I had driven out to Aldermaston today to collect a painted panel. It was urgent, the job had to be despatched today (so it would still arrive in “October”) and at the last moment I found the panel had been stripped of paint when it had been modified. So I had driven it to the painters a couple of days ago, pushed it through their letter box (it was after hours) and was back to collect it, package it and send it with the rest of the order. Grateful thanks to Shaun for the quick turn-around during a busy end-of-month.

However, I turned up a little early – for a change, no hold-ups on the M4. On the way in I noviced a sign about beer being for sale in an adjoining unit, so while I was waiting I went over.

It turned out it was the Wild Weather Ale microbrewery. And a most fascinating half hour with a guide (no name…sorry), who provided samples of their beer from one of the most unusual set of taps I’d ever seen.

wildweather

He explained their philosophy, their methods, the different beers. Some brewed with Chocolate (not chocolate malt), some with Earl Gray Tea – I don’t like the tea, the bergamont is too heavy (I prefer Lady Gray Tea, which is Orange and Lemon), but in the beer, very acceptible – and a very distinctive one made with Peaches. Stouts, other styles are also brewed, and some sampled. Others just used different hops sourced from around the world. I was only taking a couple of sips, but was notibly feeling the effect of booze by the end.

Another factor was that some of their “barrels” are dual skinned. The beer is inside a (mylar, I imagine) bag, and the gas to pressurise the beer for the taps outside. This means no gas in contact with the beer, so it lasts a long time after it is tapped. I suppose someone took the winebag concept and added the second stage, but a brilliant idea. And in use with the taps, so that they were not wasting gallons of beer in providing samples. But there were a large number of more traditional barrels in the unit.

I purchased a couple of bottles of a number of different brews that I had sipped, for further study, you understand, although one beer (10% ABV) was a wallet scorching £5 per 330ml bottle. One for Halloween Night, methinks, and one for another time.

On the start of my return journey, I stopped at a local Budgen’s supermarket in the village of Mortimer. Mainly just for a drink and perhaps a snack. I was stunned. The variety, the range, a butcher’s desk, frozen speciality foods (& microwave), wines from Laithwaites (a specialty wine club), beers from brewers I knew but never seen that particular one before… I purchased tonight’s dinner being a specialist fish company cook-chill meal plus frozen (defrosted) potato dauphinouse. I had never expected to purchase such stuff in a franchise that in the past had been just another corner shop to use if desperate. To put it mildly, I was impressed. And they were doing community stuff, with some walk being organised, and a manequin of some woman in the window – must be someone significant as people were taking photos of her through the window with their children in front. The woman in front of me at the check-out was talking to her children in a language I didn’t recognise, but given what they were buying, she wasn’t the cleaning lady.

It was like stumbling into an idealised version of the village shop in The Archers. As it was end of the school day there were childern with mothers, children too old to be with mothers all over the place, and I overheard part of a discussion with the butcher about deboning some kind of joint of meat.

I wonder what the property prices are around there?…

It has been some time since I made any report on anything at all – it has been a busy time. But it has not escaped my notice that there have been more changes regarding pubs.

The ‘Geroge V’ seems to be staggering on, the ‘Let this pub’ sign appearing and disappearing. The ‘Golden Fleece’ seems to have closed down again, and a ‘To Let’ sign has reappeared, and all the theme night posters disappeared. But these pubs are still pubs, at least for now.

Now to the buildings that have changed. Two of those mentioned before are now ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ – The ‘Green Man’, and the ‘Duke of Wellington’. The former is an all new building, demolishing an historic building in the process, the latter refitted into the existing (1930s (?)) building. Another building being refitted is ‘The Warren’ (another 1930s building?), becoming a local Tesco’s, but that refit is still going on – as of today, it looks almost ready to receive stock.

The transformation of the ‘Duke of Wellington’ completed as ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ supermarket

As I drive around on business or simply on my necessary journeys, there are just so many pubs that are not open now when formerly they would have been; are they closed – open on weekends only? Closed – for business? Closed – to be sold for other purposes?

