Saturday, 31 October 2009

Nutts about drugs

The sacking of Professor David Nutt as Government chief drugs adviser was criticised by an unholy alliance of Guardianistas and Brown-bashers, the former seeing it as giving support to liberalising drugs policy, the latter as more evidence that the government are unwilling to tolerate dissent or criticism.

But, once you look into it more closely, Prof. Nutt’s message is as much anti-alcohol as pro-drug.

I heard a radio interview with him yesterday in which he said that if he had his way alcohol would be a Class B controlled drug. He also refused to be drawn on whether the harm caused by ecstasy, proportionate to the number of users and the frequency of use, was less or more than that caused by alcohol. The interviewer, to be fair, did press him on that particular point and he waffled and prevaricated, but he wasn’t asked the vital question as to whether he consumed alcohol himself.

He also said that “parents should be aware that the drug that is by far the most likely to harm their children is alcohol” – without adding the essential caveat that any drug can only harm you if you actually use it. Obviously parents don’t want their offspring either pissed on Diamond White or stoned on skunk, but I would imagine the vast majority would prefer them to have a glass or two of wine or beer rather than a daily joint.

It’s often said, by Prof. Nutt and others, that alcohol is more dangerous than many illegal drugs. It always seems to me that they are clouding the issue by confusing the overall effect on society with the effect on individuals. Obviously, given the prevalence of alcohol in society, it is not surprising that more people in total experience harmful effects. But is it true that it is more dangerous on a proportionate basis? I really don’t think so.

For a start, many people consume alcohol as much (if not more) for the taste as for the effect. I’m not aware that you can say that for any other drug. And, more importantly, alcohol can be consumed in moderation through an adult lifetime without any adverse health effects, and even with some small benefits. Other drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy, LSD and cocaine must be judged against the same yardstick.

In the final analysis, Nutt is not a hero of rationality and free speech, he is just, at heart, another Righteous bansturbator.

Edit 01/11/09: There's a very interesting commentary on the issue here from Frank Davis: A Plague on Both Their Houses.

How to alienate your customers


At a time when scarcely a day goes by that we don’t hear of another soldier dying in Afghanistan, the insensitivity of Kent licensee Bernice Walsh is beyond belief:
Landlady Bernice Walsh, of The Windmill, in Weald, Kent, told former RAF serviceman David Marchant that people could buy poppies ‘somewhere else’ when he asked her permission to leave a poppy tray in her pub.
She sounds like the kind of person who really believes in making her pub part of the community:
Another villager, who did not want to be named, said: “It’s a shame because people in the village want to support her, but she keeps rubbing people up the wrong way.

“We need a pub - it was closed for six months and then she came and everyone was really pleased about it, but immediately she banned dogs and it's a village pub and people like to take their dogs in so it’s upset an awful lot of people.”

She should remember that the community doesn’t need her, but she needs them. And Remembrance is not about the glorification of war but about the courage and sacrifice of the ordinary soldier. I wonder how long it will be before the Windmill gets a new licensee...

Thursday, 29 October 2009

First quenched


It takes a special kind of genius to file for bankruptcy when the overall business sector in which you operate is seeing increased sales, but that is what First Quench, owners of Threshers and other various off-licences, have achieved. This came on the day when it was reported that off-trade beer sales had grown by 4.4%. They have experienced the fate of many mid-market operators in other sectors – caught between the supermarkets, the hard discounters, the specialists and the convenience of the local corner store. Maybe it’s not a good idea to give alcohol licences to newsagents, but that is the reality of the market in which First Quench had to operate and they never really came to terms with it. Their stores were always about the most expensive for any product on offer, and someone else always had a wider range of everything they sold, so there was never a compelling reason for anyone to shop there. I suspect this will mark the beginning of the end for the old-fashioned off-licence.

