One drink is just right, two are too many, three too few” Spanish saying.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Scottish minimum pricing ruled lawful

In 2015, the Scottish Parliament voted for minimum pricing of alcohol, but implementation was delayed when the Scotch whisky industry launched a legal challenge, claiming the plans breached European Law. The Court of Session in Edinburgh has dismissed the challenge which means that, unless the drinks industry appeals to the Supreme Court in London, 50p per unit can be implemented north of the border. The price of a bottle of spirits is likely to exceed £14.

The Scotch Whisky Association's argument was that the policy is a restriction on trade and thus contrary to EU law. The opposing argument is all about alcohol misuse, asserting that minimum pricing would help address Scotland's "unhealthy relationship with drink".

My reasons for opposing minimum pricing are not personal; as I'm a beer drinker in pubs, it wouldn't make much difference to me. I previously explained my reasons here just before the 2013 CAMRA national AGM in Norwich, where a motion had been tabled to end the campaign's support of the policy. Pleasingly, the motion was passed, much to the chagrin of the top table.

Not everyone who buys cheap alcohol is a binge drinker - many simply don’t have much money, so minimum pricing will mainly affect the poorest in society. It is in effect a poll tax levied equally on every drinker, without reference to their ability to pay. The better-off and rich will still be able to buy as much drink as they like, unhampered by nanny state interference. I have never heard anyone assert that alcohol misuse is confined to the poorest in society; this law affects certain strands in society disproportionately and is therefore inherently unjust. Is this an unintended consequence? I don't think so.

I'm hoping the Scottish drinks industry does appeal further, even though I don't particularly share its motives.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Local breweries winning awards

I always like seeing our local breweries win awards, so I'm particularly pleased that three local breweries have won awards at SIBA’s North West Independent Beer Awards 2016 held in Bolton this month.

Southport Brewery won:
  • Gold for bottled Dark Night, a mild.
  • Silver for bottled Golden Sands, a golden ale.
  • Bronze for cask Golden Sands.
Liverpool Organic Brewery won:
  • Silver in the bottled premium strong beers category for Imperial Russian Stout.
  • Bronze in the pale ale category for Cascade.
Formby's Red Star Brewery won: 
  • Gold in the bottled porter category for Partisan.
The full results are here. Well done to all concerned. The only one I haven't had here is the Imperial Russian Stout: I must keep an eye out for it.

Historical fact: Southport Brewery's Dark Night was named after the tragic Mexico lifeboat disaster of 1886 which happened locally.

SIBA is the Society of Independent Brewers.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Lifeboat, Formby

In Formby again this week to visit the Lifeboat, a JD Wetherspoon house. It was opened in July this year in the ground floor of a private members club, which still operates in the upstairs rooms. It was named after the former Formby Lifeboat Station, said the be the first in the country. It is an attractive brick-built building and the interior decor is light and airy with timber that blends nicely into the overall d├ęcor. Behind the pub is a pleasant beer garden and covered shelters for smokers.

Wetherspoons pubs currently have a beer festival running until 23 October, and the real ales on sale when we called in were: Sharp's Doom Bar; Greene King Abbott; Everards Pitch Black; Moorhouse's Blond Witch; Hot Night in the Village; Recreation Ale IPA; Ruddles Best; Phoenix Pale Moonlight; Liberation Pilsner Cask Lager; and Morland Old Crafty Hen. They have Cask Marque accreditation for the quality of their beers. Real cider is also available.

On 29 October the pub is holding a Hallowe'en night, with Moorhouse's - whose beers include Pendle Witches Brew, Blond Witch and White Witch - coming along between 6pm and 8pm. They will be bringing down samples and some of the ingredients they use in the brew, such as hops, and will provide an explanation of the brewing process. The pub also has a brewery tour of the Parker Brewery in Banks coming up, but the details of that are still to be confirmed – please contact the pub if you're interested.

The Lifeboat offers: disabled access; baby changing facilities; free WiFi; and children are welcome. They serve food all day until late and have an open kitchen where you can see your food being prepared. There is also a window through which you can see the beer barrels in the cellar.

Opening hours: Mon-Wed 8 to 11.30; Thu-Sat 8 to Midnight; Sun 8 to11.30. Address: 41 Three Tuns Lane, Formby L37 4AQ. Tel: 01704 830839.

The pub is just over half a mile from Formby station, and Formby circular buses run past the pub. More buses stop just around the corner in Cross Green, including the X2 and 47 on the Liverpool-Southport route. No car park.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

More pub losses?

Tarleton's Cock & Bottle
Bad news about the Cock & Bottle, a Thwaites pub in Tareton, Lancs: it closed on 5 October and a sign appeared stating: "Due to unforseen [sic] circumstances we will close tonight (wed) and reopen on Sat 8th Oct". Unfortunately, the promised reopening did not happen.

Thwaites are now saying: "The pub has been abandoned by the lease holder and we intend to recover possession today. We will be working with a new operator to get it reopened as soon as possible and medium term we will be investing in the pub, ensuring The Cock and Bottle is at the heart of the community and the fantastic pub we know it can become and that the people of Tarleton deserve."

I like the Cock & Bottle because, even though it is very much food-oriented, it is a pleasant place that still has room for people who just want a drink. It's a bit out of my way, but I have called in on CAMRA business every so often.

Our local paper, the Southport Visiter, published the news of this on Facebook, and underneath someone commented that the Shrimper in Marshside (in the north part of Southport) and the Old Ship in the town centre are both likely to close in the near future. So far I know no more than that. The Old Ship was my local for many years in the 80s and 90s and although it's not the pub it used to be, I'd be sorry to see it go. The Shrimper has been the home of jazz nights for many years now.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Cross House Inn, Formby

The Cross House Inn
It has been years since I visited this pub and, to be honest, I couldn't remember what it was like inside. It has been refurbished in recent years and may have been different last time I was in. I was pleasantly surprised, and here is what I wrote for the local paper:

Formby's Cross House Inn stands prominently facing a local landmark: a roundabout with a Grade II listed stone cross. The pub itself has five separate areas all served by a long bar, and extensive wood panelling creates an old-style atmosphere. On the bar were six real ales: Morland Old Speckled Hen; Salopian Lemon Dream; Greene King Abbott; Greene King IPA: Rock The Boat Bootle Bull; and Salamander Ruffled Feathers Blond Bitter. The three beers I had were all in good condition; my favourite was the Lemon Dream.

There were also five real ciders: Black Dragon; Devon Mist; Rosie Pigg; Lilley's Apples & Pears; and Lilley's Sunset. The guest beers change regularly and tend to come from local breweries. Other drinks include a good wine selection, a choice of gins, and a range of coffees.

When I visited, there were quite a few people enjoying the reasonably-priced food, which is served every day until 10.00pm; there are also Sunday roast and children's menus. However the pub isn't just about a food, and the bar areas were busy with customers who had just come in for a few drinks. Dogs are permitted in the bar area.

Every Monday all cask ales are £2.50. Monday to Thursday is the Golden Years menu. Every Wednesday, curry banquet. Thursday evening is quiz night, and on Fizz Friday you can buy two glasses of Prosecco for £5. Live music features on the last Saturday of the month. There are several TV screens around the pub for sport, but the sound was off when I was there. They are holding a Hallowe'en children's party on Sunday 30 October in the afternoon.

There is extensive outdoor seating, including a covered balcony, and a large car park. The Cross House is about half a mile from Formby Station, but buses stop right outside, including the X2 and 47 Liverpool to Southport services. Opening hours: Monday-Thursday 11.00 to 23.00; Friday 11.00 to 00.00; Saturday 10.00 to 00.00; Sunday 10.00 to 23.00. They are on Facebook. Address: Three Tuns Lane, Cross Green, Formby L37 4BH. Phone: 01704 873775.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Amber warning

Copied from Rock Against The Right's Facebook page
This may surprise some people but, as a rule, I am not a great follower of political speeches; words are cheap, after all, and I prefer to judge our rulers by what they do, not what they say. However, there are times when the words should be heeded, and one example is Home Secretary Amber Rudd's speech to the recent Tory Party rally.

In particular, among a whole swathe of proposals designed to appeal to the large xenophobic element in her audience, she floated the idea of forcing companies to reveal what proportion of their workforces are migrants. At a time when hate crimes are on the increase after the EU vote, it seems irresponsible to give the bigots more ammunition. I'd say there's a good chance that 'named and shamed' companies would face a racist backlash, a reaction that would rapidly extend from the company to the workers themselves. They might as well put signs outside proclaiming: "Here be foreigners!" 

