July/August 2019

When is a Pub not a Pub?

It’s hard to pin down the difference between a pub and a bar, but you know one when you see one

WHEN it’s a bar, of course. While there’s no specific legal distinction, the two carry very different connotations. This is not to say one is better than the other, but they’re certainly not interchangeable. However, it’s notoriously difficult to come up with a hard-and-fast definition separating one from the other. Beer writer Martyn Cornell has recently had another stab at it on his Zythophile blog, where he suggests that a key distinction is that pubs tend to have a bar at right angles to your path when coming in through the entrance door, whereas bars have their counter running along a side wall. Often, this is indeed the case, but it rather breaks down when you have a multi-roomed interior with different entrances. But perhaps bars don’t tend to have multi-roomed interiors anyway.

In general, while you can point to various characteristics that pubs usually have, and bars don’t, it’s always possible to come up with exceptions to the rule. Overall, it’s often a case of “you know one when you see one”. Pub names usually start with “The”, but bar names seldom do. Pubs are often specific buildings designed for the purpose, while bars tend to be part of a larger building. Pubs make use of the upper floors of the building, while a bar may be underneath something entirely different. The licensees of a pub are likely to live on the premises, but with a bar they hardly ever do. Bars are often aimed at a specific, identifiable “crowd”, while pubs seek a wider and more general clientele. And, at least outside urban centres, pubs often have car parks, but I can’t think of a single bar that does. A pub retains its identity through various changes of ownership, while that of a bar is very much tied up with its current trading format.

Sometimes it’s less a question of physical aspects but how businesses choose to define themselves. On Stockport Market Place there are two recently-opened establishments right next door to each other – the Angel and Project 53. Both have a somewhat “crafty” ethos, but the Angel definitely comes across as a pub, whereas Project 53 is unquestionably a bar. With a new name and different decor, the Angel could be considered a bar, though.

The different connotations of the two categories will often influence how an establishment wants to be seen. One well-known London craft beer place took exception to being considered for a “Pub of the Year” award, because they identified themselves a bar. To them, a bar was modern and progressive, while “pub” suggested something stuffy and old-fashioned and very possibly belonging to Greene King or Punch Taverns.

Some Wetherspoon’s, particularly those in their more modern design idiom that are conversions of former retail units, do very much say “bar” rather than “pub”, whereas others that are in existing pub premises, such as the Gateway in East Didsbury, are definitely pubs. However, their general atmosphere and wide customer mix are very much those of pubs regardless of their design. And, while their name says otherwise, I’d say that the vast majority of micropubs, going by the criteria set out above, are in reality small bars little different from the keg-only “box bars” often found in similar premises.

At the other end of the scale, there’s also the vexed question of when a pub actually turns into a restaurant. Most restaurants obviously aren’t pubs, but quite a few have the outward appearance of pubs and indeed might once have been one. Strictly speaking, if anyone can come in and have a drink without needing to buy a meal, it doesn’t qualify as just being a restaurant. However, I’d say there also needs to be a test of whether any meaningful number of people actually do, and whether non-diners are made to feel welcome.

May/June 2019

The Squeezed Middle

If we are concerned about their long-term survival, mid-sized brewers deserve a little more love

THE SALE of Fuller’s brewing interests to Asahi underlined the exposed position in which many of the established, medium-sized firms find themselves. As a mid-sized brewer, Fuller’s said, it was being squeezed between the global giants and the 2,000 smaller brewers across the UK. The tax breaks given to microbrewers and the power of the big global drinks firms have left little space at the bar for those in the middle.

Progressive Beer Duty was introduced in 2002 by Gordon Brown with the aim of stimulating the number of small breweries in the UK. It has certainly succeeded in this objective, with over 2,000 now in operation. However, as with many such well-intentioned measures, it has had unintended consequences. The 50% duty relief on offer starts to be clawed back above an annual production of 5,000 hectolitres (3,055 barrels), and entirely disappears at 60,000 hl (36,661 barrels). Many of the established family brewers are above this figure, or only just below it. Fuller’s, who were one of the biggest, were producing about 200,000 barrels a year.

