December 2015

Close Your Eyes and Drink Up

There does not have to be a trade-off between better beer and worse pub interiors

ONE OF THE founding texts of CAMRA was Christopher Hutt’s brilliant polemic The Death of the English Pub, first published in 1973. From the perspective of 2015, the English pub back then might have seemed in rude health, but in the preceding decade it had experienced a dramatic upheaval. He describes the tidal wave of brewery takeovers and closures, the loss of distinctive local beers, the spread of pressurised dispense, and the rationalisation policies that deprived many villages of their last pub.

He reserves some of his strongest vitriol for an attack on the brewers’ large-scale wrecking of pubs – imposing ludicrous, contrived themes that rapidly dated, knocking lounge and public bars through into one, and removing small rooms and cosy snugs to produce an easily-supervised open-plan interior. In its early years, CAMRA very much took this on board, strongly criticising pub operators for insensitive refurbishments and creating the laudable National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.

However, as the focus has shifted from tradition to innovation, priorities have changed. The economic recovery has given brewers and pub owners more money to invest, and they have been up to their old tricks again. Sadly, though, much of this has been welcomed, with praise being lavished on “light, airy, open-plan” interiors, modernity in its own right seen as a virtue, and one scheme even applauded for “removing obstructive internal walls”. Yes, beforehand, these pubs were often a bit down-at-heel, and the changes have also generally included a wider and more enterprising beer range. And, given that, some have criticised anyone raising objections for being negative and churlish. “Would you prefer it closed, then?”

But a pub isn’t just another retail outlet, it’s somewhere people actually visit to spend time socialising. It is passed down through the generations, so you will often hear older customers talking of things forty or fifty years ago. Of course pubs cannot set their face entirely against change, but destructive, gimmicky alterations will never stand the test of time. Is it time for CAMRA to return to standing up for pub interiors as well as beer?

Squeaky Bum Time is Back

The return of sticky vinyl seat coverings is a backward step for pubs

OLDER READERS will remember that dreadful vinyl upholstery in cars of the 60s and 70s, which didn't breathe at all and stuck to your clothes as soon as the sun came out. During the same period, many pubs installed upholstered “leatherette” fixed seating, often superseding plain wooden benches, which had exactly the same effect when the temperature rose and the place was packed with sweaty bodies. In the 80s, as with the car market, there was a swing against this, with more comfortable and breathable cloth seat coverings often replacing vinyl. At the time, it was seen as providing a more up-market image.

However, more recently, the tide seems to have turned, with many recent refurbishments ditching the velour and moquette in favour of a return to shiny plastic. I suppose there are benefits in that it is more durable and easier to clean, but it seems to be part of the vogue for giving pubs a “harder” appearance that goes against the earlier trend towards being cosy and comfy. Replacing carpets with bare boards is much the same.

And, when the weather gets a bit warm and humid, the effect on human flesh through cloth is exactly the same is it used to be, making the experience of going to the pub a bit tacky and uncomfortable. It’s designer vision being put ahead of customer convenience. Nobody’s going to walk out of a pub because it has vinyl rather than cloth seating, but, like removing beermats, it’s another of those little niggly annoyances.

November 2015

Craft Wars

Craft vs Real Ale is a pointless antagonism that has been largely fanned by the crafties

IN THE mid-1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies left in the whole of the USA, and the beer market was dominated by bland, light lagers. So the conditions were ripe for the develop­ment of an “alternative beer” movement, initially referred to as microbreweries, but more recently morphing into “craft”. They were able to draw on a wide range of brewing traditions from all around the world, including a substantial influence from British real ale, to produce a huge variety of interesting, characterful beers, and even developing their own entirely new styles.

Not surprisingly, beer enthusiasts looked at this and thought there was a golden opportunity to extend that buzz over to this side of the pond. However, there was a little problem. Britain already had a thriving craft beer scene, comprising both the established independent breweries that CAMRA had originally been created to champion, and hundreds of micro breweries that had sprung up since then in a similar way to the US.

Some of it could be conservative and stick-in-the-mud, but there was a huge amount of inno­vation and variety in beer styles. Yet it was this “real ale scene” that the new evangelists of craft chose to tilt against. Britain was surely ready for mega-strong beers, teeny measures, craft keg and cans, weird flavours, eyewatering prices, and check shirts and fancy beards.

