Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Quality Thing


The latest on trade beer figures make grim reading indeed, but are not really news, though they do highlight what appears to be a rush away from pub drinking. It is forecast that home drinking will overtake drinking in the pub, perhaps as soon as the next 18 months. This was once unthinkable. If you want to read a good article on this subject I recommend Robert Sayles' one in The Publican's blogs section. My readers will know I'm a dedicated pub man and though it pains me to say so, it is difficult to gainsay his conclusion that the figures show that the decline in on trade drinking is part of a long term trend.

The Pub Curmudgeon also explores this subject and of course squeezes in a reference to the smoking ban. While undoubtedly there is some effect from this, there seems little doubt that there are more complex social reasons in play. It is not an original thought to say that once the pub was, for many, a refuge from a grim home environment, while now it has to offer something special to drag you away from home comforts that surpass the pub in so many ways, at a faction of the cost. Price is undoubtedly an issue, especially for those drinking commodity beers, as is choice and quality. The overall indebtedness of the pub industry, the lack of good career landlords and the avaricious PubCos, make this a particularly thick jungle to hack through. The situation is undoubtedly complex, but there is little doubt though that whatever the reason or reasons, there is a distinct and lasting swing away from the pub.

I for one have never argued that all pubs can survive and indeed many of the pubs that have gone were appalling in the extreme and at the bottom end of the market, doomed by selling beers that could be bought at home more cheaply and by their mainly smoking clientèle. They might well be missed by a few, but in truth were on borrowed time anyway. It is not all doom and gloom though. Many pubs continue to do well and it is to them that we must look for the answers, though I continue to argue with force that all pubs need to up their quality game to have a chance of survival. The pursuit of quality, service and choice has never been more important. It is worrying in the extreme that the offer in so many pubs is inferior, the customer service ethos non existent, the prices exorbitant and the beer quality poor.

Of course the pub will survive, but there is more pain to come before things stabilise though we have to face it that the glory days of a full pub on every corner are behind us. For those pubs that still aspire to a prosperous future, we need to see much better from them or they'll disappear too. Nobody wants to pay top dollar for a warm pint, frozen chips and not so much as a warm smile or greeting.

37 comments:

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

Just a quick point about drinking and health. You don't mention it in your post, but how much is this a factor? Once upon a time people might've been happy to visit a pub on 4, 5, 6 nights of the week. These days we're told to cut back on our drinking and that too much will kill us, surely this has an input on how willing people are to visit the pub?

Chunk.

(Above post deleted because it didn't give me the option to "email follow up comments to ..." - Posted the same comment again and it did!)

Tandleman said...

Perfectly reasonable point. As I say the reasons are complex and abundant. Perhaps pubs are being hit by a perfect storm, but they need to do the right things to give themselves a chance.

Ed said...

I think car ownership must have helped increase home drinking. You weren't going to take a slab of lager home when you did you weekly shopping by bus...

Curmudgeon said...

It can't really be attributed to declining alcohol consumption, as average per capita consumption, while it has fallen since the early 2000s, is still considerably higher than it was in the heyday of pubs in the late 1970s. It's not that people are drinking less, but that they are drinking it elsewhere than in pubs.

Tandleman said...

I think it is a variety of factors Mudgie, most of them social. Cheap booze must also be a factor that leads to drinking it at home, but other factors influence that decision too, whether it be not being able to smoke or whatever.

Cooking Lager said...

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/aug/09/beer

Get down to Tesco's

John Clarke said...

It's not a particularly UK thing either. I don't have the latest figures but as the previous Good Beer Guide Belgium points out in 1994 there were fewre than 30,000 cafes in Belgium and by 2000 this total had dropped to less than 25,000 (and all pre-smoking ban, too! - listen carefully that noise you can here is soapboxes being dragged out of cupboards.

It is of course worth bearing in ind that while pubs are closing the number of on-licenses is remaining about constant. The slack is being taken up by the number of bars opening. So, I think we may be seeing two cultural changes taking place - one the increase in the number of peopple preferring to drink at home, and two the change in preferred venue for those who want to go out. I'm pretty relaxed about this myself as some of the new bars are perfectly pleasant places to drink (especially as more of them are converting to cask)- and like you I do not believe the pub is in terminal decline; what we will be left with is a smaller but better pub stock.

Curmudgeon said...

But since the on-trade stats include bars as well as pubs, you can't say that closing pubs are being replaced like-for-like by new bars. And would the decline be even more catastrophic without the rise of Wetherspoons, who must now account for 10% or so of all on-trade beer consumption?

Curmudgeon said...

Ed wrote: "I think car ownership must have helped increase home drinking. You weren't going to take a slab of lager home when you did you weekly shopping by bus..."

Exactly the point I made here back in 2008.

Tandleman said...

Wetherspoons get a bad press, but in Lord Moon of the Mall in London on Sunday, I had a very pleasant drink at a good price, served by a pleasant young woman who smiled at me, in a very acceptable and busy atmosphere with clean tables and plenty of staff. A complete contrast with my duff experience at Cask, called by some a great pub.

