Monday 19 June 2023

'ow Much?

Allegedly, at least, the title of this piece is what your typical Yorkshire native might say, when encountering a price which is unexpectedly high. (Elsewhere, in this sceptred isle, assuming you are British, a gently raised eyebrow would most likely suffice.)

I was in London for a few days recently and promised I'd keep a close eye on prices. Nowadays, this is fairly easy to do, as in London, and increasingly elsewhere, the default is for the server to tap some numbers into a machine, barely, if ever tell you what the damage is, and hand it to you in the expectation that you will just swipe your card. Now, I do like to have the odd glance at the figures, but I can scarcely remember saying "Oi Mate - are you going to tell me the price?" It seems likely then, I'm as docile as the next man, and end up just swiping and hoping for the best. A worrying trend if you ask me, but I digress as at least when you look at your bank statement, the truth is there for you to consider somewhat ruefully.

Prices of course vary, and here, as you can imagine, I'm talking about prices in pubs. Oddly, though, prices of beer, as often as not, aren't clear as you'd hope. It is not at all uncommon - yes, I'm looking at you Stonegate as a main culprit - to list the price of everything but beer on table menus.  Is beer pricing so volatile that it can't be committed to print? I'd have thought not, so what could the reason be for this omission?  There are laws of course about displaying prices, though I think these are rather loosely complied with generally and for sure can't be relied on, though again this varies and in most of the places I go to, the prices are out in the open, but when you go of piste, rather less so.

So given that London is a bit different, what would be an average price for our usual round, which is a pint for me and a half for E. In my case, unless I know the place well, or I'm just feeling wreckless, it will be lager for both of us. That will vary too, but in the Euston, Farringdon and Aldgate taps, a decent German lager - say Schneider, Ayinger and the like will be around the £6.20 mark with Rothaus about £6.50. I have to say, that given the quality here, these are pretty fair prices, as you can easily pay more for Camden Hells or Brixton Lager, which certainly haven't come very far, and in quality terms, to this writer at least, lag considerably behind. Additionally, prices are clearly displayed, which is as it should be.

What of cask? Well, I did have some superb cask in the Sutton Arms. I think my pints of  Torrside were in the region of £5.70, as a pint of said beer and a half of Paulaner Lager for E was a reasonable £8.65.  Given the quality of the beer, I had no complaints at all. In the Waterloo Tap, en route to a do in Hampton Court, I had two excellent pints of mild from Redemption, while E had Schneider Helles for a reasonable £7.30 the pair. Not bad at all.  In Hampton Court, in the Prince of Wales, a rather indifferent pint of Triple fff Moondance - a former Champion Beer of Britain no less -  and a half of Spanish lager was £8.50, but we rather enjoyed the pub and all the rather posh denizens thereof, so that was fine. We were also soothed by the fact we were going to a function with a free bar at the birthday party we were attending.

Into each life, a little rain must fall, though.  Following a (very) late train from our evening out, we lurched into the Minories pub, which remains open after midnight but was pretty well deserted. £11.55 for a pint and a half of Camden Hells was somewhat shocking, especially when served in a floppy plastic beaker. This is a Stonehouse pub, which had many beers on, but no prices listed in the printed menu. (None of the other drinks seemed outrageous, though, so that's odd.)

So, is London particularly pricey? Well, on balance, given the higher overheads, probably not. You do have to pick and choose carefully to get the quality you want at a price that you are prepared to pay though. Overall the same round bought in Manchester might be a couple of pounds or so less, and in Rochdale, probably over £3 less, but is that really so outrageous?

As always, you pays your money and you takes your choice, though in London, you'd be well advised to put your choice into the equation first.

You will see I am a fan of the various Taps owned by Bloomsbury Leisure. Rightly so, in my view. They are currently developing on at Manchester Victoria and of course, already have the Piccadilly Tap. 

I was told at the Minories, it was a police instruction to have plastic, following an incident earlier in the week with over exuberant West Ham fans. Shame, and hopefully temporary. Stonegate also operate the Dog and Truck near our London flat. Same price problem with beer.

Thursday 15 June 2023

Don't Roll Up - Queue Up

The tradition of buying at the bar and, if you feel like it, standing at the bar while supping your drink, is a long and honourable one. Passport to the Pub, published in 1996 by Kate Fox, a British social anthropologist, says of this:

 " Rule number one: There is no waiter service in British pubs. You have to go up to the bar to buy your drinks, and carry them back to your table"

She goes on to say, with particular regard to those more familiar with table service:

"Once they are aware of the no-waiter-service rule in British pubs, most tourists recognise it as an advantage, rather than an inconvenience. Having to go up to the bar for your drinks ensures plenty of opportunities for social contact between customers......... It is much easier to drift casually into a spontaneous chat while waiting at the bar than deliberately to break into the conversation at another table. 

Like every other aspect of pub etiquette, the no-waiter-service system is designed to promote sociability. The bar counter in a pub is possibly the only site in the British Isles in which friendly conversation with strangers is considered entirely appropriate and normal behaviour."

I recently tweeted this photo of a sign in Wetherspoons, which appears to turn this logic on its head. In no uncertain terms, it urges customers to "Keep the Bar Area Clear."  I said at the time it was most unpublike, and this caused a cascade of comments tending to agree with me, but as always, when commenting on JDW, a plethora of snobbishness about the chain were liberally sprinkled over the main point, including untruths about the company's attitude to Covid and its staff, as well as slurs about the type of people who frequent such dens of iniquity. Most unedifying, but in the main it was agreed this isn't the right thing to do. It is not a pub if you instruct people to queue up.

