Monday, 13 February 2017

Really? Every pub is showing the bloody Six Nations?

I am, I admit, a classic ‘two-pint punter’ when comes to watching football at the pub. I have a friend who’s a regular attendee at Chelsea home games, and we tend to meet at the pub to watch away games such as the fixture at Burnley last Sunday lunchtime (Feb 12 2017 for any future historian archiving this). We typically have a pint during the first half and another during the second and then it’s back to the rigours of family life.

That doesn’t, I know, make us the most profitable customers as far as pubs are concerned, but there are plenty of times during the cold, dark winter months when our custom is appreciated. Not, however, once February arrives and the bloody Six Nations rugby gets going.

For the past few seasons, our pub of choice for Chelsea games has been the Greyhound Hotel in Carshalton. Even there, following a refurb and new menu launch, this season football viewers have been shunted from the main bar into a smaller area, on the basis that it creates more room for high spending customers who are eating, rather than low-rent football fans.

This week, though, not even that much was on offer. With Burnley v Chelsea kicking off at 1.30 on Sunday lunchtime and the France v Scotland rugby at 3, we thought we might have a window of opportunity, but it was clear from a cursory glance through the window of the Greyhound that it was all about the build-up to the rugby.

So, we walked on. 250 yards along the road is the Woodman Wine Bar. Although displaying its share of Six Nations paraphernalia donated by various beer brands around the bar, the TV screen itself was showing the football, which was just kicking off as we walked in.

We found a table and ordered our pints. I had eaten, but my mate ordered a sausage baguette making us, I’d have thought, an attractive proposition spend-wise.      
As a digression, I know I shouldn’t have too high an expectation of beer quality from an establishment that calls itself a wine bar, but on my infrequent visits over the years the Woodman has usually managed to serve a decent pint. Not so at the weekend, although it does display a current Cask Marque accreditation.

The pint of Caledonian Golden XPA I had during the first half was liberally laced with diacetyl, while the Adnams Southwold I switched to for the second was all about the phenol. I can still taste the TCP.
Given that it also took the best part of an hour for the sausage baguette to arrive, and in the meantime we were treated to the regular spectacle of staff wandering around the bar calling out the names of dishes they hoped to match with a customer - “Chips!” (hopefully) “Cheesy chips?”  “No, just chips!”  -  I’m going to charitably assume that we caught the Woodman on a bad day.

Back to my main gripe. With the score level at half time, there TV picture suddenly changed and instead of the half time analysis we were watching the build-up to the rugby. A few of us gently remonstrated with the manager.
I could sympathise with his dilemma. He’d put up the paper flags and written ‘watch the Six Nations here’ on the chalkboard outside. On the other hand, he had a dozen paying customers who felt justified in their view that, having shown the first half, there was an unspoken contract between pub and punters that we would see this through to the final whistle together.

Common sense prevailed and we saw the game through to its all-honours-even one-all conclusion, after which the TV was flipped over and those there for the action from the Stade de France had barely missed a thing. Probably. I have to say, I continue to struggle with trying to get too worked up about rugby as a TV spectacle.
I know from pub operators why they like the Six Nations. Rugby viewers are typically more diverse groups of customers who stay longer, spend more and tend to better-natured than a football crowd. On the other hand, when the rugby crowd have faded away for another year, we’ll still be here. Throw us a bone.     

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

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

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.”

Monday, 30 January 2017

Whisky Chaser: The Glenfiddich IPA Experiment

I have a complicated relationship with whisky, dating back over 35 years to an ill-judged evening in the bar at uni and an early-hours visit to the A&E department at Colchester General Hospital. When the runes are right and the wind’s in the right direction, an unexpected whiff of Scotland’s finest can still summon up memories best left buried, a reaction I’m sure Proust never had to a madeleine.

On the other hand, I love IPA. I loved IPA before it was fashionable, and I’ll still love IPA when the last hipster’s moustache wax has hardened beyond the ability of science to save the density from dragging its wearer to the earth’s core.

So, it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I accepted an invitation to a masterclass to mark the launch of the Glenfiddich IPA Experiment, a collaboration between venerable distiller William Grant & Sons and the upstart Speyside Craft Brewery. Despite the 125-year age gap between William Grant setting up shop in 1887 and Speyside just four years ago, the two family-run enterprise have joined forces in the shape of Glenfiddich malt master Brian Kinsman and Speyside brewer Seb Jones.

