Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A cautionary tale

This is a sad story – but in a way grimly ironic – about a Sheffield student whose eyesight was damaged by drinking counterfeit vodka, where the shopkeeper had jokingly said when he was selling it to her “this will make you go blind”. Let us hope the shopkeeper concerned was identified and duly punished, but surely it illustrates a wider problem. The news article is accompanied by a box detailing the “alarming growth of the illegal alcohol trade,” and every time the duty escalator ratchets up another notch it will grow a little more.

If minimum alcohol pricing were to be brought in, the cheapest bottle of bona fide vodka would be £13.15. How many more Lauren Platts would that end up harming?

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Tyranny of the pint

No doubt this Guardian article will raise a few hackles:
The pint glass is an outdated relic and beer drinkers have been subjected to it for too long. It's time to put it out to pasture, says Ben McFarland
But he has a point. Most of the world, certainly most of Europe, tends to drink beer of about 5% ABV in glasses of around 330 ml. Only in Britain and Ireland do we tend to drink beer of about 4% ABV in pint glasses.

Yes, if you’re just relaxing or chewing the fat with your mates over your usual tipple of mild, ordinary bitter or cooking lager, pints are fine. But if you really want to appreciate beer, especially beers of 5% ABV and above, pints are just too much all at once, while halves continue to look like a distress purchase. So here’s to more pubs and bars offering their customers the choice of a two-thirds pint measure in the future.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Little and often?

A House of Commons committee recently recommended that people should have at least two alcohol-free days a week (I wonder how many MPs abide by that). So I thought I would ask readers whether two heavy weekend sessions would be better than drinking a modest amount every day. I deliberately chose 14 pints as it is a little above the official government guidelines, but still within the 21-30 weekly units range which the research on which the guidelines were based actually said was associated with the best health outcomes.

And the results were quite clear, with 48 out of 59 respondents, more than four-fifths, reckoning that, overall, two pints a day would be better. In reality, I doubt whether there would be much difference, but drinking seven pints might result in a marginal increase in the likelihood of stroke or heart attack, not to mention the risk of banging your head or being knocked down when crossing the road.

I am not a scientist, but gut feeling strongly suggests that the “little and often” approach is likely to be kinder to your body in the long run. Drinkers who survive into great old age generally seem to adopt a regular routine of modest imbibing. And, while it might theoretically be better for you, I can’t really believe that three pints five days a week is going to make any difference compared with two seven days a week.

However, as I said here, present-day social mores tend to militate against that kind of regular drinking:
The office worker who ostentatiously sips bottled water during the day, but then goes out and has ten pints of Stella on Friday night, is regarded much more positively than his colleague who has a couple of pints of bitter in the pub round the corner each lunchtime. “Work hard and play hard”, not “moderation in all things”, is the motto for our times.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Fast track to trouble?

It’s often claimed that there’s a singular lack of association between venues majoring on real ale and alcohol-related disorder, and indeed the experience of many beer festivals seems to bear that out. However, things seem to be rather different along the main Transpennine railway line:
Unruly real ale lovers searching for high-octane beer are losing their heads and giving fellow rail travellers and staff a hangover with anti-social behaviour.

Now British Transport Police have warned real ale fans taking the Transpennine Real Ale Trail from Batley to Stalybridge, stopping at Dewsbury, Mirfield and Huddersfield, to keep their celebrations on the right tracks or face prosecution.

They could end up walking home if banned from the railways.

The trail, featured on the BBC’s Oz and James Drink to Britain, is described as a “unique voyage to a selection of Yorkshire and Lancashire best real ale pubs”.

Some drunk trail-followers are running across crowded platforms and railway lines, compromising safety, say police.

