December 2014

A Taxing Issue

Cutting VAT on out-of-home dining would be a poorly-targeted piece of special pleading

WHILE YOU may not always agree with him, Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin has to be applauded for being prepared, unlike many of his counterparts, to speak out on the issues facing the brewing and pub industry. However, one campaign on which to my mind he is very wide of the mark is that for a lower rate of VAT to apply to food sales in the hospitality trade. It is claimed that is would give a major boost to employment, but, taking a wider view, is it really such a good idea?

The issue is portrayed by its supporters as some kind of unjustified subsidy to supermarkets, whereas in fact a zero rate of VAT has always applied to most food sold in shops, whether supermarkets or local traders, and few people would argue that it should be taxed. Fifty years ago, the vast majority of alcohol sales were in the on-trade, but since then the off-trade has steadily gained ground despite not enjoying any advantage in tax and duty. In contrast, out-of-home dining has mushroomed. It’s possible to argue that, for most alcohol purchases, there’s a realistic choice between the two, but the same is never going to apply to food.

It’s also not comparing like with like. Even if food bought in a shop is zero-rated, to actually eat it you need to take it home, store it (maybe in the fridge), cook it using gas or electricity, provide tables, chairs, plates and cutlery to eat it, and heating and lighting for your room, all of which may be subject to VAT, whereas these things are included in the price of a meal served up in a pub.

It’s hard to argue that out-of-home food is too dear anyway – indeed you hear some people claiming that it is too cheap. There’s a wide variety of food available at all kinds of price points, and would reducing the price of a £9.99 Beef Stroganoff to £8.75 really prove a decision-breaker for many people?

It wouldn’t only be pubs that benefited, either. The hospitality trade encompasses all kinds of caf├ęs, takeaways and restaurants too, so it would be giving a financial boost to your local kebab shop and burger joint as well as, if not more, than pubs. “Unfair tax treatment for McDonald’s” doesn’t somehow sound quite as appealing. It would also be helping the bottom line of three-star restaurants. The well-off tend to eat out more than the poor, and spend a lot more each time, so they would gain the greatest benefit. By definition, the more costly a meal, the higher the VAT element. And, when many food campaigners are complaining that people are less and less often preparing meals from scratch, surely cutting the cost of prepared meals would make them even less likely to cook at home.

It’s always a subject of political debate as to whether it is better overall to reduce taxes or increase government expenditure. The proposed VAT cut from 20% to 5% on out-of-home eating would undoubtedly be expensive, and, even assuming it is affordable, it’s not difficult to come up with areas where a tax cut might be more widely beneficial. Two obvious examples are a smaller reduction in the general rate of VAT, and increasing the income tax threshold. And, if encouraging employment is the main objective, then that would be better addressed by either increasing the threshold or reducing the rate of employers’ National Insurance contributions.

The conclusion must be that this is a superficially appealing but poorly thought out idea that is a classic example of special pleading, wanting tax favours for businesses you happen to think are deserving. Even if money was available for tax cuts, it would be better spent elsewhere.

November 2014

It’s Kicking off Again

Pubs are starting to realise that TV football may not be the money-spinner they thought

ONCE THE football season starts in the middle of August, anyone just looking for a quiet pint needs to check the fixtures before venturing out to the pub at weekend lunchtimes or midweek evenings. Clearly, for some pubs, televised football brings in a lot of extra custom, but the problem is that it is so often allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all else. Given the eye-watering cost, you can perhaps understand pubs wanting to put screens everywhere, but that suggests that those who aren’t interested in football aren’t really welcome. It might be a good idea to offer a reduced subscription to pubs who were only going to show it in part of their licensed area, but that would be very hard to enforce.

There are growing signs, though, that pubs are realising that every customer they attract with football puts another off, and it doesn’t convey the image that many pubs want to put across. Much of this is to do with attracting dining trade, but there are straws in the wind that the micropub movement is encouraging a return to the old-fashioned drink and chat pub. Marston’s boss Ralph Findlay says that sport is becoming less important to his pubs, while a survey by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers reported that the proportion of pubs with a sports subscription had declined from 51% in 2003 to 37% today.

Apart from matches featuring City and United, I see little sign around here that it actually draws in additional custom. Many pubs have it simply because they fear that, if they didn’t, all their customers would decamp elsewhere. But, in a sense, it’s a case of waiting for the other man to blink first. The total cost of Sky Sports to pubs probably greatly exceeds the additional revenue it generates for the trade as a whole. And the point is often made that many of the customers who flock in to watch the two big local clubs are never seen in the pub at other times, and may not put that much money across the bar even when they’re there.

