Tuesday 26 April 2022

Wetherspoons. Good or Shite?

I inadvertently started a sort of flame war on Twitter the other day. I innocently called into my local Spoons the other day after a few pints of Holts and Lees.  I took a photo - this photo - which seemed to kick off a lot of angst.

It seems that many of the Twitterati retain a visceral hatred of JDW, even if they up their cask game beyond the "usual suspects".  In a tirade reminiscent of a Usenet Flame War came the sort of comments that are all too often flung about where Wetherspoons are concerned.  You can look for yourself to see what exactly was said, but the same old clichés were trotted out. Let's list a few:

"They buy nearly out of date beer; they are sucking the life out of every High Street; they are loss leading cask beer; they are screwing brewers by forcing them to sell at under fifty quid a nine; £2.10 is an unsustainable joke even before the recent huge increases in EVERY aspect of producing beer;"

You get the picture. Of course, added to the general tirade about Wetherspoons, were the usual attacks on CAMRA and its members for daring to a) offer and b) use 50p vouchers.  Another theme was that brewers are devaluing their own products by selling to Wetherspoons and further shooting themselves in the arse by doing so at unsustainable prices.  I particularly liked this post - countered by Cooking Lager. One can almost feel the spittle flecks:

So what is the truth here?  Like many things, it is complicated. Let's all remember that JDW didn't fall from the skies as a fully formed company of nearly 1000 pubs. Owner, Tim Martin, started with one pub and slowly built his empire. Back then, as far as I recall, the company always used its buying power to keep prices down and attract a wide base of customers on the" pile it high and sell it cheap" model.  I assume as business picked up and the number of outlets increased, their buying power also increased.  This essentially is the model that most supermarkets use. They don't have high profit margins, but they squeeze their suppliers to maintain value to customers. It isn't new at all.  

Back on Twitter, I was moved to respond by naming what I called "the elephant in the room":

I suppose that the argument that brewers are devaluing their own product is some kind of abstract, perfect world thought, as the evidence, rather is that many breweries - most breweries - are not so indignant about the issue that they won't sell. The inconvenient truth is that they are all scrabbling for outlets and the real reason for their supplying JDW, is that if they don't, someone else will.  There are a lot of brewers out there with beer to sell. Likely there are more brewers than we really need to supply the market, but nobody likes to admit it. Oh, and JDW pay the agreed price promptly.  You make beer - you have to sell it. Not much outrage there.

Another inconvenient truth, that we must remember, is that selling cask ale is a quite small part of JDW business, but it accounts for a lot of cask beer. JDW does not make much of its money from cask and if they suddenly ceased to exist - or decided not to sell cask at any price, the problem of over-supply wouldn't go away.  There wouldn't suddenly be sunny uplands where cask beer will be sold at £140 a nine and all breweries would live on milk and honey. Rather, even more of them would have to cease trading. Be careful what you wish for.

So back to the hatred, by some of Wetherspoons. What's really behind it? Yes, they are a big company that force prices from suppliers to be lower than some would like, but unlike, say, certain other pub companies who also buy cheaply, they pass the savings on to customers. Bad people?  There is undoubtedly, too, a certain snobbery aspect. This will be vehemently denied, but really, many rather look down on ordinary people being comfortable with their peers in an environment that they can afford. Better by far they should learn to improve themselves and save up to buy expensive murk in a tin shed or railway arch. That would improve the beer market and give more money to deserving brewers, rather than to the ingrates flogging to Wetherspoons.

So are JDW saints or villains? I'd venture neither. They fulfil a need, and they keep mash tuns full.  You also have to remember two basic facts. Nobody has to go there and nobody has to sell to them, but should you really despise and demean those that do? 

What is/was Usenet? Usenet (/ˈjznɛt/) is a worldwide distributed discussion system available on computers. Users read and post messages (called articles or posts, and collectively termed news) to one or more categories, known as newsgroups. Usenet is culturally and historically significant in the networked world, having given rise to, or popularized, many widely recognized concepts and terms such as "FAQ", "flame", sockpuppet, and "spam"

Back in the old Usenet days in the 1980s, we (semi jokingly) boiled things down a bit when discussing beer. Was it good, or was it shite? Hence this blog piece title.

Saturday 23 April 2022


 Before it fades from my mind entirely, I thought it worth mentioning the CAMRA Annual Conference and Members Weekend, which took place in early April at this venerable seaside town.  I hadn't been to Eastbourne for many years - the last time in the mid 1980s as a Trade Union Delegate-  and oddly enough held in the same venue. It would be good to say that I remember it well, but frankly, not a single thing - not even the Winter Gardens - had left the least impression on me. It was simply as if I'd never been there before. Furthermore, it was somewhat gratifying that E, who accompanied me, could remember nothing about it either. Ah, well. Not just me, then.

 There hadn't been a "live" meeting for a couple of years, and I hadn't clapped eyes on many of the attendees for some time. I think it's fair to say none of us looked any better for the rest. You could see, apart from the odd few, that CAMRA's demographic time bomb, was all too obvious.  Mind you, none of that made the old buggers - me included - any less lively, and debates and motions were vigorously participated in.  The accompanying Member's Bar - a mini beer festival - was well attended, and the beers from the surrounding areas, were all in good nick. A mixed lot if I'm honest, and the lack of dark beers was soon evident as they all ran out first.  Incidentally, it was noted at the recent more local (to me) Oldham Beer Festival, that dark beers seem much more popular at this kind of event than pale. Fortunately, Oldham had anticipated this, and had plenty to go round. Maybe it is a Northern thing, though I tend to doubt it?

The Eastbourne Organisers had done a good job with the handbook and many useful local pub crawls were detailed.  If I have to be honest, the pubs of Eastbourne - again, none of which I remembered -  were a bit of a mixed bag. Some were surprisingly grungy. One or two wouldn't have been out of place in Gibraltar and if you've been there, you'll know that isn't a compliment, though some were actually rather good.  You certainly had to have a liking for Harvey's Bitter, which seemed to be in every pub. Well near enough.  My pick of the bunch was probably the Dolphin on South Street, though a few veteren

eyebrows were raised at the way one barperson splashed the beer one handedly into a resting glass from the handpump.  But that's a quibble. This was a proper pub, with regulars and visitors and a great atmosphere. Beer in Eastbourne was mostly around the £4 mark, as indeed it was in the Member's Bar. Quality was variable, though generally not bad. We also liked the Marine, which had fantastic bar staff and a really fine pub grub menu. And Harvey's of course.

The town itself is very spread out, and if, like me, you attended all the meeting sessions, it was hard to check everywhere out, though I have little doubt some either did, or tried to.  As always, these gigs are best remembered for the chance to meet old friends, and that we did. I moved one motion and seconded two, all of which were passed, so that wasn't bad. It was all rather good fun.

We stayed two nights, and that was probably enough for me. Despite its reputation as a retirement area and its fine promenade and pier, I doubt if I'll be spending my dotage there. There's only so much Harvey's a man can stand.

I also liked the Bottle Grove, where a lot of the Manchester Crew congregated on the Saturday night. No real ale as such, but it was a jolly little place, with a great host, and the Keykeg was just fine for a change.

The other beer encountered more than once was from Long Man, including at the Stage Door next to the meeting venue. Sorry, but not a fan either and, you've guessed it, the other option was Harvey's. The beer here was in good nick though.

We stayed at the View Hotel, which was excellent and just a two-minute walk from the conference venue. That was wise.  The weather was very kind too, which allowed E and some others, to ascend Beachy Head.  Alas I missed out on this undoubted treat.