December 2013

Reducing Strength, Reducing Choice

Initiatives targeted at street drinkers may also hit responsible consumers

IN AN ATTEMPT to curb the problem of street drinking, a number of local authorities have recently implemented an initiative called “Reducing the Strength”, whereby off-licences are invited to enter into agreements not to sell beers and ciders above a certain strength. Ipswich and Hastings have set the bar at 6.5% ABV, but Newcastle have lowered it to a mere 5%. While these agreements are supposedly voluntary, there is undoubtedly a significant amount of arm-twisting involved.

You may think that this is only aimed at tramps and has nothing to do with you, but many highly-respected beers such as Old Tom and Duvel come in at over this figure, and some of the new-wave craft brewers have made a speciality of distinctive, higher-strength beers. The same is even more true of traditional ciders. Many of the products favoured by street drinkers were originally entirely respectable and were only later adopted by them as their tipple of choice – Carlsberg Special was first brewed to mark the visit of Sir Winston Churchill to Copenhagen. And it would be impossible to come up with a watertight legal definition that put Old Tom in one camp and super lagers in the other.

The risk is that responsible drinkers of high-quality strong beers and ciders will find them more and more difficult to get hold of, and that their consumption in general will increas­ingly be denormalised. This will lead to the disappearance of many excellent, distinctive products and an unwelcome reduction of choice and diversity in the overall market. And it always seems to be beer and cider that are singled out when most wines and all spirits come in at a higher strength and cannot claim to be innocent of involvement in problem drinking.

Building a Customer Base

The development of town-centre housing may lead to fewer pub customers, not more

AN ARGUMENT I’ve often seen advanced, especially in relation to Stockport, is that new residential developments in close proximity to town centres are a way of revitalising their pub trade. On the face of it, this sounds plausible, but in fact it’s another example of the “captive market” fallacy. Being the nearest pub to a large number of homes is no guarantee of success, and indeed one of the most typical patterns of pub closure is of stand-alone pubs in the midst of residential areas, or next to local shopping parades, which will often be the only pub within convenient walking distance for a large number of people. Going directly to the pub from home in the evenings is a far less typical pattern of pubgoing than is often imagined.

While there may be ten thousand people living in Manchester City Centre now, when thirty years ago there were only a few hundred, that is still only the population that would support the handful of pubs in a typical small market town, and in terms of the centre’s overall pub trade is a drop in the ocean. Pubs thrive in the centre of Manchester, and other large cities, because they function as retail, employment, business, cultural and entertainment hubs for a wide surrounding area and thus attract large numbers of people for a wide variety of reasons.

If new flats are built on land on the edge of a town centre that was formerly derelict, or industrial premises, it might give a slight boost to pubs in the vicinity, although probably scarcely so much as you would notice. But if former shops and offices are turned over to housing, it will in fact be bad news for local pubs, as it will signal a retrenchment of the town’s hub function and mean fewer potential pubgoers visiting it from outside.

November 2013

The World Turned Upside Down

The distribution of cask beer in the UK now is a mirror image of that when CAMRA was formed

A STRIKING feature of the British beer scene is how, in the years since the foundation of CAMRA, the pattern of availability of real ale has been dramatically reversed. The four founder members were journalists who had moved from the North-West to London and been shocked by the poor beer they encountered. The 1977 “Good Beer Guide” says that “Greater London is no longer one of the worst counties in England for real ale”, which suggests that a few years previously it had been. Most of the pubs were owned by the “Big Six” national brewers, and the vast majority only sold pressurised beer. Apart from Young’s pubs, all of which sold real ale, there was only a scattering of outlets, and even Fuller’s, who have outlasted Young’s and are now one of the most respected family brewers, only had real ale in 16 out of 111 pubs.

Outside the capital, the situation was often little better, if at all. The 1977 “Guide” still describes North Devon and much of Norfolk as “beer deserts”, and says that, apart from the handful of pubs it lists, there’s little else to be found in any of Northumberland. In the whole of Cornwall, which must have had getting on for a thousand pubs, only 120 had real ale.

In contrast, across large swathes of the industrial Midlands and North, there were major independent breweries who sold real ale in all or virtually all their pubs – Banks’s & Hansons in the Black Country, Hardy’s & Hanson’s, Home and Shipstone’s in Nottingham, and Boddington’s, Holt’s, Hyde’s, Lees and Robinson’s around Manchester. Added to this, there were still massive tied estates belonging to members of the Big Six which were mostly real, such as Bass Mitchells & Butlers across the Midlands and Tetley’s in Yorkshire and on Merseyside.

