Whisky, David Beckham and me

14. April 2014 13:54

What have Alfred Hitchcock, David Beckham and me got in common? We're all from Leytonstone, in East London. Apart from those humble beginnings, our paths have seldom crossed. But now Becks, as I believe he's known, has unexpectedly entered the alcohol policy debate. From left field so to speak.

Global drinks giant Diageo has signed him up to help market a new whisky, prompting shock and outrage from the likes of Alcohol Concern, which believes it will “send a confusing message to (children) about the dangers of alcohol and its impact on a healthy lifestyle”.

I suppose we all send out confusing messages at one time or another. We're only human. But 'David Beckham' here does not precisely correspond to David Beckham, the boy from Leytonstone. Becks is himself a global corporation – only that can explain how Diageo believes he can “play a fundamental role in developing the brand, its strategy and positioning”. They certainly never taught that at my school.

But is there a problem with the Beckham brand being associated with Haig Club, the new Diageo product?

I'm certainly quite intrigued by the unusual link-up, and the whisky itself. Haig is an old-fashioned brand that, until now it seems, exemplified the kind of dusty, fusty market that whisky needs to leave behind. A trendy figure like Beckham, not to mention pop music impresario Simon Fuller (who must be gutted that he's not mentioned in the media frenzy), is required to give the name a fresh meaning.

The new Haig Club expression is billed as a “single grain scotch whisky”, a miniscule sub-category of the market that has only lately attracted attention from whisky buffs.

Grain whisky is the stuff they use to 'pack out' a blended scotch and give it the background on which the malts in the blend can shine. It's a lighter, less complex whisky that Diageo seems to see as a bridge from, say, vodka, to more interesting spirits, and as a novel base cutting edge bartenders can use to create new cocktails. Judging by the bottle it's going to be quite expensive, too. This is hardly mass-market.

The other point that needs to be made is that Diageo says Beckham will “lead the promotion of a responsible drinking programme … which is at the heart of the brand.”

The 'clean' image of the Beckham brand is a clear departure from the lifestyles of certain other famous footballers and is designed to bring to Haig Club the message that getting drunk is not what this whisky is about, that is it's possible to appreciate alcohol for other reasons.

And, while I'm not sure it's going to have a huge impact, it seems to be a good message to get across.

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Let's not lose all our little locals

8. April 2014 14:22

As a guest of Moorhouse's Brewery in Burnley, I ventured into the grim North last week, a few provisions wrapped up in a kerchief slung over my back. Thursday evening was dedicated to 'trade visits'. To most people this might appear to be a pub crawl, but to a professional it's serious research. And you'd look daft standing there without holding a pint.

Anyway, first up was Sycamore Farm, an expansive new-build on the outskirts of town. It was just gone 6pm, and as far as the eye could see – it was quite big - the place was teeming. The queue of people waiting for a table was continuously replenished while we were there.

Business was obviously good and getting better. The previous Sunday, we were told, was the pub's biggest day yet. An astonishing 2,000 covers were served.

Sycamore Farm is part of Farmhouse Inns, a 20-strong chain that used to belong to a company called Cloverleaf before being taken over by Greene King a couple of years ago. It's determinedly food-led and aimed at the family market. Its most striking feature is probably the ice-cream cabinet with its fairyland mountains of multi-coloured creaminess. You can't walk past without wanting to stop and buy one, even when it'll spoil your tea.

Having said that, there is a drinking area the size of a small pub, and the Wednesday quiz nights regularly attract no fewer than 60 teams.

It reminded me, but with a bit more about it, of the kind of new-builds Marston's is doing. By the summer they will have completed 100 of them. 

This represents an important shift in the make-up of the pub market and in consumer behaviour. It suggests that at least once or twice a week there are thousands of families who, rather than cook and eat at home, will go out for a meal. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed atmosphere and the price-point they need.

So far, so good, but is this really the only future of the pub? I can't help but look beyond the balance-sheet and worry that to help fund its expansion into this new breed of pub-restaurant Marston's will, by the end of 2015, have sold off 500 other pubs, at least 200 of them earmarked for conversion to supermarkets.

