Saturday 30 January 2010

Speak up for drinkers!

I recently looked at why CAMRA remained so puzzlingly silent in the face of the current tidal wave of anti-drink sentiment, and set up a poll asking “Should CAMRA do more to fight the rise of neo-Prohibitionism?”

There were 74 responses – I think the highest for any poll apart from the smoking ban one – and the results were:

Yes, it should speak out: 56 (76%)
No, we have alcohol problems that need to be addressed: 1 (1%)
No, it should adopt a narrower, non-political role: 1 (1%)
It’s a waste of space anyway: 16 (22%)

That must be one of the most conclusive results in any poll I have ever run. More than three-quarters of people took the view it should speak out more, while only one went for Option 2 which is closest to the current view of the leadership, and likewise only one selected Option 3 which at least, as I said in a comment, has the benefit of intellectual coherence.

I assume most of those who answered “It’s a waste of space anyway” are people who believe that neo-Prohibitionism should be resisted, but CAMRA has been so compromised by its equivocation on this issue as to be incapable of mounting any successful challenge.

So a very clear signal there, but don’t hold your breath for any change of course.

While CAMRA remains wedded to the ideas the a minimum alcohol price that raises the typical price of off-trade drinks will benefit the pub trade (which it won’t) and that most consumption of off-trade alcohol is inherently irresponsible (which it isn’t) then don’t expect any change from the current sleepwalk into prohibition.

First, they came for the cheap lager drinkers, but I never drank cheap lager, so I wasn’t concerned…

The real age drinking starts

Another excellent opinion piece from Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, pointing out the hypocrisy of those in authority acknowledging that going to pubs before the age of 18 had actually helped their socialisation and transition to adulthood, but now doing their level best to ensure that today’s youngsters can’t do the same. This really is a classic example of a policy intended to solve a problem actually making matters worse.

Government ministers, like policemen, judges and everyone else used pubs before 18; they know and permit their children to use pubs before 18 like the rest of us, because they generally prefer the supervised environment, yet their entire policy is based on persecuting pubs for what they themselves did, and for what they condone today on a personal level.
It’s a great pity more industry leaders aren’t prepared to speak out in the way that Tim Martin often does.

Friday 29 January 2010

The war on drink

Like most of us, I first encountered Pete Brown through his books about beer, which are at the same time informative and highly amusing. He has always struck me as someone who would be excellent company for a night in the pub. But recently my admiration for him has further increased due the outspoken stance he has adopted in combating the tide of neo-Prohibitionism.

He put an excellent series of in-depth articles on his blog comprehensively debunking the anti-drink claims of the House of Commons Select Committee, and now he has penned a trenchant article for The Publican: Make no mistake, this is a war on drink. We need to fight back. He concludes:

Make no mistake – this is a war on drink. The issue has been described as a ‘battleground’ for the general election. The problem with that description is that all main political parties are on the same side, competing over who can look toughest.

Their enemy is you and me. The battle plan is to make drinking socially unacceptable, to create an appetite that will support far more draconian measures than those currently being proposed. That’s how the smoking ban worked. It took 40 years – with drink, it’s happening much quicker.

We need to fight back. Together. And there’s no time to waste.
There’s someone who gets it. What a pity that the major organisation supposedly representing drinkers’ interests doesn’t.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

The answer to everything - ban it!

After the recent furore, it was no surprise that someone should come out and say that Buckfast Tonic Wine should be banned entirely. Not just in Scotland, but across the whole of Europe. And equally no surprise that the person calling for the ban was a female Labour MEP, Catherine Stihler, who no doubt comes out of the same mould of Righteous harpies as Hairy Moneyball, whom Dick Puddlecote takes great delight in baiting.
A Scots Labour MEP yesterday called for a Europe-wide ban on Buckfast. Catherine Stihler urged a powerful European Parliament committee to impose an all-out ban on alcoholic drinks which also include caffeine. The move follows growing concern over Buckfast tonic wine. The drink is 15 per cent alcohol and contains as much caffeine as eight cans of cola in a standard bottle. Buckfast's distributors insist the product has become a scapegoat for anti-social behaviour.
I’m sure all the old biddies who drop in to Buckfast Abbey in pastoral Devon for the occasional bottle of their favourite pick-me-up would be very disappointed to find it no longer available. And, even if we accept the proposition that a combination of alcohol and caffeine turns people into raging madmen, who’s to say you can’t get the same effect from a vodka Red Bull? Or, for that matter, an Irish coffee? And would they have to ban Bailey’s as well?

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Majority, what majority?

It’s often claimed by supporters of the smoking ban in pubs that it is supported by a majority of the population. Sometimes it’s claimed that it enjoys the support of a large majority, or even overwhelming support.

