Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - September 1996

* Spoilt by Progress *

The motto of Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, the company that owns Banks's, is "Unspoilt by Progress", and up until a few years ago they could proudly declare that to be true. A much bigger company than Holts, they couldn't maybe pursue quite such an individualistic path, but even so they had many of the same characteristics - high-quality beer, plain Mild and Bitter, cask-conditioned in every outlet, sold at prices notably below the local competition, in straightforward, unassuming pubs which were immune from the passing fads of pub decor. The formula worked, too, and was reflected in the most impressive record of sustained growth of any stock-market listed brewery company.

This made them, for a time, the darlings of the financial markets, and ever since, they seem to have lost their way, maybe because in trying to please the City they've taken their eye off the basics. They closed their Hanson's brewery at Dudley, killed off Hanson's Bitter and turned Hanson's Mild, once widely regarded as the best beer in their portfolio, into a cheap economy brand. They relaunched Banks's Mild as plain "Banks's" - but everyone in the Black Country still asks for "a pointer moild" and if you just ask for Banks's in one of their pubs you'll probably get bitter. They've lost a lot of goodwill in their home areas by selling off small tenanted pubs, often delicensed.

They moved into this area and spent vast sums building new pubs, but none of them have really hit the mark, and the Four in Hand in Didsbury is an object lesson in how not to convert a Victorian house into a pub, especially in comparison with the nearby Woodstock. They have flirted with nitrokeg, both as "draught-in-a-can" and in pubs - there are now Banks's houses offering nothing but. They've even had a go at seasonal real ales, but only seemed to be toying with it, and the beers haven't been up to much. And they've started applying daft theme concepts to what were once perfectly decent locals, with predictable fake Irish bars and ludicrous "Fast Eddie's Pool Lounges".

All this has been reflected in much more inconsistent financial results, and a share price which has yo-yoed up and down but never gone anywhere much. More importantly, they've lost a reputation for straightforward quality that took many years to build up. The cobbler should stick to his last, they say, and independent breweries shouldn't waste their energies chasing after every fleeting fad. Let's hope Holts don't start having fancy ideas, though somehow I doubt it.

* The Best in the North-West? *

On a hot, humid summer evening, we had a pint of Robinson's Best Bitter that was absolutely superb, cool, clear and bursting with fruit, malt and hops, undoubtedly one of the two or three best pints I'd tasted this year. But this only served to underline how disappointing Robinson's beer, and in particular the Best Bitter, generally is in their pubs. A few keep it consistently well, and you can find most of them in the Good Beer Guide, but the rest are average at best. If it's capable of being so brilliant, and it certainly is, why can't it be at least good more often?

* The Great Chip Debate *

Thin or thick, straight or crinkly, crisp or soggy, there's no consensus on what makes the ideal chip, as the correspondence column of "OT" has shown. Pub chips are something of a lottery, and whatever your preference, you're seldom satisfied. Given the vast quantities of the things they sell, it surely can't be beyond the capabilities of pubs with a busy food trade to offer their customers a choice between French fries and chunky chips, and even between "rare" and "well done".

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