QUICK ONE: Turning Casuals into Regulars

Detail: a 1970s pub table.

If someone comes into your pub twice you’re missing a trick if you don’t say hello.

We were hanging out with Bailey’s parents recently when his mum told us this story about their pub-going in the 1970s:

The second time we went into The Cobblestones the landlady came over and said, ‘Right, if you’re going to be coming in regularly, I ought to know your names.’ Then a few months later she said, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ and gave Dad a pint glass with a euchre hand on it, and Grandpa a glass with cherries on, because he liked the fruit machines. We drank in there for years.

This seems like such a simple, effective, emotionally manipulative approach. If you see the same face twice, make a formal introduction, and then use those names at every opportunity. Then after, say, three months of regular custom ask if they’d like a loyalty card, or a glass behind the bar, or make some other small gesture — ‘That one’s on the house.’

Lock them into the relationship, like the free sandwich thing at Pret a Manger.

In practice, there are probably all sorts of reasons this doesn’t happen so often these days, not least the fact that it feels ever rarer to actually find the licensee behind the bar. We often ask (because we want permission to take photos or need to ask some questions for one Thing or another) ‘Is this your place, then?’ and we can’t think of many occasions when the answer has been anything other than, ‘No, I’m just the manager.’

In big chains, though, Creating Regulars could be built into staff objectives and the performance management programme… Aaaaaaaaand we’ve depressed ourselves.

Ham Rolls in Clingfilm

There’s a lot wrapped up — pun intended — in the ham rolls you see on the back bar of a certain type of pub.

Roll. noun. A round individually portioned bread product usually split before eating. Synonyms: bap, cob, batch.

They are not in any sense ‘artisanal’. The bread is usually of the soft, gummy white and processed variety — eight for a pound. The ham is from a packet, pre-sliced, rubbery and pink. If there is butter, it isn’t butter, though you may not believe it. Instead of waxed paper they’re bundled up in clingfilm (US: Saran Wrap) — convenient, certainly, but prone to sweating and squashing the rolls into faintly obscene shapes. And, most importantly, they don’t cost £5 but more like £1, or perhaps £1.50 if they’re especially substantial.

Some variants: the roll might be crusty; there is sometimes mustard, or raw sliced onion; and there might be cheese rolls too — mild cheddar, probably pre-sliced.

This is how we remember pub food when we were kids — piles of rolls like this, kept under plastic covers, and slung across the counter with packets of peanuts, the intention being to soak up beer in the belly, and keep bums on banquettes, pounding pints.

And that’s the point: they are functional accessories to beer, satisfying in their own way but without being a culinary experience.

No-one plans to eat these rolls. They’re a side effect of being in the pub and not wanting to leave for whatever reason, and of the munchies that strike after a round or two. You see them and you just fancy one, just as in the terminal phase of the same evening you might fancy a kebab you wouldn’t touch with a broom-handle while sober.

Fictional book cover: The Ham Roll Pub Guide.
Not a real book from 1975.

In the 21st Century they’re a way for a pub to signal that it is unpretentious but not uncivilised; old-fashioned rather than rough. If you’re going to drink ten pints here, mate, which you’re very welcome to do, then make sure you don’t do it on an empty stomach.

But they’re becoming rare these days as pubs become ever more polarised between haves and have-nots and as environmental health regulations make it harder for a publican to knock up something even this simple without a dedicated food preparation area.

Which is a shame because we’re beginning to think that Ham Roll Pubs™ might be the best pubs.

The Loss of Local Preference as Observed in 1966

Book cover -- H.A. Monkcton: A History of Ale & Beer.

H.A. Monckton’s 1966 book A History of Ale & Beer is these days interesting mostly for what its epilogue tells us about the period of its writing, and about the tension between local and global.

That section of the book covers the rise of keg beer and the trend towards consolidation from an industry insider’s perspective (Monckton was on the board at Flower’s of Stratford-upon-Avon) but there’s a particular bit we want to zero in on here because it chimes with our Session post from last Friday which touched on the globalisation of taste:

Throughout history certain districts have favoured their own types of beer. There are definite differences between those beers brewed in the North, in the Midlands, and the South. Recently the strong preferences of certain districts have begun to weaken, not because of a change in the customer’s palate but rather because brewery amalgamations are bringing about the closure of many local breweries, which has meant the discontinuation of many local beers… In the case of bottled beers the situation was usually accepted without undue trouble, but often customer reaction to the introduction of new draught beers was strong. So strong has it been in several instances that the substituted beers have had to be changed to a type more in line with local requirements…

Unfortunately, he doesn’t break this down much further except to observe that sweeter beers were particularly popular in places like London, Birmingham and Coventry with high concentrations of manual workers, especially during and after World War II when sugar was rationed. He observes that:

All the successful beers launched on a national scale in the ten years following the last war, whether pale in colour or dark, were sweeter rather than drier. Now, some twenty years later, the situation is changing again, and full-drinking bitter beers, both in bottle and in cask, are returning to prominence. It is interesting that some premises in the Midlands are now selling increasing quantities of draught bitter beers where only mild ales have been sold for a quarter of a century.

