Wednesday 27 December 2023

Review of the Year 2023 – Part 2

Elon Musk did a major service to Twitter in 2022 in taking it over and removing the stifling blanket of censorship that had previously applied. Large numbers of previously banned accounts have now been restored. However, it’s hard to see that many of the changes he has made in 2023 have been positive. For a start, it’s now been renamed as “X”, although everyone still calls it Twitter. Two changes that have been particularly negative from my point of view are requiring you to log in to view it, which put paid to the display of interesting tweets that used to appear in the sidebar of this blog, and ruining the functionality of the TweetDeck app which made it easy to operate multiple accounts from one screen.

Having said that, no potential competitor has managed to establish any kind of dominance, and the big plus point of Twitter is the wide range of people and organisations signed up to it. It’s a place for interaction, not just a personal platform. Using an alternative may end up feeling like shouting into a void. During the year, I have advanced from just short of 6,300 followers to over 6,800 (6.847 as of this morning), so hitting the 7,000 mark in 2024 is entirely possible. I had a surge of followers from this tweet made from the Jolly Sailor on a pub crawl of Macclesfield earlier this month.

As I said last year, I deliberately aim to steer clear of any overtly political comments beyond the politics of lifestyle, which in a sense is the core raison d'Γͺtre of both this blog and my Twitter account. If you have a personal account, then you are free to express whatever views you choose, and people will take it or leave it as they wish. But if your account is presented as being on the general topic of beer or pubs, or represents a specific pub, then using it as a political soapbox will merely alienate a substantial section of readers.

The worst public health policy of the year has undoubtedly been Rishi Sunak’s decision to implement a creeping prohibition of tobacco sales, increasing the legal purchase age by one year every year. He was following the example of New Zealand but, following a general election and a change of government, they have scrapped it, leaving the UK standing proudly alone as a world leader in bansturbation. Little hope of Labour dropping it in the UK if they should gain power next year. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, while there are undoubted health risks associated with smoking, many people actively enjoy it, and this is setting a disturbing precedent. But of course there’s no chance of anything similar ever being applied to alcohol, oh no, definitely not.

From August 1st, a new system of alcohol duties was introduced which ensured all drinks were taxed in proportion to strength. While one might object to the absolute level of duties, the general principle must be correct. It’s rare to see government carrying out a root-and-branch reform of anything nowadays, rather than merely tinkering around the edges. With any change of this kind, there will inevitably be winners and losers, and one category that did suffer an increase was stronger red wines, which perhaps tend to be disproportionately favoured by the chattering classes.

A significant aspect of these changes was to raise the threshold for a lower rate of beer duty from 2.8% ABV to 3.4%, a level at which it is much easier to brew palatable beers. As I reported earlier this month, there has been significant movement to reduce the strength of beers a little above this level, although it remains distinctly patchy, and the jury is still out on to what extent drinkers will be happy to accept lower-strength beers. The duty savings are so significant, though – over 50% – that the 3.4% category is only going to grow in future.

In a rare display of enterprise and initiative, Samuel Smith’s wasted no time in increasing the strength of their 2.8% Light and Dark Milds and Alpine Lager to 3.4%, and in the process made them much better beers. However, in general they have continued to plough their usual secretive and idiosyncratic furrow. They have reopened a few high-profile pubs, such as the Falcon in Chester and the Berkeley in Scunthorpe, plus the Windmill at Carrington in Cheshire, of which I took the photo above in Autumn sunlight. However, in that case it’s hard to see where the custom is going to come from.

On the other hand, they closed the well-known Queen’s Head (aka Turner’s Vaults) in Stockport town centre, and after a short period of reopening – which even prompted an article in the Daily Telegraph – also shuttered the Swan in Holmes Chapel. At least a third of their estate must still be closed, including several pubs in prime locations that must be potentially lucrative. The Bird in Hand in Mobberley particularly stands out in that respect.

Back in September, Boak and Bailey wrote about how Sam Smith’s were no longer a cheap option in London, which is certainly true. However, in the North, after implementing a “big bath” price increase after reopening post-lockdown in 2020, which took Old Brewery Bitter from £2 a pint to £3, prices have remained frozen, while all of their competitors apart from Wetherspoon’s have now overtaken them. They now look pretty good value again, especially for the Dark Mild and XXXX Best which are only £2.20 a pint.

Earlier this month, there was a detailed and insightful article about Sam’s in the Times, which for a while was free to view, but has now been put back behind their paywall. In hindsight, I should have scraped the text. The ridiculous policy of banning mobile phone use in their pubs remains in force and, while I understand it is widely ignored in London, it is certainly enforced in the North, with the staff at risk of being peremptorily sacked by Humphrey Smith. Having said that, I’m happy to forgo the phone for a couple of pints, and Sam’s pubs, where they are open, remain oases of calm, comfort and cosiness that few others can match.

Last year, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the subject of cask beer quality, much of which centred around the issue of pubs failing to get to grips with the problem of slow turnover. While obviously my experiences are not representative, I have to say I’ve experienced very few pints this year that I have had to send back. Quite a few brewers, including our local Robinson’s, have been investing in pins, and maybe more pubs are taking on board the message on turnover. But of course adopting pins has a touch of the Ian Faiths about it, that it’s a recognition that the appeal of cask beer has become more selective.

In Part 1 I mentioned a particularly poignant post on Cooking Lager’s blog. Another blog that I have found interesting during the year is Phil Wieland’s Merseyside Pub Guide, in which he visits various areas of Liverpool and the surrounding districts where most other bloggers would not think of venturing. It’s notable that Liverpool seems to have retained a lot more traditional street-corner locals than Manchester, but very few of them still have cask ale, so Carling tends to be his beer of choice. Even the new micropubs are usually keg-only.

I can’t say I’ve read any books this year so far with a direct relevance to the themes of this blog. However, as a Christmas present, I have treated myself to Dead Drunk : Tales of Intoxication and Demon Drinks, edited by Pam Lock, which is described as:

With a stiff measure of the supernatural, a dram of melodrama and a chaser of the cautionary kind, tales of drink and drunkenness can be found in a well- stocked cabinet of Victorian and early twentieth-century fiction, reflecting an anxiety about the impact of alcohol and intoxicants in society, as well as an acknowledgment of their influence on humans’ perception of reality.
So I’m looking forward to reading that.

The best new tourist attraction I visited in the year was undoubtedly Coleton Fishacre, an Art Deco rural retreat built in the 1920s by the D’Oyly Carte family on the South Devon coast between Brixham and Dartmouth, with stunning sea views. It is a relatively recent acquisition by the National Trust which I have to admit I hadn’t been aware of before. The interiors are all very beige-hued, though.

Amongst revisits, a far grander 20th century country house was Castle Drogo, on the edge of Dartmoor, built by grocery magnate Julius Drew who fancied he had ancestral roots in the area.

I also revisited Gawthorpe Hall at Padiham in Lancashire, a small-scale Jacobean “prodigy house” designed by the noted architect Robert Smythson. I had last been here about 35 years ago when it was still in the midst of being converted from its former use as a textile college.

So what will 2024 bring? It is certainly going to be a consequential year in electoral terms on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are several ongoing international conflicts that may or may not be resolved or eased. What will this mean for the brewing industry and licensed trade? Who knows? As the old Chinese proverb goes, “may you live in interesting times!”

See here for Part 1.


  1. The Times article on Sam Smiths has been saved to the web archive

    1. Thanks for the link, anonymous. It certainly makes interesting reading without getting to the bottom of the enigmatic character, that is Humphrey Smith.

  2. You failed to mention the most exciting prospect for the drinking man in 2024: it will bwcome legfal for wine and champagne to be sold in pint bottles. I can't wait to get my hands on a pint bottle of Dom Perignon.

  3. Professor Pie-Tin27 December 2023 at 19:58

    Interestingly in their end of year piece Boak and Bailey announce they're leaving X/Twitter on January 1st 2024.
    In their newsletter they explain " Many of our 10,000 plus followers on Twitter either weren’t really there, or weren’t really interested. (Or were permanently annoyed by us…) Smaller, quieter conversations, and being less present on social media, suits us. "
    They then go on to list all the social media channels other than X where you can engage with them, which sounds to me like we want social media followers but only in our own echo chamber.
    Mudgie on the other hand is positively flourishing, increasing followers and praising Elon for " removing the stifling blanket of censorship that had previously applied.
    It’s a place for interaction, not just a personal platform. Using an alternative may end up feeling like shouting into a void. "
    X/Twitter is the the last place you should visit if you only want confirmation bias of your woke liberal views.
    The BBC and Guardian will happily provide that.

  4. Professor Pie-Tin27 December 2023 at 23:16

    News just in - It's Sir Timbo in the New Year's Honours list.
    All we need now is Lord Nigel of Farage and some of the true heroes of Brexit will finally be recognised.
    I'm raising a glass of my Christmas bottle of Dalwhinnie to celebrate.

  5. Replies
    1. You're welcome - always an interesting blog that does something virtually nobody else does :-)

  6. "a detailed and insightful article about Sam’s in the Times"

    This one?

  7. If “all drinks were taxed in proportion to strength” then we wouldn’t have the differentiations of below, between and above 3½% and 8½% which, other than for drinkers of Humphrey’s weakest keg beers, have NOT been in the interests of beer drinkers in general and pub goers in particular.
    There’s a copy of that “detailed and insightful article” on its way to you as I didn’t know it had “been saved to the web archive”.
    Your articles here are always of interest and there’s usually more with which I agree than disagree.

    1. Thanks for the article which I received this morning. Colour pictures too. It's good to have a hard copy rather than relying on something that might disappear from the Internet.

      As I've said, I don't support the 3.4% cut-off and feel it distorts the market.

      I've argued in the past that it makes sense to apply a higher % rate of duty to stronger alcoholic drinks, as they typically have lower production and distribution costs than weaker ones. If there was a single scale across the board it would give spirits a much lower cost per unit than beer, which doesn't equate to a level playing field and would probably not be desirable in terms of public policy. Beers of 8.5% and above only constitute a tiny fraction of the market and I'm not particularly bothered about lumping them in with wine in duty terms.

  8. One of the great pub photos, that one (immensely jealous !).

    I think Cookie guessed that Sam Smiths might be getting their price increases all over in one go back when OBB went up to £3. Where you can get it, I reckon it's as good as ever.

    Talking of beer quality, I'm glad you've had such good experiences with cask. I may be very lucky, but not only do I rarely get a duff pint but my pints have been largely good and better in 2023.

  9. A pint of Bass with a Northern head and a good fire burning in the grate during the winter. Years ago this would have be considered perfectly normal but is now so unusual it merits being a popular topic of discussion on social media.
    When did pubs and breweries lose track of the bleedin' obvious and decide re-inventing the wheel was better than just leaving it the fuck alone ?

  10. “An Art Deco rural retreat built in the 1920s” reminds me that during the Second World War two of my mother’s cousins were relocated from Huyton College to Blackwell House in the Lake District which had been designed in the Arts and Crafts style by Baillie Scott and built from 1898 to 1900 as a holiday home for Sir Edward Holt. Such an enormous house, with views looking over Windermere and across to the Coniston Fells, indicates that at the turn of that century Holts must have been an extremely profitable Manchester brewery.

  11. Castle Drogo must have meant a visit to the Drewe Arms - which I've not been to since Mabel Mudge was licensee.

    1. Currently closed, unfortunately. I went in the White Hart in Moretonhampstead, which was advertising food on an A-board outside, but in fact wasn't serving any, which didn't impress me. And according to WhatPub that's currently closed as well :-(


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