November/December 2017

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Driverless cars could give a major shot in the arm to the pub trade

RECENTLY, there has been a growing amount of interest in the development of driverless cars. The wider subject is really beyond the remit of this column, although I’m sure there are many applications where they will prove very useful. However, as with many other disruptive technologies, both government and independent commentators still seem unsure as to how they will eventually come to be used.

Looking at the subject from a more parochial perspective, one area where they could make a massive difference is in getting you home from the pub. In rural areas, with negligible public transport and distances beyond an economic taxi ride, pubgoing opportunities are currently very constrained. And, even in towns and cities, while there will be some pubs that can be reached easily on foot or by public transport, there are plenty more that can’t be. Just imagine programming your automatic chariot for an evening’s crawl round some otherwise hard-to-reach pubs!

Some have suggested that there will always need to be a sober, licensed driver on hand in case of emergencies, but that rather defeats the whole purpose, and how quickly could someone be expected to react anyway if they were busy posting on Facebook? Indeed, one of the obvious applications that has been suggested is eliminating human drivers from taxis. And surely one of the major benefits of driverless cars would be to enhance mobility for people such as the very elderly or those with chronic illnesses who are currently unable to drive themselves. However, no doubt the killjoys will be working hard on ways to prevent driverless cars being used in this way, saying “that’s not what they were intended for”.

Posing a Problem

So-called “posing tables” are a divisive and uncomfortable abomination in pubs

A LOCAL pub has recently received a “craft” makeoever, which involved replacing about half the seating with high-level “posing tables”. This is a plague that is afflicting more and more pubs nowadays. I suppose the thinking is that they appear modern and trendy, conjuring up visions of bright young things disporting their long, skinny-jean clad legs in a fashionable, cutting-edge bar. But, more often than not, you end up with plump middle-aged folk perched incongruously on high stools.

They spoil the look of the interior of a pub and create an artificial division between drinkers by putting them on two levels. You might say that some people prefer them and should be given the choice, but would anyone walk out of a pub if there were none, and did anyone ever suggest them when asked what they would like to see in a pub refurbishment? It also seems that they appeal to people with an exaggerated sense of their own importance who want to be the centre of attention. The formal name for them is “poseur tables”, which rather sums up their attraction.

A couple of decades ago, there was a fad for putting raised seating areas in pubs to break up large areas of flat floor. However, the realisation eventually dawned that these were very unfriendly to the disabled, by effectively closing off a substantial chunk of the pub to them. You certainly don’t see them in new schemes, and I can think of a few pubs that have had them removed during refurbishments.

Much the same is true of posing tables, which will place people in wheelchairs at a lower level than their friends, and also pose a challenge for older customers with creaky joints. They’re an ugly abomination that should have no place in pubs, and the sooner they’re all consigned to the skip the better.

September/October 2017

Slippery Slope

The anti-tobacco campaign is increasingly being used as a template for action against alcohol

LAST JULY saw the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket smoking ban in England. At the time, those of us who argued that the same kind of restrictions would increasingly be applied to alcohol and other categories of food and drink were pooh-poohed for scaremongering. Tobacco, they said, was clearly a special case. However, the claim of a slippery slope has proved to be more correct with each passing year, and it seems that producers of craft drinks have at last woken up to the threat.

Earlier this year, the “Observer” reported how Jared Brown, of craft gin distiller Sipsmith, had suddenly cottoned on to the threat to his business from graphic health warnings and plain packaging.

“Are they considering similar labels for bacon? Fish and chips? Crisps?” he asked. “It’s an absurdity. It will crush the craft side of the industry. It will shift the business back to the industrial producers, who will be very happy to move people back to mass-produced drinks. If something like this comes through we won’t be able to weather it.”

“It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first,” said Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank. “The debates around the tobacco advertising ban 15 years ago were that this was not a precedent, it will never happen with anything else, and yet last week the there were health campaigners saying the same thing should happen with alcohol.”

Of course, what applies to craft gin will equally apply to craft beer, and any other area of the food and drink market dependent on innovation and disrupting existing business models. It’s often argued that restrictions on advertising and promotion would curb big brands, but in fact the opposite is true. They always serve to benefit established players at the expense of new entrants, as the market is in effect ossified, and customers are forced to fall back on folk memory and what they ordered before.

It would now be absolutely impossible to introduce a new legitimate cigarette brand and, if the current tobacco advertising rules and display ban applied to alcohol, there would be no craft beers and no microbreweries, apart perhaps from pubs that brewed their own beer. And would even writing magazine articles about them be prohibited as a form of indirect advertising?

A More Selective Appeal

Some brewers’ response to post-ban decline comes across as utterly delusional

IN THE ten years since the smoking ban, the amount of beer sold in pubs and clubs has fallen by well over a third. While the ban isn’t the sole cause, nobody with any knowledge of the industry can deny that it has been a major factor. The effect has been felt particularly sharply amongst the smaller, wet-led local pubs.

So it is quite astounding how so many brewers and pub operators have done their best to put a brave face on what, by any standards, has been a disaster for their industry. Some have claimed that it has increased the appeal of pubs to women, despite the fact that more women smoke than men. And one brewery director, who had presided over selling off a quarter of his company’s pubs, said that “the pub trade has evolved to become stronger and more inclusive”.

Obviously business owners have to live in the real world rather than just moaning that life isn’t fair. But this comes across as very much like the manager of the spoof rock band Spinal Tap who, when asked why they were now playing in small theatres rather than arenas, replied that “their appeal has become more selective”.

