Wednesday, 11 November 2020

A Little Bit of History

 I tend - no - firmly avoid - writing in any detail about beer history. Firstly I'm a lazy bugger - I tend to paint things with a broad brush and leave the finer points to others - and secondly - I know for sure that I'd get a lot of it wrong and haven't the will or application to research to ensure I don't. I know myself fairly well. 

When I was working and the boss of quite a few, I liked to think I saw the big picture and then had others apply the fine detail. The attractions of this method of operation became clear to me in one of the few actual epiphanies I have ever had. When I went to see,  a long time ago, the Three Graces statue in Edinburgh, the accompanying pull up description told me that Antonio Canova, the sculptor did not, as I'd originally supposed simply take a suitably sized lump of stone to meet what he had in mind and fashion it into a magnificent statue, by chipping away at it over a long and tedious period. Rather he drew it roughly, had someone better at drawing firm it up into something precise, added dimensions and then set all his apprentices and other trainees do the hard work. Eventually, having supervised the operation, he trotted along at the end with his daintiest chisel and some sandpaper and finished it off. Well - more or less.  Not that bad a way to operate I thought. It helped my career a lot.

So back to beer history - of a sort.  When I lived in Dumbarton we had a small, but very old pub at 1 High St, called the Elephant and Castle. Named after the town's coat of arms, it was when I lived there, operated and probably owned by Scottish and Newcastle Breweries. I used to go there on occasion and invariably drank pint screwtop bottles of McEwans's Pale Ale, a beer for which I have an abiding affection. And why not? It was the first beer I ever tasted. The pub wasn't that big and certainly, as far as I recall, had no particular architectural features to accompany its venerable years.  Anything of any antiquity that had been there had long since gone, but it was always one of the friendliest pubs in the town and so worth, as they said then in these parts, "throwing your heid roon the door" now and then.

Sadly, while I did pop in again sometimes over the years when I visited my old mother when I had long since lived in England, it somehow had managed to close in my absence and became a rather sorry sight, with copious weeds growing out of its roof and gutters. It was finally demolished in 2017, having been closed for over ten years, to make way for a new walkway to the River Leven from that side of town.

It was however brought back to my mind by this photograph which shows the pub in 1946, the staff resplendent in their starched long aprons and suitably serious expressions. The photo was posted on the Facebook site Memories of Dumbarton and there is an accompanying article written in 1986 describing it in a little detail.  Of course, those contributing tended to comment on how they knew or were related to the subjects in the photo, rather than the pub. Sadly there was little insight into the pub itself, but it was referred to, somewhat obviously, as Nellies, something I never did, or in fact, had ever heard. To me, it was always just the Elephant and I don't ever recall it being called otherwise. But I don't doubt it.  The local newspaper covered its demolition, but shed no real light on its history, except to say that the council accepted that despite the pub's being built around 1807,  it had no architectural merit or features.  One interesting point was that in common with the Irish way of pub naming, when the front was torn off, it revealed it had been called Galbraith's at one time. Again something I didn't know.

Dumbarton also used to have its own brewery. The Crown Brewery aka Gillespies, which was further along the High St than the Elephant, or rather, just off it. Oddly enough, that's something I didn't know for much of my Dumbarton life, but how that changed is another story and is mentioned here.  There isn't much detail on the Crown Brewery that I can find, but various labels and scant information are to be had fairly easily. In short though, the brewery was wound up, according to the Edinburgh Gazette in 1952. Sadly I have not been able to find out what subsequently happened, but it does seem that Scottish Brewers bought some liquidated assets, as they used "Gillespies" as the name of a stout, a beer which some may even remember.  I've often wondered if Crown/Gillespies ever owned any pubs in the town or indeed, elsewhere, but I have never been able to find out.  Of course if I was a proper historian - hold the press - any sort of historian at all - I'd delve more into that, but I refer you to my earlier paragraph above.

So the tale ends there? Not quite. When I looked at the photo above, I noticed behind the bar, on the gantry, a mirror. It is hard to say, but it looks like a Crown Brewery mirror. The shape of the crown on the mirror matches the crown used as the company logo. Was the Elephant and Castle supplied by Crown Brewery? It would seem so. Was it owned by them? Maybe. We need a historian to work that one out.

The Coat of Arms for Dumbarton is the Elephant and Castle. The elephant allegedly for the shape of Dumbarton Rock and the castle; well, the castle that sits upon the Rock. The Rock, 240 feet high, is allegedly the oldest known fortified site in Scotland and perhaps, Britain.

 I am grateful to Margaret Rose Black of Memories of Dumbarton for permission to use the photo of the staff in the pub and for the article I refer to.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Book Review - The Family Brewers of Britain

The Industrial Revolution brought about huge changes, as Britain moved from a largely agrarian economy to a manufacturing one. Brewing, which had previously been a mainly small scale, domestic operation, changed as workers poured into towns and cities and saw demand exceeding supply.  To meet this demand, common or commercial breweries sprang up to meet the need for beer to be produced in volume. As Roger Protz emphasises in his latest book, The Family Brewers of Britain, almost without exception, the new commercial brewers were family businesses.  All the big names from the past, Bass, Barclay Perkins, Courage, Greene King, Truman, Whitbread and Worthington started out this way before becoming public companies.

As time went on, these businesses bought the pubs they supplied, tying them to buying only the parent company's beer, a practice that continues to this day.  Over the years, many breweries were taken over or merged with others. As pub ownership became more and more profitable, merger mania continued until the vast majority of pubs were owned by six giant companies.

Perhaps surprisingly amongst the rash of takeovers which saw many family brewing companies, give up the ghost and cash in their assets, a number of companies stood out against the tide, eventually forming the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB) to protect their collective interests. It is these companies that are the subject of this book, which describes in detail how the families had mixed fortunes and how they arrived at where they are today. All had the shared problems of war, deaths, economic depressions and more, but while some overcame these by good management and internal agreement, others saw bad management, fraternal fallouts, splits, disagreements over money, policy and more. All are faithfully chronicled in Roger's usual meticulous style.

Each brewery gets its own chapter and these are grouped geographically. The oldest, Shepherd Neame, kicks us off. This is one of the more straightforward tales. After a series of partnerships, the Neame family have been in charge since the 19th century, surviving both wars rather unscathed.  The brewery expanded, often by takeovers of local rivals, innovated by introducing keg beers, was one of the first to produce foreign beers under licence and is now a vibrant and successful company producing nearly 200,000 barrels of beer a year.

Others weren't so lucky. Family fallouts abounded, including Samuel Smith, Batemans, Theakstons, JW Lees and Mc Mullens. All survived family disputes, or the ever present question of selling out to rivals, but often at financial and personal cost. In the case of Batemans, huge loans were taken out and pubs sold, while at Lees, Dick Lees-Jones, a renowned philatelist, sold his valuable stamp collection to help buy out other family members. In each case the wish to remain independent was the driving force and it is this striving for an autonomous future that is perhaps the common thread that links these businesses.

Roger also highlights the role of women family members. While many a boardroom is adorned with bewhiskered Victorian gentlemen, with doubtful haircuts and grim expressions, in some cases it was women who ruled the roost. Hester Parnall, the matriarch of St Austell, so scared the workforce, that when she visited the brewery, a warning was tapped through the pipework to advise employees to be on their best behaviour. That was child's play however compared to Mary Ann Lewis, who ran Felinfoel Brewery in Llanelli in the 20s and 30s. She actually carried a big stick and wasn't averse to clobbering recalcitrant workers with it. It is still on display in the brewery, as Roger wryly remarks "as an example of different times and attitudes to employee relations."  Other women who ran breweries such as Thwaites and Robinsons seem to have managed more conventionally, including the remarkable Annie Hyde, who ran Hydes Brewery for an astonishing 56 years.

