Monday, 23 January 2017

You get what you pay for

Following the news that Cloudwater were abandoning cask brewing, there’s been a lot of talk about whether brewers of cask beer were getting a fair return for their efforts, and whether cask was priced too cheaply in pubs. I know I’ve said it all before, but to my mind this argument is a load of nonsense, and the case against it deserves repeating.

  • For a start, it shows a total lack of understanding of how markets work. You won’t get a higher price for a product simply because you keep bleating about how it’s worth more. Premium pricing is only achieved after a long slog of ensuring quality and cultivating public perception, and tends to be done by individual brands, not whole categories.

  • Most drinkers already feel that beer in pubs is too expensive, and in fact over the years it has risen more quickly that the general rate of inflation. If there’s a problem with brewers not being properly rewarded, it’s a matter of how the margins are split down the supply chain, not the price paid by the final consumer. Put a brewers’ tip jar next to your handpumps, and see how much money you raise when you’re already charging £3.70 a pint.

  • Cask beer by its very nature is an inconsistent product. Even with the best cellarmanship in the world, you can’t guarantee that it will be the same every time. And, in a sense, the fact that you tend to pay less for it than for keg reflects the likelihood of occasionally getting a poor-quality pint.

  • Unlike any other product in the pub, cask is critically dependent on throughput for quality. It can’t linger in the cellar waiting for a few high-rolling customers to turn up at the weekend. It has to be “priced to go” to ensure that the whole cask is sold before it goes off.

  • And, probably the most important point of all, cask beer has historically been the ordinary, everyday drink of the working man and woman. Plenty of people today are “just about managing” and can’t simply take it in their stride if the price of a pint is arbitrarily increased. Pensioners, who make up a significant and ever-growing proportion of pub customers, have no hope of ever seeing an increase in their income above inflation. Plus, cask fails as an élite product as you lose the turnover that makes it worth drinking in the first place. This argument has seldom been put better than by Phil in Paragraph 5 of this blogpost.
In summary, the whole idea is unrealistic, snobbish nonsense and deserves to be laughed out of court. Maybe those who advocate it should be invited to argue the case in a West Yorkshire free house and see what kind of reaction they get. Yes, there is a case for *some* cask beers seeking and achieving a premium price. But absolutely not the whole sector.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Bubble heads

Yesterday at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival I attended the Great Manchester Beer Debate on the broad subject of “The changing beer scene”. This was chaired by Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, and the panellists were beer writer Matthew Curtis, Richard Burhouse of Magic Rock Brewery, Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz and Hawkshead Brewery owner Alex Brodie.

However, the event turned out to be somewhat disappointing, with a great deal of beer bubble thinking and detachment from reality in evidence. For example:

  • There was a disappointing amount of anti-business sentiment on view, with the pubcos denounced as “crooks” and fears expressed about the global brewers’ acquisition of craft breweries. But, at the end of the day, all pubs and breweries are going to be run by commercial operators.

  • The hackneyed and unrealistic notion that people should be expected to pay more for cask beer was trotted out yet again.

  • There was the usual dewy-eyed enthusiasm for the “controlled environment” of the pub and drawing a moral distinction between on-trade and off-trade consumption. This just plays into the hands of the anti-drink lobby, and the reality is that the trends of declining on-trade beer consumption and a growing market share for the off-trade aren’t going to be reversed in the foreseeable future. It may be regrettable, but railing against it comes across as Canute-like.

  • Allied to this, there was what can only be described as rank snobbery at the thought of people getting cans of Carling for 50p from Tesco. The plebs are getting their beer far too cheap!

  • Unfeasible panaceas were trotted out such as scrapping VAT on draught beer. Given that there are a whole list of other reasons for the decline of pubs beyond price, is cutting the price by a sixth really going to make all that much difference, even if it was all passed on to customers, which it wouldn’t be? And weren’t you just saying beer in pubs was too cheap?

  • Once again, Roger Protz advanced the canard that pubcos were happily selling off successful pubs left, right and centre for redevelopment. I’m not saying this has never happened, but it’s simply not true to say that it has been a major cause of pub decline. If that were true, the remaining pubs would be packed out. But they’re not.

  • The usual mythical view of the history of beer over the past fifty years was much in evidence. It simply isn’t true that in 1971 cask beer was on the verge of extinction and was only saved by the efforts of a handful of plucky independent brewers. Sorry, but back then the Big Six were churning out millions of barrels a year of the stuff.

    And it’s equally untrue to say “Go out of this hall and within five minutes you’ll find plenty of pubs selling great beer. You couldn’t always do that.” Forty years ago, Manchester was brimming with cask beer. In fact, especially outside the centre, you’d be much more likely to find a great pint of cask beer by going in a random pub then than you can now. You’d also be much more likely to find a pub, full stop. And you could cross the road and have a pint of cask Greenall’s in Tommy Duck’s.

Although I certainly didn’t agree with him on everything, the panellist who most impressed me was Alex Brodie of Hawkshead, who demonstrated a thorough understanding of the realities of business, and how the brewing industry has developed and changed in recent years, and talked a lot of common sense. “Cask is Britain’s Craft” – well, he’s certainly right there.

The best contribution from the floor was that of the youngish guy from West Yorkshire who pointed out that many drinkers were on a tight budget, and if you tried to significantly increase the price of cask beer they would be left with no alternative but to vote with their wallets. On the other hand, I couldn’t avoid a wry smile on hearing former hardline socialist Roger Protz happily arguing that the working man was getting his beer too cheap.

So, overall, not the most enlightening discussion, and not a single mention of the elephant in the room. Maybe they ought to invite someone like Christopher Snowdon next year to tell them a few home truths. And, as a serious suggestion, why not invite a few written questions beforehand, to ensure that a wide spread of topics is covered, rather than just opening it up to the floor?