A key tipping point was when BrewDog, the leading lights of the craft beer movement, stopped producing cask beer entirely and deliberately portrayed themselves as standing up against everything CAMRA represented, something that came across as a crass publicity stunt. There seems to be a continuing brush war between craft beer hipsters and real ale traditionalists, but surely everyone interested in good beer shares a huge amount of common ground. And it’s clear that most of the antagonism comes from one particular side.

Walk Before You Run

Brewers who want to experiment should master the basics first

ONE THING that the craft beer movement has brought is a marked increase in innovation in brewing. We have seen numerous variations on existing categories, mashups of multiple beer styles, and even entirely new types being dreamed up. However, innovation can be a double-edged sword, and brings with it potential pitfalls.

For one, you can never be quite sure if an experimental beer is off, or just something that isn’t to your taste. If you see a new beer in an established style such as Stout or IPA, you’ll have a reason­able idea whether or not it’s in good condition. But for something entirely new, how are you expected to know? And, for beers aping Belgian and German “sour” styles, there can be a fine line between challengingly astringent and downright vinegary.

Experienced brewers are well-placed to know whether whether something unusual makes sense or not – locally, Cloudwater are a good example of this. However, some newcomers to the industry have a tendency to chuck whatever comes to hand into the mash tun and take pot luck as to what comes out. Unless it’s utterly vile, they can generally put a positive spin on the result. Apparently one new brewery produced a batch that was heavily affected by diacetyl, a common brewing fault that, while not unpleasant as such, gives beer a pronounced caramel character. But, rather than pouring it down the drain, they marketed it as “Butterscotch IPA”.

Innovation, within reason, is a good thing, but it does help to have a sound background in conventional brewing before striking out on a more adventurous path. Picasso is famed for his distorted, abstract paintings, but in his early years he had a thorough grounding in the principles of draughtsmanship. Perhaps experimental brewers should first demonstrate a track record in producing sound beers in established styles.

October 2015

Magical or Mundane?

Robinsons’ new mythical brew has a strong grounding in reality

EARLIER this year, Robinsons discontinued their once best-selling 1892 Mild, in the face of steadily falling sales. While they could perhaps have made more effort to continue to make cask mild in some form available to their pubs, very few of them were selling enough to make it viable, so the decision, while sad, was entirely understandable.

At the same time, they launched a new 3.7% amber bitter called Wizard, not as a direct replacement for 1892, but to plug a gap at the bottom end of their range. Not surprisingly, this was not greeted with much enthusiasm by those who look down on any beer that isn’t hoppy enough to take the skin off the roof of your mouth. However, it’s intended to be a classic session bitter, not an in-your-face beer, and it fills that role very well.

It’s a fairly dry beer, mid-amber in colour (a little darker than Unicorn), with a touch of the distinctive Robinsons house character and a good balance of malt and hops. Robinsons say that they “have combined five English hops, pale, wheat & crystal malts”, and there’s certainly considerable depth and complexity in there.

Historically, Robinsons have been in the unusual position of selling a “best bitter” as their everyday quaffing bitter. Some breweries in other parts of the country also did this, but it was pretty much unique in the North-West. Many people, unaware of the relative strength, used to complain that a night on Robinsons Best Bitter gave them a “bad head”, when in fact it was markedly stronger than most of its competitors. In recent years they have introduced the 3.8% golden ale Dizzy Blonde, but it has never claimed to be an ordinary bitter and indeed often sells at a premium to the stronger Unicorn.

It seems a sensible move to bring out a lower-strength ordinary bitter that will also allow Robinsons to be more price-competitive in many of their urban pubs. And initial reports are that it has been selling very well.


The European courts have predictably dealt a severe blow to the SNP’s minimum pricing plans

SCOTTISH drinkers will have raised a glass last month at the news that the SNP government’s plan to introduce minimum alcohol pricing has been dealt a major blow by the European Court of Justice. In a preliminary ruling, the Advocate General stated that the proposals were clearly in violation of EU rules on competition and free trade. While there may be a public health justification for it, the same objectives could be achieved by other measures that were less discriminatory. It’s very rare for the main court to overrule such decisions and, while the idea isn’t completely dead, it has certainly been kicked into the long grass, as many commentators had predicted.

Some people have argued that minimum pricing might help pubs by reducing the price different­ial against the off-trade, but it wouldn’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs and off-trade drinks would still be much cheaper. CAMRA sensibly abandoned this policy a couple of years ago following a conference motion by two prominent Greater Manchester members arguing that it was basically putting the organisation on the wrong side of the debate.

Even if it did give pubs a slight boost, which is very doubtful anyway, it would be extremely short-sighted 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.”

