Wednesday 29 April 2020

A Daft Idea but a Serious Problem

Do you notice when reading the press, that we often tend to get people who know nothing about pubs, writing about pubs, reporting about pubs and offering opinions about pubs?  I mentioned one piece here recently and now I've read another. I bet there are more if I look hard enough.

This one, from the Mail Online is a beauty - though in fairness even the DM seems doubtful - and well it might be.  Professor Eyal Winter of Lancaster University, a lockdown adviser to the Government, has suggested that some restrictions will still be needed when pubs re-open. Well hardly a surprise. What he suggests is though somewhat left field. In order to ensure pubs aren't too full of the thirsty and pub starved, and to aid social distancing, he proposes that after two or three pints you should be asked to leave. If you don't comply he anticipates those flouting the rules should be fined. Seems there are rumbling fears that some people would behave unacceptably as soon as lockdown measures cease and pubs are likely candidates for such behaviour.  In that of course, he may just have a point - though actually most drinkers behave absolutely reasonably - but isn't it axiomatic that the cure must be better than the illness?  Impractical and potentially unfair rules, may precipitate  the very behaviour that is being worried about.

Now drinking under whatever new restrictions are imposed - and I'll come back to this - is hardly likely to be overly conducive to good cheer, but this is a rather odd one. Would there be a time limit imposed? Who would monitor and police this rather optimistic policy? If another pub is open won't these rascally drinkers just decant and start again elsewhere?  Will you have a card stamped with a time as you go in and a burly operative come and hoy you out onto the pavement when your time is up? Fines? How exactly? Can't see the Police fancying enforcing this one. It appears to be pretty unworkable to anyone who knows how pubs and drinking actually work in practice.

Actually, in places, the prof isn't entirely off beam in what he says.  He also said  "One of the most important things is to have a programme to say 'in two weeks we will do such and such' You need to make the rules crystal clear and explain the rationale behind each one of them." That is sensible enough. Apply it to his own proposal and you might just kick it into some very long grass.

Moving on, it is beyond doubt there much thinking yet to be done in this area. Pubs are tricky places to deal with, unlike, say, shops, or Garden Centres. Social distancing is counterintuitive for pubgoers and you usually want to go to the pub for some undefined time. You can't have a one in one out policy very easily - or a time limit for individuals - and even if  some unpalatable proposals are probable, they have to have the benefit of clarity, fairness and practicality. Not an easy problem to solve.

Clearly social distancing won't go away but it really is hard to see how it could operate in pubs, especially smaller ones.  There are other considerations too.  It seems highly improbable that opening pubs in vastly reduced circumstances would be likely to solve the financial difficulties of most of these businesses.  On the other hand, putting aside whether it is financially a goer, would a highly restrictive policy of operation be attractive to customers if they couldn't, for example, mix with friends? Would there any longer be a point to pub going, where social intercourse and mingling with others in the very nature of the beast?

These are complex issues and I for one feel rather uneasy about what might happen next. 

I kind of get the worrying feeling that re-opening pubs is an all or nothing thing. A halfway house is very hard to achieve.

 Having written this, I hope there is a good solution. I'm sorry I can't suggest one.

Monday 27 April 2020

Drinking on the Home Front

Most of my readers (if I've still got any) and Twitter followers - I have plenty of them -  know that I don't really drink at home. I like to drink in the pub. Any pub really, but of course I do have favourites - my locals.  Places where I go quite often.  I've always been that way inclined and in fact wrote about it here, a long time ago. In these local pubs, I know enough people to be recognised by and to speak to. People who call me by my name, shake my hand when I come in and who I know by name in return. It makes me feel part of something. On the other hand drinking at home seems rather furtive somehow. Something I somewhat unreasonably feel you do not because you want to, but for reasons of finance, domestic arrangements or whatever, though of course, I freely admit, many must do so simply because they like it. It is how they drink. But it isn't really me.

Friday saw five weeks since the pubs were told to close.  Have I missed going out to the pub? You bet. I miss the simple fact of deciding to "go for a pint".  I miss my Sunday sessions in the Tavern with my pals, the banter and just being there. And I miss cask conditioned beer of course.  But I don't believe in wearing a hair shirt.  I've been drinking beer at home. Given that on the whole weather has been fantastic, I've enjoyed a different kind of beer o'clock. Around five in the evening E and me have had a beer or two in the sunshine in our garden. Not every evening, but certainly most if the sun is still shining.  We have had to wear fleeces on the odd occasion and once, given the rather spiky wind that generally accompanies sunshine in the Grim North, we reinforced our outer apparel with blankets.  We have remarked, like everyone else, about the perfect blue skies, the absence of vapour trails and aircraft and enjoyed the birds singing. Not so much though the whirring sound of  wood pigeons, but you can't have everything, can you?

