Friday, 31 October 2008

Halloween and the spirit of the brewery

I've always liked Wychwoods advertising because of the way it takes the micky out of lager drinkers. It's nice to see that at this time of year the beer is to be found all over the place, it's fitting that this type of marketing can work to produce a grand success.

Stonch has got some for Halloween and when I went to my friends pub last night I found he also had the same, tacky LED pumpclip on display.

The problem I have is that the marketing gives me the impression that the beer is made in a small microbrewery, all hand crafted and the like. I very much doubt that with the sudden increase of sales this Halloween, that all the Hobgoblin being sold tonight will have been brewed in the same brewery. If anybody can confirm, for sure, that every drop is still brewed in the Wychwood brewery then fine, but I'd be surprised if this market penetration is supported by production at the original site.

I am sure that Marstons have capitalised on this seasonal event and brewed as much of the stuff in as many of their breweries as they could manage. They have sold it all over the country in their various pub estates and free trade outlets. Good for them.

It's all fine, so long as we realise that the beer and the brewery are now a very separate thing. Hobgoblin is a product. It's marketed under the name of Wychwood and a very good job is made of that. Marstons, who have a reasonable track record of keeping breweries going, are not really interested in the brewing capacity of the Wychwood brewery. Make no doubt about it they are interested in the ability to use the established trading name. They can combine a good product and it's marketing with the companies ability to distribute. The beer can be brewed anywhere and still be called Wychwood Hobgobblin because the names are now owned by Marstons.

My point is that during a time of shrinking beer market overall, there is no requirement to increase brewing capacity. Additionally to this we have an increase in success of the smaller breweries. Small breweries start up, some become successful and get bigger, really successful ones get bought up by even more successful ones until eventually they get bought by regional and nationals. Along the way some brewery sites will close, it's inevitable.

If we, the beer enthusiasts, want to see new beers then we also have to accept that this progress will also result in some failures. Beers will eventually move to new sites and despite concerns over the water being different I believe reasonable facsimiles can be made. The problem with the real ale market is that the typical real ale fan enjoys the variety. They like new ales to try: market penetration can only go so far. Once we started brewing our own and putting it on the bar, the likes of Jennings beers started to fall out of favour with our customers. Maybe this was partly due to the increased saturation of the market that the take over by Marstons caused or maybe by the fact that my beers, brewed on the premises were more attractive being rarer, but the effect was definitely there.

When I started out my drinking career in the early 80's the one brewery's beer that seemed to be sought after was Theakstons, probably rightly so. Today it is very much seen by many as old hat and boring. This is, I believe, the effect of the massive market saturation achieved by S&N when it took over. Having said all that, I still like Old Peculiar as my all time favorite beer.

As Ron says the location of the brewery might have some relevance to the beer being produced, but I believe not as much as many beer drinkers would like to believe. What the discerning ale drinker still wants is some feeling that the beer is special, this is something that the national brewers understand, they understand that a beer that is revered, like Hobgoblin, has some merit. The charm is lost when the product is pushed too far.

I do worry that as happened with Theakstons in the hands of S&N, many very revered names, like Hobgoblin, Jennings and maybe even Pedigree will eventually loose their charm as the big breweries use and abuse the good name, suck out the juice and throw away what's left. It seems to have happened with Theakstons, thankfully that name has withdrawn back into the family with good success.

The good news is that the diverse beer market is strong and forever changing. Rather than bemoaning the closure of breweries we should celebrate that big breweries need to keep their offering exciting. We should also be really happy that there are so many new microbreweries and brew pubs springing up. This cannot happen without some changes, and failures, at the other end of the scale.

Energy for beer cooling.

I thought that the general pub goer might be interested in knowing how much it costs to keep the beer at the correct temperature.

These figures represent the profit from the first 10 pints of beer sold per day.

The bar staff represent 60 pints per day minimum on a 12 hour opening schedule. General heating and lighting at least another 20 pints per day, insurance at least 10 pints per day. It is estimated that legislation could now be costing the typical pub outlet £30,000 per year. That's 80 pints per day.

Many small community pubs just can't get to these volumes, no where near in fact.

These figures are not all based on precise scientific methods, but the ball park is not far away - the point is many customers just don't think about the costs that the pub has to cover for the environment that is provided.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Original Mountian Marathon

I'm going to stray a little from the subject of beer for this post, but it is related to the subject in a diverse way. It is an example, in this case extreme, of how a business that is providing a public service can have costs lumbered onto it by people who are not significant customers. A problem that is significant in The Lake District.

I have been following the difficulties of the Original Mountain Marathon that was held last weekend. There has been significant criticism of the event on the grounds of the safety of the competitors and the costs to the emergency services. The manager of the Honister Slate mines, who was inconvenienced by the shear number of casualties who sheltered at his mine, has spoken out about the event.

I have been a keen outdoor enthusiast in the past. I've been a rock climber and hill walker, been to the Alps and got stuck in a crevasse in a glacier and done all manner of activities where I put my life at risk. I like our mountain rescue system the way it is and the fact that generally individuals are not held too much in account for their actions. If we changed the system we would have a terrible litigation problem where blame was placed, inappropriately, on people for organising dangerous activities.

The organisers of the OMM must take stock of the event and decide for themselves if their actions were appropriate. I do believe though, that the competitors were taking part with eyes wide open. They knew the dangers of the mountains, it is an event for hardened athletes. How the costs of the public services are met might be an issue to be discussed between organisers and the emergency services, but as the organisers are, I believe, volunteers, their should be a "there for the grace of god go I" attitude.

The impact of these events on the businesses that do not benefit from such events can be great. There is hardly a day goes by at my location without some poor fell walker who has come off the mountain the wrong side, car driver who has had a double blowout on the pass or lost tourist asking for help and using staff time without spending money - or the traveler who just wishes to use the toilet without buying a drink.

I am not surprised that Mike Weir, who is the manager of The Honister Slate Mines, is a little upset about the event.

In David Pickthalls report in a local paper, there is comment by the organisers of the event saying that it brings in revenue to the lake district. That, I'm afraid, is not significant. The Three Peaks challenge, the OMM and orienteering events such as these put pressure on the infrastructure and businesses of the Lake District that far outweigh any revenue.

The main point is that it puts costs on the Lake District businesses without due return in revenue. A pub is one such type of Lake District business. This in turn puts up the price of the Lake District pint.

Monday, 27 October 2008

A pint- the only thing

Well after such interesting thoughts on 2/3 of a pint on Tandlemans blog, I thought I might share my thoughts on The Pint.

I am a chef, as well as a brewer and publican. As a chef I understand the importance of sampling a whole dish as it will be delivered to the customer. You can taste the sauce and a bit of the meat, check the vegetables are correctly salted and cooked just right, but the whole effect is just not apparent until you've tried the whole dish - is it balanced?

A beer is the same. You can have a taster. Maybe even 1/3 pint. But until you have had a full, imperial pint measure, the whole volume as consumed by most beer drinkers, you have not appreciated the full effect of the beer.

Now as a brewer and publican, I have the rather arduous job of performing this task - testing the beers. Every beer I have on my bar is sampled, in the full pint, to the line you understand, head extra. Because real ale can go "off" so quickly, it is important to do this every day. When you have 6 hand pulls running then every one has to be sampled every day in full pint samples.