September 2015

Bye Bye Binge Britain

Despite media scaremongering, alcohol consumption in Britain is plummeting

IF YOU WERE to believe the media, you might reach the conclusion that Britain was in the grip of an unprecedented drink problem, with alcohol consumption and related late-night disorder and health problems at record levels. However, if you look more closely at the facts, they tell an entirely different story, and it is about time this was properly recognised.

Alcohol consumption in Britain, per adult, fell by 19 per cent between 2004 and 2013. ‘Binge-drinking’ (defined as consuming more than eight or six units in a day for men and women respectively), has fallen from 29 per cent to 18 per cent amongst 16 to 24 year olds, and from 25 per cent to 19 per cent amongst 25 to 44 year olds.

There have been smaller declines amongst every other age group. Rates of teetotalism are now as high amongst 16 to 24 year olds as they are amongst pensioners (27 per cent). The proportion of 11-15 year olds who have never had a drink rose from 39 per cent in 2002 to 61 per cent in 2013. According to the Office for National Statistics, the ‘proportion of young adults who drank frequently has fallen by more than two-thirds since 2005’. And if you think alcohol is available at “pocket-money prices”, remember that British drinkers pay 40 per cent of all the alcohol duty collected in the EU.

Some alcohol-related health issues such as liver cirrhosis are still showing an increase, but there is obviously a time lag before a disease shows itself. In another decade or so, these figures will start heading down again. And the overall decline in consumption must be one factor behind all the pub closures we’ve seen in recent years.

Insofar as it ever existed in the first place, “Binge Britain” has ended, and those who constantly lecture us on the subject need to get over it. And supporters of beer and pubs should take a more robust line in pointing it out, rather than meekly going along with the prevailing narrative.

Old Soaks

Older drinkers stay resolutely healthy even if the experts think they shouldn’t

OVER THE SUMMER, on what must have been a slow news day, there was a report in many of the papers about a supposed “Middle Class Drink Epidemic”, based on a study carried for the charity Age UK. This found that many middle-aged, middle-class people were drinking at levels above the official government guidelines, which could potentially be storing up health problems in the future.

However, the study failed to find any actual negative health effects, and ended up rather despairingly concluding “Because this group is typically healthier than other parts of the older population, they might not realise that what they are doing is putting their health in danger.” So the people drinking a bit more than an arbitrary guideline are actually healthier than the average, but they’d better cut down just to be on the safe side. It’s not exactly a convincing argument.

The study points out the apparent paradox that poorer social groups on average drink less than the middle classes, but end up having a much higher rate of alcohol-related health issues. But this shouldn’t be too surprising, and it just shows the limitations of linking average figures with individual outcomes. There is much more of a split amongst the less well-off between those who do not drink, and those who drink far too much, and most of those whose drinking prevents them holding down a job will fall into this group.

And, as the famously bibulous novelist Kingsley Amis, said “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare.”

August 2015

Smell the Coffee

Coffee shops aren’t direct competitors to pubs, even if they sell alcohol

IT WAS a sign of the times that the long-running US sitcom “Friends” saw the main characters socialising in a coffee shop rather than a bar. It began showing in 1994 and, since then, while I’m not suggesting it’s a direct result, coffee shops have enjoyed exponential growth and become a standard feature of most British High Streets.

Personally, I have never really seen the point, but their success is undeniable. I would say they have created their own market rather than taking existing trade from pubs – they come across as welcoming, unthreatening and, dare I say it, female-friendly. A coffee shop is basically a window on the world, whereas a pub is a refuge from it. Even the best-run pub still has a slight whiff of edginess and misrule.

Recently, the market-leading operator Starbucks have announced that they are going to roll out the sale of alcohol in some of their UK outlets, following successful trials in the US. It’s part of an “evening concept” that also includes serving more substantial meals. I can’t imagine that Wetherspoons will be quaking in their boots, but it’s easy to see the appeal to tourists wanting a pre-theatre snack, or office workers enjoying a glass of Chardonnay after work before getting the train home.

It’s another example of how the on-licence scene is fragmenting and diversifying. If you’re having a drink outside the house, it’s becoming less and less likely that you’ll be doing it in somewhere that is recognisably a pub. However, I would say that trying to ape coffee shops is about the worst thing pubs could do. As with many other marketing gimmicks, the risk is that you alienate your existing customers without winning over many new ones. And it’s worth noting that Wetherspoons are the biggest on-trade coffee sellers in the country.