The main result of the collaboration is a single malt whisky finished in IPA casks, with the 43% ABV Glenfiddich IPA Experiment now available from selected retailers, and being served in Young’s pubs as part of the pub operators Whisky Tide promotion.

Seb had three tries at creating an IPA before he came up with the flavour he was after. He says: “We did three trial recipes, each was a single hop IPA. The hop that made the grade was Challenger - which is a UK hop similar to that used in the original IPAs. This was serendipitous as the barometer of choice was with flavour profile and cellulose (wood) interaction.”

The resulting beer was kept in American oak casks, which were them emptied and filled with the whisky. That’s a very simple description of a very complicated process, but fortunately we were equipped with a handy, simple-to-follow guide that can explain it far better than I can:

All clear now? Excellent.  What I can do is tell you how the result tastes. Under the watchful eye of both Glenfiddich Ambassador Mark Thomson, as well as Seb Jones himself, attendees as the masterclass has the chance to sample the whisky, the IPA created by Seb to go in the barrels, and also the barrel-aged beer that subsequently emerged.
Taking the whisky first, the essential sweetness of every whisky is the first thing that hit my tastebuds. Beer and whisky are, essentially, the same products – whisky is distilled beer or, more accurately, distilled ale, given that the original distinction was that ale was unhopped and beer had hops added to counteract that sweetness.

On a second sip – always go back for a second sip - the citrus sharpness and fresh hop flavours have definitely had an interesting effect on the whisky.

More interesting was the beer. The original 6% ABV IPA created by Seb is, as he admits himself, fairly in-your-face thanks to the need for the beer to leave a chunk of its essence in the barrel. The earthy, peppery hop notes are up front, with the grapefruit and floral flavours harder to find.

The second beer is far more interesting. Its time in the barrel has knocked the rough edges of the more robust hop flavours to create a rounded, smooth IPA that delivers some unexpected flavours including, to my palate at least, liquorice and vanilla.

Whether whisky and I are every entirely comfortable with each other remains to be seen, but if brewers and distillers working together can create beers of this calibre, I’m definitely on board for the brews.  
Pictured: Speyside brewer Seb Jones and Glenfiddich Ambassador Mark Thomson

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Customers, as we all know, can be a contrary bunch ... Fuller's Tenants Extra, September 2014.

Customers, as we all know, can be a contrary bunch. They’ll insist they want to enjoy food and drink in a traditional pub atmosphere, but then complain if they can’t book a table or if they feel disturbed by the chatter of customers enjoying a pint at the bar. They’ll say that they want to enjoy the classic pub dishes, and then moan that the menu doesn’t change often enough.

Menu innovation is always a challenge for pubs. Every dish is someone’s favourite, but there is a need to reflect evolving food trends and offer something different to those looking for a change.  Even the most popular pub meals can be refreshed occasionally. Suggestions for ringing the changes with the five most frequently featured dishes on pub menus – based on the data compiled by industry analyst Horizons - include: 
  • Burgers:  As well as the ever-popular beef and chicken burgers, vary the burger menu with regularly changing varieties such as pork & apple, lamb & mint or even a spicy Thai fishcake served in a burger bun. Offer different toppings and accompaniments with burgers such as local cheeses or home-made coleslaw:
  • Fish & Chips: We all need to vary the fish species we eat to boost sustainability. Speak to your fish supplier to find out which white fish are good value, and spotlight not just the variety, but where and how it’s caught, on the menu;
  • Steak: Using less familiar steak cuts can offer better value, such as the flat iron steak taken from the shoulder. A good catering butcher will be able to prepare such steaks to your specification and advise then best way to cook them. Offer variety with accompaniments, such as sweet potato fries as an alternative to chips; 
  • Sunday Roast: It’s hard to beat roast beef as a family Sunday favourite, but offering a regularly-changing choice, such as lamb, pork or gammon, will keep customers interested. For groups dining together, carving a roast chicken at the table adds a touch of theatre;
  • Sausage & Mash: Locally-made sausages, and speciality varieties such as chorizo or US-style hot dogs, can easily transform standard bangers and mash into a gourmet sausage menu.
Beyond the best-sellers, the latest Menurama survey of trends across pubs and restaurants from Horizons shows new influences appearing on menus. While the prospect of including flavours from Japan or the Middle East, both of which are seeing strong growth, may initially seem daunting, it needn’t be. A splash of wasabi or a sprinkle of tagine spice will liven up a burger, pie or stir fry and put a pub’s menu right on trend.

