Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Limited appeal

The Good Beer Guide is including ever more unconventional outlets such as brewery taps and micropubs that fall well outside the general understanding of a “pub”. Some of them are open for quite startlingly limited hours. Two that have already been visited by Martin Taylor on his GBG-ticking quest are the Rock & Roll Brewhouse in Hockley, Birmingham, and the Well in Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire (shown), both of which are open for the grand total of ten hours a week. In fact, since the 2018 edition was published, the former has already changed its name from the Rock & Roll Tap House and reduced its hours from thirteen to ten.

It may well be the case that these are absolutely essential beer destinations that any enthusiast would be a fool to miss, but it has to be questioned exactly how much value they bring to the users of the guide. Its prime purpose is, at the end of the day, as a service to its readers, not as an award scheme to licensees, and you have to consider what people are actually looking for in it. As I said in this blogpost:

Many people use the GBG as a kind of woolly-jumpered version of the Good Pub Guide, and the food-serving pubs in the National Parks and other heavily touristed areas are likely to gain the most benefit. Likewise pubs in the centres of tourist-friendly towns like York and Stratford that don’t tend to be so well represented in the GPG.
I’m a regular buyer of the Guide, and the main purpose for which I use it is to find interesting pubs to visit when I’m away on holiday or out on day trips. One of the key things I’m looking for is pubs to have lunch when out and about. It can be very valuable in taking me to pubs that I wouldn’t otherwise have found. For example, nobody would ever come across the Crown at Churchill in Somerset by chance, but it’s a very worthwhile pub if you do find it. And, last month, it led me to the Anchor in Sevenoaks, Kent, which is a splendid little basic boozer that did me a perfectly serviceable Ploughman’s for just a fiver. Yes, as it’s on a main street, I might have chanced upon it anyway, but the GBG took me straight there.

I will look with interest at the more local entries, and sometimes they might prompt me to revisit a pub I had previously discounted, or to go somewhere that has appeared out of nowhere, but they are generally of less use to me – I already know which are the better pubs in my own area. But a pub that is only open for limited and inconvenient hours, serves no food and has no historic interest is unlikely to tempt me.

CAMRA have produced an internal document reviewing selection policy for the guide, which makes some important points:

  • Users first - not the preferences/politics of CAMRA individuals/branches
  • The range of pubs chosen for the guide has to appeal to a broad spectrum of pub goers, the majority of whom want to visit pubs with not only good beer but a good atmosphere, a warm welcome, good food, family facilities, clean toilets and comfortable surroundings.
  • Beer quality remains the cornerstone of the guide but it cannot be the only consideration in the modern and intensely competitive “leisure industry”.
Clearly, achieving a good standard of beer quality must be the starting point, but beyond that other factors also need to be taken into account. The guide should list the pubs that, if you were welcoming visitors to your area, you would say “You really need to visit the Dog & Duck”. A pub may well justify its entry in terms of being very special in one particular respect, and that’s certainly the case for some of the unspoilt heritage pubs. I certainly wouldn’t want, for example, to impose standards for minimum opening hours. But if the guide has too many entries that are very limited in terms of either their hours or their general offer, it reduces its usefulness to the people who are buying it.

CAMRA branches also should not be including pubs in the Guide as a reward for “showing commitment”. The sole criterion should be whether the entry is of benefit to the people who buy and read it, and there is no room for sentimentality or favouritism – as it says above, “Users first”. And, in my experience, if you argue that a pub should be included in recognition of making an effort, it’s generally a good sign that it shouldn’t be.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Love pubs, hate beer?

Beer writer Des de Moor has recently written a deliberately provocative article entitled Love beer hate pubs, in which he looks at the apparent contradiction between the unprecedented number of breweries and types of beer in the UK, and the seemingly inexorable contraction and retrenchment of the pub trade.

He is quite right to criticise the tendency in some quarters to make a shibboleth of pub drinking and treat at as in some way morally superior, and also to point out that the vision of pubs of the past as inclusive community spaces where everyone was welcome is often a case of seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles.

He has also invoked the ire of the fanatical anti-pubco campaigners by pointing out that social change has rendered many pubs unviable, and to try and keep every pub open is a pointless exercise in flogging dead horses.

As an aside, he says “evidence of the impact of the smoking ban either way is inconclusive”, which is an example of the denialism that still flourishes in some quarters when it’s obvious to anyone who knows much about pubs that the ban has absolutely ripped the guts out of the lower end of the pub trade.

However, the main reason for me mentioning it is that it goes against what I said in this blogpost that “At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer.” That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in beer, but it’s essentially a component of enjoying drinking in pubs. Yes, there may be all these oddly-flavoured and mega-strong beers around, but I’m not constantly haring after them to try them. I also like driving, but that doesn’t mean I’m slavering over the specifications of the latest Porsches and Ferraris.

I don’t regard every drinking occasion as a voyage of discovery and, while not averse to trying new beers, feel a touch dismayed if I walk into a pub and see nothing on the bar I recognise. As I said, “I don’t feel short-changed if I spend all evening drinking the same beer, or regularly go into pubs that offer nothing I haven’t had before.” It’s the pub that matters more than the beer. While I don’t want to drink bad beer, in the sense of being in poor condition, I’d be much happier with a pint of Doom Bar or keg OBB in a pub where I feel at home than the finest beer in the world in an atmosphere that I find uncongenial. I do drink to some extent at home, typically when settling down in front of the telly to watch Endeavour or a documentary about the First World War, but I’m no more seeking out the rare, weird stuff there than I am in the pub.

Basically, take away pubs, and you take away much of my interest in beer. And, to my eye, brewery taps, specialist craft bars and micropubs are a very poor substitute for proper pubs.