At the Sign of the Crossed Legs

Micro-pubs should not mean micro-facilities

THERE’S ONE part of the pub that every customer will need to visit at some time, namely the toilets. It’s an inevitable result of drinking beer. In the past, many pub toilets were disgusting, but in recent years there has been a marked improvement. In general I would say the minimum acceptable standard for pub toilets is to have one urinal and one trap in the gents, and two traps in the ladies, although I recognise that some smaller pubs only have one in the ladies. But the recent rash of micropubs and mixed bottle shops and bars don’t seem to be able to achieve even this level.

If you’re primarily an off-licence, but allow customers to sit down and sample the occasional beer, then it may be OK to have a single unisex WC. But if your establishment at some times of the week becomes a busy bar, then people will be queueing up. If someone decides they need ten or fifteen minutes in there – as sometimes happens – those in the queue will be left in a very awkward situation. In the past, I’ve been in basic, remote country pubs where there was just a single WC out in the yard, and that seemed distinctly primitive. So why should new-wave bars be judged any differently?

Frankly, if your establishment has become a popular bar, rather than a bottle shop with the occasional sampling customer, it’s just not good enough. Personally, I would not be comfortable spending much time in a bar with only a single unisex WC. Plenty of established small pubs, such as the Queen’s Head in Stockport town centre and the Olde Vic in Edgeley, still manage to provide proper separate gents’ and ladies’ toilets. If you’re enjoying success with a new-style bar, you would do well to heed this lesson, even if your toilets have to be placed up or down stairs.

July 2015

The Best-Laid Plans

It seems wrong that established pubs can be converted into shops without planning permission

IMAGINE you live in a suburb of a major town, and have a local pub, a big free-standing building dating from the Thirties or Fifties, on a spacious site with a large car park. Over the years, it’s gone through various brands and formats, none of which really seem to have been successful. To be honest, you rarely go in it, as the beer’s not much good and it only seems to be busy when the football’s on, but you still think of it as a key feature in the local community.

One day, you see work starting on it and think that maybe at last they’ll be giving it a thorough makeover and allowing it to realise its potential. But when the fencing comes down you are shocked to see a gleaming new Tesco Express inhabiting the old pub building. “How on earth did that happen?” you wonder. “We weren’t consulted – nobody told us a thing.” It’s entirely lawful and above board, though, and something that has happened in hundreds of places over the past ten or fifteen years.

It is a feature – many would say a loophole – of the planning system that this can be done without needing planning permission. Pubs fall into Use Class A4 “Drinking establishments” and can be turned into A3 “Restaurants”, A2 “Financial and professional services” and A1 “Shops”. The thinking behind this is that permission shouldn’t be needed to convert premises to uses that are likely to have less adverse impact on the neighbourhood.

However, many pubs are seen as valuable community hubs, and people are understandably concerned if they are lost without any consultation or prior warning. Even if in the end the building turned out to have no future as a pub, if planning permission was needed, then at least there would have been the opportunity for other pub operators and community groups to step in.

It has to be recognised, though, that planning can only stop things happening – it cannot keep businesses in operation that nobody considers commercially viable. And the best way for a community to have a say in the future of its local pub is to actually use it in the first place. All too often, the first to complain are those who haven’t crossed the threshold for years.

Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom

In the long term, the viability of the pub trade will be ensured by encouraging new entrants into the market

THERE’S ANOTHER reason why strict planning controls might not be a good idea for pubs. The 2003 Licensing Act made it easier to open new licensed premises by removing the require­ment to demonstrate “need”. This has led to a remarkable growth in small new bars, many of which, as we have seen in Chorlton and increasingly in West Didsbury and the Heatons, make a real effort on the beer front.

They may not be traditional pubs, but they show that the opportunities are there for new entrants to come in and meet a demand that the old pubs, which were often just too big and in the wrong place, didn’t satisfy. Their small size means that overheads are modest, and the planning system makes it easy to turn them back into shops if the venture fails to take off. If even the smallest bar had planning protection from day one, then we would have a lot fewer small bars.

There’s a strong case for extending planning protection to well-established, popular pubs to ensure they aren’t arbitrarily converted to shops without consultation. But, unless it is limited according to one or more of length of time in operation, size, and whether purpose-built rather than a conversion, the effect will be to deter people from opening new pubs and bars without necessarily doing much to keep the existing ones in business.

