Saturday, 1 May 2021

Weather Turns - But the Future Gets Nearer

Allowing pubs to only open outside was always going to be of marginal benefit to both them and their customers. Only a quarter or so of English pubs have anything like you'd call a beer garden, with a small majority of the rest having various outside facilities ranging from a couple of chairs outside the door, to something a little more elaborate, but still hardly a bucolic garden with weeping willows and wisteria.

But hey ho. Ingenuity and optimism kicked in and a minority managed to stagger open and given that the weather was relatively good, the crowds flocked in.  Well until the sun went down that is and the bitter reality of a British spring with its chilly evenings  kicked in with a vengeance, sending customers scurrying home to warm up and gather their thoughts on the experience. I think though it is fair to say that most customers were and are well-disposed to the plight of pubs and publicans and went along, with as cheerful a face a possible, with conditions that they otherwise might have snubbed or derided. 

There has been a few complaints which can be regarded as nitpicking on one hand or, seriously demeaning the experience on the other.  Complaints about slow service can be regarded on the whole as moaning. The system is new to both customer and server and while a ten-minute wait is annoying, it should - as a general rule - be regarded as the price we pay for restrictions that are as unwelcome to the publican as they are to the customer.  Of course some pubs are better run than others and where customers have the galling experience of waiting excessively for their first drink while glasses are refilled elsewhere, they have a right to complain, but it was ever thus in the UK. All is fair in love and bar and while the wise and busy pub will have a manager keeping an eye on the queue order, many do leave it to survival of the fittest.  My top tip is to bag a seat near where the servers go in and out of the pub, no matter whether there seems to be more attractive seats elsewhere.  On the whole though, tolerance seems to have been good and although the way the offer has been presented has ranged from sublime to ridiculous, most customers have just been happy to be out and about with a beer in their hand and pals around the table and equally most running the show are doing their best.

Mudgie has mentioned one or two of the annoying interpretations of the law on all this. To it, I'll add plastic or polycarbonate glasses. I know some drinkers don't mind these and while I can just about understand it in City Centre venues where roads have been converted to chairs and tables and the customer  base is peripatetic, on the whole it is not only to be discouraged but despised.  The real reason for this imposition is, put simply, that those in authority don't trust the public to behave. I avoid such places though admittedly, it is a bit of a personal hobby horse.

  My own experience overall has been good. One  of  my regular local pubs has a decent beer garden, a top manager and experienced staff. When the weather was fine it was a pleasure to be there. I have been back in the perishing cold too and that as you can imagine wasn't quite so pleasurable, though the service was still top notch. The wait staff looked pretty cold too, but still smiled. A much bigger venue in Bury, with security at the gate, was also well-organised and controlled and everyone seemed happy. Beer was in cask and in glass, so what's not to like? I have also discovered a hidden beer garden in a small local pub which was a pleasure to be in and been tipped off on another. So on the whole, pretty reasonable in the circumstances.

Speaking to publicans, though it isn't customers - or restrictions that worry them most - it is the good old British weather. The next two weeks don't look great in that respect, but of course, we are getting nearer and nearer to the blessed day when pubs re-open indoors, for which thanks - or rather relief. 

So bear with it fellow drinkers. Everyone is doing their best and for all of us, better and warmer times are ahead.

I wrote this yesterday and I always allow a few hours, so I can review what I wrote. (Even if it doesn't look like it.)  E was out, so I nipped down to the Rose with a big coat on. It was busy and the sun was peeping out. As time passed the clouds rolled in and coldness was followed by rain. Not all tables were under any cover, but with admirable stoicism, the drinkers carried on regardless. It was - if you will - that British "thing" of sticking with it. Blitz spirit if you will. The show must go on - as it did - but I'll be honest. I was bloody freezing.

Today looks pretty dodgy too. The photo of customers in the rain is from the Lancashire Fold. It was much the same in the Rose. I took the other in the Trackside last Saturday when the weather was warm and sunny.


