Category: Pubs

| Covid, Food, Media bollocks, Neo-prohibitionism, Pubs

Why there’s no point trying to define a “substantial meal.”

As new Covid tier rules in England threaten to decimate the pub industry, there’s no neo-prohibitionist conspiracy here: just an indifferent government that’s too lazy to help.

From tomorrow, 32 million people – 56% of the population of England – will be living under Tier 2 restrictions. In this tier, they will be allowed to drink in pubs, but only if they are also eating a “substantial meal”.

This has led to an increasingly entertaining/depressing/frustrating (delete according to how much skin you have in the game) national conversation about what constitutes a “substantial meal.” Government attempts to clarify the rules over the last few days have revealed a shocking lack of thinking behind them.

Most people I’ve seen discussing the issue in both mainstream and social media assume that the rule is in place to discourage immoderate drinking, which could in turn lead to a loss of inhibition and lower willingness to comply with social distancing rules.

That’s a big assumption – when pubs reopened after Lockdown 1 on 4th July, the media universally predicted a wave of drunken behaviour that would lead to a surge in new cases. That wave never materialised. But let’s run with the assumption for a moment.

The Science Bit

Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream slowly from the stomach, and rapidly from the small intestine. Having food in the stomach slows down the passage of alcohol to the small intestine while also allowing enzymes in the stomach more time to break down and inactivate alcohol. So drinking on a full stomach doesn’t just slow down your alcohol absorption; its means you end up absorbing less alcohol overall.

So there is some logic here: if you believe (despite lack of solid evidence) that drunker people are less likely to observe social distancing and other measures to prevent potential Covid spread, mandating that they can only drink while eating would help reduce – or at least slow down – potential drunkenness.

Getting eggy with it

So how much food do we have to consume to get this effect? Well, this is where it gets complicated. Not to mention utterly ridiculous. Because the government appears to have no idea.

In October, we were told that a Cornish pasty was a substantial meal, but only if you order it with chips or a side salad – as you do. Yesterday, another cabinet minister told us that a Scotch egg counts, only to be swiftly contradicted by the Prime Minister’s office, which was in turn contradicted again by Michael Gove half an hour ago, after I had already started writing this. Evidently, the government cannot agree on what is and is not a substantial meal.

Another problem is, what’s substantial for one person is different for another. I have friends who would be full after one Scotch egg, and others who could eat a platter full. The amount of food needed in the stomach to slow down the absorption of alcohol varies from person to person.

If we were looking for an average though, let’s say we were to split the calorific difference between a Scotch egg (around 300-340 calories) and a Cornish pasty (700-900 calories) we might get to, say, an average of 500 calories (a Ploughman’s or a cheese and tuna panino, but not a chicken fajita wrap) as the boundary between what’s substantial and what’s not.

But we’d be wasting our time.

The reason it doesn’t make sense is that it’s got nothing to do with the size of the meal

As pub operators have asked for clarification, more rules have been made up – sorry, made clear.

Firstly, you can’t have another drink after you’ve finished eating. This makes no sense at all. You can order your first drink when you order your food. You can also presumably order more drinks while you’re waiting for your food to be delivered to the table. These drinks will, by definition, be drunk on an empty stomach, the alcohol flowing straight into your small intestine and from there into your bloodstream within minutes. But once you’ve finished eating – when your stomach is at its fullest and therefore when you will absorb alcohol at the slowest rate – you’re not allowed to drink alcohol any more. Notwithstanding the fact that eating a meal can break down a small amount to the alcohol already in your system (but not enough to make much difference) this makes nonsense of the idea that these measures will have any effect in reducing the drunkenness that arguably wasn’t going to be there to begin with.

Secondly, it seems the calories are only substantial if they come from the pub’s own kitchen. Tap rooms with food trucks outside have been told that food from those trucks does not count as a substantial meal. Wet-led pubs that have takeaway menus allowing you to order from nearby pizzerias or chips shops have similarly been informed that these meals don’t count either. Neither are you allowed to take your own packed lunch to the pub, no matter how substantial it is.

Evidently then, the substantial meal rule has absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with slowing the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. Trying to define what counts as “substantial” via calorie counting or physical volume – as a reasonable person would – is a waste of time because it is absolutely irrelevant to the definition of a substantial meal. The Scotch egg thing is simply a side-show.

You know perfectly well what the rules are

Obviously then, many pubs set to enter Tier Two have been seeking clarification on what is going on – only to be told they already know. There was a consistent line across several interviews yesterday, when ministers were asked what constitutes a substantial meal.

“There is, to be serious, there is a well-understood definition of what a substantial meal is,” said Michael Gove, seconds after demonstrating that this was emphatically not the case, in what is sure to become known as #ScotchEggGate. The PM’s spokesman with whom he was disagreeing also insisted that “Bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal… It’s well-established in the hospitality industry what does.”

As confused publicans urgently seek clarification in order to determine whether they can reopen or not in Tier Two, desperately trying to avoid breaking the rules if they decide to, the government’s response is basically that old stereotype of a passive aggressive argument in a relationship:

“What’s wrong? Why are you angry?”

“You know why.”

“No I don’t. What have I done?”

“You know very well what you’ve done.

“If I knew, I won’t be asking, would I?”

The pub industry is asking what constitutes a substantial meal, only to be told it knows perfectly well what a substantial meal is, even though the government can’t agree with itself on what counts as a substantial meal.

This is not a stereotype from a relationship. This is not the argument you had with your little brother when you were twelve. This is the British government, guiding the country through a pandemic while trying not to crash the economy. Makes you want a drink, doesn’t it?

Reading a little more closely though, and we can see not only what they’re talking about, but why.

Are you sitting comfortably?

According to the Covid-19 winter plan, “Venues that serve alcohol can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant, which means serving substantial meals (and accompanying drinks).”

This is where the phrase “substantial meal” comes from. This is why it’s important. It’s got nothing to do with the speed of alcohol absorption; it’s saying effectively that pubs are not allowed to operate as pubs: they are only allowed to operate as if they were restaurants.

The guide goes on to define a substantial meal as “a full breakfast, main lunchtime or evening meal”. Eat your Cornish pasty (with side salad, obvs) between noon and 3pm, and it counts. Between 4pm and 5pm, I’m guessing it doesn’t.

As well as the time of day, the key thing that makes a meal substantial or not is how it is served. When George Eustice was bullshitting on the hoof, what he actually said was, “I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service.” (my italics).  

This is why bar snacks, packed lunches, food trucks and takeaways don’t count. If a pub behaves as a restaurant, customers remain seated and have table service on plates (I’m guessing boards, baskets and those wanky miniature shopping trolleys count here too) of food cooked in the restaurant kitchen. As ministers continue their public argument about Scotch eggs, the one thing they’re all consistent on is that it has to be table service. People have to be sitting down and have their food brought to them. The pub must behave as if it were a restaurant.

