Monday 31 May 2010

Lone sheep

This article discusses the Lamb at Satwell, a former Brakspear’s pub in southern Oxfordshire. I vaguely recall popping in there for a pint in the early 80s, and finding a cheerful, down-to-earth atmosphere. Now, of course, it has fallen victim to the curse of the gastropub:

Our menu is modern English and European. We do a lot of pasta and vegetarian dishes, so it’s not all straight-down-the-line English pub food. The average spend per head here is between £25 and £30 for two courses and a glass of wine.

The menu changes regularly, but at the moment our best-selling main is the double-boned pork chop with fondant potato (£12.50) — it’s flying out. People love our soups too, and because we have customers returning regularly, we change the soup every two or three days to give them something different…

…The local Loddon Brewery provides us with our bespoke ale — Leaping Lamb (3.9% ABV) – which is very popular at £3.50 a pint. We sell four pints of bitter for every one pint of lager.
FFS, bring me a Big Mac and a pint of Holt’s.

But what really struck me was their claim that they were “three miles from the nearest house”, which surely is utter bollocks. The pub is in a small hamlet, not in open country, and the map shows numerous houses within a short distance, plus a substantial settlement about a mile and a half to the south at Sonning Common.

Decline and fall

There’s an interesting article here from Jason Smith about the decline and fall of the British pub. I’m not sure I agree with everything he says – surely he exaggerates the social stratification in 1950s pubs – but broadly speaking he is right in saying that pubs have lost their social purpose. He concludes:

At the moment, pubs are over-regulated, unprofitable, sterile and – apart from selling drink – lack a function. In the light of these many problems, the only thing that is shocking about pub closures to date is that there have been so few.
I have commented before on how many pubs seem to be running on empty and are only still in existence because they have been in the past – if they didn’t exist, nobody would consider opening a pub or bar where they stand.

Saturday 29 May 2010

Break for the border

Another outcome of the new coalition government is the plan to devolve more powers to the Scottish government, specifically including control of road traffic legislation such as speed limits and the drink-drive limit. There’s a widespread view that this will inevitably lead to cutting the drink-drive limit in Scotland from 80mg to 50mg, regardless of what happens south of the border.

I like Scotland and over the years have enjoyed several holidays there. But it is clear that the country has a distinctly different and more urban-focused drinking culture from England, and I get the impression that rural, village and suburban pubs have much less of a role. The image of a Scottish pub that immediately springs to mind is one of the ornate Victorian Edinburgh bars such as Bennet’s or the Abbotsford, whereas in England you might be more likely to think of a thatched, half-timbered country pub. So the impact on pubs of cutting the limit might be less devastating than it would be here, although there are no doubt plenty of establishments that over a few years would be rendered unviable, not to mention the increase in prosecutions of unsuspecting “morning-after” drivers.

The rural and island areas of Scotland also have an established drink-driving culture that, in the absence of much more intensive enforcement would inevitably continue. If people think they won’t be caught, then cutting the limit is going to make no difference to their behaviour. This report about Barra describes an extreme example of this phenomenon.

It will also result in the unprecedented situation within the UK of different limits applying across a land border, so what is illegal in one place would be entirely legal a few yards away. The Anglo-Scottish border in general runs through remote and unpopulated areas, so this is unlikely to be a major problem, but if you’ve had a couple of pints and think the police are on your tail, hightailing it south across the line might seem a good idea.

Friday 28 May 2010

Taking their ball home

There was a disappointingly mean-spirited and short-sighted response from Harpenden licensees to the news that the local CAMRA beer festival was going to be showing England’s first World Cup match live on TV.

“It’s not the beer festival we object to. As far as we are concerned CAMRA has nothing to do with football.”
Umm, do pubs have anything to do with football either? The festival organiser had it spot on when he replied:
“CAMRA exists to promote real ale and pubs, which is why we hold a beer festival in St Albans and Harpenden.

“At our first Harpenden Beer Festival last year, nearly 3,000 people went. It was well supported and brought a lot of new people to the town. That benefited local pubs; when I go to a beer festival I usually go to pub and have a pint first, or afterwards.”

