Going places the civilians don’t

I’ll be frank: one of the good reasons for becoming a beer blogger is the opportunity it gives to go places, meet people, do things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to do. (Free beer too? Well, there is some of that, true, but I turn a fair bit of free beer down, because I don’t do reviews, much.) The chance to get into places the public doesn’t get to see is one big reason why I decided to go to the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference in Dublin: I suspected there would be a chance to see extremely interesting things normally hidden from public eyes, and as we shall see, I was absolutely right.

One for the I-Spy Book of European Brewers … Vaclav Berka of Pilsner Urquell doesn't look as impressed with Doom Bar as perhaps Stewart Howe of Sharp's would like him to be …

One for the I-Spy Book of European Brewers, at the EBBC in Dublin … Vaclav Berka of Pilsner Urquell doesn’t look as impressed with Doom Bar as perhaps Stewart Howe of Sharp’s would like him to be …

Fortunately for me, I have relatives in Dublin, so I was able to stay in the city for free: and I signed up early enough to grab one of the “bursaries” Molson Coors was offering, which effectively refunded the €95 conference fee, so mostly all it cost me was my air fare from Heathrow. When I signed up to come to the conference, I hadn’t been to Dublin since my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday in 2006, and as I said in my previous blog entry, in the past eight years – in the past TWO years – the Irish craft beer scene has exploded, so I was also keen to see how the beer offer had changed in Dublin’s bars, and what these new breweries were like.

As it happened, I had to go on a mother-in-law-related trip to the city in May, and took a day off to visit places recommended by the ever-excellent Beer Nut, Ireland’s premier beer blogger. Thus the Thursday night pub crawl organised for EBBC attendees and led by Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale was less of a revelation to me than it probably was to some of the other 30 or so people on the tour, since, unsurprisingly, the BN had marked my card with several of the places Reuben took us to.

London & Dublin Stout at the Porterhouse

My Wedding Ale, London & Dublin Stout, still on display at the Porterhouse

They were certainly as mixed a selection as you’ll find in any good city, from the basic – Brew Dock, part of the Galway Bay Brewery’s own chain of pubs, but selling much more than just GBB beers – to the more typically Dublin elaborate-mirrors-and-dark wood of Farrington’s/The Norseman (it keeps changing its name back and forth) in Temple Bar via another very Dublin concept, the three or four-storey pub, of which JW Sweetman (named for an old Dublin brewery) and the Porterhouse are good examples, to the “stripped pine and books on the wall” Black Sheep, another Galway Bay Brewery pub, rather more like a “normal” English-style craft beer bar than most craft beer bars in Dublin, to the Bull and Castle, a substantially sized “craft beer steakhouse”. Just as a point of comparison, the only two places you would have found craft beer in back when I was last in Dublin out of that list would have been Sweetman’s, previously a homebrew pub called Messers Maguires, and the Porterhouse (which still, I was delighted to see, has the bottle of my wedding ale I presented them in 1997 on display in one of the bars).

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Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump Wetherspoon’s?

The two Irish beer fans lowered their voices and spoke almost in awe. They had been looking through the windows of the new JD Wetherspoon pub in the upmarket Dublin suburb of Blackrock, due to open its doors for the first time this Tuesday. “It’s got TWELVE handpumps!”, they said. That is twice as many as any pub in the Irish Republic has ever had before – and even that pub only had four handpumps actually working at any one time. Indeed, according to one (unverified) estimate, the 12 handpumps at the new ‘Spoons, the company’s first in the Republic, will boost the total number of working handpumps in the entire country by 33 per cent.

Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump ‘Spoons? I was last in Dublin all of eight years ago, when the beer scene was still pretty dire. Since then, the country has seen a London-like explosion in the number of craft beer breweries, from a small handful to around 40 (indeed, one of the newest – N17 – actually sounds as if it ought to be in London, though it’s named after the road that runs from Galway to Sligo, and the brewery is in Tuam, rather than Tottenham).

Brew Dock Amiens Street Dublin

The bar-top line-up of craft beers at the Brew Dock in Dublin

Accompanying that has been a boom in the availability of craft beer: yes, Guinness, Budweiser and Smithwick’s are still ubiquitous, but if you’ve got the excellent Beoirfinder app, you’ve got a good chance of tracking a pub or bar with at least something more interesting on tap. And there are now bars, such as Brew Dock in Amiens Street, Dublin, near Connolly station, where the bar top has more than 20 craft keg taps, selling beers from the United States and Britain as well as Ireland.

