Thursday 31 January 2013

I'll Still Have a Pub to Go To

I've been a bit busy lately with CAMRA stuff recently and not really been able to keep up with blogs as much as I'd like and consequently have neglected my own. A temporary stare of affairs. One bit though I read yesterday, made me sit up and take notice. I was going to go for an afternoon kip, so knackered am I after National Winter Ales Festival, but Zak Avery's post here got me thinking instead. It is about the decline in beer sales against a background of a rise in the number of brewers and itself follows on from points made here..

 That bubble will bust many say and it no doubt will. At any rate it is hard to see anything other than a decline in the rate of increase.  I kind of believe that far from the smoking ban which saw a load of (mainly) older drinkers decide not to drink in pubs, there is wider societal change that means the number, type and quality of pubs will change. The anti alcohol brigade, through lies and distortions, have managed to scare off many from pub going, the pub companies have driven many pubs into the ground, the quality and business nous of many a landlord is clearly questionable and the days of a pub on every corner, while not entirely gone, are in decline. As working class areas change their populations, many have seen their pubs die as well. Unemployment, high prices, poor facilities, rotten welcomes, generational indifference to the pub as a social outlet and much more have changed the pub from the "must go to" haven it used to be, to an occasional treat, or even an imposition. For many young people the constant need to produce ID has driven the under age out of pubs and social interaction can easily be achieved electronically.  I dare say too these days,  there is much more chance of other more enticing horizontal delights too.

So why go to the pub? Remaining bottom end pubs are no go areas, road house pubs have either gone or become family oriented eateries, estate pubs have closed, slowly, one after the other as drinkers can drink and smoke cheaply at home, town centre pubs can be hell holes at weekends (or magnets for a certain kind of young drinker) and deserted during the week.  Good honest locals are struggling too. My observation too is that many young drinkers that do find their way to the boozer, aren't drinking that much by way of beer, but ready mixes, exotic ciders and gaudily coloured spirits with Red Bull.  A grim picture in some ways, but the young won't stay young forever and they will change. Predicting how might be worthwhile.

 But what of these brewers? Still coming out of the woodwork and despite the occasional failure, still doing reasonably well overall, as pubs become more open to them through being re-opened or re-invented as free houses, ties being loosened and wise entrepreneurs seeing gaps in the market. In addition - and these are very prevalent in Manchester - there is the cafe bar which will likely sell bistro style food, and a mixture of craft and cask beer. Craft beer bars are booming as operators see that in any bad situation, there are still people with money to spend, that want something that bit different. By operators, I mean both those that make beer and those that retail it.  Brewers with tied houses are increasingly turning to food as the answer and for some it will be, but it still leaves a lot of pubs with a need to change their game. The world of beer is changing and if those that sell beer, pubs and brewers, don't find a niche, be that craft, cafe, alehouse, circuit pub, family pub or whatever, they are doomed.  And they better get a move on. The big brewers see that as an attractive and fertile piece of the action too, particularly Molson-Coors.  I also see the market as being more segmented than it ever was.  The old days of the pub being that easy social mix of all types, is in most cases, a thing of the past.

The market is in some places at least, adapting to changed social conditions and those pubs and businesses and, yes, brewers, that are wily enough to see niches and gaps will do well. Pubs have always adapted or died and what is happening isn't really new, though some would argue the scale is different.  Brewers have to change too.  While there may still be scope for more tie loosening and therefore more opportunities for brewers, the need to be different is just as strong here.  It is no longer good enough to churn out a bog standard, bitter and golden ale.  More is needed and increasingly this "more" will be filled by smart brewers catching the mood of the moment, be that craft keg, cloudy beer, Imperial this or that,  or whatever.  I for one, as an aside, am gratified to see how many brewers see the possibilities in good British brewed lager, but that's a separate post coming soon.

Above all, quality is the key. Prices are high and while at one end (the cheap end) consistency is expected, above all, beer has to be of great quality, served in top condition in places where clearly you are valued as a customer.  Many pubs and brewers are still failing that test.

I fear for them, but not for the pub as a whole.  There will be less of them, (and probably less brewers too) but they'll be of better quality.  Good pubs will survive and do well as they always have.  They'll see me out for sure.

There is also an attractive argument that declining large brewer volumes paint a distorted picture of the brewing scene today.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

That Sinking Feeling

So, Heineken is about to reduce the strength of John Smith's Smooth to 3.6%? Nothing all that surprising really. In fact what is surprising is that it took them so long. As they point out themselves, their rivals are already at (or in some cases below) 3.6%, so there is little risk to sales in doing so. I somehow doubt that many drink it because of its alcoholic strength - quite the reverse in fact - for smooth keg ales of that ilk are hardly aimed at the discerning part of the market, but the convenience and commodity part of it.

There is of course a tendency for beers to drop in strength as pressure is put on the trade over alcohol and we have seen premium beers slowly slip, bit by bit under 5% and nearer to four. Is there a point when standard bitters, like Lees at 4% and Robinson's Unicorn at 4.1% become the new premium bitters? We are some way off that yet, but certainly, they would tend to fall into that old and almost forgotten category of Best Bitter, which the likes of Timothy Taylor's Landlord occupies. Whichever way you look at it, for branded beers - beers that you know by name and reputation - there is now considerable bunching around 3.6% to 4.2%.  Of course, you could make a fairly convincing case for saying it was ever thus, but in the past you would have been offered a stronger alternative.  That isn't so likely now.

Price of course has a part to play. It is no surprise to read that Heineken, while saving £6.6 million in duty, will put the price of the reduced gravity liquid up by 2.5p a pint, which will equate no doubt to even more than that in the pub, though no doubt, places like Wetherspoon will look to improve their discount to alleviate the effect on customers. And make no mistake, without huge discounts, Heineken wouldn't shift nearly so much of it, even if it is a "must have" beer for low end pubs.

