Monday 31 January 2011

Good Things Coming

Now that the two main traumas of January (NWAF and GBG Selection Meeting) are behind me and my nerves are returning to a more settled state, it is time to turn to more simple pleasures. (No, not that.) First up this week is a CAMRA Branch Meeting, which I intend to make as brief as I can in order to combine it with a side visit to the Regal Moon for their Stout and Porter Festival. This is a bit of an ad hoc festival, as Chris the manager decided just last week it would be an interesting start to February. And why not?

Later in the week I must gird my loins for that most taxing of events, a day out with the legendary Tyson. We will be testing to destruction, the newly opened Port St Beer House. Is it the Euston Tap or Rake of Manchester? We shall see. Tyson being much more on the ball trend wise, has of course already given it the once over, but how will it be once it has settled down a bit and paint has been turpsed from first night glad rags? I will let you know.

Another deadly run in with the Bury Bachant will occur on Saturday, when along with the lovely E and a bunch of other lushes, there will be a close encounter of the third kind with the Sheffield Tap - my first visit there and eagerly awaited - and then a side order of the Hillsborough Hotel and the Wellington.

I'll have an abrupt change of scene the following week, with a (more or less) alcohol free trip to see my dear old Mum in Scotland. I do intend though to squeeze in a visit to at least a couple of Glasgow's finest boozers, so any "mustn't miss" tips for that are welcome, as I'm well behind the curve on Glasgow these days. (Barm?) After that I intend to have a very quiet week before a longish trip to London, where I'll be casting a critical eye over the Kernel Brewery Saturday gig, Cask, the Jolly Butchers and no doubt others. So do make sure that beer temperature and condition is correct chaps. (I will be free to dispense my impeccable beer opinions on Thursday 24th Feb if anyone is around.) My final plan for the time being is too see if we can fit in a little trip to Vienna before the end of March. If the price is right.

That lot should provide the blog with a bit of juicy material and hopefully will be pretty enjoyable too. At least for me.

German Beer Sales Slow Slide

A few German stats for you to start the week off. I know it is lazy blogging, but I couldn't be bothered tarting this up too much. My interest in Germany is already declared on the left, hence this piece.

Beer sales continued their slow decline in Germany last year, dropping another 1.7 percent with the average person drinking just over 100 litres the Federal Statistical Office reported last week. (That's around a hefty 10 litres per head less in the last the last three years.) Unlike the UK, the drop was even sharper when it came to domestic sales, which fell 2.9 percent. Beer sales within Germany have fallen every year since 2000 with the notable exception of 2006, when Germany co-hosted the World Cup.

Premixed beer drinks such as Radler (shandy) are becoming more popular. Beer mixed with lemonade, cola, fruit juice and other non-alcoholic drinks made up about 4 percent of the total beer consumption. That was a significant increase on the 2.7 percent these drinks accounted for in 2009. Exports however continued to boom, with a rise of 5.9 percent, with bigger increases to countries outside the EU. Another 20 million litres went home with lucky brewery workers as a free perk of the job.

The biggest-consuming states last year, as with the years before, were the populous North Rhine-Westphalia, which accounted for 24.7 percent of domestic sales, and Bavaria, which accounted for 21.9 percent.

What is noteworthy in a British context is the viciousness of price wars in the off-premise sector. Market observers believe that 60 percent of all beer was sold “on promotion”. That has delivered a big hit to brewers’ bottom lines. Declining volumes and shrinking margins hit Radeburger Group, Germany’s major brewing group, particularly badly, with reported volume declines of 2.5 percent. News is even worse for AB-InBev with Beck’s volume sales dropping a reported 9.4 percent. AB-InBev’s other major brand, Hasseröder, lost even more: -10.7 percent.

Interestingly, the meteoric rise of Germany’s cheap beer producer Oettinger appears to have been stemmed: Oettinger’s volumes fell 3.8 percent to an estimated 6.3 million hl beer.

While this may seem rather miserable from a German point of view, I reckon British brewers would give their eye teeth to be doing this well.

This article was cobbled together from Brauwelt and The Local. My thanks to them.

Friday 28 January 2011

That's the Spirit

Following on from my rather depressing report about the pub trade I read this in the Morning Advertiser. Here is a man that is running a pub, going to add a brewery, is positive and confident and brim full of good ideas. No thought of failure is entertained. He is a "Yes we can" sort of a guy. When you have confidence, ability and a will to do well, there is still opportunity out there.

This seems to me to be very good news indeed which is why I'm drawing it to your attention. I wish him every success.Up with that sort of thing.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Grim Reading

The latest beer sales figures make grim reading as volumes, particularly in the on trade continue to decline. It is a horrible picture. Of course beer sales are just part of most pub's portfolio these days, so don't present a total overview of how pubs are performing, but nonetheless it is depressing. The Pub Curmudgeon has covered this in his blog and foresees that we will have no pubs left soon, though cheeringly, it is unlikely he'll have popped his clogs before the last one goes in 2037. I know he jests, but if the arithmetic doesn't change, he will be right. There is already huge swathes of poorer areas that no longer have pubs at all and rural pubs who have been suffering badly for years are also badly affected, as are most other types. Yes a lot of bottom end pubs have closed, but it isn't just them. The serious point is that the decline in on trade beer drinking, seems inexorable and the closure of more pubs inevitable. We haven't reached the bottom yet and have no idea when we will.

It is also informative to read that the fall off in on trade drinking started before the smoking ban and has continued, grindingly, ever since, though indeed as Mudgie points out, it peaked just after the smoking ban. That alone doesn't explain the drop in pub going, though "the ban" (and please, this is not a debate about the smoking ban, so don't chip in on that basis alone) has certainly had an effect, but it is clearly not the only factor in this sorry tale.

Society is changing in ways we could never have predicted. The web, social networking, time shifting multi channel TV, more comfortable homes, price, health awareness, recession, job insecurity, generational attitude shifts and more, dictate that a pub will never again be on every street corner, bursting at the seams and the only place to go for an entertaining interlude. While the pub trade asks government to alter beer taxes, to give preferential duty rates, to curb the supermarkets and to tilt the balance back into their favour by administrative means, they are mostly wasting their time. That would likely make little difference as the changes in public attitude seem to be as much a factor as price. There's a mountain to climb. Nonetheless, the pub trade still refuses as a whole to face up to this and the fact that to attract customers and keep them, it has to be better. It has to offer a smile, a warm welcome (that just means a "hello" or a "thanks"), good surroundings, decent food and an experience that is attractive and competitive against other offerings. It has to offer good service and a wide range of beers that people actually want to drink, rather than the ones they can buy cheaply and sell dear. Pubs need to fully compete against each other to attract those customers that are left and to gain potential new ones. They need to drive up standards, which in far too many instances are still firmly mired in the 1970's. The trade, rather than whine about taxation and "unfairness" - even if it exists - ought give as much, if not more emphasis to good old fashioned customer service and value for money. It can rant and rave about unfairness, or just get on with doing something about the things that are within their control.

There are still well over 50,000 pubs in the UK, so let's not give up hope yet. At the end of the day, as in all retailing, it's all about the offer. For a lot of people, there are too many cheaper and better options. Make the offer tempting and the experience a good one and people will (probably) still come to pubs. Get it wrong and they certainly wont.

The pub shown is in Oldham. You will see that demographics are a factor too. Picture source: Adam Brierley

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Here's a Bottle

There's nane that's blest of human kind
But the cheerful and the gay, man.

Here's a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o' care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man!
Believe me, Happiness is shy,
And comes not ay when sought, man!

It is always gratifying to see the bard recognised and today and this week he will be remembered in countless Burns Suppers, not only in his native Scotland, but throughout the world. This is as it should be and I'll be enjoying haggis tonight (but no whisky) and will raise a glass of Scottish beer to his memory and to mine for the countless hours at school learning a lot of his poetry.

I wonder what the randy sod would have made of this though? I guess as an internationalist he would have been pleased, but nonetheless it does make you wonder why a Kent brewer would bring out a Burns related beer. Is the Head Brewer a Scot? Of course Burns did have thoughts about drinking and very much liked an hour out. So do have a glass of beer to his memory, whether brewed by McSheps or someone else. Life is short.

Anyway, here's to the Immortal Memory. Happy Burns Day to all my readers!