You may also like to answer the poll on the left about where you buy alcohol in the off-trade - remember that you can choose more than one option.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Critical mass


York is a major historic city with a thriving tourist trade, and as such you would expect it to have a good number of busy pubs. But it always seems to me that, even taking that into account, York seems to support considerably more pubs than you might think, and certainly more proportionately than comparable cities such as Chester, with several new ones opening up in recent years. A recent CAMRA mini-guide showed well over 60 establishments serving independently-brewed cask beer within and just outside the city walls. It seems to me there is a “critical mass” factor at work here, where the existence of good pubs encourages an interest in beer and pubgoing and creates a virtuous circle that leads other pubs to thrive.

You can see something along the same lines in the South Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which is a prosperous and somewhat “yuppified” area (typical of many city suburbs across the country) where a lot of new bars have opened up and there are probably more than twice as many on-licences as there once were. A lot of these places, such as the Bar, the Marble Beer House and Dulcimer, do offer something interesting on the beer front, but they aren’t by any means exclusively or indeed mainly used by beer buffs.

In contrast, it often seems that failure breeds failure. Some of Manchester’s more down-market suburbs such as Levenshulme have lost more than half their pubs. If nobody else in your circle goes to pubs, then you won’t either. As Chris Maclean says here:
Worse still is the idea that you can profit from another’s demise. People believe that if their nearest competitor is destroyed in this process somehow they’ll be able to mop up the additional business. How wrong can they be? A closed pub seems to blight the area. It seems to me that, if you drive through an area, if one pub is shut then the others nearby are struggling.
This becomes very relevant when we consider the oft-heard suggestion that the decline in pubgoing means that a lot more pubs need to close to give the others a chance to survive. It isn’t anywhere near as simple as that.

It is certainly true that, if the demand for pubgoing falls, then over time the number of pubs will fall too. In fact the closure of pubs tends to lag considerably behind the fall in demand, so you end up with a number of struggling pubs with few customers which in itself can be somewhat offputting. It is also impossible to consider this subject without reiterating the point that if you introduce an external legislative constraint that makes pubs significantly less appealing to half their customers, the results are fairly predictable.

But, on the other hand, it doesn't necessarily follow that, if you reduce the number of pubs, it makes the others stronger. The decision to visit a pub is very much dependent on a specific combination of location and circumstance, and if you alter one factor it may well sway the whole decision. People visit pubs for a vast range of reasons about which it’s difficult to generalise, and it’s all too easy for commentators to assume that others’ motivation tends to be the same as their own. Probably making a deliberate decision to go to the pub in preference to other leisure options only accounts for a minority of visits.

As an example, if someone regularly walks to a pub in their village, and that pub closes, the odds are he’ll stop going to the pub entirely rather than use whatever means available to go three miles to the pub in the next village. Even if he does occasionally go to the other pub, he’s unlikely to go there anywhere near as often. In contrast, if the petrol station closed in his village, he would drive three miles to the nearest one rather than stop driving. And even if there are other pubs easily accessible, there may be very good reasons why the customers of one closed pub won’t use those that remain.

Many of the pubs that have closed have been ones on free-standing sites in the middle of extensive areas of housing, where there are no other pubs nearby, which from a narrow rational view of demand you might have expected to have a secure future.

This strongly suggests that simply culling the number of pubs will not guarantee the survival and prosperity of those that remain. What is more important is encouraging the interest and attitude of mind that leads people to visit pubs.

(this post is a revised and expanded version of my response to this blog post by Jesusjohn)

Monday, 26 October 2009

Eating the whole barn


One of the few recent success stories in the pub dining market has been the rise of Whitbread’s Taybarns all-you-can eat concept, typically converted from former Brewer’s Fayre outlets. They are now serving over 10,000 people a week in some of the busier branches and there are plans to open 30 more next year. Predictably, the food snobs are outraged, claiming it will lead to binge eating. “The irony is that if you give people complete and unadulterated choice they eat a narrower range of food simply because they can - you can eat burgers every day if you like” says Professor Martin Caraher, professor of food and health policy at City University London. Ah yes, we can’t be giving the plebs freedom of choice, they have to be told to eat what’s good for them. You’ll eat that lentil salad whether you like it or not!

