Thursday 22 February 2018

The Few, not the Many

At the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, I had the enviable (no I don't mean unenviable - it was great) task of chairing our annual Great Manchester Beer Debate. It attracted a fairly decent sized and very enthusiastic audience and together with our excellent panel resulted in a lively and interesting session. My dulcet tones, a fab top table and free beer along with beer talk? What's not to like? The subject, very loosely - though in the end it was maintained throughout without too many meanderings down side streets - was "The Price of Beer". Ironically the attraction of free beer to keep the buggers there and listening was a positive plus. Even those that argued for higher prices didn't mind that!

Our panel was Jo Whalley – Wigan Central's Bar Manager, Connor Murphy – Organiser, Manchester Beer Week, Brad Cummings – Tiny Rebel co-owner and now CAMRA NE candidate and Sue"the Brew" Hayward from Waen and Hopcraft Breweries. I'm not going to bore you with all the details, but our panellists had forthright views on the issue of price, but perhaps surprisingly, no real agreement. In particular the two brewers had quite divergent views on many aspects, which goes to show that perhaps there isn't really an exact and universally accepted conclusion to the question of price. Different businesses and owners take different approaches, both as sellers of beer and more surprisingly perhaps, when they are customers buying beer for themselves. The audience too was split with some accepting that price wasn't a great inhibitor and others saying it is. The conversation ranged across costs, poor brewing and too many breweries, great brewing costing more, price of ingredients, cask v keg, hard times, low wages and much and more. It was fascinating to chair and when we finished after around an hour and 20 minutes, there were still hands up trying to make further points.

I was prompted to recall this when I read a piece yesterday about the price of craft beer in the good old Morning Advertiser. You can read it here. The argument - and it isn't new or original - is that poorer members of the drinking public are being priced out of the craft beer revolution, especially in the push by some, for the £5 pint. (Of course many craft beers cost way beyond that.)  I could of course regurgitate the usual facile guff that some brewers trot out about the high cost of producing top quality beer with the best ingredients. That is fine and dandy and even to some extent true. But  the use of quality ingredients doesn't remotely tell the whole story of mark ups, location, staffing, size, efficiency, overheads, rental costs etc. etc.  Price is a very complex business indeed. Comparative price even more so. There is no one answer.

It is fashionable among some to present craft as a bottom up movement of the people sticking it to the man - BrewDog comes to mind, though they aren't alone - but wouldn't it just be a lot more honest to say "Well, we make expensive beer for people with plenty of disposable income and if those who don't have that income want to drink our beer, it's too bad. They'll just have to do without - or maybe have the odd glass as a treat". After all makers of other high end goods generally don't make excuses for their prices, or portray the product as something for everyone. Why should brewers?  Reflecting on price, I know that locally here in Greater Manchester, I can get excellent beer for (well) under £3.50 a pint even in Manchester City Centre.  Equally I can pay a lot more, even for the same beer. There is though, price points to suit most pockets and for those that can't afford to drink in pubs, there is a huge choice of cheap beer to drink at home. The truth is that somewhere in the market, no matter where you live in the UK, there is beer at an affordable price for you. We should be glad about that.

Craft beer isn't beer for the people, it is beer for some people - people with a few bob - so shouldn't those making it and selling it should be honest enough to say so? After all, not so deep down, we all know that already.

I think the main conclusion of the beer debate was just that. There is beer for everyone, but not everyone can have some beers. Some beer will always be a treat. We should just accept that. 

Prices around the country will obviously vary without changing my main point.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

On Trade Suffers Again

The news that 88 million less pints were drunk in pubs and bars in 2017 can hardly come as a surprise.  This equates to a 2.4% year on year fall and hammers home yet again the message that pubs are still in trouble and that there is still a significant switch to drinking beer at home, as overall, beer sales rose slightly.  There isn't a bright looking horizon either, with a business rates bombshell likely to have a further effect on on trade prices in 2018.

The great divide in beer continues, not because of increased off sales at the craft small pack end of things - that's a different thing - but at the volume end. For those with jobs and "just about managing", choosing to drink cheap beer at home as pub prices increase on those already wage squeezed, is rapidly becoming a no brainer.

The beer market is changing considerably. The so called community pub is being threatened as never before as its core customers vote with their feet and drink their beer at home. Those of us who enjoy their beer in the pub had better watch out. It is an endangered species and while really good pubs that can attract those with plenty disposable income, will no doubt survive and while the craft bubble will continue to provide an alternative to the well heeled in mostly urban centres,  the overall picture is somewhat depressing. For those not quite at the bottom of the pile, who used to enjoy a pint in their local but can no longer afford to do so, the pub may fade from not only their daily routine, but their weekly and even monthly one.

Fragmentation, high prices, high duty and high business rates as well as different social habits, don't paint a rosy picture. Changes have been both evolutionary and enforced by circumstances. The effect is broadly similar however.

And there is more to come.

Britain has the fourth dearest alcohol prices in Europe. So much for minimum pricing.

The day of  the handy local pub is disappearing. You'll also have to travel further to the pub for that odd pint. Another disincentive.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Vote, Vote, Vote for Bradley Cummings?

In what might be seen as a major intervention in CAMRA's Revitalisation Project, Bradley Cummings, co-founder and co-owner  of Tiny Rebel Brewing has thrown his hat into the ring and will stand as a CAMRA National Executive member.  What might this mean if he is successful in his attempt? Is it a good or a bad thing? Let's have a look.

Well we don't need to guess at his intentions as he lays out his plans in a short and succinct 23 page manifesto. Let's have a look at it.

On the (perhaps) positive side Brad :
  • points out the lack of member involvement in the Campaign
  • puts forward a number of ideas to increase that involvement
  • wants to "drive shit and get things done"
  • wishes to get the best out of the potential of nearly 200,000 members
  • agrees CAMRA should widen its remit to include the wider beer community
  • recognises that unprofitable pubs must close
  • thinks that pubs must adapt or die
  • agrees that CAMRA should establish an Industry Committee or suchlike
  • thinks we should have a focus on membership education though disagrees with proposed methodology
  • points out CAMRA isn't very cool
  • reminds us that a 300% increase in members has brought little by way of increased involvement
  • suggests a much better use of technology and direct membership involvement
  • reminds us that better choice not real ale was the CAMRA founding principle
  • states that poor quality cask ale is the biggest risk to the future of cask ale
  • urges us to vote with our feet when encountering poor real ale
I could go on but have picked these out for you. I'd urge you to read the whole thing here and make your own list.

On the (perhaps) less positive side Brad:
  • seems to disregard cider and perry as irrelevant
  • thinks brewers, not the beer drinking public know best about beer quality
  • supports the on trade as a way into pubs for drinkers
  • poo-poos cask conditioned ale as the pinnacle of the brewer's art
  • wants members to be distanced from breweries by allowing brewers to represent themselves, rather than though liaison officers 
  • wants industry representation at all levels of CAMRA including direction and policy
  • postulates that quality comes at a cost
Now really with all this, you pays your money and you takes your choice. You can pick and choose the elements you like and dislike and while there isn't an awful lot that is entirely new, except perhaps that one of the brightest stars of brewing, in one of the most enterprising companies, actually wants to get involved with CAMRA and sees CAMRA still has potential. He wants to motivate members and get them directly involved in CAMRA's democracy and is willing to stand for election to rummle things up a bit, which many (including me) will see as a positive.

On the other hand, personally, I am very wary and can't really concur with (possibly inadvertently) repositioning  CAMRA as a kind of offshoot of industry, though some closer involvement would be sensible. CAMRA must continue to be an independent consumer champion and the very idea that brewers know best about everything beer-wise certainly causes me to raise my eyebrows somewhat. After all brewers rarely speak with a common voice. Just look at hazy versus clear, not to mention many other subjective arguments about hopping rates, carbonation, pricing, packaging and like as not, a million things more.

So vote for Brad? Up to you really, but having chaired the Great Manchester Beer Debate at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, where Brad was a panel member, I was impressed with many of his points of view. Revitalisation is something very different and maybe it is time for someone new to the Campaign, with an unconventional and non traditional background, to become a member of the Executive that will steer the changes through. There's lots you can add on the plus side and I for one reckon it might just be a good thing - assuming if elected - he sees his term to its end.

After all, cometh the hour, cometh the man.

The Great Manchester Beer Debate was interesting. Subject was loosely "The Price of Beer". I'll try and deal with this in a later post. Yes, on the whole, most brewers, despite the fact they say little comes their way, favour higher prices.

Brad would also knock the JDW tokens on the head. He isn't alone in this.

Remember, all members will have a vote for both the National Executive and for Revitalisation. Use it.

Sunday 4 February 2018

Helensburgh High Spots

After my mixed bag in Glasgow, again after a hospital visit, I took the train to Helensburgh.  Now I always like trains and for reasons which will become clear, I like this line most of all. I grew up beside it and it holds a lot of memories. My late father was a Station Master on this line and I lived in a Station House in Dumbarton for many years. I well remember as a child looking out of my bedroom window at the platforms below and steam trains chugging by or patiently waiting as passengers got on and off. The smell of steam was a daily rotine for me when a small child. When the line was electrified in the early 60s I had the privilege to "drive", from  one end of the platform to another, new Bue Train as we called them, sitting with my hand on the "dead man's handle" on the knee of the driver. Railways are in my blood- but I digress.

There are two real ale outlets in Helensburgh that make an easy little two pub trip. The Henry Bell is a Wetherspoons with a clean, modern, good looking interior and on the ball staff who always seem interested in what they are doing - which goes to show that generalisations, while understandable, don't tell the whole story.  The HB also benefits I feel from a large influx of English customers - Helensburgh seems full of English people-  and of course, the nearby presence of the HM Naval Base Clyde - Faslane - home of the strategic nuclear deterrent and its submarine delivery system guarantees that the lesser interest in cask beer in this neck of the woods is leavened by those that grew up on it. Beer quality is invariably good.

The pub was busy on my arrival and ordering a pint of Purity Gold, which was in excellent condition, I found a bench seat (tick) with a good view and surveyed the scene. Clearly a boat was in and there was a large mixed age naval presence, with little groups of different types setting up homes on different tables, while nipping over occasionally to chat to each other. The younger end were putting the booze away at a far lick, but the atmosphere was pleasant, with the assorted naval types a credit to the service. I moved on to try an Amber Ale from Birkenhead's Peerless Brewing and while not my favourite style, I rather enjoyed it. Again it was in excellent condition and sometimes it pays to step outside your usual style and remind yourself that variety is a good thing.

It was time to move on, so turning left, then stepping over the road and walking a few yards, I entered the  Ashton,  CAMRA's West Dunbartonshire Pub of the Year (not sure which year mind you) and an old haunt of mine almost forty years ago. My luck was in. In addition to the usual Greene King/ Belhaven offerings was Fyne Ales Jarl. Now I have been a bit sceptical of this beer recently, feeling on the few chances to try it, that it wasn't the knockout of old. Well, on this form, I was clearly wrong. This was in stunning condition, with Citra hops shining through and making the beer extremely swoopable.  I was tempted to stay for several in this convivial local, but after a couple I left for the train. The service too was excellent with the barman temptingly reminding me that there are trains every half hour.  I resisted his blandishments, though when I arrived at the station and found I'd miscalculated my train time and had twenty minutes to wait, I bitterly regretted my decision.
There was no choice. I crossed the road for a swift half of Tennents in the Station Bar. No appalling music this time as there was football on.  I have written before about how the Tennents in here was excellent. This was too. Coming straight after Jarl, this was no mean feat.

So there you have it. Two out of two getting ten out of ten real ale and service wise.  Add in an excellent cheeky half of TL and it was a great night all in.

 Next time I'll make a return visit to Glasgow CAMRA's Pub of the Year the State Bar. Again I know this place of old.  I'll let you know how I get on.

I also intend to resume my Sam Smith's wanderings. It's been too long. 

The photo above is where our house once stood. I remember the day that bridge was built, replacing one from the 1890s.