Tuesday 27 September 2011

Light begins to dawn?

The Morning Advertiser reports that CAMRA has called upon the government to revise the official advice on daily alcohol units.

In its submission to the Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into alcohol guidelines, the consumer organisation argued that the current guidelines fail to take into account the latest medical evidence.

CAMRA also claims that the Government is failing to adequately communicate the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.
Is this a belated recognition that more has to be done to resist the tide of pseudo-scientific anti-alcohol claptrap, especially when the underlying message put across by the anti-drink lobby is increasingly moving towards “there is no safe level of alcohol”?

It is significant that CAMRA also said:
The guidelines seem to portray the recommended allowance as an absolute upper limit, which is not the case. There is, in fact, a wide gap between the safe recommended limit and the point where drinking will have a severe health impact.
That is one of the key problems with the current advice. The guidelines themselves are not bad advice as such, except in terms of needless over-caution, but it often seems to be assumed that exceeding them leads to falling off a cliff of risk. This is on a par with suggesting that only eating four portions of fruit and veg a day will inevitably lead to contracting scurvy.

It also results in skewed priorities in public policy, with health campaigns often giving the impression of trying to make responsible people drinking 30 or 40 units a week feel guilty, while in effect washing their hands of those drinking at genuinely dangerous levels of 100 units a week or more.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Psst, wanna buy a pub?

The Pollyannas of the beer blogosphere are always telling us that, despite the gloomy headline numbers, there are still great prospects in the pub trade if you get the formula right. So here’s a golden opportunity for you – the Nag’s Head in the large south Cheshire village of Wheelock.

It’s an attractive freestanding pub by a road junction at the south end of the village, which appeared in the 2010 Good Beer Guide. Currently closed, but not yet boarded up. Maybe a bit tatty at the moment, but nothing a lick of paint couldn’t sort out. There’s no shortage of houses nearby, so plenty of potential walk-in trade. It’s a fairly prosperous part of the country – certainly no run-down urban wasteland – and not too far from Crewe which is a major centre of population. Surely a great chance to mix a cask-led local with a bit of destination dining trade, or maybe a showpiece tied house for a local micro-brewery. And currently available, freehold and completely free of tie, at a knock-down £125,000.

The estate agents’ fact sheet can be seen here.

In practice, for any budding pub entrepreneur, there are plenty of pubs on the market in promising enough locations at very reasonable prices. But there’s little evidence of people being prepared to put their money where their mouths are.

Let a thousand flowers bloom

My local branch of Tesco has recently started selling two highly-regarded US beers – Goose Island IPA and Brooklyn Lager. Now, I can’t really say that American craft beers are my thing – those titchy 355ml bottles don’t help, and Germany tends to be my import source of choice. But I’ve read good things about both of them in the blogosphere, and the examples I had of each were very enjoyable.

However, it raises the question of where the demand has come from for Tesco, not some exotic specialist retailer, to stock these beers. They’re both filtered and brewery-conditioned, so not something CAMRA would directly champion, and indeed I struggle to recall any mention of either in a CAMRA publication. Neither is there any Campaign for US Craft Beer trumpeting their virtues, nor any newspaper columnist banging the drum for them. And how many of Tesco’s customers read beer blogs? It’s a kind of subtle percolation of word-of-mouth that has brought these beers to a mainstream supermarket in a Northern industrial town.

There has been a lot of debate recently as to whether CAMRA should widen its remit to support non-real “craft” beers such as these and their British counterparts. In response to this, two new organisations have been set up to promote a more wide-ranging and inclusive approach to quality beer - Craft Beer UK, and CAMRGB, the Campaign for Really Good Beer. There’s a long comment thread about this on Zak Avery’s blog.

However, do these beers really need any formally constituted body to lobby for them? This change is happening anyway, as more and more of the beer market slips away to the off-trade, where CAMRA wields minimal influence, and non-real “quality” beers slowly but surely make more inroads in pubs and bars. The growth in the appreciation of wine in the UK over the years hasn’t needed any Campaign for Good Wine.

Earlier this year, I wrote here:
"The result is that there is a large and growing territory in which CAMRA and “beer enthusiasm in Britain” no longer overlap. This in future may well become a problem if potential recruits with a wide-ranging interest in beer are put off by the fact that the organisation ignores and indeed sometimes denigrates many of the brews they appreciate and enjoy drinking. In the beer landscape of twenty years hence, CAMRA could have become an irrelevance."
Now, I see no reason why CAMRA needs in any formal way to embrace “craft beer”, and indeed have argued in the past that such a move would be fraught with pitfalls. But, as well as championing “real ale”, it needs to be much more accommodating in being prepared to accept merit in beers that fall outside that remit. In practice, many (probably most) members already take that view. In the coming years it is going to be a major strategic challenge to come to terms with the concept of a landscape where a passion for “real ale” is only one of a number of overlapping “beer enthusiasms”. To say that Goose Island IPA is “processed muck”, or “not worth drinking”, or even “nothing to do with us, mate” is not a credible stance.

Friday 23 September 2011

Taste the difference

On a couple of blogs, I’ve made the comment that, thirty years ago, food in pubs was often more varied and innovative than it is now. This has been met with incredulity and people saying “from what I remember it was absolute rubbish”.

So it’s worth trying to explain what I mean. I ought to start with an important caveat – I freely admit to being a somewhat picky eater, with a number of irrational dislikes, so I don’t remotely claim that what I say about food is in any way authoritative or applicable to the general population. In particular I can’t stand the bad side of “traditional English” – the gristly meat, lumpy gravy, tasteless spuds and soggy veg.

In the early 80s I was living in a bedsit in Surrey where the facilities for cooking for myself were somewhat restricted, so I had a strong incentive to get out round the pubs to find something decent to eat. However, I would say my experiences then were not dramatically different from what I found in other parts of the country when on holiday or visiting friends and relatives. While Surrey has a prosperous Home Counties image at least back then there was no shortage of surprisingly down-to-earth pubs.

Pub food was more in its infancy, and to a large extent licensees were left to their own devices. Even in managed pubs, food was usually the licensee’s perk. The chain dining pub was virtually unknown. There was a huge disparity amongst what was on offer – some was dreadful, some was superb, and so going in new pubs could be a voyage of discovery. It could well be described as a wide variety of simple, informal food, more food for drinkers than food for a destination meal out.

You were much more likely to see substantial snacks alongside main meals, for example Cumberland sausage with crusty bread or smoked mackerel with bread and butter. The White Hart at Chobham did “Mushrooms Bistingo” – breaded mushrooms with garlic mayonnaise and bread – which I still remember now.

Quite a few pubs offered extensive cold buffets, something you never see nowadays. The one at the Bull’s Head in King’s Norton, Birmingham, particularly sticks in my mind. And you were much more likely to get a proper Ploughman’s than the cheese salad with a roll that often passes for it nowadays.

Back in those days, many pubs served pizzas, which at the time were in the vanguard of the reaction against old-fashioned stodge. I remember having excellent pizzas, for example, at the Horse & Groom in Merrow near Guildford. While often derided nowadays, pizzas still form the core of the menu at fashionable restaurant chains like Pizza Express and Ask. But when did you last see a pizza on the menu in a pub?

And some pubs made a speciality of particular national cuisines from around the world. I remember one featuring Austrian and Balkan dishes, and several with a Mexican-themed menu, again something you don’t see now. The modern focus on locally-sourced ingredients, while laudable in some ways, tends to restrict the range of dishes that is offered.

Thirty years ago, there was certainly less pub food around. Fewer pubs did food overall, and it was harder to find food in the evenings and Sundays. Some pub food was dire, although that’s still the case today. But there was more variety in terms of approach and styles of presentation, and more of a sense of pubs trying new and different things to see if they worked rather than just settling into a comfort zone. And, across the spectrum of pubs, I undoubtedly found it easier then than now to find food that appealed to me on a personal level.

Thursday 22 September 2011

A tavern in every town

Not so long ago, a comment was made on the CAMRA web forum that the Good Beer Guide will “increasingly give you the local equivalent of the Kelham Island Tavern. It will not simply tell you where to find good real ale.” The Kelham Island Tavern being a two-time winner of CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year award and a classic example of the multi-handpump specialist beer pub.

I was recently browsing through the entries in the 2012 edition for the county of Cheshire, an area I know reasonably well. It was very striking that a large majority of the pubs listed seemed to be ones where a range of rotating guest beers and “Locale” accreditation were regarded as important criteria. The tied houses of the family brewers – Robinson’s, Hydes, Holts, Lees and Samuel Smith’s – were conspicuous by their absence. Indeed there are only four listed out of the 80-odd pubs for the entire county, while, across the border, there are four out of eight in Stockport.

