Too quaint to be true: pubs as doctors see them

13. May 2013 12:22

I was scrolling through a stats-heavy Powerpoint presentation by top liver doc Nick Sheron the other day, and a picture jumped out at me. At first glance it was a pub, a peculiarly quaint country pub with a thatched roof, wreathed in colourful foliage.

In fact, it was too quaint to be true. It turned out to be a 2005 Chelsea Flower Show exhibit, now a feature in the garden of Shepherd Neame’s Flying Horse Inn. I’m not absolutely certain of the context in which Sheron showed this picture, but judging by the following shot of a supermarket he was contrasting two ways of retailing alcohol in order to press home the case for minimum pricing.

The pub is, of course, the new ally of the public health lobby in the campaign for minimum pricing, sections of the on-trade hoping that it will bring fairer competition. And as Chairman Mao used to say, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

But why not show a picture of a real pub? Perhaps the trade’s new friends, and you could include certain politicians in this, too, have an idealised pub in mind, the kind of mythical rural pub the Chelsea Flower Show mock-up was referencing. I’ve just read a degree dissertation, kindly sent to me by its author, University of Nottingham geography student Charlie Jenkins, that explores this very subject.

The idea is that the village pub is an expression of ‘rural idyll’, a space for the performance of a mythology around country life. Jenkins looks in particular at how middle class folk from cities have colonised former farming communities, including the local pub. Under commercial pressure pubs have played up to what this audience expects, at the same time providing the additional comforts, good food and nice toilets, an actual village inn and its traditional customers would not have troubled about. What remains of the original clientele have become almost part of the furniture, providing character, local knowledge and the public bar buzz that distinguishes a gastro pub from a mere restaurant.

Pubs have probably always been living theatres of this kind, never entirely natural, but what bothers me is the exclusion of other types of pub from this idealistic elevation of the rural.
What about community pubs in the backstreets of towns and cities? Just because they don’t act out the tropes of the rural idyll doesn’t mean they have less social value; even if they do look better on a slide.

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Hangovers: stroke threat or friendly warning?

7. May 2013 11:31

My attention has been drawn to an academic paper, from Finland of course, that concludes that a single hangover a year increases the risk of stroke. I was going to analyse the findings, check the stats for confounding factors etc., but life is too short. Especially mine, if this research is correct.

Still, I’m left wondering; what do the Finnish academics mean by the term ‘hangover’? There are hangovers and there are hangovers… and there are more hangovers besides. There is an entire taxonomy of hangovers, and they have exercised the descriptive powers of our greatest thinkers.

Most famously, Dorothy Parker identified the symptoms of “the rams” as “loss of correct knee action, heartbreak, an inability to remain either seated or standing, and a constant sound in the ears as of far-off temple bells”.

I once appeared for a tutorial with Lorna Sage, the greatest literary critic of her generation as they called her after her death (not from a stroke), to find her crouched at the end of one of those long thin rooms they have at universities, quivering behind an almost impenetrable fug of cigarette smoke.

“Have you ever had one of those hangovers where everything seems very far away?” She whimpered. Indeed, I had. I think I would say I have had them all if I didn’t expect that some novel variety is always going to surprise you just when you think you’ve collected the full set.

Hangovers, I’ve always felt, have been the things that stood between me and alcoholism, like cerberus at the gates of the underworld; they are nature’s many-headed warning to give it a rest. So now people are telling me that my friendly hangovers have nailed me down for a sure-fire stroke? Along with most of the adult population, I’d imagine. I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a hangover. Where did those Finnish researchers find their control sample, I wonder? And you have to come back to definitions. I’m presuming the hangover was self-reported, so it could mean anything from feeling slightly jaded or dry in the mouth to a full-scale attack of the rams.

In short, research of this kind, or at least its sensational conclusions, is useless. And worse, it distracts from the proper understanding we so sorely lack of why people get into difficulties with drink.

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So how do you score SCORFA?

