December 2010

Freezing Your Drink

A freeze on drinks licences will hit responsible consumers while doing nothing to tackle alcohol abuse

A NEW high water mark has been reached in the anti-drink tide flowing through Scotland, with the news that West Dunbartonshire Council has decided to impose a complete ban on any new drinks licences, in both the on and off-trade, in 15 out of 18 areas within the authority. In the remaining three areas applicants for licences will have to prove that customers would not travel from an “overprovision” area to purchase alcohol.

Inevitably this will lead to stagnation in the market and act to the detriment of responsible consumers of alcohol by blocking any new entrants. If this policy applied in this area, we wouldn’t have any Wetherspoons, none of the innovative new bars in places like Chorlton, and no independent off-licences like Carringtons. The policy is also likely to hold back economic development in the area, as who would want to open a new supermarket, hotel or sports club if they were unable to get an alcohol licence for it? Patrick Brown of the Scottish Beer and Pub Association was quite right to say “The Board appears to be more interested in political grandstanding than it is in public health.”

The Chair of the Licensing Board, councillor Jim Brown, said: “We have far too many pubs, bars and off-sales shops given the size of the area.” You have to ask what right this self-important killjoy has to make judgments as what constitutes “too many” pubs or off-licences. Surely the number is determined by the level of business – if all are trading profitably, then there cannot be too many. And is there really any evidence is there that freezing licences is likely to reduce either consumption in general or so-called “problem drinking”?

It hasn’t been made clear whether existing licences will be transferable – if they are, the move will have the unintended consequence of handing a potential goldmine to anyone who has one, as they will be able to sell it on to the highest bidder.

Music to Whose Ears?

Bar staff should never impose their choice of piped music on pub customers

IT’S SOME TIME since I referred to the subject of piped music in pubs, but recently I encountered what to my mind is one of the worst offences, in a pub that I would have expected to know better, where hip-hop style music (possibly Radio 1) was being played at considerable volume. The average age of the customers was well over 50, so I doubt whether that would be their favoured listening, but the bar staff were all, by the looks of it, under 25. So no prizes for guessing who chose the radio station.

It’s my firm belief that most pubs are better off without any piped music at all. But surely, if there is to be music, it should make some attempt to match the preferences of the customers, not the bar staff. A jukebox does provide some customer choice, but it was a frequent complaint when they were more commonplace, that the staff could override customer selections and impose their own tastes. Of course, one of the big plus points of the main Wetherspoons chain (although not Lloyds No.1 Bars) is that they are music-free.

All Wrong

Staff give a poor impression greeting customers in an offhand manner

THE LATEST trend amongst bar staff is not to say the usual “Can I help you?” or “What can I get you?” but instead simply to ask “Are you all right there?” I know this is just a fad of contemporary speech, and I’ve heard it in shops too, but even so it comes across as offhand verging on rude. Rather than ordering a round of drinks, the obvious temptation is to reply, “I’m fine, thank you very much,” and put the ball back in their court.

November 2010

Gimme Shelter

Providing decent accommodation for smokers is an increasingly important factor for pubs

THE SMOKING BAN has now been in force for over three years, but in its early days few pubs seemed to make much effort to provide covered shelters for smokers. Perhaps they imagined all the smokers would just give up, or that they would be replaced by crowds of antismokers who had previously shunned pubs. But, now that things have settled down, the more enterprising pubs have begun to realise that they need to cater for all their customers, and I’ve noticed quite a lot of investment going on in provision for smokers.

While obviously they are only two examples out of a growing number in the local area, the Railway at Rose Hill now has a very smart elevated, covered area of wooden decking at the rear, while the beer garden at the Armoury in Edgeley, once little more than a patch of grass, now has two substantial separate shelters and bears a distinct resemblance to a grotto. More and more pubs now have a sign outside advertising, amongst other facilities, “Covered, heated smoking patio,” while another proclaims “Plasma Screen TV for smokers” – so it’s becoming an important point of differentiation.