Hot dogs have seen the biggest increase in the number of menus they now feature on, with pork ribs coming in second.  Both reflect the growing popularity of US diner, barbecue and smokehouse-style dishes, and can be easily added to pub menus. Deli-style salads, coleslaws and speciality breads can also be used to add a Stateside touch. 

On the dessert side, salted caramel is one of the fastest growing flavours tracked by Menurama, having grown 12% in popularity year-on-year.

Finally, it’s not just the food itself that can be easily refreshed – look also at what you’re serving it on. Boards, planks, platters and buckets are all alternatives to the traditional china plate. Some street food vendors have even been noticed serving food on ‘trash can’ lids – but pubs may feel that as ideas go, that one’s a bit rubbish. 

This column originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Fuller’s Tenants Extra

Planning ahead is vital for any business ... Fuller's Tenants Extra August 2014

Planning ahead is vital for any business, but it can also leave licensees with something of a split personality. At this time of year, all the forward focus is on autumn and winter, with pubs urged to start planning hearty stews and pies for the menu, pre-order their winter warmer ales and, of course, start filling up the diary with those all-important Christmas bookings.

Front-of-house – otherwise known as the real world – it’s a very different story. If there’s any justice, the sun is shining, the street outside rings to the joyous cries of children enjoying the school summer holidays, and the bar is packed with pale customers wearing ill-chosen t-shirts and inappropriate shorts.

Having geared up for the summer campaign back in May, it’s no surprise if pubs’ seasonal  shine has faded a bit by the time August rolls around, but now is the peak time for summer sales.  Whether it’s tourists hoping to experience traditional pub culture, office staff hoping to get in a few long lunches while the sun shines, or regulars aiming to make the most of summer evenings and weekends while they still can, it’s worth brushing down the garden tables and servicing the ice machine to keep customers coming back.

There are, of course, never any guarantees with the British weather, but in food terms, there’s plenty you can do to keep the offer fresh for a final push on summer food sales through August and into September:
  • Lighten up – chips with everything is fine, but offer lighter alternatives to the spuds as menu choices. Steak with a salad or bangers with savoury rice instead of mash will appeal to customers looking for lighter summer dishes as well as adding a seasonal touch to the pub food classics;
  • Seaside specials - freshly caught grilled or pan fried fish is popular in summer, and best value varies according to what the fishing boats are landing. Build flexibility onto summer seafood menus with specials boards and catch-of-the-day dishes, and stay touch with suppliers on which species are on offer;
  • Focus on families – finding somewhere relaxed to eat with the kids is the holy grail for many parents at this time of year. Make sure children’s menus are available on tables alongside the main menu, and promote your family food offer prominently on banners and boards;
  • Chill out the wine list – ice cold whites and rosés are likely to be more popular than robust  reds during the summer;  reflect this on the wine list, and if you include drink recommendation alongside dishes on the menu, update these to factor in the warmer days;
  • Take it outside - if you’re lucky enough to have an outside area big enough to cook in, supplement the Sunday lunch session with a barbecue. Cooking steaks and burgers outside shouldn’t affect the main kitchen, and will appeal to families and groups who can’t face a full-on roast;  
  • Fruity finish – fresh fruit salads and fruit flavoured ice creams will have more appeal to some customers than pies and crumbles during the warm weather. Make sure the dessert menu reflects summer trends.           
This column originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Fuller’s Tenants Extra  

I recently sat in on a round table debate ... Fuller's Tenants Extra, July 2014

I recently sat in on a round table debate which saw a group of chefs discuss various aspects of kitchen practice.  Since I was present in order to take notes and turn the discussion into an engaging magazine article afterwards, I was required to keep quiet rather than chip in – something which, as my friends and colleagues will testify, doesn’t always come easily.

However, with those around the table representing pubs, hotels, fine dining, quick service restaurants and workplace catering, there was no shortage of robust view expressed. One interesting aspect was that, despite the different types of businesses they worked in, there were certain topics on which there was more or less total agreement.

One of these was the general unsatisfactory calibre of new entrants to the industry emerging from catering colleges up and down the country. Now, I always take this type of debate with a fairly large pinch of salt. There is no profession in the world where a group of old hands sitting round a table don’t insist that standards have fallen.

The quality of skills training in the catering industry has been a topic of controversy for decades. If colleges focus on the traditional craft of restaurant food preparation, they’re criticised for not recognising the reality of today’s market, but when they teach students how to programme a commercial microwave they’re accused of lowering standards.

