Saturday 30 July 2016

Confidence or What?

I mentioned as a footnote in my latest blog that we had visited the Beacon Hotel in Sedgley on our recent Black Country trip. This pub is an old friend of ours, but I was taken aback to learn from our leader that we had last visited in in October 2009.  Gosh it didn't seem anything like as long ago. Doesn't time fly?

Much has been written about this pub and I recommend for those that wish to know a bit about its history to read Jeff Evans splendid piece here.  We entered the pub at about twenty five past two. Now this would not normally be a key piece of information, but here in the Black Country where they follow a different path in so many ways, it was important and it brought memories back.  We had just squeezed in before the pub closed for the afternoon at half past two.  We quickly ducked into the parlour and ordered beer from the odd servery hatch with its sections facing out into each of the separate drinking areas, pausing only order pints of Pale and to specify straight glasses as opposed to the handled jugs preferred here by the majority, not as a result of any modernity or nod to hipsters, but because they always have done. Well at least in recent memory.

We sat at the corner bench seating nearest the door and servery and promptly at two thirty, the shutters came down.  The pub was pretty busy, probably around thirty or more customers, all drinking beer on a Wednesday afternoon in a quiet part of the world, on the main Birmingham to Wolverhampton Road.  Unlike us, they all seemed to be local and quietly supped up and drifted away.  The barmaid emerged and grabbed many handled glasses in a bunch and disappeared with them.

As the pub emptied, we supped up too and left, me wondering how many pubs these days would call time on a busy pub at two thirty on a Wednesday. Not many I reckon, but that's the Black Country.

The very nice barmaid allowed me to take a photo of her with all the empties on the basis that I didn't include her face in the photo.

The other photo is of the closed servery. You have to trust me on the half past two bit.

Friday 29 July 2016

Snacks. Again.

Are snacks in pubs a good thing? I'd say so, but in the never ending search for margin and profit - just look at the good old Morning Advertiser for tips on how to do so - are pubs missing a trick in not supplying simple, reasonably priced snacks to customers, who will then carry on supping?  Many of us just don't want a meal in a pub, but other than crisps, nuts and scratchings, there is little to sustain you if you are out for a few pints and feel a tad peckish.  A full meal will stop the most hardened pint drinker in his or indeed her tracks. Remember the days when you could get a sandwich or filled roll more or less anytime? Or the pie warmer with its last dried out pie finding a sure sale at 9.30 in the evening?

Now some London pubs have been doing this for some time with a more gourmet approach. Simple food such as Scotch eggs or pork pies, garnished with a few leaves and a sliver of tomato, served on a roof slate for north of five notes, but while that may be a port in a storm, it doesn't quite cut the mustard - pun intended.  No My Dears you want to get yourself to the Black Country where pubs are still an astonishing throwback to the seventies, without the smoke.  Here you can buy a pork pie in almost any pub at all, or a filled cob - cheese and onion only - for no more than two quid and often less. OK. No added garnish and no roof slate or board - just a plate and a pit of Colman's English Mustard -  but you do get a locally made pie, or a crusty, chewy cob, filled on the premises, with a hunk of cheese and a big chunky slice of onion to keep you going.  Matched with a peerless pint, what more could one want?

Of course, even in the Black Country,  there are plenty of pubs doing meals.  Our first stop, on a Tuesday lunchtime, in Sedgley, is a case in point. Busy with diners and with exceptionally kept beer, the White Lion was doing a roaring trade in meals. The Landlady, a veteran publican, chatted merrily to us as she rushed about and we joked about the Good Beer Guide entry remark of "You won't leave here hungry". "You definitely won't". she retorted.  This was a turnaround pub we were advised, something the Landlady and her husband - the beer man - specialise in doing.  Giving the people what they want still works. We were in beer mode so just had a couple of pints, but I bet we could have got a filled roll if we'd asked.

We did ask in the Bull's Head along the road. "All gone" quoth the barmaid "but hang on."  A quick shout out the back and a reply "How many? We'll make some fresh for you."  Cheese and onion of course, as big as a baby's head and £1.40 each. Of course we stayed for a couple more pints of Holdens, hopefully proving my point.

Reasonably priced and tasty simple snacks aren't the most sophisticated of things, but they do keep people in pubs. Cheap to produce, good mark up. Worth doing in the right circumstances I'd say.

I wrote about this before here nearly four years ago. At least I'm consistent. 