Saturday, 10 April 2021

Draught Beer for the Hardy

 Well the big day arrives in less than forty-eight hours. Pubs will be able to resume outdoor selling of alcoholic drinks, though with the kind of weather expected, hot toddies or blobs might be a better bet than pints of chilled amber nectar - or indeed, non-chilled pints of cask ale. Only 14,000 or so pubs will open after a fashion and while many are booked to the seams - if an outdoor drinking area can be said to have seams  - one has to wonder how convivial such an outing will be, even if the weather stays dry. Fine of course if we have warm sunshine and/or a bit of shelter from the chilly spring winds, but that is a very debatable point. One has to wonder too if the bookings will remain as firm when faced with the reality of English Spring weather, as they were when reserved in optimism. I'm not so sure that they will.

Of course, we read too, that many of the outdoor venues aren't looking as Covid secure as they might be - though admittedly the chances of catching anything outdoors are minimal. This has been pointed out photographically on Twitter, and it does remain a concern of a kind.  I note too on Twitter that some local authorities are making up the rules of this new game as they go along, which most certainly isn't helpful. Light touch on rule interpretation seems to be beyond most Local Authorities' understanding of their role in life. It may just be chauvinism, but as a  career civil servant, funnily, we used to always be told to find ways of doing something positive. In fact one of the organizations I worked for had "Bias for Action" as one of its core values. That rarely seems to apply in the case of our local friends, but enough of my prejudices.

Another worry I have is the effect lockdown has had on peoples attitudes to spending money. We have rather become accustomed to not spending much, so perhaps paying pub prices again will be a shock to the system, especially if that dubious pleasure is accompanied by a freezing and howling gale.  This of course will apply to the longer term too, and it is to be hoped that we'll soon get used to forking up an amount for beer in an afternoon or evening, what we previously spent in a week or more at home.  Of course that will be mitigated if your home drinking has consisted of exotic DIPAs and Imperial whatevers, but for the bread and butter customer of most pubs, that won't be the case.

We have five weeks from this partial re-opening of pubs, and then we will be permitted inside, albeit with restrictions and table service. Another five weeks if that and then, hopefully we'll be free. Or will we? The future is still slightly uncertain and depends on the virus being curtailed to a minimum, while vaccinations are pushed to a maximum Talk of Covid passports continues to muddy the water and cause division and is likely to continue to provoke concerns for some time.  

Of course, I am glad that there is a start to relieving the stranglehold the Government has put on pubs and I do hope it all works. I do hope too that at least some pubs can make some money from this. My eye though is firmly on the main prize, hopefully in June, when we can all go where we want, with the minimum of restrictions.  So, only one muffled cheer from me.

Last night, with my heaviest coat on, I had a bottle of beer in the sun in my garden.  It was pleasant. But it was a big coat. Wouldn't want to walk to the pub wearing it. But I will give the great outdoor experiment a go.

I am also concerned that when pubs re-open, it won't be long until full rent is resumed. That might well see a rash of pubs failing then, as may also happen when furlough ends. There is no doubt other pitfalls along this rocky road too.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Happy Birthday to Us

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)  is 50 today, and for many, this will be a reason to look back and certainly reflect on what CAMRA has or hasn't done. Either way, making it to 50 years, in an organisation, as much as in life, is an achievement to be celebrated and hopefully in this case admired. We have had our ups and downs, high points and low as a group, but we still have a dog in the fight, and we are (mostly) still out there campaigning for real ale.

I'm a relative newcomer, my tenure in the Campaign being a mere 40 years, but happily my anniversary as a member coincides, more or less, with the fiftieth year of our venerable organisation.  Like many, I'm looking forward to Laura Hadland's book outlining CAMRA’s rich history and to reading the tales of those who have made this epic campaigning journey, both with and before me. Of course, while the organisation is to be congratulated, it is also an excuse for members to raise a glass to themselves, whether they are grey in beard and sandal or - like some of us - still youthful and inspired. Young or old, we are all the Campaign for Real Ale, and we can justifiably bask in our own reflected glory, even if just for a day.

This brief note to mark the occasion won't outline the rights and wrongs, the successes and disappointments, or even the changing face of CAMRA - hopefully Laura will do that. Nor will I try to explain how it was in the early days so long ago, except to say it has been, for the most part, a great pleasure to have been a part of it, from my first meeting, back in my Liverpool days, and for the last 40 years. Hopefully too, while unlikely to have another forty, there might just be a few more years left to do my bit. I certainly look forward to resuming my personal crusade in keeping many more cask pints from going sour.