While undoubtedly to some extent the format will appeal to gluttons, in reality, as I have argued before, people have for various reasons become more choosy with their food and are increasingly frustrated by the conventional combinations dictated to them by standard menus. The key appeal of all-you-can-eat is not so much quantity as freedom of choice. Indeed, given the excessive portion sizes in many conventional eateries, it’s likely that some of the customers of all-you-can-eat venues actually value the fact that they only need to select as much as they want, and they don’t end up being embarrassed by leaving substantial quantities on their plate, so in fact end up eating less, not more. This point is reinforced in this article where Whitbread manager Simon Ewins says Taybarns orders the same amount of chips for 8,000 meals a week as the previous pub ordered for 2,000. Probably a lot of those chips with the 2,000 meals were left on the plate.

Taybarns may not be a gourmet’s paradise, but I suspect it’s here to stay. However, might we see in the future the all-you-can-eat concept attracting the same kind of Righteous indignation that all-you-can-drink does?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Welcome to Alcohol Alley


There has been a bout of predictable hand-wringing in the media in response to this Manchester Evening News report about the “alcohol alley” of Moston Lane in North Manchester, where apparently there are 22 outlets selling alcohol in a 1.4 mile stretch. The Sun and Daily Mail have both got in on the act. But surely that is typical of any urban high street – along a shorter stretch of leafy Heaton Moor Road, and the adjacent Shaw Road, in Stockport, there are maybe 4 pubs, a social club, 5 café-bars, 5 off-licences and 5 restaurants, giving roughly the same concentration. And the existence of off-licences is a reflection of demand, it doesn’t create it out of thin air.

I have to say I’m not entirely happy about the granting of alcohol licences to every two-bit newsagent, where supervision is inevitably going to be less firm than in supermarkets or specialist shops, but on the other hand we don’t want to head towards the Scandinavian model of queueing up like social outcasts at a grim outlet of the state-controlled alcohol monopoly. And isn’t the fact that three pubs on Moston Lane have closed down likely to have much more to do with the smoking ban, which has scythed through urban locals across the country? What a ridiculous comment from Bob Hill of the residents’ association that this signifies “a shift from sociable drinking to boozing in the streets” – how much of the off-trade alcohol is actually drunk on the streets as opposed to in people’s houses?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

What pubs are really about

Every Saturday, the Daily Telegraph Weekend section has an article about a featured pub. Those written by Adrian Tierney-Jones, as is today’s about the Hunters Inn in North Devon, are generally very good, and concentrate on what the pub is really like. But, unfortunately, some of the other writers spend most of the piece describing the menu and only as an afterthought may mention what beers are on the bar and say something about the character of the place.

Regrettably, much of the writing about pubs that you come across in the mainstream media seems to make the assumption that serving meals is the primary purpose of pubs – a view that is also the fundamental premise of the Good Pub Guide. This is not another rant about pubs “going over to food” – of course pub food is here to stay and some of it can be very good. But surely the key purpose of pubs is to provide somewhere for people to meet and socialise, lubricated by a few drinks, and this is something we should never lose sight of. Fortunately a recent pub crawl around Stockport Market Place showed the tradition of a good night in the pub to be alive and well in a number of establishments, in particular the Boar’s Head and the Arden Arms.

And the recent Channel 4 documentary underlined the point – what the former regulars of the Red Lion at Longden Common missed was not the meals out but the sociability of the pub.

Minimum doubts

A question mark has been raised over the Scottish government’s plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing by a European court ruling that minimum tobacco pricing breaches competition rules. Hopefully they will realise how misguided and fraught with unintended consequences the plan is before it comes to fruition, but to see it thrown out in court would certainly provide a delicious moment of Schadenfreude.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Limit cut parked

There was a rare piece of good news for licensees and pubgoers in the Irish Republic as Prime Minister Brian Cowan – the son of a County Offaly publican – announced that plans to lower the drink-drive limit from 80mg to 50mg were to be “parked”, following the threat of a back-bench revolt. Irish pubs are already reeling following the smoking ban, and this move would have led thousands more to call last orders. Given that the vast majority of accidents attributed to drink-driving are caused by drivers well over the current legal limit, it has always seemed to me that cutting the limit is a far better way of discouraging responsible people from going to the pub than of improving road safety.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Explosive drinking

In contrast to the tendentious nonsense spouted the other week by Strathclyde chief constable Stephen House that you were less likely to experience violence by going to the pub than by staying at home, Emma Reynolds of Tesco has stated that drinking in the pub is potentially more explosive than doing so at home. She sort of has a point, in that most examples of alcohol-related violence occur in or near licensed premises, and you’re unlikely to come to much harm sitting in front of the fire with a couple of bottles.

