Categories
pubs

Further thoughts on the pubs of InBetweenland

A couple of weeks ago, in our Saturday round-up, we linked to a very informative, honest and thought-provoking piece by David Hayward at A Hoppy Place.

In it, he wrote:

“One thing that I am certain of – is that this ‘great unlocking’ has been far from that… To be quite frank, it’s been pretty shit.”

We’ve been thinking and talking about various things in this article ever since and thought we’d respond with a similar level of honesty about how our habits have changed.

Obvious caveat upfront: we are massive pub enthusiasts. We go out of our way to try new pubs and, in the beforetimes, would probably indulge in at least one multi-pub crawl per week. That preference underlies what follows.

First, then, we are probably drinking out slightly less overall than we were before. This is despite being several months double-jabbed and not that anxious, at this stage, about catching COVID.

When we say slightly less, what does that mean? We’re probably now having two pub sessions a week, maybe three, whereas it would have been three, maybe four, most pre-pandemic weeks. Our pub sessions are also shorter and we’re visiting fewer establishments per session.

We don’t think we’re drinking at home more, in terms of volume or occasions. We are making more of a fuss about it, so rather than mindlessly necking a few favourites in front of the telly, we might sit at the table, listen to some music, talk, and make an effort to try new beers or new breweries.

We very much recognise David’s point about the dangers of breweries selling direct to consumers like us. We have tended to order reliable beers from breweries we already know.

During lockdown, however, we did also try on a few occasions to mix things up, ordering selection packs from indie beer shops.

Now we’re out of lockdown, if we’re honest, our online ordering is probably focused on getting in staples and favourites – ironically, often from our closest brewery, Lost & Grounded.

That’s because we’ve been hoping to be able to try new stuff on draught when we’re out and about, rather than from cans and bottles.

We’re spending less time in pubs for a variety of reasons. Partly, we are still conscious of the risk of contributing to the spread of COVID, so we’re tending to space out our pub sessions so we can be reasonably certain we’re clear of infection before going out.

And, like many people, we’ve got a backlog of family and friends to catch up with and not all of those occasions take place in the pub, despite our best efforts. Some of those people are vulnerable, too, so we’ve been minimising other social contact before we see them.

We’re also in a new bit of Bristol so we’re still getting to know which pubs, bars and taprooms work for us. (Anecdotal evidence suggests lots of people have made bigger moves than this in the last 18 months, to new cities, or to the country, so maybe this is behind the more general issue David Hayward has noticed.) 

All of the above are temporary factors that might point to a recovery in our pub going habits at some point.

Having said that, we have also discovered new hobbies and exercise regimes as a way to stay sane during lockdown. That means there are now more things we want to fit into the weekend than before. As a result, we’re less likely to spend an entire afternoon and evening out on the sauce.

Working from home also means we’re less likely to do a big post work session in the town centre in the middle of the week or on Friday evening.

We find our tastes have changed, too. We’re now favouring pubs with outdoor spaces and taprooms, particularly when meeting with other people.

To our minds, a drinking session outside doesn’t really count as a risky activity so we don’t need to ration those in the same way as a visit to a cosy indoor space.

One final point impacting on volume of drinking out, and hopefully this is also temporary, is that, frankly, the quality of the beer available hasn’t always been the best.

This is not surprising given fluctuating supply and demand – but it’s felt unhelpful to point this out when the industry is clearly struggling.

To improve quality, most pubs we can think of are offering a smaller range of beer, which is a sensible response to unpredictable demand, but it has also tended to mean less variety, not just during the session but also from visit to visit.

We’ve had a few weekends where we’ve deliberately tried to drink new things and have had to go out of our way, or resort to ordering things that we suspect we’re probably not going to like. 

We’ve had a number of pints that are not bad, as such, but not especially good, either. Just ever so slightly tired.

Of course, we’re no strangers to a mediocre pint and they’re not the end of the world. It’s part and parcel of the pastime. However in this case, we’re talking about places that we know usually do excellent cask ale, so this must be a direct result of unpredictable customer flows. We’ve even heard bar staff indiscreetly saying as much when challenged.

So if you are running a pub, what can you do about us fickle customers?

Ultimately, it’s going to depend on the type of pub and the target market. Are your customers just being slow to return, or are they gone for good?

While you work that out, we’d suggest it makes sense to stick to what you’re best at. If you’re known for your cask ale, make sure it continues to be of an excellent standard and try to balance reliable favourites with both new things and bona fide classics. We’d happily trek across town to anywhere with Jarl on tap, for example, if we saw a post about it on social media.

Clear communications about rules and COVID precautions might help. While some people may not care, others do. We are aware of people who are less comfortable going to pubs now that there are no restrictions.