The Unquiet Pint

Nobody asks for piped music in pubs, yet still they play it

FOR AS LONG as I can remember, piped music in pubs has been a perennial source of complaint. Even if you happen to like it, the odds are that other people won’t, and what is music to one person’s ears will be an unholy racket to someone else. While it is claimed to create instant “atmosphere”, almost invariably it detracts from a pub.

In the 1990s, a guide to pubs without piped music was produced entitled “The Quiet Pint”. To be honest, it featured a rather random selection of pubs and the overall coverage was too sparse to make it of much practical use, although it might have led you to the occasional gem that you weren’t aware of. The book seems to have died the death around 2005, but if anything the problem seems to be spreading.

I can think of at least three pubs on my regular rounds which have a generally traditional character, but within the past few years have introduced piped music where there was none before. Indeed, sometimes they have been playing what sounded like Radio 1, which was totally inappropriate for a clientele whose average age was well above fifty. Very often nowadays it’s only Sam Smith’s and Wetherspoon’s pubs that are free of it, and you can’t really call your average Spoons “quiet” It helps to understand piped music in pubs if you appreciate that most of the time it is played for the benefit of the bar staff, not the customers. But more pubs should realise that getting rid of it could well add to their appeal.

October 2014

A Bitter Triumph

Let’s hope the award given to Taylor’s Boltmaker leads to a revival of “ordinary bitter”

IT WAS GOOD NEWS on two counts that CAMRA’s 2014 Champion Beer of Britain award went to Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker – both that it was won by a long-established family brewer, and that the winning beer was one in the “ordinary bitter” category that often seems to be sadly underappreciated nowadays. Some years ago, Boddington’s used the advertising slogan “If you don’t get Boddies’, you’ll just get bitter”. Well, you won’t get Boddies’ any more, at least in cask form, but in a growing number of pubs you won’t get bitter either.

Yes, if you go into a tied pub of one of the independent family brewers, or Greene King or Marston’s, you will probably still find a beer on the bar in the 3.6% - 4.0% strength range describing itself as “Bitter”, and most new micros have at least one in their range. But in the vast majority of pub company outlets, or any “free house” that isn’t a specialist beer pub, you’re likely to be confronted by three or four of the widely-distributed premium ale brands such as Doom Bar, Cumberland Ale, Bombardier, Wainwright and London Pride, which are in a slightly higher strength – and price – band. “Ordinary bitter” is conspicuous by its absence.

Indeed, very often the standard ale in these pubs is a smoothflow offering such as Worthington, John Smith’s or the dreaded nitro Boddington’s, while cask beer is reserved for the discerning “premium” customer with his deep pockets. Yet, to pack so much flavour and variety into beers of such modest strength is arguably one of the greatest achievements of British brewing. And, at a time when high pub prices are a constant source of complaint and we are being urged to curb our alcohol consumption, making a wider variety of ordinary bitters available would help both our wallets and our livers. Let’s hope that the victory of Boltmaker leads to a revival of interest in what for decades was the staple beer of British pubs.

Scattered in the Plough

Scatter cushions are a pointless, fussy attempt to make pubs seem more “female-friendly”

THE LATEST bizarre interior design feature to appear in pubs is a proliferation of scatter cushions, which once you’d be more likely to find in your gran’s front lounge. They’ve appeared in a number of Robinson’s recent refurbishments, and they’ve even cropped up in Wetherspoon’s. And, not content with colonising the lounge side, they’ve started spreading to the vault!

The idea, I suppose, is to make pub interiors seem more female-friendly by introducing a cosy, homely, design element. But in practice nobody ever derives any comfort from them, and they just end up being chucked on the floor to free up more seating space. Surely it is appropriate for the “public” side at least to have an understated, functional, even austere design ethos of a somewhat masculine character, rather than being bedecked with fancy fripperies. And isn’t it somewhat patronising to women to imagine that they will be tempted into pubs by the introduction of fussy, chintzy soft furnishings that serve no practical purpose?

Pile 'em High

Where do all these peculiar pub trends come from?

IT’S FUNNY how these odd little innovations seem to sweep across the pub trade without any obvious prompting. Another one, which is trivial in itself, is putting beermats in a little pile in the middle of tables rather than spreading them out. Maybe this saves the bar staff a tiny amount of work, but it can’t have evolved independently in a thousand different pubs – the idea must have come from somewhere. You start to wonder whether there is some kind of periodical called “Daft Pub Trends” that licensees read and then slavishly follow.