It has been good to sit in our unusually tidy garden and I have enjoyed the togetherness. It's just us, with the odd word here and there with a neighbour, but what do we drink? Well, for me, predominantly, it has been bottles of St Austell Proper Job.  Bottle conditioned, but with the tiniest of sediments, it has been ideal. At 5.5% it is a tad hefty, but it isn't over gassed and after two of them, I find that will do. E has been drinking German lager. Warsteiner for its bitterness, but sometimes Krombacher. Both well-made and easily available.

Normally if I'm in a supermarket, I pay little notice to the beer aisle. Naturally, from time to time, I do have a nose at what's around, but I don't study it in detail.  Now it is different and the first thing that strikes me, is how bloody cheap it is. My Proper Job is currently £1.49 for half a litre in Aldi, while I have discovered too, that 660ml bottles of decent German lager are now a thing. Who knew?  Not me for sure and at 3 for a fiver, it is certainly priced to go. Even with an accompanying bag of crisps-  or whatever - it is as cheap as chips to drink at home if you buy it from the supermarket and mostly, for most people, why on earth wouldn't you?

Now I know that it is good to support local breweries - and I do by buying my weekly treat of a 5 litre bag in the box of re-racked cask beer from Pictish Brewery in Rochdale. The lion's share of that gets supped every Friday afternoon and evening, with two or three pints for the next day. Served by handpump, there is a little wastage from the line, but it is worth it to support a local brewery and to get a cask conditioned pint. That, next to the people is what I miss most.

Reflecting on all this, one of the things that worries me, is that perhaps even more people than already do, will realise that there are huge savings to be made in drinking in the ease and comfort of their own homes.  I worry that drinkers will get used to it and used to the savings. The longer this goes on, the more the pub drinking habit is compromised, particularly if the return to pubs opening brings with it restrictive practices that make pub going a far different experience to that which they formerly enjoyed. Added to that is the cumulative effect on disposable income as the lockdown continues.

Habits once broken are difficult to re-establish.  Pub going as we know it will certainly be different for a time at least and maybe forever for some.

There are many other aspects of this to be explored. Hopefully I'll do that soon in future posts.

Other beers I have enjoyed at home are BrewDog Lost Lager, Thornbridge Jaipur (despite the daft little cans) and Sierra Nevada Summer Ale left over from last year. I've still got some interesting stash stuff to tackle too.

Saturday 18 April 2020

Three Weeks Needed?

From today's Twitter I note the somewhat startling information that pubs will need three weeks notice (ideally four) before they are able to open after lockdown. You can read it yourself in the good old Morning Advertiser. The source is the British Beer and Pub Association, (who I for one don't rate particularly highly.) You can read what is said here.

Of course there is a fair point about breweries needing to scale up operations again to get beer delivered to pubs and yes, pub operators will need to give furloughed staff notice that they will be required once more. But in the latter case any employer worth their salt will be in constant contact with furloughed staff anyway, as they have I assume, still got an ongoing duty of care. It follows that this in itself shouldn't pose a particular problem as much can be anticipated before opening is allowed again.

 The point about breweries is well-made though. Larger breweries have arrangements with tenants, managers and free trade clients that will have to be re-introduced over a period of time, but the argument that pubs need four weeks notice to me seems unduly pessimistic.  My best guess is that most will open readily with whatever they can get their hands on and with whatever restrictions are applied, just to get back in the game. There will though undoubtedly be a need for imagination here and a bit of leeway from suppliers and customers alike is most probably needed.

Going back to breweries, I'm again guessing that the hospitality sector will be near the back of the queue when it comes to opening up for business once more. That would imply by its very nature, that they will have a fair bit of notice.  Either way both sides of the bar should be thinking now about how they will handle that day when it comes.

Sadly, though we can't expect that day or any sort of timetable for that day, anytime soon.

The photo above by my good friend Michael, shows the notice on the THT door.  He walks his dogs that way, though I think I'd find it too traumatic myself.

Maybe some breweries might find a temporary loosening of the tie will be helpful in getting cash and beer flowing again. I'm not exactly hopeful of that though. It would set too many hares running.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Not Well-Versed but a Point Remains

Vice Magazine - no me neither - has been yakking on about why men stand at the bar. Why they should be interested in this is a moot point, but they nonetheless come up with a theory - based on no evidence at all of course - that it is men behaving badly. Their theory is summed up in their own words "they (men) all turn into prats trying their best to-out prat each other. One of their favourite ways to do this is by getting in the way of everything. In this case, by standing up in a seated establishment. 

Written by Gina Tonic - see what she did there - the article goes on to consult various behavioural gurus about this phenomenon, at the same time contradicting the theory above that pubs and bars are "seated establishments" in a sentence that correctly identifies that "Both traditional and modern drinking establishments........ are environments designed to drink and stand." More odd references follow, all supposing there are male domination factors at play. Allegations such as "Men love standing in pubs because it’s masculine. Men love showing off and peacocking, and sitting down would limit this." 