A myth has grown up that, when CAMRA was founded, real ale was on the point of disappearing in Britain. In and around London, that may not have been far from the truth, but across the country as a whole the situation was in fact much healthier, something that helped encourage the always rather mistaken view that real ale was a working man’s drink.

Fast-forward forty years, and things have been turned on their head. London is enjoying an unprecedented boom in specialist beer pubs and craft beer bars. Across all the rural counties of the South and East, from Cornwall to Norfolk, you would be hard-pressed to find any prominent pub that didn’t serve real ale. The only keg-only outlets are youth-oriented bars and a few back-street and estate pubs in places well off the tourist trail. Counties like Surrey and Buckinghamshire report over 95% of all pubs selling real ale.

On the other hand, many of the independent brewers in operation in the 1970s have been taken over and their estates scattered to the four winds, Nottingham having suffered especially badly. The Big Six brewers have been broken up and their pubs largely transferred to pub companies which in the 1990s started the systematic removal of real ale except where they saw a clear commercial justification. Most of the surviving back-street and estate pubs owned by pubcos now only have keg beer – indeed it’s now almost seen as a defining feature of the classic estate pub. Twenty years ago, a pub crawl of Levenshulme in South Manchester included twelve or so pubs with real ale; now there are only two or three, and none on the main road. Yet a few miles down the road in Didsbury and Chorlton, new bars have opened up and it’s pretty much ubiquitous.

So it’s an interesting reversal of fortune how, in many cases, the areas where real ale was once sparse now have it in abundance, and where it was once plentiful it is now rare. And, of course, it has to be recognised that the preferred drink of the typical “working man” has long been standard lager, not mild or bitter.

October 2013

Open and Shut Case

The liberalisation of licensing hours has often led to pubs opening shorter hours

IT’S NOW twenty-five years since 1988 when the licensing laws were liberalised and all-day pub opening permitted once again. However, over time, in many cases the effect seems to have been pubs opening for shorter hours, not longer. Before 1988, most pubs would adhere fairly closely to the standard permitted hours for their area, although opening a bit later at lunchtimes and Saturday evenings was fairly common. If a pub was normally closed even for one session it was something worthy of note.

In the early years of the new licensing regime, most pubs seemed to stick to their previous pattern of opening, and indeed a couple of years afterwards it was still hard to find anywhere open after 3 pm in the centres of Stockport and Manchester. However, the growth of Wetherspoons and other chain pubs, which didn’t close in the afternoon, made them start to reconsider that approach, and nowadays you’ll find that most pubs in town and city centres do open all day.

On the other hand, many pubs with a more local appeal started to take the view that there wasn’t much point in opening at lunchtimes at all, especially during the week, and switched to an evenings-only model, possibly including Friday, Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes, although some don’t even bother with that. This has even happened to some pubs that once did a healthy lunchtime trade with customers from local workplaces.

I’d certainly not want to argue that pubs should be expected to open at times when they can’t trade profitably, and curbing your hours can make it possible for a couple to run a pub with little or no additional staff. However, if they’re doing this, it’s surely vital to display the opening hours outside so people know when they’re going to be able to get in. Even if you’re not going to the pub on that occasion, you can still make a mental note of the hours for a later visit. And, if you turn up and find a pub shut, if you know it will open in half an hour you may stick around and wait; if there’s no indication at all you’re more likely just to go elsewhere.

If you are in a location where there is potential passing and casual trade, limiting your hours can also indicate a smallness of ambition and reluctance to cultivate a wider appeal. The amount of trade on offer at lunchtimes is often underestimated – for example, many retired people much prefer going to the pub at lunchtime rather than in the evening, and I’ve come across some pubs that are like a pensioners’ social centre in the afternoon. Plus people nowadays are less likely to work regular, 9-5 hours, so more working people will be around in the daytime. Open a Wetherspoon’s pretty much anywhere and there will be people in for a drink from mid-morning onwards, and throughout the afternoon, even when nearby pubs are firmly shut.

Another point is that lengthy and predictable opening hours are in themselves a selling point even to potential customers who aren’t really going to take advantage of them. You know Wetherspoon’s are open all day, and so you can plan a visit with confidence without having to check what the actual hours are. And one word-of-mouth report that someone visited a pub at a time when they might reasonably have expected it to be open, and found the door firmly shut, could do a lot of damage. If a pub gets a reputation for scarcely ever being open it will make it much less appealing to casual customers.