In practice, some of the new small brewers have used the duty relief not to bolster the finances of their business, but to sell beer more cheaply, putting the established brewers at a severe price disadvantage. The overall market share of these small brewers is relatively small, and to the likes of AB InBev they are no more than a pinprick on an elephant’s backside. But they have a much higher share of the market for cask beer in the free trade, and if you go in any pub that is able to buy beer on the open market it is likely that most of its cask lines are from microbreweries. Many of these beers are very good, but the main reason some of them are there is that they are cheap to buy.

The mid-sized brewers found that the general decline of on-trade beer consumption and the rise of lager greatly reduced the amount of beer they were producing from their own breweries. But, at the same time, the rise of up-market dining provided an opportunity for some of the pubs in their tied estates, and many of them bought more as cast-offs from the debt-ridden pubcos. This essentially turned them into pubcos with an under-utilised brewery as a sideline. Fuller’s reckoned that 85% of their profits came from their pubs and hotels, so it is perhaps understand­able that they decided to concentrate on that part of their business and accept an attractive offer for the brewing side.

It’s also debateable whether you can make such a clear distinction between the brewing and pub sides of the business, as to some extent they support each other. If you separate them, both will be diminished and their viability undermined. A brewery produces a unique, identifiable product that is recognisable to customers and may command a great deal of loyalty, but a pubco is, well, just another pubco, and in the long-term that must make them more vulnerable to takeover. Fuller’s stood out from the crowd both because of the high profile of their beers and the valuable redevelopment potential of their site. But the announce­ment of this deal will certainly have given many directors of family brewers cause for thought about their long-term future.

It’s often the case that people attract warm tributes when they die while having a much more equivocal reputation during their lives, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that some of those shedding crocodile tears over the sale of Fuller’s were happy a year before to dismiss London Pride as “boring brown beer”. Maybe if we want to help the prospects of the family brewers, beer enthusiasts should give them a bit more love as upholders of a unique British tradition, rather than constantly chasing after the novel and trendy.

March/April 2019

Sense of Place

We have lost something valuable with the erosion of the link between beer and locality

WHEN I first became interested in real ale, perhaps what fascinated me most was how there was a patchwork of independent breweries the length and breadth of the country, ranging from regional giants such as Vaux and Wolverhampton & Dudley to tiny firms like Bathams and Burts. Each had its own territory, its own distinctive beers and very often its own style of pub. It was a lesson in geography, with strongholds, heartlands and outposts.

To visit an area and sample the beers of one of the more obscure breweries for the first time was a voyage of discovery. You could go to a city only fifty or sixty miles away and be presented with an entirely different selection of beers, such as Home and Shipstone in Nottingham or Mitchells and Yates & Jackson in Lancaster. One of the pleasures of going on holiday was sampling the local brew such as St Austell in Cornwall or Adnams in Suffolk. Progress on a long road journey was marked by the changing brewers’ names on the pub signs.

It wasn’t confined to the independents, either, as all the Big Six national brewers retained some kind of regional identity in their beer range and pub branding. Indeed, in the early 1980s we saw a revival of local names, something especially marked with Allied Breweries, who created dedicated pub estates for old brands such as Peter Walker, and Benskins. Overall it provided a rich tapestry of local and regional identity in beer.

Since those days, the number of independent family breweries has more than halved, with ten being lost in the North-West alone. Very often, those that remain see themselves more as pub companies that happen to have an ale brewery as a sideline. The disruption following the Beer Orders resulted in the transfer of the former tied estates of the Big Six to pub companies and the loss of their distinct identities. Increasingly, pub company outlets have come to offer the market-leading beers regardless of supplier, and the drinker of mainstream kegs and lagers has less choice overall than there was prior to 1990. .

Against this has to be set the dramatic rise in the number of microbrewers, and in the sheer variety of beer styles being produced. In theory, there is more choice than ever before, and for many beer enthusiasts it has opened up a cornucopia of delights. But each pub is limited in the number of lines it can stock, especially of cask beer, and what you’re actually going to find in the pub often becomes a lottery. You can’t exercise choice in a meaningful way if you don’t know what to expect, and in effect, “beer range varies” has in itself become a single option.

