December 2011

Drinking in the Atmosphere

Preserving traditional pubs is just as important as preserving real ale

ONE OF THE best things CAMRA has ever done is to produce the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, which lists just under 300 pubs across the country which have interiors that are still largely as built, or as remodelled before 1939. It is disappointing that less than 1% of all the pubs remaining in Britain fall into this category. Visiting one these pubs is always something special, and it is good to see a place with such a sense of history still functioning as a modern business, as opposed to being preserved in aspic by the National Trust. While it is perfectly possible to have a dismal pub operation in a superb building – and I have come across one or two that left me distinctly underwhelmed – in general the unspoilt historic interiors add to the atmosphere and stick in the mind.

Over and above these, around the country there are still maybe a few thousand pubs that, while changed over the years, still present very much a traditional layout and atmosphere. A few examples from the local area would be the Griffin in Heaton Mersey, the Armoury in Edgeley and the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place. Some may dismiss this as having an affection for outmoded “old men’s pubs” that have no place in the modern world except as museum pieces, but in reality pubs were designed like this because they worked, and still usually provide a far better pubgoing experience than their more modern counterparts.

Until relatively recently, when new pubs were built they still generally conformed to the established norms of layout. For example, Holts’ Sidings in Levenshulme is still recognisably a “proper” pub in the traditional mould. However, over the past couple of decades an entirely new design vocabulary has evolved for pubs and bars that throws all the traditional design concepts out of the window. The key features of this are:

  • Very long bar counters dominating the space in which they are installed
  • Wide circulatory spaces around the bar
  • An interior comprising a sequence of free-form interconnecting areas rather than defined “rooms”
  • Free-standing chairs and tables rather than fixed seating
  • High ceilings
  • A deliberate avoidance of warm textures and colours
While the success of their business model cannot be denied, Wetherspoons must be the single biggest offender in this regard. With few exceptions, their pubs are soulless, impersonal drinking barns largely devoid of pub “feel”. In my view this is a conscious policy to make their establishments look as little as possible like old-style pubs. They have often been praised for their sensitive conversions of impressive buildings, but in general it’s still just the standard Spoons layout and ambience and doesn’t really gel with the surroundings. If you put a works canteen on the floor of a cathedral, it’s still a works canteen.

This new design language removes any feeling of cosiness or intimacy and produces an atmosphere more akin to an airport lounge than a conventional pub. Unlike a shop, a pub is a place where, as well as buying goods, you are in effect buying time in a particular environment. No matter how good the food and drink on offer, if you don’t feel “at home” you’re not really going to enjoy yourself. And, even if the choice of beer is a bit limited, give me a proper pub any day with bench seating, geezers standing at the bar and one or two handpumps, over drinking some new-wave brew with an overpowering taste of tropical fruit while perched on a high, uncomfortable stool in somewhere resembling the interior of a warehouse.

November 2011

Not So Ordinary

Rather than watering down premium brands, brewers should promote their existing lower-strength beers

BACK IN THE 1970s, most British brewers just produced Mild (at around 3.3% ABV) and Bitter (around 3.8%). Choice, and a contrast in flavours, was achieved by switching between brewers, not within an individual brewer’s range. There were a handful of premium beers, such as Ruddles County, Marstons Pedigree and Wadworths 6X, and these got the recognition as the beers you would go out of your way to sample, and became the standard-bearers of the “real ale revival”. The fact that they had memorable brand names rather than just being “Bloggs’ Bitter” must have helped.

But times change, and recently we have seen a number of brewers reducing the strength of these “premium beers” because they were losing sales in the current climate of sobriety and health obsession. You can’t really blame them for this, as they’re just responding to changes in customer demand.

However, wouldn’t it be better for them to do more to promote their classic “ordinary bitters” in the 3.5-4.0% ABV strength band? These beers, which manage to extract huge depths of flavour and character from a very modest, quaffable strength, are surely the most distinctive achievement of British brewing, and cover a vast spectrum of colour, flavour and character.

Locally, Robinson’s Unicorn at 4.2% is a bit too strong to qualify, but both Holts and Lees bitters are excellent brews when in good condition. Across the country, just considering the family brewers, a selection of Timothy Taylors Bitter, Batemans XB, Adnams Southwold Bitter, Harveys Sussex Best and Hook Norton wouldn’t disgrace any bar.

Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that the 3.8% Dizzy Blonde – perhaps more of a golden ale, but very much in the ordinary bitter strength range – is now outselling Robinson’s traditional mainstay, the 4.2% Unicorn. Originally just produced as a seasonal beer, this was initially a touch bland, but more recently it has gained more hop character and is now, when well-kept, a very enjoyable beer.

CORRECTION (added 15 November 2011)

In last month's column, I stated that Robinson's Dizzy Blonde was now outselling Unicorn. I was told this by a normally reliable source, and actually questioned it at the time, but was assured it was correct. However, following a recent presentation by David Bremner, Robinson's Marketing Director, it is clear that this is incorrect, and in fact Unicorn continues to outsell Dizzy Blonde by about 7 to 1, although sales of Dizzy Blonde are increasing. Apologies for any confusion this may have caused.

Drinking with the Enemy

Brewing industry representatives are deluded to believe they have any common cause with neo-Prohibitionists

MY JAW DROPPED recently when I heard that SIBA – the Society of Independent Brewers – had become associate members of government-funded anti-drink pressure group Alcohol Concern. While Alcohol Concern may have been making some noises about pubs promoting responsible drinking, those are just weasel words when you consider that they define consuming two pints at a sitting as a hazardous level of consumption.

Over the years, they have opposed every liberalisation of licensing law, supported every increase in duty rates, and championed any proposal that would damage the interests of pubs and the British brewing industry. It is hard to conceive of any issue on which the objectives of Alcohol Concern and SIBA would not be diametrically opposed. I’ve heard of turkeys voting for an early Christmas, but this is more like them joining the board of the slaughterhouse.

October 2011

Bar Humbug

New bar openings do not represent any kind of adequate substitute for lost pubs

“WE MAY have lost a lot of pubs,” the argument goes, “but plenty of new bars have sprung up in their place.” However, the reality is that it’s not remotely a like-for-like exchange.

For a start, the bars aren’t opening in the places where pubs have closed. In fact, they’re very much concentrated in middle-class urban enclaves. There may be a cluster in Chorlton, but they’re not spread evenly across the board. In recent years, the large Cheshire village of Helsby has lost two of its four pubs. Are there any new bars to replace them? What do you think? It’s not much use if you have to go eight miles down the road to Chester to find one.

Most of these new bars are targeted at the younger end of the market and have little to offer the more mature pubgoer. They don’t have the across-the-board appeal of proper pubs. And, although there are some honourable exceptions, most offer nothing of interest on the beer front. What is more, how can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees? Most will be fly-by-night operations with a limited lifespan and no continuity.

Realistically, the idea that the growth of new bars offers any kind of adequate replacement for closed pubs, except in very limited circumstances, is absurd. Chorlton is not representative of the rest of the world, and is very much the exception.

Supermarket Sweep

Making it harder to convert them to something else won’t save pubs if the underlying demand isn’t there

I REMEMBER on CAMRA trips many years ago a song being sung with the refrain “The brewery tap’s a supermarket now.” And in recent years that has proved all too prophetic, with a number of pubs in the local area closed and replaced with the likes of Tesco Express. This may be a cause for regret, but in reality it is a symptom of the decline of the pub trade, not a cause.

If you want to bulldoze the existing building and replace it, it requires planning permission, but if you want to create a supermarket in a former pub it doesn’t. But refusal of planning permission won’t guarantee the survival of a pub if there isn’t sufficient trade. Many local residents are likely to actively prefer a small supermarket to a scruffy, run-down pub that is a frequent source of late-night noise and fights, and councillors will inevitably listen to their views. If these pubs were thriving community hubs, then nobody would be looking to close them down and turn them into something else. But, sadly, they’re not.

It has also been suggested that local communities should be given the right to buy up closed pubs and run them themselves. This may work in close-knit villages in the Lake District, but it’s unlikely to be of much interest to the neighbours of large urban pubs like the Four Heatons or the Southern Hotel. The most likely result if some kind of “cooling off period” is introduced for people to try to raise the money to buy them is pubs remaining closed and blighted for months with no realistic prospect of ever coming back to life. In general, local communities are more likely to want developers to get on with it and build a block of flats or a supermarket as soon as possible.

No amount of tinkering with planning regulations will save pubs in any significant numbers if the underlying demand isn’t there in the first place. If you are really concerned for the future of pubs, you need to look at the underlying reasons why people have stopped visiting them.

