A pint of beer has to work harder these days

Here’s the problem: when a pint of beer costs more, and you’ve got less, you don’t have much tolerance for duds.

When a pint of dark mild cost pennies, perhaps you didn’t object to being given slops every now and then.

But if you’ve gone to the pub intending to drink, say, three pints, because that’s what the weekly budget will permit, you want each one to be at least decent. Perfect, really.

At the same time, people running pubs or breweries might hope that they’ll be cut a bit of slack. These are challenging times all round, with energy prices, staff shortages and poor quality blue roll.

Beer businesses are popping out of existence, or getting mothballed, left, right and centre.

Is now the time to be pernickety about beer quality, full measures and service standards?

Well, it’s never the right time to be a dick about these things, but it’s also perfectly reasonable to expect a £5+ luxury – that’s what a pint has become – to spark joy. Pubs which can continue to provide that will do better business in the coming months.

One option is to reduce the range rather than risk a dip in quality.

BBC Wales ran a story yesterday, which we briefly mentioned on Mastodon, about a pub which has reduced its beer range as a cost-reduction measure:

“Taking off three or four brands will make the cooler system a bit more energy efficient… I don’t want to restrict the choice, but customers would prefer the pub to still be here in December, January and February having a smaller choice, than have a larger choice and possibly not being here in the new year… I’ve got to do it for the longevity of the pub.”

Some cask ale enthusiasts have been arguing for years that pubs ought to do this. Three great ales are better than five slightly tired ones. And a single cask hand pump, serving decent volumes of one beer, is better than none at all.

If we walk into a pub and it’s got one great beer on cask, we’re certainly happy. A decent pale-n-hoppy, a proper plain stout, Butcombe bitter on form – that sort of thing.

We think we’ve seen this happening in various pubs in Bristol.

One pub, The Swan With Two Necks, had only one cask ale on a Thursday night a couple of weeks ago.

It was, as it happens, cask mild. And very good too.


News, nuggets and longreads 30 July 2022: Open All Hours

As we do every week, we’ve bookmarked all the good writing about beer and pubs we’ve come across this week. Here’s a selection of the best.

CAMRA has announced its 2022 Pub Design Awards – one of the more interesting CAMRA initiatives, in our view, and one which has been running since 1983. It’s partly about pub preservation, rewarding those who look after the pubs we already have, and partly about keeping the pub alive: great new pubs are still being born. The one that particularly caught our eye is The Boleyn Tavern, East Ham, which won the Community Local Award:

The Boleyn Tavern in East Ham was an elaborate ‘gin palace’ built in 1899, which was long the venue for the pre-match pint for West Ham supporters on their way to the nearby ground. With the team moving away to a new home, the pub, like the surrounding area, went into decline… The original seven bars have been restored, with the recreation of the glazed partitions between them using traditional materials and techniques. Surviving features have been carefully repaired; the billiard room to the rear of the building, with its spectacular stained-glass skylight, is particularly impressive.

Craft beer shop

For Ferment, the promo publication for a beer subscription service, David Jesudason has looked into an interesting phenomenon: Asian-run cornershops in London which have found a new market by specialising in craft beer. It’s both a personal story and one about how business works on the ground:

I have Jay’s Budgens round the corner in south-east London and the much-celebrated convenience store offers an array of interesting beers. As well as being featured in a Noel Gallagher music video and gaining praise for handing out free food to NHS staff last year, it now boasts a huge craft beer fridge with 70-80% of the contents from local breweries, such as Villages, Gipsy Hill and the very close Brockley Brewery… It wasn’t always like this, because Jay’s Budgens move into craft was later than Singh’s and at first comprised all the usual supermarket suspects. But interesting bottles started appearing at the beginning of 2020 after Jay’s youngest son, Tilak, 26, convinced his father that people would be prepared to spend more than £5 for one can of beer if it was unique… After a lot of research and preparation, the move exceeded their expectations. A lot of black and Asian customers started trying new cans and bottles, especially after they introduced the beer fridge in July last year. Now they’re even interested in brewing their own beer.

Illustration: home brewing hydrometer.

Andreas Krennmair continues his exploration of the backroads of European brewing, with reference to German-language sources, this time giving us a detailed account of the 19th century battle of the beer analysis methods. It might sound dry but measuring the strength of beer is a distinctly political business:

[Professor] Steinheil’s downfall came when he was too aggressive in pushing his own method with Bavarian officials: while his beam balance was made an official method in Bavaria to measure extract, the optical part of his method was not. To show how useful his method was, he conducted some measurements on his own and in 1846 wrote a letter to a Bavarian ministry in which he claimed that his analyses showed that the beer of the season had a lower extract than expected, thus brewers must have illegally used lower amounts of malt than they had to (at the time, Bavaria strictly regulated how much malt a brewer had to use to brew a particular volume of either summer or winter beer), which according to Steinheil showed the necessity for a simple analysis method (i.e. his own). Not only did he accuse brewers of fraud, the publication of this letter also angered local beer drinkers. To avert another beer riot like in 1844, officials in Munich had to lower the beer price.