Stag and hen parties are downing a range of strong ales, beer glasses are taken on trains, people urinate on platforms, train doors are held open, disrupting services, and trains damaged, added police.
In reality, I suspect to a large extent the Real Ale Trail is being unfairly blamed for this. Given that the line connects the nightlife capitals of Manchester and Leeds, and runs through a number of major urban areas, most of the bad behaviour is likely to be associated with the normal lads’ and girls’ nights out. Indeed, it’s not usually known for stag and hen parties to be swigging real ale. However, the problem is that mud is likely to stick...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Killing the thing you love

Some trenchant words here from Simon Cooke about CAMRA’s blinkered and self-deluding response to the neo-Prohibitionist agenda:

CAMRA along with the idiots at Greene King and the nutters at Diageo have fallen hook, line and sinker for the nannying fussbuckets' agenda. Introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol (just 40p say the bearded ale-suppers) and it will all be fine! Except it won't.

That 40p will soon be 50p. Then 60p and in no time £1. And the prohibitionists, nannying fussbuckets and adherents to the Church of Public Health will still scream about the terrible damage alcohol is wreaking on society.

So we'll get advertising restrictions and advertising bans. We'll get licensing restrictions and regulatory controls. High alcohol content beers will be banned. Warning labels will be placed on alcohol products - getting more and more extreme with each new iteration.

Soon universities and colleges will close their bars. Some will ban alcohol on campus. Only teetotallers will be recruited by the NHS and having alcohol in their private cars will lead to some workers being sacked.

And still the prohibitionists will scream about the evils of drink. We'll still get haggard doctors frowningly explaining how even one sip of booze could lead to alcoholism, liver disease and cancer.

This is not what CAMRA want - this is an organisation supposed to be an advocate for a healthy, mature and quality approach to boozing. Yet they are lining up with the ghastly people whose aim is to "denormalise" drinking, to make it something that normal people don't do - to kill the very thing that CAMRA campaign for.
It sometimes seems to me that CAMRA has slowly but surely metamorphosed into the thing it was originally set up to oppose, the “very fat man who waters the workers’ beer”, just as the pigs in Animal Farm eventually started walking on two legs and behaving just like the oppressor class that the animal revolution had overthrown.

Turning full circle

It has often been commented how the growth of High Street coffee shops has usurped the traditional role of pubs as informal meeting places. So it’s interesting to see that Starbucks are trialling serving a range of beer and wine in some of their outlets in the USA and Spain.

Clarice Turner, the company’s US vice-president, said that the beer and wine selection would be tailored to each location as much as possible to reflect local tastes and “would be refined over time”.

Turner added: “The move is a natural progression for us as we are always looking for ways to evolve and enhance the Starbucks experience based on what our customers are telling us.
They say they have no plans to extend this to the UK, but it would be ironic if they ended up in effect reinventing the pub for the 21st century.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Yet more beer watering

H/t to Tyson for pointing out the news that AB InBev are planning to cut the strength of Stella, Becks and Budweiser from 5% to 4.8% ABV. While this won’t affect me personally to any great extent, it’s yet another example of the growing trend to water down beer. It has the double advantage of saving duty and also gaining brownie points from the government and the anti-drink lobby. Given that 4.8% is the typical strength of German Pilseners, it’s not really taking Stella outside the category norm, either.

But surely they are being disingenuous when they say “The reduction might put a few punters off but the majority probably won't bat an eyelid as long as the 4.8 per cent brews deliver on taste.” Let’s face it, the main reason people buy 5% Stella rather than 4% Carling is not the taste, but the fact it has more alcohol content. There must come a point where customers start seeing through such moves and the brewers find they have suddenly destroyed their product’s cachet. And, over the years, InBev have been experts at eroding Stella’s brand equity.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Raising the bar

“Brewer Molson Coors and drinks giant Diageo have predicted a growth in illicit cross-border trading if minimum pricing goes ahead in Scotland.” Wow, they must have some powerful crystal balls there.

But more interesting is the later comment in the article:

On the issue of competition, the Office of Fair Trading claimed there may be an unintended consequence of such a scheme — in particular, that retailers will increase their margin on selling alcohol, which “could give retailers an increased incentive to sell more rather than less low-cost alcohol — for example, through advertising or changing the mix of products on the shelves”.
Of course the product mix will change, as there will no longer be any point in selling low-priced economy brands that come in well below the minimum price. Why buy a bottle of High Commissioner when you can get a bottle of Grouse for the same price? So, while undoubtedly minimum pricing would strengthen both retailers’ and producers’ margins, it wouldn’t be the bonanza for business some claim, as the bottom end of the market would simply disappear.

Surveys indicate that a 45p/unit minimum alcohol price would affect over 70% of alcohol units sold in the off-trade, so for most of the market price competition would be a thing of the past. So inevitably there would be much more reliance on ways of encouraging trade that do not depend on price, such as in-store promotions and advertising, which would be funded by the fatter margins.

More alcohol advertising would be a likely unintended consequence of minimum pricing. So no doubt this would provide ammunition for the next step in the programme – to severly restrict advertising, with a view to eventually banning it entirely.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Never did me any harm

There’s not a lot more you can say about this one:

A former pub landlord who regularly drank 40 pints a day has dismissed health warnings over alcohol as part of a ‘nanny state’.

Ken Chappell said tests ordered by a doctor concerned about his beer belly showed his liver was normal, even though he used to consume 30 times the recommended intake.

The 78-year-old has now cut down to six pints a day from his heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.

But he criticised government health officials for allegedly overstating the effects alcohol has on the body.

‘We are consistently told that two or three pints a day will kill you, maybe not today, but in the future,’ he said.

‘But I’m 78, so when is it going to be my time?’
But it does illustrate the inherent limitations of one-size-fits-all health warnings, and underlines that they are likely to represent a lowest common denominator.

Incidentally, in the mid-Eighties I remember the Boddingtons house magazine, The Bodfan, reporting that the Barbridge Inn near Nantwich had a regular who would routinely consume twenty pints each lunchtime, but the story was quietly dropped when it was pointed out that it didn’t put across quite the right image.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


Imagine you are a licensee. It’s a bitterly cold day. Someone comes in your pub on their own and sits down at a table reading a free newspaper. This person isn’t an obvious loon, but may possibly be something of an eccentric. They show no sign of buying a drink or ordering food. The pub isn’t sufficiently busy that they’re depriving someone else of a seat. How long do you wait before speaking to them, maybe asking whether they would like a drink? Or would you just leave well alone if they’re doing no harm and only intervene if they started doing it regularly?

On a related note, over the years I’ve noticed a distinct shift in pub behaviour. In pubs where food is ordered at the bar, in the past groups would come in, get their drinks, sit down and then peruse the menu. Now, increasingly, they sit down at a table, peruse the menu and then go up and order food and drinks at the same time.

The family craft

Prompted by this post about Fuller’s on Eating isn’t Cheating, I asked which of the family brewers in the North-West, Yorkshire and the Midlands people considered to be in any sense “craft breweries”. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t “expecting” any particular outcome from this. But the result is quite clear – 28 out of 48 respondents (58%) didn’t think any of them were. Does this mean that people don’t feel any brewery that was trading in 1972 can be a craft brewery, or that they don’t think much of the concept in general?

This certainly contradicts the statement made by Boak & Bailey and others that most British real ale qualifies as “craft beer”.

Of those who did, Timothy Taylor’s were marginal leaders with 10 votes, despite the fact that they do not produce either seasonal beers or “interesting” bottles. Robinson’s, Batham’s and Hook Norton were joint second with 9, while, perhaps surprisingly, Donnington, who must be the smallest and most truly “artisanal” of all, were joint bottom with 6.

My personal view, which I’ve said before, is that the concept of “craft beer” maybe causes more problems than it solves, but if it means anything it means beers that are knowingly produced to have a specific appeal to beer enthusiasts, in a sense that standard cask and bottled beers aren’t.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Filling up

There were predictable howls of outrage from Alcohol Concern and their transport equivalents BRAKE at the news that a filling station in Kenilworth was offering a discount on fuel to customers who also bought alcohol.

A spokesman for Alcohol Concern said: “This irresponsible promotion is a direct encouragement for people to make unplanned alcohol purchases when people may be driving to visit friends and family. This is bound to increase the likelihood of drink-driving.”
Oh come on, are there any recorded drink-driving cases whatsoever where the driver has called in to fill up, seen a four-pack of Carling on sale and thought “oh, I’ll just have these for a bit of refreshment during the journey”? And surely anyone so inclined would be just as likely to buy some drink from a Tesco Express they were passing.

