The micro-pub movement is a boost for the basics by Martyn Cornell

23. August 2013 05:36

In an earlier era, it might have been called “back to basics”, a return to the two core themes of the British pub that have defined it since the first Anglo-Saxon alewife hung a green bush from the eaves of her hovel to show that she was open for business: drink and chat.

At least three more “micro-pubs” popped up this week, one on the edge of Wolverhampton claiming to be the first such outlet in the West Midlands, another in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire and a third (which was granted its licence but still has to obtain planning permission) in Devizes, Wiltshire. These openings bring to more than two dozen the number of micro-pubs opened since Martyn Hillier founded the genre in 2005 with The Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent.

For five years, Hillier marched pretty much alone, before a burst of openings beginning in the second half of 2010. Seven new micro-pubs appeared in 2012, and ten so far this year. This may not yet be a tidal wave: but it certainly appears to be more than a ripple.

The essence of a micro-pub is not just that it is small – most have only one room, and a capacity of no more than 25 or so customers before things start to get uncomfortably sweaty – but that it eschews almost everything the modern pub chain owner would regard as essential in today’s British boozer. There will be no TV, juke box or gaming machines, and no food except traditional snacks. It will almost certainly sell only cask beer (most likely from local small brewers), cider and wine: no spirits, no famous-name lagers. The big opportunity for entertainment is the chance to chat with the other customers, who may or may not be complete strangers.

This is, of course, very far from a new idea. The local village alehouse provided just these facilities for centuries. A tremendous boost to the country’s stock of small drinkeries came with the Beerhouse Act of 1830, which resulted in tens of thousands of mostly small beer-only on-licence outlets with limited facilities opening in cities, towns and villages: the micro-pub is in essence the beerhouse for the 21st century. While licensing magistrates began to cull these beerhouses in their hundreds at the start of the 20th century, shutting them down as “surplus”, many survived pretty much unaltered to well past the Second World War, except that almost all eventually acquired licences allowing them to sell spirits, along with the trappings of modernity: not just a proper bar, a carpeted floor, electric lighting and decent toilets (I still remember fondly the outside gents at an isolated beerhouse in the Hertfordshire countryside in the 1970s, where you could gaze up at the stars while going about your business) but gaming machines, televisions, keg beers and lagers, food beyond crisps and pickled eggs.

As the very last of the unreformed beerhouses disappear, however (there are reckoned to be fewer than 20 “unaltered” pubs left in Britain), the micro-pub appears to be resurrecting their best values. The slow rise since the 1950s of the home as the place for entertainment and relaxation, and drinking, rather than the pub, placed increasing pressure on pubs to attract people through their doors. But pubs’ efforts to compete with the home, paradoxically, badly damaged their ability to be what the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “the third place”, that haven which was not-home and not-work where people could go and relax from the pressures of home and work, and talk and laugh and joke and interact with others with whom one had no relationship of responsibility. Instead many pubs became places where it was impossible to relax: too noisy, full of flickering distractions, full of strangers who you couldn’t chat with, even if you wanted to, because you couldn’t hear each other.

There has been, and still is, a suggestion that the coffee bar is replacing the pub as the “third place”, the community hub where friends meet up and meet new friends. But to believe this is to underestimate two important factors: the importance of alcohol as a social lubricant, and relaxant, and the role that the pub plays in Britain’s image of itself. Think of the vital parts that The Rovers Return, The Queen Vic, The Bull in Ambridge have their hugely popular fictional societies. Britons of all kinds and classes wish to live in communities where they had a Rovers Return or a Bull of their own to use as their third place. Our self-image is that of a pub-going nation. No Briton ever said after work: “Coming down the coffee bar?”.

The micro-pub movement, by stripping back to the basics, appears to be trying to fill that need for a third place where people can interact with others in the community that many clearly feel is lost in many pubs today. It is a point that seems as yet unremarked, incidentally, that the micro-pub movement only took off after the ban on smoking in public places: with barely one in five people in Britain smoking today, it appears too few people wanted to spend time in small smoke-filled rooms for the idea of a pre-smoking ban micro-pub to work.

