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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
Beer Marketing Awards nominations now closed - shortlist soon! - click here for more details!
Support my new crowdfunded beer book with Unbound! Click here for more details
The campaign to save the mix tape - with My Generation Beer
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Thursday, 19 February 2015

Why CAMRA's Pub of the Year should be yours too

On Tuesday the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) announced that the winner of its National Pub of the Year competition was the Salutation Inn in Gloucestershire. After visiting last October, I completely concur.



What makes the perfect pub? It's the subject of one of my favourite ever pieces of writing. In fact you could write a very good book about it. (Perhaps even more than one - watch this space).

There are, of course, many potential factors. But usually, at the heart of it, are the people who run it. The best local breweries, most stunning views or finest Victorian architecture count for nothing if the people in charge are just going through the motions.

It's not easy running a pub. You have to be great with people, and you have to be prepared to work long hours. To really shine, you either need the energy of youth, or the budget for a team to supply it. And the part that doesn't get talked about often enough - it's a business. You have to be a really good businessman - an exceptional entrepreneur. You need to always be looking for that new idea that will appeal to people and give them reasons to cross the threshold. Oh yes, and you've got to be really good at keeping beer in perfect condition.

Peter Tiley ticks all these boxes, and one final one - he absolutely loves what he does.

I met him when he invited me down to the Sally as part of the Apple Day celebrations last year. It's the kind of pub you don't want to leave. I wrote about that visit here, in my column for the Publican's Morning Advertiser.

Congratulations Pete and all at the Sally.


Thursday, 12 February 2015

Announcing my next beer book: "What are you drinking?" No really, do you know?

Following my announcement last night about my new crowdfunded beer book project, we go live today - and here's the idea I'm working on.

Beer is many things.

It’s often cold, always wet, usually refreshing. It’s democratic, straightforward and accessible, but can also be complex and challenging. It can be blond, brown, red or black, strong or weak, light and spritzy, creamy and zesty, rich and fruity, chocolatey, coffee-like, spicy, piney, citrusy, caramelised, sour, or even salty.

Beer’s unique balance of exciting diversity and easy-going approachability have made it the most widely drunk alcoholic beverage on the planet. Only water and tea are more popular. In the twenty-first century, the global craft beer revolution is spreading beer’s astonishing palate of flavours and styles to people who previously thought it could only be fizzy and tasteless.

But behind all the excitement around the renaissance of the world’s most popular alcoholic drink lies an extraordinary fact: very few beer drinkers have much of an idea of what their beverage is made of.

Do you?

We all know that wine is made by fermenting pressed juice from grapes, and cider comes from doing something similar to apples. But what creates the flavour and texture of beer? Do you know what makes it that colour, or where the alcohol comes from? What creates that inimitable heady rush on the nose or that crisp, dry finish at the back of the throat?

For all its straightforwardness, beer is a complex drink. The typical drinker might mumble vaguely about hops without having any clear idea of what hops are, or they may even talk about ‘chemicals’.

And that’s a shame, because each of the four main ingredients of beer has an incredible story. 



'What Are You Drinking?'* is a journey into the four main ingredients of beer. The book will tell their stories and uncover the little miracles in malted barley, hops, yeast and water, and how each of these contributes to the massive miracle that is beer. 

Mixing travel writing, nature writing, history and memoir, this book picks up four natural ingredients that are usually only ever discussed in technical brewing manuals and takes them for a spin through time and across continents.
From the lambic breweries of Belgium, where beer is fermented with wild yeasts drawn down from the air around the brewery, to the aquifers below Burton-on-Trent, where the brewing water is rumoured to contain life-giving qualities, this book won’t just describe what each ingredient is; it will tell the full story behind how and why it came to be in beer and why that matters. 

It's a story that's aimed at the general reader and curious drinker, but even brewers and hardcore beer fans will find facts and stories they didn't know, or at least have them presenting in a refreshing new light.

'What Are You Drinking' will explain why hops grown in different parts of the world have such dramatically different flavours; it will give an eye-witness account of how the process of malting changes a humble barley grain into so much more, and will explain as much about the behaviour of yeast as you can handle without a degree in biochemistry.