Although undoubtedly the smoking ban has put many smokers off visiting pubs, and made others visit less often, surveys have shown that smokers are still more likely to visit pubs than non-smokers, so it stands to reason that pubs should do what they can within the law to accommodate them. If you are a smoker, it is very clear which pubs extend a welcome to you, and which can’t be bothered, and that is obviously likely to influence where you take your custom, and indeed that of your non-smoking friends as well.

Marketers are always looking for that key factor which will determine which pub a group will go to, because one or two members will insist they won’t go anywhere that doesn’t have it. In the past, this has often been said of cask beer, but now it’s equally likely you will also hear someone say “I’m not going there, there’s nowhere to have a smoke”.

Problem, What Problem?

Britain doesn’t drink too much, but too often drinks unwisely

IF YOU BELIEVED the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that Britain was in the grip of an unprecedented wave of alcohol-related health problems and disorder, and that consumption was shooting through the roof. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear representatives of the anti-drink lobby claiming precisely that. However, once you look at the facts, the reality is entirely different. Average alcohol consumption has been falling steadily year-on-year since 2004, and in 2009 dropped by the sharpest rate since 1948, falling by 6% in a year. We are now drinking 13% less than in 2004, and our alcohol consumption is below the EU average.

It seems that people are really taking all the anti-drink messages to heart and curbing their intake. However, it doesn’t apply evenly across the board – those who wish to be responsible and health-conscious are reducing what is already often a very modest level of consumption, while problem drinkers of all kinds carry on regardless. In the process, drinking becomes increasingly denormalised and seen as something socially unacceptable, which is obviously bad news for the pub trade. Britain’s drink problem – if it has one at all – is not that we consume too much as a society, but that it is distributed too unevenly. What we need are more responsible, regular, moderate drinkers, but sadly the tide of anti-drink hysteria is driving us in the opposite direction.

October 2010

Minimum Madness

The plan to impose a minimum unit price in Greater Manchester is ill-considered, illegal and unworkable

THE TEN Greater Manchester local authorities are proposing to implement a 50p minimum unit price for alcohol within the boundaries of the former county. In reality, there’s no chance of this happening, as they don’t have the power to do it in the first place, and in any case such a price-fixing scheme would be illegal under both UK and EU competition law. Given this, it must be asked why they are wasting so much time and money on a plan that is never going to be implemented.

Such a move would obviously lead to a vast amount of cross-border shopping for alcohol, including proxy purchases for friends and neighbours. And if you were going over the border to get your booze, you might well end up doing the rest of your weekly shop there, too. A better way of damaging the grocery trade within Greater Manchester is hard to imagine. It would also inevitably encourage black-market operators, who aren’t going to be anywhere near as scrupulous as legitimate retailers over underage sales.

Supporters claim that moderate drinkers would “hardly be affected”, but this could easily make a couple £300 a year worse off without even approaching the official “recommended” drinking levels. In fact, studies have shown that it would impose significant costs on less well-off households, while heavy drinkers would be likely to cut down in other areas to fund their alcohol intake. The claret and malt whisky swigging middle classes would, of course, be unaffected. A more broad-brush, ineffectual and poorly targeted way of addressing problem drinking is hard to imagine.

And if you think that imposing a minimum unit price would do anything whatsoever to bring more customers into pubs, when the reasons for the decline of pubs are far more varied and complex than simply price, you are sorely deluded and indeed playing into the hands of the anti-drink lobby.

Swatting Flies

Blocking access to the serving counter is one of most obnoxious and selfish behaviours encountered in the pub

I RECENTLY went into a local pub and found the entire L-shaped counter in the main bar was blocked by people sitting at bar stools and others stood chatting to them. Nobody made the slightest attempt to move to let me or others get through, so the only way to get served was to attract the attention of the staff through a thicket of people and then manhandle your pints over their heads.

Deliberately blocking access to the serving counter always strikes me as a highly selfish and antisocial practice. It can’t be much fun either sitting or standing there with other customers constantly jostling you, passing pints over your shoulder and potentially spilling them over your head. If there’s a very long bar counter, it might be tolerable for part of its length, but where space is limited surely pubs should encourage people to move away once they have been served to make room for others. It’s also very offputting to walk into a strange pub and find an unbroken screen of people blocking your way to the bar – often when the rest of the pub is deserted.

