Sunday 27 May 2012

Prohibition drives on

So “Wee Eck” is to press ahead with his plan to reduce the drink-driving limit in Scotland from 80mg to 50mg. This seems to me essentially a plank of his general anti-alcohol agenda rather than having much to do with road safety, and another way of driving a wedge between Scotland and England. And it would be exceptionally unreasonable for an English driver to be banned from driving in England for doing something in Scotland that was still entirely legal south of the Border.

And will it do anything to stop this kind of behaviour, which involves being well over the current limit? Might it even to some extent legitimise drink-drivng?

Gold vs Gold

A while back I reviewed Greene King’s Old Golden Hen and concluded it was a pleasant, refreshing beer, with some element of distinctiveness, even if not one to set the world alight. Recently, GK have launched IPA Gold as a brand extension to their standard IPA. Both beers are 4.1% ABV and would seem to occupy exactly the same territory in the market.

During last week’s hot weather, ideal for refreshing blonde beers, I sampled both on two consecutive days. The IPA Gold was disappointingly bland, coming across as just another generic “golden ale” with little about it in terms of either malt or hop character. Old Golden Hen, in contrast, was a touch darker, and had a more pronounced malt body combined with distinct, although not overstated, notes of New World hops. Overall, a considerably more complex and substantial beer.

There are better beers in the style (Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, anyone?) but as far as this particular contest goes it’s a decisive victory to the Hen.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Take me to the pilot

I recently posted about the decline of the pub scene around Stockport Market Place, and Moorendman extrapolated from this to a more general theme about the steady run-down of Stockport town centre.

So it’s interesting to hear that Stockport has been chosen to become a Portas Pilot town, receiving £100,000 from the government to revitalise the town centre, in a scheme inspired by retail guru Mary Portas.

This must be good news, but let’s hope the project remains grounded in reality rather than veering off into flights of utopian fantasy like the comment by Laurence Hennigan about Levenshulme’s bid that “the government grant would be used to spruce up empty shops, which would then be filled by start-up businesses selling art, crochet knitting and cupcakes.”

I would have thought a couple of obvious points in reviving the Market/Underbanks area would be more affordable short and medium term parking, and providing some decent public toilets at that end of town. And, while it’s clearly somewhat chicken-and-egg, the dearth of well-known restaurant chains in Stockport is very noticeable. Cheadle and Bramhall can sustain a Pizza Express, but not Stockport itself.

It’s also important to remember, as I posted here, the role that employment plays in keeping town centres busy and vibrant. You can’t consider the retail sector in isolation.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Bleak times in the east

It’s reported that, over the past five years, one in four pubs in Cambridge have closed, leaving less than a hundred still open in the city. And Cambridge, at the heart of “Silicon Fen”, is one of the most prosperous and fastest-growing places in the country, so can’t be said to be suffering from the chill winds of recession.

Councillors say they are trying to put tighter planning controls in place to try to stem the tide. But how many times does it have to be said that all the planning rules in the world won’t keep pubs open if the underlying demand has melted away?

Yes, some pubs may well be worth more turned into housing. But that never happened to anything like the same extent before.

Perhaps my frequent locally-based commenter can shed some light on the situation.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Market failure

The most recent Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA “Stagger” was around Stockport Market Place, which I had previously written up here (see Page 9). In some ways it was a dispiriting experience – Bambooza and Sam’s Bar are long closed, the Bull’s Head and Thatched House more recently, the Greene King IPA in the Egerton Arms was Sarson’s Best, and neither the Pack Horse nor the Old Rectory had any cask beer on. A few years ago the Market Place was often spoken of as a hub of the town’s social life, but sadly no longer.

Having said that, Spoons’ Calvert’s Court continues to thrive (even if, to my eye, it is a soulless barn and also, on this occasion, uncomfortably overheated) and the Baker’s Vaults was setting up for a live music session. And Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head, Robinson’s Arden Arms and the Railway, which was added as an impromptu final venue due to the lack of cask beer in the earlier parts of the itinerary, were all as good as ever. Old Brewery Bitter was £1.80 in the Boar’s Head, compared with £1.36 two and a half years ago.

The vileness of the beer in the Egerton Arms again raises the question of whether there is any point in marginal outlets trying to sell cask if they don’t have sufficient turnover or cellarmanship skills.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Real beer, real counties

Local Stockport brewery Robinson’s have recently, as part of their rebranding exercise, adopted the identity of Cheshire Family Brewers. Some have jibbed at this, saying it is living in the past, and that Stockport was moved from Cheshire to Greater Manchester in 1974.

However, Greater Manchester as an administrative area with its own council was abolished in 1986, and only lives on in the form of police and fire authorities covering ten separate unitary councils. Indeed, it was never the intention of the 1974 local government reforms to change geography. As a spokesman for the Department of the Environment said at the time:

"The new county boundaries are solely for the purpose of defining areas of local government. They are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of Counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change."
Since then, we have seen a whole raft of piecemeal reforms to the 1974 structure, including abolishing the unloved and spurious “counties” of Cleveland, Humberside and Avon, and making many places such as Nottingham and Blackburn unitary authorities outside the control of the relevant County Council. Recently, the administrative county of Cheshire has been split into the two unitary districts of Cheshire East and Cheshire West and Cheshire.

It would be interesting to ask the proponents of “new counties” exactly which counties Middlesbrough, Grimsby and Bristol are in nowadays, or whether Macclesfield is actually no longer in Cheshire. This has even led to the nonsense of road signs appearing where you exit the boundaries of Blackpool and Blackburn saying “Welcome to Lancashire”.

As argued by the Association of British Counties, what we need is a fixed frame of popular geographical reference that is independent of the successive whims of local government reorganisation. This works in Northern Ireland, which has been divided into 26 unitary districts, but where people still continue to identify themselves with Counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, (London)Derry and Tyrone. So why can’t the same work in England?

It continues to baffle me how many people who supposedly are enthusiasts for “traditional beer” at the same time reject “traditional counties” and insist on using the fake, modern, keg equivalent. Rather like the pillocks who write directions in the Good Beer Guide using foreign metres rather than British yards.

Stockport, in geographical terms, is undisputably within the county of Cheshire, and long may it remain so!

Tuesday 15 May 2012

The wages of sin taxes

Chris Snowdon, author of the Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog, has just produced a must-read paper for the Adam Smith Institute entitled The Wages of Sin Taxes: The True Cost of Taxing Alcohol, Tobacco and Other “Vices”:

In a report released today, The Wages of Sin Taxes (Download PDF) by Christopher Snowdon, the Adam Smith Institute condemns the government’s decision to increase taxes on cigarettes and alcohol this year and to introduce minimum alcohol pricing.

The report argues that ‘sin taxes’ (taxes on commodities seen as harmful to health) are ineffective in reducing consumption and are not necessary for recouping lost revenue. The taxes are highly regressive and force the poor to pay for the government’s mishandling of public finances.

The taxes don’t work

Cigarette taxes are now so high that increases drive smokers to the black market instead of discouraging consumption or raising more revenue. Sin taxes are more likely to deter moderate users than heavy users, whose demand for cigarettes and alcohol is relatively inelastic.

A heavy smoker or an alcoholic is unlikely to reduce consumption because of a price rise, making sin taxes an unreliable way of reducing consumption or improving public health.

The victims of cigarette and alcohol duty

Sin taxes hit moderate and heavy users alike. Research has shown that previous rises in cigarette tax have made only 2.3% of smokers quit, with the other 97.7% just paying more in tax.

Taxes on cigarettes and alcohol are regressive and hit the poor hardest. The average smoker spends £1660 a year on cigarettes – 20% of the bottom 10%’s income. Sin taxes are the most regressive indirect taxes, as they tend to target products that are disproportionately consumed by the poor.

Minimum alcohol pricing is also deeply regressive, only affecting the cheaper drinks consumed by the poor. Punishing poor people for enjoying a drink or a cigarette exacerbates poverty and treats the poor like children who need to be controlled by the state.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Local attraction

The Daily Telegraph reports on research by Mintel that says “a third of Britons believe that it is important to have a pub close to their home as it demonstrates that they are part of a community.”

However, the sting in the tail is that, just like facilities such as libraries and local butchers, they still value it even if they rarely use it personally. No business can survive on good wishes alone. The research also says that the number of adults regularly visiting pubs has fallen from seven out of ten in 2007 to six out of ten now.

Apparently, “three in ten people think it has been much more pleasant going to pubs since the smoking ban.” So, by inference, seven out of ten don’t. As I’ve said in the past, “So the folk who used to go in a pub once every three months and moan about it being smoky, will now still go in every three months and say how much better it is that there’s no smoke and all those rough people are no longer there.”

On a related note, despite fears from one commenter of a “Millennium Bug”, the pub closures counter in the sidebar has successfully ticked over to 10004 today. I hope all the antismokers out there feel proud of what they’ve achieved.

Friday 11 May 2012

Bearly drinkable

From the latest edition of the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times (Page 13):

Beartown Brewery of Congleton, Cheshire has launched a bottled 5.5% ABV premium beer in tribute to Wojtek ‘The bear who went to war’. The story of Wojtek has been set in folklore since the 500 pound bear had his most famous hour alongside Polish troops at The Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. Demand for the tribute beer is now growing quickly among the domestic and UK Polish community, as well as from international markets where the story of Wojtek is legendary.

Head brewer Ian Burns (pictured above with a bottle of the new beer) told us “Wojtek the bear was discovered as a cub in Iran by Polish troops as they travelled through the Middle East to join the allied forces. He is known to have drunk beer and enjoyed cigarettes with the soldiers. He was officially enlisted and given the rank of Corporal to allow him to travel to Italy where, at The Battle of Monte Cassino, he helped move artillery shells to assist the soldiers.”

“Since then an insignia of Wojtek carrying an artillery shell, has adorned the uniform and vehicles of his comrades in the Polish 22nd Transport Company. At the end of the war Wojtek retired to live at Edinburgh Zoo, and there are still those who can remember him enjoying cigarettes there.”

Bears swigging beer and smoking fags – that would no doubt be classed as animal cruelty nowadays.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Be careful what you wish for

Over the years, a lot of effort has been put in, so far without success, by those campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis. In principle I have some sympathy with this, but to my mind they are likely to alienate many potential supporters who are not themselves cannabis users by using the claim that alcohol is more harmful than cannabis as one of the key planks of their argument.

In recent years they have tended to move away from the libertarian view that it is adults’ own business what they drink or smoke, to the approach of “harm reduction”, saying that legalisation would ensure quality of supply and take the business out of the hands of criminals. The licensing and control regimes applying to alcohol and tobacco are often given as examples of how cannabis should be regulated.

But, given the current official line towards tobacco, is that something they would really hanker after? It’s taxed to buggery, you can’t consume it in indoor public places, you can’t even put containers on view in retail outlets, it is the subject of constant heavy-handed health campaigns and its users are vilified as smelly scum unable to master their own cravings. A trip to ASDA to buy some fags is now not entirely unlike inspecting the contents of the dealer’s clandestine stash.

Legalisation would give employers, insurers and health professionals a green light to discriminate against cannabis users in a way that is impossible while it remains illegal. And, if taxation was anything like that applying to tobacco, the black market would not go away, and the problems of adulterated supply and criminal racketeering would still be with us. Legalisation would also make it easier for illicit traders to go about their business, as mere possession would no longer be an offence.

In practice, is it perhaps better kept illegal, untaxed and under the radar? And might legalisation, regulation and taxation take away some of the frisson of using it in the first place?

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Seeing the light

I wrote recently about how Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s seems to alternate in a schizophrenic manner between talking sense and nonsense. But his latest musings are definitely in the “sense” camp:

Two of the pub industry’s most influential figures, JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin and Stonegate chair Ian Payne, have spoken out against the merits of introducing a minimum unit price of alcohol.

Speaking at the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) conference in London, Payne said it’s “the worst thing that could happen to the industry”, and giving the Government control of prices is “asking for trouble”.

He compared it to the situation with university tuition fees, that were initially set at £2,000 by the previous Government and have now reached as much as £9,000.

The Government has proposed a 40p minimum unit price and Payne said: “All of a sudden 40p is £4.

“To set something at 40/50p that at the moment seems very good for the industry at some stage down the line if we give the Government control of retail prices it will hurt you.”

As I’ve argued before, minimum pricing will not give people a single extra penny to spend in pubs, and it is deluded and short-sighted to imagine that it will be in any way beneficial to the on-trade. Indeed, as Tim and Ian rightly recognise, it opens up the door to government control of pricing across the whole of the drinks trade, and who knows where that might end up?

It’s also worth reiterating the point that the academic study on which the minimum pricing proposals are based recommends that there should be a differential – and much higher – minimum price for the on-trade compared with the off-trade.

Monday 7 May 2012

Land of delusion

Many years ago we had Ted Bruning, then the editor of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing, as the speaker at our local branch anniversary meal. He was probably the best speaker we’ve ever had, inspiring, amusing, and putting across a clear passion for pubs and beer.

So it’s disappointing in the extreme to see him now peddling this deluded drivel in the publication he once edited, suggesting that different parts of the drinks industry should be at each other’s throats. Spirits duty is already 37% higher than beer duty per alcohol unit. The anti-drink lobby will be chortling into their sarsaparilla. It’s not unlike the oft-heard moans from some brewers that cider duty is too low.

And to say that CAMRA should “form a united front” with Alcohol Concern beggars belief. Don’t you realise, Ted, that these people, despite their weasel words, at heart hate pubs and hate the brewing industry? Pretty much all “community pubs” depend for their survival on “binge drinkers”.

How many times does it have to be said – unless the alcohol industry presents a united front, lager and keg beer alongside real ale, spirits and wine alongside beer, off-trade alongside on-trade, it will be defeated? Every internal squabble just aids the opposition.

It’s often said “there’s no fool like an old fool.” And, sadly, Ted, you are that old fool.

The photo accompanying the article is also just a tad out of date.

Gassing about the dog

Last weekend saw a predictable outpouring of ballyhoo about the opening of the new BrewDog bar on Peter Street in Manchester City Centre. Now, I can’t really say that this is something that has much appeal to me; I’m not going to rush out to visit it, and even if I did I suspect I wouldn’t remotely feel at home.

It’s interesting, though, how the opening of a new beer-focused bar without any cask beer whatsoever has the great and good of CAMRA clearing their throats and shuffling their feet, unable either to condemn it outright or unequivocally praise it. What many would see as the cutting edge of innovation and excitement in the beer world has escaped beyond their control.

On the other hand, though, to my mind it’s a classic urban beer bubble phenomenon. Despite all the hype and debate, “craft keg” has not broken through into mainstream pubs, and shows very little sign of doing so. In the 1970s, the term “real ale” might have been vaguely understood by the blokes in the vault at the Gungesmearers’ Arms. Now, if you talked to them about “craft keg”, they wouldn’t have the faintest idea what you were on about.

And will the dog prove to have legs, or will it be more like a comet that burns brightly for a short time before fading away again once the novelty has worn off?

Friday 4 May 2012

Bitten by a snake

Yesterday evening, there was a documentary on Channel 4 about the World’s Largest Snake, a 48-foot monster that lived 60 million years ago. By coincidence, I happened to be sampling a serpentine-themed beer in the form of Wychwood Snake’s Bite, described as a “cider apple fruit beer”, and currently on offer at Morrison’s at a very reasonable £1.25 for a 500ml bottle..

In my youth, a Snakebite – a mixture of bitter and cider – was considered a distinctly edgy and dangerous drink, something favoured by bikers, punks and crusties that no respectable person would touch with a bargepole. Many pubs would refuse to dispense them, full stop.

While making a nod to the name of a Snakebite, this one is definitely a fruit-flavoured beer, not a cider or a beer/cider mix. It comes in Wychwood’s trademark brown glass bottle with apple green highlights on the label. On the back of the bottle it says “Give in to temptation with this sinful blend of traditionally crafted beer, infused with Cider Apples. Forgive yourself for enjoying its truly distinctive, refreshing fruit flavour.” The strength is 4.2% ABV, although the picture shows it as 4.0%.

It has an unusual sour fruit aroma which is quite un-beery. It pours a pale amber colour, more like a palish bitter than a lager, with a slight orange hint. There’s a decent initial head, but it quickly dissipates to a thin collar of foam. Carbonation is evident, but not overpowering.

The initial impression of the flavour is distinctly sweet, with a subdued apple fruitiness, and little evidence of hops. However the more sour, tart character returns in the aftertaste. Well chilled, this would be a thirst-quenching beer on a summer’s day.

It’s an interesting experiment, and considerably better than I might have feared, but ultimately to my mind rather falls between two stools.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Levelling the table-top

Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s is one of those irritating people who seem to alternate between talking good sense and utter drivel. For example, his comments a while back on the rigid enforcement of age restrictions leading to more unhealthy drinking patterns were spot-on. But his latest claim that VAT puts pubs at an unfair disadvantage on food sales vis-a-vis supermarkets seems very wide of the mark.

I don’t want to go into the basic principles of taxation, but it clearly seems sensible not to levy VAT on basic foodstuffs bought in shops, whereas most meals out are, to some extent, an indulgence, and include a substantial element of service, not just food. While drink sales in pubs have tanked in recent years, the eating-out sector continues to enjoy healthy growth, so to claim that restaurants are being put out of business by Tesco and ASDA seems utterly ludicrous. Even less so than with drink, it’s very rarely a straightforward either-or choice between eating out or in. On this issue at least, perhaps Timbo should stop whingeing and put his own business house in order.

What’s next, you have to wonder, a minimum price for food? Oh...

Plain packaging for political parties

Rather topical for today (h/t to The Boiling Frog)

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Crossed wires

Reflecting further on the proposals for minimum alcohol pricing, it seems to me that this is a policy whose objectives haven’t been clearly thought through. It’s often described as a means of combating “binge-drinking”, although whether it will really make any difference to the number of people consuming the three pints or the equivalent at a sitting that now qualifies in official parlance as a “binge” is highly questionable.

As I have stated on here in the past, there are two separate “alcohol problems” in this country – drink-related violence and disorder, generally at weekends in large towns and cities, and health problems caused by excessive consumption over the long term. There is an overlap between the two, but to a large extent they are very different issues that need different responses. The biggest thing they have in common is that the extent of both is much overstated.

To listen to many politicians talking, minimum pricing is a key way of tackling alcohol-related disorder, which seems peculiar when it is a measure that will almost exclusively affect the off-trade, and the people brawling and puking in the streets have generally just come out of bars. “Ah yes”, the argument goes, “but the big problem is pre-loading and it will put a stop to that.” It always seems a perverse form of logic to blame the first drink people had rather than the last for the state they end up in. While obviously a considerable amount of pre-loading does go on, I tend to feel it takes an exaggerated share of the blame, and even in its absence it is fanciful to imagine that folks would sit around in well-behaved groups sipping at Jaipur and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and setting the world to rights.

I also get the impression that, for many young people, meeting up at someone’s house for a few drinks (and, it must be said, a few smokes) before hitting the town has now become an integral part of the weekend ritual, and it will take far more than a bit of fiddling with the price of Glen’s Vodka to deter them from doing it.

If anything, minimum pricing comes across as a measure specifically targeted at less well-off people who drink at home, most of them perfectly responsibly. If the government don’t really know what it’s supposed to achieve in the first place, how can they judge its success? Of course, if the Labour Party had any balls, or retained any genuine sympathy for the working classes, they could strongly attack it on that basis. So don’t hold your breath, then.

A further point is that, in the off-trade at least, minimum pricing would pretty much entirely cancel out the effect of low strength relief and high strength beer duty. There will be little point in buying low-strength beers if they no longer have any price advantage over their higher-strength competitors (except in the general sense that weaker=cheaper), while HSBD has already raised the typical price of super-strength lagers to about 40p/unit, so minimum pricing will just bring other beers into line. A classic example of two government policies ending up with crossed wires.

There’s an interesting post here by Dick Puddlecote about the legal minefield that the minimum pricing plans have waded into.