If you can discover a working handpump anywhere, though, it’s likely to be just the one, and you could find, as I did in the Alfie Byrne bar in Dublin last Sunday, that the beer on the one handpump is almost irritatingly familiar – in this case Fuller’s London Pride. I can drink that 10 minutes’ walk from my house. Ironically, many great old Irish pubs still have a row of “policeman’s truncheon”-style handpump handles on the bartop, but they’ve not been used for 50 years. As soon as Guinness perfected the nitro-serve for draught stout, in the early 1960s, keg beer immediately replaced cask from Bantry Bay to the Derry quay, and from Galway to Dublin Town. (It was that dire situation, of course, that helped inspire them four fellas on holiday in the Republic in 1971 to form the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale.) Continue reading

Micropubs: revolution in the making or just five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space?

The micropub movement – numbers now past 40 and rising, with new examples seemingly opening every week – seems to have avoided any sort of critical backlash so far, probably because it’s still very, very tiny (like the pubs themselves). But I fear it won’t be long before a definition of “micropub” appears based on a TripAdvisor review of the “original” micropub, the Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent: “Five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space”.

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

I say this as a card-carrying member of the Grumpy Old Man demographic myself, but that is the surprising aspect of the micropub “mini-boom” – it turns on its head every recently received wisdom about the way forward for the British pub, about how the wet-led boozer catering for old gits who are only interested in pints and chat is on its Last Orders, about how those pubs which fail to gastro-reinvent themselves are doomed to end up as supermarkets or blocks of flats.

The facts are, sadly, there to show that, across the board, places that stick to “LADs” – long alcoholic drinks – as their main attraction are putting up the shutters. It’s not just pubs: between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of social clubs in Britain fell by 417, or 3.1 per cent, a closure rate of eight a week (and with no help or hindrance from the pubcos, you’ll notice: you do NOT have to be a pubco tenants to find the current climate extremely chilly. ). But pubs are suffering, of course: over the same period, “wet-led” or drinkers’ pubs fell by almost 600, or 2 per cent, a rate of just over 11 a week. Many of those were town centre pubs, which are particularly feeling pain. Food-led pubs, meanwhile, nudged up slightly, from 11,334 to 11,357, while restaurants shot ahead, with a net gain for the year of 1,470 outlets. In other words, for every wet-led pub that closes, two and a half new restaurants open. That trend looks set to accelerate: between now and 2018 it has been predicted that the number of “wet-led” pubs will fall by 10 per cent, or about 2,900 boozers, while food-led pubs will increase in numbers by 7 per cent and restaurants by 5 per cent. (All figures from CGA Peach.)

Now, all the micropubs in Britain added together right now still don’t beat one month’s “wet-led” pub closures. But since a micropub – food-free, no keg offering, the sort of beer-only alehouse that was already disappearing before the Second World War, typically filled with unaccompanied men over 50, often in or near town centres – is a reversal of everything else happening in the pub market right now, we may eventually have to ask: “Is this just a few hobbyists, or have the big pub operators actually missed a trick?”

Indeed, the micropub movement looks to have produced its first home-grown entrepreneur, with James Mansfield, owner of the Medieval Beers brewery in Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire, opening a third micropub under the name “Beer Shack”, in the town that shares his name, to follow the first two Beer Shacks in Hucknall and Burnley respectively.

Could this be the sign that micropubs are moving from what could, even a few months ago, be dismissed as an eccentric hobby into the mainstream of British hospitality? There are, apparently, so many people now looking to open a micropub themselves that the Micropub Association has declared that “the micropub revolution is going bonkers”, and put a warning on its website that “due to the sheer numbers of enquiries we get from potential micropub owners, we are unable to give you any individual advice [or] enter into individual email discussions regarding the viability of the setting up of your micropub.”

The Association has just restated its definition of what a micropub is, moving from a declaration that it had to be small, in size, a conversion of an existing premises, primarily selling real ale, with “NO lager whatsoever”, and filled with “lively banter and chat with no music”. Today the Association says that “a micropub is a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.”

Is the micropub as a route to running your own pub business a threat to the traditional pubco tenancy? As the Micropub Association’s website points out, the would-be micropub landlord has a fair number of advantages over those looking to start up a “traditional” pub. The small size of a micropub means low costs and maximum use of space; no music means no costly music licences and no expensive sound system to pay for; no food means less work, fewer skills required, less space needed, no hygiene exams to pass, no additional costs because of the potentially expensive oversight by environmental health officials, and no “scores on the doors” rigmarole to deal with; no keg lagers or other keg beers means no complicated equipment and no need for bar space; the potential for low rates due to being rated as a shop rather than a pub; from that, low water rates, which are traditionally based on the rateable value; and if you keep turnover below £75,000 a year, the chance to save on 20% VAT. What’s not to like?

We won’t, I don’t think, be able to tell if the micropub movement really is a revolution or a fad until micropub numbers get into at least low triple figures, and we don’t see a rash of closures. But the fact that the movement has gone from a very slow start – the Butcher’s Arms opened in 2005, there were no more micropubs until 2009 and still only a dozen by the end of 2012 – to what looks like a (still small) rocket surge suggests that something extremely interesting may be happening.

