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Fri 12th Jun 2015 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: The down-side of the beer revolution, rocks and sponges, and an open letter to Alastair Campbell
Authors: Glynn Davies, Alistair Scott and Paul Chase

The down-side of the beer revolution by Glynn Davies

For anybody who has been around the scene long enough there is no word to describe the recent changes in the beer industry other than: revolutionary. More has happened in the sector in the last handful of years than the previous few decades (or even longer). Where once there were half a dozen hand-pulls on the best bars in town now there are ten or so and just as many keg fonts.

The freeing up of the tie by the larger pub-companies and the emergence of many independent chains creating beer-focused bars has provided a fertile ground for the pub-goer.

I would have once had to travel many miles to visit a pub with six or so decent beers on tap, whereas today this is (hallelujah) almost becoming the norm and you don’t even have to travel further than the end of your road it seems (certainly in London) to find a craft beer bar. But I do keep venturing past the end of the road because of the excitement of finding another new bar with yet more beers to try – and an equally interesting and expansive range of bottles too.

Having watched and commented on the beer industry for 20 years it’s fair to say that for the first 15 I don’t remember there being that much to write home about. But in the last five we’ve experienced an explosion. I recall writing a piece for The Financial Times in September 2009 about a renaissance in London brewers – there were five at the time. I wasn’t really sure whether there was any justification for such an article but it was worth exploring and here we are today with over 70 breweries operating in the capital supplying a growing number of craft beer bars.

All is therefore well in the beer world in the UK – is it not? Well, yes, but there are some aspect of this beer boom that should be treated with caution.

Many of the newer pubs and bars that have upped their game and focused on craft beers have gone down the route of industrial chic interiors, only offering flashy (expensive) bar snacks, and avoiding any fabrics that would help soften the cacophony of sound generated in these sometimes harsh environments.

Along with this, there seems to have developed an air of seriousness around beer. Things have become a little clinical. Certainly those venues at the cutting edge of craft beer are bordering on religion – where the bar is the temple and the consumption of the rarer beers is akin to taking Holy Communion. As important as religion is, I’m not sure it ever falls into the fun camp. There is a risk that some of the joie de vivre is being sucked out of the pub as the beers become the primary driver.

On a recent trip to San Francisco I hope I didn’t see the future of the craft beer bar in the UK. Sat at the bar in the City Beer Store the customer to my left was sampling two sour beers, taking photos and recording the experience on his phone – in complete silence – while on my right another solo drinker was logging his sampling of a 2007 vintage Lost Abbey beer – in silence again.

This bar might have had a fridge solely dedicated to extremely expensive bottles of vintage ales, but where was the fun? It was more like a train spotting-type exercise for some drinkers.

I admit I’ve had to check myself of late from focusing too much on the beer and missing out on the other visceral aspects that have been the British pub’s long-standing attractions – for example, being intoxicated by the company of friends. Far too much of my time has been taken up deciding what to drink.

It was almost a relief to recently drop into The Blue Bell pub in the centre of York. The bar did not groan under the weight of an improbably large selection of beers but rather had a sufficient number of – superbly kept – locally brewed beers to keep any drinker happy.

It also had nothing more complicated food-wise than pork pies placed on the bar and a variety of bog-standard bagged snacks. There was also sound-eating carpet liberally placed on the floor of the lounge and no music. What it also – most crucially – had were lots of regulars packed into its tiny front bar who were talking about everything other than the beer.

While I would certainly not like to wind the clock back five years to the horrendous beer-desert days it is hoped that the craft beer bars that are so welcome on the drinking scene do not become one-dimensional temples to the beer and lose sight of the fact that this glorious drink is ultimately only one component of why people frequent the pub and choose one venue over another.
Glynn Davies is a leading commentator on retail trends

Rocks and sponges by Alistair Scott

Former England rugby coach Clive Woodward gave a truly inspirational presentation at the BII lunch last week. I loved listening to him, not just because I am a rugby fan but also because I love listening to how others achieve success.

Woodward reported splitting people into two groups. ‘Sponges’ are those that listen, soak up, develop and learn – they are, essentially, teachable. At the other end of the scale are ‘rocks’ – those that think nothing new will work and aren’t receptive to new ideas. He even pushed so far as to suggest that rocks have no place in your long term future. Certainly food for thought, even if it makes us all slightly uncomfortable as we get older and wonder how much we might have moved towards the rock end of the spectrum. Having heard Sir Clive talk, I was left pondering three key thoughts:

From a rugby coach this was perhaps the most surprising statement. I know coaching is about player analysis and development, but somehow I hadn’t seen the push that much. As a software developer it was of course music to my ears but we all have, what I call, the implementation challenge. My belief is to only focus on achieving three things at a time, get them done, and then move onto the next three. The key here is to prioritise and determine what three things are on the list. Clearly I hope improving your labour effectiveness is high up the list.

How many talented people do we know that don’t possess the attitude, the commitment, or the work ethic to succeed? Talent of course is essential, but hard work can get you a long way in my book. The key to unlocking hard work is ‘motivation’. Ensuring your employees are engaged in their day-to-day jobs will unlock their full potential. Research suggests that highly engaged employees are 10% more likely to exceed performance expectations whilst 73% of disengaged employees waste time on social media. Sound familiar? Ensuring you have a team of motivated and talented employees can have a significant impact on your overall business performance. After all, organisations with high employee engagement demonstrate revenue growth that’s 2.5 times higher than those with low employee engagement.

