Sunday, 19 February 2017

Love of a lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 February 2017

More Robinson’s reminiscences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Local antihero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Sloping pitch

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 February 2017

What is left unsaid

One of the proposals included in CAMRA’s Revitalisation Report is that “CAMRA should permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.” Now, this is a significant concession, although it must be said that CAMRA festivals are already allowed to stock non-“real” foreign beers, in both keg and bottled form, and some interpret that pretty widely.

But it is interesting as much for what it doesn’t say. Does it extend to bottled as well as keg beers, meaning that a festival would be entirely within its rights to offer bottled Old Tom, Boltmaker and Ghost Ship? Does it also extend to ciders, where the definition of “real” is far more obscurantist than that for beer? And does it go wider to encompass a more general acceptance that quality may be recognised and celebrated in beers that don’t quality as “real”?

I find myself aligning neither with the “all non-real beer is crap” diehards, nor with the modernisers who wish to extend CAMRA’s remit. I firmly believe that, in terms of campaigning, CAMRA should limit itself to doing what it says on the tin – supporting real ale, the breweries that produce it and the pub culture that surrounds it. But, on the other hand, I feel it has always been too narrow-minded in refusing to accept merit in any beers that fall outside the definition, and in too often insisting that “real ale” is inherently superior to any other form of beer. I would welcome a relaxation in the rules about what CAMRA spokespeople and publications can praise, but danger lies in any attempt to draw a hard-and-fast line somewhere else.

As I suggested in the linked post, while I wouldn’t expect to see CAMRA branches rushing to stock Carling at festivals, surely they’d be fully entitled to have a British Craft Lager Bar featuring the likes of Leeds Brewery Leodis and Hawkshead Lakeland, which could be a good way of attracting both publicity and punters.

And it would be interesting to see how this would affect CAMRA’s quarterly glossy magazine BEER. Currently, I find this to be a profoundly unimpressive publication, full of vapid puff-pieces and more like an in-flight magazine than anything with pretensions to serious journalism. It is hamstrung by its inability to discuss any products that fall outside the definition of real beer and cider. So might its perception be improved by being able to extend its remit to include some wider-ranging drinks journalism? As referred to above, a big feature on British craft lagers would be a good example. And maybe a feature interviewing licensees of keg-only pubs asking them why they don’t stock cask?

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Money chasing customers

You may not be feeling it much yourself, but things aren’t too bad at the moment. The economy’s growing steadily, unemployment is at a ten-year low, and companies have plenty of money to invest. Scarcely a day goes by without reading of some pub reopening after a £250,000 refurbishment. Near to me, the owners are planning to invest a cool £1 million on doing up one pub.

But, looking at the industry as a whole, you have to wonder what is the benefit of all this spending. Is it actually generating new business overall, or is it just dragging the same customers around the stock of pubs in an increasingly desperate giant game of musical chairs?

From my point of view, all that even the tattiest pubs need is a deep clean, new upholstery and carpets, and maybe a bit of new loose furniture. The vast majority of refurbishments, when they involve any structural alterations, end up leaving pubs worse, not better. Maybe customers are attracted by novelty, but that soon wears off.

The best pubs, in my experience, are those that haven’t been knocked around for decades, and benefit from continuity and familiarity. But maybe, if you’ve already thoroughly wrecked a pub once, you’re fatally committed to wrecking it again every five years. It’s like a drug where you have to keep on increasing the dose to get the same effects.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Is small beautiful?

Last year, we lost a Hydes’ estate pub, the High Grove in Gatley, to residential development. This year, it looks as though we are going to lose another, the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme. Something that occurred to me is that both pubs were next door to shopping parades, and a micropub in one of the shop units might stand a better chance of success than the archetypal “beached whale” estate pub, and provide some kind of drinking facility for the considerable local population. Indeed, the big, all-singing, all-dancing pub was probably something that always appealed more to the tidy minds of planners than to drinkers, who might have preferred something smaller and more intimate.

So I was interested to read that a micropub had been proposed for a shopping parade on a housing estate in Chesterfield. However, it has met with a perhaps surprising amount of opposition, with a 162-signature petition being lodged in protest.

The petition complains that the new pub would cause an increase in anti-social behaviour, including litter, vandalism and disturbance, particularly at night. It also claims the development would not fit with the ‘young family’ demographic of the area and could cause residents to fear for their or their families safety when passing.
On the face of it, this sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration. The typical micropub is somewhere that very much appeals to well-behaved, middle-aged, middle-class drinkers and it’s hard to imagine it being a focus of trouble. The factors behind the rise of micropubs are well described in this comment on Martin Taylor’s blog. The report goes on to say:
On the social-networking website Streetlife, Geoff W said: “I’m personally in favour of such a development, a micropub is not the sort of place lager louts would be seen dead in - they don’t play music, and there are no gaming machines. “They’re used by like minded adults to meet and to use the old art of conversation over a quality beer - you would not know it was there.”

And in a business plan submitted to Chesterfield Borough Council, the man behind it says he hopes to turn the shop into a ‘community real ale pub’. He goes on to add that ‘drunken behaviour is not a hall mark of this type of premises’.

However, by definition the capacity of a micropub is limited, and the dynamics of the situation are completely changed once the customers start to spill outside, especially if that is the only “smoking solution” available. If there’s often a bunch of drinkers standing around outside the front door, it’s understandable that residents may not be entirely happy. This will especially be the case if the customers are a bit younger, more lively and, dare I say it, more working-class than those of the classic micropub.

I hope that the application goes through, and that the fears prove groundless. But I can see why some locals might be concerned about it, and maybe it will need a ban on taking drinks outside, and a closing time earlier than 11 pm.

Monday, 6 February 2017

The people's pint

Britain’s best-selling beer, Carling, had recently received a design refresh which I praised on Twitter for its clean, contemporary look and avoidance of any faux-craft design cues. Not surprisingly, someone replied “but it tastes of nothing, so why drink it?” But comments like that completely miss the point about why non-enthusiasts choose to drink mainstream beers.

As I argued here, ordinary drinkers come at beer from a different perspective from enthusiasts. They aren’t interested in novel or challenging flavours; they want something palatable and consistent that serves the twin purposes of refreshment and social lubrication. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or stupid.

Carling may have originated in Canada, but it has been brewed in this country for over fifty years and has become something of a British institution. It’s a clean-tasting yet fairly full-bodied lager, with to my palate a bit more taste and character than many of its direct competitors. I believe it is an all-malt brew and is a major user of British-grown malting barley.

Yes, as a beer enthusiast it’s not something I’d normally choose to drink in the pub, but I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. I’ve occasionally had a pint on hot days in pubs where it looked as though the cask had been festering in the lines for hours, and I certainly wouldn’t refuse it on principle at a wedding reception or suchlike.

“Cooking lager”, not cask bitter, has now effectively become Britain’s national beer, and in Carling it has a worthy standard-bearer. If you choose not to drink it, fair enough. But if you’re the sort of person who thinks it’s tasteless muck, or that people only drink it because they’re fools who are taken in by advertising, then you need to take a long hard look in the mirror and consider whether you are a massive beer and social snob.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Master of none

One of the improvements over last year at the recent Manchester Beer Festival was replacing official catering with independent food stalls. One of them was the What’s Your Beef burger stall, from which I had a delicious plain cheeseburger, fresh and hand-cooked, which was probably the single nicest thing I’ve eaten out of the house this year. Yes, it cost a fiver, when in Spoons you’d get a bigger burger plus chips and a soft drink for less, but the quality was far superior.