From this, it seems the “pubs must behave as restaurants” wheeze is all about restricting movement around the pub. That’s fair enough. But before Lockdown 2, pubs were already table service only. If you wanted to move around, you had to put on a mask. If you didn’t have a table, you couldn’t be served. So the substantial meal rule is designed to create a situation that was already in place. Unless there is good reason to believe that the previous regulations were not working – and I’ve not seen anything that suggests they weren’t – the substantial meal rule is not just devastating, not just nonsensical, but also completely unnecessary.

So why is it being introduced?

There have been suggestions of a conspiracy to destroy pubs, driven by the neo-prohibitionists. While I’ve written about their skullduggery many times, I don’t believe they’re behind this. With most conspiracies, where you suspect some secret organisation behind the scenes, it’s really just crap people fucking things up.

As it dishonestly claims to “follow the science,” this government has in reality allowed public opinion to guide its Covid response to a significant degree. The strategy of leaking ideas for Covid measures to mates in the press, and then gauging the response before deciding whether to implement them, is both cowardly and grossly irresponsible, but it has been the consistent strategy of Johnson’s government throughout the pandemic.

We occasionally hear nonsensical sentences like “We’ve got to close pubs to keep schools open,” as if allowing people to go for a pint makes kids more likely to come home with Covid after double maths. What it actually means is that all Covid restrictions are unpopular, but we’ll accept some before others. Going to the pub is seen as a luxury, or even a sin, especially by people who never go to pubs and have no idea what they’re like. The government has to be seen to do something. And we’ll just about accept pub closures because, despite my protestations to the contrary, it does make logical sense to some people that we might behave more irresponsibly after a drink (but not if we buy it from Tesco of course.)

The substantial meal rule came in simply because it sounds like a tough restriction, one that seems to make sense, even though the logic we all might assume actually has nothing to do with the decision. It’s the lazy-arsed thinking behind such a cynical move that also led to them not thinking it through properly, and not being bothered to come up with a coherent set of answers to questions people were obviously going to ask.

That’s the problem with being lazy – you just create more work for yourself down the line.

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| Pub closures, Pubcos, Pubs

Tom Kerridge: sharing the plight of pubs in a way everyone can relate to

Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge started its four-week run on BBC2 last night. I was asked to interview Tom about the series for the Radio Times, and got a sneak preview. He brings out the human stories behind the stats better than anyone.

Photo: Ellie Kynaston/BBC/Bone Soup Productions

There’s a moment ten minutes into the first episode of Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge where the viewer’s emotions are flipped, as if someone has performed a metaphorical judo move that leaves you momentarily flat on your back.   

Tom is eulogising the great British pub, or as he calls it, “the neighbourhood’s living room,” as he heads for the White Hart Inn in Chilsworthy, Cornwall. This award-winning country pub – it was CAMRA’s Cornish Pub of the Year in 2019 – has stunning views down the Tamar Valley, excellent food, a mouth-watering range of local beers, and most of all, the lively atmosphere generated by landlady Amy. Amy is a human dynamo who, if she had to, could probably pour you a perfectly kept pint, cook your dinner, host the pub quiz and change a barrel in the cellar all at the same time. 

Tom looks on in wonder, his grin a mile wide, like he’s just found his new local. And then he sits down with Amy, (who only took over the pub with her partner Ian in 2017) to talk about how business is going.

At first, she’s as bright and focused as she was behind the bar, and then suddenly she says, “Oh. I’m going to get emotional”, and collapses into the kind of racking sobs that only come from total despair.

Hang on.

We know how programmes like this work: a famous TV celebrity goes into businesses that are failing. We, as viewers, get a vicarious thrill from observing how crap some of these places are. Jesus, even we could do better! Gordon Ramsay’s entire schtick is built around pretending to throw up some horrible food prepared in a filthy, rat-infested kitchen by some idiot foolish enough to let the cameras in.

But the White Hart, along with the other two pubs in the first programme (the Prince Albert in Stroud and the Golden Anchor in Nunhead, South London) are perfect pubs, run by people who clearly love what they are doing and know how to do it. How can these pubs be in trouble?

If there’s a common theme running through all four pubs in the series, it’s that the people running them need to add a keener, shrewder business eye to the the long list of talents they already display in running pubs that are popular but not profitable.

The things a pub needs to do to survive may not always got down well with the regulars: The first thing Tom tells the Prince Albert to do is put up the beer prices. The domino players nursing one beer all night in the Golden Anchor are shifted to the back room to make way for the craft beer-drinking hipsters who are gentrifying the area. And the White Hart is turned into a building site, somehow remaining open and doing its best to keep brick dust out of the punter’s pints.

But when I spoke to Tom, the first problem he brought up was the pubco tie. Although I’ve written about this issue many times over the last ten years or so, both here and in the trade press, I generally try to avoid it these days because even if I write a piece attacking the tie, as far as anti-pubco campaigners are concerned I’m attacking it in the wrong way. No matter what I say, I get scorn and often abuse from campaigners, because I just don’t understand the issue, apparently. This is the same reason many beer writers avoid the issue altogether – they feel it’s just not worth the hassle. (According to some campaigners, the real reason we don’t write about it is that we, along with various trade press titles and bodies such as the Office of National Statistics, have been paid off by the evil pubcos to keep quiet.)

But whatever side you’re on, Tom Kerridge does understand the issue – his own three pubs are subject to the same tie as any other Greene King tenant. “The business model is supposedly that you pay inflated prices for beer in return for a cheaper rent than High Street rates. But it doesn’t work out like that, and it’s not sustainable,” he tells me on the phone (speaking about the tie generally rather than his own situation.) Interestingly, he tells me he feels “we’re now rapidly finding that those rents will be very much decreasing” thanks to Covid.

The pubco tie is the most complicated issue I’ve come across as a writer on beer and pubs. On the TV programme, Tom Kerridge presents it, without allowing his genuine anger to cloud the issue, as clearly and persuasively as any campaigner could hope for, in a way that is clear to BBC2 viewers and persuasive to mainstream journalists.

Anti-pubco campaigners, we beer writers are never good enough for you even when we try. I say this without any snark or hostility intended: Tom Kerridge is the man you need to make meaningful change.

Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge is on BBC2, Thursdays, 8pm.

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| Covid, Pubs

Covid resurgence: why pubs are not the problem

As numbers rise, so do emotions surrounding the pandemic. So let’s look at hard data, shall we?

We live in a post-truth world. Whatever you want to believe, you can find support for it online. If data doesn’t exist to support your argument, you can just make it up.

