Friday, 18 May 2018

At the sign of the crossed legs

Our recent visit to the Olde England in Northampton reminded me of the vexed question of the inadequate provision of toilets in micropubs. If you’re running what is basically a bottle shop that allows customers to sample the odd drop on the premises, then having a single unisex WC may be sufficient. However, the after-effects of drinking beer are well-known and predictable, and if your establishment is one where substantial numbers of people are likely to linger and consume a series of drinks, it just isn’t good enough. The Olde England has a spacious first-floor room that could easily accommodate fifty people.

While, averaged out over time, it may in theory meet the need, in practice there will inevitably be times when a queue builds up, especially at closing time. Many years ago at school, I studied Queuing Theory in maths. I don’t recall much about it, but one thing I do remember is that reducing the number of nodes may not impact too much on the average wait, but it can have a much more significant effect on the maximum.

Plus, without going into too much detail, not every visit to the loo is over and done with in a couple of minutes. Sometimes it can take ten minutes or more. If that happens, it may place those left outside waiting in an excruciatingly embarrassing position. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and you can’t hold it in indefinitely.

It can’t be denied that the rise of micropubs has injected an element of freshness and enterprise into the pub scene, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see minimum toilet provision for pubs and bars laid down in law. But, at a personal level, I really wouldn’t choose to spend much time at all in any establishment with just a single WC. Even the smallest traditional pubs, such as the Circus Tavern in Manchester City Centre, manage to have separate gents and ladies facilities, and to offer a choice of urinals or trap in the gents.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

A national treasure

If we set aside Guinness as Irish, Bass must be the most famous British beer brand in the world. However, in recent years, especially in its home country, it has received scant support from brand owners AB InBev, and its distribution has drastically reduced.

However, it retains a strong base of support, and Ian Thurman, who blogs as thewickingman, has taken on the task of producing a database of all known Draught Bass outlets, to which a number of others including myself, retiredmartin and britainbeermat have contributed. The results of his endeavours can be found here, together with an excellent summary of the recent history of the brand and where it stands today. Its heartland remains the Midlands counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire, which together account for well over half the total. There’s a particular concentration in the Potteries, but only a solitary outlet in Greater Manchester. If you know of anywhere else that stocks Bass, Ian will be very happy to hear from you.

I blogged about Bass a couple of years ago, when I wrote:

I wouldn’t claim that the Marston’s-brewed Draught Bass is a patch on the 1970s original, but it is hard to compare things over a forty-year gap. But it does carry an echo of its essential character – complex, subtle, bitter-sweet, slightly sour and lactic, and not really drinking its strength. Its understatement makes it a classic English beer. Unlike many other 4.4% beers, you could happily sink several pints in a session. It’s one of my favourite real ales, and one I always like to see on the bar, and will go for in preference to other widely-distributed premium beers.
While it may not be what it was forty years ago, what else is, and it’s still a well-made, distinctive, high-quality beer that stands up very well against the other beers in the premium sector with which it competes such as Doom Bar, Wainwright and Bombardier. It’s also, more than any other beer, a unique icon of British brewing. In many pubs, from the Tynemouth Lodge in the North-East to the Dolphin in Plymouth, stocking Bass is a symbol of their commitment to quality beer and respect for their heritage.

It’s just a pity that it has been so neglected by its owners that it needs the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs to promote it. Hopefully someone from the corporate world will read what Ian has written and give it a much-needed shot in the arm.

Monday, 7 May 2018

A load of cobblers?

A couple of months ago, we held a very enjoyable Beer & Pubs Forum day out in Oxford. Someone suggested that, for a future event, we could consider a trip to Northampton, which was similarly accessible for those from both the North and the South. I have to say I wasn’t initially convinced, as my only memory of the town was from forty years ago at university in Birmingham, when it was dominated by Watney’s and was one of the handful of towns to suffer from 2pm lunchtime closing, something unthinkable nowadays. However, I was talked round, and a date was duly set for last Saturday (May 5th).

With the help of trainsplit.com, I was able to get a return fare of £38.30, changing at Stafford and Rugby and taking in total 2 hours 20 minutes from Stockport. This was my first journey along the route south of Stafford for many years. The London North Western train, which carried on to London Euston, steadily filled up at the intermediate stops and by the time it reached Rugby was standing room only.

Wig & Pen
We met up at the Wig & Pen, just off the town centre, which has a deceptively narrow frontage but widens out into a spacious, L-shaped interior further back. There’s plenty of dark wood and bench seating, and overall it’s a congenial place to drink. As a pub, it was probably my favourite of the day. As I walked in, my colleagues pointed out that the TV screen was showing a collection of funny cat videos. There were eight beers on the bar, including Taylor’s Boltmaker, Greene King IPA and Old Hooky, together with some from local micros. I went for the Boltmaker, which was pretty good but, like many others on the day, a degree or two too warm. Almost next door, I spotted the plaque shown below above the door of the Optimist pub (formerly the Fox & Quill).

