Reopening pubs will get our lockdown drinking back in check

One of the perhaps unsurprising impacts of lockdown has been a change in our drinking habits. Recent research from Drinkaware shows furloughed workers and people now working from home rather than an office admit to having had a drink earlier in the day, and drinking on days they wouldn’t have before the pandemic. Why not pour a drink as soon as you close your laptop at 5.00?  And with every day seeming the same as the previous one, why make any of them drink free days?

The problem is that little habits like these can become ingrained in the long term and even contribute to an increased tolerance for alcohol. And with furlough set to continue until October for some workers, and working from home likely to become a permanent pattern for others, there’s a real danger that many people will be putting their health at risk by consistently exceeding the low-risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week.

There is a lot about life pre-lockdown that helped us moderate how much we drink. Drinking at home means alcohol is available 24/7 and, pubs, bars and restaurants will play a role in getting a lot of people people out of their lockdown drinking patterns. Drinking in the pub is controlled and supervised and, importantly, alcohol serves are exactly measured – unlike the generous free pours so many have been helping themselves to in their kitchens or back gardens over recent months!

According to Kantar research earlier in lockdown, 56% of people were looking forward to visiting a pub or restaurant when they reopen. Unsurprisingly, younger people are more comfortable about going out to eat or drink than older age groups at a higher COVID-19 risk.  And we’re all expecting to see new anti-virus measures such as social distancing, hand sanitiser and enhanced hygiene, to reassure us.

It’s interesting to see why we’re so keenly anticipating the end of the hospitality lockdown. Nearly two-thirds of people cited catching up with friends, and around half of us are planning a celebration or romantic occasion.  I think it’s the informal sociability of the pub that we’re looking forward to – the ability to turn up, as you are, share your highs and lows with friends or friendly bar staff, join in a quiz or listen to live music. Great pub experiences hinge on social connections, which is what we’ve all missed over the last three months.

In all of this, alcohol is definitely optional rather than compulsory and increasing numbers of pubgoers, particularly in younger age groups, are enjoying everything that the pub has to offer – except the alcohol. It helps that the range of ‘no and low’ alcohol drinks has never been better, so choosing to go without alcohol doesn’t mean sacrificing quality or flavour. Any licensees who have a chance to review their drinks range before opening their doors again should, as a priority, be making sure they have a great ‘no and low’ alcohol selection.

It’s also worth noting that, despite the uptick in home drinking, many people have developed positive behaviours to protect their health during the pandemic. According to recent research from CGA 3, a third of us are exercising more and a quarter are buying healthier foods. Nine per cent have cut out alcohol completely. Some of these good habits will surely stick once we come out of lockdown.

Let’s hope that the reopening of the pub, as an environment that encourages moderate drinking, combined with an increased desire to lead a healthier lifestyle, will help to reverse the excessive drinking developed by many during lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a negative impact on many aspects of our life, quite possibly for years to come; wouldn’t it be good if a better relationship with alcohol could be one positive to emerge from it?  

Pubs in the pandemic: community heroes


The team at Cwmbran Fire Station receive food from Brains pub The Blinkin Owl

Working with PubAid is always a wonderful reminder of the great work that pubs do at the heart of their communities, and never more so than during this time of national emergency. Despite the catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on our industry, countless licensees and their teams across the country are putting people before profit and turning their pubs into invaluable hubs of community support.

Des O’Flanagan, PubAid co-founder, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic may have closed pubs for now, but their support for their local communities remains undiminished as licensees up and down the country adapt to offer local people practical, social and emotional support to help them weather this unprecedented crisis.  If ever there were proof that pubs are a force for good in their communities, this is surely it!

Many have adapted their menus to takeaway or delivery, with a number providing free meals to local pensioners, others setting up village shops to serve those unable to travel, and generally acting as a hub to co-ordinate community efforts to support vulnerable residents. There’s plenty of support for NHS and other key workers – turning over car parks and in some cases pub rooms for their use.

