Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Strange bedfellows

The IPPR think-tank has recently published a report entitled Pubs and Places: the social value of community pubs, which attacks the government for adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to pubs through regulation and tax and warns community pubs could disappear altogether. Fair enough, you might think, although as Simon Clark points out here it is strangely quiet on the single biggest factor leading pubs to close.

Also, no surprise to see Mike Benner of CAMRA lending his support to the report, but who’s this alongside him, none other than the unfortunately-named Don Shenker of our favourite fakecharity Alcohol Concern. He says:

Community pubs perform a valuable social function and are frequently the cornerstone of rural life, providing safe and friendly drinking environments. Such pubs are often excellent examples of responsible drinks retailing.
That sounds like something of a Damascene conversion as I had always thought Alcohol Concern was essentially an anti-drink pressure group. In reality, this is just a cynical policy stance aimed at playing divide and rule with drinkers and the drinks industry. I’m not saying that they are all prohibitionists as such, but their fundamental agenda is to reduce alcohol consumption, increase prices and restrict availability.

If they had their way, there would be a damn sight fewer pubs than there are at the moment. In even the best-run community pub you will see plenty of people drinking more than four alcohol units at a sitting and a fair number becoming distinctly merry by the end of the evening, activities which no doubt Mr Shenker would look upon with flinty disapproval.

At moments like this, you sometimes can’t help wondering whether CAMRA has somehow been infiltrated by anti-drink pressure groups who have now worked their way up to the high command of the organisation and are intent on slowly destroying everything it has ever achieved. I hope Mike Benner has a very long spoon – he’s going to need it.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Wetherspoon’s

There has been some severe criticism of Wetherspoon’s here. Apparently they are downmarket drinking dens favoured by alcoholics.

This may be the case in London, but out in the provinces I find Wetherspoons’ pubs in general the haunt of middle-class drinkers who want a reasonable meal and aren’t willing to chance their arm in a “real” pub. They are cosy, middle-class havens, and they are very busy. They are, in a sense “pub lite”.

I’m no great fan of Wetherspoon’s, but the idea that they are downmarket drinking dens is ludicrous.

Sunday, Sunday

Back in the mid-80s, when we were still allowed only a measly two hours’ drinking time on Sunday lunchtime, my local pub would be standing room only from about 12.15 to last orders. Obviously something that was strictly rationed was enthusiastically consumed when available. Move forward 25 years, following progressive liberalisation of licensing hours, at 1.30 pm it’s practically deserted. Yet during the following 90 minutes large numbers of customers come in, so by three it’s heaving. A strange but dramatic change of drinking habits. I also often notice the car parks of food-oriented pubs full at 6 or 7 on Sunday evening, which is about the last time I would contemplate going out to a pub for a meal.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Nottingham


Had a trip to Nottingham today – there seemed to be some kind of morris dancing festival on. It’s a very characterful place, which I always feel is more like a large historic town than a city in the mould of Manchester or Birmingham. I did a number of pubs – the most memorable were the two Castle Rock houses, the News House and the Vat & Fiddle. Have Tynemill now metamorphised into Castle Rock? Sad to see the impressive Queens Hotel opposite the station, once a Shipstones’ stronghold, now closed and turned into a “Floor covering centre”.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Minimum price, maximum confusion

Reading this interview with the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, it struck me that he had fallen into the common trap of confusing minimum pricing with banning below-cost selling. In reality, the two are completely different concepts. The vast majority of the alcohol sold below 50p a unit, and even below 30p a unit, is not sold below the cost price, whereas it wouldn’t be difficult to sell fine wine and malt whiskies below cost and yet still come in well above 50p a unit.

The supermarkets are often accused of below-cost selling, but in reality those low prices they offer on multibuys are likely to be the result of driving eye-watering bargains with brewers. I’d be amazed if even half a percent of the alcohol units sold by the typical supermarket were sold below cost.