The other day I posted this tweet:

As you can see, it got quite a few likes and retweets. It also attracted derision, disagreement, and personal insults.

In the ensuing debate, several people posted the pie chart above. I retweeted it, and then regretted doing so. The chart appears to prove a point I want to believe, but there’s no source quoted, no context. Someone could have just made it up.

So I did some digging, and here are the results. TL;DR – it’s bang on.

Each week, Public Health England publishes a Weekly Coronavirus Disease surveillance report. It does only cover England. It uses data collected from a variety of sources, chiefly coronavirus cases confirmed by laboratories, plus a mix of “syndromic surveillance” using real-time health data from sources including GPs and hospitals and the internet.

The resulting data covers confirmed outbreaks of acute respiratory infection incidents where an outbreak of two or more cases (Covid-19, influenza or other respiratory pathogen) linked to a particular setting, plus situations where an outbreak is suspected but not yet confirmed. The number of incidents reported in each setting is defined by there being at least one laboratory confirmed case of Covid-19.

These are the numbers for the four week period covered by the latest report:

And given that this is a four-week period, here is the percentage of total incidents that have occurred in the latest week of that period:

So what does this tell us?

Care homes are still ground zero for Covid. Given what we know from the peak of the first wave, this is unforgivable, but that’s not the point of this post.

Schools and workplaces together account for 36% of all cases, while food outlets and restaurant settings account for just under 8% of the total.

Pubs aren’t even broken out as a separate category. They are either a fraction of the 8% within the broader food outlet/restaurant setting category, or a subset of “other”. Given that PHE has separately released Covid guidance relating to “restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services”, it seems safe to assume that this is the grouping they’re referring to in the above category.

Obviously, the vast majority of education-related infections happened in the final week of the period because schools weren’t back in August. This data is broken down by different types of establishment, and shows that secondary schools are responsible for more than half of all outbreaks, followed by primary schools.

Almost half of all workplace related infections happened in the previous week, suggesting that the “back to work:” initiative being pushed by government at the start of September has had a signifiant impact on new cases.

Obviously some outbreaks are related to pubs, restaurants and “other”, but the lower percentage in the final week suggests these cases are spread more evenly across the month, and are therefore steadier.

I understand that this is an emotive issue. To people who are concerned about their kids’ education or about keeping their jobs, pubs may seem like a trivial thing to worry about. Also, I do believe the rules are insane: it’s mad that you can’t socialise in some other places, be with your partner as she gives birth to your child, or go to a football match, but you can go to a pub. It’s understandable that pubs will attract some resentment because of absurd rules they had no say in drawing up.

But the data shows that pubs are not a significant location for Covid-19 infection. They are a subset within 8% of total infections. Closing pubs or placing further restrictions on when they are allowed to open will have no meaningful impact on reducing the spread of Covid. There is no logic in the idea of “let’s close the pubs so kids can still go to school.”

Also, it’s never useful to generalise among all pubs. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of pubs that are not implementing social distancing rules or of people behaving irresponsibly. Some pubs are just shit – they always have been. But many pubs have gone to enormous lengths to reopen safely and are operating in a safe and responsible way.

Governments of all political persuasions have a long history of implementing measures on pubs and drinking because it makes them look like they are taking action, and because the public will tolerate it. Beer duty is often referred to as a “sin tax” – this is something we enjoy, it’s a bit naughty, so we probably should be taxed or regulated on it. In 2010, a Mandatory Code on behaviour in pubs legally banned the “Dentist’s Chair” drinks promotion, despite there being no evidence anywhere that such a practice actually existed in pubs. It made the government look tough on binge drinking, when it actually solved nothing.

So today the government will once again “get tough” on pubs, which are already on their knees, while the crisis in care homes goes virtually unnoticed, and everyone pretends schools aren’t the problem because, unlike pointless, nonsensical curfews, there is no easy solution or quick win to the real issue of where Covid-19 is spreading.

| Beer, Brewing, Media bollocks, Pubs

An update on TOTAL lockdown beer sales

In May I debunked misleading media stories implying that people were turning to drink during lockdown. I only had data up to the end of March. Now I have it to the end of May. Here’s a brief summary, followed by some comments.

When we were looking at March data for beer sales versus the same period last year, we had to bear in mind that we were looking at half a month where people were starting to avoid pubs because of fears of Covid, and half a month where pubs, restaurants, hotel bars etc. were on mandatory lockdown. The figures didn’t represent a full month of lockdown. Now we can see what that looks like.

In April and May, on-trade sales were obviously down -100% versus 2019.

Off-trade, sales were up by +39% in April, lowering to +25% in May.

That adds up to TOTAL beer sales being down -24% in April and -30% in May.

Add up total beer sales in March to May and compare it to the same period in 2019, and volume sales are down 22% overall.

So just in case you see any further reports trying to claim that we were boozing our way through lockdown, if we were, we weren’t doing it on beer. 

Breaking it down, ale fared far worse than lager: total (i.e. on-trade plus off-trade) ale sales were down 31% in March, -58% in April and -59% in May, whereas total lager sales were down -10% March, -15% in April, and -22% in May. 

Some observations on this…

One, as lockdown progressed, we drank less.

It’s worth noting that weather is a key factor in beers sales, particularly for lager. April was unseasonably warm and sunny, but May was a scorcher, officially the sunniest calendar month on record. Yet beer sales were lower in May than in April. One possible reason for this is that panic-buying early on in lockdown meant we bought less as it went on. Another is that we simply started getting out of the habit of drinking beer in the absence of the on-trade. But based on the weather, we should have expected sales to be better in May than in April.

Two, Lockdown has hit small, independent craft brewers and cask ale brewers far harder than Big Beer

Ale fared so much worse than lager because ale skews far more to the on-trade than lager does. Before lockdown*, supermarkets and off-licenses already accounted for around 55% of the lager we drank, whereas with ale, we were still drinking 70% of it in pubs, and only 30% at home. In volume terms, if my sums are correct, while ale had an 18% share of total beer sales before lockdown, it has accounted for 38%% of the total beer market volume loss during lockdown.+ Stout is counted separately. Together, ale and stout used to account for 22% of total market volume, and have taken 48% of the total volume loss.

This is the most worrying aspect for fans of craft beer and cask ale. Ale is far more skewed to small, independent brewers than lager is. The vast majority of lager is brewed by giant multinationals. So here is incontrovertible proof that while all brewers have suffered due to the closure of pubs, and while Britain is drinking significantly less overall, lockdown has hit craft and cask ale brewers far harder than it has Big Beer.

