Monday 30 June 2014

Regression to the Mean

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If that's not true, then certainly the signs point to mediocrity.

Imagine. You get the lease for a dismal, failing pub. All it's clientele are either scum, or on the verge of death. But wait! What's this you read? Craft beer is a big thing now. Surely, there's a whole untapped market in town for all those Crafties who will pay a premium for decent beer?

So, you refurbish the place. You get rid of all the old nonsense like macro lager, and a cask option of Wells Bombardier and Sharps Doom Bar. You ring up James Clay and fill the fridge with UK micro bottles and Continental stuff. You put craft keg and unusual lager on your fonts, and obscure but excellent non-local ales on the handpumps.

And what happens?

The casuals are confused. They walk into your pub and can't see a single brand they recognise. No Guinness? You can't be a proper pub without Guinness, they say. And what's Krombacher or Freedom Four? Haven't you got Kronenbourg or Carling? What sort of pub is this?

You patiently explain that this is a Craft Pub, committed to beer excellence, and this is what we have. Grudgingly, they order what you suggest, drink up and leave. Possibly for a place they feel more comfortable in. After a few weeks, you find this happens often.

Maybe, you think, it wouldn't be such a bad thing to put one macro lager on. We'll still keep the other seven taps for good stuff, but at least the casuals won't be scared off.

Then you find the Casketeers are bemused by your real ale selection. What's this cloudy, hoppy stuff from a place I've never heard of? Is it made in a shed or something. I mean, I'm all for supporting diversity in Real Ale, but haven't you got anything more traditional? So, again grudgingly, you stick on a couple of Boring Brown Bitters.

And so it goes. Eventually, you're left with a similar token Craft option all the other pubs do. The race for the centre ground has left you exactly in the middle, indistinct from the crowd.

Such are the perils of trying to be "Craft" in a non-metropolitan area.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

A Matter of Taste

Tasty. Tasty. Very, very tasty
Good old Boak & Bailey.  It's great we lesser-travelled types have them on hand to witness things that we may not have a chance to see very often.  In their latest post, they regale us with a tale of alleged Crafty piss-taking.  A patron couple entered this Craft Beer Bar, right, and proceeded to taste eight (Eight!) samples before retiring to a corner with a third-pint each.  Could this phenomenon be partially responsible for the somewhat high prices of Craft Beer in such places, they wonder?

Well, I work in a shop that has, shall we say, a large selection of highly-priced alcoholic beverages.  And yes, we do tasters of selected products frequently.    "But that's giving stuff away!" you're saying "How will you make any money on it?".  There are several things to consider.

Often, we are given a bottle of whatever by the producer or distributor to use for this very purpose.  It costs us nothing and the producer very little (they knock them out at cost, and presumably write it off against tax).  Do brewers of craft beers give a small "promotional" discount to pubs for pushing tasters on customers? I'm not sure, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility.

Another thing to consider is that People Like Free Stuff.  Yes, there are piss-takers.  You get to know them well as by definition they keep coming back for more.  We serve them with a smile and a chat nonetheless.  It's not worth destroying goodwill for a few thimblefulls of beer, wine or whisky.  A sip and a chat make people feel good, and even if they don't buy what you're offerering them, perhaps they'll buy something else while they happen to be in the shop.

The best thing you can do with tasters, counter-intuitive it may seem, is to get the customer to try as many as you have available.  In my experience, very few people have the absolute brass neck to try four things and not buy at least one.  Maybe they genuinely adore whatever they take away, but you'd be surprised at how many people feel obligated to purchase after you've given your largesse to them.  And this is how tasting really works.

Think about it.  Many companies have cut sales staff and representatives and even advertising.  If they weren't making any money out of tasting, do you think they would bother doing it?  It costs buttons as opposed to so-called "real" promotions. They don't even have to employ anyone to do it - the end seller provides the staff, glasses and time.

I doubt tasters contribute in any real sense to the phenomenon of the £6 half of Imperial IPA.  No, that's probably more down to fashion, and the good old capitalistic principle of charging as much as you can get for things.  Tasters, in the majority of cases, work and are actually good business practice.

A taster of beer isn't enough for me to get the gist of the drink, but if they make people happy and promote the product, then isn't that worth a few pence on your pint of Craft?