And, while banning below-cost selling may seem a no-brainer to many, it could easily end up having the unintended consequence of preventing retailers (and pub licensees) selling off short-dated stock, or the end of a barrel, at a reduced price, and stopping them providing tasting samples or even the occasional free pint for a valued customer.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Baby and bathwater

Unintended consequences seem to be a speciality of the present government, and one of the finest examples yet seen is the report that stringent nutritional standards may put paid to school meals in secondary schools. Many schools may not be able to meet the standards at all, while others will be forced to scrap a choice of dishes and offer a single set menu, which no doubt will be Jamie Oliver-style muck that will have all the appeal to pupils of a plate of cold sick. Inevitably they will end up voting with their feet and taking packed lunches or eating elsewhere. Surely it is far better getting kids eating a reasonably filling and nutritious meal than worrying about the finer points of zinc and iron content, and I can’t really see that pie and chips once a week is going to harm growing children.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Cutting off your nose?

There’s a quite astonishing piece in The Publican from Hamish Champ in which he alleges that belligerent smokers are helping to close pubs by taking their business away. Well, yes, pubs are closing at a rapid rate of knots because of reduced custom from smokers, but the blame for that must be laid squarely at the door of the government.

Smokers are not some uniform, co-ordinated body, and to say they are deliberately shunning pubs as an act of spite is absurd. Plenty of smokers do still go to pubs and put up with having to go outside when they want a fag, but others quite reasonably have decided that isn’t for them and visit much less often, if at all. Everybody does what suits them as individuals, and the number of people who make consumer choices with the conscious intention of “making a point” is minuscule.

If I had to go outside the pub to drink a pint of beer, then I can assure you I would scarcely ever drink except at home. If loads of pubs then shut down I wouldn’t consider it to be my fault, and would regard it as totally unreasonable to be blamed for pub closures.

Champ also says that licensees have gone to great expense to provide smoking facilities within the law. Obviously, given the constraints of many sites, this is often simply impossible, but as a general statement it is very wide of the mark. Most “smoking facilities” are extremely perfunctory and often consist of no more than an awning in a dingy yard next to the bogs. The number of pubs that have made the effort to provide a sizeable covered area with reasonably comfortable chairs and tables is very small. As soon as the weather is clement enough to sit outside, they do reap the benefit, though.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

How much is too much?

I recently ran a poll with the question “How much would you consider exorbitant for a pint of 4.0% ABV beer?”

There were 40 votes, broken down as follows:

£2.25: 3 (7%)
£2.50: 2 (5%)
£2.75: 10 (25%)
£3.00: 9 (22%)
£3.25: 7 (17%)
£3.50: 2 (5%)
£3.75: 1 (2%)
£4.00: 6 (15%)

So a wide range of opinion there, with every option getting at least one vote, but a clear clustering around the £2.75 - £3.25 band. Obviously it also varies depending on what part of the country you are in – I voted for £2.75, as that reflects prices in this area, which are some of the lowest in the country, but I wouldn’t necessarily regard £3.25 as that unreasonable in London.

Having said that, I did have a very pleasant pint of Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter today for £1.49.

The view is often expressed that, as a high-quality craft product, cask beer should be able to command a price premium over mass-market kegs. There is some merit in that, but you have to be aware that there are many cost-conscious drinkers who you won’t necessarily take along with you, and that in order to justify a price premium you have to deliver consistent quality, something on which companies in a variety of markets have come unstuck in the past.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Good Tramp Fuel Guide


There’s a huge amount of information around about cask beers, where and how they are brewed, what they taste like, and where they are available. To a lesser extent this is true about premium bottled ales, whether or not bottle-conditioned. But the consumers of keg and canned products will find a serious dearth of information about them. Not that most of them are bothered, of course.

But, never fear, here is a site devoted to one particular variety of the genre, Super Strength Lagers. It doesn’t seem to have much of a standard of connoisseurship, indeed giving the notorious Tennent’s Super 10/10, despite saying of its taste, “it can only be described as a cross between dog shit and mouldy cheese with a hint of sweetness.” And the comments about the “eight-can challenge”, which would be a lethal dose to most drinkers, surely must attract the ire of our friends at Alcohol Concern.

It’s a relief that Robinson’s Old Tom, which is 8.5% ABV, but is a high-quality strong ale intended for considered sipping, is given a mere 2/10 mark. You wonder how it got into this company in the first place.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Give that man a big hand!

The estimable Sir Liam Donaldson spurts forth on yet another major health hazard.

(h/t again Mr Eugenides)

Other people's eyes


I spotted this review of the Crown in Stockport, which was recently one of the three runners-up in CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year award. Now, what it says about the Crown is very positive, although surely even in this day and age the fact that a “normal” pub doesn’t accept cards is hardly worthy of comment.

But its general remarks about Stockport are so wide of the mark as to beggar belief:

Stockport is not known for the quality of its bars and pubs and, with a handful of notable exceptions, the south Manchester town has to little to attract the discerning drinker. Or even the people looking for a quality mainstream experience.
Umm, can this be the same place that I describe on here as “a thriving town which is definitely not part of Manchester and has one of the finest collections of characterful pubs in the country”?

At least it has the virtue of not being taken over by the big pub chains:
In fact it’s the largest town in the country that hasn’t been colonised by the branded bar chains, the only option being a rather dog-eared Wetherspoons, leading the charge among a bunch of decidedly down-at-heel pubs.

Unless fake Burberry caps and tracky bottoms tucked in socks are your idea of style, you’ll agree this is the land the style bar revolution forgot.
And I'll drink to that!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

The thin end of the wedge

There’s an excellent article by Rod Liddle in this week’s Spectator, with a distinct tone of “I told you so.”

Now, as we all expected, they have turned their attention to the consumption of alcohol — and those of you who enjoy the occasional tipple but do not smoke and were minded in the end to support the ban on smoking, well, this is what you have let yourselves in for. Smoking was always the thin end of the wedge. Drinking was always going to be next, followed very rapidly by punitive measures to stop you eating the sort of food that you enjoy. God knows what they will start on after that, but they’ll have a lot of fun with drinking before they are finished.
He says that a few years ago he used the phrase “passive drinking” in a satirical sense, only to see it seriously taken up by the odious Sir Liam Donaldson in his Puritanical crusade. Likewise, this idea of Rod’s may seem far-fetched, but are we likely to see it happen in the years to come?
Hell, perhaps we’ll see pubs forced to adopt drink-free areas, so that people who wish to live a healthy life can sip cranberry J2Os without the fear of being afflicted by passive drinking.
That, of course, would be the precursor to the total ban on alcohol in public places...

Welcome to your local speakeasy

As usual, Pete Robinson pulls no punches in this analysis of the woes of the pub trade and the futility of minimum pricing.

Does anyone, in all honesty, believe that loading supermarket prices would bring people back into pubs? "Okay Lads, this stuff is costing us £1 a pint now. Let's go and stand outside a pub and pay £3.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Less drink, more hysteria

You wouldn’t believe it from reading some of the hysterical commentary in the media over the past few days, but in fact alcohol consumption in the UK fell by 3% over the past year, and is now 6% below the 2004 figure. This bears out what I have said in the past, that very often the chattering classes’ outrage about something only peaks well after the alleged “problem” has started to diminish. The report linked to also points out that the UK is only 14th in the European league of alcohol consumption, well behind both France and Germany. Given that, it is hard to see why it needs to be seen as a priority for public policy either north or south of the border.

Despite this, we still get pig-ignorant, snobbish drivel like this from the toothsome Janet Street-Porter in today’s Independent. This comment sums it up, really.

Sir Liam debunked

There’s an excellent rebuttal of Sir Liam Donaldson’s proposals for minimum alcohol pricing from The Zythophile, a blog I must confess I had not come across before.