June 2017

Back on the Escalator

The Chancellor has sneaked in a return to the alcohol duty escalator

IN HIS 2011 Budget, George Osborne mentioned in passing that “there would be no changes to previously announced alcohol duties”, which many media outlets wrongly reported as meaning that they would be frozen, whereas in fact the dreaded duty escalator remained in operation.

In March this year, Philip Hammond pulled the same stunt, which led to widespread confusion as to what the duty implications actually were. One well-known brewer, who will remain nameless, even said on Twitter that they didn’t think there had been any changes. The situation was so bad that the British Beer and Pub Association felt compelled to issue a statement clarifying the position.

Even the official government announcement was distinctly disingenuous, saying “This measure increases the duty rates on alcohol manufactured in, or imported into, the UK by reference to the retail prices index (RPI).” Anyone reading this would assume that duties had been increased in line with RPI, but in fact the term “by reference to” meant that the dreaded duty escalator had returned, with rates going up by RPI plus 2%. The main rate of beer duty rose by 3.86%, meaning that a pint of 4% beer now incurs duty plus VAT on duty of 52p, a rise of 2p over the previous level.

It’s easy to dismiss such rises as trivial and say people will take them in their stride. But every price increase is a step too far for someone who is already at the limits of their budget. And, over time, successive above-inflation increases in duty will make alcoholic drinks significantly more expensive in real terms and reduce the demand. Although obviously not the sole factor, it is noticeable how the rate of decline in the pub trade in the three years since the escalator was shelved in 2014 has been considerably less than in the preceding years.

It would have been understandable, if regrettable, if the government had returned to raising duties each year in line with inflation. But it has been made clear that the duty escalator was never scrapped, merely suspended, and is now back with a vengeance.

Sadly, all the hard work that CAMRA and drinks trade bodies devoted to campaigning against it and pointing out its negative effect on one of Britain’s biggest business sectors has been thrown back in their faces. The process is going to have to be restarted, and this time it must be made clear that the objective is to drive a stake through the escalator’s heart, not just to put it into suspended animation.

Brewer before Taxman?

Higher beer prices harm pubs, regardless of whether the brewer or the Exchequer benefit

EARLIER this year, I wrote about how many small brewers were finding it a struggle to make a decent living. One answer to this has been to suggest that we’re not really paying enough over the bar for our beer. However, given that in many pubs the typical pint is now well north of £3, most people would hardly think beer was cheap, and over the years pub prices have increased by more than the general rate of inflation. If there’s a problem, it’s how the cake is distributed, not that it’s too small overall.

Given the amount of effort that has been expended in campaigning against the duty escalator, it is surely shooting yourself in the foot to want to negate all the benefits by putting the price back up again. It’s basic common sense that cheaper beer makes for healthier pubs and, regardless of where the extra money goes, higher prices are going to deter some customers, especially those who are already financially stretched.

May 2017

No Magic Bullet

Designating a pub as an Asset of Community Value is no guarantee of its survival

UNDER the Localism Act of 2011, the government made provision for land or buildings to be designated as Assets of Community Value, meaning that, if there was a proposal to sell them, they would enjoy a six-month waiting period to allow a local community to either make a bid itself or find an alternative buyer. Not surprisingly, this has since been extended to many pubs, including a number in this area.

However, it seems to be viewed by some as a magic bullet to save threatened pubs, whereas in reality all it can do is to give them a stay of execution. Even if a local community is able to make a bid, there is no requirement for the seller to accept it. And, while there have been a number of cases of successful community bids being made for smaller locals, it’s unrealistic to expect this to happen for bigger and more expensive pubs in rural locations or city centres.

Locally, we have recently lost two large Hydes’ estate pubs, the High Grove in Gatley and the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme, both of which have been sold for residential development. An ACV listing had been obtained for the High Grove, but not the Ryecroft, but at the end of the day this did not affect its fate. It’s doubtful whether a community group could have raised the £500,000 asking price, let alone run it profitably where Hydes had failed. And the question must be asked why, if it was so valued by the local community, they hadn’t previously used it more.

To some extent, ACV status is being used as a substitute for protecting pubs under the planning system. Under current planning law, there is what might be regarded as a loophole or anomaly whereby a pub can be converted to retail or office use without needing planning permission, although it is needed for residential conversion. There’s a good case for changing this, although surely a time limit would be needed, as it would deter people from converting shops to bars if they needed planning permission to convert them back again a couple of years later if things didn’t work out.

However, while this would ensure that any conversions from pub use were done in the open, in practice it wouldn’t really save more than a handful of pubs. All of those in this area that have been converted to supermarkets had been closed for some years previously. At the end of the day, you can’t force people to run businesses if they don’t want to, and it could all too easily lead to a staring match between pub owners and councils, with pubs left derelict for an extended period of time. And many pubs sit on a substantial patch of land which is potentially very valuable for redevelopment. Even if somehow you were able to require a pub to be sold for its value as a going concern, if the new owners couldn’t make a go of it either, who would stand to benefit from the development value at the end of the day?

Some campaigners against pub closures seem blind to the fact that the demand for pubs has dramatically declined, making it inevitable that many will become unviable. Since 1997, the total amount of beer sold in pubs has more than halved. But it is now easier to get a licence for existing premises than it ever has been, and this has resulted in a growing wave of openings of new bars and micropubs, including some in suburban shopping parades. Perhaps something smaller and more intimate would be a better option for local communities than the archetypal “beached whale” estate pub.

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?