The article also lumps this in with more general statistics about drink-driving without any evidence of there being an actual link.

Of course, for Alcohol Concern, any success in restricting alcohol sales anywhere is another little victory. Looking back through the archives, I see that this issue has cropped up already.

(H/t to JuliaM)

And I see that is post #1000 on here :-)

A whole world out there

While craft keg may be struggling to get out of the starting blocks, a phenomenon that has made a significant impact on the British pub scene is the growth of “world lagers”. Because this is nothing to do with real ale, it has tended to go largely unremarked. But, when a bog-standard Robinson’s local has a tap for Budweiser Budvar, and a Hydes pub one for Moretti, it is clear that a major change has taken place from the days when Carling and Stella ruled the roost.

The drinker who wishes to appear discerning but won’t touch that warm flat stuff that comes out of handpumps will now very often choose a fashionable imported lager, which is likely to be the most expensive draught on the bar.

Given that lager has twice the market share of ale, and all of it is keg to start with, perhaps ambitious British craft brewers might do better to concentrate on distinctive lagers rather than keg ales. The “reassuringly expensive” Pointing Dog in Cheadle Hulme already has a tap for Derbyshire-brewed Moravka, of course.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Storm in a nip glass

There’s probably nothing in the beer blogosphere about which so much verbiage has been expended in relation to its importance in the beer market as “craft keg”. CAMRA have even set up a working group to consider its response. However, I was just thinking that, outside specialist beer pubs, I have never seen a single font dispensing anything that falls within that category. Things may be different in that London, but from where I’m sitting it is a classic beer bubble phenomenon that hasn’t shown any sign of moving out into the mainstream. Things could change of course, but at present I see no evidence of it.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Robinson’s retreat

Stockport family brewer Robinson’s have historically been reluctant to abandon their tied pubs until it has become clear they have become completely unviable. However, recently they seem to have adopted a more pragmatic approach to rationalisation. The Grove and the Woodman in Hazel Grove – where Robinson’s have a near-monopoly – have been surrendered to the ASDA development, and the White Swan in Fallowfield, the crucible of the Stockport & South Manchester Branch of CAMRA, has been sold to a third party who until now have continued to operate it as a pub.

In the past few weeks news has come through that they have closed the Royal Oak on High Street in Stockport town centre – scene of this unhappy episode – and the imposing Bull’s Head on Stockport Market Place. The Royal Oak had obviously been a “dead man walking” for some time, and the Bull’s Head has never really seemed to find a niche in the twenty-seven years I’ve lived in Stockport.

It is an impressive building, and you do wonder whether, in such a central location, some other pub owner could not make a go of it. However, the once-thriving Market Place drinking scene is now a shadow of its former self, with Bambooza (formerly Yates’s) and Sam’s Bar firmly closed and the Pack Horse seemingly struggling. The town’s centre of drinking gravity seems to have switched more to the Crown – Magnet axis further west.

Most of the dead wood in the local Robinson’s estate now seems to have been culled – but you do have to wonder whether further pruning might be on the cards. There are one or two pubs in the general Marple/Bredbury/Romiley area that appear a bit run-down and underappreciated.

Free to be unfree

The issue of Scottish independence has been much in the news recently. But, as Tim Black argues here, while Salmond claims to be campaigning for Scottish freedom, in practice he is busy extinguishing freedom on the ground.
Since its establishment over 10 years ago, the Scottish Parliament has certainly made use of its devolved powers. Indeed, there’s barely an area of private and public life north of the border in which members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) have not had a significant impact. Impressive is not the word; repressive is more accurate. In fact, informed less by the electorate than by the clamour of campaign groups and myriad professional bodies, the Scottish government has shown itself to be a world-leader in some of the pettiest, mealy-mouthiest authoritarianism around.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

A thaw in Tadcaster

Sam Smith’s have been in the news recently for the wrong reasons, but it’s interesting that over the past month they have also broken the habit of a number of years and increased their prices above and beyond those increases dictated by changes in tax and duty rates. Beer seems to have gone up by around 8p a pint. Clearly, in an environment where costs across the board are remorselessly rising, a policy of freezing the pre-tax price is unsustainable in the long term, and even after the increase, Old Brewery Bitter is still only £1.60 in their two Stockport pubs, and £1.66 in the Vine at Dunham Woodhouses in the Cheshire countryside.