There’s the ridiculous claim that minimum unit pricing will be good for pubs, because there will be fewer people drinking cheap supermarket beer at home, they’ll all be going down the pub instead. Really? Even at 50p a unit, supermarket booze will still be cheaper than the pub - so how does that work, then?
Yes, exactly what I’ve been saying, and a point the appeasers in the CAMRA leadership signally fail to grasp.
Conversely, and perhaps even more importantly, nowhere in the report will you see anything about the enormous benefits, social and economic, of alcohol, the way it binds society together, and the huge and lasting pleasures excellent wines, beers and spirits bring when consumed in moderation. What’s the economic value of all that? If you said every drinker received just £2-worth of pleasure from drinking alcohol every week, that’s £4.7 billion of drinking pleasure every year – so that’s the cost to the NHS outweighed, for a start.
Absolutely, buy that man a pint!

(h/t Mr Eugenides)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Time for sober reflection

There’s a thoughtful article here in today’s Telegraph by Max Davidson looking at the current debate over alcohol policy. He is right to say that kneejerk, headling-grabbing measures are unlikely to have the desired effect, even if they were politically possible, but he is also right to say that we shouldn’t deny that there is any problem at all.

During the thirty-odd years of my drinking career I have certainly seen a much more unpleasant and disorderly atmosphere develop in town and city centres on weekend nights, and there are many more products on the market that seem designed to cater for those who are intent on rapid inebriation without caring much how they get there.

Nobody claims that things were perfect in the 1970s, but I have argued before that changes in the design of pubs and licensing policies have exacerbated late night disorder.

Society has also increasingly tended to disapprove of regular, moderate drinking, in ways such as employers preventing their employees from even having the odd pint at lunchtimes, and drink-driving well within the legal limit being frowned upon. This has broken down the old rituals which kept people’s drinking in check and led them to take an “all or nothing” approach to alcohol.

The government’s official drinking guidelines have proved counter-productive, as they are so unrealistic that people cheerfully ignore them, and they serve to stigmatise those drinking at levels a bit above them, who are not the problem. It is not the 40 unit a week people who are ending up in liver clinics and A&E, it is the 100+ unit a week people.

Of course, taking an interest in what you're drinking, whether cask beer, fine wines or malt whisky, is likely to promote an attitude of enjoying them for their own sake rather than simply as a means to an end, and will encourage a more responsible overall attitude to alcohol.

But governments have to be very careful about legislating in this area, as you cannot promote social change through legislation if it goes against the grain of what is happening on the ground, and there is huge potential for unintended consequences. And you certainly can’t bring about a sense of greater responsibility through legislation alone.

The premium pint

Go into any multi-beer pub, such as the Crown in Stockport, and the odds are that all the cask beers on sale will be at the same price for the same approximate strength. The same is largely true of the premium bottled ales on the off-licence shelf. Yet amongst wines and spirits there can easily be price differences of 3 to 1 between the same strength products.

While there can be big differentials between pubs, no cask beer brewers have successfully managed to establish and maintain a price premium over their rivals, even though some products are manifestly better than others. It’s puzzling why this should be so when it so obviously doesn’t apply in pretty much every other consumer market.

Maybe to a large extent it’s because “cask beer” is seen as a generic product, as the manufacturers of keg lagers, cider and Guinness are able to command a price premium of up to 60p a pint over cask beers of comparable strength. Of course why that should be so is a different question. Possibly the fact that standards of cellarmanship vary so much between different pubs also has a part to play.

I was interested to spot while composing this post that Jeff Pickthall had linked to my poll about how much people would consider exorbitant for a pint of 4.0% ABV beer, and makes a similar point about the lack of price premiums in the cask beer market. One commentator describes the poll as “simplistic”, which of course it is in a way, but it is clear from the responses so far that people’s perceptions of acceptability differ dramatically.

As Jeff says, “Ask wine-lovers ‘How much would you consider exorbitant for a bottle of 12% ABV wine?’ and the response would be a puzzled ‘which wine?’

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Minimum pricing poll

I recently concluded a poll with the question:

Do you agree with the Scottish plan for a minimum price per unit of alcohol?