After we left the Bull's Head, we arrived at the famous Beacon of Sarah Hughes Mild fame, just before half past two, in time to get one pint before they chucked quite a crowd out. The Black Country is very old fashioned in so many ways. Half past two afternoon closing eh?

Tuesday 26 July 2016

More Craft Lager

On last week's trip to the Black Country I was more than surprised - taken aback might have been a better word - to find that most conservative of brewers, Holdens, selling their own Black Country Lager. In one of our first stops, the Black Bull in Sedgley, the very chatty Landlady heard us discussing it and offered me a taste. Very nice it was too, although that may have been different when scaled up. Oddly the brewery's own website makes no mention of it at all.

On the last day of our jaunt we stopped at Eccleshall and popped into the Royal Oak, a Joules House, and again there was an in-house lager on sale. This time the beer, Green Monkey, was clearly described on the website and interesting it was too.  "We are very proud to say Green Monkey will never be pasteurised or artificial carbonated, we like our lagers "Brewery Fresh", and this comes from being lagered for up to four weeks. This careful method develops a naturally carbonated drink, producing the most delicate of bubbles, creating a smooth finish on the palate. I didn't have time to try this, but it did set me wondering how many such examples are being brewed out there. Two rather small breweries doing so is interesting.  Now of course I know of the likes of Fullers, Lees, Shepherd Neame and probably more, but how common is this and are they readily available on draught?

Can anyone advise? Are there other such lagers out there? 

Of course the question I should have asked of Joules, is how this naturally carbonated lager is pushed to the bar.  

I also acquired a Joules T Shirt in the pub when the Landlord allowed us to add our drinks together to qualify for a promotion. Nice one. 

Monday 25 July 2016

Two Pints of Draught Bass

A couple of Saturdays ago I was out and about in Manchester with E and the erstwhile landlady, now a staffer at a local JDW and her husband, a manager with JDW. Both are old friends and having just started a couple of weeks off, were enjoying a beer or two. We joined them after they'd made a reasonable start on the ale and had a decent little crawl through parts of the Northern quarter, the sole criteria, stipulated by herself, being that the Landlady hadn't visited it before.

We started in 57 Thomas St, Marble Brewery's outlet in this trendy part of town. I hadn't been since they did up the upstairs and made that a cask bar. Nicely done, but I was surprised - not in a good way - to find the beers served by gravity behind a glass partition. Very micro pub.  My pint of Pint was completely knackered, my experience not enhanced by the barman tilting the cask forward by hand to give me a full pint. Surprisingly after that it was clear, but unsurprisingly, totally flat. I had it exchanged for another, but somehow I feel that gravity pours rarely work that well unless turnover is mighty fast.  I also wondered why they hadn't reversed their refurbishment by putting the keg upstairs and the cask on handpump below. To me, this way round, it didn't work.

Moving on we discovered that on a warm late Saturday afternoon, cellars were obviously not working to their optimum. We had disappointingly too warm beers in the Soup Kitchen and the Allotment Bar, but the side was held up by Pie and Ale which was spot on.  Resisting the blandishments and blatant pleading from one of our party to move on to Spinningfields and ruling out of hand a visit to Lees Millstone, which was packed to the rafters and a bit rough and ready, even for me - and I'm not that choosy - we compromised by heading to the Unicorn for that rarest of beasts, Draught Bass. Our JDW manager doubted its existence (he may have thought it a Robinsons House) and still muttering about the Millstone - he has managed quite a few Lees pubs in his time - we entered to the usual mayhem. The place was packed four deep at the bar, every seat was taken and the hubbub of conversation took us all back to pubs of many years ago, this time without the fug of cigarette smoke. All types were represented here. Middle aged couples arriving for a night out, a hen party, gaga with booze, but adding shriekingly to the already vibrant atmosphere, ne'er do wells in corners conspiring over Carling, well dressed gents having one before moving on, locals standing at the bar, guarding their usual spot with pained defiance and practised ease, despite the mob behind baying for beer.  It was all rather marvellous.

The staff bustled about dispensing lager and Worthington Smooth at top speed.  Unknown beer from the wicket was seen being cranked up and down and dispensed at speed. From our place in the crowd we could just about see the rear of the handpumps in the circular bar. Our JDW man glumly bawled to me above the merry din "Bet the Bass isn't on."  I caught a barman's eye and shouted out that rarely heard order "Two pints of Draught Bass please."

Not only was the Bass on, it was superb. In this time capsule, it seemed just the thing to drink. We had two pints each.

