Down with the dimple. Make mine a straight

15. October 2012 10:07

Glassware is a big obsession of mine. And I think I’m quite right to be obsessive about something I put in my mouth, especially at the frequency I put this particular thing in my mouth.
There’s the matter of hygiene, of course. But I tend to leave that to the natural sanitising qualities of alcohol. What I’m concerned with here is more an aesthetic question.

I happen to be of a certain age. A certain age quite narrowly defined. When I started drinking beer in pubs, in the 1970s, it was served, more often than not, in a dimpled jug. Gradually they began to be replaced by ‘straight’ glasses – the nonic, the stacker nonic (the one with the bulge near the top), the tulip.

On ordering a pint barstaff asked whether you’d like a straight glass or a jug. My answer was always, without hesitation, “straight please”.

I suppose there were two reasons. The first was practical. The straight glass was lighter and easier to hold and drink from. One mate swore by the stacker nonic as he thought the bulge stopped his pint slipping through his fingers. The argument that the handle kept the beer cool longer I never accepted. Holding the jug by the handle made it an even clumsier receptacle.

The second was to do with image. As a late teenager discovering the joys of cask ale the new straight glasses seemed to speak of the future. The dimpled jug belonged to the old boys. It might have been the same liquid we were drinking, but we were drinking it different. The dimpled jug was irretrievably naff.

The world came to agree. Indeed, not that long ago reports hit the media that the last company making dimpled jugs was about to stop doing it. I cheered. Yet, to my astonishment, there was an upswelling of nostalgia and talk of lost tradition.It came from people much younger than me. People who couldn’t possibly remember the 1970s and the relief we felt at being able to clasp in our hands a sensible, modern straight glass.

Now those people are winning. First, pretentious gastropubs thought they could enhance their unlikely ‘pubbiness’ by serving ale in a dimpled jug. They were easily avioded. But the new tenant at my local wants to know whether I’d like a straight glass or a jug. I’m glad he asks me. But the terrible implication is that the dimpled jug is once again becoming the default.

It feels as though forty years of progress are being carelessly tossed aside. Campaign, anyone?

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Should we ban super-strength lagers?

8. October 2012 13:40

A headline in The Independent at the weekend* declared that super-strength lager is “causing more harm than crack or heroin”. It’s an old story, or at least an old headline, but it was prompted by a piece of genuine news. Ipswich Council has persuaded a number of shops to stop selling beers and ciders that are over 6.5% ABV.

Not every retailer has agreed to the ban, and some research I’ve seen suggests that in any area there are certain shops that ‘specialise’ (which is probably the wrong word) in this sort of trade and others that feel they’re better off without it.

The former tend to be corner shops that have close relationships with their customers that, similar to pubs, might actually ameliorate the damage. They care about their regulars.

But, the Indy asks, should we be selling such strong beers so cheaply at all?

I think it’s a valid question. Brewers defend making super-strength lager on the grounds that they give people the information on which they make a free choice. Unfortunately the concept of free choice breaks down when it comes to addiction.

The recovering alcoholic interviewed in the Indy special report says he couldn’t walk, couldn’t function, without his 15 cans of Tennent’s Super a day. And he was quite prepared to drink himself to death.

In the end it was a traumatic event in which he almost died a little sooner than he expected that began to turn him around.

I can’t see that minimum pricing would have achieved this, only forced him to find the money in some way. It’s interesting to see that since the new duty band was introduced for beers above 7.5% sales have fallen by 9% by volume but only 7.6% by value, suggesting that it’s innocent, expensive beers such as Belgian Trappist ales that have been worst hit.

And an outright ban would either mean him looking for some alternative – methylated spirits was the answer when alcohol in the days when alcohol was more expensive and less available – or facing withdrawal, which in his state would have been just a dangerous as the drink.

In short, it’s not the alcohol alone that causes addiction. It’s a deeper, more complex problem we don’t fully understand.

Till we do we’re going to have to rely on the unsung servers in those corner shops to carry on doing the best they can.