As far as the event itself goes, it seemed to be a great success, and a number of issues from last year had been addressed, including introducing independent food stalls and increasing the amount of seating. It was good to see a dedicated bar representing the Independent Family Brewers of Britain. And I also met a couple of regular Twitter correspondents face-to-face for the first time. But nobody should delude themselves that the happy throng inside the hall meant that all was well with the British brewing and pub trades.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Stranger in a strange land

I certainly can’t match such determined stalwarts as Alan Winfield, Martin Taylor or Simon Everitt, but, ever since I first got my hands on a Good Beer Guide, I’ve always had an interest in seeking out new and unfamiliar pubs, for the pub character as much as the beer. Over the years, I’ve ventured into plenty of places that some might regard as a touch offputting, but anything resembling a hostile reception has been extremely rare. I’ve been pestered by eccentric characters, but I can honestly count the occasions when people have been directly unpleasant to me on the fingers of one hand. As I wrote here, those were many years ago, and I don’t think there’s been a single example this millennium.
I can recall a handful of occasions when I was a speccy, geeky 20-something where I was barracked or made fun of in pubs. Generally I just kept quiet, drank my pint and left. Now I’m a speccy, geeky 50-something nobody seems too bothered – I just blur into the generality of older male pub customers.
In the early days, the Good Beer Guide would direct you to plenty of distinctly rough back-street pubs that stocked rare brews for the area, but I can’t remember ever having any problems. Indeed one of the pubs in which I was barracked was a Cheshire dining pub, although perhaps a bit less smart back then. I do recall when aged about 20 venturing into a Shipstone’s pub in Leicester and finding I was the youngest customer by about thirty years. I have to say I did feel rather out of place and didn’t linger too long, but there was nothing unpleasant. And the rural pubs resembling the Slaughtered Lamb seem to be a figment of novelists’ and film directors’ imagination. The worst I can think of are a few where it was clear the customers were all a clique of regulars.

I am actually a pretty shy person, and tend to be protective of my own privacy, so you don’t get the blow-by-blow descriptions of pub visits that the bloggers mentioned above specialise in. I have done a handful of write-ups of pub crawls with others, and you may well get another one before too long, but they’re not going to become a regular feature. Where I go, and when, and how, and what I drink, and how much, is my business. There is a private record of Mudgie’s Travels on my hard drive, but you only get to access that when I’m dead. For example, there was the unnamed pub (in the current Good Beer Guide) where some customers ordered food, only to be informed that the baguettes had “gone off”.

I’m certainly not as assiduous in seeking out new pubs as I was in my student days, not least because I’ve visited so many that there’s a law of diminishing returns. But one thing that has occurred to me is that I feel somewhat uncomfortable if there’s no obvious reason for my presence, which raises the question to bar staff and other customers of “what’s he doing here?” In any pub that attracts casual or passing trade, there’s no problem. Any random person could just walk in off the street. That covers pretty much all town and city centre pubs, those in village and rural locations, and any that makes a point of its food offer, even if I’m not eating on that occasion. That probably includes 90% of all pubs I might ever want to visit. But there are some, in inner-city backstreets, on housing estates, or in the suburban backwoods, where there’s no plausible reason for me being there. It’s not remotely threatening, but I know I stand out like a sore thumb, and for that reason I can’t really feel at home.

One thing I have been doing, on and off, is ticking off a few gaps in the National Inventory, and that drew me, a few months ago, to the Wheatsheaf at Sutton Leach on the southern fringes of St Helens in South Lancs. This is one of the great unsung gems of our inter-wars pub heritage, a deceptively large, although not particularly monumental-looking, pub, with entirely separate lounge and public sides, each with three distinct rooms featuring extensive original panelling, seating, doors and other details. But, as a pub, it’s bit ordinary and down-at-heel, and makes no attempt to attract out-of-area customers. The Heritage Pubs website says “The only detracting factor is the amount of ‘memorabilia collections’/tat that covers most of the walls”. This comes across as a touch sniffy, but you can understand them subtly making the point that this isn’t a pub that makes a big point of celebrating its historic character.

I initially wandered into the lounge side, but apparently that is reserved for diners, so was directed around to the public, which immediately marked me out as an outsider. I sat in the echoing main room, where the only other customer was a bloke deliberately perched on a bar stool to block the view of the handpumps. I had some indifferent and over-chilled Doom Bar, then had a quick peek into the other rooms, called into to the (modernised) gents’, and went on my way. I’d bet back in the day it used to shift massive quantities of electrically-pumped Greenalls’ Mild and Bitter.

A magnificent, and possibly threatened, piece of pub architecture, but in terms of the actual pub “offer” not somewhere you would go much out of your way to visit, and not somewhere I’d be making a regular haunt if I lived more locally.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

What a waste

I recently came across yet another of those articles on Annoying things pub-goers do that infuriate staff. Even by the standards of such things, this was pretty thin gruel and, given that staff are supposed to be there to serve customers, I always think that Annoying things bar staff do that infuriate customers should be accorded more importance.

However, the final item on the list rang a bell with me:

Over order food they don’t eat
This one came as a surprise to us at the Watford Observer, but it is worthy of feeling wound up. The head chef said plates coming back less than half empty is one of the most annoying things, wasting both food, stock, their time and your money.
But, if half-full plates are constantly coming back, maybe you need to look at what you’re sending out in the first place. Are the portions far too big, or is the food pretty unappetising anyway? Or are you offering food in ill-matched combinations where customers don’t want everything lumped together? In which context, the previous gripe is also relevant:
Edit the menu
If you don’t like something, or have an allergy, the staff completely understand. However, when you look through the menu, pick out an array of ingredients from different dishes and then create your own dinner, making things difficult for both bar staff and chefs, then things get annoying.
I’ve written before about how people have all kinds of odd dietary preferences, ranging from those dictated by genuine medical reasons to simple faddiness. But, all too often, pubs (and other dining outlets) insist that you have specific combinations of items even if they’re not all necessarily to your taste. Yes, in general pubs will be obliging if you ask to omit certain items, but may not be too receptive if you ask for noodles rather than mash with your sausages. And people are understandably reluctant to stick their necks out and ask for combinations that the menu doesn’t specifically offer – otherwise they might end up on a list of gripes!