We'll travel from the surreal madness of drink-sodden hop-blessings in the Czech Republic, to Bamberg in the heart of Bavaria, where malt smoked over an open flame creates beer that tastes like liquid bacon, and to the hop harvest in the Yakima Valley in the Pacific North West of the United States. We'll explore the history of our understanding of fermentation, the lost age of hallucinogenic gruit beers, and the evolution of modern hop varieties that now challenge grapes in terms of how they are discussed and revered.

Along the way, we’ll meet and drink with a cast of characters who reveal the magic of beer, and celebrate the joy of drinking it. And, almost without noticing, we’ll learn the naked truth about the world’s greatest beverage.

The 'Brewing Elements' series of books published by the US Brewers' Association does cover these four ingredients, but they are strictly only for brewers and the most hardcore beer enthusiasts. (The one on water even comes with a health warning discouraging you from reading it unless you from reading it unless you are a trained brewer with at least a high school level of education in chemistry.) This will be the first time a whole book has been written about the components of beer in a way that will be interesting, educational and entertaining to the general reader who enjoys drinking beer, but had no idea how special it was - until now.

The book is now open for pledging at Unbound.co.uk. The book has its own page, where there's a video from me talking more about the ideas in the book, and an exclusive excerpt from one of the chapters I've already written, about a visit to the hop farms of Slovenia where I learned about the effects of terroir on hop aroma, and the effects of salami on the human body and soul. There you'll also see a range of different pledging options if you'd like to get involved. There's also a Q&A section where I'll answer any questions you have.

We need around 750 pledges in total. If you like the sound of this book, if you would like your name printed in the back of the book, and if you'd like a special edition of it that is unique to subscribers and will never be available anywhere else, pledge now. The quicker we meet the target, the sooner it will be published!

If you want to find out more about Unbound and how their hybrid model of crowdfunding and mainstream publishing works, see my previous blog post here

This is going to be an exciting adventure. Hope you'll hop onboard!


* The title is a work in progress. It might change if we can think of a better one.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

I'm writing a new beer book - and testing out a new approach to publishing

The publishing industry is in a state of flux, but new models are emerging - one of which allows me to write my first book about beer in six years. And you can get involved.

A great deal has changed since I had my first book published in 2003. The beer scene, obviously, has changed beyond recognition. And so has publishing. When Man Walks into a Pub came out, there were lots of bookshops but no smartphones, no kindles, and most people didn't know what a blog was.

Like everything else, publishing has now fragmented. And like many other careers, being a writer means you have to have several different projects on the go at any one time. The books I have published by mainstream publishers are moving further away from beer - and I hope to have confirmation of a new book in that direction in the next few weeks. But the only problem with this is that I do miss writing books about beer...

Which is why I was delighted just before Christmas when a chap called Jason Cooper, who commissioned and edited my first two beer books at Pan Macmillan, dropped me a line to tell me that he is now working for a new kind of publishing venture.



Unbound is a new concept that combines the best bits of crowdfunding and traditional publishing. It was founded by authors who wanted to establish a different way of creating books. The idea is that the author and publisher work together on every aspect of a book idea. We work out the costs of actually bringing the book to market, and we crowdfund that bit of it. So you can pledge £10 and get an e-book that has your name in the back; twenty quid gets you a unique hardback edition, available only to subscribers, and so on. As the pledge levels go up, you get bigger rewards.

But the really cool bit is that once the money is raised and the book is published, it goes into the market just like a normal book does. It gets distributed by Transworld, part of the biggest publishing group in the world, and appears in bookshops, on Amazon etc just like a book for any other publisher. So if you want to pledge to help make the book happen, at the very least you get a special edition with your name in that's different from the one in the shops. If you find the whole crowdfunding thing is not to your tastes, you can simply wait until the book comes out, and buy the normal edition as you would any other book.

It works best for authors who've already got a bit of a following who want to write something different from what their mainstream publisher is after. Unbound is publishing people like Raymond Briggs, Jonathan Meades and David Quantick, a lot of music, food and drink and business titles, and they've already done one title made it to last year's Booker longlist. You can check out the full range of books thing they do, see which ones have met their target and which are still open, and browse what different pledge levels get you, on the site here.

Beer books are perfect for the model. So tomorrow, my first beer book proposal since Hops & Glory will be going up on the Unbound website with an invitation for you to pledge and be part of it. It's an idea that I'm really excited about, a return to the territory and style of my first three books (although it doesn't involve me going to sea for three months) and has the additional benefit of me having learned a lot more about beer - and writing - in the intervening years.

