Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 2007

* Divided We Fall *

Be careful what you wish for when criticising other parts of the licensed trade

BEFORE CHRISTMAS, the major supermarket chains were widely criticised for selling Stella Artois at a lower price than bottled water. If you look for discounts, it’s not difficult to buy lager to drink at home for a third of the price you would pay for the same brand in the pub. At the same time, many town centres are increasingly dominated by glitzy stand-up bars run by hard-nosed multiples who see profit to be made in peddling alcopops and shots to young people who know no better. Between these two trends, the rather more subtle charms of the traditional pub are increasingly being squeezed. Something must be done, the cry goes up.

But anyone concerned about the long-term health of the pub needs to be very careful before supporting any measures that aim to give it an advantage over other parts of the alcohol business. To most legislators, “the drinks trade” is a monolithic entity, and they draw no distinction between nice independent pubs and nasty supermarkets and multiples. In particular, there would be a strong risk that any rise in alcohol taxes above the rate of inflation would damage pubs by putting prices up even higher and encouraging people to drink at home. Imposing minimum pricing schemes could well affect Holts and Sam Smiths pubs. And putting new obstacles in the planning process could hit all kinds of outlets equally. Indeed, the traditional pub sector is, overall, less robust than its competitors and could end up suffering more from measures intended to help it.

Anti-drink campaigners would be laughing into their sarsaparilla at the sight of various sections of the alcohol industry at loggerheads with each other. Throughout history, “divide and rule” has often proved to be a highly effective strategy.

* Keep Your Cool *

Real ale is still far more often served too warm than too cold

YOU OFTEN read complaints in these columns about real ale being served too cold, but rarely do you hear of it being too warm. Yet my experience is totally the opposite. Now I think I have a good idea of a natural cellar temperature and I don’t believe I like my beer colder than that, but all too often I go into a pub and find myself presented with a pint that is frankly lukewarm. Perhaps I tend to visit pubs, particularly unfamiliar ones, more often at lunchtimes or early evenings when trade is likely to be slack. But in my experience tepid real ale is an all too common problem.

There are obvious steps that a lot more pubs could do to rectify this, most importantly installing line coolers so beer doesn’t warm up if left in the pipes for half an hour, and ensuring that they don’t stock more beers than they can turn over quickly enough. If you go in a pub and there are more handpumps than customers, you just know you’re probably going to get a warm ‘un. But most importantly pubs need to abandon the old-fashioned attitude that the beer will be fine once it’s been pulled through a bit, and the early doors customers will just have to suffer. Nowadays, when real ale is often over £2 a pint, there really is no excuse for not serving every single pint at the right temperature.

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