Sunday 28 February 2010

Positive feelings

This is just an open thread about the current poll “What gives you a positive feeling about a pub?”

It’s interesting to see that the obvious answer, “a real fire”, has currently been voted for by all respondents.

Putting you off your pint

Well, the poll on “What do you personally find offputting in pubs?” has finally closed, with no less than 115 responses, which is by a large margin a record for any poll on this blog apart from the s*****g b*n one.

The results were:

1. Noisy children: 95 (83%)
2= Karaoke: 75 (65%)
2= Wall-to-wall diners: 75 (65%)
4. Big screen sports: 62 (54%)
5. Slow service: 60 (52%)
6. Lack of cleanliness: 59 (51%)
7= Drunk customers: 49 (42%)
7= Unable to smoke indoors: 49 (42%)
7= Unwelcoming regulars: 49 (42%)
10. Warm beer: 44 (38%)
11. Uncomfortable seating: 24 (21%)
12. Dogs: 20 (17%)

I’m not surprised to see “Noisy children” top the poll, as in my experience this must be the biggest no-no in pubs. At opposite ends of the social scale, both “Karaoke” and “Wall-to-wall diners” send out a clear signal that, for many people, this is not their type of pub. It’s good to see “Dogs” at the bottom, as I never really understand the objection to well-behaved dogs in pubs (which I find they almost always are). Surprised to see “Uncomfortable seating” so low, though, as, however good the beer, if I can’t find somewhere comfortable to sit, I won’t stay for another.

As you’ll see, the “mirror image” poll is now up and running. I’ve taken on board some of your suggestions, although surely “good beer” and “good food” should be taken as read. So it didn’t get too big, I rejected the ideas of:

Etched or frosted windows
No food served
Oversize lined glasses

This will be an interesting poll as I really have no idea of how it will turn out. It’s worth drawing your attention to Curmudgeon’s Ideal Pub, written ten years ago, and still largely holding true, although one key point is now impossible because of legislation.

Depressed spirits

The Sunday Telegraph reports that, in the forthcoming budget, Alistair Darling is planning to increase alcohol duties by even more than the swingeing “alcohol duty escalator”, with the potential of a staggering £8 a bottle rise in the duty on spirits. Of course, that won’t happen, but it’s not hard to see a £2 a bottle increase. I’m sure the pensioners who enjoy a nightcap of Tesco’s own brand Scotch will appreciate that. Any above-inflation duty increase will also be yet another kick in the teeth for the beleaguered pub trade. I wonder what the risible Minister for Pubs will have to say about that. Well, I don’t actually, it will be nothing.

A prisoner of conscience

Bolton pub licensee Nick Hogan has been gaoled for six months for allowing smoking in his pub. “Allowing smoking” – what kind of crime is that? All he was doing was allowing something that was perfectly legal three years ago and which the vast majority of his customers wanted. His wife Denise said:
“Ninety per cent of people who come into my pub want to smoke, even the non-smokers think there should be a choice. These laws are ridiculous.”
Leg-iron deals with this on his blog far more effectively than I could ever hope to do. And Chris Snowdon points out that, even within the context of the law, this was a disproportionate sentence designed to make an example of him.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Deep in denial

There’s a quite astonishing statement from Home Office Minister Gillian Merron that the smoking ban has not resulted in pub closures.

Merron said: “The pub trade does have challenges and I am aware of that but it isn’t the case that the ban had led to pub closures.”
Really? Not even a single one? This completely flies in the face of the vast weight of anecdotal evidence that the ban has had a severe impact on the trade of pubs, and the statements from virtually every brewer and pub company reporting their results that the smoking ban has hit their profits. It is given short shrift by Mark Daniels who by his own admission isn’t the most diehard opponent of the ban:
The smoking ban has certainly caused most pubs, especially those that were traditional drinking outlets (like mine, for example), a lot of pain - and it has caused a lot to close, too.

To say it hasn't is, frankly, ridiculous and shows a severe lack of knowledge of the problems the pub trade is facing right now.
He also makes the very salient point that the ban has made the trade of pubs much more dependent on fine weather than it used to be.