One point that was well made in the debate though, was that was that the high cost of ingredients means that trainee chefs have rarely had enough opportunity to ‘practice’ the  art of turning a joint of meat or whole fish into plate-sized portions.

Understanding yield is at the heart of a profitable menu. Most suppliers will quote a price by weight, but If a chef doesn’t know how many portions he can expect to serve from a kilo of cod, or if the quoted weight of a leg of lamb includes the bone, he has very little chance of hitting his GP.

A whole beef striploin might seem better value than buying pre-portioned steaks, but trimming the fat and gristle could reduce the yield by 20% or more. There are some fish species where the fillets represent only around a quarter of the weight of the whole fish.

There is definitely room for closer working relationship between pubs and their food suppliers.  If kitchen skills, as well as preparation time, are in short supply, good communication can help bridge the gap:

  • Share your menu with key suppliers so they understand how the food is to be served;
  • Order cuts individually rather than by total weight –e.g. 20 x 8oz sirloin steaks’;
  • Give suppliers details of how produce is to be served, e.g. ‘potatoes for baking’ or ‘white fish fillets for deep frying’ so they have a clear idea what you need; 
  • Measure the additional cost of the supplier doing the preparation  against the reduced waste and time saved;  it may work out cheaper to buy fish ready-filleted or a joint with the bone removed;
  • Mistakes happen; check the weight and cut of deliveries against what was ordered, and advise suppliers of any discrepancy as soon as possible.
This column originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra

I noticed recently that politicians have started ... Fuller's Tenants Extra, June 2014

I noticed recently that politicians have started referring to the economic downturn of the past few years as ‘The Great Recession’, presumably because that makes it sound more like a natural phenomenon and less like something that we as voters might expect our elected representatives to do something about.

Regardless of what we call it, licensees need no reminding that low consumer confidence and cautious spending have been a feature of the eating out market for some time, and so will welcome any sign of improvement.

Industry analyst Horizons has recently launched Eating Out-Look, a new quarterly survey of consumers and foodservice professionals. The initial findings indicate that consumers are beginning to increase their spending on eating out, and interestingly, the operators surveyed say that fewer consumers are now cutting back on starters and desserts.

Marketing wisdom tells us that it’s far easier to persuade an existing customer to spend a little more that it is attract a completely new customer. As the economic recovery picks up, an extra course added to the front or back end of their meal makes a big difference to the bottom line.

One way to encourage that extra spend is to make sure that starters and desserts offer as much to interest customers as the mains, which is something pubs occasionally let themselves down on.  Let’s start with the starters. Staying with Horizons data, their regular Menurama survey of eating out menus shows that the most commonly seen pub starters in 2013 were:

1 Soup
2 Prawn cocktail
3 Chicken wings 
4 Nachos
5 Breaded mushrooms 

Some of these are no surprise. Home-made soup is a great way to reduce food waste by using surplus vegetables, meat trimmed from man course cuts and other leftovers. Prawn cocktail may be a pub grub cliché, but classic dishes are classic for a reason, and it remains a firm customer favourite.

Dishes such as chicken wings and breaded mushrooms are a pub’s ‘flexible friend’, working just as well as starters and they do in sharing platters, while the popularity of nachos reflects ‘grazing’ trends as well as the growth of Mexican food influences.

When it comes to ‘afters’, the most commonly listed desserts on pub menus are:

1 Ice cream/ sorbet                                       
2 Cheesecake
3 Chocolate brownie
4 Cheeseboard
5 Sticky toffee pudding

The popularity of ice cream, which can be served by itself or as an accompaniment to other desserts, is clear, while cheesecake, brownies and sticky toffee pudding all appeal to the indulgent nature of the pub food occasion.  The cheeseboard offers something to customers without a sweet tooth and is also a popular sharing or bar snack option.

To boost sales of starters and desserts, try these ideas:
  • Use menu descriptions that appeal to customer interest in food provenance, such as ‘soup made with seasonal British vegetables’, ‘apple crumble made with locally-grown fruit’ or ‘a selection of regional cheeses’;
  • Use specials boards to update customers and offer variety, such as soup of the day or ice cream flavour of the week; 
  • Highlight at least one healthier option on both starter and dessert menus, such as salads and fresh fruit;  
  • Incentivise your staff to ask customers if they’re having starters or desserts, with simple rewards such as a bottle of wine for the most sold over a  month;
  • Offer two- and three-course deals at a set price, especially at quiet times of the week
This column originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra