Pint of Changing, please landlord

The latest Good Beer Guide successfully reflects the world of licensed premises  and real ale producers. My nerdy counting of GBG entries in England shows a combined total of some 13,800 changing beers. I realise that there will be duplications but it illustrates the point that for many entries you will not have a clue as to the full extent of what you’re going to be drinking before you turn up. Is that what folks want, I’m  not so sure. Perhaps it’s time for a cheeky microbrewery to start producing a beer called Changing.

When the large number of Changing beers is combined with the low number of NBSS beer scores in many CAMRA branch areas it must be likely that most beers are not scored to any meaningful extent.

Increasingly I’m bemused by the beers available when I look at the array of beers in a new pub, and tasting a spoonful doesn’t help. With few exceptions, I’m unconvinced that the new breweries, that have emerged following the introduction of Progressive Beer Relief, have been worthwhile in terms of their brews.

We now have too many micro breweries chasing listings in too few pubs, and a taxation system that discriminates against larger breweries and larger pubs i.e. progresssive beer relief and small business rate relief. The comments on beer quality by Mark Tranter of Burning Sky on a “crowded and demanding market place” highlight issues that will only get worse.

In part the new GBG reflects this world. There are ever larger numbers of micropubs, unsustainable numbers of beers per entry and strange places hardly ever open (with a changing beer or two from somebody’s garden shed).

Every GBG brings disappointments about missing pubs but this year’s seems particularly poignant as it signals the end for traditional pubs serving a small choice of real ale in good condition. The sort of place that the GBG of old helped to ensure the survival of.

My missing favourites of the New Inn at Pegg’s Green, the Devonshire in Burton and the Boltmakers in Keighley are traditional pubs worthy of our support. We’ll be sorry when their like is gone. Well I will. I suspect my dream of walking into a city centre back street pub and being offered only Bass from a jug will never come to fruition any longer and it certainly wouldn’t get in the GBG.

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My counts show only 10 GBG pubs in England with only one real ale and some 110 pubs with only two. (Not including clubs and other non-pubs.) Without Bathams and Sam Smith’s it would be much lower. Is this the new reality or is it just very difficult to gain an entry in some branches unless you have three beers minimum with at least one Changing? The almost apologetic entry for the Red Cat Hotel at North Wootton is revealing, “…well-kept beer, albeit in a limited range.”, for the riches of two real ales through my rose-tinted glasses of the 1980s.

The differences across counties are revealing. Lincolnshire, still 30 years behind the times, has 15 pubs with two or less real ales whilst London and Greater Manchester have only 9 pubs of that ilk between them.

Anyway that’s enough of my free-market nostalgic ramblings and time for praise that we still have listings of decent pubs and volunteers to make it all happen. The occasional entry does make me think I’m reading the Good Pub Guide, “note the chandeliers and the butcher’s block high tables”. However, I know I’m in good company when I come across, “there is no food, but pickled eggs are available.” All praise the writer of the entry for the Beehive in Staines.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pandas and pubs

I can’t say I’m a big fan of pandas. Very fussy eaters, hopeless at reproduction and then we all have to worry about them because they look good as soft toys. Similarly I’m not a big supporter of saving crap pubs from extinction.

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Worth saving?

However there are few greater joys than seeing a pub coming back from the dead, returning to greatness or just doing what it does so well. Strolling in the Peak District tropics along the Monsal Trail heading to Litton it was difficult to imagine there was much wrong in the world. It’s a long time since my mate Andy and I knocked back fizzy pints in the poly bar at 18p a time but good drinkers are always good to walk with. (Included in that description are Mrs WM and Mrs RH our walking companions for the day. He says in fear of his life.)

The Red Lion at Litton has had its patches of ‘less than wonderful’ but with a new tenant at the helm for the last 3 years it’s back to being pub perfection. A former regular greeted us from the other side of the bar, happy in her work. This was going to be a good lunchtime.

Abbeydale’s Absolution was in top form, and Peak Ales’ Bakewell Best Bitter & Hartington Bitter from Whim were just as good according to the rest of the gang. The nosebag was perfect with my Derbyshire meze of local pork pie, chips and salad providing a solid day’s calorie intake.