June 2015

A Little of What You Fancy

Moderate alcohol consumption really is better for your health than total abstention

IF YOU’RE reading this, the odds are that you’re enjoying a glass of beer. You probably think that overall it’s not going to actually benefit your health, but, as long as you don’t overdo it, it shouldn’t do too much harm. Although heard less now, it used to be commonplace to ask “what’s your poison?” when offering someone a drink.

But you would be mistaken in that view. Alcohol may be a poison but, as with many substances, the poison is in the dose. In fact, there is an overwhelming weight of scientific research evidence indicating that moderate drinkers have a lower mortality rate and higher life expectancy than total abstainers, in particular having a lower rate of cardiovascular disease. It is sometimes claimed that the figures are skewed by people who have had to give up drinking because of poor health, but the effect still applies even if they are excluded from the calculations.

For example, in 2006, the "Archives of Internal Medicine", an American Medical Association journal, published an analysis based on 34 well-designed prospective studies and incorporating a million individual subjects, which found that “1 to 2 drinks per day for women and 2 to 4 drinks per day for men are inversely associated with total mortality.” 1

More recently, a study was published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal entitled “All cause mortality and the case for age specific alcohol consumption guidelines.” This was specifically looking at the over-50 age group, but the data showed that, for every band of alcohol consumption above zero, the mortality risk was significantly lower than that for non-drinkers, in some cases by up to 25%. The same was true, although to a slightly lesser degree, when former drinkers were excluded to make the comparison solely with those who had never drunk. It was still the case for those in the highest consumption group – those drinking over 20 units per week – although obviously there would eventually come a point where the risk became higher. 2

I could bore you and go on, but you get the point. What is more, these benefits persist to some extent even if people drink significantly more than the official guidelines. These figures are often described as “limits”, but in effect they represent the bottom point of the risk curve and you certainly don’t drop off a cliff of risk by nudging over them. In 1994, Sir Richard Doll, the distinguished epidemiologist who established the link between smoking and lung cancer, showed that the relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality has a J-curve, with risk higher for teetotallers, lower for moderate drinkers and then a rise for heavier drinkers.

There are all kinds of lifestyle factors that have an impact on our health, and in practice it is very difficult to make a clear link between cause and effect. If you really can’t stand the stuff, the additional risk isn’t all that great, and there’s little point in forcing it down for the sake of it. But, even if you only have a couple of halves a week, statistically it will make a difference. If you do enjoy drinking in moderation, then there is no need to feel guilty about it, and you should not imagine that cutting alcohol out entirely will be beneficial. All those sports and showbiz stars who make a point of boasting that they never touch a drop are actually admitting they’re not following the best diet to maximise their longevity.

The Holy Grail for the anti-drink lobby is to find conclusive evidence that any amount of alcohol consumption is detrimental to health. But, unfortunately for them, the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence points in the opposite direction, and those who support pubs and responsible drinking should not be afraid to point this out.


1 The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy - Stanton Peele

2 Don't worry, drinking is still good for you - Christopher Snowdon

May 2015

Lilacs out of the Dead Land

Beer duty cuts have driven a striking recovery in the pub trade, but it’s by no means universal

BY THE TIME you read this, there’s a distinct chance George Osborne will no longer be Chancellor of the Exchequer. But, in his budget in March, he cut beer duty for the third time in a row, something unparalleled in history. Some have pooh-poohed this, saying that a penny a pint duty cut is neither here nor there, and most pub operators haven’t applied it anyway. But in reality the comparison is not with a duty freeze, but with the continued application of the beer duty escalator, which would have resulted in a pint in the pub being 30 or 40p dearer by now.

There can be little doubt that three years of small beer duty cuts, combined with the economic recovery, have delivered a much-needed shot in the arm to the pub trade. In 2014, beer sales in pubs fell by just 0.8%, the lowest figure in fifteen years. Yes, it’s still a small decline, but it’s one that many other businesses such as print newspapers would die for. A report by the Centre for Economic and Business Research has claimed that the beer duty reductions have already saved over 1,000 pubs from closure.

A couple of years ago, all was doom and gloom, with pubs closing left, right and centre, and Robinsons’ pub cull shutting many much-loved but no longer viable locals. But the tide seems to have turned. Entirely new bars have sprung up such as the Spinning Top and Heaton Hops, the long-closed Bambooza on Stockport Market Place has returned to life as Live!, and our local family brewers have been spending large sums on revamping pubs such as the Baker’s Vaults, Platform 5 and the Griffin in Heald Green. There’s certainly a new sense of confidence in the air.

However, we shouldn’t forget that this upsurge is largely confined to town and city centres and prosperous suburbs. The wider social trends that have contributed to the decline have not gone away, and it’s still reckoned that, across the country, thirty pubs are closing every week.

