Monday, 12 October 2009

One Year


It's one year since I started this blog. When Blogger posts this I'll be away from my computer at a seminar on barley wine organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers. I wrote this yesterday because I knew today1 I'd be busy. I really didn't want to let the day pass without marking the occasion.

It's been an interesting and possibly life changing year for me. This blog has put me in touch with lots of interesting and friendly people. I've explored beers and got myself deeper into the way of beer geekery, and I am worryingly enjoying it far too much. I'm not sure where life will take me next, apart from the fact we know we're playing out our end game here, we've been here long enough and the place needs a fresh set of ideas. What I do know is that beer and brewing will continue to take some place in my life.

It gets me thinking again about why I write this blog. The reasons I think are quite complex but have got one very key motivation and that is to communicate the many difficulties surrounding the pub industry and to try and counter some of the armchair commentators who claim the industry just needs to pull it's socks up to solve it's problems. I know what I need to do at my place and it distresses me that I'm constrained by time, money and legislation. I doubt that there are many publicans that are simply blasé about their own problems.

When we bought our place nearly 6 years ago we were full of all sorts of ideas about how we could make it work. We knew it would be hard work but we also thought we knew what it was that many pubs did wrong. What we probably didn't appreciate was just how difficult it was to fix some of the simplest things. We believe we have a unique set of problems here due to our location and the age of the building. However, I bet every single publican feels the same way and I'd certainly bet that most really do want to deliver the best service they can within the constraints their own business places on them.

After a while here I started to trawl the Internet to find out what people said about my pub and also compare against my competition. What I found quite astounded me. Not so much some of the things that got said about me but more the general griping about pubs. It seemed to me that very few punters have much idea about just how difficult it is to deliver the service we do.

Perhaps I'm over-sensitive, but it does seem to me that most people are on a hatred trip against the British Pub industry. We just can't seem to get it right. If we raise our standards and charge to cover the inevitable costs we get accused of being snobby and overpriced. If we cut our costs, with the inevitable lowering of standards, we might be able to provide beer at under £2 a pint, but then we're accused of standards that are too low. Of course, just to cap it all the drinks industry is constantly under fire from various anti alcohol factions which it strikes me the majority of the population are actually agreeing with.

I over reacted a little about Tandleman's Post where it is claimed that 94% of surveyed people didn't think that pubs delivered good service. I'm not sure I would agree with the findings and there is a big debate about the validity of the survey in the comments to the piece, but I do want to make one clear point here; Pubs are businesses that deliver a service at a price. Many are competing with Wetherspoons2 for trade, with their big drinking houses that thrive because of economies of scale, buying powers and techniques similar to supermarkets. It would seem to me that this is what the general pub going public want; they want a cheap pint. If they wanted better service then more pubs would spring up providing that service, and charge for it, after all, it's a free market we're in.

But wait, this is supposed to be a celebratory blog day post. I'm getting all negative here. I actually think that although there are a lot of difficulties in the pub trade, as there are in the wider business world in general, there are also lots to be happy about. The Cask Report for instance is full of positive news. Indeed, it was last years edition that gave me great hope 12 months ago. I did start to think that perhaps there are some positive slants that can be put on things. I think that the positive news here is all about quality and how indeed, for many pubs an increase in quality can be the very magic that is required.

For me, the thing that excites me is the increase of interest in more diverse beers. It's true that in the last 7 years or so I've gone from being a confirmed Guinness drinker to a beer anorak. This might mean that I notice unusual3 beer more than I used to, but I still think there is an increase of availability of specialist beers both in supermarkets and in various bars. Our sales of specialist bottled beers have increased this year and we know that some of our customers are coming here because of them. In turn, I feel that there is an increase of awareness of the general public about quality beer to the extent that some restaurants are stocking more than just the predictable culprits and pubs are much more likely to have some less obvious choices as well.

There are changes in the industry as restaurants and swanky wine bars squeeze the market. The pub industry suffers as the traditional pub going demographic shrinks. In turn some pubs change their approach to be more like restaurants or swanky bars, a risk that can result in spectacular success or inevitable failure.

I think there is a bright future to the pub industry. We might have to redefine what a pub actually is. There might also be inevitable loss of some of the dead wood. An acceptance that the trade is diversifying and some do have to rely heavily on a restaurant style service or depend on their own residential trade to survive. The days of the pure wet lead boozer are probably long behind us. There are new breeds of pub emerging that might not suit the traditionalist but they are becoming increasingly successful. They often, although I admit not always, provide a better service than your sleazy back street boozer. They might also be a little more pricey, but surely good service is worth that?

There we have the reason why I really write this blog; because I have a fascination about how the industry works and how it can continue to work. Both the beer and pub industry that are unavoidably intertwined are constantly evolving. Artisan beer, eclectic cuisine, perhaps fine wine, malt whisky or fancy cocktails are pushing out traditional drinking culture, but there is scope to tap into this market providing the pub culture can cope. How the pub culture can be made to cope with this is still an under explored topic which I'm sure I'll return to again during my second year of beer blogging.