Depending on how long it takes to make the pledge target, the book should be published some time in 2016 - there's still a bit of travel left for me to do this summer, though I have done a lot of it over the past few years.

I'll be revealing the idea and scope of the book on this blog tomorrow, and linking to the Unbound page where there will be a bit more detail, and a short excerpt from one of the chapters I've already written. I'll also be able to answer any questions you might have.

So see you back here Thursday pm. I hope you're going to like it.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Awards galore! Your chance for glory

Whatever drink you make or market, here's your chance to shine.

I seem to have found myself judging rather more awards schemes at one time than is good for a chap. Each one is fantastic, and the number and scale of them is testament to how healthy and vibrant our drinks scene is. Everything is kicking off right now, so see what takes your fancy below.


Beer Marketing Awards
This is one I helped set up. We launched last November to plug a gap - there are, rightly, many awards celebrating brewing, but none pointing the way in terms of good marketing. There's never been a better time to celebrate what's good, whether that's a big TV ad from a global brewer, brilliant use of social media form a small brewer or a good label design from anyone. Open to any brewer marketing a beer in the UK or any of their agencies, entries close at the end of the month but our special early bird rate of £100 + VAT per entry is on until the end of this week, Friday 16th January. Entry forms are here. Sponsorship opportunities and tickets to the awards dinner on 14th April are also available.

BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards
I'm delighted to be one of the judges in the Best Drinks category for the third year. This cuts across beer, cider, wine, spirits and soft drinks. We want to find British producers who are doing something amazing. Not just producing a wonderful drink - though of course that's essential - but also creating something original, or telling a great story. Last year two of the three finalists were brewers, and the winner was Thornbridge. The year before, cider maker Once Upon a Tree triumphed. Producers can enter themselves into this award, but most entries come from Radio 4 listeners. If you're a drinker and a huge fan of a brewer, distiller, cider maker or whatever, this is your chance to nominate them for greatness. Entry forms are here. Entries close at midnight on 26th January so it's a short window to get your nominations in. I'll be talking more about it on the Shaun Keaveny show on BBC 6 Music on Thursday morning around 9am. (Other awards categories are also available.)

International Cider Challenge
I'm honoured to have been asked to chair this international cider competition. Any cider maker anywhere in the world can enter, and we just tweaked the categories to reflect the huge diversity of cider styles now getting established around the globe. When I've judged this one before, I've been surprised by who hasn't entered. The competition judges ciders blind, side by side, and it's a fascinating opportunity to compare craft and mainstream cider without knowing what you're drinking. Entry forms are here, and entries close on 6th March.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

What's the difference between craft beer snobs and Kopparberg drinkers?

Are we really chasing authenticity, flavour and story? Or just endless novelty?



If you follow North American beer writers on social media (and if not, you should) you might have seen this piece from yesterday, in which formidable beer writer Andy Crouch writes a perfectly balanced profile of Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co, and craft beer's first billionaire.

Jim, it seems, is pissed off. His brewery has become so big, the hip craft beer joints that arguably wouldn't be here without his vision will no longer stock his beers. His brand is no longer new, and the beers themselves, according to detractors, are mediocre and middle of the road. And he doesn't think that's fair.

While the claim that Boston Beer Co 'invented' craft beer can be challenged (the likes of Anchor and Sierra Nevada would have ultimately fathered the current craft beer scene even if Boston hadn't been there) it is undeniable that BBCo has shaped it more than any other. Jim Koch was a graduate of business school and brand consultancy, and he used the big corporate brewers' own tactics against them to create a challenger brand that ultimately took craft beer mainstream.

Amid all this brandspeak, what about the beer? Is it really mediocre? Well, not in the eyes of the judges of every single beer competition I've ever seen it judged in. It's always winning prizes.

BBCo's sin is to brew a wide variety of traditional styles very well, from Bavarian-style lagers to English-style bitters, from wheat beer to Kolsch, from seasonal specialities such as pumpkin ale and Christmas ale to mainstream-style beers that balance flavour and accessibility. Andy's article says that, reluctantly, Jim has now been forced to brew West Coast-style hop bomb IPAs just like every other craft brewer.