*You can read it here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/special-report-superstrength-lager-causing-more-harm-than-crack-or-heroin-8200242.html

 

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Good news for cask beer - and for pubs

1. October 2012 14:27

So cask beer is finally back in growth. Figures revealed in the 2012-13 Cask Report show sales were up 1.6% last year, the first positive figure for 20 years. There could be no better news at the start of Cask Beer Week.
 
It justifies the faith that many brewers and retailers have put into a product that only a few years ago was written off.

Turning it around has been hard work. The 1989 Beer Orders triggered a separation of brewing and pubs at national level that meant it was harder for the majority of licensees to get the support they had previously relied on from technical experts at the brewery. A short-lived boom based on the Orders’ guest ale clause only made matters worse as pubs put on an extra pump they didn’t really have the sales to sustain.

Quality plummeted. Drinkers accelerated their move to more reliable keg beers, helped along by the invention of ‘smooth’ nitrokeg ales. The future looked bland.

Another result of the Beer Orders was that Britain’s national brewers became part of global lager companies that arguably did not have the understanding of the cask ale market, nor the will, to avert what looked like an inevitable demise.

There was a positive side to that, though. Regional brewers saw their chance to move in on the market. They became enthusiastic champions of cask.

In 1998 the accreditation scheme Cask Marque was formed to address the quality issues and slowly but surely we saw improvement. A bad pint is now a rarity.

Another boost came in 2002 with the introduction of Progressive Beer Duty which sparked an explosion of small breweries. Not all of them made a contribution to the quality drive, but they did experiment with beer styles, feeding a growing interest in cask among drinkers.

On the back of all that the Campaign for Real Ale has flourished and that, too, has fed into the recovery.

This story says as much about pubs as it does about beer. There can be no cask beer without pubs, and now cask beer is returning the favour, giving a struggling trade a unique point of difference - one that’s gaining appreciation and cachet all the time.

There’s work still to be done, of course, in introducing more people to the delights of cask and getting them back into the pub. But this week I think we can allow ourselves to feel a little more optimistic about the prospects.

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Painting the town Purple

27. September 2012 09:40

Hurrah! It’s Purple Flag Week. Put the - err – purple flags out.

Hm. I suspect most people wouldn’t know what a Purple Flag was if it flapped them in the face during a strong gale. Hopefully this week will raise awareness but I’ve seen few signs. I’ve only just realised it’s Purple Flag Week myself - and I’m one of the ones who knows what Purple Flag is.

In case you don’t know, it’s an accreditation scheme that covers management of the night-time economy. A town or city can apply for Purple Flag status to demonstrate that it’s good at doing that. More than 30 places have got it so far.

Purple Flag overlaps with Best Bar None, the drinks industry’s own scheme, in that it covers licensed premises, but recognises that making town centres safe extends beyond the bouncer on the door to the whole urban environment.

Over the last decade we’ve got a lot better at managing the night-time economy. Where the pub and bar trade has worked in partnership with the local authority and the police we can clearly see reductions in violence and disorder.

There’s no denying that drinking circuits faced problems as over-sized pubs and bars in high concentrations transformed many town and city centres during the 1990s. Things got out of hand as pub and bar operators scrambled for a share of the night-time economy, encouraged by local authorities who wanted to bring back some life to run-down urban centres.

Quite often the training, the systems and the experienced personnel just weren’t in place to handle all those thousands of people congregating in the space of a few hundred yards. But now these partnerships, and you might add the flexibilities made possible by the 2003 Licensing Act, have proven to be practical and effective.

Not that you’d know it by listening to the continued ranting from politicians and the media about binge drinking. Everyone is keen to come up with solutions to this diminishing problem. But all we really need is more of what’s working. And we can, perhaps, take it a stage further.

The lesson is that we have to plan, and to think about what mix of venues we want and where we want them to be. That can shape the whole mood of a night-time economy, making it safer and more commercially successful because people of all ages want to be there.