But, in reality, the risks involved in going to the pub are pretty small too, especially if you choose your venue sensibly. I struggle to recall when I last saw anything “kicking off” in a pub, and I’m quite often in pubs late Friday or Saturday nights. The biggest risk is probably being involved in a road accident on your way home, especially if you’ve had a bit to drink and are walking.

All this business of saying drinking in the pub is better than at home, or vice versa, is really a false opposition cooked up by the anti-drink lobby to try to divide and rule, and sadly taken up by some defenders of pubs who really should know better. In reality, most people’s experience of drinking alcohol will cover a mixture of the two depending on circumstances.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Does it ever stop?

Scarcely a day seems to go by at present without some self-appointed “expert” from the medical profession clamouring for new curbs on alcohol. This is the latest dictatorial nonsense in today’s Guardian: Alcohol is worse than cigarettes. So why should everyone’s freedom be curbed because a 24-year-old woman in Derby died from alcoholic liver disease? And does it really matter if more than half the population are drinking more than the official guidelines, given that these figures were made up in the first place and have no scientific basis? This is what is in store for us:

Curbs on ads will have to be accompanied by restrictions on sponsorship and opening hours, minimum unit pricing, and a re-evaluation of the delusion that under-age drinking around the family table encourages responsible drinking. I would argue that every health district requires a named individual responsible for local awareness, early detection and effective support and treatment.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Falling off a cliff

Despite all the hysteria in the media about “binge-drink Britain” and our “ever-growing” alcohol problems, the actual facts tell a completely different story, with alcohol consumption falling at the fastest rate for more than 60 years. Indeed, it has been falling steadily for the past five years, despite the introduction of “24-hour drinking”. So remind me again why we need mandatory codes, minimum pricing and all the rest of the panoply of anti-drink measures that are being touted. Obviously the BBPA have an axe to grind, but they are spot-on in pointing out that it doesn’t automatically follow that reducing overall consumption leads to a fall in “problem drinking” and therefore a more targeted approach is needed rather than making everyone suffer.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Cats' protection

Following his speech at the Tory Conference, I wrote to Chris Grayling to express my concern that his plans were likely to adversely affect independent craft producers of beer and cider. I specifically mentioned Robinson’s Old Tom in my letter.

To his credit, he replied very promptly. He said:

Can I reassure you of one thing, though – our plans for a tighter regime for “super-strength” beers and ciders specifically exclude exemptions for traditional craft products – so small producers should not have to worry that we will inadvertently make their lives more difficult in future.
Fair enough, but no promise to protect Old Tom there. I still think this whole plan will run into the sands over the obvious difficulty of making qualitative distinctions between alcoholic drinks of similar strength. I know Tennent’s Super is crap and Duvel is a quality craft product, but how can you enshrine that in a tax system? And, let us be honest, there are parts of the West Country where farmhouse scrumpy plays the same role in society as Tennent’s Super does in central Scotland.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Requiem for the Red Lion

Last night I watched the Channel 4 documentary called The Red Lion. This is the most common pub name in the UK and film-maker Sue Bourne travelled the length of the country to visit ten of them and talk to their regular customers. No doubt the anti-drink lobby would be aghast at some of the levels of alcohol consumption discussed, such as the Lancashire rugby player who admitted to sometimes drinking twenty pints on a Saturday, and the Kent licensee who gave the impression of being a functioning alcoholic and was treating himself to an early-morning “sharpener”. But, overall, it put across a very clear impression of the companionship and sense of community that pubs can provide.

