Thursday, 1 October 2020

Holden My Own in Bridgnorth

 I had a little trip to Bridgnorth last week accompanied by E.  We had arranged to meet friends there and of course, travelled separately, ensuring as much as we could in these confusing and restrictive Covid-19 times, that we obeyed the spirit and hopefully the letter of the Government's decrees/ rules/law, as we (more or less) understood them at the time. This did cause us a little soul-searching coming as we did from an area that has a lot of infection, to an area that had hardly any, but as we were all well and trips away have been few and far between and likely to become even fewer and lot further between, we thought "Bugger it" and went anyway. 

I was the only one that had been to Bridgnorth before, but my tales of Black Country beer, cheese and onion cobs the size of a baby's head and pork pies convinced them that this fine market town in Shropshire was the place to be.  To sweeten the deal we stayed at the Golden Lion, run by Holdens Brewery, so what could possibly go wrong?  Well, nothing actually. This is a tale of more or less unfettered joy. Of ale supped and food scoffed.

The advantage of the Golden Lion is that it is on the High Street and therefore bang in the middle of town. The other advantage is that it has a car park with space dedicated to each of the letting rooms, though it did take a couple of sweeps round the one way system before we worked out how to actually access our berth.  Our friends arrived more or less at the same time and after checking in, we generously gave them the nicer room. Theirs was designed by Jay Blades of Repair shop no less. Ours was Platform 3 and was railway themed, but big and comfortable. We chucked our stuff down and a few milliseconds later, we were in the bar, where rules were quickly explained, hands sanitised and pints procured.  Now the thing is about Black Country beer is that one tends to see it through rose-tinted glasses. My first sip rapidly turned into a gulp, as did those of my companions. Suffice to say that Holdens Bitter lived up to my memories (though in fairness, it wasn't that long ago I last had some).  Needless to say we had a second before exploring on a gloriously sunny afternoon. 

Bridgnorth is a thriving place we noted, as we wandered aimlessly along. Local shops abounded. A baker and a butcher set the tone, but we needed food.  The White Lion promised home-brewed ales, pies, cobs and Scotch eggs, but on a Tuesday lunchtime, was rather understocked.  John had the last pie, while we settled on rather untraditional soft rolls with cheese and onion. Sadly too, the local ales were a tad underwhelming, but the sun was out as we sat in the pub garden, so all was well.

I'd promised everyone they'd like the Railwayman's Arms at Bridgnorth Station, home to the Severn Valley Railway. The beer was fine, but inside had been so Covid sanitised as to have lost its charm for me, so we sat outside while a steam locomotive, chuffed away, providing the classic steam smells I grew up with. On the way back into town we popped into the Joules owned Shakespeare, where the beer wasn't brilliant to be honest, but the pub was rather nice. Incidentally, I'd been warned Joules beers aren't going through a good patch. Make of that what you will.

I won't continue to bore this pub crawl as it were into evening or the next day. Suffice to say we visited a horrible Marston's pub in Ironbridge and recovered at leisure in the splendid Old Robin Hood, which is another of Holdens small number of pubs. On a wet afternoon it was warm, welcoming and Covid-19 compliant. The bitter and Golden Glow were on top form. And they had proper cheese and onion cobs at £1.50 a pop.  The two and a half hours until the next bus flew by and the beer flew down eager throats.

So what's the point of this? It's a kind of good news thing really. It is about Holden's Brewery, their splendid beer and their safe and hospitable offering. In these very difficult times the way they ensured safety while minimising the negative effects was outstanding. And the beer really hit the spot.

We also met the most helpful bus driver ever, who not only left her break to show us the needlessly complicated Ironbridge bus stops by personally walking round the corner with us and confirming the next bus time.  Arriva, you have a great asset there.

I have been to Ironbridge a few times. It is always pissing wet.  And dead. I'd forgotten that. We'd have gone to the Coalbrookdale Inn, but it didn't open until four. We were in the Robin Hood on the outskirts by then.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Covid Cases Rise, What Next for Pubs?