Given that so many families are involved, it isn't at all surprising that many diverse tales occur throughout. A rescue of a prisoner in the Tower of London; an inveterate gambler, who shot himself at his brewery desk; long serving staff;  German bombs; unexpected deaths; innovative thinking; idiosyncratic behaviour; takeovers of rivals and much more. Interestingly too, the book explains that many of these old companies have now left their original, grand - but expensive to maintain and inflexible in brewing terms - Victorian sites, despite their sentimental value and moved to greenfield sites.  The business and its longevity means overcoming emotion.  This isn't just a dry tale of business so much, as an exposition of a particular way of life. 

When you read this book you can see that with twenty-nine member companies, producing over half a billion pints a year, owning over 4,000 pubs and sustaining nearly 70,000 jobs, that family brewers are still a force to be reckoned with. The history of each, clearly laid out by the author, weighs heavily on each family.  They see themselves as custodians for future generations and in almost every case there is another generation ready to take the baton from the current one. Having seen off their rivals, resisted the blandishments of others, they are in this now for the long haul. As William Lees-Jones, Managing Director of JW Lees explains "When we look at buying a pub, the first question we ask is will it be good for at least 50 years?"

The book itself is well laid out, with side panels and boxes breaking up the text, an explanation of the background to modern British brewing and a nod to the future with mentions of newer brewers such as Titanic. Inevitably there is a potted explanation of how beer is brewed. The book is lavishly illustrated with old photos and beer adverts throughout and is written in a clear, easy on the eye, font.

This book is a valuable contribution, not only to the beer lover's bookshelf, but it cleverly pulls together a vital part of our brewing heritage and puts it in context.  In this excellent book, Roger Protz, with his extensive knowledge of Britain's brewing history, has been the ideal conduit for this distinct group of breweries to present their own narrative in a cohesive way.  

This book will no doubt become a "go to" source for beer historians and should be set against the wider background of a country, which for all our current problems, is still one that identifies strongly with beer, pubs and breweries. 

ROGER PROTZ is a campaigner and broadcaster and the author of more than 25 books about beer and brewing. He was the editor of CAMRA's market-leading Good Beer Guide for over two decades and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the British Guild of Beer Writers and the Society of Independent Brewers.

Published by CAMRA Books. 9th September 2020. Hardcover 224 pages.

Roger's book is available from CAMRA Books


Monday, 26 October 2020

Clubs Suffer Too

We read daily in newspapers and social media about the way the Licensed Trade is suffering under the restrictions that have been in place, in various ways and degrees of hardship, since the March lockdown.  Some geographical areas have felt the yoke of restriction much more than others, in both application and length of sentence. In the drive to be seen to do something - anything - the Government has, with regular monotony, picked the hospitality trade for particular Draconian attention, despite their valiant attempts, not only to go along with instructions, but to do so openly and embrace and improve on whatever is called for. Despite this, it could be reasonably, indeed obviously, argued that it has done so to little persuasive avail.

I will not chronicle here the damage done, not only to businesses, but lives, careers and sanity. That is all too obvious from social media and broader press coverage. Depending on your own point of view, the trade is either a potential Typhoid Mary, or a sacrificial lamb. I won't be running a poll to find out though. Suffice it to say the trade has been fighting a losing battle.

In the midst of all the rightful angst about the way our pubs are suffering in this pandemic, I was brought up sharp by a letter, hand delivered, from my local Cricket Club, of which I am a member.  While I won't give away figures too much in case they are confidential to members only, I will say that in the case of my club, the loss of income since March is now in six figures, leading to a potential loss of approximately half that amount by April 2021. If I may quote the Chairman "That is a disturbing figure in anyone's book and I urge you to take a second to let that figure sink in." 

The income has not only been lost through gate money - a small part -  but through the ban on events such as wedding receptions, birthday parties, christenings, funerals etc. Annual events such as fireworks displays, beer festivals and more have had to be cancelled.  Bar takings have been decimated.  I could go on, but it is a grim picture and one that for the foreseeable future doesn't look like improving. Of course the club is looking at a number of unpleasant but necessary measures to overcome this issue, but while not detailing these here, it is certainly a job I don't envy.

As a local CAMRA Chairman, I am always being reminded by my Clubs Officer to think about and include Social Clubs in our campaigning, which I do try and do.  Social Clubs not only provide an outlet for a lot of beer to be sold, but between them have many millions of members.  They provide a local and personal service too as social clubs, whether for cricket, bowls, brass bands or whatever as they are always membership run.  People know and depend on each other, not only for common interest, but much as in pubs, for places to meet friends and stave off loneliness. Many also sell cask beer and indeed, sometimes, are the only outlet for it in some areas. In other places, they have taken the place of closed pubs as regular places to go for a drink and meet people.

Have a think about the plight of social clubs too, when we think about the problems of pubs.  Maybe think of joining one to support it. They face the same issues and also need our support in these difficult times.

I also know there are views that pubs should be shut as we all breathe the same (possibly contaminated) air. Not sure how scientific that is, given the number of times a pub - or club - door opens and shuts and that it only takes an open window to completely change the air in a room every 15 minutes - I know. I looked it up.

Clubs are great places too to observe surviving beer oddities. I mentioned this here.  Oh and I used to be a member of the Dyers and Polishers Social Club in Middleton, many years ago. It is closed now. Bonus point if you can explain dyeing and polishing.

"Function rooms" by LoopZilla is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Saturday, 24 October 2020

When is Small too Small?.

 I can remember years ago, when I was very young - so that's very many years ago - watching TV at home and seeing the likes of Minder with Terry McCann drinking a can of Carlsberg, or perhaps Alf Garnett's idle son-in-law drinking cans of Watney's Brown Ale and wondering about the small cans.  To my certain knowledge, in the 1970s, no Scottish brewer produced, for the domestic market anyway, such small cans. We just didn't see them at all. All our cans were 440 ml. Small cans were an odd English aberration, only seen on the small screen and as such we disregarded them. In fact the only English beer I really recall, was pint bottles of Whitbread Pale Ale, which somehow had an almost papal dispensation to be sold in Scotland.  They were everywhere and in fact I often drank them myself.

Fast-forward many decades later and the small can was re-invented by the craft beer movement, when some bright spark thought that bottles were no longer the biz. God knows why, they did - I imagine copycatting the Americans - but the chosen size was the small 330 ml can.  Now I suppose looking at it from the point of view of the seller, they were different, handy and could be sold at a premium - which I actually reckon was the main point in doing it.  This in turn was fairly understandable too. Often the beers were strong and a smaller vessel and higher price could therefore be justified.  Also, I believe the kit was more readily available too, so all serene then.

Of course, nothing stands still. The larger can has made a strong re-appearance in the craft beer sector, oddly to some, often at the higher alcohol end of the market. Now that's fair enough too, as some of the stronger stuff is probably best to share or, if not that, to be sipped reverentially, over a couple of hours by a single drinker.  So far, so good.

Now where this scene throws up an issue to my mind, is when you have what I'd call a "supping" beer - others more likely to call a session beer, is sent out in small cans. I know it happens with all types  of beer, but when it happens in the standard to premium lager sector, it just doesn't seem right.  I wrote here about how impressed I am with Camden Hells. On my recent self-isolation, we had a little shopping done for us by a relative. Now in the circumstances of being done a favour, it doesn't seem right to be too picky, so my request for Camden Hells was completed, not as I'd hoped by 660ml bottles, but a four-pack of 330ml cans. Now I haven't been able to compare costs, but it isn't that which bothered me - though it would be an interesting comparison - but the fact that once you have poured the beer into a glass and taken the first swig, you find it has almost gone. Put simply, it isn't big enough.

So is it just me?  It seems not. I asked the Twitterati and they seem to agree. Here's what they said:

Well that's all I have to say really. So how about it Camden? Can we have bigger cans of Hells please? It's what the punters want.

