Wednesday 29 April 2015

You broke it - you fix it!

A week or so ago I read that a pub which Historic England (formerly English Heritage) had been been about to recommend for listing was hastily demolished by developers before that could happen. Typical, I thought, but now I've learnt that Westminster Council has issued an order to the developers to rebuild the pub, the Carlton Tavern which dates from the early 1920s, exactly as it was, and they are banned from selling the site until they have done so. The full story is in the London Evening Standard here.

Inevitably the developers have said they'll appeal, and I've no doubt they have a good chance of winning, but this action by the council is a welcome contrast to the usual municipal reaction of tut-tutting and imposing a feeble fine that the developers had probably set aside a budget for anyway.

I'm reminded of the Tommy Ducks in Manchester. This was a well-known pub, full  of character
although not remarkable in architectural terms. It was (in)famous for having an entire ceiling covered with pairs of women's pants, apparently donated for the collection by some of the female regulars. The beer was nothing much, Greenall Whitley, but this was long before the Beer Orders in the days when we had to accept that many pubs had boring beer. One day the owners sent in the bulldozers and the Tommy Ducks was no more. There was vague talk about ordering them to rebuild the pub, but nothing came of it.

The order to rebuild by Westminster Council is, as far as I know, the first of its kind, mainly because councils are understandably worried about the prospect of losing a case and incurring massive costs, which they are much less able to afford than than their developer opponents. On the other hand, even if the developers win their appeal, the appeal process and the delay ("Time is money!") will cost them dear, and may deter others who are contemplating a similar course of action, not just to pubs but to any interesting buildings. Let's hope that Westminster's action also inspires other councils to stand up more to to corporate bullying.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Beer festivals - why?

Beer festivals were developed in Britain by CAMRA for the purposes of promoting real ales, largely because the brewers at the time were mostly turning their back on them. They provided the drinker with the chance to taste beers that were not readily available to them at a time when most towns were dominated by a single brewery or, if they were lucky, a handful of breweries. So much is familiar.

Next came pub beer festivals. The earliest I recall were put on about 25 years ago in the Bold in Churchtown, Southport, by Dave Dobson. This was so unusual at the time that friends of mine travelled all the way from Liverpool for the festival. Dave, who was a licensee for Allied Breweries, was particularly pleased when after a couple of years he managed to persuade very nervous managers to let him put on beers from outside the Allied range: breaking the tie was then such a huge step then. In contrast, pub beer festivals are now so common that pubcos often suggest to their licensees that they put them on.

More recently, festivals have been put on for charitable purposes, such as Round Table, sometimes in association with CAMRA - Bent & Bongs is probably one of the better known in the area - but now we are in the era of the wholly commercial beer festival. In Merseyside, Liverpool Organic Brewery has put on well-run beer festivals loosely along CAMRA lines in Old Christ Church in Waterloo and in the Black-E and the magnificent St George's Hall in Liverpool. The Ship & Mitre pub has run a festival in Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight, Wirral.

There are a one or two differences between CAMRA festivals and the newer commercial ones:

  • CAMRA festivals still theoretically have the primary campaigning purpose of presenting real ales that may not be available in the locality. Commercial festivals are money-making ventures.
  • CAMRA festivals refund any beer tokens you have not spent; commercial festivals don't.
  • CAMRA festivals refund the deposit on your glass if you don't want to keep it; commercial ones don't.
In Merseyside, these festivals automatically put their tickets for sale on-line, which eventually forced the hand of the CAMRA Liverpool Beer Festival to follow suit - they had resolutely refused to do so hitherto, as I reported here in November 2011. So we can say some good came out of the competition.

The question arises: with so many different bodies putting on beer festivals - CAMRA, pubs, charities and breweries - and with the range of real ale in pubs being so much broader then ever before, is there actually a campaigning need for CAMRA festivals? Or are they now just preaching to the converted? There's no easy answer to this, but my own observations suggest to me that around 70-80% of punters could be called the converted, but I found there were lots of 'the converted' at beer festivals when I began working at them in the mid-1980s, so this isn't a new situation. Among the remainder, there are still some who come in and ask for a lager. Away from the festival, despite the growth of real ale, sales of smooth beers and lagers still dominate pub beer sales, so arguments that I've read in What's Brewing and elsewhere that CAMRA has won the war to save real ale are very wide of the mark. 

I do tend to feel that some festivals have become institutionalised - i.e. we do it because we've always done it - but they do still have a certain, although not massive, role in publicising the cause of real ale. And to be fair, despite their commercial basis, real ale festivals run by breweries and pubs can have a similar effect. If I didn't feel festivals have some campaigning impact, if they just existed solely for the benefit of existing real ale drinkers, I doubt I'd give up my time to work at them.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Micropubs ~ method becoming dogma?

