Saturday 30 June 2012

More may well mean worse

A post by Tandleman about stale keg beer reminded me of an odd bit of nostalgia. The Traveller’s Rest at Flash on the A53 heading from Buxton towards Leek used to claim to sell every (keg) draught beer available in the UK. This was almost certainly an exaggeration, but it was definitely the case that pretty much every inch of the long promontory bar counter bore a keg font of the typical late 70s boxy type. In a different era, it would have been much more popular with drinkers than today but, even so, I imagine most of the kegs were undrinkably stale.

It has long since been refurbished and given a more conventional and limited beer range (I think I visited it again around 2000), but StreetView suggests it is still open and trading.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Big Brother at the checkout

Apparently the government are planning to use supermarket loyalty card data to spy on the purchasing habits of members of the public and send them warning letters if they appear to be violating guidelines on healthy eating and drinking. Obviously this is something that is easy to circumvent simply by ceasing to use the loyalty card, and in any case is likely, dependent on your shopping patterns, to produce skewed data. It’s entirely credible that someone might buy all their fruit and veg for cash in markets, and just go to Tesco to stock up on drink and non-perishable items, in which case they would end up with a black mark.

As the owner of a Tesco Clubcard, I have to say they have never tried to tempt me with offers on things I just wouldn’t buy, with the exception of the occasional coupon for alcohol-free lager. They sometimes even give me 50p off “any beer, lager or cider”. If they did start bombarding me with coupons for fruit and veg, obviously I’d just junk the card.

But the disturbing thing about this story is that government should even think it acceptable. It opens up an Overton window by suggesting that the idea is even under consideration. Despite their weasel words in favour of liberty, it seems that governments of all political persuasions are doing their best to track more and more of our activities, by aiming to monitor our shopping habits, our car journeys and our electronic communications.

And how long before the “voluntary” loyalty card monitoring becomes compulsory, in all shops, and the personal alcohol ration card is introduced?

Saturday 23 June 2012

You pay for this

Chris Snowdon draws our attention to an organisation called Active Europe whose vision is “a democratic, diverse and peaceful world free from alcohol and other drugs where any individual can live up to her full potential.” Their questionable and intolerant policy agenda can be seen here. It starts with this and then goes on:

There is a direct connection between the consumption of alcohol and the extent of alcohol related harm. The amount of alcohol related problems in society is linked with the total alcohol consumption. Attempts to reduce alcohol related harm should therefore be aimed at reducing the total consumption of alcohol. Restricive alcohol policies save lives and money and therefore contribute to development of the whole society.
While everyone is entitled to their opinion, the worrying thing is that this unpleasant organisation is funded by the EU. Many will say the sooner we’re out, the better.

The smell of death

It’s been recently reported that a well-regarded pub company pub in the Peak District fringes a few miles outside Stockport has closed, and looks unlikely to reopen. It had a fair number of houses nearby, but not enough to sustain it without outside visitors. I called in last year, and wasn’t particularly impressed. While food was advertised, there were no menus on tables, and it generally seemed shabby. There were six real ales on offer, but during my stay I saw none pulled apart from the pint that I had ordered, which gave a distinct impression of being the first out of the pump. The prices seemed at least 20p/pint above the local norm, which is especially objectionable if your beer isn’t up to scratch.

In retrospect, its closure isn’t all that surprising and, while it’s hard to nail it down, it has to be said that there are some pubs you visit that have the “smell of death” about them. For all I knew, this pub could have been heaving in the evenings, but there were other cues apart from the lack of trade. You can tell the difference between a thriving evening pub that is quiet at lunchtime, and a pub that is just struggling overall. I would say food advertised outside but no menus on tables at a recognised food serving time is a good sign. Also nobody eating at 1 pm on a weekend despite the presence of menus.

In a location like that, while food may be the icing on the cake, you also need to cultivate and encourage your locals and regulars.

I’ve only once had an “OMG, it’s closed!” moment with a pub, the Railway at Heatley. Hopefully in future I’ll spot the signs in advance.

Sunday 17 June 2012

I want to get off

The petition against the beer duty escalator is currently enjoying major promotion, and so far has gained over 57,000 signatures. But, realistically, what are the chances of the escalator being stopped before the 2015 General Election? The strong view of the respondents to the poll was “zero”, which commanded 61% of all votes cast. On the other hand, the four who voted “a certainty” demonstrate a remarkable degree of optimism.

I would say “very unlikely” rather than “zero”, as there must be a slim chance that before the election the government will decide to take the foot off the gas to win a few votes. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

And there is a skeleton at the feast – if minimum pricing comes in, there must surely be a strong temptation for the government to bring duties closer to the level of the minimum price, to ensure the benefit flows to the Exchequer rather than private businesses. Those championing minimum pricing need to be very careful what they wish for.

Monday 11 June 2012

Doctors’ orders

It was reported over the weekend that the Alcohol Health Alliance, a body comprising more than thirty medical groups and charities, had called for a total ban on TV alcohol advertising and sports sponsorship.

Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA), said extreme measures were required to "reset society's norms" and protect children from marketing messages which glamorise drinking and fuel excess consumption...

In terms of consumption, we need to change the norms, to get back to where we were 20 or 30 years ago.

Well, according to the 2011 BBPA Statistical Handbook, in 2010 we consumed an average of 10.2 litres of alcohol per head, compared with 9.8 litres in 1990 (4% less) and 9.4 litres in 1980 (8% less), so things aren’t really all that different.

In fact, the AHA are already getting what they want, as average consumption has been steadily falling since 2004. It has been recently reported that alcohol consumption has continued its steady decline, so the latest figures will be even lower. And I seem to remember the late 80s being a time of media frenzy over “lager louts”.

It has always seemed to me that alcohol advertising is unlikely to have much effect on overall consumption levels anyway. People take up drinking through social influences, not through advertising. All advertising really does is to make them more likely to consume premium products rather than bog-standard generic ones. If anything, the main role of advertising restrictions is to act as a symbol of official disapproval of drinking rather than to reduce consumption.

Of course none of this has been inspired to any degree whatsoever by existing curbs on tobacco advertising. Move along now, folks, no slippery slope to see here.

The AHA also called for a minimum price of 50 pence a unit, rather than the government’s proposed 40p, which it says “would mean 97,000 fewer hospital admissions a year within 10 years”. No surprise there, then. And when 50p doesn’t “work”, no doubt they’ll call for it to be 60p. And then 70p and so on...

And, yet again, a news story about alcohol “problems” is accompanied by a picture of a pint of beer.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Glass half empty

It has long been a source of frustration for the “health” lobby that they are unable to assert that any quantity of alcohol above zero is dangerous. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that moderate drinking results in better health outcomes than total abstention.

However, new research claims that the supposed health benefits of alcohol can be gained from drinking a mere three units a week, and if this became the official consumption guideline for “safe drinking” it could save 4,500 lives a year.

It has never struck me that the argument that alcohol has health benefits is the best one to use in its defence – surely people should be drinking because they enjoy it (and know that, unless done consistently to excess, it isn’t really harmful), not forcing it down like tablets.

And, if this becomes the official message, it will remove the figleaf from those who claim that responsible drinking is compatible with a “healthy lifestyle”. If you accept this definition, it certainly isn’t. A pint and a half a week? That’s hardly worth bothering with, and certainly wouldn’t keep many pubs open.

The brewers, winemakers and distillers, and the likes of CAMRA, will be left standing exactly where the tobacco industry are today.

Ice-cold in Adswood

The hot weather a couple of weeks ago (now sadly only a fading memory) prompted me to create a poll about whether people had ever put ice cubes in beer to cool it down a bit. It’s a recognised (if questionable) serving method for cider, but very rarely seen with beer.

Actually, 17% of respondents said they had, so it’s not entirely unknown. It’s all very well saying you should put your beer in the fridge, but if you haven’t had such foresight, it may be the cooling option of last resort. Personally I have one of those flexible rapid wine coolers which I keep in the freezer, so I’m generally prepared for the worst.

The comment that it was standard practice in Thailand was interesting – see the results and comment thread.

Of course, no doubt Cooking Lager would say that if you go down the pub they have ice-cold lout on tap.

Monday 4 June 2012

Hate week is here

Martyn Cornell is a well-respected beer writer, who has made plenty of knowledgeable, stimulating posts on his Zythophile blog, and also written Amber Gold and Black, the definitive history of British beer styles.

But, sadly, he has now come out with this piece of bigoted, spittle-flecked nonsense, beginning with the phrase “I hate smokers”. And he has the cheek to complain about people quoting Pastor Niemoller against him! Another person to cross off my Christmas card list. As far as I’m concerned, any self-proclaimed “beer lover” who supports the smoking ban doesn’t really understand pubs.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Fiddling while Rome burns

Let’s imagine that Neville Chamberlain’s National Government had set out their four key policy priorities in the Spring of 1939. And they offered the following:

  • Increase economic growth
  • Reduce unemployment
  • Improve healthcare
  • Enhance transport infrastructure
All very worthy aims, and you couldn’t argue with any of them. But you might feel that, given the international situation, they might have missed something important.

And so, in the Spring of 2012, CAMRA set out their four key campaigns:

  • Encourage more people to try a range of real ales, ciders and perries
  • Stop tax killing beer and pubs
  • Secure an effective government support package for pubs
  • Raise the profile of pub-going and increase the number of people using pubs regularly
Given the unprecedented threat from and influence of the anti-drink lobby, you might have just thought that they would include something like “defend the right of adults to consume alcoholic drinks without unreasonable fiscal or legislative constraints”. But they didn’t.

It could be argued that, by conducting those four campaigns, they are indirectly countering the neo-Pros. But, unless the anti-drink arguments are directly challenged, they will be allowed to pass by default. The alcohol duty escalator, which CAMRA has taken up as a major campaign, is based not only on revenue-raising but also on the belief that Britain collectively drinks too much and a steady ratcheting up of taxation is a good way of countering that. The key reason for opposing it is that it is a broad-brush, indiscriminate measure that will penalise responsible drinkers while doing little for those with genuine alcohol problems.

Ducking out of this debate will, in the long term, prove to be a major miscalculation for CAMRA. And, despite all the fine words about protecting pubs, in a climate where drinking is increasingly stigmatised, it will retreat from the public to the private sphere. As I’ve said in the past, 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’ve long ago reached the conclusion that the great and good of CAMRA will only acknowledge the existence of the neo-Pro juggernaut when it actually runs them down.