Wednesday 23 June 2010

A leap in the dark

I have made a quick perusal of The North Report on reforming the drink-driving laws. If you’re interested, go ahead and download all 285 pages of it for yourself.

One paragraph that struck me was this:

3.41. Review of the literature highlighted that there was only limited evidence on the pattern of drink driving in England and Wales (as measured by BAC levels among the driving population). There was also a lack of UK evidence on how reducing the legal limit might change drink driving behaviour and the associated risk of casualties, particularly among those drinking above the current 80 mg/100 ml BAC limit. Consequently, unknown parameters had to be calibrated or estimated from the international literature – mainly from Europe and Australia. The model estimates the casualty savings which could be expected in the first year following implementation of a lower limit and for each year up to six years after implementation.
Which suggests there is a large amount of conjecture in the conclusions, given that patterns of alcohol consumption and use of licensed premises differ substantially between countries. For all the appearance of academic rigour, in effect they’re making it up as they go along.

I will be away on holiday next week but on my return will attempt to provide a more detailed analysis of the report.

Tuesday 22 June 2010


Following on the glasses theme, I recently ordered a Hobgoblet as advertised for £5.99 on the back of bottles of Wychwood Hobgoblin. I had been expecting a stemmed pint glass, but in fact it turned out be an oversize, lined half-pint glass (in fact described on their website as a 470ml glass) very similar in size and shape to a Belgian Rochefort glass I have. I’m not a fan of stemmed pints, so one of those would probably have lingered in the back of the cupboard, but, as it is, it’s an attractive glass that will no doubt get used for 330ml bottles of Belgian beers, Punk IPA, Old Tom etc.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Mine's a pint

I recently concluded a poll asking the question “What is your preferred type of pint beer glass?” There were 61 responses, broken down as follows:

Conical: 19 (31%)
Dimpled tankard: 14 (23%)
Nonik: 17 (28%)
Tulip: 9 (15%)
Other: 2 (3%)

So a narrow victory for the conical, perennial beer festival favourite and widely seen as the classic traditional British beer glass. But a lot of support for the humble, utilitarian Nonik, which in my view has a kind of minimalist elegance and simplicity, and also plenty of votes for the supposedly old-fashioned dimpled tankard. Surprisingly little support for the tulip, though, the national glass of Yorkshire.

Travellers’ delight

I was kindly taken out for lunch today to celebrate my upcoming birthday. We dined at Brunning & Price’s excellent Dysart Arms at Bunbury in the heart of Cheshire, but beforehand we called in at the nearby Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham. This is an incredible, unspoilt pub that is like taking a step back into the 1950s. It has a main bar area in the centre, two lounge-type rooms at the front, one accessed by stepping through a bead curtain, and an entirely separate parlour at the rear, with its own door to the exterior. The toilets, of course, are outside. Leatherette seats and formica-topped tables abound. The beers available were Tetley Bitter – which was better than it has any right to be – and Weetwood Eastgate Ale, a classic English “brown beer”, not too malty, not too hoppy. The quality of both justified its entry in the Good Beer Guide. No food is served, but it seemed to be popular with a good group of regulars. A pub as pubs should be, and the kind of establishment that Sir Peter North seems determined to make just a piece of history.

£3 a pint for a 3.8% beer in the Dysart Arms, though - this is the reality of Cheshire dining pubs in 2010.

Beer is the lifeblood

Or so it should be, according to Simon Heffer.

I know drinking gets a bad press in other contexts these days. Anyone who ventures into our town centres on a weekend evening will see that it is justified. The establishments that service the binge-drinkers are not, in my definition, pubs: they are impersonal drinking factories where no conversation is possible, and where you will certainly not see men in cloth caps playing cribbage or dominoes. I wish the government would persecute these people instead of the harmless, moderate social drinkers. Let them sate their desires by imposing routine four-figure fines on those who behave badly after drinking. Let them remove the licence from, and fine, any establishment that serves them when drunk. The problem would soon stop.

