Wednesday 24 January 2024

Sober reflections

Last week’s issue of the Spectator magazine contained a very insightful article by Henry Jeffreys entitled How Britain sobered up, looking at how this country has fallen out of love with drinking alcohol. The whole thing is well worth reading*, but this paragraph is particularly salient:

The real losers in Britain have been pubs. Since 2000, Britain has lost more than 13,000 pubs – a quarter of its total – and the rate of closures is growing. It doesn’t help that we are all increasingly told to drink less: in 2016, recommendations for drinking levels were lowered to 14 units for men and women in Britain. The World Health Organisation even states that there is no safe level for alcohol consumption, despite numerous studies which show that in small quantities alcohol can be beneficial to our health. Not that you are likely to hear about the benefits of drinking from the alcohol industry. Instead, it is fighting a losing battle in enemy territory, up against public health officials and the NHS.
We are subjected to an ever-growing amount of anti-alcohol messaging, not just specifically health-related, but also lifestyle pieces preaching the benefits of an alcohol-free lifestyle and celebrity interviews dissecting their alcohol problems and proudly proclaiming their newly sober status. The pleasures of moderate drinking and the companionship of pubs rarely get a look-in. Inevitably, this is going to influence people’s decision-making, especially amoungst younger people who are just beginning to form their social habits.

Many people who comment on pubs and beer direct much of their ire at rapacious brewers and pub companies, while the anti-drink lobby gets off relatively lightly. Yet this must be one of the key reasons for the decline of the pub trade in recent years. You have to wonder why CAMRA allowed its Drinkers’ Voice initiative, specificially set up to combat anti-drink messaging, to wither on the vine.

The author concludes:

If we’re not careful, we might soon discover that alcohol has become an unaffordable luxury, or something bought from the supermarket, with the only place to drink it being in the home. It’s a sobering thought. The cheap pint of beer in a local pub or the £10 bottle of wine imported by that funny little chap from France can’t exist without a lively drinking culture to support them… The risk is that we throw away our infrastructure of sociable, controlled intoxication in pubs, bars and restaurants. The sort of places where we can meet others and random encounters can happen, where young people can dance, flirt and laugh. In other words, civilisation.
* The article is paywalled, but a free registration will allow you to read a couple of articles a month. If you’re really interested, I can send you the full text.

Monday 22 January 2024

Union busting

The Morning Advertiser reports that Carlsberg-Marston’s have decided to discontinue the use of traditional “Union sets” for brewing Marston’s Pedigree. This is a distinctive fermentation system, described here, which uses large wooden casks to recirculate the beer. This was met with predictable outrage about the destruction of Britain’s brewing heritage.

However, it must be remembered that Carlsberg-Marston’s are a commercial company, not the custodians of a brewing museum. Using Union sets is considerably more expensive than conventional fermenters, and they must have decided that any additional cachet conferred by this system no longer counts for much in the beer market. Yes, it is sad, but no more sad than the closure of innumerable breweries over the years. Change inevitably involves a sense of loss.

In the early days of CAMRA, Pedigree was revered as one of the top beers in the country. I remember when I was at University in Birmingham in the late 70s going on a trip into the Worcestershire countryside and being told, on entering a Marston’s pub, “Pedigree’s the one to go for here.” I have a copy of Michael Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book from as late as 1995 in which he gives it four stars as a world classic, and praises its “clean, dry, gently fruity, nutty character”, although I think by then it was already trading on past glories.

But, over the years, for whatever reason, it lost its allure. Possibly expanding its distribution and exposing it to more poor cellarmanship was a factor. In the 1980s it was made available in many Whtibread pubs, where it was often found in poor condition. The bitter takeover battle with Wolverhampton & Dudley in the early 2000s can’t have helped either. This ended up with Wolves triumphant, but not too long after assuming the more widely recognised identity of their target.

Quite a few people on Twitter have made comments along the lines of “I haven’t had a good pint in twenty years”, or “it’s just dishwater now”. Sadly, it seems to be widely dismissed as being just another boring brown beer to file alongside Doom Bar and Greene King IPA. It seems to be one of those beers, like Landlord, that needs a decent amount of conditioning time in the cellar and, if it’s served too green, just ends up being muddy and bland.

To be honest, it’s always been one of my favourite beers, and one that I tend to go for if I see it, which isn’t that often now. I don’t record every single beer I drink, but looking back through my notes, it seems that the last time I had it was in October last year in the Crown in Market Drayton, where I described it as “surprisingly good” and gave it an NBSS score of 3.5. I remember a particularly good pint in the Bank House in Uttoxeter in June 2019, where it was the best beer of the day. But I have to say that in recent years Draught Bass, also now brewed by Marston’s, although not in the Union sets, has been a consistently better beer. The results of this Twitter poll suggests that most drinkers have now largely forgotten about it.

Mention of Bass recalls the fact that they closed their much larger union sets back in 1981, to the accompaniment of a considerable amount of criticism, although back in those days the beer and pub industry in general was in much ruder health, and Bass were derided as one of the “Big Six”. It was widely felt that Draught Bass was never the same again.

But it is significant that no other brewery has sought to create union sets, suggesting they aren’t really an essential element of brewing a high-quality beer. There are plenty of beers in the UK that are currently rated more highly than Pedigree, none of which are brewed using unions. Indeed most Pedigree itself is not brewed in unions, with a proportion of union-brewed beer being blended in at the end of the process. So the system was, to be honest, something of an anachronism, described in the article I linked to above as “an anomaly”.

Beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones has stated on Twitter that “I’m amazed it lasted this long given the rapacious nature of global brewing.” Whether the unions would have lasted longer if Marston’s had still been in sole charge is debatable, but once the merger with Carlsberg took place it was probably inevitable sooner or later. This was in effect a shotgun wedding forced on Marston’s by their heavily indebted state, which was dangerously exposed by the impact of lockdowns. This in turn was largely the result of the mutually destructive takeover battle with Wolverhampton & Dudley back in the 2000s.

It was clear from the beginning that Carlsberg held the upper hand, and they have proceeded with a process of rationalisation, involving selling off the Bedford brewery and closing Jennings, Ringwood and Wychwood. Indeed there must be a question mark over how long they will retain two large ale breweries fairly close together in the Midlands at Burton and Wolverhampton.

Obviously the two cases are very different, but there are certain parallels with the reaction to the destruction of the Crooked House pub, where many people suddenly discovered reserves of anger about the end of something that they hadn’t particularly cared about while it was in existence.

Saturday 20 January 2024

Fancy a thimbleful?

In a result that will surprise no-one, health campaigners have found that eliminating the largest size of wine glass reduces the amount people drink.
Removing the largest glass of wine from sale cuts the total amount people drink by 7.6%, a four-week trial in 21 pubs, bars and restaurants suggests. With the largest measure, 250ml - equal to a third of a bottle - off the menu, more 125ml and 175ml glasses of wine were sold.

Customers bought the same amount of wine by the bottle, but overall, less volume of wine was sold daily. Sales of beer and cider stayed the same as did the venues' overall takings. "Value for money" was likely to have been a factor in the drop in the amount of wine sold, the University of Cambridge researchers say. However, they believe the policy should now be "considered" for trial by licensing authorities.

Most people who drink wine by the glass in bars and restaurants probably only have one, so it’s almost inevitable that reducing the maximum size available will result in lower consumption. But surely they should be treated as responsible adults who are capable of making their own decisions, and given the choice of a larger measure, rather than being subjected to these nannying “nudge” restrictions.

In the coming years we are likely to see a growing number of attempts to micromanage people’s behaviour in this kind of way “for their own good”. I fear the trend will only intensify if we see the election of a Labour government later this year.

This news prompted the publication in the Telegraph of an opinion piece by Ross Clark entitled An alcohol ban is beginning to look inevitable. Maybe this seems alarmist, but that is certainly the general direction of policy, and who would have imagined twenty years ago that in 2024 the government would be legislating for a gradual complete prohibition of smoking?

No doubt attention will turn next from wine to the size of beer glasses in pubs. From time to time, we see articles called something like “The Tyranny of the Pint”, arguing that this standard measure encourages over-consumption, and also tends to be associated with a toxic masculine drinking culture. Of course there is a strong attachment to the concept of a pint, in a way that there isn’t to a 250ml wine glass, and indeed the term has entered into the vernacular as a synonym for beer. But will we see in the future attempts to make pubs and bars adopt two-thirds as the standard beer measure? After all, most of the world already tends to consume draught beer in measures of 330ml or equivalent.

Saturday 6 January 2024

All the alcohol turns to sugar

The annual Dry January campaign inevitably turns the spotlight on non-alcoholic beers, which in recent years have been the subject of a growing amount of publicity and hype. Obviously in terms of the specific objective of reducing alcohol consumption they have an undeniable advantage. Many people, though, have come to see them as being a healthy option in a wider sense. But does this belief really have any substance? A recent study has found that many of them in fact contain considerably more sugar than their normal-strength equivalents.
…while a regular can of beer such as BrewDog IPA contains negligible amounts of sugar, alcohol-free versions from the same brewery can have 6g per 330ml can or bottle – the equivalent of a teaspoon and a half of sugar.

Old Speckled Hen Low Alcohol, meanwhile, contains 2g of sugar per 100ml, compared with just 0.2g in its regular equivalent.

Faye Thompson, a nutritional therapist, said: 'Reducing alcohol is great, but the pay-off in switching to non-alcoholic beer is the higher sugar content. 'Sugar is the real culprit, not fat, when it comes to weight gain.'

It’s fairly obvious that if you reduce one element in a drink, something else has to take its place, and bulking it out with sugar is one of the easiest options. Holsten Diät Pils used to be advertised with the slogan “All the sugar turns to alcohol” (something that would not be permitted now), but for alcohol-free beers the opposite is often the case. Likewise, yogurts advertised as “low fat” often only achieve this through a high sugar content.

If you take the view that any alcohol consumption is a health risk, then switching to alcohol-free beer is a good idea. But even the official guidelines accept that there is a “safe” level of consumption, and I would bet that most people who sometimes drink AFBs are fairly light drinkers in the first place. Choosing an AFB over a normal-strength one is effectively like switching to a full-sugar fizzy drink.

Clearly there may be a benefit in situations such as driving where reducing one’s alcohol intake is desirable. But it’s unlikely to bring much, if any, health benefit. There is also the consideration that diabetics may find it better to drink a well-attenuated alcoholic beer than a sugary alcohol-free one. If you are going to drink AFBs, it might be a good idea to look carefully at the sugar content shown on the label.

As an aside, this reminds me of a book I read back in the 1980s entitled The Food Scandal by Caroline Walker and Geoffrey Cannon, which I probably still have somewhere. At the time I found it quite eye-opening in some respects, although with hindsight it did foreshadow much of the patronising, prescriptive approach to diet and health that has come to dominate official policy. But one thing that struck me even then was that the authors didn’t seem to be in favour of any kind of drinks beyond water. Alcohol – hardly needs saying. Fizzy drinks – full of sugar. Low-cal fizzy drinks – artificial sweeteners. Milk – saturated fat. Fruit juice – yet more sugar. Tea and coffee – full of caffeine. And that attitude only seems to have intensified in the present day.