It didn’t inspire me to go on a burger kick as such, but during the following couple of weeks I’ve had two burgers in pubs, both of which were markedly inferior and had a distinct whiff of the freezer cabinet about them. Indeed, I’d say that the archetypal McDonalds quarter-pounder, when not overdone, would be better. At least it’s moist and actually tastes of beef.

This underlined a point that many writers about pubs rather fight shy of – basically, most pub food isn’t actually much good. It may be adequate and fill a gap, but if you actually want a good curry, you’ll go to an Indian restaurant, if you want good fish and chips, you’ll go to a chippy, and if you want good pizza, you’ll go to Pizza Express.

I recently praised Friends of Ham for specialising in one area of food, and doing it very well, but what most pubs do is the exact opposite. You will virtually always dine much better in a dedicated restaurant than in a pub, even if maybe a little more expensively. Where pubs do excel is in simple dishes they have prepared themselves from fresh ingredients – such as the classic ploughman’s and traditional cheese, beef and ham sandwiches and rolls – or have bought in from local independent suppliers, such as pork pies. But those are increasingly rare nowadays.

I’ve freely admitted in the past to being a distinctly eccentric and fussy eater, so I am reluctant to offer opinions of the subject of food. Very often, the criterion for food meeting my approval is simply that it is something I can eat comfortably without gagging. I worked out the other day that I had a BMI of 26.4, which just about qualifies as overweight. But if I actually liked my food, I’d probably be the size of a house. I remember a few years ago at a wedding reception being served up with some particularly inedible “rubber chicken” – but other guests were wolfing it down as if it was manna from the Gods.

However, for dishes that do fall within my sphere of palatability, I reckon I have a pretty good nose for what is good, what is merely adequate and what is awful. And most pub food struggles to achieve second base.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Never the twain shall meet

On his Oh Good Ale blog, Phil describes the stock of bottles left over after pre-Christmas over-buying. It’s very noticeable how they divide into two distinct camps in terms of both price and bottle size.
What’s the point here? Just to say that the market is segmenting, and that the prices on the ‘craft’ side of the street really are rather high, when you stop to think about it. On the other hand, having a segmented marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean that beer drinkers have to commit to one segment and no other, or even that brewers have to – although sticking to one market segment would save you the bother of managing multiple different price ranges, which would have to be a challenge. Playing both sides may even become a necessity. There may not always be enough people willing to pay the equivalent of £7-8 a pint for an unknown style from an unknown brewery (or collab); equally, there may not always be enough people willing to pay even a couple of quid for yet another familiar bitter from yet another mid-table brewery. Sadly, beer owes nobody a living.
In the typical supermarket you can see much the same thing – a large Premium Ales section of both bottles and cans, almost all in 500ml sizes, and a rather smaller Craft section, again a mixture of bottles and cans (although in this case you can buy single cans) almost all in the 330ml size. The average unit price will be much higher in the Craft section. How many beer buyers, in practice, mix and match between the two, rather than sticking exclusively to one and ignoring the other?

In a sense, the craft brewers have been successful in carving out a niche that is easily identifiable by pack size, and where they succeed in charging a relatively higher price. The same is true in pubs of “craft keg”, which is immediately marked out as something apart from cask, and again commands a noticeable price premium. While it lasts, that’s a good place to be, but ultimately a niche is self-limiting, and the time may come when people start wondering whether it’s really worth paying the same for a 330ml bottle of this as they can for a 500ml bottle of that of exactly the same strength.

Cloudwater’s retreat from cask may look like an astute business decision, but isn’t it partly a deliberate avoidance of going head-to-head with the big boys? And you do have to question whether Thornbridge’s move from 500ml to 330ml bottles, often at much the same price, and often for beers of modest strength, will prove to be limiting in the long run. I can’t honestly see that in a couple of decades’ time 330ml is going to become the standard size for off-trade beers, nor a half or two-thirds for draught in the pub.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

See how it works yet?