So raise a glass - even if an ironic one - to those campaigners, past and present, who have helped shape today's beer scene one way or another. I'll leave this blogpost with a brief recommendation to have a look here at what publican and blogger Jeff Bell has to say about the Campaign. He has the right of it on balance and is a fitting and optimistic note on which to finish.

Like many CAMRA members I was persuaded to join by an existing member while on a work course in Blackpool in 1980. One day I'll run across him and thank him properly.

Back to business tonight. We'll be meeting as a Branch Committee on Zoom and planning for the full resumption of local CAMRA activities.  The show goes on.

 

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Substantial Meals Abolished. Insubstantial Meals Still an Issue

It seems that the bonkers and inappropriate condition that pubs could only open during a particular phase of lockdown restrictions if they served a substantial meal has been abolished under the new opening up "sometime in the future" policy announced by the Government last week.  If we are to believe reports, it comes from a legal challenge by the Manchester Night Czar, Sacha Lord, whose legal advice was that the rule was open to challenge in law. Presumably the Government's own legal advice confirmed they would be likely to lose such a challenge, hence the change of heart. Good job then that the Scottish Government weren't the subject of his legal foray, but I digress.

I have always held the view that this Government has little real experience of pubs as most of us know them and the manifest unfairness of their policy, which I have covered here,  was evident to all but the most myopic - and no - don't start me on people losing their inhibitions after a sniff of the barmaid's apron, or I'll call you out for the charlatan you obviously are.

Anyway, now my blood pressure has settled down again, I'll mention one thing that pubs can and should learn from the whole Scotch Egg debacle. And it is this. Instead of the Government forcing unwanted meals down our necks, in previous times it was pubs themselves. Feel peckish after a couple of  pints of the amber nectar and consult the menu? Like as not it was a number of main meals only. Nothing as we say in the North, "to put you on". Now I know the pedants among you will point out that the Strap and Manacle in Higher Poshley has a snacks menu to die for, but I am speaking generally. What happened to filled rolls, pies and the like and yes, even scotch eggs? This list is by no means exhaustive. The pizza slice is also a good idea and there are many more contemporary dishes that lend themselves easily to this category, be it samosas, hummus and bread or whatever.

While the daft substantial meal rule was in play, so many pubs that previously hadn't offered snacks found many ingenious ways to get round the restriction. Let's hope that they don't drop these innovative ideas. There is nothing better that a quick snack to allow you to continue a pub visit when hungry, but a full meal rarely cuts it for most of us, never mind the dedicated toper, out for a few pints or those just wise enough to want a little something and a bit more than a bag of Walkers while gently imbibing.

Now I am not saying abolish full meals in pubs, I am saying that in addition, or as an option, there should be snacks available just to keep you going without filling you up. I like a pub meal as much as the next person, but when I choose to have a pub meal, it is almost always in advance and I know that drinking a few pints will be out. Being full up and quaffing pints rarely go hand in hand.

Pubs need to come back from this catastrophic pandemic better and more savvy than ever. Snacks - substantial or otherwise should be a significant part of their revised offer. Let's see the same imagination applied to their offering when they aren't, under duress, trying to hoodwink the authorities.

I kind of exclude the Black Country and the West Midlands to a lesser extent from this undoubted criticism. Almost alone as a region, you can usually get something snacky, almost any time the pubs are open. I think too of Bavaria where snacks, even in pretty big meal oriented pubs, are always available.

On a related note, this piece in the good old Morning Advertiser is also worth reading. I might have a rant about that soon too.


 

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Not Now. But When and How?

 Next Monday the Prime Minister is due to lay out some kind of rough timetable to ease the current lockdown. Much speculation has ensued and in the usual way, there have been what seem to me, placed leaks in the likes of the Daily Mail, hinting at what may or may not be intended. In the case of pubs, kites flying include opening pubs for outside service only and opening pubs for the sale of only non-alcoholic drinks. I won't explore either of these options here, as I do believe that there is on behalf of the Government, a degree of managing expectations, and if enough worse case scenarios are mooted, then what actually happens, no matter how unappealing, will somehow appear acceptable compared to what might have been. The longing for re-opening will inevitably permit a degree of leeway.