And Jim Koch is not alone. Another piece that went online yesterday features the brewers of Widmer and Deschutes - two more American craft beer pioneers - defending themselves from attacks from the craft beer community. Their crime? Being so good at what they do, they've grown substantially to become big businesses.

This all strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic.

Curiosity about flavour is one of the defining characteristics of people who like interesting beer. It's always great to find something new. But with so much new stuff around, we can forget the old.

It happened for me with Belgian beer. Ten years ago Trappist ales were the centre of my world. And then I discovered North American IPAs, and then their British counterparts. When I found a dusty bottle of Chimay Blue in my cellar a few years ago, I realised I hadn't had a Belgian beer in years, and tasting it rekindled an old love affair. Now, Saison Dupont, Westmalle Dubbel, Duvel, Orval, Rochefort and St Bernardus are back at my beery core, despite having no new news, no rock star brewers and little distribution in craft beer bars.

Forgetting old favourites in the rush of the new is one thing. But actively deciding that beers or brewers are boring, bland, middle of the road or sell-outs simply because they have been around for a while, or have grown much bigger than they were, is foolish, snobbish and blinkered.

This is why it pisses me off when craft beer neophytes slag off 'boring brown beer' and include all classic best bitter in that description. Sure, some traditional beers are boring and bland, just as some single hop IPAs are monotone and grating after the first pint. But there are wonderful examples of both.

Sure, some breweries do compromise on quality, ingredients and brewing time when they grow and the accountants take control. Others stick steadfastly to their principles. And as Gary Fish of Deschutes says in the second piece linked to above, commercial success can improve quality. Though it pains me to say it, Goose Island IPA is actually a better quality beer since it has been brewed with cutting-edge A-B Inbev technology than it was on knackered old microbrewery plant that couldn't keep up with volume. Budweiser Budvar remains one of the best quality lagers in the world, thanks in no small part to its 90-day lagering. Timothy Taylor Landlord is one of the finest ales on the planet when kept well. All are dismissed by craft beer purists whose definition of the word 'craft' has more to do with scale and novelty than with any measure of skill or quality.

Which brings me to Rekorderlig.

I'm sure most fans of the latest craft breweries would run a mile from any suggestion of similarity to drinkers of a glorified alcopop constructed from industrial alcohol spirit, sugar and artificial flavourings. But the success of the faux-cider alcopops is based entirely on novelty: it's all about which flavour variant is coming next. As soon as they run out of different combinations of fruit syrups, they'll run out of road.

Let's not allow the current momentum in beer go the same way. Because at the moment, it looks awfully similar. One brewer creates a single hop citra IPA, and everyone else does. Then that gets boring and it's all about 'saisons' brewed with the contents of the brewer's spice cupboard, some of which are about as authentically saison as Rekorderlig is cider. Then it's endless different takes on Berliner-Weisse. And so on. And woe betide anyone who doesn't follow the path, who instead simply carries on making great beer that was fashionable five years ago, and sells it in greater quantities now than they did then.

Last year, I was deeply impressed by relatively new kids on the block such as Wiper & True, Siren, Tiny Rebel and Orbit. I was also pleased to see the likes of Camden, Beavertown and Waen reach new levels of scale and skill. But I also wondered why Otley, Redemption and Windsor & Eton didn't seem to be getting the chatter and buzz they once did.

Thornbridge celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. My adoration for what some argue is the 'original craft brewery' is no secret. But I'm starting to hear rumblings about them that would sound depressingly familiar to Boston Beer Co, Deschutes, Sierra Nevada and others: they're too big. They're blander than they used to be. They're selling out and going mainstream.

Bollocks.

Craft beer, whatever you want to call it, has gone mainstream. Now, it's growing up and maturing, and it already has several generations of brewers. Without the pioneers, the rest wouldn't be here today. And while today's newbies push the envelope ever further - which is what they should be doing - the bigger, older breweries are getting better at what they do, building bigger names, and providing a bridge between the mainstream and the cutting edge.

If you simply reject their achievements and their vital contemporary role in favour of what's new this week, whatever that is, you're not interested in authenticity and story at all. You're just following the latest fad among your peer group. And that makes you no more discerning, no cooler, no edgier, than the guy pouring his strawberry and lime flavoured 'cider' over ice.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Why J D Wetherspoon's is fast becoming my favourite craft beer bar

In eight years of blogging and writing articles and columns about beer, I think everything I've written about JD Wetherspoon splits pretty evenly between "This is amazing" and "This is absolutely appalling."

Wetherspoons is a mixed bag. Remarkably, nothing about it is simply OK - that mixed bag contains both the best and worst of British pubs. But recently, the balance for me is shifting. I'm becoming a 'Spoons denizen.

Now is the time to make your jokes about being pissed by 10am and shouting randomly at strangers. Done that? Good, let's carry on.

It started in the summer, when 'Spoons started selling cans of craft beer imported from the US at the ridiculous price of £1.99 each.


Sixpoint is a good brewery, and Bengali Tiger in particular hit the spot over a long, hot summer. But 'Spoons remained a distress purchase, a bedraggled, sad pub chain without soul that just happened to sell a few good beers.

But the chink in my anti-'Spoons armour had been opened. 'Spoons was now a place I would consider going. And the more I've been, the more I've liked it. 

There was a day back in October when I needed to get out of the house with a manuscript and a red pen to try to sort out a sample chunk of a new book I'm writing. I like doing this kind of work in pubs - it focuses me and, perhaps counter-intuitively, gets rid of distractions. I went to a local craft beer pub - the kind of place I still remain overjoyed about, in theory, counting myself lucky that I live within walking distance of several such places. 

I ordered a pint of cask beer and it wasn't good. I hate these situations. It wasn't that the beer was off; it wasn't displaying any recognisable faults, it just hadn't been kept with love and care and simply wasn't pleasant. So I thought that for my next pint, I'd move on to keg. BrewDog Dead Pony Club - perfect at 3.8%, an increasingly mainstream beer that wasn't strong enough to make me lose focus on my work - £5.20 a pint. They also had Beavertown Gamma Ray IPA, one of my beers of the year, brewed just a couple of miles from where I was standing - £6.50 a pint. And I just thought, that's too much for those beers. I don't like the quality of the cask, and I'm not prepared to pay that for a keg beer, and so I left.

Stuck for where to go next, I ended up in my local Wetherspoon's, the Rochester Castle on Stoke Newington High Street. And there, I found Devil's Backbone - an American IPA from a celebrated brewer - brewed under license in the UK, admittedly - for less than three quid a pint.


And so I asked myself, why should I pay £6.50 a pint for something I can get yards away for less than £3?

The arguments in answer to this came pretty quickly. But I found myself knocking each one of them back.

Yes, but it's a one off, this isn't a 'proper' craft beer bar.
Oh no? I'll admit the range will always consist of what is becoming known as 'mainstream craft', but those are the kinds of beers I prefer to drink anyway. As well as Devil's Backbone, there's a range of bottled craft beers including BrewDog, Goose Island and Lagunitas. They'll keep me happy for a session, at half the price of the nearby craft beer bar.

But Wetherspoons outlets are so soulless. There's no atmosphere there.
Yes, Wetherspoons are often big, echoey hangars, and the lack of music gives the air an odd hue. But most craft beer bars are sparse and spartan and echoey too, and the music they play is often shit, chosen by the staff to show how hip they are rather than to create the appropriate atmosphere for the space. Some of the buildings Wetherspoons have taken over and preserved are beautiful, and there's always a nod to its history in the decorations on the walls.

Wetherspoons aren't 'proper' pubs. They're managed outlets just like a McDonald's.
So are most craft beer pubs I know, whether they're part of a small branded chain or not.

The staff don't know what they're doing. They're disinterested.
I beg to differ. Wetherspoons staff may be trained to be just like their counterparts in chain restaurants, but in the Roch at least, I find the service to be polite and professional, with none of the sneering attitude I sometimes (to be fair, rarely) encounter in hip bars. I'm used to having to argue with the bar staff if I have to take a pint of beer back because it's off. In Spoons, I've had the best service I've ever encountered in this situation.

The quality of the beer is shit/they buy short-dated stock.
Wrong. Most Spoons pubs have Cask Marque. Their cellar standards are excellent. And I have it on very good authority that the short-dated thing is an urban myth.