It is difficult to decide whether Merron is a self-deluding moron, or a blatant, bare-faced liar. Either way, she is clearly totally unfit to hold public office – but, regrettably, one or the other of those qualities seems to be a requirement for serving in the current government.

Dept. of the Bleeding Obvious

A leading economist has warned that minimum pricing in Scotland could lead to cross-border shopping.

Doh, you don’t say! I’d never have imagined that might happen without the help of a leading economist.

Monday 22 February 2010

Likes and dislikes

The current poll asks the question “What do you personally find offputting in pubs?” As a point of clarification, since a commenter asked the question, this is really about what you find offputting in some pubs, not pubs as a whole (although obviously one option currently applies to all pubs). It’s the kind of thing that makes your heart sink a bit when you venture into a pub. Interestingly, although not surprisingly, “Noisy children” is well out in front, having been voted for by 89% of respondents. There are plenty of other things I could have put in the list – one that has sprung to mind since I did the poll is uniformed bar staff.

Following this, I was thinking about doing another poll on what you find appealing in pubs, what brings a smile to your face when you walk in. The obvious one is a real fire in the grate, but if readers can think of any others I’ll consider including them in the list - mention them in the comments.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Cutting off your own balls

I’m well aware that commercial companies are basically interested in making money, and rarely show much interest in defending the rights of their own consumers. But, even, so, I was taken aback to see this advert from Pernod Ricard in today’s Times.

As I’ve argued before on here, having a few drinks in pubs before the age of 18 is unlikely to do people any harm and indeed may help with learning to drink responsibly. While drinking at home under the age of 18 under parental supervision is not illegal, is not “underage drinking”, and is widely believed to lead to a more responsible attitude to alcohol in later life.

I wouldn’t expect drinks companies to openly condone this message, but on the other hand neither would I expect them to go so far in condemning it, especially when company executives must know very well they are in effect attacking their own responsible adult consumers.

This really is appeasement of the most pathetic kind – no matter how far they go in parroting the anti-drink message, they will never satisfy the neo-Prohibitionists.

Friday 19 February 2010

Cider duty to rise?

Apparently the government are contemplating a significant rise in cider duty. Now, I remember the last time I mentioned this subject I was accused of having no idea what I was talking about, so I will try to tread carefully. But it’s very noticeable that draught Strongbow, although only 4.5% ABV, sells in pubs at a similar price to Guinness and Stella, and well above the price of cask beers of comparable strength. Does that mean that Strongbow is more expensive to produce, or that Bulmers are making a higher profit margin on it?

On the other hand, it is equally noticeable that the most bangs per buck you can get on the off-licence shelves comes from 2- or 3-litre PET bottles of cider, either white or “standard” brown. Often the price per unit of these ciders is only about half that of the super-strength lagers that attract so much criticism. Nobody can tell me that people are drinking this stuff because of the refreshing taste and not because it gets you pissed cheaply.

So it could be argued that the fact that the duty on cider is much lower than that on beer is at the same time featherbedding the dominant player in the cider market and encouraging irresponsible bottom-end drinking.

I am well aware that there are many small independent cidermakers who might suffer from an across-the-board duty increase. But, provided that there was a cider equivalent of Progressive Beer Duty to protect them, it is hard to justify the retention of a duty differential between cider and beer.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Drinking begins at home

The latest anti-drink horror story in the Daily Wail is that a majority of children are introduced to alcoholic drinks at home, and this alleged problem is worse in white middle-class families. You just can’t win, really – if a majority began drinking in the pub or on a park bench that would be cause for even more outrage. Surely it should be seen as a positive factor that young people have their first drink in a controlled environment under adult supervision. And it is disingenuous to refer to them as “underage drinkers”, when drinking alcohol under the age of 18 at home is a perfectly legal activity. The article concludes: “Successive studies have shown that the younger someone starts drinking, the more they consume throughout their lives.” Umm, isn’t that a statement of the bleeding obvious?

