I have found a beer women will like – and, ironically, it’s pink

Oh, irony. It’s only a very short time since I mocked Nick Fell, marketing director at SABMiller, for sharing with us, in a presentation about getting more women to drink beer, the “duh, really?” statement that “no one wants a pink beer, including ladies.” But now I have discovered a beer I’m sure very many women will like – and it’s pink.

Not that they’ll like it because of its colour, of course: they’ll like it because it’s a very fine beer, with great depth and complexity of flavour, a beautiful deep bassoon-like bitterness (in contrast to the violins-and-saxophones bitterness of hoppier beers) giving structure to a sweetness that is laced through with liquorish and dark green herbal flavours. How do I know women will like it? Because when I sampled a bottle myself, right after thinking: “This is an extraordinarily good beer”, my next thought was: “I bet Mrs Z would enjoy it” – and not only did she enjoy it greatly, she relieved me of the rest of the bottle, consuming it all herself. Mrs Z is rarely a beer-drinker, touching only the very occasional pils and the even more occasional wheat brew. So if she loves a beer that I think is great too, you can bet we have a genuine cross-party vote-winner.

It's pink, but this ain't no Barbie brew

It’s pink, but this ain’t no Barbie brew

What is this beer? It’s Crazy Viking, one of the brews I brought back from my trip to Denmark last month to talk at the conference on Ny Nordisk Øl, or “New Nordic Beer”, it’s made by Det Lille Bryggeri or Little Brewery, from the small village of Bringstrup, just outside Ringsted, in the middle of the Danish island of Zealand (the one Copenhagen sits on), and it’s a deep ruddy pink because it contains considerable quantities of beetroot (red beet, to Americans) and beetroot extract, added both into the wort before boiling and in the fermentation tank. It also has in it masses of liquorice and nettles, those two giving most of the bitterness, I’m guessing, and only an “extremely limited” amount of hops. Beetroot is about seven per cent sugar, of course, and doubtless that helps to lift the abv of the beer up to 7.9%.

Det Lille Bryggeret’s brewer, René Hansen, has made beers with beetroot as his contribution to the New Nordic food and beer culture movement: the first, with just beetroot and nettles, was called Red Viking, and the one I drank (until Mrs Z stole it from me) has liquorice as well and is called Crazy Viking. It’s the second New Nordic Beer movement-inspired brew to completely blow me away, after the Hø Øl (hay ale) from the Herslev Bryghus I mentioned here (more irony: the Herlsev guys are now having to fight their local bureaucrats, who are trying to ban them from putting hay in their beer on the grounds that it’s not a listed food ingredient under EU regulations. I’ve sent them a copy of a page from Thomas Tryon’s book published in England in the 1690s that mentions hay ale, to show it’s an old tradition – hope it helps, it’s a marvellous beer.)

Crazy Viking logoI’m not sure the Crazy Viking beer name would recommend itself to women drinkers, and nor, probably, would the beer’s bottle label, with its image of an utterly sloshed Viking, one helmet horn drooping. But the liquid itself is an example of what a number of people have suggested since Nick Fell raised the spectre of the missing female beer drinker again back in October: that if there is going to be a style of beer that will appeal to a broader spectrum of women than drink beer now, it certainly won’t be one made by a giant corporation setting out deliberately to capture that market, and it’s much more likely to be the result of an accidental spin-off from a craft brewer or group of craft brewers, like the Ny Nordisk Øl crowd, making a beer that everybody agrees is great, regardless of gender.

Which gives me an excuse to rerun on this blog the dreadful history of the efforts brewers in the UK have made – unsuccessfully – to target women drinkers for three decades, sometimes with, yes, pink beer. For the history of beer marketing is littered with the smoking wrecks of attempts to get females to drink more beer, dating back to the 1980s.

