Sunday 28 September 2008

A sigh of relief?

It's reported in the Sunday Times today that the government have backtracked on reported plans to reduce the drink-drive limit:

Ministers will also announce plans to toughen the regime for drink-driving, although they will reject calls from police and campaigners to reduce the drink-drive limit from 80mg of alcohol per 100mg of blood to 50mg.
Let's hope this proves to be true, as such a measure would lay waste to the remnants of the pub trade even more comprehensively than the smoking ban has done.

Thursday 25 September 2008

Skullsplitter threatened with axe

I see Orkney Brewery's Skullsplitter strong ale is the latest target of the politically correct brigade. This post by Mr Eugenides sums it up better than I ever could. It's also discussed here by The Pub Philosopher.

Is there any evidence that such beers actually do encourage alcohol-related violence or problem drinking? I don't think so. Indeed, the multi-beer free houses where they are likely to be encountered are some of the most notably problem-free of venues, although occasionally there may be a boisterous edge to the craic that would get the killjoys tut-tutting.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Only too true

I'm sure many struggling British pubs wondering when the promised post-ban influx of non-smokers was going to arrive could put up a sign very like this American one:

At your disservice

Spending a few days away recently unfortunately reacquainted me with the lamentable standard of service prevailing in restaurants in Britain. Now, I would have thought the job of a waiter wasn’t too difficult – you simply have to keep track of events on a handful of tables, and politely nudge them on to the next stage in the proceedings once it is obvious they are ready to order or have finished each course. But this is obviously far beyond the typical staff encountered nowadays, resulting in extended longeurs even when the place isn’t remotely busy.

Worst of all is actually managing to extract a bill from them. You’ve finished your dessert and coffee, and sit there for twenty minutes or more looking at your watch, drumming your fingers on the table and staring into space. No response whatsoever. So eventually you have to accost a member of the staff – invariably not the one who actually served you – and ask if you can have the bill now. They look at you as if you have just asked to molest their three-year-old daughter, stomp off and eventually produce it ten minutes later. Once you have gone through the rigmarole of presenting a credit card and getting it back it can all too easily be a full hour since the last drop of food or drink passed your lips, in which time you could have missed a train, a date or an interview. This has happened even in very busy restaurants where you might have thought freeing up a table would be a priority.

It may be regarded as down-market, but the typical pub practice of paying for your food at the time of ordering has much to be said for it if your time is limited.

Friday 19 September 2008

Heading South

I’m a Northerner, and in many respects a strong defender of the North of England, but one thing I have little time for is the “traditional Northern head” on beer, which in reality is a tradition that goes back no more than two or three decades. Pulling beer through a tight sparkler and serving it with a thick collar of foam can all too easily knock the life out of it and blunt its flavour.

So I always enjoy a visit to the South of England, particularly the South-West, where beer is typically served with a notably shallower and thinner head. When it’s fresh and well-kept, this allows the flavour and character to shine through in a way they can never do with a Northern head, although it must be admitted that it also does nothing to disguise flat, tired beer.

Particular praise must go to the White Hart in Cheddar which on a recent visit served up a very tasty pint of Butcombe Bitter – one of my favourite beers – after a slow and trying journey through the roadworks over the Avonmouth Bridge.

No sign of the inn

In one of the most ludicrous examples of anti-drink political correctness I have yet seen, Wiltshire County Council have joined forces with the Highways Agency to compel pubs to remove roadside direction signs, on the grounds that they may act as an incentive to drink-driving.

Do they really think that drivers on seeing one of these signs will pull off the main road, have a skinful at the Dog & Duck and then return to the highways to cause carnage? The idea that in practice they will act as any kind of incentive to drink-drive offending is simply incredible.

To be consistent, are they going to also demand the removal of signs pointing to any other establishment with an alcohol licence, such as hotels or restaurants, not to mention supermarkets? And what about pubs that are already situated by the roadside – will they have to remove all advertising material?

Nowadays, most country pubs derive a large part of their income from food – many having become to all intents and purposes restaurants. For the vast majority of drivers, these signs say one thing: “Here is somewhere to stop for food”, as is clearly shown by the photograph.

Especially worrying are the comments of Jacqui Ashman of the Highways Agency:
No alcohol is allowed to be served or consumed in service stations on motorways as a matter of principle and we would wish to continue this principle by not encouraging drivers to break their journey in a public house.
Why not? Even if you accept the argument that drivers should not consume any alcohol whatsoever, most pubs will offer a far wider range of soft drinks than motorway service areas, and will also provide a much more relaxing atmosphere. Service areas exist purely to serve road travellers, while pubs cater for a much wider and more diverse market. And service areas in many Continental countries serve alcohol with meals without the roads becoming a scene of mayhem.

And the point must be made that, even though the likes of Ms Ashman may want it to be different, drinking alcohol before driving is still permitted in this country so long as you do not exceed the prescribed legal limit.

Regrettably this is just another small, subtle way of undermining the trade of pubs and accelerating their decline.

No draught in here

A few years ago I commented on pubs keeping their doors open on chilly September evenings in a futile attempt to make people believe it was still summer. I came across some more of this the other week. Once the sun has gone down, the temperature can drop rapidly at this time of year, and bar staff working up a sweat behind the counter may not realise that customers are sitting in a freezing draught.

While this wasn’t house policy, I found myself in one otherwise good pub where customers were getting up to shut a non self-closing door every couple of minutes.

Monday 1 September 2008

Tramp juice

My previous post on the tendency to level down beer strengths led me to ponder on the morality of selling super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew and Tennent’s Super at strengths of up to 9.0% ABV. Some groups have criticised these brews on the grounds that they are disproportionately favoured by people with severe alcohol problems, hence the nickname of “tramp juice”.

Their producers would argue, of course, that there are plenty of other alcoholic drinks available at similar or higher strengths, including ciders and wines in non-resealable containers, and that market research shows the majority of consumers of these products are not problem drinkers. A quick look around off-licence shelves also showed that in terms of price per unit they were at a similar level to other beers and lagers, so they aren’t a particularly cheap way of getting drunk.

Beer differs from other drinks in that it is available in a wide variety of strengths, whereas wine and spirits tend to be sold at a common strength, or at least over a very narrow range of strengths. I argued below that there were many beers whose strength was an integral part of their character, and so any attempt to set a mandatory ceiling on beer strength would be unreasonable.

However, strong beers should be savoured for their rich flavour and character, not guzzled as a rapid path to inebriation. Selling these beers in 440 ml or 500 ml cans does rather suggest that the latter is the prime objective. So, at a time when a spotlight is being directed at the social responsibility of the drinks industry, it might well make sense for their producers to switch to selling them in 330 ml cans, and also to downplay their alcoholic strength in marketing and pack design.

And might a strong lager actually be more palatable at around 6.5-7% ABV rather than 9% when the taste is largely overwhelmed by alcohol? It is widely considered that the 7.2% Carlsberg Elephant Beer is a far superior brew to the 9.0% Special Brew.