Archive for January, 2012

January 20, 2012

Where’s the Birmingham Tap?

Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but it strikes me that Birmingham is missing out on the wave of craft bars (by which I mean those who sell “craft” beer whether it is in keg, cask or bottle) that are readily establishing themselves in lots of other places.  Don’t get me wrong, Birmingham has some great pubs and bars, and there are plenty of places to find a decent cask ale (some of which may or may not be craft depending on your stance in that debate!) both in the centre and further out, but where are the likes of the Euston / Sheffield / York Taps, the Brewdogs that are springing up north and south of the border, the various other craft beer outlets that I’ve seen or at least heard of in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Bristol, Nottingham even (and apologies if there are others I’ve missed).  Why has the “second city” (putting aside any other claims Manchester may make to that title!) not caught up with this exciting wave of new beer?

Is the Birmingham population not interested enough, or at least perceived to be interested, in quality beer?  I find this hard to believe.  Quality and variety in cask ales isn’t really hard to find.  Within a few minutes walk of New St Station, my preferred catchment area as it allows a quick stopover between trains, there is the vast range to be had at the Wellington, the newly opened Post Office Vaults, the Shakespeare, Bennetts, Old Joint Stock and several others.  They all have their own charms and flaws, but they all serve a good selection of cask and generally serve it well.  Some also have a good bottled range, but this tends to be European beers rather than the current UK stars.  Move northwards out of the centre and the Jewellery Quarter is establishing itself as another good beer destination, or head south of the Bull Ring and you can stumble upon some real gems too.  So we’re not short of places to find a decent pint.

So is there another reason why Birmingham is slow on the uptake?  One thought that occurs about the list of cities above, is that they are all big student centres.  Is that part of what fuels the spread of craft bars in these cities?  But Birmingham has universities too, so what’s different?  Comparing individual universities, the University of Birmingham has the 10th largest student population but is behind 2 institutions in Manchester and one in each of Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham – all of who appeared in my list of craft bar cities.  Moreover, once you start combining all the universities in each city London leaps right up the list but Birmingham still struggles to make the top five.

Now, I don’t for one minute think that the only factor involved here is student populations, but there does seem to be some correlation between that and the emergence of craft bars.  And to be honest, Birmingham never seems to me to have the same student vibe as say Manchester or Nottingham.  So maybe Birmingham just isn’t demographically quite right to be at the forefront of this new wave.  To be honest, when I think back to the opening of the Wellington over ten years ago, it seemed to be a turning point for the widespread availability of good cask ales in the city.  What I don’t know is how the rest of the country was faring – I certainly didn’t have the same awareness of the beer scene nationally that I do now.  It seemed like a revolutionary change in Birmingham, but maybe it was actually just catching up with other more lively cities then too.

Whatever the reasons, I guess Birmingham may just have to wait a bit longer before it catches the bug.  On the other hand maybe someone is planning something right now, and change may be just around the corner.  I look forward to the day when I can jump off a train at New St and see both cask and keg beers from the likes of Magic Rock, Summer Wine, Hardknott, Camden and lots of others, across the bar, and fridges stocked full of the best UK bottled beer as well as international ones.  In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying the good cask ales I can find there and get the rest of my “craft” fix where I can.

Or maybe you know where in Birmingham I’m failing to look hard enough, and point me in the right direction?

January 10, 2012

A little local understanding

I’ve been thinking about “local” pubs recently and now I’ve decided to make it the subject of my first proper blog post, so here it is (go easy on me – I’m new to this!). It’s just an outpouring of the thoughts in my head, based on my own personal experience and a bit of no doubt ill-informed observation…

I saw an “advert” in my local CAMRA group’s magazine recently, advising members as to how to campaign against the closure of a local pub.  One thing seemed glaringly obvious to me by its omission – at no point was there any suggestion that actually using the pub, and getting others to do so, would be a good strategy.   Surely, a pub without customers is clearly not working, and if the local CAMRA don’t go there then (presumably) the beer selection either doesn’t include anything of interest to them, or is of poor quality.  So what is the point of campaigning to save a pub you’re not interested in using?  This brings to mind a (different) CAMRA branch who actively campaigned for the protection of one of the pubs in their own area against a planning application, citing the loss of a community facility etc, yet as far as i am aware not one of them was actually willing to drink in there themselves.