There will have to be at least a hundred times more micro-pubs open before it can even start to be called a genuine movement. They will have to be opening in more varied places than small towns. But if and when that starts happening, pub chain owners are going to have to think about whether the pub offer has become unnecessarily overcomplicated in the past 50 years.

Martyn Cornell is managing editor of Propel Info


How easy is it not to drink?

19. August 2013 04:38

A lively little debate sprung up on Twitter the other day after a non-drinker posted a blog on the It’s the Drink Talking website writing about the pressures exerted on people who choose not to drink alcohol.

Beccy Allen, the non-drinker in question, boldly raised some issues that aren’t often mentioned and made some good points. I especially liked her point about constantly being asked why she doesn’t drink. Why should she have to explain herself? And why do drinking people have this urge to know?

The debate revolved chiefly around whether this pressure on non-drinkers is getting better or worse, whether drinking alcohol is getting more or less ‘normal’.

In my own drinking lifetime, in the context of my own biography, there has been a steep decline in what you might call habitual drinking. But then I’m a journalist, and journalists used to drink stupendously.

When I was last a staff journo, working on a drinks trade title to boot, I found myself alone in the pub at lunchtime. I felt like I was the custodian of a dying tradition. One of those people in a remote corner of the world who are the last to speak their language.

And I don’t think it’s just journalists. Lunchtime drinking in general has declined. Publicans themselves don’t drink so much, and alcohol plays less of a role in events. I’ve been at drinks brand press conferences where they refuse to give you a drink until they’ve finished the presentations.

There are still occasions, though, when it’s difficult not to drink. The Drink Talking blog is aimed at young people, and they are drawn into certain rituals in which alcohol plays an important role in reducing inhibitions and social bonding.

While young people are drinking considerably less overall, these set-piece occasions remain – as they do for the rest of the population. It’s not just celebrations. It’s hard not to drink when you’re with a bunch of mates down the pub on a Friday night.

People will make their excuses to stay indoors rather than spend a session on soft drinks. Although I think that’s mainly because soft drinks are just not made to be drunk like that, above any kind of peer pressure.

Most drinkers are cool with not-drinking these days, I sense. Though we still feel an impolite question welling up inside us. I will never quite be at rest until I know why it is, exactly, that Beccy Allen doesn’t drink.


Turning older people into the new binge drinkers

13. August 2013 06:12

As alcohol consumption among young people veers into steep long-term decline, public health advocates have increasingly turned their attention to other sections of the population whose drinking they can worry about – old people, for instance.

This was highlighted last year when Joan Bakewell hosted a rather unfortunate episode of the BBC’s Panorama documentary in which she rashly, and wrongly, predicted minimum pricing would save 50,000 lives over a decade.

The figure, supplied by the University of Sheffield, should have been a less sexy 11,500 and the programme has now been re-edited to include the correction. Undaunted, researchers have now come up with another way of inflating drink problems among the old; changing the definition of the problem.

Following a suggestion from the Royal College of Psychiatrists that the recommended limit for men and women aged over 65 be halved to 1.5 units and one unit respectively, boffins at University College London have calculated that such a change would multiply the numbers of older people at risk massively to more than three million. This would mean that old people are an even bigger problem than young people. Not really a surprising result if you’re going to double the width of the goalposts.

I don’t deny that getting old makes you more vulnerable to health problems and alcohol harm – that seems obvious. But to mess about with the guidelines like this, guidelines that we know were ‘plucked out of the air’ anyway, for the sole purpose of producing a shocking statistic for headline writers seems to be trivialising the matter.

As people get older they face many challenges. Giving up work can remove a sense of purpose. Losing a life-long partner can make them feel isolated and depressed. Ill-health and disability can leave them unable to do the things they used to do. While generally people tend to drink less as they get older, these changes may mean they start to drink more in order to cope. They may drink in a positive way, meeting up with friends down the pub, for instance, to relieve the loneliness. Or they may drink in a negative way, on their own. They may even feel that they’ve worked all their lives and now they’re going to enjoy themselves a bit more.