There is also clearly, albeit somewhat tardily, a recognition that so much has been over-promised and under-delivered - something almost everyone has complained  about - that the proceeding with a degree of caution penny, has finally dropped. To my mind too, in the case of pubs, there is such a fog of misunderstanding about them within our rulers, that they just don't know what to do.  There is too I feel an inherent distrust of the people - perhaps with the odd justification - as bad behaviour and rule flouting in a few cases is wrongly extrapolated to "all pubs are a hot bed of infection" -  despite there being little by way of actual evidence to support that view.  There also seems to this writer at least, that what happens in London, with its crowded after work scene, spilling onto pavements with no signs of social distancing, is wrongly extrapolated to the rest of the UK, though events in Liverpool pre this lockdown hardly helped.  And let's not go too deeply into the obvious fact, as evidenced by its treatment of them, that the Government just doesn't "get" wet-led pubs.

Looking at where we are now, my best guess is that we are around six weeks away from meaningful relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions. Does that mean good news for pubs? Well, experience would suggest not, but things have changed and continue to change.  Vaccine rollout to all the most vulnerable groups may well be complete before the target date of end of April and all the key age dependent groups will have been covered too. Everyone over 50, or deemed vulnerable should be vaccinated and work started on those under 40.  That is great and way beyond what we could have hoped for only a few short months ago. At the same time, better weather should lessen the amount of infection, as will the increase in those who have antibodies through infection and recovery.  All in all a brighter picture though of course doubts and concerns remain. 

But into each life a little rain must fall.  Until deaths, infections and hospitalizations reach a level that is insignificant, the Government will be very reluctant to go the whole hog.  Hopefully some of their more hare-brained ideas will be ditched though. Apparently the thought processes - yes there was thought oddly - about needing to have a meal with a drink was to stop doltish, irresponsible people going out and getting pissed and then kissing everyone while gobbing Covidly "You're my best mate you". In fact in most cases, it just meant that more affluent  citizens went out for meal and a couple of pints, while those without the ackers, went down the supermarket for a dozen cans of lout at less than half the price, to then drink illicitly with their chums.  The pubs, in the main, lost money operating it.  Frankly it was a laughable policy that helped and suited nobody at all, but that of course doesn't mean it can be entirely ruled out for an unwelcome return. This government has form when it comes to repeating the same process in the hope of a different outcome.

So back to when and how.  Frankly, I don't know. You don't know, and I doubt if the Government knows. My feeling is that as a government that just doesn't trust its people - not unique to the Tories by the way - there will be more than minor inconveniences as we go through re-opening. Some restrictions will remain, whether it is signing in, masks, table service or worse, but the light at the end of the tunnel is there and this time, hopefully it won't be a train coming the other way.

When our beloved pubs re-open, it won't be the end of it though. Lockdown and closure has been devastating for the trade. Many pubs won't ever re-open, or will change hands as the financial toll turns into a grim reckoning. Health worries will remain - see above. Customers will be wary, as will those serving behind the bar. This virus is here for the foreseeable future. It has likely changed us all and those of us that love pubs have a job to do in supporting them.

The bright side is, pubs will be back soon, and we will again remember what makes them so much better than a can or bottle at home. See you at the bar.

Let's hope too, that pubs and of course breweries, get sufficient notice to prepare. Pubs will need cleaning, staff will need training to meet whatever requirements there are, stock will need to be ordered and beer will have to be brewed and conditioned.

One advantage of being old is that I tend to drink in older style pubs. There, most of us will be vaccinated. Don't judge me. I have less of my life left and need that valuable drinking time more than the young do.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Brexit Moan

You will no doubt have read in the press that one of the seemingly unforeseen issues we have after Brexit is the need for a customs declaration when sending parcels to or from the EU.  This seems to be a very complicated matter indeed, as although there is unlikely to be duty paid, the amount of form filling and put frankly - buggering about - is attracting fees in addition to VAT which is payable either by the seller in the EU in the case of EU-GB, or by the recipient.  Ideally this would be paid to HMRC by the European exporter - and many will do that and pass it on in the price- but for others the game is no longer worth the candle, and they will simply cease to trade business to customer with the UK.

