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.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Will They Won't They?

The trade is in crisis. As UK lockdown and with it the closure of our pubs, now into its 11th week, continues, things are getting seriously bad. The trade press and commentators now have everything pinned on a limited re-opening on the 4th July, but will this save many of our pubs? The answer is likely a resounding "no".

The Government continues to dither, but already preparations are being made. Pub cellars are being emptied of old and rancid beer, lines are being cleaned and renovated, breweries are slowly resuming production on the assumption that the green light will soon be given. Let's hope they are right, but even if they are, success for brewers and publicans and the secure future of jobs will very much depend on what sort of re-opening we get. But of course, above all, we have to get that elusive nod.

There has to be preparation time too as the trade makes very clear. Breweries need to gear up production, cellar teams need to sort out their wares. And then there is front of house staff. Most are on furlough and if there isn't to be a huge loss of jobs soon - and there likely will be anyway - they need to be recalled and retrained in how social distancing is to work in their particular environment. And here's the problem. We don't know how it will be envisaged. Will it be regulated?  If not how will it all operate? The Government, though under great pressure to reduce distancing requirement from two to one metre, is saying that it will be decided by the 4th of July - so no preparation time and the resulting "hoping for the best" that sees brewing re-commence and preparations being made.

The stakes are high. The Publican's Post says "Without certainty by the end of this week, it is claimed that hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost throughout the industry, and result in many permanent pub closures – with upcoming changes to the government’s furlough scheme estimated to cost an additional £120m according to the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA)." 

Which pubs will open and how will they feel and look? We have an idea from two decent sources: Greene King and JD Wetherspoon are spending £15m and £11m respectively on very similar measures. These involve widespread use of perspex screening barriers, staff wearing masks, goggles and gloves, as well as enhancing cleaning of common surfaces, door handles, toilets etc. There will be separate in and out arrangements in every case where it is possible to do so, as well as table service, no standing at the bar and more.  In both cases there will be additional staff dedicated to ensuring adherence to measures. I'd imagine too, that door operatives may well be employed in some cases.  It really doesn't  sound too conducive to enjoyment when you add it all up, but then again, probably better that than not at all.  I have no doubt too, that other pub owning companies will be working out what they must do to safely re-open, but it really is all a bit uncertain, both in what is needed and wise and what (if anything) will be mandated and enforced.

For JDW, it may well work - and maybe in some GK pubs too - but what about smaller venues? The sort of place that might be described better as a traditional pub, rather than a large drinking barn. Or small bars and micro pubs where being cheek to jowl and close conviviality is the very attraction? There is no obvious answer. Will the opening of smaller pubs be on the same basis as smaller shops? That is using common sense and maintaining social distancing? I'm guessing not. Either way, they really must make their minds up pronto, whether the benefit outweighs the risk. Do they transfer it, partially at least, to the individual? The risk then is that there will be a widespread "Bollocks to that" from many local venues who will just carry on as if nothing is amiss. I can think of a few myself where that would quite possibly be the case. For a Government that has so much trouble reading the room and prefers vacillation to action, this is a particularly unwelcome problem.

Overall will pubs largely be allowed to open on a  "follow the guidelines basis and beyond that, best endeavours?"  Hard questions, because at the end of the day, businesses can't open without profit. Too heavy a hand on the tiller, and they won't open at all, as they will almost certainly lose money.

Customer confidence is still very weak. The virus casts a long shadow and many customers, enjoying cheap drinks at home and beer deliveries to their doorstep, might well be tempted to stay doing so until the all clear. The threat of the virus is still very real. There are uncertain times ahead. Looking forward, the all clear - meaning a return to "as you were" - may never come.

Forecast: Quite a few marginal pubs will never re-open. There will be a cull of breweries too, if not now, eventually. Government measures can't replace the certainty of employment forever and if the money isn't there, the result will be closure and job losses.

My remark about the Government isn't a political one. It is through simple observation of what has happened so far. And pubs opening without Government sanction is fanciful nonsense. They'd be uninsured and put licences at risk.

Photo credit: Greene King

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Home Drinking Starts to Pall

Those who know me well, know that I don't really drink at home. I presumably thought I did at one time, but the large number of undrunk bottles going back years that lie languishing in my garage, suggests I do not. Well certainly not enough.