At the end of the day, pubs are there to provide a service to their customers, and if they can’t be bothered opening when people want to visit, it will result in a black mark for that particular establishment and potentially also the entire sector.

September 2013

A Pint of Two Halves

Charging extra for halves is poor business practice that needlessly antagonises customers

RECENTLY there seems to have been a rise in the practice of pubs charging more for a half than exactly 50% of the price of pint, something that for many years has been commonplace in Ireland. Many drinkers find this irritating, especially given that the growth in the number of rare and one-off beers means that drinking halves is a lot more common than it used to be.

The usual reason given is that the overheads in terms of staff time and glass-washing are the same for a half as for a pint, and thus some kind of premium is justified. However, in general, pubs serve far more pints than halves, and the fact that they do sell a few halves is unlikely in practice to result in any measurable extra cost.

Cost should never be the sole factor in pricing – you also have to bear in mind consistency and what people feel happy to pay. The aim should be to establish a fair and reasonable pricing structure that covers your overheads without any anomalies. Pubs don’t, for example, charge more for beer in the winter to cover the additional costs of heating and lighting.

While I’m never going to man any barricades about it, charging more for halves seems to me to be something that needlessly antagonises customers for little or no benefit to the pub. It’s quite simply a bad business practice that has no place in an operation that depends so heavily on customer goodwill. Plus it’s not hard to imagine the anti-drink lobby getting up in arms over effectively giving people a discount for drinking more.

The Customer is Always Rude

Should staff be entitled to refuse service to ill-mannered customers?

A COUPLE of months ago there was a lot of discussion about a case where a Sainsbury’s cashier refused to serve a customer who was busy talking on her mobile phone. This attracted a lot of public sympathy, and few would disagree that the customer’s behaviour was rude and ill-mannered, something that the widespread use of mobile phones seems to have encouraged.

However, is it really the role of staff to make value judgments about the behaviour of customers, provided that they are not actually being abusive? Attitudes as to what is and isn’t acceptable have greatly changed over the years, and they should not be pulling people up for things simply because they don’t approve. It could all too easily turn into a slippery slope where customers were being told off for eating, chewing gum, showing their underpants or wearing T-shirts with offensive slogans. A checkout operator – or a bar person – is acting as the representative of their employer and it is not their job to make up policy on the hoof. It may be a cause for regret, but in the real world businesses may suffer for turning away customers for a lack of manners.

On the other hand, if you’re the licensee of a pub who is effectively running your own business, you are quite entitled to take the view of “my gaff, my rules” and ban anything you disapprove of so long as it’s not discriminatory. In the past there were some pubs that imposed a forfeit on any customers who allowed a mobile phone to ring, but they have now become so ubiquitous in society that such an attitude would probably be counter-productive.

Reverse the roles, though, and there is no doubt that for a member of bar staff to be chatting on the phone while serving a customer is completely unprofessional and frankly indicates total contempt for those who ultimately pay their wages.

August 2013


You know it when you find it, but you can’t create it just by ticking boxes

IN MY RECENT column about Wetherspoon’s, I made the point that, while they may tick a lot of boxes as to what people look for a pub, with very few exceptions their establishments are notably lacking in that elusive quality of “pubbiness”. This is something rather akin to an elephant, that you recognise instantly when you come across it, but is very hard to describe exactly.

It’s often said that a church is essentially a congregation, not a building, and the same is true of pubs. While having an unspoilt traditional interior can make a major contribution, it doesn’t create atmosphere all by itself. I’ve been in the occasional immaculately preserved pub that came across like a sterile museum piece, whereas others with no architectural merit whatsoever were places that just seemed to work and where you would immediately feel at home.

On the other hand, some feeling of intimacy helps, even just an effort to break up large open-plan spaces into smaller areas. Bench-type seating promotes sociability by encouraging customers to look into the centre of the room and interact with each other rather than sticking to their own little groups at separate café-style tables. Small round three-legged tables are often preferable to big rectangular ones thast would be more at home in a restaurant. A real fire in winter is always a welcoming sight.

The key function of pubs has always been as a place for people to meet and socialise over a few drinks, and so it’s good to see groups of drinkers clustered around the bar, and a mix of customers of different age groups. A variety of ages amongst the bar staff is also good, as is giving the impression they might actually use the pub as customers rather than just doing it for the money.

A good pub will have some regular customers who just call in for a drink, even if only once a month; it won’t be wholly dependent on diners or casual trade. The playing of pub games, even just the normal staples of darts and pool, suggest that people are using the pub as a social meeting place, and a jukebox rather than pre-selected piped music means that some consideration is being given to what people actually want to listen to.