SIBA’s survey of their membership during lockdown was based on a smallish sample of their members and didn’t use audited data, so I always thought (or rather hoped?) that their claim that, on average, SIBA member brewers’ sales were down 82% was overly pessimistic. Having looked at total market data and broken it down like this, I now suspect it’s pretty close to the mark.

Now lockdown is easing, things don’t look much better. It seems that, despite predictable media sensationalism about “Super Saturday”, only half of pubs have reopened so far. Those that did reopen are seeing trade pan out at half its normal level. 25% of pubs cannot open viably even with social distancing reduced to one metre. These are smaller pubs, particularly micropubs, which are more skewed towards ale and craft beer than the average pub.

To really rub salt into the wounds, smaller and wet-led pubs got nothing from the chancellor’s mini-budget that reduced VAT on food sales and incentivised eating out, but provided nothing to support beer.

So please, if this upsets or concerns you, why not get online, or go to the pub if you feel safe doing so, and buy some beer from your local craft/cask ale brewer? They need our custom now more than ever.

For more detailed insight on the future of post-pandemic craft beer, with some light at the end of this long tunnel, check out this summary of my report on Craft Beer After Covid.

*For “before lockdown,” I’ve used figures for total beer sales for the calendar year to December 2019.

+ Calculated by working out total beer volumes March to May 2019 and comparing it with total beer volumes March to May 2020.

Data taken from BBPA sales audit.

| Beer, Craft - An Argument, Patreon, Pubs, Uncategorised

Craft Beer after Covid: Glass half-empty, glass half-full

Last month I set up a Patreon in the hope that a modest regular income would allow me to spend time researching key stories in much greater depth than I normally can unless I’m being paid a consultancy fee. In the first of these deep dives, I’ve looked at the future of craft beer post-lockdown – from the perspective of being fresh from “Craft: An Argument” – and tried to draw some conclusions. This is a summary of that work, with a fuller report with stats and detail available to Patrons.

Seeing both sides of an argument is different from sitting on the fence. 

There’s no point trying to play down the huge negative impact of Coronavirus and the lockdown it necessitated. The hospitality sector has been hit worse than most, and within that, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest the craft sector, consisting mainly of small, independent businesses, will end up faring worse than the mainstream:

  • – Small pubs and micropubs will find it more difficult to reopen than larger chains.
  • – While some small, independent brewers have done well with online sales and (free) local delivery, overall small brewers suffered an 80% drop in volume during lockdown and 65% had to close.
  • – The lack of sufficient notice that 4th July would definitely be the reopening date did not give small brewers enough time to prepare.
  • – With lower capacity, pubs are likely to reduce the number of lines on the bar – in fact they’d be wise to.
  • – Big brewers are giving huge support to pubs, including thousands of pints of free beer. Helpful to pubs, yes, but likely to pressure small brewers off the bar even further.

There will be a colossal short-term impact. Businesses are going bust and people are losing their jobs. They’ll continue to do so.

But that’s only half the story. 

While I wrote “Craft” during lockdown, I deliberately avoided speculating on what lockdown might mean for the craft beer movement, because that would have dated it quickly. In the book, I look beyond the issues of ownership and independence that have come to dominate the debate over what is and isn’t ‘craft’. 

The recent boom in craft – in beer and beyond – is a reaction to a mix of factors including the 2008 global financial crash, the spread of superfast, handheld mobile computing and communications, open plan office culture, the growing degree to which algorithms dictate our decisions and behaviours, the arrival of Artificial Intelligence, and the ongoing creep of corporate dominance and homogenisation in all aspects of our lives.

These factors combine to create two separate but related themes that drive craft. One, the personal need to do more with our hands than tap or swipe; to engage with the world around us in a more meaningful, physical way, and two, the desire to escape the corporate rat race, to live better, to be better, to be more fulfilled. 

If we can’t do these things personally, we console ourselves with actively choosing products from people whom we believe have done it on our behalf, and live vicariously through them. 

There have been many changes in lockdown, and we see some of them as positive. Almost all the positive ones feed directly into this narrative around the broader idea of craft. If, before lockdown, we wanted to reject a bland, boring mainstream, to slow down, to experience life more vividly and personally, to support local businesses, to be kinder and more compassionate, to reject the open-plan, “computer says no” office environment, lockdown has not only heightened those desires – it’s shown that it is possible for all of us to act on at least some of them.

Those craft brewers that survive the short-term hit will face an environment that, while remaining subdued, will be far more in tune with the principles that motivate the brewers, retailers and drinkers of craft beer than it was pre-Covid. At the moment, it seems that the underlying motivations and themes that make craft beer so appealing to an ever-increasing number of people are being strengthened by people’s experiences. For all its negative effects, for all the death and hurt the virus has caused and for all the economic hardship to come, lockdown was time-out, a chance to reflect. 

Stripped of the daily commute, the constant travel, the endless crowds, the noise and spectacle with which we usually fill our lives, we’ve had the chance to discover – or re-discover – what really matters to us. We’ve realised that, while this state of affairs is far from ideal, there are some good bits. 

Craft brewers – rightly or wrongly – are generally perceived as, among other things,  smaller and more independently-minded, more progressive in their attitudes, kinder, friendlier and more collaborative than their corporate, industrialised rivals, more face-to-face in their communications, more physically engaged with both the nature of their work and the communities they exist within and do business with. All of this has become more appealing as a result of lockdown. 

The future – eventually – will be bright. 

The full report is available on Patreon to anyone who signs on at the £3 tier or above. (While it’s a regular monthly subscription, you’re perfectly free to sign just for a month and then cancel.)

Craft: An Argument is available here on Kindle and here as a print-on-demand version. The audiobook will be ready as soon as the drilling stops outside my house.

| Pubs, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

An Ode to the Pub

Today I was asked by BBC Radio 4 to write and record a short piece for the World At One about pubs, and the news that they are due to reopen on 4th July. If you missed it, or you enjoyed it and want to read over it again, here’s what I said, with an extra intro that was cut for length.

I loved pubs before I could even say the word. 

One of my earliest memories is of being held in someone’s arms in a space that glowed with polished brass. It was also red and green with Christmas decorations, and everyone around me was laughing so hard their cheeks shone too. 

I didn’t know why, but I understood that these people – my parents and their friends – were happier here than I’d seen them anywhere else.  

The British pub is so much more than a place to buy drinks. For a nation that’s famously awkward socially, every aspect of pub life is designed to break down social barriers and bring us together. For much of the last thousand years, the pub is where we’ve socialised with friends, met spouses, celebrated birthdays and weddings, and said goodbye to loved ones.   

The pub is where we play – darts, dominoes, board games, quizzes – and most of the sports we love originated either in the pub or on the village green just outside. 

George Orwell celebrated the pub as part of the informal cultural network that we choose for ourselves rather than having our leisure pursuits chosen from above. 

His 1946 essay, The Moon Under Water, remains the best thing I’ve ever read about pubs, despite spending twenty years trying to write something better. Orwell’s pink china mugs, liver sausage sandwiches and barmaids who call you ‘dear’ may sound archaic now, but the congenial spirit they create – where as a punter you feel not just like a customer, but a stakeholder in the establishment – is still present in ways Orwell would recognise. 

So when pubs were ordered to close on the 20th of March, it felt like Coronavirus was attacking not just our bodies, but our very culture and the bonds that tie us together. We knew it was coming, and on my last visits to the pub, I drank in their everyday routine, their pace and rhythm, as lovingly as I sipped my beer. 

I’ve enjoyed many great beers under lockdown, supporting my local breweries by buying from them direct. But nothing is quite like a freshly poured pint. The weight of the glass, cooling your skin. The bubbles rising. And the first hit at the back of your throat, clearing the dust and cobwebs of the day. 

The only thing that makes this better is being somewhere with others enjoying the same experience, a silent moment of communion with friends you’ve known for years, or even friends you’ve only ever met in your local, knowing that you’re sharing a moment that is simultaneously normal and banal, yet also marvellous to a degree where you might just remember it for the rest of your lives.

You can hear the programme here. I’m on at 42 mins…

| Pub closures, Pubs

Economies of Ale Part Two: How the Pub is Evolving

Earlier this week I blogged about the new ONS data which shows an end to – or at least pause in – the decline in pub numbers. Digging deeper into the research, here are a few more facts and wrinkles the data reveals.

The pub is entirely a product of British culture. It is a fundamental cornerstone of British society – no longer as absolutely central as it once was, but still a key trait that identifies us a nation, to ourselves and others.

As I said in my previous post on the new ONS research (and first said in Man Walks into a Pub) as a creation of our culture, the pub reflects ourselves back to us. As our culture and society changes, so must the pub, if it wants to survive.

The core of the ONS research has been put together from data on licences provided by local authorities, so we can break it down to see what happens in different parts of the country, making some informed guesses about what’s driving these changes. There’s also some other data sources they’ve used to add some colour to the picture. Here are a few snippets that I find particularly interesting.

We’re not really drinking more at home – we’re just drinking less in the pub (even though we’re eating out more.)

Numbers about the on- versus off-trade are usually presented as percentage split: in 2000 we drank 34% of our total beer at home, and 66% of it in pubs, bars etc. In 2018, we only drank 46% of our beer out of the home, and 54% of it in-home. It would be reasonable to assume then that we’re swapping pints in the pub for cans on the sofa.

But when you look at it in terms of what we actually spend, the amount we’re spending on drink in the home hasn’t risen anywhere near as much as the amount we’re spending in pubs had fallen. In fact, we’re spending the same proportion of our income on alcohol for home consumption now – when in beer terms, that accounts for 54% of all the beer we drink – as we did in 2001, when it accounted for 34% of all the beer we drink.

Wine makes up a bigger proportion of what we drink at home. Also, when we eat out – which, as you can see, we’re doing a lot more of – we’re also more likely to choose wine over beer. That’s why wine now accounts for 31% of all the alcoholic units we drink, up from 25% in 2001, while beer has fallen from 47% to 36% of what we drink over the same period. So the whole debate around the supermarket pricing of beer is less important for pubs than we might think – we’re not swapping pub beer for supermarket beer; we’re drinking less beer, and more wine. If we want to stop beer’s decline, the best thing to do would be a lot more work positioning beer as a good accompaniment to food.

Pubs are getting bigger, and employing more people

Having just looked at the difference between percentages and absolute numbers, what’s interesting here is that both tell the same story: the overall number of pubs has fallen massively. But the number of large and medium-sized pubs has actually grown. In 2001, three-quarters of British pubs employed fewer than ten people. A massive four out of ten small pubs have disappeared so far since then. Given that these are the pubs we often think of when we imagine the British pub – the quiet, cosy little boozer – this means the picture is even scarier than we might have thought.

But overall, the data shows just how wrong people are getting it when they talk about the death of the British pub, as opposed to a fundamental change in its character. Large pubs (employing 25 people or more) have almost doubled in number over the period, more than doubling their share of the market. The knock-on effect of this is that even though we have far fewer pubs than we used to, there are now actually more people working in pubs than there were in 2001: 457,000 now, compared to 439,000 then. The average pub now employs twelve people overall, compared with eight in 2001.

Both this increase in overall employment and the increase in the average size of the pub can be explained by food: in 2003, 43% of people employed by pubs worked behind the bar, compared with 28% working in food service (which includes chefs, cooks, waiters, waitresses, and kitchen and catering assistants.) Now, fewer than one in three pub staff work behind the bar, but 44% work in food service.

The picture is massively different across the country – but this has more to do with what a place is like than where it is.

The picture of pub closures this century is almost universally grim – but not quite. Out of 391 local authorities included in the data, 358 have seen a fall in the number of pubs there, while 16 have seen no change, and 17 have seen a growth in pubs – in some case, substantial growth. We can infer quite a bit about the dynamics of the market by looking at both extremes.

The worst-hit boroughs are an absolute bloodbath:

  • Barking and Dagenham has lost 67% of its pubs between 2001 and 2019
  • Newham has lost 57%
  • Luton has lost 55%
  • Burnley has lost 53%

Why? Well, one thing all these areas have in common is that they have a high proportion of ethnic communities who for religious and cultural reasons don’t drink alcohol. Over the course of the 21st century, while the ethnic population as a whole may or may not have increased all that much, the children of people who moved there earlier have grown up and replaced a cohort of young people who used to spend a lot of time in pubs with a cohort of young people who don’t.

But that’s not the only reason. 7.2% of adults in Barking and Dagenham are unemployed – almost double the national average. A further 31% of working adults earn less than the London living wage. In Newham, unemployment is 6%, while 32% of people earn less than living wage – the highest rate in London. The figures are similar for Burnley and Luton, and also for places like Bolton, Blackburn and Barnsley, where unemployment is higher and wages lower than the national average.

But even this doesn’t explain the full picture: places like Croydon (52% of pubs lost) and Slough (50% of pubs lost) also feature in the worst-hit areas. Croydon is commuter central, and Slough has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But these are the kinds of places where ‘development’ has seen real estate prices shoot through the roof, and chains displacing small, independent businesses. Economic boom and economic slump: both have been bad news for pubs over the last twenty years.