He’s also wrong to disparage the widespread affection for pubs and pub culture, even amongst people who don’t visit them very much. They are a unique and defining aspect of British, or perhaps rather specifically English, identity, and Hilaire Belloc wasn’t entirely wrong when he said:

When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves,
For you will have lost the last of England.
There may not be all that much you can do in terms of public policy to slow the decline (although that doesn’t mean there’s nothing), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a matter of regret.

And it must be said that some so-called “beer enthusiasts” come across as a bunch of snowflakes for whom pubs, in all their rumbustious, politically incorrect glory, can be a bit “triggering”.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Loafing around Leicester

Last month, Richard Coldwell of Beer Leeds suggested that he, Martin Taylor and I get together for a day out which we could all write up on our respective blogs and compare our different perspectives. We settled on Leicester as somewhere fairly equidistant from the three of us, that none of us knew particularly well, and which offered Martin the opportunity of a few new GBG ticks. We also invited CAMRA veteran and prolific letter-writer to What’s Brewing Paul Mudge (no relation) for whom it’s a fairly easy train trip from Stafford via Nuneaton. The date was set for Tuesday 17th October.

After a strange day of storms, yellow sky and hazy orange sun, it dawned bright and clear and markedly fresher, and I enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the Vale of Edale on the train ride between Stockport and Sheffield. One tweeter made a rather mischievous suggestion as to what the assembled company might look like:

We met at the Ale Wagon on Rutland Street, a rather plain-looking 1930s street-corner pub on the south-eastern fringe of the city centre near the station. It has a largely unspoilt interior, with a long room down the left-hand side featuring a mixture of parquet and tiled flooring, and a smaller snug to the right. Owned by Hoskins Brewery, it features several of their beers, amongst which HOB Bitter and IPA were both extremely good, and a number of guests. We chatted to an old boy who had a wealth of recollections about the city’s pubs from the 1950s and 60s.

Skirting the southern edge of the city centre brought us to the Bowling Green on Oxford Street, an outwardly small 18th century pub incongruously situated between much taller modern buildings. Inside it’s surprisingly spacious and goes a long way back towards the rear. Posing tables predominated in an interior that seemed to be aimed at a student clientele, but we were able to find some comfortable seats at the front.

There were five beers available, out of which we had Robinson’s Dark Vader, York Guzzler and Adnams Broadside, the others being Hobgoblin and Lancaster Bomber. All the ones we tasted were pretty decent, and this was in fact the busiest pub of the day. It’s owned by Stonegate, and has an extensive menu of straightforward, good-value food. While not fine dining, everybody considered themselves well fed, and it was difficult to fault my 8 oz steak and chips (£7.29 plus 50p for spiral fries), which is something that is easy for pubs to get wrong.

Heading back into the heart of the city, we reached the Blue Boar on Millstone Lane, which outwardly looks as though it is an old pub, but in fact was converted from a solicitor’s offices only a year ago. It is owned by Kieran Lyons, who sometimes comments on this blog, although he wasn’t in today. While described as a micropub, it’s really more of a small conventional pub, with a single square room featuring Joules-style decor with wooden floors and panelling, and comfortable benches around two of the walls. There were eight beers on handpump, including their own Blue Boar Bitter brewed by Leatherbritches, and Titanic Kölsch, which obviously caught our eye as we all plumped for it. This proved to be a wise decision as it was on excellent form. A plus point was that all the beers were served in oversize glasses. The doorstep fillings of the selection of cobs in a case on the bar looked very mouthwatering.

A short walk took us to the Globe on Silver Street, which I remembered as the first pub in Leicester I had ever visited on a train trip out from university in Birmingham almost forty years ago. I also remembered that on one of these visits I had ventured in to a Shipstone’s pub on the market place (long since gone, I think) where I found myself to be the only customer under 50. Feeling distinctly out of place, I drank up swiftly and went on my way.

The Globe is a handsome redbrick pub on the corner of two pedestrianised shopping streets. Internally it retains a traditional, rambling interior with a variety of spaces including a cosy snug at the front where we managed to find a berth after dumping several scatter cushions on the floor. It offers the usual range of Everards beers – Beacon Hill, Tiger, Sunchaser and Old Original, plus a couple of guests including Oakham Bishop’s Farewell. Unfortunately the Old Original proved to be vinegary and, while it was changed without demur, you have to wonder how long it had been lingering around in that condition. The other Everards beers were in decent nick, but we were agreed that they always seemed a little nondescript compared with many of their competitors.

A quiet corner of historic Leicester

We then headed through Leicester’s historic quarter, past the church of St Mary de Castro and the site of the castle, before crossing the two channels of the River Soar to reach Braunstone Gate, which would appear to be the city’s “student strip”. Here we found Everards’ Black Horse, a street-corner pub painted in a striking shade of blue. It has two bars, with the public at the front being particularly congenial. The beer range comprised the four Everards’ usual suspects, plus Heritage Masterpiece. We all went for the Old Original, which was in good condition, but very much an example of the heavy, malty special bitters that were to the fore in the original real ale revival. A couple of the others spotted Edna, the hopefully non-inebriate cat, when going out to the gents’ at the back, but when I went to look for her she made a rapid exit through the catflap.

A couple of blocks further along is the West End Brewery, one of Martin’s new GBG ticks, which in a sense was the ultimate objective of the itinerary as it didn’t open until 5 pm. This had a characteristic distressed modern brewpub interior, but did at least have a fair amount of comfortable seating and an abundance of beermats. It also had an impressive wall-mounted Bass sign. They had four of their own beers on the bar – IPA, Copper Ale, Stout and Pale – of which we had one each. They were all in good condition, and the prices at £3 or £3.10 a pint were very reasonable. They were busy setting up their own cider press with the intention of pressing juice from a variety of local apples, with the finished product available next year.