Unfortunately, it may be a case of waiting it out a bit longer and we think there will be long term winners and losers.

City centre pubs will need to find a raison d’être beyond cramming in office workers for two hours on Friday night. Previously unloved suburban locals, on the other hand, may find themselves with new customers, particularly if they’re clear about their offer.

A final note on micropubs, some of which are very dear to our hearts. The very thing that makes the good ones good – the cosiness, the chance conversations with strangers – are the sorts of things which will be the last things to come back in pub culture because of the very specific nature of this virus.

We’re hopeful and optimistic that they will eventually return but perhaps micropubs will need a little further help to weather the storm. Continuing to do takeaway seems sensible, for example.

We’ll leave you with a note of optimism. Last weekend, we went to The Drapers Arms. After a while, a couple of friends walked in and before we knew it, we were in the midst of the kind of casual chat we’ve really missed. The beer was great, the company was great, and we could see the path out of the woods.

Categories
pubs

Lateral flow before you go

We’re writing this because it seems not everyone knows you can order more or less as many COVID-19 lateral flow tests as you like, for free.

Along with vaccines, which are understandably getting more attention, this is potentially a gamechanger in trying to prevent what we saw last summer – a slow build up of cases which, as we learned the hard way, can easily turn into something worse.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of doing one of these tests, it’s a bit fiddly first time, but we’ve now got into the rhythm of it. You get a result in 30 minutes.

We’re being encouraged to do them twice a week and report the results – but you don’t have to, if you’re worried about the government abusing your data.

They are not always reliable, and a negative test should not be seen as a green light to do what you want. However, if everyone who was going to socialise did one before they went out, and then didn’t go out if they tested positive, that could play a significant role in suppressing any third wave.

It’s not mandatory – at the moment, anyway – but feels like it’s something we could all do, pretty easily, to help protect our fellow customers, hospitality workers and society more generally.

We’ll certainly be doing them regularly. Anything to help pubs stay open for good and make them really feel safe.

Categories
breweries opinion

Recognition, demand and supply

It’s probably too soon to make this point but… Some breweries have done better than others in the past year, haven’t they?

It’s been a rotten year for everyone, obviously, but nonetheless it feels as if there have been, relatively speaking, winners and losers.

Now, because it’s bad taste to boast, not many breweries are admitting to having adapted to the difficult circumstances of 2020 with any success. We did, however, notice this interesting piece on an accounting industry institute body’s website:

All that time spent on spreadsheets modelling scenarios paid off in May. This is when we switched our bars/taprooms to bottle shops. As only one staff member is needed to manage a bottle shop, it’s kept costs low. They’ve done an amazing trade because they’re based in suburban areas. With everybody working from home, customers regularly visit on their daily walks.

And Jeff Alworth has covered some similar stories from the US:

We breweries of course sell beer by the case, and here in Oregon you can buy three cases at a time, per person.  So it’s pretty easy to stock up with minimal trips out of your house. I don’t think any of us realized this advantage when this all started. But in my mind it explains everything about why breweries were able to better survive this economic/epidemic crisis. Sure, delivery helps. But restaurants can do that as well and they haven’t fared nearly as well as we have. It’s funny, because it reminds me of the fact that for hundreds of years one of the main reasons people drank beer was because it’s safer than water. During this past year it’s been safer to pick up beer at the brewery than food at a restaurant—again due to the packaged durability of beer.

Breweries that rely entirely on the pub trade have obviously been at a disadvantage but those which rely on a certain type of pub trade even more so. The cut-price cask ale merchants, that is, whose beers nobody is ever delighted to see on the bar, but which they might tolerate at £2.50 a pint when everything else is a quid more expensive. Makers of rough and/or dull beer designed to please landlords with margin to make rather than drinkers. Let’s be honest, we’ve got Wickwar in mind, now deceased, but you’ve probably got a local equivalent.

Those which have done better, we suspect, are those whose names live near the front of everybody’s minds – the ones with fans, the ones that people will cross town to drink.

We ordered a box of Oakham beers this week, for example, because we haven’t had a pint of Citra in more than a year and missed it. In the past year we’ve also ordered from, among others:

  • Thornbridge (reliably great)
  • Good Chemistry (local, interesting beer, reminds us of The Good Measure)
  • Lost & Grounded (local, proper lager)
  • Fyne Ales (Jarl, Jarl, Jarl)
  • Elusive (varied styles, always interesting)
  • Cheddar (local, solid, reminds us of The Drapers Arms)
  • Bristol Beer Factory (local, reliable, reminds us of The Grain Barge)
  • Harvey’s (Sussex Best is the best)
  • St Austell (in honour of Roger Ryman, reminds us of Penzance)

We have tried to find ways to explore new breweries – selection boxes from online retailers, our standing order with The Drapers Arms delivery service – but when you’ve got to choose your weekend beer no later than Tuesday, you tend to stick to what you can trust.

As well as good beer, and the ability to distribute packaged beer directly to consumers, the breweries on the list above are known and liked. (Or were, at least, until the small brewers duty relief disaster.) They’re either old and venerated almost by default or they’ve invested serious time and energy into making themselves known through strong branding and an active online presence.

It will be interesting to see what’s on offer in UK pubs this time in 2022. Could there be (again, feels rude to say it) a survival of the fittest effect? Or will we find ourselves missing beers we couldn’t order to drink at home, or forgot existed?

Categories
pubs

The value of the unattainable pint

A full year has now passed since our last pre-lockdown pub trip during which time we’ve developed a little game we play when we’re out walking: how much would you pay for a pint in that pub over there, right now?

A normal pint, that is, under pre-plague circumstances – just one hour of normality, arranged, we assume, by some red-nosed relative of the ghosts from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Back in April 2020, it was The Crafty Cow that first prompted the question. A big Greene King pub on Horfield Common in North Bristol, the Cow isn’t a pub we especially like. But after a month without any pubs, it suddenly began to look quite appealing.

“Twenty quid,” was Ray’s answer.

“Meh… Ten,” said Jess.

Well, what about a pint in The Drapers Arms? Ah, now, that’s different. At least £75, we both agreed. By May, it had crept up to £100 and even the Crafty Cow was looking like a £50-a-pint delight.

Last week, having not drunk in (outside) a pub since early October, we asked ourselves the question again as our constitutional took us past The Oxford in Totterdown and concluded that, Christ, we’d probably pay £200 to be able sit inside and drink a single pint of Bristol Beer Factory Fortitude with a packet of crisps.

Playing this game is almost painful, at times. It also usually leads to the melancholy thought that, actually, if there was a cash-based system for temporarily restoring normality, we’d use it to see our parents in Somerset and London respectively.

But perhaps it also bodes well for the fate of pubs in the long run. Not only are people dreaming about them but they’re also itching to spend. Or maybe that’s just us.

Categories
bristol pubs

Notes on pubs in Tier 1+

Humans are terrible at risk assessment, aren’t they?

People who were not going out when new cases were at around 20-30 a day and were stable or falling, are now happily visiting pubs with cases at 250 a day and rising. Great British Common Sense in action.

Graph of cases in Bristol showing steep rise.

Daily cases in Bristol as of 30 October 2020 via Public Health England.

At the time of writing, Bristol is in something the local authorities are calling ‘Tier 1+’ and is, we think, the biggest English city not to be facing higher-level restrictions.

We’re not really sure why – the rate of infection is actually higher than in some Tier 3 locations.

It’s possibly because hospital admissions remain low (although we know how that goes) or perhaps we just haven’t flashed up on the superforecasting spreadsheet yet.

Tier 1 isn’t completely unrestricted. It still requires pubs and restaurants to be closed by 10, seated table service and masks to be worn when not seated. As for who’s allowed to meet where… Well, this is part of the issue.

We seem to have moved completely away from principles – try to minimise your social contacts – and into a series of overlapping and confusing rules that give the impression that all is well and that you have permission to socialise.

This, plus limited support for pubs, along with a sense that it might all be taken away any day now, creates this weird moral pressure for consumers like us who love pubs and desperately want them to survive.

We’re not the only people we know who have upped our pub-going in the last month, despite the fact that it’s almost certainly more dangerous now in Bristol than it’s ever been.

Even in the comparative luxury of Tier 1, things certainly don’t feel normal.

We spent an hour in a pub in a student area on Saturday afternoon, sitting outside near the entrance, and saw some perhaps understandably bizarre behaviour.

“How many are you?” asks the bouncer.
“Er… two groups of four.”
(The limit is six.)

Then there was this:

“Please put a mask on if you’re standing up and moving about the pub.”
“I can’t. I’m only going for a fag. Uh, I’ve lost it.”
“Have a disposable one.”
“Ugh, fine, whatever.”
The mask is crammed into a pocket.

The staff were working so hard, and doing their utmost to stay cheerful, but it must be utterly soul destroying dealing with this lack of consideration, day in, day out, while knowing you’re still probably not making enough with reduced opening hours to pay the necessary army of greeters and serving staff.

Having said that, a few times lately, we’ve gone out with the intention of supporting our favourite pubs only to find them too busy to accommodate us.

It’s good news for them, maybe, but also worrying.

When you see a pub full to (reduced) capacity with condensation running down the windows you can’t help but think… What the hell are we doing?

This was inspired by Rowan Molyneux’s excellent piece about moving into Tier 2.