But as I mentioned, there have also been winners:

  • West Somerset has seen a 25% increase in the number of pubs – the most of any region in the UK. Numbers have also grown in the Scottish Highlands and stayed stable in the Western Isles, confirming that tourism plays a key part in keeping pubs alive. This gets even more apparent when you split the data by number of pubs per capita. West Somerset, the Cotswolds, South Lakeland, the Derbyshire Dales, North Devon, West Dorset and Stratford-upon-Avon all have more than one pub for each person who actually lives there, and have only seen a fractional fall – or an actual increase – in the total number of pubs.
  • The London Borough of Hackney has the third biggest growth in the number of pubs of any borough in the country. It’s surely a coincidence that the number of pubs in Hackney has grown by 23% since I moved here in 2001 – but not entirely so. This is a borough that has gentrified, but not too much – at least not yet. When I moved here, a large number of Windrush-era, elderly Caribbean people were selling houses they had bought for nearly nothing to younger, more affluent middle class people, and retiring back to the sun to buy mansions and hillside estates with the proceeds. Property prices ahve now increased at least five-fold, but since then, there’s been a huge influx of Millennials and Gen-Z renters who can never hope to buy here, who live crammed into flats where living rooms have been turned into extra bedrooms, many with flatmates rather than best mates, and so they spend most of their money out of the home, in coffee shops, pizzerias – and pubs. Take the piss out of the hipster sitting ostentatiously at the window in front of their laptop all you like, but in some parts of the country, that hipster is keeping pubs alive.

So what can we learn from all this? The deeper you dig into the data, the more clues it reveals. Some of the inferences I’m making may be off the mark, or I may be missing something big, but even if that’s the case, I think the one thing that is beyond doubt is that it would be foolish for anyone to make sweeping generalisations about the nature and causes of Britain’s pub decline. The picture looks different wherever you go, and even where the picture is similar, when you look at the demographics and economics in a particular place, the reasons for pub closures may be quite different. And so, wherever you look, the solutions are probably different too.

If you want to check how your borough compares with the national average, just click here.

I’ll close this long, statty blog with my favourite quirk from the data, which, if you’re feeling sadistic, would form a perfect pub quiz question or two:

Q: Which local authority in the UK has the highest number of pubs per capita?

A: The City of London, which has an incredible nineteen pubs for every person who lives in the borough.

How does that happen? Well, between 500,000 and a million people work in the City of London, but fewer than 10,000 actually live there. At 6pm on a weekday, every single pub is standing room only. By 9pm, most of them are closed and shuttered for the night.

Here’s a follow-up:

Q: Which local authority has seen the steepest fall in the number of pubs per head this century?

A: The City of London. In 2001, there were TWENTY-SEVEN pubs for each person who lived there.

What happened?

In 2007, there were still 26 pubs per head. In 2014, that number hadn’t really fallen the financial crash – which you might ave expected ton have seismic effects – didn’t make any difference to the boozy habits of the financial sector. But maybe the long-term repercussions did.

From 26 pubs per head in 2014, the number collapsed over the next five years to 19 in 2019 – the sharpest fall of anywhere in the country, by some way. And while perhaps few of us can muster up much sympathy for the people who first caused the financial crash and then profited handsomely from it while most of us still remain worse off than we were before, the reasons behind this massive fall show how quickly social engineering can take effect: I blogged in 2017 about how Lloyds of London had just made lunchtime drinking a sackable offence. This was obviously just part of a broader shift in attitudes that sees alcohol becoming a bugbear – even as we are drinking less, we perceive it to be a greater threat than ever. That has just happened in extremis in the City. Combined with the kind of ‘development’ that is seeing any hint of personality, individuality and local history erased by characterless steel and glass tower blocks, each with its own mandatory Tesco Metro, Costa Coffee and Pret à Manger, we can see that the biggest, swiftest decimation of pubs can always come from an angle no one is guarding. That’s ‘progress’ for you.

| Pub closures, Pubcos, Pubs

Is The Moon Under Water Finally Getting its Head Above the Surface?

The Office of National Statistics says the number of pubs in Britain has grown for the first time since 2007. Surely that’s got to be good news?

Talk about shooting the messenger, then chopping the messenger up into tiny bits, then burning those bits, and pissing on the messenger’s ashes.

Last year the Office of National Statistics (ONS) launched their ‘Economies of Ale’ report into the changing numbers of British pubs. It painted a gloomy picture that we were used to, but I spotted an interesting quirk in the data. It showed that small, independently owned pubs were closing faster than larger pubs owned by the big pub companies. So I wrote a column pointing out that, if this was the case, the big pubco tie can’t be the main reason for pub closures – not if pubs that have nothing to do with the pubcos are closing faster than pubco-owned pubs. That’s simple logic. It’s not to say the pubco tie isn’t a factor in closures, but it can’t possible be the main factor.

Not for the first time, the piece was given a misleading headline by the sub-editors, which didn’t accurately reflect the tone of the piece. And as few people these days bother to read beyond the headline, if you follow the debate around pub closures at all, you can guess what happened next.

According to my social media feeds, my story was proof that the ONS, the whole British Guild of Beer Writers, the entire UK national media and most of all, me personally, were involved in a vast conspiracy and were being paid off by the likes of Ei Group (formerly Enterprise Inns) and Punch Taverns. I had been paid thousands of pounds by the pubcos to write this piece. I was apparently performing sexual favours on the chief executives of these companies, and I was actively supporting their actions in the pub market because I hated pub tenants and lessees and the businesses they ran. I absolutely loved big corporate CEOs because, in ways that were never made quite clear, their actions benefited me professionally.

The people who wrote these comments remain hurt and bewildered that most beer writers refuse to engage with them.

Anyway, twelve months on, and the latest Economies of Ale report paints a more optimistic picture. The total number of pubs in the UK has grown for the first time since 2007. Not only that, but while the trend towards bigger, urban pubs remains, even small pubs – those hardest hit by the lethal cocktail of factors driving pub closures – have shown fractional growth.

The total number of pubs increased by 315 from 2018 to 2019. This represents an increase of 0.8%. The number of small pubs (employing fewer than ten employees) increased by 85 – a 0.4% increase.

Now, a friend of mine has pointed out that when you dig right down into the data, rounding numbers in individual regions may mean this very modest increase is even smaller than it looks. It’s also worth noting that the modest increases in 2003 and 2007 – the only other years this century with a net increase – did little to alter the overall downward trend that’s seen more than a quarter of British pubs disappear in the last twenty years.

But rather than quibble about the size of the rise, what’s more important is that the number of pubs hasn’t gone down.

Every time new pub closure figures are announced, news outlets just love to run stories about ‘the death of the pub’. To be fair to them, people do care more about pub closures than they do about say, cask ale, and these stories always bring the phone lines and comments pages to life. But I always get the impression that there’s bit of glee in sharing the doom and gloom.

