Tuesday 30 January 2024

Part of the Union

I heard recently of Union Street in Bermondsey as being a place worth a visit. Fortunately, E knew exactly where it is so following her directions, we had a pleasant walk across the Thames until I pointed out we seemed to be getting further away from it. Now it seems that the version of Google I was using could not be trusted in this matter. So after E consulted her much wiser version, we retraced steps and eventually found ourselves on Southwark St. There it was, just round the corner, as presumably it has always been.

Back a million years ago, my trade union was based in Southwark St, but I had never had a reason to visit it, but I could remember that they all used to go to the pub nearby. What was it called? I couldn't recall, but once again, fortune favoured me. We spotted the White Hart - that was it - and it looked very pleasant, but being a Fullers house, it wasn't what I had in mind, but later, we sort of wished we had called in.

Our first port of call was the Union Jack, quite a pleasant looking pub with long, large windows and rather an appealing inside. Quite old-fashioned, I suppose, but in a good way, and the welcome from the barman was genuine and warm. A sole, dusty looking handpump sported a St Austell Tribute clip on it, but we weren't taking a chance on it. A pint and a half of fairly ordinary Camden Hells was ordered - is it me or is this getting a bit rarer? -  and we enjoyed the visit. I feel being busy, which is certainly wasn't, would have cheered the place up no end, but it was fine, and the welcome made up for a lot.

We ignored the Charlotte just over the road on account of its Heineken sign and went into the rather unlikely looking Lord Nelson. Now, you couldn't accuse this eclectically decorated pub of being quiet. A very young clientele were filling the place, many wiring into hefty plates of fried food and burgers. The food looked fab and I quite liked the place, even though clearly we weren't the target clientele by several decades. Sadly, the rude barman, who was just finishing his shift, wasn't paying the least bit of attention and I had to repeat my simple order of a pint and a half of Camden Hells. I tried to engage him, but clearly I was wasting my time. He promptly thereafter went off duty and removed himself to haunt the other side of the bar. Ageist I wondered? Possibly, but I'm happy to give him the benefit of the doubt and allow he had just had a long shift. Either way, I honestly liked the place, recognised its attraction to others, and as a bonus the Camden Hells was a large cut above its neighbour's. E on the other hand couldn't wait to get out. So, I'd say visit, enjoy the vibe, but only if you are under thirty or are immune to feeling out of place if you aren't.

Of course, even in a small pub crawl such as this, you have to pick a favourite. Heading back to Borough Market and the 343 over the river, we nipped into Mc & Sons. This is an Irish style pub - without the umpteen intrusive televisions - and was severely rammed with after work drinkers.  Nonetheless, the service was swift and cheerfully efficient, but it was so busy I could see little of the bar. I'm pretty sure there was no cask and I wouldn't have had it anyway here, as everyone seemed to be guzzling Guinness.  If you can't beat them, join them is sometimes not a bad motto.  The Guinness was the best I have ever had in London. Perhaps a tad cold, but certainly the best since I was last in Belfast, and at least a match for Mulligans in Manchester.  

So we had another. Seemed the right thing to do, especially since the same barman who'd served me, when collecting glasses, saw us standing in a corner and shifted some office workers who'd purloined the table that should have been there.  Thus seated, we enjoyed the busy scene even more.

We left with considerable reluctance, but we will be back. As always.  "It's the offer, Stupid."

We nearly had a third drink, but it was Burns night, and haggis neeps and tatties in our local JDW were calling us.  That was rammed too, and the staff did their best, which really is all you ask of them.

I had hoped as mentioned in an earlier post, to tell you of the Sir Sydney Smith, but that, alas, must wait.

Thursday 25 January 2024

A Few London Observations

 I'm a bit of a creature of habit when I come to London. First night, check the flat is in one piece then off to the Aldgate Tap for a few pints, followed by a quick visit to get one of the few pizzas I ever eat at Pizza Union. Vesuvio of course.

Thus, it was on Tuesday. Flat in one piece - check. Aldgate Tap - check.  Now this is one of several taps, mostly near railways stations. In fact, we have two in Manchester and soon to be three, which is a bit of a secret, but I can make a guess as to location as I've been told it is a station. I know Jon, the owner, and he runs decent boozers at reasonable prices. I know the manager of the Aldgate Tap too, and he came over to have a chat and ask how the beer was.  Kelham Island Pale Rider was my choice of the two casks on offer, the other being Taylor's Golden Best. Both were under a fiver, and we spent a few minutes chatting about the pub, trade, and of course sparklers. All very pleasant, as was the pizza. 

The Aldate Tap is a peculiar building in Aldgate Square, all glass and metal, with a large outside area, which is fine, but draughty in winter with all the comings and goings. There is a good range of keg beers, and even Guinness, though my eyebrows were raised at the £7 a pint price. Better to have Rothaus Pils at £6.60 a pop in my view, but at least you can be sure the cask is in good nick.