There is a sense of grim foreboding that you can palpably sense in pubs at the moment. Having lurched back into business - after a fashion - with all the accompanying difficulties, custom has more or less halved in many places.  The booking of tables, working out who can be admitted and who can't, the need to sanitise everywhere and everything and the setting up and operating systems to help track and trace has stretched resources and strained nerves.  It has been a large and unwelcome imposition, but what's the alternative?

On the customer side, there is a degree of reluctance to visit pubs, especially from the elderly and a nagging worry that if you enter somewhere where the provision of safety for customers seems less than paramount, that you really shouldn't be there. This nervousness, together with the less than normal atmosphere in many pubs, makes for an experience which is hardly ideal. And it could get worse as the number of Covid-19 cases inexorably rises. At the moment of writing, you are also likely to be unable to get a virus test, even if you feel unwell and few have much confidence of that changing in the short term.

Landlords I have talked to recently are gloomy and concerned. They order only the minimum amount of beer to get by, cut down on variety and some feel that a total lockdown would be the last straw. For quite a few, if doors close again, then they won't open again. But will this happen?  I sense that the Government will only do this as a last resort and rather think that what will happen is much stricter control by authorities, particularly in areas badly affected by high virus rates.  Those there that don't follow either law or guidelines, will find themselves under a closure order toot sweet. 

Of course other options exist. On Twitter some weeks ago I was given a bit of a bashing by some for suggesting that younger adults within society of being less keen to follow the Covid-19  rules, but now it seems that view has become mainstream.   Whether you personally agree or not, there now seems to be a view among experts, that something must be done to curb the spread from those likely to suffer least from Covid exposure, to those that will suffer most - kill your granny and all that.  I have thought for some time that what is most likely to happen is that there will be a limiting curfew of some businesses; pubs, bars and restaurants being among them. While there is little evidence that pubs are particular spreaders of the virus, it does seem that the easy target will be chosen again.  This YouGov poll illustrates some views to support such a thing:

Now anecdotal evidence suggests that as time goes on, younger drinkers may well be the target of such a move. I have the impression - and it is only that - that there is little feeling of invincibility from older drinkers and pub goers and that such a move - as an alternative to closure - would be welcomed by many and not just older people. What is striking about the poll is that even those most likely to be affected by such a curfew, support it.

There is no easy answer to all of this, but I know many mainstream pubs already feel that later opening isn't currently worth much in business terms.  That is not to say it would be welcomed, but a curfew if it happens,  may well be the lesser of two evils.

It wouldn't affect me particularly if this happened, but would it be effective? I just don't know as I'm rarely out and about when youth rules the evening roost.

It is though galling for pubs when so many have tried so hard to make things work, but as always, the minority that don't obey rules, affect those that do disproportionally

Thursday, 3 September 2020

The Social Side of Things

No sooner do we have one new pub opening in my area, but then we have another. Different in scale and target audience to Hogarths in Rochdale, is the long awaited - well it was trailed quite a while ago - Broad St Social in Bury. Operated by the well respected Brewsmith Brewery based in Stubbins by Ramsbottom, this is rather a neat little bar in Broad St, right in the centre of Bury, handy for some other good drinking establishments, as well as the Bus and Metro Interchange.

Situated in a mid terrace, with large windows and a little outside seating for the hardy, this is a neatly laid our bar with wooden floors, exposed brick and two distinct drinking areas, served by one fairly small bar. It somehow manages to cram in no less than six handpumps, all from Brewsmith and six keg pumps, all from elsewhere, but local to Greater Manchester.  Service during these difficult times was at table (we had booked) and on its first official trading day, was swift and cheerful. Some local worthies were there too and greetings were exchanged from a safe distance - though against guidelines no doubt. There was warmth and atmosphere which you don't always have from the git-go.

Like my friend and fellow blogger, Beers Manchester, who has also written about the bar - I urge you to read it - I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my case, not least of all because of the excellence of the Brewsmith cask beers, which have always appealed. They have the most redeeming of features. They are always carefully and well brewed, and they have the cleanliness that allows you to pick out the flavours. I could go on, but these two things are important -  to this writer at least and if you wish to judge a brewer's skill, a good - nay essential - starting point.