Then there is evidence that the pub serves a community function, such as hosting sports teams and social functions, and having a noticeboard promoting local events, businesses and attractions. And it’s always a positive sign if you can see the pub being run in an individual way rather than just according to a corporate masterplan, for example pub pets such as cats and dogs and tropical fish, pictures and memorabilia with some local significance, even just an assortment of cards pinned up behind the bar with nuts and other snacks.

Some of the obvious things that detract from pubbiness are those associated with an excessive concentration on food, such as tables laid with place-settings and “Reserved” signs. A notice saying “please wait here to be seated” has no place in any self-respecting pub. And, while there’s nothing wrong with pub-branded polo shirts, putting your bar staff in waistcoats and bow-ties is completely out of place. Pastel colours, either inside and outside, are never a good idea, and neither are low sofas, not to mention being a very inefficient use of space.

But, at the end of the day, pubbiness is something that develops gradually over time and cannot be instantly creating simply by ticking items off a list.

July 2013

A Question of Balance

Too many pubs fail to put a decent spread of beer types on the bar

IF I RAN a pub, I’d make sure that the range of cask beers included sufficient variety that as few customers as possible would be disappointed. If I had four pumps, I’d have a classic ordinary bitter, a golden ale, a stronger premium bitter and a dark beer, either a mild or a porter. As the number of pumps grew, I might add one or two stronger and/or more exotic beers, but I’d still retain roughly the same proportions. And I’d always remember that, although there’s much to be said for offering more unusual brews, the majority of customers, even in specialist pubs, will be looking for beers in the gold-amber-copper colour range with a strength roughly between 3.5% and 4.5% ABV.

So it’s disappointing when pubs which you think really should know better fail to adhere to the basic principle of offering a balanced beer range. Although by no means the only offenders, Wetherspoon’s often seem particularly bad at this. For example, on one occasion, apart from the usual Ruddles and Abbot, there was nothing on the bar below 5%, which isn’t ideal if you want to keep a clear head at lunchtime. Another time, all the guests were dark beers of some description with the exception of one cloudy Belgian-style witbier which I imagine many casual punters would have sent straight back. It really isn’t good if you’re confronted with eight handpumps but can’t find anything you want to drink, or if in Spoons you find Ruddles the least worst option.

I also recently called in a well-regarded free house (not in this area) which I’ve always found to have a particularly congenial atmosphere. It had eight beers on, one of which was a chocolate porter, and the remaining seven all golden ales. Now, I’ve nothing against golden ales, and many of them are excellent beers, but it would have been nice to see a bit more variety and one or two milds and classic bitters. Wye Valley HPA is a fine brew, but on this occasion their Bitter or Butty Bach might have provided a broader choice.

It’s not difficult, licensees – as far as you can, within the number of beers you can turn over, make sure you offer as wide a variety of strengths and styles as practicable, and don’t neglect beers of sessionable strength in the amber and copper colour range.

Party Pooper

It’s a licensee’s right to bar admission to large parties to maintain his pub’s character

IT HAS BEEN reported that the Blue Bell pub in York has been excluded from the 2014 “Good Beer Guide” by the local branch of CAMRA because at times it supposedly operates a restrictive admissions policy. Now, this is a pub I am very familiar with and would place it in my Top Ten of British pubs. It’s a tiny, unspoilt place with front public bar, central servery and rear snug, connected by a corridor along one side. Fifty people would fill it. So it’s perhaps understandable that the licensee chooses to put up “Private Party” signs to keep out rowdy stag and hen parties visiting the city on weekend evenings. He says: “We do get nice strangers coming in the pub but on Saturday nights and race days York city centre is a nightmare.”

Realistically, apart from a few hours on Friday and Saturday nights, casual visitors are not going to have any problem gaining admission, and even then I would imagine all that it takes is to ask politely. The main impact of excluding the pub from the “Guide” will not be to cost it any trade, but simply to deprive some visitors to the city of the opportunity to experience one of Britain’s true classic pubs. Maybe a more diplomatic and tongue-in-cheek approach would have been to follow the example of one Bristol licensee and put up a sign saying “No Idiot Pub Crawls”.