I freely admit to being a distinctly fussy eater, and I sometimes find myself ordering dishes where I know that some of the components will remain mostly uneaten. I don’t really like doing it, and try to go for dishes where I know I can eat everything, but sometimes there’s no alternative. For example, I sometimes take advantage of the meal deals on burgers in Wetherspoon’s. I know the chips are pretty flabby and horrible, and I won’t eat more than a couple. But it’s still decent value even if I leave them.

So, if you don’t want to waste food, perhaps you should consider offering much more flexibility as to which items people want to match with others. At the end of the day, if you have lots of uneaten food coming back to the kitchen, you need to look at your own practices rather than blaming the customers.

And I thought menu hacking was supposed to be trendy nowadays!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Aspiring to greatness

My recent post about Samuel Smith’s led to a discussion about where their Old Brewery Bitter should be ranked against its competitors. Some, including me, took the view that, while maybe not “best in class”, it was a good, distinctive beer that easily stood comparison with others in the category, while others didn’t really think it was up to much. But that raises a wider question as to whether an “ordinary bitter” can ever really be judged to be a “great beer”.

I’ve argued in the past that ordinary bitter, as a category, is perhaps the single greatest achievement of British brewing, managing to combine a huge amount of character, flavour and variety into something that, by international standards, is untypically low in strength. But, by definition, it’s intended as an everyday quaffing beer for having a couple of pints at lunchtime without writing off the rest of the day, or an evening session in the pub that still leaves you reasonably clear-headed the following morning. It’s not meant to be an exotic show pony for sniffing, sipping and holding up to the light. So can any examples really be considered amongst the greats of the beer world?

In the past, the original Boddingtons Bitter was widely regarded as the cream of the crop, although that was thirty-five years ago or more, and the beer was dumbed down by Boddingtons well before it was sold to Whitbread. It often seemed that unusually pale bitters gained more attention, possibly because they stood out from the crowd – the late lamented Yates & Jackson Bitter was another in the same category, as was the original Theakston’s. Thirty years ago, Leeds-brewed Tetley bitter was widely respected as a distinctive pint. In the south, Young’s was often seen as the definitive crisp, quaffable, hoppy “ordinary”, while Brakspear’s from Henley-on-Thames was the ideal bittersweet, slightly earthy country bitter.

But all of those are beers that have either disappeared completely or have lost something by being switched to other owners and other plants. Which ordinary bitters stand out amongst those currently available? The one that immediately springs to mind is Harvey’s of Lewes, which many see as a perfect balance of malt and hops, although I have to say when I lived in the South-East in the early 80s it wasn’t really seen as that special, with King & Barnes being more highly regarded. Batham’s is often mentioned the same breath, but at 4.3% it really belongs in the same category as Robinson’s Unicorn as a best bitter sold as an ordinary.

Beyond that, Adnams, Hook Norton, Batemans and Taylor’s Boltmaker all receive many plaudits. The Manchester area has always been regarded as a stronghold of ordinary bitter. Of the current family brewers, Lees are currently enjoying a purple patch, and I have always regarded Robinson’s Unicorn (although really a “best”) as a fine beer. So is its newer stablemate Wizard, although I can imagine some spluttering at the suggestion that it qualified as great. Holt’s, while still a decent pint when well-kept, never really comes close to the wonderfully bitter brew of thirty years ago, while Hydes has always been a bit second-division, along with the Burtonwoods and Everard’s Beacons of this world. And I like OBB, although others don’t so much.

Many of the new-wave breweries made their name through producing premium ales, but beers such as Butcombe Bitter and Woodforde’s Wherry established strong local reputations, and more recently Leeds Pale has become almost ubiquitous in the bars of its home city. Beers such as Marble Pint and Dark Star Hophead represent distinctly modern hop-forward interpetations of the style, and across the country a popular “ordinary” from a local micro has often replaced the big brewers’ offerings in its own area. A good example of this is Stonehouse Station Bitter, which is widely found in North-West Shropshire and across the border into Wales. And there are many others from both established and new breweries that there isn’t space to mention.

It’s worth pointing out that the ubiquitous Doom Bar, while presented as a premium ale, is only 4.0% on draught and so really should be considered as an “ordinary”. And, while Golden Ales are often presented as an entirely new category, what are they doing that Stones Bitter didn’t in the 70s? If they fall within the appropriate strength range, they’re ordinary bitters, regardless of what it says on the pumpclip.

While its market share has been eroded in recent years by the rise of widely-distributed premium best bitters such as London Pride, Bombardier and Wainwright, ordinary bitter (defined broadly as any beers between 3.4% and 4.0% ABV in the gold-amber-copper colour spectrum) probably still accounts for half of all cask beer drunk in the UK, and undoubtedly more if you extend the definition to include keg ales too. But it still tends to be regarded as something of a poor relation against more fashionable, stronger and more heavily-promoted beers.

So can any beers in this category truly be regarded as great, or are they all well, just a bit “ordinary”?

Browned off

Regular readers will be aware that I don’t really have that much time for beer writer Pete Brown. He comes across as arrogant and self-opinionated, his articles too readily assume that London is representative of the rest of the country, and he is prone to allowing his politics to interfere with his opinions on beer. I have to say when I read that CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine had attacked him for saying that he’d largely given up drinking cask, that he’d just gone off on one again.