Our two hours were soon up, which gave me an opportunity to slip round the corner to Joseph Holt's Wyldes to try out the new Holt's Stout. Devotees of Twitter will likely know I'm a bit of a fan of stout. I regularly drink Lees Stout in its cask conditioned form at my local, the THT and at the Rose of Lancaster - another local - where I drink it à la nitro. It is superb in both forms, with its deep roasty taste, full body and luscious white head. How then would Holts stand in comparison?  Well, it isn't at all bad.  Slightly sweeter and with a darker, more tan head, it reminded me rather of Sam Smith's Stout.  All in all a good job, though it is only available in nitro form.  So still Lees for me, but don't hesitate to try Joey's offering.

We finished off in the Thirsty Fish, another micro pub and right by the bus station. All quiet here around teatime and another stout, this time from Deeply Vale, was on cask and on form, unlike Diamond Bus. But that's another story.

Not often I write much  about actual beer, so a rare treat for you here.  Bury is well worth a visit.

On the subject of Bury, I peeped in the window of the closed Clarence, which was extensively and expensively renovated not so long ago. It has new owners, but it looks as though the lovely square bar has been removed. Shame.

We didn't fancy plastic glasses at the Trackside (outside) either, so swerved that.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

To Helensburgh and Back

Given that our summer holidays are put on the back burner - assuming they are even on the cooker - I decided some time ago to go and see my family and friends in Scotland.  Now my sister, who lives in my home town, Dumbarton, is immune system compromised, so I turned down her invitation to stay and instead, last week, with the lovely E, booked into the Travelodge in nearby Helensburgh. This is a town where a much younger me spent quite a lot of time, mostly on a Sunday night, drinking beer in the Cairndhu Hotel which we reckoned then had a better class of young ladies to (unsuccessfully for the most part) chase after. It was also not so popular with the Royal Navy lads from round the corner in Faslane, or indeed, then, the US Navy whose sailors swarmed over from Dunoon and helped make the town a tad lively.

Alas, the Cairndhu Hotel, while still standing, is no longer licensed premises - or indeed a hotel - and while Helensburgh is a delightful little town, options for staying overnight are somewhat limited.  The Travelodge is in the upper parts of what was the Commodore Hotel, the lower part being, now, the Commodore Inn, though you can actually enter both from either. The Commodore Inn has an excellent aspect on the Clyde River front and our room provided us with a basic, but comfortable enough abode. It is fair to say though, that it is in need of some updating.

Now how would Scotland's much stricter rules on the pandemic manifest themselves? Well, firstly, at check-in, the desk is sealed behind plastic. We were informed we'd have to make our own beds and bring towels for changing down  to reception. Not a big deal really. Face masks were compulsory inside the hotel and this was complied with by and large, though sometimes we and others forgot, as we went directly down the stairs to the outside without going elsewhere.

After a long drive, a pint was in order. We went through their extensive  beer garden to the Commodore Inn. At the door we were greeted and a note taken of our names and phone numbers. Hand sanitisers were everywhere. We were given a table outside in the no smoking area and drinks were brought to our table. It was quick, cheerful and easy. Refills were by flagging down a server. Tabs were offered, or you could pay as you went. Now of course, as details were being handed over, I scanned the bar. Cask offerings, perhaps oddly, were London Pride and Doom Bar. No Scottish cask beer was a disappointment, but hey ho. The Pride, served in a Williams Bros Glass, was at most a 2.5 in CAMRA NBSS parlance, but the second scraped into a 3. Just needed drinking I think.

That night we dined at the Sugar Boat, a lovely little restaurant on the main Colquhoun Square. Again we were accosted at the door and even though we'd booked, names were taken and we sat outside in the sunshine with others, all socially distant, as was the case inside.  So far so compliant.

The next day, we had breakfast at another old haunt, but from more recent years, the Henry Bell.  Would JDW let the side down? Not a bit of it. We were stopped at the door, forms were filled in, we were asked to sanitise our hands and the modus operandi inside explained. Clean cups for coffee refills, one socially distant queue for all service and tables were sanitised. We returned again that night to meet my pal and of course, it was much busier, but the same high standards were maintained. It remained so, until the Royal Navy arrived and things got a tad more boisterous, but the system did work, though the young sailors, finally let loose after a long submarine patrol, were perhaps a bit louder that you'd want, but who could blame them?