 Already I have seen on Twitter and elsewhere that beer is affected by this and for my own part, my occasional cases of mixed beers from Bavaria will cease for the time being. OK it isn't the biggest worry in the world as I can buy substitutes here to a certain extent, or simply buy British beer instead, which I already do.  The pity is that when travel is banned, and we are all in lockdown, a bit of a taste of Germany is a welcome diversion, but I fear that in the future, for many lovers of beer from Bavaria or Belgium, the only way to get those rare beers, will be either to pay top dollar here, if you are lucky enough to find what you want, or do without. It seems we will likely be back to awaiting our foreign trips in many cases. Here's what the German company said.

Momentan ist kein Versand nach England, Wales und Schottland möglich. Wir arbeiten daran. Aber es muss u.a. eine Handelsrechnung erstellt werden.

Danke für Euer Verständnis

 Euer Web-Bier-Team

Basically, for the time being until they work it out, no sales to England and Scotland.

My attitude, while annoyed by this being inflicted upon me and countless others was one of "Well I suppose I can be philosophical about that."  Less so when I discovered that the watch E had bought for me for my birthday in August had ceased to work.  It had been in its box more or less since then as it is a bit "dressy" for day to day use. I'd only taken it out to look at it out of boredom on Saturday, but when I did the bugger had stopped.  Like all of my watches, it is made in Germany and in this case was purchased direct from the manufacturer in Berlin. I ordered it one day and a day and a half later, UPS turned up with it. Easy peasy.

I wrote to the manufacturer complaining about the short battery life, but their response was to send me a prepaid label to send it back for repair or replacement.  Clearly they know something I don't and a mere battery replacement is insufficient. The prepaid label is also a customs declaration. It is a bit complex.  I need to know quite a few things I don't. Here it is - see what you make of it. Click to make it bigger.



Now of course I have asked the seller to tell me the stuff I don't know, but even then and with free postage I am reluctant to send a quite expensive watch back with missing information. I worry that I'll never see it again.

The beer I can sort out - or rather - live with, but my lovely watch, not so sure. Brexit dividend? I rather think not.

Yes - better inside the tent pissing out in this case.  And probably every case. Clearly business to business will sort itself out, albeit expensively, but business to customer and vice versa? I doubt it. 

And of course I didn't vote leave. I'm not that crazy.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Where is the THT?

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that my chosen pseudonym Tandleman is named after my local pub, the JW Lees owned Tandle Hill Tavern, which in turn is named after Tandle Hill, a landscape feature between Middleton - where I live - and Royton - where I don't. The Tandle Hill Tavern is usually abbreviated by me and by locals as the "THT" or, simply "the Tavern."  A further geographical - or is it a political point  - is that the Tavern and Middleton are in Rochdale Borough Council area, while Royton, mentioned above, is in the Borough of Oldham. The boundary between the two is about 200 yards from the THT on the lane which connects the two.

The Tavern is a mile from either the A663 on the Middleton side or the A627 on the Royton end of Thornham Lane. You may have seen me mention the lane in my blog, usually referring to my traipse up there every Sunday from the bus stop, to join my pals for a pint or several. To quote the Good Beer Guide - which maybe I shouldn't - but I wrote it anyway - "It nestles amid a number of farms, reached by  an unmade, non-metalled farm track". Or, writing from memory, words to that effect, as the descriptive words vary from year to year. In other words it isn't that easy to get to. In fact when I speak to locals here in Middleton, it is surprising that many haven't heard of the pub and if they have, have never been there, or the adjacent 110 acre country park.

Now this isn't about to turn into a paeon of praise for my favourite pub, which has been a welcome part of my life for over twenty years, it is simply to let people know where it is and is inspired by the photo which accompanies this piece.  I came across this photo a couple of weeks ago on a local Facebook site. It was taken by a drone two or three weeks ago and illustrates, better than words, where this unique pub is situated. My first thought on looking at the photo, was "Where exactly is the pub?"  My second was to ask the owner, Jon Graham, if I could use it. He kindly gave his permission, for which I am grateful.

