April 2017

Fear of the Dark

There’s no point in pubs stocking dark beers if customers don’t want to drink them

A FREQUENTLY heard complaint is that pubs should make more effort to stock darker beers. Surely, if a pub has eight or more handpumps, they could allocate one or two of them to dark beers to provide more stylistic variety. But, on the other hand, there is no point in stocking beers that don’t sell and, while you can lead a dark horse to beer, you can’t make him drink it.

One licensee of a long-standing “Good Beer Guide” entry has made the point that, while he’s made plenty of effort to put darker beers on the bar, his customers simply don’t seem to want to drink them. He’s had dark beers hanging around on the pumps for five days, while some pale ones sell out within five hours, so it’s not surprising that he tends to avoid them. I’ve spoken to several licensees of family brewer pubs who have told me that they tend to pass on any dark beers in the brewery’s seasonal range, as they simply don’t sell. And it’s always very noticeable at the end of Stockport Beer Festival that most of the beers left over are dark ones.

There is a widely-held belief that dark beers tend to be on the stronger side, which isn’t by any means always the case, but does deter people from drinking them. And all dark beers are not the same – there is a clear division between roasty, strong-flavoured stouts and porters, and sweeter, more mellow milds and old ales. Some drinkers try to avoid those roasty notes, while others will run a mile at the thought of anything with a chestnut flavour, let alone reminiscent of Christmas pudding.

I have to say I tend to prefer the more mellow side, and I have fond memories of drinking the distinctive old ales that used to be produced by breweries in the South-East such as Brakspear, Gales and King & Barnes. These typically had a strength of around 4.3 or 4.4%, so it was easy to drink a pint or two, but they still had a rich flavour and a touch of winter warmth about them. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be much brewed in that kind of category nowadays.

Yes, it would be good to see more dark beers on the bar. But all dark beers are not the same, and it has to be recognised that their absence is not due to a lack of imagination of the part of licensees, but to customer preference.

Pale Shadow

It is disrespectful of our brewing heritage to rebrand a classic Pale Ale as amber

LAST AUTUMN, Marston’s carried out a redesign of their beer brands in an attempt to make them look fresher and more contemporary, although many felt they were trying a bit too hard to appear trendy. One aspect of this was reclassifying their flagship Pedigree as an “amber ale” rather than a “pale ale”. Historically, British beers were divided between “brown ales” and “pale ales”, with the latter being broadly of the mid-brown colour you would expect from “bitter”. Nowadays, when many beers have been introduced that are markedly paler than this, it may seem sensible to draw a distinction between these and the ones of a more traditional colour.

But Pedigree is a classic example of a great British brewing style, namely Burton Pale Ale, and while calling it “amber” may make some sense to a marketing man, it comes across as something of a betrayal of Marston’s proud heritage.

March 2017

Collision Course

The seemingly unstoppable rise in brewery numbers can’t go on for ever

EVERY MONTH, “Opening Times” seems to report new breweries being set up, at the same time as established pubs are closing down. If you extrapolate this into the future, within a decade or two we’re going to end up with more breweries than pubs. Clearly this is unsustainable, and eventually the two trends are bound to collide.

It certainly seems to be true at present that there are too many small brewers chasing not enough business. Plenty of keen people have gone into the business without giving too much thought to where they’re going to find customers. The result is a lot of cut-throat competition, with some brewers complaining that others are selling beer for less than it costs them to make it, and several reports of beer being sold “off the books” without duty being charged. This can’t be healthy in the long term, and inevitably at some point a shake-out will happen.

One obvious factor is that, for most micro-brewers, it is to some extent a labour of love. They have taken up commercial brewing because they’re interested in beer and brewing, not just as a money-making venture. Most have either previously been enthusiastic home-brewers, or have worked for another brewery before venturing out on their own. This doesn’t mean that they don’t take the business side seriously, but inevitably, across the whole population of brewers, there is a slightly less hard-headed attitude. If your prime objective in starting a small business is to maximise your profits, you probably won’t take up brewing, and it can’t be said that people run carpet-cleaning franchises because they’re fascinated by carpets.

Added to this, a significant proportion of micro-brewers don’t rely on their business to provide a proper full-time income, either because they are retired, have another job, a rich parent, or a working partner. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, and may mean they can be more experimental and take more risks, but it does mean they can afford to take a more relaxed attitude to pricing, which may irk those who do entirely depend on brewing for their income.

The prevailing culture of ever-rotating guest beers also makes it more difficult for brewers to establish any kind of brand premium. The varying beers are just seen as a homogenous, dispensable product. Even if your beer isn’t up to much, the pub probably won’t be having it on again, so it will be quickly forgotten. All cask beer certainly isn’t of broadly uniform quality, but when customers are confronted with an array of beers, and possibly breweries, that they have never heard of before, it’s well-nigh impossible for them to make an informed judgment.

Given that the underlying market conditions are unlikely to change significantly, the objective for brewers must be to develop their reputation, so that pubs are going to make repeat orders, and that customers perceive their beers – whether individual brands or the overall output of the brewery – as something they actively want to drink. There’s no magic bullet for achieving this, but has to be the aim. Consistency, and having a product that stands out, not necessarily by being extremely distinctive, but by being of obvious quality, are vital factors.

There are plenty of examples of successful breweries who have done this, a good example being Hawkshead, where many drinkers, on seeing a Hawkshead beer on the bar, will immediately go for it in preference to others. And brewers of a more mainstream bent such as Otter have prospered through providing a consistent, well-branded product that is instantly recognisable, and rarely disappoints the drinker.