September 2010

A Charter for Killjoys

Seemingly minor changes to licensing law have the potential to cause serious problems for pubs

HIDDEN within the small print of the Coalition’s licensing reform plans are two proposals that have the potential to cause serious problems for the pub trade. It is planned to drop the “proximity rule” that requires objectors to licences to live reasonably close to the premises in question, and also to formally add the “promotion of public health” to licensing objectives.

So this will give some miseryguts in Stockton the right to object to a pub licence in Stockport simply because it’s a pub and therefore in his mind a source of moral degeneracy.

And how on earth is a pub supposed to “promote public health”? While it may create a lot of human happiness, and thus improve people’s state of mind, it can’t really be said that a pub, especially a wet-led one, promotes health, especially when two pints at a sitting is now officially regarded as “hazardous drinking.” Does any other type of business have such a pious aspiration loaded on to it? Are butchers required by law to promote healthy eating, or car dealers to promote road safety?

In combination, these two measures could open the way for alliances of public objectors, ideologically motivated by a general dislike of pubs, drinking and people enjoying themselves. Indeed, the germ of such an organised force already exists in the form of an innocent-sounding body called Licensing Aid, set up by the temperance-funded Institute of Alcohol Studies.

As with many other such things, in the short term this may seem as though it’s nothing much to be worried about, but in the long run it must have the potential to come back and bite pubs with a vengeance. While it is described as “rebalancing” the licensing laws, in reality it is tipping them very steeply against the pub trade. And the more pubs become sanitised temples of health, the more their customers will turn to the arms of Tesco and informal social gatherings on private premises.

Flat-Track Bully

Beer quality is not just for Friday nights

SOMEONE was recently singing the praises of a particular local pub. It seemed to be very much on the up, and the beer had certainly impressed on a Friday night Stagger. However, I had later called in at a quieter time and had a couple of pints that were both indifferent verging on poor. Beer quality is not something just for busy times, but needs to be maintained throughout the week. It is one thing to tap a cask and serve it quickly when the pub is heaving, but something else to have a sensible policy of stock rotation to match demand and to understand the rituals of hard and soft pegging so that the beer will still be in good nick when trade is much thinner, which nowadays is most of the week. The fact that a pub is quiet is no excuse for lacklustre beer.

Many years ago, there was a local pub – now long since closed – that was notorious for this. On Friday nights it might have a range of fresh, tasty beers, but by Tuesday it was offering ten different varieties of Sarson’s Best. The truest test of whether a pub genuinely knows how to keep beer well is to try it out not on Friday or Saturday night but early doors on a Monday or Tuesday evening. And you have to wonder how many highly-regarded pubs get their reputation purely from the times when the beer is gushing through the pumps.

August 2010

What’s the Cost?

Banning below-cost selling of alcohol is not the easy panacea that it may seem

A LOT OF CONCERN has been expressed recently about supermarkets selling alcohol below cost, so the new government have said that they will outlaw the practice. But, when you look into it, it’s not as simple as you might think, and there’s no guarantee that it will prove to be the panacea some imagine. While a certain amount of below-cost selling undoubtedly goes on, there’s probably a lot less than may appear, as many of those low prices will be result of the supermarkets exercising their bargaining power to extract eye-watering discounts from suppliers.

There’s also a question mark as to whether such a ban could make it impossible for retailers to slash prices to shift surplus or short-dated stock, with the result that perfectly drinkable products would end up being poured down the drain. That might lead to a move to make producers of alcoholic drinks that weren’t guaranteed best-sellers supply their products on a sale or return basis, making it more difficult and risky to get unusual or specialist products on the shelves and reducing choice for consumers.

It’s not even straightforward to define what “cost price” is. The government have put forward four different options for consultation. One, just defining cost as duty plus VAT, is seen by many as too low as it excludes any production or distribution costs. Another, defining it as the invoice price paid, would mean opening up retailers’ accounts to expensive and time-consuming audits. And the remaining two simply seem to give the industry carte blanche to define cost themselves, thus creating a cosy price-fixing cartel that would effectively end price competition at the lower end of the market.

