Tuesday 25 September 2018

Cashing up

A Suffolk pub has claimed to be the first in Britain to go entirely cashless and stop accepting any payments in cash. This seems to be a rather dubious assertion, as I know that Sandbar in Manchester has been entirely cashless for some time, and Martin Taylor has recently encountered the same in the Cloudwater brewery tap. However, it’s undoubtedly a trend that is only going to grow.

It needs to be made clear we are not discussing cashless payments per se. They are a growing feature of the financial landscape, and obviously it makes business sense for many pubs to accept them. But to refuse to accept cash entirely is something entirely different, and comes across very much as an attempt to practice social selection of your clientele.

This may not be a problem in a rural gastropub, but in inner-city boozers it’s a common sight to see the pound coins being counted out on to the bar to pay for a pint. It is estimated that there are 1.6 million unbanked workers in the UK, and there must be many more pensioners and benefit claimants, not to mention people who prefer to avoid using cards for routine transactions. It’s effectively saying that you’re not interested in the business of the poor or the old. And it seems particularly ironic that it is being practiced by a standard-bearer of the craft beer movement that supposedly prides itself on its “inclusiveness”.

There are other reasons to justify caution in adopting cashless payments, some of which are set out in this Guardian article and this blogpost by Boozy Procrastinator. One obvious point is that they make budgeting more difficult, both in terms of controlling your spending on a night out, and also in a more general sense of creating a disconnect with the whole concept of money. It’s hardly surprising that so many people seem to get into unmanageable debt when they hardly ever see the stuff.

You are making yourself vulnerable to power cuts and to the breakdowns of banking computer systems which seem all too common nowadays. You are also willingly putting yourself in the hands of giant, faceless corporations that may not have your best interests at heart. And someone is able to track exactly where you have been and what you have spent your money on. You don’t have to be a tinfoil hatter to see how that could potentially be abused.

Yes, by all means use cashless payments where they are convenient, and allow them in your pubs, but there are dangers in the headlong rush to embrace them and relegate cash to history. And, if you really want to be a rebel, stick to cash as much as you can.

Saturday 15 September 2018

Another morsel for the crocodile

The industry-funded alcohol education body Drinkaware have recently teamed up with Public Health England to launch a campaign to encourage people to have alcohol-free days. Some of us may enjoy a touch of Schadenfreude at the news that this has led to the resignations of several prominent figures such as Sir Ian Gilmore on the grounds that health campaigners should not have any association with the drinks industry.

However, that should not lead us to conclude that it is anything other than an act of appeasement of the anti-drink lobby. It takes as read the unscientific 14 units a week consumption guideline, something that if generally adopted by the population would probably render most of the pubs in the country unviable. It is worth noting that the equivalent guidelines in Italy are 35 units for men and 26 for women.

Plus, as often happens with such initiatives, the effect is likely to be more to encourage the already prudent to even more unnecessary over-caution, while being cheerfully ignored by the irresponsible. The objective often seems to be less to change behaviour than to further denormalise alcohol consumption per se. And, intuitively, it seems to me that drinking one pint every day of the week is likely to do you less harm than drinking seven pints on one day.

Accepting this guideline may give the industry a figleaf of respectability, but it’s an ever-shrinking one. Not so long ago, the figure was 28 units a week for men. It was then cut to 21, and now to 14. Will they still parrot it when it’s further reduced to 7, and then to 2? And how about when the official line becomes that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, something that has been claimed in a recent study? If drinks producers and retailers want to see where they will stand in the eyes of officialdom in twenty years’ time, they have only to look at the tobacco industry. They will have become a “toxic trade”.

It’s often a source of disappointment that industry bodies are so reluctant to speak out in their own defence, and just tag along with the official message. However, it has to be recognised that business is about making a profit, not conducting a moral crusade, and it may well make sense to keep your head down, playing along with the official agenda while dragging your feet a bit, and hoping that in time the storm will pass, which of course the previous temperance crusade of the 1870-1930 period eventually did.

On this note, it’s disappointing to see that the Drinkers’ Voice campaign, which I enthusiastically welcomed last year, seems to have become moribund. They haven’t updated their Twitter account for two months, and nor do they seem to have issued any press releases. It’s not exactly difficult for a pressure group to keep up the illusion of activity without actually doing very much, but they haven’t even been able to manage this, despite having received a substantial amount of seedcorn funding from CAMRA.

It’s always been difficult to get private citizens to come together in defence of their liberties as consumers and users of public services, as there’s an assumption that somebody else is going to do it for them. But if industry isn’t prepared to, then who else will? Of course there are individual bloggers and commenters who are prepared to speak out, but even they often come under suspicion, however unjustified, of being paid shills. Incidentally, CAMRA doesn’t really qualify as its original raison d’ être was to campaign against the policies of the brewing industry, not government, and it’s not really its role to become a generalised defender of drinkers’ interests.

There’s no body to champion the rights of all drinkers of alcohol, or of soft drinks, or of consumers of food. It’s all too easy just to chuckle when the other lot get it in the neck from government. But, at the end of the day, everyone will. United we stand, divided we fall.

Saturday 8 September 2018

Counting the calories

We now take it for granted that the alcoholic strength of beers and other alcoholic drinks is declared on packaging and at point of sale. It’s hard to believe that, forty years ago, the brewers were extremely unwilling to release this information, and CAMRA paved the way in working out the original gravity of all the real ales in the country where the brewers were unwilling to divulge it themselves. The brewers’ argument was that people would judge beers purely on the basis of strength, but in reality were probably more worried about having it exposed just how weak many of their beers were. Experience has shown that the concern about “drinking on strength” was largely unfounded – people continue to choose beer of a wide range of strengths based on taste and occasion, and indeed in the current century the general trend has been towards lower strengths.

So, on the face of it, it would seem uncontroversial that we should be given the same information about the calorie content of the food we eat. This is already the case with pretty much all packaged food you buy in shops, but it doesn’t apply to fresh food or to most of the food sold for out-of-home eating in pubs, restaurants and cafes. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, such as Wetherspoon’s, who also declare the calorie content of their alcoholic drinks.

So the government have now decided to put this into action. While I’ve been sceptical of many other so-called “health” initiatives, this can’t be criticised as an example of nannying, as all it is doing is to give people the information on which to make informed decisions. However, it poses a number of practical problems. Working out calorie content is by no means as straightforward as alcohol content, and the range of different food items is far greater. It’s likely to impose significant costs on small businesses, which may cause them to discontinue providing food at all, and also deter food businesses of all sizes from offering one-off daily specials. So inevitably there are calls for smaller business to be excluded.

However, simply exempting them seems like something of a cop-out that will undermine the objectives of the scheme. I’m no expert in the field, but wouldn’t it be possible to come up with something like providing official indicative figures for a range of food items that could be used if providers aren’t in a position to make a detailed analysis? Even if somewhat inaccurate, that would surely be better than nothing. An ounce of fried rice is an ounce of fried rice, regardless of which venue is serving it. The industry should be looking at realistic solutions rather than pooh-poohing the whole idea.

It can’t be denied that there is a serious issue here. Eating out of the house has boomed in recent decades, and accounts for an ever-growing proportion of our food intake. Not only do many businesses provide no calorie information, but they also offer standard portions that are way above what is regarded as compatible with a healthy diet. The typical portions served up by takeaways are easily half as much again as what a normal person would regard as a filling meal, and could often provide two slightly frugal meals. Even when calories are declared, the size of meals is often pretty overfacing. For example, Wetherspoon’s Ultimate Burger with chips is 1516 calories, while their Pepperoni Pizza is 1170, when the recommended daily intake for an adult male is 2,500. That may be OK for an occasional treat, but if you’re eating meals of that kind on a regular basis you’re going to have a problem.

Like many of those whose parents lived through the Second World War, I was brought up to finish everything on my plate, accompanied by exhortations to think of the starving children in Africa. I still feel a touch of guilt about leaving food on the plate in pubs and restaurants, and see it as something of an insult to the chef. Yet I find myself increasingly ending up leaving a quarter or a third of a meal uneaten, and having to apologise, saying “The food was fine, it was just a very big portion.” I still gag at the thought of the pub offering a “belly-busting pound of chips” on its menu. Calorie labelling would at least expose the true size of portions. And the risk is that, if the food industry doesn’t act to provide information and offer the choice of smaller portions, the government will end up enforcing them.

Tuesday 4 September 2018

HOW much a pint?

Last month, CAMRA reported the results of a survey revealing that a majority of people in the UK now considered the price of a pint in the pub to be unaffordable. So it’s hardly surprising that eyebrows were raised when it was reported that a London branch of the Craft Beer Co. was selling AleSmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian Special Edition for no less than £22.50 a pint.

As is often the case, the issue is rather clouded by the question of strength. Unlike wines and spirits, there is a wide variation in strength between different beers. This particular brew is 12% ABV, and thus is not directly comparable with a pint of 4% standard bitter or lager that even in London would sell for no more than £4.50. However, even if you make a strict bangs-per-buck comparison, it still seems pretty poor value.

It’s generally accepted in the fields of wine and spirits that some rare and prized examples will sell for vastly more than the norm – for example a bottle of whisky was recently sold for almost £43,000. However, beer is much more considered to be a drink for ordinary people, and this wasn’t some scarce vintage brew of which there was a finite supply, it was one brewed for current consumption and sold on draught just like a normal pint of bitter. Of course there’s nothing wrong with some specialist beers selling for eyewatering prices, as after all nobody is forced to buy them. But it’s understandable that it makes headlines.

Inevitably, there was a rather defensive reaction from some quarters saying “why quote a price per pint when it isn’t drunk in pints?” but that’s rather missing the point. Price per pint is a straightforward and generally understood yardstick for comparing the cost of beers. Whether or not it is actually drunk in pints is irrelevant. Fine wines and spirits are generally priced per bottle, but that doesn’t mean that a bottle is the usual measure in which they’re served. And whatever unit was chosen, the relative disparity would be just the same.

In response to this, the Sun newspaper ran a feature in which members of the public were invited to taste a range of expensive craft beers. Fairly predictably, they weren’t particularly impressed - see the image above. Of course there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to any such piece, but inevitably it touched a few raw nerves and provoked accusations of “reverse snobbery”. However, surely it is the job of the media to prick balloons of pretentiousness and self-importance.

It wasn’t long before the mask slipped, with comments being made that many of the drinkers pictured looked like “gammon”, and one well-known beer journalist who really should have known better tweeting that most of them were probably Brexit voters. He later had second thoughts and deleted it, so I can’t link to it here. So much for an inclusive beer community – obviously that’s the wrong kind of inclusiveness.

I’ll leave the final word to this Twitter commenter: