opinion pubs

People think pubs are ripping them off

“I personally believe pubs/bars have priced themselves out of business.”

When you spend a lot of time talking to people who like pubs, and are sympathetic to their situation, it’s startling to come across a statement like that.

And this from the same conversation:

“The key question is why can Wetherspoons sell beer at £2-3 a pint, and some pubs sell at £6? It’s not just about landlords’ rent.”

We spotted those on LinkedIn in comments from an accountancy firm MD on a post from an insolvency expert – so these are people who understand business and can do sums.

We can hear publicans groaning from here.

In the context of supply chain issues, rampaging inflation and staff shortages, let alone the long-term structural problems caused by the pubco model, how much control do most really have over the price of a pint?

That’s not to say, of course, that some people don’t do quite well running pubs. We find ourselves thinking of a businessman who owned several pubs in Cornwall and would turn up for inspection in a huge Range Rover with personalised plates, gold cufflinks flashing.

It’s perhaps no wonder his customers got the impression that running a pub might be a nice earner and occasionally grumbled about the price of a pint.

As one pub landlord said to us a few years ago, “Even if I did have a Ferrari, I wouldn’t let my customers see me driving it, know what I mean?”

In general, though, it is fair to say that by the time you’ve covered the very cost of selling a pint in most settings, your margins will be pretty slim.

That’s why so many pubs try to compensate with food, the margins on which might give them a little bit more for manoeuvre.

Well, that is, until food also started going up in price.

“It cost me £110 to take my wife and two 7-year-olds to the pub for tea on Friday. Who can afford to do that often?” asked another commenter in the LinkedIn chat above.

For a while, pub food had an advantage: because it was allowed – no, expected – to be heartier and less fancy, it could fill a gap in the middle.

A decade or so ago, a Sunday roast in a pub might cost, say, £8-10, and you’d expect to pay less than a tenner for fish and chips. In fact, researching this on Twitter, we found someone in 2012 expressing fury at having paid £13 for fish and chips in a pub.

Now… those prices have barely changed. Because (a) those prices are almost hard-wired in people’s brains; and (b) nobody has any money.

Unless you’re confident that you’ll be able to continue to attract well-off customers, and the rest can go hang, putting up prices is a bold move.

So, what’s gone? The publican’s margin.

It’s helpful in this context to give people running pubs chances to talk openly about the challenges they face.

Tom Kerridge’s BBC documentary series did a good job of highlighting the gap between drinkers’ ideas of a fair price and the reality of many pubs’ accounts.

Pieces like this, in which a pub landlady talks about impossible fuel bill increases, can also be a reality check.

Perhaps what we need is more publicans to be more open about how they work out the asking price of a pint, if they feel able to do so.

Yvan Seth, who works as a beer distributor, had a go at this back in 2014, including a snappy infographic.

We’d certainly be happy to share more information on this if anyone feels like sharing with us privately.


News, nuggets and longreads 9 July 2022: Notes from home

We’re meant to be on our way to Germany about now but, guess what? Our second bout of COVID-19. But that means you get a round-up this week, like every other Saturday. This week, we’ve got brown ale, Bradford pubs and bad pints.

First, some news from Northern Ireland. A couple of years ago we had a tiny glimpse into its complicated, restrictive licensing laws as we got updates on the attempts of a former regular at The Drapers to open a micropub in his hometown. Now, the BBC reports that recently introduced rules on on-site sales (for taprooms, essentially) are so restrictive they aren’t working:

Bullhouse Brew Co opened its new permanent taproom in east Belfast in June, with Boundary Brewing due to follow by September… But both companies opted to go through the lengthy process of obtaining a traditional pub licence.

“The local producers licence is very restrictive,” said William Mayne from Bullhouse Brew Co… You are only allowed to open them twice a week basically – 104 times a year – but only from 16:00 to 22:00 and you can only sell your own products… People come in looking for other products – guest beers – or we do collaborations with breweries in England and we want to bring their beers over and we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Advertisement for Newcastle Brown Ale from the 1960s
Newcastle Life, 1968.

