Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September/October 2018

* Pie in the Sky *

Despite prophecies of doom, there’s still a bright future for wet-led pubs

EVERY so often, someone comes up with a report predicting the death of the wet-led pub and claiming that food is the future. The latest is someone called Christel Lane who has published a book entitled “From Taverns to Gastropubs” which seeks to “contextualise the rise of the gastropub through an exploration of food, drink and society over the past 500 years.”

Of course, the importance of food to pubs has greatly increased over the past few decades, and in many it is now the major part of their business. However, it’s important not to get carried away. These analyses always seem to reflect a very partial experience of pubs confined to city centres and prosperous commuter belts. Go to any ordinary town and you will still find plenty of pubs, and not just in obscure locations, where the food trade is limited or non-existent, and the bulk of their business is done after 9pm. How pubs like that are meant to adapt to a brave new world of wall-to-wall dining is difficult to fathom.

In fact, in recent years, in less prosperous areas the tide has been flowing the other way. Many pubs that used to serve weekday lunches for workers from local businesses have now dropped the food and often stopped opening at lunchtimes completely. In many of the smaller satellite towns of Greater Manchester, it’s now difficult to find any pub food whatsoever apart from in Spoons.

And, of course, earlier in the summer, many pubs were packed with punters watching the World Cup, and certainly not sitting down to a meal. Yes, wet-led pubs may have declined, but they’re not going to disappear or anything like it. Indeed, there are now specialist operators like Amber Taverns who are concentrating on the sector rather than regarding it as a poor relation to the upmarket food houses.

* Hotting Up For Lager *

Lager offers a huge potential market for craft brewers if they can get it right

WHILE there’s no reason why you can’t serve a cool, refreshing pint of cask beer in hot weather, the summer heatwave tested some pubs’ cellarmanship skills, and so drinkers’ thoughts inevitably turned to lager. That raises the question of why craft brewers can’t get more of a share of lager sales, which are currently dominated by the large international brewers. Lager accounts for two-thirds of all beer sold in British pubs; cask only a sixth, so there is a huge untapped market out there that seems ripe for the picking.

Lager has long since taken over from bitter as the default beer in British pubs, the one chosen by people who aren’t really that interested in beer. What is important to its drinkers is something that is accessible, consistent and refreshing, not something with strong or unusual flavours or wild variability. While there are plenty of craft lagers around, it’s noticeable how, at present, they are more often chosen by those who usually favour cask or craft ales, not the drinkers of Carling and Stella.

The challenge for craft brewers is to progress beyond just being one of a row of rotating craft kegs on the back wall, where they will inevitably be overshadowed by beers with louder, showier flavours. They need to become permanent fixtures on bars, so they attract regular, loyal customers, to be consistent, and to be distinctive, but not to the extent that people find them offputting. It needs to be perceived as a cooler choice while not marking the drinker out as being a bit weird. There is already a model to follow in Camden Hells, which is now a very common sight in more upmarket pubs and bars in London. Yes, it is now owned by AB InBev, but the foundations of its success were laid when Camden was an independent company.

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