So what are we looking at?  This is the open farmland between part of Middleton on the left side and on the right-hand side of the photo, the lane,  continuing into Royton. The right-hand part of the photo, where it ends, is, more or less,  the boundary between the two boroughs mentioned in the first paragraph above.  If you look at the left of the photo, in front of the farm with the wind turbines, you'll see Thornham Lane. Follow this right with your eye to the clump of buildings in the middle and the reddish looking building - it isn't red - with an  apparently white roof - it isn't white  - is the Tandle Hill Tavern.  To save you the counting, there are four farms in the photo, so to say that it "nestles" amongst them, is pretty accurate I think you'll agree.

Going back to the wind turbines, you'll see the lane disappearing left. Obscured in the photo by cloud, is a bridge over the A627M -  itself just visible above the wind turbines - and hence after three quarters of a mile, the A663 and the 17 bus back home. (If we are not diverted to the Ship Inn, also owned by JW Lees,  a couple of hundred yards away that is.)

Of course at the moment neither the Tavern nor the Ship are available for anything other than visual inspection, but one day soon I hope, they'll be open for drinkers once more. Then that trek up the hill will be rewarded not only by pints of Lees Bitter, but importantly,  by the company of my many friends there.

From the War Memorial above the Tavern the views are similar to the drone, but of course more panoramic. It was here that in the period leading up to the Peterloo massacre it was said the area had been used by radicals for practising marching and drilling. 

Views include a clear line of sight across the Cheshire Plain to Jodrell Bank. Its famous dish can clearly be seen as can , across to Merseyside,  Fiddlers Ferry Power Station. North to Lancashire, is the TV transmitter at Winter Hill which provides my TV signals. Its red hazard lights are easily visible when walking back down the lane to the A663.
 

Once again my thanks to Jon Graham for his permission to use his work in this blogpost.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Book Review. Beer by Design by Pete Brown

There are over 2,500 breweries in the UK and when you add imported beer to domestic output, there are over 10,000 beer different brands on sale in the UK.  This should be seen against a background of falling consumption, so given this plethora of choice, how, in such a crowded marketplace, do you nudge the customer to pick up and look at your product over another, and more importantly, buy it.  In his latest book, Beer by Design, beer writer Pete Brown sets out not only to tell us what processes are involved, but to explain and decode the hidden subtext of beer labelling.

Firstly Pete explains that visual marketing is everywhere and despite our best efforts to deny it, we are all influenced by it to some degree or other.  Beer is no different. What makes you choose? Well in short, in addition to what you already know - your personal preferences, strength and so on make up a part of it - but also, more subtly, it is how the beer is presented to you. 

How it appears, the shape and colour of the packaging and the labelling all give (or don't give) visual appeal on a number of levels. In this, straight up, Pete declares an interest. He has a degree in marketing and worked in that field himself before becoming a writer and trust me, this is a good thing, as when you read the book, the first thing  that strikes you - apart from the lavish illustrations - is that this book is written by someone who knows and understands his subject. Marketing as a discipline is tackled head on with its good and bad points, fairly presented to the reader. While many of us may jump first on its ability to deceive or mislead, the other side of the coin is to present a case to the consumer. As Pete points out, when done honestly, it can be helpful to the purchaser, and false or misleading marketing usually gets caught out.

So where did it all start?  At its most basic, the brand is an identifying mark which denotes ownership.  Commercial branding also prevents the unscrupulous from passing off their product as someone else's. As far back as 1266,  bakers were required to put an identifying mark on their bread, but marks of ownership were around in 2700 BCE - so the idea isn't at all new. Now it is firmly enshrined in law of course. In the case of the UK, the key date is the 1st of January 1876 with the passing into law of The Trade Marks Registration Act. Fittingly, in the context of this book, it was brewer Bass which registered "Trade Mark No1".  A separate page of the book describes this and the continual fight Bass had against counterfeiting of both their brand and product. 