But, as Simon Clark points out, that just ain’t so. The latest edition of the annual British Social Attitudes survey says:

In Britain as a whole, the majority support a smoking ban, with just seven per cent saying that smoking should be freely allowed. However, the level of restriction, whether a complete ban or simply restricted to certain areas, divides the public.

While just under half (46 per cent) support a ban on smoking in pubs and bars altogether, a similar proportion (41 per cent) prefer limiting smoking to certain areas of pubs and bars.
In fact, this survey – which, as it is carried out by the government and thus can’t be accused of having an anti-ban axe to grind – has never shown a majority of people to be in favour of a blanket smoking ban in pubs and bars, which suggests that they do not regard them as genuinely public areas but rather part of the licensee’s space where they are allowed in as guests.

A crucial distinction

It’s often said (particularly over the past three weeks) that Britain has an “alcohol problem”. But, in reality, even if you accept the analysis of the neo-Prohibitionists at face value, we have three separate problems which may overlap to some extent, but certainly aren’t one monolithic issue:

  1. An increase in late-night alcohol-related disorder, particularly in town and city centres
  2. Many more people regularly drinking at levels that in the long term are likely to do serious damage to their health
  3. A rise in drinking, often at hazardous levels, amongst under-18s
Clearly, the strategies needed to combat these three issues are going to be distinctly different, and indeed may conflict with each other – encouraging drinking on licensed premises may reduce uncontrolled excess, but at the same time may lead to more late-night violence. It’s certainly far from certain that cutting average consumption across the population is a magic bullet for any of them.

And it’s funny how we are at least officially stricter on underage sales than at any time in living memory, yet apparently far more underage drinking goes on. Maybe the approach in the past of tolerating it to some extent, but keeping it within bounds, worked better at controlling the overall level.

Monday 25 January 2010

Peace in our time

I see that Mike Lees, Managing Director of Tennent Caledonian Breweries, has given his qualified support for minimum pricing in Scotland:

He said the company would back minimum pricing as long as the measures proposed are “fair, proportionate and part of an overall programme to reduce the abuse of alcohol”.
Ah well, that’s going to happen, isn’t it?

Of course, if you take the tobacco company approach to the alcohol industry, of running a cash cow in a slowly declining market, minimum pricing makes a lot of sense, as it protects your margins and eliminates most price competition. But it is not in the interest of consumers.
SNP MSP Michael Matheson welcomed Tennent’s backing for the proposal.

“This is indeed very welcome news,” he said. “Tennent’s understand that responsible producers have nothing to fear with minimum pricing and that only low-end, dirt-cheap alcohol will be affected.
But minimum pricing isn’t just about targeting low-end, dirt-cheap alcohol, is it? Even at 40p a unit it would lead to an increase in the price of many mainstream products. At 50p a unit it sweeps up, I would say, 80-85% of the market.

As I said before, are a £1.10 half-litre can of Stella, a £4 bottle of wine or a £12 bottle of whisky really “dirt cheap”?

I would lay money that if we ever see minimum pricing in any part of the UK, the minimum price will be increased year-on-year by more than the rate of inflation.

Saturday 23 January 2010

I blame the women

Or Richard Preston does, anyway.

He’s got the germ of a point, really. When drinking was a male preserve that was kept out of sight in backstreet boozers, we never had all this anti-drink hysteria.

Head still firmly stuck in sand

Here’s more of the usual delusional nonsense from CAMRA in this press release by Iain Loe: Missed opportunity to support pubs

However, there is nothing in the measures to ensure that these pubs will still be around in years to come when 52 pubs close their doors each week across the UK.
Now why do you think all those pubs might be closing in a way they never did before, Iain? Here’s a crossword clue: Reason for mass pub closures in Britain (7,3). So what did you do to fight it? Oh, nothing. So don’t be surprised at the results.
Minimum alcohol unit pricing would not hit the responsible drinker as claimed by Government.
So are you saying that every single person who has ever bought some off-trade alcohol for consumption at home for less than 50p a unit is an irresponsible drinker? Really?

Those immoral supermarkets

Anyone reading this blog regularly will have worked out that I’m not a great fan of the present government. But scarcely a day goes by when the principal opposition party gives us another reason for not voting for them.

Take, for example, this nonsense from Iain Duncan Smith, someone who has long struck me as one of the biggest twerps in politics, and who gives the impression of having no understanding of or belief in liberty.

David Cameron should impose significant increases in taxes on beer, wine and spirits if elected prime minister, according to the man charged with leading Conservative social policy.

In an interview with The Times, Iain Duncan Smith accuses the supermarkets of “being as close to immoral as you can get” by selling alcohol so cheaply and of “creating alcoholics”.