One of the enduring themes of this blog has been that the smoking ban was not only objectionable in its own right, but that it was also likely to be used as a template for further restrictions on alcohol, soft drinks and “unhealthy” foods. This “slippery slope” argument was widely dismissed by people claiming that smoking was very much a special case and there was no way the principle would be extended into other areas of life.

However, the evidence to the contrary has steadily mounted up, and it seems that it has at last reached the point where it has jolted hipsters out of their complacent torpor. The Observer reports that Jared Brown, of craft gin distiller Sipsmith, has suddenly cottoned on to the threat to his business from graphic health warnings and plain packaging.

“Are they considering similar labels for bacon? Fish and chips? Crisps?” he demands. “It’s an absurdity. It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.”
And Christopher Snowdon, who has assiduously pushed home the message over the years, makes the point that tobacco restrictions have acted as a “gateway drug” to extend the principle into other areas.
“It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first,” said Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank. “The debates around the tobacco advertising ban 15 years ago were that this was not a precedent, it will never happen with anything else, and yet last week the there were health campaigners saying the same thing should happen with alcohol.”
Of course, what applies to craft gin will equally apply to craft beer, and any other area of the food and drink market dependent on innovation and disrupting existing business models. I’ve been arguing on Twitter with one or two blinkered brewers who still fail to see the connection, but basically, if the same restrictions on advertising, promotion and packaging that apply to tobacco were extended to beer, they wouldn’t have a business. I’ve made a note of their names and will do my best to avoid their beers as they are likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth.

The key point about advertising restrictions is not that they are particularly effective in reducing consumption, but that they serve to stifle or entirely eliminate innovation and new product introduction, in effect ossifying the market. It would now be absolutely impossible to introduce a new legitimate cigarette brand. Their primary aim is denormalisation.

I believe it has now been dropped, but in its early days CAMRA had a policy of opposing the “mass-market” advertising of alcoholic drinks. It was believed that, without advertising, drinkers would stick to tasty local beers rather than heavily promoted national brands. This always came across as somewhat patronising because, as I argued here, all the advertising in the world will only sell a bad product once, and people choose to drink Carling and John Smith’s not because they are dupes, but because they have different priorities from beer enthusiasts.

An advertising ban in the 1960s might well have retarded the rise of lager, but it would have done nothing to stop brewery takeovers, brand rationalisation and the replacement of real ale with keg. “A pint of Bloggs’s Bitter, please?” “Oh, the brewery have dropped that. It’s been replaced by Megabrew Extra Fizz.” And there would be nothing you could do about it. You couldn’t even find out except by word of mouth which pubs sold different products. In the absence of advertising, industry consolidation might have happened even more quickly as there would have been no means of independent brewers stressing the distinctiveness of their products.

Restrictions on advertising and promotion always serve to benefit established players at the expense of new entrants, as customers are forced to fall back on folk memory and what they ordered before. If the current tobacco advertising rules and display ban applied to alcohol, there would be no craft beers and no microbreweries, apart perhaps from pubs that brewed their own beer. And would even writing blogs or magazine articles about them be prohibited as a form of indirect advertising?

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Return match

Last November, I welcomed CAMRA stalwart, fellow curmudgeon and sort-of namesake Paul Mudge to Stockport for a wander round some of our excellent traditional pubs. Obviously we had to reciprocate with a visit to Paul’s home town of Stafford, so last Wednesday, on a cold and initially rather misty morning, I found myself heading south on the Cross Country train to experience its delights.

While it retains a number of interesting old buildings, and some characterful streets and alleyways around the market place, Stafford can’t claim to be a historic town of the first order. Its pub scene was in the past dominated by Bass and Allied Breweries, so it wasn’t at the top of the list of beer destinations, but more recently a number of other operators have moved in, and it now offers a good selection of both beers and types of pub.