Older readers will remember Allied Lyons, once one of the “Big Six” giants that dominated the British brewing industry until the 1990s, owner of Tetley’s bitter, Double Diamond and Skol lager. They probably won’t remember Bleu de Brasserie, a “lager for women” that Allied launched in 1986 with a huge marketing push, posters on the London Underground and the rest. It was meant to appeal specifically to female drinkers. It came in blue bottles, each with one of four different, stylish labels. And just like every attempt to market a specifically female beer since then, it sank within a short time of its launch, disappearing within a couple of years.

Miller Clear adOther pre-Millennium failures to find beers women would like included Lacons lager and lime in the late 1980s, from Whitbread, when it was still a brewer; Miller Clear, from 1993, in which Miller allegedly “happened upon” a filtration process that takes out a lot of the carbohydrates and, with them, the colour, supposedly improving the beer’s “drinkability”, except nobody found it particularly drinkable and it disappeared within months; Anu, a nitrogenated beer named for the “ancestral mother of the Celts”, launched in the United States in 1999 and a year later pushed out to an utterly uninterested Scotland; and Carling Rock Filtered Beer, launched in 1998 at “men and women in the 18 to 34 age range” and backed by a £5m ad campaign that was more money poured down the pissoir. There was also Whitbread’s disastrous GB lager, launched in 2000 with an appeal that was meant to be “unisex” but which never got further than its regional test markets.

In 2003, Paula Waters, Camra’s new woman chairman, used the Great British Beer Festival to urge big brewers to launch a beer specifically targeted at women. But as Pete Brown pointed out at the time: “They already have, several times. Every time, they failed. The truth is that the world just doesn’t divide into pink and blue. Women like beer. More women could be persuaded to try beer. But women like beer in spite of, even because of, the fact that it it’s not aimed directly at them. They drink beer when they’re feeling a bit laddish, or just when the mood and the occasion are right. Similarly, wine producers did not have to go through a process of making their product macho to persuade men to drink it in ever-increasing numbers, they just positioned it so that blokes would find occasions when it was more appropriate than a pint. A beer aimed at women just wouldn’t feel right, like one of those creepy blokes who has no mates of his own gender.”

This wise observation failed to stop brewers continuing to pursue the mirage of the female-friendly beer. In 2004 Interbrew, as was, launched a beer in France called Extra Kriek, a version of a cherry beer already on the market in Belgium, with a recipe that was said to “take out the bitterness and accentuate its fruitiness”, this supposedly making it more attractive to women’s tastes. Interbrew said it had taken inspiration from the cosmetics sector in launching the product, which was packaged in red plastic film and marketed in women’s magazines under the slogan “At last, a beer for women”. A decade on, you’ll have noted, the product has failed to release armies of kriek-drinking females.

The following year, 2005 Anheuser-Busch brought out BE – “Bud Extra” – a version of Budweiser with caffeine, guarana and ginseng in a black glass bottle “aimed at both male and female drinkers”, and described as having a flavour “reminiscent of beer with a raspberry, blackberry and cherry aroma that delivers a beer with a sweet taste”. Jim Gorczyca, then Budweiser’s UK marketing director, said: “It’s a new and refreshing choice for consumers.” Unfortunately the drink turned out to appeal to teenagers more than women, and it was withdrawn in 2009 as part of a general clampdown on caffeinated alcoholic drinks.

Charli: I really don't want to think about what they believed they were doing with the shape of that fount

Charli: I really don’t want to think about what they believed they were doing with the shape of that fount

The urge to try to find a female beer market was driven, of course, by the decline in the male beer market, with sales falling, and the observation that only 10% of women in the UK were regular beer drinkers. In 2007 Cobra attempted to capture the female beer market with the launch of Cobra Bite, a “fruit-flavoured premium lager range” in four varieties – sweet lime, blood orange, apple and lemongrass – aimed at 25 to 35-year-old women. It was withdrawn after only a couple of years. Also in 2007, it was revealed that Heineken was testing a new “cider-based beverage” called Charli, aimed at women, and made from cider, barley malt and sparking water, with an abv of 5%. Marketing magazine wrote that it was being tested in bars in the Netherlands on tap and in bottles and “if successful, drinks industry observers expect it to roll out in the UK next summer.” It wasn’t, and it didn’t.