Further chapters tell us of the evolution of branding, from labelling, to bottle shape and more recently, with the advent of craft beer, how cans became somewhat of a blank canvas to offer individuality and to get the product noticed.  Here the book really comes into its own with case studies of various well known and not so well known breweries. Pete explains that BrewDog's early labelling, with its offset lettering and brash colours were a clear nod to its rebellious beginnings and a two fingered salute to big beer, but also as BrewDog became more available in mainstream outlets, the design and attitude moved in two further iterations, from "rebellious" to "maverick", but still, distinctively "BrewDog".

This part of the book is in effect an enjoyable and detailed insight for the reader as to what can influence labelling once the statutory requirements of contents, strength etc are got out of the way. The examples are carefully chosen and Pete's words set the context and decipher and break down each for the reader.  You will find what to the uninformed may be generically be "simply" art work, has to the brewery - and its marketeers - particular purpose and is carefully selected accordingly.  

By the time you have whizzed through the book - and it is a delightful read in Pete's usual warm and easygoing style - you will find yourself going back over it again to look at the individual brewery pages in more depth. I particularly enjoyed the analysis of Cloudwater and Camden Town, where on one hand you have a small brewer with a great reputation, approaching design in one way and the other, now owned by "Big Beer" making changes that position the former craft darling - my words not Pete's - in the mainstream, but branding wise, still cutting edge.  As an aside, you learn too, that minimalism as in the case of Kernel is nowhere near as easy as it looks.

Whether it is art, typography, themes, family similarities, traditional or zany, labelling has a similar purpose, to identify and attract.  Pete poses the question at the beginning of the book "should you judge a book by its cover?"  As he himself says -  and I'm slightly paraphrasing here - Why not? You have to start somewhere." Of course the ultimate decision will be about the quality of the product inside the packaging, but the reasonable hope is that if care is taken in packaging and presentation, then great care is being taken with the beer. 

This book is well  written, interesting and visually very appealing.  It is not remotely dry, but rather an engaging history of a serious subject. You will learn a lot in reading it.  This is not just a book for the beer geek, but has much broader appeal and is unhesitatingly recommended.

Pete Brown is a British author, journalist, broadcaster and consultant specialising in food and drink, especially the fun parts like beer, pubs, cider, bacon rolls and fish and chips.  He was named British Beer Writer of the Year in 2009, 2012 and 2016, has won three Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards, and has been shortlisted twice for the Andre Simon Awards. Pete is Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers. He lives in London with his wife Liz, and dog Mildred.

 Beer By Design is available from CAMRA Books

Publisher: CAMRA Books
ISBN: 9781852493684
Number of pages: 224
Dimensions: 250 x 210 mm

 

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Brains on the Brink

 It was inevitable that my first blog post of the new year would have a Covid-19 connection. No it isn't about the Governments somewhat irrational fear of pubs and their other many blind spots, though those in themselves deserve a post or two; it is about the likely demise of Brains Brewery.

For those that know it, particularly if you are Welsh, Brains is not only a small independent brewer, but somewhat of an icon.  A couple of its brands, Brains Dark,  a smooth and luscious Mild and SA -  a well-balanced, drinkable best bitter of a type that used to be common, are very well thought of indeed, though perhaps oddly, its biggest cask seller is the Reverend James, a beer inherited from the takeover of a local rival, Buckley's Brewery of Llanelli. 

I have somewhat of a soft spot for Brains. My work took me to Cardiff frequently, usually staying in Cathedral Road, which then had a Brains pub at each end. Naturally I spent time in both. I also worked for one of two weeks at a time in Gabalfa near the centre and enjoyed nipping over to a nearby Brains pub after work.  I clearly remember too supping in the Brewery Tap when the Old Brewery was still open and have no hesitation in mentioning I'm rather partial to a pint or two of Dark. Their pubs too always seem friendly and welcoming.

SA Brain  - commonly referred to as Brains - was founded by Samuel Arthur Brain in 1882. It brewed firstly and for over 100 years in the centre of Cardiff  and though it built a second brewery just outside, the original outlasted it.  The Old Brewery remained Brains HQ for over 100 years, until the company reluctantly decided it must leave the cramped site, which was by then, bursting at the seams. They bought the closed and larger Hancocks Brewery - a rival owned by ABInBev - near the railway station and Cardiff Arms Park. This move lasted 20 years until a new ultra modern brewery, The Dragon Brewery, was built in 2019 in Cardiff Bay.

The significance of Brains to Welsh Brewing cannot be underestimated. Roger Protz in his recent book on Family Brewers of Britain devoted nine whole pages to it. From humble beginnings, it saw off all its Welsh rivals, to become the sole major survivor today.  I recommend you read what Roger has to say and of course, my review of the book, which is here.

So what has happened? In short, Covid-19 has happened. Wales has been particularly hard hit by restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic causing "significant financial pressure" to Brains. The company had already concentrated business on a core number of  around 160 pubs with the remaining 40 or so being closed or sold off in March 2020.  Clearly this wasn't enough to stave off problems, as this was followed by an announcement before Christmas that rival pub chain Marston's was to take over on 25-year lease, 156 Brains pubs in a bid to save 1,300 jobs.  The deal includes a supply agreement to continue the availability of Brains brands in the pubs, which will be leased to Marston's at an annual rent of £5.5 million. Brain's managed houses will also be run by Marston's.

It is entirely clear from the details of the deal and comments in the financial press that this is the end of Brains as a vertically integrated family brewer. John Rhys, chairman of Brains said the deal with Marston’s “enables Brains to recapitalise its balance sheet and continue its long heritage as an independent entity”. Effectively this  turns Brains into a property management company according to quotes in the financial press. 

Ah, but what of the spanking new brewery in Cardiff Bay I hear you ask?  It seems this is unlikely to open again under Brains ownership. According to Wales Online the future looks bleak. Chief executive of SA Brain, Alistair Darby, said that all options were now being considered for the new modern facility in Cardiff Bay.  He said whatever the outcome, under the supply deal with Marston's, Brains beers would continue to be served when the pubs reopened. He said the consultation about the future of remaining staff was regrettable, but Brains could not afford to have a support centre without its own pubs.

"The brewery is clearly not operating at the moment, and we have to sadly work out whether it makes economic sense for us to continue to run the brewery. "What we cannot do, in any shape or form, is continue running operations that don't a make a positive contribution to the business. I cannot sugar the pill."

So what of the supply agreement? If Brains do not operate the brewery to supply the pubs, they will have to find another brewery to do so. The unthinkable is speculated upon in the Welsh Press. That is that the iconic beer brands will be brewed in England under licence, though there is little doubt that would severely dent the credibility of a name that graced Welsh Rugby shirts for years. Who would do this? Well, Carlsberg Marston's Brewing isn't exactly short of breweries, so seem the most likely candidate if the brewery doesn't stay open.

This is a sad state of affairs for all concerned. The company has effectively lost its pubs, built up throughout the course of its history. Its brewery, a very modern 45,000 barrel facility, looks to have a doubtful future as it appears to be up for sale as well, but with no takers so far. While the company will continue to provide a (very decent) living for the owning family, I have little doubt that these have been the bitterest of pills for them to swallow.

We often read of the parlous state of affairs in the hospitality trade today. It is no doubt dire indeed and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the problems faced by small brewers everywhere. Sadly in social media there has been too little by the way of comment or concern about Brains,  but I'd gently suggest that this is the biggest casualty so far. A company with over 160 houses and a history going back around 140 years has been brought to its knees by this pestilence.

A reminder surely that it isn't just small companies in railway arches and the like that are affected by Covid restrictions. We assume at our peril that bigger companies automatically have the wherewithal to survive. Brains proves this isn't so. Let's hope there aren't any more. We still need a volume independent sector in British brewing.

It may be to some that they as long as Brains beer, wherever it is brewed, is sold in pubs branded as Brains, then all is well. I doubt that. When a brewery owns pubs, its house style and company ethos pervades the estate. How long before that declines? 

 I have no doubt too, that the company acted to ensure that their employees were affected as little as possible. I do hope the brewery stays open to supply the pubs. I wonder too what will happen to the brewing contracts that Brains had? Worthington beers and Mackeson among them.