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1It feels weird writing in the present tense about something that has yet to happen.

2I am not against Wetherspoons if that is what people want. It certainly seems to be to me that generally it is what the majority want. If you want better service go to a pub that provides it, but please don't talk down our pubs, they are what they are and we're mostly, collectively, working hard to provide what the pub goer wants.

3Of course what classes as unusual would create a whole new discussion. Something esoteric for one person might well be familiar and boring to another. Indeed, if specialist beers become more common place there starts to be an undermining of the very thing that makes them interesting.

13 comments:

Velky Al said...

Dave,

I can't remember precisely how I came across your blog, but I have enjoyed reading it ever since I did, and do hope to one day make it to the Woolpack for a pint or several.

I think the days of the pub as little more than a living room with hand pumps are well and truly done for, as a result pubs need to evolve and diversify to survive, and to thrive.

Despite the rotten journalism you see in the Daily Fascist (the Mail I believe most people call it), I get the sense that British drinking culture is evolving into something more akin to continental "cafe culture", where food is part and parcel of places to have a drink. I am not sure if a pub that only has pork scratchings, crisps and a box of Mars bars is likely to survive anymore, where the consumer has become more demanding. The question of whether consumers have realistic expectations though is another question.

Enjoy the barleywine seminar!

Darren T said...

Fantastic post, Dave. It's made me more determined than ever to make the trek up to your neck of the woods and enjoy your hospitality (and sample that bottled beer selection!) before too long.

Or on the other hand, how about relocating to Manchester? ;) Seriously, though, there are plenty of pubs around my neck of the woods that could do with the thought, care and attention that you so clearly lavish on your establishment.

And perhaps that's the key to the perception issue: maybe you're the exception rather than the rule? Maybe too many landlords just aren't interested (or don't have the time, the ideas or just the energy) to try new approaches, to improve their offering (as Velky Al suggests is happening in some places).

It's when those guys start moaning that they're the victims of circumstance and everything else is to blame that the pub-going public probably takes a look around at the dingy surroundings, the poor choice of factory-produced beer, the lack of atmosphere or energy in the place, and then votes with its collective feet.

Then again, what do I know? I've never tried to run a pub and it's obviously nowhere near as easy as the best landlords make it seem...

Cooking Lager said...

I raise a can of lout to your sterling efforts, Sir! May your endevours prosper!

Wurst/Whorst- Brewing Arts Instructor, CEO APRK said...

Dave, I believe I was one of the first to follow your blog. I know integrity when I read it. Continued success to a brother in the arts!

Tandleman said...

Congratulations Dave. I hope you continue the blog for a long while to come. Don't take pub criticism too much to heart. From what I've seen and wrote, you can tick the right boxes. But because you are sentient, sensitive and know what you are trying to do, doesn't mean others always are doing things right or are even aware that they aren't. Some of us, "some of the armchair commentators who claim the industry just needs to pull it's socks up to solve it's problems" have been around this industry a long time and care about it too. They - we - are entitled to call it as seen also.

Maybe you do need a bigger,less remote stage to brew beer and make a difference in the trade. I think you'll do well if you do and maybe that's what you are hinting at.

So chin up. Your blog is always worth reading, which is where we came in.

Mark said...

Nice one Dave and what a coincidence that we share the same blog birthday!! Keep on blogging!

The Urban Brewer said...

Congratulations on a year of interesting, honest and thought provoking pieces.

Cutting Edge are doing a programme this Thur at 9pm "The Red Lion" (ch4) on British pub culture. Be interested to see what you make of it Dave, if, that is you get a chance to watch it.

BigMalc said...

Many congrats on the blogging birthday. Always a good read, and thought provoking, its just a shame I only found it after a visit back in May. (excellent ales and a good natter!)

The more I consider the trade as a whole, the more I think that the elements of the trade that are most succesful in getting stories into the press are from those elements that just like to moan, and journo's today love nothing better than a good moaning story.

The publicans who are doing things right, tend to be more concerned with making their business right than pushing agendas in the national press and thus we get the imbalance of media coverage.

I agree the government is not a friend to the trade, and that consumers are too often concerned with only price, and so to a degree get the pubs they deserve.

However, I remain convinced that good operators can thrive even in these times, and perhaps Tandleman is right in that, whilst Eskdale is beautiful and well worth visiting, it does limit the exposure of your crafts to a wider appreciative world.

Keep the faith, (and blogging and brewing too!)

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

We'll have to have a long talk.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Blog!

Keep your chin up and don't get down and write things like, "I'm not sure where life will take me next, apart from the fact we know we're playing out our end game here, we've been here long enough and the place needs a fresh set of ideas."

The place needs your and Ann's ideas!

Washy

Tyson said...

Happy Birthday-how quickly the kids grow up these days.

Moggy said...

happy blogday, sorry it's late - google reader didnt show your latest post for some reason - damn the internet giants!

hopefully i will have had chance to call in before your next blogday!

Woolpack Dave said...

I've only just got around to replying to all these really nice comments. Thank you everybody.