Vaulting into the Lounge

Getting rid of separate rooms in pubs doesn’t turn customers into one big happy family

MANY YEARS AGO, the vast majority of pubs had a separate public bar – round here generally called a vault – and lounge, reflecting distinctively different groups of customers who used them. But, over the years, this division has steadily been swept away, reflecting a supposedly more democratic and egalitarian society, and a desire to use the space in pubs more flexibly. Nowadays, it’s relatively rare to find a pub that does have a completely separate vault, although some do have a plainer section at one end of their drinking space.

But that doesn’t mean that the customers have become homogenous too, and sometimes you end up with the former vault customers in effect colonising the lounge. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of boisterous behaviour and robust banter, and indeed in the past that “vault trade” was the heart of many pubs. But if that’s what you encounter when walking in through the front door in search of a quiet pint or a bite to eat, you may well think you’ve wandered into the wrong place. Indeed there’s one pub I can think of that still has a perfectly serviceable separate vault, but where all the vault-type customers congregate on the lounge side, leaving the vault empty.

Setting aside separate sections of a pub for different groups of clientele is something that has a practical justification of keeping everyone happy and is nothing to do with antiquated class divisions. Many pubs, for example, would benefit from having a separation between areas where children were permitted, and areas that were adults-only. And, during the recent World Cup, many potential customers might have appreciated a football-free zone.

July 2010

Lost in Denial

Claiming that the smoking ban has not led to pub closures reflects a head-in-the-sand attitude

A couple of months before the General Election, then Home Office minister Gillian Merron made the astonishing statement that: “The pub trade does have challenges and I am aware of that but it isn’t the case that the (smoking) ban had led to pub closures.” Really? Not even a single one? This comment flew in the face of the vast weight of anecdotal evidence that the ban has had a severe impact on the trade of pubs, and the statements from virtually every brewer and pub company reporting their results that it has hit their sales and profits.

In the words of one licensee, “The smoking ban has certainly caused most pubs, especially those that were traditional drinking outlets (like mine, for example), a lot of pain – and it has caused a lot to close, too. To say it hasn’t is, frankly, ridiculous and shows a severe lack of knowledge of the problems the pub trade is facing right now.”

Even if you disagreed with her, she might have commanded a modicum of respect if she had said, "We accept that the smoking ban has resulted in some pub closures but we believe that this is a small price to pay for the sake of the nation's health,” or words to that effect. But she didn’t. It was gratifying, then, to see her lose her seat in Lincoln on May 6th with an above average swing against Labour.

Before the ban, we had to endure similar nonsense from its supporters claiming that non-smokers would be attracted back to pubs in droves, and that there was no way that the anti-smoking campaign would metamorphose into a similar campaign against alcohol, both of which have proved to be completely unfounded. Anyone who wants to stand up for pubs and responsible drinking in the future must honestly confront the political and social climate affecting them rather than continuing to deny the reality.

Gone East

Is the large-scale conversion of pubs to ethnic restaurants viable in the long term?

A noticeable feature travelling around the North and Midlands is the large number of former pubs that have been converted to ethnic restaurants, sometimes Chinese but more often than not Indian. Recently we have acquired two local examples, with the Robin Hood at the south end of Hazel Grove becoming a “Thai Fusion” restaurant and the Wrights Arms at Offerton – a pub in a good location that never seemed to make the most of its potential – currently in the process of being converted to an Indian.

You do have to wonder, though, exactly where all the custom for these conversions comes from. Surely the factors that have affected the pub trade in these kinds of locations apply equally to restaurants. Restaurants benefit, perhaps even more than pubs, from clustering together in town and village centres rather than being on isolated sites. Also, people tend to look for a kind of intimacy of scale in restaurants – sitting in splendid isolation in an echoing room on a Tuesday night in November isn’t going to be very appealing. And they’re essentially more limited in their trade – you can have a full sit-down meal in a pub, but people don’t visit restaurants for just a quick drink or a snack.

Obviously there must be a superfically attractive business case for these conversions, or they wouldn’t happen, but it’s sad to see so many once-thriving pubs lost. And are out-of-town ethnic restaurants really all that viable anyway? I’ve seen a fair number of former Little Chefs converted in this way that have closed again within a couple of years, although the one on the A6 at New Mills Newtown does seem to be trading again after a period of closure.