September 2011

Caught in the Crosshair

The anti-tobacco campaign is now being retargeted on alcohol

THERE IS A curious – and ill-judged – tendency amongst many beer lovers to consider their chosen vice as somehow resistant to the attentions of the health lobby as opposed to tobacco. Even CAMRA have fallen for it. In 2004, they weakly attempted to defend pubs from the harmful effects of the smoking ban by playing right into tobacco control hands and suggesting that a diversity of outlets offering choice for all would “split the pub trade” [1]. In the end, they got their wish as all pubs were given no choice. Now, you can argue, if you like, that this has had no damaging effect on the hospitality trade (I’d heartily disagree) but it has certainly contributed to a big problem for pubs, and beer lovers, which is only now beginning to come home to roost.

In a rousing 1919 speech following the ratification of Prohibition in the US, “anti-saloon” campaigner Billy Sunday declared “Prohibition is won, now for tobacco!” [2] Because all the while campaigners for the prohibition of alcohol were tied up with that issue, their assault on smoking was left on the back burner. Once the war against alcohol was completed, resources were freed up to attack tobacco, employing the same personnel and moral pleading which was so successful against booze.

Nothing has changed from those days. Just as righteous crusaders tackled both substances around a century ago, so do their modern day equivalents act the same now. ASH have taken to coaching anti-alcohol campaigners on how to achieve the same demonisation of alcohol as has happened with tobacco [3], and the methodology is lifted from the successful anti-smoking playbook. Professor David Nutt was the first to suggest that “there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption” [4], a position which is increasingly becoming the default one. The Cancer Council of Australia certainly thinks that way, a couple of months ago advocating that total abstinence should be the only public health policy. In a chilling reminder of post-prohibition triumphalism in the US, the Australian press reported the campaign as “Cigs war won: now cancer campaigners set their sights on beer” [5].

CAMRA keeps ploughing this furrow, as in August last year where they tried to claim some form of high ground by declaring that “beer can supplement a healthy lifestyle if consumed in a responsible manner” [6], but this approach is doomed if they think that playing in public health’s self-constructed playground is going to do anything but invite ridicule. ‘No safe level’ leaves no wriggle room whatsoever, and the protestation that beer is somehow not that bad will be thrown back at them by the health lobby as an admission of guilt. Which it is.

No. The best form of defence, as always, is attack. And instead of back-sliding when the smoking in pubs debate was taking place, CAMRA would have been better served standing firm and resisting all legislation on tobacco. While that buffer was still in place, CAMRA were insulated against the worst excesses of an insatiable health lobby. Without it, resources are being withdrawn from tobacco in favour of new targets [7], and those who enjoy a pint or two are now squarely in the crosshair.


[2] Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun)






(This is a special guest column by Top 50 political blogger Dick Puddlecote)

August 2011

A Crafty Pint

The embrace of “craft keg” may prove a double-edged sword

BACK IN THE EARLY 70s, things were very straightforward. Real ale, the traditional beer of Britain, with all its rich palette of flavours and characters, was under attack from cold, bland, fizzy, standardised keg beer. This was always a touch simplistic, especially when people tried to apply it to beers from other countries that had no tradition of “real ale”. However, in terms of what was actually happening in this country at the time, it was a reasonable enough approximation to the truth, and it allowed CAMRA to mount a campaign that led to it being described as “the most successful consumer movement in Europe”.

For a long time much the same remained true. Keg beers were bland, mass-market brews produced by the big brewers, and in the 1990s they gained another dimension of unpleasant­ness with the soapy foam of nitrokeg “smooth”. But recently things have changed as we have begun to see well-regarded new generation breweries producing keg beers. Some, such as Lovibonds and Meantime, produce nothing but; the publicity-seeking controversial­ists of BrewDog produce some real ale, but much more keg, while others such as Thornbridge major on real ale but also produce keg versions of flagship beers like Jaipur IPA. BrewDog have even started to roll out a chain of specialist beer bars that serve no real ale, only keg.

Surely, it is argued, these new “craft keg” beers are entirely different from the old industrial keg and are worthy of recognition. Of course, there’s a lot of truth in that. It can’t be seriously argued that keg Jaipur is no better than Red Barrel, and to believe that there is a Manichean division between good “real ale” and bad “chemical fizz” has always been elevating a definition into an article of faith. It has never been the case that all real ale is good; equally, it has never been the case that all keg beer is inherently bad, although in the 1970s most of it was.

However, the problem with embracing “craft beer”, whether real or non-real, is that you then have to make subjective judgments as to what qualifies. If Timothy Taylors, a respected, long-established small family brewer, started making a non-nitro keg version of Landlord, would that be craft? Or Black Sheep, a very successful new brewery, albeit one whose cask beers are sometimes thought a little dull? And, if not, why not? How are those beers different in kind from keg Jaipur IPA? And, if keg Landlord, why not keg 6X, or keg Pedigree?

This is not to say that people shouldn’t drink and enjoy these new-wave keg beers, or that the editor of “Opening Times” shouldn’t say that they are available alongside real ales and might be worth trying, but to argue that CAMRA should metamorphose into a “campaign for craft beer” is a misguided and dangerous idea. It plays into the hands of those who advocate a much more narrow, élitist and frankly snobbish approach to beer, and dismiss out of hand anything that has achieved mainstream success amongst non-enthusiasts. They sneer at the “boring brown beers” from brewers such as Shepherd Neame, Wadworth’s and Robinson’s who in the early days of CAMRA were at the heart of what the campaign was all about.

“Real ale” is something that has a clear and objective definition, whereas “craft beer” is whatever people choose to call it, and can all too easily just become “beer from breweries that we approve of”. Real ale is a distinctive British tradition that is worthy of celebrating and preserving, although it is ignorant and narrow-minded to assert that it encompasses all that is good in the world of beer. To champion real ale shouldn’t mean you oppose everything that doesn’t qualify. As Michael Hardman, one of the four original founders of CAMRA, said in a recent newspaper interview: “I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something.”

July 2011

Joining Forces

The campaigns against alcohol and tobacco are two fronts in the same war

EARLIER this year, ASH Scotland and Alcohol Focus Scotland held a joint conference in Glasgow “to consider the progress of alcohol and tobacco control and explore what each sector might learn from the other.” This underlines the point that I have made in the past that the tactics used in the campaign against tobacco are increasingly being brought into play in the campaign against alcohol.. You may argue that the two are very different issues, but if the neo-Prohibitionists regard them as two sides of the same coin there is nothing you can do about it.

It is also instructive that, as has been the practice of the tobacco control lobby for many years, no industry repre­sentatives were allowed to attend or have a voice. Not just the likes of Diageo and Heineken, nobody. Even if you run the most low-carbon, organic, Fairtrade, recycling-friendly micro brewery in the world, as far as the anti-drink lobby are concerned you’re still engaged in a “toxic trade” and they’re not interested in any kind of dialogue or accommodation with you.

Soaking It Up

Why do so many pubs fail to provide such a basic item as beermats?

I WAS SURPRISED and disappointed recently to walk into one of my favourite local pubs – which in many respects is very traditional – and find they had decided to dispense with beer mats. It’s not going to make me take my custom elsewhere, but it’s another niggly little reason to feel the pubgoing experience is less than ideal.

It has baffled me for years why a growing number of pubs refuse to provide mats. Espec­ially with the now-universal adoption of brim measure glasses, they perform a useful role in soaking up spilt and overflowing beer, stopping it staining tables and running off the edge to spoil your clothes. I’m convinced it comes from the same misguided school of “trying not to look like an old-fashioned boozer” that has led to the widespread ripping out of bench seating.

Given that so many commercial organisations and campaigns produce promotional mats, the argument doesn’t wash that pubs find them difficult to get hold of. Indeed, if they thought they were worth having it wouldn’t be a huge expense to obtain their own. No pub would refuse to provide table napkins on cost-saving grounds, so why should mats be any different?

Pale and Uninterested

Is history in danger of repeating itself over lighter, paler beers?

OLDER READERS will remember how, in the 1980s, Samuel Smiths introduced a beer called Tadcaster Bitter which was paler, hoppier and a little less strong than their standard Old Brewery Bitter. When well kept, it could be very good, but unfortunately it wasn’t well promoted and Sams’ conservative customers tended to stick with OBB. So Tadcaster Bitter began to suffer from a vicious circle of slow turnover leading to poor quality which further deterred people from drinking it, and after a year or so it was withdrawn.

I do worry that the same fate is likely to overtake the recently-introduced Holts IPA, which occupies a similar position in relation to Holts Bitter. This too is a good beer, with a pronounced hoppiness that to many brings back memories of the Holts Bitter of old. It has appeared in a number of Holts’ high-profile pubs, but unfortunately in my experience it seems to suffer in the same way from slow turnover, and I have had a few lacklustre pints in pubs where the Bitter is reliably good. If you think it will be a lottery whether you get a pint that has been festering in the lines for hours, you may well decide it’s best to avoid ordering that beer in the first place.

