Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 1998
* Saving Electricity *
Looking through a list of beers available in Stockport pubs fifteen years ago, I was struck by the fact that getting on for half of the real ale was in those days served by electric pump - almost always into oversize glasses. Nowadays, the figure is probably little more than five per cent, as there has been a steady trend to move from electric dispense to handpumps. A major reason behind this is to give a clear symbol of the availability of real ale, which can be ambiguous with electric pumps. However, another factor must have been the opportunity to replace oversize glasses with brim measures, thus increasing profit margins by about five percent without any price rise. I don't recall any of these pubs cutting their prices at the same time!
Far from being a nasty modern innovation, electric real ale pumps have now become an endangered part of our beer-drinking heritage, in just the same way as 1950s pub interiors. The once-common cylindrical diaphragm dispensers have completely vanished from our bar-tops, while few will now remember the strange spherical diaphragm pumps that were once found in many Wilsons' pubs. And what about the metered pumps in Ward's pubs in the Sheffield area that dispensed pints - no namby-pamby halves there! Even Banks's, who for long were the main champions of electric pumps, are now busy switching their pubs over to handpumps.
Surely CAMRA should be fighting to preserve the remaining examples of electric real ale dispense as quirky survivors of a vanished era, particularly as they generally remain the best guarantee of a full pint. Life would be very boring if every single pub served up its beer in exactly the same way.
A complaint often heard about pubs is that they charge exorbitant prices for soft drinks, and it's certainly true that they can impose some pretty steep mark-ups. But you've got to remember that pub prices have to cover expenses such heating, lighting, cleaning and staff wages, and represent much more than simply the cost of the drink plus a profit margin. The amount of these resources you consume when drinking a soft drink is just the same as with a pint of beer. Licensees have to make a living, and if they cut the price of soft drinks they would have to recoup the income somewhere else - probably on the price of beer. If my pint is being subsidised a bit by soft drinks, then I'm not complaining - after all, the main purpose of a pub is selling beer, while soft drinks are just a sideline.
It is also suggested that high soft drink prices act as an encouragement to drink-driving. This is the kind of pious notion which is initially credible, but when you examine it more closely is revealed as total rubbish. It is no more logical than arguing that happy hours or Holt's beer prices encourage drink-driving. I would be amazed if there has ever been a single case where someone has been convicted after staying on beer because he reckoned the lemonade was too dear. In real life, nobody's decision as to how much alcohol to drink before driving is going to be swayed by a a few pence one way or the other on the price of orange juice. In any case, while there may be a higher mark-up on soft drinks, they are rarely any more expensive than beer, particularly considering that they are not going to be swilled in pints in the same way.