June 2010

Cheaper than Water

The claim that beer is being sold cheaper than water is grossly dishonest

THE ANTI-DRINK lobby and the likes of the “Daily Mail” have often been heard to claim that supermarkets are irresponsibly “selling beer cheaper than water”. But, when you look into this, it is highly misleading, because they are not remotely comparing like with like.

In Tesco, you can buy four cans of “value lager” for 92p, or 52p per litre. But this only has a strength of 2% ABV, which would have made it legal under US Prohibition. Given the sheer amount of liquid you would need to consume, it would be well-nigh physically impossible to get in any sense drunk on the stuff. Indeed, it baffles me why anyone would want to buy it. They are then comparing this with the price of premium branded bottled waters – the most expensive multipack I found was Highland Spring at 76p a litre. Again I can’t understand why anyone would spend so much on water, but if people do that’s their choice.

A far more honest comparison would be with the supermarkets’ “value” bottled water. When I recently checked on Tesco’s shelves, their still water was 13p for a two-litre bottle, and the fizzy water a mere 10p, or only a tenth of the price per litre of the lager. Even the more reasonably priced branded waters are far cheaper than the lager, and Tesco’s standard own-brand lager would be considerably dearer than any water. Yes, it may be true that the very cheapest and weakest lager is a bit cheaper than an expensive designer water, but as a general statement the claim that beer is being sold cheaper than water just does not stand up. You can no doubt buy an expensive racing bike for more than the cost of an old banger, but that does not mean in any meaningful sense that cars are cheaper than bicycles.

This claim is not far short of an outright lie, and is typical of the dishonest tactics used by the anti-drink lobby. It is on a par with their constant references to “24-hour drinking” when in fact the number of pubs open for the serving of alcohol 24 hours a day can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Given this, it is regrettable that it has been taken up by some people seeking to champion pubs, who really should know better.

Because Nanny Says So

Made-up targets do the cause of health promotion no good

A WHILE BACK I highlighted how the official guidelines on safe drinking levels had been plucked out of thin air with no scientific basis. Now it seems as though the message of eating “five-a-day” portions of fruit and vegetables falls into the same category. A massive study covering over 500,000 people has shown that the reduction in cancer risk is a mere 2.5%, which falls well short of being statistically significant. And apparently the figure was dreamed up in California in 1988 for no better reason than it was double the average consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Now, obviously in a broad sense eating fruit and vegetables is going to do you good, so it’s easy to say that even an unscientific target can’t do any harm. However, if taken too seriously, it can lead to the inappropriate targeting of resources on people who are only falling a bit short of the target, and can be harmful if applied strictly to children who need plenty of protein and calcium to help them grow. Also, it is likely to undermine the credibility of all health messages, however sound the scientific backing. When you were a small child, if you were told not to do something, but given no better reason than “because mummy says so”, you would never have found it very convincing.

If we are to be given official health advice, it must be based on good scientific evidence and treat us as responsible adults, not naughty children.

May 2010

Nature or Nurture?

What happens in the pub cellar is the key factor affecting the quality of beer in the glass

GREENE KING IPA is possibly the biggest-selling cask beer in the UK, and is often dismissed is irredeemably dull and bland. But, when it is well kept it can be a very good and distinctive beer, something that I have experienced on the rare occasions (generally on its home turf in East Anglia) I have encountered it on top form. But this raises the important question of to what extent the drinker’s enjoyment of a pint of cask beer derives from the intrinsic characteristics of the beer, and to what extent from the general standard of cellarmanship in the pub.

It has long been noticeable that a few pubs manage to coax depths of flavour and character out of beers such as Tetley Bitter which most others signally fail to do. And I would argue that the vast majority of beers (or at least those that have become reasonably well established and are not produced by short-lived micros) have the potential to be very good indeed in the right hands. I will admit that there are a few, however, such as Websters Yorkshire Bitter and Worthington Bitter, that do seem so intrinsically bland that they can never get there however well looked after, although an example where all the tick-box aspects of good cellarmanship are there can still be recognised.