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Labelling away diversity

There’s been a lot of talk this week about introducing compulsory “health” labelling on alcoholic drinks packages. There was an interesting report of SAB Miller ceasing to import one of their beer brands (it doesn’t say which) because they didn’t think it was practical to include the necessary labelling elements on the bottles. This underlines how such a scheme might have the unintended consequence of leading to a reduction in the variety of drinks available in the UK.

Mandatory labelling imposes an extra burden on small producers entering the market, and it is likely to deter people from importing low-volume specialist drinks, whether beers, wines or spirits, as they will have to either spend money redesigning the labels or put unsightly extra stickers on bottles or cans. And does it really matter in terms of the overall message that a handful of small-selling products don’t have the labels when the vast majority, including all the big brands, do? As an example, I have just opened a bottle of O’Hanlon’s Port Stout, a well-respected bottle-conditioned beer from a Devon micro-brewery. It doesn’t have any kind of health message at all.

You also have to wonder whether the European Union might regard a UK-only mandatory labelling scheme as a violation of the internal single market.

It doesn’t help that the contents of the labels are highly questionable anyway – the official unit guidelines, as I have pointed out on here before, were plucked out of thin air without any scientific justification, and neither is there any scientific evidence that drinking small quantities of alcohol will harm unborn babies. The recommendation that expectant mothers should abstain from alcohol entirely was adopted because it was clear and simple, not because it was true.

And, of course, as we have seen with tobacco, mandatory labels will inevitably be the start of a slippery slope. They will get bigger, they will have to appear on the front of bottles, they will have to appear on wine lists and menus, they will have to appear on adverts, they will have to be prominently displayed on all bars, they will have to include pictures of diseased livers. And so it goes on.

Monday 15 February 2010

Ten green bottles

I recently concluded a poll asking the question “Do you keep a record of your alcohol consumption?” There were 43 responses, broken down as follows:

Yes, as accurately as I can: 2 (5%)
Yes, in an approximate way: 14 (32%)
Occasionally for a week or two: 4 (9%)
No, but perhaps I should: 2 (5%)
No, I wouldn’t dream of it: 15 (35%)
I can never remember how much I’ve had anyway: 6 (14%)

A very clear division of opinion there, with “Yes, in an approximate way” and “No, I wouldn’t dream of it” being by far the most popular options. While it will take away much of the enjoyment of drinking by reducing it to a dry unit-counting calculation, on the other hand if you do have an interest in alcoholic drinks it probably makes sense to ensure you don’t let it get out of hand. And if you have a driving licence, even if you take the view that you never drink anything immediately before driving, it is in your own interest to keep tabs on your consumption.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Turning a deaf ear

It’s reported that a decade of government spending on healthy eating advice has had a negligible effect on people’s real-world diets.

People are eating as badly as they were 10 years ago despite the spending of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on advertising campaigns on fruit and vegetables, saturated fat and other health issues, the Government’s food watchdog admitted yesterday.

In a nationwide nutrition survey, the Food Standards Agency found that the majority of people were still eating too many processed foods and sweets and not enough oily fish and fresh fruit and vegetables. Adults ate twice as much sausages as white fish, and boys almost equalled their consumption of salad and other raw vegetables with chocolate. Teenagers ate five times as much white as wholemeal bread.

The survey suggests that the Government has made little headway in reducing the diet-related ill-health, which the Cabinet Office estimated last year costs 70,000 lives and £6billion to the NHS annually.
No doubt the Righteous will be dismayed by this news, but surely it reveals a healthy scepticism about official health messages, which is paralleled by the response to propaganda about the evils of drinking and smoking.

Rather than encouraging people to actually enjoy food, all these messages simply promote a joyless, calculating approach to nutrition, which is exemplified by the widespread rejection of the unappetising, politically correct slop now served up as school dinners.

The tiresome “five a day” message must be put into the same category as the official alcohol guidelines as something plucked out of thin air with no real scientific justification. Adhering to it won’t do you any harm, but neither is there any guarantee that not adhering to it will.

Not surprisingly, the food fascists are calling for more compulsion, underlining their arrogant, patronising stance that people can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves.