Just as tyrants like Hitler created the impression that all nationalism was racist and evil, so binge drinkers and alcohol abusers offer apparently convincing evidence that all drinking is harmful and must be curtailed. Yet there is a positive, and socially important, drinking culture in our countryside that is focused upon the rural pub. I do hope that no government will be stupid enough to damage that, and rip the heart out of our villages.
One can imagine the joyless Puritans of New Labour taking delight in ripping the heart out of rural England. But, come on Dave, you’re supposed to be a Conservative. If you do it, you will never be forgiven in the Shires.

Saturday 19 June 2010

Why we need a limit on drink-drive laws

A good article on Sp!ked here by Rob Lyons, although he does take the questionable risk statistics used by North too much at face value. He concludes:

Britain’s roads are very safe both in terms of absolute risks and by historical standards. Applying ever-tougher rules to when we can and cannot drive will have little additional benefit in terms of safety while making our lives more inconvenient or even preventing us from enjoying some activities altogether. If we really want to improve road safety, we should apply a little more thought to the problem of enabling people to drink without driving rather than imposing even tighter controls on our lives.
This article from the Daily Mail by Stephen Glover is also well worth reading.

Richard Littlejohn in the same paper is very scathing about Philip Hammond (it’s the fourth section down entitled “I thought Hammond was meant to be a Tory”). However, to be fair, it would not have been politically sensible for Hammond to have immediately rejected the idea out of hand – instead he has simply said that the government will take a good look at it. The show isn’t over until the fat lady sings.

Friday 18 June 2010

Clone zone

There’s a good piece here by Chris Maclean on the death of regional variation, specifically in terms of beer selection in the licensed trade but also more generally.

It certainly seems to me that the overall experience of drinking in pubs was in a way more satisfying when the vast majority of cask beers – even those produced by the national brewers – very much had a regional distribution, so in a different part of the country you would be presented with an entirely different range of beers. Contrast this with the current situation where in so many pubs you are faced with a random “perm any ten from six hundred” selection. You can still find this in areas of the country with a strong presence of independent family brewers – such as Harveys in East Sussex and Palmers in West Dorset, but in most places it is very much a thing of the past, and something valuable has been lost in the process.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Driving the problem underground

Some very sensible words here from Nick Bish of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers on the implications of cutting the drink-drive limit:

“The UK already has a robust enforcement regime with severe penalties and has among the lowest drink-drive deaths in Europe.

“Of course we want to make it better but major changes in the blood alcohol limits are not necessarily the way to do this; other countries have lower limits and yet a worse record.

“Social and peer pressure have convinced people that it is absolutely not acceptable to drink and drive. We should play to our strengths and reinforce the policing, the peer pressure and the public messaging.”

“Pubs are the best and safest places to drink. The report does recognise that pubs have successfully long promoted the “Don’t Drink & Drive’ message and implemented dozens of initiatives from Designated Driver to Get-you-home schemes.

“What worries me is that well-meaning regulations sometimes have unintended consequences and drive people away from drinking in a supervised environment where they are served by someone who is sober, towards the home or round at friends where there is no automatic duty of care regarding alcohol consumption.”
He is quite right to point out that cutting the limit is likely to have unintended consequences by moving more drinking out of pubs. The people who are in the habit of regularly driving to pubs and drinking a quantity of alcohol that they believe will put them in the 50-80mg range are overwhelmingly over 45 anyway. With the passage of time they will die off, and many will already have been deterred by the smoking ban, pub closures and the restaurantisation of many rural pubs. The younger generation tend to have much more of an all-or-nothing attitude to drinking and if they visit pubs by car will usually tend to have soft drinks even if they will have fifteen Blue WKDs on Friday night.