How will it affect the rest of the pub business if micropubs really do become mainstream? Well, it could certainly cut back on the number of people looking to run a pubco tenanted pub, if they think they can start up a micropub all of their own for, probably, less money than acquiring a tenancy would cost. But a pub that takes in a year what the average JD Wetherspoon outlet takes in a fortnight is probably not going to worry too many big operators. And the big operators – and most other pubs – probably won’t be losing much business to the micropubs anyway, since the customers micropubs seem to be attracting look to be those who stopped going out to “ordinary” pubs 20 years ago, and stayed at home instead.

On the other hand, since the micropubs seem to be proving that there is a demographic out there which is not currently being served properly by the “mainstream” pub industry, and since new business is always welcome, it may be that big operators start to consider the advantages of running micropubs themselves. In just the way that Tesco, having captured the “big destination shop” supermarket sector, moved into town centres with smaller Tesco Metro stores to mop up what remained, could we see someone like Wetherspoon, having captured so many high streets, decide to move into the suburbs with a chain of “Spoons Local” micropubs?

(A variation of this article appeared on the Propel Info site)

How much is a pub worth? The Lib Dems don’t know

I don’t like people telling me what to do: very probably you are the same. I don’t just get angry at people telling me what to do: I also get angry when people try to tell other people what to do, arrogantly and without cause, people like James Watson, who holds the position of East London Pubs Preservation Officer for the Campaign for Real Ale.

I live in a nice Edwardian house that has a covenant in the original deeds which declares that it can never be used as licensed premises. Do you think that’s wrong? I think that’s wrong – it’s my house, and within the limits of the law, I should be able to do what I like with my own property. If I want to turn it into a freehouse called the Duck and Dive, then – provided I don’t inconvenience my neighbours more than is reasonable – that should be my right.

Turn that covenant on its head, and any major restriction on my right to do what I like with my property within the bounds of the law applies just as much – that is to say, if there were a covenant on this dwelling saying it could only ever be used as a pub, that it must be a pub for all time, that would be just as wrong. It’s mine, I own it – don’t tell me what to do with it.

James Watson, however, disagrees. A gentleman called Sandeep Johal has bought an old Victorian pub called the Prince Edward, in Wick Road, Hackney. I’ve never been in it, but from the outside it looks like a pretty typical East End boozer. Mr Johal wants to knock it down, and build a five-storey block of nine flats in its place. He owns it – it’s his property, and within the law, surely he should be permitted to do with it what he likes. Nine flats in Hackney – sit down now if you’re reading this outside London, but flats in E9 can go for anywhere between £500,000 and £750,000 each. I’d guess that even after the cost of acquisition and building, Mr Johal would be looking at a profit of £3 million or more, minimum. Is anyone going to pay him £3 million more than it cost him to acquire the Prince Edward, just to keep it open as a pub? Is he going to make £3 million in rent in any time under 30 years if it continues to run as a pub? (Clue – no, twice.)

Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters

Hackney in the days when there were more sheep about than hipsters

Mr Watson says otherwise. He told the Hackney Citizen “The only reason [Mr Johal] wants to bulldoze this pub and build flats is for short term financial gain for himself” – James, you’re saying that as if it’s a bad thing – “at the expense of this community, and as a representative of a consumer rights organisation that champions responsible drinking, I think that stinks.” As a member of that same consumer rights organisation, and as a strong supporter of responsible drinking, I can’t see what either consumer rights or responsible drinking have to do with someone’s right to do with their own property what they want to.

According to the Hackney Citizen, Mr Watson then went off on a rant against hipsters, apparently based on the fact that the Prince Edward’s customers are largely working class and, in considerable part, of West Indian origin. The Citizen quotes Mr Watson as saying: “The problem with gentrified hipster Hackney is that you leave other people behind. You leave behind working class, dare I say poor, downtrodden people. [You may dare say, James, but I fear you sound like a pretentious, patronising prat for so daring] These are salt of the earth people who are not going to pay £5.50 for a bottle of craft beer. They want to be in a place where they recognise the food offering. Many of these people’s parents and grandparents have been coming here and marking their life events here for years. They are almost the forgotten people of Hackney, but these people are council tax payers and they have been here a lot longer than the hipsters.” There you are, Mr Johal: the rights of the people to eat sausage, egg and chips and drink cheap beer trump your right to do what you want with something you bought.

I love pubs, and I hate pub closures just as much as James Watson hates pub closures. (I quite like hipsters, though – I like the way they’ve brought the dimpled beer mug back into fashion.) I’m as sorry as James Watson is that the people of Hackney look like losing a place that has been a part of their lives since the 1860s. But the idea that because a building is or has been used as a pub, that makes it special and privileged, and deserving of protected status is nonsense. It’s just the same nonsense that saw the self-styled “pro-pub party”, the Liberal Democrats, pass a motion at their spring conference in York a couple of weeks ago under the title “A Better More Sustainable future for British pubs”, proposing to give pub tenants the right to buy their freehold at an independently assessed market value if their pub company puts the site on the market. But “market value” as what?