September 2014

Faith in the Future

New-build dining pubs reflect confidence in the future of the British pub trade

WE ARE OFTEN told that the British pub is in headlong decline, with a tidal wave of closures and pubgoing increasingly becoming irrelevant to the majority of people. However, our two biggest British-owned brewers, Greene King and Marston’s, are bucking this trend by opening large numbers of new-build pubs, which are generally pretty big establishments, not dinky little niche bars. They don’t get the recognition they deserve, though, as they’re family-oriented dining pubs located on retail and leisure parks, and thus far from the stereotype of community local or multi-beer alehouse. There’s a good local example of this in Greene King’s Flying Horse near Manchester Airport, opened last autumn, which must be the first new-build pub in Stockport and its immediate environs for over twenty years.

While these pubs cater for a different market than your average Wetherspoon’s, they come off pretty well in a direct comparison. They often demonstrate a much higher standard of seating comfort and materials, and also beat Spoons hands down in areas such as providing natural light and toilets on the same level as the bar area.

And they’re proving extremely successful, demonstrating that there are thousands of families across the country who, rather than cook and eat at home, prefer to go out for a meal once or twice a week. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed, informal atmosphere and value for money they’re looking for. It’s noticeable how busy these pubs can get around tea-time when much of the trade that traditional pubs once enjoyed has evaporated.

These family dining venues are a long way from my vision of the ideal pub, and aren’t where I’d choose to go and read the paper on a Sunday lunchtime. But they certainly meet a demand and their success is undeniable. Surely it’s a good thing for the future of the pub trade to get people visiting somewhere that is at least a vague approximation to a pub, and serves cask beer, rather than an establishment that bears no relation to one. Beer enthusiasts sneer at them at their peril.

Out of Place?

But applying the formula to existing pubs may seem insensitive and ill-considered

HOWEVER, it’s one thing to apply this format to a new-build site, but something else entirely to convert an existing pub, as Holt’s are in the process of doing with the Cheadle Hulme. They have set up a new joint venture company called Touchwood Inns in conjunction with the people behind the Cloverleaf Pub Company, who built up an estate of new-build dining pubs in the North of England that they eventually sold to Greene King. The intention is to apply this formula to a mixture of new developments and current Holt’s pubs.

I can’t help thinking, though, that the Cheadle Hulme isn’t the right location for this. In recent years, Cheadle Hulme has seen a number of new pub openings and has developed into something of a drinking circuit. Situated right next to the station, the Cheadle Hulme pub has a mixture of food and drink trade and surely it would have made more sense to try to tweak the balance between the two rather than imposing an overwhelmingly food-led formula that would be more at home on a leisure park. It’s also in a prosperous area where this style of operation may seem rather cheap and cheerful.

While you can’t blame Holt’s for trying to develop the food trade in their pubs and get away from their traditional image as operators of no-frills boozers, their actions on this front sometimes seem to demonstrate an uncertain touch.

August 2014

Idea vs Reality

We still like the idea of pubs, but are increasingly falling out of love with the reality

IN THE 1960s, there was a wave of railway branch line closures stemming from the notorious “Beeching Axe”, which often came up against passionate opposition. But it was noticeable that the commemorative “last trains” often carried more passengers than the line had done in the whole of the previous month. Many people had a lingering fondness for the idea of rural branch line railways, but they had fallen out of love with the reality. Much the same is happening with pubs. There are endless campaigns to “save the Red Lion from evil property developers”, and broadsheet newspaper articles bewailing the decline of the pub, but the harsh truth is that people in general are going to them less and less often.

Exactly the same can be said of many other cherished institutions – libraries, post offices, churches, traditional butchers, local bank branches, independent corner shops, even High Streets in general. The chattering classes embrace them in theory, but shun them in practice. While we love to complain about the decline of our institutions, it seems that we want someone else to keep them open for us. You get the impression many people want large swathes of the country to become some kind of Merrie England theme park kept open for their benefit and populated by cheeky Cockneys and gurning yokels, while they sit at home waiting for the Ocado delivery which they will pay for by mobile phone banking.

“Use it or lose it” is a glib phrase that is too often casually used without considering the implications. In practice, few of us are likely to be able to make any difference to the success or failure of businesses through our own custom alone, and it’s not reasonable to expect people to inconvenience themselves out of a sense of principle. As far as businesses go, people vote with their feet, and sadly they have increasingly voted against pubs.