Sign above the door of the Optimist pub
A fifteen-minute walk then followed out along Kettering Road to the Olde England, the furthest point on the itinerary. This is one of those cosmopolitan, slightly tatty shopping strips found in most large towns on one or more radial routes just outside the centre. Outwardly it looks like a small micropub, but in fact a flight of stairs takes you up to a rather cramped bar and a spacious room along the front of the building, watched over by the stuffed head of Barry the Boar mounted over the fireplace. There were ten beers available, all on gravity, and all in 4½-gallon pins to help with turnover. Several others went for Hydes Lowry, but I hadn’t travelled 130 miles to drink Manchester beer, so I plumped instead for Downton Honey Blonde, which had that typically slightly flat, lacklustre character of gravity beer than has been around a bit too long.

Lamplighter

Handpumps in the Lamplighter
We dived off through a maze of Victorian terraced housing to reach the Lamplighter, a spacious street-corner pub with a one-room interior laid out with geometrically-placed tables. There was a large party enjoying a 50th birthday meal in one corner. This was our lunch stop, so from a comprehensive menu I chose a Stilton Burger (£9.95), which was pretty good, being obviously freshly-made rather than something from the freezer, and coming with a generous portion of skinny fries. Again there were eight beers on the bar, most from local micros, including Oakham Citra, Nobby’s Chocolate Porter and Great Oakley Brewery’s Walter Tull, named after the pioneering black footballer rather than the brother of Jethro. Another decent pint without pulling up any trees.

A short walk around the corner on the main road was the Black Prince, the sister pub of the Olde England, but with a more traditional ambiance including wood panelling and leaded windows. A long line of handpumps on the bar again, with Marston’s Old Empire and the reappearance of the Chocolate Porter, together with the Motorhead Road Crew Beer on keg. The Old Empire lacked the bite you hope for in a beer promoted for its hoppiness. There was a good selection on the jukebox, including Bat Out of Hell, My Generation and Hotel California, but some mischievous person spoiled the mood by putting on Firestarter by The Prodigy. The route to the toilets was something of a maze, and one of our party ended up in the ladies’ by mistake.

Princess Alexandra
Returning to the back streets, we were effusively welcomed inside by the barman at the Princess Alexandra, which proclaims itself as a “Craft Beer & Ale House”. Indeed, the interior is very crafty, with a long line of keg taps dominating the bar, and the only seating in the main room being at high-level posing tables. There were, however, four handpumps tucked around the corner, including the surprisingly uncrafty Marston’s Saddle Tank, the locally brewed revivalist Phipps IPA and Potbelly Hazy Daze. Served in a stemmed half-pint glass, the Phipps IPA was a quite good. We managed to find some slightly more comfortable seating on stools in a back room, but as far as the general ambiance went this wasn’t really my kind of place.

Heading back across the inner ring road to the town centre, we came to the St Giles Ale House, which actually is only a few doors down from the Wig & Pen. This is a contemporary micropub but, with dark wood and normal-height seating, it’s actually a congenial, if small, drinking space. We decamped to the unexpected beer garden at the rear, which is something of a suntrap in the afternoon and allowed us to hear the ribaldry from the Wetherspoon’s on the other side of the fence. There were four beers on handpump, including Nobby’s Northampton Red and Framework Double Chocolate and Winder Wheat. The Northampton Red, although it was actually more of a mahogany colour, was for me comfortably the beer of the day – cool, tasty and full of condition.

The next pub was something of a curveball – the tiny, keg-only Rifle Drum, situated on a narrow alleyway just off the Market Place. Martin Taylor had picked this out as a rare surviving example of an old-fashioned, down-to-earth, wet-led town-centre boozer, and indeed so it was. It’s a fairly shallow single room with no pretensions to architectural merit. The draught beer range, mostly from the Heineken stable, was John Smith’s, Fosters, Kronenbourg, Strongbow and Guinness. I had a half of Kronenbourg which was, well, what it was. This, together with two halves of Strongbow, came to under a fiver, which is pretty decent value for money. Just across the alleyway is Shipmans, formerly the White Hart, a National Inventory-listed pub that sadly has been closed and boarded for some time with no immediate sign of reopening.

All Saints' Church
Passing the impressive neo-classical All Saints’ Church, we headed down Bridge Street, which showed that Northampton, despite being in the “flat Midlands”, does actually have some hills. A special event was in progress in the Albion Brewery Bar, making it standing room only. From what I could see, it was celebrating “LGBTQ Friends”, and the Mayor seemed to be in attendance in his official chain. The bar is located in the erstwhile Ratliffe & Jeffrey Albion Brewery building. The interior seemed to have some interesting features, but the crowd made it difficult to appreciate them. However, we were able to get to the bar where the beers on offer included several of their own Phipps brews plus Lacons Falcon Ale. The latter was pretty decent, but those who had the Phipps Golden Mild were very impressed, although arguably it was too hoppy to really qualify as a mild.