June 2013

Down Escalator

The success of the duty escalator campaign was due to the entire pub and brewing trade singing from the same hymnsheet

THE NAME of Derick Heathcoat-Amory is not one that is likely to be familiar to the modern-day beer drinker, but his claim to fame is that, in 1959, he became the only post-war Chancellor of the Exchequer to actually cut beer duty. Until now, that is. During the past year, CAMRA led a high-profile campaign to scrap the Beer Duty Escalator, which was introduced by Alastair Darling in 2008 and each year increased the level of beer duty by 2% over and above the rate of inflation.

Many, including myself, were somewhat sceptical of the chances of success, given the dire state of the public finances and the general climate of anti-drink scaremongering. However, in the event, in his budget in March, George Osborne not only scrapped the escalator but went two steps further and actually cut the main rate of beer duty by 2%. This must rank as one of CAMRA’s greatest campaigning achievements in the lifetime of the organisation.

An important factor in this was getting the entire brewing and pub trade speaking with one voice, and bringing industry organisations such as the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) and Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) onside. The argument that the negative impact of the escalator on pubs had wider social implications struck a chord well outside the confines of the trade, and the campaign was given strong support by voices such as the Sun newspaper and the Taxpayers’ Alliance whom some CAMRA members might not regard as natural bedfellows. In contrast, appeals to government based on claims that one section of the industry was gaining an unfair advantage have invariably met with failure. United we stand, divided we fall is a crucial lesson to be learned.

At times the campaign against the escalator was (maybe understandably) guilty of overstating the negative impact it had on the pub trade. Of course it didn’t help, but it was only one of a number of factors working against pubs. Thus the duty cut should not be seen as a magic bullet. One excuse for lack of success has now been taken away, and it is now up to pubs to respond in an enterprising and imaginative manner and deliver more competitive prices to customers. Those who just use it as a means of fattening their margins do not deserve to prosper.

The escalator was maintained for all other categories of alcoholic drinks, leading to some indignation from the wine and spirits sectors. To some extent this was just redressing the balance, as there were at least two occasions during the last couple of decades when Kenneth Clarke and Gordon Brown froze spirits duty while raising that for beer. However, it has been widely pointed out that Britain’s high levels of duty across the board (either second or third in the EU, depending on the type of drink) have severe negative consequences in encouraging smuggling and illegal distilling. Hopefully next year will see the escalator scrapped for all drinks.

Cider is an unusual case, as the general level of duty is much lower than that on beer for products of comparable strength. Traditional cidermakers have defended this on the grounds of the investment needed in orchards and lengthy fermentation periods but, on the other hand, it does give a cost advantage to some industrial products that seem to have little connection with the Herefordshire or Somerset countryside. In 2010, Alastair Darling proposed an across-the-board 10% hike in cider duty, which met with considerable resistance in the West Country and was cancelled by the incoming Coalition government. Maybe a better solution, rather than a general increase that would hit all producers, would be to raise the proportion of pure apple juice required to qualify for the lower rate from the current 35% to something like two-thirds or three-quarters. Products not meeting that requirement would be taxed at the higher rate for “made-wine”, which is similar to that for beer.

May 2013

Twenty Years On

The first ten years weren’t bad, but the second have been disastrous for the British pub

THIS MONTH marks the twentieth anniversary of this column, which originally began in “Opening Times” in May 1993. I’d wager it’s the longest continuously running opinion column in any local CAMRA publication.

Ten years ago, I reflected on developments during that period and reached the conclusion that, while there had been some negative trends, overall there was still much to celebrate: “While you’re less likely now to find a good pint simply by going in pubs at random, the best pubs now are better than ever before. There are plenty of superb drinking establishments about, both old favourites and ones that have sprung up in the past few years. And the choice and quality of beers available, if you’re prepared to make a little effort to seek them out, is enormously better than it once was.”

However, during the following ten years, things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. While many new breweries have opened up, and the choice of beer in specialist pubs has shown a further massive expansion, for the pub trade as a whole, things have been little short of disastrous. At least a fifth of the pubs that were open in 2003 have now closed, and it is hard to make a road journey of any length off the motorway network without encountering a depressing sequence of boarded-up pubs. Beer sales in pubs are 37% down over the ten-year period.

This is the result of a perfect storm of adverse factors. The trade has been battered by the twin punches of the smoking ban and the duty escalator, while there have been two related but distinct trends of the general demonisation of even moderate alcohol consumption, and the growing view that drinking needs to be ringfenced from the routine of everyday life. People place far more emphasis on not touching a drop in “normal” situations than they used to. Just “going to the pub”, without involving a meal, is something that is becoming no longer an acceptable leisure pursuit in polite society.