Do keep up the 660 ml bottles. They are fab.  Also am I wrong in thinking Cloudwater led the charge for bigger cans?

 I also hope to see more Camden Hells on tap up North. As long as the quality stays as it is at the moment, that would be a good thing.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

A Hell of a Good Beer

Last time I was in London, I had a couple of pints of Camden Hell and enjoyed them. I especially liked the little stubby glass. If ever there was a glass to make one neck one's beer, this is it. Well done Camden Brewery.

Wind on over six months later, and after a couple of pints out on the first day of our visit - see previous post - I fancied trying it again. But first we had lunch. I'd booked us into the German Gymnasium at King's Cross, which proved to be an excellent choice.  This purports to be the first purpose built gymnasium in the UK - or something like that - but I rather fancy the Romans had a go at that a long time since. No matter. It is a fine imposing building with a large bar and tables downstairs and a galleried restaurant above.  Surprisingly the choice of German beers is a bit limited, but with most of them coming from Rothaus, I wasn't complaining.  Pricey enough - but hey, I don't eat out that often - certainly well below what E aspires to - so bugger the expense and well worth the cost for both food and drink.

We followed up with a trip to Soho, figuring out on what was a fine day, we'd get plenty of chances to drink outside, but first there was a mission to accomplish. A visit to a Sam's pub to establish London prices following the recent price increase. We chose the John Snow as it was near E's old office, and she could do the sentimental journey bit.  It's a nice little boozer and trade was steady on this Wednesday afternoon.  I had the stout, which needed the gas changing, while E had a half of Pure Brewed. The price list was snapped when the barman wasn't looking and duly posted to a certain Curmudgeon. Prices are on the wickedly high side and now by no means a bargain. It does make you wonder how they'll compete on this basis.  One other thing. The notices forbidding this and that, which are found all over Northern Sam's pubs, are conspicuous by their absence. I know. I checked everywhere. Double standards from Mr Smith it seems.

I won't bore you with a list of pubs, but we wandered round, drinking Camden Hells, which was everywhere, always at prices North of six quid a pint. We sat out mostly, but where we couldn't, Covid-19 checks were evident and stringent, especially it must be said at the Greene King operated Crown where a Covid-Monitor and the manager virtually sheep dipped us. Overall Nicolsons pubs managed best in combining atmosphere with safety, so well done them.

Now I mentioned at the start that I enjoyed Camden Hells. That didn't change through quite a few pints. It really is a good drop of lager, even if it is a subsidiary of ABInBev. I have heard though to get it in as many places as possible,  it was offered at rock bottom prices. Well, maybe so, but those certainly weren't passed on to the customer in any way.

We left Soho around half past five when they were starting to close off streets and bring out tables for evening boozing.  They were filling up as offices chucked out, though the area was by no means that busy. I wonder how they are getting on now in Tier Two?

I didn't steal a Camden Hells glass. I am too old for that sort of caper, but I do like it. 

Do try a pint of Rothaus in the German Gymnasium.  You'll pay little more than in some scabby King's Cross pub, but get a much better experience -  if you like a bit of class now and then.

Apologies for the poor quality of the Sam's photo. It was very bright in the pub. Click on the image and you'll get most of it. Some prices are eyebrow raising and I doubt if you'll see the cheaper beers very often , if at all.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

London Calling

Well not so much calling as gently beckoning. E was getting a touch fretty about our London flat, not having been there for some time. She had put off going for ages, but as time passed and further lockdown beckoned, she determined the time had come, so I decided, having not been there since February, that it was a good idea to accompany her. 

So a couple of Tuesdays ago, on a pissing wet day here in Manchester, we set off - masked up - in an Uber - heading for what turned out to be a virtually deserted Piccadilly station. We were more or less the sole customers in the Avanti Trains lounge and on the train, there was only three other passengers in the coach, where masks were required, other than when eating and drinking. Our tube to Aldgate was similarly deserted, which was also a bit eerie. Only two or three people in the end coach.

 Apart from discovering a kitchen tap has packed up entirely - that'll cost a few bob - the flat was fine, so after the mountain of  junk mail had been dealt with, we set off for a pint. It was quiet outside, the normally busy main road which leads to the A2 - especially at "home time" - was almost traffic free. Not at all its normal state  We were getting the picture and this was sharpened even further when we arrived at the Draft House in Seething Lane, a large pub, now owned by BrewDog. Now this is usually seething (see what I did there) at work chucking-out time, but after completing the Covid-19 formalities we observed scarcely a dozen or so inside. Since we were last there, this rather barn like pub has actually been made a lot more cosy by Brewdog.  Less garish - the neon signs have all gone - less noisy or  just a better playlist - and some booth seating replacing benches. On the minus side, much less choice, no cask and of course,  higher prices. Craft beer for the rich people.

We used to come here for the Tank Pilsner Urquell, but now it is Budvar, also in tank, which we both plumped for at, I think, £6.20 a pint.  Most beers, Punk IPA included were about the same. Table service of course, and our server was a very pleasant lad who offered to talk us through the beer menu. He wasn't pushed, it being so quiet, but he was well worth his money.

 A couple of pints later we wandered up past the closed bar of Fullers Chamberlain Hotel, an occasional haunt, heading for Commercial Road and the Castle, a rather attractive and busy little pub, just round the corner from our ultimate destination, Pizza Union, a favourite and just a hop and skip from home.  I have never been in this pub in recent times when there has been more than one person behind the bar. Again we were checked in, but probably a little more self-service than many pubs, as the young Eastern European barmaid juggled keeping an eye on the door and serving a fairly busy crowd. Nonetheless, we always enjoy the atmosphere and looking out on Commercial Road through its large windows is pleasant. It isn't overpriced by London standards either.

Oddly for London - and trust me it happens quite rarely - we got chatting to a lawyer who shared our long table, enjoying the company so much that we had to order our pizza for takeaway, as we had missed the sit-down deadline before ten 'clock closing time.

So a pleasant night out in a rather subdued London, but there was to be a sting in the tail. 

The sting in the tail was a message on the Friday of the same week telling us we had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. 10 days isolation were ordered, the explanatory note allowing us to work out the contact Tuesday. So was it the Uber driver? On the train or the pubs? Who knows, but neither of us got any symptoms thankfully and today is my first day of freedom.

Two things about the pubs. In the Draft House I pointed out that Budvar, contrary to the big board on the wall isn't 4.2%.  He was gracious and said he'd get it changed, but I wonder how long it had been like that?  He did bring me a free third of Ansbach and Hobday Porter by way of a reward and very nice it was too.

The Castle really needs to get another barperson in when times get better.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Holden My Own in Bridgnorth

 I had a little trip to Bridgnorth last week accompanied by E.  We had arranged to meet friends there and of course, travelled separately, ensuring as much as we could in these confusing and restrictive Covid-19 times, that we obeyed the spirit and hopefully the letter of the Government's decrees/ rules/law, as we (more or less) understood them at the time. This did cause us a little soul-searching coming as we did from an area that has a lot of infection, to an area that had hardly any, but as we were all well and trips away have been few and far between and likely to become even fewer and lot further between, we thought "Bugger it" and went anyway. 

I was the only one that had been to Bridgnorth before, but my tales of Black Country beer, cheese and onion cobs the size of a baby's head and pork pies convinced them that this fine market town in Shropshire was the place to be.  To sweeten the deal we stayed at the Golden Lion, run by Holdens Brewery, so what could possibly go wrong?  Well, nothing actually. This is a tale of more or less unfettered joy. Of ale supped and food scoffed.

The advantage of the Golden Lion is that it is on the High Street and therefore bang in the middle of town. The other advantage is that it has a car park with space dedicated to each of the letting rooms, though it did take a couple of sweeps round the one way system before we worked out how to actually access our berth.  Our friends arrived more or less at the same time and after checking in, we generously gave them the nicer room. Theirs was designed by Jay Blades of Repair shop no less. Ours was Platform 3 and was railway themed, but big and comfortable. We chucked our stuff down and a few milliseconds later, we were in the bar, where rules were quickly explained, hands sanitised and pints procured.  Now the thing is about Black Country beer is that one tends to see it through rose-tinted glasses. My first sip rapidly turned into a gulp, as did those of my companions. Suffice to say that Holdens Bitter lived up to my memories (though in fairness, it wasn't that long ago I last had some).  Needless to say we had a second before exploring on a gloriously sunny afternoon. 

Bridgnorth is a thriving place we noted, as we wandered aimlessly along. Local shops abounded. A baker and a butcher set the tone, but we needed food.  The White Lion promised home-brewed ales, pies, cobs and Scotch eggs, but on a Tuesday lunchtime, was rather understocked.  John had the last pie, while we settled on rather untraditional soft rolls with cheese and onion. Sadly too, the local ales were a tad underwhelming, but the sun was out as we sat in the pub garden, so all was well.

I'd promised everyone they'd like the Railwayman's Arms at Bridgnorth Station, home to the Severn Valley Railway. The beer was fine, but inside had been so Covid sanitised as to have lost its charm for me, so we sat outside while a steam locomotive, chuffed away, providing the classic steam smells I grew up with. On the way back into town we popped into the Joules owned Shakespeare, where the beer wasn't brilliant to be honest, but the pub was rather nice. Incidentally, I'd been warned Joules beers aren't going through a good patch. Make of that what you will.

I won't continue to bore this pub crawl as it were into evening or the next day. Suffice to say we visited a horrible Marston's pub in Ironbridge and recovered at leisure in the splendid Old Robin Hood, which is another of Holdens small number of pubs. On a wet afternoon it was warm, welcoming and Covid-19 compliant. The bitter and Golden Glow were on top form. And they had proper cheese and onion cobs at £1.50 a pop.  The two and a half hours until the next bus flew by and the beer flew down eager throats.

So what's the point of this? It's a kind of good news thing really. It is about Holden's Brewery, their splendid beer and their safe and hospitable offering. In these very difficult times the way they ensured safety while minimising the negative effects was outstanding. And the beer really hit the spot.

We also met the most helpful bus driver ever, who not only left her break to show us the needlessly complicated Ironbridge bus stops by personally walking round the corner with us and confirming the next bus time.  Arriva, you have a great asset there.

I have been to Ironbridge a few times. It is always pissing wet.  And dead. I'd forgotten that. We'd have gone to the Coalbrookdale Inn, but it didn't open until four. We were in the Robin Hood on the outskirts by then.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Covid Cases Rise, What Next for Pubs?

There is a sense of grim foreboding that you can palpably sense in pubs at the moment. Having lurched back into business - after a fashion - with all the accompanying difficulties, custom has more or less halved in many places.  The booking of tables, working out who can be admitted and who can't, the need to sanitise everywhere and everything and the setting up and operating systems to help track and trace has stretched resources and strained nerves.  It has been a large and unwelcome imposition, but what's the alternative?

On the customer side, there is a degree of reluctance to visit pubs, especially from the elderly and a nagging worry that if you enter somewhere where the provision of safety for customers seems less than paramount, that you really shouldn't be there. This nervousness, together with the less than normal atmosphere in many pubs, makes for an experience which is hardly ideal. And it could get worse as the number of Covid-19 cases inexorably rises. At the moment of writing, you are also likely to be unable to get a virus test, even if you feel unwell and few have much confidence of that changing in the short term.

Landlords I have talked to recently are gloomy and concerned. They order only the minimum amount of beer to get by, cut down on variety and some feel that a total lockdown would be the last straw. For quite a few, if doors close again, then they won't open again. But will this happen?  I sense that the Government will only do this as a last resort and rather think that what will happen is much stricter control by authorities, particularly in areas badly affected by high virus rates.  Those there that don't follow either law or guidelines, will find themselves under a closure order toot sweet. 

Of course other options exist. On Twitter some weeks ago I was given a bit of a bashing by some for suggesting that younger adults within society of being less keen to follow the Covid-19  rules, but now it seems that view has become mainstream.   Whether you personally agree or not, there now seems to be a view among experts, that something must be done to curb the spread from those likely to suffer least from Covid exposure, to those that will suffer most - kill your granny and all that.  I have thought for some time that what is most likely to happen is that there will be a limiting curfew of some businesses; pubs, bars and restaurants being among them. While there is little evidence that pubs are particular spreaders of the virus, it does seem that the easy target will be chosen again.  This YouGov poll illustrates some views to support such a thing:

Now anecdotal evidence suggests that as time goes on, younger drinkers may well be the target of such a move. I have the impression - and it is only that - that there is little feeling of invincibility from older drinkers and pub goers and that such a move - as an alternative to closure - would be welcomed by many and not just older people. What is striking about the poll is that even those most likely to be affected by such a curfew, support it.

There is no easy answer to all of this, but I know many mainstream pubs already feel that later opening isn't currently worth much in business terms.  That is not to say it would be welcomed, but a curfew if it happens,  may well be the lesser of two evils.

It wouldn't affect me particularly if this happened, but would it be effective? I just don't know as I'm rarely out and about when youth rules the evening roost.

It is though galling for pubs when so many have tried so hard to make things work, but as always, the minority that don't obey rules, affect those that do disproportionally

Thursday, 3 September 2020

The Social Side of Things

No sooner do we have one new pub opening in my area, but then we have another. Different in scale and target audience to Hogarths in Rochdale, is the long awaited - well it was trailed quite a while ago - Broad St Social in Bury. Operated by the well respected Brewsmith Brewery based in Stubbins by Ramsbottom, this is rather a neat little bar in Broad St, right in the centre of Bury, handy for some other good drinking establishments, as well as the Bus and Metro Interchange.

Situated in a mid terrace, with large windows and a little outside seating for the hardy, this is a neatly laid our bar with wooden floors, exposed brick and two distinct drinking areas, served by one fairly small bar. It somehow manages to cram in no less than six handpumps, all from Brewsmith and six keg pumps, all from elsewhere, but local to Greater Manchester.  Service during these difficult times was at table (we had booked) and on its first official trading day, was swift and cheerful. Some local worthies were there too and greetings were exchanged from a safe distance - though against guidelines no doubt. There was warmth and atmosphere which you don't always have from the git-go.

Like my friend and fellow blogger, Beers Manchester, who has also written about the bar - I urge you to read it - I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my case, not least of all because of the excellence of the Brewsmith cask beers, which have always appealed. They have the most redeeming of features. They are always carefully and well brewed, and they have the cleanliness that allows you to pick out the flavours. I could go on, but these two things are important -  to this writer at least and if you wish to judge a brewer's skill, a good - nay essential - starting point.

Our two hours were soon up, which gave me an opportunity to slip round the corner to Joseph Holt's Wyldes to try out the new Holt's Stout. Devotees of Twitter will likely know I'm a bit of a fan of stout. I regularly drink Lees Stout in its cask conditioned form at my local, the THT and at the Rose of Lancaster - another local - where I drink it à la nitro. It is superb in both forms, with its deep roasty taste, full body and luscious white head. How then would Holts stand in comparison?  Well, it isn't at all bad.  Slightly sweeter and with a darker, more tan head, it reminded me rather of Sam Smith's Stout.  All in all a good job, though it is only available in nitro form.  So still Lees for me, but don't hesitate to try Joey's offering.

We finished off in the Thirsty Fish, another micro pub and right by the bus station. All quiet here around teatime and another stout, this time from Deeply Vale, was on cask and on form, unlike Diamond Bus. But that's another story.

Not often I write much  about actual beer, so a rare treat for you here.  Bury is well worth a visit.