I can see no point in this idea, except to try to foment consumer boycotts which, if they gain enough support, may close businesses down and put people out of work - not forgetting the loss of provision of goods and services to us. Less drastically, employers may reduce their workforces to shed migrant workers, or not expand if that growth could only be achieved using migrant staff. This interference in an employer's right to choose the people he or she sees as most suitable will benefit neither the business concerned or the country as a whole. Young white males who drift into ultra-right politics, blaming foreigners for taking 'their' jobs, should have got their finger out at school, instead of dismissing it all as rubbish, failing, and then becoming angry when potential employers pick others who worked hard to make themselves more employable.

The UK's hospitality industry relies on migrant workers, who make up an estimated 24% of the workforce. The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers has said: "Pubs, bars and restaurants do not actively recruit abroad seeking foreign workers; they recruit locally and it is unfair to imply that businesses are failing to support the UK workforce or failing in their duty to provide opportunities or training."

To give an example: according to the People 1st, a skills and workforce development organisation, the British hospitality industry will have to recruit 11,000 chefs in the next eight years. With colleges reporting a decline in applications for full-time chef courses, employers will have no option but to look elsewhere for staff. What does anyone gain from such employers publishing the proportion of migrant workers they employ? 

Let's hope this pointless proposal does not make it beyond the conference rostrum, but if it does, it will over the years cause difficulties for all areas of the hospitality industry without any discernible gains for those of us who use it, or indeed for the country generally.

There's a petition on this subject asking Ms Rudd to abandon this ill-considered idea.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

When Moor is less

The shape of things to come?
I was going to write a much lengthier post than this will be about Moor Brewery's decision to produce real ale in a can, but why reinvent the wheel when two other beer bloggers have made most of the points I intended to? You can read Curmudgeon's view here, and Paul Bailey's here.

If we accept the concept of real ale in a bottle, there is no logical reason why we should not accept real ale in a can, although there is one obvious disadvantage: as the others have pointed out, with a can you cannot see the beer when pouring so you may end up with a hazy or even cloudy pint, which is obviously not good news if clarity is important to you. Other than that, I can't see how there'd be any difference between real ale in bottles or cans.

Justin Hawke of Moor Brewery believes that we over-value beer clarity in this country, but that is his opinion, nothing more. As a former home brewer on quite a large scale for an amateur brewing a variety of styles in the kitchen (up to 200 pints at any given time), I never used finings and I rarely had trouble with clarity. If an amateur like me could consistently make clear real ale in a bottle, I don't understand why professionals can't.

The simple fact is that we do eat and drink with our eyes as well as our mouths. We needed to in the distant past because it was an essential survival skill. The instinct (if that's what it is) is still there: most of us wouldn't eat food that had, say, mould growing on it, with the possible exception of blue cheeses. If we don't like the look of something, we won't eat or drink it, and plenty of people prefer clarity in their beer. They're not wrong: quite simply, they know what they're prepared to put into their own bodies.

Although I won't take back a hazy pint if I judge the flavour to be unaffected, I prefer my beer to be clear. The reasons why most people prefer beer to be clear are really quite irrelevant. Clarity is what most customers want, and as they're paying, I think they're entitled to get what they ask for. It has been suggested that our preference for clarity dates from when a cloudy pint really meant the beer was off. That's possible but I'm not entirely convinced: I think people simply like what they're eating and drinking to look good, however they choose to define that quality. If looks weren't important, how come restaurants take such trouble to make their food look good? Why don't they just slop it on the plate in any order and tell diners to eat with their mouths, not their eyes? Because the appearance of what we consume matters to most of us.

Getting back to real ales in cans or bottles: the differences between cask beer and keg or smoothflow are quite significant. I find the differences between real ale in bottles and brewery-conditioned bottled beers considerably less so, and I expect the same would apply to real ale in cans. From my point of view, this is all a lot of fuss about not a great deal, although I expect the publicity has done Moor Brewery no harm. I have no ill-will towards this venture - I may even try the beer if I come across it - but I shan't be rushing out to find canned real ale for much the same reasons that I don't now rush out to buy bottled real ales.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Award-winning mediocre brewery

I'll try it if I see it
Under a headline "Scotland names its best beers", the Morning Advertiser states that at the Scottish Beer Awards, "BrewDog, Caledonian Brewery and the Tempest Brewing Company have been named, among many other brewers, as producing some of Scotland’s top beers." Caledonian received a single award for Best Pale Ale with its Coast To Coast.

I haven't come across this particular beer, but my experience of Caledonian beers does not fill me with confidence. They have a very distinctive corporate flavour that I dislike. My local is a Star pub, a Heineken company which also owns Caledonian, so beers from that brewery do feature regularly on the bar. I no longer drink them. They even supply a house beer with its own special pump clip, but I find it still has that Caledonian flavour. I've little doubt that it's another beer re-badged: my friend reckons it's the old 80/-.

I used to quite like Deuchars IPA as a pleasant if unremarkable beer. Deuchars was taken over by Caledonian, and since then I've found that it has acquired the unmistakable Caledonian flavour. If Coast To Coast actually deserves (as opposed to receives) an award, it must have broken the mould. I'll give it a go if I see it on the bar but, on Caledonian's record to date, I won't be hopeful.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Every pint has its price

I was interested to read that the difference in the average price of beer between the cheapest part of the country (Herefordshire) and the dearest (London) is now 87p, according to this year's Good Pub Guide. I appreciate that these are averages, but my own experience of price differences this year is £2.30; one pub was in Southport, one in London, and neither was a Wetherspoons.

Periodically I have seen some people writing that beer is still too cheap. I've commented before that it's all very well for certain beer bloggers who want beer drinking to be more exclusive, but why should those of us who aren't wealthy be priced out of beer drinking just to stroke their egos? In their dream beer world, so few could afford a pint that most of the brewery industry would be obliterated. In reality, prices over the last few decades have gone up at approximately double the rate of inflation, and have also significantly outstripped the increase in disposable incomes, so it's hardly too cheap.

Paul Wigham of pub group All Our Bars and Tim Bird of the Cheshire Cat Pub Company have both criticised routine price rises by big brewers, arguing that duty has been cut, grain and barley prices have halved in the last four years, fuel is cheaper than it has been for years, thus bringing down delivery costs, and there's very little inflation. These are valid criticisms, but even so Diageo and Molson Coors have announced they're putting their prices up, although Greene King have said they're not. Price doesn't always equate to value, and in the beer world I can't think of many companies where the gap between the two is greater than in the international brewing conglomerates.

I suspect these increases are not due to costs, but because they are pushing to the limits of what they think the market can bear. With overall sales of alcohol, beer included, in decline and pubs closing every week, such an approach seems distinctly short-sighted in UK terms. But what do they care when the merged AB InBev and Molson Coors will soon have one third of the world's beer production stitched up?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

51% of beer now sold in shops

For the first time ever, more beer (51%) is sold in shops than in pubs. The British Beer and Pub Association puts most of the blame on the beer duty escalator, pointing out that, despite recent cuts, duty is 54% higher than it was in 2000, and is 14 times the German rate. In 1980, 87.7% of UK beer sales were in pubs, a figure that has declined ever since.

While I don't disagree with this point, there is another reason that I haven't seen mentioned: in 1980, supermarkets didn't sell alcohol alongside the baked beans. I well recall the massive fuss when a supermarket in Southport applied for an off-sales licence; I cannot remember the year, but it was well after 1980. The licence was granted but with restrictions that seem odd today, including that it had to be in an entirely separate room with its own till, and that alcohol could not be paid for at any other till in the shop. I'm not quite sure, but I think that there might even have been a stipulation that any alcohol bought in the off licence section could not be carried unwrapped in the rest of the supermarket. As we all know, drink is now stocked in the normal aisles and paid for like everything else.

The difference between having a separate shop within a shop and the current situation is that it allows for impulse purchases; it also removes the implication that alcohol sales are something slightly shameful to be hidden away. Buying alcohol with your everyday groceries has now become completely normal. In recent years the number of convenience stores with an off-sales licence, many run by the big supermarket chains, has multiplied, resulting in a further increase in the number shops that sell alcohol. Ironically, quite a few of these are in former pubs.

All of this has encouraged a huge expansion in off-sales, a tendency that the duty escalator added to, but did not create. Cutting duty would certainly help pubs, but it couldn't significantly reverse the tendency to drink at home: the decline in pub use is due to many factors, of which duty is one, that have been covered extensively elsewhere*.