The last wisps of mist were clearing as I took a pleasant stroll through the park along the banks of the River Sow to meet up with Paul in Wetherspoon’s Picture House, situated towards the south end of the main street. As the name suggests, this is a conversion of a former small cinema, with the bar where the screen once was, and tiers of seating rising up towards the entrance, all in all making for one of their more characterful interiors. Paul recommended the Caledonian Edinburgh Castle, which indeed proved to be on fine form. This distinctive Scottish 80/- ale is one that always stands out for me on the bar. There were also the regular trio of Ruddles, Doom Bar and Abbot Ale, plus three further guest beers including local favourite Slater’s Top Totty.

Crossing the road, a short walk took us to the Sun, which has been acquired and extensively refurbished by Titanic Brewery, providing a comfortable, rambling interior on two levels. The photo, taken in a rare gap in the traffic, shows Paul standing outside the front door. By this time the sun had burnt off any remaining mist and was shining brightly. The pub serves the full range of Titanic beers, plus a number of guests. We plumped for two of Titanic’s mid-brown offerings, Anchor and Full Steam Ahead, but unfortunately both seemed a little past their best. We chatted with a couple sitting next to us who had the lovely Welsh collie shown below.

Wednesday is Burger Day at the Sun, so we took full advantage of the 2 for 1 offer, adding a bowl of onion rings which couldn’t be faulted for their crispiness. As the photo shows, you will get pretty well fed, although the presentation does have a touch of We Want Plates about it.

We cut through a jumble of council buildings to reach the Shrewsbury Arms on Eastgate Street, which has been acquired and refurbished by Black Country Ales within the past six months. The corner door takes you into a congenial bar area with several alcoves of bench seating such as the one shown, and there are then a variety of other sections stretching along the length of the pub. While not a fan of indiscriminate piped music, I have no problem with listening to tracks such as “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, and “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. While it stocks BCA’s own beers such as BFG, we both chose from the guest list, with Paul going for Brough Blonde and me Rooster’s YPA, both notably pale beers that were pretty good.

Heading back in towards the town centre, our next stop was the Market Vaults, a Marston’s pub that appropriately is just off the Market Place. Once known as the Chains and tied to Joule’s of Stone, this has gone through a variety of incarnations over the years including, I seem to remember, a spell as an Irish theme pub called Joxer Brady’s. The main bar area, with a number of posing tables, does not come across as too appealing, but around the back there are plenty of cosy nooks and crannies with bench seating, albeit something of a shortage of natural light. It offers a menu of gourmet burgers, although the prices were rather higher than those in the Sun even before taking into account the latter’s 2 for 1 offer. There were none of the regular Banks’s or Marston’s beers on the bar, the range consisting of Sunshine and Hobgoblin together with three guests. Paul had Slater’s Top Totty, while I plumped for the unusually-named Pekko from Milestone, both of which were again in good nick.

Just around the corner and facing directly on to the Market Place is No. 7 Market Square, a new micropub recently opened in a former gunsmith’s premises. It has a rather wider offer than some, including a row of craft keg taps, but the small scale and no-frills atmosphere are very much archetypal micropub. Paul said he sometimes enjoyed calling in here for a pint on his walk home from work, and sitting watching the world go by outside, although it was a little Spartan for my personal taste and, not long after opening time at 3 pm, it hadn’t yet had chance to warm up properly. There were three cask beers – Slater’s Premium and IPA, and Portobello VPA. We both went for the Premium which turned out to be a touch disappointing. The owners also have another micropub, the Floodgate at the south end of the town near to the Sun, but as this doesn’t open until 5 pm on weekends it didn’t really fit into our itinerary.

Another brewery to move into Stafford is Joule’s of Market Drayton, who have taken over Ye Olde Rose & Crown a short walk to the north. Paul has some reservations about Joule’s, as he feels some of their refurbishments have been disrespectful of what went before, but to those who have no memory of that they have certainly created a very pleasant, “woody” drinking space in the front of the pub with plenty of bench seating lining the walls. However, the only feature he said they have retained from the old pub is the central cast-iron column supporting the ceiling. To the rear of the pub there’s an extended lounge area and an outdoor drinking courtyard. The photo shows Paul sitting in one of several cosy corners.