Until this pandemic swiped more or less everything sideways, this cosy arrangement was fine. I went into the garage, looked at a beer, shook my head and decided not to bother. Or to go to the pub. Now things have changed. Our binmen - sorry, environmental operatives - who no doubt pre virus, looked forward to emptying my green recycling bin. It was as light as a chaste maiden's kiss, filled as it was with the odd kitchen disinfectant bottle, bog cleaner, mushy pea can and milk container. Now every three weeks, they strain every Covid-free sinew, as groaning like an overloaded dance floor, they huff and puff my brimming bin to the waiting wagon.

You see, among my other sins - and they are plenty - now that the pub is denied me, I almost always only drink bottled beer. I compound that felony by drinking bottles of a larger size. That is 500 ml and above. I rarely drink small bottles of strong beer - they are the dust collectors in the garage. Of  course the ones I do drink weigh more and take up more room in what was previously a roomy bin, but which now is so inadequate that my garage floor has the excess in it as an unwanted trip hazard. If I only drank cans, then at least I could squash the buggers down a bit and equally, not be afraid of hearing a loud pinging noise and a shriek of agony, as an overloaded binman, snaps something essential, as my bin contents are dragged to their recycling future.

Now a narrow wheelie bin, emptied once every three weeks, doesn't really represent a huge amount in the great scheme of things.   I haven't measured my intake, but I do know how it has come about. Two things; the bloody lockdown and secondly the lovely weather.  As a result of the former, our garden, while hardly going to test those who aspire to Chelsea Flower show standards, is looking pretty damn good.  So, at five'o'clock or so, we have on the sun trap patio at the bottom of our garden, taken to sitting in the sunshine and opening a couple of bottles. Each. That has been known to lead to more, or even once, when the weather stayed warm until ten at night, the addition of bottles of wine and a missed evening meal.

In a so far successful attempt to be sensible, we decided some time ago only to do this if the weather is nice. But - and this is a big but - the weather has been, on the whole, damn pleasant.  So the beer (and the crisps) have been opened more often than not.  In days when the highlights are few and far between, it really has been something to look forward to.  What's not to like I hear you ask?  Well I find myself looking wistfully at my beer and saying "We could be in the Rose or the Ringers now."  E nods in agreement. We know people there and, like most people, are company starved under this lockdown. Drinking bottled beer at the bottom of the garden seems fine and dandy. It is certainly sociable between us two, but it ain't the pub and both of us are acutely aware of it.

Now however, the weather has broken and looking ahead, there seems little prospect of sitting on the patio until at least June 15th, maybe longer. The weather forecast isn't at all promising. And you know what? I'm happy about that. On the days when the sun hasn't shone, or it has been too cold, we haven't missed it.

But rain or shine, we are missing the pub and the company we find there. Not to mention in my case, cask conditioned beer.

What have I been drinking? Well, St Austell Proper Job mostly. Bottle conditioned and at 5.5%, two is usually plenty.  Some German stuff too, but I've given up re-racked cask beer.  E has developed a bit of a soft spot for Warsteiner and Aldi Pils. 

We also have the Virtual Tavern on Zoom every Sunday, but while great,  all we really want is to be back round our table.

Friday, 22 May 2020

This Day 10 Years Ago

I was looking through old blogposts the other day. This was in a way inspired by Boak and Bailey asking which writing you are proudest of  - or something like that. It isn't this by any means, but it has its own points to make and is probably just as true about cask beer now as it was then. The piece was a child of its times and times, terminology and sensibilities change, but I offer it up, warts and all.  (The title was well known then in that it was the catch phrase of Swiss Tony who compared every aspect of life, particularly selling cars, to making love to a beautiful woman.)

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Drinking a Pint of Cask is Like Making Love to a Beautiful Woman*

There is a fair degree of agreement that when cask beer is served at its best, that it is an unbeatable way of serving draught beer. Cool, but not cold, bursting with condition, clear, a tight creamy head - and yes it is better that way - full-bodied, clean in aroma and so easy to drink. Of course your first mouthful in any beer is so important. It sets all your senses on red alert. "Is this going to be good?" is the silent question. In cask beer it tends to tell you so much more than keg beers. It is a much more nuanced product. Having done the visual inspection and the nose test, you are already forming an opinion, building up the anticipation, getting ready for that first mouthful that will confirm whether it is as good as it looks. Or, unfortunately as bad. Sometimes it isn't that good. Too often you can tell by that visual and olfactory inspection that things just aren't going to be as good as you'd like. Here's where the making love analogy starts. I think you'll be getting my drift by now.

