The 2019 news in review

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Mixed bag: the past 12 months has seen a plethora of news for the pub trade
Mixed bag: the past 12 months has seen a plethora of news for the pub trade

Related tags: Pub

Here is a selection of news stories featured on The Morning Advertiser website throughout the past 12 months

January

Dry January​ ‘bad for health’

Drinkers vowing to quit alcohol during Dry January​ could actually be doing their health more harm than good, a doctor has warned.

Many of us this month will be considering taking part in the annual tradition of abstaining from alcohol, as we nurse sore heads from Christmas and new year celebrations.

Going alcohol-free for January is a popular way of starting the new year after over-indulging during the festive period with more than 5m Brits taking part, according to a YouGov study.

However, some experts claim Dry January is “bad for you” because it “encourages” binge-drinking for the rest of the year.

According to leading liver doctor Mark Wright, a consultant at University Hospital Southampton, many people will make up for the short-term abstinence by guzzling as much as they like from February to December.

He also added how he fears the popular trend is stopping alcoholics from facing up to their problems.

“Giving up alcohol for Dry January​​ as some sort of detox is like maxing out your credit cards all year and thinking you can solve your financial problems by living like a hermit for a month,” Wright exclaimed. “The danger is that abstaining for a month can make it seem like people have a grip on their drinking, but, in fact, it can be the perfect decoy to justify drinking far too much in the festive season.”

Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in the department of health sciences at York University echoed Wright’s thoughts.

Dry January​​ risks sending out a binary, all or nothing, message about alcohol – that is, either participate by abstaining or carry on as you are,” he added.

Despite the bad press, Richard Piper, CEO of Alcohol Change UK, which runs the campaign, says those taking part can expect to feel healthier, save money, and improve their relationship with alcohol in the long term.

“Many of us know about the health risk of alcohol – seven forms of cancer, liver disease, mental health problems – but drinking less has more immediate benefits too,” Piper explained.

“Sleeping better, feeling more energetic and saving money.”

February

Operator hits back at ‘unreasonable’ one-star review

A licensee lambasted a one-star review on TripAdvisor where a customer threatened to arrest bar staff who wouldn’t serve her.

The review of Hobgoblin in Bristol by Chloe A, which the pub also shared on its Facebook page, said: “The staff took a disliking to us the second we walked in. We are a group of five who they haven’t seen since uni[versity].

“They told us we were too drunk despite not having any alcohol before entering the establishment. This pub clearly has an issue with happy people.”

The Facebook post, which was titled “Don’t be like Chloe”, was shared more than 1,000 times, generated 570 comments and 3,400 reactions.

The pub replied on TripAdvisor, explaining how the customer behaved aggressively.

It said: “Hi Chloe. How’s the head this morning? I’d be surprised if you can actually remember your behaviour last night, just in case it’s a little foggy, let’s have a recap shall we? Although you were initially served a round of drinks, after you stumbled away from the bar and barged into another customer, dropping your drinks on the floor, we began to realise you weren’t ‘entirely’ sober.

“This assessment was further strengthened when you returned to the bar, aggressively demanding your spilt drinks be replaced for free. You were refused.

“At this point, you began threatening a member of bar staff. You claimed to be a police officer and said you could arrest the member of staff (bizarrely for failing to ID you – we operate a Challenge 25 policy”, which, let’s face it, doesn’t apply to you).

“You threatened to return the following day with senior officers to pursue this further and suggested we were infringing your human rights.”

The response went on to highlight how it impacted members of staff and customers as well as how the owner and team decided not to serve her.

March

JDW to put 16 pubs on the market

Pub giant JD Wetherspoon (JDW) confirmed it was putting 16 pubs on the market through CBRE and Savills.

Two of the pubs, the Bourtree in Hawick and Cross Keys in Peebles, both on the Scottish Borders, were among the 16 UK-wide sites being advertised by the pub group.

JDW spokesman Eddie Gershon said: “We totally understand that our loyal customers and staff will be disappointed with this decision.

“However, JDW does, on occasion, put some of its pubs up for sale.

“It is a commercial decision taken by the company taken after long consideration.

He added: “The pubs will continue to trade as normal until a buyer is found.

“We have told our staff that if the pub is sold and they do not transfer to the purchaser, then we would look to redeploy our employees at other JDW pubs in the region.

Meanwhile, JDW pushed its prices up for the fifth time in two years​ this month.

Prices across the pubco’s sites vary dependent on location, however, dishes including the ultimate burger and an alcoholic drink increased to £7.75.

This compares to two years ago, when the combination cost £7.25.

Gershon added: “Our customers love the excellent range of great-quality meals at our pubs and we are certain they will enjoy the new meals we have added to the menu.”

April

What should you do if customers steal glasses?

Operators have different reactions after they notice a customer slip a glass into their bag or coat. Here’s what you can do to prevent it:

Customers pinch around £186m worth of tableware from pubs and restaurants each year, research from the equipment supplier Nisbets discovered.

It found that glasses were the most commonly taken items, with just over one in three people (36%) taking at least one.

Costs add up over time and replacing stolen items is an irritating extra thing to remember to do, operators said.

Robin Freer, the general manager of the St Mary’s Inn, Northumberland, said: “Generally, we don’t see a lot go missing at the pub but, over my years in the industry, we’ve come across a few circumstances where we have been aware of it happening and had to deal with each circumstance differently.”

East Anglian pub operator Piers Baker said his site, the Church Street Tavern, experienced considerable theft on busy weekend nights.

“[Theft happens] because people find our Champagne and wine glasses attractive (Chef & Sommelier Aroma Up range) and because we have really nice individual cocktail glasses,” he said.

At the Leigh-on-Sea Brewery taproom, in Essex, the issue is a “reasonably minor, but ongoing nuisance,” director Ian Rydings said.

There can also be implications for premises licence conditions, Marcus Lavell, specialist licensing and regulation barrister at Keystone Law, explained.

He said: “Many licences contain prohibitions on “drinks in open containers” or “glasses” being taken from the premises.

“Glassware may well end up being used in crime and disorder away from the premises (either by the person who took it or by someone who later finds it lying around).

“If it gets traced back to your premises (possibly by branding on the glass), you can end up in hot water with the police or even the environmental health officer – no one wants broken glass lying around in the street.”

Baker said: “We have two designated glasses collectors who constantly patrol and all staff are briefed to keep their eyes open.

Freer added: “The best way to go about it is to make a bit of a joke, we don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but do let them know that we’ve seen them take the glass and, ultimately, put them in a situation to laugh it off and return the glass.” 

May

Fire devastates M&B Vintage Inns site

Customers had their meals and drinks cut short when a fire broke out at one of Mitchells & Butlers Vintage Inns sites in Horley, Surrey, on the evening of 28 May.

The fire at the Ye Olde Six Bells on Church Road, reputed to be the second oldest pub in the UK, was believed to have started in the kitchen in a newer part of the building.

About 50 customers, who were at the pub when the fire broke out, were not worried about the severity of the blaze when it began. They took their drinks and food into the pub’s garden while the fire was investigated.

Four fire engines, an area ladder platform and at least 22 firefighters attended the blaze, with some said to be staying throughout the evening to ensure the safety of the building.

A family of three living in the flat above the pub have also been left homeless and without possessions​ following the fire.

Officials have also said part of the pub’s roof will have to be torn down due to damage.

The destruction was restricted to a modern addition to the building and not the main part of the 9th century pub.

No one is reported to have been injured and everyone was safely evacuated.

One patron, Roxie Wood, who was visiting the pub at the time of the fire, said on Facebook: “We were there, something caught fire in the kitchen.”

Wood added: “Everyone got out into the car park, it didn’t look that bad.”

The pub has since reopened.

June

Are wet-led pubs back on the rise?

As several recent headlines indicate that wet-led offers may be back on the rise, specialist licensing solicitor Poppleston Allen considers what operators looking to change from dining to wet-led should be aware of...