There were 29 votes in total, and the results were:

Yes, it sounds a good idea: 4 (14%)
Maybe, let’s see how it goes: 3 (10%)
No, definitely not: 22 (76%)

So, a pretty decisive defeat there. As we have seen, this has been kicked into touch by the Scottish Parliament, but today we have seen the clinically obese Sir Liam Donaldson advocating it for England.

Those who wish to defend the right of adults to enjoy alcohol responsibly will have to keep our watch up, as this idea is likely to come back again and again.

English drinkers to be fleeced too

Just as you thought minimum alcohol pricing had been kicked into the long grass in Scotland, the idea now raises its ugly head again in England. The clinically obese Sir Liam Donaldson, “Chief Medical Officer” for England, is demanding that a minimum price of 50p per unit should be set in England. No matter that this will greatly increase costs for ordinary families who enjoy the occasional tipple, it will supposedly improve public health.

What a load of bollocks. Most people use alcohol entirely responsibly, and this proposal will simply increase their costs. But it will do nothing to curb problem drinkers, who are the least price-conscious of all. This is snobbish, prohibitionist nonsense and Sir Liam should be sacked from his official position immediately. It won’t affect Sir Liam and his claret-swigging mates, so what right do they have to impose this on the poor?

The government may have dismissed this for the time being, but we should be under no illusions that it will keep coming back. Not for the first time, something first mooted in Scotland will eventually be inflicted on England – just look at the poll tax and the smoking ban. And watch out for plans to severely curtail the amount of booze and fags people are allowed to bring in across the Channel.

This idea is superbly dismissed here by the ever-eloquent Raedwald:

If these cloistered fools ever once asked themselves why people drink to excess they might just find that it's the escape that many have from the suffocating, cloying, overweening, intrusive, impertinent and unwelcome interference of Labour's Nanny State in the minutae of their lives rather than the cost per unit that's the more important factor. But that's a lesson these idiots will never learn.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

No laughing matter

No doubt yesterday many of you will have made a contribution towards Comic Relief, thinking it would all go to good causes. You know, like this:

Comic Relief is funding Alcohol Concern to identify and submit alcohol projects and initiatives for young people.
Hmm, I don’t want any of my donations to go to an organisation dedicated to jacking up alcohol taxes and closing pubs down, thank you very much.

On the bench

I have great respect for Wetherspoons’ success as a pub operator, but somehow I struggle to warm to their pubs. Thinking about this, I reached the conclusion that one of the key reasons is that they largely eschew bench-type seating in favour of individual tables and chairs.

Traditionally, pubs have always tended to have benches fixed around the walls. This design was used because it works. It's flexible, as you can spread out coats and papers, or huddle close together, it's sociable, as everyone faces in towards the centre of the room, it's adaptable to different-sized groups of people, and it gives a room a distinctive quality of “pubbiness”. It's no coincidence that all of what are regarded as the finest pub rooms have fixed wall seating, whereas one of the most depressing rooms I have ever seen in a pub had plain white walls and nothing but about eight round tables each surrounded by four stools.

So why is it that modern pub designers so often go for having individual loose chairs grouped around tables instead? These may give a place the atmosphere of a gentlemen's club, or a Continental bistro, (or, at worst, a works canteen) but they certainly aren't right for pubs. They mean that people tend to cluster around tables in inward-facing groups rather than talking to each other, and make the place less sociable. They make the person who's just popped in on their own for a pint and a quick read of the paper feel ill at ease, and they're awkward too for groups of more than four.

The only conclusion is that they’re trying to make pubs look and feel less like pubs and more like restaurants.

Tim tells it straight

The ever-outspoken Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s certainly didn’t mince his words when laying into the Government over its policies towards pubs:

Tim Martin, the chairman, said the high level of tax being levied on the trade was “contributing to the closure of pubs in record numbers”. He said each of Wetherspoon’s pubs generated average taxes of £530,000 but earned only £50,000 in after-tax profits.