Articles that tell the story of specific significant beers are right up our alley. For Pellicle Emmie Harrison-West has written about Newcastle Brown Ale, a huge global brand with a complicated history:

To locals it’s known as “Broon” or “ah bottle ah dog” (pronounced “derg”) – lovingly named after the saying “I’m off to walk the dog,” which naturally meant “I’m off to the boozer,” instead. To everyone else in the UK who felt a fool for attempting to imitate the Geordie dialect (trust me, you can’t) it was a bottle of “Newkie”… The pub I was in was my dad’s favourite—Newcastle’s former Union Rooms, in a renovated French chateau-style building. The listed building dates back to 1877 and was home to Newcastle’s Union Club. You couldn’t walk 10 yards of the swirling yellow-and-burgundy-carpeted local without being stopped by one of my dad’s friends, telling you they hadn’t seen you since you were “this high,” and gesturing with an outstretched palm.

The Empress Hotel in an old black-and-white photo.

Pub historian Paul Jennings, author of The Local, has written for the Telegraph & Argus about a long-lost Bradford pub:

[The Empress] was a magnificent example of a late Victorian gin-palace style pub and its opening in June was featured in detail in the local papers. The Bradford Illustrated Weekly Telegraph, for example, describing it as ‘equal in its kind to any in the country’ and ‘modelled in the style of first-class London houses’, no expense having been spared… The classical exterior featured granite columns and stained-glass windows. The chief entrance led through a vestibule and thence to a broad passage with mosaic floor, tiled walls and archway. The first-class bar had counter and cabinet work in Spanish mahogany, walls decorated with Japanese paper and deep red Lincrusta dado. In the saloon bar, in addition to the mahogany woodwork, were mirrors, coloured glass and electroliers giving ‘a very bright effect’.

A pint of Guinness.
A good pint of Guinness at The Star, Fishponds.

An interesting nugget via the Pub Curmudgeon – apparently Guinness monitors the @shitlondonguinn Twitter account:

Last weekend there was a Channel 4 programme in the ‘Inside the Superbrands’ series looking at Guinness. I can’t say I was expecting too much from a rather tabloidy format, but in fact it turned out to be surprisingly insightful… One thing that took me by surprise was that it featured the Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter account… which highlights poor examples of Guinness served around the capital – see photo above. You might have thought this was bad publicity, but in fact a Guinness representative said that “as soon as we see a post on that account, we aim to be round there within four hours”. It’s performing a valuable quality control function… And I couldn’t help thinking that cask beer wouldn’t half benefit from quality control that even remotely approached that standard.

An old map of Brussels.

He’s done it – Eoghan Walsh has given us 50 posts telling the story of Brussels beer through its objects. The final post in the series is about the city’s newest coolship:

In December 2021, Brussels Beer Project publicly announced what was both the worst kept secret and the most unexpected recent development in Brussels beer: they had started brewing Lambic. They did so in a quintessentially Brussels Beer Project manner – by wheeling one of their coolships onto the Grand Place and parking within a couple of metres of the Brouwershuis, the centuries-long seat of brewing power in Brussels… This would all have sounded preposterous to a Brussels beer drinker in 2012 still acclimatising to the city having not one but two local breweries. But a lot can change in ten years, and within a decade of Brasserie de la Senne’s arrival in 2010, the city’s new brewers were confident enough in their métier to take on the city’s native brewing tradition.

A book compiling these posts is out next week and we’ll certainly be buying one, and taking it with us next time we go to Brussels.

Two pints of beer aboard the QM2. SOURCE: Paul Bailey.

Did you know there’s a traditional English pub on board the Queen Mary 2 transatlantic liner? Paul Bailey (no relation) provides some notes on his long-running blog:

There was a bar at one end, which customers could sit, and drink at if they wished, and leading off towards the bow, were a number of alcoves, furnished with comfortable, leather-type, bench seating, and each with its own table… Named the Golden Lion, and complete with its own hanging sign, the pub was a popular part of the ship, providing not just a place where passengers could sit and relax, whilst enjoying a drink, but also somewhere they could be entertained…

Finally, from Twitter, another beautifully crisp historic image from one of our favourite local accounts…

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

Beer styles breweries bristol

West Country Weizen

Bristol is good at German-style wheat beer, it turns out – we’ve had three this year that might be beer-of-the-year contenders.