Boy, its a tough job - but I do it for you, the discerning beer drinker - the problem is, some beers are just tooo good to stop at one pint........

Tonight just 4:

Stout Tenacity - Hardknott
Saazy Lamm - Hardknott
Wicked Jimmey - Cumbrian Legendary Ales
Old Faithful - Tirrel

Wicked Jimmey is my favourite out of these.

Price of ale

I keep thinking about putting a post on here about the price of beer. There is already one that is close to what I would like to say on The Woolpack Blog.

The only real addition to this is that most licensees do not make a large amount of money - many struggle to make a profit at all and too many make a loss.

Remember that 5p less on a pint of beer might be ALL the licensees profit GONE.

There are many examples all over the place about the price of beer being too high. For example, the very important discussion about measures on Tandlemans blog is distracted by this very issue.

If beer was too expensive pubs would not be shutting down at the rate of 36 per week. We licensees would be gleefully raking in the profits and fighting to keep open our goldmines!!

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Held to ransom

Customer care is crucial to the success of every hospitality business. It can be so difficult to get it right, but it is important to make customers feel welcome and try and be sympathetic when the service they receive doesn't match their expectations. An establishment needs to set out it's stall and define the product that is being delivered. That can be difficult to do when so many people have so many different ideas about what a pub should deliver. When the product that is being tendered is not delivered satisfactorily then dealing with customer grievances is important. Ensuring the customer understands the product can be key to that and in a pub situation can be very difficult to get across what products and service are delivered and what is not.

It seems to me that there is an increase of demands from customers for you to deliver exactly what the customer wants, another pint after your official licensing time or serving of food after the kitchen staff have cleaned up the kitchen. There seems to be an increasing attitude from customers that states, subliminally "you NEED my custom, I don't care if my demands are unreasonable, you can just do it because otherwise I'll not come here again and I'll tell all my mates not to"

Last night, after we had served some nice customers with food, we were all sat in the bar chatting and having a nice pint. (I was drinking Keswick's Thirst Chestnut). The kitchen was clean and the kitchen staff had clocked off. Due to our location we expected we might not get any more customers so we settled in to make the few we had nice and comfortable. It's one of the nice things about our job, talking with nice people about so many different things.

A car turned into the Car park, it seemed to be a very new, nice black shiny Discovery. Ann went behind the bar to be ready for the new addition to our friendly little group. These people turned out to be rather unsavoury kind of folk. I can be a little snobby sometimes, normally with lager drinkers, or people who can't understand why we don't do scampi. On this occasion I think these customers beat me hands down.

Marching to the bar they told us they wanted a bottle of wine and some cheese, in quite a demanding fashion. We told them that the kitchen was closed, but they could have a bottle of wine if they liked. They told us they had been to us before and not found it good but had heard that we had improved. We certainly do believe we have improved, but it seemed to be that if we did not provide the cheese they would not stay to find out.

Now we do a rather nice cheese board, all local Cumbrian cheeses. We might even have been tempted to serve them if they had approached the subject correctly. However, I'm quite convinced that their attitude may just have spoiled the evening and I'm sure we were right to restate that we had stopped serving food and that we would be happy to sell them a bottle of wine.

But all present had a good laugh at their snobby, demanding rudeness. We continued to drink beer. Ann though did insist on drinking Kreik - beer oughtn't to taste of cherries!!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Tied Pub - for and against

The beer tie and pub companies (pubco's) are being blamed for much of the trouble that pubs are suffering. I'm not altogether convinced that this is true. I am however against the beer tie as I believe it restricts the potential of the craft brewed market, limits customer choice and is a monopoly which exploits the aspirations of up and coming licensees often dashing all their dreams of running a good pub. Conversely it has also provided many people with the ability to gain a foothold on the ladder of pub management, one that they might otherwise have been unable to attain.

In this piece, I intend to explore some of the advantages and disadvantages in a constructive way. I hope, that if nothing else, it might provide an insight for the prospective pub entrepreneur into the various methods of starting out with your own pub business. Careful shopping around at this time, if you can finance the right project, could be very lucrative. Although the pub market is in a bad way, there is the possibility that it will turn around some time soon. As they say, invest when the market is at the bottom, it's judging when the bottom is. It could be a very exciting market to be getting into for those who are brave enough.

The models of ownership

There are 4 basic models of ownership: managed, tenanted, leased and freehold. All these can have a tie associated with them. Freehold is much less likely to have a tie and is only very subtle in the form of a loan with strings, it only requires alternative financing to enable the removal of tie. All other forms normally, although not always, have a tie of some form or another. There is however normally only a tie on the wet trade so the pub that does food or even better has rooms will have various areas of the business with better freedom.

Before I proceed though, I have to point out that whatever model of ownership is in force the thing that will effect success more than anything else is location of the property. I will look at this in more detail later but a pub that is located near centers of permanent population will always do better. Where there is the ability for several pubs to survive in a close proximity, they can often feed off each other, provide a pub "circuit" or an area known for diversity. For location, I would argue that where one pub has a population of less than 500 within a 1 mile radius there is doubt about it's viability. There are special cases in tourist locations, but weather and seasonal effects can make it difficult to make a pub viable where the vast majority of the trade is from visitor numbers.

I am not going to discuss in any details the managed or tenanted model more than to say these properties normally offer the licensee the ability to run a pub without any risk of his own capital. Handing back the keys and walking away is often an option without loosing out. The risk is low but the gains are also likely to be low.

The tied lease

The vast majority of tied pubs after this are leased. There are free of tie leases available but they are not as common. When you "buy" a lease, you are paying for the right to operate the business that runs the operation in the pub building. This lease has a value and the value of the lease is influenced by how well the business runs: a combination of turnover and profit. The building is owned by somebody else, often a pubco or brewery. The responsibility of the owner of the building and the owner of the lease will have been defined when the lease was drawn up by the property owner, although with a new lease there is sometimes a chance to negotiate the terms.

The terms of the lease will determine such things as who is responsible for maintenance of various aspects. Some leases will require the lessee to carry out all necessary work. Often though the property owners will ensure the fabric of the building is maintained and internal decor, fixtures and fittings becomes the responsibility of the lease.

Most importantly the lease will state where the lessee may purchase various product from. In a tied lease much of the "wet" product, i.e. beer, wine and spirits will need to be bought through the property owner, sometimes this can also extend to soft drinks and occasionally food. Sometimes though there is an agreement where flexibility of the tie is permitted.

The cost of buying a lease is a fraction of what it would cost to buy the freehold of the same property. Sometimes it can be a significant portion and sometimes less so. It is though, a significantly less expensive option than a freehold in most cases. There is a bias to this as leased properties tend to be better located for reasons I will come on to. Better location results in a better trade which results in the business being worth more.

Pros and cons of the tie

A significant advantage of the tied lease model is the great support that the pubco or brewery gives to the licensee. They will normally look after such things as the building infrastructure and significantly invest where this is required. If the pub needs a new roof, then it will get one. If the electrics are not to regulations then they will be upgraded. Wet rot, dry rot, rising damp and subsidence should never be a problem for long to the leased pub licensee.

A further advantage is that there is often significant support to deal with legislate issues such as employment law, health and safety and accessibility. Training is often provided and support for cellar management are all provided at either reduced prices or without cost. In short the leased model has inherent built in support. It was recently estimated that current legislative overheads now accounts for £30,000 on average per property.