Plough
Heading south across the inner ring road, we passed the impressive Plough on the left (now, I think, basically a residential hotel) to reach the Malt Shovel Tavern. Situated opposite the massive Carlsberg brewery, this is a distinctive mock-Tudor building that seems to be Northampton’s established multi-beer freehouse, with an interior full of brewery memorabilia. Although it was busy, we were able to find some seats at the front. As well as the regular range, there was a beer festival in full swing, with the beers stillaged next to the bar, providing a rather overwhelming choice. Among those sampled were Dark Star Partridge, Tornbridge Wild Swan, and Elgoods Harry Trotter. Nothing wrong with the beer, but again that lack of sparkle you get from gravity beer than has been tapped for a while.

Malt Shovel Tavern
From here, a ten-minute walk took me back to the station for my train home, although some of those who were staying overnight went on to the Pomfret Arms a short distance to the south of the Malt Shovel Tavern.

In summary, an excellent day out, not least for the company. We visited some interesting, quirky pubs with a wide variety of beer. However, it has to be said that nothing really stood out as a must-visit pub, and many of the pubs simply had too many beers on. The hot weather won’t have helped with beer quality, and I only had one beer (in the St Giles’ Ale House) that exceeded an NBSS score of 3. So it may be another forty years before I pay the town a return visit. I would say in its favour, though, that the town centre retains many traditional streets lined by Georgian, Victorian and inter-wars buildings, and is by no means, as some might imagine, a wasteland of modernist redevelopment.

For the uninitiated, the blog title comes from the nickname of the local football club, reflecting Northampton’s shoemaking heritage, and is not intended as a general comment on the town.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

The craft coup

Despite some high-profile flouncing, there’s little doubt that the general thrust of the Revitalisation Project was carried at the recent CAMRA AGM. The fact that one Special Resolution narrowly failed to pass isn’t, in practice, going to change anything that CAMRA actually does on the ground. But it’s worth reflecting on why CAMRA felt the need to “revitalise” itself in the first place.

For many years, CAMRA was the only game in town when it came to beer enthusiasm in the UK. Yes, it was accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm that there were beers in other countries that weren’t real ale, but still qualified as “good”, but as far as this country was concerned, good beer and real ale were synonymous. However, it the early years of this century, this view was increasingly challenged by a new wave of craft brewers. The US craft beer movement had taken a great deal of inspiration from the real ale revival in the UK, but the nature of the US market meant that pretty much all draught beers were keg of some kind, not cask. Then the flow of ideas reversed direction, as British brewers drew inspiration from American craft beer to challenge what they saw as a fuddy-duddy real ale scene.

More and more, these beers were being produced in keg form. Perhaps the brewers wanted to reflect their American influences, perhaps they saw keg as offering a distinctly different flavour profile and drinking experience, perhaps they wanted to offer a wider range of draught beers that weren’t restricted by a short shelf-life. In some cases, undoubtedly, it was seen as a way of cocking a snook at CAMRA. But, for whatever reason, for the first time in thirty years, there was innovative, small-batch beer in the UK that wasn’t cask. Initially, this started with breweries like Lovibonds and Meantime that barely registered on the overall radar. But then it was enthusiastically taken up by BrewDog, a key element of whose schtick was having a go at CAMRA and the culture it represented. And now we have highly-regarded breweries like Beavertown, Cloudwater and Buxton who produce either no cask at all, or very little.

Initially, CAMRA’s reaction was to set is face firmly against this trend. A few years ago, the then Chairman, Colin Valentine, said “We decide what we will campaign for, not the bloggerati, and while I have anything to do with it, we will remain the Campaign for Real Ale,” and urged the craft keg enthiusiasts to go away and form their own organisation. However, as more and more members of CAMRA were seeking out and drinking this new, innovative keg beer, this stance came to be portrayed as dogmatic and stick-in-the-mud. Surely CAMRA should embrace this new world of beer rather than shunning it.

Hence the genesis of the Revitalisation Project, from which arose the report that stated:

There has been a blurring of boundaries. There is no doubt that, on the market today, there exist some keg and other non-cask beers that are high-quality products – brewed with first-class ingredients, often matured over long periods, unfiltered and unpasteurised. Some of these products, by most measures, are far superior to some of the lower-quality, mass-produced cask beer common in pubs – some of which, it is alleged, may be subject to very minimal, if any, secondary fermentation despite being marketed as real ale.
And this was the gist of Revitalisation – that CAMRA should at least to some extent, recognise these “high-quality” non-cask beers rather than simply pretending they don’t exist. This has been accepted, at least implicitly, by the changes in objectives that stemmed from the project. At the same time there was a growing willingness to dismiss many of the beers than CAMRA had enthusiastically championed in its early years, especially if they were produced by substantial companies and enjoyed wide distribution. They were sneeringly lumped together as “boring brown beers”.

So, in a sense, what has happened is a kind of coup by the British craft beer movement. Rather than setting up its own organisation, it has succeeded in capturing CAMRA and turning it into something very different from what it originally set out to be. It isn’t an engagement with the wider beer world of lager and premium bottled ales, it’s a concession to a narrow but vocal craft lobby. And, looking across the overall pub landscape, how much penetration does “craft keg” achieve anyway? What is hard to deny is that what CAMRA actually stands for has become much vaguer. It’s half real ale and half “all good beer”, however defined.