In response to this, there have been calls for pubs to be given greater legal protection. Councils can designate them as Assets of Community Value, so local communities have first refusal if they are put up for sale, and it has been suggested that planning permission should be required to convert pubs into shops. However, all the planning controls in the world won’t save a single pub if the underlying demand is no longer there, and in practice the result of these well-meaning initiatives is often likely to be that closed pubs remain blighted and derelict for longer until they can be redeveloped.

On the other hand, it is now easier than it has been for a hundred years to open new pubs and bars. Prosperous city suburbs such as Chorlton and Didsbury have seen them springing up all over the place, Wetherspoon’s have converted many former shops, micropubs are gaining an increasing foothold and Marston’s and Greene King are building brand-new dining pubs on retail parks. Where the demand exists, new establishments will appear to meet it and, if you had to jump through planning hoops to convert a little bar back into a wool shop, you might be less willing to open the bar in the first place.

If pubs are buildings of particular architectural merit, then there is everything to be said for doing our best to preserve them, and to find an alternative use if they really have no future as pubs. But, for the general run of pubs, it has to be recognised that social trends over the years have left many simply incapable of being run as viable businesses, and attempting to keep them on life support is an exercise in flogging dead horses. It would do much more for the future of pubs if half the effort devoted to planning issues was expended on countering the social and legislative changes that have reduced the demand for pubgoing.

July 2014

Joule in the Crown

Joules deserve praise for building up an estate of proper pubs in the old-fashioned way

I’M SOMETIMES accused of purveying a relentless diet of doom and gloom – which is in a sense the point of this column in the first place. However, one positive development of the past few years has been the growth of Joule’s brewery and its associated pub estate. The name is taken from a well-known brewery in Stone, Staffordshire, which was taken over by Bass and closed in the early 1970s. Their original premises were in Stone, but they have now developed a purpose-built brewery just across the Shropshire border in Market Drayton.

Rather than going down the route of developing nationwide distribution, they have followed the more old-fashioned course of building up a tied estate within about thirty miles of the brewery, and only selling to the free trade within that area. They have concentrated on producing a standard range of high-quality, but fairly mainstream and accessible beers, and have eschewed ever-changing weird and wonderful specials. Their flagship beer, Joules Pale Ale, is a classic balanced Burton-style brew in the mould of the original Draught Bass and Pedigree, which to my palate is one of the best everyday beers produced by new breweries in recent years.

None of their pubs are closer than about thirty miles from me, so I can’t say I’m a regular visitor, but whenever I’ve come across them I’ve been impressed. While most of them offer food, they very much remain proper pubs rather than identikit family dining outlets, and the ones I have visited have been carefully and expensively restored and have interiors of considerable character. They’re not cheap in Sam Smith’s or Wetherspoon’s terms, so aren’t targeted at the downmarket value drinker. Possibly the one people from the Manchester area are most likely to have encountered is the Cross Keys in Chester close to the Old Dee Bridge.

However, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that the development of the Joule’s tied estate is to some extent a labour of love depending on some deep pockets. If it was an obvious commercial winner, then others would be doing the same, but in general they don’t appear to be. Having said that, if someone’s doing something right we might as well both celebrate it and enjoy it.

A Fit of the Vapers

Pubs may be shooting themselves in the foot by offering a dusty welcome to e-cigarette users

ON A RECENT visit to my local, I was confronted by an officious notice stating that the use of electronic cigarettes was not allowed anywhere inside the pub. The reason usually given for this policy is that it may be difficult for bar staff to distinguish between electronic and “real” cigarette use and thus lead to customers flouting the smoking ban. However, the smell of tobacco tends to be a dead giveaway, and surely it is something that pubs can manage rather than taking the easy way out of a blanket ban. The fact that something looks vaguely like something else is not a good reason for prohibiting it and, if some customers find the sight of e-cig vapour unnerving, then pubs always have the option to restrict them to a designated area.

At a time when so many pubs are struggling, it can’t make sense to turn away customers wanting to pursue an entirely legal activity. Also, given that e-cigs have been widely adopted as a way of helping people to quit tobacco, pubs could be accused to standing in the way of efforts to reduce smoking prevalence in society. If you force users outside with the smokers they might reach the conclusion that they might as well go back to tobacco. And if pubs that have banned e-cigs close due to lack of trade they’re likely to be seen as having helped bring it on themselves.