There was the usual Joule’s range of Blonde, Pale Ale and Slumbering Monk, plus one other on the back bar whose name I didn’t spot. We both went for the Pale Ale, which was on good form. Paul also treated himself to a locally-made pork pie from behind the bar, and I must say the slice I had, complete with jelly, was delicious.

As darkness fell, we crossed over the ring road and passed alongside the forbidding walls of Stafford Gaol, the current domicile of Rolf Harris, to reach the Greyhound, a back-street free house that doesn’t open until 4pm, hence it making sense to leave it until towards the end of the crawl. It retains the traditional two-bar layout, with public at the front and lounge to the rear, although both have a similar standard of furnishing. Seven beers were available, including Bradfield Farmers Blonde, Hobsons Town Crier and Abbeydale Absolution, but we were understandably both drawn by the Batham’s Best Bitter making a rare trip north out of its home territory. It was in good condition, although not maybe quite reaching the heights it can in their tied houses or the Great Western in Wolverhampton.

For our final port of call, we headed back towards the station to the Railway, a classic street-corner local which appropriately stands just across the road from the West Coast Main Line. There’s a photo inside from 1964 showing it in Ind Coope livery with just a single 1950s Ford Zephyr parked on the street outside. My eyes immediately lit up when I saw Draught Bass on the bar, and I wasn’t remotely tempted by the Doom Bar. I wasn’t disappointed, as it was on very good form and almost certainly the best beer of the day. The pub itself is little changed over the years apart from the removal of one or two connecting doors, and the front bar area where we sat, with quarry-tiled floor and brick fireplace housing a blazing real fire, was very congenial. From here it was only a short walk to the station, and I was back in Stockport not long after eight o’clock.

In summary, an excellent day out with a good choice of pubs and beer. Stafford doesn’t have the unspoilt historic gems to match Stockport, but all of the pubs visited have their own distinctive character, and it’s good to see the new wave of independent brewers like Titanic, Black Country Ales and Joule’s making their presence felt. With a couple of exceptions, beer quality was generally good and prices, while a little above Stockport levels, for the most part between £3.00 and £3.40, with the exception of Wetherspoon’s at £2.49. The most expensive beer of the day was Batham’s in the Greyhound at £3.45, underlining the point that some cask beers can already command a premium.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Best of breed?

Last Autumn, I questioned whether Marston’s relaunch of their flagship beer Pedigree as a bottle-conditioned product was a good idea. My concern was that it was likely to deter many more drinkers – those who didn’t want any bits in their beer – than it attracted. The actual demand for bottle-conditioned beers within the wider Premium Bottled Ales sector is pretty small, plus a large segment of those who actively seek out bottle-conditioned products probably wouldn’t be enthused by such a mainstream brew.

It’s now filtered down into my local Home Bargains at just £1.29 a bottle, so I thought I would give it a try. There is much to be said for bottle-conditioned beers if they actually do what it says on the label and undergo a secondary fermentation, but unfortunately in my experience many fail to do so and are also plagued by inconsistency.

The first one was encouraging, and had obviously “taken”, with decent carbonation and the characteristic BCA spires of bubbles rising in the glass. This was certainly better than the filtered version and, if they could keep this standard up, they might be on to a winner. It wasn’t difficult to pour clear, although the yeast is not entirely “sticky”, and so a little care is needed. But the second one was, well, just rather flat and not that far off a sink pour.

I’ll persevere with it, but unless the good ‘uns significantly outnumber the bad ‘uns, not for too long. The real issue with bottle-conditioning is not so much the likelihood of getting cloudy beer, but the sheer inconsistency. And I can’t help wondering how long it will be before Marston’s quietly drop it. If you want some “normal” packaged Pedigree, you can still get it in can, although for some reason it’s sold in the smaller 440ml cans rather than the bottle-equivalent 500ml ones.