It is very well summed up by this Guardian review, especially the poignant conclusion:

Yes, you find unhappiness in the Red Lion, and people trying to drink away their loneliness. But there's also lots of good times, companionship, cameraderie and laughter. The saddest Red Lion by far is the one in Longden Common. It was the centre of this tiny Shropshire community; everyone went on a Saturday night, unless they were ill, and they tried not to be on a Saturday. But then it closed, and with it went the village’s main point of contact. They used to do stuff together, go on holiday even; now they stay at home and watch telly. I hope they watched this at least, because it was a lovely portrait of a peculiarly British institution.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Nanny turns into bully

This new book looks like essential reading:

The nanny state has given way to a bully state in which politicians coerce the public into submission.

A new book by controversial former MSP Brian Monteith argues that the nanny state is dead but has been replaced by a much more malevolent bully state where we are not just preached at, but forced to do what the politicians think we should.

The Bully State: The End of Tolerance charts the movement from nannying health warnings about smoking, through compulsory motor cycle helmets and seat belts, to the bully times of today, when we can be fined for smoking in our own cars and Marmite is banned in schools.

Monteith warns: “We won't lose the freedoms that we cherish by a military coup or some great cataclysmic war engulfing us, but through the gradual invasion of our private lives by the very politicians we elect to protect us – and all in the cause of looking after our health.

“Today’s politicians think us mature enough to elect them, but too immature to decide what we should eat, smoke, drink or drive. So they give officials powers to snoop on us, enter our homes, fine householders without trial for using the wrong rubbish bins, and make shopkeepers hide the cigarettes under the counter.

“This is not just some left-wing campaign. It started when New Labour and Conservative politicians decided that information and choice weren’t enough in their brave new target-setting world. Now politicians of all colours simply bully us into submission if we do things they don’t approve of.”

Sunday, 11 October 2009

I'll only be happy if boozing is banned

Well, actually it’s smoking, but there’s only a fag paper’s width between the two mindsets. A more naked example of the “get them to the camps” mentality is hard to imagine – what a vile, intolerant piece of scum Duncan Bannatyne is.

I’ll only be happy when Duncan Bannatyne is banned.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Twother or not twother?

Well, I’ve concluded my poll on whether allowing two-thirds of a pint measures of draught beer is a good idea. There were 58 responses, broken down as follows:

Good idea: 19 (33%)
Bad idea: 24 (41%)
Agnostic: 15 (26%)

So mixed opinions there, with the antis slightly shading the pros. As I’ve said before, I see no reason why the measure shouldn’t be allowed, and if it takes off I expect I’ll use it. But I suspect the innate conservatism of drinkers and licensees will prevail. We shall see...

Tax those disgusting common drinks

In today’s Times, Janice Turner accurately puts her finger on the rank snobbery that lies behind the Tories’ plans to tax “high-strength” beers and ciders:

So roll up for Grayling’s Great Deals: “Four-pack of super-strength lager UP £1.33!” “Super-strength cider — DOUBLE in price!” “Alcopops — large bottle — a soaraway £1.50 MORE!” Clearly he wanted to show command of detail, how much he’d stiff us on Special Brew to the exact threepennorth. But it conveyed what the caring Tories, with their Iain Duncan Smith understand-don’t- condemn social policy unit, can no longer say out loud: their visceral loathing of the British underclass.

It was only tramp juice, hoody hooch and slag sauce that he will ramp up, not the tipples of respectable folk, the warm ales and clanking cases from the Wine Society. To make that clear, Mr Grayling added an anxious caveat about protecting “those parts of the country with traditional producers”. It was designed, one supposes, to reassure the beardy brewers of Old Scrotum’s Particular, but seemed to suggest that it is perfectly fine to get sozzled on super-strength cider as long as you do so in Somerset.