June 2014

Chicken and Egg Situation

CAMRA needs to return to its founding principles as a champion of good beer, not just “real ale”

WHAT’S THE purpose of CAMRA? “To campaign for real ale”, of course. However, something that isn’t appreciated as widely as it should be is that CAMRA actually invented “real ale” as a concept – it didn’t spring into life to defend something that was widely understood but felt to be under threat. When the four founder members had their famous discussion in that pub in the west of Ireland, they had a general sense that something was going wrong with British beer, but they didn’t know exactly what. At first, the organisation was called the Campaign for the Revital­isation of Ale. It was only later, once they had looked into the subject more thoroughly, that the current definition of “real ale” was arrived at.

In the context of the British draught beer market at the time, it was actually a pretty good way of sorting out the sheep from the goats. But, even then, the wiser heads knew very well it wasn’t a universal yardstick for good beer. There was effectively no real ale anywhere in the world outside Great Britain, but that didn’t mean there was no good beer. For a period of thirty years, the concept of real ale went largely unchallenged, and even in 2000 there was little “good beer” available on draught in the UK that didn’t qualify. The introduction of nitrokeg “smooth” beers in the 1990s gave a new impetus to the real vs keg battle.

However, in the 21st century, beer has suddenly become fashionable again, and there has been a huge upsurge of interest in new and different styles and flavours, especially amongst younger drinkers. But a growing proportion of this new beer falls outside the definition of real ale, and thus presents CAMRA with a dilemma. Many of these young beer enthusiasts are happily mixing cask and keg in places like the Port Street Beer House or the RedWillow bar in Macclesfield, or even sticking entirely to keg in the BrewDog bar. If you want to get them involved in CAMRA, telling them that all keg beer is chemical fizz isn’t going to get you very far, and saying “that’s nothing to do with us, we campaign for real ale” isn’t much better. And to argue that keg Thornbridge Jaipur is no better than Watneys Red Barrel, or that Moravka lager is on a par with Fosters, is turning what was once a useful yardstick into blinkered dogma.

It is possible to overstate the scale of the issue – after all, many pubgoers will never encounter a “craft keg” tap from one month to the next, while you’ll struggle to find even a half-decent pub without real ale. But it isn’t going to go away, and is likely to grow in importance with the passage of time. In the long term, there is a risk that it will lead to a loss of credibility and marginalisation.

In reality, CAMRA has always campaigned on subjects well beyond real ale, such as opening hours, beer duty and licensing reform, and has also brought cider under its wing even though it has less to do with beer than whisky does. It presents itself as a champion of all beer drinkers and pubgoers, not just real ale drinkers. So, looking forward, surely it should adopt a more open-minded attitude to non-real beers while still retaining its core objective of protecting and promoting British cask beer. It simply needs to accept that CAMRA publications and spokespeople are allowed to discuss, review and praise non-real products rather than just pretending they don’t exist. As private individuals, many of its leading lights do just that, but officially it remains beyond the pale.

In the long term, though, this is probably going to happen through a slow but steady grass-roots revolt rather than by official changes in policy. It could be compared with the way a majority of Catholics have come to embrace contraception despite the official hierarchy of the church remaining dead set against it.

May 2014

Another Country

London is more and more following a different path from the rest of the country, both in general and in beer

IT'S OFTEN SAID that London is becoming increasingly detached in economic and social terms from the rest of the UK. Its economy seems to be more a part of an international world of finance than the realities of workaday provincial life, and it experiences a house price boom while the rest of the country is stagnant. Unlike pretty much any other major city, apart perhaps from Edinburgh, it has a large population of prosperous middle-class people living in inner-urban areas which gives them a distinctly different feel. With so many politicians and journalists being based in London, it is all too easy for them to form the opinion that the capital is typical of the rest of the country when in reality it isn’t.

London is also home to the social phenomenon of the “hipster” which only appears to have spread outwards in a rather half-hearted fashion. This seems to be bound up with the direction that the London beer scene has taken. I get the impression that craft keg ales and lagers have become much more widely available there than anywhere else. The craft beer bar, or the minimalist makeover of an old pub, has become an essential centrepiece for the up-and-coming trendy neighbourhood.

Many of the London microbreweries seem to intent on developing a cutting-edge image rather than brewing a range of conventional, accessible beers. This has given rise to the phenomenon of deliberately cloudy “London murky”, which really is very specific to the capital. And the sky-high property prices make it attractive to convert even thriving pubs for residential use, which is something you don’t see around here, where pubs that have been converted into something else have in general either been obviously struggling or already closed.

