be illegal. I also said that “I suspect you'd find you did all these worthy things and no bugger would turn up!” But sometimes, maybe when in a more mischievous mood, a rather different vision flickers through my brain. Let’s say I had a multi-million Lottery win (which I won’t, as I don’t do the Lottery). I’d buy a well-known, high-end gastro dining pub in a rural, village or small town location. I’d then close off much of the interior to reduce it to three smallish rooms – a main bar, a darts room and a cosy snug or parlour. These I would have done up in a pastiche of a late Victorian National Inventory pub, with ample bench seating and plenty of dark wood and etched glass, but no bar stools. It would be strictly over-18s only.

There would be no food, apart from crisps and nuts. Likewise, there would be no piped music, although I’d have a telly that was reserved for sporting events on free-to-air TV, especially the racing. The likely level of trade wouldn’t sustain many beers, so I’d probably just have Carling and one cask bitter, something like Thwaites Original or Weetwood Best. Draught Bass would be tempting, although probably that bit too strong. If there wasn’t enough turnover, it would have to go keg. Cider and Guinness drinkers would have to put up with cans or bottles.

Outdoor signage would be limited to a plain name-board and a sign displaying the hours. If the name had been changed to something trendy and pretentious, it would revert back to the original Railway or Red Lion. It would stick to the traditional opening hours of 11-3 and 5.30-11 Monday to Saturday, and 12-3 and 7-10.30 on Sundays. The exterior would have a general appearance of benign neglect. The whole intention would be to create somewhere that people would chance on and think “Wow, I didn’t know places like this still existed”.

As it wouldn’t, realistically, be a commercial venture, I’d have to employ a manager rather than a tenant. The job wouldn’t be a particularly onerous one, so it could be taken on by someone semi-retired who was looking to write their Great Novel. They would have to look after a pub cat, though, and keep a coal fire burning in the winter.

It might prove to be surprisingly popular, as I think there’s some life in the old-fashioned drink-and-chat pub still. On the other hand, possibly it would have absolutely zero customers. But I wouldn’t care.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Love of a lifetime

In my last post about Robinson’s reminiscences, I speculated that Robinson’s Unicorn, formerly Best Bitter, was possibly the beer I’d drunk most of in my lifetime. There’s no way I can know for certain, but the contenders are fairly limited.

Until the age of about 25, it was undoubtedly Greenall’s “Local” Bitter. I grew up in Greenall Whitley Land and, even when away at university, this was the beer I drank most often when home for weekends and holidays. Although widely derided, it was, when well kept, a good pint.

However, at the age of 25, I moved to the Stockport area, where I have now permanently settled. Robinson’s were the dominant pub owners and, as a bitter drinker, Unicorn was usually my beer of choice. Over the years, I’ve drunk shedloads of the stuff, both at CAMRA events and on my private pub visits. On the other hand, when it’s available, I now tend to prefer Wizard in Robbies’ pubs.

But there’s another contender – Hydes Original. My local pub for thirty-odd years has been a Hydes pub, and I’ve certainly got through loads of it in there. At one time it was my regular Sunday lunchtime haunt. In general pubgoing, Robinsons certainly beat Hydes, but my local may have swung the balance. I rarely venture in there any more, though, as it’s impossible to avoid one or other of TV football and reserved dining tables. If neither of those figured, I could probably tolerate the piped music.

And, coming up on the rails, there’s a challenger from the broad acres of Yorkshire in the form of Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter. In terms of lifetime achievement, it’s still well down the pecking order, but I’d say over the past few years I’ve certainly had more of that than any other beer. If I maintain similar drinking habits over the next decade, it will probably take the prize.

So how about you? Or does your drinking life consist of drinking so many one-offs that it’s impossible to contemplate which may have been the most frequent?

Saturday, 18 February 2017

More Robinson’s reminiscences

There were obviously some things I left out from my recent blogpost about Robinson’s Brewery, otherwise it would have fallen into the category of TL;DR. Some would have amplified my points, while others were entirely tangential. So here are a few more memories and thoughts on the subject.