Wetherspoons do a lot right (and a lot wrong) and if they sell 10% of on trade consumption, good for them I say.

Mark said...

Stick me in the pro 'spoons camp. The one near me is always fairly priced, has good staff and a selection of at least 3 cask ales which are always in good condition.

The food sucks though. :P

Cooking Lager said...

Clarkey has a fair point. Not all pubs are created equal. Whatever your taste I'm sure you can point to a fair number of pubs you yourself would never want to go into. There are a fair number of run down dumps, for which there is little by way of a market for.

Curmudgeon said...

Incidentally, the pub pictured is, I think, a large derelict one on the A664 at the south end of Castleton. What was it called, and how long has it been closed? It looks as though it might once have been something of a showpiece pub.

Matt said...

I think Wetherspoons' nickname, McSpoons, sums it up: you get a competently-kept pint of cask beer at a cheap price served by staff trained to be friendly in a soulless atmosphere. Not unwelcome in many towns but none of their pubs are going to win any prizes for their atmosphere or beer.

RedNev said...

I've had my say on why pubs are closing elsewhere and don't wish to cover that ground again here. I tend to find that the quality of service and beer in most real ale pubs I go to is adequate or good, and that bad experiences are less common than they used to be.

I do wonder whether a push for even higher quality will lead to higher prices, thus driving away more customers. I accept that glasses should be collected, tables cleaned, etc, but if these are neglected, might it be that the pub can't afford enough staff? A lot of pubs are operating on the basis of economic anorexia, and saying "up your game" seems an inadequate response to me.

Tandleman said...

RedNev Keeping your beer properly, smiling at your customers, saying hello or goodbye costs nothing and a great experience brings you back time and time again.

The BBPA acknowledges they need to do better, though most of my experiences are good too - but I do drink where I do through bitter (pun intended) experience. I am usually caught out when I veer off that path. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find you in that boat.

It isn't the whole answer by any means, though I am gratified that you find things better than you used to.

John Clarke said...

Not sure what sort of point that Curmudgeon is trying to make here. If the number of on licenses is remaining more or less static than clearly closing pubs ARE being replaced like for like with bars (and Spoons!). Perhaps he is concerned that this doesn't fit with his rather dreary world view, I dunno.

In addition we also know that cask ale volumes are either steady or in growth. So while the headline figure of decline may be be striking, as a cask ale, and pub AND bar fan (I have just spent a couple of very convivial hours in 57 Thomas Street) I am struggling to see the problem here. But then again I do tend to be a "glass half full" (and preferably with good beer!) kinda guy.

HardKnott Dave said...

I think your point about a lack of good career landlords is an important one. Although my slant on this issue might be different to yours because I think, from my own experience, it is difficult to maintain enthusiasm for the trade from the perspective of someone looking from inside.

Sadly it's not just about remaining cheerful enough to smile all the time and serving a tip top pint but about providing a very diverse service through a quagmire of impossible legislation.

I don't know what the answer is, I never found it, which is why I now just brew beer.

Curmudgeon said...

"Not sure what sort of point that Curmudgeon is trying to make here. If the number of on licenses is remaining more or less static than clearly closing pubs ARE being replaced like for like with bars (and Spoons!)."

But if the total on-trade beer volumes continue to steeply decline, it is clear that in terms of beer sales, bars (and Spoons) are NOT replacing the trade from closed or failing pubs.

John Clarke said...

Curmudgeon - well obviously but why does that matter? If cask ale volumes are static (at worst) or in growth (more likely) and the number of on licenses is also more or less static then what exactly is the problem? Perhaps my mind has been clouded by too much Marble Pint but I really can't see the reason for too much hand wringing here.

Curmudgeon said...

Cask accounts for maybe 15% of total on-trade beer volumes, around 2 million bulk barrels. Even if cask ale sales remain static or rise a little, if the remaining 85% continues to decline at a rate of knots, it will put paid to a lot of outlets that currently serve good cask beer.

John Clarke said...

Curmudgeon - sorry for the delay in this response but I've just been to the pub (much better to drink in them then sit in front of a computer bemoaning their fate, don't you think?). Anyway, despite the intake of even more alcohol I still don't follow your logic. If cask acocunted fot just 15% of every pubs' sales then you might have a point. However for those pubs that major on cask (and I include here many traditional "mild and bitter" locals as well as speciality outlets) it will account for rather more than that and I suggest they will be able to take the decline in other beers more easily in their stride than the keg and lager driven outlets.

Hence I'm still optimistic about the long term health of the great British "pub" in all its forms (I include bars in this general description of course).

Tandleman said...

Dave - All pubs are particular, but it is a changed world and there are far too many dopes (or should that be dupes) running pubs and far too many shysters owning them.

Your concerns with legislation need a little more exploring before comment.