However, when I came to read what he’d actually written, I had to concede that, while he was over-egging the pudding, he did have a point. At its best, there’s nothing to beat cask in a British pub. But, in practice, too much cask beer is distinctly below par, and does the category no favours.

Now, it must be said that Pete is writing from a London perspective, and many people have reported that, on average, cask beer in London seems to be noticeably less well-kept than in other parts of the country. Whether the reason is lack of knowledge, lack of turnover or low customer expectations, I don’t know. That doesn’t really tally with my own personal experience in the North-West. I have a round of pubs that I visit regularly, some on CAMRA business, some from personal preference, where I can almost guarantee getting a good pint. And on our local branch pub crawls, which include all the real ale pubs in each area, it’s very rare to get a pint that’s returnable. However, those are done on Friday nights – the situation on Tuesday lunchtime might be rather different.

I suspect even if I lived in London, I would still be able to find pubs that served cask reliably well, but they would probably be amongst the scattering of independent brewer tied houses. But I know that if I just went in pubs at random, here as much as there, I would run a serious risk of getting beer that ranged from very tired to completely undrinkable. It’s not confined to any one type of pub, but the worst offenders often seem to be the generalist food-oriented pubs which think a row of six different handpumps is an adornment to the bar even if they hardly sell any of it. And, looking at the pubs I go into, if I decided to eschew cask for something else, I’d generally be drinking either smoothflow, Guinness or lager.

Of course poor beer is nothing new, and that’s why CAMRA started producing the Good Beer Guide and local guides in the first place, so drinkers could be steered towards pubs that did keep their beer well. But, in the old days, quick turnover could cover a multitude of sins, something that is less and less the case today.

The problem may be put down to poor cellarmanship in general, but I’d say the overwhelming reason is that beers are simply not turning over quickly enough. While cask beer volumes continue a long-term decline, the number of handpumps on the bar has been heading in the opposite direction, with all too predictable results. Cask beer, unlike any other product in the pub, is critically dependent on throughput for quality, and, quite simply, if you’re not confident of shifting it in three days, you shouldn’t put it on the first place. But, sadly, the mindset of more choice always being a good thing remains very prevalent, and I struggle to think of any example of a CAMRA magazine criticising a pub for an overambitious beer range.

Rather than just raising their hackles and going on the defensive, CAMRA needs to accept that there IS a widespread problem with poor quality of cask beer at the point of sale, and formulate a strategy to address it. And part of that needs to be a greater willingness to call out badly-kept beer when it is encountered rather than giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The Sam's factor

I’ve sometimes been accused on this blog of being an unpaid cheerleader for Samuel Smith’s Brewery. Now, I don’t think that’s entirely fair but, as with any other blogger, I give praise where praise is due. There’s much to criticise in the beer and pub world, so any positives deserve to be highlighted.

It’s not primarily for the beer, although Old Brewery Bitter is a distinctive, high-quality product that is much underrated. Given a free choice, I’d probably marginally prefer a pint of Lees Bitter or Robinsons Wizard or Unicorn, amongst beers widely available locally. And Sam’s single-beer cask range is a limiting factor, although it has to be recognised that the vast majority of real ale drunk is beers in the gold-to-copper colour spectrum and within a strength range from 3.5% to 4.5% ABV.

It’s not really the prices either. I’m not on the breadline, and to be honest paying an extra pound a pint for a few pints each week is not going to make much difference to my finances. I’d still go to Sam’s pubs even if their prices were on a par with the competition. But it has to be said that the low prices encourage custom, and a busy pub is always more appealing than a deserted one. And, particularly in their more rural pubs, the low prices produce a wider spectrum of customers.

No, what really makes the difference is the pubs. What I’m basically looking for in pubs is to be able to enjoy a quiet drink and chat in comfortable surroundings, and Sam’s deliver that much more reliably than any of their competitors. There’s no TV football crowding out everyone who isn’t interested, and no blarting piped music played for the benefit of the bar staff. I can’t recall a single example of a high-level posing table in a Sam’s pub, while bench seating and comfortable chairs are the norm.

While plenty of Sam’s pubs serve food, you never get the overwhelming concentration on dining that makes anyone just wanting a drink feel out of place. And, while there’s no general ban on children, you don’t tend to come across too many infants screaming and running amok. Yes, a well-kept pint is important, but I don’t really want to go chasing after a slightly better beer or a wider range in otherwise uncongenial surroundings.

In towns like Stockport, there’s still a scattering of other pubs of a generally traditional character that offer an alternative to Sam’s, even if they don’t tick every single box. But, in the more rural areas such as North and Mid-Cheshire, they really stand out as beacons of proper pubdom amidst a sea of gastro dining. For example, in the large village-cum-small town of Holmes Chapel, there are three pubs. One is a recently-refurbished, characterful Sam’s pub, the Swan. The other two are an Ember Inn and a modern Robinson’s pub that has been even further modernised to produce an atmosphere overwhelmingly centred on food. Even setting aside the prices, there’s no comparison as a drinking venue.

It was very noticeable on New Year’s Eve, when, together with Martin Taylor and our two guests from the USA, Dave and Dick Southworth, we had a lunchtime wander around Stockport, that Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head was standing room only before noon, when most of the other pubs in the town were quiet. So they must be doing something right that appeals to a large number of people. And some of them, by the look of it, were even under thirty!

It may be a mischievous suggestion, but one thing that would significantly improve the quality of my life would be if Sam’s took over my local pub, stopped reserving tables for diners, and kicked out the piped music and TV football. I think they’d get more customers, too. But it’s not going to happen.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The cask premium

Following the announcement that Cloudwater were quitting cask production, there’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about how brewers of cask beer aren’t getting a fair return on their money, and that cask beer needs to be more expensive in pubs to remedy this situation. Now I can’t say I have much sympathy for this viewpoint, as I explained here, and if you attempted to argue to a typical group of drinkers that beer in pubs was too cheap you would be laughed out of court if you were lucky. And the market fundamentals aren’t going to change, so brewers have to live with the world as it is, not how they’d like it to be.

However, buried in all the noise, there is an important point in there. Some cask beer is much better than others, but within the market it’s very difficult to command a price premium for higher quality. As I argued here, there are price premiums for some categories of beer over others, and for some pubs and pub chains over others, but not between products in the same general category.

One obvious difficulty is that in many pubs, Spoons as well as independents, guest beers tend to by priced in strength bands, or even all at a single price. Yes, there will be some variation in what they pay for beers, but they’ll obviously be reluctant to pay well over the odds and cut their own margin to the bone. The same is true of Premium Bottled Ales where, in the big retailers, pretty much everything is lumped together in “4 for £6” multibuy offers.

Things aren’t helped either by the prevailing culture of ever-rotating guest beers. The varying beers are just seen as a homogenous, dispensable product. Even if your beer isn’t up to much, the pub probably won’t be having it on again, so it will be quickly forgotten. All cask beer certainly isn’t of broadly uniform quality, but when customers are confronted with an array of beers, and possibly breweries, that they have never heard of before, it’s well-nigh impossible for them to decide that one is worth more than another.

Part of the answer must therefore lie with pubs being prepared to charge a premium for beers that have a reputation for standing out from the rest of the herd. Of course this involves sticking your neck out a bit, but I think customers would genuinely be prepared to pay a bit over the odds for beers from breweries like Thornbridge and, yes, Cloudwater.

And the other half of the answer must be for brewers to develop their reputation, so that pubs are going to make repeat orders, and that customers perceive their beers – whether individual brands or the overall output of the brewery – as something they actively want to drink. There’s no magic bullet for achieving this, but has to be the aim. Consistency, and having a product that stands out, not necessarily by being extremely distinctive, but by being of obvious quality, are vital factors. They need to aim to get their beers in pubs as a permanent fixture, or have a permanent tap devoted to the one brewery. Easier said than done, maybe, but getting more control of your own distribution chain is a sensible long-term objective.

It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s something that the more discerning pubs and quality-minded breweries need to keep plugging away at.

Friday, 6 January 2017

A campaign designed by a committee

A group of middle-aged men sort out the future of beer
During 2016, CAMRA has been undertaking a Revitalisation Project, which not unreasonably aimed to take a root-and-branch look at the organisation’s objectives and strategy at a time when cask beer itself was not under immediate threat, but there were many other challenges such as the overall decline of the pub trade, the growing influence of the anti-drink lobby and the rise of quality beer presented in non-“real” form.

I offered my own thoughts on what conclusions it should reach in September’s Opening Times. Basically, my view was that CAMRA should draw in its horns a little and stick to the knitting of its core campaigning priorities, but at the same time become less dogmatic and far more relaxed about recognising quality in non-“real” beers. I never really expected that to be quite the line actually taken, but it would be interesting to see how the two visions compared.

An exhaustive series of surveys and consultation meetings was carried out – the photo shows the one I attended at the Gateway in East Didsbury over the summer. Eventually, the project task force came up with their list of recommendations, which was released in December. There have been a number of complaints that there has been little reaction on the beer blogs or Twitter, but it has to be recognised that people have better things to do over the Christmas period, and it’s a long, detailed document that takes time to digest.

I’ve now had chance to read it and offer some random thoughts, although I don’t pretend it’s a fully considered response to the whole thing.

For a start, it’s refreshing to see an official CAMRA document admit that: “The volume of cask beer produced in the UK has collapsed drastically since CAMRA’s formation but has stabilised since 2010.” So often it is incorrectly assumed that real ale was in the verge of extinction in 1971 and since then has staged a dramatic comeback. I’m not saying that CAMRA spokespeople have said this as such, but it’s widely accepted as received wisdom.

I have to take issue with the statement that “CAMRA should promote the virtues of well-produced, well-kept, cask-conditioned beer as the pinnacle of the brewer’s craft.” This sadly represents the narrow-minded “cask exceptionalism” that has been one of CAMRA’s biggest flaws over the years. I am happy to celebrate and champion cask beer as a unique British contribution to the world of beer that, in this country, offers the best beer of any kind you will come across. But it isn’t intrinsically better than every other kind of beer, and I’m sure there are many brewers and drinkers in places like Germany and the Czech Republic – and indeed the USA – who would beg to differ.

One hoary nettle that is firmly grasped is to recommend that “CAMRA should adopt a neutral position on the use of cask breathers.” This is a long-running bone of contention, but surely it’s a classic case of the best being the enemy of the good. A pub with a healthy turnover won’t need to use them, but I’d much prefer cask beer stored under a cask breather than either stale, oxidised cask beer or none at all, and I suspect the vast majority of cask drinkers would agree. I assume this means that branches can happily turn a blind eye to the use of cask breathers when making Good Beer Guide selections or compiling pub guides. However, expect opposition from diehards muttering about “the thin end of the wedge”.

Another thorny issue is to recommend that “CAMRA should permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.” Fair enough, but it’s more interesting for what it doesn’t say. Does that include bottled beers as well as draught? And does it extend to promoting such beers more generally beyond just stocking them at beer festivals? Plus it opens up the old question of “where do you draw the line?” While I don’t expect to see CAMRA branches rushing to stock Carling at festivals, surely they’d be perfectly within their rights to have a British Lager Bar featuring the likes of Leeds Brewery Leodis and Hawkshead Lakeland.

There has long been a widespread feeling that cider is given too much prominence in CAMRA’s activities, which was reflected in the survey results. However, perversely, the report recommends that the status of cider campaigning should be raised. While traditional British cider is undoubtedly a good thing, the problem is that it’s an entirely different product from beer and the read-across is more limited than many imagine. Most cider drinkers tend to stick to cider – there isn’t a large population of repertoire drinkers regularly switching between cider and beer.

And, given that it doesn’t enjoy a secondary fermentation, the definition of “real” beer cannot be used. Instead, CAMRA’s cider campaigners have come up with a complex and hard-to-fathom set of rules that fails to resonate with the drinker at the bar. I can’t say I ever drink cider, real or otherwise, in the pub, but I do sometimes enjoy the products of independent producers like Sheppy’s and Weston’s at home. Those don’t qualify as “real”, but I’m not really remotely bothered. It also has to be said that real cider has never gained much traction with the general drinking public. Anyone reading this blog could easily come up with a list of ten popular and widely-distributed real ales. Could they even name a single real cider? There has also been a marked rise in “craft keg” cider which seems to have completely passed the CAMRA cider community by, apart from perhaps to have a little sneer.

I would have preferred to see the role of cider campaigning downplayed to some extent, and APPLE instructed to come up with a much simpler definition of “real cider” that included many more real-world products.

It’s good to see a CAMRA publication acknowledge that “There is also a view from some that the Campaign has become unreasonably prejudiced against larger brewers and pub operators – for example, it has been suggested that certain branches favour microbreweries and independent pubs over more established competitors,” even if it doesn’t fully accept the point. There is far too much “tall poppy syndrome” in CAMRA, with popular beers from established brewers passed over in favour of the often mediocre and inconsistent products of tiny start-ups. No brewer deserves a free pass just because they are small, or are struggling to make a living. And, in some areas, the prime criterion for Good Beer Guide entry seems to be the stocking of obscure beers rather than actual beer quality as such.

I very much welcome the recommendation that “CAMRA should be at the forefront of challenging the anti-alcohol lobby”. It really is long overdue that this threat is recognised. However, they immediately piss in their own pot by adding the caveat of “and promoting the benefits of responsible, social drinking in the on-trade.” Sorry, guys, but you won’t get anywhere until you recognise that you are, essentially, on the same side as Tesco. There is still an all-too-common mindset in CAMRA that the anti-alcohol lobby do sort of have a point when they’re attacking the things that other people drink.

And, while it’s right to place a strong emphasis on championing pubs as the home of real ale, the recommendation that “CAMRA should champion the drinking of real ale in communal settings and should not increase its support for the off-trade” does come across as somewhat Canute-like. The tipping point has now been passed when over 50% of beer sales are in the off-trade, and that trend is only going to continue. Yes, ideally it’s better down the pub, but does CAMRA really want to accept that it has nothing to say to home drinkers?

I also find it disappointing that there is no mention of pub preservation or the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. To my mind, this is one of CAMRA’s greatest achievements and deserves to be given much more prominence in its activities. It will endure when currently fashionable breweries, beer brands and crafty bars have long since bitten the dust.

The conclusion must be that the report is a good example of committee work that has to satisfy a variety of interest groups and stakeholders. Yes, it does include one or two controversial recommendations, but there is a general feeling of not wanting to frighten the horses too much. It may contain plenty of common sense, but it’s not going to encourage anyone to man the barricades, and I can’t really see it silencing those people who resent the fact that CAMRA doesn’t support their own particular hobby-horse or think it is stuck in the past.

However, while you may quibble with some aspects of CAMRA’s policies or campaigning activities, as a whole it is undoubtedly a Good Thing. As I’ve said in the past, not everyone has to be interested in everything. “Nobody can dictate what individuals embrace as leisure interests and enthusiasms.” So, if you like pubs and beer, and want to support them, you can pick and choose which parts of CAMRA’s activities you engage in, and which you let pass by.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A small disturbance in the bubble

There was a lot of excitement in the beer blogosphere yesterday following the news that Manchester’s Cloudwater Brewery was to stop producing cask beer. Given that Cloudwater operate at the extreme end of the spectrum of craft innovation, this wasn’t really of much direct concern to me. Indeed the photo to the right, taken by Martin Taylor in the Magnet in Stockport, is the only occasion I can specifically recall drinking one of their beers, in this case their Bretted Bitter. You see, I’ll try anything. Once.

Cloudwater have gained a very good reputation both for the quality of their beers and having their business head screwed on properly. The blogpost in which they announced their decision is a model of clarity and also unusually open and honest about their production and sales figures and their business plans. I certainly wouldn’t criticise them for making the decision that seems best for their business. However, concerns have been expressed that this may presage a more general reduction of the role of cask in the beer market.

I have to say I’m not really convinced. We’ve been here before with BrewDog and Buxton and, in terms of the overall market, Cloudwater are very much a niche player. The substantial price premium currently enjoyed by keg beers over cask counts against it for a start. And there’s also the fact that non-nitro keg is simply a lot more hard work to drink in quantity than cask because of its gassiness. This was always presented as a major plus point for real ale in the early days of CAMRA, and I’d say is broadly true. You simply can’t sink pints of keg like you can cask. I just can’t see all those pints of London Pride, Wainwright and Doom Bar being quaffed in pubs up and down the country going over to keg, or anything like it.

However, where beer is sipped rather than quaffed, there does seem to be something of a trend. I’ve heard reports of new beer-focused bars opening in London with no cask and, round here, the admittedly very small Bottle Heaton Moor doesn’t have it either. In a way this makes sense, as cask by definition needs a certain amount of volume to maintain quality, and low-volume specialist beers are arguably more suited to keg anyway for this reason. But the link between cask and unusual, innovative and cutting-edge beers is becoming ever weaker.

At the same time, cask is under attack from the bottom end as it increasingly struggles in working-class boozers, so it could be said to be caught in a pincer movement. I’m very wary of making predictions for the future – who, for example, saw the Heineken/Punch deal coming? And I really don’t see that this marks the beginning of a mega-trend. But I could be wrong, and only time will tell. As the Chinese say, may you live in interesting times.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Fox or hedgehog, Sir?

I was recently singing the praises of Friends of Ham in Leeds, which concentrates on a limited spectrum of food, but does it extremely well. Indeed, I’ve suggested that it would be a good idea for more pubs to specialise on a particular food area rather than providing a jack-of-all-trades menu that deters few but enthuses none.

But it’s important to look at why pubs do offer wide-ranging menus. There’s a well-known saying that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”, and that very much applies to pub food. Basically, (and forgive me for a broad generalisation) there are three types of beer sold in British pubs – bitter, stout and lager. Every pub will have at least one example of each. You may not care for particular brands, but it’s unlikely that they’re things you really can’t even force down, or have to avoid for dietary or medical reasons.

However, when it comes to food, as I wrote here, there is a far wider range of restrictions. Some people, such as coeliacs, need to avoid certain food types for genuine medical reasons. Others, such as many sufferers from Asperger’s Syndrome, find themselves with a strong psychological aversion to some foods, while obviously vegetarian and vegan diets are limited for ethical reasons. And many people are simply, for whatever reason, faddy.

If you’re in a the centre of a city or large town, you can afford to specialise in one food area and still get sufficient customers to make it viable. Indeed, if you do it well, you will get a reputation for your food that spreads well beyond your immediate area. This is certainly true of Friends of Ham, and used to apply, for example, to the famous cheese and paté lunches served at the Royal Oak in Didsbury. A local example of this is the hot dog centred menu in the Baker’s Vaults in Stockport.

Even if you’re a destination dining pub, you can take advantage of the fact that most customers will be travelling by car, and thus have a wider choice of potential venues, to provide a distinctive food offer that may gain you a reputation, although a lot fewer do now than once did. I remember in the 80s being happy to go out of my way for good pizzas and Mexican and Austrian food, but you can’t do that now.

But, if you want to appeal to as wide a range of customers as possible, and especially if you want to attract mixed-age family groups, you have to ensure that your menu is sufficiently wide-ranging that nobody is going to look at it and say “there’s nothing for me on there”. And, if it means placing a strong reliance on Brake Brothers and the freezer cabinet, so be it.

I would like to see more specialisation on pub menus, but I well understand the reasons why there isn’t. And “a sensibly limited menu” is a food snob phrase that fails to take account of real-world people’s dietary limitations and preferences.

(The photo, by the way, is a traditional Hungarian chestnut cake in the form of a hedgehog, and certainly not a real one)

Sunday, 1 January 2017

No comment

You may well have noticed that I have, for the time being, disabled reader comments on this blog. I did this reluctantly in response to a wave of unwarranted political axe-grinding. And, before you leap to criticise, you haven’t seen some of the stuff I’ve deleted.

The ability to comment on blogs is a privilege, not a right. Think of it in terms of writing an entry in the visitors’ book in someone’s home. If you wouldn’t say it directly to my face, then you shouldn’t put it in a comment. The purpose of comments is to further develop the discussion in a post, provide additional information or ask questions. I have no problem with people who disagree with me, provided it is done in a reasonably polite and cogent manner. But if you think I’m an arsehole, or my argument is a load of garbage, or want to use the comments as a soapbox to hold forth on something entirely different, then you need to do it elsewhere. It is not a violation of free speech as there are plenty of other places to say it.

And some people seem to struggle with the fact that this is an opinionated blog, not a forum of which I am a neutral moderator. If you make a strident, borderline inflammatory comment in support of my viewpoint, then I’ll probably let it pass unless it’s obscene or defamatory. If you do the same in opposition, it’s deliberately picking a fight.

There are a couple of contributors whom I have effectively blocked for what I regard as persistent trolling. I’m not going to name names, but if you find yourself regularly posting comments that never appear, it may be you. If you feel you may have been blocked, then I’m happy to discuss via e-mail, but I’ll expect some commitment to taking a more constructive approach in the future.

Comments will be turned on again eventually. But not yet.

Happy New Year to you all, by the way!

Friday, 30 December 2016

Dutch Punch

I recently reported on the news that Heineken had agreed to acquire most of the Punch Taverns pub estate, something that very much came out of the blue. Some felt it might be a positive development to have pubs run by a brewer rather than a heavily-indebted property company, but others were worried it might be a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire” and that consumer choice could be restricted.

So I thought it would be interesting to run a poll on what blog readers thought of the deal. It was deliberately couched as a straight binary choice with no option for a cop-out that wasn’t on the table anyway. And the result was pretty conclusive, with 84% plumping for Heineken over Punch.

I have to say I tend to agree – surely it must be better for pubs to be run by a company with a direct interest in promoting beer sales in them. The combined company will still have only about 6% of the pubs in the country, and probably a lower total beer volume than Wetherspoon’s, so it’s still well below the level at which monopoly concerns start to rear their head. And I’m not remotely convinced by the argument that competition is impaired because a licensee can only choose from 50 different cask beers rather than 300.

I expect to see more of the re-tying of the British pub stock over the next few years, and the end of the giant leased pub companies. But, as ever, I could be entirely wrong.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Too much Christmas spirit?

I recently encountered an intriguing little moral dilemma. On Christmas Eve, I was in a Sam Smith’s pub. Feeling a rush of seasonal goodwill, I decided to offer the barman a tip, so when I proferred a fiver for my £1.90 pint of Old Brewery Bitter, I said “and your own”, expecting him to take maybe 20 or 30p.

However, on inspecting my change, I found I had been given just £1.80, indicating that £1.30 had been deducted. Now, I’m sure this was an honest error, and the difference would end up in the till and thus in Humphrey Smith’s pocket, not the barman’s. But, especially given the season, would you quibble about that?