A few doors down we spotted an achingly craft “pop-up bar” called Très Bien, which was only open Thursday to Sunday, and looked extremely Spartan inside. We also noticed a sign saying that they only took cards, not cash.

Heading back towards the city centre, we came to the Criterion, also on Millstone Lane not far from the Blue Boar. This is a modern pub with a tiled facade, built in 1960 by Bass and after a number of changes of ownership now leased to Market Harborough Brewery. The front bar was closed, with all the activity taking place in the long bar toward the rear of the pub. There were maybe six cask beers on the bar, amongst which we tried MHB Best Bitter and Très Bien Come to the Sabbat, both of which were good. Some members of the party, although not maybe all, were pleased to hear Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past” being played.

Our final call on the official programme was the King’s Head on King Street, which is now owned by Black Country Ales. It’s always good to venture in to the warm, brightly lit interior of a pub just as darkness is falling. It’s a long, narrow pub with a number of cosy seating areas on two levels. The beer range comprised BCA’s three regulars – BFG, Pig on the Wall and Fireside – together with seven guests, from which three of us chose Oakham Bishop’s Farewell. Martin instead went for the Brewheadz Electro Beat APA on keg. It must be said that this was a pub where the beer range seemed rather ambitious when compared with its size and level of trade, although it was the local CAMRA branch’s Pub of the Year for 2016. We spotted a handsome ginger chap called Chairman Meow sashaying through the pub on the way to eat his dinner at the end of the bar.

Martin and Richard then parted company with us, as they were staying overnight and wanted to sample the perhaps questionable delights of the Real Ale Classroom micropub in the suburbs, while Paul and I headed back to the station along the New Walk, an attractive, tree-lined pedestrian route that runs right into the heart of the city. Because of the way the train times fell, I travelled back via Birmingham rather than Sheffield, but unfortunately my train from Leicester was delayed, resulting in a rather later arrival back home than I had hoped.

In summary, an excellent day out, with good pubs, good company and good weather. It’s just a slight pity that, while all the beer was pretty decent, little stood out as being outstanding, despite all eight pubs being in the current Good Beer Guide. For me, the HOB Bitter in the Ale Wagon, and the Titanic Kölsch in the Blue Boar, were the standout beers of the day. Leicester itself, while like any other city subject to much modern redevelopment, retains a good number of streets lined by handsome Victorian, Edwardian and inter-wars buildings, together with a handful of historic remnants.

And, late in the day, the news came through that Leicester City had sacked manager Craig Shakespeare. I hope it wasn’t anything we said...

Martin’s blogpost can be read here, and Richard’s here. It’s rather like the Three Gospels, seeing the same events from differing perspectives.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Waiting for the other guy to blink first

There scarcely seems to be a week that goes by when GBG ticker Martin Taylor doesn’t go into a smart dining pub in some leafy part of the country on a weekday lunchtime, spot more cask beers on the bar than there are people drinking them, and end up with a glass that varies between mediocre and undrinkable. It’s generally acknowledged that there is a widespread problem with pubs stocking more beers than their turnover justifies, with the inevitable knock-on effect on quality. Indeed, this was acknowledged in the recent Cask Report:

Five years ago, I wrote how a simple mathematical exercise shows that the average pub serving cask beer does not have the turnover to justify more than two lines, yet the simple evidence of one’s eyes shows that the actual average number is considerably more. Matters have certainly not improved in the intervening years. On yesterday’s trip to Leicester (full report to come) we visited eight pubs, by no means all specialist alehouses, where the average number of different beers on sale was seven. Only one of them could have been called busy, and that was one with the second lowest number of pumps. We only actually encountered one returnable beer, which was changed without demur, but that had clearly been lingering in the pipes for days.

This issue seems to be generally acknowledged within the trade, yet there is a strange reluctance to actually do anything about it. I’m sure a lot of it comes from a fear of being the first pub to blink and be seen to be reducing its range, which may be perceived as a sign of retrenchment or failure. And CAMRA doesn’t help with its constant demands for “more choice” and lauding pubs when they add another pump to an already over-extended range. But, as long as it isn’t addressed, the endemic problem of slow turnover leading to poor quality will remain, and continue to lose sales for cask to more reliable kegs, thus creating a vicious circle.

It is true that some specialist beer pubs do manage to sustain ten or more beers in good condition, but that is because they have a specific appeal to beer drinkers, so 80% of their customers are drinking cask, as opposed to less than 20% in more mainstream pubs. And I’ve been in well-known GBG-listed multi-beer pubs when on a Tuesday lunchtime the beer has been distinctly past its best. If you only drink on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights you may not notice a problem.

In the past, I’ve mischievously suggested that pubs should display on each pumpclip the day and time that the beer was put on sale. Clearly that isn’t going to happen, as it would expose far too much poor stock management practice, but it would certainly concentrate a few minds if it did. Perhaps a more realistic option would be for Cask Marque to include within its assessment viewing pubs’ records of stock and sales, and failing pubs that routinely keep beers on beyond three days.

I know it may be an unfashionable view that goes right against the current CAMRA orthodoxy, but I would contend that fully half of all pubs currently serving cask only have the turnover to keep two beers in decent condition. And a substantial number, especially those dining pubs without any real beer-drinking customer base, should only be serving one throughout the week, with possibly another tapped on a Friday to sell over the weekend when it’s busier. “Guinness is their draught stout; XXX is their cask ale”. It’s never going to happen, though.