Well-known classics such as the Harrington Arms at Gawsworth and the Hawk at Haslington are nowhere to be found. Now, I wasn’t privy to the selection process and there may well be very good reasons such as change of licensee why these pubs and others like them were not included. But it does seem to reflect a somewhat one-eyed approach to pub selection where those that keep a limited range of beers consistently well do not get a look-in. Is there now a single Sam Smith’s pub with its solitary cask beer in the Guide, even though many of them are highly characterful establishments that keep that one beer in excellent nick? There isn’t even one in their home town of Tadcaster.

If I was visiting a part of the country where family brewers still had a strong representation, such as Palmers in West Dorset, I would want the Good Beer Guide to tell me where I could find their beers in the best condition (which, to be fair, it does). I’d also expect it to point me to other pubs that provided a contrast, but if it majored on establishments offering Pedigree, Bombardier and London Pride I might feel a little short-changed. It should also be pointed out that many free houses settle on two or three beers that suit their regular customers and are not always changing them around.

Yes, the pub scene is changing, but as well as the multi-beer pubs, a guidebook concentrating on beer quality surely also needs to give due recognition to the more traditional two or three beer establishments that for long were the backbone of what CAMRA stood for.

I think locally it does, but I do get the impression that more and more branches are putting choice ahead of consistent quality when making their pub selections. The risk is that this approach will alienate the non-member buyers of the Guide, many of whom will be primarily looking for a good pint, combined with decent food and/or congenial surroundings, rather than the widest absolute choice of beer.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

More where that came from

Some more interesting snippets from the BBPA Statistical Handbook...

2010 average price of a pint of beer in the UK off-trade:

Supermarkets: £1.02 (= £3.16 for 4x440ml)
Off-licences and convenience stores: £1.29 (= £4.00)
Average: £1.08 (= £3.35)

2010 average price of a pint of beer in the UK on-trade: £2.69

Average number of alcohol units consumed per week by social class:

Managerial and professional: 14.6
Intermediate: 13.4
Routine and manual: 10.6
Average: 12.5

(thus giving the lie to the common notion that the poor drink more)

Average strength of beer produced in the UK:

1900: 1054.9 OG
1910: 1053.0 OG
1918: 1030.6 OG (low point during WW1)
1920: 1042.6 OG
1930: 1042.5 OG
1940: 1038.5 OG
1946: 1032.6 OG (1940s low point, actually after the end of the war)
1950: 1037.0 OG
1960: 1037.4 OG
1970: 1036.9 OG
1980: 1037.3 OG
1990: 1037.7 OG
2000: 4.17% ABV
2010: 4.22% ABV

In fact, from 1950 to the end of the original gravity system in 1992, the average OG was always within the range 1036.9-1038.2, although this masked the long-term decline of mild and an offsetting reduction in the strength of bitter.

In 1900, there were 34.3 million barrels of beer produced, as opposed to 28.0 in 2010, at a considerably higher strength, and for a much smaller population.

Monday 19 September 2011

We are all gastro now

It was reported recently that the Good Food Guide had banished the term “gastropub”. However, this is not because there has been a swing back to a wet-led model, but because the upmarket dining pub has become so commonplace that it no longer needs a special term to distinguish it. In the more prosperous parts of the country, like large swathes of Cheshire, it’s getting increasingly difficult to find any other kind of pub. In a sense “we are all gastropubs now”.

So, in view of this so-called pub food revolution, I thought I would ask blog readers how often they ate out in pubs in their daily lives when not on holiday. The results didn’t really bear out the received wisdom, with 65% replying either “very occasionally” or “never”, and only 13% saying they did it at least weekly. Even accepting that there is a proportion of smoking ban refuseniks, these results certainly don’t show a huge enthusiasm for eating in pubs from a population who typically probably visit pubs more than average.

Now, I have to admit that in some respects I am a rather picky eater, so I am reluctant to pontificate on the general subject of food, whether in pubs or elsewhere. But it has to be said that a lot of pub food is extremely dull and uninspiring, and if you want something interesting and imaginative you are far more likely to find it in a restaurant or a bistro/wine bar type establishment.