Indeed it could be argued that most of the supposed safety benefits of a lower limit have already been achieved anyway, and changing the law would simply have the effect of driving the problem underground. The time when you are most likely to be targeted as a drink-driving suspect is in the thirty seconds after driving off a pub car park, and if people are drinking in private houses and just blending into the general traffic they will be much harder to identify. And, unless the police are miraculously given more resources, every 50-80 offender they process will be another 80+ offender who is not apprehended.

Anyway, it’s reported in the Sun today (no web link) that:
Proposals to lower the drink-drive limit are likely to be thrown out by the coalition government, it emerged yesterday... A Westminster source told The Sun the new limit is “unlikely” to come into force.
Fingers crossed, then. It’s easy to write off the Sun as not being a serious newspaper, but on issues like this they do have a direct line to the government.

Vaulting into the lounge

Many years ago, the vast majority of pubs had a separate public bar (round here generally called a vault) and lounge, reflecting distinctively different groups of customers who used them. But, over the years, this division has steadily been swept away, reflecting a supposedly more democratic and egalitarian society, and a desire to use the space in pubs more flexibly. Nowadays, it’s relatively rare to find a pub that does have a completely separate vault, although some do have a plainer section at one end of their drinking space.

But that doesn’t mean that the customers have become homogenous too, and sometimes you end up with the former vault customers in effect colonising the lounge. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of boisterous behaviour and robust banter, and indeed in the past that “vault trade” was the heart of many pubs. But if that’s what you encounter when walking in through the front door in search of a quiet pint or a bite to eat, you may well think you’ve wandered into the wrong place.

In fact, there’s at least one pub I can think of that still has a perfectly serviceable separate vault, but where all the vault-type customers congregate on the lounge side, leaving the vault empty.

Setting aside separate sections of a pub for different groups of clientele is something that very often has a practical justification of keeping everyone happy and is nothing to do with antiquated class divisions. Many pubs, for example, would benefit from having a separation between areas where children were permitted, and areas that were adults-only. And, at present, more customers than you might think would appreciate a footie-free zone (as my local has).

Incidentally, are there any pubs around where beer prices are still lower in the public bar than in the lounge?

Wednesday 16 June 2010

It means you as well

Well, the North Review has finally been published, and, as feared, recommends reducing the UK drink-driving limit from 80mg to 50mg. While this is often viewed as something that would solely affect rural pubs, in reality it would have a noticeable impact in urban areas too.

Obviously within an urban area it’s possible for most people to easily reach a pub on foot or by public transport, but equally it is a matter of observable fact that many people do visit pubs by car and drink alcohol. Remember we are not talking about people going out for a protracted drinking session, but just having a couple of pints. In many cases these pub visits will be tagged on to another activity for which people are using their cars, and it is likely to be the pub that gets the chop, not the car trip. And, even if people are specifically going to and from the pub by car, relatively few of those trips will be directly substituted by public transport. Some may still go to the pub in the car and drink less, others won’t bother at all, some indeed may choose to break the new law, but the overall impact on trade points only one way, and that is downwards.

It’s also likely that many responsible people, mindful of the risks of the “morning after effect”, will drink less during the evening “on a school night”, which on some occasions may lead them not to bother going to the pub at all. Even within Greater Manchester, over 50% of workers commute by car as drivers.

The effect probably wouldn’t be sufficient to render any individual urban pub completely unviable, but, as we have seen with the smoking ban, a reduction in trade across the board over time does result in closures if there is less business in total to go round. So nobody should sit there smugly and think “it won’t affect me and my local pubs”. It will.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Death not cured

There has been an orgy of claims in the media that the smoking ban, in the year after its introduction, led to 1,200 fewer hospital admissions for heart attacks. But, as Pete Robinson points out here in his typically robust way, these claims are thoroughly dishonest:

This result is pure bunkum and a disgrace to true medical research. Anyone who inspects genuine NHS hospital admissions data will clearly see they have continued to fall at the same rate as the years before the smoking ban.
But since when was the inconvenient truth allowed to get in the way of the antismoking crusade?

Sunday 13 June 2010

Bargain of the year?

I called into Wetherspoon’s Calvert’s Court in Stockport for lunch today. It remains a dismal, dark, box-shaped place, although the Wetherspoon Ploughman’s at £4.49 touches all the bases of that particular dish and is good value for money. My only complaint is that the slice of pork pie, while very tasty, is too big in relation to the cheese. (Being a vegetarian, I suspect Tyson might disagree with its very presence)

But, on the bar was the superlative, hop-laden, 5.9% ABV Thornbridge Jaipur IPA, at a mere £1.80 a pint, the price of all their guest beers. With the 50p CAMRA discount coupon, it was an incredible £1.30. In many other places you would pay over £3 for that. Now, that is only 39p per unit. Who said minimum pricing wouldn’t affect the off-trade?

In my experience, the beer quality in the Calvert’s Court can be variable, but the Jaipur was in very good nick today – as was the similarly hoppy but lower-strength Oakham JHB. It’s still like drinking in a works canteen, though – as I’ve often said before, the general feel of Spoons’ pubs would be immensely improved by the introduction of extensive bench-type seating.

Double whammy for drinkers

The Sunday Telegraph reports that drinkers are likely to suffer a “double whammy” in the upcoming Budget, with the possibility of another 5% rise in duties, on top of the likely rise in VAT to as much as 20%. Obviously this would be bad news for pubs and drinkers, but it may not be good news for the Treasury either. As the report says, “the overall tax "take" from alcohol fell £730 million, from £15.117 in 2008 to £14.386 billion, in 2009”, suggesting we are already over the peak of the Laffer Curve when it comes to revenue from alcohol duties.

It will also be interesting to see if Osborne revives Labour’s plan for an across-the-board 10% increase in cider duty, and also if anything comes of the Tories’ promises to introduce a “supertax” on beers and ciders above 5.5% ABV, both of which contain the potential for significant negative fallout but little fiscal benefit.

Flat track bully

A pub was recently put forward for Pub of the Month in the local CAMRA branch. It seemed to be very much on the up, and the beer had certainly impressed on a recent Friday night at the end of a pub crawl. However, I had called in there since then at a quieter time and had a couple of pints that were both indifferent verging on poor. Beer quality is not something just for busy times, but needs to be maintained throughout the week. It is one thing to tap a cask and serve it quickly when the pub is heaving, but something else to have a sensible policy of stock rotation to match demand and to understand the rituals of hard and soft pegging so that the beer will still be in good nick when trade is much thinner, which nowadays is most of the week. The fact that a pub is quiet is no excuse for lacklustre beer.

This brought to mind an episode a few years ago when there was a free house in Stockport called the Stanley Arms – now long since closed so I can discuss it without attracting libel writs. It served, for the time, a very adventurous range of beers, and on Friday and Saturday nights it was busy and the beer was generally good. For this reason, it found its way into the Good Beer Guide, even though by Tuesday a customer would be confronted with twelve different varieties of Sarson’s Best. One Tuesday night, a friend and I made the effort to go down there and sampled four beers between us, none of which were remotely decent. It didn’t get in the Guide again, and indeed probably never should have done in the first place. I wonder how many other Guide stalwarts might be vulnerable to that kind of scrutiny.

A rare survival

Spotted recently, this original Allied Breweries corporate lettering on the tower of a monumental former Tetley’s pub in Litherland, north Liverpool. You don’t see much of that about nowadays. Surprisingly, unlike it would seem half the pubs in inner-city and suburban Liverpool, it’s still trading.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Measure for measure

One of CAMRA’s current campaigns is “Take it to the top”, which supports legislation to ensure that a pint of beer sold in a pub is a full liquid pint. However, there have been a number of concerns expressed within the Campaign that this wasn’t something that resonated with the drinking public, which led to me creating a poll asking the question “Are short measures of draught beer a major consumer problem in the UK?” Note that this was not asking whether people believed there should in principle be legislation on the issue. The poll has now closed, with 55 responses, and the results were:

Yes: 23 (42%)
No: 32 (58%)

So a clear, although not overwhelming, victory for those thinking it is not a major issue.

Now, I have to say I find myself in something of a cleft stick on this one. In principle, I firmly believe that this should be made law, and should apply to all drinks sold by volume. This would end the uncertainty once and for all, and if it had been done years ago we would be wondering what all the fuss had been about. Draught beer would have to be dispensed either into lined glasses or using metered pumps – although I suppose brim measure glasses could continue to be used for still ciders and gravity-dispensed beers with minimal head.

However, on the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be much general consumer discontent on the subject. You often hear people complaining about pub closures, or duty rates, but not short measures. Some pubs that have tried using oversize lined glasses have encountered a lot of consumer resistance to them – it seems there is a strong psychological attachment to the brimming pint glass. Very few people except members of CAMRA are ever seen asking for a top-up – have you ever seen a Guinness or John Smith’s Smooth drinker do that, even though they probably “lose out” more than cask drinkers?

There is also no longer, as there was thirty or even twenty years ago, a substantial number of pubs dispensing beer into oversized glasses which could be held up as an example for others to follow.

Another factor is that, realistically, you don’t suffer any meaningful loss from a marginally short pint. If you were in a country where 500ml (88% of a pint) was the standard beer measure, you would probably be quite happy with that on occasions when you would buy a pint here – you are just, in effect, buying “a large glass of beer” that happens to be denominated as a pint. Unless you are making a very calculated assessment of inebriation vs expenditure, getting a few short measures isn’t going to lead you to spend any more over the course of an evening. Contrast this with buying a gallon of petrol where, if you receive less than a gallon, you will inevitably have to buy more in the future.

So, while I continue to believe it’s a good idea in theory, I don’t really think there’s a lot of mileage in CAMRA or anyone else making full measures legislation a major campaigning priority.

Thursday 10 June 2010

I should Ko-Ko

The Morning Advertiser reports:

Brakspear Pub Company has reopened three pubs in its home town of Henley on Thames.

The Oxfordshire firm, which operates 145 pubs, says each of these three will have a different appeal.

The Bull in Bell Street, has been renamed Ko-Ko, and opens next month. New managers Ondine Carington and Nuno Rosado are positioning the site as an “exclusive” bar, which will serve sharing platters of food.
…bangs head on desk…

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Ashamed to be a pub

There’s a good piece here by Pete Brown decrying the growing tendency of operators of food-led pubs to deny that their outlets are pubs at all. But, on the other hand, is it not equally reprehensible for establishments that are restaurants in all but name still to capitalise on the history and associations of the pub?

Tuesday 8 June 2010

A real ale record

Beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones contributes regular pub reviews to the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph and also produces the stimulating Called to the Bar blog. He has now come up with an intriguing little volume called The Real Ale Record Book. I was kindly sent a copy of this to review, so here goes…

It’s a compact, landscape-format hardback retailing for a rather steep £9.99. Inside, there is a brief introduction to British beer styles and suggestions on how to taste beer, but the main bulk of the book is divided into sections for the various regions of the UK, highlighting five pubs and 21 beers for each area, and inviting the reader to tick each off when he has visited or sampled it, and add his own comments.

The pubs selected for the North-West are the Marble Arch, Manchester, Doctor Duncan’s in Liverpool, the Creek Inn at Peel in the Isle of Man, the Bhurtpore at Aston in Cheshire and the Watermill at Ings in the Lake District – all excellent in their own way but barely scratching the surface of the many fine pubs the region can offer. Local beers listed include Holts Mild, Hydes Original Bitter, J. W. Lees Bitter and Robinsons Old Tom, although there is a rather unfortunate error when he refers to Holts still sending beer out in “36-gallon hogsheads” (a hogshead is, of course, 54 gallons, a 36-gallon cask being a mere barrel).