The Unicorn was a Bass House and Bass is still one of the permanent beers. The presence of Worthington Smooth is another clue. I wrote about it and Bass here a couple of years ago, but I liked the Bass less then. I wonder why?

Our JDW man will enquire if he can procure a trial cask of Bass for his pub. I do hope he obtains it. I reckon it will sell.

I squeezed through the crowd for the photo. Wouldn't want to do that twice.

Friday 15 July 2016

Good News? Possibly Not.

The number of pubs closing each week is falling! From a high of 27 pubs a week six moths ago, to "only" 21 a week now. In 2014, the numbers closing weekly averaged 33. Significantly, the total number of pubs has fallen by a fifth in the last decade to around 52,000.  According to CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, the closures have affected rural and suburban pubs in a disproportionate manner which is rather concerning, with suburban pubs suffering most with 317 pubs lost in the last six months.

While to some extent the rural losses are, if not understandable, at least explainable, but the loss of suburban pubs is particularly disappointing. I know from my own experience that here in Middleton, our Langley estate which had around 10 pubs around ten years ago, has dropped to, depending on how you attribute the area, to either one or none. This likely means that vast swathes of the country have no pubs within their immediate area. No nipping out for a quick one unless you catch a bus is unlikely to encourage on trade drinking or a casual pint just down the road.

The picture on the whole remains gloomy, with likely rises in food prices, national minimum wage, high taxes and increasing wholesale prices adding to the feeling that such gains as there have been being wiped out. In fact CAMRA boss Tim Page has said this could happen all too readily if there isn't another beer duty cut.  I wonder with all the uncertainty over Brexit if this is a realistic hope.

At the same time another worrying double whammy has been announced. The Yorkshire Post has an interesting piece about the numbers of pubs and bars in financial difficulty.  They say "An increasingly large number of pubs are going bust as landlords wrestle with a perfect storm of poor weather, England’s abysmal performance at Euro 2016, Brexit and the introduction of the National Living Wage, a report has claimed. Figures from insolvency specialist Begbies Traynor show that the number of pubs and bars which were dissolved in the second quarter increased 53 per cent to 831.
The research also reveals that one in five pubs and bars faces “significant financial distress”, also up from last year."

Now of course not all pubs that suffer financial failure will close, but the underlying precariousness of the pub game is highlighted by the difficulties landlords face.  Anecdotal evidence says that people are cautious about spending following the Brexit vote and with margins already tight, many more pubs are likely to face, at best, reduced circumstances. Around sixty percent of consumers expect the general economic situation to worsen in the next year. If that gloom does drive them to drink, it is likely to be at home rather than out in the local - if you still have one.

While CAMRA is right to highlight minor successes, it looks to me that unless things change dramatically - and that seems unlikely - that the bottom of this deep trench has not yet been reached. 

On a brighter note beer sales have stabilised somewhat following beer duty cuts, but much of that is in the off trade.

CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine rightly advises people to use their local pub as much as possible. More than ever it really is "Use it or lose it".  Mind you if you look at the photo, I was saying that over ten years ago in Issue 2 of our then new Branch Magazine.


Thursday 7 July 2016

Children in Pubs

Boak and Bailey -  Gawd Bless 'em - suggested on Twitter that there should be a guide to pubs that are child friendly. I wondered why, as being childless, it didn't really occur to me that there might be such a need.  This set off quite a storm on Twitter with aggrieved parents defending their rights to bring their offspring into the pub, as and when they like and bemoaning the fact that some pubs don't take the same child friendly view. I quite liked this post, in answer to Boak and Bailey (who also seem to have suffered adversely from a "No Children" policy), which summed up one aspect of the argument succinctly, if not to my mind at least, persuasively.
I was, as recently as last Friday, in quite a rough pub. I was taken aback somewhat as I entered, to find ensconced in a corner of the small bar area, two young parents, a pram and a sleeping child.  I wondered somewhat idly why they felt the need to be there, rather than in the spacious lounge, as the cramped bar was rather reduced by their presence. But I forgot about them and the child slept on until departure. In the case of my own local, we most certainly are, if not child friendly, child tolerant and it does give me the opportunity to observe.  One thing. Children - and you can trust me on this one - don't sit still.  If there is more than one, they pinch each other, they chase each other and they run in and out of the door, which, if you are in my seat in winter is a right pain.  They get fed up. They wander around. They want to buy their own crisps at the bar. they play noisy electronic games with the sound up - a sound that parents have long since learned to tune out. They really, in most cases I'd venture, don't want to be there. They are bored by pubs. I reason though, that they bring money in and keep my boozer open, so all in all, no problem to me really and actually in the main, they don't run wild and parents do look after them properly.  But it isn't always so.