In my opinion, the traditional pub is within a few years of extinction. There was a radio programme this week that reported that in some areas of the UK it was uneconomic to open an ‘Off Licence’ (a shop selling alcohol for consumption ‘off the premises’) due to illegal imports of cheap lager and spirits – or just simply illegal manufacture in the UK. If Off Licenceses are uneconomic because of this illegal trade, no wonder public houses with their much higher overheads are closing down.

If such news makes it to radio programmes, it clearly is well advanced.

The illegal trade is only going to increase as the UK duty rate on alcohol is far higher than that across the channel, meaning that it is economic to go to France, fill a van with lager, and drive back (if you can do so evading customs) and sell it cheaper than the UK price. So doing it on an industrial scale clearly is highly profitable for the illegal trade. And the government needs revenue so much it’s hardly likely to cut the rate of duty, even if it were not afraid of the consequences of freely available cheap booze on the English.

It was that fear, during the 1914-18 war, that caused the introduction of so many of the restrictions of opening hours etc for the pub trade. The recent loosening of these restrictions – in a vain attempt to create a ‘cafe society’ – is also too late, and ineffective with the high rates of duty to contend with.

I find myself in an odd position here.  Banging on about a subject, yet I’ve not actually been in a Public House (‘pub’) for…I forget.  Oh, no, I remember, I said once before, 2010, on the day of the funeral of my Aunt.

Anyway, I noticed yesterday, driving past the building that was once ‘The Warren’ that notices are up on the temporary wooden partition that now surrounds all building works in the UK – quite why (law?  good practice?) I don’t know.  Anyway, the signs show that the building is to become a ‘Tesco Metro’, a rival company (albeit larger) than the one (Sainsbury’s) working on the (smaller building) ‘Duke of Wellington’ at the other end of the road.

Other Public Houses I have kept my eye on appear to have got new tenants; ‘George V’ and ‘Golden Fleece’ have, the latter putting out loads of banners indicating a themed night just about every night (Pool, curry, whatever).  ‘George V’ seems to have rather an amateur as the new tenant, given the poor quality of the new signs.

I did not report ‘The Terriers’ (which I remember as ‘The Black Boy’) which was up for sale, but now under new management, as the phrase goes, also under the tie of a brewery company formerly unknown in the area – Greene King.  What I remember as ‘The Cock Inn’ (on Cock Lane) has morphed yet again – it was closed for some time after its ‘Red Lion’ incarnation – as ‘The Junction’ restropub.

I wonder just how much the current recession is both populating these surviving pubs with new tenants, and the dire state of the market they are competing in.

An update on the buildings that I reported upon before.

The ‘Duke of Wellington’ has notices all over it suggesting that it will be coverted to a ‘local’ branch of a major supermarket. It is not named, but the colours and text suggests that it is Sainsbury’s. In addition, the lack of anything else suggests, at present that the current building will not be demolished, but heavily modified.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the road, ‘The Warren’ is covered with scaffolding. This is not what happens if it is to be demolished, so it must have a new use – probably housing – already settled.

Meanwhile, ‘Midway House’ has been demolished and the block of flats almost complete. ‘The Green Man’ is demolished but still a steel frame only (not even complete).

Although I updated the previous blog on this subject on the 5th March, there has been a lot more to note, even in the few examples that I discussed.

The ‘Duke of Wellington’ is boarded up, and is already looking very sad for itself. Meanwhile, the pub at the other end of the road, which I had a photo of (I didn’t name – ‘The Warren’) has now been surrounded by barriers and has the general air of about to be demolished.

The ‘Green Man’ had been demolished, and building work started – at least some ironwork has been put up on the site, but progress is surprisingly slow. I have no inside knowledge on this (rather late to try and save the pub) but I noticed a banner one morning: “The Green Man 1755 – 2012. R.I.P.”. [Rest in Peace].

While pubs such as ‘George V’ and ‘Golden Fleece’ still have signs out trying to lull the gullible to take them on, some pubs seem to have got new tenants in – at least, they are still trading, and the signs have gone. Although I noticed the latest attempt of Mine Host of the Golden Fleece has scrapped his latest attempt to keep the place afloat, if scratching out the (remarkably cheap) breakfast offer on the outside noticeboard is anything to go by.