Some of the new generation of breweries have established a strong regular foothold in pubs, but there’s no sign outside to say so, and thus the visible identification between brewery and pub is broken. In 1978, if you wanted to sample an obscure beer, you might have a long journey, but you could probably find it in one of its brewer’s pubs, whereas now it can become a wild goose chase. Of course we have gained something through the massive increase in both the number of breweries and beer styles being produced. But we have also lost something valuable in the way the link between beer and place has been eroded through the decline of tied estates.

On a brighter note, it is good to see the trend being reversed in a small way by brewers such as Joules, Titanic and Wye Valley building up their own pub estates, And of course that is exactly what BrewDog are doing by opening a chain of bars in big cities majoring on their own beers.

January/February 2019

What Goes Around, Comes Around

After ripping out all the internal walls, compartmentalised pubs are coming back into fashion

SIXTY years ago, most pubs in the UK had a compartmentalised interior layout. Typically, they would have the standard demarcation between public bar and “best room” – the term “lounge” was not yet in general use. Some had a three-level division between public, saloon and lounge, with subtle gradations in clientele and ambiance between the three. Plus, there could be a whole variety of other rooms such as news rooms, tea rooms, games rooms and, at the time, ladies’ rooms.

But, since then, pretty much all this has been swept away by knocking pubs through into a single-bar layout. The main reason always given for this was that it reflected a more democratic and egalitarian society in which the old class divisions no longer applied, and there’s certainly some truth in that. But it also made pubs easier to manage and supervise, plus in the 1960s and early 70s there was the factor that public bar prices were subject to government price control, which could be circumvented by turning the entire pub into a lounge.

However, it didn’t always work out quite as intended. In many cases, rather than everyone happily mixing together in the same pub, the class division moved from one between different bars to one between different pubs. The middle classes used one pub, the working classes another. But, according to a recent report, a growing number of pub operators are realising that there is a need to cater for different audiences within a single venue, and are thus returning to the concept of pub “zoning”. It’s all too easy if you’re not careful for one aspect of a pub to take over the whole place and alienate many potential customers.

There are two obvious divisions between different customer groups that often rankle in pubs today. One is showing big-screen TV sport, which brings in a specific crowd who may well put a lot of money across the bar, but deters those who just want a quiet drink. And allowing children, while key to the concept of family dining, is something that that those who prefer an adults-only environment feel uncomfortable with. Plus, if legislation permitted, there would be a strong argument for a division between smoking and non-smoking areas.

Cashing Up

There are dangers in the rush to relegate cash to history

A GROWING trickle of pubs and bars are deciding to go entirely cashless and stop accepting any payments in cash. Cashless payments are a growing feature of the financial landscape, and obviously it makes business sense for many pubs to accept them. But to refuse to take cash entirely is something entirely different, and comes across as an attempt to practice social selection of your clientele.

This may not be a problem in a rural gastropub, but in inner-city boozers it’s a common sight to see the pound coins being counted out on to the bar to pay for a pint. It is estimated that there are 1.6 million unbanked workers in the UK, and there must be many more pensioners and benefit claimants, not to mention people who simply prefer to avoid using cards for routine transactions. It’s effectively saying that you’re not interested in the business of the poor or the old.

There are other reasons to be wary of adopting cashless payments. They make budgeting more difficult and make you vulnerable to power cuts and computer failures. You are also putting yourself in the hands of corporations that may not have your best interests at heart. And someone is able to track exactly where you have been and what you have spent your money on. By all means use cashless payments where they are convenient, and allow them in your pubs, but there are dangers in the headlong rush to relegate cash to history.

November/December 2018

A Mixed Blessing

All-day pub opening is undoubtedly a good thing, but it has had its negative side

THIS YEAR saw the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of all-day opening for pubs, which came in on 22 August 1988. From the perspective of today, it is hard to believe that pubs were required to close for two or three hours every afternoon. Originally introduced by Lloyd George as an emergency measure during the First World War, it lingered on for over seventy years.