Just as importantly, many pubs have found ways to give their regulars some of the social and emotional benefits they gain from a visit to the pub. A number have set up helplines to offer local housebound people a much-needed social interaction, others have organised on-line pub quizzes.

We’ve published a selection of stories about inspiring community pub heroes below – but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg.  If ever there were proof that pubs are a force for good in their communities, this is surely it!

When Mother’s Day became an early Covid-19 casualty, Brawns Den in Durham donated all the food they’d planned to serve families to local food banks. 

In similar vein, The Cross Keys in Coleorton in Leicestershire delivered 50 lunches from pizzas to Sunday roasts to the community on Mother’s Day.

The Old White Bear in Keighley had taken 129 bookings for Mother’s Day but rather than let down their customers, they made all the meals available for takeway instead, and are continuing to operate a take-out service.

Pub operator Brains had food worth £100,000 sitting in their 106 managed pubs as the lockdown started. So they decided to give it all away to local NHS and key workers, care homes, food banks and other worthy causes.  Their donations helped more than 40 groups across south and west Wales, including Cwmbran Fire Station, who took some of the food given away by local Brains pub The Blinkin Owl.  Brains chief executive Alistair Darby said: “We gave away everything that was going to go out of date while our pubs were closed – much better to have it used by those in need than let it go to waste.”

The Myrtle Tavern in Leeds has stepped up to support the vulnerable in their local community, dropping off care packages to people self-isolating or unable to shop for themselves. Packages contain vital supplies – tea, milk, biscuits, toilet roll and a bottle of Guinness!

The Plough & Harrow in Leytonstone has donated soft drinks to the local hospital for staff to enjoy on shift, and alcoholic drinks for those who want to take them home. They have also donated to other key workers such as post workers and refuse collectors, and have set up a Facebook page encouraging other pubs to offer the same support for the NHS

Lesters in Margate has made its car park available only to NHS workers at the nearby hospital, who are also benefiting from the pub’s takeaway food service.  Licensee Barry is doing all he can to support the community, despite being himself in his 70s.

Food deliveries from the Swan in Addingham

Pedal power is delivering pub meals to residents in Addingham, Ilkley. Jon and Amy, licensees at The Swan in the village, have invested in a bike to bring their tasty pub meals, cooked from fresh, to local people.

Licensee Carole at The Clifton Arms in Blackburn raised more than £400 from the pub’s community in just half an hour and bought fruit boxes from a local producer to be delivered to the NHS staff at the local hospital. In the last week, the pub also delivered over 40 essential boxes to those who were in isolation or unable to leave home.

The White Hart in Nettlebed near Henley has set up a shop in the pub, offering vital supplies to local residents, and are cooking a daily hot meal, ready for collection if ordered the day before. A poll on the Nettlebed Facebook asking residents if they wanted the shop to continue got 127 votes in favour – and none against! Good work by licensee Ted Docherty and his team of live-in staff who are working on a voluntary basis to serve the local community.

The aptly-named Who’d Have Thought It in St Dominick in Cornwall is offering takeway and home delivery to the local community, and donating £1 for every order to a newly- established food bank offering vital supplies to the vulnerable. Great community support from licensee Tracey Fleming and her team.

The team at the Blue Ball, Rutland

The Blue Ball in Braunston, Rutland, has been making up food boxes for the local community. Licensees Dom and Pip also set up a fund so that people can make a donation to purchase a box for those in financial hardship.

The Chestnut Group of 11 pubs in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex has adapted its offer with freshly-cooked meals available for collection and delivery, live pub quizzes, Q+A sessions with the pub chefs on social media and online breadmaking demos.  They’ve also opened shops at the Three Blackbirds near Newmarket and Globe Inn at Wells.

To help keep customers socially connected through the lockdown, The Fleece Inn, Skipton, has moved its weekly Tuesday Pub Quiz online, with quizzers able to see licensee Tim read out the questions.  And The Portsmouth Arms in Basingstoke is running two quizzes a day – one for children at 5.00 pm and one for adults at 8.00pm. Around 4,500 people tuned in on the first day!

