Saturday, 24 June 2017

Forty years on

Today is my fifty-eighth birthday, and thus I’m marking forty years of legal drinking in pubs. I remember celebrating my eighteenth with a pint of Greenall’s Bitter with my dad in the Fishpool Inn at Delamere in Cheshire, a pub now hopelessly lost to gastroification. I don’t propose to do a survey of all the changes in the intervening period, although this post sums up many of the aspects of pubs and drinking that were very different back in 1977. And Matthew Lawrenson has encapsulated it with his characteristic mordant humour here: But, in the wake of the General Election result, can we even be confident we’ve got Brexit?

However, it’s worth briefly mentioning three points on which things have got markedly worse.

1. The hollowing out of the pub trade. Back in the late 70s, the total amount of beer sold in British pubs was almost three times as much as today. Since then, huge numbers of pubs have closed, many have gone over so much to food that they offer little welcome to drinkers, and many of those that remain are so quiet for much of the time that it’s like intruding on private grief. Even when pubs are still open, they have often severely curtailed their hours. The range of people who visit pubs, and the range of occasions when they visit, have both greatly diminished. This is especially evident on Sunday lunchtimes, once one of the busiest and most convivial sessions of the week, now often largely deserted except in dining pubs.

Yes, the trade has held up better on the traditional busy times of Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s possible to point out individual pubs that continue to thrive. But they’re a lot fewer than they once were, and succeed in a narrower range of locations. For most normal people, regular pubgoing just isn’t a part of their everyday lives in the way it once was. Yet many who give the impression of living their entire lives inside the “beer bubble” just don’t seem to see this at all.

There are still good times to be had in pubs, and from this year so far I remember particularly my visit to Bathams’ Royal Exchange in Stourbridge, the local CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation at Sam Smith’s Blue Bell in Levenshulme, and the excellent, bustling atmosphere in (again) Sam’s White Horse in Beverley. But it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that we’re enjoying the last rays of an Indian Summer.

2. The erosion of geographical distinctiveness in beer. Back in 1977, although some beers like Ruddles County often popped up in the free trade, Draught Bass was the only nationally-distributed cask beer. Even the “Big Six” offered regional cask beers from breweries in each specific area. There were also a lot more independent family brewers with distinctive beers and tied estates that have vanished now – companies like Camerons, Home, Tolly Cobbold, Matthew Brown and Border.

Of course there were areas such as Birmingham where there was a duopoly, and in total there is much more choice of beers now. But, in mainstream pubs, very often the beers on the bar are familiar, nationally-distributed brands such as Doom Bar, London Pride and Bombardier. And, in many pubs that do offer a wider choice, “perm any six from a thousand” means it’s pot luck what you’re actually going to find.

To my mind, something important has been lost by the dwindling of regional variation and identity. That’s why we should cherish the continued survival of breweries from Samuel Smith’s down to Batham’s and Donnington with a distinctive beer range and style of pub. And it’s good to see one or two companies like Joule’s and Titanic seeking to revive the tradition.

3. The disappearance of full measures. Back in the late 70s, across a large swathe of the Midlands and North, metered electric pumps were a very common means of dispense for cask beer, and often the norm. It wouldn’t surprise me if fully half the volume of real ale sold was electrically dispensed, if not half the number of pubs. It was, quite simply, a better system than handpumps. It ensured full measures, it was much quicker in a busy pub, and it took away from bar staff the ability to ruin a pint by poor pulling technique.

Yet it has now pretty much entirely disappeared, with only a handful of holdouts surviving. Of course handpumps give a clear symbol of real ale that electric pumps didn’t, but couldn’t CAMRA have worked with brewers to produce a distinctive meter design for cask beer? Plus, while I’ve long since given up getting too exercised over the subject, nowadays getting 95% of the measure you’ve paid for has become the norm, with smooth and Guinness drinkers often suffering most.

31 comments:

  1. PS. Camerons are very much still going with a decent sized tied estate

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    1. Around 70 pubs, but a far cry from the 70s when they had over 700, and even just 25 years ago when I worked there when we had 300. The current pubs don't look like they're part of a tied estate either, with often just one cask beer from the brewery on sale. Indian summer indeed.