I’m often invited onto radio shows to discuss the issue, and my line is always clear: the pub has been around for a thousand years, and it isn’t about to disappear in the next twenty or thirty. But pubs reflect the society they are part of – always have – and as that society evolves, so must the pub. We now have so many more leisure alternatives than we used to have and less leisure time to spend on them, so the pub can’t possibly retain the utterly dominant position it once had in British culture. That doesn’t mean it’s dead – as a society, we still love our pubs – but we need fewer of them than we once did, because we go less often. What we’re witnessing now is not a terminal decline, but a correction.

It’s just my opinion. But ONS numbers would seem to bear it out. If we change the scale of the graph above, we can see the movement more clearly.

That massive, horrible drop between 2007 and 2013 was the result of a clusterfuck of negative factors: the smoking ban started in 2007, the global financial crash happened in 2008, and in response the then government thought it would be a good idea to punish an already reeling industry with the beer duty escalator, which helped the total tax burden payable on beer rise by 40% in four years.

Them, from 2014 onwards, the decline slowed dramatically. I wouldn’t be surprised if numbers did fall again in the next two or three years, but unless something else catastrophic happens (can you think of any looming economic disaster this year? Nah, me neither…) then I reckon pub numbers will, overall, stay pretty constant around this level from now on.

That’s not to say pubs don’t need fighting for, or that can all just relax now. The world has changed and pubs will continue to face stiff competition from coffee shops, casual dining, Netflix, X-box and a whole host of things that weren’t really around twenty or thirty years ago. But we appear to be over the worst. This data was launched last Thursday, and no one has yet asked me onto a radio show to discuss the death of the British pub.

There’s a lot more interesting stuff when you dig down into the data. Later this week, I’ll blog again on some of the interesting quirks and wrinkles on what it tells us about how the pub is evolving, and how the picture changes across the country.

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, British Guild of Beer Writers, Events, Miracle Brew, Pubs, Radio, Writing

So Farewell Then, 2017

I don’t really do Golden Pints. But here are some reflections on the year that just sped past without anyone noticing while we were all gazing at our smartphones. First there’s a personal look back at what 2017 meant to me, followed by a transcript of a speech I gave at the annual Beer Writers’ Dinner on 29th November, which touches on some broader themes. It’s a bit long overall, so you might just want to read one part or the other, but if you’ve got this far, you’re probably feeling bored and it should fill a few minutes before you hit the pub again. 

My weight-limit-busting haul from the Hill Farmstead brewery, Vermont, October.

The personal bit

I feel increasingly guilty that, as the rest of the world goes to shit, with all the best people dying, and hatred, intolerance and wilful ignorance given free rein, I’m doing OK, thanks! 2016 was the worst year I could remember in world terms but was great for me professionally, and 2017 has been a similar follow-up. My year has been dominated by books: the paperback release of 2016’s The Apple Orchard,  the hardback release of Miracle Brew (my first straightforward beer book since 2009), extensive touring in the UK and North America to support that book, and the research and writing of my follow-up to The Apple Orchard, my ninth, as-yet-untitled book, now overdue, and the project that will be claiming every waking minute of January 2018. The Apple Orchard was shortlisted for many awards but didn’t quite win any, whereas The Pub: A Cultural Institution, also released in 2016, was named Fortnum & Mason Drinks Book of the Year. Reader, we partied.

(Along with some of the other winners from last year I’m judging these awards this year. Find out more and enter your work here.)

I also joined the editorial line-up of of Original Gravity magazine and had great fun helping shape the direction of the UK’s only independent beer magazine. Exciting times ahead on that. We ran the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards for the third time (first time with cider included), for which I chaired the judging, as I did for this year’s Guild of Beer Writers Awards after being named Beer Writer of the Year in 2016. I was delighted that Adrian Tierney-Jones won. (I was also delighted that, with Adrian being a friend, I didn’t express my preference until every other member of the judging panel had had their say, and they all said ‘Adrian’.)

Between all that I managed to fit in quite a few trips to breweries. A few days in Belgium in March included tours and chats with Rodenbach and new Flemish brewery Verzet.

The massive barrel-ageing hall at Rodenbach, producing the sharp, tangy beer Michael Jackson once called ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’.

… and the more modest barrel ageing room at Verdett, where each barrel is named after one of the brewers’ favourite rock stars.

In June a group of us did a whirlwind tour around Bristol, organised by people who were keen to convince us that the city was one of the most exciting beer destinations in. the UK. They succeeded in their task.

The illustrations on Bristol brewer Lost & Grounded’s beers all fit together into one big picture and magical set of characters. It’s clever, warm, funny, and strangely moving. Oh, and the beer inside is pretty amazing too.

In July I was invited back to speak at Beer Boot Camp in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The brewing scene there is developing at a ferocious rate. It’s madly exciting. And within seconds of arriving at their beautiful brewery, the Aegir Project became one of my favourite breweries in the world.

Wonderful, imaginative beers brewed and drunk in a location you’ll never want to leave.

October saw my North American tour, during which I got to visit Hill Farmstead, one of the most interesting and talked about breweries in the world. I found a balance in my views on New England IPA, possibly the most divisive topic I’ve seen in my time as a beer writer. (Apart from cask breathers. And the definition of craft beer. And brewery buy-outs. And a whole bunch of other stuff.)

Hill Farmstead – the most talked about brewery in the world? When we were there, people were queuing up for growler refills two hours before the doors were due too open. And it’s a two-hour drive from pretty much anywhere else.

The breweries that have impressed me most this year are Wiper & True, especially for their English saison; Lost & Grounded for their creativity, rigour and flawless Belgian Tripel; Verzet, for their overall vision and their Flemish brown; and Siren, for consistently combining experimentation with class to create beers I’m excited to drink. There have been many more doing great stuff too, but that’s my top four.

I’ve done scores of events and met loads of brilliant people. The highlight has to be presenting my Beer and Music Matching show to over a thousand people at the Green Man Festival in August. I still regularly do events where only three people turn up. That keeps you humble. But this one was at the other end of a very wide scale.

Thank You, Green Man.

Pub-wise, I was lucky enough to have Gracelands – a small pub company that runs some of the best beer pubs in London, including there King’s Arms in Bethnal Green – open a new site, The Axe, just five minutes walk from my house. The effect on my bank balance and liver has been alarming, but not only do they get hold of really good beers, they also curate them really well – the right balance is always on at the right time – and while they’re expensive, they don’t overcharge. If you’re ever in Stoke Newington, it’s unmissable.