Monday 23 June 2014

Tracksuit Cider Guy

I'm sure every pub has one.

Every time I walk into the pub, no matter what day or time, he is there. Slightly slouched, wearing a lurid hoodie and tracksuit bottoms, slurping down whichever the strongest cider is.

And he will stand there. Often interjecting about going to see Aerosmith in concert or his latest incident at the CAB or the hotel he lives in in a nearby seaside town. Easily pleased, he will laugh at pretty much everything I say. Now, I know I'm funny (!), but I doubt I'm as constantly hilarious as he seems to think I am.

And so the day wears on. He drinks many pints of cider, abv immaterial, and his stories get more and more incoherent and lacking resolution as time goes by. And please, never get him on one is of his pet subjects - the door staff and law enforcement in the town.

Apparently, the cops are all corrupt and the bouncers are all psychos. From what I've gathered, this attitude seems to stem from a couple of incidents in Burnley and Accrington about 20 years ago. Plus the fact the local bouncers will "unjustly" refuse him entry to pubs on the basis of wearing a hoodie and a tracksuit. He will then go to the gents in ever increasing frequency. I presume that given his age (well over 50), his prostate is the size of a football.

I'm sure he puts off as much business as he provides. The pub did put on Thatchers Cheddar Valley (6%) in an attempt to make sure he got "finished off early", but seemingly he is now immune to this. Is there a stronger cider available? I'm sure they are looking.

It's sad , to be honest. And the state of this man is a cautionary tale for all pubgoers about taking your pleasures too far. Drink often, but leave early.

Saturday 21 June 2014

The House of Eccentrics

Bizarre times
A pub I go to tends to attract the unusual.  My guess is that this trend was started by the first manager of the place, who told his staff he hired them on their "personality" rather than manual-perfect customer service skills.  Needless to say, this resulted in some very interesting patron/server interactions.   Last March I sat next to the assistant manager, who, after a particularly, painful breakup, was getting absolutely slaughtered (off duty, I may add).  My guess is that he'd had at least eight by the time I left "It's not the sex I miss," he said "It's just having someone to talk to."  He moved to Nottingham soon after, as you do.  But due to the well-known staff turnover in the licenced trade, the new manager has been slowly replacing  the "oddball" staff with the more well-known phenomenon of the "attractive and personable young lady".  Which will possibly bring in more custom, but isn't half as interesting.

How I will miss the phenomenon of one particular barman who had, well, I'll say euphemistically a "particularly active social life".  Not so much a one-track mind, but a one-rail mind. "You know, if there's one thing women like," I said to him "It's a man will a really large <pause> vocabulary."  And whether he didn't get it or had a particularly sharp sense of bathos, he said "Yes, and they like a massive cock as well."  You just can't buy that kind of thing, even in university towns.

I was told recently that I was probably the one thing that kept this pub going in Spring/Summer 2013.  Whereas I doubt my £60 per week spend would really make that much of difference to the viability of a business, it does make you think when one of the staff say that.  Perhaps I set the tone for the place, sitting there in my bizarre shirt and facial hair, making inappropriate comments about the proclivities of 70s TV stars.  My eccentricity seems to have rubbed off on the pub, and it now attracts all kinds of social outcasts and malcontents using it as a forum to spout their bizarre opinions.  One, a former journalist from Accrington, will stand at the bar drinking pint after pint of cider, occasionally telling jokes that go nowhere and replying to conversations in a general non-sequitur fashion. "I have insomnia. It's terrible", he once said.  If I was as cruel a man as people think, I would have replied "Have you tried recording yourself and listening to the playback?"  But I'm not, so I didn't.  At least until I had Facebook access, anyway.

Despite the encroachment of female-friendly policies, the atypical nature of the pub has remained intact.  Whether this is because of the times I go there (the Monday afternoon drinker is likely to be a more unusual beast than their Friday night counterpart), or because the old clientele hasn't been sufficiently scared away by tealights and soft rock, I don't know.  But in my opinion, there should be a pub for everybody.  Even people like me. The penurious alkies can have their Spoons, the families can have their Marstons diners, the hipsters can have their BrewDogs.  But me, I want my own quiet, small haven of eccentricity in a small corner of a nearby town.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Your Friendly Local

I can't remember these times, but I'm told there was a time when pretty much everyone of a certain social standing went to the pub. Before satellite TV and internet porn, socialising with people was a major recreational activity.  And for this, you'd go to what was colloquially called "The Local".