It's also worth noting that making alcohol so much easier to buy has one entirely foreseeable consequence which - oddly enough - no one seemed to foresee: that it would also make under-age purchases easier. In this way do we unwittingly create new causes for moral panic.

* My own list of suggestions for the decline is here.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Passionate about pouring cold liquid into a glass

I was reading an article in which beer journalist Sophie Atherton was advocating training for bar staff about cask ale. Apparently they should be able to speak 'passionately' about it to customers to help boost sales. She was interviewed at the launch of the Cask Report 2017 which has stats that seem to suggest that staff who initiated conversations about real ale with customers were more likely to steer them towards buying it.

I sometimes get fed up with the overblown speech that we are so often subjected to nowadays, and I find 'passionate' particularly irritating. I hear it in so many varying contexts that I suspect people who use it have forgotten what the word 'passion' actually means. What it definitely doesn't mean is knowledgeable sales talk about beer in a pub, and I really do feel sorry for Sophie if that's the only passion she's ever experienced.

But how could her suggestion work? How do you train someone to be passionate? I'm especially uncertain how you induce passion for cask beer in staff who may have absolutely no interest in the product. It's not as though wage levels in the industry are enough to engender an enthusiasm for it.

I can't help thinking that bar staff already have quite a range of duties to perform in a pub: serving all kinds of drinks, including spirits with or without mixers, wines, real ales, keg beers, tea, coffee and soft drinks, while perhaps taking orders for food, delivering meals and clearing tables. There is quite a lot to be aware of there.

I'd agree that some awareness of the product would be helpful, but that falls far short of the definition of 'passionate'. If staff are interested in real ale, that's great, but ultimately they are paid to sell what the customer asks for; it wouldn't surprise me if most do not see it as their job to try to steer drinkers towards real ale. When the pub is busy, there isn't much opportunity for interaction with customers anyway.

What about drinkers who choose wine or malt whiskies? Should bar staff be passionate about those too? After all, quality wines and malt whiskies are also crafted products. We even have craft gins nowadays. Training staff on all of these would be a rather extensive - and expensive - commitment for licensees.

Unless Ms Atherton believes 'passionate' means nothing more than 'knows a bit about', I think her suggestion is unrealistic.

Monday, 26 September 2016

My criteria for writing about pubs

The Globe in Liverpool, a
pub I have yet to write about
In a comment under my post about the Richmond, Cooking Lager has asked why I am writing advertorial. It is a serious question that he has asked twice now, so I have decided to give it a separate post to clarify my approach. These blog posts about pubs are from the CAMRA Southport & District Branch columns in our local paper, the Southport Visiter, as I make clear at the end of each. When I agreed to write them, both local CAMRA and the paper accepted that I'd also use them on this blog.

The newspaper columns I write are not advertorial: I am not paid by anyone to do this, and in fact the Richmond is at present unaware of my visit as the staff were so busy that I couldn't collar one for a short chat as I usually do. I consequently just gathered what info I could by myself. 

To be honest, the Richmond is not a pub I'd go to for a few pints as it is so heavily food-oriented, but it was very busy and clearly meets a certain demand. However, I am not writing a personal column, so it's not about my tastes. If a pub serves real ale in reasonably good nick, regardless of whether the beers are those I'd choose, or even whether it is my type of pub, I'll consider it for the column. I always list the beers and describe the pub as well as I can in the limited space available, so I hope readers get a reasonable idea of what's it's like.

The column appears in the "What's On" section of the local paper, so I tend to assume that they want articles about nice real ale pubs in the locality that readers might like to try, although that doesn't stop me from writing columns on other CAMRA matters - campaign issues, local branch business, beer festivals, etc, which I don't necessarily post here. I assume the paper doesn't want me to tear local businesses to shreds in its pages, so if the beer quality is poor, I simply won't write about the pub concerned, which has happened four times so far. I have also tried to cover pubs from suburban and rural areas, not just town centres - pubs that might tend to be overlooked otherwise.

The details such as phone numbers, addresses, Facebook pages and websites may look it look like advertorial, but such details would be helpful should anyone decide to try a pub based on what I've written in the paper. As I post the articles here for similar reasons, it makes sense to leave them in.

I hope that's clearer.