To most of us, it is what we do. We know too much about the industry to ever doubt this statement, but let’s not also forget that knowledge of other areas can be a good thing if you are also a sponge. This isn’t to say you have to be an expert in all areas, but demonstrating an understanding of key business impacts outside of hospitality is important. For example, having a good pulse of what is happening in the world of technology will enable you to adapt and evolve ahead of the competition.

But knowledge is just the beginning. Clive then went on to stress the importance of the next three steps that make effective leadership. Once you have ‘assimilated’ the knowledge you then need to share, organise and finally evolve. The final key element was what Woodward called “Thinking Correctly Under Pressure” or, as he shortened it, TCUP. The point here is that staff need the ability to, given all their training, to adapt to a situation, do the right things under pressure. In a service environment, this last point has real resonance.

Not a bad lunch – sat with some great peers applauding those who have done well in our industry, receiving some great words of wisdom, and imbibing a couple of beers too. Having fun and getting better was the essence of the afternoon and this is exactly the approach we should adopt in our own businesses.
Alistair Scott runs Malvern Inns and Catton Hospitality

An open letter to Alastair Campbell by Paul Chase

Dear Alastair

I’m writing this letter after watching your appearance on the Andrew Marr Show, and having read your thought-provoking piece in The Sunday Times Review on the sad death of Charles Kennedy. There is much in your article that I agree with – particularly your insight that what is central to understanding alcoholism is an understanding of the relationship that the alcoholic has with drink, rather than seeing alcohol as a substance which in itself causes a chemical enslavement that the drinker is powerless to resist. And I found your account of Charles Kennedy’s loneliness stuck in a flat in Westminster many miles from home, with all the pressures of leadership and the remorseless spotlight of the media on him, to be authentic and moving.

But what frustrates me, both about your article and your comments on the Andrew Marr Show, is that your conclusions just don’t seem to match your analysis. Alcoholism is “an evil disease”, you declare. And there are numerous other references to alcoholism as a disease in your article. Given all the insights you expressed about Charles Kennedy’s problems, and indeed your own struggle with alcoholism, you then make the classic mistake of confusing symptoms with causes. Did Charles Kennedy simply need to find the resolve to embrace lifelong abstention, or might his relationship with alcohol have changed for the better if he addressed the problems that caused that relationship to become disordered in the first place?

If alcoholism is a disease, no one actually knows how it is caused and no one has found a cure. I want to suggest that alcoholism is an existential problem, not a medical one. I think we need to resist the modern trend to medicalise personal unhappiness. I didn’t know Charles Kennedy, but if as you suggest, loneliness, isolation, pressure and depression are what caused Kennedy’s excessive, and solitary drinking, then surely those who sought to advise and help him needed to assist him in overcoming those problems, which were the cause of his unhappiness, rather than seeking to book him into a clinic that would address their symptoms. I don’t know Alastair, he was your friend not mine, but if someone is unable to walk unaided, should we blame the crutch?

In both your TV appearance and your article you used Charles Kennedy’s death to dramatise what you think needs to happen at the policy level to tackle alcoholism. You refer to England’s relationship with alcohol as “a disaster waiting to happen”; and to the need for politicians to understand that “unless we as a country face up to the damage being wreaked by addiction across families and communities, overwhelming our NHS, tying up our police and filling our courts and prisons, then there will be many more Charles Kennedy’s.” And on TV you re-stated that we have a “cultural problem” with alcohol and you cited a personal anecdote about drunken teenagers on a train as evidence. Indeed that was the only piece of evidence you provided in support of your assertions.

In a genuine attempt to fill this fact-free zone, I offer this list of alcohol-related problems all of which have fallen dramatically over the past decade: young adults drinking frequently down 66%; per-capita alcohol consumption down 18%; 25-44 year-olds binge drinking down 24%; and amongst 16-24 year-olds down 38%; alcohol consumed in pubs and bars down 26%. And as for alcohol-related crime: criminal damage down 48%; murder down 44%; violent crime down 35%; domestic violence down 28% and public order offences down 9%. And an NHS “overwhelmed” by alcohol? Nowhere have the problems caused by alcohol been more greatly exaggerated than in relation to the NHS – the cost to the NHS caused directly or indirectly by alcohol in England is approximately 3% of its annual budget. Overwhelmed?

In the light of these facts (which you can verify for yourself if you look at ONS statistics), how do you arrive at the conclusion that we as a nation have a relationship with alcohol that is a “disaster waiting to happen”? To be blunt: it’s an emotional conclusion, not a rational one. It doesn’t surprise me that you have been recruited as an ambassador for Alcohol Concern – like all true believers they love a repentant sinner – it confirms their sanctimonious sense of self-righteousness. What does surprise me is that you seem to have uncritically bought into their policy conclusions that we need to reduce alcohol’s availability, affordability and its advertising.

Alastair, we have a name for the desire to restrict everyone’s choices around alcohol because a small minority of people make bad choices. It’s called ‘puritanism’.

Yours sincerely

Paul Chase

Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on on-trade alcohol and health policy

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