Any cask ale drinker knows one simple fact of life. You aren't always going to get a good pint. Unlike the lager or smooth drinker, who knows what to expect and is delivered with it every time, the cask drinker is an uncertain soul. He is hopeful that the heights that only cask can reach will be in that pint. He knows one thing though. He will sometimes - quite often actually - get a duff pint. It is the the elephant in the public bar. Like death and taxes, the dodgy pint is always with us. Too often cask beer isn't served as it should be. It is ordinary or it is bad. It is middling or damned by that phrase, " It was OK". That usually means it was poor, but you could just about choke it down without real enjoyment and for this writer, not to enjoy beer defeats its purpose. Making love analogy again!

There is a way to mitigate this of course. You drink in pubs you trust. You drink beer from breweries you trust. (There is a long list of breweries whose beer I wouldn't touch with a bargepole, and they are almost all micros). You use the GBG. You check for Cask Marque signs. You ask ahead (of fellow customers) "What's the beer like today?" This doesn't help the casual drinker of course. He or she is as likely to be a loser in the lottery as a winner. I don't believe many will disagree that the possibility of bad beer is the biggest enemy of cask . It puts more people off than anything else. Nor should you expect redress at the bar. You will be told in all probability that "Everyone else is drinking it", "it is just new on today", "that's the way it's meant to taste" etc. etc. And this won't just happen in dodgy pubs either. It will happen with a straight face in pubs that are considered the best of breed and about beer from breweries that are worshipped here in the blogosphere and in the real world. In short, over your drinking career, you will be taken for a mug time after time. An inconvenient truth if ever there was one.

What's prompted this introspection? After all I'm a cask man through and through. The other day a trip to the edge of my CAMRA Branch area, gave me some poor beer. Poor beer in Good Beer Guide pubs is irritating enough, but poor beer in pubs that usually sell it in tip top condition, is both puzzling and annoying. But sadly this isn't atypical. When some in the trade call for cask beer to be sold at a premium price, my response is along the lines of "Bugger off, I already pay a premium in that at least one in five of the pints I buy, will be poor and quite a number of them won't be as good as the brewer intended."

Why drink cask beer then? Simply because when it is right, when you hit that cask in peak of condition, when you have the taste experience which has you mentally cancelling the next few hours as the first pint slides down, it is the best beer experience you are likely to get. So when that perfect pint caresses your lips and sets your senses all aglow, do savour it, but then get stuck right in, get it down and get yourself back up to the bar, because then you really do have the beautiful woman in your arms and a night (or day) of true passion ahead of you. No unsatisfying bonk against the wall with the pub slapper round the back of the pub for you. You have the real thing. She is yours for the night and she may not come along again any time soon. Fill your boots!

So there you have it. Flirtation can be fun, but ultimately true love gives you what you really need. And one more thing. The memory of good and bad will each remain in your mind for a long time. If you are a publican, please make these memories good.

* If you are gay or a female, feel free to substitute gender as required.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Outer Space and Covid-19

Like many in lockdown, I've been reading some ideas that pubs have for safe re-opening. I tend to agree with Mudgie when he wrote here of the dangers of pubs going a little too far in bending over backwards to appease the authorities in the hope of being allowed to open once again. Some suggestions discussed seem wildly impractical and if they were to be implemented, might prove to be a bit of a Trojan Horse for licensees. There can surely be little doubt that the closure of an industry that gives a living to millions and a great deal of pleasure to many, not to mention attracting many visitors to our shores while playing to the heart of Britishness and its traditions, is a massive problem to be dealt with.  It also as a bit of an aside, gives the prohibitionist and their fake charity fronts, a wonderful opportunity to sew division and doubt and create more mischief. They have been quick to put the boot in. Supported by supine and lazy newspapers, repeating the tired old mantra that since closure of pubs, bars and restaurants, we are all drinking more, they have printed a forest of claptrap. Pete Brown has already thoroughly debunked this in an excellent rebuttal filled with facts. All of us in the beer bubble, nodded along happily, but I'm not so sure how widely his piece was reported. These are difficult times.

There is however a bit of a realisation, given the daily increases in unemployment, that just ignoring the hospitality industry isn't really on. The concern must be - and this applies to almost every industry - that the Government furlough scheme, though welcome and needed, is hiding an even bigger potential leap in the already grim unemployment statistics. We are already seeing that there are moves to restart industry and there must be an eye on the nearly three million employed in hospitality and a dread of the situation continuing much longer. But there is that pesky virus to consider.