This perhaps merits a more detailed post, but it is certainly my recollection that, thirty years ago, there was much more variety and experimentation in pub food than there is now. So often today, pub food has settled down to a predictable, standardised menu, whether exemplified by the steak and kidney pie in the family dining outlet or the braised lamb shank in the would-be gastropub.

There’s also a posting on this subject on Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile blog.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Be careful what you wish for

I have made a few posts recently about the reduced rate of duty for beers of 2.8% ABV or below which is being introduced from October 1st. Several commenters have said this concession would be much more meaningful if extended to beers of 3.5%, and indeed CAMRA have argued for this.

That’s not going to happen because of the potential loss of revenue. However, such a move could prove to be a double-edged sword. I'm old enough to remember when there was very little draught beer available in the UK (or any kind of beer really) over about OG 1040, so I can imagine how a 3.5% cut-off point might be tolerable. In the days when it was brewed at Henley, the 3.4% Brakspear's Bitter was one of my favourite beers, and there were plenty of other flavoursome beers at that strength.

A pint at 3.5% would save 29p in duty and VAT over one at 4%, which would translate to at least 50p at the bar. That would make the 4% category completely unviable. Inevitably, the big hitters like Carling, John Smith’s and Guinness would be brought down to that level, along with all the well-known cask “ordinary bitters”.

It could easily end up imposing a ceiling on the strength of mainstream beers, with only a small number of speciality products available at higher strengths. It could even effectively kill off draught beer at a higher strength – the 5% pint would incur a surcharge of 41p over the 3.5% one, and to choose to buy one in the pub would brand you as a bit of a pisshead.

Of course the absolute level of duty is too high, but in principle the current British beer duty system that directly links the level of duty to the amount of alcohol is a sensible one. Introducing arbitrary cut-off points for higher tiers of duty will inevitably distort the market and may well end up having undesirable and unintended consequences.

On the other hand, as Cooking Lager argues, the wide range of beer strengths may serve to sow confusion in consumers’ minds. Spirits are effectively all either 40% or 37.5% (which is the difference between a 4% beer and a 3.75% beer, i.e. something you wouldn’t really notice), and the overall range in table wine strengths is no more than the difference between a 4% and a 5% beer. You don’t hear constant calls for the strength of spirits or wine to be reduced, and maybe if beer was all the same modest strength it would to some extent insulate the category from criticism. Not an argument I really agree with, but an interesting point nonetheless.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Figuring it out

I was recently kindly sent a complimentary copy of the British Beer & Pub Association’s annual Statistical Handbook. This may come across as dry reading, but it contains a wealth of information about the brewing industry and the overall drinks market.

It shows that in 2010, the UK had the second highest beer and wine duties in the EU (only Finland being ahead) and the fourth highest spirits duties. UK per capita alcohol consumption was well below the EU median level, and less than France, Germany or Spain. But you’d never imagine that if you listened to Don Shenker and Sir Ian Gilmore.

No doubt my friend Cooking Lager will be pleased by the breakdown of the relative market share of ale and stout vs lager:

1970: Ale and stout: 98.0; Lager:   2.0
1980: Ale and stout: 69.3; Lager: 30.7
1990: Ale and stout: 48.6; Lager: 51.4
2000: Ale and stout: 36.4; Lager: 63.6
2010: Ale and stout: 24.6; Lager: 75.4

One of the most telling tables is the one breaking down on-trade draught beer sales by category, from which I have created the extract shown below.

From 1980 to 2010, cask ale lost over three-quarters of its volume, and keg ale and stout over four-fifths. Even lager, although greatly increasing its market share, lost volume in absolute terms over that period.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

The lite touch

The Morning Advertiser reports that, in response to the duty cut on beers of 2.8% and below from 1 October, local brewer J. W. Lees are launching two new 2.8% keg beers, a lager called Golden Lite and a smooth beer called Greengate Lite. This reflects what I have said before, that insofar as this measure has any effect, it will be in the keg and canned beer sectors. The weaker a cask beer is, the shorter its shelf life once the cask is broached, and I simply can’t see 2.8% real ales having sufficient turnover. So much for the “People’s Pint”.

And I expect the big boys are waiting in the wings with the likes of Carling Lite and John Smith’s Extra Lite which, if the category takes off at all, will come to dominate it.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Tipping point approaches

According to the latest BBPA Statistical Handbook, the point is rapidly approaching at which British off-trade beer sales exceed those in the on-trade.
The proportion of beer sales in the on-trade against the off-trade fell last year at the joint fastest rate seen across the past decade, and it’s “only a matter of time” before most sales come from shops.