And all these claims of cost to the NHS are bogus, as it has been abundantly demonstrated that the biggest factor in healthcare costs is how long people live. Increasing longevity will ultimately cost the NHS more.

Friday 12 February 2010

A leap in the dark

Interesting news from Scotland that the SNP’s minimum pricing policy is apparently being pushed ahead without any firm evidence of its effects.

One of the scientists whose research has underpinned the Scottish Government's push to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol admitted yesterday there is no evidence to show the controversial policy would work.

Sheffield University senior lecturer Dr Petra Meier told Holyrood's health committee the effects of the SNP's minimum pricing policy were "like the weather forecast" because her work was just "a model" of what might happen.

Her comments came as the committee considers the first stage of the Scottish Government's Alcohol Bill and they have raised further doubts about the value of the Sheffield University study into drinking in Scotland, which SNP ministers have claimed proves the case for introducing minimum pricing.
Also some telling comments from Richard Marsh of Verso Economics:
Mr Marsh also suggested that if minimum pricing at a rate of 40p per unit was to be introduced north of the Border, moderate drinkers would face increased spending in the region of £23.8 million a year against a saving to the economy in terms of health spending of just £5.9m.

Monday 8 February 2010

Too much too young?

I recently concluded a poll asking the question: “At what age did you first have an alcoholic drink in a pub?” There were 72 responses, and the answers were as follows:

14 or under: 18 (25%)
15: 15 (21%)
16: 21 (29%)
17: 11 (15%)
18: 4 (6%)
Over 18: 3 (4%)

So 90% of respondents had actually drunk in a pub before the legal age of 18, with 46%, or nearly half, having had a drink at 15 or under. Only 6% had postponed having a drink until the year they had turned 18, while a mere 4% were late developers. No doubt these results would send Don Shenker and Sir Liam Donaldson into a fit of apoplexy, but, as Tim Martin has argued, there is a huge amount of hypocrisy in society when many adults in responsible positions admit to having drunk in pubs before they were 18, and say it helped with their growing up and socialisation, while at the same time doing their utmost to stop today’s young people doing the same.

While it would be unthinkable in the current climate to lower the legal drinking age, surely there is much to be said for often turning a blind eye to young people having the odd drink in pubs so long as they behave themselves. Learning to drink under the watchful eye of potentially disapproving adults must be far better than doing it purely with your own age group in parks or friends’ bedrooms. It is a classic example of making a problem worse by clamping down hard on it.

Edit: I am now going to keep the most recent closed polls at the bottom of the left-hand sidebar so you can see I haven't fiddled the results ;-)

Thursday 4 February 2010

Admit drinking is normal

There’s an excellent article on this week’s Sp!ked by Dolan Cummings entitled The first step: admit drinking is normal, in which he argues that the way to develop a healthy drinking culture is actually to treat drinking as a normal part of everyday life rather than denormalising it and pushing it to the margins:

Proposals to introduce minimum pricing give the lie to the idea that health and government officials are interested in ‘responsible drinking’. There is nothing responsible about limiting your drinking according to your budget. ‘How many units can I get for a fiver?’ is not a question a cultured drinker asks, and yet this is precisely the mentality being encouraged by today’s scientistic crusade against booze. In a healthy drinking culture, we drink as much as we like, and ‘too much’ is defined not by our wallets but by our experience and the demands of our non-drinking lives. A unit-counting, penny-pinching drink culture would make alcoholics of us all.

No doubt many people do drink unhealthy amounts, particularly in Scotland and run-down working class areas across Britain. But the problem is not drink as such, nor even a broader ‘drinking culture’, but rather the hopelessness and lack of control over circumstances that drives people to drink destructively -even if they don’t live in sink estates...