Bring Back Plates!

Pubs are serving food on anything but plates, no matter how ludicrous

GO IN ANY pub or restaurant nowadays that has the slightest aspiration to be fashionable, and the odds are that you will have your meal served, not on a plate, but on a roofing slate, a chopping board, a baking tray or even just a plank of wood. Your chips may be stacked on their end in a mug, salad under an upturned wine glass and vegetables in a flowerpot. Some of the worst examples highlighted on the Twitter account @WeWantPlates include bread in slippers, chips in a miniature shopping trolley, steak on a meat cleaver and mushy peas in a latté glass.

Not too long ago, people were complaining about square plates replacing round ones, but this is taking things to a whole new level. There are obvious practical objections, in that an entirely flat surface does nothing to stop food sliding or dripping off the edge, and you have to wonder how thoroughly chunks of wood are washed, especially those with cracks in them. Some types of containers may make it physically difficult to actually eat the food from them.

But ultimately this is just a rather pathetic attempt to come across as funky, artisanal and cutting-edge. Anything, no matter how absurd, is better than a boring old round plate. We all know that very often the food’s just popped out of a microwave and they’re not actually slaughtering pigs round the back. However, Wetherspoons are bucking the trend – not so long ago they replaced plain square plates with very retro-looking round ones with blue and white patterns. It might be a good idea for more pubs to follow suit and stop opening themselves up to ridicule.

April 2015

Not Fit to be Out

Breath-testing clubbers could easily set a precedent for ordinary pubgoers

IN RECENT months, there have been a growing number of stories involving the police “requesting” nightclubs to breath-test customers before allowing them entry, for example in Norwich, Loughborough and Croydon. The justification is that it makes it easier for door staff to refuse admission to customers who are already drunk, with the maximum alcohol level being generally set at twice the English drink-drive limit. That’s at least five pints, probably more, but, even so, it’s a level many people will reach on a weekend night out while not necessarily coming across as “drunk”.

To be fair, it is very much a police initiative, and the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) have come out strongly against it. The overall result will probably to deter customers from visiting nightclubs at all. However, being a touch cynical, it is not hard to imagine a kind of unholy allowance between the anti-drink puritans and the nightclub bosses, to discourage punters from pre-loading at Tesco or Wetherspoon’s, so they end up drinking more in the clubs at higher prices.

As it stands, it probably won’t affect you, and it certainly won’t affect me. However, it’s worth noting that some of these schemes include not just clubs but also the more nightlife-oriented pubs. Of course we are told that such things will never happen, but it’s all too easy to see the principle being extended in future years and being included in licence conditions. If the idea of breath-testing revellers out and about on foot becomes well-established, will we eventually see normal pubgoers taking a wander round their local hostelries on a Friday night being refused admission to their final destination due to having imbibed a bit too much Old Horizontal earlier in the evening?

Don’t Drink and Walk

Some countries are even considering alcohol limits for pedestrians

IT DOESN’T even stop there. In Spain, serious proposals have been put forward to breath-test pedestrians involved in traffic accidents to establish whether they should bear any share of the liability. You can sort of see the argument behind this, as, not entirely surprisingly, between 10 pm and 4 am four-fifths of pedestrian fatalities are above the drink-drive limit. However, drunken pedestrians are really only a danger to themselves, and even the possibility of being judged in this way would represent a significant curtailment of individual freedom, and would put a dampener on any kind of celebration or festivities outside the house. It would also be a crude one-size-fits-all measure when individuals’ reaction to alcohol can vary so widely

As with breath-testing clubbers, it’s all too easy to see the principle being extended to apply to pedestrians in general. A few years ago, research by the University of Adelaide in Australia – a country fast becoming the Nanny State capital of the world – seriously advocated the introduction of a 0.15% (150 mg) drink-walk limit as the best way of reducing pedestrian road deaths, and suggested this would meet with public acceptance as it would not affect most people.

Ideas such as this may seem outlandish and laughable today but, simply by raising the subject, it has opened what social scientists call an “Overton Window” whereby it becomes included within the scope of serious debate. There are many measures that would have been deemed unthinkable a generation ago but have now been brought into legislation. So don’t tell me you weren’t warned.