Monday 24 January 2011

The End of the Festival

The end comes suddenly, but like a resinous, hoppy beer, it finishes long. I'll be back there today and maybe after I've had a rest I can get back to some blogging. The two photos show the NWAF site about ten minutes after the last customer left.

Within that time it was transformed from the biggest bar in the UK to a mass of casks, pipes, boxes and sundry bits and pieces of beery kit. After today it will all be gone to its various homes.

And so, thankfully, will I.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Nearly Ready

Sorry for the virtual silence for the last week or so, but I've been organising a big fuck off sized beer festival. Well deputy organising it, which is quite hard enough thank you. And you know what? It's nearly ready now and most certainly will be entirely so by opening time tomorrow, which is if you are trade, 14.30 in new money. For the rest of you it is 17.00

I've mentioned highlights already here, so won't bother doing that again, but it is really something splendid. The bars are built, the beers tapped and vented and the lines cleaned. The foreign and bottled beer has been set up, the cider and perry has been graded (it isn't a subterfuge for early drinking I'm assured) and the thousand and one other jobs have been ticked off. The place is looking great.

We are ready to rock and roll, so all that is needed to really ice my cake is for you (and around 10,000 more) to be there Dear Reader. If you show up, come and say hello.

The photo shows the Champion Winter Ale contenders in their anonymous pre-judging state.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Customer Service

After meeting the Chairman of the CAMRA Review Group yesterday we needed a little refreshment, so nipped into the Bank (Nicolsons) for some beer. I chose unwisely, but that was the triumph of hope over experience, so my own fault. I've never found a Rudgate beer yet that I like, though it may well be that Rudgate beers just don't agree with me in some way. None of this is the point though, as I want to mention customer service.

The pub was almost empty, but the bar staff were exemplary. "Our" young barmaid in particular was cheerful and attentive, with samples happily offered (I still bought that blasted Rudgate though) and banter exchanged. She chatted to us old fogies and made us feel wanted in the pub. Unbidden, when she heard us discussing Stella Black which was available, she darted over with a taster and mentioned it was on offer. I remarked on her cheerfulness and she replied simply "This is my job, I might as well enjoy it!" Refreshing.

Now the real reason I mention her, is that this isn't the first time this lass has treated this customer so well. Earlier in December she was just as attentive and professional when I was there with a different mate and she was the same with all her customers both then and yesterday. Well done I'd say and a pleasure to encounter customer service at its best.

I thought the Stella Black to be not that bad actually, but it was only a taster.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Filtering Back

It used to be common practise to filter overspilled beer - beer from the drip tray or from the pipes when cleaning - back into the cask. This had advantages stock wise to the publican of course, as sometimes his ullage allowance covered this and he effectively got some free beer. Sometimes it just enabled him to meet the greedy demands of brewery or owner to get xx number of pints out of a cask.

The method of doing so varied, but at its crudest, it just involved the "slops" being collected in a bucket and poured back into the darkest beer possible. From this evolved the tales of "never drink mild, it has all the slops in it". And you know what? Often it did. At its best, the beer was collected from drip trays etc. in a stainless steel, lidded bucket and using a funnel and filter paper, was allowed to drip back into the cask. If yiou were lucky bitter was returned to bitter and mild to mild, but trust me, this was not always so. Various on line systems existed too, to allow this drip, drip, drip of spilled beer to be returned to the unsuspecting drinker. It was so common to be almost the rule rather than the exception. When you hear how bad cask beer was when keg shoved it aside, this was one of the reasons why.

Now I bet you are saying to yourself. "What a filthy practice, thank goodness it doesn't happen these days." Health and Safety laws will prevent this you'll imagine. Hygiene laws will ensure that beer which has potentially passed over unwashed hands is never re-used. You'd be both right and wrong. Of course it would be illegal to resell contaminated beer, but you'd be hard pressed to prove it had happened. Does it still occur? Yes it does. Is it common? Not nearly as much as it used to be and these days mostly confined to beer from the lines. Is it approved by breweries? Yes, by some.

Don't believe me? Look up any "Cellar Sundries" supplier on the web and you'll find stainless steel beer filter equipment and the necessary filter papers. Next time you get a murky or duff pint, bear that in mind!