These are very rough scenarios, of course, but they suggest that if older people are going to have a problem with alcohol we need to be able to help them adjust by looking at their lives in a more holistic way. Suddenly telling them they’re drinking too much because we’ve changed the guidelines is pretty rubbish.


Drink-driving is falling despite ignorance of alcohol units

29. July 2013 04:11

It’s nice to know that, according to new Mintel research, we haven’t lost our love for pubs, even though a lot of people can’t afford to go out so much. Socialising down the pub was still important to most of those surveyed – even though two-thirds thought it too expensive. But what Mintel chose to focus on was the suggestion that once they’re in the pub people don’t really know how much they’re drinking. Generally, we still perceive a shot of spirits in a mixer as being stronger than a pint of beer and don’t have a firm grasp of alcohol units. That’s not really very surprising – but how worried should we be about it? After all, we’re drinking less, and have been for nearly a decade now. And judging by the Mintel research it seems all the money that’s been spent on our unit education hasn’t been a major factor in that.

What we’ve seen, instead, is a powerful consumer demand for lower-strength drinks. This has resulted in a new wave of 4% ABV premium lagers, much experimentation in developing wines of around 5% ABV and some interesting moves in the cider market.

Last month, for instance, Weston’s launched Rosie’s Pig as a “lower ABV alternative” to its established Old Rosie. At 4.8% it’s not quite a lightweight but it’s still considerably weaker than Old Rosie’s 7.3%, which the cidermakers considered an impediment to expanding the market for the brand.

And the other day Aspall went further by reviving 18th century ciderkin, a weak cider made by pouring water over the crushed apples, or pomace, after the juice has been squeezed out. It was thought a suitable drink for children in the days when water was dangerous.

I’m not sure that Aspall has exactly reproduced this style, but at 3.8% its Cyderkyn certainly opens up a new lower-alcohol premium band in the draught cider market.

Mintel, though, is concerned that misunderstanding alcoholic strength is a particular problem in the on-trade because of drink-driving, a good point as the rule-of-thumb for many drivers is that one drink won’t put them over the limit – which may not be true of a 250ml glass of wine nor a pint of Weston’s Old Rosie.

So I checked the drink-drive stats. It appears that estimated casualties from drink-driving accidents rose slightly in 2011, but it’s still fewer than 10,000 a year. In 1979 the figure was more than three times that, and even in the last decade casualties have halved.

Over the years drivers have become much smarter at managing their drinking, choosing weaker drinks and smaller measures. They may not understand units, but they’re not completely stupid.


The World’s End – but not for pubs (contains spoilers)

23. July 2013 05:04

The World’s End, the third film in the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost ‘Cornetto Trilogy’, is about a pub crawl. It’s about an alien invasion, too, but the important thing is the pub crawl.

Pegg’s character, Gary King, rounds up a gang of old schoolmates in a bid to complete a 12-pub circuit of their home town, something they’d never quite achieved 20 years earlier.

What’s most striking is how little has changed.

To begin with, all the pubs are still there, a scenario slightly less likely than the alien invasion, considering what the industry’s been through the last few years.
True, one has become a nightclub and, without giving too much of the plot away, another is the headquarters for the invasion. But the chances that none of them has been turned into a Tesco Metro or something are diminishingly small. Also, the pubs themselves seem to be stuck in the early 1990s. One joke is that the interiors of the first two on the crawl are identical. This is explained by the fact they’ve been taken over by a chain.

There is certainly a recognisable style of décor, especially a particular kind of chalkboarding, that persists, but the current trend is to move away from that towards something more individual and minimalist.

King goes to the bar and asks what the guest ale is. Another joke is that he’s failed to grow up, but that doesn’t explain the ‘landlord’ offering a single obscure cask beer. This is exactly what used to happen 20 years ago in the wake of the Beer Orders when tenants felt obliged to take advantage of the guest beer concession in the legislation. These days you’re likely to find a much wider choice. And better quality, too.

The World’s End is, in large part, an exercise in nostalgia, but it’s a nostalgia for the bad old days rather than the good old days. Even the androids the aliens have constructed to replace humans are shoddy pieces of work, falling apart at the clumsiest drunken punch.