The craft beer movement is also far more snobbish and élitist than CAMRA ever was in its early days. While CAMRA was keen to criticise the market dominance of the “Big Six”, and many of their policies, it always accepted that they did produce some excellent real ales. But, to listen to many craft beer enthusiasts, once a brewery has sold out to one of the global giants, it has gone forever and its products are no longer worthy of recognition. They have become “macro craft” and a kind of fraud on the consumer. And this exposes another flaw in the case for craft – you can define real ale, but “craft” means whatever you choose it to mean. Surely all beers should be judged on their own intrinsic merits regardless of the size of the company that produces them. Small isn’t intrinsically good; big isn’t intrinsically bad.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blogpost in which I drew a distinction between those things you buy or use as a consumer, and those you are actively interested in as a leisure pursuit. The fact that you’re not actually interested in something doesn’t mean you’re against it. Many people still seem to struggle to grasp this point.

My view of CAMRA has always been essentially a traditionalist one, seeing its prime purpose as preserving and championing a unique and distinctive British tradition – cask beer, the breweries that produce it and the pubs that sell it. I’m not against craft beers and trendy bars, and may occasionally drink or visit them as a consumer, but they’re no more something I wish to pursue as a leisure interest than gin or dance music. CAMRA is a broad church, and contains many different threads of enthusiasm. But it has to be said that, following the recent vote, its overall vision and ethos aligns less well with my own personal interests than it did before.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Minimum madness

Well, minimum alcohol pricing has finally arrived in Scotland today. There’s not a great deal I can add to the points I made here and here, although I have produced a summary of the issue for my Opening Times column.

Despite all the publicity, a lot of people are going to be taken by surprise when they go to the supermarket. The policy has been touted as something to address the scourge of “high-strength, low-cost alcohol”, but in reality it will affect well over half of all alcohol sold in the off-trade. Many consumers of mainstream products such as multipacks of lager and litre bottles of spirits will receive a shock. This news report lists some of the significant price increases that will occur.

This is a point made by Gordon Johncox of Aston Manor in a report in Drinks Retailing News, where he says:

The forecast model for MUP significantly underestimates how much moderate drinkers will be out of pocket based on real-world experience and actual market data. If the level and pattern of drinking were to remain unchanged after 1st May, then it would cost drinkers in Scotland in the order of £150 million a year.
He also reiterates the point I have made before that, far from giving the on-trade a boost, it will if anything harm it, as people’s disposable incomes are affected.
Counter to the view that is often repeated and promoted, MUP will reduce spending in pubs and bars. Representing as it does a regressive cost on even moderate drinkers, the increased cost on such a wide range of drinks will reduce the spending of consumers in pubs. This is clear in the forecast model, yet is not referenced or highlighted (even by the researchers that formulated the forecast model).
However, despite this, the appeasers of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, and many useful idiots within CAMRA, still cling to the idea that it will in some way be good news for pubs. However, at heart I suspect they don’t really believe it will bring any benefit, and are embracing it purely out of a spiteful, dog-in-the-manner spirit of doing down another section of the drinks trade that they perceive as the enemy.

Obviously it will take some time before the effects of the policy can be properly assessed. No doubt there will be a short-term drop in apparent alcohol consumption, but the headline figure will inevitably be affected both by drinkers stocking up before May 1st, and buying alcohol in England afterwards.

The Scottish Goverment have gone on record as saying they don’t think there will be a significant amount of cross-border shopping. It’s certainly true that the distances between the major population centres in Scotland and the Border are such that you can’t just nip across for a few cans – Glasgow is 99 miles from Carlisle, and Edinburgh 56 miles from Berwick. But, every time any Scottish resident crosses the border for any reason in the normal course of their life, there will be a strong incentive to pick up some cans and bottles both for themselves and their friends and relatives. With potential savings of at least a fiver on a slab of Carling and a litre bottle of Bell’s, a nice little afternoon drive down the A1 to Berwick for four mates every month will pay for itself many times over.

And, inevitably, the calls will now intensify for the policy to be extended to England...

Friday, 27 April 2018

Stand and deliver

I recently caught up at last with GBG ticker Simon Everitt of BRAPA fame at the Cherry Tree in Culcheth, a rather nondescript suburb of Warrington. Although it’s hardly a major metropolis, I noticed a pay and display machine in the pub’s car park. In this case it was no problem – it was only a quid, which was happily redeemed against a half of Tetley’s. But this is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common.

One of the first places I came across it was at the Bear’s Paw in Frodsham, Cheshire, which I mentioned here. In his last years, I sometimes used to take my dad out for a pint in the Golden Lion on Sunday lunchtimes. He had given up driving himself, and wasn’t really able to walk to the bus stop, so it was one of the few opportunities he had to get out of the house. The Golden Lion doesn’t have its own car park, but the Bear’s Paw just across the road does. Situated in the centre of a busy market town where parking is at a premium, inevitably non-customers were taking advantage, so you can’t really blame them for bringing it in. As the price differential between the Sam Smith’s in the Golden Lion, and whatever was on offer in Bear’s Paw, was easily a pound a pint, we were still quids in.