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    2. Camerons have rebuilt their tied estate from a very low base, and the days are long gone when places like York and Scarborough were brimming with Cameron's pubs.

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  2. I miss those ripples of laughter that would radiate from pubs onto the street as you walk by and entice you and your company in. I don't see enough young people going to pubs anymore to keep pub culture sustainable. There are now 7,000,000 young people of drinking age that have never experienced the freedom and joy to just sit at table decorated with beer mats and ash trays and just talk and laugh with their friends.
    Very sad.

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  3. Happy Birthday Mudgie. I wish that I had experienced English pubs since I turned 18 instead of starting at 56 in 2011.

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    1. The Blocked Dwarf24 June 2017 at 14:48

      " I turned 18 instead of starting at 56 in 2011."

      Like many of my 6th form peers, I almost stopped drinking in Pubs when I turned 18, it ceased to be 'risqué ' (yeah we were a right bunch of tossers). Nowadays, after I was told my custom was not required nor desired by pubs I wish had paid more attention to the pubs I frequented over the years. You don't appreciate something until it is gone I guess. Certainly the last time I saw a photo of 'Jimmy's' on Dunbar St Edinburgh, which I lived next door to for a time and was my 'local', it had had the heart, soul and 'spit, vomit & sawdust' exorcised out of it and The Arches seemed to have faired nay better. Someone showed me a recent photo from the Grey Friars Bobby but I honestly can't recall anything about the place to compare...so the beer must have been good there.

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    2. Yes, I started going to pubs when I was 14 (1963), and although in retrospect there was no way I looked like I was 18, as long as I didn't cause any trouble or get fall-over drunk, the landlord was happy to give me a half pint (or two) of Brown Ale (the 'entry level' beer in those days). There were a couple of pubs in my small Berkshire town that would serve me, and I guess they thought that despite my being underage, it was probably better to serve me something weak and allow me to understand pub culture than to throw me out and consign me to perhaps less desirable influences. Dunno. Whatever, it gave me an early appreciation of pubs. When they were actually pubs, that is, rather than the clinical, characterless smoke-free drinking (as opposed to socialising) houses that they are now.

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  4. Happy Birthday as well. I never would have thought your third point would be what it turned out to be. Interesting list.

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  5. The Blocked Dwarf24 June 2017 at 14:39

    Happy Birthday x (that 'kiss' is to show manly, matey, affection, don't go getting the wrong idea...I'm NOT..................... French!)

    "There are still good times to be had in pubs" only if you're a non-smoker, otherwise those few good times will be out in the Beer Garden during the 2 days annually when it doesn't rain and the wind doesn't emanate directly from Siberia.

    ps. point 3. surprised me too, never given it much thought. Infact I had kinda assumed part of the whole Real Ale 'thing' was that it was handpumped or tapped from an actual oaken cask like what they do at the Oktoberfest.

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    1. Don't worry about the absence of a certain subject from this blogpost - there will be plenty about that in a week's time on the tenth anniversary!

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  6. Good to see another supporter of the traditional electric pump, which Camra seem keen to airbrush out of history. I suspect that there are publicans who won't go for anything that means they have to give consumers what they have paid for, or reduces the ability to collect slops to sell on, so it ought to be a focus for a supposedly consumer oriented campaign. However, as Britain is about the only country in Europe without lined glasses, there might be less scope for Camra bureaucrats to get in a trip to Brussel to meet their counterparts.

    I've told my wife that my extra glass of Markus Brau is to celebrate your birthday. You'll catch me up in a couple of years!

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  7. Happy Birthday, old thing.

    One thing that has survived the 50+ years that I have been legally drinking is the belief amongst so many landlords that they are doing you a big favour by allowing you in their pub and selling you expensive beer.

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  8. The Blocked Dwarf24 June 2017 at 23:10

    Did I really say 'Dunbar street'. Obviously the Tennants Super + vodka shots did more damage than I thought. It was of course on 'Drummond street'.

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  9. Happy Birthday Mudge.