The leased model has it's disadvantages. For a start the whole of the licensees investment is into the pub business. His only assets are often a few tables and chairs and maybe the kitchen equipment, most of which will have very little second hand value. The majority of the capital he puts into the project is to buy a viable business. If this business turns out to not be viable and folds, he looses everything he has put in.

Free of tie

The free house does have huge advantages. The initial investment costs are normally significantly more but the licensee will have full ownership of the property. A bank may have first call in the event of bankruptcy, but by and large this is a technicality. The property itself would normally have intrinsic value in the bricks and mortar. Even if the pub business were to fail then the owner may still sell the property, although it's value may be reduced due to there being no viable business at a commercial property and the problems associated with applying for a change of use.

It is then, somewhat easier to purchase the lease on a pub than the freehold. But I'd like to explore that a little. As the lease on the pub only has intrinsic value while the business is viable, it can be harder to get a loan. Any loan would have to be an unsecured loan with higher interest rates and the proportion put up by the prospective licensee would have to be greater. For this reason it is often the case that the new lessee will be putting all he has into the business. This can often be the equity in any property he might currently own. Conversely it is perfectly possible to put the equity of many houses owned by 40ish year olds into the deposit for a reasonable freehold property and get a mortgage for the rest. In my limited experience of looking at purchasing freehold against lessee hold the deposit is not that much different.

The current credit situation does make this rather more difficult just now, but then everything is a bit difficult right now. It is important to remember though, and I can't stress this enough, with the leased model, if the licensee fails he will loose everything, but the pubco or brewery will still have the freehold title to the property, the property owner, the pubco or brewery, is putting up very little risk. The leasehold model is there to pass the risk on to licensees and away from pub companies and breweries.

Forming a monopoly

It has become apparent to me that very successful free houses tend to be the properties that get bought up by the pubco's and breweries. They are prepared to pay just that little bit more for the ownership of a very successful pub as it is guaranteed to provide a significant outlet for their own product. This has resulted in a bias in the trade. As mentioned above the location of the pub is going to provide success over and above the type of beer sold, quality or style of food or the friendliness of the staff. Not that I'm diminishing the value of these pub features, but it still remains a fact that some pubs are much harder to run due to location and some will be much easier. The pubco's and breweries avoid like mad the more difficult to run establishments, the ones that rely on food and accommodation for the majority of the revenue, basically, the ones where the location results in low beer volume. The remainder that are in the free trade are more marginal, as a rule or are not true pubs but diverse pubs that might be simply a public bar in a hotel or similar.

Where the tied pub is really a problem is in the removal of customer choice. There will always be a restriction on what the landlord is permitted to sell. A tied pub will almost never sell micro brewed ale. The economics of it will not permit this to happen. Pubco's and breweries own pubs so that they can sell their beer into these tied estates and make money out of the pseudo monopoly it creates. Without this commercial advantage of owning tied pub estates they would not be investing in pubs. In short, it's a double edged sword that cuts at the pub industry.

It's down to choice

The reason that the tied houses work is because both licensees and customers alike choose to get involved. Without customers who patronise these establishments they would not work. People who are looking to run their own pub find the leased property as a perceived lower risk and lower cost option. I don't believe this is the case, but perceived like that it is.

If every person who was looking at investing into the pub trade thought very carefully about what they're taking on there would probably be less successful leases taken out. If every customer looked twice at the beer range and realised that they had chosen a tied house then the free house model would do better.

The most disgracefully action of pubco's is the act of putting a failed tied house on the free market with a covenant on it to prevent it ever being used again as a pub. I am all for free houses that have failed being allowed to be sold and converted to dwellings if the alternative is for a licensee, who has put his life's worth and more into a pub, to loose everything. But it must be tested on the free market first. There are examples of tied houses, where the pub company has competing property close by,  are being sold with a legal covenant that prevents it being opened as a pub.

We do have to remember that there are some good tied houses out there. Generally the vast majority of the general public like the product that is delivered by the tied houses as it represents a consistent and reliable product. This is the same reason of course that keg beers still take up the majority of the market. Bland and predictable is what the majority of consumers want.

Disclaimer - I am not an expert on the legal issues surrounding leasehold's and it is possible I have some details wrong. Please seek independent  expert advise if you are thinking of taking on a leasehold. This independent advise will not come from a brewery, pubco or estate agent. I would recommend the BII in the first instance.
As this is an important issue, please comment on any inaccuracies as I believe we need the issues into the open, as I've said, if for no other reason than to advise new licensees.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Water twice the price of beer - Numpties

Well who is more stupid? The people who think that beer that is half the price of water is worth drinking, or the people who are prepared to pay that much for water?

It's just been pointed out to me that "Evian" spelt backwards is "naive"!!!!

From Wiktionary

Adjective naïve (comparative more naïve, superlative most naïve)

Lacking experience or understanding; inexperienced; unsuspecting.
Having a lack of sophistication.

Pubs are closing, are we really that surprised?

I have always been bothered by the continual issue of pubs closing. For me this is a multifaceted problem. Clearly it is a sad day when any pub ends up closing, for whatever reason. Before we became owners of our own beverage dispensing retail outlet we lived in a small village where the small local was under threat. It closed when the brewery sold it into the free trade while the new owners refurbished. It was closed for so long we wondered if it would ever reopen. We had to walk over a mile to the next nearest place. Now we have got our own pub, we worry about making it viable and bringing in enough money to pay the overheads and maintain the building to the standards required by customers, health and safety, environmental health, the fire service etc. We do wonder if the effort required in making it viable is ever going to bring rewards and the worry can be enormous.

I also worry about the impact that the resistance to change of usage is having in a more subtle way. Although it is completely understandable that there is resistance to a pub being turned into some other use, it may just be causing unnecessary damage to the pub industry and more importantly the people who have decided to make it their livelihood. CAMRA's well meaning attempts to keep pubs open may be doing no more than prolonging the agony of an eventuality.

It is true that there are some success stories. CAMRA have helped to jolly along communities into supporting a dying pub and eventually finding a licensee who can turn around the fortunes of an establishment, but this is probably not the norm. It is more often than not the case that the resistance simply puts great stress on a pub owner and the surrounding community with the eventual result that the owner looses a significant part of the investment put in and looses faith in pubs as a way of earning a living. The industry looses any skills that the disillusioned had.

It is true that if there was no check on the closure of pubs then there is likely to be wholesale closures that would be significantly damaging, so I'm not suggesting that a fight is never appropriate. We do need to look at the overall effect of fighting lost causes.

A major argument for keeping a particular pub open is that all it needs is "the right management team". The thing is it takes an incredible type of person to run a pub well. It takes an even more incredible type of person, probably with an incredible partner, has a good financial collateral and lots and lots of energy to be able to turn a failing pub in to a fantastic pub. There simply are not the number of people in this country who have all these qualities to run all the faltering pubs that are out there.

It is often said that if a community pub closes it rips the heart out of the community. I think community pubs closing is a symptom of the heart having already gone from the community. In a previous post I mention about the lack of respect for pubs. This is often even more so in smaller communities. Often the community is so insular that it would not matter how much the average landlord tries he will never do enough. The beer will always be too expensive, the food will not be as good as the the food the landlord that was there two before him did, they will always remember the time that they were permitted to stay until 3am, throw up on the carpet, fight, shout and swear and every previous landlord just laughed at it all! Like hell!!

In my experience, even if we say it's OK to behave like this in a pub, many pubs are scaring away decent folk because of unacceptable behaviour of the "regulars". In many small communities an "incomer" will have a very tough job changing the ethos of a pub to one that will work. All pubs, community pubs and town pubs alike need to progress. In small insular communities this is extremely hard to achieve. For a community pub to work the community has to work in a positive way with the licensee and respect the tough job he has.

A common criticism leveled at the failing pub is that it is not open at the times that the customers would like it to be open. "How do they expect to make money if they are always closed!" is the cry. But very often the perception of the customer is biased towards their own needs rather than the viability of the pub. If the general community really thinks that most rural pubs will take enough money to justify being open on a wet Tuesday afternoon then they are mistaken. Besides, is a licensee not permitted to have a life outside the pub?

A common "answer" to the problem of keeping a pub viable is to try and diversify. Become a post office, shop, library etc. Well these ideas might work in some situations and great if they do. The problem with diversification is that it also results in complication for the operator. Put in simple terms: if you went to bed every night after 1am do you think you could get up and be cheerful to open the shop a 9am - I know I couldn't.

A further problem most publicans have is that of staffing. There simply are not enough quality people out there in the local rural community who are prepared to work the unsocial hours required. There might be people, but frankly, some that will do the work cannot be trusted to be behind a bar.

There is a rather sceptical view out there, that I believe is over hyped: it states that many of the pubs that are closing are being deliberately run down to ensure there is proof that they are not viable. The owner is doing this to make a major profit from the change of use. I believe in the vast majority of cases this is not true. Put simply, if a building is worth more as a house than it is as a pub then the pub is a very long way off being viable. Most pubs, in my view, should be worth significantly more than the base value of the building as a dwelling. Pubs often have significant investment in cellar equipment, kitchen equipment, specialist fixtures, fittings and furniture and there should be, from a business point of view some value in "good will".

It remains a fact that many pubs are worth a lot less than the building would be were it to be sold as a dwelling. This is not just an anomaly of the property market, it is a problem with the amount customers are prepared to pay for beer. The value of pubs in rural locations, has, for a number of years, been significantly less than dwellings.

The reason is simple, in economic terms most pubs in the rural locations, most "community pubs", cannot pay their way in a commercial sense. We are, I believe in the pub trade, going through the same pain that the coal miners went through in the late 70's and early 80's as they were forced into realising the situation that their industry, as it stood, was not viable.

We can fight it if we like, but rural pubs, where the population surround them is small, will fail. Trying to stop it will just put people through misery.

That does not equate, though, to the end of the pub. Not providing we are prepared to redefine the pub. If we accept that pubs might have to do something different. If we accept that the quality food destination pub (rather than gastro) is part of the the answer. If we accept that some pubs might do better without a pool table or juke box or swearing obnoxious locals, then we have a chance.

We have to accept, more than anything, that a local pub, serving a local community and visitors alike, might have more problems making it pay. Weatherspoons prices can only be charged in Weatherspoons, and so your community pubs need to charge more. Your village store charges more because it's right where you want it and you save on your petrol. We have not yet made that link.

Many people come into the trade using all their life's worth. Putting everything they own and more into the venture. Buying property should always, in the long term have a reasonable degree of security. This is rapidly turning out to not be the case with investments in pubs. The pub market is changing, preventing decent people from getting back what they have invested is going to make the pub industry even less attractive to ordinary people investing in it.

But more than anything, respect your pub and respect your licensee, he/she may not be the best but they might just be the best you are ever going to get.

Monday, 20 October 2008


"I like food" one of the phrases often said by a quiet and unassuming employee we once had here. God bless him, Joel Stacey was killed in a tragic cycling accident in 2007. I remember his love of food and the positive contribution to our place with great joy. Perhaps you had to be there but the almost childish statement he made about any reference to the intake of solid calorific substances was extremely endearing.

I like food very much too, probably equal to beer. When I say food I mean good home made stuff, not the belly fillers that make up the vast majority of the fuel people use to keep their metabolism going. It perhaps started with making solid, baked fermented wheat products, similar to beer but with a shorter production cycle and often referred to as bread. This first happened, probably before I can remember, in my Grandmother's kitchen.

If I had to choose between never having good beer again or never having good food again the choice would be very tough indeed.

So why do I want to talk about food on my beer blog? The reason is simple, it's because food has now become far more important to most on trade outlets that do sell beer than the beer itself. Until the beer, and more importantly real ale industry come right out and admit this wholeheartedly, then we are going to have problems.

"We know that" you say. "We accept that pubs have to do food" you say. But you do not embrace it. If every pub served the same beer and had the same interior and style then there would be no reason to look for other pubs.

Food is the reason most people visit pubs. Most people look for something different these days. If all there was on the menu was scampi, gammon or fish and chips most of us would get fed up.

So why is there this inverted snobbery surrounding the so called gastro pub? It may be an unfortunate phrase, there are some terrible examples for sure, but why is the concept a bad one? If it's a pub and serves good beer and allows you to drink beer then it's good.

I accept that there is an interesting situation where some places make it difficult to have drinks only, due to the volume of food the establishment serves, but this only goes to show how successful this style of place is.

If we wish pubs to survive we have to accept that some will have to find new markets. The inverted snobbery of some commentators in the beer market are damaging the ability of the pub market to move forward into this century.

Moreover, it is with great conviction that I believe the real ale industry is missing out on the ability to move into the lucrative market of fine dining. Many good chefs are now bestowing the virtues of specialist beers. If we keep knocking the restaurant trade by poo pooing all "gastro" operations we are missing a great opportunity. I think we should start campaigning to get cask ale into restaurants rather than saying that restaurants are bad for the pub and beer industry.

So, please, don't criticise a place because the food is too fancy for you. Move forward. You don't have to like more up to date cuisine if your tastes or wallet don't allow, but remember that pubs won't survive if they all have to be the same.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Alcohol disorder, binge drinking

Binge drinking and alcohol fuelled disorder continue to be a problem. Many town centres are filled with unacceptable behaviour at weekends. Many pubs are ruined because the licensee feels they have no choice but to accept the trade. Pubs in general are given a bad name because of the unreasonable behaviour of a few and so nice people don’t like to go in them. The government is targeting this with various proposals including minimum pricing, restrictive advertising and alcohol duty, but as Beer Blether on his blog points out, the thing that will solve the problem is education.

Raising taxation of alcohol is convenient for the government. The majority of the population believe that alcohol is a problem. They accept alcohol taxation better than tax on fuel, income or general purchase tax, so the alcohol problem is a convenient smokescreen. Taxation is probably not going to reduce excessive drinking. It will if anything, result in the worst offenders saving up for a big "bender". The problem is caused by various social and cultural problems and the root cause needs to be tackled rather than simply whole sale alcohol restrictions.

A significant part of the antisocial UK drinking problem is to do with culture or arguably the lack of it. When I was starting out my drinking career there were two sides to it. There was the side that involved joining my mates going to the local town and getting hammered, and also hopefully getting laid (The consumption of alcohol as well as having an ugly mug successfully prevented any promiscuous activity in this writer's case). The other side involved a more diverse age group which sometimes included my parents and was always much more civilised. Any unacceptable behaviour was frowned upon and even if my parents were not there they often got to know about it.