Sam’s are still a long way from that point, but if a key aspect of your business proposition is low prices, you have to be careful you don’t end up frittering that away. Going back fifteen or twenty years, Joseph Holt’s had the same reputation as Sam’s enjoy now, and their pubs were often very busy with a distinctive, boisterous, working-class clientele. Over time, they have slowly allowed the differential to erode, so that now many of their pubs are no cheaper than others in the locality, and in the process have lost a lot of that distinctive character and not really replaced it with anything else.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Big Price Hike

Bad news from Tesco Towers:

Tesco saw billions of pounds wiped from its shares today after the supermarket admitted it messed up its pricing strategy in a "disappointing" Christmas.

The blue-chip stock slumped by an unprecedented 15% - equivalent to more than £4 billion - after chief executive Philip Clarke said the grocer had failed to pull in enough customers with its £500 million Big Price Drop campaign.

Tesco, which has 2,700 stores in the UK, reported a "disappointing" 2.3% decline in like-for-like sales excluding VAT and petrol in the six weeks to January 7, which came in below its own expectations.
Judging by today’s experience in the beer aisle they’re not going to turn things round any day soon, as the standard price for 500ml premium bottle ales has been increased to £1.99, even for the 3.8% ones, which is the same as you would pay for a pint in Spoons. Not a sniff of a multibuy offer either. When Morrisons are selling a broadly similar selection for £1.75 each, or £5.50 for four, it will be hardly surprising if those customers who include beer in their weekly shop vote with their feet.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A consultation with Nanny

Apparently Government ministers have backed a proposal by the Future Health Forum that health professionals should take every opportunity to discuss diet, exercise, smoking and drinking habits, even if completely unrelated to the condition being treated.

Obviously if you have gone to see the doctor and he believes that your particular ailment may be linked to lifestyle factors, he is perfectly entitled to raise the issue. But, if it’s entirely unrelated, then what business is it of his? We’re not (yet) government-controlled drones who are required to conform to the officially-approved lifestyle for the greater good of the hive.

Dr Clare Gerada of the Royal College of GPs, is quite right to point out:

“We already look for opportunities to offer advice, but the idea that every consultation will have to address these four concerns may deter patients from coming in the first place. The discussion must be based on the patient's agenda, and we should prise open these other issues only if it feels appropriate.”
Anything more likely to poison the doctor-patient relationship and deter people from seeking treatment is hard to imagine. Paradoxically, such a move could very well end up making the nation’s health worse, with people only grasping the nettle of seeing a doctor when they’re actually at death’s door.

And I suspect they won’t be asking about participation in dangerous sports, or sexual habits, as that would be politically incorrect. Not that they should do that either, of course.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Twice drily

In the light of today’s news about people being recommended to have a couple of alcohol-free days each week, it’s interesting to revisit the results of this poll from a couple of years ago, in which 40% of respondents said they typically had an alcoholic drink every day.

It was disappointing, although not remotely surprising, to hear some strident harridan from Alcohol Focus Scotland being allowed to repeat her bilge on the BBC without the slightest challenge from the reporter.

As someone said on the radio, “two dry days a week is what passes for summer in Scotland”.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Derby bypassed

I was interested to see yesterday a notice in a pub saying that they would not be screening today’s FA Cup Derby match between City and United, even though it has several large-screen TVs. Obviously they’d decided that having a crowd of boisterous footie fans in would put off their lunchtime diners and in the long run might damage their trade. It’s also a pub that has been recently refurbished and is maybe trying to shake off a reputation for being a bit rough. It would be good to see a few more pubs have the courage of their convictions and do the same from time to time.

Hydes on the move?

Text of press release from Hydes dated 6 January 2012:

Hydes Plans to Relocate Brewery

Hydes has today announced its intention to close its ageing Queens Brewery in Moss Side and move to a new facility within the locality late in 2012. The Company has identified a number of suitable premises that meet its needs for the future and will commit an investment of some £2.0m to the new site.

The new facility will be far more efficient than the existing plant and will focus exclusively on the production of high quality beers targeted at the growing cask ale sector. This will include popular favourites such as Hydes Original and Manchester’s Finest as well as a diverse range of seasonal and themed craft ales.

As the closure will involve the potential loss of a number of jobs at the Moss Side site, the Company has entered into a period of consultation with all staff concerned. Nonetheless the sizeable investment in the new brewery would enable the company to protect the interests of a number of skilled staff who would be critical to the success of the new brewery. Every effort will be made to help any staff affected by these changes to find alternative roles.

Linked to this proposed change Hydes has also decided to withdraw from supplying the free trade market. Following this decision the company is pleased to announce that it has agreed to sell its free trade interests to Daniel Thwaites PLC to ensure continuity of supply to free trade customers. This sale will complete on 16th January 2012. Hydes free trade sales team and some free trade support staff will transfer to Thwaites as part of this deal.

“This was a very difficult decision for us to take and although it will be sad to see brewing end at Queens Brewery it is simply not sustainable” commented Hydes Managing Director Chris Hopkins. “The site was built over 150 years ago and is not able to meet the challenges of efficient production and distribution of beer in the 21st century. Given the imminent conclusion of a major contract brewing arrangement the site is not suitable for the company’s future requirements, particularly given the level of maintenance expenditure which will only increase as time goes by. We very much regret the likelihood of job losses but in order for the company to remain competitive in a very challenging sector there is no realistic alternative.

He concluded by saying “The proposed investment in the new brewery indicates Hydes continuing commitment to the brewing of great cask ales in Manchester. These changes will also allow for an increased management focus on the company’s pub estate and will accelerate plans for capital investment in refurbishments and the acquisition of new sites such as the John Millington in Cheadle and the Joshua Bradley in Gee Cross”.
Now, I've long felt that, amongst the four Greater Manchester family breweries, Hydes were the most likely to substantially recast their business in some way, and so it has proven. Only time will tell whether it works out as they foresee...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

IPA as it used to be

In recent years, many breweries have sought to revive the original style of IPA – a strong, heavily hopped beer brewed for export to India in the first half of the 19th century. However, this has led to armchair pedants decrying existing beers bearing the name, most notably Greene King IPA, for not being “true to style”. It seems to be forgotten, though, that the original style had entirely died out, and any beers retaining the name suffered along with the rest in the drastic reduction of beer strength brought about by the First World War. For most of the 20th century, IPA was a term typically given to inoffensive bitters of moderate strength, mostly, although not exclusively, in the South of England.

So here are the IPAs listed in the 1977 Good Beer Guide, with their original gravities:

Charrington (1038.9)
Darley (1034.7)
Eldridge Pope (1041)
Greene King (1035)
Palmer (1039.5)
Wadworth (1035)
Wells (1036)
Whitbread (Marlow) (1038.2)
Younger (1043.2)

The average gravity of those beers was 1037.9. There seems to be a division between those brewers who used IPA to describe an “ordinary” bitter, and those who used it for a “special” bitter.

Charrington IPA was a notably sweet, lightly-hopped bitter that was almost the opposite of the original IPAs. According to the current Good Beer Guide it no longer exists, although the similar Brew XI does. And is Darleys now the least-remembered brewery in the country that survived into the CAMRA era?

Measuring up

I was recently in a pub next to a group who looked like they were a middle-aged man and his parents. The father went to the bar and returned with a round of drinks, including a pint of bitter for the son with a head at least one and a quarter inches deep. “I asked for a pint, not a half,” he said. “Well, take it back to the bar for a top-up,” his father replied. He pondered this for a moment and said “You know, I really can’t be arsed.”