On the argument that beer festivals should show football, he replied: “Does that mean we don’t have food? Does that mean we don’t have a band?”
And, from the point of view of the beer festival, showing the footie is probably necessary to maintain their existing trade, much of which would otherwise head off to the pubs.

Your heart sinks

…when you read the fateful words that a Swiss chef has taken over a pub in Cheshire and relaunched it as a restaurant under the same name. Even worse when it’s the Highwayman at Rainow, of which you have fond memories of when it was a proper pub bursting with character.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Making drinkers pay

You often hear suggestions in the media that people admitted to A&E with drink-related injuries should be required to pay for their own treatment. This idea has occasionally cropped up in the comments here as well. The same principle is then easily extended to expecting smokers and fatties to pay for treatment of related medical conditions.

But this opens up a very dangerous slippery slope. Many health conditions are to some extent caused or exacerbated by lifestyle choices, and many injuries result from from activities where people knowingly accept a higher than average level of risk. Should we be refusing to treat any injuries resulting from rugby, or hang-gliding, or leisure motorcycling, and requiring anyone doing those things to have comprehensive private medical insurance? What about sexually-transmitted diseases acquired through risky sexual practices? Or health problems resulting from the abuse of illegal drugs? It is impossible to draw a hard-and-fast moral line.

There is also the question of what you do with people without the means to pay. People of social classes D and E drink no more on average than those in classes A and B, but they are six times as likely to be admitted to A&E with alcohol-related injuries or conditions. Many of them will be men and women of straw who live from week to week and have minimal savings. You can’t just turn them away untreated, so someone else is going to have to foot the bill, and if people who do have some financial means are at the same time funding the health care of the penniless through taxation, yet being refused the same free treatment themselves, they will be understandably resentful.

While the funding and organisation of healthcare are the subject of legitimate political debate, however much people’s injuries and health problems are caused by their own behaviour, it goes against basic human decency simply to turn the other cheek and let them die in the gutter. This doesn’t happen in the USA (despite what some claim) so why should it be considered remotely acceptable here?

In the club

Given all the discussion about CAMRA recently, I thought it might be interesting to ask how many readers were members of the organisation. There were 65 responses, broken down as follows:

Yes, currently an annual member: 23 (35%)
Yes, currently a life member: 7 (11%)
No, but I have been in the past: 9 (14%)
No, never: 26 (40%)

So, roughly a half-and-half split, which is much as I would have expected. It might be interesting to know why those who have been members in the past did not renew their membership.

Sunday 23 May 2010

The Continental way of drinking

Excellent letter in today’s Sunday Telegraph (not unfortunately on their website):

Just one more glass

SIR – I fully support the suggestion (Letters, May 16) that lager should be served in continental-size glasses.

The best beer I ever tasted was at the Andechs Monastery in Bavaria. It was served in one-litre glasses.

T.J.W. Leyland
Boston, Lincolnshire

Saturday 22 May 2010

In the zone

Mark Dredge recently made a post on his Pencil & Spoon blog about getting drunk. Now it can’t be denied that alcohol is a drug, and does have an effect on you. Even the most committed beer geek doesn’t drink it purely for the taste. But the aim should surely be to reach a state where you know it’s made a difference, but stops well short of getting out of control and saying and doing things you might regret the following day. This is well summed up by Pete Brown in his book Three Sheets to the Wind:

Yet the best drinking is about a middle state. It’s about having had too much to drive, feeling the effects, being more relaxed, loquacious and funny, but still being a long way off losing control of your faculties, doing anything you wouldn’t do sober, or forgetting your address, your pants or your belief in a basic level of decency and respect...

...What might best be translated as “the buzz” is a state that’s separate from sobriety but just as separate from drunkenness.
He points out that other cultures have a word for this – to the Germans it is Gemütlichkeit – but we don’t.

I have never taken any illegal drugs, so can’t comment on their effects. But I am well aware that the problem with alcohol is that it is like a welcoming guide who leads you down an attractive path, but constantly tempts you to go that little bit further until you find you are somewhere you really don’t want to be. And I’m not pretending I’ve never been there. So an element of self-control is needed, something that was provided by the old-fashioned ritual of going out to the pub and knowing that you would have just the right amount to drink before time was called.

And, unfortunately, the view of the modern-day Puritans that having more than a pint and a half at a sitting is irresponsible lumps this moderate, happy drinking in with gross drunkenness.

Friday 21 May 2010

Stop loss

Another proposal from the new government is to ban below-cost selling of alcohol, another favourite bête noire of the Daily Mail. But I suspect once you looked into it, you would find a lot less of it going on than you might suppose. The big supermarkets are not stupid, and most of those “two packs for £16” offers probably involve them using their market power to extract eye-wateringly low prices from their suppliers rather than actually selling it for less than they paid for it.

There’s no way you can ban manufacturers selling goods at below cost, as if you could you would have found the Holy Grail of economics. So what will happen is simply that the supermarkets will push the burden of price cutting back up the supply chain to the drinks producers. It could be that they will be less willing to take a risk by stocking lesser-known brands, and require small brewers to supply beer on a sale or return basis, so the measure will affect choice as well as price.

It would also limit the flexibility of shops and pubs to sell off surplus or short-dated stock at a low price, and could end up with perfectly drinkable beer being poured down the drain rather than sold at a pound a pint. Depending on how it was worded, it could even prevent licensees from giving the occasional customer a free pint.

Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco has also been sounding off that he would be prepared to talk to the government about minimum alcohol pricing. Well, business people are always keen on anything that protects them from price competition, and this gives the major supermarkets the chance to set up a price-fixing cartel while at the same time giving the appearance of being socially responsible. No doubt Tesco’s economists could work out the minimum price that would maximise their revenue from drinks sales, and present that as doing us all a favour.

Edit: This last point is dealt with very effectively by IanB on Counting Cats in Zanzibar.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Is time up for "24-hour drinking"?

The new government are planning to review the operation of the 2003 Licensing Act in response to concerns about the disorder caused by so-called “24-hour drinking”. But, in reality, there’s no such thing as 24-hour drinking – it’s just a typical piece of Daily Mail scaremongering. I’d be surprised if there was a single pub or bar in the country that actually was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the sale of alcohol. It’s also a misconception that these problems have only developed after 2005 when the Act came into operation. Before then, plenty of pubs in town and city centres already had extended hours, while nightclubs were open until 3 am, and there was no shortage of alcohol-related disorder on the streets. From what I’ve read, the general experience of senior police officers has been that things are no worse than they were before, albeit a bit more spread out through the small hours.

Personally I gain very little from the extension of licensing hours, and there are probably only a couple of occasions each year when I take advantage of being able to have a drink in a pub after 11 pm. The ending of afternoon closing in the 1980s made much more of a difference to me. But it would be a seriously retrograde step to revert to generalised 11 pm closing, and that caused problems of its own with crushes and fights at kebab shops and taxi ranks. Certainly in my experience it’s much easier to get a cab home from the pub at closing time than it used to be.

The problem is not in the hours themselves but in our toxic drinking culture that perversely stigmatises moderate drinking while celebrating gross excess. It is no longer, as it once was, seen as a point of pride to be able to “hold your drink”. Maybe the answer is for the police to make more use of the powers they already have to bang people up in the cells overnight for being drunk and disorderly. Once the word got around, that would send a salutary message to weekend revellers to keep their drinking under control.

And it has to be said that you never see any of this disorder associated with pubs majoring on cask ales and craft beers – perhaps if people were encouraged to take more of an interest in what they were drinking they would have a more responsible attitude towards it.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Four legs good?

Following on from my post about British beer innovation and enthusiasm increasingly passing CAMRA by, I thought I would ask readers what they thought of bottled BrewDog Punk IPA – a brewery-conditioned beer and thus not officially CAMRA approved. There were 53 responses, broken down as follows:

An excellent beer: 35 (66%)
Not to my taste: 13 (25%)
Chemical fizz: 5 (9%)

So almost two thirds thought it was “an excellent beer”, while a mere 9% followed the “Dickie English” purist line that it was unworthy of any consideration. Make of that what you will...