The former Tory leader says that the political parties are “in the grip of cowardice” for failing to advocate a big jump in the cost of alcohol for fear of alienating the voters before the general election. He says the tax should be ring-fenced for spending on the treatment of alcohol-related illnesses.

“We are into unpopular territory, but to deal with something like alcohol that is damaging the fabric of the nation we need to raise prices. There is a direct connection between the price of alcohol and consumption.”

As Woolpack Dave has said, “it's like choosing what colour stick to be beaten by.”

Last orders for public liberties

There’s another good article from Sp!ked here by Mick Hume, who says “the all-party support for yet another crackdown on drinkers is a sign of the illiberal times – and a far cry from past battles over booze.” He concludes:

Of course there are always problems linked to drinking and drunkenness, most of them as old as alcohol itself, some of them products of contemporary culture. But none of them is susceptible to the blunt instrument of more laws and bans and taxes. And none of them is a good enough excuse for the state to intrude ever further into public houses and public life, treating citizens as ‘children or savages’ by trying to dictate what sort of chairs or size of glasses they can be allowed.

If these issues are to be a ‘battleground on booze’ for our half-pint politicians in the General Election, it currently looks like a weird one where all sides are standing on the same side of the battle lines, shouting last orders. Time somebody made a stand for the freedom to think and drink for ourselves.

Friday 22 January 2010

At the sign of the Ostrich

I recently received an e-mail inviting me to make a donation to fund CAMRA’s challenge to the decision by the Office of Fair Trading not to investigate the beer tie. I have to say I’m not hugely bothered about the pub company beer tie anyway, and the giant pub companies are visibly unravelling before our eyes, so I declined to contribute. But, in view of the wave of neo-Prohibitionist sentiment sweeping the land, I can’t help thinking that this is on a par with rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. You might have thought that CAMRA, as an organisation supposedly championing the interests of pubs and beer drinkers, would be fighting this tooth and nail, but instead they have been puzzlingly silent, and indeed on some issues have even sought to make common cause with the anti-drink lobby. You have to wonder why this should be.

CAMRA was formed in the early 1970s and took its inspiration from many of the left-wing campaigns of that era. Its name seems to echo that of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. For many of its members, a key motivation was taking a tilt against the corporate behemoths of the Big Six breweries and their bland, commoditised keg beer. At the time, Roger Protz even advocated the nationalisation of the brewing industry along the lines of the Carlisle State Management Scheme. Much of that mindset persists today, with the major supermarkets joining the international brewers in the cast of villains, and CAMRA still too often looks to government for solutions. It is difficult to adapt that frame of mind to one in which the chief enemy is the anti-drink lobby, with government and organisations such as the BMA in the vanguard, not the evil capitalists.

Many of CAMRA’s public pronouncements are based on a pair of underlying shibboleths, that “real ale” is a morally superior product not only to other beers, but to all other alcoholic drinks, and that drinking in a pub is “better” than drinking at home. Both of these ideas are very questionable – am I really a bad person for drinking a bottle of BrewDog Punk IPA in my living room? – and probably not really believed by most of the membership, but they lead CAMRA to take a particularist view and fail to see a common cause with the guy buying a slab of Carling from Tesco. Indeed, to many activists, he is far more of an enemy than Don Shenker and Sir Liam Donaldson.

When the vast majority of alcohol-related disorder is related to consumption on licensed premises, to portray the pub as an environment of responsible, controlled drinking seems very much like special pleading. And I would lay money that the average member of CAMRA – as someone with a general interest in alcoholic drinks – actually drinks more at home than the average British adult.

While CAMRA is in theory a democratic organisation, in practice policymaking does not happen in a particularly democratic way. Indeed, the way it is organised is very reminiscent of a 1970s trade union, which is probably what it was based on. It is run by an unpaid, elected National Executive, although most of the work in practice is done by paid staff. National Executive elections are often uncontested and candidates rarely make explicit policy statements. It gives the impression of being a cosy club of mutual backscratchers. Policy is decided at the Annual General Meeting, and only those actually attending, who are only about 1% of the the total membership, can vote.

This is probably no worse than any other comparable campaigning organisation, but the problem is that it is far from clear exactly what CAMRA is campaigning for, and thus at a national level it ends up promoting policies that do not necessarily reflect the views and interests of the wider membership. The classic example of this was championing the Beer Orders in the late 1980s which ended up having a disastrous effect on the British brewing industry and pub trade. The letters column in the monthly newsletter What’s Brewing has been very much reduced in size and dumbed down in recent years and seems to be censored to avoid anything too critical of the official line being published – last year I sent them a perfectly reasonable letter about minimum pricing that, not surprisingly, never appeared.