I had a long chat with a woman I know who ran a pub for years. It seems that those who are managers, paid by the pubco, do fairly well, as they are, well, just paid employees. Pubs with a manager in are likely to survive, as the pubco is forking out cash in the form of the manager’s wages, so must think it is worth keeping them going. Pubs with a tied tenant (aka The Landlord, but I don’t use the term here because of the confusion) are the ones that cause grief.

Maybe some of the pubs where the signs have gone are now run by managers (for now, at least).

Bespoke Beer Bottles

March 5, 2012

In the Netherlands, all the major breweries use the same 300ml bottle to sell their beer in supermarkets and off-licences. These are deposit bottles, so when returned there is a small credit given towards the next purchase – just like deposit bottles in England, when such things existed. As all the breweries use the same bottle, they obviously accept bottles with any labels on, wash and remove whoever’s labels were on the bottles, and reuse the bottles with their own labels. Grosche is the only exception in that they also use their ‘swing top’ bottle design.

In England, there is no such co-operation between breweries. Apart from beer in cans, (which appear to be fairly uniform in size) that I’m not discussing here, every brewery appears to have its own design of bottle. Over the past few years in particular, I have noticed that these bottles are becoming more ‘bespoke’, that is to say, the bottles used are commissioned by the brewery, and has some unique feature, for example the brewery company’s name moulded into the glass (Shepherd Neame, Moreland (albeit as part of Greene King)), or a specific size (Newcastle Brown, which was until recently 1 imperal pint).

Some small breweries seem to have taken this a step further, and, sucker as I am for unusual packaging, this has interested me. I have mentioned the Meantime Brewing Company (Greenwich Brewery) before, due to their Coffee Porter and other varieties. My local supermarket has rung the changes, and currently only stocks a Chocolate Porter and a Raspberry Wheat in a 330ml size. But the unusual feature is the shape of the bottle, which is said to be a scaled version of a Champagne bottle (although in brown glass). Champagne bottles were originally made in England, as that was where the skill in making such bottles that could withstand the internal pressure could be made, but I doubt that any of these are the reason the shape is used here. Greenwich also use a more conventional cylindrical bottle for some of their brews as well as a huge 750ml wired-cork enclosed bottle – again, Champagne bottle shaped-ish.

Adnams of Southwold went for a slightly odd design a couple of years or so ago, which was said to cut down the weight of glass used, and therefore a ‘green’ design; however, it appears to have changed again recently – I guess too many got broken in transit.

St Peter’s Brewery, Suffolk. When their bottle first came to my attemtion, it was because it was of oval (ellipsoidal) cross-section. A short time later, it had changed, being less ellipsoidal in shape, and instead of the original beautiful pea-green, a rather dull looks-recycled-brownish-green. The brewery maintained that these bottle designs were based upon an original 18th century example from America (American colonies, I imagine) which they had.

Three eras of St Peter's Bottles: 2000 (front), 2008 (middle, dull coloured) and 2012 (back). These are the 'best before' dates on the bottles, not date of introduction.

The 2000 and 2008 bottles, showing the change in the shape - the cross-section of the bottles.

I wrote to them about this, arguing that while the two were obviously similar, the moulding around the bottom rim for example, they could not both be based on the same bottle shape, one had to be a change to the original design. I also commented upon the colour of the glass, preferring the older, but if the colour was to help keep the beer… Well, they answered, rather ducking those questions, although the change in shape was needed because of the filling machine. They did comment that I was the first person to raise the issue of the bottle!

Much more recently, I note that their ellipsoidal bottles have changed colour again, to a rather more agreeable green. Not so notible in the photos is that there is a ‘St Peter’s Brewery’ in a roundal moulded into the front face of the bottle. In this most recent incarnation of the bottle, that roundal is much more ellipsoidal.

St Peter’s also use more conventional cylindrical bottles for some of their ranges.

The ‘Today’ programme has ‘Thought for the day’ at about 07:45 every day. This God-slot is rather contraversial, just for being there, let alone the subject matters.

This morning, the woman (denomination forgotten) was going on about Public House (pub) closures, and how, instead of giving up alcohol for Lent (next week), people should start visiting the pub again, generally increasing social contact, and incidentally helping the struggling pub trade.