40 pubs for the whole of the UK is very few, and given the wide geographical spread few people will be able to visit anywhere near all of them. Over the years, I have managed 13. To be honest, it’s hard to see who this book would appeal to, as any genuine enthusiast will probably already be aware of all of these pubs and beers anyway – after all, there’s far more information in the Good Beer Guide. On the other hand, the pubs and beers listed are definitely at the enthusiast end of the market, and so might prove a bit obscure for anyone not ready to graduate to the GBG.

It gives the impression of being a book commissioned by the publisher to fit in with a particular concept rather than springing from the mind of the author. Adrian himself describes it as an I-Spy book for grown-ups. Perhaps the best that can be said for it is that it might make a suitable Christmas stocking-filler for a beer-lover, or maybe a Father's Day present. But I can’t see many people spending their own money on it – and if someone was buying me a present I think I’d prefer four bottles of Old Crafty Hen for the same price.

I like Adrian’s writing and I don’t really feel this slight volume does justice to his talents.

I probably won’t be sent any more books for review after that one…

Monday 7 June 2010

Is it coz I is gay?

There’s been a lot of palaver about a group of people allegedly being refused service in a Punch Taverns pub on the grounds of being gay. Now, obviously nobody should be turned away purely because of their sexual orientation, but I can’t help thinking there’s more to this story than meets the eye. The customers concerned were from the Labour Party’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) group. Might it be possible that some of them have a teeny chip on their shoulder and go around looking for offence where none is intended? Just because someone is gay doesn’t mean they’re incapable of behaving in an offensive and obnoxious manner. According to the report, “the incident stemmed from a customer taking offence at an LGBT banner.” It would be interesting to know what that particular banner said. And a licensee might entirely reasonably feel uneasy about a large and boisterous group suddenly descending on his pub regardless of who they were.

Sunday 6 June 2010

It won’t lie down

Less than a month after the general election, and the issue of cutting the drink-drive limit raises its ugly head again. In fairness, all that is being reported is the submission of a report by Sir Peter North that was commissioned by the previous government, and there is no guarantee that the coalition intend to implement it.

Many Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs represent rural constituencies and their voters might not react too kindly to proposals to kill off the social life of their communities and impose the gloom of the Scandinavian nanny state on them.

And it would be interesting to see Dave Cameron going round all the country pubs in his rural Oxfordshire constituency of Witney explaining why he thinks they should be put out of business.

There is an excellent post on this subject on Al Jahom’s Final Word to which I can add very little. It is good to see opposition to this misconceived plan, which back in 1997 often hid its light under a bushel, getting a good airing in the blogosphere.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Doctors will ask, and patients will lie

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence are now proposing that GPs should routinely quiz patients about their alcohol consumption during consultations. If you have gone to the doctor’s with a rash or a sprained wrist it will be very tempting simply to respond “none of your business!”

It has often been noted that men are much less likely to visit GPs than women, resulting in major health problems often being diagnosed too late. Surely if they are going to be subjected to intrusive and patronising inquisitions they will be even more inclined to grin and bear it and not bother making an appointment. Far from improving health, this is going to erect another barrier between doctors and patients.

This is not to say that some people do genuinely have alcohol-related health problems, but surely questions like this should only be asked if it is relevant to the condition being treated, and not as part of a general attempt to investigate and control individual lifestyles.

In the comments it is suggested that GPs routinely give patients annual checkups, something that in reality happens only in Cloud Cuckoo Land – back on the ground it is hard enough to get an appointment even if you are at death’s door.

The article also perpetuates one of the favourite Big Lies of the anti-drink lobby, that alcoholic drinks have become cheaper in real terms. How many more times does it have to be repeated that alcohol only appears cheaper in comparison with incomes because people have on average become better off?