During the lifetime of CAMRA, there has been an astonishing upsurge in small-scale craft brewing in the UK, something that its founders would probably have never envisaged. I’m not saying CAMRA is solely responsible for this, but it has certainly created a climate in which it can flourish. This has been accompanied by a growth in the number of specialist pubs showcasing the products of these breweries, and of course by CAMRA beer festivals. The upshot is that many beer enthusiasts in effect do most of their drinking in a bubble insulated from the wider world of youth bars and family dining, so it’s not entirely surprising that they take the view that general industry trends don’t affect them.

As I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter how you see things – what matters is what your opponents think. You may think the anti-smoking and anti-alcohol campaigns are entirely different issues, but if the Righteous regard them as two sides of the same coin there’s nothing you can do about it. And there’s no evidence that anti-alcohol campaigners draw any distinction between rowdy town-centre venues and traditional community pubs, nor between real ale and other forms of alcohol. To believe that they will, or can ever be persuaded to, is a delusion.

For a while, the leadership of CAMRA may continue to believe that what they hold dear and campaign for can somehow stand clear of the anti-drink tide. But one day, of course, the waters will suddenly and unexpectedly rise up and wash them away, and by then it will be too late.

If CAMRA is not prepared to confront the wider issues affecting drinkers and the drinks trade, then it needs to abandon the pretence that it does and draw in its horns to become basically just a non-political beer drinkers’ club. Which is the aspect of it that works anyway.

(There are actually a few pubs dotted around the country called the Ostrich – the one I remember is in Castle Acre, Norfolk. There’s also a well-known one at Colnbrook in Middlesex. Maybe CAMRA should make one of them its Pub of the Year)

You may also be interested in this assessment of CAMRA's successes and failures which I wrote five years ago: Only Here for the Beer

Tuesday 19 January 2010

So it begins

The first shots have been fired in the great War on Drink, with the government announcing the introduction of a mandatory code of practice for pubs and bars. All you can drink promotions and speed drinking competitions will be banned from April, and pubs required to provide free tap water, while from October smaller measures of beer, wine and spirits must be offered and any customers appearing to be under 18 must be asked for identification. Now, I’m not going to rush to the barricades to defend all you can drink promotions, but taken as a whole these measures represent an unprecedented degree of interference in the way licensed premises are run, which will impose new burdens on responsible and irresponsible licensees alike.

While in reality I can’t see it happening very often, requiring pubs and bars to offer free tap water opens up the opportunity for bloody-minded people to occupy space and use glassware while contributing nothing to the overheads of the establishment. If you were running a pub in the Lake District and a party of eight thirsty hikers came in and demanded eight pints of tap water with ice you might not be too impressed.

I’ve no problem with requiring pubs and bars to offer 125ml glasses of wine, which after all are roughly equivalent to a half of 5% beer or a 35ml measure of spirits. But I’m puzzled as to what they mean by requiring them to serve smaller measures of beers and spirits. Do any pubs actually only serve beer in pints? Or do they mean they’re going to make pubs offer nips, which will involve a costly investment in glassware and possibly dispense equipment to meet a negligible demand? And, likewise, does it just mean pubs will have to offer single measures of spirits, or that a single must be defined as 25ml rather than 35ml, which will require all those pubs that have gone over to 35ml to replace all their optics?

To his credit, on the radio Home Secretary Alan Johnson expressed scepticism about minimum pricing, making the point that it had the potential to penalise reponsible drinkers on modest budgets while leaving the comfortably-off unscathed. But I can’t help thinking that this package marks the first stage of a long process that will be fraught with problems and unintended consequences and won’t in practice do anything to create a more healthy and responsible drinking culture. And, sadly, the Conservatives and Liberal (sic) Democrats seem to be engaged in a bidding competition with Labour as to who can crack down hardest on the Demon Drink.

Sunday 17 January 2010

The Goldilocks effect

There’s a lot of Righteous handwringing about the statistic that the Scots are drinking 12.2 litres of pure alcohol each per year. This is, apparently, enough for every single adult to exceed the government’s (ludicrously low and scientifically unjustified) alcohol consumption guidelines.

But, hang on, that adds up to less than one and half pints a day of 4% ABV beer, which hardly seems to equate to problem drinking. Isn’t the problem more that too many people, within that average, are drinking at excessive and problematical levels, while many others drink little or nothing? I would have said someone who drinks two pints of beer on five days a week, and has two alcohol-free days (thus consuming 23 units over the course of a week) was the very model of a moderate and responsible drinker.