Fine, but look at the kinds of people you have to drink with. They're awful!
My local Spoons has some dodgy characters, it's true. Especially the guys who sit by the window. They're casualties of life, the people who do turn up and start drinking at breakfast time, the people who have been forced out of the pubs they used to drink in by gentrification and £6.50 a pint. Some of them are shouty. Some of them smell a little ripe. There's no getting away from that. But inside, my local Spoons is a true community pub. It's where all the local posties gather when they've finished their shifts. There are always big tables of council workers and teachers, and a smattering of students. And no hipsters. None. I'm not having a go at hipsters, but I live in a multicultural, multifaceted community, and Spoons is one of the only pubs that reflects that. Some of the negative attitude about 'Spoons drinkers is snobbery, pure and simple.

Add to this the free wifi, cheap meals (with calorific content of each dish clearly displayed - where else does that?) the bi-annual real ale and cider festivals that include unique collaborations with craft brewers from around the world flying to the UK to brew here, and you have a proposition that would be celebrated by every beer writer and craft beer geek in the country if it wasn't 'Spoons doing it.

I'm not going to defend everything about the place, and I'll accept that standards vary across the estate an I just might have a good one on my manor, but increasingly, in many areas, J D Wetherspoon is setting standards for more 'serious' bars to live up to.

I never thought I'd see the day.


*Amended at 10am - I previously said that Devil's Backbone was imported. It isn't, and JDW don't make that clear. Thanks to Boak and Bailey for the clarification. Read their take on the crafting of 'Spoons here.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Some reflections on PubCo reform

This most difficult and complex issue in the pub industry probably hasn't got any easier after a landmark victory in parliament yesterday for anti-PubCo campaigners. But whatever your views, no one except the campaigners has come out of this looking good.

I've not written much about the long-running battle between the biggest pub companies in Britain (pubcos) and the publicans who feel ripped off and/or abused by them. I've taken no joy whatsoever in writing about it when I have. It's the most emotive, bitter and unpleasant issue I've come across in my time as a beer writer, and beer writing is meant to be a joy.


THE BACKGROUND
If you don't know the history of this dispute, here it is in brief (if you do, skip to the next bit). For most of the twentieth century, pubs were owned by the breweries that supplied them with beer. Breweries paid for things such as upkeep and decoration in return for the pub not selling anyone else's beer but theirs. (There's more in my book Man Walks into a Pub on how this came about). In 1989, the government decided this was anti-competitive, and passed the Beer Orders, which severely limited the number of pubs any one brewery was allowed to own. Thousand of pubs instantly hit the market, and were bought up by investment banks, repackaged, split up, parcelled out, and eventually came under the ownership of a few big pub companies accounting for about half of Britain's pubs.

These pubcos were not tied to any one brewery, but many felt that the situation was even less openly competitive than it had been before: pubcos could drive hard deals with the brewers that supplied them, and the range of beers in a typical boozer actually shrank. Instead of Whitbread beers in Whitbread pubs, Courage beers in Courage pubs and so on, the same big national brands were installed wherever you went. And crucially, from a publican's perspective, the pubs were still tied - not to a brewery, but to a property-owning company which had astonishing debts after buying thousands of pubs just at the time Britain's leisure habits changed and we started doing most of our drinking at home.

The tied deal offered by a pubco looks good on paper and, to be fair, does seem to work for a lot of publicans. The pubco makes its money via a combination of property rent and the purchasing tie. In theory, someone with not much capital to invest and not much experience in the trade can go into a pub on a low rent, but the company makes the money back by selling stock to the pub at inflated prices, above the market rate the publican could buy the same stuff for elsewhere. But the publican still makes money, because the pubco is a business partner offering help and advice, takes care of the repairs and so on, and the combination of rent and tied stock prices works out OK over the year, optimised to work with things like projected cashflow.

That's the theory. And it is important to repeat that this model seemingly works perfectly well for thousands of happy publicans. But it is also undeniable that this system has been abused by the pubcos, if not on a systematic basis, then certainly at a widespread enough level for it to be seen as a pattern rather than an aberration. I've spoken to many publicans who feel they were misled when signing their leases, given false information about how profitable the pub was before signing up to how much money they would pay over, being made liable for essential and costly repairs they weren't told about, or punished for succeeding by being given eye-wateringly high increases when rent review time came around.