It’s sometimes said that, where London leads, the rest of the country eventually follows, but, in wider terms spreading well beyond the world of beer, I get the feeling that the two are increasingly heading in different directions.

Blowing Hot and Cold

Pubs too often get it wrong in responding to changes in the weather

THE BRITISH weather is notoriously fickle, and Spring often brings a dramatic alternation between different conditions, with some days seeing bright, warm sunshine while others are cold, wet and blustery, often with little advance warning. It seems to be a characteristic of pubs nowadays to over-react to changes in the weather, flinging all the doors open at the first sign of sunshine, yet turning the heating on as soon as we get a dull day.

I’ve been in pubs where all the doors have been wedged open because the sun was shining, but it actually wasn’t all that warm, and on the side of the pub away from the sun there was a chilly draught. I’m sure pubs never used to do that thirty years ago, or at least not until the sun was actually cracking the flags. On the other hand, on days which are overcast in comparison to the previous one, but still quite close and muggy, some pubs decide to turn their heating on, making the atmosphere pretty stifling.

In one branch of Wetherspoon’s, again on an overcast but warm and muggy day, the under-seat heating was on full blast in one corner. I went to the bar to complain and was told the system was controlled by Head Office and there was nothing the bar staff could do about it. It turned out that other areas of the pub were unaffected and I was able to move to somewhere more comfortable, but even so the entire situation seemed bonkers.

Surely it would result in a more equable climate inside, and save money on energy bills at the same time, if pubs were less eager both to open all the doors, and to turn up the thermostat.

April 2014

Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width

Too many pubs are prepared to compromise beer quality in an attempt to offer more choice

THERE’S NOTHING to beat a cool, fresh pint of cask beer, bursting with life and flavour. However, unfortunately it’s still a lot more common than it should be to be served with one that doesn’t come anywhere near that description. Over the past few months I’ve had more than one really tired, lukewarm, flat, stale pint in pubs where I might have expected better, and in one high-profile pub on a recent Stagger we were served up with total vinegar in the middle of Friday evening.

So it might be interesting to do some maths on beer turnover in pubs. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, in 2013 there were 13.8 million barrels sold in the on-trade in the UK. The annual Cask Report reckons about a sixth of this is cask beer, or 2.3 million barrels. CAMRA’s What Pub website counts 35,800 pubs across the country selling cask beer. So, given that a barrel contains 288 pints, that makes 64 barrels per pub per year, 354 pints a week or 51 a day.

It’s generally reckoned that you’ll struggle to keep cask beer in good condition beyond three days, four at most, so even if you get your beer in 9-gallon firkins, that means you can only have two beers on before quality begins to suffer. Beer is available in 4½-gallon pins, but they’re far from usual. It’s also the case that pubs typically do half their weekly business on Friday and Saturday nights, leaving only 177 pints for the rest of the week, or 35 a day. So it’s hardly surprising you often get a tired pint early doors on Tuesday evening.

Simple observation suggests that the typical pub selling cask beer has more than two beers on, and in recent years the number has tended to increase even as overall volumes have fallen. Many ordinary pubs now have five, six or seven different beers. Obviously there are some pubs that do have the turnover to keep a lot more beers in good nick, but the law of averages means that others won’t even have the turnover for two. Keeping beers on well above three days must be extremely commonplace.

So perhaps there needs to be more emphasis on quality rather than choice for its own sake, and the automatic praising of a pub for “putting on another handpump” should be replaced by positive references to pubs that limit themselves to one or two well-chosen beers. Both quality and choice are desirable, but choice should never be placed ahead of quality, and it shouldn’t be a matter of pot luck whether or not you get a decent pint. As is often said, the worst enemy of real ale is the bad pint of real ale.

Paradoxically, this doesn’t seem to be a problem that tends to affect the specialist multi-beer pubs with ten or twelve handpumps, probably because they attract an overwhelmingly beer-drinking clientele who ensure the beer turns over quickly enough and because they are run by people who place a high priority on maintaining beer quality. The prime offenders seem to be the more mainstream pubs where a lower proportion of customers are beer drinkers.

One way of addressing this problem would be for pubs to display on every pumpclip the date when the beer was put on sale. Obviously in the real world it’s never going to happen, as it would expose just how long many beers were kept on, but it would certainly give pubs a rocket up the backside to ensure they matched their range to the actual demand, as they would know that beers that had been on too long simply wouldn’t sell.