On the subject of Bury, I peeped in the window of the closed Clarence, which was extensively and expensively renovated not so long ago. It has new owners, but it looks as though the lovely square bar has been removed. Shame.

We didn't fancy plastic glasses at the Trackside (outside) either, so swerved that.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

To Helensburgh and Back

Given that our summer holidays are put on the back burner - assuming they are even on the cooker - I decided some time ago to go and see my family and friends in Scotland.  Now my sister, who lives in my home town, Dumbarton, is immune system compromised, so I turned down her invitation to stay and instead, last week, with the lovely E, booked into the Travelodge in nearby Helensburgh. This is a town where a much younger me spent quite a lot of time, mostly on a Sunday night, drinking beer in the Cairndhu Hotel which we reckoned then had a better class of young ladies to (unsuccessfully for the most part) chase after. It was also not so popular with the Royal Navy lads from round the corner in Faslane, or indeed, then, the US Navy whose sailors swarmed over from Dunoon and helped make the town a tad lively.

Alas, the Cairndhu Hotel, while still standing, is no longer licensed premises - or indeed a hotel - and while Helensburgh is a delightful little town, options for staying overnight are somewhat limited.  The Travelodge is in the upper parts of what was the Commodore Hotel, the lower part being, now, the Commodore Inn, though you can actually enter both from either. The Commodore Inn has an excellent aspect on the Clyde River front and our room provided us with a basic, but comfortable enough abode. It is fair to say though, that it is in need of some updating.

Now how would Scotland's much stricter rules on the pandemic manifest themselves? Well, firstly, at check-in, the desk is sealed behind plastic. We were informed we'd have to make our own beds and bring towels for changing down  to reception. Not a big deal really. Face masks were compulsory inside the hotel and this was complied with by and large, though sometimes we and others forgot, as we went directly down the stairs to the outside without going elsewhere.

After a long drive, a pint was in order. We went through their extensive  beer garden to the Commodore Inn. At the door we were greeted and a note taken of our names and phone numbers. Hand sanitisers were everywhere. We were given a table outside in the no smoking area and drinks were brought to our table. It was quick, cheerful and easy. Refills were by flagging down a server. Tabs were offered, or you could pay as you went. Now of course, as details were being handed over, I scanned the bar. Cask offerings, perhaps oddly, were London Pride and Doom Bar. No Scottish cask beer was a disappointment, but hey ho. The Pride, served in a Williams Bros Glass, was at most a 2.5 in CAMRA NBSS parlance, but the second scraped into a 3. Just needed drinking I think.

That night we dined at the Sugar Boat, a lovely little restaurant on the main Colquhoun Square. Again we were accosted at the door and even though we'd booked, names were taken and we sat outside in the sunshine with others, all socially distant, as was the case inside.  So far so compliant.

The next day, we had breakfast at another old haunt, but from more recent years, the Henry Bell.  Would JDW let the side down? Not a bit of it. We were stopped at the door, forms were filled in, we were asked to sanitise our hands and the modus operandi inside explained. Clean cups for coffee refills, one socially distant queue for all service and tables were sanitised. We returned again that night to meet my pal and of course, it was much busier, but the same high standards were maintained. It remained so, until the Royal Navy arrived and things got a tad more boisterous, but the system did work, though the young sailors, finally let loose after a long submarine patrol, were perhaps a bit louder that you'd want, but who could blame them?

In Helensburgh itself, mask wearing in shops was compulsory and obeyed to the letter, as far as I could see, even in the large Co-op. Queues outside the butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers - it's that sort of town - distanced happily.

We didn't go to any more different pubs, but our remaining restaurant trip saw our names taken and hands sanitised.  On the way back, we waited in line to get into the supermarket where everyone was masked up.

Scotland is, it seems, in the small part of it I was in, at least complying. Compulsion obviously has an effect and it didn't seem to slow things up.

We did go to several small shops and for ice cream and again all was neat and orderly. It seemed a small price to pay for the added confidence it gave.  Helensburgh is lovely when it is sunny. In fact it was too hot at times. Never thought I'd say that.

In JDW, the Navy lads were stopped from moving the furniture about. A small number of staff did well. We also encountered many sailors wandering about looking for a late night drink. Good luck with that one, but my pal did tell me some pubs have not yet re-opened and the large John Logie Baird was closed and boarded.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Parking Tanks on Wetherspoon's Lawn

Pubs are thought in many quarters to be pretty much unmitigated doom and gloom at the moment and although there are some chinks of light, with Covid-19 still on the go -  and around for the foreseeable future - you don't expect to see many major pub openings, but there are still some.

Rochdale Town Centre is on the up. The River Roch, culverted and hidden for many years is now open again and providing a fine focal point for a revamped centre which includes a new shopping mall, complete with a cinema and eateries bang in the middle of town. OK, it leaves one, or maybe two, shopping centres rather exposed to chillier times, as footfall returns to the area around the river and the wonderful Victorian Town Hall and the tram stop.  This is a town that couldn't maintain a McDonald's in the centre and with it gone, tougher times have also seen the closure of the Royal Bank of Scotland. In the fine - grand even - building thus vacated, we now have a new pub. This hasn't appeared by some kind of surprise. Clearly this million pound plus conversion has been planned for quite some time, but equally, what exactly would appear remained a bit of an educated guess. We had heard it would be entirely wet-led. That is there would be no food, which could be considered a bit of a gambol in these times. Well, maybe, but maybe not. Either way, a substantial new public house certainly had many wondering if there is room for one more?

So what's the competition? The Greater Manchester CAMRA Pub of the Year (and narrowly beaten in the National competition) is the Flying Horse.  This as you can imagine is a hard act to follow, with its traditional beer offering, combined with real ciders, craft beer and excellent food  is clearly the one to - if not beat, that will be hard - but at least emulate.  Former National Pub of the Year, the Baum, is now under new management, but still offers a great pub experience, excellent beers of both cask and craft variety, along with great food. In the former General Post Office building, we have the Medicine Tap, selling locally brewed beers and guests together with imaginative food in a very fine conversion of yet another grand building. Bombay Brew offers a well-chosen range of craft and traditional beer, as well as Indian food of the tapas variety. It is the Bundobust of Rochdale. With the Regal Moon run by an experienced real ale loving manager who frequently tops JDWs best seller of cask ale list,  there is certainly plenty to go at. In short, for the drinker and the hungry, Rochdale, with a pretty supportive council, already offers a lot.  What can the new pub add?

It opened yesterday and your intrepid reporter, for once, not also ran, went along with the lovely E to see what was what.  The building is impressive. The outside has been cleaned up by  Amber Taverns, who operate it as part of their Hogarth's chain. The building itself was used as a house by the Rawson family from 1819, who conducted their banking business from the small adjoining building.  It was rebuilt in 1879 and redesigned in 1913 to create the distinctive porticoed frontage it has today.

Inside, once you have navigated the Covid-19 formalities and hand sanitising, you first notice the long bar to your left. Ceilings are high and ornate and original features and covings have been retained. To your right is a seating area with windows looking out onto the Butts. Behind this area, the bank’s vaults have been turned into a separate seating area. To the rear, toilets - thankfully on the ground level - are modern and appealing, as is the large beer garden to the rear.  Carpets are thick and seating a mixture of low and high. All in all, rather handsome.

All well and good, but what of the beer I hear you ask? As you might expect from Amber Taverns, the usual suspects are all here. Fosters, Carling, Heineken, Kronenbourg, Morretti and John Smith's are to the fore. For the real ale lover we have Tetley Bitter and Hobgoblin. Gin menus are everywhere and a fiver will bag you a double of some rather decent gins, as well as the tonic to go with it. Beers are very keenly priced with Tetley at a mere £2.15 a pop and Carling at £2.60. Others a tad less.  The pub was, as I'd expected, quite busy with the curious. Service was good and cheerful, aided no doubt by the Covid queuing system precluding any stress from a baying thirsty mob.