While many campaigners will vehemently disagree with me on this point, it's my belief that the worst excesses of the pubco abuse are in the past: they have cleaned up their act, because they had to - they simply couldn't carry on getting away with it. That's not to say problems and disputes have gone away - far from it - but the pubcos are not taking the piss like they once did.


THE CRUCIAL VOTE
Anyway, there's a Bill going through parliament that sets up a statutory code to regulate the dealings between pubcos and their tenants and lessees. Naturally, the pubcos oppose this, and have lobbied for it to be as light on them as possible. But the campaigners, facilitated by self-styled pub champion Greg Mulholland MP, requested an amendment to the bill that would make it mandatory for pubcos to offer a 'market rent only' (MRO) option, effectively allowing any tenant to rent a pub from them free of tie. Yesterday, MPS voted to include that amendment in the Bill, after many were swayed to vote against party lines by a campaign from pubco opponents. (Apart from its importance to the pub industry, the vote was significant for being the first government defeat in a whipped vote since the coalition came to power in 2010).

Of course the Bill still needs to be passed into law with the amendment intact, but the rush of reaction from both sides after yesterday's vote makes it seem like everyone expects it to survive.

I don't have a coherent point of view on this, and for a more knowledgeable insight on what this might actually mean for the future of the pub market you should read an insightful blog by a level-headed, balanced publican - but even he can't say what will happen for sure. But I do have some disconnected observations...

1. This is a remarkable victory for the campaigners 
Whether you agree with them or not, this is a grassroots campaign that has convinced politicians, upset the government and triumphed over some powerful lobbying groups. I've criticised the campaigners in the past for being too emotional, too aggressive, and alienating those who could be supportive. All that evaporates in the face of a coherent, well-organised campaign with just the right amount of emotive force.

2. If they really were being fair, I don't understand why the pubcos are so upset
This is entirely due to my naivety about the mechanics of the deal, and I have no desire to be educated on it in more detail than I already know. Sometimes naivety can be a good thing. If pubcos make their money via sliding levers, moving rent up and tied stock prices down and vice versa to get to the deal that works best for both parties, then surely they will be no worse off? If someone wants a market rent only tenancy, I'm sure that market rent will be much higher than what they currently pay. If they don't like it, they can stick with a tied deal. If the tied deal is as fair as the pubcos say it is, surely most pubco tenants will stick with it, and if they don't, the pubco won't make any less money from a market rent only deal? As Stonch points out, they already do offer market rent-only deals to some operators - at very high market rents. What does this vote change apart from offering that option to more people?

3. CAMRA's response is a little disappointing
Within an hour of the vote, I received a press release from CAMRA claiming the credit for the vote. The statement begins "CAMRA is delighted that, after ten years of our campaigning, MPs have today voted to introduce a market rent only option for licensees tied to the large pub companies - a move that will secure the future of the Great British Pub" and ends "Thank you to the 8000 CAMRA members and campaigners who lobbied their local MP to help make this happen and to those MPs that voted to support pubs. CAMRA are now urging the Government to accept the outcome of the vote." I'm not saying CAMRA didn't help in this campaign - they played a significant role - but to imply this was their campaign, and theirs alone, doesn't make them look good. As a CAMRA member, I can't recall receiving any communication from the organisation urging me to support the campaign. (I'm not saying they didn't send me anything, just that if they did, it wasn't noticeable.) In the week running up to yesterday's vote the activity from grassroots groups such as Fair Deal For Your Local was unmissable across social media. @camraofficial, by comparison, issued one tweet on November 12 urging its members to lobby their MPs to support the amendment. Of course CAMRA played a key role, but it was one of many groups, and I find it disingenuous that they were so quick to claim all the credit.

4. The BBPA's response is even more disappointing
The BBPA describes itself as "the leading body representing Britain’s brewers and pub companies". Most of the time, this means it is the official voice speaking on behalf of the whole beer and pub industry, and when it does so, it does an increasingly effective job. Unlike many pubco campaigners I don't see the BBPA as The Enemy. I have worked with them in the past and hope to do so again. I even count several people who work there as friends. But yesterday's press release in response to the vote was unbecoming of them.