It makes sense, we suppose. When we think of the defining Bristol style, what pops into our heads is slightly hazy, soft-edged, fruity, barely-bitter pale ale.

From there to Weizen is only a short hop.

The first one that grabbed our attention earlier this year was Bristol Beer Factory’s Lost in Munich. You might regard it as a step between the two styles, in fact, being an open homage to Schneider’s Hopfenweisse – Weizen with IPA hopping.

BBF’s version, available in 440ml cans, actually pours stubbornly clear, or at least only faintly hazy. It has vanilla in the aroma and, of course, a bunch of banana. At 5%, it’s not as strong as the Schneider original – or, indeed, as most standard German wheat beers.

We liked it so much we bought a box of 12 to drink at home. Perhaps others don’t share our enthusiasm, though, because it was discounted to £25.60 – about £2 per tin. At present, they don’t have any in stock.

A bigger surprise, perhaps, was Left Handed Giant’s take. We say it’s a surprise because we don’t always click with LHG beers, which often sound and look better than they taste.

LHG Hefeweizen is another 5%-er and, we gather, is regularly available at their colossal, rather impressive brewpub-taproom at Finzel’s Reach, on the site of the old Courage brewery.

We found it on draught at The Swan With Two Necks and Ray (the bigger wheat beer fan of the two of us anyway) loved it so much he stuck on it for the entire session.

Our notes say ‘pretty convincing… less banana, more strawberry’. The point is, though, that it isn’t a ‘twist’ on the style; it doesn’t have fruit, or unusual hops, or breakfast cereal. It’s a straight-up, honest beer.

The same might be said for Good Chemistry’s punningly-named Weiss City, also with an ABV of 5% (was there a memo?), and on draught at their taproom the last couple of times we’ve been.

To underline the point we made at the start of this post, here’s how it looks alongside their session IPA, Kokomo Weekday, which is at the back:

Two similar looking beers, both hazy and golden.

We’re not sure we’d know it wasn’t an authentic German product if we were served it blind, in appropriate glassware.

That is a problem, of course: all the examples above were served in standard UK pint glasses, with little room for the customary meringue-whip head.

Perhaps at some point we’ll re-run the wheat beer taste-off we did a few years ago from which we concluded…

German wheat beer is more subtle than we had realised — an end-of-level-boss technical challenge for brewers. Too much of those characteristic aromas and flavours and it tips over into caricature, or just becomes sickly. Despite looking dirty, it actually needs to be really clean to work: acidity knocks it right off course, and there’s no room for funk or earthiness. The carbonation has to be exactly calibrated, too, or the beer simply flops: bubbles are body.

It feels as if perhaps things have moved along since then. But until we drink these Bristol beers alongside, say, Franziskaner (bang at the centre of the style in our minds) then it’s hard to say for sure.

london pubs

Central London pubs that still feel like locals

London is a bogglingly vast, complex world city. It’s also the kind of place where, if you’re in the know, you can find a ‘proper’ pub not too far from Trafalgar Square or St Paul’s Cathedral.

We’re specifically talking about places that are fairly central – let’s say in, or on the edges of, Zone 1.

If you read our monthly newsletter you might recall that we started thinking about this after a conversation with @CarsmileSteve in a bar in Brussels.

Steve mentioned The King & Queen on the corner of Foley Street and Cleveland Street in Fitzrovia as a prime example.

“It’s been run by the same family since the 1960s,” he said. “The same lads are always behind the bar and have been forever – for at least 15 years.”

When we visited back in the early days of this blog we observed that it felt like a relic of the 1980s and clearly hadn’t been redecorated in some time.