Now I do recognise that all this is somewhat tongue in cheek, but there is a serious point. Bar blockers are a bloody nuisance and are off-putting - not so much to women - my experience is they are well capable of looking after themselves - but to the casual visitor to whom a wall of backs is anything but welcoming. Now if you are a local you just shout over the blockers, or tell them to get out of the fecking way, but that isn't quite so wise if you aren't au fait with those afflicting you thusly.

Nowadays, being somewhat older, by and large I only remain at the bar when I'm on my own. It just seems more friendly, especially in some pubs where (nod to Mudgie) the lack of bench seating limits the possibility of a natter with a neighbour and discourages the joining of a table where other are already sitting. I don't sit on a bar stool though. I stand. That allows me to move sideways if someone wants to get in to buy a drink. To my mind at least, standing at the bar, providing the niceties are observed, isn't a great problem. It becomes an issue when bar stools allow a number of people to camp out for the duration, oblivious and indifferent to those behind them doing their best to get even a glimpse of a barperson to attract attention to the fact that they would actually like to purchase a libation.

So what's the answer? Assuming it is actually more than a slight bugbear, to me, it is to limit the number and position of bar stools to allow free passage to the bar and thus to the amber nectar.

Down to the pub bosses then to sort out? Yup. No bar stools equals a much smaller problem.

Of course, it is often the largest spending locals who are barflies and that's an issue too. As a landlord/landlady you don't want to piss off your regulars.

Should simple pub etiquette eliminate this problem? Probably. 

I note our friend Gina Tonic also explores some other bothersome subjects in earlier articles. read them here.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Treading the Grapes

There are two Sam's pubs in Heywood, so one Saturday, long before lockdown was even thought of, I felt like resuming my Sam's Odyssey and Heywood, being ten minutes away, fitted the bill nicely. Now Heywood is known as Monkey Town for reasons somewhat unknown, but speculated on. I turn to Heywood's History site for enlightenment and two explanations are offered.  I rather like the one with a pub connotation of course, whereby folklore had it that Heywood men used to have tails, and so the stools and benches in the town's pubs had holes in them for the tails to fit through. The reality, the article concludes, is that the holes were there for carrying the stools. Hmm. I'll reluctantly rule that one out then, but the same piece surmises that the nickname ‘Monkey Town’ is derived from the pronunciation of Heap Bridge - a local area - as ‘Ape’ Bridge, and probably dates from the 1840s-50s. Not quite so much fun, but let's go with that.

My first port of call was an old haunt of sorts. I used to go to the Engineers Arms quite often when I first moved to this area and liked it a lot. It is one of the few Sam's pubs in my area that sells cask beer and is a neat little pub of considerable appeal. Alas, it didn't appeal quite so much on this visit, as it was firmly closed. Not tinned up or boarded up, just looking like it hadn't got round to opening that day. No signs to indicate why.  So one down, one to go.

The other pub, the Grapes isn't far away, but with the vagaries of the roads and my uncertainty about exactly where it was, it took me longer than the four minutes my Satnav suggested.  The pub sits in a kind of island with a large car park and is surrounded by housing, so a good prospect? The pub is red brick built - like a scaled up outside lavvy - and there is a light over the door and it appears to be open - so in I go.  Inside a spartan looking bar counter faces me. There is one guy standing at the bar and a couple sitting on stools facing the bar. Behind the bar a woman looks at me uncertainly. There is a sort of question mark in the air. Is the stranger here for directions perhaps? I scotch that idea by ordering a pint of Taddy Bitter. The barmaid is pleasant and my bar companion gives me an uncertain nod. They all resume what they had been doing, which seems to be nothing at all.

I observe the pub. It looks like it hasn't changed since the thirties. It has an odd little entrance and the gents, facing the bar, also has, well an odd little entrance. To my left is a partition and I can hear the thud of darts and some mild effing and jeffing. There is another room to the front with nobody in it. The whole place is clean enough, but it looks shabby and sorry for itself. You could have filmed a 1930s period piece here without changing a thing.  (Well, you'd have had to take the Sam's notices forbidding more or less everything down, but otherwise, not a lot to change). It was devoid of any decoration or ornaments, which gave it a rather sad and dejected feel.

For want of something to do, I look in the room with the darts players and two middle-aged lads are happily throwing arrows and doing their best to put each other off.  Returning to the bar - two steps away - I sip my pint. There is only Taddy Lager on draught as well as my beer, which is both cheap and pleasant. Then, from an unknown area behind the bar comes the unmistakeable sound of someone whistling, bizarrely and somewhat astonishingly, "Scotland the Brave".  The whistler (the landlord it seems), nods to the landlady, who swaps places and disappears. He sets up his stall by rearranging the sole decoration on the otherwise bare gantry. That is, he adjusts the packets of crisps to his better satisfaction.