June 2011

Driving Customers Away

The growing reluctance to drink a drop before driving is a major cause of pub closures

LAST YEAR yet another official report was produced, this time by Sir Peter North, proposing the reduction of the UK drink-driving limit from 80mg to 50mg. This offered no new evidence, and earlier this year it was rejected by Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, arguing that the vast majority of drink-related road deaths involve drivers well over the current limit, and cutting the limit by itself would do nothing to change their behaviour. For the first time, an official response on the issue actually acknowledged the potential effect on the hospitality trade. Licensees and customers of rural, suburban and small town pubs will no doubt have felt considerably relieved by this decision.

However, it could be argued that many of the supposed benefits of a lower limit have already been achieved, with a change in public attitudes over the past twenty or so years leading to a growing reluctance to drive after drinking even within the legal limit. In the early years of the breathalyser law, this was widely regarded as normal and responsible behaviour, and many pubs prospered on this “car trade”. Indeed, the ultimate high water mark of beer sales in British pubs was not reached until twelve years later in 1979. However, from the mid-80s onwards, there was a distinct shift towards the view that drivers shouldn’t touch so much as a half of lager, which has become commonplace amongst new entrants to the driving population.

There are still plenty of people from their mid-forties upwards who continue to do what they have always done, although their ranks are steadily being thinned by advancing years. But, amongst their younger counterparts, the kinds of people who in the 1970s would have routinely gone to the pub in the car and drink a couple of legal pints haven’t, by and large, found an alternative means to get there, they have simply stopped going in that kind of regular, moderate way, although they may still have a weekend blow-out. Now it could be said that this is beneficial to road safety, although whether much additional risk is caused by someone driving after a couple of pints of ordinary bitter is questionable. But, over the past two decades, this change in attitudes has undoubtedly been a prime cause of the long-term decline of the pub trade outside of major urban centres.

I Don’t Like the Taste

If you don’t like alcohol, at least be honest about the reason why

FROM TIME TO TIME you hear people who don’t drink claim that they simply don’t like the taste of alcohol. If people choose not to drink because they are concerned about the potential effects, then fair enough, although they are missing out on one of the great pleasures of life. They are entitled to their view and I would not criticise them for it, although I would expect the same tolerance to be extended to those who do drink provided they don’t make fools of themselves.

But “I don’t like the taste” always strikes me as being a particularly feeble rationalisation. Alcoholic drinks cover a huge spectrum of different tastes, and many don’t really taste “of alcohol” at all. For example, I recently tried some alcoholic root beer which was impossible to distinguish from the soft drink version. Have they really tried everything from Liebfraumilch to cask-strength Laphroaig and decided that nothing appeals? People may be vegetarian on principle, but you never hear them claiming that they don’t like the taste of meat, especially when it spans such a wide range of flavours from venison to oysters. Non-drinkers would be respected more if they were honest about their motivations.

May 2011

Cat to be Castrated?

Increasing duty on high-strength beers is a misconceived measure that will not achieve any of its objectives

AS WIDELY predicted, in this year’s budget the government announced that, as well as increasing beer duty across the board by 7.2%, from October it would impose an additional 25% duty on all beers over 7.5% ABV. The main target of this measure is the super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew and Tennent’s Super which are widely associated with problem drinking. However, what you can easily see happening is the makers of these products simply reformulating them to bring them down below the cut-off point and avoid the higher duty. When a 500ml can at 9.0% ABV will attract duty plus VAT of 125p, whereas at 7.5% it will only be 84p, it looks like a very obvious move to make. And, ironically, at a reduced strength, these beers are likely to be more palatable and have greater appeal to mainstream customers, so the legislation could end up backfiring and leading to more strong lager being sold, not less.

You may not be too concerned for Special Brew drinkers, but the really bad news is that this duty rise will also affect many high-quality beers from independent breweries, not least our own local favourite Robinson’s Old Tom, together with Belgian imports such as Chimay and Duvel. These products, by and large, are consumed responsibly by discerning drinkers and are not a cause of alcohol-related disorder. Recent years have also seen a growing variety of innovative, distinctive beers produced at this kind of strength by the burgeoning craft beer movement. Yet this measure threatens to bring this to a juddering halt. A pint of Old Tom at the current 8.5% ABV will incur duty plus VAT of 134p – reduce it to 7.5% and the cost falls to 95p. The option of castrating the cat must look very attractive, especially as the alternative could be putting it down entirely.

