Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September 2009

* A Weak Argument *

The call for promotion of very weak beers fails to understand the realities of the beer market

CAMRA’s call for duty to be scrapped on low-strength beers of 2.8% ABV and below was a predictable publicity ploy to coincide with the launch of the Great British Beer Festival. But I can’t help thinking that this is a misguided idea that shows a failure to appreciate the realities of the beer market and panders to the current climate of anti-drink hysteria.

It is difficult to brew beers of such low strength with much flavour and character. Many of the old-style milds and boys’ bitters were very bland, and were designed to be drunk in large quantities by industrial and agricultural workers wanting to restore fluid levels after a hard days’ work. However, as society changed and people became more prosperous, they started switching to bitters which were more expensive, but had more taste and body. In the early 1990s, some of our local brewers introduced cheap “economy” bitters at around 3.2% ABV, such as Hydes’ Billy Westwood and Boddingtons’ Old Shilling. When well-kept, these could in fact be surprisingly tasty, but they never really took off in the marketplace and were dropped after a year or two.

People drinking in pubs are not generally motivated to choose cheaper drinks to save money, otherwise mild would still be all the rage, and it has to be recognised that one of the main reasons people drink beer is because it actually does contain alcohol. Ordering a cheap, weak beer is hardly a very “aspirational” choice in the pub and comes across much more as a distress purchase. If people want to cut their alcohol consumption they will tend to drink “less but better” rather than making a conscious decision to go for weaker drinks. And the idea that micro-brewers would be able to sell 2.8% beers for substantially less than stronger ones is misplaced anyway, as they benefit from Progressive Beer Duty and thus pay a greatly reduced rate of duty in the first place.

* Standing Room Only *

Why are pubs so reluctant to provide an adequate amount of comfortable seating?

IN ANOTHER area, I recently called in to a pub – more a bar really – that had been chosen by the local CAMRA branch as their Pub of the Year. There was a good range of mostly local real ales and a wide selection of interesting bottles, so you could understand why it won the award. But I was struck by just how little decent seating there was in the place. One section had a few high-level posing tables, another expansive, low-level sofas that allowed one to sit where five could normally be accommodated, and only the third a scattering of tables with loose chairs. If the pub had standard wall-mounted bench seating in all three areas it could probably cater for three times as many seated customers.

Surely the lack of seating must impact on trade – it baffles me why pub owners sacrifice capacity in this way in the interest of appearing trendy. Maybe late at night they are packed with standing customers and too many seats would get in the way. But, for most of the day, customers are likely to be looking for somewhere to sit, particularly if they want to eat as well as drink, and in this particular establishment could easily conclude there was no room even if there were only about four groups already in the place. Wetherspoon’s are another major offender on this score – many of their pubs have vast areas of floorspace with a few freestanding tables dotted around, and often don’t seem busy even when all the tables are taken.

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