The Bull’s Head at Youlgrave has over the last 8 months been closed, open, closed and open. Thankfully it now has permanent tenants. In just a short time it’s become the hub of the village. A place to go for a pint and a chat if that’s what you want. Music nights, fundraising quizzes, and tenants who care about the people in the village. Of course it helps that the beers (Marston’s family including Wainwright’s and Shipyard) are consistently good and the food is spot on.

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That didn’t take long

And last of all a pub that’s never failed to impress…The Crispin at Great Longstone. I’ve never been a big fan of Robinson’s  but of late they seem to have made an effort with Trooper (thanks to Bruce and the boys) and my pints of Double Hop IPA were well up to scratch. Also it has very good food and a recent refurbishment hasn’t changed the character of the pub. All of this fades in comparison to the landlord. Over the years he’s never failed to welcome us and chat when folk are ready. I can think of few pubs where the welcome is so good and so sincere.

There’s nowt so good as a good pub except perhaps a very good landlord/landlady.

In praise of Allendale

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Snow poles!

Whilst I scribble about pubs and strolling about, the beer often seems incidental. From debates with my mate, Clive of IPA, I realise that beer is now more contentious than politics or religion. More to the point what do I and my jaded taste buds know? I knows what I likes and it ain’t a mango sherbet sour in a can. Draught Bass from a jug is exciting enough for me.

However from my walking forays in the North Country one brewery stands out for me. In the Lakes and Northumberland, Allendale has become my first choice whenever I see it. I’m always suspicious when I see a wide range of beers from a small brewery but whatever the beer style Allendale seems to have it right.

Refreshing, not over hopped, but always interesting isn’t a bad start. Like another favourite, the Yorkshire Dales brewery, here’s a small brewer that knows its craft. Their brews are in no way dull, they manage to get an old grump like me to try new flavours. It’s also no bad thing that Allendale’s pump clips are a work of art and the pubs that serve their beers seem to be a cut above. The Northumberland Arms at Felton, Tweedies in Grasmere and Twice Brewed near Hadrian’s Wall are a good introduction to pubs that know what they are doing.

To top it all their bottles* seem to retain the quality of their beers and can be bought from the brewery en route across the North Pennines from Hexham to Barnard  Castle. To go all Shell Book of the Road on you, one of the most beautiful drives in an undiscovered corner of Northern England.

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All praise then for a craft brewer that only started in 2006 yet seems to have mastered the traditions of English brewing as well as developing a creativity to produce interesting brews. Bless ’em.

*Also available at Tebay Services on the M6.

Local pubs for local people?

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Nice bit of masonry, Adrian

I was in the Twice Brewed pub near Hadrian’s Wall recently. We were intrigued by their maps of the UK and the World with pins to show customers’ home locations. A pub in the middle of nowhere and a World Heritage Site, it’s not going to get much of its trade from local residents.

Whilst I suspect those from far away are more likely to pin home (more space and more reason), the maps illustrated how important visitors of all kinds are to pubs. Perhaps the word ‘local’ leads many publicans to focus on local trade – the regulars. Regulars – that’s regulars at nursing a pint, not buying food and letting the landlord know how important they are, perhaps?

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GBG pubs I’ve never been to?

The Twice Brewed had a range of real ales in good condition (Twice Brewed bitter, Cragnook Well, Trade Star from Firebrick and Wagtail from the wonderful Allendale). Their food was easily restaurant class and the welcome was perfect. But perhaps most importantly we felt like guests.

In the wise, and now ancient, words of Richard Boston, “Customers should remember that the pub is the guv’nor’s house, and usually his home,and should behave like guests”. I didn’t see any hand-written notices telling me to take my boots off, ‘no children near the bar’, or informing us that THESE ARE NOT PUBLIC TOILETS. I was merely expected to behave like a guest, welcomed at the bar and given a chance to choose my beer. I felt as welcome as the next man, regular or not. Few pubs can now afford to be like The Slaughtered Lamb (in American Werewolf in London) with regulars staring up from their beers and muttering about the moors at night.

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Tail waggingly good

Most ‘Locals’ aren’t local any more and the idea that local trade will see you right is outdated. That makes the complaints of many such as retiredmartin and pubcurmudgeon about keeping to published opening hours ever more valid. A visitor faced by a closed door is unlikely to try it again.