“The Government seems not to understand the economic impact of new taxes and legislation and continues to impose new burdens at a huge rate,” Mr Martin said.

“Opportunistic 'tax grabs' and employee legislation to 'curry favour' with voters which businesses cannot afford will prove to be counter productive for the Government,” he said.
The report shows, though, that Wetherspoon’s are doing much better than many of the competition in combating the recession, which underlines the point that how a pub is run can make a big difference even when overall trade is down.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Matching ties

It’s often argued that the existence of the beer tie is a major factor holding back small brewers. However, if you listen to licensees it doesn’t appear that micro-brewers’ products would be top of their list. When asked in a survey what beer they would most want to stock if they had a free choice, the winner was…

Carling!

In fact all the Top 10 were the predictable mass-market kegs.

This gives a clear picture of what life would be like if the tie were completely removed. It might open up more opportunities for the very smallest brewers, but it would lead to a situation where the vast majority of bars were dominated by the same row of national and international keg brands, and the middle ground of brewers would largely disappear. Provided it does not lead to market dominance in specific areas, the brewery tie enhances competition rather than diminishing it.

The pub company tie is a different matter, but the existence of brewers like Thwaites and Robinson’s with substantial tied estates is a major bulwark of choice and diversity in the beer market. Genuine choice results not only from the total number of products available but also the degree to which the market is concentrated. Is there more real choice for the consumer in a market with 100 products, but where two account for 95% of sales, or in one with 20 products, but where 10 account for 95%?

And it should not be forgotten that, without the tie, cask beer would have virtually disappeared in Britain in the 60s and 70s.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Then they came for the chocolate-lovers

As a Scottish GP calls for a tax on chocolate to combat obesity, it seems that no form of pleasure or self-indulgence is now immune from Puritanical censure. The idea that the assault on smoking did not presage an assault on pretty much everything else anyone likes doing has now been stripped of any credibility.

Describing this kind of thing as “health fascism” has sometimes been portrayed as hyperbole, but in reality it does display a genuinely Fascist attitude, that individual adults do not have sovereignty over their own bodies and lives and have to subordinate their own interests to a higher purpose.

In fact many of today’s so-called health crusades have their antecedents in the Nazi era – Hitler was famously a teetotaller and vegetarian, and the Nazis made great efforts to deter their citizens from smoking, drinking and eating meat so they would (supposedly) be better able to serve the Reich. However, I suspect most of the pork and beer-loving Germans took all this with a large pinch of salt.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Back on the shelf

There was good news for Scottish drinkers when the opposition parties blocked the SNP government’s plan to impose a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Whatever one’s views on the merits of the proposal, they were right to insist that it was such a significant change that it should be fully debated in the Scottish Parliament and not just sneaked in via secondary legislation. It is now not likely to come in until well into 2010, if at all.

This followed the release of a study by the Centre for Economics & Business Research which found that consumers in Scotland would pay £80 million more a year – £35 per household – if a minimum price of 40p per unit was brought in, but the policy would do little to help problem drinkers. It pointed out that heavy drinkers tended to be the least responsive to price changes.

There is a hypothesis popular with anti-alcohol campaigners called the Ledermann Theory which postulates that the amount of “alcohol harm” in society is directly proportional to overall consumption, and therefore reducing the latter is in itself desirable. However, the study referred to above suggests otherwise, and I would have thought it was common sense that a substantial rise in the price of alcohol would tend to widen the statistical gap between light and heavy drinkers rather than impacting evenly across the board.

Most of the people buying cheap booze are not doing so because they are problem drinkers, but simply because they’re not very well off. And there has to be a limit as to how much responsible drinkers should be made to suffer in an attempt to deter the irresponsible minority.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Contrasting cats

I’ve always thought that a pub is enhanced by a pub cat, and it’s unfortunate that none of my regular haunts seem to have one.