Grayling will have to clarify how that distinction will be drawn. Maybe he should exempt the products of independent family brewers. Oh, hang on, Wells & Youngs brew Kestrel Super. I can foresee a lot of trouble over this issue, as whatever may be in the minds of the policymakers, it is going to be a struggle to come up with a watertight legal distinction between Carlsberg Special and Old Tom. And even the finest minds in the party would struggle to come up with a legislative formula that could discriminate between Buckfast and Harvey’s Bristol Cream, or Glen’s Vodka and The Famous Grouse. As has often been said, “legislate in haste, repent at leisure”.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Alcohol - the new tobacco

Superb blog post here from Chris Snowdon which really is essential reading for anyone concerned about the future of the drinks trade. He makes the point very clearly that whatever has been visited on the tobacco industry is on its way to hit drinkers ten years down the line. You may think the two are entirely different, but the banners certainly see one as a model for the other. Something which, of course, I have been saying for years.

The drinks industry hates to compare itself with the tobacco industry (understandably), but it really does not matter who they compare themselves with. It matters who the specialists are comparing them with.

The knives are out for alcohol, as they are for various types of food. As I argue in
Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, the blue-print was drawn up by the anti-smoking lobby. If the drinks lobby took its head out of the sand it would see that its future lies not with a mere ban on broadcast advertising, but in plain packaging, pictures of diseased livers on their labels and under-the-counter sales. And more. We shall see what the next move against smoking is, before we predict the fate of drinkers a decade or more hence.

The minimum market

Much has been written about the possibility of minimum pricing for alcohol being introduced in Scotland. One aspect that hasn’t really been considered, though, is what effect it would actually have on the drinks market. One thing that is certain is that it would inevitably have unintended consequences, as has every other piece of banning and nannying legislation passed over the last twelve years.

If we assume that the minimum price was set at 50p/unit, as has been widely mooted, that would make the price of 4x500ml cans of Stella £5, a bottle of 13% ABV wine £4.88 and a standard bottle of whisky £14. Not, maybe, eye-wateringly dear, but it would still mean that at least 75% of off-trade alcohol would either rise in price or stay the same. Across most of the market it would effectively eliminate price competition, and lead to the demise of bottom-end products that sell only on price. If manufacturers couldn’t compete on price, they would inevitably look for other ways to differentiate their products, which could lead to an upsurge in advertising, presumably not what the proponents of the policy intended.

Especially in the beer and cider market, there would also be a much closer correlation between strength and price than there is today, with the effect that stronger was widely perceived as better because it was more expensive. Again, raising the kudos of stronger drinks is not quite what they are setting out to achieve.

On the other hand, we could see the alcoholic strength of some products being reduced so they can be sold more cheaply. Probably not to any extent with beers and wines, as this would mark them out as “cheap” and thus inferior. But it could be more likely with spirits. Some spirits are already sold at 37.5% ABV, and to a cash-strapped customer a bottle at £13.13 might seem a lot more appealing than one at £14. It could also mean an end to the practice of charging a premium for half and quarter bottles.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Don't look back in anger

Excellent article here on the Publican website in which Simon Eldon-Edington questions the pub trade’s bizarre and self-defeating love affair with Sir Liam Donaldson in trying to turn pubs into agencies of health promotion.

Sir Liam believes that you, the UK publican, have a responsibility in curbing Britain’s binge-drinking, smoking, and obesity problems. And the UK pub trade associations, based on their last piece of major health legislation negotiated with Sir Liam, bizarrely seem to agree.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Avoid violence - go to the pub

Strathclyde Chief Constable Stephen House has bizarrely suggested that going to the pub reduces the risk of violent attack compared with staying at home. Well, he’s got me baffled there – surely sitting in front of the telly with a few cans I am at zero risk of attack, whereas if I go out even to the most genteel establishment there must be a slight risk, which is greatly increased if I go to rowdy pubs or nightclubs.

Oh, hang on, what he’s talking about is that getting drunk at home increases the risk of domestic violence. Well, maybe it does, but there are plenty of cases of blokes getting home from the pub and duffing up their wives, so it’s not quite as clear-cut as he makes out. But the victims of domestic violence tend to be an entirely different group from the victims of pub and club violence, so to say that going to the pub reduces an individual’s risk of being a victim is thoroughly misleading. And, in any case, the vast majority of people who enjoy a few drinks at home manage to do so without being remotely tempted to thump someone.

