Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - April 2008

* Out of the Box *

New café-bars undermine the licensed trade rather than enhancing it

IN THE MORE prosperous parts of the area, the past few years have seen a number of new café-style bars opening up in former shop premises, which seem to be predominantly aimed at the younger end of the market. Their typically uncompromising four-square plan and lack of fixed furnishings to take the eye away from the profusion of right angles has led to them being dubbed “box bars”.

Now these might be seen as introducing extra variety and competition into the licensed trade. However in the vast majority of cases they offer no cask beer or anything of interest on the bottled front, and their soulless, modernistic interiors are unlikely to appeal to the lover of proper pubs. A pub is either purpose built as such or evolves over time - it cannot be created overnight by putting a counter and a few glass-topped tables and steel-framed chairs into a featureless square room.

In fact all the box bars do is to further fragment the drinking scene and undermine the business of such conventional pubs as remain. With few exceptions they are in places where there are already pubs nearby, so it can hardly be argued that they are serving an unmet need. In view of this, rather than issuing new licences, might it be better for councils to suggest that those wishing to enter the trade take over some of the existing pubs that are closing?

* Free to Mislead *

A pub claiming to be a “Free House” is likely to be tied up in chains

A COUPLE of pubs near me have recently sprouted signs saying “Free House”. On the face of it, this might tempt people in search of unusual beers, but in reality both pubs belong to large pub companies that decide which beers they can sell, so visitors are likely to be disappointed. In fact one of them is a chain dining pub that does not even offer any cask beer.

In the days when the vast majority of pubs were tied to brewers and only sold their products, the term “Free House” actually meant something, and in the 70s and 80s genuine free houses played a leading role in widening the range of beers available. However, as all the big brewers progressively sold their estates off to pub companies, the term has become increasingly devalued to the extent that it is now largely meaningless. Indeed, if you’re looking for a quality pint you are often better off choosing an “Unfree House” that is tied to an independent brewer.

* The Bingers’ Budget *

The Chancellor’s punitive increase in duties will make alcohol problems in society worse

DESPITE extensive lobbying from both CAMRA and the British Beer & Pub Association, Alastair Darling chose to raise the level of beer duty by a swingeing 6% above the rate of inflation and promised a further 2% above inflation rises in the coming years. This will widen the gap between pub prices and the off-trade yet more and accelerate the current rate of pub closures. It will exacerbate uncontrolled problem drinking and penalise the moderate, responsible drinker. We already have one of the highest levels of alcohol taxation in Europe, and increasing it even more will only serve to encourage both legal imports and smuggling. Truly a black day for the British pub.

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