Things hot up. The sitting couple have a conversation about the inadvisability of wearing gumboots when you have flat feet. The guy at the bar is consulted who agrees. It all gets really going after that. I've become a part of the furniture and nobody bats an eyelid when I order a second pint. The barman warns the darts players about swearing, which is met with the sort of derision you might expect. Two more people enter, then a third, who defying the strictures of no mobiles, consults his phone silently before suddenly rushing out and disappearing for a good fifteen minutes. Everyone knows everyone else as you'd expect and the next few minutes are spent as they enquire of each other and the whereabouts of this one and that one. They conclude that their absence is because everyone is skint. Then Rochdale people are given short shrift in very pejorative terms, joined in by shouted agreement from the darts player beyond the partition. The third man returns and resumes his lager. Nobody talks to him, but suddenly a few minutes later it is clear he is a local as well, as the discussion moves on, and he chips in.

My bar companion eventually turns and looks at me and I ask him about the closure of the Engineers Arms.  Been closed since before Christmas it seems. I consult the landlady who has silently reappeared and swapped places with the landlord. "The curse of Humphrey?" I offer.  Shrugs all round, but I'm guessing it is. There is one final surprise. From the other side of the pub in a room I didn't nose in, comes a woman.  She greets her fellow denizens and then with a silently ordered half pint of lager in hand, disappears back into her lair. Was she alone? Who knows?

You know, I kind of liked this place. The people were enjoying their own company in their own way. If they resented my intrusion into their world, they didn't show it.  And it is their little world and none the worse for that. I'd love to see it in full swing, but then again, maybe I had.

I do worry that this pub may suffer a bit with the current closure of pubs and the Engineers will no doubt still be looking for a new manager.

And yes, it was gumboots, specifically that was talked about. Not wellingtons, but gumboots.

Thursday 9 April 2020

It's Been a While

Well here I am back blogging. Well a bit. Why did I stop? Mostly I was just completely knackered after the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival and from my ongoing duties as Chairman of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury Branch. Basically after a long - well very long - period of  commitment to beer, CAMRA and my own beer blog, I was just burned out.  I simply couldn't be bothered and spent my on line beer time on Twitter instead. Simple, nothing much to think about, but keeping up involvement.  Actually the cessation of all official CAMRA stuff couldn't have come at a better time for me and, maybe though I hate it, the closure of pubs has likely done me no harm either in terms of having a break. I am on holiday really, though certainly the lack of pubs and its concomitant lockdown isn't much fun.

But of course I do miss pubs. I miss my locals and by extension my friends.  It's where I met and meet most of them and where I am invariably at ease. I am lucky enough to be known by name in four pubs I can call my locals - well more really, but these others aren't my locals. Each appeals to me and accordingly is missed by me in a different way, but it is what it is and I don't think I have to worry too much about those four opening again, as they are all owned by my local family brewer (which is on the good guys list).  I do fear for many pubs when this is all over though. I also fear for at least some brewers and while I always felt a shake out in the micro brewer sector was coming, I didn't imagine it would come in this format. Sadly, as always in these things, it won't be just the bad brewers and bad guys that will go to the wall.

I have been following closely the efforts made by many brewers big and small, to keep beer coming the customer's way. This is a good thing and I have availed myself of the services of Pictish Brewery, a local Rochdale one, whose excellent cask beer - re-racked but you can't have everything - to keep me going at weekends - well Friday only so far. I've put it on handpump and it has been excellent and much better than bottles, though I have had a little success in that respect with Proper Job, which is almost as good in bottle as it is in cask. It has been expertly conditioned in the bottle and is highly recommended.

As I write it looks to me as if we will have a few publess weeks yet. I read some dire predictions with increasing weariness, much as I read some dreadful stuff from armchair experts about Covid-19. Who knew so many people study epidemiology to expert level from the comfort of their own homes? Like many things in life I just don't know, but in the meantime, I'm just staying at home wherever possible. It's all I can do to usefully contribute.

I do look forward to getting back to normal, so to follow this, tomorrow hopefully, I'll publish a held over blog as part of my ongoing series of Sam Smith's pubs. And I hope you have been reading and enjoying my breweriana tweets.

There has been some funny and uplifting stuff on Twitter. That's been fun. Not so much fun is to read about some pub companies who have been a bit less than supportive. We shall remember them.

I've lost a bit of weight too, which is also fun, but I have a wish to eat chocolate and crisps which I didn't really have before. Must stop buying them I suppose, but you need some fun. Oh and my shed is painted. More soon.