There were predictions of mayhem in the streets after people had been drinking for hours, but needless to say nothing of the kind occurred. However, it’s important to remember that pubs didn’t immediately fling their doors open. For quite a few years, most stuck to the old pattern of opening. I remember it being well-nigh impossible to find anywhere open in central Manchester on a Saturday afternoon after 3 pm. It was only the pressure from Wetherspoon’s and other pub chains that forced the generality of pubs to follow suit. It also initially didn’t apply to Sundays, which were only brought in to line in 1995.

However, it’s now become well-nigh universal for pubs in urban centres, and for food-led pubs in general. Overall, it’s hard to dispute that it’s greatly benefited pubgoers, allowing pubs to tailor their hours to what their customers actually want. It makes trips out to sample the pubs in a different area much easier, and has also led to a noticeable trend of pubs having a busy session around four in the afternoon when many tradespeople knock off.

While many pubs with footfall throughout the day benefited from the extended opening times, others found that they were spreading the same amount of customers over a greater number of hours, and thus increased costs. Therefore they had to look critically at when it actually would be financially worthwhile to be open, something that has become even more of a priority in the current century when there has been a steady decline in the overall business of pubs.

We now have a growing number of pubs that don’t open at all on one or more days of the week, while outside town centres, wet-led pubs are more often than not deciding not to open at all at lunchtimes, either on weekdays or even seven days a week. I’d guess that, if you took a set of pubs in a typical area that have been trading throughout the 1988-2018 period, the total amount of opening hours would actually be markedly less now than it was thirty years ago. Allied to this, there is much greater uncertainly as to when pubs will actually be open, which is made worse by the fact that so few pubs display their hours outside.

The old system also created a routine of drinking times, where the approach of either closing or opening concentrated the mind, whether it was the prospect of the shutters going down in the early afternoon, the early doors opening for that after-work pint, or the narrow two-hour window of Sunday lunchtime. If the pubs are open anyway, the incentive to have a drink at a specific time rather fades away, and sometimes leads to not bothering at all.

All-day opening, or the possibility of it, has now been with us for thirty years and has become accepted as a fact of life. Overall, it’s been greatly beneficial to pub users, and I’ve certainly taken advantage of it on a huge number of occasions. Most of the negative trends that have affected the pub trade would have happened anyway regardless of what had been done with hours. It’s certainly dramatically changed the landscape of how pubs actually function throughout the day, but it has to be accepted that change, even when generally beneficial, is rarely an entirely unmixed blessing.

September/October 2018

Pie in the Sky

Despite prophecies of doom, there’s still a bright future for wet-led pubs

EVERY so often, someone comes up with a report predicting the death of the wet-led pub and claiming that food is the future. The latest is someone called Christel Lane who has published a book entitled “From Taverns to Gastropubs” which seeks to “contextualise the rise of the gastropub through an exploration of food, drink and society over the past 500 years.”

Of course, the importance of food to pubs has greatly increased over the past few decades, and in many it is now the major part of their business. However, it’s important not to get carried away. These analyses always seem to reflect a very partial experience of pubs confined to city centres and prosperous commuter belts. Go to any ordinary town and you will still find plenty of pubs, and not just in obscure locations, where the food trade is limited or non-existent, and the bulk of their business is done after 9pm. How pubs like that are meant to adapt to a brave new world of wall-to-wall dining is difficult to fathom.

In fact, in recent years, in less prosperous areas the tide has been flowing the other way. Many pubs that used to serve weekday lunches for workers from local businesses have now dropped the food and often stopped opening at lunchtimes completely. In many of the smaller satellite towns of Greater Manchester, it’s now difficult to find any pub food whatsoever apart from in Spoons.

And, of course, earlier in the summer, many pubs were packed with punters watching the World Cup, and certainly not sitting down to a meal. Yes, wet-led pubs may have declined, but they’re not going to disappear or anything like it. Indeed, there are now specialist operators like Amber Taverns who are concentrating on the sector rather than regarding it as a poor relation to the upmarket food houses.