He then goes on to say that he wants to see more people drinking in pubs and clubs. Funny that, when the police and other authorities have been doing their best for years to make life difficult for those running licensed premises and to deter customers from visiting them, the smoking ban being a prime example. I suspect in reality he doesn’t really want to see people drinking in pubs and clubs either, he basically would prefer to see them not drinking at all.

Predictably, he finishes with yet another call to bring in minimum alcohol pricing. But in what way is raising the price of off-trade alcohol going to free up a single penny for people to spend in the pub? He fails to appreciate that most of the reasons for the decline in the pub trade and the rise in home drinking are nothing whatsoever to do with price - and some are to do with the actions of his own force.

Another world

I was recently engaged in a discussion in some blog comments that underlined how much things had changed in the beer world over the past thirty years, and how younger people understandably didn’t really appreciate what life was like back then when I started my legal drinking career.

So here are a few points of the drinking and pubgoing experience of the late 1970s that are very different from today:

  • Most pubs here in the North-West just served standard mild and bitter. Apart from the odd sighting of Pedigree or Draught Bass, there was nothing that could be called a premium beer
  • Beer was often sold from unmarked handumps
  • Electric beer dispense was commonplace, typically using diaphragm meters, which were generally unmarked too
  • Free houses were virtually unknown and there were no guest beers. It was just the regular products of the owning brewery
  • Across the board, there was a lot of choice, with substantial tied estates belonging to Border, Higsons, Burtonwood, Oldham Brewery, Boddingtons, Matthew Brown, Mitchells and Yates & Jackson that have largely vanished from the face of the earth now
  • But in many local areas there was a marked dearth of choice – the local Robinson’s monopoly in Hazel Grove being a case in point. Many areas had a similar dominance of Greenalls pubs
  • It was considered a point worthy of note that in Macclesfield you could get beer from eight different breweries (Ansells, Bass, Boddingtons, Robinsons, Marstons, Greenalls, Tetleys and Wilsons)
  • Central Manchester was, surprisingly to the outside observer, virtually devoid of pubs tied to the local independent breweries – it didn’t have a single Holts pub
  • Although there was a compulsory afternoon closure (around here, generally 3-5.30), most pubs stuck fairly closely to the standard permitted hours. Weekday lunchtime closure was very rare
  • Closing time was 10.30 pm Monday-Thursday, with 11 pm closing only on Friday and Saturday
  • Pubs were a lot busier with drinkers, especially at lunchtimes and earlier in the week
  • There was a lot more lunchtime drinking by office workers
  • Middle-aged couples would just “go out for a drink” in the evening in a way they don’t tend to now
  • There was much less food served in pubs, especially in the evenings. Many of today's high-profile country dining pubs did not serve evening meals at all
  • On the other hand, food was much more varied and there was more of a sense of experimentation with styles and formats. It had not yet settled into today’s standardised “pub menu”. For example, a number of pubs had extensive lunchtime buffets – something you never see nowadays
  • A lot of the bottom-end pubs were extremely scruffy in a way that is very rare now
  • There was also a much higher proportion of badly kept or undrinkable cask beer
  • There was a clear hierarchy amongst country pubs of “No coaches”, “Coaches by appointment only” and “Coaches welcome”. Does anyone (apart from CAMRA) actually organise coach trips to pubs any more?
Tell the kids all that now, and they won’t believe you!

Monday, 5 October 2009

Lager begins at home

In the past I’ve accused CAMRA members promoting the “Locale” scheme – which is supposed to cut down on “beer miles” – of being a touch hypocritical when they’re at the same time criticising British licence-brewed lagers and singing the praises of imported brews such as Budweiser Budvar, which has to be transported halfway across Europe to get here. No doubt their reply would be that if you’re concerned about beer miles you shouldn’t bother with lager at all and should be drinking Old Gruntfuttock from the man in a shed brewery just down the road.