It’s also disappointing that Marston’s have felt the need to pander to changing perceptions by reclassifying what is historically a classic Burton Pale Ale as an “amber ale”.

Edit: I see that Marston’s have now switched the new-look Pedigree cans to the 500ml size, and obviously not “can-conditioned”.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

During the 1970s and 80s, the “Big Six” national brewers were very much the pantomime villains of CAMRA, closing traditional breweries, axing familiar brands, restricting choice, pushing up prices and exercising local monopolies. Surely drinkers would be much better off if they were got rid of and broken up. However, in the post-Beer Orders world, where precisely that has happened, it’s questionable whether things, overall, are any better.

It was interesting at the recent Great Manchester Beer Debate to hear the participants, mostly notably veteran CAMRA warhorse Roger Protz, speaking with some nostalgia of the days of the Big Six and the tied house system. Most notably, the brewers were able to exercise some control over the quality of the end-product in their pubs, because it would reflect badly on their brand image if customers received poor beer.

They also had much more control over the pricing of their product rather than simply being at the mercy of powerful wholesale customers. And, as brewers, they had a direct interest in keeping pubs as pubs to sell their product which non-brewing pub companies lack. It should also never be forgotten that, without the tied house system, real ale might well have completely disappeared in this country.

There’s not going to be any return to the old days, but I remain convinced that a greater role for the tied house system would lead to a healthier beer and pub industry and a better deal for drinkers. Many Punch Taverns tenants have been protesting about the proposed takeover by Heineken, on the grounds that it will restrict choice, but to my mind it will give their pubs a more secure long-term future.

It’s a fact of life that in any business, big, powerful companies will be at an advantage over small, fragmented ones, although this commercial reality continues to come as a surprise to some people. A large number of small breweries, often existing hand-to-mouth, are not in a strong position against a small number of dominant purchasers of beer. Enterprise Inns’ decision to unilaterally reduce the price paid to small brewers under their “Beerflex” scheme is undoubtedly hard-nosed, but SIBA is left in a position where they can either take it or leave it. Big retailers have been doing the same to small suppliers for decades – it’s the way the world works.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A sobering contrast

Last Saturday, as I reported here, I attended the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival for the Great Manchester Beer Debate. Now, I can’t say that I’m a great fan of beer festivals as a punter, but it was hard to fault this one and it certainly had the feel of a special occasion. However, tempting as it might be, it would be wrong to extrapolate from the healthy attendance and lively atmosphere in the hall that all was well in the world of beer.

The following Sunday lunchtime I called in at one of my local pubs for a couple of pints. This is a pub that does show TV football, but Southampton vs Leicester wasn’t going to pull in much of a crowd, and except for big matches they don’t put it on in every room, meaning it’s easy to escape from it. Plus, they don’t have any piped music as it would conflict with the sports commentary.

However, it was notable that there can’t have been more than about fifteen customers in the entire place. Now, being a miserable sod, I don’t really mind sitting on my own with my pint quietly reading the paper, but I’m only too well aware that isn’t healthy for the pub trade as a whole. No doubt someone will pipe up “Well, Mudgie, you will go in the old man pub. The crafty bar down the road would be buzzing with bright young things,” but, realistically, it wouldn’t be. The only pubs that would be anywhere near busy would be food-led ones.

Twenty years ago, though, that pub, while not standing room only, would have been pretty busy. Now it isn’t, and it tends to become a self-reinforcing cycle, as few people really want to sit in solitary splendour, and if that’s their experience they will be less likely to go next time. I wrote in the past how just going to the pub for a drink was increasingly becoming something that normal, responsible people just didn’t do any more, and my experience underlined that point.

You can easily get into a regular habit, but suddenly realise that you’re the only person still doing it. Sadly, it seems that routine, casual drinking in pubs now increasingly falls into that category.