Is it really possible anyway to define an optimal quantity of alcohol for a society to drink each year? Obviously, if you’re a prohibitionist, the answer is nil. But, equally obviously, those of us who do enjoy the occasional drink can’t give the same answer. How much is not too much, not too little, but just right? Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland have punitive alcohol taxes and draconian restrictions on availability, and have markedly lower levels of average consumption, yet still tend to have high levels of alcoholism and acute alcohol poisoning, suggesting that the “forbidden fruit” approach isn’t a magic bullet.

Rather than average per capita consumption, which is really a meaningless figure, wouldn’t a more relevant statistic be the incidence of genuine alcohol-related health problems? And isn’t the problem less that people on average drink too much, but that they drink badly, with drinking too concentrated both amongst individuals and over time - a point made by this rather old article from the Observer?

Eight days a week

I recently concluded a poll asking the question “On how many days in a typical week do you have at least one alcoholic drink?” There were 48 responses, broken down as follows:

None: 0 (0%)
1: 6 (12%)
2: 1 (2%
3: 3 (6%)
4: 7 (15%)
5: 6 (12%
6: 6 (12%)
7: 19 (40%)

Good to see that there are no teetotallers reading this blog! Given that 19 people, or two-fifths, said they had a drink every day, it’s clear that official guidelines are being widely and cheerfully ignored. And over three-quarters said they had a drink on more days than they didn’t.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Boiling a frog in wine

I have to say in the two weeks since the New Year there has been such a torrent of neo-prohibitionist nonsense in the media that I have begun to suffer from “bansturbation fatigue” and struggle to summon up any fresh reserves of outrage. Pete Brown is doing an excellent job of countering it on his blog, though.

But the report in today’s Telegraph that the government have had a change of heart and are planning after all to introduce minimum alcohol pricing cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

It is understood that ministers are working on a “staged process” to introduce minimum pricing. Initially, the drinks industry will have to increase warnings on alcohol cans and bottles. Supermarkets and other retailers will then be banned from selling alcohol at “below cost” – the wholesale price of drinks – if they refuse to do so voluntarily.

The minimum price will then be introduced as the third and final phase of the scheme. It is being introduced in this way to “bring the public along” as alcohol prices are steadily increased.

So, like the proverbial boiling frog, you introduce it stealthily, step by step, and hope the drinking public won’t notice they are being screwed.

It has to be said that “minimum pricing” isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy – it all depends on where the minimum price is set. The typical price of mainstream off-trade alcohol is around 35-40p per unit. So a 35p per unit minimum price would only affect cheap bottom-end products and multibuy deals, whereas 50p would penalise most at-home drinkers.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham is quoted as saying:
There is rising public concern and we have never shrunk from taking tough public health decisions and we are not going to start now. We need to balance the rights of people who drink responsibly with those who buy ludicrously cheap booze and go out and harm themselves and others.
So are a £1.10 half-litre can of Stella, a £4 bottle of wine or a £12 bottle of whisky “ludicrously cheap”? Because those are things that will be outlawed by a 50p minimum price.

I have discussed in the past the various problems associated with minimum pricing. But of course, the biggest problem is that it’s unlikely to achieve the claimed effect (even if that effect were in fact desirable). And, of course, when it is seen not to work, we will set out down another slippery slope.

It is also typical of the sloppy standards of journalism that the Telegraph article is illustrated with a picture of three drunk girls staggering down a street, who one would assume have been drinking in licensed premises and paying over 50p per unit. Apart from arguably putting a slight brake on “pre-loading”, minimum pricing will do nothing to stop alcohol-related town centre disorder.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Up Town Top Ranking

My esteemed blogging colleague Cooking Lager has often been critical of traditional, “dumpy” pubs, saying that if he wants to take his lady squeeze out for a drink he is looking for somewhere that is at the same time more up-market and less old-fashioned. There’s an example in this comment on Pete Brown’s blog:

Oh and traditional boozers do not fit the bill, the kids don't like 'em and neither do most women. By welcoming establishments I mean something smarter and modern.
The only problem is, I think he’s describing a type of establishment that simply doesn’t exist, at least round here.

Yes, there are plenty of pubs and bars that have gone for a more modern image, but in general that has been accompanied by an overt appeal to the youth market, and they are often places to avoid unless you’re looking for a fight or a pull. So many times, a pub going “trendy” has been a precursor to a downhill spiral that ends in closure.

On the other hand, many of the pubs with the most solidly middle-class clientele, because of their locations, are ones that still put across a resolutely traditional image, such as the Nursery in Heaton Norris, the Church in Cheadle Hulme and the Davenport Arms in Woodford. In central Stockport, the only two pubs with any aspirations to being upmarket, the Arden Arms and the Red Bull, are both staunchly traditional in aspect.

There are a few pubs dotted about that have made a conscious attempt to replace benches with sofas, introduce a wine list and serve ciabattas, but the chief characteristic of their clientele compared with their competitors tends to be not that it’s more classy, but it’s a bit younger.

There used to be some notably snooty pubs in stockbroker belt areas – the Admiral Rodney in Prestbury springs to mind – but very often those were the most olde worlde of the lot. And the upper middle classes seem to like entertaining at home more nowadays, with the result that I don’t find any Cheshire pubs as exclusive as they once were.

Likewise, there was once a vogue for drinking in hotel bars, but the hotel trade has changed, with many of the established “coaching inns” being converted for other use, and I don’t think that hotel bars are seen as anything like so aspirational nowadays, tending to cater mainly for captive residents.

Of course there are plenty of country dining pubs that fit the bill perfectly, the Brunning & Price chain being a classic example. You won’t find many trackie bottoms in there. But they are very much a rural phenomenon that doesn’t really penetrate into the conurbations. And I think he’s looking at going for a drink rather than taking the lady squeeze out for a meal to impress.

So, the question remains, if you want to go for a drink in an urban or suburban area, in somewhere that is smart and contemporary, where you can avoid chavs, scruffy ale aficionados and hacking, mild-drinking old boys, where do you go?

Sunday 10 January 2010

Missing the point

Charles Clover has an article in today’s Sunday Times entitled Save the pub or let it die? It’s your shout. At least he recognises that there are other reasons for the relative decline of the pub trade beyond the simplistic one of cheap supermarket prices:

Our vicar tells me there were six pubs in the village in 1917. Why is it that we lost only one pub between 1917 and 1997 but have lost three since then? That, we must assume, is caused by recent trends, chief of them drinking at home. We choose to take home our cheap supermarket booze and drink it watching a DVD. Then there are the drink-driving laws and more recently the laws on smoking (which inadvertently put a pub’s least attractive clientele out on the street in front of you in most weathers, a good reason to drive by).
However, I doubt whether smokers will be happy to be described as “a pub’s least attractive clientele”. And his prescription for revival seems distinctly wishy-washy:
Our family went on an impromptu pub crawl with friends just after the new year, partly to introduce our teenagers to each other, partly to sample the local pubs while they were still there. What began as nostalgic recreation of our student days and a bit of bravado made a strong impression on the teenagers. They met local people of different ages whom they would not otherwise have met. They were fascinated by the different atmospheres and architecture, even of the naff ones. We all drank responsibly.

The adults vowed to go out for a pint more often.

As a nation, we have the choice. A crackdown on supermarkets advertising cheap alcohol, coupled with lower tax for weaker beer — favoured by both the health select committee and Camra, the real ale campaign — could even now turn back the clock and draw people to more civilised drinking, down the pub.

I hardly think a few well-meaning middle class people going to the pub slightly more often (a resolution that is unlikely to last beyond Easter anyway) is going to make a ha’p’orth of difference when, as I have posted before, the decline of pubs has been driven by widespread trends in society, of which relative price is by no means the most significant. Making off-trade alcohol more expensive won’t give people a single extra penny to spend in pubs.

And the weaker beers he is referring to are not those of ordinary bitter strength of 3.5 – 4.0% ABV, but those below 2.8% ABV, for which realistically there is no demand. You could sell it for 50p a pint and it wouldn’t save a single pub.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Where you do your drinking

I recently concluded a poll asking the question “Where do you drink your beer (or other alcoholic drinks)?” This was prompted by comments on Tandleman’s blog about too many beer bloggers being mainly at-home drinkers. “Most (but by no means all) bloggers are home drinkers and really need to get out more”, he said. There were 66 responses, broken down as follows:

All, or the vast majority, in the pub: 13 (20%)
Mostly in the pub: 6 (9%)
About half and half: 16 (24%)
Mostly at home: 13 (20%)
All, or the vast majority, at home: 18 (27%)

I was a little surprised that the second option got so little support, as I might have thought there were a lot of people who were mostly pub drinkers but also liked sampling the more exotic beers at home. Obviously the poll does not go into people’s motivation, but it is noticeable that the biggest single category was those who did all, or virtually all, their drinking at home. I would once have said “mostly in the pub” but am now more “half and half”.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Fear the Witch

Ever since the dawn of humanity, some people have sought to exercise control over others. In this excellent piece, blogger Leg-iron explains what has been perhaps the single key technique over the years:

The real fear is fear itself. Not fear of the Thing, but fear of being accused of being the Thing.
If you do not join in the witchhunt, and join in enthusiastically, then you may very well be a witch yourself, or at least Soft on Witches.
People will submit to full body scanners because if they refuse, they know the mob will take it as a sign of guilt. They will cheer on minimum alcohol pricing because if they don't then they must support alcoholism. They will worship the Green God because if they don't they will be seen as polar bear killers. Standard witchhunting methodology - the mob will always support the witchfinder because the witchfinder might accuse any who don't. The mob will be keen to report the witch to prove that they are not also witches. The mob is easily controlled by the fear of being accused, not the fear of the witch.
People will submit to all those lunatic controls on flights, some of which make absolutely no sense at all, not because they are scared of terrorists but because they are scared of being suspected themselves. All these controls on smoking, drinking, diet, travelling, what you can say and so on are not there for your benefit. They are to keep you in the mob, to keep you compliant and to keep you too scared to object.
Obviously this has strong resonances for the current anti-alcohol crusade, but it goes far wider in society, in fact in every case where the cry goes up “the innocent have nothing to fear” – implying that if you raise any objection, you can’t be entirely innocent yourself.

A prime example is the hysteria over paedophiles, which has led to millions of people needing expensive, time-consuming and probably ineffective background checks, and responsible men avoiding work with children for fear of others questioning their motives.

Interestingly, he says that such crusades eventually fail not because of popular opposition, but because those in authority decide that they have gone too far (as they always do):
The Righteous fail when they go too far. When people in authority start speaking out against them. The Pope stopped the Inquistion. The Church stopped the Witchfinder-General. The common people did nothing because they were under the thrall of 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' until someone they saw as an authority figure spoke out.

There are signs of this starting now. It could be messy, the Righteous have never had so many projects running at once before. What they'll take down with them, and whether they'll all go at once is anyone's guess but they will fail and I think it'll be soon.

Let us hope that the day when Sir Liam Donaldson and Don Shenker go the way of Matthew Hopkins and Joe McCarthy is not too far away.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Let’s stagger to the barricades

All those who value choice, liberty and enjoying a pint should resist the killjoys’ war on “boozy Britain,” says Tim Black, who points out the rank snobbery and contempt for the lower orders that lies behind much of contemporary anti-drink policy.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Losing your head

Many years ago I used to sometimes go out for a drink with my father and my Uncle Bill, who is long since deceased. We would get three pints with dense, creamy heads, but he only had to take a couple of sips from his glass to make the head completely disappear, leaving him with the proverbial beer that was as flat as a fluke, whereas the other two heads remained intact. It must have been some characteristic in his saliva – maybe unusually acid – which reacted adversely with the beer.

Over the years I have come across a number of other individuals who have the same effect on their beer, including one with the perhaps appropriate name of Malcolm Swallow.

I have to say this makes a pint of beer look extremely unappetising, but it doesn’t seem to deter those who suffer from it. I wonder whether this is a phenomenon others have ever encountered.

Don’t worry - drink and be merry

H/t to Jeff Pickthall for this excellent article appearing in the Spectator.

The government acts as if booze is the root cause of all our social problems, says Leah McLaren, but it’s not. Drinking is an important part of British culture, the pub is the hub of the community, and health warnings can even be counterproductive.
She quotes from Professor David Hanson (for once a prof who talks sense), who says:
There is this idea that almost any alcohol is bad and it’s moving very quickly across Europe,’ he says of the recent spate of anti-binge-drinking campaigns sweeping Britain and continental Europe. ‘You’ve got this idea that alcohol is poison and that we need to reduce consumption and that will solve all our social problems. That simply doesn’t bear out historically. In the United States, for instance, prohibition actually introduced the practice of heavy drinking by making liquor an illicit substance.
and explains how an anti-drink crusade will simply lead to responsible people enjoying themselves less while actually making the situation of genuine problem drinkers worse.

Sunday 3 January 2010


Well, it could be worse.

Guests celebrating new year at the highest pub in England had a longer than expected stay, after heavy snow left them stranded for three days.

About 30 people arrived at the Tan Hill Inn in North Yorkshire on New Year's Eve to welcome in 2010.

But the wintry weather conditions meant the residents were snowed in for a further two nights.
Let's hope they didn't run out of Old Peculier.

Free at last

Interesting developments in Stockport recently where both the Railway on Wellington Road North and Little Jack Horner’s on Wellington Street (pictured) have been bought from pub companies by their sitting tenants, and the Magnet just down the road from the Railway has been sold to new free trade owners who have turned it into a multi-beer alehouse. This is a very positive development and I wish all three pubs every success. They will be freed from the dead hand of pub company control and be able to source the beers their customers really want at more reasonable prices.