Some thought needs to go into what we might be losing here. Much as I can admire the likes of Sycamore Farm as an industry observer, as a pub-goer I'd never go near the place. 

I'm not sure the 'pound pub', the new no-frills cut-price places, is the answer, either. I quite like the occasional frill. But please let's not lose all our little locals.

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Who are you calling normal?

31. March 2014 14:57

When it first came on the news the other day I heard the author of the Chief Medical Officer's annual report not as Dame Sally Davies but as Sammy Davis. Now that would have been interesting. Let the rat pack have a go at it, that's what I say.

Unsurprisingly, in the hands of Dame Sally, drink comes in for some attention, and not in a rat pack way. She's right, of course, to be concerned about the rising incidence of liver disease in the UK and right to link it to the increase in alcohol consumption until 2004, though obesity and hepatitis C need to come into a complicated equation, too.

Anyway, without getting into that, one sentence jumped out at me: “Drinking to excess is not 'normal behaviour'”. This is strange language from a Chief Medical Officer. What does she mean by 'normal'? It's a heavily value-laden term that, in my view, is best avoided. In this case Davies is implicitly labelling people who drink to excess as 'abnormal'. How is that going to help?

She's bothered about the portrayal of drinking in popular culture, where “negative consequences are rarely shown”. Then she notes it's there in Shakespeare, too, the popular culture of its time. I don't know about you, but if something's been going on for 400 years that sounds like a pretty good definition of 'normal' to me. It's part of popular culture's job to reflect... um... popular culture, where people do actually drink to excess, mostly with no more terrible consequence than a headache the next morning.

Getting your characters drunk also offers rich narrative benefits, giving the plot a kick in an unlikely direction or triggering conflict between characters – one of the negatives you do frequently see on the telly.

And, of course, it's a matter of much heated debate whether people copy what they see. Davies is here expressing a social norms theory, which assumes that, sheep-like, we conform to what we believe others are doing. There are some of us here, though, who are inclined to do completely the opposite to what everyone else does, and I'm not sure anyone wants to be Norman Normal.

What's really going on here is a struggle over something slightly different – ‘normalisation’. There is an argument that drinking, and drinking to excess, is becoming normalised and we've got to stop it. But surely by any definition drinking has been a 'normal' activity in this country for centuries. If anything, what we're seeing is an effort, by Dame Sally Davies and others, to de-normalise it. It sounds better, though, if they put it the other way round.

Personally, I've always thought we need a more mature relationship with alcohol. And that means accepting that people drink, and might get drunk.

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Some facts about the 'death of the pub'

24. March 2014 12:11

Are reports of the death of beer and pubs exaggerated? We all knew the answer to that one - it's 'yes'. Even more emphatically the day after the Budget took a penny off a pint for the second year running*. But the title didn't deter anyone from joining a packed house at the latest British Guild of Beer Writers lecture last week.

The venue made the question seem even more redundant. The White Horse, Parson's Green, is a fantastic example of a pub that seems constantly busy, thanks to great beer, great food, and the fact that it's busy – a philosophical conundrum I won't try to unravel.

Of course, the stats tell a different story. Research company CGA Strategy estimates that 12,000 licensed outlets have closed since 2008, and 28 pubs a week are still closing or, more accurately, 49 are closing and 21 are opening or reopening. And the numbers are very different when you break it down by style of pub.

CGA's Graham Loudon asked whether it might be valid to speak of the death of the wet-led pub. For every nine wet-led pubs that close, only one opens. Between March and December 2013, 793 wet-led pubs closed compared to 129 food-led. Half of new openings are classified as 'cafe-bars'.

Among these is the fast-growing Loungers chain, which has just opened locally to me in Brighton in a very large site that used to be a Blockbusters video shop. I checked it out yesterday, and while it's not my cup of tea it's clearly a well-operated and carefully thought-through concept: good quality, good value, informal but based very much around the food offer. This is the kind of thing that's getting people out of the house.

“But even among wet-led pubs, there are success stories,” added Loudon.