So who is it aimed at? Prices, being of an ilk, clearly indicate its next door neighbour the Regal Moon is the target. I imagine it will attract a few others too, depending on how its clientele develops.  The real ale drinker though is likely to give it a fairly wide berth, but those in need of decent gin in rather more comfortable surrounding than Spoons, might well be tempted too.

Like all new pubs, this will be a work in progress, but it will find a niche and will take business from elsewhere. New customers for the Rochdale "offer" will very much depend on the success of the whole town centre redevelopment, but Rochdale is heading in the right direction.

The Tetley Bitter retains little of its previous flavour.  As someone who drank a lot of it in my time, it isn't the same at all. Condition was average, as nobody else seemed to be drinking it.  I can also confirm there is no food offering. I didn't see as much as a bag of crisps.

There is a good recent piece on the redevelopment of Rochdale Centre here.    This gives more detail which I recommend you having a look at.

The building you can just see in the top photo, is the Regal Moon.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Don't Make It Hard for Customers

Pubs don't have it easy at all these days. Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on most, if not all pubs. Many have not yet opened again yet and some, sadly may never open again. Those that have opened have been successful or not in varying degrees.  Now that things have settled down I reckon it is time to chip in a few observations.

Now I haven't been going mad. Most of my pub visits have been to places I know well and where I know both the people who run them and, in varying degrees, particularly at the times we visit, I also know most of the customers. In that respect, some things don't change, whereby you have different sets of customers visiting the pub at different times of the day. If you are part of that picture, restrictions are a lot easier to deal with. So do I feel safe in the Tandle Hill Tavern, the Ring O' Bells and the Rose of Lancaster? Well, yes, as far as one can be in these awkward times, I do. Names are taken, sanitising and availability of sanitising stations are ample, social distancing applies and either table service or distanced queuing, as well as being safe,  makes life relatively normal. Everyone, with varying degrees of internal acceptance, goes along with it. Whatever they think and indeed say, they want to be there and don't want to muck it up.

Of course, it isn't that way everywhere I readily accept, though I haven't really encountered it. In the Tavern yesterday, it was little different despite local restrictions being applied. Tables are around a metre and half away from each other and despite the Government, who clearly know cock all about pubs, saying you can go with your family, but don't interact with other people, interaction did take place. Of course it did. We all know each other. No shouting was involved and while guidance - not law - may say no interacting, well, we did. It was done just as safely as it had been the week before. Social distancing was as good as it could be in a small pub and sunny weather meant many were outside, so all was well.

What though, when you don't know everyone? On Friday, with my mate Mike, I had my first trip into Manchester since March.  It was hot and outside areas beckoned.  Our first visit to the Abel Heywood was fine. We sat outside, had arrangements explained to us, as well as the one way system and fetched our own pints from the bar. Those inside we served at the table. We paid by card and it was all sensible, distanced and easy.  Not so at Common.  Outside drinking here, and we had to download an app which took ages. It didn't like iPhone at all and when I finally got it onto my Android phone, it suggested that as I was 22 metres away, did I really want to order? It didn't give any options to say yes or no! Our host was called and looked perplexed, then shrugged and served us anyway, the worst and most expensive drinks of the day in a plastic mug. Not a great experience at all and frankly 20 odd minutes wasted. Plus another 20 drinking the warmish IPAs.

Our next stop Mackie Mayor had similar issues. If you wanted to only have a drink, you had to sit outside - fine - and use the app - not so fine. This time it wouldn't download on Android, but it liked Mike's iPhone. Details required were of the intrusive nature. This took 20 minutes or so again and this time, after a ten-minute wait, decent pints of cask, in proper glasses, were brought. Overall though much more bearable. But not that great.

Our last port of call was Cask in Ancoats. Here we were greeted, details taken, the rules explained quickly and professionally and a seat allocated. Waiter service was prompt and payment contactless. It was just as good as you'd expect from manager, Warren, who really knows his stuff.  Beer was in glasses and the cask beer we had from Pictish and Roosters, in excellent nick.  This was more like it and here we stayed.

My conclusions? Apps are great in theory - and good ones are great, but can be both crap, lazy and frustrating when  in operation. Difficult even for the willing such as us - both former IT bods - so not resistant.  As always, pubs are only as good, in whatever situation, as those who run them. Simple is best and given that, drinking local is likely to be a better experience. But it can be done well in cities too as exemplified by the Abel Heywood and Cask. 

As a pub, you really need (after safety) to put your customers first, or they will sup elsewhere. Covid or not, customers always have other options. Best not forget that customers still pay the money and they still have a choice. 

Now I have little doubt that that all pubs think they are doing their best, but when technology is unreliable, wise not to rely on it.  The resultant waits were pretty well unacceptable.

I think I'll stay local in places I mention above and, say, the Flying Horse in Rochdale, where they really have it all done well.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Gobsmacked in Coalbrookdale

Reading this lovely post by Retired Martin about one of my favourite pubs in the UK, the Coalbrookdale Inn in, well Coalbrookdale, just up from that wonderful town of Ironbridge, I was reminded of one of the more surprising happenings in my many pub visits.

As you may have read here before, every year, three cronies and I take a couple of nights away in a pubby part of the country. The West Midlands is always a favourite, therefore we have been in the Ironbridge area more than once. I can't remember the exact date, but it was a long time ago - these events do not make recall of detail all that easy, though of course, as we all get older, the amount of beer has become almost sensible and greater clarity is assured. But these were halcyon days.

On this occasion, likely sometime in the 1980's, we had a night - or maybe two - in Coalbrookdale.  We'd all been there before, probably on a CAMRA coach trip or suchlike, but we booked into a pub opposite the Coalbrookdale Inn. It was a decent enough boozer, owned by Marstons I think, and it did rooms at a very reasonable rate.  It was fine for our needs, which essentially are to be clean and comfortable with a breakfast and car parking.  On the appointed evening, after a day no doubt boozing away (we have a designated non-drinking driver)  we had a couple of pints in the Marstons pub, then headed across the road to the bustling Coalbrookdale Inn for a wider choice of beer, before heading down to Ironbridge for more beer and eats.

After a few minutes - the pub has a more or less square bar - the landlord shouted "Phone call for Peter".  We all ignored this. Now to explain to my younger reader, back in those days - pre mobile phone - it wasn't at all unusual to call a pub and ask to speak to "whoever" if he is in.  Now nobody knew we were there we thought and therefore the call out in a busy pub could not possibly be for any of us and could be safely ignored. We carried on supping. Having got no response, the barman returned to the phone, presumably to relate the lack of success to the caller.  A few seconds later he appeared in front of us. "Any of you lads Peter Alexander?" quoth our hero. I stammered "Me" while we all looked on in astonishment. "Phone call for you" he said.

Needless to say, it was the lovely E.  But how had she tracked me down? Well simples really. She had phoned the Marstons pub and the barman there had said words to the effect of "You've just missed them. They've all gone across the road to the Coalbrookdale. Do you want their phone number?"  E then phoned and found me.

Back in these far off days, before mobile phones were widely owned,  somehow we still managed to contact each other. I have been phoned for in many pubs over the years, albeit long ago, but that for me, was a bit of a record.

The Coalbrookdale Inn has, I think been a bit gentrified since those days, but is still a cracker.

I remember that night cramming into a local's car and careering off to Ironbridge. God know how many were in it, but I can still hear the clang as the arse end of the car banged the road from time to time. 

The lost art of the "Is he in the pub?" phone call, is a great subject too from the past.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Sam's One Pound Gamble

It is true. That doyen of the cheap pint, Samuel Smith of Tadcaster has decided to get out of that particular game, with prices rises all round on re-opening. Well as far as we can make out that's the case, but of course, with Sam's, the facts are as murky as a Railway Arch Pint.