30. April 2013 09:38

To describe the consultation document on the proposed statutory code for pubcos and tenants as a can of worms would - I’m increasingly feeling - be unfair to the worms. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has just admitted that it misrepresented the level of complaints made against companies to the British Institute of Innkeeping’s helpline when it was justifying the threshold at which the code will apply. Those “complaints” turn out to have been merely calls.

I’m speechless.

Anyway, last week, in cowardice, I skirted round the issues somewhat. But I suppose I’m going to have to dig into them worms, starting with the longest and slipperiest.  The code will enshrine the principle that a tied tenant should be no worse off than a free-of-tie tenant, and the consultation invites ideas on how that calculation might be made. I only hope they don’t ask me because I haven’t a clue.

It isn’t simply a matter of working out whether the extra a tenant is paying to buy beer (the ‘wet rent’) matches the discount they get on market rent. SCORFA, or Special Countervailing or Financial Advantage, also needs to be factored into the equation. These are all the additional benefits a tied tenant can expect from the agreement: training, business and marketing advice, buying deals and the support of an area manager and other HQ personnel. It’s hard to put a price on that. And the real problem is, in my experience, is that it’s not delivered consistently. So much comes down to the relationship between the tenant and the area manager, and that’s about people, not money.

I was going to say it explains why tenants of smaller companies, such as the family brewers, make fewer complaints and are therefore being excluded from the regulation, but the evidence for that has just been scuppered.

In spite of that, from going around, I’d say that the tenants of family brewer do have a closer relationship with the firm. Because the estates are smaller, directors will often make a point of visiting pubs and getting to know their licensees and hearing what they’ve got to say. A big pubco has to rely on the skills and commitment of its area managers, and while some of them are excellent they are all under pressure to hit targets and there are those who will shun difficult cases to focus on the pubs that are already performing. So the pubs that need the SCORFA the most don’t always get it - and I’m not sure how you measure that.

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Cracking the pubco code

22. April 2013 15:26

So, after a decade of investigations and hearings, bitter argument and name-calling, self-regulation is deemed to have failed and the government is going ahead with a statutory code to sort out the relationship between the major pubcos and their tenants.

One aim of the legislation will be to transfer a total of £102,000,000 a year from companies to their tenants. This must be how much the government believes publicans are currently being ripped off by their landlords, though I’m not sure where it comes from.

The detail of how this transfer might be achieved, and a lot of it is quite large detail, is still to be settled on; however, and this is now out to a consultation process closing on June 14th.
The interesting consultation document asks two main questions: how the principle that a ‘tied tenant should be no worse off than a free-of-tie tenant’ might be calculated, and whether a mandatory free-of-tie option should be included in all tenancy agreements.

Both of these, I believe, present complex difficulties which I will have return to in future post; how they eventually play out will determine the impact the legislation will have on the industry: intended and otherwise.

Less contentious is confirmation that the pub industry is to get an independent adjudicator to enforce the code and rule on disputes between pubcos and tenants. For me this is relatively uncontroversial, although it’s unfortunate the industry was allowed to set up its own adjudicating bodies which have since not really been given a chance to see if they work.
One surprise is that the code will apply to all companies with 500 or more ‘non-managed’ pubs – including Wellington Pub Company, which leases 800 odd, free-of-tie houses. The reason, as far as I can make out, is that if tied businesses are going to be benchmarked against free-of-tie pubs the regulation is going to have to apply to the latter, too, or you could find landlords freeing pubs from the tie and charging extortionate rents.

So the legislation is not only an intervention into the tied house system, it’s about regulating all pub rents. If I’m right, that’s new material. It will be interesting to hear what Wellington has to say about that, if for no other reason than I’ve yet to hear Wellington offer an opinion on anything.

Meanwhile, plenty of other stuff to muse on over the next couple of months. More next week.

Unless something bigger happens.

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A pint of the unusual?

15. April 2013 12:23

Well, I’m not sure I’ll be doing that again. First of all, the knob was too stiff for my weedy word processing fingers, the bag I was bashing split and spilled grains of paradise everywhere, and then my glasses steamed up. But ‘helping’ to brew a new cask ale down at Wadworth’s Brewery in Devizes last week was certainly an educational experience.