To survive these difficult times pubs have had to improve. In the main it’s the shoddy ones with the poor choice and the bad service that have closed. Now the task is to convince people that, among the survivors, things have got better.

Hopefully audiences at The World’s End won’t believe modern pubs are really like that anymore than they suspect the person sitting next to them has been body-snatched.


George Osborne: is he really good for beer?

15. July 2013 07:01

In retrospect it was serendipity that, for the first time in my life, I forgot to make myself a cup of tea this morning. By now, I would be mopping the Assam off keyboard and screen, and probably getting used to a sepia-toned abstract expressionist mural. For, catching up on last week’s news, I dry-spluttered not once but twice over events at the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group’s 20th Annual Dinner.

This first was the award of Beer Drinker of the Year to Chancellor George Osborne. George Osborne? Beer drinker? I don’t think so. He’s more your claret and champers type, surely.

Then I remembered - perverse as it might sound - the Beer Drinker of the Year doesn’t have to be a beer drinker. Osborne, rather, had done beer a good turn by freezing duty and lopping a penny off a pint at the last budget.

Not that beer drinkers themselves will have noticed. Or, at least, as a bona fide beer drinker I haven’t noticed, as the price of my pint of ale creeps ever nearer the dreaded £4 mark.

Though I shouldn’t complain about this as I’ve long argued that as a crafted, fresh product pubs should be charging more for cask beer; relative to standard lager.

The words ‘nose’, ‘spite’ and ‘face’ spring to mind.

Even so, I’m not sure Osborne is doing much good for pub-going beer drinkers with the rest of his economic policy. Beer is paid for out of what they call ‘disposable income’ which has just seen its sharpest decline for 25 years. Austerity is not good for beer. Or for much else, come to that.

Then I read about Brandon Lewis MP’s speech at the same event. Lewis is community pubs minister, which is a nice thing to have, but he was talking about how pubs can have a role in attracting people into town centres. Now, if people are going into town for a drink they’re not going to be using their local community pub, are they? They might do both, of course, if it wasn’t for lack of disposable income.

So that was baffling. But what caused the splutter was the idea of using pubs to regenerate town and city centres. Twenty years ago they did that, allowing vast ‘superpubs’ to proliferate on the high street – and then they complained about the resulting disorder. Good management can avoid that, but it requires planning and investment. It requires regulation and money.

Somehow, I don’t think Mr Lewis has thought this through.


The impact of duty-free drink in Hong Kong

8. July 2013 04:48

Five years ago Hong Kong took the dramatic step of abolishing duty on beer and wine. It had already, in 2006, halved duty rates from highs of 80% on wines and 40% on beers. Tax on spirits has remained on 100%.

In fact, in two years Hong Kong went from being the most highly taxed alcohol market in Asia to one of the least taxed in the world; and now the academic journal Alcohol and Alcoholism has published a study into the impact of the first few years of zero duty. Has Hong Kong descended into an alcoholic stupor as a result of all that cheap booze? Not really.

Since 2006 more people have become drinkers, up from 66.6% of the population to 85.2% in 2012. That’s quite a big rise.

Yet it seems they are generally drinking moderately. Overall, self-reported consumption has remained flat. Even more surprisingly, the incidence of ‘binge drinking’ has decreased from 9% of the population in 2006 to 7.3% in 2012. Levels of alcohol dependence have also fallen.

The impact has not been the same across all social classes, however. It seems it’s the more affluent who have chosen to take up drinking, while the unemployed and disadvantaged are suffering the alcohol problems. Nothing new there.

Still, population-wide it appears that a measure to make alcohol cheaper and therefore more accessible has led people to drink, but to drink more sensibly, flying in the face of the orthodoxy that by increasing prices we can reduce alcohol harm.

Two points: the first is the suspicion that not all the duty cut has been passed on to the consumer. A report in Hong Kong’s Time Out magazine suggested that, in the first months at least, people were feeling a bit miffed that the promised discounts had not materialised in the prices they were paying in bars and shops.