However, before pubs take the plunge, they need to think through the implications properly. You may be annoyed by non-customers using your car park, but unless they’re genuinely preventing customers from finding a space it’s not actually achieving anything for your business. Even though it may seem only a minor inconvenience, it’s still a little niggle to weigh in the balance when deciding where to visit. People’s pubgoing choices are determined by a whole raft of factors, many of which may individually appear trivial. Plus, in an age where cashless payment is increasingly becoming the norm, not offering this option erects another barrier.

In most examples I’ve seen, the charge is fully refundable at the bar, but in some cases a minimum spend is set. For example, at the Moor Top in Heaton Moor near me, the car park charge is £2, but you have to spend at least £5 to get a refund. Obviously they’re not interested in anyone just dropping in for a swift pint.

If people are really determined to take advantage, the enforceability of private parking “fines” is distinctly questionable – the system functions more as a psychological deterrent. You can of course bar them from the pub, but that’s no use if they never come in in the first place. There is also the factor that many responsible people may be reluctant to use the car park of a business where they’re not a customer, but have no such compunctions if a charge is introduced, as shown by the well-known experiment of introducing fines for late collection at a day nursery.

It may well be, of course, that a pub has an under-used car park that it wants to turn into a revenue stream, and if that’s the objective it’s entirely reasonable. But, whatever the circumstances, it’s important that pubs consider exactly what they’re setting out to achieve before implementing pay and display parking. And, if you want to ensure 100% compliance, the only way to do it is through putting up an exit barrier.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Two cheers for Revitalisation

As I’m sure all my readers are aware, last Saturday saw the announcement of the results of the voting on the great issue of our times – CAMRA Revitalisation. While I hadn’t got to the stage of writing anything in advance, obviously I had given some thought as to what I would say in the event of the vote going one way or the other. However, in typically British style, what happened was not a decisive decision but a somewhat equivocal outcome. In a sense, I was being prescient back in September when I wrote “No doubt in the end some kind of uneasy compromise will be arranged.”

As the results show, all but one of the Special Resolutions were passed with the required 75% majority. The one exception was SR6 ‘To approve the insertion of the following Article 2(e) in CAMRAʼs Articles of Association: “2(e) to act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub- goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers;”’ which only secured 72.6% approval. The resolution was widely seen as putting into practice the aspiration expressed in the Revitalisation report to extend some measure of support to “quality” non-real beers and ciders.

In fact, the democratic credentials of the whole exercise were very suspect, as no opportunity was given to circulate to the membership any case against the Special Resolutions. Given this, it’s impressive that there was sufficient grass-roots discontent to reject even one of them. The whole thing was reminiscent of a Soviet Bloc election and leaves a distinctly sour taste in the mouth.

Contrast this with the National Executive elections, where Lynn Atack, the only candidate to set out an unequivocal stall against the entire thrust of the Revitalisation agenda, topped the poll with 8,491 votes. The total number of voters in this election hasn’t been stated, but it’s clear that Lynn received a substantially higher percentage of votes than those which opposed SR6. Maybe it is better to treat the electorate as adults and give them a for-or-against case rather than just implying they’re rubber-stamping something.

Taking the results as a whole, nine out of ten Revitalisation resolutions were passed, as were ordinary Conference motions to adopt an officially neutral stance on the cask breather, and to allow the selling of non-real British beers at beer festivals. I can’t really see the point of the last one, as it comes across as rather like allowing cats at a dog show. So the results have to be seen as a mixed bag rather than a decisive victory for either “side”. But this hasn’t stopped a hysterical toys-out-of-pram reaction in some quarters:

As I said in the post I referenced above, there remains an underlying tension in CAMRA between those who see it as essentially being about the preservation of a distinctive British tradition, and those who want it to wholeheartedly embrace the world of modern beer innovation. This decision has papered over the cracks and kicked the can down the road for another year, but the fundamental dichotomy has not gone away. Although there’s no doubt which camp I align with, it’s not a question of right and wrong, but a different way of looking at things, and the two outlooks remain uneasy bedfellows within the same organisation.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The votes are in

Today is the closing date for postal and online voting on the Special Resolutions about CAMRA’s Revitalisation project, so I’ve closed my own poll on the subject. The results are shown above.

Obviously the voters are drawn from my blog and twitter followers, and so won’t be representative of the wider CAMRA electorate, but if replicated that would see the proposals not only fail to reach the required 75% threshold, but be defeated outright. As usually happens in these polls, the relative proportions have remained fairly steady throughout the voting period, although there has been a small swing towards the “Pro” camp in the past couple of days.

I’ve also created a Twitter poll on what result people *expect* to see, as opposed to what they *want* to see. On current figures, the most popular option is “Fall with 50-74% vote.”

The actual results at the CAMRA AGM in Coventry will be made public at some time during this coming Saturday.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Feeling revitalised?