The Nervous Time

One thing about beer festivals is that once it is all set up, it tends to flow fairly smoothly. Not so in the period beforehand . It has been a very intense week with problems (they used to call them opportunities when I was at work) galore. I have been directly involved with various Health and Safety issues, design issues and even, reluctantly, pricing. Others on the Working Party that oversees the National Winter Ales Festival are in the same boat. It is quite stressful. No matter how carefully you plan there is always these two fellows, Mr Wibni and Mr Osintot making their presence felt in no uncertain manner. Who are they then? Mr Wibni (Wouldn't it be nice if...) and more commonly, Mr Osintot (Oh shit I never thought of that). I think it fair to say that the nearer you get to the beer festival, the more focused you become, with all the little things you blanked out, or put off, pouring out like water from a burst pipe. The enormity of it all and the sheer level of detail is quite daunting and the margin for error almost nil.

We start set up on Friday this week believe it or not. I can safely predict that it will be chaos at first until we get ourselves organised, but the time the paying customer gets there next Wednesday, it will hopefully all feel like a calm, ordered, well oiled (that's quite possible) machine, but underneath, those of us that are responsible for the success or failure of the whole thing, are, like ducks in a pond, paddling frantically to keep afloat.

But you know what? We will do it and we will make it a great success. Come along and see for yourself.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Fancy a Really Good Do?

Of course you do. Everyone likes a really good do, so why the heck not? There will be beer too. Lots of it. There will be 254 cask ales at this shindig, with "got to try" beers such as Liverpool Organic's Imperial Russian Stout, Wapping's Damson Stout, Adnam's Tally Ho and Thornbridge St Petersburg to keep the winter chill out and to thrill you skinny. Or maybe you'd like something pale and hoppy? Suits You Sir. So how about a splash or two of Phoenix Navvy, Lancaster Blonde, or Marble 3.9? "Something unusual" I hear you demand, so why not have a go at Amber Ales Chocolate Orange Stout, Robinson's Ginger Tom, Dunham Massey Chocolate Cherry Mild or even Hopstar Smokey Joe?

Want to try unusual breweries that you don't often come across? That's fine too, with Irwell Works, Derwent, Tunnel, Fallons and Flipside to name but a few. Want to try some fantastic British Bottled Beer? Of course you do and with beers such as Worthington White Shield, Hardknott Infra Red and Dark Matter, Durham Temptation and many more, you'd be daft not to. If it's foreign beer you'd like, this party has it too, with Belgian classics from Cantillon, Boon, Orval, Rochefort and Oud Beersel (among others), Festbiers, smoked beers, bockbiers and weizen's from Germany on tap and in bottle, draught Czech classics like Budvar and Bernard on draught, more cider and perry than you can shake a stick at and much, much more. I think you get the picture by now.

This vast cornucopia of the brewer's art will be at the National Winter Ales Festival in Manchester from the 19th to the 22nd of January. All will be sold at sensible Northern prices in a fantastic venue with great transport links, reduced price fares on the buses to and from and great food. We expect record crowds, a fantastic time and the best National Winter Ales Festival ever. It's all on the web site.

I hope to see as many bloggers and followers there as possible, so do come and do say "hello".

Can't be much more positive than THAT!

Wednesday 5 January 2011

A Glass Half Full

So the Gummint is hastening along the introduction of the two thirds of a pint measure. Some will welcome this, but for me it is somewhat of a gimmick disguised as broadening choice. It's a non event; a distraction, though I if I try very, very hard, I can see the odd time when it might be attractive. Maybe when your last bus is in 10 minutes? Not enough times to make it worthwhile anyhow and there is potentially a more sinister down side. You can see in your minds eye places where this will be welcomed for less than wholesome reasons. Think night clubs, outside events such as football matches, racecourses, concerts etc. and of course, the new wave of specialist bar where I can easily foresee that the pint will be supplanted by a two thirds measure at the same price. So to me, at best it is a tinkering irrelevance and at worst a Trojan Horse whereby the unscrupulous may deceive, or use it as an excuse to charge more for less.

