Friday, 19 September 2008

The great pubs crisis

Is it time to rethink the smoking ban
in order to kick start the pub trade?

The plight of the pub is not confined to those who work in the trade or write about it. Last week I did 20 back-to-back radio interviews to coincide with the launch of the 2009 edition of the Good Beer Guide and a lively debate ensued over just how the much-loved British boozer can be saved from extinction.
The media had picked up with relish the guide's attack on supermarket discounts that are killing pub business. Even I was dumbstruck by research that shows that while pub prices have increased by 4% in the past year they have fallen by 1% in the off-trade.
Since 2002, off-trade beer prices have been cut by 7% while pub prices have increased by a whopping 24%. Want to know why 36 pubs are pulling down the shutters every week? Just look at those figures once more.
In most of the radio slots last week, either the interviewers or listeners responded by asking: “OK, what can pubs do to revive their fortunes and get punters through the doors again?”
My thoughts were as follows: publicans need to be imaginative. Hold regular mini beer festivals, featuring beers rare to your areas. Stage auctions, charity events and celebrations to mark Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas, New Year and Hurricane Darling on Budget Day.
Above all, make sure your cask beer is sold in tip-top condition: if you've never sold cask ale before, Cask Marque will be delighted to give you a helping hand. Sell food if you can, keep it simple and at affordable prices, and avoid becoming a gastropub.
The advice struck a chord with most listeners. But over and over again the message came back that it was the smoking ban as much as supermarket discounts that were killing the pub trade.
The debate went on. The head office of the Campaign for Real Ale, publishers of the Good Beer Guide, tell me they have never received such a response to either the launch of the book or any other Camra event.
Emails were passed on to me. Some were fairly abusive -- “Don't tell me to stop buying beer in supermarkets. I don't care about pubs and you can all bugger off” was one memorable missive – but most were not only serious and sensitive but returned to the subject of the smoking ban.
I was struck in particular by an email from a British citizen resident in Spain. He is a smoker and enjoys a beer. He said he had just fired up a ciggie while enjoying a glass of Shepherd Neame's Spitfire – the lads from Faversham will be delighted to hear that their beer is reaching Barcelona and points south.
My informant said that while supermarket beer in Spain was just as cheap as in Britain, he still used bars because he was able to smoke in them.
Like a Biblical sinner, I have repented. I initially welcomed the blanket ban on smoking in pubs. I disagreed with the Camra view that pubs with more than one room should be allowed to set aside an area for smokers for an agreed number of years.
My feeling was that smoking – unlike drinking in moderation – is such a danger to the health of both the smoker and those inhaling his or her fumes that the habit should be stamped on from a very great height.
But I recognise now that the effects of the ban have been a disaster for most pubs. I love the smoke-free atmosphere. I can enjoy a pint with greater relish and I don't go home reeking of stale smoke and with a sore throat.
I'm the worst kind of non-smoker – a reformed, ex-nicotine user. But I've noticed on two visits to Belgium this year that my enjoyment of beer there has not been impeded by the fact that bars are allowed to set aside a room for smokers. The same applies in France and Italy. All three countries, in common with Britain, have a ban on smoking in public places, but they have adopted a policy of allowing bars and cafes to set aside rooms for those still addicted to the awful weed.
It's a fact that while smoking is in sharp decline in Britain, a bigger proportion of pubgoers are smokers than is typical of the population at large. I think they should be encouraged to give up but to make them sit outside pubs in segregated areas is a kind of social apartheid.
What should have happened is that the pub trade and the government should have agreed on a time scale that would have allowed smoking inside pubs in designated areas for a period of, say, five years.
Pub owners would have had to ensure that neither smoke nor the smell of smoking could seep from those areas into the rest of the pub. It would have been considerably cheaper than the millions spent on outside patios.
None of this should take the spotlight off the greed and avarice of the supermarkets and their give-away beer prices. But the smoking ban needs to be addressed. It would be a brave person that asks the government to rethink its policy. But as I got it wrong the first time round I'd be happy to write the first letter.
As long as it doesn't have to go to Alistair Darling.
*Good Beer Guide 2009 £14.99 in bookshops or online from www.camra.org.uk

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Good Beer Guide 2009

Radio Blitz brings a call for
a new look at smoking ban
The plight of the pub is not confined to those who work in the trade or write about it. Last week I did 20 back-to-back radio interviews to coincide with the launch of the 2009 edition of the Good Beer Guide and a lively debate ensued over just how the much-loved British boozer can be saved from extinction.
The media had picked up with relish the guide's attack on supermarket discounts that are killing pub business. Even I was dumbstruck by research that shows that while pub prices have increased by 4% in the past year they have fallen by 1% in the off-trade.
Since 2002, off-trade beer prices have been cut by 7% while pub prices have increased by a whopping 24%. Want to know why 36 pubs are pulling down the shutters every week? Just look at those figures once more.
In most of the radio slots last week, either the interviewers or listeners responded by asking: “OK, what can pubs do to revive their fortunes and get punters through the doors again?”
My thoughts were as follows: publicans need to be imaginative. Hold regular mini beer festivals, featuring beers rare to your areas. Stage auctions, charity events and celebrations to mark Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas, New Year and Hurricane Darling on Budget Day.
Above all, make sure your cask beer is sold in tip-top condition: if you've never sold cask ale before, Cask Marque will be delighted to give you a helping hand. Sell food if you can, keep it simple and at affordable prices, and avoid becoming a gastropub.
The advice struck a chord with most listeners. But over and over again the message came back that it was the smoking ban as much as supermarket discounts that were killing the pub trade.
The debate went on. The head office of the Campaign for Real Ale, publishers of the Good Beer Guide, tell me they have never received such a response to either the launch of the book or any other Camra event.
Emails were passed on to me. Some were fairly abusive -- “Don't tell me to stop buying beer in supermarkets. I don't care about pubs and you can all bugger off” was one memorable missive – but most were not only serious and sensitive but returned to the subject of the smoking ban.
I was struck in particular by an email from a British citizen resident in Spain. He is a smoker and enjoys a beer. He said he had just fired up a ciggie while enjoying a glass of Shepherd Neame's Spitfire – the lads from Faversham will be delighted to hear that their beer is reaching Barcelona and points south.
My informant said that while supermarket beer in Spain was just as cheap as in Britain, he still used bars because he was able to smoke in them.
Like a Biblical sinner, I have repented. I initially welcomed the blanket ban on smoking in pubs. I disagreed with the Camra view that pubs with more than one room should be allowed to set aside an area for smokers for an agreed number of years.
My feeling was that smoking – unlike drinking in moderation – is such a danger to the health of both the smoker and those inhaling his or her fumes that the habit should be stamped on from a very great height.
But I recognise now that the effects of the ban have been a disaster for most pubs. I love the smoke-free atmosphere. I can enjoy a pint with greater relish and I don't go home reeking of stale smoke and with a sore throat.
I'm the worst kind of non-smoker – a reformed, ex-nicotine user. But I've noticed on two visits to Belgium this year that my enjoyment of beer there has not been impeded by the fact that bars are allowed to set aside a room for smokers. The same applies in France and Italy. All three countries, in common with Britain, have a ban on smoking in public places, but they have adopted a policy of allowing bars and cafes to set aside rooms for those still addicted to the awful weed.
It's a fact that while smoking is in sharp decline in Britain, a bigger proportion of pubgoers are smokers than is typical of the population at large. I think they should be encouraged to give up but to make them sit outside pubs in segregated areas is a kind of social apartheid.
What should have happened is that the pub trade and the government should have agreed on a time scale that would have allowed smoking inside pubs in designated areas for a period of, say, five years.
Pub owners would have had to ensure that neither smoke nor the smell of smoking could seep from those areas into the rest of the pub. It would have been considerably cheaper than the millions spent on outside patios.
None of this should take the spotlight off the greed and avarice of the supermarkets and their give-away beer prices. But the smoking ban needs to be addressed. It would be a brave person that asks the government to rethink its policy. But as I got it wrong the first time round I'd be happy to write the first letter.
As long as it doesn't have to go to Alistair Darling.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Good Beer Guide launch