Another pub Steve mentioned was The Sutton Arms, Great Sutton Street, EC1. (Not the one about five minutes’ walk away on Carthusian Street.) That was seconded by reader Nathan in a response to our call for suggestions last month:

“It’s a little better known in the craft beer bubble but is all things to all people. Family-run for donkeys’ years.”

We don’t think we’ve ever been, somehow. It does look good:

  • carpet ✅
  • beer mats ✅
  • mostly brown ✅
  • a sense of individual ownership ✅

Or, to put that another way, not generic pubco, big brewery, “Would you like to upgrade to sweet potato fries?” managed greyness.

When Lisa Grimm wanted suggestions for somewhere to drink near Marble Arch we suggested The Carpenter’s Arms, Seymour Place, W1, which we’ve visited a few times. Again, it has the same family-run feel and characterful decor. In her write-up she said

The Carpenter’s Arms was spot on for great cask ale – which makes sense, as it’s the HQ for CAMRA’s London branch. Alas, there was no food on, so I had to have a ‘meal’ of (fortunately) low-ABV ales and very expensive gourmet crisps, though that’s no complaint. I enjoyed an always-reliable/always-welcome Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, but the new-to-me standout was Wantsum Brewery’s 1381, a session IPA.

Other suggestions received by Tweet and email include:

  • The Red Lion, Crown Passage, SW1, off Pall Mall (Nathan)
  • The Golden Eagle, Marylebone Lane, W1 – “has a long-serving landlady, regular customers and good beer… [and] a weekly piano singalong!” (Dermot)
  • Star and Garter, Poland Street, W1 – “Also long-serving licensees and a proper boozer in the heart of Soho.” (Dermot)
  • King Charles I, Northdown Street, N1 – “A magic little backstreet boozer.” (Ollie)

For our contributions, we’re going to suggest:

We’re going to aim to visit or revisit as many of these pubs as we can in the next few months.

In the meantime, are there any glaring omissions?


News, nuggets and longreads 2 July 2022: Roam if you want to

Every Saturday morning we get up, put the kettle on, and put together a round-up of the most interesting writing about beer and pubs from the past week. This time, we’ve got insight into the world’s great beer cities: Portland, Brussels, Wakefield…

First, an interesting development at online beer retailer Best of British Beer: its owners, Gill Sherwin and Will Sherwin, have given majority control of the business to its employees. Darren Norbury at Beer Today has the full story:

The employee ownership trust has been approved by HMRC. It gives the employees a voice on the board and there will now be regular trust meetings where the team will lay out plans for the future… A profit share scheme has been instigated and employees will get a tax-free bonus each year, depending on the company’s profitability… The trust will also be involved in future decisions on jobs, and any new members of the team will become trust members after a year in post.

A neon sign on the skyline: Portland, Oregon.
SOURCE: Jeff Alworth/Beervana

At Beervana Jeff Alworth has updated his guide to the best breweries in Portland, Oregon. We enjoy reading this not so much as practical advice (it’s increasingly unlikely we’ll ever get to Portland) but as an evocation of the place and the culture:

Over the decades, different breweries have enjoyed the title of “favorite brewery” by locals, and the reigning champion is Breakside. If you want to understand what makes a classic Pacific Northwest IPA, it’s the first place to stop. The brewery has eight beers in their core line, and six are IPAs. Only one is hazy. The co-flagships, Wanderlust and IPA (no brand name), are quintessential Oregon IPAs. They are both densely aromatic, heady-smelling beers, but find a balance point between citrusy-juicy flavors and a firm dose of hop bitterness. The brewery makes dozens of hoppy beers a year, and they explore every corner of hops’ potential—but eventually, it seems like the lessons are driven back into perfecting that Oregon thing exemplified by the flagships.