This illustrated very well the problem with the issue of full measures in pubs. As I argued here, while in principle I support legislation that a pint should be a pint, and no less, in reality on the ground it is not something that people get very excited about.

Something similar happened in another pub at a CAMRA event. A colleague returned from the bar with a blatantly short pint and said “we really should be campaigning about this!” It was pointed out that campaigning for full measures legislation was already CAMRA policy, but not one that resonated very much with the general drinking public. Of course, if he wasn’t happy he could always ask for a top-up, although in reality when pubs are busy that often isn’t practical, and many people, as in the first example, just don’t bother.

Twenty or twenty-five years ago, across large parts of the Midlands and North of England, there was a critical mass of pubs using oversize glasses which could have formed the basis for such a campaign. However, while I’m not saying that CAMRA actively campaigned against full measures, in practice, when pubs stopped offering them they were never criticised for it, as it invariably coincided with the replacement of electric metered dispense with handpumps.

And that is what this poll was all about – presenting people with a simple either-or choice of which, to them, was more important, full measures or handpumps. And the result is quite clear – it’s handpumps, which provide an unambiguous symbol of cask beer in a way that no form of metered pump ever quite did. In a sense, the poll is a mirror image of asking in 1987 “Would you like to see the widespread restoration of handpumps even if you knew if would lead to the loss of full measures?”

What would be totally invidious would be to try and run a campaign highlighting certain pubs for being more likely than others to serve seriously short measures. Over time, I’ve probably asked for a top-up in pretty much every pub I visit regularly and, while some do perhaps seem more prone to it than others, that would be well-nigh impossible to prove.

Many years ago, someone tried to get the local CAMRA branch to mount a campaign against individual pubs suspected to be returning slops to the cask. This is undoubtedly a reprehensible and insanitary practice, not to mention being illegal, but the problem is that it also is very hard to prove. The presence of a stainless steel bucket behind the bar doesn’t prove it’s happening, and the absence of one doesn’t prove it isn’t. So the end result would be making insinuations against particular pubs on the basis of hearsay and supposition, which could be extremely damaging to CAMRA’s reputation amongst licensees.

Any campaign that involves singling out specific pubs for criticism must do so on the basis of verifiable fact, not rumour and speculation.

It’s worth adding that, in my view, as often as not short measure results simply from sloppy bar practice rather than from any deliberate intention to short-change the customer. And I have often seen customers - including members of CAMRA - take pints off the bar that, if left for a moment, would have been topped up without asking, which may well have been the case in the first example I gave.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Crystal ball working well

Almost four years ago, I wrote of the Penny Black in Cheadle Hulme “in the next few years I can all too easily see it being put in the category of ‘return to sender’.” And so it has proved – after the New Year trading period it closed its doors for good and apparently is to be converted into a mini-ASDA.

For once my powers of prediction were spot-on. This was always a questionable venture – it seemed as though the Barracuda Group thought “OK, Cheadle Hulme has become a bit of a drinking circuit, so let’s open a crappy pub in a poor location and try to hoover up some of the bottom end of the trade.” And it was clearly a sign of desperation to rename it the “Sozzled Sausage”.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Just say no

Ooh, this will certainly wind up some folks…
“Veto Ale is a traditional English bitter and a perfect example of a great beer style that you can drink and feel proud to be British,” said Tim Martin, Wetherspoon chairman.
Given that cask beer is a distinctive British product, traditionally sold in pints, you do have to wonder whether some people wouldn’t really be happier drinking lager in half-litres.

And, of course, it’s brewed by the same company who brought us Iron Lady Bitter a couple of years ago, celebrating their home county of Lincolnshire’s most famous daughter.

Monday, 2 January 2012

I’m not drinking that muck!

Out of 80 poll respondents, 43 wouldn’t be prepared to let the likes of Carling, John Smith’s or Guinness pass their lips if caught at a party or function where there was no “decent” beer available. Sorry folks, but whatever the motivation, that comes across as a pretty snobby attitude to me. Scant sign of the “all beer is good” inclusiveness there.

Would the whisky snob drink Bell’s, or the wine snob drink Aussie Chardonnay? I think they would, if there was no better alternative. This underlines the key point about beer snobbery. Whisky snobbery, wine snobbery, even car snobbery, all serve to enhance the entire category by encouraging aspiration. On the other hand, beer snobbery all too often denigrates the ordinary and sets up an unhelpful them-and-us attitude.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Always look on the bright side

I’ve seen a few postings recently complaining about blogs having a negative tone, and being much more willing to criticise than to praise. Now, I willingly plead guilty as charged, as the key point of this blog is to highlight the ever-increasing attack on lifestyle freedom, mainly, although not exclusively, in the sphere of the pub trade, beer and alcoholic drinks in general.

2011 was the usual gloomy round of pub closures, anti-drink hysteria and general illiberal bullying from government and fakecharities, although Chris Snowdon did identify a few flickers in the darkness.

The only thing I can think of in the past year that has actually improved my drinking life is the conversion of the Gateway in East Didsbury to a Wetherspoon’s. Oh, and Tesco’s get-it-while-you-can 4 for £5 beer offer. While I have had some very enjoyable experiences in pubs, they have mostly been ones you could have had five or ten years ago, and these opportunities are steadily becoming fewer as pubs continue to close and their customer base dwindles, which in a sense makes them more special and poignant.

But, gazing into my (slightly fogged) crystal ball, maybe through an alcohol-induced haze, I can see some positive developments on the horizon for 2012:

  • January: Tim Martin announces that the Wetherspoon chain is to start providing beermats in all their pubs and, in an attempt to appear more “pubby”, will be refitting them all with much more extensive fixed bench seating.

  • February: Secretive family brewer Samuel Smith’s announce they have acquired ten wet-led pubs in Cheshire towns and villages from Enterprise Inns. Even though beer prices fall by on average by £1.20 a pint, the local CAMRA branches complain about “loss of choice”.

  • March: George Osborne announces in the Budget that both HSBD and low strength relief are to be scrapped. Beer duty will be cut by an immediate 5% and then frozen until after the 2015 election.

  • April: CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine announces at the National Conference that fighting the anti-drink lobby will now be the organisation’s Number One priority, and that any differences with off-trade representatives will be set aside in pursuit of this.

  • May: Stockport brewer Robinson’s open a brand-new pub in a former social club in a large Cheshire village. While it will serve food, they clearly say that it is intended to be a pub first, not an eating house.

  • June: A pre-emptive legal challenge in the European Court to the Scottish Government’s minimum pricing plans succeeds, with the scheme declared illegal and the Scottish taxpayer lumbered with a bill for several million pounds’ costs.

  • July: Controversial Scottish brewers BrewDog open a new bar in the prosperous South Manchester suburb of Didsbury. It serves only keg beers and has Punk IPA at £4.10 a pint. Despite this, or maybe because of it, it rapidly becomes the busiest and trendiest bar in the village.

  • August: Specific official alcohol consumption guidelines are scrapped as they are declared to be misleading and counter-productive.

  • September: The smoking ban in pubs, bars and restaurants is completely repealed. After a few months, the trade settles down to an equitable provision of smoking and non-smoking areas in proportion to the demand, and shows a marked upturn in the fourth quarter of the year.

  • October: The government announces that a pint of draught beer is to be defined as 20 fluid ounces, and no less. Pubs and bars are given twelve months to change their glass stock and dispense methods.

  • November: The Highwayman at Rainow in the Cheshire Peak District is acquired and reopened as a pub by a local free house operator.

  • December: The government instruct all police forces to concentrate on closely-targeted enforcement of the drink-drive laws, and abandon the practice of large-scale harassment of the innocent. The core message of seasonal publicity campaigns reverts from “Have none for the road” to “Stay low”.

Now that would be a year worth celebrating!

And I look forward to spending a pleasant summer afternoon in the beer garden of the Davenport Arms watching the Royal Porcine Flight wheeling lazily in formation in the azure skies above Woodford.

(Two of those 12, but only two, are actually not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility, at least within the next 2-3 years)