A premises might have a market value of £500,000 as a pub, since the returns on its usage as licensed premises would only support that valuation, but a value much more as a supermarket, if the returns on its use as a supermarket supported that value, and a value of millions if it was a suitable site for conversion into a block of flats. If the law the Lib Dems want brought in says the tenant can only buy his pub’s freehold at a price that reflects its higher value as a supermarket, or a block of flats, then if he buys it, he is going to struggle to cover his costs trying to run it as a pub. If, on the other hand, under the Lib Dem proposals, he can buy it at its value as a pub, but it is still worth more as a supermarket, or a block of flats, the first thing any smart tenant will do is flog the pub to Tesco, or a property developer, himself, thus (1) transferring hundreds of thousands of pounds of value from pubco to tenant and (2) still losing the “community” an “asset”. Is this really what the Lib Dems want?

The debate about “protecting” pubs from closure is conducted as if there were only a finite number of sites capable of ever being pubs, and every pub that becomes a supermarket, or a private home, or even a coffee bar means a permanent reduction in the number of pubs there could ever be. But this is total nonsense, of course: even in the days when it was much harder to open a new pub than it is now, Tim Martin, to name just one entrepreneur, was putting up his signboards on premises that had all sorts of previous uses: banks, cinemas, shops, post offices, and the rest. The same process is still going on, all around the country: the micropub movement, for example, has seen pubs open in premises that were formerly, to pick just a few examples at random, a butcher’s shop, an antiques shop, a taxi firm’s offices, a hairdresser’s, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a tattoo parlour, a kitchen showroom, a bookshop, a launderette, a bakery, a health food shop … you are, I’m sure, getting the picture. There are even a couple of micropubs opened up in premises that had been pubs originally, but which had closed 80 or 100 years ago. If the will, and the demand, is there, pubs can spring into being almost as easily as nail bars and tattoo parlours, kebab outlets and coffee shops.

Pubs don’t need their existence protecting by legislation because, as has been demonstrated hundreds of times over the past couple of decades alone, if the demand is there a pub will arise, and if the demand isn’t there, a pub will close. People get emotional when they read headlines that say “Village loses its last pub”, but almost every time the pub is closing because villagers aren’t using it in sufficient numbers – and if there really is genuine demand, there is little or nothing to stop a village entrepreneur opening a new pub, micro or otherwise, to replace the one that is closing. A pub is not an irreplaceable asset, the way a Norman church is.

If a pub is truly an “Asset of Community Value”, as defined by the Localism Act of 2011, then the community will be showing how much it values that asset by walking through the door and spending enough money every week to dissuade any pub owner from closing it. Truly thriving pubs, pubs that make more money as pubs than they would do as anything else, don’t need protection. It will be argued that many pubs would thrive without the overheads of the pubco on their backs: but this ignores the very considerable support, visible and invisible, the pub receives from the pubco, and the fact that any tenant buying a pub from a pubco won’t be getting that support and will now have the overheads of his new mortgage-provider on his back instead. It will be argued that some pubcos, desperate for money because their bondholders are putting the squeeze on, will sell even a thriving pub to a supermarket if it can get that quick hit of much-needed cash from the sale. But again, just as nobody will run a pub if they can make more from it as a supermarket, a supermarket operator isn’t going to run a supermarket in premises that would genuinely make more as a pub.

It will also be argued that in places like Hackney, the price of property is a threat to every pub, that the money to be made from redeveloping each and any pub site into blocks of $500k-a-pop flats means even the most thriving pub is in need of protection. That may be true, though I note that even around Oxford Street, where rents are truly shocking (this is no hyperbole – I saw a room full of experts literally gasp a couple of weeks ago at the news that the rent on an Oxford Street restaurant site was £2.3 million a year), pubs still manage to stay open. But I still don’t believe that if a building is a pub, it must be a pub for ever: I cannot see how somewhere that was operating as a nail bar, for example, suddenly becomes privileged because it has been turned into a pub. And I strongly believe that the only results of the Liberal Democrats’ new policy would be either to persuade some pub tenants suddenly able to buy the pub a pubco wants to sell to try to keep unviable pubs going at their own expense, with every likelihood of failure, or to rob pub owners of much of the value of their pubs and hand it to tenants for nothing, while still ending up with a closed pub.

(Parts of this rant appeared on the Propelinfo.com site on March 14 2014)

Moral panics, Tim Martin and motorways

Did you see the news? It was in all the papers last week, and on TV and radio too. Apparently someone’s opened a pub within less than 750 yards of a road.

Journalists, I’m sorry to say, love a moral panic. If we can get someone to be vocally outraged, our day is made. And there were plenty of people delighted to be vocally outraged over the opening of a Wetherspoon’s pub at a motorway service station. You would think Tim Martin, Wetherspoon’s bemulleted founder and chairman, had set up a stall on the hard shoulder of the M40 and was handing out free tequila shots and pints of wine.