However, that flies in the face of the reality that lager of one kind or another accounts for well over half of the beer drunk in Britain, and it isn’t going to go away. Lager drinkers aren’t going to desert their favoured brew en masse in favour of what blogger Cooking Lager dismisses as “pongy beer”. But, if you want a high-quality lager in this country, at present you’re generally going to have to turn to an imported product.

Virtually all the home-produced lagers are inferior copies of brands originating in other countries. The other major European countries, even those that were not amongst the original homes of lager brewing, have their own indigenous brands – France has Kronenbourg and 33, Italy Peroni and Moretti, Spain Cruzcampo and Mahou. But here all we can offer is Harp (now ludicrously branded as “Harp Irish Lager”) and Carling which, while originally Canadian, seems to have become naturalised over the years.

So it seems an appropriate time to launch Lagers of the British Isles, a campaign to promote and develop distinctive, high-quality indigenous lagers that are not just copies of existing Continental brews. Their mission statement can be seen here. When so many of the big brewers’ lager brands appear tired and only kept afloat on a sea of marketing money, there must be a great opportunity there. Who knows, in a few years’ time we might see BrewDog 77 Lager replacing Peroni as the lager of choice in trendy bars.

And, unpalatable as it may be to some real ale diehards, if they are to appeal to existing lager drinkers rather than just cask aficionados, it is essential that these home-grown lagers are offered in keg form. In any case, arguably “cask lager” is something of a contradiction in terms.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

When you gotta go...

I recently concluded a poll asking the question: “Have you ever relieved yourself in a "public" place coming home from the pub?” There were 41 responses and the results were:

Often: 9 (22%)
From time to time: 9 (22%)
On rare occasions 19 (46%)
Never: 4 (10%)

Obviously the readership of this blog is somewhat self-selecting, but it’s significant that 9 out of 10 respondents had done this at least occasionally, and nearly a quarter see it as a routine part of their pubgoing life.

There was a time when councils provided numerous basic urinals around their streets precisely to deal with this issue – older Stockport residents may recall the one behind the Lord Nelson on Wellington Road South opposite the town hall. However, decades of cost-saving and concerns about sex equality have put paid to them, so nowadays people have no choice but to find a large bush or dark alleyway. Indeed, in town and city centres at weekends you will often see young blokes openly relieving themselves without any attempt at concealment.

And councillors and council bureaucrats should remember all the by-laws and enforcement in the world won’t stop people pissing in the open if they are not provided with any alternative. Closing all the public toilets doesn’t change the basic laws of human fluid dynamics.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Don Shenker is a what?

It appears that the notorious pub hater and spouter of anti-alcohol weasel words has now been given the honour of having a blog entirely devoted to him. (Strong language alert)

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Penny falls?

I have expressed concern on here in the past that CAMRA seemed to be adopting an ostrich-like attitude to the threat from the anti-drink lobby, failing to see the parallels with the anti-tobacco movement and somehow believing that the tide of neo-Prohibitionism would wash over real ale and traditional pubs. Even worse, on some issues it was tempted to make common cause with the antis, naïvely believing that a combined assault on the off-trade would somehow benefit pubs.

Now, it seems the penny has finally started to drop. First came the online petition to oppose the BMA’s anti-drink proposals, which at the time of writing has garnered over 700 signatures.

Now the October issue of What’s Brewing has a front-page headline “Doctors push for tough new curbs on alcohol” and the editorial is entitled “Anti-drink lobby must be stopped”:

The catch-all approach currently being suggested by the BMA seems draconian – penalising the many for the actions of the few.

It seems naïve to claim that those who drink alcohol irresponsibly do so because the pub is open a few hours later, or it is a certain price, or indeed that they’ve seen an advert that day. Responsible drinkers experience the same adverts, are charged the same prices and visit the same pubs with the same opening hours – but don’t abuse alcohol.
Over the coming years this must become CAMRA’s core campaign as, make no mistake, if the anti-drink lobby have their way, there will be precious little left worth campaigning for.

And please don’t give any space or time to the absurd myth that “responsible drinkers don’t exceed 3-4 units a day”!