In Helensburgh itself, mask wearing in shops was compulsory and obeyed to the letter, as far as I could see, even in the large Co-op. Queues outside the butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers - it's that sort of town - distanced happily.

We didn't go to any more different pubs, but our remaining restaurant trip saw our names taken and hands sanitised.  On the way back, we waited in line to get into the supermarket where everyone was masked up.

Scotland is, it seems, in the small part of it I was in, at least complying. Compulsion obviously has an effect and it didn't seem to slow things up.

We did go to several small shops and for ice cream and again all was neat and orderly. It seemed a small price to pay for the added confidence it gave.  Helensburgh is lovely when it is sunny. In fact it was too hot at times. Never thought I'd say that.

In JDW, the Navy lads were stopped from moving the furniture about. A small number of staff did well. We also encountered many sailors wandering about looking for a late night drink. Good luck with that one, but my pal did tell me some pubs have not yet re-opened and the large John Logie Baird was closed and boarded.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Parking Tanks on Wetherspoon's Lawn

Pubs are thought in many quarters to be pretty much unmitigated doom and gloom at the moment and although there are some chinks of light, with Covid-19 still on the go -  and around for the foreseeable future - you don't expect to see many major pub openings, but there are still some.

Rochdale Town Centre is on the up. The River Roch, culverted and hidden for many years is now open again and providing a fine focal point for a revamped centre which includes a new shopping mall, complete with a cinema and eateries bang in the middle of town. OK, it leaves one, or maybe two, shopping centres rather exposed to chillier times, as footfall returns to the area around the river and the wonderful Victorian Town Hall and the tram stop.  This is a town that couldn't maintain a McDonald's in the centre and with it gone, tougher times have also seen the closure of the Royal Bank of Scotland. In the fine - grand even - building thus vacated, we now have a new pub. This hasn't appeared by some kind of surprise. Clearly this million pound plus conversion has been planned for quite some time, but equally, what exactly would appear remained a bit of an educated guess. We had heard it would be entirely wet-led. That is there would be no food, which could be considered a bit of a gambol in these times. Well, maybe, but maybe not. Either way, a substantial new public house certainly had many wondering if there is room for one more?

So what's the competition? The Greater Manchester CAMRA Pub of the Year (and narrowly beaten in the National competition) is the Flying Horse.  This as you can imagine is a hard act to follow, with its traditional beer offering, combined with real ciders, craft beer and excellent food  is clearly the one to - if not beat, that will be hard - but at least emulate.  Former National Pub of the Year, the Baum, is now under new management, but still offers a great pub experience, excellent beers of both cask and craft variety, along with great food. In the former General Post Office building, we have the Medicine Tap, selling locally brewed beers and guests together with imaginative food in a very fine conversion of yet another grand building. Bombay Brew offers a well-chosen range of craft and traditional beer, as well as Indian food of the tapas variety. It is the Bundobust of Rochdale. With the Regal Moon run by an experienced real ale loving manager who frequently tops JDWs best seller of cask ale list,  there is certainly plenty to go at. In short, for the drinker and the hungry, Rochdale, with a pretty supportive council, already offers a lot.  What can the new pub add?

It opened yesterday and your intrepid reporter, for once, not also ran, went along with the lovely E to see what was what.  The building is impressive. The outside has been cleaned up by  Amber Taverns, who operate it as part of their Hogarth's chain. The building itself was used as a house by the Rawson family from 1819, who conducted their banking business from the small adjoining building.  It was rebuilt in 1879 and redesigned in 1913 to create the distinctive porticoed frontage it has today.

Inside, once you have navigated the Covid-19 formalities and hand sanitising, you first notice the long bar to your left. Ceilings are high and ornate and original features and covings have been retained. To your right is a seating area with windows looking out onto the Butts. Behind this area, the bank’s vaults have been turned into a separate seating area. To the rear, toilets - thankfully on the ground level - are modern and appealing, as is the large beer garden to the rear.  Carpets are thick and seating a mixture of low and high. All in all, rather handsome.