    There's not much in your summation that I would disagree with, especially the lack of distinction beer-wise in different areas of the country. Looking forward to sampling the brews available in a particular area, used to be one of the real joys of travelling around Britain; now being greeted by the dreaded Doom Bar, virtually everywhere you go, is an obvious disappointment.

    Electric pumps deserve a post of their own. They were virtually unknown in this part of the country, of course, but I became very familiar with them during my student days, in the Manchester area. I certainly believe CAMRA were unwittingly complicit in their demise.

    I can't honestly remember my first "legal" pint. It wasn't with my father, as he was never much of a drinker, or indeed a pub-goer, but it probably was in the pub, in the village where we lived at the time.

    I do remember taking my son for a drink when he turned 18. It's an obvious "right of passage", but whether he will remember the occasion when he reaches my age, is another matter.

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    1. "Electric pumps deserve a post of their own."

      They do, and they've got one. And I agree with Ian Worden above that CAMRA seems to want to airbrush them out of history. In the most recent issue of BEER magazine, there was an article on unusual forms of beer dispense that didn't even mention them!

      It's a touch hypocritical for CAMRA to bang on about full measures when they themselves were, as you say, unwittingly complicit in their wholesale abandonment.

      My dad had in fact been taking me for the occasional pint in the pub since I was about 17, but only when I turned 18 did I have to buy!

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    2. Thanks for the link back to your December 2013 post. I'd forgotten that you'd raised the subject of electric pumps previously - and that I'd commented on it!

      The so-called "free-flow" pumps, which were un-metered, and in many cases indistinguishable from keg taps, may have muddied the waters somewhat, and may explain why CAMRA wasn't so keen on them. The metered ones though, were an excellent idea, for the reasons you list above.

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  10. Nowhere near as old as you, fella, but I remember using pubs a lot more, back in the day. That was because I either lived with parents or in shared student, early work accommodation. In the absence of privacy, public space of strangers is a form of privacy. When you're older & have your own gaff pubs have no purpose.

    The reason older men used them was to get away from their wives in an era where divorce was unacceptable. These days you can live how you like & with who you like so you can sack of your first wife and shack up with your second wife & live with someone you don't want to escape from.

    Hence pubs have lost there function & purpose.

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    1. The Blocked Dwarf25 June 2017 at 18:28

      Typical CL humour aside, I think there might actually be something in your theory of 'Decree Nisi and it's part in pub downfall'.

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    2. The theory is really more a tot up the myriad of ways society has changed and ask yourself whether a function of the pub is no longer required. It sits alongside the people have nicer homes these days reason.

      I still think pubs do have a function & purpose or else there would be none, but many of their old purpose is gone and there is nothing anyone can do about that. No campaign can alter it. Some of the new functions of pubs, like casual dining for families are also here to stay regardless.

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  11. Michael Henchard25 June 2017 at 13:07

    Happy birthday. I`ll get you a pint of Robbies (a "proper Regional" !) in Macclesfield..

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  12. Happy birthday Curm. Hope the blog continues for many more.

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  13. Metered electric beer pumps (with the glass cylinder and diaphragm) really do seem to have been airbrushed out of history. I was wanting to show a friend what they looked like but couldn't find a single image on the internet. Can anyone post a link to a picture?

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    1. Photo of Metron beer pump.Tweet is dated 22 Mar 2013.


      https://twitter.com/crookehallinn/status/314874466582802432

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  14. I too regret the passing of regional breweries. I fondly recall a beer called Pompey Royal, brewed by Whitbread but originally by Brickwoods whom they took over: I believe a micro is still producing it. I was in Southampton, around 1980, and the pub I drank it in was the only time I came electric dispense.

    Away from home I would like to try something different, a local beer not the universal Doom Bar or London Pride but the micros are not necessarily the answer. I want to determine some beers that I like so that I can buy them again; I don’t want an adventure with every unfamiliar pint! Especially as they are often high priced and too highly hopped for my taste.

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    1. Yes, we miss out on the certainty that a particular pub is going to sell a certain type of beer. I don't think most customers really want to play pot luck.