Anonymous said...

i was in the Cask on sunday was warmly greeted by one of the owners and had a couple of excellent pints.One duff visit can happen at any pub but pubs are closing because our drinking habits have changed.when i go out drinking locally mid week the pubs are empty yet in central London they are packed.the old style local pubs in the suburbs of London are finished imo.

Tandleman said...

My glass is half full too John, though I think Mudgie revels in his role as Cassandra. Why not? It is a good niche for him. That doesn't mean to say he is never right. Sometimes he is - when he isn't talking about the smoking ban that is - though not in this case.

And Mudgie - well spotted. It was the George and Dragon in Cazzy. It has been closed for years and when open was somewhat of a Tardis in reverse. I took the piccy.

Tandleman said...

Sorry Anon. What time were you in the pub? I suspect you are defending the the place because you know it. Either that or your standards are more flexible than mine. What exactly did you drink?

Anyway it wasn't me that had the first encounter with the guy who may have been the owner. It was my lass and she was treated with indifference. And she, unlike me, can charm the birds out of the trees.

You may well read the full story soon or maybe not. I probably just won't go back.

RedNev said...

The fact that real ale sales are steady or slightly rising is no cause for complacency among real ale drinkers. I have spoken to licensees in real ale pubs (two of which serve up to 10 real ales) and they tell me that, despite their good cask beer sales, they cannot survive on them alone. The sales of other drinks (plus food in some instances) are absolutely necessary for the pub's survival - and for the availability of real ale.

It doesn't matter how well cask is selling, if other beer sales (and other takings in general) are in free fall, then pubs will still close.

Not glass half full or half empty: just a simple economic fact. We real ale drinkers are part of the drinking public - we are not the drinking public, and we need the other drinkers so that our preferred drink remains available.

Tandleman said...

RedNev - Agreed. I doubt if anyone thinks differently. Pubs need to sell to more than just cask drinkers and good food is essential too.

John Clarke said...

I agree that there are very fews pubs that can survive on cask alone. However, and I admit this is something of a guess, I would think that those that get the cask right and hit the quality button elsewhere (the two often go hand in hand in my experience) are probably experiencing less of a decline in their other wet sales than the headline figures.

It is also true of course that as the number of pubs declines then on-trade beer sales will also drop as there are fewer outlets. This is another guess but I wonder how the on-tade volumes in the remaining pubs compares with the same pubs 10 or 15 years ago? Certainly there will be a decline but I wonder if it wil be so remarked as comparing total volumes then with total volumes now?

However since I have already said that the total number of on-licenses has remained pretty much constant perhaps the answer will be a lemon. Although of course it does seem likely that many of the newer outlets will sell more in the way of food and non-beer beverages than the pubs they replace.

Curmudgeon said...

I would say – from observation and anecdotal evidence – that most currently-open pubs that were trading in a similar format 10 or 15 years ago are selling considerably less beer than they used to. A lot of the on-trade volume that remains has gone to Wetherspoons, who have only really become a force round here in the past 10 years. While total pub numbers have declined, they haven't fallen anywhere near as much as the 40+% fall in beer volumes. (Probably more like 20-25% since 1997)

Barm said...

"you get a competently-kept pint of cask beer at a cheap price served by staff trained to be friendly in a soulless atmosphere."

… whereas there are still plenty of non-Wetherspoons pubs who will give you the same, except without the cheap price, the competent cellarmanship and the staff training.

Anonymous said...

9.00 pm
the 2 dark star beers
i wasnt defending the pub as i have only used it 4 or 5 times.i was commenting as we both used it the same day but with different opionions.Some people are cut out to be publicans and some less so and if it was the owner i can understand your comments.Sadly if being treated with indiffrence was a reason not to go back to a pub in London i would be struggling in central London to find any place to drink.

moleha4 said...

Broadly agree with your original posting. As someone who enjoys his weekly visits to the Cask, Pimlico I'm sorry you had a poor experience there. I tend to drink the Thornbridge beers more than any other and have personally been happy with the quality / temperature, and the staff have always been at the least civil and in the main friendly both to myself, my friends and as far as I can tell other customers. In the past I have not fully agreed with your thoughts on both the Rake & the Wenlock. I'll certainly be taking pub/beer notes when I am next in Manchester should anything not be to my liking, and giving due praise where it is! Cheers,moleha4.

Erlangernick said...

Apropos your twitment about the Regal Moon. We were amazed at the quality at the Spoons in ...er... The Picture House in Colwyn Bay last month. IIRC, 8 handpumps, all on, and all in excellent condition. The usual nationals --though better than I've had them elsewhere-- but also some fine Welsh beers too. Highly, highly recommended.

The young lad doing the pub quiz is also the cellarman. And he's young. One to keep an eye on.

Anonymous said...

Funny how you never actually posted about your visit. Too afraid of the real facts coming out? Face it you were only upset because they didn't roll out the red carpet for you.

Tandleman said...

Anon - I usually delete wankers like you, but for the record, a friendly "hello" and decent beer is all the red carpet I need. I might write my Cask experience up or I might not. It was on twitter contemporaneously (look that word up if you don't know it) so not sure I need to.