Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 1997

* Eyes off the Ball *

In the 70's and 80's, regional brewers wasted a great deal of time and effort developing their own lager brands for sale in their pubs - remember Grünhalle, Slalom and Kaltenberg? In many cases, these were actually better than the big brewers' counterparts, but that did little to help their sales prospects. Those misguided people who actually wanted to drink a bland, characterless beer tended to feel more comfortable with a familiar nationally-advertised brand than with an obscure local alternative. These lagers made no headway in the free trade, and even in tied pubs customers were heard to bemoan the absence of Carling or Heineken.

Not surprisingly, in the "opened-up" beer market of the 1990's, most of these brands have died the death. But are the independent brewers in danger of repeating the same mistake all over again with nitrokeg? It seems like there's a new one every month, with Lambton's from Vaux , Marston's Smooth Brewed, Usher's Milligan's Mist and Jennings' Old Smoothy, and plenty of others.

While there may be some demand for Caffrey's as a distinctive brand, it's hard to believe there's any demand for nitrokeg as a generic product, as there is for real ale. Old Smoothy won't bring a single extra customer into a Jennings pub, nor will it encourage their existing customers to drink a single extra pint. All it will do is to take sales from their existing real beers. It could even be that nitrokeg, far from being the saviour of independent breweries, might in some cases prove a fatal distraction from their core business of real ale.

Small independent brewers have limited resources, and they would be much better advised to concentrate on what they do best - brewing distinctive, high-quality real ales, and promoting them as vigorously as they can. It's reassuring to see that none of our local independents - Holts, Hydes, Lees and Robinsons - have shown the slightest sign of jumping on the nitrokeg bandwagon. If anything does deserve more management time, it's encouraging better standards of cellarmanship to weed out those tired pints of real ale which can so easily drive drinkers to choose the bland but consistent alternative.

* Drinkers vs. Diners *

It was good to read in a newspaper article that the Three Tuns in Bishop's Castle, one of Britain's historic brew pubs, was open and brewing again. But then I came across the dreaded words "the other bar has been set aside for dining". I'm not against pubs having separate restaurants, and I'm all in favour of pubs serving food. However, to separate out part of what you'd normally consider to be the bar area for eating is wrong, particularly if it isn't justified by the balance of the trade. It happens all too often that you just pop in for a pint and can't get a seat because a vast area of empty space has been roped off "for diners only".

Pubgoers don't naturally fall into two classes of "drinkers" and "diners", and pubs should be inclusive rather than putting their customers into pigeonholes. Those eating one day may well just go for a pint some other time. And what if you go in, order a round of drinks, sit down in the dining area and then decide you don't like the look of the menu? Or the beer's so good you decide to stay for another couple of pints after your meal? And does it mean you can't eat your meal in the rest of the pub because it's for drinkers only? People eating meals in the bar areas of pubs should take their chance of a seat along with the rest of the customers, and I don't think in general they object to that. Maybe part of the problem is that a lot of pubs have too much carpet and not enough seats to start with.

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