Thursday 29 January 2009

Forbidden fruit

More joyless, politically correct nannying today from Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Gauleiter Medical Officer, in issuing guidelines stating that parents should not allow children under fifteen to drink any alcohol whatsoever. It is a typical absurd over-reaction to reach the conclusion that, as a minority of under-fifteens abuse alcohol (which in general they have not obtained from their parents anyway) that none should be allowed to have any whatsoever.

What on earth is wrong with allowing children of secondary school age the occasional small glass of beer or wine when their parents are having one? Surely it is likely to promote a more responsible attitude to alcohol in later life if children are brought up to understand that it is something that can be enjoyed in moderation rather than regarding it as forbidden fruit.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Think of the children

Grim news that total beer sales in the UK, including both on and off–trade, were 8.3% down in the last quarter of 2008 compared with the same quarter of 2007. The 16% rise in beer duty can’t have helped, of course. In a nauseating appeal to emotion, the government said that the the higher duty was used to help fight child poverty. Now, I’m not aware that we have hypothecated taxes in this country, and this revenue funds all forms of expenditure equally, from nuclear weapons to welfare scroungers. But, even if this were true, it’s hardly a very effective policy as the point of no return has now been passed where duty increases actually reduce the total revenue raised.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Restraint of trade

At times in the past I have been critical of CAMRA for seeking anti-competitive solutions to the perceived ills of the brewing industry and pub trade. In the long run, real ale and pubs will only survive if consumers positively want them. Hobbling the competition can only deliver a short-term fix. However, I must applaud their latest campaign against restrictive covenants on pub sales. If a pub operator has a pub they no longer think is viable, they are fully entitled to sell it off. If nobody else thinks it is viable either, then it will be sold “for alternative use”. But if someone else thinks they can make a go of it as a pub, then why should they be prevented from doing so by a restrictive covenant? There are plenty of thriving pubs up and down the country that had been cast off by major pub owners as “unviable”. The market should decide which pubs are viable, not pub companies, and restrictive covenants are just a means of protecting the trade of failing pubs.

Friday 23 January 2009

An award for Norman Lamb

I see the Devil's Kitchen has given Liberal Dimocrat MP Norman Lamb a richly deserved award (strong language alert). I must say I too get thoroughly fed up with all these interfering, joyless busybodies constantly decrying anyone who dares to drink above the government's ludicrously low and made-up safe alcohol limits. It seems that in the New Jerusalem there will be no fun or self-indulgence.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Deflation, what deflation?

The latest inflation figures were published today, and show CPI falling to 3.1% and RPI (which is influenced by mortgage interest rates) to a mere 0.9%. It has been widely predicted that some measures of inflation may even turn negative during the coming year as the recession bites. In this climate, it seems singularly inappropriate for InBev to be announcing a swingeing price increase of 7p per pint, which could easily turn into 20p at the bar once retail mark-up and VAT are applied.

Now, I don’t normally drink any InBev products, so it won’t affect me personally, and if it leads pub operators to seek alternative suppliers in the independent sector it will be no bad thing. But a lot of people do drink InBev beers, and this will undermine the general pub trade still further.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Open all hours?

I see a fair number of pubs advertising the fact that they are "Open All Hours". However, I've often seen them with their doors closed well after noon. Since 24-hour drinking is now possible, the claim is questionable anyway. But, if it means anything, it should mean that they are open all the hours that were permitted before the liberalisation of licensing laws, which in this area should mean they throw open their doors promptly at 11 am Monday to Saturday. A pub that does not open until noon is not "Open All Hours". "Open All Afternoon" would be a more accurate slogan.

Saturday 17 January 2009

Sir John Mortimer RIP

Sad to hear of the death of Sir John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, who was a passionate lover of liberty and enemy of the nanny state. Courtesy of Mr Eugenides, here is a splendid tirade from him against the antismoking tendency, published in 2005.

What with him gone, and Simon Gray recently, and Auberon Waugh a few years ago, where are the curmudgeons who will speak out against political correctness and the ban-everything brigade?

Friday 16 January 2009

Where have all the customers gone?