So what do we know? Samuel Smith, outside London is pretty cheap for draught beer and lager. In their heartland, pints are often £2 or less.  Rumour now has it that mild and bitter will rise by a pound a pint and lager by up to £1.20.  An entry on Facebook by one of their landlords, which seems to be a re-hashed version of something sent by the brewery to managers (all Sam's pubs are managed) - justifies the price increase.  It reads roughly thus:

"We have had no choice but to raise our prices. For years Sam Smiths pricing has been way below our competitors. Our family run company have been producing excellent value in brewing since 1758. In these uncertain times and let’s face it, no one really knows what the future holds, to open up hundreds of pubs is really risky and costly. We are just raising our prices inline or below of our brewing friends. 

Please bear in mind how really low our prices we’re for years and at some point to sustain stability we have no choice but get inline with everyone. 

When I made a quick visit to the THT on Sunday, our landlord mentioned he had a Sam's manager in, who had mentioned in conversation, the price increase will be in the range I mention above.  Now I can't yet actually confirm it and equally, I have no idea how prices will or won't change in London, or indeed how much we can depend on what we read elsewhere.

Sam's pubs operate without televisions, with no music - recorded or live; no use of phones, laptops or even Kindles, as well as being liberally emblazoned by signs telling you in no uncertain terms what you can or can't do within. It probably isn't unfair to say that part of the quid pro quo for doing what you are told is low prices.  Having said all that, the actual sentiment of catching up may have some validity. Outside London, for draught products only, Sam's pubs are cheap as chips. In fact, cheaper than chips if you drink mild - but it is a bit of a gamble to pile it all on at once. Given the odd way Humphrey operates, like an East German holiday camp, he attracts a certain kind of customer.

Now if you are paying bottom dollar for your ale, you may well be minded to put up with all this, but if a price rise take your pint to broadly in line with elsewhere and you realise that five pints cost you a fiver more,  I dare say many won't.  After all, why pay £3 a pint to put up with Humphrey's lopsided world, when you can go elsewhere and won't have to?

Whichever way you look at it, this is a gamble and it signposts, the end of a unique business model, but if it backfires, it may also be the last blast of Humph's reign.

Wetherspoon's may be the likely beneficiary of any ex Sam's customers. While the Bailiwick of the opinions of another lopsided eccentric,  you can at leastphone your pals about it, while gently effing and jeffing. And you can get cask ale, which you can't in almost all the 33 Sam's pubs in my area.

Can't see it helping to re-open the many Sam's pubs which are currently closed.  You would have thought that a slow increase might have worked better, rather than a short, sharp shock.  Then again, people have short memories.

Wet Led Pubs Lose Out in Largesse

So, the Chancellor, having discovered the Magic Money Tree, gave it another shake yesterday. I'll pass on some of the stuff, but what did he do for pubs? Well, at first glance, quite a lot.  Quite a lot that is for food led or mixed chains; offering VAT reductions and subsidised dining out. The big companies will be pleased, but what of the rest?  The sort of pubs that just sell beer, got nothing - or to be fair - nothing additional over what had been announced. Is this a surprise? Probably not.

Already the pubs that are most likely to close are the small, traditional, beer forward pubs, that not just us old codgers like, but are favoured by locals. The mid-terrace or street corner small boozer. The sort of pub where if you go, everybody probably knows you. I think the word used most often for them is "community pubs". Yes community.  A word that is, to this writer at least, important.  Many of these haven't yet opened up again despite restrictions being lifted. With social distancing, it just isn't worth it for them. Reduced capacity isn't much good to pubs that already are pretty small indeed, despite the reasons for restrictions being both  understandable and understood.

I could go on and on about this, but I think it is pretty well covered here by the Campaign for Pubs and here by the Campaign for Real Ale, who say much the same thing, but with commendable brevity.

Would it have hurt that much to allow those pubs that  only got the £10,000 grant to have been given a cut in VAT for, say, six months. In the great scheme of things, probably not and it would certainly have saved some community locals which are otherwise doomed to immediate closure or a slow, lingering death.

Now of course, government subsidising pubs is in itself novel, but only to subsidise those that already have the best chance of survival, seems shall we say hard to justify?

Or do you take the view that the shake out in pubs is just a consequence of something beyond everyone's control and just tough? 

Image from - Non Commercial use.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Three Down. No Problems

Well how was it for you? The grand re-opening of pubs I mean. I couldn't go on Saturday as we had a small family function related to E's Mum's passing, but on Sunday I duly reported for a quick one at the Tandle Hill Tavern.

It has always been in my mind that bigger pubs, while not exactly wagging their tails at the reduction in numbers allowed in, would be able to get on with it with some success. What about small pubs though?  My view here is that it may not pay that well to open, especially if staff have to be employed. No such problem at the Tavern though. John, our heroic landlord, has always run it as a one man show and I had little doubt he'd continue to do so. Frankly, it is the only way to make ends meet at such an out of the way, small pub.

I drove up for a quick look at around 12.30 on Sunday. Three months hadn't erased the suspension juddering ride up the lane from memory, but shaken to bits though I was, it was good to be back, though my usual mode of transport - the slow, one mile, uphill trudge - was saved for another day.  The door was open and a sanitising station set up. Inside were a few regulars. All the tables had reserved signs on and the snug was (unusually) open. A sign indicated that a maximum of 15 people were allowed inside at any one time.  More of course can go outside. No standing at the bar and the door open to provide ventilation. "Our" table, being on the way in, was out of use. So a clear compliance with the advice given. I have no idea who booked the tables - or indeed how - phoned John I suppose - which is what I'll be doing this Sunday. Or rather, before this Sunday. I just stayed for one and had a chat with a couple of people and the landlord.  All seemed fine, but I'll wait and see how it works in practice, when the pub has its full complement of 15 punters.  Compliance though is in everyone's interest.

On Monday I went to the Rose of Lancaster, also a JW Lees house, but in this case, a managed one.  This was a slick operation with the same basic arrangements, table service and visored staff. It went smoothly, though a Monday is hardly a test. I've booked a table there for Friday night for a bite to eat with E and her sister, who is visiting from Hong Kong (and will be quarantined on her return next week.) Friday should be a better test of atmosphere, as well as service. Both of these current Good Beer Guide pubs had beer in Good Beer Guide condition.  It was a pleasure to drink cask again.

My third visit, this morning, was to JDW Harbord Harbord in Middleton.  I was greeted at the door, sanitised my hands, was given a slip to fill in for track and trace and shown to a seat. A one way system was in operation and being obeyed. A Duty Manager of my acquaintance confirmed that capacity had been reduced from around 300, to a maximum of 130.  The pub was separated by partitions and all seemed well. I didn't have a drink, but contented myself with breakfast and coffee. Clean cups for refill and order at the bar - proper queuing system - or by the app.  My seat by the open door was at least 3 metres from other customers, so all good.

Quiet times don't tell you everything, but from what I can see, the precautions that are needed are being taken seriously. I might have a better idea though when I go at a busy time and people have had a few.  But I feel confident. If you don't - stay at home - or go when the pubs are likely to be empty. 

I think our table would be a bit depleted anyway. We have a couple of people who need to take more care. That's fine and sensible. Nobody should feel obliged.

JDW had beers from Brightside ,as well as the usual suspects. (I only really went, as I fancied a breakfast cooked by some other bugger than me!  Lees had Bitter in the THT and Bitter and MPA in the Rose. That will build up as we go along.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Trade Trades Again

As I write this, the clock is ticking. The day has come. After 104 days, pubs are free to open again, albeit with many restrictions to limit the possible effect of the dreaded Covid-19.