I was amused the other day to come across here these two cartoons of pub cats (and no, I don’t know what the page is about either, or what relevance it has to pub cats):

Poncy Soft Southern Pub Cat in Native Habitat

Hard Northern Pub Cat in Native Habitat

Obviously this predates the smoking ban!

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Smoking ban poll

I recently concluded a poll with the question:

Should pubs and clubs be allowed to set aside a separate indoor smoking room?

Yes: 37 (79%)
No: 10 (21%)

Now, obviously the readership of this blog is somewhat self-selecting, but that’s a pretty overwhelming majority.

The blanket smoking ban remains a gross affront to individual liberty and the issue is not going to go away. I would remind all readers that I am a non-smoker, but not someone who believes anything he doesn’t like should be banned.

To anyone who argues that the smoking ban is a fact of life and pro-pub campaigners should move on, I would respond “if we had alcohol Prohibition, would you not fight it as long as you lived?”

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Use it or lose it?

It’s often said of pubs (and of other businesses such as post offices and bus services) that you have to “use them or lose them”. Obviously in a sense this is a statement of the obvious, that if businesses fail to attract sufficient custom, they will go to the wall. However, there’s often an implication that people should make an attempt to visit pubs they otherwise wouldn’t in an attempt to keep them going. Now, I do visit a fair number of pubs and make an effort to spread my custom around and keep up with what is happening in different establishments. The average adult in Britain drinks less than two pints of beer in a pub each week, and there have been few weeks of my adult life when I have not comfortably exceeded that.

But, quite frankly, I have better things to do than go to pubs I wouldn’t otherwise visit in an almost certainly vain attempt to stop them from closing. And in any case, the number of beer enthusiasts isn’t sufficient to keep any individual pub going – they must appeal to a wider public who are only going to be interested in the pub offering the drink, food, service and ambiance that suits them and couldn’t care less about making some kind of statement. It is up to pubs to attract customers, not customers to save pubs.

If you have to say “use it or lose it”, the odds are you’ve already lost it.

Taxing the Sinners

There’s an excellent article here on Sp!ked by Tim Black, who argues that the Scottish proposals to eradicate cheap alcohol are “coercive attempts to control our choices and behaviour”.

While the √©lite retains its morally inflected disdain for the bevvied-up masses, it is all too clear (if the number of bars in the UK Houses of Parliament is any indication) that they enjoy getting as royally tight as the people they decry. Targeting inexpensive drinking simply targets ‘cheap drinkers’. It’s not the Chenin Blanc minority that are seen as the problem, but the Stella and Strongbow hordes.

As with all sin taxes, the tacit snobbery of the SNP’s proposals will do far more to punish less well-off sections of society than alleviate the suffering of chronic alcoholics. After all, the daily intent, amongst small numbers of very heavy drinkers, to drink oneself into oblivion has less to do with supermarket special offers than with a feeling that one has little to live for. Imposing a minimum price of 40p per unit does not amount to giving people a raison d’etre.
He also refers to the famous quotation from J. S Mill: “To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained, is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.”

Friday, 6 March 2009

Have that drink, girls

While the Righteous have succeeded in getting established so-called alcohol health “guidelines” that had no scientific basis and seemed to anyone beyond anti-drink zealots unrealistically low, it remained some consolation to those of us who did enjoy the occasional glass that moderate drinking was accepted as not harmful to health and indeed there was some evidence that drinking a small amount might be better for health than total abstinence.

It was inevitable, though, that they would be frantically casting about for evidence that any amount of alcohol at all was harmful, and this duly turned up in the form of a study sponsored by Cancer Research UK suggesting that women had a heightened risk of cancer if they only consumed one drink a day. Of course, as this article points out, the study turned out to be a piece of intellectual garbage based on junk science.