March 2015

Goodbye to the 19th Hole

Nobody should delude themselves that cutting the drink-drive limit wouldn’t lead to wholesale pub closures

IN DECEMBER last year, the Scottish government cut the drink-driving limit in Scotland from 80mg to 50mg, which means that an average man can legally have no more than one pint of ordinary-strength beer. This seemed to be nodded through by all political parties with little opposition, but the effects have not been exactly surprising.

Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said the law change would lead to a “complete change to drinking habits” and would be “bigger than the smoking ban. “Rural pubs especially are at risk because people travel to them,” he said. “This definitely will be a difficult situation for many. It’s having a marked effect. “It stops people having a glass of wine with a meal or a pint with a meal. People are not taking the chance. It’s a game-changer. This is a very strict ban by anyone’s standards. We have lost three pubs a week since the smoking ban and this, for many, is worse.” It’s reported that many pubgoers, faced with being limited to just a single drink, have decided not to bother at all.

Greene King, who have a substantial pub estate in Scotland, recorded a noticeable drop in sales over the Christmas and New Year period compared with the previous year. Bars in golf clubs, which have a much wider social base in Scotland than south of the border, are especially feeling the pinch. These are perfect examples of where the primary purpose of people’s car journeys is something else, but they take the opportunity to combine it with a drink in the bar. Realistically, golfers aren’t going to take their set of clubs on the bus.

Fortunately, the UK government have said that they have no plans to follow suit in England. But no-one should delude themselves that it wouldn’t have a severe effect on the licensed trade, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that it is much more an anti-drink and specifically anti-pub measure than a road safety one.

Variety Isn’t Everything

Drinkers may prefer continuity over constant change

THE LATEST version of Pete Brown’s Cask Report was published last autumn, and again it recorded a story of success in a declining market, with cask beer continuing to gain absolute volume, not just market share, and having reversed the proportion of the ale market it enjoys vis-a-vis keg since 2006. It’s the drinkers of traditional keg ales, not cask, who are literally a dying breed.

However, it has some interesting things to say about drinkers’ expectations of how rapidly beers are changed and rotated on the bar and how, maybe surprisingly, drinkers tend to be less adventurous in their tastes than publicans think they are. Drinkers were happiest with an average of 4.9 beers over a four-week period, versus an average of seven amongst publicans. Drinkers also wanted to see guest beers available for more than a week, whereas publicans wanted to change them over more often. Many said that if they enjoyed a beer they would appreciate the opportunity to try it more than once, which is why many pub-owning breweries tend to produce seasonal beers for a period of two or three months.

I’m all in favour of trying new and unfamiliar beers, but sometimes it’s good to see an old favourite on the bar, particularly if you just want a dependable pint to wash down your lunch. And, from the breweries’ point of view, surely it will help their long-term prospects if they can build up a reputation for specific beers and get repeat business rather than an endless series of one-off specials. Thornbridge Jaipur is a good example of a beer that many people will immediately order if they see it. It would seem from the Cask Report that Britain’s drinkers agree.

February 2015

The Cow Jumped Over the Moon

Pub design gimmicks never stand the test of time

GOING BACK forty years or so, Robinson’s brewery seemed to have been afflicted by a virus for drastic, then-trendy pub refurbishments. These had no regard to the pubs’ traditional character and typically involved severe knocking through, “Spanish arches”, white artexed walls, 24-panel glass doors and low, lounge-style chairs. Fortunately, they eventually came to their senses and began carrying out more sensible and traditional-minded updates – the fairly recent revamping of the Armoury in Edgeley being a good example.

However, in the past couple of years they seem to have adopted a more drastic and self-consciously designed approach, and with the scheme at the Farmer’s Arms in Poynton many would think they have taken a flight of fancy too far. It is described on their website as follows:

“Upon entry you are greeted by the gaze of Ermantrude, a full-size fiberglass cow. Hand painted, her floral design emulates the upholstery that adorns several new seating areas and is a taster of what awaits. Elsewhere, customers will be charmed with a flutter of butterflies across the ceiling and a pantheon of cascading flowers that seemingly grow from the walls creating a theatrical focal point that has never before been seen in a Robinsons pub. Major structural work has also taken place with the addition of an impressive orangery. New wallpaper, which resembles the shadows of trees, covers the walls of the new extension and seems to move with each cloud that passes overhead.”

On top of this, the urinals in the gents’ are formed from stainless steel buckets!

In the 60s and 70s, there was a vogue of doing pubs out in themes that made them look like a Wild West saloon, a jungle or a smugglers’ cave. No doubt it was all thought very trendy and innovative, but it rapidly became old hat and over time all of these interiors have vanished. Pub gimmicks never last, but sadly designers have to constantly rediscover that what seems modern and cutting-edge today will look sadly dated in a few years’ time. What works in pub design is what stands the test of time.