The legal expert group said: “Two news stories have caught our attention over recent weeks. One reported that drinkers in the UK get drunk more often than anywhere else in the world, about once per week on average.

“Secondly there is the well-documented demise of Jamie’s Italian, and a wealth of reports and statistics demonstrating difficulties in certain parts of the restaurant sector.

“So, what do these reports tell us? One interpretation has to be that, while many of us like a drink, the UK’s appetite for dining out is not quite what it has been in recent years.

“We have seen a large number of local community boozers and high street bars become more food-focused to attract a
wider audience.

“Some of the latest stories indicate that a wet-led offer may be back on the rise.

“A successful business has to adapt to its customers and anyone considering a change in operation to focus more on drinkers rather than diners will need to carefully consider what they are permitted to do. In difficult economic times it can be tempting to make sweeping changes, but there is a legal process that must be followed, which inevitably takes time and money.

“Among other things, an operator looking to change from dining to wet-led would need to look at their licence conditions and plans. Licence conditions are unique to a particular premises and need to be appropriate for the style of operation and to promote the licensing objectives.

“It is not uncommon to find conditions that restrict the use of a premises in certain ways. For example, that the sale of alcohol is ancillary to a table meal. Changing these conditions may be a straightforward process but, in some locations, it can be nigh-on impossible.

“In particular, in cumulative impact areas an application for the removal of a condition that makes alcohol ancillary to food can be controversial, costly and lengthy.

“Changes to plans may be more straightforward for slight adjustments, however, if a premises were to turn a kitchen into a new whisky snug, it would almost certainly receive a great deal of scrutiny. Careful consideration must be given to the potential to negatively impact on the licensing objectives and, if so, the measures in place to mitigate such an impact. Alongside licensing, planning permissions may also need considering if there is a significant change in the use of the premises.

“The hospitality world is forever changing. The legal processes involved often seem rather clunky and leaden-footed by comparison, but an appreciation of the need for compliance early on can keep you ahead of the game and prevent nasty enforcement surprises further down the line.

July

Stonegate to buy Ei Group

Stonegate Pub Company agreed to buy pubco Ei Group for £1.27bn, which will see the operator’s estate rise by 4,000 sites, making Stonegate the UK’s largest pub owner.

The operator, which owns brands including the recently acquired Be At One and Slug & Lettuce, currently has more than 760 sites, a number it has reached incrementally since buying 333 sites from Mitchells & Butlers almost a decade ago.

Discussions about the acquisition took place for several weeks.

The acquisition valued Ei Group’s entire business at near £3bn, including its debt and adjusted for the recent disposal of 370 commercial properties.

Ei Group chairman Robert Walker said: “In 2015, we set out a new strategy. During the past four years, we have made great progress and have delivered a significant increase in value for our shareholders.

“The acquisition delivers the future value of the strategy for our shareholders and secures an exciting future for our tenants and employees by creating the leading managed and tenanted pub company in the industry.”

Stonegate chairman Ian Payne said: “It is an exciting prospect to bring EIG and Stonegate together to create a diversified pubs group with significant industry expertise.”

August

Hong Kong property company bids for Greene King

A Hong Kong-based property business announced plans to snap up the Greene King business in a deal which valued the UK pub operator at £4.6bn.

CK Noble, a wholly owned subsidary of Hong Kong-based CK Asset Holdings Limited, announced it had reached an agreement with the Greene King board for a cash offer for the UK brewer.

The move valued the company’s shares at 850p each, with CKA paying £2.7bn and taking on £1.9bn of debt, and will be subject to the approval of Greene King shareholders, with the company’s board of directors recommending they vote in favour of the deal.

A spokesman for Greene King said the two companies already had a relationship with CKA owning a number of freeholds on the Suffolk-based businesses pubs. He went on to say the company had made reassurances it would continue to maintain the Greene King name and its existing support centres in Bury and Burton, and plans to invest in the business.

George Magnus, non-executive chairman designate of the bidding company, said: “We believe this sector will continue to be an important part of British culture and the eating and drinking-out market in the long run. Greene King, being a leading integrated pub retailer and brewer with strong real estate backing, is well positioned to capture the opportunities that lie ahead.