I’ve created a poll in the sidebar about CAMRA Revitalisation, which I have written about extensively over the past few months. However, knowing that people reading my blog on a mobile won’t see it, I thought it merited a post in its own right.

Edit: I have now closed the poll and removed the link. I won’t remove the post entirely as there are some interesting comments.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Bring out your bottles

The government have announced that they intend to introduce a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, which they will consider extending to glass bottles and metal cans. The intention is to increase the rate of recycling, curb litter and reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans. Clearly this is a laudable aim, provided that the vessels are actually recycled rather than just being shipped off in containers to be dumped in the Congo. However, as with any such innovation, there are various aspects that need to be carefully thought through.

One of the most obvious is how it will impact on establishments that sell bottles or cans for consumption on the premises. As the ALMR have rightly pointed out, ideally they should be exempted from the deposit scheme, as anything else could lead to horrendous administrative complexity. But what then happens if customers take bottles out of the pub and try to claim refunds back?

Looking at the wider picture, we already have a well-established system of kerbside collection of bottles and cans, which may cause a certain amount of grumbling, but generally works well and achieves a high level of recycling. People have become used to this, so it would seem a bit destructive and wasteful to ditch it in favour of a whole new parallel infrastructure. Surely there must be some way in which reclaiming deposits could be integrated with the existing kerbside collections. The sheer amount of effort and investment needed to duplicate this should not be underestimated.

It’s all very well saying “take your bottles back to where you bought them”, but people accumulate bottles and cans from a variety of sources and would quite reasonably expect to return them for deposit reclaim to a single point. And, if they’re among the growing number who order their groceries online and have them delivered to their house, it would require them to make an additional journey purely to get their deposits back, which isn’t exactly very environmentally friendly.

In some countries, you get a voucher to spend at the shop hosting the recycling point, but it doesn’t seem fair to force you to spend it somewhere you might not choose to shop. A correspondent from Germany reports how the atmosphere around the recycling stations can become pretty unpleasant, especially in the summer, and resentment is inevitably provoked if apparently valid containers are rejected.

It’s not hard to imagine that, if the new system doesn’t work smoothly, it could even end up in a reduction in recycling rates if people perceive it as being too much like hard work. Of course in principle it’s worth doing, but great care will be needed to ensure that the scheme doesn’t bring with it a whole raft of undesirable and unintended consequences, which is so often the case with government initiatives.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Restricted relief

In 2002, Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced a system of Small Brewers’ Relief providing a lower level of duty for the smallest breweries. Basically, only half the standard level of duty is payable on annual production up to 5,000 hectolitres (3,050 barrels). Above this figure, the remission of duty is steadily withdrawn on a sliding scale, until it completely disappears once production exceeds 30,000 hectolitres (18,300 barrels).

The intention was to stimulate the small brewery sector by helping them overcome the economies of scale enjoyed by larger brewers, and thus establish more of a level playing field. On one level, it has undoubtedly succeeded, with the number of breweries in the UK rising to over 1,800, a higher figure than at any time since the 19th century. However, a number of criticisms have been levelled at the scheme.

It needs to be understood that it is very tightly drawn compared with what is permitted. EU rules allow the full duty rebate to be given to breweries producing up to 200,000 hectolitres (122,000 barrels), whereas in the UK it is only available in full up to a miserly 2.5% of that figure, and disappears entirely above 15%. Of course once we have left the EU, this is irrelevant, but we are not even doing anything like what we can already.

The current scheme excludes all but the smallest of the established family brewers, who feel that they end up being squeezed between microbreweries that are able to undercut them, and the international mega-brewers who benefit from economies of scale in distribution and marketing. The thresholds also act as a kind of glass ceiling that provides a disincentive to expansion. Some established brewers such as Hydes have scaled back their own production to take them below the 5,000 hectolitres figure, while several ambitious new breweries have complained that the rapid withdrawal of relief makes increasing production above 5,000 hl a very steep cliff to climb.

While the intention was to put smaller breweries on a firmer financial footing, much of the duty saving seems to end up in giving lower prices to pub operators. Thus SBR has ended up contributing to the widespread perception that cask beer is undervalued, and that there is oversupply and cut-throat price competition in the market. And, given that pub operators don’t tend to reflect lower prices paid in the price charged across the bar to customers, much of the benefit of SBR ends up flowing not to small brewers, but to pubcos.

Plus there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to competition. Does it really make the drinker’s lot any better if there are 1,800 breweries rather than 900, especially if many of them are tiny and undercapitalised, with a minuscule share of the market? Might not customers be better served if there was a smaller number of stronger, more ambitious companies eager to fight to increase their market share?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Small Brewers’ Relief falls into the same category as the Beer Orders, as something that was well-intentioned, but has ended up with a whole raft of unintended consequences and has failed to achieve the desired improvements in the overall marketplace. A group has been set up called the Small Breweries Reform Coalition to lobby for changes to the system, including both established family brewers and expansion-minded newer ones.