What I failed to do was point out which JDW this sign appeared at - and I have to say, I haven't seen it elsewhere.  When we first encountered the very busy area in which Tandleman Towers South is located, the area was much different. Almost derelict in many parts, and certainly the busy and bustling Leman Street was nothing like it is now.  The whole area was dead at the weekend and when the nearby huge Royal Bank of Scotland Processing Centre, wasn't at full tilt, the place was quiet. No pizza places, supermarkets, modern bars or brand new multi-storey flats, never mind the now sizeable student accommodation. You had to hop on a tube elsewhere for entertainment, though on the plus side, a few proper East End pubs hadn't yet been swept away. 

In that scenario, imagine our astonishment when a new Wetherspoons opened in the area.  In fairness, things were slightly picking up, but many a time we'd have a drink in the new Goodman's Field and wonder how stupid Timbo was in throwing his money away on what was clearly a white elephant.  Then, slowly but surely, the hotels started to open. There are now plenty from budget to mid-range, and the hitherto empty JDW began to thrive with each new opening.  Looking back on it, you can see why. The river and Tower Bridge are nearby, as is the Tower of London. There are tube stations and buses with easy transport for town and elsewhere.  Most may well offer food and drink, but not as cheaply as Wetherpoons.  Most of the visitors come from abroad, and I think it's fair to say that the majority of customers are not British. 

So, in this scenario, it is perhaps understandable, that a request to queue at the tills has been introduced to keep things simple for those who are just not used to jostling for attention at the bar, never mind facing the inevitable call of "Who's next?"   Yes, it annoys us Brits, especially those who have honed to a razor sharpness, how to get served in a busy pub first, but on the charitable side, it probably makes life easier all round, and to be fair, in my experience the rule is relaxed a tad when not so busy.

In this situation, perhaps Kate Fox would give a little wriggle room and forgive, as I do, this major transgression of pub etiquette.

Are Wetherspoon's many outlets really pubs? I think the jury is still out on that one, but not for the reasons above.

In the Goodman's Field, Kate's Rule Number two is often seen more in the breach than the observance: "It is customary for one or two people, not the whole group, to go up to the bar to buy drinks." Probably another good reason for the sign.

All rights to Kate's book are the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association.


Friday 2 June 2023

Fresh Ale? Neither Nowt nor Summat.

Every so often something comes along claiming that it will solve a particular problem. They come in many forms - superfoods which will give you a wet nose and a glossy coat if you eat enough of the right stuff - knee supports that fool the gullible into thinking that buying them will solve your bone on bone knee problems and obviate the need for surgery - that one got me - they don't - and so on and so forth. The simple fact is that when someone comes up with such things is that they rarely pass the smell test, so let's have a look at one that has recently come up in the beer industry.

"Fresh ale" is the latest thing, it seems.  What's that, you may well ask?  You may reasonably be thinking, "that'll be beer that is served before it gets too old" -  and why wouldn't you?  After all, they do this in some brew pubs where the beer is sold straight from conditioning tanks, so that'll be fresh, won't it?  Or what about cask beer - live beer served from a cask  - that has only a short shelf life. No, that's not it either, it seems. What about the initiative, launched only as recently as September by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) called Drink Fresh Beer?  This is "A campaign that recognises cask beer is in “steep, sustained decline” and is struggling to shake its “male, pale and stale” image will be launched at the Future of Cask Seminar on Thursday 22 September". That must be it then, surely? Well no. Guess again. It isn't that, either.

So what is it? It is a new keg beer, that's what. And you'll not be at all surprised to find out that it is "different and exciting."  What could it be, I hear you ask? Well, Drinks Business has the lowdown. It's a keg beer with lower carbonation, developed by Otter Brewery. It is explained thus:

"When we put it into a keg we actually low-carbonate it, so it has a much gentler and softer carbonation which is designed to emulate the carbonation of cask ale as far as taste goes in terms of mouthfeel. The second major difference is that when it is served, it doesn’t run through chillers in the cellar. Instead, it runs through the python or whatever assets the pub has to allow the dispense temperature to be around between 8.5 – 10℃. So, it is slightly cooler than cask ale, but it is not as cold as keg, and it is slightly fizzier than cask ale, but it’s not as harshly carbonated as keg".

Now at this point, rather than quote more chunks of the Drinks Business article, I urge you to read it for yourself, though I will offer comment on one more paragraph, and it is this: "CAMRA should be for it, not against it, he insisted.(The guy from Otter Brewery)  After all, “CAMRA now promotes ‘World beers’ which are in keg. If they are doing that, why wouldn’t they look at something brewed in the UK that is in keg and talk about it just as favourably?”

Now, of course, even a cursory read through this will have most readers thinking that there is nothing new here at all. This is just another keg beer positioned to fill and bridge the so-called gap between younger and older drinkers, lager and ale drinkers and traditionalist and modernisers.  We have been here before, and they have failed before. In Lancashire parlance, they are neither nowt nor summat, and will almost certainly be seen as such by the drinking public.

There is however another point.  It can and in this instance, clearly is, the case that in bending over backwards to "modernise" in an attempt to bring in younger drinkers to the cause, CAMRA is giving the impression to many, that real ale - cask conditioned beer - is just part of its mix rather than its reason to be. That is a dangerous position to be in. 

When the champion of cask conditioned beer appears to the trade and trade press to have a negotiable position on the subject, alarm bells should be ringing at CAMRA HQ.

The already weak case for this "breakthrough" is undermined by admitting the longer shelf life of this non-live product is a key feature. Otter also assures us that this is not a fad product. Let me know in the comments. 

Let's hope that if fresh beer is as relevant as it should be, that CAMRA and SIBA put some more welly into their original initiative. Cask beer may be suffering, but it doesn't yet need replacing with keg.