A new phenomenon has been appearing in our towns and cities in recent years: the creation of new small pubs in former shops. I remember the pioneer of micropubs, Martin Hillier, who opened the UK's first in Kent, speak about them to the CAMRA conference a few years ago. His approach involved no spirits, alcopops, keg beers, music, TV, juke boxes, and with only real ale, boxed real ciders, real ale in bottles and continental beers, especially Belgian. Put like that, it seems a rigid formula, but - like the term craft beer - it has no authority to justify it or any agreed definition. Do all new small pubs have to conform to it to be classed as micropubs?

In north Merseyside we now have four new small pubs converted from shops, three in Southport and one in Crosby, and I'm told there is a fifth on the way in Southport. There is also one in nearby Ormskirk in west Lancashire.

The oldest is the Inn Beer Shop on Southport's Lord Street, which I have written about many times, such as here; it's five or six years old, and while I'm unsure whether it strictly complies with the Hillier formula, it is certainly the first of its kind in Merseyside. It always sells beer from the Southport Brewery, which isn't very surprising as the brewer Paul Bardsley is the proprietor Pete Bardsley's brother. If this is a micropub according to the formula, it beats the Liverpool Pigeon (see below) by several years.

A few minutes' walk from Southport Station is the Tap and Bottles in the Cambridge Arcade, which opened last year in a former lingerie shop. As you can see from what I previously wrote, this does not comply with the Hillier formula. It has also had live acoustic music once a month recently - a Hillier no-no - and at other times has discreet background music that you can choose.

Close to Birkdale Station (the final stop before Southport on the Liverpool line) you'll find the Barrel House. This bar was converted from a newsagent's and it definitely does not comply with the template, as it sells, among other things, one smoothflow beer next to the real ale, Theakson's Bitter when I've been there. Curiously, it still sells papers and runs its old paper rounds!

The micropub that the Good Beer Guide (GBG) claims is the first in Merseyside is Crosby's Liverpool Pigeon, which opened in 2013 in an old children's clothes shop. This undeniably fits the definition and was last year's Liverpool CAMRA's Pub of the Year. It is close to Liverpool Road (A565), a major bus route, and about a mile's walk from Blundellsands railway station.

In Ormskirk, there is the Hop Inn Bier Shop on Burscough Street, the only one of these I have yet to visit. I don't know whether it complies with the formula in terms of what it sells, but according to the GBG it does have a Bavarian night, a quiz night and live music at the weekends, all of which may exclude it. Despite the name, this pub has no connection with Southport's Inn Beer Shop, but was set up by of Mike McCombe of the Hop Vine pub in Burscough, home of Burscough Brewery.

So are all these pubs micropubs? I think yes: they are all pubs and are undeniably small. The fact the some don't conform to the business model preferred by Martin Hillier shouldn't rule them out. All are primarily beer-orientated, but there is nothing wrong with catering for those who aren't beer drinkers; this will certainly give such places a broader appeal, and I have noticed that they seem more likely to attract groups of women than many conventional pubs. For myself, I have no more interest in drinking in an environment segregated by style of drink than I have by gender.

Martin Hillier is certainly an influential pioneer, but when I saw him speak, he was throwing out ideas, not laying down laws. The fact that he was the first doesn't mean his preferred approach is sacrosanct, or that it will suit all people and situations. What makes pubs, micro or otherwise, interesting is not conformity to a universal template, but diversity. Let's not create a dogma out of a good idea.

I've just noticed that there is a Micropub Association who state on their website: "The definition of a micropub is challenging. It is a set of ethics rather than a set of rules."

The Inn Beer Shop, The Hop Inn Bier Shop and the Liverpool Pigeon are all the GBG.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Live again - at last

Hello everyone,

I'm now back on line, after months of denial - denying that I really needed to buy a new computer. Six months away from the world of blogging, e-mails, and internet access. It's quite strange, but you do get used to it in a way, but there's always the feeling that you're missing out. As indeed you are. It's less than ten years since I bought my first computer and only seven since I was first bought a mobile (a leaving present from work). Before then, going to the pub was arranged at the previous meeting in the pub, after bumping into people, or by using what we now call a landline, but what we used to call a phone. In a fairly short period of time, we've become reliant on this technology. I have missed several social events because friends have forgotten my computer wasn't working. Not their fault: I ought to have sorted this out months ago.

In recent months I've had a few people approach me and say, "Aren't you Red Nev? What's happened to your blog?" In a couple of cases, I didn't know the person at all: perhaps they recognised me from the photo, but however they know me, such feedback in encouraging. It was nice of my old pal Tandleman to phone me asking why I'd vanished from the ether. I subsequently saw him at the Manchester Beer Festival in the Velodrome: great festival, but bizarre venue. If you haven't been, I recommend it. It's a cash bar, and I handed over a £20 note for a pint and was given change for £15. Odd.

It's going to take a while to get all my events pages up to date, but it'll be done over the next couple of weeks. I'm looking forward to doing all this again.