Greene King chief executive Nick Mackenzie added: “Greene King has a well-invested estate in prime locations, leading brands, a rich history and a talented team of c38,000 people serving millions of customers across the UK.

“CKA is an experienced UK investor and shares many of Greene King’s business philosophies. They understand the strengths of our business and we welcome their commitment to working with the management team, evolving the strategy and investing to ensure its continued long-term growth.”

The deal has since been approved.

September

Has craft beer gone too far?

Sophie Atherton considered whether craft has gone too far and why the best beers are those brewed with integrity: “I used to have a good relationship with the pint that was Greene King IPA. It was an important part of my life in my early 20s when I was at university in Cambridge. I went to what, at the time, was Anglia Polytechnic University and, although a brilliant place to study, it had a terrible student union (SU) bar that did not serve real ale. I couldn’t hack it and so persuaded my friends to boycott the bar in favour of the pub.

“The Alex (which is now a hip craft beer and burgers joint) was a back street local that we must have come across because one of our friends lived nearby. Like many, if not most, of the pubs in Cambridge at the time, it was a Greene King place. It served a lovely pint at only 23p more than the SU bar charged for some nasty imitation bitter. It had a pool table, a jukebox and a warm welcome for us. We went there every Saturday night for a long time. I can’t recall why we stopped. So, Greene King didn’t used to be a dirty word for me, but I moved west to places where it wasn’t served so widely and we lost touch.

“I’m still not totally sure whether the beer was effectively neutered by an altered recipe that seemed to remove all of its hoppy bitterness, or whether my taste buds changed, but a pint of Greene King IPA now tastes to me like little more than some brown malty water. So news of the brewery being sold didn’t have me worrying about a beloved beer. But I fear there will be greater losses to come – and not only of once-great brewers but our beer and pub culture as a whole. I know that sounds somewhat melodramatic but, for me, it’s personal.

“To write off the sale of Greene King, Fuller’s and whoever is next, simply as ‘business’, is to ignore how their no longer being British companies subtly erodes our heritage. It also enables the commodification of pub culture, which in turn diminishes authenticity. Then again, we seem to have survived the Irish theme pub.

“A few years back it seemed we were in a golden age of excitement around beer; so many new breweries making it and the resurgence of lost styles. What I see now is a hell of a lot of style over substance, with a glut of shoddy beers that appear to get away with it because they are on-trend. The flip side is that more traditional beer is neglected.

“I’m happy for someone to persuade me otherwise but, for me, the craft beer bubble has burst.

“That’s not to say I’m no longer passionate about beer; rather the latest thing frequently disappoints and I find myself increasing attracted by the idea of ‘real ale’.”

October

Marston’s to sell off 150 pubs

Pub operator and brewer Marston’s was looking to sell 150 of its pubs for around £45m, The Morning Advertiser​ (MA​) understood.

As reported by The Sunday Times, the Wolverhampton-based operator of more than 1,500 pubs appointed advisers from property specialists Christie & Co to sell 150 sites in a process being referred to as Project Harvest.

Initial bids for the portfolio were due on Friday 27 September according to The Sunday Times​​ report, however, the deadline had been delayed.

Red Oak Taverns, Admiral Taverns and NewRiver were linked to the portfolio, which was valued at between £40m and £45m.

It is believed the proceeds from the sale of the mixture of tenanted, leased and retail agreement-based sites in England and Wales will be used to pay off Marston’s debt.

As reported by MA, the brewer and operator outlined plans in July to tackle £200m of its £1.4bn net debt quicker than initially planned​ after it revealed intentions to defer £70m of new-build investment planned for the next three years and reallocate between £20m and £30m of said funds into organic capital plans to generate cash flow.

Marston’s spent £74.4m in the 26 weeks ending 30 March 2019​, including £27.1m on new pubs and bars, according to figures reported by MA​.​

The company also acquired 15 former Mitchells & Butlers​ pubs in September 2018 which have been subject to around £4m investment since.

News of the portfolio’s availability follows community pub operator Admiral Taverns’ agreement​ to take over 150 tenanted community pubs from Heineken’s pub-arm Star Pubs & Bars on 25 September.

MA contacted both Marston’s and Christie & Co for comment, but at the time of writing had yet to receive a response.

Discussing the announcement, a spokesperson from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) commented: “This news will understandably bring uncertainty, but it’s possible for the company to manage the sale in a way which benefits licensees, consumers and the company alike.

“By offering the people running these pubs the opportunity to purchase them free of tie, Marston’s can show it cares about its customers, its tenants, and their communities.

“Above all, it is most essential that these pubs are given a genuine chance to continue as going concerns under new ownership.”

November

Average price of a pint rises by 86p in 10 years

It’s no secret beer prices have been steadily rising but the increase during the past 10 years may not be as severe as you might think.

Pubs are constantly hit with a plethora of headwinds, one of which is ever-rising beer prices. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in May 2009, the average cost of a pint of lager was £2.81 and as of March 2019, the price is £3.67. ­ This is a difference of 86p and in percentage terms – an increase of over 30%.

During the past decade, the biggest incremental increase was from May 2009 to May 2010 – a rise of 14p, equating to 5%. The smallest rise has been from May 2018 to May 2019 where the price rose by just 3p – a percentage increase of less than 1%.

However, Brits are still unhappy with the cost of a pint of beer. In May 2018, YouGov conducted a survey where it discovered the average price of a pint of beer in Britain was 60p more than Brits thought was reasonable.

The study included more than 40,000 respondents and found the national average ‘reasonable’ price for a pint, as perceived by Brits, was £3, which was 60p lower than the national average cost of a pint at the time – 67p lower than the average pint of lager cost recorded by the ONS in May 2019.

A similar study commissioned by St Austell Brewery’s Proper Job IPA found four in 10 Brits, who drink beer, were unhappy about the cost of a pint.

The research also discovered a perfect pint should have a head of 9mm, served in a ‘proper’ pint glass at 5.30pm on a Saturday, in a beer garden with a partner.

December

Wise views on IPAs and craft lagers

The popularity of IPA and lager is not set to fade anytime soon, according to Wild Card Brewery head brewer Jaega Wise.

Wise shared her views on the future of the beer market at The Morning Advertiser​​’s inaugural Drink Tank event.

She said: “IPA is going nowhere, we are just not seeing it fading at all, we are also not seeing lager fading either, craft lager is growing”.

Many breweries founded at the start of the decade have just become able to fund the production of lagers, owing to the expensive chilling equipment, Wise said.

“It’s the world’s number one drink.”

Meanwhile, BrewDog co-founder James Watt predicted sales growth for craft beer and said IPAs could overtake lager as the UK’s best-selling beer in the next 10 to 15 years.

Wise said London breweries were under more pressure than ever owing to the amount of competition in the category, meaning that consumers’ standards for quality products and service were high.

She explained: “In London, 10 years ago there were 10 breweries. We found over the past year, the number of breweries opening has dramatically dropped off.”

Mistakes that breweries could get away with in previous years could now be business-ending, she said, using the example of a brewery that made a T-shirt about how often its bottles exploded.

“Even the thought of that now is laughable,” she said. “If you are a brewery in the capital, your quality has to be high.”

She predicted there would be mainstream growth in IPA, alongside craft lager.

“Brut IPA was a bit of a flash in the pan trend. Overtly cloudy IPA is not going anywhere.”

Wise also forecast the sector would see “considerably more” barrel-aged beers enter the market in the coming months, as many London and Manchester breweries that started barrel programmes in 2014 became ready to release brews.”

There should be a cross-industry effort to counter the decline in cask beer, with colder serves and a premiumisation approach being potential solutions.

Cask makers could take inspiration from the premiumisation of keg beer by applying the “same theories into cask beer with more expensive styles, a style that someone would be willing to pay above the £4 a pint mark”.

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