That’s according to the British Beer & Pub Association’s (BBPA) new Statistical Handbook, which says the on-trade accounted for 50.9% of beer sales by volume last year, 2.3 percentage points lower than in 2009.

The year-on-year percentage fall between 2009/2010 was only matched in the past 10 years in 2007/2008, when it fell from 55.9% to 53.6%.

It follows a decade of steady decline in the on-trade’s proportion of beer sales — the on-trade accounted for 67.4% of sales in 2000.
It may well come in the year to the end of June 2012, following stocking up of beer prior to England’s participation in the European Football Championship, and drowning of sorrows after the inevitable limp exit.

And I wonder why 2007-2008 showed a record decline in the proportion of on-trade beer sales. What could have happened to cause that?

Canadian beer blogger Alan McLeod isn’t too bothered about it.

Afternoon delight

A trend that I’ve remarked on before is that more and more pubs, if they don’t have a strong food trade, are no longer opening at lunchtimes during the week. I recently spotted that one of my local pubs in a suburban shopping centre had started opening at 2 pm during the week, with 12 noon reserved for Saturdays and Sundays.

Now I don’t expect any pub to open if the level of trade doesn’t make it worthwhile, although in this case it would be helpful if the sign was actually outside the front door rather than inside it, where it can’t be seen when the pub is closed. But it’s interesting to speculate on what are the dynamics of trade that mean the traditional lunchtime session doesn’t justify opening, but there’s enough business during the afternoon which has always tended to be regarded as a fallow period. Most pubs that drop lunchtime opening tend to keep their doors shut until 4 pm at the earliest. One theory is that televised racing has something to do with it.

Sunday 11 September 2011

After the gold rush

Writing about High Strength Beer Duty, I mentioned that Gold Label barley wine would probably be the biggest selling British-brewed ale to be affected. So I thought I would try some while I still had the chance.

This beer was originally brewed by Tennant’s of Sheffield (no relation to Tennent’s of Glasgow), who were later taken over by Whitbread. For many years it was “Whitbread Gold Label Barley Wine”, and was widely sold in pubs in nip bottles. It was advertised as being “as strong as a double whisky”, a slogan that would not be acceptable in these politically correct times. I think in those days it was a formidable 10.5% ABV. It has now, with the other remnants of the once-proud Whitbread empire, passed into the ownership of international brewing giant InBev, although there is no mention of it on their website.

It’s now 8.5% ABV, with four 330ml cans selling for £4.97 in Tesco, which is 44p per unit. Not by any means the cheapest route to oblivion. In the same store, 4x500ml cans of Carlsberg Special Brew were £6.52, which is 36p per unit.

It comes in what must be one of the most old-fashioned looking cans on the market, which gives the impression of having scarcely changed since the mid-80s. It’s described as “Gold Label. Very Strong Special Beer. The No. 1 Barley Wine”. There are no “health” or “sensible drinking” messages whatsoever. I would imagine its main customers are old grannies and codgers, as it has zero “craft beer” credibility and does not score too highly on “bangs per buck”.

This sample was lightly fridge chilled and poured into an oversize 330ml Belgian beer glass.

There’s little aroma apart from a faint whiff of alcohol. The beer is a dark brown colour, similar to the darker bitters, but without any hint of redness. It forms a shallow but persistent head with few bubbles visible in the body, although there’s a distinct carbonic tinge once you sip it.

The beer itself has an obvious alcohol warmth, but is surprisingly dry, with a lingering aftertaste. It also has quite a full malt body – it’s not one of those thin beers that have alcohol but little else. Overall, it’s fairly subtle and restrained in character, but you can imagine it being very soothing on a cold winter’s night. A blind tasting alongside Robinson’s Old Tom would be very interesting.

I can’t, honestly, tell whether this is actually adjunct-ridden muck or some kind of remarkable authentic survivor from a past age of brewing, although I suspect it still retains a hint of the latter. If it was in some fancy craft beer bottle selling for £1.89, would it be looked upon differently? The packaging surely has a significant influence on one’s perceptions of a beer. Maybe InBev have missed a trick by not “doing a White Shield” with it, as an 8.5% barley wine is now a great rarity on the British bottled beer scene.