Wednesday 12 May 2010

A blast from the past

An excellent article here from Paul Chase on the rise of neo-Prohibitionism:

We risk repeating the catastrophe that has resulted from drug prohibition if we keep over-pathologising non-problem drinking and exaggerating its risks…

…We all know that there are problem drinkers, but an approach that targets interventions at people whose drinking isn’t a problem is, by definition, inventing a problem where none exists.
Just what I’ve been saying for years! It’s a pity, though, that nobody in authority ever seems to listen. Will the new government make any difference, or will it be a case of being beaten with a blue and yellow stick rather than a red one?

Monday 10 May 2010

A realm of misbehaviour

Anyone who thought the beer blogosphere was getting a bit stale needs to read this superb post by Mark Dredge on Pencil and Spoon entitled RIP: the Pub. As I’ve mentioned in the comments, it bears a number of similarities to a piece I wrote a few years ago called The Death of the English Pub. He sums up the attitude to pubgoing of a twentysomething beer enthusiast and his cohort extremely well – a generation younger than me which seems to have got out of the habit of regular pub visits.

I was struck by this particular paragraph:

Going into a local after work - at least where I am, away from a big city and in a small town - feels more wrong than right, more anti-social than social. The chaps at the bar have been there too long, it’s almost empty, it’s a realm of misbehaviour - drinking is bad for you, didn’t you know? And walk into a local pub and take a look around – there won’t be many people in their early 20s just sitting there and enjoying a beer. Call me bigoted, but if there are some then they aren’t likely to be the sort of guys who you’d feel comfortable socialising with, are they?
This sums up something that I had been mulling over, that going to the pub, just for a drink, away from the obvious weekend busy times, has over the past ten or fifteen years has become somehow less respectable than it used to be. The respectable pubs of my youth have now become dining pubs, and where proper pubs do survive, all too often you go in them and find them dominated by a slightly seedy all-male drinking school clustering around the bar, with very few other customers.

This may not chime with everyone’s experience, but I’m just reporting what I’ve encountered. It seems that regular pubgoing is becoming no longer socially acceptable.

Sunday 9 May 2010

But I thought you were on our side

It seems to be “have a go at CAMRA weekend”, but I couldn’t pass up on this article from The Publican in which beer writer Pete Brown criticises the organisation’s naïve and muddle-headed policy of opposing alcohol advertising of “international brands”. Now Pete by his own admission is a bit of a Socialist, so can’t be accused of just being a lackey of the evil multi-national capitalists. He writes:

But just when you think CAMRA has successfully reinvented itself, it says or does something that embarrasses you so much it reminds you of your senile granny’s racist outburst at your cousin’s wedding...

... And if by some bizarre chance such a partial ban came into being, there would be immediate pressure from the neo-Pros to extend it from international brands to national brands, from national to regional, to a total blanket ban. Those who hate alcohol and alcohol advertising do not discriminate by size of brewer — in their eyes, a pint of Crouch Vale Brewers’ Gold is no less ‘harmful’ than a pint of Foster’s.

CAMRA’s support for such a policy is an easy victory for the neo-Prohibitionists and an outright betrayal of the drinkers CAMRA claims to represent. It’s about time this ‘drinker’s champion’ started fighting back against the constant slurs against brewers and beer drinkers, instead of agreeing with those who attack us.
Absolutely - yet again CAMRA blunders into the “divide and rule” trap set by the anti-drink lobby.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Don't drink and walk

I’ve read that more than two-fifths of adult pedestrians killed in road accidents are above the legal alcohol limit for driving. Between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am, the proportion rises to over 80%. Clearly pedestrians under the influence are putting themselves at serious risk.

So the Australians are proposing to address this problem by introducing a drink-walking limit for pedestrians of 150 mg – approximately twice the current British drink-driving limit. In practice, taking into account the absorption of alcohol over time, this would mean you might be at risk of falling foul of the law if you’d consumed five or six pints.

It is not currently illegal to be drunk in public in this country, so long as you are not disorderly with it, but this could introduce a clearly-defined strict liability threshold of what was considered acceptable in public places.

Of course such a thing is never going to happen in reality, is it? Oh yes, just like they said about the blanket smoking ban...