At The Bull & Bush in Shepshed, Essex, licensees Laura and Nez have set up a Facebook group for their regulars to share quizzes, music and more.

There’s a Starman waiting in the Brewery!

Professor Brian Cox discovers the world of brewing as he launches 'Cosmic Brew' at The Union Club on September 25, 2018 in London, England.
Professor Brian Cox discovers the world of brewing as he launches ‘Cosmic Brew’.

Some years ago, my then-small son came home from primary school and, unexpectedly, asked me “what do you do for a job?” Delighted that he was taking an interest, I explained about journalism and dug out some copies of a number of newspapers and magazines containing articles which bore my byline.

He regarded these with a combination of confusion and disappointment more-or-less guaranteed to break a parent’s heart, and simply said: “Oh. I thought you might have been a spaceman.” The clear subtext was that he had already informed his classmates that his dad was, indeed, an astronaut, and probably also confidently invited them round after school to take a quick spin around Jupiter in my rocket. His whole demeanour said that frankly, I’d let him down, I’d let his friends down, I’d let the field of space exploration down, but most of all I’d let myself down.

Poor career choices and disillusioned offspring aside, with my own childhood shaped by the Apollo moon landings and the original Star Trek, the wonders of the cosmos have always fascinated me. So, I was very pleased to accept an invitation to the launch of Cosmic Brew, a beer created by Britain’s best-known physicist, Professor Brian Cox, in partnership with iconic Manchester brewery JW Lees.

Well, I say Manchester. Brian insists the Greengate Brewery is actually in his native Oldham. “The car park’s definitely in Oldham,” he assured me. With his granddad having lived a minute or two’s walk from the brewery, Brian clearly has a proprietorial feeling about JW Lees that predates his appointment as professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester, and even his stint with ‘The Only Way is Up’ pop icons D:Ream.

William Lees-Jones Brian Cox Michael Lees-Jones
William Lees-Jones, Brian Cox and Michael Lees-Jones

He said: “When I started going to pubs at whatever age that was in the 1980s – probably about 15 – then the (JW Lees pub) Horton Arms was my local. My parents lived about a mile from the brewery and my granddad lived very close, at Middleton Junction. The brewery was something that I saw from the first moment I remember walking around.”

Between broadcasting and lecturing commitments, Brian, with the help of JW Lees head brewer Michael Lees-Jones, a sixth generation member of the family to be involved on the business, have come up with the recipe for Cosmic Brew, a zesty amber ale made with British grown Admiral, Jester and Cascade hops.

After a trial on cask in selected pubs, bottled and draught Cosmic Brew will be on sale to consumers generally in January, coinciding with Brian’s UK and Ireland arena tour, which will be followed by a planned worldwide tour.

Brian told me: “ I never get involved in products, or endorse anything, I just don’t think it’s my thing. However, I really like the idea of taking a piece of Oldham to New Zealand or Antarctica on my tour.”

The science of brewing is, of course, not Brian’s core discipline, but he and Michael bonded over the hopsack. Brian said: “We talked a lot about the precise nature of the brewing process, and also had a tasting, which I loved. I know what kind of beer I like, but to be taught how to identify those different tastes and aspects of the beer was instructive. I found it interesting in particular that Michael wanted to use British hops.”

Michael added: “Normally if I do a brewery tour, it’s about 20 minutes. With Brian, it was about an hour and half. It was really good fun talking about the science side – brewing is definitely both an art and a science. I like supporting British hop growers; a lot of brewers now use imported hops, but we got some fantastic ones, with the same characteristics, but which are more rounded. What we ended up with was an amber ale that tastes like a pale ale, and it’s a style that’s not already in our portfolio.”

Pouring Cosmic Brew at the London launch
Pouring Cosmic Brew at the London launch

The distinctive label helpfully tells us that the beer comes from “Manchester, Earth, Observable Universe. Brian says: “I enjoyed being involved in the branding and design. The pattern of the stars on the label is the view of the night sky looking North over the brewery on the day I was born; March 3rd, 1968. It’s what I would have seen had I looked out of the window. There’s a fact for the pub quiz.”

In terms of flavour, Cosmic Brew is said to have a lemon, tropical and sweet aroma, with a crisp citrus and white grape flavour. I won’t argue with my old friend Michael, but to that I’d add some distinct pepper and spice notes from the hops, giving the beer a real depth of flavour. I’d match this with Lancashire’s rich hotpots and tangy cheese – and as Michael says, “beer really goes with all food.”

At 3.9% ABV, Cosmic Brew is also a very sessionable beer. “If it’s on sale at my shows, they’re going to drink it at the interval, and I do the hard stuff in the second half. If it was 6%, the audience wouldn’t understand the general relativity theory,” observes Brian.

John Porter Brian Cox
John Porter and Brian Cox at the Cosmic Brew London launch. For the benefit of readers who are unsure, Prof Cox is the taller, younger, empirically better looking one.

So, has Prof Cox got the brewing bug? Can we expect a Stellar Stout or Lunar Lager to follow? “No, this is the sort of beer that I drink. It’s the perfect expression of what I like. And it’s great to have a beer in the fridge with my name on it.”

Cosmic Brew will launch into retail and to the on-trade in January and will be available in 500ml bottle and 9g cask. A special preview of the beer will be available in selected pubs around Oldham and North Manchester in October.

The Treasure of the Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada beers served at the White Horse Parson's Green
Sierra Nevada beers served at the White Horse Parson’s Green

There is much talk of consolidation in beer circles at the moment. It seems to received wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that the craft beer boom has left us overbreweried, which will inevitably lead to the big global players snapping up bargains by buying out the biggest craft players, while many of the smaller ones will simply fall by the wayside.

I’ve no real idea whether that’s true or not, and no strong opinion on whether or not it’s a bad thing if it is. Anecdotally, I know that a number of smaller brewers in the UK have quietly shut up shop recently, but it’s hard to say if that’s a trend. The nature of business failure is that breweries tend to arrive with a PR fanfare and depart with barely a whisper.

Equally, I know craft purists who vowed that not another drop of Camden Town Brewery beer would pass their lips after the business was sold to AB InBev in 2015, and who have sworn off BrewDog since its founders sold 22% of the company to private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners earlier this year.

Personally, I find that I can enjoy Meantime IPA just as well now that the merry-go-round has stopped and it’s owned by Asahi of Japan, and I have no doubt I’ll continue to enjoy a pint of Young’s Ordinary when Marston’s takes over the brand just as much as I did when Wandsworth’s finest first moved to Bedford under the stewardship of Charles Wells. I’ve worked with at least two entrepreneurs who’ve swanned off with a few mill as a result of flogging the fruits of their labours, and I don’t begrudge them a penny of it – although the fact that I’m still working and they’re not is a good indicator of the extent of my own business acumen. 

Steve Grossman at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson's Green
Steve Grossman at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson’s Green

Nevertheless, it’s also good to know that there are independent breweries out there that stick to their guns. So, I was delighted to accept an invitation recently to a beer and food matching dinner at south west London’s temple of beer, the White Horse at Parson’s Green. The event was hosted by Steve Grossman of California’s Sierra Nevada brewery, one of the true pioneers of the US craft beer movement. The event was part of pub group Mitchells & Butler’s summer craft beer festival, and an opportunity to sample some Sierra Nevada beers we don’t see as often over here as the Pale Ale or Torpedo Extra IPA.

Founded in the 1970s by Steve’s brother Ken, over the years Sierra Nevada has built a repertoire of seasonal and speciality beers, with its passion for hops at the heart of its programme,  that keep it’s loyal customers coming back for more. Sierra Nevada remains resolutely family-owned, with a new generation of Grossmans now coming into the business.  