This late adolescent behaviour is normal; perhaps it has been one of the only normal things I have done in my life. The problem is that although there is a natural desire to carry out this youthful exploration of adult behaviour there are less checks and balances these days. The influence of a broad age range of community within the pub provided that check and balance.

At one time, drinking and remaining civilised was the sign of being a grown up. Being aggressive, rude, stupid or throwing up was seen as not being able to hold your drink. Now it seems it is acceptable to behave unsociably, because it’s all the fault of the alcohol, not the person drinking it. There is a culture of being expected to be drunk if you are having a night out. This is also fuelled by the industry promoting increased consumption through various activities, most notably happy hours but also suppliers encouraging increased purchasing by pubs on the grounds of economies of scale. There is little in reality about promotion of drinks because of the added value of their quality, but that would not benefit the big manufacturers and associated distributors. This is where real ale could really take centre stage. It IS THE responsible drink. People drink it to enjoy the drink, not some hazy removal from reality that is simply a stone throw from drug abuse. We need to make it cool to appreciate the flavours of a drink rather than it’s ability to get you pissed.

Then there's the Portman Group mentioned elsewhere, which I believe is an attempt to cover up what the big drinks companies are doing. I'm not into conspiracy theories, but damage limitation is being exercised here by this industry sponsored group. I have no confidence that this initiative will do anything to help the situation.

A significant backwards step these days is the removal of the ability for sensible parents to educate children in the art of responsible drinking. Unless I completely misunderstand the 2003 licensing laws, there is now no provision for responsible adults to be permitted to purchase alcohol for anybody under the age of 16 for consumption in a pub. It is still permitted in the confines of your own home provided that the child is over the age of 5. The law used to allow adults to buy an alcoholic drink for somebody aged under 16 with the licensee’s permission providing consumption was supervised by a responsible adult and it was consumed in a room where alcohol was not dispensed.

A summary of the law is here. There is however some sound advice about how to deal with underage drinking as a parent here

I believe that if under aged people, in the company of their adults, were allowed a half of beer or a small glass of wine on the family outing to the pub, more people would grow up appreciating responsible drinking. Young people nowadays don’t have any respectable drinking experiences and once let loose on the adult world go mad like a kid in a candy shop or the proverbial bull in a china shop.

In a recent, and much critiqued piece by Jeff Picthall, he talks about peer pressure when out drinking in his home town. When trying to appreciate his beer his mates told him “Get it down your neck, you ponce”. This attitude is rife and no mate would truly try to ruin a person’s appreciation of fine beverage or wish liver damage on a friend. But this is the way it is and it won’t change without education.

The growth of the younger drinking scene, the culture of not having had a good night out unless you have made a pavement pizza or forgotten what you did, or preferably both, has increased the problem. The introduction of alcopops gave teenagers the opportunity to drink without having to gain the acquired taste that is needed for more grown up drinks. Lager, as we who like to enjoy a drink for it's taste know, is drunk because it does not taste of anything, it’s a way of just getting drunk without the drink challenging the drinker. For me part of the struggle of growing up was learning to drink "bitter".

Pubs are now seen as customer focused. This is no bad thing but there is an increase of attitude from many customers; “c’mon mate, we’ve put loadsh ‘f money over zthu bar tonight, letths hav ‘nother one?”. Pointing out that they have had far too much already, it’s time to shut up, and they should go home is seen as poor customer care. Respect for licensees and a return to the time when a polite refusal was respected would do wonders. Modern customer focused approach to doing business has resulted in a lack of implementation of the right of the licensee to refuse service of any customer who is behaving in an inappropriate manner. Indeed, there is the right for that matter of refusal of service without reason, but due to various practicalities this is extremely hard to implement.

There are laws already in place to tackle alcohol related crime and they will work if enforced, we can't just leave it to the licensee to do this. Education, education, education as I think one politician said. The government was once happy to put money into a huge amount of anti smoking advertising. We now need greater sociable drinking awareness.

Drinking is fun. It can be a great relaxation. Much of the reason I believe less people are going to pubs is because many of the people who run them think that selling volume is the answer. This makes pubs full of drunks. Making sure the antisocial are not allowed in pubs makes them much nicer places to be and so nicer people will visit.

I need to point out that I found this a hard piece to write - I'm not quite happy with it but it's better than it was. I need to thank Ann for her constructive criticisms and help.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Beer quality

I finally managed to look at tandlemans blog last night. The guy keeps making comments on other blogs, but the link is to his profile, which is not set for public viewing. Anyway, I finally found the blog link with a massive list of other beer blogs on Stonch's blog.

Tandleman talks about Beautiful Beer Awards and how it is basically being phased out because the BBPA who fund it believe that the money would be better spent on lobbying about political issues. Tandleman thinks that the Beautiful Beer scheme is good because it helps maintain beer quality and helps customers to know where to get good beer. Some comments left point out that Cask Marque is taking it over, if I understand correctly. There are various other comments that are part of what I think is a useful debate, after all, we should all care about beer quality.

I could leave significant comments on the original piece, but I felt that, as a licencee, brewer and past member of Cask Marque I have too much to say on the subject to hijack a worthy blog, so I thought I would make more of it here.

We became involved with Cask Marque when we started looking to buy The Woolpack Inn back in 2003. We investigated which breweries we should buy beer off, and because the advice was to shop around we did, and so found Jennings ales to be the best value for money. They also promised that they would refurbish the cellar equipment and sponsor our entry into the Cask Marque scheme. I will say at this point that although we do not trade with Jennings any longer, we did get extremely good service off them and the quality of the ale was then, and I think still is now, a very good.

One of the Jennings pitches to us was that Cask Marque was such a good scheme that it was bound to help significantly in our hopeful entry to the Good Beer Guide. It was also going to have our pub rammed with drinkers as it will indicate that we serve good quality ale.

These were significant over statements. It is hard to know if Cask Marque had an effect in us getting into the Good Beer Guide. We certainly did not get into the publication until we had set up the brewery, and we believe we got in because we brewed ale, of a reasonable quality, and cared about keeping other breweries beer, as well as our own, in top condition.

Now I'm not convinced, in reality, that the scheme brings in significantly more customers. I'm not sure that Beautiful Beer would do either. But what really concerns me is that I doubt if it really does improve the quality of beer. The reason for my doubts are twofold.

Firstly, the correlation between pubs that serve good quality ale and those that are in the Cask Marque scheme appears not to be present. Indeed it could be imagined that the pubs that waste time with this sort of thing are possibly less likely to serve good beer, but that may not be true.

The second reason that I cite is that it is very difficult to get thrown out of the scheme. It is not in the best interests of the scheme to throw a pub out. They really want as many pubs in the scheme as possible. I am aware of the process as we discussed it with our inspector - not because we were in any danger of being thrown out I hasten to add, it's just one of those curiosity things, but the process gives a significant number of retries before a complete failure.

As an aside, but relevant, we consistently gained very good marks for our beer. Clearly I have an interest in telling the reader this and I'm not going to pretend I'm not more than just a little pleased about that. However, the thing that concerns me is that there were times when in all honesty we should have been given lower marks.

Now, please allow me to digress a little. There is no such thing as a free lunch. For instance, consider store loyalty cards. Do you really think the discounts you get are worth the space in your wallet? I personally don't think so. I think last time I checked Tesco gave less than 1% discount on your total purchases as a result of using the card. However, the store gets an enormous amount of information about your spending habits and can, over time, gain useful information about what sort of people respond to what sort of advertising. It's extremely powerful, I don't like it and refuse to have a loyalty card.

Cask Marque is similar. Why do breweries support the scheme? It's because they get powerful information about the type of beers that pubs put on their bars. The free trade (untied pubs) are very important to them. A brewery will still sponsor a free house even if there is only one of their beers on the bar when the bar contains 4 or more handpulls. It enables them to spy on the landlord and find out how they compare to other, smaller breweries. Sponsorship is only removed once trading ceases completely with the sponsor.

Now I have to admit that the above is partly conjecture. It might be seen as being unfair and to defend Jennings, who sponsored us, they did refit our cellar and provide useful support for over 2 years. They certainly provided a springboard to our current position, they did a fantastic job as did our Cask Marque inspector.

To return to the issue of beer quality. Where Cask Marque may help is in dragging the very poor pubs up, from so unacceptably poor a quality that they may as well not do cask, to the point where the ale is reasonable most of the time. It will probably generally not take the beer to exceptional. These places are generally the tied houses, the brewery owned pubs. This is perhaps where the scheme is good and serves a purpose. New licensees will benefit from the very good advice that the inspector provides. We certainly did and we very much appreciated it.

In my honest opinion, the best kept ale is nearly always in free houses. The best range of ales is nearly always in free houses. Free houses, the really, really free and totally independent free houses, will not generally waste marketing revenue on a pointless scheme as they know that it is better to put that effort and money into making sure the beer is good.

Better still choose a brew pub because nearly always that is where the beer is best.

Before anybody tells me they know this or that pub to prove me wrong; I know that there are always places that will prove to be the exception, and that of course is good. But if you feel the need to tell me about them then go ahead, comments on my long boring ramblings will be appreciated, even if only to show somebody is reading.

Finally, I would like to explain that the for big boys, it's part of their ploy to try and tell the little guy like me that we cannot, and will not make our pub work without their amazing scheme. The industry is awash with such stuff and nonsense. We have consistently refused to go along with this type of hype, and now are very proudly free of even the smallest of tie. I suspect I will have more on this general subject soon............

Friday, 17 October 2008

Majority of the drinks industry - The Portman Group

The reader may well be aware of the story about a small brewery in the Orkney's who has fallen foul of The Portman Group because they have a strong beer called Skull Splitter.

If not here are some links:

portman group wields-axe
portman group crackdown
clarification on portman group nonsense

I particularly like the satirical tone of the second one above. Well done Roger.

I recently decided to send an email to David Poley, Chief Executive of The Portman Group as I felt that the Portman group should have no influence over small breweries like the Sinclair Group. More importantly, there is, rightly or wrongly, a culture of giving micro brewed beers silly names, which sometimes might be slightly risque and even sometimes offensive. I believe that this is part of our freedoms and should not be inhibited.

I did get a considered reply which I thought was interesting. Most of it explains the procedure which does allow the brewer to put the case for the possibility of the objection not to be upheld.

What I found interesting is that the procedure does not allow for support of the name from anybody else. I was very kindly thanked for my communications and assured that my contribution was noted. I was also politely told that they really will not consider my opinion.

The most import thing though is the attitude that they have towards the drinks industry:

(The Portman Group) "has the support of over 130 companies representing the overwhelming majority of those involved in the production and sale of alcoholic drinks."

Now how many independent breweries are there in the country? Well I can't find out right now but SIBA has 450 members. I know there are other breweries, like me, that are not members of SIBA. How many independent pubs are there? I don't know but there are 4,500 in the GBG, I know some of these will be owned by breweries etc and part of chains but there are many that are not in the GBG that are independent free houses. There are also independent shops, wholesalers etc.

So if we say there are 5000 independent businesses involved in the production, sale and distribution of alcohol then The Portman Groups assertion that they represent the overwhelming majority of those involved in the production and sale of alcohol is just false.

They may however represent the vast majority of the revenue taken, but that is a different matter.

If you agree with me, and you are welcome to not agree, then please email The Portman Group I am suspicious that they are looking after the big boys, who are the ones that make up The Group and I am certain they are scared of the resurgence of real ale.

More on perspective

When you look around blogs, it's interesting how tied up people get about other peoples views. I can be the same, I have a perspective, as everybody does.

What is interesting is the denial that when views are significantly opposing, both sides are going to want to put their view.

For example there is Jeff Pickthalls blog which is tending to give the slightly, or maybe very, right of center political view. Perhaps slightly biased, but a valid view point non the less.

Then there is Stonch's blog which is appearing to be slightly left of center - I may misunderstand this but anything that says "The unfolding crisis of global capitalism doesn't seem to be slowing down the pub trade" has to have a slightly lefty bias by the mention of capitalism in a derogatory way.

One observation is that all the people who say CAMRA is not a slightly left of center organisation are obviously very left of center themselves. For them CAMRA is just fine, right where it should be, confirming the slightly left position that CAMRA seem to exude and therefore proving Jeff Picthall's point.

Doing the night shift

After several day's of getting all inspired to write after reading lots of blogs and my recent visit to London I've spent the last 2 days fighting with my EPOS system (Electronic Point of Sale I think the acronym stands for) - It's basically a couple of dedicated touch screen processor things connected to a back office computer. It's very good when it works well. Lately it hasn't been, working well that is. Fortunately my support guy agreed to help me rebuild the product data base and configuration files. It seems to be working OK, but I think I only got 4 hours sleep last night and it's 2:30am now after I put all today's hand written sales back into the system.

What the hell has that got to do with beer?????? apart from the fact it tells me how much to charge for beer.

Just to say that there'll be more coming soon on this blog. My head keeps buzzing with ideas and they just have to get out somehow.....and I'd rather be typing in meaningful words into a computer than populating a database!

Meanwhile I'm sitting here, drinking a nice pint of Thirst Hop by Keswick brewery. Made with fresh green hops from this years harvest. I'm basically crap at tasting notes so all I'll say is it's very nice. Light, floral, good balance and tasty, zingy sort of hoppy thing, but not mouth puckering sour just a sherbet sort of a feel - although I'm just about to go and pull a third one just to make sure.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Suffer the little children!!

There has been a significant change to the pub industry over the last 30 years which might be part of the industry's problem. Unruly children spoil the perfect pint.

Well I think this is a perfect example of why pubs need to differentiate. Some pubs can be, and should be child friendly. Some pubs like us are happy to have well behaved children in them but make it clear that it is an adult environment and certain rules apply. Maybe more pubs should be able to be "adult only".

I do not agree with the attitude of some customers "We've put £xx.xx over the bar we can behave exactly how we wish".

There is, I would agree, a problem with customer care across some parts of the industry. But it cuts both ways. There is also a reduction in the respect for pubs, staff and licensee compared to 20+ years ago.

Lager - lateral thinking??

This is interesting. Give lager a good name.

I am convinced the pub industry needs to think laterally. ANYBODY who knows me knows my thoughts on lager. Lets think though, if we can't beat them entirely with Real Ale perhaps this is a way of beating them at their own game??

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

From Ted on the tied house..

On Stonch's blog there are some comments on the beer tie.

See Ted's opinions - he's in Oregon Brewers Union 180:

The tied house prohibition came about as part of the repeal of prohibition in 1933 (the blessed 21st Amendment), a silly law that did enormous damage to the quality, variety, and peoples' perception of beer in this country. Debates on the subject of the "evils" of the tied house resulted in the national tied house prohibition. The alcohol industry was conceptually divided into three tiers: the manufacturer (or supplier), the wholesaler and the retailer. No business was allowed to be involved with or own more than one of the tiers. Therefore, a brewery or wholesaler could not regulate who could sell their products. It is completely up to the retailer to stock what he saw fit. It was also legislated that the states retained the power to regulate the production, distribution and taxation of alcohol.

Oregon has been a great pioneer in making sensible laws about beer. In 1985 the manufacturer and retailer of beer was allowed to be the same entity, in the form of a brewpub. That's why I'm sitting here with a brewery in the back of the building and a number of hand pulls in the front. This makes sense. There are also no laws that restrict what we brew, or cultural and historical precedent that in effect prevents us from branching out. As a result, Oregon has such an amazing variety of beer styles. I just got this in an email from a new brewer up in Portland:
"I was telling some beery friends yesterday that Oregon is finally branching out, with you doing proper cask beers, Heater-Allen producing great lagers and myself in the near future specializing in farmhouse-style ales. An exciting time!"

Also, in 2003, a brewery that produced under 1000 BBL/year was permitted to self-distribute.
Because of its laws, and the unprecedented enthusiasm for beer, Oregon now has almost 100 breweries. Check out the Oregon Brewers Guild ( We also have some of the lowest duty in the country. Our national duty rate is $7/US BBL for small breweries, and the state tax, called the "privilege tax" for some reason, is only $2.60/US BBL. And Oregon has no sales tax. So whenever I brew my 2 UK barrels of warm flat beer, I pay $19.53 to the feds and $7.25 to the state.

And I can put on any guest beers and ciders that I want. I now have a cider, perry, strong IPA, amber, oktoberfest and a stout on the gas taps.

It surprises me that the duty on beer in the UK is so high. And, also, I can't understand why the tied house is allowed to live - the advantages escape me.

Smoking ban - good or bad??

Just as I was writing the last post I got a link through to a facebook group asking me to join. It's an anti smoking ban group.

I do not think the smoking ban has harmed my pub and I'm not convinced the downturn in the pub trade would not have happened anyway. I could not have stopped smoking without it. But equally I'm not happy with the fact it has taken away our liberty to make our own choices.

Here's the group link - the reader can make up their own mind.


I've just checked the groups. There is a non-smoking group in support of the ban as well.
Doesn't look good for the smokers...
Non-smoking 557,970
Smoking 384,054

For the record I'm abstaining on this one - I can most certainly see both sides!!

Monday, 13 October 2008

It's all down to style

I have eluded on several occasions in my blogs about the fact that the British pub is largely out of date. This will annoy the anti-gastro, anti-trendy, don't ban smoking, spit and sawdust brigade. But I'm afraid it's true.

Now I'm not saying that we shouldn't have some good old fashioned pubs. My favourite around here would be The Old Dungeon Ghyll, now that is a PROPER walkers pub - slate floors, open fire, minimalist type of place. Everybody is welcome and when I was last in they still served Old Peculiar. Absolutely fantastic.

But I can't leave out The Prince of Wales at Foxfield. This perhaps is my local, if I were to declare one. The food is honest and good, the ambiance extremely friendly. Most importantly Linda and Stuart make nearly everybody welcome. If you've been there and not been made to feel welcome it's you - trust me on that. Oh, and it's the best kept ale I've found in Cumbria.

The thing is though, and I'm not sure I am happy about this mind, these places do not suit the vast majority of people. But then what type of pub does suit the vast majority of people? Very few I suspect. There are a large number of pubs that the vast majority of people put up with, but are probably not entirely happy with. Many pubs provide a one size fits all type of service. A bland and indistinct product that tries to appeal to a broad audience.

Consider the restaurant industry, it is very broad and every establishment is different. You have a good idea before you enter about the price, type of cuisine, ambiance etc. We do not say it's not a decent restaurant because it servers only standard Chinese food or Indian or Italian or Vegetarian anymore than we do if it is Egon Ronay, 5 rosette or 3 Michelin star. We just accept it for what it is.

Now the restaurant trade is likely to be a future beer blog subject, but we are talking about pubs here. I have a strong conviction that the pub, generically, has become a very bland, mass produced affair that is not really providing what is wanted by the public. I believe the public needs differentiation. Unfortunately too many people are keen to criticise when a pub falls out of their comfort zone. This has resulted in gastro pubs, trendy bars, theme pubs and the like to be heavily criticised. "So and so is not a proper pub any more" is often said, but it often these places that are doing so much better.

What is needed is a bit of innovation. However that innovation is going to upset somebody. One mans meat is another mans poison. The pub industry is just not exciting enough, but it is too scared to move forward because we are told we have to please everybody. The public also believe they should be able to walk into any pub and be reasonably pleased with what they get. This again is an inhibitor to the progress of pubs.

The final pub in my example is The Drunken Duck - Gastro brew pub. 2 AA Rosettes for it's food and 5 AA stars for it's accommodation and a string of other awards along the way. It's very snobby now and is in danger of loosing it's real ale roots, but I don't believe it has yet, quite. I have to admit I like it, even if it's from a commercial curiosity point of view. It is very successful at what it does.

I do not know a single person who has told me they absolutely love what The Duck does (quack, quack) but I've estimated it's turnover and it must be the single most successful pub in the Lakes. The reason is simple, it's very different, not many people like it but those that do, know exactly where to go to get it.

So I strongly believe every pub has to differentiate and we, somebody, I don't know exactly who - CAMRA, beer bloggers, people who contribute to beerinthevening maybe, but somebody has to make the general public understand that just because a person doesn't like a pub, does not mean it is a bad pub.

We cannot expect every pub to provide soup, sausage, curry and battered fish on it's menu, Steak garni, scampi and a ploughman's. There is a place for all these things and we know people who would only ever have Gammon, egg and chips, complete with peas and a pointless salad garnish but that's too passe for most modern pubs.

We cannot expect every pub to have a pool table, fruit machine, alcopops, dart board, Muzak, J2O, pickled eggs, be child friendly and have a smoking shelter. We have none of those things and every week we get complimented because of it. We also have difficulties with customers who can't understand why we take our stance. "What you wana do....." is a common phrase we hear, but normally the suggestion is based on us gaining less revenue. This customer education is important if we are to move the pub industry forward. We are building our customer base because of what we are doing. More pubs should make the difference and do their own thing.

It's a matter of perspective

I believe it is an exciting time for Real Ale and speciality beers. It is the only part of the beer industry that seems to be doing OK. It is also an exciting time for the hospitality industry. More people are eating out than ever before. With the current economic crisis many people are thinking twice about that new car or moving house or that extravagant shopping trip. But we all need little treats and eating out is one such little treat that can fill the gap when we can't afford larger treats. They are "bite sized", can be justified case by case. The standard of food in this country is thankfully improving and more and more people are looking for something different.

Pubs are part of the hospitality industry, but there is much to be worried about here. Pubs are closing and the industry is running the risk of going stale. Restaurant style service is gaining ground and the habits of customers are challenging the position of the pub.

Now before I go any further, I have to point out that I really am a strong supporter of CAMRA. Without CAMRA we would very likely have little real ale and we would have to drink some sort of fizzy substitute. Having an organisation to support the beer and pub industry provides a useful lobbying group and has been, amongst other things, responsible for the duty discount that small brewers like us enjoy.

I know many people who are members of CAMRA and I'd like to think that some of the local branch members are friends of mine. This does not mean that I have to agree with them though. Most CAMRA members come from the perspective of the consumer, after all the organisation is a consumer group. CAMRA's main aim is to protect the rights of drinkers. It has been very successful in doing this for over 30 years.

Without CAMRA the pub and beer industry would certainly be different today. Although I do believe that CAMRA is one of those things that was bound to happen in some form or another. In the USA for instance there is an incredible growth of craft breweries and various beer organisations. It still remains a fact that CAMRA has had a huge positive influence on pubs.

But there are thoughts that are different to the CAMRA perspective. Some of these alternative perspectives come from drinkers who have some different views and some people who's livelyhoods rely on beer. Sometimes these can be the same people, like me.

I am getting the feeling I need to justify my voicing of opinions here. It would seem that my friend Ted thinks that I'd be better off brewing beer, especially if it had oak in it cut up with my diesel chain saw. I wonder if he thinks I'm winging about things that I can't change. Maybe he's right. But I feel an urge to express some of my own views. I will accept that they are only my perspective and everybody has a right to their view. I feel this is a better way to do it than getting out my soap box in the bar and putting everybody off their pint, although that does happen sometimes as well.

When we came here we had a rather rosy view of how to run a pub. Bright eyed and bushy tailed we set to trying to make it work. Very soon we found there were a huge stack of unsolvable problems. This stack of problems must be similar in many other pubs. It's just a question of how severe the problems are. Further to this I believed that serving good quality Real Ale that was well kept was all that CAMRA required and if you did this CAMRA would be the pubs saviour. I think CAMRA would like to believe this to be true. I'm sorry, but it's not, at least not as much as I think it could be.

Now we did go through a very dark period when we got to dislike CAMRA quite significantly. But we started to brew beer and amongts other things we got into the Good Beer Guide. I decided that the only reasonable thing to do was to join CAMRA. After all, if you can't beat them, join them. This was the start of a road to understanding better the perspective from their point of view.

It's still the case though, that if you are trying to make a living out of beer you are always considered partly the enemy. I think this is something of a shame. CAMRA want cheap beer, quality beer, comfortable pubs, cheap beer, full pints, cheap beer, a good variety of beer, cheap beer, no pubs shutting, cheap beer.......

The demands are not all achievable and certainly not all in every single pub. There are plenty of beer related blogs that are starting to explore these issues and I think this is good. I don't agree with some of the things that are said, but the discussion is very healthy, providing we keep it good humoured and try at least to appreciate all perspectives, if we can.

We believe we have changed the style of service at our property to one that is sustainable and that has a future. I intend to cover some of the issues that may be preventing the move forward of the whole of the pub industry. Pubs are failing and I believe part of the reason for this is a failure to move forward. I do believe that CAMRA hinder this to some extent by objecting to some ideas that may well be the future of the beer industry. This future requires us to look at the whole concept of the pub as we know it.

As I said in the beginning, it's an exciting time, I hope you will enjoy sharing this excitement with me.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

It's political....

According to Charles Foster in his wonderful 10 Reasons to drink Real Ale, ale is political. I always knew this. But what is interesting is the problems that this creates. Political normally means thinking either left or right. This has created a cognitive dissonance for me recently.

I have always thought of myself as politically free. I don't vote for who most closely upholds my deep values, but for who I think will be better for me, my family, my friends and my wider community. There is a wider compassionate part that also looks at the people I don't know but who are truly in need of help. I believe that this classifies me as a floating voter.

I have always thought that the mass marketing from multinationals is generally bad. It makes us buy something that is fit for purpose, but may not be good, is consistent in quality, rather than good quality and where most of the value is in the marketing and the costs of the route to market. Whether you like it or not, and I don't like it, it is the thing that keeps the vast majority of our economy going.

It has been recently proven that real ale is more likely to be consumed by affluent people. But wait, don't we feel that CAMRA is a little bit lefty? I think it gives that impression and so does Jeff Pickthall on his blog. But look at the replies to Jeff. Most seem to disagree. On another blog Kerran Cross, who is very clearly to the left of politics, seems to think real ale is the preserve of the rich.

Anti-globalisation is seen as a lefty point of view. Perhaps this is the key lefty impression that CAMRA exudes. But wait, buying local, organic, hand crafted and artisan is for the poncy right surely?

Ann and I travelled down to London recently on Virgin Trains. We could have taken the car and avoided the drunks and constant users of Virgin Mobile phones, but it would have cost us more, emitted more CO2 and taken longer. The red wine was reasonably priced but not good quality. The beer in the buffet car was not worth having. We could have travelled First Class but we're not that poncy, yet.

Without Virgin, or something similar there would be no Intercity trains. Yes, there is the option of a nationalised industry, but is that really any better? It may not be any worse, depending on your viewpoint.

The French drink wine. They drink a lot of it. The social class of the drinker is irrelevant, it is still a national drink. The price of the wine varies incredibly. The consumers disposable income effects the choice and there is a relationship between quality and price, even if there is some question about how much that quality is really worth. The french really care about the provenance of the products they buy and do not consider it poncy to care about that.

Is this because there is only so far you can go with the economy of scale of the production of wine? Grapes are not something that can be harvested with great big combines in huge, oversize fields after cutting down all the hedges. Barley is produced in this way and there is little difference that the quality of the barley makes to the beer. We never think that beer is better because it is made with barley grown on a sunny slope overlooking a Mediterranean beach and has been hand picked by a fair maiden just after sunrise. Hops are different, but I'm ignoring them for now.

So beer can be made, distributed and sold very cheaply in supermarkets. Beer can also be sold more expensively in pubs. This is by necessity a more costly route to market. It can be made in smaller, regional breweries with less economies of scale and perhaps a little more care but because the route to market is shorter there might be cost savings here. It can also be made by small breweries, who perhaps care less about profit and more about people. The brew pub probably benefit from some nice cost savings such as beer duty relief and a very small transport network, but it's still a significantly more costly way to deliver beer to consumers because of a lack of any economies of scale or mass marketing.

Real ale is most successfully produced by small breweries. This appeals to both the anti-globalisation people just as well as it does to the artisan snobs. Perhaps the dichotomy that exists is because real ale appeals across the board to anybody who cares. People who care tend to have a view and when it comes to politics they tend to categorise into left and right. The more you care, the more vocal and passionate you might become.

Perhaps it is a false dichotomy because although Real Ale is political it is both left and right. It is just a view which is passionately held by many. Perhaps CAMRA is not left or right. Perhaps it is just political but individuals left or right views do come out and then opposition to these views precipitate across the organisation and outside.

The government is big, it thinks big, it looks after the big companies. It won't make any difference to the little man if the other side gets in, they will think about the global position as well - and real ale does not fit with that.