Of course the ordinary pub is likely to be unaffected some will say. They haven't the space, time, inclination or demand for it. It will remain like the third of a pint, a legal curiosity which is rarely observed or used. It's harmless. Maybe. But to those that think this is a brilliant innovation, I'd just warn of the law of unintended consequences and that other law. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I see BrewDog claim the credit for this and say also "If we weren’t so busy brewing, we would probably be able to solve most of the world’s problems." They probably believe both things to be true!

How Much is a Pint Then?

The recent increase in duty and VAT has caused howls of anguish in many circles and predictions of meltdown in the on trade. True it means that beer will be in for a steeper increase than any time in its history and that is regrettable, but how much is a pint anyway?

In the bad or good old days (depending on how rose tinted your glasses are) we knew more or less how much a pint would cost in our own manor. Pubs were mostly owned by breweries amd they to a large extent dictated how prices were levied. You knew roughly what was what. In the North of England Whitbread would be most expensive, then Bass, then Allied, then your local brewery and all were within pennies of each other. This hasn't been the case for years though and the variation in price, pub to pub, which is now the norm, doesn't on the whole stop people drinking in pubs. Other things might though, but the price charged to those dedicated to pub going is always these days a somewhat variable one.

Before the rise, my local charged £2.35 for a pint of any cask beer, whether mild, bitter or guest. The price varies by a few pence up or down in other in Lees pubs and of course elsewhere. In JDW it is likely to be still under £2.00 a pint in this neck of the woods and of course a trip to Manchester will see you paying anything from a couple of quid to £3 plus. The same picture I'm sure affects the whole country and of course, in London and the South East, the £3 pint has been common for quite some time. If there is a psychological barrier, it certainly isn't set at the £3 mark.

In effect nobody knows the price of a pint, as no such generality exists any more and people are therefore unlikely to make their pub going decisions on the premise that the cost increase now makes it too much. If you asked them how much a pint is, they couldn't really say.

As always the answer to pub going or lack thereof isn't solely price, but to paraphrase Bill Clinton "It's the offer Stupid". That's a truth that will never change and one that is becoming more and more important now.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Is This Right?

After a lot of buggering about on New Year's Eve due to sick visiting, we finally made it to the pub at around half past three. We had intended to visit the Landlady in Delph, but that didn't work out time wise, so we went to the Baum, where there was an excellent atmosphere and Hawkshead Windermere Pale. No complaints there. Simon the landlord was gearing up to his New Year's Evening do, which had a gangsters and molls theme. We inspected the poster; no entrance fee and food, if you wanted it, was a fiver a pop. A customer asked what time the kitchen would be open until. "Nine o'clock for normal meals service" was the answer. Thereafter, presumably, you forked up your fiver.

On the way home, we decided to call into a local Lees pub, the Ship Inn. It was heaving. "Sorry the bar closed at five to prepare for tonight" we were told. My protest that we only wanted a quick pint and that it was only five past five were swept aside. I reasoned then that we'd go to the Rose of Lancaster, which is tied to Lees, but unlike the tenanted Ship, is managed. Surely a food led managed house would definitely be open? At ten past five all external lights were off and the doors shut. So no, it wouldn't be.

On the way home we checked out every pub we passed. The Old Cock (Lees) was in darkness. The Nowster (Lees) similar. The Carter's Arms (Lees) seemed to be open and trading, the Lancashire Fold (Lees, managed) was in semi darkness and presumably closed to the thirsty. Thornberries (Free) had the doors closed and the curtains drawn.

Now call me naive, but is this a good state of affairs? I have a lot of sympathy for hard pressed tenants who need a rest before opening late and serving like people possessed into the wee small hours, but not much for a managed house who can't keep the doors open. Of course, and call me suspicious if you like, I think it is reasonable to assume that those keeping potential customers out were looking to maximise revenue by charging entry to revellers later. That's fine and dandy, but is 5 p.m. a reasonable time to kick people out? I think not and it is instructive to note that the Baum, a former CAMRA Pub of the Year seemed to be taking a more customer friendly line.

These are hard times, and it seems to me as a very regular pub goer, that I was sidelined for the later lure of a pack of high spending occasional drinkers. Is the denial of service in this way something that happens elsewhere in the UK, or is it a local thing?

I know it is only once a year, but is it right that those who do not intend to pay to go to the pub for New Year celebrations are consequently denied a tea time time pint at the very reasonable hour of five pm? I somehow think it isn't.