Local authorities must take the lead. It’s a long term job, and these aren’t perhaps the best economic circumstances to get on with it. But it’s the kind of future for our town and city centres that we have to build.

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Is there a future for the wet-led pub?

17. September 2012 10:16

Last Thursday night, amid showers of glitter and the soaring anthem of Throw Those Curtains Wide, or whatever that song’s called, the Lass O’Gowrie in Manchester was crowned Pub of the Year in the Great British Pub Awards.

Not to take anything away from it, the Lass was one of a number of finalists present that night which could justifiably have held the 2012 title. That’s a sign that, even in these difficult times, there are many pubs that thrive and excel in giving their customers the right experience – an experience that’s worth finding enough cash from an ever-shrinking disposable income to keep going back for more.

The final judging panel on which I sat was, however, conscious that in choosing the Lass O’Gowrie we were sending out a particular message. In the past three years the awards had been held, food-led country pubs had taken the top prize. The Lass is a city centre wet-led venue.

Not surprisingly, the food-led pub has in recent years been seen as the future, or possibly the saviour, of the industry. Pub companies have focused investment on developing food sales in previously wet pubs and in extending pub-restaurant concepts in their estates. Mitchells & Butlers, the largest managed pubco, has given up on wet-led pubs altogether.

But that’s not the whole story. It’s not just that there are still a lot of wet-led pubs out there. It’s the creative ways in which they have sustained a customer base.

The Lass O’Gowrie, for instance, might be more rightly termed an entertainment-led pub. It won the live music and entertainment category – and it was also a community pub finalist.
Community pubs are earning a higher status in the industry. Companies such as Amber Taverns and Admiral Taverns, among others, are specialising in community pubs with great success.

There are far fewer wet-led community pubs than there were, but many of those that remain are receiving greater support and investment.

Fewer still, it’s true, can survive on no food sales at all. But the success of these businesses lie in drinking and conviviality, the need for people to get together, to mingle and chat.
Also worth considering are pubs that specialise in certain drinks, and I’m thinking mainly here of cask ale and craft beer houses. New ones are springing up all the time.

So we would be foolish to put all our eggs in the food basket, you might say. There are very exciting prospects for wet-led pubs, and the Lass O’Gowrie is a great example.

 

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Bakewell’s Panorama – the same old story?

10. September 2012 11:36

I’m going to miss Joan Bakewell’s much-trailed Panorama tonight on older people and drinking because I’m going to be on my way to an alcohol policy conference. How ironic.

Thank goodness for i-Player, although at the moment I’m wondering whether I really need to watch another documentary about another binge drinking ‘epidemic’, as some have already started to all it.

On the other hand, I’ve got a lot of time for Bakewell. She’s sharply intelligent and certainly not one who’s prone to sensationalise.

In an interview she did for the BBC as part of the build-up to the programme she rightly questions the drinking guidelines we’re supposed to follow. They’re confusing, no-one understands them and, she adds, they are “severe” and perhaps ought to be revised.

And the guidelines are indeed currently being reviewed. Though whether that will end in them becoming less severe is doubtful. That will, after all, send out all the wrong messages, as they say.

Bakewell also says that minimum pricing will make it “possible” to save 50,000 lives over a decade, which – even with the “possible” qualification - sounds uncharacteristically rash of her.

It will be interesting to see whether her investigation asks how minimum pricing might specifically impact on older people’s drinking. According to the government’s alcohol strategy one advantage of the measure is that it will chiefly target younger people.

But of course, the rationale behind minimum pricing has become increasingly confused.
One thing I suppose I should welcome is the shift in focus from young ‘binge drinking’ on the streets towards heavy drinking among older people that is largely hidden from the gaze of the tabloid press and TV documentary makers.

It’s these chronic drink problems that are what kill people. But we need a much keener understanding of exactly who is drinking dangerously, where that “tipping point” Bakewell speaks of is to be found.

Lumping all old people together as victims of an ‘epidemic’ on the basis that many happen to be exceeding severe and spurious drinking guidelines gets us nowhere.