Yesterday, in an effort to have a change, we walked to the National Portrait Gallery, which took just under an hour. My replaced knee took it in its stride - see what I did there -  and after a good look round  - highlight Rabbi Robert Burns and Mo Mowlem -  we decided on a local pint before heading to our destination in Gloucester Road for Lebanese scoff at Baba Ganouj which had been recommended.

 Now, Sam's Chandos is virtually opposite the National Portrait Gallery, but a quick look in revealed it to be virtually deserted, so in search of a better atmosphere, E suggested the Harp. And why not?  It was fairly quiet too, but even so, I have to mention that my cheery hello was ignored by the server, who was much more interested in his phone. Not something I appreciate, nor do I approve of the card machine being thrust under my nose without being told the price. The custodian of the bar seemed put out that I asked much it was, before turning the machine in a way I could read it. All wordlessly. He wasn't a lot better with customers, who on the way out thanked him. No response being his reply.

Maybe mine host had got out of the wrong side of bed or something, but it was an annoyance I could have lived without. Fortunately, my pint of Harvey's Best was on very decent form, which mollified me somewhat, and E expressed contentment with her Dark Star Hophead. But we didn't stay for another, despite the quality of the cask beer.  To spite him, I didn't take the glasses back either, as is my custom, but E did, insisting that we at least have standards. She's a good 'un.

And so to posh Kensington. The area around Gloucester Rd tube is rather agreeable. We spotted the restaurant, spotted a decent looking pub almost next door and with time to kill before our booking, decided on a stroll round before a pint. There is dosh in that area, and we enjoyed the to-ings and fro-ings, as posh parents picked up posh children from school and the general atmosphere of rich people about their business.  We walked a half mile or so, until a pub hove into view.  It looked fine, but the Greene King plumage didn't auger well. The Gloucester Arms is an imposing street corner pub. Inside was rather plain, but you could see in its day it would have been rather grand. Still decent now, with quite a few people in, though in fairness I didn't imagine them in the nearby mansions and mews houses, but perhaps I'm being unfair. The sole barmaid was pleasant and patient as we hummed and hawed, having dismissed the only cask beer, Greene King IPA. I chose Brixton Lager which was harmless enough, and we enjoyed a bit of people watching. The same barmaid smilingly thanked us when we brought our glasses back. See? Not that difficult, Harp.

The Stanhope Arms promised a selection of cask ales, but alas there was only Greene King IPA and maybe Abbott. I say that because the place was rammed and the bar hard to see. A very mixed crowd, with students, older couples, people coming straight from work and the like. It was very jolly and we enjoyed it. For me Portobello London Pilsner and for E who has a deep distrust of local lagers, Estrella, which I think comes from Bedford.   Two things of note. Firstly the tables, a mix of high and low, were so crammed together that any movement involved a convoluted exchange of "excuse me" and "sorry" as folks arrived and departed, or simply tried to go to the bar. The other thing was that in the hour we were there, not one pint of cask was sold. But we liked the place a lot, and that is not to be overlooked. The staff were cheerful and willing too.

After a fab Lebanese meal - you really ought to go there for the real thing and smiling cheerful welcomes and service - we headed home. Beer was out of the question as there was simply no room left, but we thought why not go to the Dog and Truck, which is probably our nearest pub, though equally it could be the Brown Bear or the Princess of Prussia.  Alas, our anticipated nightcap of a glass of verdejo was ruled out as the place was closed. Ruling out the Brown Bear (a bit rough for E) and the Princess of Prussia (bloody expensive), we headed to the excellent - why don't we go there more often? - Sir Sydney Smith - where decent wine at a good price was procured and the atmosphere enjoyed. More of this soon.

So, in summary, the much lauded Harp had the most indifferent service, but the best beer; outside known places cask is in deep decline; and even the most unlikely pubs had a decent welcome and service. Make of that snapshot what you will.

I'd observe from Brixton lager and Portobello Pilsner that the brewers really need to put a few noble hops in their beers to give them some character. Both tasted more or less of nothing, and whoever thought that heavy handled glass with a thick rim, was a good idea for Portobello Pilsner, should have a quiet word put in their ear.

I walked over 16,000 steps. Not too shabby. Oh, and price? Expect nearly a tenner for a pint and a half of anything.

Friday 19 January 2024

Baby, It's Cold Inside

In these difficult and expensive - and it has to be said this winter -  bloody cold - times, it is rather pleasant to leave the dank and chill of our underheated homes and head for the conviviality of our nearest pub. How satisfying it is to turn the heating down, head for the door and spend the saved money in a venue where the price of your chosen drink includes you being nice and toasty while you sup your amber nectar.