I did, being a notorious tightwad, and the mistake was rectified. But I have to admit to feeling a slight twinge of guilt.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Highlights of 2016

As seems to have become an annual tradition, I’ll offer a few highs and lows of 2016. Not really “Golden Pints”, as it’s much more about pub experiences. Here is last year’s. And I’ve done more than twice as many blog posts in 2016 as I did in 2015.

Best new pub visited – Queen’s Head, Newton, Cambridgeshire. This is one of only five pubs remaining that have been in every edition of the Good Beer Guide. It doesn’t immediately strike you as being that special, but it’s a good example of a village pub that successfully manages to combine a modest food offer with a thriving drinks trade, and had a very congenial atmosphere. For some reason, the middle-class, mostly wet-led pub is something often encountered in the South of England, but very rarely around here.

Honourable runner up – The Vaults, Uttoxeter. A long, thin pub with a highly characterful interior that stretches a long way back from the Market Place along the original burgage plot. And a shrine to Draught Bass.

I also at last managed to visit the famous Vine (aka Bull & Bladder) in Brierley Hill, Batham’s brewery tap, which did not disappoint. But that’s more a pilgrimage than a discovery.

Best pub revisit – Black Horse, Clapton-in-Gordano. A highly characterful, ancient pub that manages to combine good beer, high-quality, but not over-obtrusive food, and a very congenial, genteel atmosphere.

Pub photo of the year – Hare & Hounds, Shudehill, Manchester. A proper old-school boozer.

Best pub cat – Porter in the Swan, Holmes Chapel, who “likes his dinner”. See separate post. However, unfortunately local resident Michael Harris inquired about his whereabouts and was told that he hasn’t been seen for four months. Still, it was a privilege to have met him.

CAMRA event – awarding the local branch Pub of the Year to the Boar’s Head in Stockport. This is a superb, characterful pub that is everything a “proper pub” should be. But it’s a Sam Smith’s pub, with only the one cask beer, and that not to many people’s taste. There was predictable outrage on FaceBook.

Beery event – meeting up for the first time with various people from the blogosphere at the trade session of Manchester Beer Festival including Jeff Bell (aka Stonch), Nick aus Erlangen, Matthew Lawrenson of Seeingthelizards and “Arthur Scargill” from Knutsford.

New beer – during the course of a year, I drink lots of new beers once, and honestly they rarely stick in the mind. But one bottled beer that made an impression was McEwan’s Champion Whisky Edition. The standard McEwan’s Champion is hailed as a surviving example of the classic Burton style, but it’s a little too heavy and sweet for my taste. However, at 5.8% the Whisky Edition is a notably lighter and drier beer with a distinct hint of spirit that makes an ideal winter warmer.

Best Pub refurbishment – Swan, Holmes Chapel. Sam Smith’s have spent a lot of money returning what had become a rather tired and shabby pub to being a warren of small rooms, each with its own character. And they restored cask Old Brewery Bitter. Robinson’s please note when you’re “removing obstructing internal walls”.

Worst Pub refurbishment – Holly Bush, Bollington. This was a National Inventory pub with a classic original bar with sliding glass screens, which Robinson’s completely removed to open it out. Yes, the pub had been closed for a while and needed some freshening up, but surely this could have been done without such an act of architectural vandalism.

Best Pub(ish) Food – Friends of Ham, Leeds. A bar that really sets out to do something individual and distinctive on the food front rather than just offering the same identikit menu. Absolutely superb meat and cheese. Not cheap, but definitely worth paying for the quality.

Best Ploughmans – Prince Albert, Broadstairs. Yes, it was served on a slate, but it included three different cheeses, plenty of bread and a full range of pickles including brown, mustard, pickled onions and gherkins. I left a bit of cheese and was asked whether I would like more bread.

Best pub banter – The Talbot, Muck Wenlock, where there were a group of young mothers with (fairly) well-behaved offspring. One, talking of her dieting plans, said "I'm back on the shakes next week", in response to which an old boy piped up "I 'as them ev'ry mornin!"

Saddest pub loss – the Waterloo just off Hillgate in Stockport, where I spotted this pub dog on last year’s Hillgate Stagger. Another decent traditional local that has fallen victim to Robinson’s savage pub cull and drive upmarket. As I’ve said during the year, Robinsons seem to have little interest in offering their urban tenants a package that allows them to be remotely price-competitive.

Beer and Pub Blogger – Simon Everitt of BRAPA. I’d come across Simon’s blog before before, but it’s only this year I’ve really followed his GBG-ticking exploits closely. If you’re doing all the pubs in the GBG, you have to take the rough with the smooth, and he certainly doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the rough. I wonder how many of them ever let him back. Do you know what a P.I.S.S barmaid means? I let him have all my Spoons tokens, which I normally struggle to use anyway, as I’m sure he’ll make better use of them.

Also an honourable mention to Deeekos of Boozy Procrastinator who is prepared to tackle difficult topics that many other bloggers shy away from, for example this one about deserting your locals for the beery delights of the big city.

Best political event – the Brexit vote in June. In fact, probably the best political event of my entire lifetime, not just 2016. And, joyously, the results were announced on my birthday. The British people at last rose up, told the arrogant, sneering political élite where to stick it, and freed themselves from the vile, corrupt, undemocratic, sclerotic European Union. As I suggested back then, resentment of the smoking ban and similar infractions may well have had a part to play.

Sadly, some pathetic sore losers are still skriking about it six months later. If you’re one of them, there are plenty of other places on the Internet to vent your spleen. But you won’t be doing it here.

Best tourist attraction – SS Great Britain, in Bristol, an absolutely unique original historical artefact that genuinely changed the world. Unfortunately, lack of time meant I wasn’t able to get to the famous “cat pub”, the Bag O’Nails, which is only just over the river.

A close second was Walmer Castle near Deal in Kent, originally an artillery fort built by Henry VIII which was converted into a cosy residence for the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and has close associations with the Duke of Wellington and Churchill.