It is also unfair to single out beer when pretty much all wines and spirits are stronger than 7.5% and can’t be claimed to be innocent of involvement in alcohol-related problems. The ultimate effect of this ill-considered measure will simply be to snuff out one of the most innovative and characterful segments of British brewing. It won’t raise more money for the Treasury, it won’t do anything to reduce problem drinking – in fact it could be regarded as a prime example of shooting yourself in the foot.

Watering the Workers’ Beer

Expect to see more and more well-known beers have their strength cut in the coming years

NOT ONLY are the government “encouraging” the reduction of beer strengths, but the brewers seem keen to do their job for them. As part of a “social responsibility” deal with the government, Heineken UK have undertaken to cut the strength of one of their main brands (believed to be canned and bottled Strongbow) by 1% ABV. This is portrayed as a “voluntary agreement” but in reality, if you’re having your arm twisted up your back, how voluntary is it? This is a further example of a growing trend that in recent years has seen a number of well-known brands having their strength cut, including Blackthorn cider, Caffrey’s and, most notably, Britain’s best selling beer brand Stella Artois.

These are not real ales, but there’s also a growing number of well-known cask beers such as Old Speckled Hen, Young’s Special and recently Batemans XXXB having their strength reduced to supposedly give them a wider appeal. Outside of specialist pubs, it’s now hard to find any cask beers above about 4.5% regularly available on the bar. The worry must be that, in the coming years, through a misguided desire to appear “responsible”, this will become a de facto ceiling for draught beer strength in the UK.

April 2011


Can an international brewer be a sympathetic steward of a craft ale brewery?

IN RECENT YEARS, the major international brewers seem to have largely withdrawn from the cask ale market in the UK. So it came as something of a surprise to learn that Molson Coors had acquired Sharps, the rapidly growing Cornish micro-brewery best known for Doom Bar Bitter, which, although not maybe the most distinctive of beers, is extremely popular in the South of England.

At a time when mass-market lager is a declining and increasingly commoditised business subject to severe price competition, it makes sense for a major brewer to seek to get into the higher-margin section of the market aimed at the more discerning and generally better off consumer. Very often, it is much easier to do this by acquiring existing businesses operating in that segment rather than building your own brands from scratch. You can see parallels with Cadbury buying Green & Blacks, and Coca-Cola acquiring a stake in Innocent Smoothies. But you have to be careful that you don’t kill the golden goose by eroding the qualities that made the brand a success in the first place.

The profile of beer overall would benefit from Molson Coors and the other international brewers becoming strong competitors in the cask and premium bottled markets. Molson Coors have already taken the most positive attitude towards cask beer of all the “Big Four”, investing in a dedicated cask brewing plant at Burton-on-Trent, launching Worthington White Shield and the paler, lower-strength Red Shield on cask and announcing a wide range of guest ales.

However, if we look at what happened to Ruddles after being taken over by Grand Metropolitan, to Theakstons after going to Matthew Brown and then Scottish & Newcastle, or to Boddingtons after being swallowed up by Whitbread, the precedent of big brewers buying smaller ones for their brand name is not exactly encouraging. It’s not impossible for large corporations to be conscientious stewards of respected “authentic” drinks brands – this has certainly been the case with Scotch malt whisky distilleries. It never seems to happen with beer, though, but let’s hope this time I am proved wrong.

Not So Beautiful Game

Wall-to-wall football isn’t in the interest of the pub trade as a whole

A FEW WEEKS ago, the Manchester football derby was held on Saturday lunchtime. All of my local pubs were showing it on satellite TV, which effectively made them no-go areas for anyone who just wanted a quiet pint. Undoubtedly televised football has a strong following and draws many customers in, but on the other hand not everyone is a fan. Licensees seem to take the view that if they don’t have it, they will lose trade, but across pubs as a whole many potential customers will be deterred, and of course Sky Sports costs pubs a huge amount of money. It’s a case of waiting for the other guy to blink first. As with many other things, surely a diversity in offer is in the interests of the pub trade as a whole, rather than everyone trying to appeal to the same segment of the market.

It’s also noticeable that many of the people who come in to watch the football are never seen in the pub at any other time of the week. Pubs might be pleasantly surprised by the amount of business generated if they made a positive virtue of not having Sky rather than simply keeping quiet about it.