  • In my university holiday drinking days, we were based in Greenall Whitley Land, but a cluster of Robinson’s pubs in mid-Cheshire were just within reach, most notably the Rising Sun in Tarporley. A trip to one of these was always considered a bit of a treat.

  • In the mid-80s, the core of Robbies’ beer range was Best Mild and Best Bitter, which were available in virtually all their pubs. Plus there was the famous Old Tom, sold in selected pubs during the winter months. But there was also the “ordinary” bitter, basically a weaker version of Best, which was only in about 20 pubs (including the Queen’s in Cheadle), and a version of Best Mild darkened with caramel, which was in even fewer, at one time down to two. This underlines the rather quirky and idiosyncratic way in which the company was run. Ordinary Bitter was later relaunched as Old Stockport, with little more success, and it is only recently that Robbies have produced a proper standard bitter in the form of Wizard, which is an entirely different beer from Unicorn.

  • The company remained a bastion of old-fashioned family brewer management practices, with the three directors always referred to as Mr Peter, Mr Dennis and Mr David, and having car park spaces at the brewery labelled as such. It was their practice, as recorded in the brewery history, to open all the post, and you would get a personal reply from Mr Peter to even the most trivial query. Apparently Peter Robinson always used to order “Best Mild” long after it had been renamed Hatters, and even 1892. I’m not sure whether the staff now speak of Mr William and Mr Oliver.

  • During the 1990s, the brewery introduced a cellar competition, which had the effect of dramatically driving up standards of cellarmanship across their estate. In the bad old days, there were always some pubs where the beer quality was, to be charitable, highly variable, especially if you chose to drink anything but Unicorn, but that has long become a thing of the past.

  • In the period between the era of “Robinsonisation” and the current “Farrow & Ball” phase, they did actually carry out a number of sensitive and well-judged refurbishments. Some examples that spring to mind are the Railway at Rose Hill, Marple, the Armoury in Edgeley and the Red Bull on Hillgate.

  • Over the years, while they developed some flagship pubs, much of the estate, both rural and urban, consisted of what might be called “the ordinary Robbies’ local”. It might serve a bit of food, but had a strong core of regular customers, and very often a strong character as landlord. The interior often fell into the category of “opened out a little, but retains distinct areas”. A couple of good examples were the Waterloo just off Hillgate in Stockport, and the Traveller’s Call at Lane Ends on the road from Marple Bridge to Glossop. Both are now closed, and sadly the typical local boozer doesn’t seem to have much of a place in Robbies’ current thinking.

  • In the mid-2000s, Robinson’s installed an entirely new set of German-built brewing kit within their existing buildings, which represented a substantial investment in the future. Some people observed that it was a good way of dressing up halving their maximum brewing capacity, but apparently it still didn’t have the flexibility to brew sufficiently small batches of mild. Maybe they also need to set up a small pilot plant, as some of their competitors have done.

  • Dizzy Blonde is an excellent example of the modern “blonde ale” trend – hoppy enough to avoid blandness, but not so much that it frightens the horses. It’s very popular in the free trade, and on my recent pub tour of central Manchester it was in two of six non-Robbies pubs. I’ve heard talk that it now actually outsells Unicorn.

  • People often say of the latest seasonal “it just tastes like another Robbies’ beer”. Maybe it does, but every brewery has a house character, and to me that’s a good thing. Their beers are often dismissed as typical bland family brewer fare, but to my palate they’re very good indeed, with great depth and complexity. I don’t know for sure, but I reckon that over the years I’ve probably drunk more of Robinson’s Unicorn than any other beer. A few years ago, I often made a point of buying bottled Wychwood Goliath precisely because it was at that time contract-brewed by Robinson’s and had their distinctive flavour stamp.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Local antihero

When I first moved into this area in 1985, I was struck by how dominant Robinson’s brewery were in and around Stockport. In the town itself they owned not far short of half the pubs, and in some suburban centres such as Hazel Grove and Marple they enjoyed a near-monopoly. Indeed, after two Wilson’s pubs closed down, they owned all six pubs in the centre of Marple. They also had concentrations of pubs in places further afield such as Sandbach in south Cheshire and large swathes of Tameside. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) their strong local position, they were never regarded with the same affection as many other independent brewers, notably Boddingtons in the 1970s.