Monday, 16 October 2017

A little bit of peace and quiet

Sophie Atherton has recently written in the Morning Advertiser about how today’s pubs are so often offputtingly noisy. It’s an article that rather meanders around the subject without reaching a definite conclusion, and it’s perhaps unfortunate that she takes Wetherspoon’s as an example, when as a matter of policy they don’t have any piped music. It can be the case, however, that the hubbub of conversation in a large, echoing space can become deafening, and in such situations it may be desirable to play low-level background music to cancel it out a bit.

There are some worthwhile points hidden away in there, though. The first is that the widespread trend towards hard surfaces in pubs tends to magnify the general level of sound, and there is a good case for the return of carpets, soft upholstery and curtains to soak it up a bit.

It also should not be forgotten that, for many people, pubs are valued as a “third space” between work and home where they can escape from the stresses and strains of both. They don’t want to be entertained, or to “have fun”, they just want to chew the fat with their friends or just engage in a bit of quiet contemplation. All too often, people are deterred from pubs not by the absence of “attractions”, but by the presence of elements that they find offputting, amongst which loud music and TV football are two of the most obvious.

And the seemingly inexorable march away from compartmentalisation in pubs means that whatever’s going on in one part is effectively going on in all of it. It becomes impossible to accommodate differing tastes and activities, not to mention removing the sound-deadening effect of walls and partitions. Pubs could widen their appeal if they were able to cater for a variety of likes and dislikes rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. As she says in the article, “a range of different environments to suit different customers.”

Who knows, given a different legislative climate, they could even provide space to accommodate the legendary Elephant in the Room...

Friday, 13 October 2017

Raising the bar

In last week’s issue of the Spectator, there was an interesting article (registration may be required) by Rory Sutherland in which he argued that the development of well-known chains of service businesses such as coffee shops and budget hotels, while we may not think much of them, had served to raise standards overall by creating what he calls a “threshold of crappiness”.

It is worth remembering that many unfashionable large businesses create value in ways that are often under-appreciated. No one will ever write gushingly about McDonald’s or Starbucks or PremierLodgeExpress. But what these large chains do is valuable, even if you never use them. They effectively raise what I call the ‘threshold of crappiness’ in the sectors in which they operate. To operate successfully as a coffee shop or a sandwich bar or hotel (or a minicab firm), you have to be at least as good as a chain or else you fail. This raises the bar for everyone. You can get better coffee in a truckstop now than at Claridge’s in 1990.
Surely much the same is true of Wetherspoon’s in the pub industry. They are often derided for their cheap and cheerful menus and customers and lack of atmosphere, but they have had a salutary effect in raising the bar of what people expect from a pub. Most notably this is true in terms of all-day opening and food service. It is largely forgotten now that, in the early years after all-day opening was introduced in 1988, it was often hard to find a pub that was actually open in the afternoon. But, if the Wetherspoon’s down the street is open all day, a competing pub may well lose customers if they’re not. Even if you scarcely ever go in the pub in mid-afternoon, it’s reassuring to know you can.

Back in the early 1980s, there were some truly terrible pubs with a slapdash, take-it-or-leave it approach to customer service, especially in London, which is where Wetherspoon’s started off. Today, while they’ve not entirely disappeared, they’re much less common. If you run a pub in a town or city centre with a Spoons, you have to do at least one thing better, or you’re not going to survive.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

HOW much a pint?

This article in the Morning Advertiser by Pete Brown has sparked a lot of interest and discussion. In it, he’s arguing that people should be prepared to pay £9 a pint if the quality of the beer justifies it. In principle, of course, he’s entirely correct. In pretty much every consumer market, products that cost more in terms of ingredients or production processes, or command a greater cachet, succeed in commanding an often substantial price premium.

However, as I’ve argued here, the nature of the cask beer market makes this difficult to achieve. It may be more the case with “craft keg” beers, but they remain very much a niche product. In general, price premiums apply between pubs, or between beer categories, not between beers within the same category. The most successful example of a premium-priced beer in pubs is, of course, Guinness, which, despite being of fairly modest strength, sells at the same price as premium lagers, and will typically be 20% dearer than a comparable cask stout.

But Pete rather clouds the issue by talking about a beer , Brooklyn Brewery’s Cloaking Device, which is 10.5% ABV. Now, in Stockport, where Robinson’s Unicorn (4.2%) is about £3 or a little more, you would expect to pay maybe £6 for the 8.5% Old Tom. In London, where the £4.50 pint of 4% beer is commonplace, £9 for a beer well over twice the strength doesn’t seem that unreasonable. The main reason Cloaking Device is so expensive is not that it is much better, but that it is much stronger. A far better example would have been if he had found an example of beer of ordinary strength that was selling for half as much again as the norm.

This has also inevitably led some people to say “why are you expressing it as a price per pint when it isn’t going to be drunk in pints?” Well, probably it isn’t, but it’s still desirable to have a consistent yardstick to make comparisons between different beers, and given that the pint is the standard unit for drinking beer then it seems sensible to use it. Even if you compared price per third, or price per gallon, the ratio would be identical. This line of argument comes across as fatuous and tendentious.

Beers of 10.5% only make up a minuscule portion of the overall market, and in most pubs you’ll struggle to sell anything over 5% on draught. From his North London eyrie, Pete should also not forget the drinkers in his native Barnsley whose limited means would make them blanch at the idea of paying £9 a pint or anything like it. Good beer shouldn’t only be the preserve of champagne socialists.