All well and good, but what of the beer I hear you ask? As you might expect from Amber Taverns, the usual suspects are all here. Fosters, Carling, Heineken, Kronenbourg, Morretti and John Smith's are to the fore. For the real ale lover we have Tetley Bitter and Hobgoblin. Gin menus are everywhere and a fiver will bag you a double of some rather decent gins, as well as the tonic to go with it. Beers are very keenly priced with Tetley at a mere £2.15 a pop and Carling at £2.60. Others a tad less.  The pub was, as I'd expected, quite busy with the curious. Service was good and cheerful, aided no doubt by the Covid queuing system precluding any stress from a baying thirsty mob.

So who is it aimed at? Prices, being of an ilk, clearly indicate its next door neighbour the Regal Moon is the target. I imagine it will attract a few others too, depending on how its clientele develops.  The real ale drinker though is likely to give it a fairly wide berth, but those in need of decent gin in rather more comfortable surrounding than Spoons, might well be tempted too.

Like all new pubs, this will be a work in progress, but it will find a niche and will take business from elsewhere. New customers for the Rochdale "offer" will very much depend on the success of the whole town centre redevelopment, but Rochdale is heading in the right direction.

The Tetley Bitter retains little of its previous flavour.  As someone who drank a lot of it in my time, it isn't the same at all. Condition was average, as nobody else seemed to be drinking it.  I can also confirm there is no food offering. I didn't see as much as a bag of crisps.

There is a good recent piece on the redevelopment of Rochdale Centre here.    This gives more detail which I recommend you having a look at.

The building you can just see in the top photo, is the Regal Moon.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Don't Make It Hard for Customers

Pubs don't have it easy at all these days. Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on most, if not all pubs. Many have not yet opened again yet and some, sadly may never open again. Those that have opened have been successful or not in varying degrees.  Now that things have settled down I reckon it is time to chip in a few observations.

Now I haven't been going mad. Most of my pub visits have been to places I know well and where I know both the people who run them and, in varying degrees, particularly at the times we visit, I also know most of the customers. In that respect, some things don't change, whereby you have different sets of customers visiting the pub at different times of the day. If you are part of that picture, restrictions are a lot easier to deal with. So do I feel safe in the Tandle Hill Tavern, the Ring O' Bells and the Rose of Lancaster? Well, yes, as far as one can be in these awkward times, I do. Names are taken, sanitising and availability of sanitising stations are ample, social distancing applies and either table service or distanced queuing, as well as being safe,  makes life relatively normal. Everyone, with varying degrees of internal acceptance, goes along with it. Whatever they think and indeed say, they want to be there and don't want to muck it up.

Of course, it isn't that way everywhere I readily accept, though I haven't really encountered it. In the Tavern yesterday, it was little different despite local restrictions being applied. Tables are around a metre and half away from each other and despite the Government, who clearly know cock all about pubs, saying you can go with your family, but don't interact with other people, interaction did take place. Of course it did. We all know each other. No shouting was involved and while guidance - not law - may say no interacting, well, we did. It was done just as safely as it had been the week before. Social distancing was as good as it could be in a small pub and sunny weather meant many were outside, so all was well.

What though, when you don't know everyone? On Friday, with my mate Mike, I had my first trip into Manchester since March.  It was hot and outside areas beckoned.  Our first visit to the Abel Heywood was fine. We sat outside, had arrangements explained to us, as well as the one way system and fetched our own pints from the bar. Those inside we served at the table. We paid by card and it was all sensible, distanced and easy.  Not so at Common.  Outside drinking here, and we had to download an app which took ages. It didn't like iPhone at all and when I finally got it onto my Android phone, it suggested that as I was 22 metres away, did I really want to order? It didn't give any options to say yes or no! Our host was called and looked perplexed, then shrugged and served us anyway, the worst and most expensive drinks of the day in a plastic mug. Not a great experience at all and frankly 20 odd minutes wasted. Plus another 20 drinking the warmish IPAs.