I was talking to one of my local pub managers recently about children when I was relating an experience of children running wild and unchecked in a different pub. He sighed and advised me that the issue is that staff are very wary about telling children not to run around and if they ask parents to do so, they are rarely co-operative and often abusive. The parents don't see any harm being done and are too busy enjoying themselves to think it a problem. They rarely see their own children with a detached view. If confronted, they threaten not to come back , but they are often high spenders on meals as well as booze and customers are needed. Simpler to turn a blind eye unless it gets really out of hand. Two sides of this argument are illustrated below:
  I could go on, but one thing is for sure. Pubs would not see the need to restrict children if they perceived that there are no problems with them.  Over the years they have realised that the issue is divisive and doubt if they can get the balance right, hence the plethora of restrictions, caveats, reluctant acceptance and outright banning.

The Good Pub for the Sprogged Guide might just suit all parties. Much need information for both sides of this vexing divide. Go Boak and Bailey. Answer the call.

A thought. Aren't all these Happy Eater,  Chef and Brewer, Toybox type places a better place for a child? They provide things for them to do, whereas an ordinary pub doesn't. And some sell decent beer too.

A second thought. Hasn't society changed so much that this sums up the matter too?

 Lastly. Sorry for quoting you so much Craig.but you have a firm and quotable point of view.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

A Mean Time With Meantime

Up here in the Grim North there aren't many invitations to this or that beer-wise.  Very few in fact. It's all about London don't you know?  Thus, closely following on from my Budvar invite, through email came another, this time from London Brewer Meantime.  I quite like Meantime and E and I have been known to hop on the DLR down to Greenwich and sup some lager in the Old Brewery. In fact I've written about it here from time to time - quite often in fact - and I still think fondly of North Frisian Lager which I wrote about here. I don't know why they didn't make a bigger thing of that, but maybe it was just too bitter for most. This invitation (for "a beer or three") was to the launch of a new beer and, oddly a piece of furniture.  It also involved a tap takeover with a promise of several rarely seen Meantime beers.  Sounded like a good do, so on another lovely Manchester evening E and I went along. It was all kind of downhill from there sadly.

It is never that promising when you arrive at an event and are ignored by the PR people.  Thus it was, but after asking one or two of the T shirted lasses, we were checked off a list and given a couple of beer tickets. Worryingly and confusingly, the pub was still open to the public and an air of utter disorganisation filled the place. It soon became obvious that I was the only beer writer there. Everyone else seemed to be either Meantime Brewery,  random invitees, or friends of the furniture man who had designed a bar seat for two which no doubt cost a fortune. See attached photo but it looks a tad uncomfortable.  All types were mixed in with cash paying customers and only recognisable by presenting vouchers. We are arrived shortly after seven, but by nearly half past eight, there was no sign of any beer launch and my beer tickets had been supped.  I sought out our hostess with the mostess and enquired about the beer launch. She said not to worry that it would be "soon". My request for further beer tickets was declined. Hmm. So we bought a couple of pints - no big deal - but it isn't usual to be invited by PR and then pay yourself.

Behind us a whispered conversation took place. A guy in a Meantime T shirt was hissing loudly that he couldn't do the presentation as he knew nothing about the beer, but nonetheless, without warning to the audience, he was thrust to the front and talked us through from slides, the new beer, which as far as I could make out, none of the audience had. It was well after nine by then. So out of curiosity, I bought us a couple of halves of the new beer - after all, it, with the chair, was the main reason to be there. It was nothing special, so as the News of the World would have said, we made our excuses and left. Well no excuses really.  We just left before the promised grub was even laid out and went for a couple of pints elsewhere.

Now this may give morbid satisfaction for some, but actually if I want to spend my own money, I am unlikely to need or heed an invite from Meantime to do so on their beers.  There seemed to be no shortage of beer tickets for the Meantime types - well those wearing Meantime T Shirts - who were shall we say, enjoying the beers rather liberally.  If they were the target audience, then why invite me and a plus one and then not engage with us?

Now I thought long and hard about posting this, but hey ho - Good and bad. ("Freeloader gets Comeuppance" was my alternative title.)  There wasn't the usual PR follow up either. Hope Meantime thought the PR Co value for money.

I liked the Meantime Pilsner, Winter Sun and the Stout. I can't remember the name of the new beer though, but it was rather ordinary.