And it should be remembered that, in the early days of CAMRA, it was often the case that there was an inverse relationship between price and quality. The best beers were those sold at lower prices in plain pubs that hadn’t been expensively tarted up, and made by small breweries who didn’t advertise and hadn’t invested heavily in whizzy new kegging plant.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Bitten by the Dog

Last Saturday, I organised a pub tour of central Birmingham for members of the Beer and Pubs Forum. It may not seem the most likely of destinations, but it has the advantage of being easily reached by train from all directions, and people travelled from the four points of the compass, the furthest away being Frome in Somerset. In fact, Birmingham is underrated as a beer and pub destination, and it was a very enjoyable day. It was good to meet both old and new faces.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow description, but the general consensus was that the pub of the day was Black Country Ales’ Craven Arms just outside the Inner Ring Road near the Mailbox shopping complex. It’s a classic old-fashioned street-corner pub with an attractive tiled exterior and a cosy, welcoming interior with a good choice of beers.

This was actually the last pub on the itinerary, but, given that it was on the way back to New Street Station, a few of us decided to pop in to the BrewDog bar on John Bright Street. While I certainly have no ideological objection to drinking keg beer, this was actually my first visit to one.

It’s not really my cup of tea of course, but you can’t knock its success, and early evening on a Saturday it was packed out with a noticeably younger crowd than any of the pubs we had visited earlier. You do have to wonder, though, how many are really interested in the beer as opposed to just seeing it as a cool place to go.

All four of us plumped for two-thirds of the 6.5% Elvis Juice. This was the first time I have ever drunk a two-thirds measure in a pub and, at £4.95 (equivalent to £7.42 a pint), it was also the most expensive draught beer I had ever had. Described as a “grapefruit-infused IPA”, it was quite overpoweringly citrusy, with to my palate notes of apricot in there as well. I compared it with a particularly pungent Islay malt whisky, where you can appreciate the quality and distinctiveness, but wouldn’t really want to have more than one. I also couldn’t help wondering what it would be like in cask form.

The beer board could be rather more informative. It doesn’t help that prices for different beers are quoted in different volumes, so it’s hard to make a comparison, and it would benefit from at least a brief indication of beer style. To be fair, there may have been more information in the menu booklets on the tables. (The image above is just a stock picture and not taken on the day). It’s also worth noting that, unlike many of their craft competitors, BrewDog’s beers tend to be crystal clear rather than murky.

An interesting experience, but not really a place where I’d become a regular visitor. And I think it will be a long time before they open a branch in Stockport...

Friday, 6 October 2017

Putting the message across

Following the launch of Drinkers’ Voice last month, I’ve been having a few thoughts about the best way to put the message across, and the following points occurred to me.

1. Choose your battleground

There’s certainly an overwhelming body of evidence that moderate drinking produces better health outcomes than total abstention, and this needs shouting from the rooftops. There’s no case for telling moderate or light drinkers to give up entirely for the sake of their health. But the exact mechanism isn’t fully understood, and may have as much to do with psychological as physical factors. It doesn’t mean we should be telling unwilling people to force down a couple of glasses a week for the sake of their health.

Therefore caution is needed over presenting alcohol as a “healthy substance”. It’s fine to say that moderate drinking isn’t incompatible with a generally healthy lifestyle, but going too far to suggest it’s a necessary component of one. And what about all the people, including me and probably you, who knowingly drink a bit more than the minimum point on the J-curve of risk? They deserve representation too. If you fight the public health lobby specifically on the health issue, you are on shaky ground.

Far better to take the line that:

  1. Any health risks are often greatly exaggerated, especially those of exceeding the recommended guidelines even by quite a substantial margin
  2. Intelligent, informed adults are entitled to make their own decisions as to what risks they run in pursuit of enjoyment
  3. There are plenty of other activities that are generally accepted, but are known to carry enhanced risk, such as rugby, horse-riding, mountaineering and (whisper it softly) promiscuous unprotected sex. So long as people’s eyes are open, then why shouldn’t they?
At its core, the defence of people’s right to drink alcohol is an issue of individual liberty, not one of health.

2. Don’t make needless enemies

Defending drinkers’ rights is a different issue from that of defending smokers. Drinkers’ Voice isn’t an anti-smoking ban campaign. But it can’t be denied that the anti-tobacco campaign is widely seen as a template for that against alcohol, and in the eyes of the public health lobby the tobacco and alcohol industries are lumped together as “toxic trades”.

So special pleading that “alcohol is different from tobacco” isn’t really going to get you anywhere, and is going to alienate many people who you really need to get on side. In principle, I have considerable sympathy for the argument that cannabis should be legalised. But campaigners do themselves no favours in enlisting my support by constantly banging on about how it’s actually safer than alcohol.

3. Stand together or hang separately

There have also been the inevitable rumblings of discontent against this within CAMRA. Surely CAMRA’s role should be fighting the big brewers, pubcos and supermarkets rather than lining up alongside them? In the 1970s, when the current anti-alcohol campaign was hardly even a cloud as big as a man’s hand, that was maybe a reasonable attitude to take, but today, when the danger is all too clear, it’s a fatal division. As Churchill is supposed to have said “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”. The public health lobby are completely uninterested in drawing a distinction between pub and home drinking, or between craft beer and alcopops. Either drinkers stand together, or they hang separately.

I’ve written before about how some elements within CAMRA seemed willing to be useful idiots for the anti-drink lobby. Maybe, going forward, whether or not people are happy to go along with a wider campaign on the issue will be a key indicator of how serious they really are about wanting to defend what they hold dear, or whether they prefer playing divisive games.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Too low for zero?