Dry, bitter beers, he suggests, are simply better suited to our climate than ‘soft sweet beer’ — an argument we don’t quite follow, if we’re honest.

But, anyway, that’s stage one of homogenisation, driven by national consolidation and distribution, and countrywide marketing: everyone drinking the same style whether town or country, north or south, toff or scruff.

Harp lager beer mat (detail)

Then in the last paragraphs of the book he forecasts (or, rather, fails to forecast) stage two: in the midst of a great push that saw lager’s share of the UK market creep up from less than 2 per cent to 7 per cent by the end of the decade he suggests a certain scepticism about its suitability for the English weather. He was wrong, and lager now makes up something like 70 per cent of the market in the UK, and the vast majority of the global market.

On a related note, Alec Latham has an interesting post on lager in the UK at Mostly About Beer in which he observes that ‘Lambic has leap-frogged Lager’. (It’ll make sense when you read it.) If not exactly a return to local tastes as described by Monckton the failure of new breweries to engage with the market for lager does at least suggest — in some small way, in odd ways — some sort of shift.

And, while we’re pointing outwards, here’s a thought on a declaration by Carlsberg’s chief executive Julian Momen that the Danish giant is considering acquiring a UK craft brewery. Rather than join the (admittedly fun) game of guessing at specific breweries that might be in the frame we’ll just observer that previous UK acquisitions by global players have tended to be conservative. Camden, Meantime and Sharp’s all had strong brands popular in mainstream outlets; flagship beers at accessible strength (under 5% ABV); in classic styles (lager, bitter, pale ale); and straightforward, easy-drinking takes on those styles at that. (We’re being polite to Doom Bar, there.) In other words, breweries that already act ‘global’ seem more likely candidates than those that go out of their way to express any particular local or otherwise distinct character.

QUICK ONE: The Problem is Hypocrisy

Illustration: a pint of beer in chalk on a blackboard.

Selling your brewery for fabulous amounts of money to a big multinational isn’t a problem — it’s doing so when you’ve made capital from being opposed to just that kind of thing.

If you had made a point of saying along the way, ‘We would never rule out selling to someone like AB-InBev — we have no beef with Big Beer,’ then it’s unlikely anyone would get annoyed when you did so.

So why didn’t you do that?

It must have been at least partly because you believed you’d gain less publicity and adulation, and sell less beer.

You might have been right to think that, but we suspect not: the other way, you’d gain marks for honesty, and pick up the kind of fans for whom beer isn’t so pungent with politics.

Either way, if you insist independence is important when it benefits you but then decide people who care about it are silly and immature when your situation changes, expect them to be annoyed.

Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses #1: The Sneering Bitter Hater

A lion-headed man who hates bitter, for some reason.

There are no doubt beer enthusiasts out there who hate bitter on a point of principle but surely not so many that they’re worth worrying about.

Now, there are lots of people (like us) who like to drink things other than bitter, in between pints of bitter, which they also enjoy very much.

There are also those (again, like us) who think a pub that serves three beers all within a hair’s-breadth of the same technical specifications is missing a trick. But that doesn’t just apply to bitter, and it doesn’t mean they think bitter, in itself, is fundamentally ‘boring’.

There are definitely people who dislike certain specific brands of bitter, having tasted them and made a more or less informed judgement.

Detail from an old beer mat: BITTER!

There are even people who rarely choose to drink bitter if there is something else on offer because they prefer lager (most of the UK population) or, for example, American-style IPAs. But they probably don’t care what you drink; nor do they want bitter to disappear from the face of the earth.

And there are people who’ve just never got the taste for bitter because it’s, er, too bitter. But they’re often also sceptical about beer in general — they’re not snooty hipster beer geeks looking down on this one style in particular.

Perhaps you’ll be able to point to a few tagged specimens in the wild — a blog post here, a Tweet there — but, really, isn’t The Sneering Bitter Hater just a rhetorical device? A comfort blanket for the oddly self-loathing bitter lover?

Next time on Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses: People Who Think Only Murky Beer Tastes Good and/or is ‘Craft’.