I hope that Old, Drunk and Disorderly? as the programme’s called – not too encouragingly – won’t just be another vehicle to promote minimum pricing, that the temptation of this cheap alcohol policy shortcut won’t prove too great.

But I suppose I’ll just have to watch it to find out.

Old, Drunk and Disorderly?  Is on BBC1 tonight at 19:30

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Free booze

3. September 2012 14:16

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a furniture shop in Farnham, Surrey, giving away free booze.
 
The beermats, though, are rather expensive at £2.75 a pop. I’m all for appreciating the value of the humble beermat and I hate it when pubs think they can get away without them. They truly improve the drinking experience and reduce the laundry bills. But £2.75?

Of course, Innsatiable (funny name for a furniture shop, that – there’s surely only so much furniture you need to buy) is fooling nobody. If it did, it would go out of business. There is a compact, a certain transaction, between the shop and the customer – we give you a free drink, you buy a beermat – without which the whole model collapses.

Just imagine what would happen if a few dozen people – it wouldn’t take more – were to descend on Innsatiable, drink their freebies and politely refrain from buying a beermat. Game over.

The man behind Innsatiable, Simon Atkins, reckons he doesn’t need a licence because he isn’t charging for booze. Which may be technically correct, but in a court of law I would guess that argument will quickly fall apart because the business still relies on a commercial transaction, however disguised. There is no loophole here.

According to an undercover investigation by Publican’s Morning Advertiser reporters, the shop seems to operate just like a pub, with customers sitting around drinking, and that must surely undermine his case, too.

Atkins is planning a whole chain of Innsatiables, and seems to see himself as on a mission, not just to sell furniture and beermats but to expose the injustices of the pub trade and the high prices pubs are forced to charge. Perversely, he thinks he’s doing publicans a favour.

In reality he’s unfair competition, serving drinks without the expense and effort of conforming to the 2003 Licensing Act. I presume he hasn’t taken the exam that shows he understands the law and would qualify him for a personal licence. His premises certainly don’t have to meet the four licensing objectives, keeping public order, protecting children from harm and so on.

For hundreds of years retailers of alcohol have accepted that to do so they must be regulated. That isn’t going to change with Innsatiable. Sooner or later either the model will break or the law will get around to putting a stop to it.

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Save the Birkbeck Tavern!

28. August 2012 10:18

When a pub closes down, a little piece of me dies. Having said that, there are some rotten pubs with no customers you can't see a future for, and the massive shake-out in the industry over the last few years has mostly hit those sorts of businesses. At least I hope so.

Because now and then a really good pub comes under threat. This was brought home to me when I saw that the Birkbeck Tavern in Leyton, East London, could fall into the hands of property developers.

A javelin's throw from the Olympic Park (so watch your backs) the Birkbeck is hidden away in the backstreets behind Leyton Station, an unspoilt East End boozer with a quite lovely garden.

It's Leyton's best pub. Better, in my view, than the William IV, home of Brodie's Brewery, which in any case is a couple of miles away. I haven't been to Antic's pop-up pub in Leyton Town Hall, but what pops up must pop down, so it doesn't count.

When I was a regular at the Birkbeck, 20 or 30 years ago, there was a fight every night. And that was just the publican and his missus. But in recent years the Birkbeck has earned a name for cask ale, got itself into the Good Beer Guide and started having live music.

On the occasions I've been back, it's been busy. Partly thanks to the lack of other decent pubs, it's become the place where Leyton Orient fans go to after the match celebrate or drown their sorrows… well, drown their sorrows mostly.

Yet the Birkbeck is up for sale, and apparently property developers are leading the bidding. They want to turn it into flats.

What went wrong? The pub hasn't failed. It was part of a group called Sarumdale which went bust in June after an interest rate swap loan deal with Barclays turned out not to be such a good idea. The former directors are trying to get compensation from the bank.

Meanwhile, in the current property market, it looks as though the Birkbeck is worth more as flats than as a pub. But that's only in pure commercial terms, of course.

The social value of a pub like the Birkbeck is immeasurable.