I’d be amazed if, come 1 October, this isn’t reduced to 7.5% ABV and loses some of its remaining distinctiveness.

Also see this post from a couple of years ago. Surprisingly, it’s about the same price now as it was then. Plus this review on Hywel’s Big Log, which although three years old shows the current can design.

Saturday 10 September 2011

I have a cunning plan

In the 2012 Good Beer Guide, editor Roger Protz offers the following five-point plan to “Save the British Pub”. But, sadly, on most of them he is very much barking up the wrong tree. My comments are shown in italics.

1. Reduce beer taxes

Yes, completely agreed (and all other alcohol duties at the same time). Even though high duties proportionately affect off-trade sales more than those in pubs, a regime in which alcoholic drinks as a whole are expensive encourages people to be more price-conscious and seek out the cheapest options.

2. Reduce VAT on the hospitality industry

Highly unlikely in the current economic climate, and wrong in principle. Government shouldn’t be in the business of giving tax concessions to lame-duck industries anyway, and much of the hospitality trade is actually in rude health. It would have the effect of subsidising McDonalds and Stella much more than real ale. It would be richly ironic if the government ended up doing it, but for “health” reasons excluded alcoholic drinks.

3. Tackle the power of the supermarkets

A complete canard that is pandering to the divide and rule tactics of the anti-drink lobby. There has been a long-term shift from on- to off-trade consumption for a variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with price. Supermarkets follow consumer demand; they cannot create it out of thin air. And making off-trade alcohol more expensive does not give people a single extra penny to spend in pubs, not to mention the encouragement it gives to the black market.

4. Tighten planning laws to stop the closure of viable pubs

While I’m sure it is true that a few profitable pubs have been closed by unscrupulous developers, I don’t see that has made any difference to the overall demand for pubs. If you want to open a new pub, it’s not exactly impossible to get planning permission to do so, and in most areas there’s no shortage of boarded-up pubs available at knock-down prices.

5. Give those who run pubs more freedom to buy beer ‘free of tie’

Given that half the pubs in the UK do not sell real ale, and it accounts for only 15% of on-trade beer sales, even if successful that’s only going to scratch the surface. Most pub company licensees already have access to a fairly wide range of beers, and the fact that they can’t get hold of a few more can’t have more than a negligible impact on total trade. In any case, the giant pub companies such as Punch and Enterprise are following a discredited business model and are visibly disintegrating before our eyes. And why should brewers such as Greene King and Marston’s be forced to offer a free-of-tie option to their own tenants?

So one out of five isn’t a very impressive score, really. And the elephant in the room that really needs to be at the top of the list isn’t even mentioned. To paraphrase Chris Snowdon’s comment currently quoted in the blog header, “If I see one more self-proclaimed beer lover who supported the smoking ban crying crocodile tears about the state of the pub industry, I may throw up.”

As well as this, surely stopping government funding for anti-drink organisations masquerading as charities such as Alcohol Concern, and reining back the incessant tide of hysterical official anti-drink propaganda in favour of a concentration on genuine problem drinkers, also need to be given a high priority.

So my five-point plan would be:

  1. Amend or scrap the smoking ban
  2. Reduce alcohol duties
  3. Stop government funding of anti-drink fakecharities
  4. Turn down the wick on alcohol-related public health advice, and concentrate on problem drinkers
  5. Return the emphasis in drink-drive safety messages to “Stay Low” rather than “Have None for the Road”
It’s not going to “save” pubs, but it might well slow their long-term decline.

Friday 9 September 2011

On Golden Hen

Old Golden Hen is a brand extension of Old Speckled Hen, and is Greene King’s attempt to gain a share of the growing market for refreshing golden ales. I recall them producing a beer in this style a few years back called Triumph whose performance in the market rather belied its name.

I haven’t so far come across the cask version, but the bottles were included in Tesco’s 3 for £4 offer so I thought I’d give it a try. It comes in the same clear, square-shouldered bottle as that used for Old Speckled Hen. Some decry the use of clear bottles as tending to lead to beer becoming “lightstruck” and developing off-flavours, but I can’t say it’s something I’ve often noticed.

The label describes it as a “refreshing crafted beer” and says “This light golden beer delivers both flavour and refreshment. Brewed using the finest pale malts and the rare Galaxy hop to give a light golden colour, subtle tropical fruit notes and a deliciously smooth finish”. The strength of both cask and bottled versions is 4.1% ABV.

There’s a very distinct “New World” tropical fruit aroma as soon as you take off the cap. It pours an appealing mid-gold colour with a slight orangey-red tone that distinguishes it from the straw colour of classic lagers. There’s a fairly restrained carbonation and a thick initial head that persists to some extent all the way down the glass.

Despite initial impressions, it’s far from being a hop-bomb and indeed is rightly described as a subtle beer. The grapefruit and mango notes remain evident and, while overall fairly light in body there is, as with all Greene King beers, a solid malt underpinning, together with a hint of caramel. It could be regarded as an undemanding introduction to New World hop flavours.

It’s a beer that needs to be served chilled and if too warm will come across as distinctly underwhelming.

In summary, a decent enough beer that successfully avoids having the characteristic Greene King house character. It’s not something I’d go out of my way to drink, but if in good condition could be an enjoyable, refreshing summer pint.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Opposite effect

Alcohol Concern’s recent weasel words in support of pubs have highlighted again the claim that, in contrast to drinking at home, pubs provide a “controlled drinking environment”. Now, that’s another argument, but it’s worth saying it’s one I can’t remember ever hearing until ten or twelve years ago when pubs were already clearly losing substantial market share to the off-trade. Thirty years ago, those who got drunk overwhelmingly did so in pubs and clubs.

However, the stigmatisation of drinking promoted by the likes of Alcohol Concern is ironically likely to result in exactly the opposite of what they claim to want. The more that alcohol consumption becomes socially unacceptable, the less people are going to do it in the public sphere where it is obvious to others, and the more it will retreat into the home. I have mentioned before how a significant change in the pub scene over the past twenty years is how the solid middle classes are much less likely to drink in pubs than they used to be. Yet in how many comfortable homes is the question frequently asked “shall we crack open a second bottle of wine tonight?”, often by people who would consider going to the pub and drinking five pints of bitter distinctly disreputable.

Realistically, it is going to take a huge weight of public policy initiatives to bring about much reduction in British alcohol consumption over and above that which happens naturally from social change. Finland, which has some of the most draconian alcohol control laws in Europe, and even higher duties than the UK, still drinks only 17% less than we do on official figures, and only 6% less once unofficial sources are taken into account. But that drinking will increasingly be done out of the public gaze.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Granny, what big eyes you’ve got

I see our old friend Don Shenker has been at it again, praising pubs for “improving community life”.

It’s hard to top what I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago:

* * * * * *

With the pub trade under so much pressure nowadays, you could be forgiven for thinking that pubs would welcome any friend they could get. So step forward Don Shenker, chief executive of anti-drink pressure group and fake charity Alcohol Concern. He says he wants to work alongside CAMRA to look at ways of helping well-run pubs to survive. Unbelievably, he says Alcohol Concern is “not an anti-pub organisation. What we are in favour of is responsible drinking, retailing and selling of alcohol.”

He went on to say “We share the concern around the high degree of pub closures in the country and want to see protection for pubs that are well run. I really want to support the community pubs. It’s important to support a pub where alcohol is being regulated; the problem with drinking at home is it isn’t regulated.”

This is all a bit rich coming from an organisation that has opposed every liberalisation of licensing laws over the past three decades, championed every piece of anti-drink and anti-pub legislation going and consistently campaigned for higher alcohol taxes and prices and a drastic reduction in overall alcohol consumption. You have to wonder whether he choked on his sarsaparilla as he said this.

Even in the best-run community pub, you will routinely see people drinking enough alcohol to qualify as a “binge” in the government’s description, some of whom will end up getting boisterous, or even a bit “worse for wear”. It is hard to see how this conforms to Shenker’s view of “responsible retailing”. And if every customer stuck to Alcohol Concern’s recommended maximum of a pint and a half per sitting it is difficult to imagine many pubs staying in business.

Of course, the real nature of his agenda was exposed when he went on urge pubs to offer smaller servings of drinks, and to lower the alcohol content of drinks so people can consume the same volume but take less alcohol. I'm sure people will be flocking down to the Dog & Duck to drink thimblefuls of watered-down beer.

In reality, Shenker loathes pubs and all they stand for with every fabric of his being. He would like to see as many as possible closed down and the few that remained turned into anodyne, emasculated eating houses. Anyone seriously concerned about the future of pubs should avoid at all costs being seduced by his weasel words.