Today’s moralism about drink does not offer salvation, but instead needless guilt and shabby authoritarianism. It is precisely because they have no inspiring vision for society that politicians turn their sights on our drinking habits. But we should not allow deeper social problems to be viewed through the prism of drink, and we should certainly not allow an aspect of life that for most of us means pleasure and conviviality to be transformed into a social problem in its own right. Drinking is nothing to be ashamed of, and we should stop pretending we think it is.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Soft thinking

A recent survey by Mintel has shown that many people resent paying high prices for soft drinks in pubs:

Three in five adults said they resented paying so much for soft drinks in pubs when they know they can get it much cheaper in shops. Over-45s were particularly critical on this issue – and the report says the “grey pound” will become increasingly important for pubs.
But do people reasonably expect to buy alcoholic drinks in pubs for the same price as in Tesco? Or meals? So why should it be any different for soft drinks? The naïve notion that everything has a “fair” price based on its purchase cost, and that pricing should take no account of customers’ willingness to pay, remains very prevalent in society.

In reality, soft drinks in pubs are usually something of a distress purchase, and the demand is not highly sensitive to price. And it must be extremely unusual for anyone to make a decision as to which pub to visit based on its range of soft drinks.

But there is a point that pubs, especially those that make a point of a high-quality food and beer offering, should make more effort to stock something distinctive on the soft drink front rather than just relying on the default well-known brands. This is certainly something Woolpack Dave has done. “Crisps, chocolate and coffee; lager, fizzy drinks and fruit juices all have to be quality products,” he says.

It is also often suggested that high soft drink prices act as an encouragement to drink-driving. This is the kind of pious notion which is initially credible, but when you examine it more closely is revealed as a complete canard. I would be amazed if there has ever been a single case where someone has been convicted after deciding to stay on beer because he reckoned the lemonade was too dear. In real life, nobody’s decision as to how much alcohol to drink before driving is going to be swayed by a a few pence one way or the other on the price of orange juice, and I suspect even if pubs offered some soft drinks for free it would make no difference to the amount of drink-drive offending.

Monday 1 February 2010

One thing after another

It was announced today that the government aim to impose another round of draconian restrictions in a bid to halve the number of smokers by 2020. Any bets on how long before they announce their strategy to halve the number of so-called binge drinkers?

You also have to wonder how they plan to make up the shortfall from lower tobacco duty receipts. Halving the number of smokers would reduce revenue by a whacking £3.8 billion a year.

Defending the indefensible?

Apparently the average consumption per head at CAMRA beer festivals is 3.5 pints. This figure has often been viewed as surprisingly low, but in fact, if you assume the average strength of beer at such events is 4.5% ABV, it equates to 9 units of alcohol and thus, by the current reckoning, qualifies as a “binge”. And, of course, roughly half the punters will be drinking more than that.

A few months ago I referred to a CAMRA pub crawl around Stockport Market Place, which involved visiting 8 pubs. If someone only had a half in each pub, and the average strength of beer consumed was 4.0%, that again adds up to 9 units. And in reality, most of the participants would have had a pint in at least one or two of the pubs. In the old days, when there were more pubs, more of them served real ale, and people were younger and fitter, such crawls could cover 12 or 13 pubs.

CAMRA often highlights the role of the “well-run community pub” in promoting responsible drinking. But if you went in any such establishment at 10.45 pm on any night of the week, you would undoubtedly find a high proportion of the customers had drunk more than eight units over the course of the evening.

Now let me make it crystal clear than I don’t disapprove of any of this, and if you’re only doing it a couple of nights a week it’s not realistically going to do you any harm. But of course Don Shenker and Sir Liam Donaldson would be aghast at such a tidal wave of irresponsible consumption. And you can just imagine the hysterical Daily Mail exposé: “They say they support responsible drinking – but in fact they’re routinely encouraging bingeing!”

It is a fact of life that pretty much all the activities of CAMRA are centred around drinking at levels that exceed the current official (made-up) guidelines. The leadership of the organisation must be fully aware of this. But they do have to tread very carefully not to lay themselves open to accusations of hypocrisy in championing the pub as the home of responsible drinking. And it underlines very clearly that you cannot effectively combat the rise of anti-alcohol sentiment while adopting the politically correct terms of reference of the Righteous – you have to challenge the whole basis of the argument.

This perhaps helps explain why CAMRA has been much less outspoken than many would wish over the rise of neo-Prohibitionism. But they are going to have to think very hard about it – it isn’t just going to go away and leave them alone.