Indeed, cheap booze for the masses was not the prime purpose of the government’s drastic measure. It wanted, rather, to encourage wholesale trading to make the country a global hub of the wine trade. The whole thing happened because drinks industry lobbying for duty reductions suddenly began to cut with the grain of a new state economic policy. How - and whether - the drinks trade used the extra margin, on which products and in which markets, was out of the control of government. We can expect pricing constraints, such as minimum unit pricing, to encounter similar uncertainties.

Secondly, might it just be that human beings are not mere price-driven automatons? Or even that a more relaxed duty regime generates a more relaxed attitude to alcohol?
Whatever’s going on, the experience of Hong Kong suggests that you can’t simply read off from a pricing policy the consequent impacts on consumption and harm.


The tenanted model has made real progress

5. July 2013 04:18

I have to declare an interest in the current row over statutory intervention in the pub company model. I am a believer in the low-cost entry opportunity offered by the model. Back in the mid-1990s, when I was editing a weekly newspaper in deepest Lincolnshire, three of us took over a broken Inntrepreneur pub on a high street. This really was a low cost of entry – the previous licensee had scarpered and we were in for free. We pooled our spare cash and invested £10,500 in a refurbishment. The pub’s takings increased ten-fold and at the end of the first year it was producing profit of eight times my annual salary editing the weekly rag. Welcome to the pub trade! It was a sign of the period’s giddying pub property pass-the-parcel character that this pub swiftly moved through the hands of Phoneix and Unique before coming to rest with Enterprise.

We went on to operate pubs for four other tenanted pub companies, ranging from regional family brewers through to Punch Taverns, where the current chief executive of Everards, Stephen Gould, was our direct contact at the time.

Nothing untoward ever happened over the course of many years although there were times when we were irritated by the red tape and, at times, a lack of imagination. When leases came to an end, the larger companies tended to act with a slightly terrifying commercial ruthlessness when it came to charging you for dilapidations, frustrating when you’d handed a pub back in much better condition that you’d found it.

But, on the whole, it was a very positive experience, enabling me, in fact, to be mortgage free in my 30s. I gave up running local newspapers for a time to work in our expanding pub business full-time before moving back to media work after deciding I wasn’t entirely suited to the operational side of the pub business.

It was in 2004 when the first Select Committee met to examine whether tenanted pub companies where treating their tenants fairly. I think the scrutiny arose for the same reasons that the high street has been the subject of intense pressure in respect of responsible retailing. There was a time in the late 1990s when high street pubs were not run with the professionalism that prevails now. High streets in mid-sized East Midlands towns where we operated were a messy affair come late evening on a Friday or Saturday. The problem was one of high volumes of customers mixed with less-than-perfect control of premises – these were the days before doormen even needed a professional qualification.

For the very large tenanted pub companies, size itself has been a problem. They grew quickly and many bought pubs they shouldn’t have. Professional support for tenants was limited and far too many poor quality licensees were allowed to take pubs. Many half-decent pubs were sent marginal by the smoking ban, causing distress. One pub company chief used to talk about his business model being driven by the law of large numbers. But there came a stage where the law of large numbers began to work inexorably against the larger companies. Put simply, too many people lost money running tenanted pubs for MPs not to notice on a constituency-by-constituency basis. The name of certain companies cropped up over and over. Some of their bosses made terrible public relations blunders – and made enemies when they could have made friends. And business failure in a tenanted pub company context is a mutual failure – and when there’s a lot of it, questions, searching questions, deserve to be asked.

Tough economic conditions – and political scrutiny – have forced the major pub companies to reinvent themselves in recent years. Punch, for example, is unrecognisable from its former self. Vastly improved professional support and retail focus is the order of the day. I have spoken to around 140 Punch licensees personally in the past 18 months and only one had a complaint about Punch – and it related to a legacy issue. External avenues of redress are available for those who find themselves in conflict with their pub company. Large companies will continue to make mistakes and should, certainly, be subject to scrutiny. I have always believed that RPI clauses are upward only rent reviews by another name. And I think that the large companies should have made more progress in developing their best retailers. By now, the large estates should look more like the Domino’s network with the best retailers running more sites. In fact, too much talent has been squandered in the past. Right now, though, it looks like the lessons on nurturing talented retailers have been learnt.