A campaign is under way to save it. And if it can harness the combined voices of local people, Camra and fans of the mighty Os, it might just have a chance.

If you care about good pubs, please sign the petition:

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/waltham-forest-council-save-the-birkbeck-tavern

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Turning the pub trade around

20. August 2012 10:31

Over recent weeks my working life has been dominated by judging the Great British Pub Awards. It’s been a long, detailed process, and I hope we make the right decisions. It’s a cliché to say that picking winners is difficult, but it’s a true cliché – though more true of some categories than others.

Right from the start this year I was struck by the number of entries for Best Turnaround Pub. If I remember rightly there were 64. Going through them all took ages and we put rather more than we intended through to the next round, the quality was so high.

More than anything else, it’s given me hope for the future of the pub.

There was no single, simple formula for a successful turnaround. Most involved reinventing a closed pub or reviving a business on its last legs. In every case hard work and creative thinking was essential.

But the new, successful pubs that took the place of the old, failing ones were all very different.

You get the impression from certain industry-watchers that food is the only answer. Yet while topline figures do suggest that food-led pubs are performing best, and every operation certainly needs to consider food as part of the mix, it’s no panacea.

In fact, few pubs can survive as pure destination food businesses. The challenge is to find ways of getting people through the doors through the week. Otherwise the numbers just don’t add up.

So drink continues to be important, especially cask beer which is so closely tied up with what people expect from a pub.

But above all, the key to success seems to be generating a sense of community. And that takes as many forms as there are different communities.

As I’ve said before, the pub industry isn’t dying. It’s going through a painful transition.

High taxation and, when it comes to turning a business around, the difficulty of finding funding, are making it more painful than it ought to be. But what’s amazing is that so many positive examples of what’s possible are coming through.

And that’s down to the endeavour and persistence and passion of many individual publicans around the country. While there can only be one winner, they all deserve our recognition and thanks.

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One last Olympian push to halt the duty escalator

13. August 2012 13:16

So, it's all over. The crowds have gone, the competitors departed. The tears have dried, the medals have been won and lost. London can get back to normal.

Yes, the annual Great British Beer Festival can notch up another successful few days. But it was a close-run thing. A rival event threatened the beer drinkers' jamboree this year. Just up the road, and down the road too, something called the Olympics was going on. No idea what that was about but it created uncertainty about just what the impact would be on the GBBF.

For a start, the usual venue, Earls Court, was being used for volleyball, so organisers Camra had to take the event back to its old home at Olympia. For obscure logistical reasons the train shuttle connection between the two was suspended for the duration, so a lot of people, like me, had to walk.

It was a gruelling test of stamina. They should have put in refreshment points along the route, like they do for the marathon. But with beer instead of water, obviously.

I heard that some brewers had decided not to take stands at the festival this year, worried about how all this would hit visitor numbers. According to Camra there wasn't enough room for them all anyway, so that worked out nicely.

Final figures showed that 47,500 people attended, well down on Earl's Court's highest of 65,000, but the most that have ever packed into Olympia, a sign of how much the festival, and interest in beer, has grown over the years.

It certainly felt good and buzzy for the Tuesday afternoon trade session. Everyone seemed pleased to be back at Olympia, too. It's a nicer, airier venue.

Apparently, Earl's Court is going to be demolished, which means the GBBF is going to have to stay at Olympia or find somewhere else. It could mean Camra will have to settle for smaller attendances, which would be a shame if only because it's become a powerful means of harnessing a beer drinkers' lobby.

A push on the petition to halt the beer duty escalator saw the number of signatures climb by 10,000 to 82,000 during the event. As further incentive, Camra released research to suggest that young people are being priced out of the pub, with the 38% of 18 to 24s who visited pubs weekly in 2005 being slashed to 16%.

It's a disturbing trend, and calls for one last Olympian effort to get signatures up to the Parliamentary debate-triggering 100,000. Go to www.saveyourpint.co.uk.

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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
You can also follow Phil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/philmellows

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