* * * * * *

And it’s disappointing to see Julian Grocock of SIBA thinking that some “common ground” can be found with Alcohol Concern. Ultimately, there is no appeasing these people, no accommodation that can be reached. If you sit down to dine with the wolf, however nice his smile might be, you will eventually find yourself on the menu.

Sunday 4 September 2011

The numbers game

The Observer reports on some “research” from Alcohol Concern claiming to demonstrate that there’s a direct link between the number of off-licences in an area and the amount of underage drinking. This may well be true, but I’d like to see the underlying figures before reaching any conclusions. It’s hard to see which is cause and which effect – the number of off-licences will inevitably to a large extent reflect the demand for alcohol in a particular area, not create it out of thin air, and areas where adult drinking is more prevalent are likely to also have more underage drinking. Can we also be certain that the results weren’t skewed by the inclusion of areas with a high Muslim population who are not, by and large, going to be buying or drinking much booze?

Predictably, they go on to use these findings to call for a reduction in the absolute number of off-licences. Now even I wouldn’t exactly die in a ditch to defend the right of every two-bit corner shop to sell alcohol. But to stop it would tend to damage independent retailers and play into the hands of Tesco, and could encourage corruption if councillors were responsible for allocating a fixed number of licences.

This is a typical neo-Prohibitionist tactic, to use something apparently reasonable, especially one involving the welfare of children, to ratchet their agenda along another notch or two. One of their key aims is a quantitative control on licences, and this will help achieve that. Restricting the “availability” of alcohol, along with “affordability” and advertising, is one of the Three Prongs of Neo-Prohibitionism.

It is also pointed out in the comments that much of the alcohol consumed by under-18s is bought for them by older family members, so clamping down on underage sales will have no effect. And, of course, letting your 15-year-old son or daughter have a can of Carling or a glass of Lambrini isn’t illegal. Yet...

Saturday 3 September 2011

Park bench prohibitionism

Another interesting article in September’s What’s Brewing is one by Roger Protz entitled ‘Park bench’ threat to classic beer styles, which looks at how the introduction of High Strength Beer Duty, aimed at “tramp juice” products like Carlsberg Special Brew, is likely to harm high-quality traditional beers. It’s good to see the paper including something serious and analytical rather than the usual diet of vacuous puff-pieces.

In practice, the impact will be fairly limited. There are only 16 draught real ales listed in the Good Beer Guide that will fall foul of it, plus 21 bottle-conditioned beers. That’s a drop in the ocean, and overall beers over 7.5% probably account for less than half of one percent of total real ale sales. I’m not aware of any keg product (apart, maybe, from something by BrewDog) that would be affected. The biggest-selling British packaged ale brand that will be hit must be InBev’s 8.5% ABV Gold Label barley wine, originally brewed by Whitbread. Probably the biggest selling “quality” beer will be the 8.5% Belgian import Duvel.

An obvious reaction to the move will be to reduce the strength of beers to come below the cut-off point. It’s hard to see the likes of Special Brew not doing this, given that it would result in a saving in duty and VAT of a whacking £1.60 for a four-pack. For some real ales, like Thornbridge’s 7.7% St Petersburg Russian Imperial Stout, it also seems like a no-brainer.

On the other hand, Stockport brewer Robinson’s have no plans to do this for their iconic 8.5% Old Tom:
John Robinson of Robinson’s of Stockport, producer of the legendary Old Tom, said they’d been brewing the beer since 1838 and wouldn’t change it now. “We did brew a trial at 7.5 per cent but it didn’t taste anything like Old Tom,” he said. “We may brew a 7.5 per cent beer and we haven’t decided what to call it, but Old Tom won’t be brewed to a lower strength.”
However, given that the new tax will increase the base cost by 26p a pint, it may well sound the death-knell of Old Tom as a draught beer in pubs, although the bottled version is more likely to survive.

Taken in isolation, this move won’t do all that much to change the British beer market, and will leave the cask beer drinker virtually unscathed. But it is a classic example of the salami-slicing approach to regulation, and I would not be at all surprised if in future the threshold for HSBD was lowered. Remember you read it here first.

(What’s Brewing is available for download to members of CAMRA. If any non-members would like a transcript of this article, please drop me an e-mail)