Coors had two attempts at marketing pink beers in 2008: Kasteel Cru rosé, a variation of the Kasteel Cru “champagne beer” brand made “with a hint of elderflower and elderberry”,  a joint idea developed with Brasserie Licorne, which made the beer on Coors’ behalf (elderberry, in Alsace, is apparently very popular as a sweetening addition to sparkling wine and beer) and Grolsch Rosé, made using cranberry juice, actually an SAB/Royal Grolsch product which was born in a mini-boom in rosé beer sales in the Netherlands at the time. Both, like Cobra Bite, were soon gone: according to an insider, Molson Coors killed both Kasteel Cru and Kasteel Cru Rose because it wanted to focus on a less expensive brand (Kasteel Cru was contract manufactured and therefore more expensive) which it could “scale up’ more “aggressively”.

In 2009, having clearly learnt nothing from Miller’s disaster 16 years earlier, it threatened to launch a “clear lager” as part of its “multi-million-pound project to increase the number of women who regularly drink beer”. The beer had an abv of 4% and was put through an ultra-filtering process that removed its colour. It was flavoured with green tea and dragonfruit, and “has a taste similar to an alcopop”. A spokeswoman for the brewer said: “We know that what turns some women off beer is the colour and the head, although they like the refreshing taste.” Apparently they didn’t like the taste of green tea and dragonfruit, though, because a year later Molson Coors was telling the marketing press that it was still going to launch the clear beer but it would now “taste more like a beer”. Six months on from that announcement, it was quietly revealed that the clear beer, which never even managed to get a name, had been shelved, on the grounds that it was “so unlike beer that it would fail to help the company’s ultimate goal of increasing the number of women drinking beer.”

Meanwhile another brewing giant, Carlsberg, was pursuing the seemingly uncatchable phantasm of the female beer drinker with Eve, a 3.1% abv “lightly sparkling product positioned somewhere between a lager and an RTD”, available in two flavours, passionfruit and lychee, trialled in Manchester in 2009 with a £500,000 ad campaign, rolled out nationally in March 2010 with a £3m ad campaign featuring Louise Redknapp and withdrawn, again, in 2012.

Animée: more millions down the drain

Animée: more millions down the drain

By now Coors had set up a “female focused business unit” called Bittersweet, staffed by women only, charged with spending more of the company’s money on capturing the female drinker, despite all the previous failures to do so. Late in 2010 Coors announced that it would be launching a new range of beers in the middle of 2011 aimed at the female market, after research lasting 18 months, with a recipe that “fights the concerns women have around drinking beer, such as bloating, weight gain and taste.” The new beer, Animée, “less gassy and lighter-tasting than traditional beers”, had £1m spent on its development and another £2m on advertising. It was withdrawn in 2012 after less than a year, amid claims that both Coors Light and Corona were selling more beer to women than Animée was. According to one insider, Molson Coors’ own research had predicted the new beer would be a failure: “How a company could so blatantly ignore the research it commissioned itself, with Bittersweet, which basically said, ‘Don’t patronise women with pink tasteless beer’ is beyond me.”

Well, it seems there are, apparently, few so deaf as marketeers who don’t want to listen to an unwelcome message. In October 2012, despite the failure of Eve, the chief executive of Carlsberg, Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen, declared that he was now convinced women were the next big growth market for beer, and announced that he had asked Carlsberg’s 130-strong research department to dream up new “innovations and concepts” to attract women, by offering sweeter-tasting beer, because, oh yes, “females don’t so much like the very bitter taste you have in beer.” Carlsberg was already attempting to flog something called Copenhagen, a “metrosexual beer for the beer hater”, launched in 2011. Buhl Rasmussen told the Sun newspaper that while the packaging was a success, “the taste still needs work to make it more appealing.” Or to translate from marketingspeak: looks lovely, tastes like fizzy orc’s urine.