Hotting Up For Lager

Lager offers a huge potential market for craft brewers if they can get it right

WHILE there’s no reason why you can’t serve a cool, refreshing pint of cask beer in hot weather, the summer heatwave tested some pubs’ cellarmanship skills, and so drinkers’ thoughts inevitably turned to lager. That raises the question of why craft brewers can’t get more of a share of lager sales, which are currently dominated by the large international brewers. Lager accounts for two-thirds of all beer sold in British pubs; cask only a sixth, so there is a huge untapped market out there that seems ripe for the picking.

Lager has long since taken over from bitter as the default beer in British pubs, the one chosen by people who aren’t really that interested in beer. What is important to its drinkers is something that is accessible, consistent and refreshing, not something with strong or unusual flavours or wild variability. While there are plenty of craft lagers around, it’s noticeable how, at present, they are more often chosen by those who usually favour cask or craft ales, not the drinkers of Carling and Stella.

The challenge for craft brewers is to progress beyond just being one of a row of rotating craft kegs on the back wall, where they will inevitably be overshadowed by beers with louder, showier flavours. They need to become permanent fixtures on bars, so they attract regular, loyal customers, to be consistent, and to be distinctive, but not to the extent that people find them offputting. It needs to be perceived as a cooler choice while not marking the drinker out as being a bit weird. There is already a model to follow in Camden Hells, which is now a very common sight in more upmarket pubs and bars in London. Yes, it is now owned by AB InBev, but the foundations of its success were laid when Camden was an independent company.

July/August 2018

The Great Craft Sell-Out

It’s a fact of life that most successful start-up breweries will end up being bought by bigger competitors

THE PAST few years have seen a growing trend of successful craft breweries founded in the modern era being acquired by the major international brewers. We have seen such well-known brands as Goose Island, Lagunitas and Ballast Point being taken over in the US, plus Meantime and Camden in this country. As “Opening Times” went to press, there were reports that Heineken was planning to buy a stake in craft favourites Beavertown.

This has resulted in widespread disappointment, even a sense of betrayal, amongst craft beer fans. Selling out to “the man” is, for many, hard to forgive. On the other hand, if the owners are offered well over the book value for their company, they can’t really be blamed for seizing the chance of a comfortable retirement. It also contains an element of railing against fate. It may be regrettable, but it’s simply a fact of business life that the most likely outcome for a successful start-up is to be taken over by a larger competitor. Very few go on to spread their wings and fly independently in the way that BrewDog has done.

There’s a strange reluctance to recognize any merit in beers produced by the major breweries. In the 70s and 80s, CAMRA was very critical of the market dominance of the then “Big Six”, but it always accepted that they did produce some excellent real ales. Yet many craft fans are unwilling to touch anything in which the big boys have had a hand. But surely it’s entirely possible for a big company to produce a good beer, just as a small company can make a poor one. This comes across as an exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face.

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

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

Every small business start-up has a life-cycle, and there will come a time when the owner wants to move on. Most micro-breweries eventually just shut up shop because the owner has become too old, or unwell, or has lost interest, or isn’t making a worthwhile profit. If you look at the micros from the first couple of decades of CAMRA, few are still in existence in any form. Companies like the remaining family brewers, who have been in existence for a hundred years or more, are very much the exception, not the rule.

Brewing remains an industry where, compared with many others, the barriers to entry are very low, as shown by the fact that over 1,500 new breweries have been set up in this country in the present century. The loss of some favourites may be regretted, but we are likely in the future to see the cycle of cool new start-up turning into corporate acquisition repeated over and over again.

May/June 2018

You Could Be Next

It is short-sighted in the extreme for anyone involved in the pub trade to welcome minimum alcohol pricing

ON 1 MAY, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce a system of Minimum Alcohol Pricing, with the rate initially set at 50p per unit (10 ml) of pure alcohol. The claimed justification for this is that it is a way of reducing problem drinking but, given that it is estimated that it will affect 70% of all alcohol sold in the off-trade, it is an extremely blunt instrument. It is in effect punishing ordinary people of limited means for the problems of a minority. A couple could easily be made £200 a year worse off without even exceeding the very low official consumption guidelines. Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown that the UK is the fourth most expensive country in Europe for alcohol, so it’s not exactly cheap in the first place.