The year ended with Miracle Brew receiving the best review I’ve ever been given, by no lesser august publication than the New York Times. That’s one to keep me going whenever the self-doubt kicks in – which is often. The same day the review appeared, I was on the Christmas edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme, providing festive drinks for a dinner hosted by Sheila Dillon and cooked by and eaten with guests including Giorgio Locatelli, Yotam Ottolenghi and Angela Hartnett.

Merry foodie Christmas!

I have no idea how I got to be in a position where things like this happen to me. But I do know none of it would happen if people didn’t read what I write, or didn’t like it when they did. I know I don’t please everyone with what I do, and I’m absolutely fine with that. But if you do take some enjoyment from or interest in my writing, thank you so much for your continued patronage. If a particular idea or passage of writing, a recommendation of a beer or cider or pub, or a pairing of a beer with a particular dish or tune gives you pleasure, then I’m doing something worthwhile, no matter how small.

 

The review/reflection bit

It’s been a tumultuous, dramatic, fascinating year in beer. I did a short intro speech before I presented the awards at the annual Beer Writer’s Dinner on 29th November, in which I commented on some aspects of it, with a particular focus on where beer writing is going. A few people asked if they could get a copy of the speech, so here’s an edited version. 

What a year it’s been! Another year of dramatic developments in beer with so much to write about.

People say it can’t carry on, but we’ve had yet another year of declining numbers of pubs, declining beer volume overall, coupled with a dramatic increase in the number of breweries brewing and beers available to drink.

As the pressure and competition grows, we’re seeing the sustained trend of takeovers of craft breweries by bigger corporates – sorry – I meant to say ‘partnering with like-minded business colleagues among the brewing fraternity’ apparently.

And like those proverbial Japanese soldiers lost on a desert island who don’t realise the war is over, some of us are still lost in the woods trying to find a technical definition of craft beer.

If do you want a precise technical definition, be careful what you wish for.

CAMRA of course, have a very tight and precise definition of real ale, which is precisely why they’ve spent the last two years trying to revitalise now we’re in a globalised world of excellent beer, wondering if they’re about cask ale, good quality beer more generally, saving pubs, or acting as a sales promotion agency for Wetherspoons.

In 2017, beer writing has been characterised by discussions – robust discussions – OK, arguments – fierce arguments – OK fights – about all these issues, and more.

Given that we proudly call ourselves one of the friendliest, most sociable industries in the world – and I genuinely believe we are – it’s amazing how much we can find to argue about!

Cask ale for example. Is it good enough? Is it expensive enough? Is it cheap enough?

After dipping my toe in this issue back in January, I’d like to say now on the record, categorically, that cask ale is great and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. It has always been great, it is always great now, and it always will be great, and Paul Nunny, could you please just give me some proof that my wife and dog are safe and well, and will be released soon like you promised. Thank you.

More recently we’ve had very public spats about New England IPA, a beer style that’s created civil war among craft beer fans. On one side there are those who think this is an absolute joke of a style, an affront to brewing tradition, a product of Instagram culture and the first solid evidence that craft beer might be getting too faddy for its own good.

And on the other side, I suppose there are some people who must disagree with that for some reason.

Just this week, we’ve seen an online spat between people on one side, who think beers using sexist imagery to sell themselves should be banned for beer competitions, and people on the other side, who are dicks.

And then there’s a seemingly intensifying spat about the ethics of beer writing.

If a beer writer gets sent beer for free, can their opinion on that beer be trusted?

If a beer writer gets invited on a trip – a junket, sorry – to a brewery and is entertained, can any of their opinions be regarded as valid?

If a beer writer falls down in a bar and there’s no one there to hear it, do they make a sound? Or do they just Instagram it instead?

But these arguments, these spats, are important, at least up to the point where social media amplifies them and twists them into something nastier.

The role of the Guild is ‘to extend the public knowledge and appreciation of beer and pubs and to raise the standard of beer communication’.

Much of the time, that means celebrating beer, educating our readers about it, finding the good stuff and getting it to a wider audience.

But that doesn’t mean the guild is some provisional wing of the beer industry’s PR machine, providing gushing coverage of whatever that industry decides to do, in the terms the industry wants. We shouldn’t just be cheerleaders, breathlessly parroting the industry’s agenda.

Like any other industry or interest, beer needs to be scrutinised, analysed and occasionally held to account.

And so do we, as writers.

Beer writing has expanded so much in the last twenty years, and we as writers must now think carefully about what role we want to perform.

Not a single one of us can be an expert in every single aspect of it. You can’t be a newshound, and a flavour expert, and have an academic knowledge of the history of brewing, and be an industry analyst, and have a perspective on alcohol policy, and an in-depth knowledge of global beer styles, and be an effective campaigning voice for cask ale, all at the same time. It’s not possible.

And that’s great! There’s room for specialisation in all those things, and the totality of beer writing is so much bigger and richer as a result.

The social media revolution has made us all communicators about beer, and while I personally believe writing will always be the most important and effective part of that, the broader landscape is hugely exciting. Even if we want to write, we have to start thinking about photography. We may find out voices are more effective, or get a different side to them, on podcasts or radio, or even in person, at live events.

But there are risks in this brave new world.

Social media has the potential to make narcissists of us all. Badly-lit bottle shots and a hundred hash tags on an Instagram post do not extend the public knowledge and appreciation of beer. Self-indulgent blog posts describing in detail about how you swapped a bottle of Cantillon Geuze with someone in Vermont for a bottle of Hill Farmstead’s Society and Solitude #10 making you the only person in Britain to have a bottle don’t represent a raising of the standard of beer communication.

(And anyway, I’ve got a bottle in my fridge at home that I bought when I visited the brewery last month so screw you, you ticker.)

Whatever channel you’re communicating in, the basic rules of old-fashioned journalism still apply. As your reader or viewer, make me care. Take me somewhere. Tell me a story.

All tonight’s winners have succeeded in this mission, have told compelling stories about their subjects in fresh ways that engage readers, listeners and viewers.

Each judge on the panel is an expert of some kind, but probably not in what the entrant is writing about. They probably don’t know the entrant, and may never have read their work before, and next year their places will be taken by someone new.

So if you think it’s always the same old names being shortlisted in the same categories year after year, this is not because judging is some kind of cosy old boy’s network. It’s because those people’s work appeals fresh, every year, to a different set of judges who may not have read them before.

Conversely, if you’re someone who has entered several different categories with work you’re really proud of, and you haven’t been as successful in getting shortlisted as you hoped – this is not a referendum on your worth as a beer writer. At no point have the judges sat down together and decided to shun you this year. Your work in each category has been judged independently of every other category. Believe me, we all have years where we feel like some of our best work has been overlooked, and next year might be completely different.

You can see the full list of winners here. Go check out some of their work. 2017 was a great year for beer, and a great year for beer writing. Let’s have it again in 2018.

Cheers!