They served real ale in virtually all their pubs, and I always thought their leading product, Best Bitter (now Unicorn) was a fine beer, but it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. There are still CAMRA members around who will say “I just don’t like Robinson’s beer”. There was also the problem of selling a 4.2% best bitter as an ordinary, which led to complaints that it gave you a bad head. And, in the 1980s, they didn’t seem to take much interest in how well their tenants kept their beer so, while many were very conscientious, in some pubs it could be highly variable.

There were also dramatic contrasts in their pub estate. In the 1960s and 70s they seemed to have had an enthusiasm for drastic and self-consciously modern interior refurbishments, featuring white artexed walls, “Spanish arches”, low-level lounge-style chairs and fake bottle-glass window panes, which became known as “Robinsonisation” and gained them a bad name for pub vandalism. By the mid-80s these schemes had become dated and came across as very unappealing. At the same time, their budget for general repairs and maintenance of their estate seemed to be limited, which did result in the preservation of a number of historic interiors, but sadly left many pubs looking just run-down and tatty.

In the 1970s, they built a large new packaging plant on an industrial estate at Bredbury, and apparently at one time there were plans, never realised, to move brewing operations there too away from the cramped town-centre site. This seemed to speak of expectations never quite fulfilled, and I get the impression that Sir John Robinson, who died in 1978 at the age of 82, was a very dominant and ambitious character whose determination was not matched by his three sons, Peter, Dennis and David.

The company certainly didn’t rest on its laurels, most notably with the acquisition of Hartley’s Brewery of Ulverston and its Lake District tied estate in 1982. There was a continued trickle of new pub acquisitions, including some from the big pub companies in the 2000s, although Lees now seem to be more active in that field. The beer range was rebranded, with Best Mild becoming Hatters and Best Bitter Unicorn, and new beers such as Frederics and Dizzy Blonde introduced, as well as seasonal guest beers. But there was always the impression that they were a conservatively-run company who tended to be behind the curve, not leading it.

However, in recent years the next generation has come to the fore, with the leading lights now being William, son of Dennis, and Oliver, son of David. Across a number of fronts they have taken drastic action to deal with the radically changed environment in which brewers now operate. One of the most high-profile was the decision two years ago to axe 1892, formerly Hatters Mild, which only forty years ago had still been the brewery’s best-selling beer. The ostensible reason was that declining volumes meant that the brewery was unable to produce sufficiently small batches. Yet this came across more as an excuse, given that Holts, Hydes and Lees still continue to produce presumably even smaller quantities of cask mild, and Robinson’s themselves brew a keg smooth mild which could surely have been used as the base of a cask product. It was more a case of sending a message that Robinson’s were a forward-looking company who wanted to put the past behind them.

To be fair, they did at the same time introduce an excellent new classic “ordinary bitter”, Wizard, which I’d say has now become my favourite Robinson’s beer. They have also enjoyed great success with the Iron Maiden-themed beer Trooper, which has been exported in bottled form all around the world. Yet, despite this, apparently the current level of production at their impressive tower brewery is a mere 30,000 barrels a year, or less than two barrels a week for each pub they own. The official History of Robinson’s Brewery book does not give any production figures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at times in the past it has exceeded 100,000 barrels.

