Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 2015
A “cask-strength” bottled beer is not at all the same as a “cask-strength” whisky
ONCE it has emerged from the still, Scotch whisky is put into oak casks to mature for a minimum of three years, often much more. When it is ready for bottling, it has an alcoholic strength of around 60% ABV, but is typically watered down to 40% (sometimes a little higher) for public sale. Occasionally, limited edition bottlings are made of undiluted whiskies at cask strength, which are obviously much more expensive than the standard product, and are prized by connoisseurs.
I recently spotted that Jennings had sneakily reduced the strength of bottled Cumberland Ale from 4.7% to 4.0%, to bring it into line with the cask version, and now describe it on the bottle as “cask strength”. Likewise, bottled Marston’s Pedigree, from the same brewing group, which was increased from 4.5% to 5.0% and then reduced again, has “Brewed to cask strength” on the label. While this isn’t untrue as such, it comes across as distinctly disingenuous, given that a cask strength whisky is much stronger than the norm, but a cask strength bottled beer seems to be one that is weaker than it used to be.
Needless to say, there’s no price reduction, even though there’s a saving of duty plus VAT of about 8p per bottle. There’s nothing wrong as such with beers of 4% or less, but surely it would make sense to charge less than the 5% ones rather than having everything at the same price. And I wonder if we’ll see the same happening with other beers like Bombardier, London Pride and Spitfire where the bottled version is currently significantly stronger than the cask.
If pubs want to live up to the claim of being community hubs they need to be more welcoming to older male customers
A RECENT report by the International Longevity Centre highlighted the growing problem of social isolation amongst older men living alone. Men seem to find it more difficult to make and maintain social contacts than women, and many will have largely depended on their wives or partners for their social life and found themselves cut adrift when they died or divorced. The report predicts that the number of older men living alone in England will increase by 65% by 2030.
You might have thought pubs had a role to play in tackling this issue, but in fact things have gone the other way. A generation ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see groups of old codgers in pubs, maybe playing a game of crib or doms, or just chewing the fat while nursing a pint of mild. But that wasn’t seen as a very lucrative trade, nor something that conveyed the right image. So, many pubs were remodelled to appeal to a younger audience, with loud music, TV screens and uncomfortable posing tables, while others went all-out for the dining trade and made it clear that social drinkers, especially slow-spending ones, weren’t really welcome. In recent years, many community locals have closed entirely, while others have taken the commercial decision to stop opening on weekday lunchtimes, which for many pensioners was their favoured drinking session.
Wetherspoon’s are often mocked for the number of customers using mobility scooters, but surely this should be seen as a positive sign that they are actually providing a social haven for older people. In general, though, they are located in town centres, so don’t act as local pubs near to where people live, and they also pose the problem for older customers of often having the toilets up or down a long flight of stairs.
The industry often claims that pubs play a vital role in communities, and in the best cases that’s undoubtedly true. But maybe they need to live up to the hype and take a long, hard look at making their venues more pensioner-friendly.