What rubbish. Pubs are not closing down due to lack of social contract, but as an unintended consequence of government meddling. Huge estates of pubs are now owned by so-called ‘Pubco’s (as opposed to the Brewers themselves). Pubcos get the gullible in as new landlords, and ruin them over the ‘tie’ – they have to purchase all their drink from the same Pubco they rent the Public House (their business and indeed home) from, at prices that are hugely inflated over supermarket prices for the same items.

As a result, the pubs are not profitable concerns, and the current ‘Mine Host’ goes bust.

Not surprisingly, the high prices in a pub means people buy beer or wine in the supermarket and stay at home.

When I was a student, I would regularly go into a pub as part of an evening out. I cannot remember the last time I was in a pub. I spent five minutes after I wrote that, and still cannot remember when – it has become so infrequent and so rare. Probably, it was with the choir I sing in, and the reason I stopped going there was due to the barn of a place they choose to go, empty of atmosphere, as well as the pressure of work. Oh, I’ve just remembered, I even put it in this blog – the day of Aunt’s funeral, we went to the pub she frequented (for food) for our lunch after the service. More than two years ago, and not for alcohol.

The consequence of this is that pubs are closing down, there are not so many gullible people left, so they remain empty. Then, sadly, they are demolished, or converted into housing or other commerical property. I say sadly, but a Pubco is in fact a huge estate management company, and a pub a loss-making enterprise, whereas developing the building (or the site) for housing or supermarkets or whatever is far more profitable short and long term. There is just the small difficulty of change of use to get around, and if the building can no longer function as a pub, who will complain about a change of use?

Or am I just a cynic?

Let’s look at some evidence. I do not mention the town for these pubs, but most are within a five mile radius of one point, the first is beyond that point, but relivent.

The ‘Duke of Wellington’, is having a week-end closing party, this weekend. I know this because I drove past it this afternoon. And the signs don’t suggest the end of tenure of Mine Host (what is normally considered the Landlord, but I have not used that term due to confusion over leases, freehold, etc), but the ‘last ever’ party. As if the fate of the building is already sealed (but I have no information on this).

(added later) The now closed and boarded-up 'Duke of Wellington'. Who knows what will happen to this building now.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the road to the 'Duke', this pub has been closed and boarded up for some time - perhaps over a year now?

The ‘Green Man’. Recently demolished in favour of a Supermarket ‘Tiny’ branch, after a couple of failed attempts to keep it going. To modern eyes, there are still far too many pubs in this ‘village’, often within a stone’s throw of each-other (the Cherry Tree, within a stone’s throw, currently survives). There is also ‘Green Dragon’, ‘Stag’, and perhaps one other still in that village.

‘The Bell’, is up for lease; meanwhile there is a plethera of pubs around the eponimus Green of the nearby village may survive on townies going out for an evening.

The ‘George V’, the ‘Golden Fleece’, and countless others – signs up looking for people wanting to run a pub (aka ‘Mugs’), now being the time, the signs suggest to sink [your] redundancy pay into this sucessful enterprise (sic).

'George V' is still trading, but Mine Host clearly wants out...

The ‘Halfway House’, within a stone’s throw of ‘George V’, now demolished and redeveloped as a block of flats. In a last ditch attempt to survive, they had ‘exotic’ dancers all day. It gets as desperate as that.

I could go on, it gets so depressing. But what am I doing, writing this on a Saturday Night. Well, of course, no attraction to go to any of the surviving local pubs (awful places), which, in any case are quite a walk away (not sure why the nearest is so far away, I’m not aware of this being Quaker land, or other reason for a conventant that prevented pubs in this area).

(Mote added March 5th). Photos taken in the past few days as I have passed the buildings. There are plenty of other examples, it may be that it was not convenient to take a photo, or…

Some Public Houses survive by becoming restaurants, only open weekends, high days and holidays. Generally these are in the country, with no local population around them, so must survive on either the ‘passing trade’ or those who drive out specifially for such a visit.

It is already happening, but I forsee far fewer ‘Public Houses’ in future, and those that do survive will be unrecognisable to anyone sprited from (say) the 1970s to now. One change I am grateful for, though, is the smoking ban.