Supermarket discounts are
killing the British boozer

Astonishing statistics have been revealed by the 2009 Good Beer Guide to show just how supermarket discounts are hammering the embattled British pub. Supermarket beer prices have fallen by 1% in the past year while pub prices have increased by around 4%. Since 2002, off-trade beer prices have fallen by 7% while pub prices have increased by 24%.
In the guide, I argue that the government must act to stop this imbalance. The 36 pubs that close every week will become a much bigger figure unless action is taken. I believe the British government must follow the lead of the Scottish parliament that plans to introduce a minimum pricing policy for beer in the take-home market. To be effective, a unit of alcohol should cost between 35 and 40 pence -- at present it's just 26 pence in supermarkets.
As a result of the 10% beer duty increase in this year's Budget, prices in pubs have increased by 4.4% in the past year and the average price of a pub pint is now around £2.80. In contrast, prices in the off trade have fallen by a further 1% as a result of huge price promotions.
Following the Budget, one specialist off-trade chain, Bargain Booze, wrote to its suppliers and told them they must absorb the duty increase or the chain would refuse to deal with them. This shows the arm-lock that ruthless off-trade retailers have on the brewing industry.
*Sainsbury's: Foster's lager -- 3 cases of 440ml cans for £20. That's the equivalent of 57.4 pence a pint.
*Asda: John Smith's Smooth -- same price deal as for Foster's above.
*Morrisons: 24 cans of 440ml Stella Artois for £15.27 -- the equivalent of 77.9 pence a pint.
*Lidl: 8 cans of 440ml Carlsberg for £4.49 -- the equivalent of 56.9 pence a pint.
This is the economics of the mad house. Coors, brewers of Carling, have seen their profits halve in recent years. The reason is that the bulk of Carling's production is going to supermarkets, where it's sold cheaper than bottled water.
There's much talk of a British bank going bust as a result of global economic problems but there's equally the risk of a big brewer crashing. What is the point of brewing 2 million barrels of Carling a year if most of it is sold at cost?
Urgent action is needed to tackle the scandal of the supermarkets in order to save the traditional British pub.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Stella Artois promotion

Not as old as you may think:
a small difference of 540 years

You have to admire the cheek and the chutzpah of the global brewers. Take, for example, the new promotion for Stella Artois. There is much use of the year “Anno 1366”. This comes across particularly strongly in the new TV advert, with the sonorous voice of former Dr Who actor Tom Baker telling us that Stella's heritage dates from 1366.
Rowlocks, as they say in boating circles. Stella Artois dates not from 1366 but 1926, just a small difference of 540 years. The Artois family had nothing to do with the brewery back in the 14th century. It started life as a small brew-pub in the Belgian university city of Leuven. It was called Den Horen, the Horn, and it achieved some success by supplying the university with beer from 1537. The Artois family didn't arrive on the scene until the early 18th century. Sebastien Artois was an apprentice brewer at Den Horen. He graduated from the university's brewing faculty as a master brewer and raised the funds to buy Den Horen in 1717.
Sebastien's grandson, Leonard, busily expanded the business. He bought two rival breweries in Leuven and became one of the most successful commercial beer-makers in Europe. But – and it's an important but – Artois didn't switch to the lager system of production until the late 19th century. The family was inspired to do so by the success of the first golden lager brewed in the Bohemian city of Prague. It's known today as Pilsner Urquell – Original Pilsner.
Artois's inspiration also came from Germany. The company called its first lager beer Bock, which is the name of a strong lager, of around 6 or 7% brewed, in Munich and surrounding Bavaria. The Artois version of Bock was considerably weaker than a Bavarian Bock but it did put down the brewery's marker as a new entrant in the lager market.
Its fortunes grew in 1926 when it brewed a Christmas beer called Stella Artois: stella is Latin for star and referred to the star that led the wise men to the birthplace of the infant Jesus. The beer was a hit with drinkers and it became a regular brew.
Beer in parts of Germany had been lagered or stored for centuries. Storing beer in regions such as Bavaria and Bohemia was essential as the regions enjoy long, hot summers.
Belgian brewers didn't adopt lagering until the 19th century because the country doesn't enjoy long, hot summers and it's hard to dig deep cellars and caves in land as flat as the proverbial pancake. So any claims by InBev that Stella Artois is a beer with deep roots going back to 1366 are nonsense. In common, with Britain, just across the North Sea, the Belgians brewed brown beers using warm fermentation – in other words ale – until the Pilsner revolution and the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution encouraged the switch to golden lager.
To repeat: Stella Artois was first brewed in 1926 not 1366.