It also comes across as a fundamentally patronising and √©litist measure, implying that it is fine for the well-heeled to continue swigging single malts, claret and craft ales, but that the irresponsible proles are not to be trusted with an abundance of Carling, Glen’s Vodka and Lambrini. As the famous Victorian liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “Every increase of cost is a prohibition to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

It’s questionable to what extent it will affect the consumption patterns of problem drinkers anyway, and some may end up sacrificing other areas of expenditure. As the old Russian saying goes “Daddy, now that vodka is more expensive, will you drink less? No, my son, you will eat less.” It is also likely to lead to a whole raft of undesirable consequences, such as cross-border smuggling, bootleg brewing and distilling, and a switch to illegal drugs. Not so long ago, a Sheffield student had her eyesight permanently damaged by drinking counterfeit vodka, while five Lithuanian men were killed in Boston, Lincolnshire, by an explosion at an illegal vodka distillery. Minimum pricing could lead to more such tragedies.

Some in the licensed trade have welcomed the move as a way of redressing the price imbalance with the off-trade. However, it isn’t going to give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and it is hard to see how increasing the price of a can of lager from 60p to 90p is going to encourage anyone to spend £3.50 or more for a pint in the pub. It could even damage the pub trade by constraining household budgets and leaving people with less discretionary spending money.

It’s also an unedifying spectacle to see one part of the alcohol industry lining up alongside the anti-drink lobby in a misguided attempt to gain some short-term advantage over another section. As Winston Churchill said “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.” Surely all producers, retailers and consumers of alcoholic drinks should be united in opposing the neo-Prohibitionists rather than squabbling amongst themselves.

At a level of 50p per unit, it’s unlikely to affect any drinks sold in the on-trade, although it could hit some of the stronger guest ales sold in Wetherspoon’s after applying the 50p CAMRA discount vouchers. But the pub trade should bear in mind that the study by the University of Sheffield used to support the policy actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high. Any advantage gained from minimum pricing could turn out to be short-lived, as the spotlight turns to on-trade pricing. So, if you’re remotely inclined to support this measure, don’t forget that you could be next on the list.

March/April 2018

A Matter of Taste

Asking for tasters of beer is an affectation that is of little real value to the customer

THIRTY years ago, when most pubs just offered a fixed beer range, the idea of asking for a taster would have been greeted with derision. More recently, though, as ever-changing guest beers have increasingly become the norm, it has become much more common. If you’re confronted with an array of ten beers you’ve never heard of before, it’s not unreasonable to ask for a sample before committing yourself to spending what now can often be approaching a couple of quid just for a half.

However, the range of flavours encompassed by the great majority of beers is fairly limited and predictable, so you’re unlikely to end up with something that really frightens the horses. If it doesn’t suit your palate, then just don’t buy it again. It’s also doubtful whether a small sample really gives a fair impression of what a beer is like. It’s said that you don’t fully appreciate a beer until you reach the bottom of the glass.

It’s also something likely to incur the wrath of both bar staff and other customers if you do it when they’re three deep at the bar. You can imagine the cartoon of “The man who asked for a taster in Wetherspoon’s at 10.30 on Friday night”. And it does seem to appeal to a certain type of person who specialises in making a nuisance of himself. With sufficient chutzpah, it can easily be exploited to get a significant quantity of beer for free.

It’s sometimes argued that offering tasters is a good way of encouraging people to try cask beer. But surely it just adds a layer of mystique to the subject, and the best way of promoting cask must be to keep it in good condition and offer beers that people actually want to drink and are likely to make repeat purchases. And nobody should be asking for tasters to check whether the beer’s in good condition. You have a reasonable expectation in any pub of not getting a duff pint and, if you do, the remedy is to take it back and ask for it to be changed.

Yes, if a beer has an unusual or challenging flavour, then offering tasters makes sense. But, for the great majority of beers, it’s just an affectation on a par with putting little jam jars of beer alongside the pumps to indicate the colour. And you never see people ask for tasters of lager, do you?