I’ve been on scores of brewery tours but I’ve never followed the whole process as closely as I was able to in the Waddie’s microbrewery; it gave me an insight into how British brewing has changed over the last few years.

Launching a new beer used to be a big deal. A brewer would spend months on consumer research, months on testing recipes and months on trials, just to be absolutely sure they’d got it right. With Wadworth’s monthly Brewer’s Creations a member of the brewing team simply writes down a recipe out of their heads, makes it and puts it into pubs to sell – or not. May’s beer, which I ‘helped’ with and will be called No. 5 (no need for marketing consultants to decide on a name), is the creation of quality assurance brewer Andy Weaver. It’s basically a strong-ish (5.5% ABV) elderflower beer with added dried orange peel and those crushed grains of paradise to give it a kick.

No. 5 sounds nice – as long as I didn’t balls it up too much – but the thrill is we won’t really know for a couple of weeks. And then only the customers at 10 Wadworth’s pubs will get the chance to taste it before it’s all gone, and that will be that.

It is completely the opposite approach to building big volume brands, which brewers used to be obsessed with, and reflects a market that’s been shaken up by hundreds of microbrewers and imported craft beers. Even family brewers, arguably the most conservative wing of the industry, are getting in on it. Wadworth has also used its on-site microbrewery to make its Beer Kitchen range of bottled beers that include an Espresso Stout and a bitter aged in whisky barrels. Head brewer Brian Yorston, an old hand, worries that there isn’t much volume in them, but he agrees that’s not really the point.

The market has changed. Blokes who walk into the local and ask for a pint of the usual are a dying breed. Today men and women, both young and old all demand the unusual. And you can’t help but feel that the brewers themselves are pretty pleased to get the chance to give it them.

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The pub at the end of the road - or the beginning?

8. April 2013 13:58

I’m a simple soul with simple needs. I moved to Brighton for the pubs, and two years ago I moved to a particular part of the city for more pubs. Now within five minutes’ walk of where I live, there are at least a dozen pubs.

So I am blessed. But in recent months the local pub scene has been thrown into repeated crises; good tenants have given up - two of them consecutively at one pub. So far no pub has actually closed, but one, at least, is in grave danger. The community lives in a state of high anxiety wondering where their next pint is coming from.

In one street alone, four out of the five pubs have changed hands and the fifth has changed landlord while keeping the same tenant. It’s this pub that I want to write about because it tells a positive story with clear lessons.

When I first came to Brighton the pub was famous and always buzzing, but over the years it has slowly declined. By the time it became one of my locals, I would guess that half the week’s trade was done on a Sunday. On other days a maximum of four of five customers were rattling around in there. It was a pub that was hanging on by the parsnip fingers of its roasts.

What had gone wrong? The pub was very run down. Little had been spent on the fabric of the building. Outside the paint was peeling, the window frames rotting, and inside contained a tired old design that was falling apart rather than maturing into something agreeably lived-in. If any pub needed a refurb, it was this one. But the owner, Punch Taverns, and the tenant could not come to a deal on it. Then, at the end of last year, Punch walked away, selling the freehold to a private landlord, thus the stalemate was broken.

The pub closed for several weeks for a refurbishment and reopened two weeks ago. To say it was like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly would be hard on the caterpillar. And, without any kind of a launch party, it was suddenly packed with people - and that has gone on. I’m convinced it’s not just the novelty; a business has been transformed, overnight, from a failure to a triumph.

The success of a pub is, of course, never down to purely physical factors. You can spend a massive amount on a beautiful refurbishment but if you get the offer and the staff wrong the money will be wasted. Plus, you also have to get the financial model right.

Yet I do feel that underinvestment has been a major, if less well-publicised, factor in the current wave of pub closures. One tenant who handed back the keys of a pub down the road last year said people just weren’t going out locally any more. This latest reopening shows that, if you give them a good enough pub, those people will start coming back.