I know the period after Christmas is traditionally the slackest time of the year, and many people must be feeling “credit crunched”, but even so I have been struck by the echoing emptiness of several pubs I have visited recently. The amount of food and drink sold can’t have covered the heating bills let alone paid the bar staff’s wages. I know this sounds depressing, but there does seem to have been a downward step-change in the level of custom in pubs away from the normal busy times of Friday and Saturday nights and (for food houses) Sunday lunchtimes. Even on Friday nights I’ve been in what to me are decent enough pubs that are well under half full. If most of the drinking space in pubs is lying unused for 90% of the time they are open, this must call into question their viability.

It also must have a “vicious circle” effect, as drinking in a near-empty pub is rather dispiriting, however good the beer is, and is likely to put people off going the next time. But I don’t think all those former customers are sitting at home at those particular times cracking open cheap cans of Stella, it’s more that social changes mean that for more and more people, visiting a pub is simply no longer part of their normal routine.

Old enough to know better

I must confess to being very disappointed with the BBC2 TV series Oz and James Drink to Britain. I hadn’t seen their previous wine-drinking jaunts around France and California, but to my mind it was far too full of forced, juvenile banter and the opportunity for an interesting documentary on British brewing was wasted.

Incidentally, in his previous career as an actor, I saw Oz Clarke play Juan Peron in Evita in London in the early 1980s.

Smoke effects obscured

There can be little doubt that when the dust settles from the current recession, many thousands of pubs across the country will have closed their doors for good. But, when the history comes to be written, there is a distinct risk that the contribution of the smoking ban to this decline will be forgotten. Before the storm of recession broke, over 2,000 pubs nationwide had already shut because of the ban. Several thousand more would have closed even if the economy had remained in rude health. As a rough estimate, I would say that the smoking ban knocked between 10 and 15% off the wet trade of the entire pub sector. In many wet-led pubs, the decline was 33% or more. Such a decline would inevitably have led to widespread closures.

And don’t forget that many of the pubs that will be victims of the recession over the next couple of years would have stood a much better chance of survival without the smoking ban, something the antismokers will never admit.

Saturday 10 January 2009


Thanks folks for the comments recently - it's good to know someone's actually reading this. And I've not yet received anything I've had to delete. Keep it up!

The cold light of day

This story about Zara Phillips’ boyfriend Mike Tindall being banned for drink-driving should give a salutary lesson about the dangers of the “morning after”. Alcohol is only metabolised by the body at a rate of about one unit an hour, so if you’ve had a skinful, you may well not be under the limit again for twenty hours or more. All the claims about him having an unusually low rate of alcohol absorption seem like special pleading – surely if you’ve consumed four beers (which I doubt were ordinary bitter strength), seven glasses of champagne and a vodka and Red Bull, you must expect to be at least nudging the limit the following day. And surely someone such as Mike Tindall could have afforded one of the personal breathalysers that are now available for around £50, especially given the fact that he had been banned in the past.

But this is something on which the official government propaganda keeps very quiet. “Don’t drink anything at all immediately before driving” is a clear message, even if it is dishonest in terms of real risk. But, if you have had a few drinks, how are you supposed to know when you are OK to drive again? Even saying “if you have had anything to drink, don’t drive again for twenty-four hours” wouldn’t cover everyone, and would represent ludicrous over-caution for most people. The only way to do this is to teach people unit-counting – how much alcohol each drink contains, and how quickly it is metabolised by the body. But they refuse to do this, on the grounds that it would allegedly encourage people to “drink up to the limit”. This head-in-the-sand attitude is costing lives, and causing responsible people to lose their licences. Why shouldn’t the annual drink-drive publicity campaign one year focus on the morning-after risk, as I asked here ten years ago? I have come across a number of people who ostentatiously claimed never to even have a half of mild before getting behind the wheel, but whose overall alcohol consumption must surely have meant they were often well over the limit on the morning after. They may have believed they were being ultra-responsible, but they weren’t.

Friday 9 January 2009

It's 1988 again

There has been a predictable outcry from anti-drink pressure groups about Wetherspoon’s decision to offer Greene King IPA at 99p a pint. But this is a beer of moderate strength that generally appeals to an older male customer base who typically may only have a couple of pints anyway. The idea that their pubs are suddenly going to be inundated with binge-drinkers swilling gallons of the stuff is not really credible – if nothing else, it would be fairly hard work getting drunk on IPA anyway.