There are several options for reforming the regime. Simplest and cheapest would be to extend the tapered withdrawal of relief to a significantly higher figure, so the effect is more gradual and it becomes less of a disincentive to expansion. Or every brewery producing up to 200,000 hl could be allowed its first 5,000 hl of production at half duty. Or we could even follow the example of Germany and allow all breweries producing up to 200,000 hl the full benefit of the 50% relief, although obviously as UK duty is much higher, the cost to the Treasury would be commensurately greater.

Of course any suggestion of extending duty relief can be countered by the “schools and hospitals” argument, but CAMRA is happy to campaign for a general reduction in beer duty without specifying exactly where the funds are going to come from, and changes to Small Brewers’ Relief are at most only going to affect 10% o the overall beer market. A targeted measure could be a much better use of any money available for duty reduction, and be more in line with CAMRA’s objectives of increasing choice and diversity.

I wouldn’t want to propose depriving any small brewers of the relief they currently enjoy, but with the benefit of hindsight it might well have been better to design the system with a lower rate of relief, but a much gentler or even non-existent taper. And, if you’re only in business to take advantage of a tax relief, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

I also must say I have considerable sympathy with the views expressed by Brian Sheridan in this letter which appeared in the April issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Decision day

Last month, I wrote about CAMRA’s Revitalisation proposals in a post entitled Stick to the knitting, and expressed a considerable degree of scepticism about the project. I said: “We haven’t had sight of the precise wording of the motions yet. But my feeling is that I will be strongly inclined to vote against the main thrust of the revitalisation project. If you care about the protection of our beer, brewing and pub heritage, I would urge you to do likewise.”

The latest issue of What’s Brewing has now landed on my doormat complete with the full text of the ten Special Resolutions. Now, I don’t propose to bore the general readership with the fine detail – if you’re a member of CAMRA you’ll have the information anyway. Some of them have more merit than others, but I have to say my conclusion is just to vote the “straight ticket” and oppose the lot, as a general rejection of the principles of Revitalisation. Some might criticise this as a “scorched earth” policy, but all it does is to retain the status quo. Hopefully, if the proposals don’t pass, it will give the leadership the opportunity to formulate something that clarifies the organisation’s aims and objectives without needlessly antagonising substantial sections of the membership.

A further problem is that the proposals have been presented in a totally one-sided way, with no opportunity for any arguments against them to be circulated to the general membership. Surely this goes completely against the spirit of democracy. Would this be remotely acceptable for a national referendum on a major political issue?

As I said before, the exercise has created a considerable amount of ill-feeling, with harsh words being exchanged on CAMRA’s Discourse forum and bats being taken home. It is proving extremely divisive, and the risk is that, whatever the outcome, it will leave the organisation permanently diminished. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the whole thing represents pandering to a British craft beer lobby that initially set itself up in opposition to the perceived out-of-touch and old-fashioned attitude of CAMRA. And, at a time when real ale is under threat from multiple directions, shouldn’t the organisation be focusing on its core purpose rather than “embracing” competitor products?

But we will have to wait and see how events unfold in Coventry on Saturday 21 April before we know what the end result is.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The last straw?

In recent months, there has been a steady procession of pub operators announcing that they were phasing out the use of plastic straws, the latest being the Deltic Group. The reason given is that, heeding the message of programmes like “Blue Planet”, it will reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans and harming aquatic wildlife. However, it has to be questioned how much effect it’s going to have. I’d guess the overwhelming majority of plastic straws used in pubs in the UK end up in landfill, not in the sea. Plus 90% of all the plastic waste in the oceans originates from just ten rivers in Asia and Africa. It’s not to say it isn’t worth doing, but realistically it will be literally a drop in the ocean.

There is an obvious alternative in the form of paper straws. However, presumably there’s a disadvantage that they become soggy after a while. Are they really any more likely to end up in the recycling, particularly if they’re treated with chemicals to make them more durable? And one pub found out that, what they gained on the swings, they lost on the roundabouts:

It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s an element of snobbery in the campaign against straws. Straws are used by the scummy plebs when eating at McDonald’s or slurping giant cartons of Coke in the cinema; they’re not for sophisticated people like us.

Is putting waste into landfill all that bad anyway? In his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg shows how the entire production of waste in the USA in the 21st century could be accommodated in a landfill that covered just 26% of a single county in Oklahoma, or one twelve-thousandth of the total area of the country. It’s far more manageable than is often claimed. Of course waste should be recycled if it’s practical to do so, but single-use plastics have brought us major advances in convenience and hygiene that shouldn’t be breezily dismissed. Wanting to make everything recyclable is very much a First World indulgence.

The conclusion must be that dropping plastic straws is really just a piece of easy environmental virtue-signalling rather than something that is really going to make a significant difference. If pub operators want to take a serious look at their environmental impact across the board, shouldn’t they be considering stopping shipping water (which is pretty much what beer is) all the way across the Atlantic and abandoning single-use containers for draught beer?