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Penny-off-a-pint Chancellor smacks himself in gob

25. March 2013 12:21

Gobsmacked.

That was the almost universal pub trade reaction to the Chancellor’s decision to axe the beer duty escalator last Wednesday; like being smacked in the gob. But in a nice way.

Indeed, George Osborne sounded surprised himself as he announced he was going even further by taking a penny off a pint to become the first Chancellor to reduce beer duty since Derick Heathcote-Amory in 1959.

It could well be that while thrashing about for a piece of good news with which to placate an impoverished electorate George Osborne smacked himself in the gob with this one - a deliciously distracting image, but we’d best move on.

Hopefully, not too many pub-goers will be demanding cheap beer at their local tonight. Most publicans will make the calculation that they have already absorbed much of the rising costs which have been faced in recent years, not only from punishing taxes but from brewers’ price increases and various overheads. And the duty escalator is still rising for wines and spirits, of course.

So they are not going to pass on the chance to claw a little back. In any case, customers are hardly going to feel the benefit of a penny off, while across the pub industry those pennies add up to about £30million. A couple of operators have, however, cleverly capitalised on the publicity. JD Wetherspoon is knocking 5p off two of its cheaper beers to take them below £2 a pint – something that drinkers will notice and appreciate. And Chris Gerard of Innventure has emailed a 1p-off voucher to regular customers of his six pubs – a gimmick, but one that might drive a bit of extra trade.

The important thing is, though, that the Treasury has broken with the principle of the escalator. We ought now to at least get Chancellors who think about what they are doing and are open to argument before whacking the duty up; and hopefully take down the escalator for wines and spirits, too.

It was unfortunate that the Wine & Spirits Trade Association was unable to spot this possibility. Instead of welcoming the move and urging the Chancellor to take the next logical step, in a fit of jealousy it chose to have a go at beer, claiming that pubs wouldn’t benefit. One lesson from the campaign against the duty escalator, that speaking with one voice might just make a difference, clearly still has to be learned by some.

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Minimum pricing and the Tory dilemma

18. March 2013 09:19

For a minute there, I thought minimum pricing might bring down the government as David Cameron made an ungainly retreat from his former determination to introduce the measure; then some other stuff happened and the price of booze was dispatched to its rightful place as a triviality in the wider scheme of things.

But it’s worth pondering why an alcohol policy like this, little more than a tinkering when you compare it to what a government might do, has caused such controversy and confusion, especially among Conservatives. We need to go back to first principles, and a little book on licensing written in 1903 by the unfashionable Fabians Beatrice and Sidney Webb. They uncovered a fundamental contradiction it the state’s attitude to the drink question. A government likes to encourage industry, but what if that industry produces something that’s a potential threat to the economy as a whole?

The solution to this dilemma, the Webbs argued, is licensing itself, a tightly defined regulation of the drinks industry that handily produces its own revenue, through duty, taxation and various fees.

However, this negotiation does not settle the underlying contradiction. Alcohol policy is, as you will have noticed, in a continuous state of flux (in the current terminology, ‘rebalancing’) as the state comes under pressure from competing interests: the health lobby, law and order and the different sectors of the industry.

Today’s Conservative Party is, meanwhile, torn by its own contradictory forces along similar fault lines. On the one hand there is the libertarian ideology based on a faith in free market economics, on the other the desire for strong law and order to sustain the optimum conditions for that same economy.

Significantly, the Government Alcohol Strategy of last March came out of the Home Office, not the Department of Health, and begins with the anti-disorder case for minimum pricing and other measures. Health is tacked onto the end, almost as an after-thought. It now seems that in the endless tug of war between the free market and law and order the free marketers are, for the moment, holding sway, David Cameron the knotted kerchief bouncing about on the middle of the rope.

We await the announcement of the latest temporary resolution in Wednesday’s Budget. Rest assured, though, that it won’t bring an end to the matter.