A pub by a road

The Old Crown, Highgate, Middlesex, a pub alongside a road

Now, the point about this particular motorway service station is that it’s not actually ON the motorway – it is, indeed, all of 750 yards away, as the roadkill-sated crow flies. You have to pull off at Junction 2 and drive for a couple more minutes before you finally get to the Hope and Champion pub. It is because the pub is also accessible from the A355 that it was allowed to be built. Places serving alcohol at service stations only accessible from a motorway are still banned.

But the substantive point is, of course, that the Hope and Champion is no different from almost every other pub in Britain, in being by, near or actually on a road of some sort. Even mainland Britain’s most isolated pub, the Old Forge at Inverie, has a road running past the front door, though it doesn’t actually connect up to the rest of the country’s road system. Pubs have been opened alongside roads since Anglo-Saxon alewives stuck bushes on poles outside their hovels to indicate that a fresh brew was available inside. Plenty of pubs – hundreds, if not thousands – are still open alongside fast main roads, like the famous Ram Jam Inn near Oakham, a landmark on the A1 for generations of motorists. You can (or could – apparently it’s boarded up right now) drive out of the Ram Jam Inn’s car park straight into the A1’s northbound carriageway, where the speed limit is just the same (for cars, at least) as on a motorway: if you’re not paying attention, a 38-ton artic may leave its imprint on your boot. It’s a lot more dangerous than joining the M40 after leaving the Hope and Champion.

So where is the recognition that if you have hundreds of pubs like the Ram Jam Inn, then you can’t create a fuss about the Hope and Champion? Swamped in a sea of illogical spit-and-fury. The RAC declared that with a pub now open at a motorway service station, “the temptation to drink and drive can only be increased by easier access to alcohol,” without, apparently, considering that there is already easy access to alcohol for drivers in roadside pubs north and south, east and west. The safety campaign group Brake declared: “The opening of a pub on a motorway is deeply concerning, and presents a potentially deadly temptation to drivers,” without saying how the Hope and Champion is any more of a potentially deadly temptation than the Ram Jam Inn was to drivers on the A1, or the old Bull at Stanborough, near Welwyn Garden City, whose visibility from the A1(M) saw it featured in a 1980s TV ad, or the Royal Oak, Farnham, a Chef & Brewer pub about three minutes’ drive down the A355 from M40 Junction 2 and thus barely more inconvenient for motorway drivers tempted to get lashed than the Hope and Champion is.

The stupidest, most crazed response came from Sky News presenter Eamonn Holmes (well, the man’s an idiot anyway), who managed to call Wetherspoon’s PR spokesman, Eddie Gershon (very nice man, Eddie) the “devil in disguise” in a rant on TV, proclaiming that a pub would change a “perfectly nice” motorway services into “a scenario of hell”. It’s probably too cheap to say that for any rational human being, a motorway service area already IS a scenario of hell, but Holmes’s argument, apparently, was that coaches would pull up full of revellers from stag or hen’s parties, or football supporters. “One coach will pull in with a load of football fans, then a second coach will pull in with rival fans. What will happen then? You’re putting temptation in people’s way. You’re the devil in disguise – aren’t you? You’re offering a scenario of hell – are you not?” he frothed at Eddie G, who was far calmer than I would have been, and failed to call Holmes out for being an idiot who had apparently forgotten that coach parties of football supporters (1) have hundreds of other pubs with large car parks to meet their rivals in, and (2) won’t necessarily require alcohol for it all to kick off anyway.

The Spaniards, Hampstead

The Spaniards, Hampstead, another pub by a road

What is even more frustrating than the illogicality of these arguments, and the willingness of newspapers, TV and radio programmes to give people space to promote these ridiculous claims, instead of slapping them about the head and telling them not to react as if drivers are like toddlers at a supermarket check-out, who can’t resist grabbing for the bad-for-you goods on display, is the framing of the debate about the availability of drink once again as an argument solely about intoxication and its evils. It’s something the whole drinks industry, from producers to retailers, colludes in, and it’s why personally I believe setting up the Portman Group was an extremely bad idea, because its existence plays to the anti-alcohol lobby’s agenda-setting. By banging on about “responsible” drinking, the drinks industry’s own warrior in the “alcohol awareness” wars destroys the main argument for drinking: that it’s fun. No one is ever allowed to say that drinking is fun, because fun and responsibility don’t mix.

Which means that another recent news item, one that ought to have been a powerful weapon in the fight against the sort of wowsers who rage against pubs being opened near roads, has been largely ignored, because it doesn’t fit the anti-drink message, and the pro-drink lobby seems too frightened of the puritans to pick it up out of fear that they’ll be accused of encouraging drinking whose primary purpose is other than being “responsible”. I’m talking about the discovery by the Medical Research Council in Scotland, reported two weeks ago, that a pint in the pub with friends is good for a man’s mental health. Well, of course, you are saying, that’s obvious. But having a proper study point up the positive sides of drinking is such a change from the torrent of negativity about alcohol normally corroding the public debate that the industry really should be making much more of it.