March 2014

Do Your Duty, George!

Alcohol duty is a highly regressive tax that hits poorer people hardest

IT’S MARCH again, and time for the Chancellor’s annual Budget statement. Last year we got the welcome surprise that, not only did he scrap the hated Beer Duty Escalator, but he also made a small cut to beer duty. Hopefully this year we will see the escalator abandoned for all other categories of alcoholic drink. That will help the pub trade too, as drinks other than beer account for almost half of all alcohol sold in pubs, and whisky and cider are also substantial British industries providing large numbers of jobs.

Alcohol duty is a highly regressive form of taxation with a disproportionate impact on the less well-off. While, on average, higher income groups do drink a little more, alcohol duty (plus the VAT levied on the duty) accounts for two per cent of the disposable income of Britain’s bottom fifth of income earners, but only 0.6 per cent of the income of the top fifth. Taking the foot off the gas on duty is an effective way of helping those on low incomes.

It’s easy for holier-than-thou people to say that if those on low incomes choose to drink it’s their decision, and they have no sympathy, but that line just comes across as patronising and sanctimonious. In the real world, people do drink, and it is generally recognised that the price elasticity of alcoholic drinks is relatively low, so in practice raising duty hits the poor hardest. And who is to say the less well off shouldn’t be allowed a little pleasure in their lives once in a while?

Youth Exclusion Zone

Measures to stop underage drinking have created a less responsible drinking culture amongst the young

AVERAGE alcohol consumption has now been steadily falling for ten years, and the sharpest fall of all has been amongst the 18-24 age group, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the pub trade. However, it has been pointed out to me that the increasingly heavy-handed requirement for age verification is a major factor in deterring young people from using pubs. If you’re constantly being asked your age, even if you look well over 18, it’s inevitably going to put you off.

A generation ago, underage drinking in pubs was widely tolerated so long as no trouble was caused. This taught young people how to drink responsibly, and also got them used to the habit of pubgoing. They knew they were only there on suffrance and so had to fit in and learn the rules of the game. Any trouble, and they were out on their ear. Now, rather than running the gauntlet in the pub, it’s much easier to obtain off-trade alcohol and drink it at home or at private parties. Once you’ve been ID’d once at the off-licence, that’s it, and the flow of your evening is not being constantly interrupted. If you’re under 18, you just get your older mate to buy it.

It’s a classic case of unintended consequences that measures intended aimed with entirely good intentions to curb underage drinking have simply had the effect of shifting it from a controlled to an uncontrolled environment and, while reducing consumption overall, encouraging a less responsible drinking culture amongst young people in general. Yet I doubt whether a deliberate policy of turning a blind eye to well-behaved under-18s in pubs is going to find much favour in official circles.

February 2014

A Warm, Brown Embrace

Samuel Smith’s idiosyncratic approach adds welcome variety to the pub scene

OVER THE YEARS, Samuel Smith’s brewery of Tadcaster in Yorkshire have invested heavily in acquiring a number of high-profile pubs in Greater London. This gave rise to a surprising article in the “Daily Telegraph” last autumn in which the author gave lavish praise to the general ambiance of their pubs and referred to their “warm, brown embrace”. They are certainly a brewery intent on ploughing an individual furrow and you can understand what he meant.

By and large, Sam’s pubs are still proper, traditional boozers, where beer is to the fore, drink and chat predominate, banter passes round the room and TV football and piped music are conspicuous by their absence. At their best they can be busy and boisterous in a way that many Holt’s pubs once were, but which is increasingly rarely seen nowadays. They seem to have been largely immune from the wave of closures that has blighted the pub industry in recent years.

Sam’s are also respectful custodians of their pub estate, rarely carrying out insensitive knock-throughs, and indeed a few years back they actually reinstated some internal walls when refurbishing the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place. The Blue Bell in Levenshulme, voted as the local CAMRA Pub of the Month in June last year, received a very smart and tasteful makeover a couple of years ago.

To a degree unparalleled by any other brewery, they exercise tight control over everything sold in their pubs, going well beyond beer to encompass wines, spirits, soft drinks and even own-branded crisps and peanuts. They have recently produced an elaborate “Drinks Menu” to display in their pubs, which in total lists twelve different draught beers (only one of which is cask) and fifteen bottled. Great emphasis is put on authenticity and tradition, stressing that all of the beers are “brewed solely from authentic natural ingredients without any chemical additives, raw material adjuncts, artificial sweeteners, colourings, flavourings or preservatives”. Most are fermented in Yorkshire squares and are suitable for vegans.