The actual beer served didn't really matter.  Thwaites, Greenalls, Tetley, Matthew Brown. It was probably all badly kept filth, anyway. But that didn't matter, as you were swapping gossip and nonsense with your mates, and you were smoking the kind of cigarettes that precluded tasting things anyway. You sat on your ripped leather bench behind a wonky table, placed your feet in the sawdust, sipped your malt vinegar, and talked utter bollocks until closing time.

Sadly, these days people simply expect more.  They want comfort and drinks that taste nice.  All this media stuff and travel have widened people's horizons, and they're simply not satisfied with just lapping up what they're given just because it's closest.  The Mudgie-beloved community local has died a death in recent years because people want better than that.

In many ways, we're softer and more pathetic than our forebears in our unwillingness to put up with discomforts for small pleasures.  But such nostalgia is unlikely to help the pub industry.  So, next time you find yourself sitting in a faux-swank chain pub drinking a pint of decent but nondescript beer, just think of this - This is what the People Actually Want.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Natural Soda Water

I admit it. I work in a shop. And, surprisingly, we sell drinks. And even mixers.  Two types of soda water. One Schweppes, one the cheap brand. The former is £1.35, the latter 50p. I don't suppose I have to educate you about what soda water consists of, but here we go.  It's water. With added Carbon Dioxide and Sodium Bicarbonate. Since these are fairly simple chemical formulas (H2O, CO2 and H2CO4), there doesn't seem to be much justification for premiumisation as far as the ingredients. But there you go.

Carbon Dioxide is Carbon Dioxide. It's the same whether it's created by natural means by yeast or by simply burning the black stuff. So, is there any difference between a cask ale and a force carbonated beer through a keg?

Of course, the Keg will be "fizzier", and usually colder ( CO2 being more soluble in cold water), but would there really be any difference in taste? I'm guessing the taste differences that occur in cask ale are mostly mythical, and the products of the imaginations of the more hirsute of CAMRA members. Would not, I ask, the flavour potential of any beer be best fully developed by the brewery concerned rather than leaving it to pubs to take "care" of it as they see fit?

I'm not saying the whole concept of cask ale is a fallacy. If nothing else, the sight of most keg-only pubs gives me some idea of what to avoid as far as fellow clientele goes. But is the whole mystique of the  allegedly vastly superior flavour of cask over craft keg a complete myth?

Cask is not crap, by any means. But it does seem to be the flavour equivalent of going the long way round because the view is prettier.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Lager than Life

Summer has raised its ugly head again, and travelling about as I do you see some interesting sights.  Wobbly cyclists on the A6 not wearing hi-vis. Shaven-headed men wearing nothing but khaki shorts and a pair of flip-flops.  But mostly people sitting outside. Sitting outside pubs. Sitting outside pubs drinking lager.

Much has been said about the British predilection for lager over the last 30 years. And not much of that has been positive. If there's on thing the Crafties and the Beards are united on, it's that lager is shit. Apparently people are idiots, and drink lager because they're told to by advertisers.  Lacking any refinement or culture, they swill down taste-free yellow fizz, unable or unwilling to consider consuming anything better.

But...what if these people actually like lager and, in fact, prefer it to other beers?

Britain has traditionally been a mild and bitter drinking nation. This is likely because that was what was available and most importantly cheapest at pubs.  Lager was there in pubs from 1900-60, but was generally imported and quite pricey.  But with advent of keg technology and cheap refrigeration, lager grew in popularity after that. Until we reach today, where 75% of all pub pints are lagers of some description.

People are not "idiots" for preferring lager. It's what they want. It could be said that lager is the ultimate in beers.  Clean, cold, crisp, and most of all consistent. Despite what your average Crafty would say, if you gave most beer drinkers a pint of Hopfuck, they would grimace and say "I can't drink that."

Snobbery does nobody any favours. I personally prefer beer with more flavour, but it ill-behoves me to criticise anybody for their choice of drinks.