A Cold House

Warm colours in pubs convey a warm welcome; the opposite is also true

THE TRADITIONAL phrase to describe a welcome is “warm”, and a glowing real fire is widely seen as a welcoming sign, as in the phrase “hearth and home”. From this it follows that any interior colour scheme designed to convey a welcoming feeling should predominantly use “warm” colours such as reds and browns. The darker shades of blue and green may be included in small doses, and glossy black and mirrors can play a part in reflecting light. It has been said that the colours used for pub interiors should largely reflect the colours of drinks.

On the other hand, lighter colours such as grey and pale blues and greens convey a much colder impression and therefore come across as much less welcoming. Yet in recent years they have been much more widely adopted in pub design schemes in an attempt to appear contemporary. I’ve recently been in two fairly ordinary local pubs where the front of the bar counter has been respectively painted pale grey and pale green, which just doesn’t look right, while another of Robinson’s refurbishments was described as using “a palette of light, neutral colours”. This might work for a modern art gallery or nouvelle cuisine restaurant, but for a pub it appears frosty and offputting.

This is another example of designers rejecting the lessons of the past in favour of something deliberately modern and different. “We don’t want our pubs to look like the old-fashioned pubs”, they say. But the old-fashioned pubs were painted and decorated like that for a good reason, which the owners of these pastel-shaded emporiums will eventually realise.

January 2015

Give Me Strength

A “cask-strength” bottled beer is not at all the same as a “cask-strength” whisky

ONCE it has emerged from the still, Scotch whisky is put into oak casks to mature for a minimum of three years, often much more. When it is ready for bottling, it has an alcoholic strength of around 60% ABV, but is typically watered down to 40% (sometimes a little higher) for public sale. Occasionally, limited edition bottlings are made of undiluted whiskies at cask strength, which are obviously much more expensive than the standard product, and are prized by connoisseurs.

I recently spotted that Jennings had sneakily reduced the strength of bottled Cumberland Ale from 4.7% to 4.0%, to bring it into line with the cask version, and now describe it on the bottle as “cask strength”. Likewise, bottled Marston’s Pedigree, from the same brewing group, which was increased from 4.5% to 5.0% and then reduced again, has “Brewed to cask strength” on the label. While this isn’t untrue as such, it comes across as distinctly disingenuous, given that a cask strength whisky is much stronger than the norm, but a cask strength bottled beer seems to be one that is weaker than it used to be.

Needless to say, there’s no price reduction, even though there’s a saving of duty plus VAT of about 8p per bottle. There’s nothing wrong as such with beers of 4% or less, but surely it would make sense to charge less than the 5% ones rather than having everything at the same price. And I wonder if we’ll see the same happening with other beers like Bombardier, London Pride and Spitfire where the bottled version is currently significantly stronger than the cask.

No Pub for Old Men

If pubs want to live up to the claim of being community hubs they need to be more welcoming to older male customers

A RECENT report by the International Longevity Centre highlighted the growing problem of social isolation amongst older men living alone. Men seem to find it more difficult to make and maintain social contacts than women, and many will have largely depended on their wives or partners for their social life and found themselves cut adrift when they died or divorced. The report predicts that the number of older men living alone in England will increase by 65% by 2030.

You might have thought pubs had a role to play in tackling this issue, but in fact things have gone the other way. A generation ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see groups of old codgers in pubs, maybe playing a game of crib or doms, or just chewing the fat while nursing a pint of mild. But that wasn’t seen as a very lucrative trade, nor something that conveyed the right image. So, many pubs were remodelled to appeal to a younger audience, with loud music, TV screens and uncomfortable posing tables, while others went all-out for the dining trade and made it clear that social drinkers, especially slow-spending ones, weren’t really welcome. In recent years, many community locals have closed entirely, while others have taken the commercial decision to stop opening on weekday lunchtimes, which for many pensioners was their favoured drinking session.

Wetherspoon’s are often mocked for the number of customers using mobility scooters, but surely this should be seen as a positive sign that they are actually providing a social haven for older people. In general, though, they are located in town centres, so don’t act as local pubs near to where people live, and they also pose the problem for older customers of often having the toilets up or down a long flight of stairs.

The industry often claims that pubs play a vital role in communities, and in the best cases that’s undoubtedly true. But maybe they need to live up to the hype and take a long, hard look at making their venues more pensioner-friendly.