Or is it?  The problem of affording heating at home, alas, cannot with certainty be avoided by jumping ship to your nearest boozer. Like Doc Morrissey in the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, you may well find that they have it worse.  You see, unlike us lucky sods at home, who have at least some limits applied to our energy supply, your local pub is entirely subject to the vagaries of the market and the various commercial contracts that they have entered into. In short, the price of heating pubs has gone up considerably.

Recently in the cold weather, I have noticed some pubs, quite frankly, to be more than a tad chilly.  Now this is a problem. Nobody likes a cold pub, and not many of us will sit in one for a long time. Being cold when out spending your hard-earned is hardly an agreeable experience, and while it isn't difficult to sympathise with the situation pubs find themselves in, it is yet another disincentive to visit. We have quite a few of those already.

Yesterday in Manchester, two out of the three pubs I was in while celebrating my 25,000 days alive - I won't be doing that again - were actually cold.  So cold in one that my wife refused to allow a further drink, as she was perishing. In this case, it was not helped by a door at the rear to the courtyard was left open by smokers as they nipped in and out. With a door at the other end admitting customers, it made for an icy through draught from the sub-zero temperatures outside. While the radiators were feebly doing their best, it was a losing battle, and in any case they didn't seem to be that hot anyway. Our earlier experience in a very large venue wasn't much better, though they did have a huge space to heat, nor was the small restaurant where we tried to enjoy a meal. I'd call that a trend.

So, what's to be done? Well, hard to say. Pubs could put prices up, as I, for one, would rather the drinks cost a bit more than be cold inside the pub. They could also ensure that their pubs are as draughtproof as possible, but whatever, in a cold winter like this, something needs to be done.

For me, I reckon if it is cold inside the pub, I'll just be voting with my feet and go elsewhere. I'm too old to be suffering over a pint.

It has to be said that you are less likely to encounter cold pubs in the managed estate of breweries and  of course, busy pubs do generate human heat, so a bustling and busy pub is also likely to be warmer.

Not much chance of warming up on the bus on the way home either. The shocking state of our buses makes a warm bus a real rarity

Friday 12 January 2024

Best of Luck with That One

Hot on the heels of me writing about the difficulties some pubs are facing, causing them to operate on reduced hours, I read with a degree of astonishment that the number of applicants to run pubs is running rather high at the turn of the year.  It seems January is the peak time for this optimistic attitude, with, according to the good old Morning Advertiser, numbers up by over 50%.  As the MA puts it,“New year, new me.

"So often the cry of someone who managed to survive the previous 365 days despite facing hammer blows all the way, with the intention of reversing such misfortunes in the time it will take for the Earth to revolve around the sun again."

Well, it may well take longer than that if the current difficulties facing the trade are anything to go by, and while it is good to see prospective pub operators - both buyers and sellers - looking on the bright side, it would seem to this writer that it somewhat flies in the face of how the economy is faring now.  Of course, good sites and pubs - and there are some - will always attract interest, but I wonder just how much of this activity is at the wet lead end of things, and how much is in the more deprived areas of the country.  

The companies quoted are Admiral Taverns, Marstons, Greene King and Star Inns and Bars (aka Heineken), who are particularly keen to emphasise that around £4000 can get you started.  Heineken are also happy to say their new model means less risk (for them). How do they do this? Easy. They tell the MA that they buy all the products and set all the prices.  That's all right then, isn't it?

If you feel inspired, the article is here. Don't all rush at once after reading it.

The Morning Advertiser is always worth a read, though you have to register after two articles.

I notice, too, that Stonegate Pub Company with 4500 pubs and 19,000 workers is seeking to refinance £2.5 billion worth of debt. Pub companies are always a worry.

Thursday 11 January 2024

Opening Hours Erosion. Good or Bad?

In the world of hospitality, pubs have long been regarded -  probably through rose-tinted glasses -  as communal hubs where friends gather, strangers become friends, and general relaxed jollity ensues. However, in recent times, there has been a growing tendency for pubs to close during quiet business periods. Outside city centres, it has become increasingly difficult to find a wet led pub that is open at lunchtime, never mind one that is bustling.

 Managed houses, with a food offering and salaried staff rather than part-timers are likely your best bet, though these may be a bit too restaurant like for the casual drinker.  It is particularly noticeable that pubs run by tenants often see little point in opening the doors just for the odd one or two punters that might wander in and stretch a pint for a couple of hours. In fact, increasingly, days like Monday and Tuesday are often being written off altogether. This shift in perspective challenges the traditional notion that pubs should remain open at all permitted hours, and highlights the dilemma for pub owners and the effect on the community at large. 