All the regular beers from the four Greater Manchester family brewers, although seen by some as rather dull, are capable of scaling the heights when well looked after. Indeed probably the most memorable pint of beer I have ever had was a pint of Robinson’s Unicorn (Best Bitter as it was then) in a Stockport local towards the end of a pub crawl when you might have expected tastebuds to be getting jaded. So I would say the relative contribution of cellarmanship to the quality of the beer in the glass is considerably more than is often acknowledged.

Some of the beers that enthusiasts rave about only tend to appear in specialist outlets where they can expect to be well looked after, and might fare differently if made available to a diverse cross-section of pubs. Even a Thornbridge product might not be too impressive if turning over a bit too slowly on a lone handpump at the end of the bar of a family dining outlet. It is far too simplistic to say that Beer A is wonderful and Beer B is rubbish when so much depends on what happens in the cellar.

Going Dry

A major pub operator divesting wet-led sites sounds an ominous death-knell for the pub trade

MANAGED house operator Mitchells & Butlers have announced that they are planning a rapid exit from wet-led pubs, and intend to focus their efforts on dining brands such as Harvester, Toby Carvery and Sizzling Pub Company. Hopefully this will provide opportunities for other companies to acquire some of their wet-led sites and run them in a more enterprising manner. But I can’t help thinking it represents a further step in the steady erosion of the original concept of pubs as essentially places to drink and socialise, with food at most as a sideline.

In a growing number of areas, the proportion of pubs of that actually are pubs rather than “dining outlets” is rapidly dwindling, and the welcome to customers who don’t want to eat can be grudging in the extreme. Indeed, in many cases where a pub has been turned over to a food-led operation, the removal of public bars and meeting rooms has led to the expulsion of what wet trade there still was in the place. They may serve up a tolerable meal, but would anyone even cross the street to a Toby Carvery to savour its atmosphere and drinks range?

April 2010

Labelling Away Diversity

Mandatory health warnings will reduce the choice of alcoholic drinks

THERE HAVE been numerous calls recently to bring in compulsory “health” labelling on alcoholic drinks packages. Fair enough, you may think, it’s not banning anything, it’s simply providing drinkers with information, but in practice such a scheme could lead to a significant reduction in the variety of drinks available in the UK. One major importer has already stopped bringing in a particular beer brand because they didn’t think it was practical to include the necessary labelling elements on the bottles. If you look at a selection of bottles and cans, you will see that the mass-market ones already have the health warnings, the more interesting and unusual ones by and large don’t.

Mandatory labelling will impose an extra burden on small producers entering the market, and it is likely to deter people from importing low-volume specialist drinks, whether beers, wines or spirits, as they will have to either spend money redesigning the labels or put unsightly extra stickers on bottles or cans. And does it really matter in terms of the overall message that a handful of small-selling products don’t have the labels when the vast majority, including all the big brands, do?

It doesn’t help that the contents of the labels are highly questionable anyway – the official unit guidelines, as this column has pointed out before, were plucked out of thin air without any scientific justification, and neither is there any evidence that drinking small quantities of alcohol will harm unborn babies. The recommendation that expectant mothers should abstain from alcohol entirely was adopted because it was clear and simple, not because it was true.

And, of course, as we have seen with tobacco, mandatory labels will inevitably be the start of a slippery slope. They will get bigger, they will have to appear on the front of bottles, they will have to appear on wine lists and menus, they will have to appear on adverts, they will have to be prominently displayed on all bars, they will have to include pictures of diseased livers and car crashes. The anti-drink lobby will never say enough is enough.

All that Glisters

A surfeit of golden ales can make visiting a free house all too predictable

I RECENTLY went into a well-regarded multi-beer pub and was struck by the fact that over half the beers on offer had something along the lines of “Pale”, “Gold” or “Light” in their title. It was a cold winter’s night and, to be honest, I was looking for something a bit more robust and warming.

The past few years have seen a very definite trend towards golden ales, and up to a point they have been a refreshing antidote to predictable “brown beers”, but you can have too much of a good thing, and sometimes it seems impossible to get away from them. It would be good to see a few more milds, stouts and old ales on sale, and even some of the old-fashioned English bitters with generous helpings of both malt and hops and a rich copper hue.