Steve admitted to me they’d had some “interesting conversations” with bigger players over the years but, in line with the brewery’s commitment to sustainability and long-term investment – Sierra Nevada has won awards for its approach to energy and water use at its two US breweries – there are no plans to change the ownership structure.

Given that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a top 20 US beer brand, the Grossmans seem to be doing a pretty good job without outside funding. In the UK, the beers are distributed by Fuller’s, with the flagship beers now a standard part of the back bar fridge range in Fuller’s pubs. 

The menu at the White Horse was:

*Asparagus salad with Sierra Nevada Summerfest

*Palate cleanser – Sierra Nevada Peach IPA sorbet

* Lamb rump with Sierra Nevada River Ryed

* Rhubarb crumble with Sierra Nevada Tropical Torpedo

*Cheese board – Stinking Bishop, Colston Basset blue, Keen’s Cheddar and Innes goats cheese log with Torpedo.

Cheeseboard at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson's Green
Cheeseboard at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson’s Green

Of the beers themselves, the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Tropical IPA  is definitely one I’ll seek out again. Made with Amarillo, Mosaic, Citra, El Dorado and Comet hops, it has wonderful flavours of mango, papaya, and passionfruit to counter the intense hop character. River Ryed has real pepper/spice notes that would, I suspect, make it a beer that would go sublimely with a vindaloo.

Of the food matches, the kitchen team at the White Horse produced superb food, with Sierra Nevada Peach IPA sorbet a real highlight. However, they saved the best for last. The cheeseboard, especially the Colston Basset blue cheese, was an inspired match with Torpedo Extra IPA, with the intensely bitter Magnum, Crystal and Citra hops a true contrast to the rich, sticky sweet/savoury cheese.

So, long may Sierra Nevada stay independent.  Unless they don’t. In which case, f*** it, I’m still having a Torpedo with my Stilton at Christmas.

Sauce for the Goose – the Vintage Ale House opens in Balham

by John Porter

Balham is, as Peter Sellers famously observed, the “gateway to the south”, but it was, a little disappointingly, not the late Goon’s sketch that bought Chicago brewer Goose Island from its home in the cradle of urban blues music to the dubious glamour of South London.

If John Lee Hooker ordered his usual ‘One Scotch, One Bourbon and One Beer’ at the Goose Island Vintage Ale House in Balham, the beer on offer would be from the Goose Island range back in Chicago in his adopted city.

These are, I admit, two completely different introductory paragraphs.  I’m equally fond of them both, but I’m going to struggle to link them, so take your pick.

To business.  In December 2016, the Goose Island Vintage Ale House opened in perhaps unexpected location of Ramsden Road in Balham. Marking the first pub venture for Goose Island outside the Americas, as might be expected the Vintage Ale House serves the brewers core range on draught including Goose Island IPA, Green Line Ale, and Four Star Pils.

More interestingly, also on offer – when available – is the legendary Bourbon County Stout, as well as the seven-strong range of barrel-aged Belgian style beers, dubbed the ‘seven sisters’. These Belgian-inspired beers are aged for 18 months in wine barrels, each with 50lbs of a different fruit added. Each is sold in 70cl champagne-style bottles, and bottle conditioned with a five-year shelf life. The range includes Gillian, named for X-Files actor Gillian Anderson, who once worked at the Goose Island brewpub. Bottled at 9.5% ABV, this farmhouse ale is blended with white pepper, strawberry, and honey.

Other sisters include pale ale Matilda, a 7% ABV farmhouse ale fermented with wild yeast, Sofie, a 6.5% pale ales aged with orange peel, and Madame Rose, a 6.7% ABV brown ale made with wild yeast and aged with cherries.

At the Vintage Ale House, a bottle of one of these beers will set you back somewhere from £18 and £25, and come with suggested food matches rom a bistro-style menu that includes Porter & Molasses Glazed Beef Cheeks or the Roasted Cod and Seafood Fregola.