Amber Taverns, which specialises in the unpromising field of community pubs in northern England, reports that its profit-per-site soared by an astonishing 1,000%, or 11-fold, between 2007 and 2013. It didn't fall in their laps, though. Amber invests a lot of money up-front in refurbishing its pubs to the high standards that people expect – even when they're only going for a drink.

Amber has confidence in its market and its being repaid handsomely. Are reports of the death of the pub exaggerated? I'll change my answer to hell, yeah!

*Disclaimer: this doesn't mean your pint is a penny cheaper, it just makes the pub and beer industries feel wanted.

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Ecstasy, Hooch and brewing after the Beer Orders

17. March 2014 14:23

My mind was cast back this morning to the mid-1990s when I worked on Bass Brewers' in-house newspaper. What did it was Will Haydock's blog post about a conference he was at last week, a gathering of public health big cheeses and high rollers to debate the influence of 'Big Alcohol' among other things.

I haven't had a chance to watch the video of the event yet (which Will kindly provides a link to) but there was, apparently, a mention of the brewing industry's response to the challenge of rave culture, and the launch, in particular, of alcopops to appeal to younger people.

I was there when Bass came up with Hooper's Hooch and Caffrey's ale in 1995. Both shot off like a rocket, later to fall like a stick, and it's true, as those who've studied the period at greater distance tend to agree, that brewers were worried that young people were deserting beer and they'd have to do something to get them back. Following Hooch and Caffrey's success I interviewed the Bass marketing director of the time, Seamus McBride, and was surprised at his ruthless approach. He saw Ecstasy, specifically, as a rival, and new product development, he believed, was key to making sure brewers wouldn't lose a whole generation of drinkers.

And it was urgent. There was no time for research and testing, you just had to throw your best ideas against the wall to see what stuck. Sure enough, the next issue of Bass Brewers News included a page featuring no fewer than 21 launches. And not one of them stuck.  It was a moment of madness, really, and McBride left the company soon after that.

What drove Bass to such desperate measures? It wasn't simply the desertion of youth. The industry was still trying to come to terms with the impact of the Beer Orders. Bass had separated its brewing and pubs arms, and Bass Brewers was charged with finding a strategy to compete in a more open market place, rather than relying on the country's largest tied pub estate and unrivalled distribution network. It continued to try new things but was eventually split up. Interbrew, formerly Whitbread and now AB InBev, bought one half and Coors, the American brewer, the other. And they weren't interested in the fancy NPD but two ordinary 4% ABV lagers that had been around for ages: Carling, the best-selling beer in England and Wales, and Tennent's, the best-selling beer in Scotland. They remain hugely important brands.

I'm not sure of the moral of this story, but perhaps those assessing the influence of the alcohol industry might want to dig a bit deeper into the history rather than just looking at short-term superficial strategies. And that probably goes for the industry, too.

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Why selling e-cigs could be an Enterprising move

10. March 2014 12:44

The best news last week came from an unlikely source. Enterprise Inns doesn't always attract good publicity, but it's just become the first sizeable pub company that I'm aware to endorse electronic cigarettes in a supply deal with manufacturer Nicolites.

Enterprise is to make them available to its 5,400 tenants, and according to the press release is encouraging them to stock them as an alternative to tobacco cigs. Not all of the pubs will take up the offer, of course, but this marks a break from a trend among managed pubcos to ban’ vaping’, as the use of e-cigs is known, on their premises.

Although they produce no smoke, Mitchells & Butlers, JD Wetherspoon and Fuller's say they  confuse their staff and might make other customers think they can light up a proper fag - a reasoning I find a little far-fetched, especially now that most e-cigs don't look like cigarettes at all (although I did see someone in the pub the other day puffing on a stonking great electronic pipe).

Enterprise's move could prove significant. The debate around vaping is heating up. There's a real battle going on about how they should be regulated. The UK's public health lobby is split. The British Medical Association, for instance, fears e-cigs will 'renormalise' smoking and entice children into the habit, and wants e-cigs included in the ban on smoking in public places, while Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is more positive about their role in helping people to stop smoking.