The researcher behind the study, Dr Carol Emslie, said: “We have to understand drinking is pleasurable, it’s sociable, it’s central to friendships. If you ignore that part of it then you are not understanding the context in which people drink. You’re drinking together, you’re laughing and joking and it’s uplifting. It helps you to open up and relax. It was very much the idea that alcohol or drinking in these communal groups had this positive effect on your mental health.” Exactly. But could we ever see an ad campaign that said: “A pint with your pals – it’s good for your mental health”? It may be true, but nobody seems to want to say so.

Of course, the anti-alcohol army, unable to dismiss a properly conducted piece of research completely, still tried to sneer. Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, told The Scotsman newspaper: “Drinking together in the pub may be a positive way for men to build relationships and seek support from each other, as long as this isn’t at the expense of a damaged liver or other health problems.” Please, Evelyn, lighten up. Have a drink.

Still, at least the public are generally more sensible than Sky TV presenters. A survey by the local newspaper in Bucks asked people: “Should the Wetherspoon’s M40 pub at Beaconsfield be allowed?” At the last looking, the response was 83 per cent saying “yes”, with just 17 per cent saying “no”.

A slightly shorter version of this rant appeared on the Friday Opinion page of the Propel Info websire on Friday January 24 2014.

The words nobody wants to hear about the on-trade

Get out the pitchforks and the blazing torches: I’m about to talk again on the subject of pub companies and their tied tenants.

Pint-holding lionThe trouble with trying to have a rational debate about the tied pub system, where pub tenants have to buy their beer from a list provided by the company that owns their pub, is that a fair number of pubco tenants have lost a great deal of money trying to run their pub, and, understandably, they’re angry – very angry. Naturally, they’ve looked around for someone to blame for their losses, and the obvious culprit, as far as they are concerned, is the pub company. Clearly, they say, if the pub company had not been charging them so much rent for the pub, and so much extra for their beer than that beer costs on the open market, then they would have been able to make a success of their business.

If anyone tries to suggest that maybe the pubco isn’t totally responsible for their failure as pub-running entrepreneurs, that person will be subjected to howls – screams – of outrage and fury. The pubco, its failed tenants will insist, is a scam, a conspiracy designed to rip off people who only want to make a reasonable living and who are prevented from doing so by the despicable activities of the company that owns their pub and conned them into signing a lease on it. You, however, for daring to suggest anything otherwise, are (and this is only a selection of the names I’ve been called in the past couple of weeks) a writer of “inaccurate, delusional gumph”, “peddling, paid or not, pubco propaganda”, a “lazy sofa-lounging beer blogger” (I like that one – I might have it printed on a T-shirt), “a zombie”, “a lazy journo who can’t grasp the subject”, someone who “very obviously [doesn’t] know what you’re talking about, either that or you are a liar”, “arrogant, patronising, blinkered and myopic”, and “a denier, a make believer, a fantasist”.

However, it’s clearly nonsense to suggest that the pubco model is responsible for every operator of a tied tenanted pub who goes belly-up, when you consider the following simple fact: one third of all small businesses – regardless of the sector that they are in – fail in the first two years. You would expect, therefore, even given the cushions that tenants of pub companies have around them (the cheap start-up costs inherent in someone else leasing you the premises in which a going business is already running, free training on how to run a small business, free advice on tap from the pubco BDM, or business development manager, assigned to them to help out, help with promotions, discounts on everything from insurance to Sky TV, and so on) that a considerable number are going to crash quickly, simply because that’s what small businesses do.

Even if they get through the first year and are beginning to succeed, counter-intuitively, perhaps, it is when very small businesses start to expand that they are most in danger. According to the credit monitoring company Experian, when a business grows to six to 10 employees, the flexibility it benefited from as a micro-business starts to disappear. Fixed overheads become greater and cash flow starts to cause more serious issues if not carefully monitored. From cases I have studied, it is cash flow that seems to do for most, if not all pub tenants whose businesses collapse: not having the ready money to pay the VAT man, the rent, the bill for the beer, the power companies and so on. Indeed, cash flow problems probably cause most small business failures: I had a mate who ran a micro-brewery in Hertfordshire, and his business went under because, although on paper it was profitable, his cash flow was wrecked by pubs not paying him for the beer he had delivered, and the taxman wouldn’t wait for his own slice.

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In praise of Ted Tuppen

It is a truth universally asserted, at least in the comments section of the Morning Advertiser, that Pubcos Are Evil, their business model consisting solely of luring the naive into their sticky webs, where, entrapped, the poor victims can be sucked dry of all their money and spat out, poorer and sadder. All their policies, the pubcos’ highly vocal opponents proclaim, from charging their tenants more for their beer than the cost of that beer to freehouses to the ways they deal with struggling publicans trying to stay afloat, are Evil, Evil, Evil. Pubcos, the antis assert, should be broken up, or at the least highly regulated, with the dreaded beer tie taken away.