Three men in a brewery, tasting beer from huge casks.
Michaël Blancquaert, centre. SOURCE: Belgian Smaak/Ashley Joanna.

At Belgian Smaak Ashley Joanna gives us a portrait, in words and pictures, of a young man who has become the future of an established brewery:

Michaël Blancquaert was an accounting major working night shifts at a hotel.  He had become unhappy with the mundane nature of his job and was craving a role where he could work with his hands. In March of 2010, looking for a change in his life, he applied for a position he had seen in a newspaper. He wanted to work with a small company so that he could enjoy the feeling of being close to his colleagues. He wanted to learn from someone who had experience, and who would invest in him and his future… The job for which he applied was production assistant at Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen.

This is a particularly interesting story, in a generally interesting series. Brewers can’t work forever and unless they identify their own successors, it’s easy for them to snap out of existence when their founders retire or die.

BrewDog bar sign.

So consistent is the message that BrewDog’s beers are bad, or not what they used to be, that we sometimes doubt our own tastebuds. Fortunately, the Beer Nut is here to state, in the clearest possible terms, that his experience matches ours:

This is their new core-range pale ale, Planet Pale… The acidity is green and vegetal; natural tasting, not chemical. It’s still a bit of a shock, though, and I believed myself long past being shocked by BrewDog. Other breweries don’t put out beers as bold as this as their everyday quaffer on the taps at Wetherspoon. At least, they don’t around here. I liked it. It starts to turn oniony as it warmed, but I didn’t let it get to there, something helped by an extremely modest 4.3% ABV. The bright, aggressive and above all LOUD hops speak to BrewDog actually living up to their hype, doing what they say they do. That’s not to deny their failings in other areas but in general I’ve had very few problems with their actual beers over the fourteen years I’ve been drinking them.

Tasting flight at the Driftwood Spars beer festival.

Are beer tasting flights a great way to try new things, or an abomination? Andy Crouch has long argued the latter but has changed his mind:

I once described beer flights as “sloppy little beer thimbles.” And that was one of the nicer things I’ve said about them. “Sad little beer blights.” “Tiny, uninspired specimens.” I could go on and often did. I long saw beer samplers as sad little representations of a brewer’s hard work and intention… [But the] experience of ordering lets the drinker travel as many flavor paths as possible while giving them a reasonable enough understanding of the beers sampled. And like watching a packed 60 second trailer for a two hour movie, sometimes that’s all you need to get a beer’s measure.

Finally, from Twitter, a very beautiful pub:

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

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.

Beer styles Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Gaps and opportunities: how trends in beer styles work

It’s obvious, really: you can’t have a revival until the thing you’re reviving has actually died. And mild needed to die to have its apparent comeback this year.

Mild has been dying for decades – from about 40% of the UK beer market in the early 1960s to 4% by 1990 to 0.3% by 2017.

CAMRA has fought to preserve it but with little success because, ultimately, the market dictates the fortunes of beer styles.

One by one, larger breweries have reduced their output of mild, made mild seasonal or stopped making it altogether.

Think of Fuller’s and St Austell, for example, whose milds have expired since this blog began in 2007.

Even those that limp on have invariably been renamed ‘dark ale’ or similar.

There’s not much of a market for mild but, as big players step away, as it slips into the rearview mirror of history, a little space is created.

Smaller breweries have a chance to offer something the nationals and multinationals, with their large minimum production volumes, can’t or won’t.

In other words, mild has become an exotic boutique rarity like Schwarzbier, Rauchbier or Vienna lager.

Well, not exotic. Mild can’t be exotic. Not unless it’s missed the point of its own existence. But you catch our drift.

On the flipside, as bigger breweries move in on hoppy, fruity pale ales and IPAs, that space in the market gets crowded.

Smaller breweries might struggle to compete with Beavertown (Heineken) or Camden (AB-InBev) and so of course they’ll start looking for styles they can own.

For a year or so, that might be mild, until the big operators catch-up and spoil the fun.

This also answers the question about why craft breweries are less likely to brew straightforward bitter or lager: though the market for those is large, it’s also pretty well sewn up.

Whatever happens, if there are a few more milds around, in a few more pubs, for a few more years, we’ll be quite happy.