But “going free” is a double-edged sword. You have cut your ties from the brewery or pub company, but that means you no longer have anyone looking over your shoulder to keep you on the path and tell you when you’re going wrong, and you no longer have any outside marketing support. You are truly on your own. For a keen, competent licensee, that should be seen as a challenge, but for some it can lead to complacency and slipping standards.

It is probably fair to say that, over my drinking career, many of the very best pubs I have visited have been genuine free houses, but so have some of the very worst.

One particular bugbear of mine is that, freed from any higher oversight, free trade pubs can all too easily end up with a plethora of incongruous, home-made signs both inside and out, which puts across a sloppy, unprofessional image.

Also, unless you are consciously going down the “alehouse” route, it is important to have a permanent real ale of ordinary bitter strength that is what many of your regular customers drink.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Faith in the future

Well, maybe, as suggested in the comments here, it was a bit of a limited poll, but it’s ended anyway. The question was “Will we see closed pubs reopening in significant numbers during 2010?” and the 48 responses were a fairly overwhelming:

Yes: 2 (4%)
No: 46 (96%)

Clearly even the most diehard pub enthusiasts see the tidal wave of closures of the past two and a half years as an irreversible process. The next year may see a few flashes in the doldrums as struggling pub company outlets are sold off to more enterprising free trade owners, but I honestly doubt whether we will see much respite in the overall pace of closures. It even seems to have got to Stockport at last, with the Olde Woolpack and Town Hall Tavern having been boarded up in recent weeks, and a number of town centre pubs giving the impression of being very shaky.

I have been accused of tailoring polls to the anti-smoking-ban lobby (which is NOT the same as "pro-smokers") but I assure you that the latest one on where you tend to drink was motivated by comments on Tandleman’s blog about too many beer bloggers being mainly at-home drinkers. “Most (but by no means all) bloggers are home drinkers and really need to get out more”, he says.

I also have to say that a few of the anti-ban comments that have appeared on this blog border on the ridiculous. If you genuinely feel that your enjoyment of pubs has been hugely eroded by the smoking ban and you rarely visit them any more, then fair enough, I respect and sympathise with that point of view. If you assert that you NEVER visit pubs because they now offer NOTHING for you then I have to conclude you are a bit of a ranting loon. One commenter said that after the ban he never visited pubs or restaurants at all. It must be a rather limited life if you have to eat all your meals at home.

New year, old lies

Well, I was going to have a go at this nonsense from the BBC, but The Filthy Smoker has got there first and done a far better job than I ever could.

It would be nice to think that some wag at the Beeb thought it would be richly ironic to put an anti-alcohol piece online at the one time when everybody is pissed, but a more plausible explanation is that the BBC wanted to start the decade as it means to go on - ie. with doom-mongering drivel from state-funded temperance dicks.
And what’s this about “a quarter of England's population consuming hazardous amounts”? You mean they sometimes have two pints at a sitting in the pub? It seems that nowadays anyone who consumes more that the official made-up alcohol “guidelines” is branded as a “hazardous drinker”.

9 in 10 pints don’t measure up

A recent Trading Standards investigation has shown that 9 out of 10 pints served in pubs fell short of an actual pint, with an average shortfall of 4% (costing you 10p on a £2.50 pint) and a maximum deficit of a whacking 11.8%.

Full measures has long been a key campaigning point for CAMRA, and it’s something I once felt very strongly about. However, I have to say CAMRA very much shot itself in the foot on the issue by actively encouraging pubs to swap oversize glasses for brim measure ones, when it happened to coincide with replacing electric metered dispense with handpumps, and nowadays I tend to be rather more relaxed about it.

So long as pubs don’t obviously take the piss, I’m quite happy with a tight, shallow head on a brim measure pint, and I suspect most drinkers feel the same. A brim glass fits more comfortably in the hand than an oversize one. If the measure is markedly short I will politely ask for a top-up, and struggle to remember when such a request was last refused. I also don’t detect any great concern amongst drinkers that they are being short-changed. There are far more important things to devote your energies to.

And, while if you are served short measure of petrol, it will hit you in the wallet later on, short measure beer will only leave you feeling marginally less groggy the next morning, unless it is so grossly short that you end up having an unplanned extra half to compensate. You also have to wonder whether the likes of Don Shenker are actually quite keen on short measures as it means drinkers end up inadvertently consuming less without really noticing it.

It does annoy me, though, when pubs present you with a pint where the head has fallen some way short of the top of a brim measure glass – that is piss-poor presentation. And it’s disappointing the number of CAMRA members I see blithely taking pints away from the bar with inch-deep heads – I spotted one at our local Pub of the Month presentation only last Tuesday (in a pub where a top-up would have been gladly given if asked for).