In reality, this is just a headline-grabbing initiative by Wetherspoon’s that will heighten the public perception of their pubs as places offering good value – which in a recession is no bad thing. It’s unlikely to make much difference to overall consumption patterns, or even prompt many drinkers to switch pubs. People will continue to pay a lot more to drink better beer in more characterful pubs. But, as I’ve said before, if you’re running a bog-standard pub company outlet within shouting distance of a Wetherspoon’s, charging £2.50 a pint for ordinary bitter looks increasingly like a wilful denial of reality.

Saturday 3 January 2009

Spreading your wings

Wetherspoon’s are clever pub operators, and, although they make the occasional mistake, weigh up the potential of their pubs very carefully in advance. But pretty much all of their pubs essentially derive their trade from people who are already in the vicinity – no Wetherspoon’s pub is a destination pub.

In Exeter, though, there’s a Wetherspoon’s pub called the Imperial which I assume occupies a former hotel. But there’s a distinctive difference – it’s about three quarters of a mile from the city centre (although nearer to the University) and has a large car park. Therefore that pub, unlike the vast majority of other Wetherspoon’s, can be a destination venue. On my visit it seemed to be thriving and the car park was full.

Over New Year, I took my elderly parents out for a pub meal. Wetherspoon’s have an extensive, good-value menu, but, in the absence of a car park or convenient nearby parking, they couldn’t be considered.

I’ve suggested this in the past, and it has come to nothing, but there must be scope for Wetherspoon’s to expand their estate by taking over failing suburban pubs that are often situated at public transport interchanges and alongside a parade of shops. Such pubs surely aren’t beyond redemption and, while they may draw a substantial car-borne trade, aren’t primarily dependent on it. A thriving Wetherspoon’s could revitalise many suburban centres, and they might be surprised how far people would travel for their food offer.

Maybe they’re anticipating an eventual cut in the drink-drive limit, but Wetherspoon’s seem to shy away from any site that has a car park.

The best place for children is not in the pub

I can't help thinking that this regrettable incident would not have happened if we still had the traditional restrictions on children in pubs.

In my view under-14s should only be in pubs if accompanied by their parents or guardians and eating a meal. Full stop. Drunken parents should not be able to take their offspring on pub-crawls.

As pubs should be

Had a wander round Stockport this lunchtime and ended up in the Boar’s Head, a Sam Smith’s pub. Old Brewery Bitter at £1.35 a pint, the other drinks in proportion. Between 4 and 6 pm it was heaving, with a predominantly male, over 40 clientele, in other words pub customers as they always have been. Absolutely superb atmosphere. Surely this sends a message to all the pubs charging £2.30+ a pint and wondering where all the customers are – provide a proper, traditional drinking environment and charge reasonable prices, and the punters will find the way to your door.

Friday 2 January 2009

Distress purchase

At times, any beer drinker with a social life beyond the ticking circuit is likely to find himself in an establishment where no cask beer is available. Does he cut off his nose to spite his face and ostentatiously refuse to drink any non-real beer at all, and thus end up being branded by the rest of the company as a prize prat? Or does he go for something else, and, if so, what?

Personally, I find nitrokeg “smooth” beers utterly revolting, with the character of dishwater. I can stomach Guinness, though, although if I drink too much of it, it can have unfortunate after-effects. In general, though, I tend to see if there are any imported lagers on the bar. Heineken and even Beck’s Vier are palatable enough, although a genuine German draught like Warsteiner or Krombacher is preferable. In extremis, I may even end up on British-brewed Stella, but the British-brewed standard lagers such as Carling really are beyond the pale. Sometimes I even feel it would be worth bringing back the old-fashioned keg beers, which were a bit fizzier than cask but avoided the soapiness of nitro.

You can also look at the bottle shelf, although in general a pub that has no cask beer will have no decent bottles either. There seems to be a direct relationship between the number and quality of cask beers available, and the number and quality of bottled beers.

The point must also be made that many people are “repertoire drinkers”, who may well drink cask beer and appreciate it on occasions but also at other times enjoy lager and Guinness. The view that any draught product other than cask is the spawn of the devil really does the overall appreciation of beer no good at all.