Surely the overriding consideration has to be that e-cigs are safer than tobacco, possibly a hundred times safer, according to what we know so far. Nicotine itself is an almost harmless drug. Smokers who are using e-cigs to quit, or cut down, shouldn't have to wait years for research to formally confirm this. And they're not. The most recent estimate that there are 1.3 million vapers in the country may already be hugely conservative and Enterprise's nod of approval will accelerate the market trend further.  Some publicans might be able to make a bit of money out of selling e-cigs and even win back some of the trade they lost because of the smoking ban.

And ironically, with the alcohol lobby pushing for a promotion of public health licensing objective, selling e-cigs could be a really good way for pubs to do just that.

 

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Cable ties: politicians and the pub industry

3. March 2014 10:49

People have a soft spot for Vince Cable, the business secretary who appears to have been stamped from a different mould to other leading politicians. He has the air of a human who's slipped in among the robots. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean he has any more than the foggiest idea what's going on in the pub industry.

Cable is in a state of embarrassment after allegedly telling MP Andrew Griffiths, chair of the Parliamentary Beer Group, that he thought Punch Taverns had “gone bust”. Griffiths promptly demanded his removal from the decision-making around the proposed statutory code to regulate the pubco-tenant relationship and the tied house system.

I have a vague theory Cable might have been joking, in which case it's not a good subject to joke about. Punch is, indeed, having a struggle to restructure its debt, and if it fails will default by mid-May. That will be an event that the average business secretary will certainly notice. Some 4,000 pubs will be up for grabs, and the livelihoods of thousands of tenants and their families will be at stake, not to mention the survival of many local community pubs. The statutory code will be largely irrelevant – unless it's onerous enough to make potential buyers think twice.

So it's slightly worrying that Cable might have thought this has already happened, though it's no worse than we've come to expect from our elected representatives. The problem comes down in large part to a lack of stability. I've lost count of the number of ministers, with various titles, who've been given responsibility for the pub industry over the years. Most of them seem to last no more than a few months, certainly not long enough to get to grips with the complex structure of the sector and then keep a handle on developments among the pub companies themselves.

When Cable stepped in last year to take charge of the statutory code matter it was good that he'd taken a personal interest. There was a chance that whatever he came up with a decision would be reached on the basis of some understanding of the industry and its challenges. It looked like he might get there quite quickly, too, relieving the uncertainty pubs have laboured under for too long.

Instead we've had dithering. In January Cable promised a decision “soon”, but there's still no sign of it, and you have to wonder what's holding things up. His Punch remark might suggest he's taken his eye off this particular ball. I'm not holding my breath.

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Drinking, sex and geometry

24. February 2014 12:11

Is it bad to do it standing up? It seems like this question has bothered us for getting on for 200 years now, going back to when public concern focused on gin shops as sites of 'perpendicular drinking'.

Today, of course, licensing authorities have it in for what they call 'vertical drinking', which amounts to the same thing – wet-led pubs and bars with little in the way of seating. In cumulative impact zones it's often hard to get a licence if food isn't part of your offer, and that means installing tables and chairs.

These historical parallels were called to mind at the rather splendid conference on Public Drinking in the 19th Century held at Bristol University at the weekend. Paul Jennings, author of The Local (arguably the best history of the pub), opened the proceedings with a talk on the gin palace, a grand evolution of the gin shop with added furniture.

It still wasn't good enough for those who favoured traditional inns and taverns and saw it as too 'standardised', much like branded pubs. It wasn't quite “legitimate English drinking” as Jennings put it, but at least it was possible to do it sitting down.

What was a moral objection to perpendicular drinking has now been given a scientific spin in that you're probably going to drink more if you're standing up with a glass, or bottle, in your hand. It's closely associated with the crime of drinking to get drunk.

But that's only one reason why vertical drinking took off. For one thing pub companies had to pay extraordinarily high rents for prime high street sites and had to really pack them in on a Friday and Saturday night to make a profit. And from the consumer's point of view it was a matter of sex. Groups of young men and women needed to mingle to make the world go round, and sitting at separate tables makes that difficult.

There are other circumstances, too, when doing it standing up is legitimate. At the end of the conference there was a wine (and only wine) reception where everyone was vertically drinking in order to socialise, if not necessarily to have sex (though you never know your luck at these things).