Little or nothing has been heard of the Buhl Rasmussen initiative (or “metrosexual” beer either) since then, but now SAB Miller is apparently convinced that it can finally find the pot of gold at the end of the female beer drinker rainbow. Nick Fell told City analysts back in October that the drive to making beer more female-friendly would start within six months with smaller efforts, before bigger beer launches and campaigns come to the fore from 2016 onwards. “There will be failures”, SAB Miller admitted – I’ll bet –  but Fell declared: “We’re confident of a shift in lager over the next five years to lager being more appropriate in mixed gender occasions. If we’re not seeing some movement in the next three to five years, at least in some markets, then we’re doing something wrong.”

Cushie Butterfield

Cushie Butterfield: the image too many women have of a female beer drinker?

Unfortunately for Fell, and SAB Miller, I fear they are indeed doing something wrong: trying to solve the problem with entirely the wrong product. There probably IS, now, an opportunity to market beer to women generally: but not lager. Part of the problem is that the reasons women actually give for not liking beer are not the true reasons, or at least the whole reason. They might say: “It’s too bitter,” or “It’s too fattening.” But what they probably mean is: “I just don’t like the baggage that comes with being a woman drinking lager, the assumptions by too many people that you’re somehow not sophisticated, you’re unfeminine.”

That’s not the case with craft beer, however, or not so much, certainly: and if any beers are going to appeal to women, it is most likely to be versions of the hoppy, floral American pale ales and the like that have swept across the Atlantic and are now being brewed, not just by almost every microbrewer in Britain, but by increasing numbers of established brewers as well; or one of the amazing beers being produced by the “place-based beer movement” I talked about here, including the Ny Nordisk Øl guys. What’s more, they will be beers that men would not be ashamed to be seen drinking, either, even if they might actually be beetroot-pink.

(Large parts of this blog entry appeared previously on the Propel Info website)

Place-based beer, a world-wide local movement

I gave a presentation in Denmark to a conference called to discuss “Ny Nordisk Øl” – “New Nordic Beer” – on “Beer and terroir from an international perspective” on Friday November 7. This, slightly tweaked, expanded in a couple of places and cut in a couple more, is that presentation.

The brewers of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are already enthusiastically making beers that reflect the place they are made, using local ingredients: you can read about some of those beers here. But what the Ny Nordisk Øl movement is doing is just part, albeit a tremendous part, of a wider movement to get away from internationally reproducible styles of beer, a movement that is finding expression in North America via campaigns such as “Beers made by walking about” and by brewers such as the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco, the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, the Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois and Plan Bee brewery in New York state, in Italy, in New Zealand, and in Australia, most eloquently by Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall brewery in Tasmania.

As I researched for my presentation, it became clear that the “place-based beer” movement is a growing global phenomenon, albeit as yet those engaged in it often seem unaware that others are fighting a similar crusade. This is a long blog but, I hope you’ll agree, fascinating in its implications for the future of craft beer.

Beer and terroir coverBefore I begin talking about beer terroir, it would be best to say exactly what I mean by the term in the context of brewing, what I think you need in order to be able to say that a beer has characteristics that fall under the name “terroir”, and some of the problems of trying to talk about “beer and terroir”.

There are plenty of complicated ways of defining “terroir”, and what it takes for “terroir” to be reflected in a beer. But the one I like best was said by an American craft brewer who said he was attempting to achieve in his beers “the essence of here”.

How do you achieve “the essence of here”? In beer, there are, I hope you will agree, six major variables that affect the “hereness” of a beer: Continue reading

Why the Micropub Association should be furious with Camra

The Micropub Association should be absolutely raging with the Campaign for Real Ale. Because under the misguided idea that it is “saving” the British pub, Camra is trying hard to make sure no new pubs ever get opened again.