It is a day that has divided opinions.  Some feel it is too soon, some too late, some pointless as the experience won't be exactly the same as it was. Some still sceptical about going out and mixing with others - even under controlled circumstances -either because they have underlying conditions - or put starkly - because they are feart.  And that isn't a criticism. The virus isn't going away yet. It doesn't have to do anything really. It just has to be. This isn't an imagined spectre in the night, a fear of the unknown. It is all too real. People have seen the effect it has had on many and wonder, not unreasonably,  if that could be their fate. Fear is a reasonable response.

Well that's the background, but the reality is that sooner or later, the risk has to be transferred to the individual. The economy can't go on as it is - people can't go on as it is -  so today or very soon, is the day you have to piss or get off the pot.  It doesn't just apply to pubs of course. Restaurants, hairdressers - oh yes - hairdressers - are in the same boat, but you don't have to sail in that boat. You can just stay at home and wait this out in comparative safety. But it will likely be a long wait and it will transform your life from living it, to remaining alive. Your choice and the knowledge that you are more likely to die on the way to the pub, than in it of Covid-19, is an equation that we all must work out for ourselves.

Pubs are aware of this. The Government is aware of this.   Guidance has been issued and while not having the force of law, it is something that really should be followed. It will minimise risk and make that decision much easier. There is little evidence that this will be ignored by pubs. It would be irresponsible and would reflect badly on them at licence renewal. It will vary of course and there will many pubs and many people, who while philosophically inclined to open, or to be there as customers, will just be a tad cautious and wait and see. The middle course if you will.

Last night a local licensee and friend invited me to see the preparations being made. It is a medium-sized managed house and the changes are mostly in distancing and the installation of rather unobtrusive perspex screens to separate areas. Some tables have been removed and table service of course will apply, as will collection of customer data. You'll pay at table wherever possible and of course, order from there. Staff will wear visors. One way systems, separate in and out and plenty of sanitising stations, as well as free flow of air, will make it as safe as possible. It is one of my locals and I'll feel as safe there as I do in Aldi or the like - and I go there. I have to.  My friend, the licensee is taking it seriously and the brewery is to - and I'm sure most others will do so too.

The simple message about any pub now, is if you don't feel comfortable and safe - leave. Frankly it was ever thus, but never more important than now.

I also had my first (and second) pints of properly cask conditioned, freshly brewed beer.  It was nectar from the Gods.

I won't be at the pub today, due to a family "do" following E's Mum's passing, but I will be tomorrow. Life is for the living.

Monday, 29 June 2020

This Day in 2007

I left work - forever as it turned out - in 2007. Here's what I wrote in my Tandleman's Musings Blog which, was a kind of personal diary, which I must resurrect.   (My beer blog didn't start until nearly 6 months later).

DWP is Department for Work and Pensions and CSA - Child Support Agency. LSA is Lytham St Annes where I worked for many years and still had staff. Tina was my Assistant.

There is a slight connection to beer. My "do" was held in the Palace, Leeds where many a pint of Ind Coope Burton Ale was supped in different and in many ways, better, times.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Old Friends, Curry and Blackout

My "do" is a jolly affair with a lot of my old team, my mates Graham and Steve (Graham ex DWP and Steve current DWP) and former colleagues.

I even get a little chocolate present from Tina (which I later left in the Curry House) and some cuff links from my former team. I am very touched again.

As is usual with these things, by 4.30 or so, there is a hard core of boozers left and we have a merry old time before tipping out around 7.30. In between there are farewell's and best wishes issued and received from time to time. Andy and I head for the station where we have some time before our train. We wait in Wetherspoons where Andy has coffee and I have beer. I think. Or maybe I had nothing. It is getting hazy by now. Our train goes direct to Mills Hill. We totter off and Andy says " fancy a curry?" Of course I do, so we nip into the handy Modhubon where curry is ordered, taxis sorted and presents inadvertantly left!

When we get home, it is all pitch black. A power cut. We stagger about searching for candles, then something to light the candles with. We wolf the curry down and retire hiccuping to bed, me stopping only to phone the curry house. They have my goodies and I arrange to collect them today. As I finish my call, the lights come back on. What a day!

Game Over

Thursday is my other "going away" do. Andy arrives early and we set of to Mills Hill station. The guard does not collect our fare, and we buy a ticket at Rochdale where we change trains. For a very cheap £6.50 we get a long, tedious and rattly journey to Leeds. On arrival, we walk to Quarry House and Andy goes off to a motorcycle clothing shop and I go to Quarry for the last time.

I have memories of this building too. I was responsible for moving all the IT into it from London and LSA and was a member of the original Steering Group that discussed all the matters pertinent to getting the place operational. I even had a hard hat tour when it was a shell. I had some great times there, met some great people and some shits and hopefully did some good work.

I walk to my room and greet Ali and Jane and sit at my desk for the last time. I log on and delete all my emails, I send one last email and log off. My smart card is handed in, my phone given to Ali who will swap the SIM for hers, as she likes mine more and my laptop also given to Ali who will take it to Warrington for disposal. It is a museum piece anyway. It has a future only as landfill. Finally, I un-divert my phone, which was diverted to my mobile. I say a quick goodbye to the CSA lasses outside my room and tell Ali and Jane I'll see them in the pub. I leave for the last time and walk away to the cash point. I don't look back!

Monday, 22 June 2020

Sign In to Get In?

If today's press stories are to be believed, it appears that the Government will finally make its mind up about pubs re-opening and the 4th of July looks as certain as can be in these uncertain times to be the day that joyous event will occur.  There will be restrictions and if we can believe what we read, it seems we'll be told tomorrow exactly what these restrictions might be. Having said that, given the record of this Government in either getting things wrong, or not fully laying out what they expect and the reasoning behind it, that might be being a tad optimistic.

Nonetheless, let's go with this for the time being. I've already covered in previous posts that most of the thinking doesn't really cover smaller pubs where any kind of distancing is a big issue when it comes to viability and indeed, practicality. Now maybe I'm being a bit unfair but when I look at the lumpen dopes that are considering this - and it will be a political not a scientific decision whatever anyone alleges - I don't feel it likely that any of them are in the habit of popping down the local for a few swift pints. Nor are any of the scientists frankly.  That makes it highly unlikely, despite the pleadings of various pub supporting groups, that they fully understand the average pub and its denizens.  I rather doubt that Hancock is poring over the BBPA or CAMRA views, or indeed any of the interest groups that "represent" drinkers and publicans, but even so, like it or lump it, he's the man we have to deal with - or is that put up with?  Doesn't bode well does it?

One thing though I have read with interest is that following - or perhaps emphasised by the uptick in Covid-19 outbreaks, particularly in Germany which has put us to shame in almost every way, is that we need to be able to trace people who have been exposed to unexpected outbreaks in a specific place. In the German case, it is at a workplace, so records will be kept - and the Germans - bless 'em like record keeping - so tracing and isolating is rather easier.  Now we have to be honest here. Pubs by their very nature, especially small ones, aren't - assuming they will be allowed to open at all - the best place to be if someone is either knowingly unwell and present, or, quite possibly, suffering from Covid-19 without showing symptoms.

One leaked proposal it seems - and I think the Bavarians already do it - is to take names, addresses and contact numbers from patrons.  While there are certainly civil liberty issues with this, and putting aside the practicalities for the moment, it seems to me that this would be a very sensible move.  I for one would be a tad easier in my mind if I knew that if I had been exposed to Covid-19 that I could be advised of it and self-isolate.

It shouldn't be that difficult for any pub to acquire a register and to make this happen. Sign in to get in? Why not? This proposal, while unwelcome - even outrageous at other times - seems to me at this point in time, to be not only wise, but necessary. 

Of  course some will be tempted to put down Mickey Mouse etc. but this should be easily dealt with. It is in nobody's interest to subvert this.

The keeping and security of such records though isn't a small thing - or rather it is - but it will still be a bone of contention I'm sure and safeguards will b needed. After all if you book at a restaurant, etc. details are handed over routinely.