The Richmond, Southport

The Richmond
The Richmond is owned by the Joseph Holt Brewery of Manchester; it is the first pub you encounter after entering Southport from the Ormskirk direction. It is a fairly modern building, having replaced a much older pub of the same name in the 1990s. It has two rooms: the larger front room which is subdivided into several separate areas, and a smaller room at the rear. While it is very much a food-oriented pub, you can go in if you just want a drink.

When I called in, the five handpumps on the bar were serving three Holt's beers – Bitter, Two Hoots and IPA – and Urban Fox from Bootleg Brewery; I particularly enjoyed this last one. They have a comprehensive range of Holt's bottled beers, and I also noticed a good wine selection. The pub has gained Cask Marque accreditation for its beer quality.

Next to the bar is a carvery, beyond that a chiller cabinet serving a large range of ice creams, and there is also a well-stocked sweet trolley. They offer various meal deals, including two-for-one on Mondays, curry night on Wednesdays, two steaks and a bottle of wine on Thursdays, and a special offer on children's meals on weekday afternoons, so children are clearly welcome. It is some time since I have eaten in the Richmond, but I did enjoy my meal the last time I had one there.

The pub is accessible and offers a number of facilities: a large car park, a beer garden, a function room, free WiFi and a quiz night on Thursdays. They play piped music.

The Richmond is at 234 Scarisbrick New Road, Southport, PR8 5HL. Tel: 01704 545782. It's opening hours are noon to 11.00, except Friday and Saturday when it closes at midnight. Food is served all day until 9.00pm. It has a Facebook page and its website is here

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Cock & Rabbit, Southport

The Cock & Rabbit. Picture courtesy
of the Southport Visiter.
Longer ago than I care to remember, the Rabbit on Manchester Road was a Bass house, known for serving the best Bass, then a legendary pint, in town. Unfortunately in more recent years it has known varied fortunes with long periods of being closed. When the pub company decided to sell it, it was bought by a small Merseyside pub group, AtWill Pubs who renamed it the Cock and Rabbit, refurbished it to a good standard and restored the real ale.

I've always thought the outside of this pub very attractive, if neglected in recent years. Traditional-style etched glass proclaiming the new name has been installed in the windows. Inside there are wall bench seats, wooden tables and chairs, and both the front of the bar and the shelving behind consist of warm wood. The overall effect is of an established, traditional pub, and the outside drinking area to the front has been popular in the recent sunshine.

On my recent visits, they were serving two beers from Southport's Craft Brewery, Gold Crafty and Ale Crafty; these particular beers have a natural haze and I found both very drinkable. They were also serving Thatchers Cheddar Valley Cider. The real ale range changes and previous offerings have included beers from Liverpool Organic Brewery, Deliverance and Thwaites Wainwright.

Regular events during the week include dominoes night on Mondays, a cheese and cracker night on Wednesdays, a pub quiz on Thursdays and live singers on Fridays. They have Sky and BT Sports and provide free WiFi for customers. Dogs and children are welcome, provided both are well-behaved. There is also a retro-style jukebox.

The Cock and Rabbit is at 69 Manchester Road, Southport, PR9 9BN. Tel: 01704 500270. They are also on Facebook. It is a short walk from Lord Street and is on the 49 bus route. There is street parking nearby. Opening hours: Monday to Thursday 11.30-11.00; Friday and Saturday 11.30 to midnight; Sunday 12.00 to 10.30.

It is good to see another local pub saved from possible redevelopment. I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the team there to make it work as a valued local in the community.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Cask Ale Week 2016

I've just discovered that it will soon be National Cask Ale Week 2016, described breathlessly as a "a nationwide celebration of cask ale!" Oh yeah? Looking at the website, I clicked on the 'What's On' link to find out what was happening where I live. Nearly all of the events listed in north Merseyside and West Lancs, and all of those in the Southport area, had these dates: 1/1/70 - 1/1/70. This is obviously the website's default date, but the failure to insert the correct dates makes the listings useless.

Cask Ale Week, backed by Cask Marque, has been running for a few years now, so they don't have much excuse for such oversights. It's a complete waste of time if they can't get the basics right - such as telling us when the events will occur.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Fined for hazy beer

I went into the Cock and Rabbit in Southport last weekend where there were two beers by Southport Craft Brewery; both pumpclips stated that the beer was meant to be hazy. They tasted fine, but that message got me wondering whether we place too much importance upon clarity in our beers. Even so, I hadn't thought to write about the subject until I came across this article posted today on the BBC website.

