Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2002

* Seasoned but Rare *

Independent brewers could do more to promote their seasonal beers in their own estates

Most of our local independent brewers have now introduced programmes of seasonal beers, typically changing every couple of months. Virtually all of these have been well worth drinking, and some - Robinson’s current offering Robin Bitter particularly springing to mind - have been exceptional. Yet these beers can be found in very few of these brewers’ tied houses, and in those where they do appear, low turnover can lead to inconsistent quality. Drinkers have been known to avoid the seasonal unless they see someone else drinking it, and it has even been suggested that in one or two high-profile pubs the seasonal beers are kept on to promote the image of the brewery, but a gallon or two at the end of each cask goes to waste.

At the same time, these seasonal beers often do very well in the free trade, so why should there be this disparity? Many of the independent brewers’ tied houses tend to be community locals used by conservative-minded drinkers who stick to what they know and are unwilling to pay a premium for an unfamiliar beer. You can’t blame them for that, and such drinkers sustain a healthy regular turnover of mild and bitter in plenty of good pubs. The more adventurous drinkers tend to congregate in the pubs that specialise in a changing range of beers, leaving the seasonals falling between two stools. But it’s disappointing that some very good beers get stuck in a vicious circle of low sales and variable quality, and perhaps the brewers could think of some more imaginative ways of promoting in their own estates what after all should be seen as their flagship products.

* The Cost of Calories *

An attempt to promote healthy eating that is likely to backfire

In an effort to restrain the nation's spreading waistlines, the Food Standards Agency has proposed that all menus in pubs, restaurants and takeaways should have to state the calorie content alongside each dish. You can see the point of this, as people have little idea how fattening meals eaten outside the house are likely to be, and a large proportion of such meals are, to be honest, far more than a normal person needs. But there's a big risk that this policy may damage the business of independently-run pubs, and end up doing the opposite of promoting healthy eating.

Many smaller pubs may be deterred from providing any food at all if they have to work out the calorie content even if they're just knocking up a few sandwiches. Others will be reluctant to serve daily specials, instead falling back on standardised dishes, and all will be required to apply a strict policy of portion control to make sure they meet the requirement. Chain dining pubs that obtain their dishes from a central point and heat them up in a microwave will have no trouble in complying. On the other hand, independent outlets that want to offer varied menus using fresh local produce may find the requirement very onerous, and end up deciding it's not worth the bother. The end result will be to encourage the trend towards processed factory food that has done so much to spoil our diet in the first place.

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