(h/t to Dick Puddlecote for bringing this to my attention)

Out in the cold

Earlier this year I reported on the astonishing claim from Home Office Minister Gillian Merron, flying in the face of all the evidence, that the smoking ban had not resulted in any pub closures. So it was very gratifying to see her lose her Lincoln seat in Thursday’s General Election, with a swing of 5.9% to the Conservatives. Her share of the vote fell by no less than 8.5 percentage points. Having delighted in forcing millions of pubgoers out into the cold, she is now enjoying a taste of her own medicine.

On a related note, Frank Davis reckons that Cameron could have gained enough seats for an overall majority had he promised to amend the smoking ban.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Diverging tracks

There’s been a right old ding-dong over at Pete Brown’s blog over what he perceives as the culture of entitlement in CAMRA. In the comments, CAMRA stalwart Roger Protz made the rather smug statement that:

The reason why CAMRA has 112,000 members, has the ear of government and is listened to with respect by all serious beer lovers as well as politicians and law makers, is that we have the muscle of a strong, growing and influential consumer movement that has saved Britain's unique beer style.
For a long time, this was broadly true, with little of interest taking place on the UK beer scene that fell outside the remit of CAMRA. But now things are changing with, for example, BrewDog having enjoyed great success which is mainly based on (non bottle-conditioned) bottled beers, and which owes relatively little to CAMRA. They’re even now talking about putting their beers in cans. We have a trade organisation for craft producers of British lagers. And more and more bars are putting high-quality imported beers (albeit keg) on draught – see my post about Pivo in York. CAMRA and “British beer enthusiasm” are becoming less and less synonymous by the day.

Campaigning for something can all too easily turn into campaigning against everything that doesn’t fit into that definition, resulting in a very blinkered view of the wider beer world. In particular, CAMRA has never really satisfactorily come to grips with the fact that other countries have different beer styles and traditions that fall well outside the concept of “real ale”. For me this was summed up many years ago by one individual dismissing a bottle of Kölsch – a classic German beer style and a top-fermenting one to boot – as “Europiss”.

I have to say, however, that amongst the various beer bloggers I have never encountered the dogmatic “four legs good, two legs bad” attitude that regrettably is still prevalent amongst many CAMRA members, including those in senior positions.

There’s more and more beer enthusiasm mushrooming outside CAMRA, and outside the range of what CAMRA officially approves of. If the organisation continues to plough the same hackneyed furrow it is going to look increasingly fuddy-duddy and out of touch. How can you energise a young person who likes drinking keg Duvel Green in a modern bar, and Punk IPA at home, if you’re telling her that these beers are unworthy of consideration?

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Declaration at Curmudgeon Central

Well, the polls have now closed, and the 126 responses to the question “How will you vote in the General Election?” were as follows:

BNP: 9 (7%)
Conservative: 20 (16%)
Green: 6 (5%)
Labour: 16 (13%)
Liberal Democrat: 20 (16%)
SNP/Plaid Cymru: 3 (2%)
UKIP: 36 (29%)
Other: 5 (4%)
Don’t intend to vote: 6 (5%)
Not eligible to vote: 5 (4%)

Obviously, this is only representative of readers of this blog, and the strong showing for UKIP and (regrettably) the BNP is likely to be due to unhappiness about the smoking ban. If Labour do come third in the popular vote tomorrow, they should reflect on the fact that this vindictive measure has alienated large swathes of their traditional support, many of whom will never forgive them for it.

Let’s see how the real poll pans out tomorrow...

Saturday 1 May 2010

Election poll

I’m not trying to grind any particular axe (although it shouldn’t be hard to discern my own political preferences from this blog) – I just thought it would be interesting to see how the political allegiances of readers of this blog stack up. Good to see at least one person has voted for every option. Currently UKIP are in the lead with 23% of the vote. Feel free to comment on the poll or indeed the election in general.

If he was standing in my constituency I would certainly give my vote to this guy.

Paint it black

I’ve complained in the past about the strange tendency to paint pubs in wishy-washy colours that look as though they’re still in primer and awaiting their final coat. So it’s good to see that one of my local pubs, Hydes’ Four Heatons, has recently had its pale green paintwork (shown on the picture) replaced with a robust black. It looks much better for it.