Last year on holiday in East Sussex I enjoyed a number of pints of Harvey’s Sussex Best, a true classic beer with a highly distinctive flavour that certainly meets the above description. A few more beers like that on the bars of free houses would make a welcome change from a long list of identikit golden ales.

March 2010

Majority, What Majority?

The smoking ban in pubs has never been supported by a majority of the population

It’s often claimed by supporters of the smoking ban in pubs that it is supported by a majority of the population. Sometimes the likes of fake charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) go so far as to say that it enjoys “overwhelming” support.

However, this quite simply isn’t true. The latest edition of the annual British Social Attitudes survey says: “In Britain as a whole, the majority support a smoking ban, with just seven per cent saying that smoking should be freely allowed. However, the level of restriction, whether a complete ban or simply restricted to certain areas, divides the public. While just under half (46 per cent) support a ban on smoking in pubs and bars altogether, a similar proportion (41 per cent) prefer limiting smoking to certain areas of pubs and bars.”

So, nearly three years after the ban took effect, less than half of those surveyed support it. In fact, this survey – which is carried out by a government agency and thus can’t be accused of having an anti-ban axe to grind – has NEVER shown a majority of people to be in favour of a blanket smoking ban in pubs and bars. This suggests that they do not regard them as genuinely public areas in the way that, say, station concourses are, but rather see them as part of the licensee’s space where customers are allowed in as guests.

Mandatory Madness

The new government code of practice will impact on responsible and irresponsible pubs alike

The government have announced the introduction of a new mandatory code of practice for pubs and bars. All you can drink promotions and speed drinking competitions will be banned from April, and pubs required to provide free tap water, while from October smaller measures of beer, wine and spirits must be offered and any customers appearing to be under 18 must be asked for identification. Now, I’m not going to rush to the barricades to defend all you can drink promotions, but it is na├»ve to think that well-run pubs have nothing to fear from this. Taken as a whole, these measures represent an unprecedented degree of interference in the way licensed premises are run, which will impose new burdens on responsible and irresponsible licensees alike.

While in reality I can’t see it happening very often, requiring pubs and bars to offer free tap water opens up the opportunity for bloody-minded people to occupy space and use glassware while contributing nothing to the overheads of the establishment. If you were running a pub in the Lake District and a party of eight thirsty hikers came in and demanded eight pints of tap water with ice you might not be too impressed.

I’ve no problem with requiring pubs and bars to offer 125ml glasses of wine, which after all are roughly equivalent to a half of 5% beer or a 35ml measure of spirits. But I’m puzzled as to what they mean by requiring them to serve smaller measures of beers and spirits. Do any pubs actually only serve beer in pints? Or do they mean they’re going to make pubs offer nips, which will involve a costly investment in glassware and possibly dispense equipment to meet a negligible demand? And, likewise, does it just mean pubs will have to offer single measures of spirits, or that a single must be defined as 25ml rather than 35ml, which will require all those pubs that have gone over to 35ml to replace all their optics?

February 2010

Fancy an Ersaztenbrau?

The idea of a “safe” alcohol substitute completely misses the point

SCIENTISTS led by the appropriately-named Professor David Nutt, who was sacked from his government post last year for suggesting ecstasy and cannabis were safer than alcohol, say they have come up with a form of synthetic alcohol that they claim will eliminate many of our supposed alcohol problems. Apparently it replicates the effects of alcohol but can then be reversed by an antidote, leaving people hangover-free.

However, this completely misses the point. Alcoholic drinks have been enjoyed for thousands of years – they are part of our history and culture. Even when produced on an industrial scale, they are essentially made from natural ingredients rather than being synthesised in a laboratory.

It often seems to be believed by members of the drug lobby that people only, or primarily, drink alcohol to get drunk, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. People consume alcoholic drinks, even the bog-standard ones, because they like the taste. Beer and cider in particular can be extremely refreshing, while whisky may raise your spirits on a chilly day. And wine in particular, but beer and cider too, can be an excellent complement to food. If people purely wanted to drink for the effect, they would drink vodka diluted with the mixer of their choice. But, in general, they don’t.

