Friday, 27 March 2015

"Zero hours contracts" in pubs

Ed Miliband being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman last night.
Photograph from the Telegraph website.
On TV last night Ed Miliband - in between spluttering "hell yeah!" and "who cares?" - claimed he'd prohibit flexible working arrangements that can be so beneficial to both employers and employees. The term used by politicians is "zero hours contracts".

I have no fewer than four bar staff on my books that work casual shifts (usually just match days and events). One is an undergraduate. Two have full time jobs but want to supplement their income from that with the odd weekend or evening shift. The fourth hasn't worked for three months as she's been travelling in India.

To be honest it's they who give me the runaround, not the other way around: often when I need them most they're unavailable. The energy and flexibility they bring to the business makes it worth it though. If zero hours contracts were prohibited it would be almost impossible for me to employ them (bad for them) and very difficult to run this business (bad for me and my full time staff). I suppose I'd have to get agency staff in when I needed extra hands on deck. That wouldn't really work.

We all know career politicians like Ed Miliband have never done a proper job in their life, or run a business. But you'd think they'd make some effort to ensure their policies make sense in the real world. And if Miliband really does want to act on this, he'll have to speak to his parliamentary colleagues first: 40+ Labour MPs have staff employed on flexible, zero-hours contracts.

Important caveat: I agree that the practice of signing people up to zero hours contracts while prohibiting them from working for someone else is exploitative and should be unlawful. It already is: the current government legislated on that earlier in this parliament. Politicians should always strive to ensure the weak or not exploited by the poor. There isn't much point in having a government at all if they don't. But issues like this need to be dealt with carefully so as not to have unintended consequences. I appreciate some people reading this will be dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters, or just dislike the current government. But even if that's the case, I hope you can see that Miliband's policy on zero hours contracts is a disaster.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Royal William, Stowmarket, Suffolk

The best pub in town, according to the local CAMRA. Hidden away on a back street (but not far from the mock Elizabethan railway station). Ten real ales - all East Anglian - served directly from the casks in a room out back. Bitter, mild, porter, stout, golden ale all represented. Beer nice and cool and in great condition (not normally the case in pubs that serve direct from stillage). £3.10 a pint. Pork pies, sausage sandwiches and toasties for a couple of quid. Barman friendly. Fruit machine strangely prominent. A simple pub, and it works.

Mighty Oak Brewery's "I am the Egg Man"

Monday, 23 March 2015

1p off a pint? Not likely

Last week George Osborne cut the duty on beer by 1p. Nevertheless, an email from a notoriously smug Kent microbrewery dropped into my inbox within 24 hours of the Budget, announcing price rises. I'm sure others will follow in due course. For those of us in the pub trade it'll soon be time to decide whether to pass on another round of brewery price rises to the customer, or see margins take another hit. It's worst of all for the tied publicans, who can't even choose their suppliers let alone negotiate on the prices they pay. I'm glad to be out of that mug's game.

Hats off to my good friends and regular suppliers Purity Brewing who sent out a letter today with a revised price list passing on the duty cut. Of course it's not much, but it matters. Now Purity aren't the cheapest brewery and getting discounts from them is like getting blood from a stone. But then they do make exceptionally good and consistent beer, which most of their rivals haven't quite got the hang of yet.

Ale & Cider fest this weekend...

Tomorrow Alice of the Real Al Company will deliver a range of ales from six different Herefordshire & Shropshire Breweries and an orchard full of cider* to the Finborough. Our festival starts at 5pm on Friday and we open from noon on both Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday evening Tom Oliver the cider maker (and manager of the Proclaimers, believe it ot not) and Reuben Gray - brewer at Hobson's - will be with us. More details in the attached flyer. Alice will also be bringing us a bale of hay which I'm going to throw all over the floor just to make it a proper circus.

SPECIAL OFFER: If you come in wellies you'll get a free half. If you dress entirely as a farmer you'll get a free pint. If you have a CAMRA card you get 40p off a pint, irrespective of how you're dressed.

* Don't go to orchards expecting there to be cider. There isn't necessarily any cider in an orchard. Just apples in their unfermented state. Sorry for any confusion. Although remember really traditional cider of the kind we'll be serving contains nothing but apples - no added sugar, water or flavourings.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

What's new in Manchester

The Piccadilly Tap launch was a great night. It's been great seeing a concrete box turn into a pub in a matter of weeks. Congratulations to all involved. Manchester commuters have something to smile about. My favourite beer of the night was a Belgian classic I haven't had for years, and never on tap: Saison Dupont.

A mention should also go to Cloudwater Hopfenweisse. I don't think I've ever come across a beer that showcases that peppery character some hops (usually German, I think) can impart. A somewhat sharp lemon character was a great feature too, and as you'll see it looked lovely in the fancy branded glass. 

Cloudwater is a new Mancunian brewery that's been launched in craft beer bars across England this week. Someone's clearly put a lot of money into it. The intention, if I understand it correctly, is to brew only seasonals and one-offs. I'll be honest and say that doesn't sound like my bag at all, but if the beer's good that's all that really matters.

It feels good to be able to report that a trendy, over-hyped brewery has actually made something I like. Doesn't happen often, you see.

Pubs visited in Manchester this time (apart from the Piccadilly Tap, obvs): Port Street Beer House, Sawyer's, Deansgate Tavern, Briton's Protection, Rain Bar, Peveril of the Peak. I was accompanied to all by my pal Mothmun who is currently exiled to the North West. Those interested in beer and food matching will want to know what I ate. Well, the only solids to pass my lips in my 26 hours in Manchester came from Gregg's. On Friday afternoon I had a chargrilled chicken oval bite and a steak bake. On Saturday morning, a sausage, bean and cheese bake was my breakfast.

Friday, 20 March 2015


 A fortnight ago I returned from a hiking trip in the Frankische Schweiz in Germany. The region is dotted with breweries, and I visited a few of them in five days. I've already written about Kathi-Bräu and Held-Bräu. Here's an account of the last brewery I visited, just before it was time to go home.

My last day took me from Pottenstein to Ebermannstadt, and began with a steep climb. There'd be a few more of those. The distance was only 13 miles, but I'd underestimated the topography a touch. I only had four hours to complete this stage if I was to have time for lunch and make it back to Nuremberg in time for my flight. The scenery was as glorious as I'd become accustomed to, the path was easy to follow and the sun was shining.

I began to struggle down the wooded path to Ebermannstadt just as the church bells rang out for noon. The rooftops peeked out from between the trees and, almost abruptly, I emerged onto a residential street. I'd made it in good time (and good time meant time for a beer).

Ebermannstadt has one brewery. There used to be more but the sole survivor is Schwanenbräu. I passed the handsome old brewhouse of the defunct Brauerei Sonne as I followed helpful signs pointing to the innenstadt. I'd spent the last few days visiting only tiny villages and towns, so to be somewhere where you actually needed directions was an adjustment.

Schwanen-Bräu sits on the town's main square. I took my muddy boots off and walked into the 1970s. Nothing I'd seen in the brewery taverns in the hills could prepare me for this Saturday lunchtime scene. Almost every table was taken, and I was lucky to get a perch by the door. All the customers - mostly very mature - were in their finery, making me feel even more out of place.

It took an age for my first beer to come. I was used to a mug being slapped down within seconds of walking into a gaststube. Here, I couldn't even see the taps. As I watched bottles of wine being uncorked and elaborate starters delivered to cooing pensioners I imagined my humble order for a pils and a schnitzel sitting at the end of a very long queue.

And then the wait was over. The beers I would drink here would be my last of this trip to the Frankische Schweiz. A tall, elegant pils glass was rushed over to me by the same friendly waitress who'd smiled as I'd walked in carrying my hiking boots and pack. She knew that I'd be looking forward this, and she waited to watch my first sip. Under her benevolent gaze I took a long draw of the beer. She winked and walked away. I saw off the rest of my beer and my second arrived in short order. I was supremely satisfied and ready to go home.

If you been inspired to visit Franconia - and I hope you have - take a look at the Franconian Beer Guide for details of breweries. If you need a map for hiking, this is the one I used. It was mostly accurate, but not Ordinance Survey standard by any means.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Beer duty down - an unpopular measure

When they were in power Labour introduced a "beer duty escalator" whereby tax on beer increased by inflation plus 2% each year. That was scrapped by the current Conservative led government, and beer duty was actually cut by 1p in 2013, 2014 and again in today's budget. The cumulative effect is that the tax on a pint is 10p lower than it would have been by now if the last government's policies had continued.

To pretty much everyone who reads this blog, I'd like to think that's good news and a cause for cheer. But take a look at the bottom of this here chart: according to polling company YouGov, we're in the minority.

I just can't understand why so many people would be opposed to cutting our alcohol duty rates, which are among the highest in the world.

I can think of one person I know well right now who's tee total out of choice, and I've had a couple of friends who are recovered alcoholics and others who can't drink for medical reasons. I recognise there are many people who don't drink - that's their look out - but I'm troubled by the fact so many would have such an illiberal desire as to tax the rest of us even more for enjoying something that's always been part of the fabric of British society.

Manchester's new Piccadilly Tap opens on Friday

Last month I blogged about my first visit to Manchester for over ten years. Predictably it rained, and predictably I got mangled and was a mess on the train home. First class tickets were only £15 more so we'd booked those. Half way through the journey I woke up covered in beer - I'd passed out drinking a bottle - with a bottle of water and a selection pack of sarnies on the table in front of me. So at least the train staff took pity.

The reason for the trip was to check out the site for my pal John's new venture: The Piccadilly Tap. In February the unit on Station Approach was just a shell. Now, a month later, it's been fitted out as a beer bar and is almost ready to go.

The doors will open for a soft launch this Friday night (20th March). It'll be a bit rough around the edges, with further improvments to come in the weeks to come. But then that's always how it is with truly independent start-ups* - slick opening nights with PR people clucking around are for the corporate chains. I'll be there and if you live in Manchester or thereabouts (let's face it, it all blends into one up there), you should be too.

* the Finborough's opening night was an absolute circus.