Outside of urban centres, many of the pubs that survive have gone over to food to such an extent that they are now in effect restaurants, not social meeting places. In a sense that is an inevitable reaction to the changing market-place, and pub owners can’t really be blamed for doing it, but it still renders them radically different places. Where the all-purpose pub does survive, its trade often seems thin and apologetic, and far from the parade of human nature that once could be seen. The trade is also much more concentrated towards the traditional weekend busy periods – lunchtimes and early evenings can be utterly dead.

Sadly, pubs, as a seven days, fourteen sessions a week, institution, are a shadow of their former selves. Over the years, I have had great times in pubs that I would not have missed for anything, but I suspect if I was just embarking on the world of adulthood today, regular pubgoing would not even feature on the agenda. Yes, there are still good pubs to be found, and good times to be had in them, but their overall place in our national life is greatly diminished from what it once was, and that trend shows no sign of abating.

A further unwelcome feature of recent years is how some who claim to stand up for pubs have sought to gain short-term advantage from an accommodation with the anti-drink lobby that ultimately can only end in tears. The success of pubs depends on wider social attitudes. A society in which the regular, moderate consumption of alcohol is viewed in a relaxed, tolerant way as a normal part of everyday life will have thriving pubs. On the other hand, pubs will struggle when alcohol is widely regarded in a censorious and disapproving manner.

April 2013

Pricing Drinkers Back into the Pub?

It is delusional to believe that minimum alcohol pricing will do anything to help the pub trade

SOME PEOPLE in the drinks trade such as Greene King boss Rooney Anand seem to have got the idea that minimum alcohol pricing would be a way of redressing the balance between on- and off-trade consumption and encouraging people back into pubs. However, Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s was closer to the mark when he described minimum pricing as “utter bollocks, basically.”

In practice it’s hard to see how it would generate a single extra customer for pubs. For a start, it’s fairly obvious that if you increase the price of A, but leave B the same, it doesn’t make B any cheaper, or give people any more money to spend on it. Perhaps it might lead the odd person to go back to B because A is no longer such an irresistible bargain, but on the other hand it will increase costs overall and potentially lead people to cut back on B. It certainly won’t put any more money in anyone’s pocket apart from brewers and retailers.

In a survey carried out by YouGov [1], 39% of respondents said that minimum pricing would lead to them drinking less in pubs and bars, while fewer than 1% said they would drink more. Another poll by ComRes [2] showed below 20% support for the plan amongst the population as a whole, so it can’t exactly be said to command broad popular support.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding minimum pricing concerns problem drinkers downing dirt-cheap white cider, super lagers, budget vodka and the like. While it would undoubtedly raise the price of their favoured tipple, is it really going to persuade them to start using pubs instead? And would the pubs want them anyway? On the other hand, before discounting, the price of most mainstream branded alcoholic drinks is already 45p or more a unit, so it will make no difference whatsoever. Obviously it would affect the price of some products that are being discounted, but even so they would still be markedly cheaper than the equivalent in pubs. No doubt it would to a small extent cut overall consumption, but people aren’t suddenly going to stop “pre-loading” because the price of a bottle of cheap vodka has gone up from £10 to £12.

The reasons for the long-term decline of the on-trade relative to the off-trade lie in a variety of social changes over the years that go well beyond price alone. If you want a drink, it isn’t a simple either-or choice as to whether to have it at home or in the pub – you need an actual occasion to prompt you to visit the pub. Even if beer was a pound a pint, pubs wouldn’t be doing anything like the trade they were thirty years ago, especially at lunchtimes.

It is also suggested that this change in the marketplace is something that has been brought about as part of a deliberate policy by the major supermarkets. However, in reality, while they may be able to tweak customer preferences to a limited extent, supermarkets can only sell what people want to buy. They are, by and large, responding to consumer demand, not creating it out of thin air. If they really could manipulate the market to the extent that is claimed, then they would have discovered the Holy Grail of business.

Minimum pricing would also set a precedent for government regulation of drink prices that it would be naïve to assume would never be extended in some way to pubs. It is short-sighted in the extreme for one section of the drinks trade to seek a temporary advantage from what is essentially an anti-drink measure. In the words of Winston Churchill, “an appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last.” Anyone with an interest in alcoholic drinks as producer, retailer or consumer who feels any sneaking sympathy with minimum pricing should reflect long and hard on that proposition.




March 2013

Not What it Used to Be

The idea that familiar beers have become less distinctive may be more than just nostalgia

IT’S NOT UNCOMMON to hear people complaining that many well-known cask beers have become blander over the years and have lost much of the character they once had. It’s tempting to dismiss this as simply looking back on the past through rose-tinted spectacles, and it is certainly true that as you get older your tastebuds become less sensitive. It may also be the case that the introduction of some very strongly-flavoured brews in recent years has made some of the established ones pale in comparison.