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Eat what you're told

Earlier this week, Public Health England came up with a quite jawdropping list of foods they intend to target as part of a campaign to reduce calorie consumption by 20% by 2024. It covers the greater part of most people’s diets, including such notorious junk food items as fish, rice and pasta. And, if manufacturers don’t make changes “voluntarily”, they will press for legislation.

The whole thing is filleted here with his usual aplomb by Christopher Snowdon, an article well worth reading in detail. He makes the point that there are only three ways to achieve this objective – reformulation, switching to lower-calorie alternatives and reducing portion size. But there’s a limit to how far you can change recipes while still retaining palatability, and how can you actually reformulate fish or chicken? Where “diet” items are offered alongside standard ones, they often achieve only a small takeup, leaving smaller portions as in many cases the only option.

It is difficult to find the words to describe how demented this policy is. Imagine a Soviet commissar, drunk on power and vodka, who had been driven mad after contracting syphilis. Even he would not issue an edict like this. It is off the scale of anything the ‘public health’ lobby has tried before. It represents the final severing of the thread that once connected Public Health England to the real world.
Yes, of course we should be provided with nutritional information about the food we eat and, where possible, offered a choice of portion sizes. But this is taking matters much further, and treating people not as intelligent, empowered citizens but as dim-witted dupes whose diet needs to be controlled from on high for their own good. It’s an unprecedented intrusion into the minutiae of people’s everyday lives.
All those who claimed that the tobacco control template was never going to be extended into other areas have now been left with egg on their faces, although hopefully not too much. It just never seems to stop.

It’s also a reminder that, when it comes to lifestyle bullying, it makes little difference which set of politicians you vote for. What is for certain, though, is that in the coming years our food is going to become less appetising and more expensive, and come in smaller portions. And you do have to wonder whether this will lead on to another attempt to reduce the strength of alcoholic drinks and normalise smaller measures.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Och aye, what a nice crocodile!

The introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland is now less than two months away. The policy has provoked a huge amount of controversy, but it has attracted a perhaps surprising supporter in the form of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the trade body for pubs, clubs and bars in the country. They have been happily regurgitating all the familiar tropes of the anti-drink lobby on Twitter.

But, as I have explained in the past, all of these claims are, at best, highly exaggerated and misleading.

Selling alcohol at pocket-money prices is a largely meaningless statement, and carries a somewhat offensive insinuation that it is routinely being sold to children. We already have the fourth most expensive alcohol prices in Europe. How high would it need to go before it wasn’t being sold at “pocket-money prices”?

While it is true that it is possible to buy some very cheap beers for less per litre than some very expensive brands of bottled water, as a generalised statement alcohol is cheaper than water is not far short of an outright lie. In my local Tesco, I can buy two litres of fizzy water for 17p. I’d really like to know where I can get beer cheaper than that. It’s about as accurate and meaningful as saying you can buy cars cheaper than pedal cycles.

And the claim that supermarkets are routinely selling alcohol as a loss-leader doesn’t stand up to analysis. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen, but it simply makes no economic sense to sell something that makes up a substantial proportion of a shopping basket at a loss. There may be very little margin in those discounted slabs of Carling, but they’re not selling them for less than they paid for them.

The SLTA’s support for MUP might be understandable, if self-serving, if they actually stood to gain from it. But it won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and if the price of a can of Carling goes up from 60p to 90p it’s not exactly going to encourage anyone to spend £3.50 on a pint in the pub. Indeed, as Christopher Snowdon argues here, it could even lead to people spending less in pubs if they need to reallocate a fixed budget for spending on alcohol.

Plus, much off-trade alcohol consumption is not readily transferable to pubs anyway. The pensioner enjoying a nightcap of whisky, the family sharing a bottle of wine with their Sunday lunch, or the group of friends cracking open a few cans with their back-garden barbecue aren’t going to suddenly rush down to the pub if it costs more. It’s simply a question of making the everyday pleasures of ordinary people on limited budgets that bit less affordable.

The SLTA’s stance comes across as a nihilistic dog-in-the-manger attitude, taking the view that they have suffered, so why shouldn’t other parts of the drinks trade be made to suffer too? It’s certainly true that the Scottish on-trade has been hit very hard in recent years by the smoking ban and the reduction of the drink-drive limit. But they mounted a pretty feeble opposition to both measures, so in a sense have only themselves to blame. Taking it out on others, though, will achieve no more than a pointless venting of rage. Surely all parts of the drinks trade should take a united stand against the neo-Prohibitionists rather than allowing them to play divide and rule and being treated as useful idiots.

It should also be remembered that the study by the University of Sheffield used to support the policy actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high. Any advantage gained from minimum pricing could turn out to be short-lived, as the spotlight turns to on-trade pricing. And, when the guns of the neo-Prohibitionists are retargeted on the on-trade, the SLTA are likely to find themselves with very little sympathy from a Scottish public who they have been keen to see charged much more for their modest pleasures.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” And the SLTA are getting very pally with an extremely dangerous reptile. Their stance is one of contemptible hypocrisy and, given that they are vanishingly unlikely to derive any benefit from minimum pricing, utterly delusional.