But these are not issues that require government intervention, not least at a time when so much is changing for the better. It’s ironic that statutory regulation could well be on the way when professional standards have reached new heights in the running of the major companies.


Wetherspoon growth pinch-points

1. July 2013 05:03

Growing a big business necessarily involves overcoming many bumps in the road and pinch-points along the way. Last week at our Propel Multi Club conference, I chatted to JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin about the many and varied choke points that faced his company as it grew from a modest 500 square foot site in Muswell Hill to its current near-900 site ascendancy on the high street. Typically, Martin asked me not to brief him beforehand on the pinch-points I would raise with him live, preferring an element of surprise to keep our chat lively. Here’s ten of the major pinch-points I raised with him, proving, if nothing else, that challenges keep on coming:

1.  His own early days experience: Martin acquired the leasehold interest of his first site from industry veteran Andrew Marler and then found that running a pub threw up all sorts of challenges that could not be imagined from his earlier perspective as a customer. Not least of these was acquiring a rounded skillset. As Martin says, the popular view is that running a pub is like running a football team, everybody thinks they can do it.

2.  Cashflow: Cashflow is the bain of every emerging operator’s life. It involves a constant juggling act, especially if an operator is looking to expand. Anyone with aspirations to grow a sizeable company in this sector should examine Wetherspoon’s first decade figures for comfort on how careful expansion requires patience. In 1984, a full five years after Martin founded the company and the year he incorporated, turnover stood at £818,000 with a loss of £7,000 for the year. These figures need adjusting for inflation but show the slow and careful start that Wetherspoon made.

3.  The property barrier of the late 1980s: Martin made a conscious decision that a major route to expansion would involve applications to get unlicensed premises licensed. The downside to the decision was a relative brake on expansion because it involved a convoluted, expensive and time-consuming process. The upside was that Wetherspoon, once the process was complete, could open pubs in parts of London that had not seen a new pub in many decades. The other long-term win involved JD Wetherspoon side-stepping a long-term negative that Martin saw. The trap is encapsulated in Martin’s resonant property world-view: “Over time, you are overwhelmed by the superior forces of your landlord (with brewery leases).”

4.  The bank’s withdrawal of support in 1991: JD Wetherspoon was enjoying its most successful year ever. But the economic crisis meant his bank decided to call its loan in. The money was replaced by an alternative lender who demanded a 10% coupon and a sizeable slice of the company’s equity. Martin told our conference audience that his bank contact told him matter-of-factly: “You just can’t rely on us.”

5.  Licence objections in the 1990s: It’s perhaps a little hard to believe now in an era when companies have stopped objecting to each other’s licence applications. But back in the 1990s and beyond objections were very common. A shareholder of any sector company objecting to a competitor’s opening needs, of course, to be concerned because it speaks volumes as to how a particular brand stands to be damaged. And, sure enough, lots of the objectors of this period are no longer around in their current form. Nevertheless, it produced expense and delays for Wetherspoon.

6.  The euro: Martin sensed an existential threat arising from the suggestion that the UK adopts the euro. He went into full-on campaigning mode as momentum to join the euro gathered pace. There was, at the time, a board consensus forming on UK entry if certain conditions could be met. A decade or more on, history has provided some sense of the damage that joining the euro might have wrought on the UK economy. Just take a look at the Spanish economy where the foodservice industry has faced almost 60 consecutive months of contraction. The euro is an example of a political issue that threatened to undermine the very basis on which the sector thrives – or otherwise. The parallel threat Martin sees now is the long-term danger posed by the food tax advantage enjoyed by the supermarkets on VAT. It’s why he has been so active in supporting the Vat Club Jacques Borel – and is supporting Tax Parity Day on Wednesday 25 September.

7.  No block acquisitions: A faster route to growth for Wetherspoon would have been to buy a block of pubs. However, the industry’s record on buying blocks of pubs is patchy at best. For Martin, a controlled, although slower, organic expansion has been preferable. The only exception has been the acquisition of eight Lloyds No 1 sites from Marston’s. Lloyds No 1 has grown to well over 100 sites but at times I have sensed ambivalence over the sub-brand.

8.  The Van de Berg property fraud: JD Wetherspoon was the subject of a very large property fraud by its retained agent Van de Berg, which diverted freeholds to third parties who enjoyed freehold values gains based on rents paid by the company. Martin believes the cost to the company has been as much a £100m, not least because these deals distorted the rent tenor of the high street. Martin has been indefatigable in pursuing the legal cases arising – and generally throwing a light on the conflict of interest that follows a property agent who is also active in property deals as a principal. The outcome of property deals that weren’t in the best interests of the company has been a drain on its strength. Says Martin: “We were only saved because I insisted on approving deals personally. It made their life a lot more difficult.”

9.  The property boom of 2004-2007: For Wetherspoon, the climate has been right to expand quickly – or not. The trick is spotting which is which and exercising self-control when the moment to expand is wrong. Between 2004 and 2007, money was cheap and deals galore were being done. Counter-intuitively, Martin and his team retired to the changing rooms during the property boom between 2004 and 2007. Openings chunked down from 28 in 2004 to 13 in 2005 and nine in 2006. The arrival of the credit crunch and lower property prices has allowed the opening tap to be turned on again, rising in each year between 2007 and 2011. But for shareholders in the property heyday, slow growth in the name of long-term company health meant indifferent share price performance.

10.  The tax and regulatory regime between 2003 and 2013: This challenge has not been overcome. Increasing tax and regulatory costs have taken its toll on the sector in the last decade and Wetherspoon has not been immune. It has meant site Ebitda has eroded from £201,900 in 2003 to £194,900 last year despite a £7,000 per week per site increase in sales. One answer lies in creating a level playing field with the supermarkets in VAT on food. For those not yet supporting Tax Parity Day, the question is: Why not?


Ether and meths: alcohols on the edge

24. June 2013 06:08

I’ve been to many tastings of many different kinds of drinks, but last week’s in a lecture room at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was a first. The spirit in the glasses before us was ether - the stuff you might usually think of as an anaesthetic.

A close relative of regular alcohol, ether is highly volatile and burned off in the distillation process; pour some into a glass and you can watch it evaporate. But there are ways to stabilise it and use it as a base for mixed drinks – as people have done in the past. These processes have been rediscovered by Bompas & Parr, a group of experimental organoleptic artists, who were invited to lead the tasting. The excited and rather nervous audience were delegates to Under Control, an international conference on drug and alcohol regulation organised by Alcohol Research UK and the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs journal, among others.

Sam Bompas introduced the event by describing ether as “just about legal”. To get hold of it you have to register as a chemical researcher, which apparently is quite straightforward.
In the 19th century, he explained, ether was considered a ‘less-bad’ alternative to alcohol, “because you get intoxicated and then sober again very quickly… And it won’t kill you – unless you have a cigarette at the same time. It’s highly flammable.”

Suitably warned, the first ether-based drink was served up – a variety of champagne cocktail that proved a pleasant, fresh-tasting introduction to the spirit, complete with floating strawberry.

The next was more challenging. The Eagle’s Tail was a drink devised by occultist Aleister Crowley. The ether was made into a syrup, to stabilise it, then mixed with brandy, maraschino liqueur and absinthe. Despite that, no academics were harmed in the experiment. Ether turned out to be not so scary after all. But what could follow it at the next conference tasting?

How about meths? Methylated spirit drinking was the subject of a fascinating talk at Under Control by Stella Moss of Royal Holloway College. Meths are ethyl alcohol mixed with methanol to make it supposedly undrinkable. But that didn’t stop some; meths was most often made more palatable by blending it with cheap red wine to make Red Biddy.

Meths drinkers in the 20th century were typically homeless down-and-outs who were stigmatised and considered hopeless cases. Even the Salvation Army kicked them out.

Yet ether and meths are not so different. Both are highly volatile and extraordinarily strong alcohols, but ether seems far more acceptable, and even has a touch of glamour about it.

Perhaps it comes down not to the chemical composition, but who’s drinking it.



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
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