News opinion

News, nuggets and longreads 5 February 2022: The Growlery

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that struck us as noteworthy in the past week, from questionnaires to dating apps.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has launched a survey asking for input from members and non-members alike on inclusivity, diversity and equality: “This survey is designed to collect feedback on… How we run our beer festivals… How we recruit members and volunteers 

How we organise and run our meetings and events at branch, regional and national level…”

Unfortunately, as tends to happen when large membership organisations try to do the right thing in public, it’s ended up becoming one of those culture war issues, as summarised by Pete Brown:

The comments below the articles about CAMRA’s latest outrage in this week’s national dailies are damning… Well, it seems they have been “overrun” by “woke communists”… In doing so, the supposedly real-ale-supporting organisation has revealed that, far from wanting to preserve one of our greatest cultural assets, its secret agenda is to destroy Britain itself… Obviously, CAMRA is not powerful enough to do this on its own. It’s obviously become part of a global conspiracy.

At Casket Beer Kevin Kain tells the story of the evolution of the growler (take away beer container) and its part in his own family story:

Evelyn and Howard Smith welcomed twin girls, Lorraine and Roberta, into the world on November 14, 1949, at Mount Vernon Hospital in Mount Vernon, New York. One day later, Ruth Kain gave birth to her son, Michael, four years to the day after the birth of her first son… Over subsequent years, the Smith family would recall how Ruth requested and received beer shortly after giving birth. It was brought to her in a takeout container from a nearby bar. Some might say it was too soon for a drink, but certainly any new mother is entitled to a cold one… While the story is cute, what most grabbed my attention was the takeout container.

A bottle of Bellevue Gueuze
SOURCE: Eoghan Walsh/Brussels Beer City.

Eoghan Walsh has reached number 28 in his series on the history of Brussels beer: a bottle of pasteurised gueuze. As always in these pieces, he evokes a strong sense of place and carries us through time:

Lambic, because of its archaic production methods, is more vulnerable than most beers to environmental fluctuations. Hot summers can spoil Lambic as it ferments in wooden barrels, by encouraging the propagation of unwanted microbes and unwanted flavours. And once this Lambic has been blended and bottles as a Gueuze, hot summers can cause these bottles to spontaneously pop their corks and even explode… Which is exactly what happened in the summer of 1949. The temperature reached 36℃ in parts of Belgium, and in Brussels three million bottles exploded in the cellars and storerooms of the city’s Lambic breweries. There was one brewery that escaped the heatwave largely unscathed. And Brasserie Belle-Vue managed this because their Gueuze was not like the others.

SOURCE: Matthew Curtis/Pellicle.

For Pellicle Martin Flynn has profiled Katie Marriott, the founder and owner of Nomadic Brewing in Leeds:

In 2015 Katie was studying for a chemistry postdoctorate at the University of Glasgow, having previously achieved her PhD in the impressive-sounding “origins of life”… Originally from Northampton, Katie formerly sat on the committee of Leeds University’s Real Ale Society and has been a member of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) for many years. Although, in terms of production experience, she’d never attempted so much as a homebrew. This, alongside the years spent on her postdoctoral qualification, mean Katie’s decision to return to Leeds and work as a brewery assistant could have been described as a sizeable gamble. But by late 2016, she was a brewery owner.

A pub window with frosted glass.

For the Financial Times Mia Levitin has written about a new (old) challenge to the dominance of dating apps – the pub:

Thursday’s pitch is old-school: “Just a bar. Like any other bar,” reads one invite to a drinks party in Notting Hill. What’s remarkable about its popularity (the app had nearly 86,000 downloads last month) is that the bars had been there all along; all that singles were missing was the courage to converse… After beginning to date in London, it didn’t take long to clock that the English require large quantities of alcohol to make a move. In our continued quest for a friction-free existence, dating apps evolved in part to mitigate the risk of rejection: Tinder’s paradigm-shifting feature was the “double opt-in”, which only allows users to message once both parties have indicated their interest by swiping right… But while technologies emerge to solve a problem (ie finding people to date), they invariably create new ones in turn (having to get off the couch to meet them)… 

(It wasn’t paywalled when we checked but you might want to try approaching via a private browser window, or through Google News.)

A sign reading Prague, Praga, Prag.

It’s never been easier to view historic newspapers online and it’s a great way to learn about the history of beer and brewing in your neighbourhood. At Fuggled, Al Reece has been exploring Prague, where he used to live, via the Austrian National Library:

I discovered that on the same street as my last apartment in Prague was a malting company… Leopold Schmied was a malt manufacturer at an address that is today the address of the Autoklub České Republiký. It is fun to think that less than a five minute walk from where I lived, malt was being made. A dark malt for Munich beer, a Bavarian style black malt to be used with the dark Patentmalz for Bock. The pale Patentmalz made for full bodied beers with good foam retention apparently, and there was roast malt for brown beer, porter, and so on and so forth. Hmm…malt being sold specifically for porter brewing in late 19th century Bohemia? There’s a whole world of intrigue right there…

Finally, from Twitter… who knew about the book Ronnie Corbett ‘wrote’ on pubs? (We’ve got our own copy now.)

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