Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 2015

* Goodbye to the 19th Hole *

Nobody should delude themselves that cutting the drink-drive limit wouldn’t lead to wholesale pub closures

IN DECEMBER last year, the Scottish government cut the drink-driving limit in Scotland from 80mg to 50mg, which means that an average man can legally have no more than one pint of ordinary-strength beer. This seemed to be nodded through by all political parties with little opposition, but the effects have not been exactly surprising.

Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said the law change would lead to a “complete change to drinking habits” and would be “bigger than the smoking ban. “Rural pubs especially are at risk because people travel to them,” he said. “This definitely will be a difficult situation for many. It’s having a marked effect. “It stops people having a glass of wine with a meal or a pint with a meal. People are not taking the chance. It’s a game-changer. This is a very strict ban by anyone’s standards. We have lost three pubs a week since the smoking ban and this, for many, is worse.” It’s reported that many pubgoers, faced with being limited to just a single drink, have decided not to bother at all.

Greene King, who have a substantial pub estate in Scotland, recorded a noticeable drop in sales over the Christmas and New Year period compared with the previous year. Bars in golf clubs, which have a much wider social base in Scotland than south of the border, are especially feeling the pinch. These are perfect examples of where the primary purpose of people’s car journeys is something else, but they take the opportunity to combine it with a drink in the bar. Realistically, golfers aren’t going to take their set of clubs on the bus.

Fortunately, the UK government have said that they have no plans to follow suit in England. But no-one should delude themselves that it wouldn’t have a severe effect on the licensed trade, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that it is much more an anti-drink and specifically anti-pub measure than a road safety one.

* Variety Isn’t Everything *

Drinkers may prefer continuity over constant change

THE LATEST version of Pete Brown’s Cask Report was published last autumn, and again it recorded a story of success in a declining market, with cask beer continuing to gain absolute volume, not just market share, and having reversed the proportion of the ale market it enjoys vis-a-vis keg since 2006. It’s the drinkers of traditional keg ales, not cask, who are literally a dying breed.

However, it has some interesting things to say about drinkers’ expectations of how rapidly beers are changed and rotated on the bar and how, maybe surprisingly, drinkers tend to be less adventurous in their tastes than publicans think they are. Drinkers were happiest with an average of 4.9 beers over a four-week period, versus an average of seven amongst publicans. Drinkers also wanted to see guest beers available for more than a week, whereas publicans wanted to change them over more often. Many said that if they enjoyed a beer they would appreciate the opportunity to try it more than once, which is why many pub-owning breweries tend to produce seasonal beers for a period of two or three months.

I’m all in favour of trying new and unfamiliar beers, but sometimes it’s good to see an old favourite on the bar, particularly if you just want a dependable pint to wash down your lunch. And, from the breweries’ point of view, surely it will help their long-term prospects if they can build up a reputation for specific beers and get repeat business rather than an endless series of one-off specials. Thornbridge Jaipur is a good example of a beer that many people will immediately order if they see it. It would seem from the Cask Report that Britain’s drinkers agree.

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