They have also carried out a drastic cull of under-performing pubs. The book records that, at the time of the acquisition of Hartley’s in 1982, the combined company owned 416 pubs, but it has now dropped to well below 300, with both urban locals and the smaller rural pubs falling under the axe. Locally in Stockport, well-loved favourites such as the Grapes, Waterloo and Tiviot have been lost. While this is just part of the overall trend that has led to the loss of thousands of pubs across the country, Robinson’s do seem to have been more thoroughgoing than most, and several pubs have gone that I would have thought bankers for long-term success. To their credit, they haven’t imposed restrictive covenants on any of their disposals, and a few have been brought back to life by new owners, but the majority haven’t. And there are quite a few Robinson’s pubs still open that I struggle to see enjoying a long-term future.

Part of the problem with the viability of their pubs seems to be that they seem unable, or unwilling, to provide a financial support package to their urban tenants to enable them to be price competitive. Robinson’s have never been known for being particularly cheap, but when their main competitors were Wilson’s and other members of the Big Six, this didn’t really matter. However, now they’re up against Wetherspoon’s, Sam Smith’s, Holts, independent free houses and some pub company pubs that do have seven-day low prices, they’re left very exposed. Even if both pub and beer are much better, if you’re on a budget it takes some commitment to choose to pay £2.90 in the Robbies’ pub rather than £2 for John Smith’s in the Punch house down the road.

With investment funds available, a growing number of the pubs that remain have been subjected to drastic and often highly insensitive refurbishments, with “removing obstructing internal walls” being a common element. The wholesale removal of comfortable bench seating, replacing soft carpets with hard wooden floors, and making extensive use of cold, unpubby pastel colour schemes, are typical features. One of the worst was the Bull’s Head in Halebarns, which their website describes as “a pub full of theatre and intrigue”, but I’d say is more a monument to impracticality and pretension. And their vandalism of the untouched, National Inventory-listed Holly Bush in Bollington was completely unforgiveable. Fortunately there are still some classic unspoilt pubs in their estate such as the Armoury, Blossoms and Arden Arms, in Stockport, but their numbers are steadily dwindling.

I was distinctly unimpressed by the comments of William Robinson about the smoking ban that “The pub trade has evolved to become much stronger and more inclusive”. Given that the level of beer sales has fallen off a cliff, that comes across as an exercise in self-delusion on a par with Spinal Tap claiming that their appeal had become “more exclusive”. Working-class beer drinkers were once the bedrock of their pubs, but apparently they no longer matter. Sir John must have been turning in his grave.

Obviously Robinson’s is a commercial company, and its directors must take the actions they see best to secure its future prosperity, which may need to include grasping nettles and slaughtering sacred cows. But, by their policies in recent years, I’m afraid the current generation have forfeited a lot of goodwill.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Sloping pitch

The British system of alcohol duty is a confusing dog’s dinner. There are four completely different tax regimes for beer, cider, wine and spirits, and arguably a fifth for that bizarre taxman’s invention “made wine”. Beer and spirits are taxed by alcohol content, but cider and wine are taxed at a flat rate. The same amount of alcohol in different drinks can attract a widely varying level of duty.

Surely the time has come, as Christopher Snowdon argues, to sweep all this away, and introduce a single, flat-rate, across-the-board level of duty per unit of alcohol. On the face of it, this sounds like a very sensible and attractive idea. However, there is a significant drawback. In practice, it would end up discriminating in favour of producers of stronger drinks, especially spirits, because they are cheaper to distribute and store and, at least at the bottom end of the market, cheaper to produce than beer and wine.

“Well, you would say that, Mudgie, because you’re overwhelmingly a beer drinker.” Of course, but I’d say that a fair system would be one that, broadly speaking, ensured a relatively level unit price to the drinker at the point of sale for mainstream products. And, while there are perils in the excessive consumption of all kinds of alcoholic drinks, you can do yourself serious harm more swiftly and easily drinking spirits than beer or wine. A tax regime loaded in favour of spirits would not be a good idea. It could also be argued that brewing and winemaking provide much more employment and general economic stimulation than distilling.

Yes, there is a strong case for making alcohol duties simpler and more consistent. But there are good public policy reasons for stronger drinks bearing a heavier rate of duty per unit. Remember Hogarth’s comparison of Gin Lane and Beer Street?