On the other hand, the advert did refer to “your local pub”.  So am I missing an obvious assumption that if it is your local, then you yourself must be using it?  Maybe that is what was meant, but if so, that wasn’t how it was interpreted by the group mentioned above, and I find it hard to relate to personally.  I have a local pub, i.e. the one closest to me.  I don’t use it. 

There are several pubs in my village and my local one is probably the last of the bunch that I would choose.  That said, I don’t really use any of them very much – because in most cases I’m not very impressed with the beer selection on offer at all, and at the one pub that I do like to use the one guest ale doesn’t provide as much variety as I really like.  Also, there is only so much time I can spend in pubs before I become very unpopular at home!  So my “locals” tend to be a small number of pubs close to my work locations in Birmingham (for example the Wellington, Shakespeare and recently the Post Office Vaults) and London (especially the Euston Tap right outside my office) which all give me a far better chance of finding a beer I want to drink, or (more often) new ones to try, and are also a jumping-off point for plenty of other great pub choices slightly further afield.

If my local pubs gave me a larger and better beer selection, then they’d be more appealing to me.  Does that mean, therefore, that I don’t think it is worth fighting for those other pubs, the ones I don’t want to actually use myself?  You’d be forgiven for thinking that was exactly the point I’m making, but it isn’t.  Quite the opposite in fact.  But I’m not sure that the reasons for making a stand about pub ‘x’ rather than pub ‘y’ are necessarily thought through.

Pubs that I consider poor generally fall into two categories – those that I would actually like to drink in if they offered a beer selection that appealed to me, and those that I would like to keep there in order to keep a segment of the drinking population away from those I do want to drink in.  If the latter type closes, then clearly there aren’t enough people who are prepared to drink there, and so maybe it isn’t fulfilling the purpose I thought it was.  But it could still be viable in a new format, and so there is still a case to oppose a change of use and certainly a demolition.

If on the other hand it is a pub that just doesn’t attract me, well, I’ve realised that waiting until it closes is leaving it a bit late to start the fight.  Unless people are using it and regularly asking for better beer, what incentive is there for the landlord to change things?  By the time a dwindling group of locals are no longer enough to support it, too much damage has been done.  There’s an example in my own village where one landlord has recently negotiated himself out of the tie on his lease, so he can choose freely what beer he makes available.  And yet on the times I’ve been in there since, I’ve seen the same, average beer from a major regional that was on the bar before.  Without enough demand for a more interesting selection of beer, nothing changes.

Until recently I thought I was lucky to live in a village with 9 pubs.  It’s down to 8 now, but that is still a reasonable number for the population they serve.  Except that all but one fit into my definition of poor, in that the beer selection doesn’t make them attractive to me (the converted one fitted into my other definition of poor!), and even the one I would choose every time above the others is limited in the number and turnover of its guest ales so doesn’t really satisfy my tastes.  I’m now beginning to think that these pubs are all surviving well enough and therefore, for now at least, I’m not going to see much change from any of them – they’ll mostly just keep ticking along, happy to stick with the status quo.  As a result my hopes of the quality cask and keg revolution hitting a pub in my own village are pretty unlikely to be realised – perhaps the local market is just too saturated for anyone to take a risk on changing it.  I’ve seen this in the lacklustre response to attempts at establishing a coordinated beer festival over a bank holiday weekend.  I’m convinced that would create some interest in the wider variety of quality ales available out there, but the response has been at best luke-warm. Several seem to like the idea, recognise it would be good for business, but translating that into action? Not a sign, but there’s still time.

So, have I really made a point about anything or have I just rambled on?  I’m not sure.  I think what I want to say is that, yes, pubs need saving – once converted or demolished they won’t usually be coming back.  Saving them isn’t just about fighting once they are closed though – if you don’t want pubs to close make sure you are using them, and try and create the demand for what you want to see them serving.

I’ve not made a New Year’s Resolution, bit if i did maybe it would be to follow my own advice, and make more of an appearance in my local pubs, pushing more for something better (in my own subjective opinion) on the bar.  Once they’ve closed it will be too late. I don’t like the limited drinking on offer in my village (despite the number of pubs) but I’d like it even less if there were no options at all.

On the other hand I could just shut up and enjoy my beer in those “locals” a little further afield, that meet my beery desires so much better.

Or even take the radical step and open a craft beer in my own neck of the  woods. Now there’s a thought…