However, a couple of months ago, Peter Alexander wrote about how some of the major brewers have admitted making lager brands less bitter in a bid to gain wider acceptability, and it is hard to believe that the same never happens with real ales. It is certainly my subjective impression that many beers that have been around since the 1970s are not as distinctive as they once were. One where it’s hard to argue this hasn’t happened is Holt’s Bitter, which is still an excellent beer when well kept, but over the years has become noticeably rounder and mellower in flavour, and darker in colour, compared with the pale, “shockingly bitter” brew described in early editions of the “Good Beer Guide”.

There may be other factors at work, though. One is that beers once confined to brewers’ tied estates, where they had some control over how they were kept, have now become widely available in the free trade and pub company outlets where standards of cellarmanship are not as consistent and therefore the average quality encountered is not as good. This undoubtedly was the case when many previously keg-only Whitbread pubs began stocking Marston’s Pedigree in the 1980s, and seems to apply today to, for example, Taylor’s Landlord.

I also suspect that financial pressures to turn stock over as quickly as possible lead many pubs to put beers on as soon as they have dropped bright in the cellar and not give them sufficient conditioning time to develop their full flavour. It has often been remarked how some pubs manage to coax depths of flavour out of beers widely dismissed as a bit dull, and maybe serving beer before it has had time to mature properly in the cellar is one of the main reasons why beers don’t seem as distinctive as they once were.

Sharing the Pain

The decline in beer sales is now hitting both on- and off-trades equally

ONE OF THE major trends in the beer market in recent years has been the steady move from pub to at-home drinking. According to statistics produced by the British Beer and Pub Association, in 1997, the on-trade accounted for 71% of total beer consumption, a figure that had fallen to 52% by 2012. This is often simplistically blamed on supermarket discounting, although in reality the reasons behind the shift are much more varied and complex.

However, the latest figures tell a different story and suggest that this trend has come to a grinding halt. In the twelve months to December 2012, the total UK beer market declined by 4.7% compared with the previous year, with the falls in the on- and off-trades being pretty much the same. The malign effects of the beer duty escalator must bear a large share of the blame for this but, even if it once contained an element of truth, it is wide of the mark to suggest that cheap beer in Tesco is currently killing pubs.

February 2013

Dull or Shiny Spoons?

Have Wetherspoon’s proved a blessing or a curse for British pubgoers?

OVER THE past twenty years, the rise of Wetherspoon’s from very small beginnings has been one of the most obvious changes in the British pub scene. They now have over 850 branches, and one or more of their pubs can be found in pretty much every substantial town in the country. Their large average size means that they command a much higher market share than that figure might suggest, and it is reckoned they now account for one in ten of all pints of real ale sold. Like many new developments, they have strongly divided opinion and sparked some passionate debates over whether, on balance, they have been a good or bad thing.

In their favour, they have enjoyed conspicuous success during a period when large swathes of the pub trade have been struggling. Most of their pubs have been brand-new openings rather than having been bought from other pub operators. All of their pubs sell a range of real ales, and they are strong supporters of small independent breweries. In many of the places they operate they have by far the best choice of beer in town. No less than 256 of their pubs now feature in CAMRA’s “Good Beer Guide”. They have introduced customer-focused measures such as all-day opening and all-day food which, even after the 1980s liberalisation of licensing hours, were still rare. They offer conspicuously good value across the whole range of food and drink, and their pubs are bright and welcoming and attract a wide range of customers from all age groups. Their Chairman, Tim Martin, has been an articulate and outspoken defender of pubs and drinkers in opposition to the government and the anti-drink lobby.

On the other hand, their detractors argue that their establishments are soulless, open-plan drinking barns singularly devoid of traditional pub atmosphere. One way they achieve low prices is economising on staff numbers, resulting in endless waits at the bar and tables groaning with uncollected glasses. Their food is specified down to a price, rigorously portion-controlled and warmed up in a microwave. Their wide range of customers often seems to be dominated by elderly drunks and single mothers with offspring in tow. Perhaps most telling of all, many paint them as the Tesco of the pub world, using their financial muscle to drive down prices from suppliers and ruthlessly undercut the local competition. They end up replacing characterful, independent pubs with standardised corporate drinking outlets with the same range of food and drink and general ambiance from Penzance to Wick. You know what you’re getting with a Wetherspoon’s, but that’s because, like McDonalds or Starbucks, they’re basically all the same.