March 2011

Sobering Statistics

The dramatic long-term decline of pub beer sales still isn’t fully appreciated

ACCORDING to the most recent figures produced by the British Beer & Pub Association, in 1997 total UK beer sales in pubs and bars were 25.6 million bulk barrels. In 2010 the figure had fallen to 14.2 million, a decline of over 44%. There hasn’t been a single quarter since 1997 when on-trade beer sales have shown a year-on-year rise. The biggest single year-on-year fall was 10.6% between the second quarters of 2007 and 2008, the first full year of the smoking ban. The average annual decline over the 13-year period was 4.4%. Over the past three years, that has accelerated to 7.3%.

These figures are thrown into even more sharp relief when we consider that in 1979, a year that history will come to judge as the all-time high water mark of the British pub trade, there were 37 million bulk barrels sold. The current figure is only 38% of that. The off-trade has taken up some of the slack, growing on average by 2.6% over the past thirteen years, but even so has only put back 3.6 million of the 11.4 million barrels lost by pubs, and has actually lost ground too in the recent recession.

Over the past thirty years, we have lost around a third of the total pub stock in Britain, but beer sales have plummeted by over 60%. Given this, it is perhaps surprising not that so many pubs have closed, but so few – and this must suggest that there is more pain to come. And before someone pipes up that “plenty of new bars have opened up to replace the lost pubs”, bear in mind that the sales figures quoted cover the entire on-trade including pubs, bars, clubs and hotels.

There is no simple, single-cause explanation for this long-term decline – it is the result of a variety of changes in society that have combined to greatly reduce the overall demand for pubgoing. These include, amongst others, the decline of heavy industry, increased gender equality, changing attitudes to drink-driving, the growing official demonisation of alcohol and, of course, most recently the smoking ban.

Even now, the sheer scale of the decline of the pub trade still isn’t appreciated anywhere near widely as it should be, and pub closures continue to be viewed as an isolated problem rather than symptoms of a general trend. Pubs will not disappear entirely, of course, and there are still opportunities for well-run pubs in the right location to thrive, but it is clear that in the future the appeal of pubs will be much more of a niche one than it used to be.

By the way, the figures I am quoting are shown in the “UK Quarterly Beer Barometer” produced by the BBPA, which can be downloaded from their website at, so feel free to check them out there.

Cause or Effect?

The idea that pubs close because they were badly run ignores the wider picture

YOU OFTEN HEAR the view expressed that “I’m not surprised that pub X has closed. It had gone really downhill – it had stopped serving real ale and opening at lunchtimes, and seemed to appeal mainly to deadlegs. They ended up putting strippers on to try to attract custom.” Now, that may well explain why Pub X has closed instead of Pub Y, but very often such measures are a symptom of falling sales rather than a cause. Pubs often seem to get into a spiral of decline from which it is difficult to escape.

The reasons why the pub trade as a whole has seen such a dramatic decline over the past thirty years are not because pubs are badly run. Indeed the average pub now is probably much better run than it was in 1979. It is a result of the wider changes in society I mentioned above. This is not being a doom-and-gloom merchant, it is simply being realistic – you can’t tackle a problem without understanding it first.

February 2011

Schooner to be Launched

The new two-thirds measure should be welcomed as giving drinkers more choice

THE GOVERNMENT have announced that, following a consultation, they are going to permit the use of two-thirds pint measures, often referred to as “schooners”, in pubs and bars. While it is currently legal to serve a third of a pint “nip”, it isn't legal to put two in the same glass. This apparently innocuous move has led to a wave of ill-informed and prejudiced comment.

It’s not going to lead to the demise of the pint, as there will be no requirement to drop pints, and the pint will undoubtedly remain as the standard beer measure in pubs. It won’t result in higher prices, as pubs will continue to price beer by the pint and presumably price smaller measures pro-rata as they currently do with halves. It isn’t a bureaucratic imposition, as it is in fact allowing something that was previously illegal, so it is a measure of liberalisation. Far from representing creeping metrication, it doesn’t correspond to any standard metric measure and indeed reinforces the traditional system by introducing a brand new Imperial size. And no pub or bar will be forced to offer schooners if they don’t want to.

It’s easy to foresee this new measure being taken up enthusiastically by specialist beer pubs, which may have several stronger beers on tap, and where customers will want to sample a wide range of brews. But its potential appeal will spread much wider than that, to women, drivers and indeed anyone who just wants to have “a beer” but for whom a pint on that occasion is too much. While some women are happy to drink pints, many others find pint glasses inelegant and unwieldy. On the other hand, for drinkers of both sexes, half-pints often just seem too small and have an image of being something of a distress purchase.