Sam’s are often criticised for only producing the one cask beer – Old Brewery Bitter. I remember them also offering two more – Tadcaster Bitter, which suffered from the perennial difficulty of selling a weaker bitter alongside a standard one, and Museum Ale, which some drinkers liked but most found hard work. Because it doesn’t fit in to the modern trend towards ultra-hoppy beers, some people can be rather dismissive of OBB, but in fact it is a well-made, high-quality beer in a distinctive Yorkshire style. The same is true of the bottled beers which are highly regarded as exports in the USA. There are few other tied estates where you will routinely come across a cloudy German-style wheat beer.

They might improve their image if they produced a second cask beer, and many of their pubs certainly have the throughput to sustain it, but it’s difficult to see what would prove a strong seller with their predominantly traditionalist clientele. Personally, I’d like to see the return of Tadcaster Bitter, but I fear it would suffer the same fate as before. Maybe the best option would be a premium bitter of around 4.5% ABV that was a little paler and hoppier than OBB and would fill an obvious gap in their range.

It’s also impossible to discuss Sam’s without mentioning the high-handed and even quasi-feudal management practices that they have been accused of over the years, but you have to ask whether they have really been any worse than some of the much-criticised major leased pub companies. I certainly wouldn’t want every pub to be like a Sam’s pub, but they add much needed variety and distinctiveness to the pub scene, and it would be the poorer without them.

January 2014

A Pattern of Closure

Some areas, and some types of pub, have suffered much more in recent years than others

OVER THE PAST fifteen years or so, there has been a dramatic retrenchment of the British pub trade that has led to the closure of huge numbers of once viable pubs. However, in some types of area pubs continue to thrive, so it’s not just a random or uniform trend. Is it possible to discern any pattern in the wave of closures?

The most obvious is that pubs in working-class areas have suffered worst. In a sense, this is inevitable, as historically most pubs have mainly catered for working-class drinkers but, even so, it seems to be disproportionate. Such areas have been most vulnerable to depopulation and redevelopment, the decline of traditional industries, changes in ethnic mix and the growing gulf between pub and off-trade prices. Smoking prevalence is also higher amongst working-class people, meaning that their pubs have suffered more than the average from the smoking ban.

Second is that big pubs, whether estate pub or roadhouse, are more vulnerable than little ones. They are more attractive for residential redevelopment or conversion to convenience stores, they cost more to run, they need more customers to make them viable and many of them were probably never all that appealing in the first place. For example, in Withington in South Manchester, the massive White Lion and Manor House (ex-Golden Lion) have shut down, but smaller pubs like the Albert, Turnpike and Victoria are still going strong.

Third, and maybe counter-intuitively, isolated pubs in residential areas have suffered worse than those grouped with others. Nearby chimneypots are no guarantee of survival, whereas pubs often seem to prosper by being part of a “circuit”. This applies to some in areas of Victorian housing as well as those on 20th century estates. Returning to Withington, the Cotton Tree, which was in an area of housing about half a mile from the village centre, with no other nearby pubs, has closed down, but there are still five pubs in fairly close proximity in the centre.

The class factor works the other way too, as there seem to be some areas that are quite simply too upmarket to sustain pubs. For example, we have seen the closure of the Bleeding Wolf in Hale, Corbans (the former Unicorn) in Halebarns and the Royal Oak in Alderley Edge, all locations with no shortage of either spending money or potential customers living nearby. The local residents may well socialise in restaurants or each other’s houses, but they no longer do it in pubs.

Market towns in general do not seem to have suffered too badly, likewise the smaller and more isolated coastal resorts. Possibly the existence of a captive market is a factor here, if the nearest big town is too far away to be easily reached for a night out, while they may also function as a hub for surrounding villages. Even here, though, the demise of traditional coaching inns is very noticeable, and peripheral pubs have suffered more than those in town centres.

The growing unwillingness to drink and drive even within the legal limit has undoubtedly led to a general thinning-out of pubs in villages and rural areas, which ironically often means that law-abiding pubgoers end up driving further than they used to. Some pubs have been able to go for the upmarket “country dining” trade, but that is a lot more fickle than local regulars and really only as dependable as the last meal served, and it isn’t an option for all. Some country pubs seem to get into a downward spiral of frequent changes of licensee and format, eventually resulting in closure, whereas those with more continuity and a clear sense of purpose stand a better chance of remaining in business.