I have to say that, all things considered, I tend to incline more to the first view than the second. You can’t knock their success, and, at a time when closed and boarded pubs are a common sight, they are opening dozens of new ones every year in a variety of locations. They have hit upon a formula that obviously works and pulls the customers in. They started from a single pub thirty years ago, and the same business opportunities have been open to everyone, but nobody else has taken them to anything like the same extent.

Pubs, just like any other business sector, benefit from healthy competition, and, when Wetherspoon’s were starting up, much of the pub trade was very complacent. However, their formula is basically to do a wide range of things reasonably well, and if you choose to specialise you can still make a decent living. Wherever there’s a Wetherspoon’s, not too far away there will be pubs with one or more of better food, better beer, a more traditional and intimate atmosphere, better pub games and better live music. Yes, the kind of bog-standard pub that tries to be all things to all men may struggle, but perhaps that’s no bad thing.

My biggest criticism is that, with few exceptions, they’re very “unpubby” in feel, with open-plan layouts avoiding internal divisions and traditional pub-style fixed bench seating. Whatever else it may be, a Wetherspoon’s pub is scarcely ever cosy. However, I’ve reached the conclusion that’s a deliberate policy to appeal to customers for whom old-fashioned pubs came across as a touch intimidating.

January 2013

Going to the Dogs

A pub that welcomes man’s best friend is likely to be welcoming to people too

THE LONG-RUNNING “Fred Basset” newspaper cartoon strip consists of a series of variations on about four underlying stories, one of which is when Fred’s master claims to be taking him out for a walk but – surprise, surprise – ends up calling in to the local pub for a pint. What could be more pleasant and sociable than popping in for a couple and a natter while your faithful hound sits patiently and recovers his breath for the homeward leg?

Yet, unaccountably, many pubs seem to have an objection to dogs, even the best-behaved ones, and put up officious notices saying “No Dogs Except Guide Dogs” – which, of course, they have to admit by law. Maybe you can understand this in a heavily food-oriented pub where diners don’t want to have to put up with pooches begging for scraps, but even there surely a dog-friendly drinking area could be set aside.

Some licensees seem to have a narrow-minded attitude reminiscent of the old-fashioned park-keeper, and delight in issuing instructions to their customers as to what they should not do. Yet, in my experience, the vast majority of dogs in pubs are well-behaved and are content just to sit quietly under a table. I recall recently being in a pub where a guy got up to leave and took with him a large black poodle that I hadn’t even noticed was there at all.

Indeed, one couple of dog-lovers told me that, even if they don’t have their dog with them, they often ask whether a pub welcomes dogs. “Without fail,” they said, “all the pubs which say no turn out to be rather soulless, unfriendly places which we wouldn’t choose to visit again – no matter how nice they look, or how ‘reasonable’ their excuses are for not allowing them – whereas the ones which say yes are always warm, friendly and sociable. Although it has surprised a few bar staff when we walk in, having asked if dogs are allowed, without said pooch in tow.”

So surely it’s time for more pubs to extend a warm welcome to man’s best friend – provided he behaves himself – and realise that promoting a friendly, unstuffy, tolerant atmosphere is likely to be good for business.

Oh Yes You Are!

Claims that anti-drink lobbyists are not being killjoys ring distinctly hollow

ANTI-DRINK pressure group Alcohol Concern have issued a call for people to abstain totally from alcohol during January. Obviously many people will be forced to cut down simply because of being skint after the festive season, but this is taking things to another level. Spokeswoman Emily Robinson said:

“Many of us think the way we drink isn't a problem, but even having just a few beers after work or a few glasses of wine at home too often can take you over safe limits and store up problems for the future.

“We're challenging people to take part in Dry January and try giving up booze for 31 days, and if it sounds like a big ask you're exactly the person we want to join us and have a go.

“We're not being killjoys or telling people to never drink again. We just think this provides the perfect opportunity for all of us to take a breather and get thinking about our drinking.”

Er, isn’t killjoys exactly what you are being? And those so-called “safe limits” are a load of nonsense plucked out of thin air by you and your neo-Prohibitionist friends. Of course, if every drinker took them at their word, most of the pubs in the country would be out of business by the end of the month. What a result that would be! Somehow I doubt whether we will see them picketing the National Winter Ales Festival later this month.

A group called “Drinkuary” has been set up as a counterweight to this joyless miserabilism – go along to their website at and take a look.