Good Money After Bad

In spending vast sums on refurbishments, are pub operators chasing their own tail?

THE ECONOMY’S growing steadily, unemployment is at a ten-year low, and pub operators seem to have plenty of money to invest. Scarcely a day goes by without reading of some pub or other reopening after a £250,000 refurbishment. One local pub reputedly had a cool £1 million spent on doing it up. But, looking at the industry as a whole, you have to wonder what benefit it produces. Is it actually generating new business overall, or is it just dragging the same customers around the stock of pubs in a giant game of musical chairs?

I would have thought all that even the tattiest pubs need is a deep clean, new wallpaper, upholstery and carpets, perhaps a bit of new loose furniture and, if appropriate, some new kitchen equipment. 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 effect.

January/February 2018

Nobody Else Has Complained

Returning defective beer to the bar can all too easily become a minefield

CASK BEER is a natural, living product and, as such, with the best will in the world, it’s inevitable that occasionally you’ll be served with a sub-standard pint. What matters is not that it’s happened in the first place, but that the pub deals with the issue swiftly, politely and without quibble. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way, and an ill-mannered and unhelpful response can easily put a dampener on an enjoyable evening. Indeed, the whole business of returning beer to the bar can be something of a minefield.

The first thing is to be specific as to exactly what it is you’re complaining about. If the beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary, then you should have a cast-iron case, although opinions will vary on what degree of haziness is acceptable. However, there are other faults that are not so clear-cut, for example being served far too warm, lacking in condition, having a noticeable off-flavour, or simply being generally tired and end-of-barrel-ish. If you’re in a pub where you’re a regular and are known to the licensee and bar staff, such a complaint might be taken seriously, but in a strange pub you could well feel that you are chancing your arm.

It’s also important to be clear about your objective when making a complaint. Obviously the best solution is to be given an acceptable replacement, either the same beer which has been pulled through, or a new cask tapped, or a suitable alternative. Failing that, the aim should be to be given a refund, which you may well prefer if it’s the only cask beer on sale and you don’t fancy a Carling as a replacement. Or, in some cases, just venting your spleen will leave you with a sense of moral satisfaction.

The last two outcomes, though, imply that you’ll be bringing your visit to an end. If you’re in the middle of a pub crawl, or there’s an alternative pub nearby, that might be entirely acceptable. But in other situations, for example having a meal or social evening with a group, you might not want to do that, and thus be reluctant to create a fuss. You’ll just quietly leave the sub-standard pint, and put up with Guinness or Diet Coke for the rest of the proceedings. And, even if you gain a moral victory, creating a confrontational situation may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth and spoiling your evening.

In general, attitudes to changing sub-standard beer have improved over the years. The days of “everyone else is drinking it” or “real ale’s meant to look like soup/taste like vinegar” are largely a thing of the past. One of the worst responses I recall was “but you’ve drunk some of it!” Well, if I hadn’t drunk any, how would I know it was foul? But that kind of quibbling hasn’t entirely disappeared. Given the amount of goodwill at risk, compared with the gross profit on a pint, it’s hard to see why pubs continue to argue the toss about changing beer if customers present a reasonable case.

Some will point out that, if you stick to mass-market lagers and smooth beers, you won’t have any of this problem with variability. However, the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it reaches heights that keg never can, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem. And keg beers, especially small-batch “craft” ones, are by no means immune from faults either.

November/December 2017

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Driverless cars could give a major shot in the arm to the pub trade

RECENTLY, there has been a growing amount of interest in the development of driverless cars. The wider subject is really beyond the remit of this column, although I’m sure there are many applications where they will prove very useful. However, as with many other disruptive technologies, both government and independent commentators still seem unsure as to how they will eventually come to be used.

Looking at the subject from a more parochial perspective, one area where they could make a massive difference is in getting you home from the pub. In rural areas, with negligible public transport and distances beyond an economic taxi ride, pubgoing opportunities are currently very constrained. And, even in towns and cities, while there will be some pubs that can be reached easily on foot or by public transport, there are plenty more that can’t be. Just imagine programming your automatic chariot for an evening’s crawl round some otherwise hard-to-reach pubs!