In that context I've been thinking about my four local pubs. I say "my local pubs" in that these are places that I'm likely to visit, if not every week, certainly several times a month. Three are small and one, while not huge, is mid sized. Thinking abut what could be done, I  recalled that my first ever time in Belgium, many years ago, was around this time of year. In a smallish bar it was rammed, but outside, people were happily standing or sitting, drinking beer and chatting.  As it got quieter I remarked on this to the barman who shrugged and said "it isn't a problem, just put more clothes on". All my local pubs have the potential to spread outside a fair bit.  I know there are by-laws and more, but couldn't these be temporarily repealed to give smaller pubs a chance to trade in a way that would maintain social distancing, would be relatively inexpensive and would give pubs a chance of making a profit?

There will likely have to be other solutions found and this is by no means a magic bullet and goodness knows what we'd do when the heavens opened, but to my mind at least, I can't really see that many pubs at all, never mind small ones, could open profitably with vastly reduced numbers inside under any scheme devised. Maybe some huge ones could, but the bigger the pubs, the bigger the overheads and with a public still scared stiff of disease, not to mention screens, rules and restrictions, how convivial would it be -  and how profitable?

Sadly, whatever ideas come up, mine included, we could all just be pissing in the wind. The truth may well be that for most pubs, it is all or nothing.

You can also read Cookie here. Apart from his tongue in cheek style, he may have a point about just going for it, though how it would be policed, goodness knows, but actually, given the amount of fear around, it may be a self solving problem. 

I really do believe that the double whammy of restrictions and economics will ensure that very few pubs can open profitably unless some better imagination is used. Increased overheads, already small margins and reduced customer footprint doesn't sound like a winning formula to me. 

Image Credit ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2 under Creative Commons

Friday, 15 May 2020

Missing Cask Stout

Like many others, I have been supping the odd beer at home, mainly, it has to be said, in the garden around five o'clock if the weather has been fine.  It has on the odd occasion needed a fleece to keep warm, given that here, it never seems to be sunny but not windy. Somehow though it feels more conducive to enjoyment and also better for mental well-being, to drink a beer in the fresh air, rather than in a lumpen mess on the couch in front of the TV. I suppose too, it is just that bit  more agreeable, with blue skies, a glass in hand and an overabundance of crisps or Pringles. In fact, together with the lovely E, it has been quite pally really.

Surprisingly, despite several weeks cheek by jowl, we haven't nearly killed each other yet. In fact, it has been pretty amicable. As an aside to that, I fancy the story might be a tad different if we had been marooned in our small London flat. At the very least I  imagine, tempers would have become frayed, but here in the Centre of the Universe, we have space to get away from each other. The garden too has been a fantastic port in a storm and though it won't win any prizes, it is neat and tidy. (My main concern is that the neighbours don't get a petition up against us, so we are doing fine on that score at least).

In addition, we have a Zoom meeting every Sunday with our pals from the Tavern. It started off a little stutteringly, but just like the real thing, the Virtual Tavern has become more lively as we get used to the medium.  Oddly - and you won't believe this - the sessions themselves get more animated and indeed vivacious, as we sup more ale.  It was ever thus I guess and with some diehards staying yakking for several hours, not so bad really, though clearly we all yearn for the real thing, which we  agree without dissent, is still a long time off.

I've been missing a decent pint of cask though and have been buying bag in the box stuff from our local Pictish Brewery, but have been hankering after a cask conditioned stout.  Thankfully I have located some and tomorrow (I think) five litres of stout will come from Blackjack Brewery in Manchester. It is described as "balances of malt, sweetness, bitterness and hedgerow hoppy aroma."  That'll do. I have had it in the Blackjack Tap before, so I'm looking forward to it, even though it is re-racked, but like the Pictish beers, fine if you don't leave it hanging around too long. Not a likely outcome I can assure you.

Since I don't have a bag-in-box adaptor - didn't anticipate the need sadly - like my Pictish beers, I'll rig up a workaround.  Expect to see photos of tightly sparkled stout sometime tomorrow.

It is even more surprising that we haven't killed each other. The day after lockdown E suffered a sudden onset of rather severe sciatica, which is only now almost gone. Her Stoic nature alone made survival of that possible.

My other go to lockdown beer, as mentioned before, is St Austell Proper Job. Why not share your lockdown favourites here.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Managed Houses in 1960

Before the massive mergers that took place only a few years later, there were still quite a number of breweries that owned rather a lot of pubs.  Many of these pubs were tenanted, in that they had a person who ran the business and whose business was tied to the brewery for all products sold. He or she paid a rent to the brewery and otherwise ran the pub more or less as they saw fit. The other common operating model was of course, management of the pub directly by the brewery itself. This is a model favoured by some, indeed many, now. Usually then there was a mixed estate of tenanted and managed pubs.