A sparkled pint of golden ale.
SOURCE: Mark Johnson/Beer Compurgation

In the same spirit, but perhaps a touch less exotic, Mark Johnson has put together personal notes on a tour of the pubs of Wakefield in West Yorkshire:

Boons was always a meeting spot or last port of call on a pub-based evening out. It was the home of Clarks Ales in the back when I lived here but that time has gone… The pub is stunning. More so than I recall. Every bit of wood, flagged floor, stools around benched seating, declarations and stained glass could have been designed by me… My only criticism of Boons is that it smells like a pile of clothes on a bedroom chair that have been worn around the house or slept in. It’s a little stale. It could do with somebody smoking nearby to cover up the lingering stench of the older furnishings. It is, of course, why many carpets and old bench seating were replaced post smoking ban. That part isn’t enjoyable but everything else is wonderful.

Brasserie de la Mule Hefe Weisse
SOURCE: Eoghan Walsh/Brussels Beer City

Over its course, Eoghan Walsh’s history of Brussels beer in 50 objects has gained a new flavour – less history lesson, more contemporary guide. The 49th entry tells us plenty we didn’t know about where breweries in Brussels are at today, reaching beyond the local traditions in search of something new (to them):

And so, as the Brussels New Wave beer movement bounded into its second decade, history began repeating itself, in reverse chronological order. First came Brasserie La Jungle in early 2021 with the launch of an English Golden Ale. Brewing in an abandoned textile factory in Anderlecht, La Jungle firmly nailed their colours to the English mast by following up with an English Porter and English Bitter brewed with Kentish hops… Brasserie de la Mule was next, looking east rather than across the Channel. Ex-Brasserie de la Senne brewer Joël Galy… didn’t choose something spontaneously-fermented as Mule’s first beer. Instead, he brewed in the Bavarian tradition – a Hefe Weisse Naturtrüb wheat beer, which was soon followed by a Lager, Helles, Berliner Weisse, Kölsch, Dunkel Weisse, and even an homage to one of his favourite beers, Schneider Weisse’s Mein Hopfenweisse.

A perfect pint of Dark Star Hophead.

At Points of Brew Stephen Carter gives a useful summary of the recent hoo-ha over CAMRA’s campaign for a full pint:

Current guidance states that a pint should be no more than 5% head, and is acceptable if served as such. However, there’s no real recourse if a customer requests a top-up and the establishment refuses to do so. This is what CAMRA is trying to change, however, their press release raised more criticism than praise… But, looking at their historical campaigns, this has been a long-term issue for the group, with them asking for oversized glasses to become standardised. A glass with room for a full pint of liquid, and space for foam if requested. That would solve the problem surely? Well, not quite… When pints were pulled using taps that measured pours accurately, glasses had space for a head above the 568ml measure. But, speaking purely from anecdotal experience, customers thought they were being short changed even then.

A bright red label for Deutscher Porter
SOURCE: Ron Pattinson/Shut Up About Barclay Perkins

Could East German bretted porter be a style for modern craft brewers to explore? Ron Pattinson has (gorgeous) labels for at least 15 examples:

It’s weird how Deutscher Porter as a style seems to have been almost totally forgotten. Even though it was brewed until around 30 years ago. They all seem to have been discontinued soon after reunification. Either that, or the breweries simply closed. A few did reintroduce beers called Porter, but they were totally different in style. Much weaker and really sweet. Pretty awful, the ones I’ve tried.

Butcombe Bitter
From our own collection of Butcombe glamour shots.

Lisa Grimm (an American living in Dublin, having previously lived in the UK) has been in London and Salisbury and shares notes on her experiences, including a reminder that, if you’re not utterly jaded, Butcombe Bitter can be rather “absolutely gorgeous”:

I very much wish we had some similar options here. I will confess that I did come across two pints that I had to entirely abandon because they were clearly infected – not, I hasten to add, at any pub listed in this summary – but I suppose it does demonstrate that bad cask is, well, bad, and perhaps one of the reasons we don’t have it here is just that difficulty; finding experienced people to look after it properly and a clientele who will consistently finish off casks while they are in good shape is tricky. But let’s also give some demerits to the ‘Spoons at Gatwick; not for the high crime of ‘being a Wetherspoons,’ but rather, for having something like 15 hand pumps with some truly mouth-watering options displayed, but only actually having Doom Bar. Nope.

Finally, from Twitter, unearthed treasure…

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.