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Drinking by numbers

11. March 2013 11:05

The health lobby is not having a good binge-drinking epidemic. More figures came out last week to suggest that we are consuming less alcohol. But that's not all. Those believed to be the most vulnerable groups - heavy drinkers and young people - are driving the trend.

Between 2005 and 2011 the number of men who had consumed more than twice the recommended units (the definition of a binge) on their biggest drinking day of the previous week fell from 23% of the survey to 18%.
And as for our wild, irresponsible youth, the number of bingers among them plummeted from 32% to 22%.

Of course, these numbers are based on notoriously unreliable self-reporting (absurdly exaggerated in recent 'secret drinker' media headlines), but the trend is undeniable. But what's causing it? No doubt the recession has had an impact, however consumption has been declining since 2004, which is well before disposable income started to be hit by unemployment and falling wages. Plus, the sales of cheap supermarket booze are falling now.

How about all that education? Have people finally got the message about those sensible drinking guidelines? It seems unlikely given the understandably poor level of understanding of alcohol units. There are some things, shifts that happen in the mass of a population, that are very hard to pin down to one or two determining factors.

When we look back on this period from a future standpoint it will be seen, most probably, as a time of readjustment from a peak around the turn of the century. These ups and downs are a part of history going back centuries, and only ever partially explained by changes in government alcohol policy - although taxation has certainly been a factor, as it may be today.

We can expect the debates around alcohol policy to rage on though, because there is more at stake ideologically than a simple regulation of consumption or a minimisation of harm. If that wasn't the case, we would be less bothered about the overall stats and more bothered about the individuals who are damaged by their drinking but never show up in these kind of numbers.

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In defence of ‘Spoons

4. March 2013 11:13

Will Self, the posh novelist and professionally bewildered Shooting Stars contestant, tackles the JD Wetherspoon pub chain in his latest Real Meals column for the New Statesman magazine*. A crunching, over-the-top, studs-showing, unfair tackle the article is; it’s worthy of a yellow card, if not a sending off.

My theory is that Self was late; late with his copy as he arrived at Victoria Station one day. Getting slightly desperate and happy to settle for an easy target (I know the feeling) he glanced around the concourse: Burger King, Upper Crust, Delice de France and then up at the Wetherspoon’s on the balcony. Perfect.

Victoria is never going to be the best example of a Wetherspoons pub. Self does not mention it, but he would have found it busy, as it invariably is, with people waiting for delayed trains, people meeting up, and people nipping in for a swift half of something interesting.

It is a business at continuous full-stretch with little time for hospitality and its frills, a purely functional pub that does the job. It’s not what you would call a ‘destination venue’. All Wetherspoons are a little like that, actually. It is their unfussy functionality, as well as their good value, that makes the pub chain so popular. Though not with Self who regards them as: “… shit, brown dollops of establishments smeared incontinently across our cities. Actually, ‘shit’ is a little strong for Wetherspoon – a bit too gamey; they’re more ‘shit-lite’.”

This is good writing. It’s funny, it’s clever, and I like it. But in delivering entertaining copy Self is not just laying into Wetherspoon, he is attacking the hundreds of thousands of people who use it, people who obviously haven’t got Self’s high standards.

One of them is me. True, if there is a nicer, cosier pub nearby that serves a decent pint I wouldn’t give the ‘Spoons a second glance. But quite often when I’m in an unfamiliar town I’m grateful to spot the ‘W’ sign that tells me there’s a place I can go that will give me cask beer in good condition, free Wi-Fi and something okay to eat if I’m hungry and can’t find a curry house.

Self should recognise this practical appeal that has made JD Wetherspoon and its creator, Tim Martin, so successful. He should also recognise that ‘Spoons is giving all those people he must have noticed at Victoria something they need; but the article is all about his personal distaste for a concept he blames on “a man named Tim”.

The problem with this review is that it’s written by a man named Self.

*Read it if you must, here: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/food-and-drink/2013/02/pub-chain-named-after-object-resentment-codtraditional-its-fish-and-c

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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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