Our next stop Mackie Mayor had similar issues. If you wanted to only have a drink, you had to sit outside - fine - and use the app - not so fine. This time it wouldn't download on Android, but it liked Mike's iPhone. Details required were of the intrusive nature. This took 20 minutes or so again and this time, after a ten-minute wait, decent pints of cask, in proper glasses, were brought. Overall though much more bearable. But not that great.

Our last port of call was Cask in Ancoats. Here we were greeted, details taken, the rules explained quickly and professionally and a seat allocated. Waiter service was prompt and payment contactless. It was just as good as you'd expect from manager, Warren, who really knows his stuff.  Beer was in glasses and the cask beer we had from Pictish and Roosters, in excellent nick.  This was more like it and here we stayed.

My conclusions? Apps are great in theory - and good ones are great, but can be both crap, lazy and frustrating when  in operation. Difficult even for the willing such as us - both former IT bods - so not resistant.  As always, pubs are only as good, in whatever situation, as those who run them. Simple is best and given that, drinking local is likely to be a better experience. But it can be done well in cities too as exemplified by the Abel Heywood and Cask. 

As a pub, you really need (after safety) to put your customers first, or they will sup elsewhere. Covid or not, customers always have other options. Best not forget that customers still pay the money and they still have a choice. 

Now I have little doubt that that all pubs think they are doing their best, but when technology is unreliable, wise not to rely on it.  The resultant waits were pretty well unacceptable.

I think I'll stay local in places I mention above and, say, the Flying Horse in Rochdale, where they really have it all done well.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Gobsmacked in Coalbrookdale

Reading this lovely post by Retired Martin about one of my favourite pubs in the UK, the Coalbrookdale Inn in, well Coalbrookdale, just up from that wonderful town of Ironbridge, I was reminded of one of the more surprising happenings in my many pub visits.

As you may have read here before, every year, three cronies and I take a couple of nights away in a pubby part of the country. The West Midlands is always a favourite, therefore we have been in the Ironbridge area more than once. I can't remember the exact date, but it was a long time ago - these events do not make recall of detail all that easy, though of course, as we all get older, the amount of beer has become almost sensible and greater clarity is assured. But these were halcyon days.

On this occasion, likely sometime in the 1980's, we had a night - or maybe two - in Coalbrookdale.  We'd all been there before, probably on a CAMRA coach trip or suchlike, but we booked into a pub opposite the Coalbrookdale Inn. It was a decent enough boozer, owned by Marstons I think, and it did rooms at a very reasonable rate.  It was fine for our needs, which essentially are to be clean and comfortable with a breakfast and car parking.  On the appointed evening, after a day no doubt boozing away (we have a designated non-drinking driver)  we had a couple of pints in the Marstons pub, then headed across the road to the bustling Coalbrookdale Inn for a wider choice of beer, before heading down to Ironbridge for more beer and eats.

After a few minutes - the pub has a more or less square bar - the landlord shouted "Phone call for Peter".  We all ignored this. Now to explain to my younger reader, back in those days - pre mobile phone - it wasn't at all unusual to call a pub and ask to speak to "whoever" if he is in.  Now nobody knew we were there we thought and therefore the call out in a busy pub could not possibly be for any of us and could be safely ignored. We carried on supping. Having got no response, the barman returned to the phone, presumably to relate the lack of success to the caller.  A few seconds later he appeared in front of us. "Any of you lads Peter Alexander?" quoth our hero. I stammered "Me" while we all looked on in astonishment. "Phone call for you" he said.

Needless to say, it was the lovely E.  But how had she tracked me down? Well simples really. She had phoned the Marstons pub and the barman there had said words to the effect of "You've just missed them. They've all gone across the road to the Coalbrookdale. Do you want their phone number?"  E then phoned and found me.

Back in these far off days, before mobile phones were widely owned,  somehow we still managed to contact each other. I have been phoned for in many pubs over the years, albeit long ago, but that for me, was a bit of a record.

The Coalbrookdale Inn has, I think been a bit gentrified since those days, but is still a cracker.

I remember that night cramming into a local's car and careering off to Ironbridge. God know how many were in it, but I can still hear the clang as the arse end of the car banged the road from time to time. 

The lost art of the "Is he in the pub?" phone call, is a great subject too from the past.

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.