Chief Executive Brigid Simmons is quoted as saying the vote will "hugely damage investment, jobs, and result in 1,400 more pubs closing, with 7,000 job losses - as the Government’s own research shows." But this is not quite true. The government research to which Simmons refers actually says the move could result in between 700 and 1,400 pubs closing, with between 3,700 and 7,000 job losses. Now I'm not saying that's a good thing, and I have no idea whether this research is right or not - we'll have to wait and see. But by only quoting the uppermost figure as if it were the only figure, and not the top limit in a very wide range, at best the organisation responsible for promoting beer and pubs is being overly gloomy and pessimistic about their future. At worst, the BBPA is being deliberately misleading and alarming on an issue that hasn't gone their way. This is the kind of nonsense I expect from Alcohol Concern, not the beer and pub industry's official mouthpiece.

Simmons also says, "This change effectively breaks the ‘beer tie’, which has served Britain’s unique pub industry well for nearly 400 years." As someone who has written a history of beer and pubs in Britain, this came as a great surprise to me. If the beer tie has been around for nearly 400 years, that means its been around for longer than the big breweries that invented it: large scale commercial brewing only really became the dominant model of British beer in the mid-eighteenth century, after the industrial revolution. While tied pubs may have existed in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, they didn't become the norm until the late nineteenth century, when beer consumption peaked and brewers floated on the stock exchange to buy up the pubs that sold their beer. The tied house system was only the norm for a century or so, and even then, 'serving the pub industry well' surely has to be questioned as a statement. It's always been problematic, always been fought against, never perfect.

Finally, again, is this really the end of the tie as Simmons claims? Does the freedom to opt out of a tied relationship with a pubco mean the end of the tied relationship as a model? Surely this is only the case if that tied relationship is so intrinsically flawed that all, or even the majority, of publicans will exercise their new right to opt out of it? 

The pubcos and their lobbyists can't have it both ways: if the tie works for the majority of publicans, and is as fair as we have always been told it is, then the majority of publicans will stick with it. If the chance to opt out of the tie really does spell the end of the tie, then that means the pubcos and their supporters have been lying to us all along, and it really was institutionally unfair on publicans.

I have no idea what the right answer is. But the pubco stance on this issue simply doesn't add up. Or am I missing something obvious?

I really do hope yesterday's vote will lead to a fairer, more equitable deal for publicans, and will not result in the closures and job losses being gloomily forecast by those who have lost. Because this conflict brings out the worst in our industry, and because I would be really happy not to ever feel obliged to write about it again.


UPDATE
I just found the London Economics report on which the scary pub closure figures are based. I've only got time for a quick scan as I really do have other work to be getting on with. But it seems to me that the reason they are forecasting MRO would lead to pub closures is that Britain is currently oversupplied with pubs - essentially, it's saying pubcos are currently managing to keep pubs open that would otherwise close in a freer market, pubs where under the current system neither pubco nor publican are making enough money. It doesn't seem to be saying at all that a given MRO pub would be worse off than it is now because it goes MRO.

They may be right or wrong about this - pubco campaigners believe they are definitely wrong. I believe there is some truth to the idea that struggling and poor pubs will fold if they're subject to free market pressures. But I can also point to countless examples of failing or underperforming pubs that have been shed by Enterprise or Punch and are now thriving under new ownership and a different business model.

The most crucial point though is that the London Economics study models the number of pubco pubs that will close. It does not project closures on a total pub market basis. It's undeniable that MRO will accelerate the rate of disposal of under-performing pubs from the pubco estates. But what the pubcos and BBPA fail to point out is that London Economics "estimate a third of these would re-open under alternative management." So that makes the 1400 pubs and 7000 jobs claim dishonest on two counts: as well as this being only the highest figure within a wide range, these are not net closures in the pub market as is currently being implied; rather, they are modelled net loss closures to the pubco estates - not to the economy as a whole. If we take into account London Economics figures for reopenings under alternative management, the report is saying that, net, between 462 and 924 pubs will close, not 1400, with between 2442 and 4620 job losses, not 7000.

The London Economics report speculates that MOR may lead to the end of a large scale tied pub system - not that it definitely will. And even if it does, it suggests that "This, however, may not be as disastrous as it initially sounds." (All quotes from Executive Summary of the report, page vii).

The 'government's own research' that is being wheeled out in today's papers to signal the death knell for the British pub isn't quite saying what the BBPA and pubcos would like you to think it is saying.

Again, if I'm getting the wrong end of the stick here I welcome clarification and correction from anyone more familiar with the issue than I am.