Running a pub is a pretty hard game these days, especially when it comes to juggling costs and earnings. Lots of places end up staying open when things are slow, which means more expenses - heating being a prime example. Shutting down during slow times seems like a sensible way of overcoming this. It helps pub owners make the most of what they've got and build a business that matches the actual number of people coming in.

The logic is quite a simple one: closing the doors during quiet periods allows pub owners to reduce operating costs significantly. Energy consumption - a huge overhead these days -  is decreased and staff wages reduced. By strategically closing during these hours, owners can better match staff to demand, and thus operate more efficiently. Getting opening hours in synch with likely footfall is also good for morale, as it were, as there is little more soul-destroying than overseeing an empty pub as the clock slowly ticks away the pointless hours. 

Hopefully too, focusing efforts on the hours when customer footfall is at its highest can also make for a better customer experience, as after all, who wants to sit in a miserably empty pub? Customers make for atmosphere, and the lack of it does not encourage a lengthy stay. Concentrating efforts and resources on peak business hours, can - or here I'll say should  - ensure that the service, atmosphere, and offerings are of the optimal standard. It does not work at all if you simply take the same sad old offering and simply spread it over a shorter period. If you are going to open less, greater efforts have to be made to make the pub attractive when you do.  And above all, you need to ensure that potential customers know when you will be open. Even now, far too many pubs seem to think that opening hours are some kind of state secret that should jealously be guarded. Telling potential customers about opening hours and what's happening in the pub is not a bothersome extra. It is an essential part of the business.

While the idea of closing pubs during quiet business periods may seem a bad idea at first, it can be an acknowledgement that times have changed and cloth must be cut accordingly. By embracing a more strategic and efficient operational model, pub owners can create a sustainable business that benefits both their bottom line and the customer experience. 

In the end, finding the right balance involves satisfying customer needs, while also securing the enduring sustainability of the business in a constantly changing market, but it does look as though reduced hours are here to stay and ultimately, better than the pub closing altogether..

Wednesday 3 January 2024

What's Going On?

At this time of year, one becomes introspective. Resolutions are made and lives, intentions and hopes are re-evaluated, usually in an optimistic and entirely unrealistic way. Such thoughts equate entirely with our human need to see the best of things - to look for hope, change and better outcomes - this, despite all the evidence that a new year and promises to oneself, rarely if ever change the probable and probably inevitable course of events. It is all pretty hopeless in that sense, but then again, we live in hope. It is the meaning of life to a very great extent.

Thus, I won't be making impractical promises about this blog, though my own promise to myself is that I'll try to write more, but I'll likely fail. Instead, to make it easier on myself, I'm looking to write more about things that might interest me. And guess what? It is, funnily enough, going to be beer and pubs, so that's all right, isn't it?  I know a bit about them.

Last year, having wasted many mornings of my life watching YouTube -  though almost never about beer - I definitely need to pack that in.  I have though watched from time to time, usually shouting at the telly in sheer disbelief, the inane Real Ale Craft Beer Channel, and I have also learned a lot of useless stuff - mostly about London Underground (fascinating) - the differences (many) between us and these goddam Yankees - and where to get the best cooked brekkie in London. (Widely thought to be Pellicci's - been there - but it would almost certainly be cheaper at the Ivy, though you won't get bubble there).   And so on.  So it is back to beer.

So what has been happening? Well things are still iffy in the industry to be frank, though maybe they could be worse.  I note record turnover from my local brewery JW Lees and that's good. Lees continue to invest heavily in their business and it shows. They deserve to do well, by and large. I see also Fullers and Youngs are doing well, so that's good, though London, as always is a different animal to the rest of the UK.  Sir Timbo deserves a mention, and I'm grateful for this piece being pointed out by Cookie. It is rather well written and mentions the obvious fact - often overlooked - that he started off with one pub and now has over 800. If you believe in honours lists, it would seem to me that he deserves it, and as Mudgie always points out, it is a dependable company in an industry that isn't very dependable as a whole, and one where there is that oft talked about, but usually missing, social mix. Incidentally, making alcoholic drinks and pub visits affordable isn't "wrong" if you want to see pubs succeed.  Again from Cookie is a similar piece from the Guardian.

I'll leave it there for now.  The blog will certainly be back a little more often, and I'll be returning to short sharp posts like I used to. I've been reading a lot of my previous stuff, and you know, it isn't that bad. I recommend particularly my stuff on Sam Smiths, and I'll be resuming my trek round the ones here and those I visit in London. I'll also tackle the issue of what might be called "opening hours deficit".  I note quite a few pubs here, have simply closed for parts of January, and while understandable, it isn't really a healthy sign.

So. Watch this space, and Happy New Year to you all.

"Let me say, for the benefit of those who have allowed themselves to be carried away by the gossip of the past few days, I know what is going on. I am going on."  Harold Wilson 1969

Best beer of 2023? Acorn Gorlovka Stout.