February 2017

A Little Bit of Company

The role of pubs in alleviating loneliness and depression is often undervalued

BEFORE Christmas last year, CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine highlighted the important role of pubs in combating social isolation, which can often work in surprisingly small and subtle ways. Go into a town-centre Wetherspoons in the late morning, and you’ll probably see a number of tables occupied by middle-aged or elderly men, sitting on their own, drinking a pint, reading the newspaper, with a bit of shopping in a plastic carrier bag. This may seem like a sad indictment of loneliness in our society but, looking at it the other way, what would they be doing if they weren’t there? Probably sitting at home alone with a can watching daytime TV.

Even at a very low level, pubs can contribute to providing a social outlet and alleviating loneliness. The simple act of getting out of the house and having a change of scenery can improve your mood. One beer blogger, who suffers from chronic depression, said:

“If you have recurrent mental health problems, being stuck in the middle of the same walls, seeing the same things and listening to the same sounds over and over and over again, well, it does your head in, basically. If you stay in your house too long, it's well documented that mood gradually lowers and you become isolated and less able to function in the world when it confronts you.”
And another added:
“I live alone and if I don't leave the house for two consecutive days, I feel hemmed in. I was declared surplus from my last job and was retired early, so I don't even have the social interaction of the workplace during weekdays. Isolation isn't good for anyone.

“Pubs are the only institutions that I can think of where you can walk in off the street, buy a drink and be entitled to sit there as long as you like, with the option of talking to strangers or not, as you prefer. Try talking to strangers in a café or restaurant and see what reaction you get. Actually, just try lingering too long in a café over one coffee without speaking to anyone and you may get suspicious looks, perhaps even be told to move on. This doesn't usually happen in a pub.”

And one guy in his twenties, who is autistic and visually impaired, said of a local micropub:
“I've started going in there when it's quiet - I really can't handle busy, noisy pubs, but I go in and have a couple of pints and maybe talk to whoever's on the bar. I find that, I really can't make conversation easily - if I don't know you, I'm lost and I feel overloaded and a bit scared. So I'll talk shop, basically, about the beer they have on and what's being going on in the news. It gets me out of the house and away from those that I see every day for a little while.”
You can see this in Samuel Smith’s Boar’s Head in Stockport, where from opening time each morning there will be a fair number of customers, mostly older men who are retired or on disability, who clearly see it as a kind of social club and engage in various kinds of inconsequential banter. Looking at the wider picture, though, slow-spending, elderly customers are not something that greedy pub-owners want to encourage, hence the trends for wall-to-wall dining and replacing comfortable benches with posing tables that are a challenge for creaky joints.

But the importance of pubs in giving people some kind of social outlet, however limited, cannot be understated. Yes, old blokes sitting on their own in the pub may seem sad. But it’s helping to alleviate a greater sadness.

January 2017

Can This Be For Real?

“Real ale in a can” is a flawed concept that undermines bottle-conditioning

EYEBROWS were raised last year at the news that CAMRA had given accreditation as “real ale” to can-conditioned beers from Moor Brewery in Bristol. While this may on the face of it sound surprising, given that CAMRA is happy to recognise bottle-conditioned beers as “real ale”, it is entirely consistent to do the same for beer that still contains live yeast, but just happens to be in a different kind of container.

Having expressed some scepticism about the concept, I was – to their credit – sent a sample of six cans to try by Moor Brewery. Now, they all came across as well-made beers, and one, the rye-infused Smokey Horyzon, particularly tickled my tastebuds. The amount of yeast and carbonation suggested that they could realistically have conditioned in the can. Having allowed them to settle for a couple of weeks, I was able to pour most of them reasonably clear. But I have to say I’m not remotely convinced by the concept.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many excellent bottle-conditioned beers. But I’ve always been able to check that the yeast has settled to the bottom, and then pour it carefully to ensure I end up with a clear drink. However, with a can, you simply can’t do that, so you have to trust to time as to whether the yeast has settled, and depend on very precise timing to minimise the amount that ends up in the glass. The whole process is turned into a lottery. For this reason, regardless of the inherent merits of the beer, I’d say cans are not an appropriate medium for container-conditioned packaged beers.

Personally, I prefer the taste of beer, not yeast, and there is far too much anecdotal evidence of murky beer playing havoc with the digestive tract for such concerns to be dismissed out of hand. The whole concept of "real ale in a can" has not been thought through properly, and I find it disappointing that CAMRA has given it its seal of approval.

Delayed Gratification

What may now seem extreme proposals could all too soon become reality

SCOTLAND seems to be doing its best to be a world leader in neo-Prohibitionism, and the latest idea to rear its ugly head is one from “public health experts” to ban the sale of alcohol in the off-trade until 5pm. This is objectionable on so many levels that I won’t even attempt to list them. It represents a collective punishment meted out on the overwhelming majority of responsible drinkers in an attempt to address the problems of the irresponsible few.

One obvious issue is that it would be likely to lead to a kind of quasi black market of people buying drink on others’ behalf. A simple request to pick up of bottle of whisky while you’re out could easily lead on to someone carrying a small stock to supply people who find it inconvenient to buy it themselves. And I can’t see the Scotch whisky industry – the country’s leading export earner – being remotely happy about being prevented from selling bottles to coach parties on distillery tours.

In Sweden, which operates a similar hard-line attitude to alcohol sales, the state-run Systembolaget stores tend to close their doors just as the Scottish offies would be opening. You could just as well argue that earlier closing, rather than later opening, would achieve the same result, or lack of.

Of course the chances of this happening in the near future, even in Scotland, are zero. But, by laying it on the table, an “Overton Window” has been opened up in which such draconian proposals are brought within the scope of serious debate. And how long will it be before someone suggests banning pubs and bars from selling alcohol before 5pm too?