Ted Tuppen as Gabbitas

Ted Tuppen creeps round the wood one way …

Now, there’s no doubt that one model, the highly leveraged pubco, turned into a slow car crash, as running up billions of pounds of debt to buy thousands of pubs and grow as big as possible turned out to be an OK plan in an economy that was doing well, but an absolutely dreadful idea in an economy that was tanking and with income from pubs  falling.

But it doesn’t need much analysis to realise that the idea that pubcos constantly, cruelly and deliberately exploit their tenants, that they maximise the tenants’ pain for their own gain, is nonsense. The best, most efficient way for a company owning pubs to make the maximum amount of money is to ensure the people running its pubs make the most money they can, too. A failing tenant is no use to any pubco – indeed, every tenancy that fails costs a pubco thousands of pounds, in lost revenue and lost rent, plus all the associated expenses of closing a pub up temporarily, finding new tenants, dealing with the fall-out and so on. Pubcos, I can tell you, because I’ve talked to them about it, invest much today into trying to attract the best possible tenants, and providing them with training and support.That’s rather more than used to happen 30-plus years ago when it was the big brewers who had all the tenancies, and too often all they wanted to see in a prospective tenant was a pulse and a deposit.

Stephen Billingham is Thring

… Stephen Billingham creeps round the other way

Yes, you can point to cases, some of them high-profile, that show pubco tenants who have put huge efforts into their pubs, and subsequently crashed and burned, with, allegedly, only hindrance from their pubco. But I’d bet on most/nearly all pub failures being down to people simply not having all the necessary talents to run a pub: as I am about to assert several more times, it doesn’t make economic sense for a pubco to do anything other than put as much effort as it can to keeping a tenant on the road and a pub open.

The claim is that the big pubcos take an unfair share of the profits made by the pubs they own, that they make “huge excess profits” by forcing “the publican and ultimately the consumer” to pay high prices for the beer they buy. But there is no evidence I know of that beer in pubco pubs is more expensive to the consumer: how could it be, for very long, when the consumer is free to go where the beer is cheapest? Nor would it make business sense to restrict the choice of beers in a pubco pub compared to free-of-tie houses, if a wider choice of beers gives freehouses a business advantage over pubco pubs, because once again pubcos would be damaging their own revenues by driving customers away through restricting beer choice. And, indeed, the evidence is that even tenants of the biggest pubcos can choose from many hundreds of different beers from several hundred different breweries. Oh, and there’s not a lot of evidence right now of “huge profits” at the pubcos, though that, of course, is down to trying to pay down the huge debts the bigger ones accumulated when they were expanding. Continue reading

In Bruges

In Bruges

In Bruges

I first drank in the Brugs Beertje in Bruges in 1985. I didn’t realise at the time that it was then only a couple of years old: it already felt like a classic beer venue, small, comfortable as an old suede gardening glove, welcoming as your favourite cousin, the walls lathered in Belgian brewery memorabilia, the selection of hopped beverages extensive and eclectic.

At the time, it was pretty much unknown outside Bruges: I was guided to it by a pamphlet listing the city’s beer outlets that I picked up in the Bruges tourist office while trying to find a hotel. Would the tourist office in any British city have carried a list of good local bars and pubs in 1985? Would the tourist office in any British city carry a list of good local bars and pubs today? Not, I think.

Despite Britain and Belgium each being soaked in beer culture to their respective marrows, there still, 40-plus years after the founding of an organisation specifically set up to encourage appreciation of British beer, seems something much more celebratory about Belgium’s relationship with beer than you find among the British generally. Belgians seem far keener to announce to everybody their beery wonders than we do in Britain, eager to hand you the massive beer menu when you sit down in the bar, cafe or restaurant, happy to let you know that this little country of 11 million is one of the four or five greatest brewing nations in the world, and pleased to point out that they make more unusual beer styles than anywhere else, too. Continue reading

Shades, dives and other varieties of British bar

The public bar, for working men only

When I lived in Hertfordshire, I was puzzled to discover that around the time Edward VII ended his long wait to become king, there was a pub in the small market town of Baldock called the Pretty Shades. It seemed highly unlikely this was some sort of pre-First World War Tiffany lamp theme pub. So what was the origin of the name?