As is well-known among informed drinkers, beers are often cleared using isinglass derived from the swim bladder of fish, usually sturgeon, although not the Scottish variety. Cask ale cleared this way is not suitable for vegetarians, who can't easily work out what beers are suitable for them due to the exemption alcoholic drinks have from nutritional labelling rules.

According to the 2017 CAMRA Good Beer Guide, increasing numbers of brewers are looking at vegetarian-friendly alternatives to isinglass to clear their beers, such as products derived from seaweed, Irish moss (a small sea algae), or silica gel. The Centre for Bio-energy and Brewing Science at the University of Nottingham is investigating using the hop plant as a clearing agent. Guinness announced last year that it would be phasing out the use of isinglass, and quite a few smaller breweries already advertise their vegetarian status. It seems to me that a momentum is building up that will in time render the use of isinglass obsolete, and perhaps even unacceptable, but we're not there yet.

The question remains: should non-vegetarians be bothered about isinglass? I utterly loathe any form of fish or seafood and consequently notice fishy smells even when others can't, but despite that strong aversion, I cannot detect any such flavours in beers where isinglass is used. I've always assumed that it doesn't affect the taste of beer, but GBG editor Roger Protz quotes the opinion of Justin Hawke of Bristol's Moor Beer Brewery who doesn’t use finings at all because he thinks they remove some of the flavour from beer. As a former fairly large-scale home brewer who has made beer both with and without isinglass, I'm not convinced that's true. However, as there are now alternatives to isinglass, I think I'd prefer it if fish didn't have to be killed simply to help clear my pint.

Some people argue further: that we should abandon our expectation that beer should be clear, but I'm not convinced by that either. I'm prepared to accept that certain types of beer are likely to have a haze, but I don't agree that we should expect beer to have a haze as a matter of course. My own brewing experience was that beers will clear without finings, although they might take slightly longer.

Aesthetically, I like the appearance of a clear pint. I understand what some drinkers mean when they say they drink with their mouth, not their eyes, and while I'll go along with this to a point, it is not a general truth. If we don't like the look of what is put before us to eat or drink, we usually don't touch it, which is why presentation is so important in restaurants: a lot of people expect beer always to be clear, which is not unreasonable with most beers anyway, and if that's their preference, they won't find a 'cloudy' pint appealing.

My main concern about the hazy pint is that it can be used as an excuse for badly-kept beer, or beer that is being served too soon. A while ago, I was told that a beer I was familiar with was meant to be hazy when I knew very well that it wasn't. A drinker who is given a poor quality, hazy pint with the excuse that it's meant to be like that might well decide that real ale is not for them and switch to another drink, or perhaps take their custom elsewhere. We all know it happens.

If a beer is meant to be clear, I prefer it to be clear. I'll accept a haze as long as the flavour isn't impaired, especially if it's a style where lack of clarity is not seen as a fault. I am, however, concerned that haziness can be used as an excuse for serving beer prematurely, not looking after it properly, or even foisting beer that's past its best on customers. In such cases, drinking with your eyes is eminently sensible.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

These people own Meantime Brewery

One of the ongoing protests
I wrote in July about SABMiller's vicious union-busting in Australia. Regrettably the situation has not been resolved, and on 8 September, thousands of union members and supporters marched through the centre of Melbourne to support workers at Carlton United Breweries whose employment conditions came under brutal attack when they were told their pay would be cut by 65% due to a new sub-contracting arrangement. The unions rejected the company's diktat and have maintained round-the-clock protests at the plant.  

Such behaviour is normal practice for SABMiller. I wrote in July last year about similar union-busting tactics applied by them in Panama. Should the mooted takeover of SABMiller by InBev go ahead, the dominance of the combined group over the world beer market will be something to be very worried about. If anyone feels secure because we have a record number of micro-breweries in the UK nowadays, don't be: they'd happily cherry-pick the commercially most successful brands and use their increased market domination to squeeze out others; it's already been announced that up to 576 UK jobs would go should the takeover go ahead.

The IUF* Executive Committee, which met in Geneva on 7 and 8 September, sent a message of solidarity and support to the Australian marchers and their unions. If you'd like to send a message to the company too, please click here.

SABMiller operates in 80 countries on every continent, and its many brands include Meantime Brewery, Fosters, Grolsch, Miller, Peroni and Pilsner Urquell.

* The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations.