Tuesday 28 February 2012

Hate campaign breeds hatred shock

One academic has boldly put her head above the parapet of political correctness and pointed out what people have been saying for years, that the government-sponsored campaign to stigmatise smoking inevitably results in the growth of an unsavoury prejudice against smokers themselves.

Anti-smoking campaigns and laws have turned smokers into a despised underclass, a study by a Department of Health adviser warned yesterday.

It said smokers have come to be seen as disgusting and dirty and are increasingly becoming regarded as outcasts.

The vilification is also stoking up prejudice against the poor because those who are already on low incomes or at a disadvantage are most likely to be smokers, the report by Professor Hilary Graham found.

Smokers are like ‘migrant and indigenous groups’ in past centuries who were seen as contaminating the rest of society and threatening the way of life of normal, healthy people, Professor Graham, of York University, added.

Her report calls for anti-smoking campaigns to be redrawn so they try to help the poor improve their lives.

The study, published by Cambridge University Press, suggests the tightening of laws controlling smoking, mean smokers are held in contempt by the non-smoking majority.
I wonder how long it will be before her government research grant is withdrawn. And she doesn’t go quite as far as suggesting that the best way to combat this prejudice is to encourage the re-integration of smokers into society. Some of the comments clearly demonstrate how successful the hate campaign has been: “Smoking is disgusting and dirty. And so are smokers. I think I'd prefer to have the lepers.”

I have also seen the argument made in several places that the official policy of treating smokers as outcasts has greatly reduced their participation in the “leisure economy” and thus may have exacerbated the recession.

The same is happening in a more subtle and insidious way towards drinkers, especially those who drink in pubs. The constant campaigns about the evils of drink have a slow, drip-drip effect.

I’ve mentioned in the past how just going to the pub for a drink has come to be seen in recent years as somehow less normal and socially acceptable than it once was, at least amongst “respectable” people. Just think how often you and your work colleagues used to go out to the pub at lunchtimes twenty or twenty-five years ago, compared with today, and, if you do ever go today, how many of them religiously stick to soft drinks.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Feeling liverish

Good news that the government are going to allow all pubs to open until 1 am on the Friday and Saturday of the Diamond Jubilee weekend, without having to go through the rigmarole of applying for a special licence. However, not everyone is happy:

Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said the charity did not want to "put a dampener" on a special and significant event, but said extending licensing hours for alcohol lent itself to some criticism.

He said: “It inadvertently sends out the message that in order to celebrate you need alcohol, which contradicts the governments responsible drinking aims.”
Just underlines what a bunch of joyless wowsers the anti-drink lobby are. Perhaps to really celebrate we should have closed the pubs all weekend and drank Her Majesty’s health in sarsaparilla.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Spending a penny

I was in a pub earlier today where I was charged £3.01 for a pint of beer. Surely you would imagine someone in charge would look at that pricing – which presumably results from the rigid application of a mark-up formula – and realise how nonsensical it is. The extra costs in staff time and change handling must outweigh the tiny increase in revenue.

It makes no business sense nowadays to price beer in pubs at increments of less than 10p a pint. And, after the inevitable duty rises in the Budget, £3 for a pint of ordinary-strength beer in ordinary pubs will be that much more commonplace.

Pointless to name it, but both pub and beer were actually fine.

Friday 24 February 2012

Duty free

H M Revenue & Customs have released figures suggesting that a tenth of all beer sold in the UK is avoiding duty. Now, that seems like an overestimate to me, and Brigid Simmons of the BBPA agrees. The real figure, I would guess, is probably around half of that. But it’s still a lot of beer, and a lot of lost duty.

Ms Simmons is of course entirely right to argue that the remedy does not lie in imposing further costly and restrictive controls on the legitimate brewing industry, and indeed is staring us in the face:

But we also need to remember a key driver of this tax gap – the eye-watering rates of beer duty in Britain, relative to our neighbours. Britain levies 40% of the entire EU beer duty bill, and over five times more beer tax in total, than the biggest beer market, Germany. It would be totally unfair if a problem driven by punitive rates of tax resulted in more huge costs being heaped onto British brewers.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Happy days are here again

I see today that the evil empire of Tesco have revived their highly attractive multibuy beer offer, albeit now at £6 for 4 rather than £5. If you’re just after the likes of Abbot, Bombardier and Pedigree you will still be slightly better off at Morrison’s, but this includes all the stronger super-premium beers like 1698, Bengal Lancer, White Shield, Pedigree VSOP and even Old Crafty Hen, which normally retails at £2.79 a bottle. You can also get Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, which to my mind is probably the best regular-strength PBA in the supermarkets. I didn’t spot when the offer finishes, but fill your boots while it lasts!

Trouble in paradise

There’s been a lot of press coverage recently about Emma Harrison, whose company A4e has raked in millions from the government for securing jobs for the unemployed, many of which on closer examination appear to be non-existent.

What isn’t so widely appreciated is that she is the chatelaine of Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire, and that:
Emma’s husband, Jim, runs Thornbridge Brewery, housed in a converted outbuilding on the estate and another site in nearby Bakewell. One of his ales is called Jaipur, a nod to the city where he and Emma married. He also owns a number of pubs and restaurants, all of which operate at a loss according to the latest accounts. None of which matters, as long as Emma is doing her bit for the unemployed.
They may produce some fine beers, but you get the impression the brewery is something of a vanity project funded by your taxes and mine.

And put that belly button away, love!

Home comforts

Home brewing in the UK was exempted from beer duty in 1963 by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling. During the 1960s and 70s it enjoyed a surge in popularity, as it offered the chance to drink beer stronger than that available in pubs at a much lower price. However, it gained a reputation as something that was at the same time unpalatable and of rocket fuel strength, and in the 70s and 80s was often the butt of comedians’ jokes and sitcom stories. It was also increasingly seen as the preserve of the suburban bore, dressed in sleeveless pullover and forever pottering about in the shed.

From the 1980s onwards, it declined in popularity, as the supermarkets made more effort to discount beer for the take-home trade, and the booze cruise to Calais became more commonplace. It became more the pursuit of the genuine enthusiast than people who were mainly interested in the price.

However, with the weakness of the pound against the Euro, and regular above-inflation duty rises, it looks as though home brew is coming into its own again. One home brew shop in Norwich reports a 400% increase in trade over three years. And there is every prospect of this trend continuing, especially if we ever get minimum pricing in any form. No doubt, though, the authorities will then be looking at ways of banning it or taxing it.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

What’s that say then?

Blogger have recently introduced a new word verification “captcha” for comments, which a lot of people have complained is very difficult to decipher. See, for example, this discussion on Mark Wadsworth’s blog.

The reason I originally turned on word verification was to stop an avalanche of spam. Following a complaint, I experimentally turned it off again, but the spam flood resumed, so it went back on again about 18 hours later.

Some bloggers have responded by restricting comments to those with Blogger and OpenID accounts, but I tend to feel the anonymous comments are often some of the best on this blog.

So what do you think would be the best policy for me to adopt? I will run the poll until Saturday, but please note I won’t necessarily be bound by the result.

Edit: The results of the poll are shown below. As more than three-quarters were happy to retain the harder captcha, and anonymous comments, I’ll be sticking with the status quo. If you really have something burning to say, and can’t manage the captcha, e-mail me your comment and I’ll add it manually.

Step away from that door

Occasionally, I’ve heard whinges from antismokers that, on the three days a year they actually step out of the pub into the beer garden, they’re confronted with waves of fumes from those obnoxious smelly smokers. Perhaps they should have thought about that before supporting the smoking ban, because if all the smokers were safely ensconced in their own room inside the pub, which is where they would prefer to be anyway, the “problem” wouldn’t arise.

However, it seems as though salvation might be at hand, as a group of scientists in New Zealand are urging that smoking should also be restricted in outdoor areas of pubs to reduce its perceived social acceptability. This was based on an extensive and representative sample of a massive 13 people.

After the smoking ban, it supporters often argued that pubs were still able to accommodate smokers, and stepping outside if you wanted a fag was hardly any hardship at all, especially if there was a nice covered smoking shelter with patio burners. But, by preventing pubs from catering for smokers at all, such a move would inevitably kill the “community pub” stone dead. In spite of the ban, it is still the case that a higher proportion of smokers visit pubs than non-smokers – presumably because many non-smokers are sour-faced carrot-juice sippers who would never be seen dead in a pub anyway.

Of course, it’s never going to happen, is it? But it’s not that long ago that people were saying that about the blanket indoor smoking ban. And, at the very least, it’s opening up an Overton window to extend the scope of the debate.

Think global

There’s an excellent piece here on Sp!ked by Rob Lyons demolishing the case for “local” food – and, by implication, beer:

Let me state my position baldly: there is no problem to which local food - or at least buying your food within some predetermined distance of home - is a good solution. Despite the claims of some campaigners, local food won’t save the planet, it won’t make us healthier, it won’t restore traditional communities and it doesn’t offer greater food security.

The big claim usually made in terms of the environment and local food is that we should be trying to reduce our ‘food miles’. It seems to make sense that the shorter the distance between fork and fork - between the one in the soil and the one on our plate - the better. The trouble with that theory is that transport from field to warehouse to shop is just one small part of the total environmental impact of our food.

Insisting on local food could actually
increase the environmental impact of what we eat.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Head, meet brick wall

Budget day is a month from today, Wednesday 21 March. And, in the run-up period, we have had all the predictable calls from the usual suspects – the BBPA, CAMRA, SIBA and the WSTA – for alcohol duties to be frozen and the duty escalator to be scrapped. The current policy, so they say, is closing pubs, losing jobs, encouraging smugglers and is anyway subject to the law of diminishing returns.

And, of course, they’re broadly right, even if each one focuses on its own particular section of the industry rather than the wider picture. But what do you think are the chances that George Osborne will actually do anything to act on their suggestions? I would say much the same as those of a cat in hell. So all the public relations guys in these organisations must increasingly get the feeling that they are just going through the motions for the sake of it.

There must also be a concern that there will be even further tightening of the alcohol duty screw. It would not surprise me if we saw at least one of:

  1. An increase in High Strength Beer Duty, as the current level has not let to a cut in strength for popular beers above 7.5% ABV, and

  2. Another attempt to bring cider duty closer to that on beer

Monday 20 February 2012

Staggering around Didsbury

There’s some more of my deathless prose in February’s issue of Opening Times, in the write-up of the pub crawl of Didsbury that took place in November – scroll down to Page 7. It has to be said that, if your experience of pubs was confined to Friday nights in Didsbury, you would probably reach the conclusion that the pub trade remained in rude health, so it is very untypical of the whole.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Cart and horses

It’s common to read CAMRA publications inveighing against the bad business practices of pubcos, and running campaigns to “Save the Pig & Whistle” which is under threat from redevelopment as flats or a Tesco Express. There may be some validity in these lines of argument, but all too often it turns into a narrative that the decline of the pub trade can largely be laid at the door of rapacious owners and greedy developers.

In reality, of course, cutting off the supply of pubs has very little to do with it. To say otherwise is putting the cart before the horse. No doubt there are some entirely viable pubs that have over the years been lost to development, but in most areas there is now an abundance of closed and boarded pubs, and former pub premises, so if you want to run a pub it’s not exactly difficult to get your hands on one. The fact that, in the past thirty years, beer sales in pubs have declined by nearly two-thirds, and a third of the pubs in the country have closed, is the result of a fall in demand, not a restriction in supply.

Pubcos may be poor custodians of their estates, but that was never really a problem when business was good. However, as the saying goes, a falling tide reveals who’s swimming naked.

In the piece referred to here, former CAMRA chairman Chris Holmes says:

Four decades ago the threatened product was real ale. Now, the threatened institution is the pub... It is the social glue without which we are all diminished.

One of the great USPs of pubs is that they are the only places where you can get real ale. The problem is that if we lose our pubs, apart from losing a great British (can I say that anymore?) institution we lose real ale as well.

Real ale’s future is intrinsically tied up with the success of the pub so please make sure that CAMRA’s efforts are dedicated towards supporting it.
He has a good point, but on their own, purely technical measures to change planning regulations and business practices will make little or no difference. The success of pubs depends on wider social attitudes. A society in which the regular, moderate consumption of alcohol is viewed in a relaxed, tolerant way as a normal part of everyday life will have successful pubs. On the other hand, pubs will struggle when alcohol is widely regarded in a censorious and disapproving manner. I have posted in the past how, outside of the usual weekend busy times, just going to the pub for a drink has somehow become less socially acceptable than it once was.

It is always going to be better to celebrate good pubs (which, to be fair, CAMRA does a lot of) rather than painting a negative picture of closure and decline. In a wider sense, the future success of pubs will only be secured by the defeat and marginalisation of the anti-drink lobby.

And, of course, while we’re at it, the elephant in the room needs shooting. With a smoking gun, of course.

Friday 17 February 2012

The pub shaman

Here’s an absolutely brilliant piece on the “Pubs of Manchester” blog, evoking the pub world we have now pretty much entirely lost.

And the shaman who presided over these stories, the men who had spent a lifetime recording and remembering and retelling these tales were red-faced, slightly dishevelled men who not only drank in pubs, but lived in them. My dad was one of those shaman. The clothes he wore were often bought from men who went from pub to pub with a van out back. The meat he ate often came from a similar source. He knew names of landlords, barmaids, owners. He knew which local hardmen to avoid and which to talk to. He knew which pubs had jukeboxes, had pool tables, had darts teams. He knew pubs.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Setting the template

There’s a particularly obnoxious article in today’s Independent from Steve Richards in which he argues that the government should use the example of the smoking ban as a blueprint for alcohol policy. Of course, when the smoking ban came in, all its supporters argued strenuously that smoking was a special case and the principle was never going to be extended to other areas. Well, that really worked out, didn’t it?

Needless to say, he is robustly taken to task in the comments.

A bad image

If you were a brewer who had closed a pub, it would obviously make sense to remove any identifying signage without delay, as a decaying, boarded-up establishment carrying your branding would convey a very poor impression. So you can’t blame Robinson’s for whipping their signs off the Grapes on the first working day after closure.

In contrast, it has taken Hydes over a year after closure to remove their identity from the Four Heatons just down the road from me. Thousands of people will have passed by every day and made the inevitable association between Hydes and failure. Possibly this presages redevelopment of the site, which at present is an unpleasant eyesore.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Dipping low

I asked blog readers whether they had tried any of the 2.8% ABV beers introduced to take advantage of the reduction in duty brought in last Autumn. Just over half had no intention of doing, while about a quarter said they would if they came across one, and the remaining quarter had tried a variety of them, mostly in cask and bottled form.

Prompted by this blog posting from Steve Lamond, I did put a couple of them in my trolley at Tesco last week – Greene King Tolly English Ale and Fuller’s Mighty Atom. They were £1.39 each for a 500ml bottle, which is cheaper than Tesco’s standard price of £1.99, but you can still get regular-strength premium bottled ales for less, for example in Morrisons’ 4 for £5.50 offer.

In contrast to Steve, I thought the Mighty Atom was the better of the two, with a more interesting and complex mix of flavours. The English Ale had a hint of the typical GK house character, but little else. Both seemed oddly gloopy in consistency, as though the low alcohol content had been achieved by arresting fermentation and leaving a lot of unfermented sugars in the beer, and both exhibited notably poor head retention. I might try the Marston’s one as well, but I can’t say I’ll be making them regular purchases. They seemed to be trying to ape the flavour characteristics of stronger beers rather than simply coming across as honest low-gravity beers in their own right.

As a comparison, I also had a bottle of the 3.4% Brakspear Bitter, a mere £1.09 from Home Bargains just down the street in Edgeley from the closed Grapes. This was a much better and more satisfying drink – a classic English ordinary bitter with a dry edge and a distinctive, earthy hoppiness. And it kept at least some head to the bottom of the glass.

As I mentioned here, I also tried a pint of Sam Smith’s 2.8% Light Mild, which is not a new beer as such, but had its strength reduced from 3.0% to take advantage of the duty concession. This was a nitrokeg, so I didn’t expect much, and I wasn’t disappointed. Bland and inoffensive, but if you were on a budget and just wanted a generic pint in the pub it might appeal.

Over the years I have had a number of very enjoyable beers of this kind of strength in cask form, such as the famous home-brewed pale ales from Mrs Pardoe’s at Netherton and the All Nations at Madeley, and even, on occasions, the much-derided and surely now defunct Whitbread West Country Pale Ale, which had a declared OG of 1030. A defining characteristic of all these beers was that they were honest in what they set out to be – light, subtle and easy-drinking – and didn’t try to be something they weren’t.

I also suspect that the flavour characteristics of dark milds are likely to suffer less from being brewed at such a low strength than those of pale beers.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Grapes crushed

Here are a couple of pictures taken earlier this morning of the Grapes in Edgeley, Stockport, which served customers for the last time last Saturday night. It was then closed, and yesterday the external signage was removed and the rear windows covered with steel plates. Never again will drinkers thrill to the sounds of Lens Karaoke (sic). Note the gable-end signage on the StreetView image. I can’t see this one ever reopening as a pub. Along with the Bay Horse in Newton, Hyde and the New Inn in Castleton, Rochdale, it was one of three Robinson’s pubs closed on the same day.

In a landlocked situation on a pedestrianised shopping street, with no catering kitchen and no possibility of creating any kind of outdoor smoking area apart from the street, this one always looked to me as though it would ultimately become a victim of the smoking ban, and so it has proved, although maybe it lasted longer than I expected. For many years in the Eighties and Nineties it was a perennial fixture in the Good Beer Guide.

The Armoury on the other side of the roundabout, which has been extensively refurbished by Robinson’s since the StreetView image was taken, and has a spacious beer garden with covered smoking patios, looks likely to reap the benefit of what trade remained to the Grapes. A sad, but all too common, sign of the overall decline of the pub trade.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Mind the gap

Minimum alcohol pricing is often mistakenly seen by those such as CAMRA who wish to defend pubs as a means of improving their competitive situation by reducing the price differential vis-a-vis the off-trade. However, as Dick Puddlecote has pointed out to me, the research by the University of Sheffield on which many of the arguments for minimum pricing are based in fact puts forward as one of its favoured options setting different minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with the former more than twice the latter.

Differential minimum pricing for on-trade and off-trade leads to more substantial reductions in consumption (30p off-trade together with an 80p on-trade minimum price -2.1% versus -0.6% for 30p only; 40p together with 100p -5.4% compared to -2.6% for 40p only). This is firstly because much of the consumption by younger and hazardous drinking groups (including those at increased risk of criminal offending due to high intake on a particular day) occurs in the on-trade. It is also because increasing prices of cheaper alcohol in the on-trade dampens down the behaviour switching effects when off-trade prices are increased.
Now, 80p per unit would start to affect many Wetherspoon’s pubs (not to mention Sam Smith’s), and 100p would affect a large slice of on-trade beer outside London and the South-East.

Anti-drink campaigners identify two separate problems caused by alcohol – long-term health damage resulting from harmful levels of consumption over many years, and disorder and violence resulting from excessive consumption on specific occasions. The two overlap, but they’re not remotely the same thing, and a flat-rate minimum price is only really going to address the first. Although there may be some contribution from “pre-loading”, alcohol-related disorder is overwhelmingly associated with on-trade consumption.

So, pub-lovers, be very careful before you succumb to the embrace of minimum pricing, as it could very well end up being toxic to the thing you hoped to protect.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

It's now official policy...

...to water the workers’ beer.

Alcoholic drinks in Britain could be watered down under controversial Government plans to deal with binge drinking, a health minister said yesterday.

Anne Milton made clear that the Coalition wanted to see a ‘significant’ reduction in the number of units in beer, wines and spirits across the drinks market.

She warned that the Government was ‘deadly serious’ about slashing the numbers of deaths in Britain caused by alcohol.

There would be no one ‘silver bullet’ to tackle the nation’s drinking problems in the long-awaited alcohol strategy, expected in the next few weeks, Miss Milton said. But Department of Health sources last night confirmed that one of the ideas under consideration is the introduction of higher taxation for stronger alcoholic drinks.

Ministers are also pushing for a voluntary agreement from the drinks industry to water down their products.
This kind of “voluntary” arm-twisting is something I foretold in the past, but it gives me no pleasure to see it coming to pass. As I said then, almost exactly three years ago, “you read it here first.”

How this will really make any difference is hard to see, when the UK and Ireland already on average have the weakest beer in Europe. And it’s always beer and cider, isn’t it, never wines or spirits? Having said that, the room for manoeuvre on spirits is limited, as the EU mandates that anything sold as spirits must have a minimum alcohol content of 37.5% ABV, and I can’t imagine that reducing Bell’s from 40% to 37.5% is going to have any impact whatsoever. People will just pour a little more.

You might expect the organisation that styles itself as the drinker’s and pubgoer’s champion to be up in arms about this. But no, they’re still bleating on about how beer is a low-strength drink consumed responsibly in the controlled environment of the pub, and how 2.8% pisswater is the “People’s Pint”.

Meanwhile, you can hear the song for yourself. Maybe it’s time for a new version, entitled “I am the woman, the very ugly woman, that waters the workers’ beer.”

Monday 6 February 2012

A brewery as they used to be

I spoke highly here of Joule’s refurbishment of the Royal Oak in Eccleshall, Staffordshire. Looking a bit more into their operation, it seems that rather than going down the usual route of targeting the free trade and beer festivals, they are trying to build up something more like the local brewery with a tied estate within a set radius from their home base, which used to be much more commonplace forty years ago. “Not a single pint is sold outside our heartland”, they say.

They do have some free trade, although theirs are not beers often seen in free houses around the country, and they just seem to concentrate on a core range of three beers – Blonde, Pale Ale and Slumbering Monk – rather than producing a plethora of specials and seasonals. Pale Ale, their flagship beer, is a classic 4.1% ABV Midlands pale ale in the style of Draught Bass and Pedigree as they once were. Maybe there is a gap in their range for a mild and a 3.6% light bitter, but they must know what their customers want.

They have so far built up an estate of 18 pubs, most within 25 miles of the brewery in Market Drayton, but extending as far as Wrexham and Chester in one direction and Burton-on-Trent in the other, where they have the Coopers Tavern, once regarded as the ultimate place to drink Draught Bass which, according to the Good Beer Guide, is still sold there. The Royal Oak is the only one I have actually visited as a Joule’s pub, but according to their website they intend to restore them all as “proper pubs”, which must be applauded.

The only possible fly in the ointment is that, over the years, a number of breweries that have tried to go down the same route, such as Archer’s, Smiles, Copper Dragon and Trough, seem to have come a cropper financially, not because of the brewing operations, but because of problems with the property portfolio. Let us keep our fingers crossed that Joule’s manage to steer clear of those pitfalls.

Sunday 5 February 2012

We know what’s good for you

Spiky-haired Frankenstein's monster lookalike, Health Minister Anne Milton, has provoked fury by “claiming northerners die earlier than those in the south because they smoke too much, drink too much - and ‘jump into bed with each other at the drop of a hat’.”
Public health minister Anne Milton - whose Guildford constituency lies in the Surrey stockbroker belt - argued that 'widespread changes in behaviour' such as stopping smoking and practising 'safe sex' would help lower death rates in the north of England.

At a Commons debate last week about bad health in the region, former nurse Ms Milton said: 'The major part of poor health will be remedied only by widespread changes in behaviour.

'It is this government's policy to encourage people to change how they live.

'We cannot frog-march people out of the off-licence, compel them to stop smoking or force them to practise safe sex.

'Our challenge is to make the case that freedom without responsibility is not sustainable.'
Combining health fascism with rank snobbery, a better example of the deep contempt in which the political class hold ordinary people is difficult to imagine.

Not that her Labour predecessors were any better, although they might have been a little more reluctant to air their private views to avoid antagonising their own constituents, instead preferring to call for more taxpayers’ money to be splurged on the affected areas, as shown by the comments in the article from Chi Onwurah.

A point often missed in discussion of geographical health inequalities is that, during their lives, people who enjoy educational and career success tend to migrate from poorer to richer areas, so the average age of death in Burnley doesn’t necessarily reflect the average life expectancy of babies born in Burnley. And to what extent is this actually inequality between different social classes rather than different geographical areas?

Saturday 4 February 2012

Totty-up ban

There’s been plenty of discussion about Slater’s Top Totty ale being banned from the House of Commons bar following a complaint by some humourless, politically correct Labour harridan. But, as often said, no publicity is bad publicity:
Last night Vicki Slater, of Slater's Ales, said: ‘At first I just couldn't believe it that in this economic climate a Labour MP would get exercised about the name of a beer.

‘But all this publicity has been a blessing. After the fuss, it sold out immediately. People have been phoning from all over Britain asking us to supply their pubs. We're delivering twice as much Top Totty tomorrow as we ever have before.’

Friday 3 February 2012

A beery odyssey

Congratulations to local CAMRA member Mark McConachie who has recently completed an epic journey around all 300-odd pubs owned by Stockport family brewer Robinson’s. Their estate stretches as far as Anglesey, the southern Peak District and North Lancashire, so the pubs are by no means all on his doorstep.

Some might regard him as a glutton for punishment, but to my mind (and I’m sure Mark’s as well) Robinson’s beers are very enjoyable when well kept. In the past few years Robinson’s have acquired a number of new pubs sold off by pub companies, so he might have thought they were moving the target as he approached it.

No doubt he will have visited a fair number of pubs over the years that have subsequently closed. Significantly, he says:
“Twenty years ago pubs were a bit different. There were a few squalid ones but they all seem to have upped their game now. But you see fewer people in them and quite a lot have closed.”
Interestingly, the 1977 Good Beer Guide says that Robinson’s had 318 tied houses (317 serving real ale), so to a large extent new acquisitions have made up for closures.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Speaking with forked tongue

There’s a welcome outbreak of fighting spirit in the February edition of the CAMRA newsletter What’s Brewing from Chris Holmes, a former national chairman of the organisation and retiring chairman of Castle Rock Brewery.

The anti-alcohol mob poses a serious threat. I said several years ago that once the do-gooders had sorted out the tobacco industry they would move on to alcohol.

Well, it’s come true. The best body to stand up to the health fascists is CAMRA, but one has to ask the question. Has CAMRA got the balls for it? Do I detect reluctance among the CAMRA hierarchy to speak up in favour of booze, and to contradict the over-hyped and biased stories put out by the dry brigade who clearly have no sense of fun or enjoyment unless it’s going for a five mile jog or eating a lettuce leaf washed down with green tea?
Well, absolutely, but what do we think are the odds on Neville Colin Valentine and friends actually growing a pair?

But he then goes on to piss in his own soup by saying:
There is a big question to be dealt with. To what extent should CAMRA lobby for legislation to protect pubs from supermarket competition? If we think that CAMRA should be doing this then it should go for the throat. It should be noisy, controversial, and generally stroppy to get the message across. I’m not convinced that sitting at the top table with government and senior civil servants actually gets us anywhere.Don’t forget that the supermarkets employ armies of lobbyists at Westminster and they are serious opponents.
Now, there’s plenty to be said on that issue, much of which I’ve said before. But, if you want to fight the anti-drink lobby, might it not make sense to have the big battalions of Tesco et al on the same side, rather than opening up a war on two fronts? And, realistically, the people who are drinking cask beer in the pub are broadly the same as those who are buying the premium bottled ales from the supermarket. To suggest that someone cracking open a bottle of London Pride that he has got on a 3 for £4 offer while watching Midsomer Murders is doing a VERY BAD THING is likely to lead to your support rapidly withering away.

Cheaper = better?

Boak and Bailey recently made a post about the relationship of price and quality for beer. I made an observation in the comments that, thirty years ago, there was broadly speaking an inverse relationship between the two in the British beer market. Things were very different from today, with 90% of beer sold in the on-trade, a high proportion of that in brewers’ tied houses, and only a tiny handful of early micro-breweries.

There were exceptions, but as a rough generalisation the better beer was made by the smaller independent breweries, not the national combines. For various reasons, such as not needing to answer to the stock market, lack of vandalism investment in their pubs, and a lingering perception that they were selling a crude, unsophisticated product, their beers in their own tied houses tended to be noticeably cheaper than those of the “Big Six”.

So, for example, Boddington’s and Holt’s around here offered notably good value, Nottingham, where Home and Shipstone had a substantial presence, was an oasis of low-priced beer, and the Black Country, which was Banks’s home ground and also had Batham’s, Holden’s and Simpkiss, was markedly cheaper than neighbouring Birmingham where Ansells and M & B ruled the roost. Donnington pubs in the Cotswolds were remarkably cheap compared with anything around them (as to some extent they still are today), and I remember being gobsmacked by the low price of the home-brewed beer on my first visit to the legendary All Nations in Madeley, Shropshire.

Things have changed dramatically since then, of course, but even today it’s still far from axiomatic that, in pubs, paying more for a pint will result in better beer. Price differentials exist between different pubs, and different beer categories in pubs, but, at least within the cask sector, there’s little evidence of specific beers being able to command a price premium over others of the same strength and category on the same bar. This is perhaps more true for lagers where Beck’s Vier sells for more than Carling and Peroni for more than Stella.