There was a time when visitors were the icing on the cake. These days, for some pubs, they are almost the whole Battenburg. If landlords would realise where their customers are coming from they’d not be left with crumbs.

They do know what they’re doing

I’ve recently visited a couple of freehouses that may show a new source of business skills for the licensed trade (as my publican grandad called it). Very different pubs but equally well run from a customer angle.

I was told by my mum (daughter of an Allsopps’ maltster) that I was taking her to a carvery for lunch. Definitely not my cup of beer, this was going to be all plastic food and smooth beer. As ever my mum was right about The Greyhound at Woodville. (One for retiredmartin, Woodville has a road called The City.)

The food was freshly made, very tasty and tremendous value. The 100 seat restaurant area was almost full on a Monday lunchtime with grey hairs much in evidence but also clearly the place to be dragged along by an elderly parent. It was very friendly service but business efficient with plenty of IT in use for ordering.

And although most drinking was keg and soft drinks, there was clearly enough throughput in the restaurant and adjoining bar to produce a decent pint of Pedigree. But perhaps that’s what you should expect from a chain, although as far as I’m aware the only other pub in this chain is The Mason’s Arms at nearby Donisthorpe. The owners clearly know how to run a hospitality business.

Secondly on our travels to the North Pennines we stopped in Barnard Castle for lunch and randomly selected the Old Well Inn, another free house. Friendly welcome from the family and beers ordered. Pleasantly, I was asked if I wanted any crisps or nuts with the drinks – that’s what I like, a business that seeks add-ons. My thoughts – this is someone used to running a business.

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The beers (Mother’s Ruin from Mithril and Guzzler from York) were in excellent condition, as I suspect even the TT Landlord might have been. The food included the home-cooked Butter Chicken, curry of the day. Best curry in a pub ever by far. Bit of a clue there. As I was tucking into the curry and had guzzled the Guzzler there was an enquiry as to whether I wanted another beer bringing over. Now I’m thinking, note to pubcos  – don’t bother running training courses for new licensees – just send them here to be customers. They’ll learn more.

Beers were praised and the son talked knowledgeably about the beers and keeping them in condition and holding them back until they’re ready to go on the bar. As Mrs WM complained about her failure to order curry it was suggested we should call in for lunch on the return trip home or perhaps come up and stay for their curry nights. Tempting sales pitch.

Unlike incompetent referee Keith Stroud at St James’ Park, the licensees of these freehouses really do know what they are doing. What’s the secret to running free houses in a difficult business environment? Well for a start both pubs are run by Indians (by birth/origin) with business experience. And as Mrs WM suggested it’s no bad thing to run a freehouse with a committed hard-working family in tow. Friendly welcomes, efficient business practices, and excellent soft sell techniques will win over customers. And perhaps as it becomes difficult to bring in chefs from the sub-continent and running Indian restaurants loses its appeal, there’s a chance that we have a new source of skilled pub operators coming into view. I hope so, we need them.

Subsidised coffee shops and sheds for middle class blokes

I have a business idea that I hope the Chancellor will support. It’s a chain of coffee shops in small towns where the market wouldn’t support a viable coffee shop business. The first financial requirement is already available with small business rate relief for many vacant premises.

My next stage should be easy given that coffee shops play an important role in community cohesion. I’d like the government to reduce taxes on small coffee producers so that I can then buy cheaper craft coffee for my shops. And also I’d like the government to legislate to stop nasty property owners getting a change of use on existing coffee shops given their key role in the lifeblood of the community and world peace.

I’m also hoping to get subsidies for small sheds for groups of middle class, middle-aged blokes but I hear that micro pubs have in effect already achieved that target.

The point of all this rambling? I’m unconvinced that micro pubs have increased consumer spend and therefore they must be taking money from proper pubs. I’m all for innovation and letting the market decide but for the reasons described above I’m not sure we have a level playing field for pubs v micro pubs. As increasing numbers of micro pubs hit the GBG (and hit trade in other pubs) we are, in my view, hastening the decline of proper pubs and we could be heading to a world of converted shops as our leading ontrade beer emporia.

The risk is that we could hasten the decline of the traditional pubs beloved of those on the Draught Bass wing of beer blogging. (I wonder how many pubs with just one real ale are in the GBG.) But perhaps that’s what most folk want?