Will this trend see a creeping down in the alcoholic strength of standard (cooking) lagers? I'd watch that one very carefully. With Carling and Fosters at 4% and Carlsberg at 3.8%. I wouldn't be at all surprised.  It may be cynical, but in big volume beers, which sell on brand image and familiarity, rather than taste, there is money to be made in reducing alcoholic strength.

Brewers of course see this as a victimless crime, but there are losers.  The customer for one and the Treasury for another.  And when the Treasury lose money, they find a way of getting it back.

The cask version - if you are unlucky enough to come across it - will stay at 3.8%

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Old Friends - Strong Recommendations

I'm a simple soul me. I don't go out to find obscure beers, but beers that I can sup with pleasure and depend on. That is, incidentally, how most people drink and why, despite the bumping of gums by beer geeks about it, good old fashioned brown bitters, golden ales and mainstream lagers are so popular. Difficult to drink beers are and always will be, a minority obsession.

But I digress. I was pleased therefore to walk into the Regal Moon last night and be offered a choice of two old favourites, so I compromised and had both - not together - but one after the other of course. Ossett Silver King is a very clear, pale beer, with a crisp citric bitterness that makes it very easy to drink. A fairly regular option in the Regal Moon, it was my first non Lees beer of 2013, so a milestone of a sort. Next up was Hawkshead Lakeland Gold. Another pale one, but not as pale as Silver King, but with the emphasis more firmly on bitterness. Very pleasing with my ham, eggs and chips - told you I'm a simple soul.

And so to the Baum and the main event of the evening, my CAMRA Branch meeting. The Baum, as befitting its status as Greater Manchester Pub of the Year had a great selection on. My eye was drawn as if by a magnet to a name that always inspires confidence - Mallinsons. This time Aramis, using the French hop of that name. Pale, bitter, zesty with a full tasting bitter finish, it was a lovely beer. Of course,the thirty odd CAMRA members soon saw this off. Good for business we are.  The replacement was another Mallinsons beer, this time Tethys, using Sumer hops. Not a hop I've heard of and not as strikingly good as the Aramis, but pretty decent, though if given a choice, I'd have supped them in reverse order.  I finished on another very bitter beer in top condition. Marble Beers need no introduction and Marble Best did not disappoint, with a great malt backbone, backed up by layers of bitter, resiny hops. A splendid beer.

So my point is the familiar need not be boring. Beers from Ossett, Hawkshead, Mallinsons and Marble are beers not only to drink with confidence, but with clear enjoyment.

We had 34 members at our meeting last night. Good for business indeed.

Friday 4 January 2013

My January

I've enjoyed reading various posts about dry Januarys, but while I'll be cutting down a little due to mince pie excess, January means one thing to me above all - The National Winter Ales Festival. Next week I'll go over my huge amount of paperwork and ensure all my stuff is up to date for my main role, that of Health and Safety Officer.  I say main role, but that is moot, as my "other" responsibility is as Deputy Organiser, which of course gives me a sharp overview of the huge amount of work put in by a lot of very dedicated people.

It is quite amazing to look at the beer list and realise that there is a remarkably long list of beers that choose themselves, either because they are competition entries (we host the Champion Winter Beer of Britain, plus Regional Heats for next year.)  There are sponsor's beers too - yes we have them otherwise the cost of entry would be prohibitive - and we have a feature this year involving Project Venus.  When you take that lot out, the "free" list is a lot shorter than you'd imagine.  The Beer Orderer has a remarkably difficult juggling job to do.  It is a huge credit to him that despite the difficulties, we will have a fantastic choice for customers.

Meantime others have been working on foreign beer lists, cider lists, pricing, bar kit, cooling plans, electrical plans, liaison with Police, staffing,  beer judging, security, logistics and a thousand other mind boggling things. In addition to door and foyer arrangements (another little sideline of mine) and Health and Safety, I'll have to get my head round a beer tasting I'll be giving to corporate customers.  I haven't done one for a couple of years and while fun, they are quite a responsibility as they need a fair bit of planning.

Sometimes we wonder why we do it, but I know it will all come together and when the punters start to flood in, it will all be worthwhile.

Do come and join us and see how it has all worked out. You really will be most welcome.

National Winter Ales Festival, 23rd-26th January 2013, Sheridan Suite, Manchester, M40 8RR.  Over 300 Real Ales, Ciders and Foreign Beers from around the world.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Silly Me

I don't like to start the New Year on a negative note, but it is the blogger's lot to speak as you find.
I was in a local Lees Managed House over the festive period and keen to try Lees Christmas Seasonal, Plum Pudding, I ordered a pint.  The young barmaid waited while the manager was using the handpump.  There was a pint of Plum Pudding sitting at the side.  The manager said to her colleague "You can have this."  I immediately said that I would prefer not to have the last pint poured out of a cask - I assumed she was changing the barrel - and said so.  The manager assured me it was not the last pint, but that there had been a problem with the connection and this one was fine. 

Now as I am fairly well known in a lot of Lees houses (though not to the manager in this case), I dislike such situations. Someone is bound to say "I see the local CAMRA Bod is in complaining about the beer."  So I reluctantly accepted the pint, which wasn't great, but not bad.  My second pint was terrific though; sparkling, clean and delicious. Night and day.  I knew then I had been "had". Serves me right. I had my doubts and should have stood my ground, but for mixed, or maybe mixed up, reasons I didn't. But I don't like being served beer that on the evidence available to me, was known by the manager to be less than optimal. Cask beer should never be served where there is a doubt as to quality.

It won't be that way next time when I have my doubts.  My first New Year's Resolution!

Happy New Year to all my readers.  Have a great 2013.