…the study fails to meet even the most basic requirement of science – that is, being able to validate its measurements – since it is entirely based on the women’s self-reports of their recollection of their drinking. None of these reports was checked and the authors can make no claim about how reliable they are. No one knows how much or how little these women really drank since no one bothered to measure it.
However, it’s unlikely that a lack of proper science will deter further attempts to justify the “even one drink is dangerous” message. After all, it has now become generally accepted amongst the population that “passive smoking” is a danger to health, despite there being a conspicuous dearth of firm proof that it is anything more than an irritation. And imagine the scope for attacking drinkers and pubs if you can claim that there is no safe level of drinking!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The full mash

Thanks to Dick Puddlecote for pointing out this spot-on piece of analysis from the Daily Mash:

WHY ARE ALL THE PUBS CLOSING? ASK PEOPLE WHO NEVER GO TO THE PUB

MILLIONS of people across Britain who never go to the pub were last night asking why all the pubs were closing down.

As it was revealed that 2000 pubs have closed in the last year, non-pub goers said their community would not be the same without the local pub they never went to.

Margaret Gerving, from Peterborough, said: "I was delighted when the smoking ban came in because it meant I could finally go to the pub without being killed.

"But then I didn't, mainly because I'm not the sort of person who likes going to pubs. I prefer to stay in with a carton of pomegranate juice and a bag of pine nuts and make long lists of all the things I want banned.”
Spoof? What do you mean it's a spoof?

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Stronger Pedigree

I’ve always been a little puzzled by beers where the bottled version is stronger than the draught. Fuller’s London Pride, Deuchars IPA, Wells Bombardier and “Morland” Old Speckled Hen all fall into this category. Now Marston’s Pedigree is joining the club with the ABV of the bottled version being increased from 4.5% to 5%. The draught and, oddly, cans will remain at 4.5%.

I suppose the answer is that 5% ales don’t tend to sell all that well in pubs, as they are perceived as too heavy and not sessionable enough, whereas in the Premium Bottled Ales market buyers tend to go for the stronger beers, a category in which Marston’s have so far lacked a “heavy hitter” to compete with the likes of Old Speckled Hen, Abbot Ale and Tanglefoot.

It’s rare to see the strength of a popular beer being increased, though – I wonder if our friends at Alcohol Concern will have a moan about it.

Nanny at the checkout

This is not the first case of its kind, but Tesco recently refused to sell a couple of bottles of wine to a middle-aged professional woman on the grounds she had her fourteen-year-old daughter with her, and might have been going to give the wine to the girl. Of course Tesco apologised afterwards, but it is disturbing that such a mindset exists amongst their staff in the first place. It is yet another example of our growing national paranoia over alcohol. Anyone seriously intending to buy alcohol on behalf of a minor would in any case not take the child into the shop with them. And it fails to recognise the fact that it is not illegal for parents to let their children drink alcohol in moderation anyway.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Making it the minimum

I see the Scottish government are to press on with their misguided plans to impose a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Obviously much depends on where it is set, but anything over 30p per unit will substantially increase the cost of mainstream products in the off-trade. The plan has rightly been condemned as something that will penalise ordinary, responsible drinkers while doing nothing to curb problem drinking. It could even make matters worse, by taking trade out of the hands of legitimate retailers and handing it over to bootleggers. You can just picture the white vans lining up outside Carlisle ASDA.

And it is extremely disappointing to see CAMRA lending support to this plan. Do they really think that this Puritanical crusade against alcohol is going to leave pubs unscathed? And do they not appreciate the difference between imposing a minimum price and banning loss-leading? They are foolishly walking in to the banners’ divide and rule trap.

It still hasn’t been made clear exactly who will pocket the difference between the normal selling price and the government-dictated minimum. Anyway, let’s hope the plan falls foul of European competition law.

Edit: this is an interesting in-depth piece from The Scotsman about the plans.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Creatures of habit

I often find when visiting pubs that you see the same people sitting in the same place every time. Thinking about it, there are three pubs that I regularly visit (say at least twice a month) and, if it’s available, I always choose the same place too. Obviously each pubgoer has his or her own criteria as to the ideal location, as others don’t reach the same conclusion. It’s an interesting facet of human nature that we are such creatures of habit.