Years later I discovered that a “shades” was originally the name given in the South of England to a basement bar. According to Words, facts, and phrases; a dictionary of curious, quaint, and out-of-the-way matters by Eliezer Edwards, published in 1882

The name originated at Brighton. In 1816 a Mr Savage, who had acquired the premises in Steine Lane formerly occupied by the Old Bank, converted them into a drinking and smoking shop. Mrs Fitzherbert [the Prince of Wales's mistress] at that time lived exactly opposite, and Savage was fearful of annoying her by placing any inscription in front of his house designating its new character. It struck him, however, that as Mrs Fitzherbert’s house, which was south of his, was so tall as to prevent the sun from shining on his premises, he would adopt the word “Shades”, which he accordingly placed over the door where the word Bank had before appeared. The name took, and a large business was secured. Numbers of other publicans in London and elsewhere adopted the name Shades, which is now fully established in the language as a synonym for wine vaults.

I’m not sure I believe that, but the Oxford English Dictionary confirms that “the Shades” was “originally, a name for wine and beer vaults with a drinking-bar, either underground or sheltered from the sun by an arcade. Hence subsequently used, both in England and in the US, as a name for a retail liquor shop, or a drinking-bar attached to a hotel.”

John Badcock’s Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit …, published 1823, revealed two establishments called The Shades in London. One was at London Bridge under Fishmongers’ Hall (“Sound wine out of the wood reasonable and tolerably good are characteristics of this establishment”), while The Shades at Spring Gardens [presumably the Old Shades, Whitehall] “is a subterranean ale shop.”

By 1949 Maurice Gorham could write, in Back to the Local, that “Shades” was “originally a generic term for cellars, now the name of one famous pub at Charing Cross [the Old Shades again] and of various London bars. When used for one bar in an ordinary pub, roughly equivalent to Dive”. So that explained half of the mystery. I’m still looking for a reason for the “Pretty” part.

The saloon bar, for the white-collar worker and his wife

The “shades” was just one of more than a dozen different types of bar that could be found in British pubs, besides the common public bar and saloon bar, many with careful, strict social gradations from one to the other, with a system of purdah and caste strict Hindus would appreciate: no woman would ever be found in the tap room, for example, nor any man coming straight from manual labour in the lounge or the public parlour, while only the landlord’s intimates or regular customers would be served in the snug.

Maurice Gorham stated perfectly the situation as it still stood just after the Second World War:

“One of the most fascinating things about the pubs is the way they are carved up by interior partitions into the most unexpected and fantastic shapes. It is often quite startling to look up at the ceiling and realise that all these compartments, varying so widely in their geography and in their social significance, are merely sketched on the ground plan of a simple rectangular space. Pull down the partitions, and instead of a complicated series of bars you would just have a medium-sized room.”

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Whingeing smokers

A smoker

This man is a smoker. Do you really want to be associated with HIM?

I hate smokers. Not because of the habit: no, it’s the endless whingeing, the dreadful and utterly unwarranted claims to victimhood, the going on and on, tediously, like 15-year-olds, “’Snot fair! Why can’t we smoke in pubs? ’Snot fair!”, the hysterical over-reactions against anyone who suggests that, actually, pubs (and restaurants, and cinemas, and workplaces) are vastly pleasanter places now that smoking is banned, the constant attempts to use the “slippery slope” fallacy to get drinkers to support the campaign to end or amend the pub smoking ban, the false claims that it’s all the fault of supporters of the smoking ban that so many pubs have been closing.

Let’s deal with the “slippery slope” first. It is claimed that the attack on tobacco, if allowed to be successful, will be followed by an even greater attack on alcohol, and therefore drinkers should support smokers in opposing tobacco bans – “It’ll be you next.” But if a slippery slope going from complete freedom to choose our own risks to complete risk regulation exists, shouldn’t the smokers have been fighting further back up that slope years ago, defending the rights of drivers who didn’t want to wear seatbelts, and, before that, motorcyclists who didn’t want to wear helmets? If, somehow, everyone from moped riders to Harley-Davidson owners was still allowed to ride around the UK with the wind rushing through their hair, the government and safety campaigners having conceded the right of every rider to choose to wear a helmet or not, would that have helped prevent the smoking ban? Of course not.

And if drinkers need to be defending smokers’ “rights” as an important step in defending their own right to consume alcohol, how exactly would that have helped prevent, eg, prohibition in the United States? Was there a smoking ban in the US first, which led inexorably to a drinking ban as well? You’ll not need to look up the answer, I think.

What about the “it’s your fault pubs are closing” argument? Here we have to go into some lengthy historical analysis: stick with me. First, pubs have been closing at greater or lesser rates for the past 120 years. It’s difficult, unfortunately, to give precise figures for pub numbers in the past, in large part, over recent years, because of the problem in deciding what proportion of premises with full on-licences are actually pubs and not, eg, hotels, and partly because commentators do not always make it clear if they are talking about the UK total or the England and Wales one. But looking back, between 1894 and 1904 the number of public houses in England and Wales fell by almost 4,000, from over 105,000 to 99,500, 7.7 closures a week. Between 1904 and 1914, when there was a concerted drive by licensing magistrates to cut back on licensed outlets, the number dropped again to 87,700, a rate of 24 a week.

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