It’s also probably true to say that, on a large majority of occasions when people drink alcohol, they experience nothing more than a slight glow. Of course people are not indifferent to the effect of alcohol, but it is not consumed solely for the effect in the way that cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine and LSD are. Despite what the drug lobby claim, it is not “just another drug”. And I can’t honestly see beer, cider, wines and spirits disappearing any day soon.

Bigger Spoonfuls

Wetherspoons’ expansion is a double-edged sword

BEFORE Christmas, J. D. Wetherspoon announced that over the next five years, they planned to open 250 new pubs, which would create over 10,000 new jobs. At a time when much of the pub trade is struggling, you have to give them credit for knowing what they are doing and creating a chain of busy, successful pubs. They offer a wide range of food and drink at reasonable prices in a welcoming, non-threatening environment, and now sell more cask beer than any other pub company. And Chairman Tim Martin is one of the few industry leaders who is willing to question the prevailing anti-drink orthodoxy.

However, you have to wonder how many of those 10,000 will be a net gain for the pub trade, and how many will simply replace jobs in other pubs that end up closing because of the competition from Wetherspoons. And it’s difficult not to feel a twinge of regret for the loss of small, quirky, individual pubs, however grotty they may have been, to be replaced by what often come across as bland, standardised drinking emporiums.

But independently-run pubs can’t be sheltered from the realities of competition, and if they want to continue to exist alongside Wetherspoons, and justify charging higher prices, they need to offer something distinctively different and better in terms of atmosphere, standards of service and quality of food and drink.

January 2010

Another World

The drinking scene of thirty years ago showed some amazing contrasts with the present day

As a new decade dawns, it is interesting to look at just how much the pub and beer scene has changed over the years. So here are a few points of the drinking and pubgoing experience of the start of the 80s that are very different from today:

  • Most pubs here in the North-West just served standard mild and bitter. Apart from the odd sighting of Pedigree or Draught Bass, there was nothing that could be called a premium beer
  • Beer was often sold from unmarked handpumps
  • Electric beer dispense was commonplace, typically using diaphragm meters, which were generally unmarked too
  • Free houses were virtually unknown and there were no guest beers. It was just the regular products of the owning brewery
  • Across the board, there was a lot of choice, with substantial tied estates belonging to Border, Higsons, Burtonwood, Oldham Brewery, Boddingtons, Matthew Brown, Mitchells and Yates & Jackson that have now largely vanished from the face of the earth
  • But in many local areas there was a marked dearth of choice, in particular with large areas such as Warrington being dominated by Greenalls
  • It was considered a point worthy of note that in Macclesfield you could get beer from eight different breweries (Ansells, Bass, Boddingtons, Robinsons, Marstons, Greenalls, Tetleys and Wilsons)
  • Central Manchester was, surprisingly to the outside observer, virtually devoid of pubs tied to the local independent breweries – it didn’t have a single Holts pub
  • Many older drinkers still drank splits – a half of draught beer topped off with a bottle of brown or pale ale
  • Although there was a compulsory afternoon closure (around here, generally 3-5.30), most pubs stuck fairly closely to the standard permitted hours. Weekday lunchtime closure was very rare
  • Closing time was 10.30 pm Monday-Thursday, with 11 pm closing only on Friday and Saturday
  • Sunday lunchtime opening was a strict 12 noon – 2 pm, during which many pubs were packed
  • There was a lot more lunchtime drinking by office and factory workers
  • Middle-aged couples would just “go out for a drink” in the evening in a way they don’t tend to now
  • There was much less food served in pubs, especially in the evenings. Many of today's high-profile country dining pubs did not serve evening meals at all
  • On the other hand, food was much more varied and there was more of a sense of experimentation with styles and formats. It had not yet settled into today’s standardised “pub menu”. For example, a number of pubs had extensive lunchtime buffets – something you never see nowadays
  • A lot of the bottom-end pubs were extremely scruffy in a way that is very rare now
  • There was a clear hierarchy amongst country pubs of “No coaches”, “Coaches by appointment only” and “Coaches welcome”. Does anyone (apart from CAMRA) actually organise coach trips to pubs any more?
In some respects the present-day drinking scene is far better than it was then, but in others it is much worse. And pubs in general are certainly a lot less busy than they were.