Some have suggested that there will always need to be a sober, licensed driver on hand in case of emergencies, but that rather defeats the whole purpose, and how quickly could someone be expected to react anyway if they were busy posting on Facebook? Indeed, one of the obvious applications that has been suggested is eliminating human drivers from taxis. And surely one of the major benefits of driverless cars would be to enhance mobility for people such as the very elderly or those with chronic illnesses who are currently unable to drive themselves. However, no doubt the killjoys will be working hard on ways to prevent driverless cars being used in this way, saying “that’s not what they were intended for”.

Posing a Problem

So-called “posing tables” are a divisive and uncomfortable abomination in pubs

A LOCAL pub has recently received a “craft” makeoever, which involved replacing about half the seating with high-level “posing tables”. This is a plague that is afflicting more and more pubs nowadays. I suppose the thinking is that they appear modern and trendy, conjuring up visions of bright young things disporting their long, skinny-jean clad legs in a fashionable, cutting-edge bar. But, more often than not, you end up with plump middle-aged folk perched incongruously on high stools.

They spoil the look of the interior of a pub and create an artificial division between drinkers by putting them on two levels. You might say that some people prefer them and should be given the choice, but would anyone walk out of a pub if there were none, and did anyone ever suggest them when asked what they would like to see in a pub refurbishment? It also seems that they appeal to people with an exaggerated sense of their own importance who want to be the centre of attention. The formal name for them is “poseur tables”, which rather sums up their attraction.

A couple of decades ago, there was a fad for putting raised seating areas in pubs to break up large areas of flat floor. However, the realisation eventually dawned that these were very unfriendly to the disabled, by effectively closing off a substantial chunk of the pub to them. You certainly don’t see them in new schemes, and I can think of a few pubs that have had them removed during refurbishments.

Much the same is true of posing tables, which will place people in wheelchairs at a lower level than their friends, and also pose a challenge for older customers with creaky joints. They’re an ugly abomination that should have no place in pubs, and the sooner they’re all consigned to the skip the better.

September/October 2017

Slippery Slope

The anti-tobacco campaign is increasingly being used as a template for action against alcohol

LAST JULY saw the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket smoking ban in England. At the time, those of us who argued that the same kind of restrictions would increasingly be applied to alcohol and other categories of food and drink were pooh-poohed for scaremongering. Tobacco, they said, was clearly a special case. However, the claim of a slippery slope has proved to be more correct with each passing year, and it seems that producers of craft drinks have at last woken up to the threat.

Earlier this year, the “Observer” reported how Jared Brown, of craft gin distiller Sipsmith, had 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 asked. “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.”

“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. It’s often argued that restrictions on advertising and promotion would curb big brands, but in fact the opposite is true. They always serve to benefit established players at the expense of new entrants, as the market is in effect ossified, and customers are forced to fall back on folk memory and what they ordered before.

It would now be absolutely impossible to introduce a new legitimate cigarette brand and, 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 magazine articles about them be prohibited as a form of indirect advertising?

A More Selective Appeal

Some brewers’ response to post-ban decline comes across as utterly delusional

IN THE ten years since the smoking ban, the amount of beer sold in pubs and clubs has fallen by well over a third. While the ban isn’t the sole cause, nobody with any knowledge of the industry can deny that it has been a major factor. The effect has been felt particularly sharply amongst the smaller, wet-led local pubs.

So it is quite astounding how so many brewers and pub operators have done their best to put a brave face on what, by any standards, has been a disaster for their industry. Some have claimed that it has increased the appeal of pubs to women, despite the fact that more women smoke than men. And one brewery director, who had presided over selling off a quarter of his company’s pubs, said that “the pub trade has evolved to become stronger and more inclusive”.

Obviously business owners have to live in the real world rather than just moaning that life isn’t fair. But this comes across as very much like the manager of the spoof rock band Spinal Tap who, when asked why they were now playing in small theatres rather than arenas, replied that “their appeal has become more selective”.