If that strikes you as a challenging sell to the standard Balham punter, I initially agreed with you. As a native south Londoner who went to primary school a stone’s throw from the location of the Vintage Ale House – if you can throw a stone half a mile -I’d be the last to disparage the area, but even so…

Fortunately, I had the very good luck to be invited to a dinner hosted by Goose Island founder John Hall and president Ken Stout and had the opportunity to ask a few searching questions.

To start, with, why Balham? Although acknowledging that they left the exact choice of location to someone with more local knowledge, John told me: “I spent time in London, and enjoyed the pub scene, way before I opened Goose island. I also spent time in other parts of Europe, and wondered why we didn’t have the same atmosphere and beers in the States.

“The biggest influence on what I did, of any one thing, was Fuller’s. So, I opened a brewpub, and we sold beers of the world, put probably more than anything we sold English style ales, hand pulled.

When the opportunity came to expand, we thought why not go back to London. We’ve had our beers over here since 2002/2003, and over the years as craft beer has become more popular, we’ve done well. London’s huge, and we wanted to find a neighbourhood where we could fit in and establish ourselves, we wanted to be part of a community. That’s part of what we are.”

 Ken points out that “when John started the original brewpubs in Clybourn Avenue in 1988, it was a seedy area – there were ladies of the night, and it wasn’t necessarily the safest part of Chicago. Greg, John’s son, would walk down the middle of the street to get to the pub –  he didn’t want to be on the sidewalk, he wanted to be under lights. But since then that neighbourhood has become a gem.”

I mention that Balham has been through similar changes of its own, for example with gentrification among having seen the once-notorious Bedford Hill tone down its act considerably. Ken said: “I’m not saying we’re her to save Balham. But we’ve been part of the resurgence of the community in Chicago, and we’d love to be part of the resurgence that’s happening in Balham.”

So, what about the audience for those premium beers? John says: “In the States, we really pioneered brewing wine-like beers. When we bought out Matilda and Sofie, we were nervous originally, and we underpriced them, which hurt us little bit. But today, you’ve got beers out there that aren’t as good, that are priced higher.

“We have a selection of our beers here that are as worthy as any wine to go with a great meal. This is where we show people how to do that, show them how proud we are of these beers.”

Ken elaborates: “We’re trying to be part of the elevation of beer. These beers are for the developed palate. They’re influenced by the Belgian tradition but they’re very dry, there is no residual sugar. They’re for a palate that doesn’t want sweet and cloying, they’re tart and dry.”

While walk-in trade will enjoy the draught offer, John expects the vintage beers, paired with food, to attract a destination trade – “it’s going to be word of mouth.” The focus is on staff who understand the beers, along with the presentation, including bespoke stemmed glassware.

Ken says: “Our square footage isn’t huge here, but It’s not just about the number of people who come through the door, it’s finding the right people, those who really appreciate the experience. They become ambassadors without even knowing it, they tell their friends.”

The Balham opening has been made possible, at least in part by the investment in Goose Island by the world’s biggest brewer. AB InBev, which acquired Goose Island in 2011. Ken explains: “Since our partnership with AB InBev began in 2011 we’ve grown almost five times over in terms of volume, just in the US.  Any expansion projects, like the Vintage Ale House in Balham, don’t happen if we’re not succeeding as an individual business unit.”

John says: “I made the decision to sell because they told me, and I believed them, that they were buying us for what we could contribute.  Ken, who I hired many years ago, is now president and running the company, and I couldn’t be prouder, I love the beer, but I love the people even more.”

As for the prospects of further Vintage Ale Houses, Ken acknowledges: “If it works really well we’re going to want to do it in other great cities that have a beer culture. So Brussels would make a lot of sense, Paris would make a lot of sense, so would Rome and Milan.

And taking the concept back to the USA? Ken says: “We don’t really have an answer, we don’t know yet. We’re going to tend this garden and see what works. What can we do back home in Chicago potentially with something like this? It’s exciting to think about.”  John sums up: “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”