This is a sensible move to give drinkers more choice and it would be a shame if it ended up running onto the rocks because of pigheaded resistance to change.

Not My Round

Suggesting that rounds should be discouraged shows a failure to understand British pub culture

GOVERNMENT adviser Richard Thaler, co-author of the influential book “Nudge”, has suggested that, to try to discourage “binge-drinking”, people shouldn’t buy drinks in rounds if they’re going to have more than a couple, but instead groups should set up a tab and settle it at the end of the evening. While the round-buying system may occasionally pressurise people into drinking more than they ideally want to, I can’t honestly see it as a major factor in increasing overall consumption, and if anything may just as easily lead to a party drinking at the pace of the slowest. Few ordinary pubs are likely to be willing to set up a tab anyway, and even if they did it would tend to lead to arguments at closing time over who had drunk what, not to mention being completely unsuited to visiting a number of pubs in the course of an evening.

This is yet another example of pointing the finger at pubs when they certainly can’t be held exclusively responsible for our supposed drink-related problems. It’s a naïve, Puritanical throwback to the days of Lloyd George in the First World War, when the “treating” of others was outlawed, even to the extent of banning a husband buying one for his wife. Buying rounds of drinks is a friendly and sociable custom that maximises the efficiency of bar service and is something that has become an integral part of British pub culture.

January 2011

Roadhouse Blues

Why have purpose-built 20th century pubs been hit so hard by the recent wave of closures?

UNTIL RECENTLY, Stockport, outside the fringes of the town centre, had escaped fairly lightly from the tide of pub closures sweeping the country. However, in the past few months we have seen a surge of pubs going to the wall – the Bromale and the Greyhound in Adswood demolished, the Smithy in Cheadle Hulme in the process of conversion to who knows what, and the George on Mersey Square closing its doors “indefinitely”. Added to this, Hydes have put the Gateway just over the border in East Didsbury up for sale, claiming that they don’t see it as viable as a pub in the long-term. One factor that all of these have in common is that they were large, purpose built pubs from the 20th century, built between about 1930 and 1970.

This has raised eyebrows amongst some people, saying “but it was the only nearby pub for a large area of housing!” However, in reality, the idea that the typical pattern of pubgoing is that people come home from work, have their tea and then go out has always been somewhat wide of the mark, and applies even less now than it once did. It is noticeable that pubs in Manchester city centre, and on surburban drinking circuits like Chorlton and Didsbury, are doing much better than those in residential areas. Lots of nearby chimneypots is no guarantee of success for a pub.

Pubs like this have also fallen victim to social changes, with middle-aged and elderly people much less likely to go out to the local for a drink than they were twenty or thirty years ago, and new residents from ethnic minorities moving in who for cultural reasons are not going to be attracted to pubs. A further factor is that, compared with those that are part of a row of other buildings, pubs on large free-standing sites are much more attractive to developers looking to build new houses, flats or care homes.

The middle years of the last century were the great era of Planning, when it was believed that a scientifically designed environment could do much to advance human happiness. It was only later on that the downsides of this approach in terms of bleak and soulless places devoid of an individual human touch became apparent. This applied just as much to pubs as to other aspects of development. On paper, these new purpose-built pubs may have offered all the facilities customers wanted, but in practice they were often echoing, characterless barns. Even at the time, people often complained that the new, “improved” pubs were not a patch on the smaller, haphazard, homely ones they supplanted.

It is possible for inter-wars pubs built on a more modest scale to gain a more intimate and characterful feel – the Nursery in Heaton Norris is a good example – but these are very much the exception rather than the rule. With hindsight, it might have been better to allow smaller pubs to grow organically in areas of new housing, but that very much went against the spirit of the times. Some of these pubs have found a niche for themselves by using part of their surrounding land to add the increasingly popular lodge-type accommodation and concentrate on food – the Heald Green Hotel being a good example. But that isn’t a course open to all, especially those not situated on main roads.

Never greatly loved even at the best of times, the 20th century roadhouse and estate pubs have proved disproportionately vulnerable to the downturn in the pub trade in the past few years. As you travel around the country, it’s a depressingly common sign of the times to see these pubs, often impressive buildings in their own right on prominent corner sites, standing in a forlorn and derelict condition. And, sadly, the odds have to be that we’ll be seeing more of them in the coming years.