      And (whisper it softly) many micros actually don't produce very good beer compared with the long-established family brewers.

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    2. No. Don't whisper it softly. Shout it from the roof tops. Who needs Dogs Bollocks from Ragamuffin micro brewery when you can get Abbot or Pedigree or Bass?

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  15. But the main reason for commenting is to draw attention to a post by Simon Clark and Forest and an article in the Morning Advetriser on 19th June.

    He says, ”The Morning Advertiser, which covers the pub trade, published an interesting feature last week. The headline is indicative of where its sympathies now lie (A breath of fresh air: how the smoking ban has changed the pub trade) but at least it acknowledged the fall in numbers of what it calls the "pint-drinking, cigarette-smoking, male regular"
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    Curmudgeon can articulate this better than me but it seems a distorted view. Some pubs can do better as restaurants but then they are no longer pubs. Back street boozers did not fail to adapt because there was nothing they could adapt to as suggested in the article.

    Just one quote from the article: “But 10 years on, the ban has proved to be a huge success for the industry overall, said Strong.” That is Phil Strong, former managing director of Chameleon Bar and Dining, so really a restaurateur rather than a publican. The Red Lion may make more money now as a Pizza Hut, you can have a beer with a meal but not without: it is not a pub.

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    1. Eating out and drinking in pubs are two distinctly different activities. Someone might be prepared to forgo smoking while dining, but for many it was an integral part of enjoying a pint.

      Before the ban, it was reckoned that well over 50% of drinking customers in pubs were smokers. That wasn't because non-smokers were deterred, but that many of them were dull, prissy people who didn't see the point anyway. And the post-ban evidence is clear that they haven't come flooding, or even trickling, in now that the pubs are free of smoke.

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  16. The ban was to de-normalise smoking: protecting others could have been done in other ways but that would not have achieved the primary but concealed purpose. It was said that smoking was a one off but now we see the same people campaigning against sugar, burgers etc.
    Some people have asked for numbers to prove that the smoking ban was significant. Well it’s hard to analyse the figures and no one ever claimed it was the only reason.
    I have tried to look at the figures and they are generally total number of pubs. Say, there are 5 wet led pubs: 1 goes over to food, 4 close and a craft pub and a family pub opens. It seems only 2 pubs have closed but the opening of a craft bar does not make up for the closing of a village pub.
    The ban came in on 1st July. Smokers would remain because they could sit outside, in some pubs anyway. It was not until later that publicans realised how much their turnover had been hit: they then wanted time to assess their position. By then we had a recession so it is hard to separate pub closures due to the smoking ban from those due to the recession. In previous recessions pubs have been resilient but then there was less home consumption of alcohol and less home entertainment.
    Wetherspoons tried to go smoke free in some pubs before the ban, with a view to doing it across the estate: they abandoned the idea as they lost so much trade. OK, they lost trade to the “smoking pubs”: when smoking was entirely banned they got customers back because all were the same. How many did not come back?
    The Morning Advertiser, the trade paper for pubs, now seems in favour of the smoking ban. It had an article entitled “A breath of fresh air: how the smoking ban has changed the pub trade”
    Just one quote from the article: “But 10 years on, the ban has proved to be a huge success for the industry overall, said Strong.” That is Phil Strong, former managing director of Chameleon Bar and Dining, so really a restaurateur rather than a publican. The Red Lion may make more money now as a Pizza Hut, you can have a beer with a meal but not without: it is not a pub.

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    1. The impact on trade was drawn out over an extended period rather than happening overnight. George immediately gives up on the pub because he can't smoke any more. Dave sticks it out for a while in the outside area, but eventually thinks better of it once the colder weather arrives. Paul, who doesn't smoke, then sees little point if his two mates are no longer there. And so it goes on...

      Plus pubs aren't a homogenous business. A licensee will always think he can do something else to drum up trade, even if it ends up just flogging a dead horse.

      After ten years, the direct impact on levels of trade has probably worked its way through the system now. But there will be pubs open today that are in a much weaker financial position than they would have been if the ban hadn't happened, so arguably it's continuing to be a factor in closures.

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