Once again this is a case of not properly thinking through the implications of a proposed policy. What Camra wants to do is to try to make it much more difficult to close pubs (more on why that’s a stupid idea later). So why will making it more difficult to close pubs also make it much more difficult to open new pubs, in the way that the Micropub Association has been doing so successfully over the past few years, at a rate currently running at two a month (a better new pub opening record, afaik, than any pub company is currently achieving.)

The problem is that the restrictions Camra wants to put in the way of anyone trying to shut a pub means that landlords will be extremely reluctant to let their property be turned into a new pub. And similarly banks, building societies and other lenders will be deeply unwilling to give anyone a mortgage to buy a property they want to turn into a pub. Why? Because if the new pub business goes nipple-skywards after a year or three, the landlord now has a property that, under Camra’s proposed rules, needs planning permission to be turned back into something other than a pub. So instead of speedily being able to find another tenant, the landlord now has to go through the expensive and time-wasting procedure of getting the building “depubbed” again before it can once more become a coffee shop, an opticians or whatever. Similarly the potential mortgage lender is not going to want to risk having to repossess the building that housed a failed new pub business, and, again, having to find the staff, time and money to put in a planning application (do you know how long it takes to get a planning application through?) for change of use so they can then flog the place to a non-pub user. So – finance for people wanting to open new pubs is going to dry right up, because Camra has a dumb idea it thinks will help pubs stay open.

Indeed, the first move should anything like Camra’s “planning permission to close pubs” idea approach the statute books will be a rash of pub closures, as pub owners shut their marginal pubs before they have to seek local councillors’ permission to do so. But even if such a law did come in, does anyone seriously believe it would prevent a single pub from closing? Of course it wouldn’t. And trying to preserve failing pubs in aspic is a remarkably dumb idea anyway, because the ultimate effect is to damage successful pubs by depriving them of business they deserve.

The whole idea that pubs need special protection is nonsense, anyway, as I have frequently argued. Pubs are not sacred. The rights of pubgoers do not trump the rights of property owners. The disappearance of any pub is not the same as, eg, the disappearance of a Saxon church. Pubs are, and have always been, “churned” all the time: one closes, another one opens. (It may surprise you to learn that JD Wetherspoon has closed more than 100 of the pubs it has opened over the years). If a pub is making less money for its owner than it would under another use, the owner must have the right to maximise their income. If a pub closes, and a community feels it needs a pub, let someone open a new pub, in a more viable site with fewer overheads. Except that if Camra has its way, opening that new pub will be much more difficult.

Camra can’t even get its own arguments straight. It complains about pubs being turned into shops and then declares that “69% of all adults believe that a well-run community pub is as important to community life as a post office, local shop or community centre.” So – shops are important, too! Indeed, the reason why so many pubs are being turned into shops is because to many communities, local shops are MORE important than pubs, in the sense that more people use their local shop and spend more money in it, than use their local pub. I would guarantee you that any pub turned into a Tesco now has a wider selection of the community crossing its threshold, more frequently, than ever happened when it was the Duck and Dive, or whatever. Most pubs have a remarkably low number of real regulars, and the importance to the community that Camra ascribes to them in the 21st century is a product of sepia-tinted nostalgia for the times before the last old maid bicycled to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning (G. Orwell).

If there is one single thing that would increase the chance of survival of the British pub – and I won’t yield to you, Camra or anyone in my desire to see our pubs strong and thriving – it would be a dramatic improvement in the standard of cask beer served in those pubs. Cask beer is (or should be) the unique selling point of our pubs, and Camra would do a far better job thinking up ways to improve the quality of our pints than inventing stupid tweaks to planning laws that won’t work, and will actually have a seriously detrimental effect on the efforts of people like the Micropubs Association trying to open pubs of just the sort Camra members approve.

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