There’s a growing interest in non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers, or “NABLABs”, with an increasing number of modern craft brewers getting involved in the sector. However, it seems to me that much discussion of the subject ends up grasping the wrong end of the stick.

The fundamental point of beer is that it contains alcohol. Yes, it may be tasty, it may be refreshing, but even the most inoffensive mild or light lager will have something of an effect on you. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t drink it in the same quantities, or on the same occasions. Take away the alcohol, and it loses its raison d'être. However flavoursome it is, it’s never going to be quite the same as a normal-strength beer, and is always going to be regarded as something of a distress purchase on occasions where for whatever reason an alcoholic drink is ruled out. Alcohol, even in small quantities, also always adds something to the essential character of a drink. It is never just about the flavour.

However, adults consume soft drinks on a wide range of occasions when they’re not thinking to themselves “all things being equal, I’d really rather be having an alcoholic drink now”. So NABLABs should really be seen as an alternative to conventional carbonated soft drinks, not as something that is always going to be a pale imitation of beer. I understand that, in Germany, alcohol-free beers are much more widely consumed and accepted on “soft drink occasions” than they are here.

Added to this, most standard soft drinks, even the sugar-free ones, are extremely sweet. Many people don’t necessarily want something so sickly, and so a drier alcohol-free beer may well appeal. There may also be more opportunity to introduce the unconventional flavours that often seem out of place in normal beers.

The way to present them should be as a superior, more mature alternative to standard carbonated drinks, not as just an emasculated version of normal-strength beer. Maybe, if you’re in Spoons, consider having the Beck’s Blue rather than a Coke as part of your soft drink meal deal. But, realistically, they’re never going to attract anything like the same level interest and connoisseurship that alcoholic beer does.

Friday, 29 September 2017

The premium pint

The latest version of the annual Cask Report has been published this week. There’s a lot to digest in there, and I’m not proposing to do a general overview of its findings. So far, I’ve not noticed that anyone else in the blogosphere has done so either.

However, one section that caught my eye was that on trying to achieve premium pricing for cask beer. This seemed rather unfortunate timing in a week where “pub drinking is becoming increasingly unaffordable” was a major news story. And, as I’ve often argued before, you can only justify a premium price if you can consistently deliver premium quality which, as the report argues elsewhere, remains a major problem for cask.

Within the cask sector, there seems to be a pretty much total inability for individual beers or breweries to command a price premium over others of the same general strength and style. If you look at the wine list in a pub, some wines will be half as much again as others, or more. But all cask beers of the same strength will be much the same price, even though it’s accepted that some are intrinsically far better than others. All other categories of drink can manage this, and indeed consumer goods in general, so why not beer?

Whatever cask drinkers are willing to pay for beers of a high (or highly perceived) value, there is still a place for one or more beers at an entry level price point – equivalent to a standard lager. Depending on style, abv, scarcity and provenance, there may then be the opportunity to flex the price of other real ales on the bar.

Any standard strength brand viewed as premium in character should be able to sustain a price above that of a standard lager. Well respected, premium strength cask ales should bear a price point at least equivalent to a premium lager.

Artisanal, top-of-the-range ales that are high in strength, unusual in style or with particular points of interest have the potential to sustain a much higher price, and may be promoted in smaller measures, such as third of a pint.

A major factor in this, of course, is “rotating guest beer syndrome”, which presents cask beer as a homogenous, disposable, interchangeable commodity product. You’re only going to be able to command a premium price for your beer if it can be a permanent fixture on the bar, so drinkers get to know it and recognise that it’s something worth paying a bit more for. And even the finest beer in the land can be turned into unappetising slop by poor cellarmanship.

Plus, when by far the biggest single retailer of cask beer sells it at bargain basement prices, and tends to have a uniform price point across a wide range of producers and strengths, trying to position it as a premium product, or differentiate sheep from goats, comes across as swimming against the tide.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Corporate indigestion

Following last year’s exercise in shooting themselves in the foot, this year CAMRA were more on target with their Good Beer Guide press launch, which concentrated on the threat to consumer choice from takeovers of independent breweries by multinationals. However, even this was a little wide of the mark, as the breweries being taken over have in recent years tended to be those in the “craft” field rather than producers of real ale.

It also contains an element of railing against fate. It’s simply a fact of business life that the most likely fate of a successful start-up is to be taken over by a larger competitor. Yes, of course in a sense it’s regrettable, but that’s just what happens. Very few go on to spread their wings and fly independently in the way that BrewDog has done. And, of course, in many cases the business owners will in effect have been made an offer they couldn’t refuse.

The current wave of takeovers are significantly different from those that occurred in the British brewing industry in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Then, the prime objective was to get hold of smaller competitors’ tied estates and distribution networks. Promises may have been made about maintaining production at original sites, and keeping brands going, but they were rarely worth the paper they were written on.

The current ones, however, are about acquiring beer brands, not outlets, and so there is much more of an incentive to maintain the brand equity. Inevitably in many cases it will end up being eroded over the years by changes in recipe and production methods, but if they’re not careful the buyers end up destroying the value of their own purchase. I also can’t help thinking that the takeover of a business that has been established for several generations and become part of its local community is much more of a loss than that of a start-up only a few years old.

There is a somewhat patronising aspect to Roger Protz’s comments. I don’t see that there is a conscious intention to deceive drinkers that they are buying products from a small, independent company, and consumers nowadays are sophisticated enough to understand that large companies operate niche or specialist offshoots that are differentiated from their mainstream products. Those to whom it really matters will know anyway.

There’s also evidence from the US of a consumer blowback against the brands taken over by multinational brewers. As the two beer markets are very different, it’s doubtful exactly how much this will read across to the UK, but it certainly suggests that some of the inflated premiums paid for craft beer brands will become a thing of the past.

Brewing remains an industry where the barriers to entry are very low, and thus we are likely in the future to see the cycle of cool new start-up turning into corporate acquisition over and over again.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Survival of the fittest

Although the pace has slackened a bit in the past couple of years, pub closures are still very much with us. It seems that, whenever a pub closes, someone will say “Well, it wasn’t much cop, anyway, was it?” Apparently, it’s only the crap pubs that close, and good ones have nothing to fear. Well, in a sense that is true. In an environment where the supply of pubs exceeds the demand, inevitably it’s going to be the less well run pubs, those that don’t appeal enough to potential customers, that fall by the wayside. But it’s confusing the particular with the general.

Looking at the wider picture, the overall demand for what pubs offer has significantly declined over the past couple of decades. Obviously that is going to lead to closures, and by definition it’s, broadly speaking, the worse pubs that will close. But that doesn’t mean they’ve closed because they’re bad. The number of closures is determined by the general demand; the specifics of the closures by pub quality. As I wrote here, even if all pubs achieved the standards of the best, it wouldn’t in practice have knocked more than a couple of percentage points off the total number of closures. Back in the 1970s, the average quality of pub was probably much worse than it is now, but they did a lot more business.

There are also other factors at work, the most important of which is location. Indifferent pubs will survive in favourable locations, while with the best will in the world good pubs will struggle in places where the local demand has fallen off a cliff. Some pubs will fall victim to compulsory purchase schemes that are no fault of their own. Some will have much more redevelopment potential than others, and there’s also the willingness of the pubs’ owners to sell them off for alternative use. There may also be factors that encourage long-term loyalty amongst customers even if the current offer is indifferent, including, for example, association with a particular group who regularly meet there, or having historical interest.

As a general rule, there are few pub closures that truly come out of the blue, where you say “Wow! I really didn’t see that coming!” To be honest, as I’ve written before, some pubs have the “smell of death” about them for some time before closure. On the other hand, plenty of pubs seem to stagger on for years without having much going for them because there’s little appetite to develop them into something else, smaller landlocked pubs in run-down secondary shopping areas being a particular case in point.

It’s rather like the oft-repeated mantra that “there are no dangerous roads, only dangerous drivers”, which really is one of the most unhelpful messages ever put out on the subject of road safety. Of course, in a narrow sense, the vast majority of road accidents, excluding those caused by mechanical failure, are the result of road user error. But statistics show that there are some locations, and stretches of road, that see far more accidents than others. This isn’t because road users are suddenly possessed by some kind of mania, but because they offer much more potential to make mistakes and are less forgiving when people do.

So, while the ability of individual road users shouldn’t be ignored, very often eliminating causes of risk. making roads more self-explanatory and mitigating the consequences of error are the most effective ways of reducing casualties. A prime example of this is installing central reservation crash barriers on motorways, which it may astonish younger readers to learn were unknown in the eary 1960s. Saying “only bad drivers have crashes” is no more useful or accurate than saying “only bad pubs close”.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Speaking up for drinkers

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that it’s always easier to drum up support for banning or restricting something than leaving it alone. One side can conjure up a righteous froth of indignation, whereas its opponents have to resort to arguments like “it’s not that bad really”, “people have been doing it for years”, “some people quite enjoy it” or “it provides jobs”. The defence of liberty, by its nature, often involves the defence of the mundane or even the somewhat distasteful. Added to this, people often lazily assume that government or industry will do the job of opposing curbs, so they don’t need to do anything themselves.

This is amplified by the often-heard assumption that anyone opposing restrictions is by definition a corporate shill, or pursuing a particular ideological agenda. How can any right-thinking person really be against this? This is especially prevalent in the sphere of lifestyle regulation. Regardless of the truth of the message, any industry association immediately leads to it being dismissed out of hand. Just try Googling Enstrom and Kabat.

So it’s welcome news that a new pressure group called Drinkers’ Voice has been set up to counter the exaggerated and often hysterical messages about the dangers of alcohol emanating from the public health lobby, and to urge a sense of proportion. Most notably, there is a huge weight of evidence that moderate drinking produces better health outcomes than total abstention, which you really wouldn’t get any sense of from following alcohol-related media stories.

Drinkers’ Voice as a matter of policy does not accept any industry funding, to ensure both the reality and the perception of independence. It speaks for the consumers of alcoholic drinks, not the producers. What it does have is a certain amount of involvement from CAMRA, which has led some to conclude that it is effectively a CAMRA front organisation. My understanding is that CAMRA is providing some seedcorn funding and start-up assistance, but the intention is very much that it should take flight as a fully independent body.

In recent years, there have been several motions passed at CAMRA AGMs urging the organisation to take a stronger line against the anti-drink lobby. However, CAMRA by definition does not represent all drinkers, and can all too easily be accused of glossing over the negative effects of alcohol in seeking to promote beer and pubs. There also remains a somewhat delusional tendency within its ranks who believe that the type of drinking that CAMRA supports can in some way be presented as less harmful. So the decision was taken that the objective could be better achieving by helping with the creation of an independent campaigning body.

The public health lobby are often portrayed as plucky Davids standing up against the self-interested Goliaths of the drinks industry in the interests of ordinary people. However, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the view that ordinary people are weak, gullible saps who need to be protected from their own base instincts is hardly an entirely benevolent one. It is well summed up by this quotation from C. S Lewis:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
It is true that alcoholic drinks have not suffered anything like the legal and fiscal assault that has been experienced by tobacco. However, the duty escalator which was in effect for several years should not be forgotten and, while it now seems to have run out of steam, a few years back there was concerted government encouragement to reduce the strength of many popular beers and ciders. And one of the most effective attacks on the drinks trade has proved to be something that ostensibly targeted something else entirely, namely the smoking ban.