It's an occasion that seems compulsory at conferences of all sorts, including those conducted among a public health community that can be quite hostile to drink. So I can reassure you that if it's wine you're drinking, and if you're a serious person, it's absolutely fine to do it standing up.

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Pub or supermarket?

18. February 2014 10:18

In the last two years, according to research by the Campaign for Real Ale, 208 pubs have been converted into supermarkets, most of them by Tesco. It begs a couple of questions. First, do we need that many supermarkets?

It's a bit out of my field, but this looks to me very much like a scramble for market share that gives little consideration to whether Tesco, or whoever, actually wants an outlet on that site. It's more about preventing the competition getting there first.

The other question is whether, as CAMRA Chief Executive Mike Benner suggests, the targeted pubs are “often profitable and popular”. If he's right, this will be the real tragedy. But it's hard to say. On the one hand you have an aggressive buyer for the property who will try to make the owner an offer they can't refuse. But the level of success of the existing business, and its future potential as a pub, will still be a factor in the decision. Or should be.

The problem is that I think it's sometimes quite difficult to tell whether a pub that might be struggling at one point in its history has the ability to thrive in different circumstances.

You see it all the time. I've just been reading about a village pub in Devon that the locals have occupied to stop it being turned into flats. Trouble is it hasn't operated as a pub since last April. 

Why is that? Didn't those people who now feel strongly enough to take direct action use the pub when it was open? Perhaps it was something else that caused it to close, some misfortune or bad management.

Another pub, one that I know well, has been struggling for the past year. It has good things in its favour but the current management makes basic mistakes that annoy customers who show it support. At least, they annoy me.

The latter is a brewery tenancy and I know that the previous licensee, who ran it well and had a strong following, left because he couldn't make enough profit. Perhaps that was the brewer's fault. Or perhaps he wasn't as good with the books as he was at creating a great atmosphere and giving people what they want.

The difficulty is that each pub has its own complex 'biography', if you like. The only way you really know whether it can work is try some stuff and do it well. Let's hope that happens at your local before Tesco swoops.

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Shutting venues early is no solution to late-night disorder

11. February 2014 12:56

Blackpool licensing committee's decision not to go ahead with an EMRO (Early Morning Restriction Order) for the town is significant. Blanket 3am closing might well have set a precedent for the whole country, effectively making licensing more restrictive than it was before the 2003 Act.

I'm seldom out that late myself these days unless I happen to be in Madrid, which has a peculiar effect on my body clock. And in fact we are looking at quite a niche market here. Only 22 of Blackpool's 1,300 licensed premises would have been affected, half a dozen of them operated by Funny Girls, which led the trade's defence.

Funny Girls, currently celebrating its 20th birthday, is the heart of Blackpool nightlife. Its headquarters in a former Odeon cinema is a unique cabaret venue, not because all the men on stage are dressed up as women, but because the bar is the full length of the orchestra pit.

Blackpool was struggling to make ends meet even before the recession hit, and places like this are essential to its economy, a point that the licensing committee seems to have recognised. Even better, it recommended that a working group is set up bringing together the council, the police and the licensed trade to come up with ways of tackling the disorder problems that caused an EMRO to be considered in the first place.

You have to wonder why they didn't think of this before. Such partnerships have been extremely effective in other towns and cities for years. It's vital to get late-night operators on board and working to a common purpose with the authorities – rather than just shutting them down.

As well as the commercial impact the problem with an EMRO is that you lose an important agent of control. To take another example, Drinkaware's annual conference last week included a presentation by researcher Simon Christmas on the drinking behaviours of young people on a night out. One of the findings was that they are regulating how much they drink before hitting town – the much demonised practice of pre-loading – because they know that venues won't let them in if they appear drunk.

Hopefully, Blackpool's decision means the message is getting through that well-run pubs, bars and clubs have a positive role to play in the management of the night-time economy. 

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About the author

Phil Mellows

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the UK pub industry and alcohol policy. For more information, and the Politics of Drinking blog, go to www.philmellows.com
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