Now we are assured by a certain beer writer that everyone loves a table, so I thought, why not jump on this bandwagon. Don't worry, I'll likely be jumping off it again very soon indeed. Here's how it all looked in 1960:

I suppose two things strike me. The very large variation in numbers of those managed directly and secondly, not one of the breweries mentioned is still a going concern today.

Source as previous blog post about Area Managers two days ago

I know John Smith is still a brewery, but it is not an independent company.  As for managed houses, increasingly those with the most earning potential are put under management as you might expect. It would be interesting to see such a table now.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

House Style

Back in the day when there were many large regional and local pub owning breweries, in Liverpool  where I lived throughout the 80s, you often used to be able to tell at a glance, without entering the pub, whose beer was on sale. Then, when there was a pub on every corner and plenty in between, you didn't particularly need to have eyes like a shithouse rat to ascertain with a sweeping glance, whose ale you were going to encounter, or indeed where the nearest pub was. In that fine city they were everywhere. It wasn't just the corporate signage, though obviously that provided a major clue, but how the building itself looked.  Back in the days when we played darts all over the city, that was a handy skill to acquire. We all cared "whose ale" it was.

If you saw a pale, yellow-tiled, flat fronted building, then you knew for sure it was a Whitbread pub, Whitbread having inherited that particular house style from Threlfalls, who they had taken over in the 1960s. Bass houses were broadly speaking distinguished by their distinct corporate black signage, built as a canopy around the entrance. A relic of the Bass Charrington days, the included red triangle was very easy to spot from afar. Higsons pubs were identifiable by the splash of red and black and the little square, lighted box that you could spot a mile away and which, as you got closer had the re-assuring words "Higsons" emblazoned thereon.

Tetley pubs were often bigger, though there was a mixed bag. Most were inherited from Walkers of Warrington and were brick built and imposing. Signage varied from the corporate "Allied Breweries" yellow and white to those that has a makeover and plainer gold lettering with, on the wall by the door, the Huntsman logo and "One of Tetley's Houses" increasingly visible as you approached. John Smith's pubs - fewer and further between - were invariably painted green and when Walkers pubs were brought back from the dead, their distinct shield like hanging sign was a beacon for the thirsty.

It wasn't just the outside that had a corporate touch that was subtle but definable. If you had been beamed down into most pubs, without looking at the bar, you'd have been able to order your drink and be sure which brewery's beer would be placed in your sticky mitt.  Higsons pubs were predominantly red inside. Usually too they were well-worn looking and comfortable. They were often, though not always, small. Whitbread pubs on the other hand always had big tables and lots of heavy chairs and a sort of wallpapered look that gave the game away.  Rarely did they have the standard round cast iron tables that were typical nearly everywhere. They were often multi roomed - and big rooms at that - and rarely had much of the standard bench seating. They did, in fairness look more cared for than some rivals. Bass pubs were often remarkably comfortable inside and well-thought-out. This belied their rather dull exterior. They probably hid their light under a bushel better than most.

Tetley pubs invariably - unless very small - were multi-roomed and often divided by screens and sometimes still had little snugs, which, if you got in first, you could hide in. They had the neatest and grandest pubs of all the breweries. Lots of leather seating and a lot of brass was a feature in many. They tended towards the ornate and plush, even in small pubs. Some bigger pubs had public and lounge bars, the public bar usually a bit more Spartan, but clean and the lounge well appointed. It was there you took your lass (or someone else's) for a quiet Saturday night drink. And there was Greenall Whitley. These were often, old-fashioned, with best rooms and differential pricing, but varying from plush suburban style boozers, comfortable and well appointed, to small intimate and rather bare looking locals.  The white and red pub sign, of a Greek Goddess blowing her horn, was easily visible from afar, but the beer could split opinions.

Pubs then as now - varied immensely - but were usually well run and sometimes even welcoming. There was a degree of "corporate" but they weren't samey and soulless.

Looking at the bar of course gave the game away. (Mostly) plastic boxes for Whitbread, John Smiths and (sometimes) Bass. Electric pumps for Greenalls. Vinyl covered Dalex handpumps for Higsons and the Tetley Huntsman and handpumps for their pubs. Confusingly the coloured plastic boxes often dispensed real ale.

As you travelled the country, you noticed the same kind of things. I suppose pub design followed a kind of template and pattern and still does. I doubt if a newly refurbished JW Lees Cheshire pub, if taken over immediately after refurbishment by say, Holts or Robinsons, would need much of an overhaul to instantly fit into their estates.  Or vice versa.