The past couple of decades have also seen an increasing trend to undermine the social acceptability of the regular, moderate drinking of alcohol, especially in out-of-home locations. This has been reflected in a marked decline in average consumption even without the assistance of punitive legislation, which has particularly affected younger age groups. This may well create the climate for more tangible restrictions in the future.

So, to sum up, Drinkers’ Voice is a much needed and extremely worthwhile endeavour. I urge you to give it your support and, if you can, bung them a donation too, as I have done.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Standing at the crossroads

Outgoing Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz has called for CAMRA to embrace craft keg beers to ensure its survival into the future. It is certainly a widely expressed view that CAMRA needs to widen its original remit and, in effect “modernise or die”.

However, this raises a number of questions. The first is exactly what he means by “embrace”. It is one thing to accept that many beers that fall outside the definition of “real ale” have considerable merit, and few except a handful of diehards in CAMRA would disagree. The organisation should certainly be a lot more relaxed about praising non-“real” beers and ciders in an official context.

But to actually bring quality craft keg beers within CAMRA’s campaigning remit is something else entirely. For a start, how do you define them? Some people have suggested that you don’t really need to, and you know what is good and what is not. But you can’t seriously campaign for anything on such a woolly basis. “Real ale”, for better or worse, does have a clear-cut definition. There may be a bit of fuzziness around the edges, but broadly speaking you know what is real ale and what isn’t. Nobody can say the same about “quality keg”.

A further point is that real ale can be made by companies of any size, and indeed the old Big Six brewed some of the best real ales in the country. But, true to his Trotskyite past, there’s a lot in Protz’s interview about the threat from the giant multinational brewers, and indeed the official US definition of “craft beer” sets an (admittedly large) limit on company size. However, a beer doesn’t metamorphose overnight from good to bad purely through a change of ownership, and drinkers are unlikely to be impressed by someone judging beers on company size rather than intrinsic merit.

Closer to home, BrewDog have become a very big fish in a small craft pond, and must now exceed the production volumes of the likes of Greene King and Marston’s. Does that mean their beers no longer qualify as craft? And if they do, how about “craft” beers such as East Coast IPA and Shipyard from the established brewers?

Keg beers from the likes of Beavertown and Magic Rock are undoubtedly craft, but how about if Taylors produced a keg version of their highly-acclaimed Landlord? If that is approved, then surely that is accepting precisely what CAMRA was originally set up to fight. And if it isn’t, on what objective basis does it differ from the beers from the obvious crafties? And does that mean that cask Landlord should no longer be accepted as a quality beer either?

Maybe, of course, this is what quality craft keg needs:

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they are not things that can be airily dismissed with a breezy “you know it when you see it”. The risk is that you end up with a campaign just for “beers we happen to approve of”, which would not exactly possess much credibility. Plus there remains a lingering suspicion of a hidden agenda to cut adrift many well-known cask beers on the grounds that they commit such cardinal sins as being “popular” and “easy-drinking”.

It also has to be questioned whether the development of “beer enthusiasm” since the early days of CAMRA should be regarded as a straightforward onwards-and-upwards process. As I wrote here, in the beginning it was essentially a preservationist movement, seeking to defend a valued tradition that was seen as under threat. Over the years, however, it has grown and metamorphosed into something that would have been completely unrecognisable at the start.

It is entirely reasonable that many people are somewhat uneasy about this and feel that it has moved into territory where they really don’t want to go. It is not wrong, or stick-in-the-mud, it is just a different way of looking at things. You can’t expect everyone to be interested in everything, and just because some people aren’t attracted by something as a leisure interest doesn’t mean they disapprove of it. “Hey, I got into architecture to preserve mediaeval churches. I never thought I’d be expected to enthuse over all this weird modernist stuff”.

Plus, as Boak & Bailey have said, the British craft beer movement “rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture.” Given this, it isn’t surprising that there is a certain reluctance to embrace it. It’s sometimes argued that this is basically a generational divide that will be eroded by the passage of time, but that’s akin to the common fallacy that conservative political values will fade away as older people die off. In practice, it doesn’t happen, as each generation rediscovers them anew.

The result is to end up with two camps of traditionalists and modernists who are divided more by mutual incomprehension than dislike as such. On the one hand there are enamel-stripping DIPAs and gleaming, uncomfortable craft emporia, on the other, boring twiggy brown bitter and gloomy old man pubs. Each side just doesn’t get what the other sees in it.

A case could be made for splitting CAMRA into two separate organisations – one that concentrates on the preservation of a distinctive British tradition, the other that wholeheartedly embraces the world of modern beer innovation. There would be no reason why somebody couldn’t be a member of both – they are not mutually exclusive, just different.

In practice, though, it’s unlikely to happen as, rather like the present-day Labour Party, the risk of striking out on your own is too great, so uneasy bedfellows stay together. But, while some may claim to straddle both sides, it’s hard to deny that most people who have an interest in beer and pubs at heart identify with one camp or the other. I can think of very few whom I know either through personal acquaintance or as bloggers that I would struggle to place. No doubt in the end some kind of uneasy compromise will be arranged, but the underlying tension is not going to go away.

As an aside, later in the article old Protzy is still wittering on about “unfair competition from supermarkets”, which basically, as I explained here, is nonsense. The UK has some of the most expensive off-trade alcohol in the EU, and still has one of the highest proportions of beer consumed in the on-trade. And, realistically, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.