"Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Trying to mend fences ...

I went to the Hightown pub a couple of days ago to meet some friends I used to work with in Liverpool, and also to feature the pub in the CAMRA column in our local paper for which I sometimes write. The Hightown is an attractive pub just yards from Hightown Station, which is between Formby and Blundellsands on the Northern Line. It has good value food and six handpumps. Unfortunately only two were operating when I entered: Robinson's Trooper and John Smith's Cask. The other pump clips were turned around, but were for beers such as Marston's Pedigree and Speckled Hen. Trooper it was then. I took a sip and said, "This beer's off." The man sitting on the stool next to the bar said, "Yes, it is", but was still struggling to drink it. To be fair, my pint was changed without hesitation for a John Smith's Cask, but as that is one of the most boring beers in the country, along with Tetley Bitter and Greene King IPA, I wasn't too pleased. My neighbour then asked for a replacement pint too.

I chatted to the bar staff and it turned out that the licensee was away on holiday. She confirmed that normally they have up to six beers on. It's not a good sign if a pub goes to pieces when the boss is away. In my local, when the licensee is away, the full beer range is maintained without a hitch throughout her absence.

A few years ago, this licensee got a load of publicity in the local papers claiming CAMRA members had disrupted his quiz night, shouted out the answers and made suggestive comments to barmaids. I made a few enquiries and found it had been a night out organised by the then licensee of the Falstaff pub in Southport, with some of his staff and customers. The only CAMRA member was a quiet individual whom I cannot ever imagine shouting and making comments to barmaids. On another occasion, he got a mention in the papers by ostentatiously refusing an entry in the Good Beer Guide.

Despite the poor history between him and my local branch of CAMRA, I thought I'd give the Hightown a chance and I fully intended to write a positive report if merited in the local paper, but on the basis of my visit, I won't be featuring the pub in the CAMRA column after all. It might be okay when he's there, but it should be acceptable when he's not there too.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Picturesque pubs in Churchtown

The Bold Arms
Churchtown is an attractive old village in the northern part of Southport; there is a quaint shopping street and a number of thatched cottages. Stocks dating from 1741 can be found next to the wall of St Cuthbert’s Church which overlooks the village green. On opposite sides of the green are two pubs: the Bold Arms and the Hesketh Arms, which are both on Botanic RoadHHH. The famous Botanic Gardens are close by, as is Meols Hall, Southport's historical manor house, home of the Hesketh family, and a wedding venue in its tithe barn.

The Hesketh is an eighteenth century pub with a very attractive exterior. Inside it has a central bar surrounded by several separate drinking areas. It was refurbished a few years ago and now has light wooden walls and its layout is suitable for food as well as drinking. On my visit, the real ales were Thwaites Wainwright, Thwaites Bomber and Black Sheep bitter, but the beer rage does vary. The pub is known for its food, which it serves until 10pm (7pm Sunday).

It has an outside cobbled drinking area where the Southport Swords dance every Boxing Day. William Sutton, founder of Southport was the landlord here when it was called the Black Bull; he was known as a good-natured, jovial man who entertained his regulars by playing the fiddle. The pub is family friendly, has a car park and is on the 49 bus route. Contact number: (01704) 509548.

The Bold goes back to at least the seventeenth century. It too is an attractive old pub with several separate rooms with adjacent nooks and crannies, all panelled with dark wood. Pool and darts can be found in the vaults. When I went, there were six real ales on, plus Old Rosie cider. The beers included four from the Cheshire brewery, Blakemere, Thwaites Wainwright, Tetley Bitter and a range of bottled craft beers. The Bold serves reasonably-priced food until 8.45pm.

It is dog-friendly in the vaults, and child-friendly everywhere but the vaults, which may create a dilemma for dog-lovers with children. It has an outside drinking area, a car park, and is also served by the 49 bus route. Contact number: (01704) 228192. Churchtown is always well worth a visit, especially with two such picture postcard pubs.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

1000th post

My thousandth post! When I began this blog on 16 March 2009, I intended it mainly to tell people about local music or real ale events, especially those that included both. It still does that with my events and beer festival links to the right, but I have expanded the remit to suit myself, but generally staying broadly in the ale and music theme.

The forerunner of ReARM was a flyer that I used to produce monthly and distribute around any suitable places - there is an example below - but in reality, this was not an efficient method of transmitting information and, after I left my last job, dependent on how much of my own printing ink I was prepared to use. The idea of doing a blog came to me after I'd become a follower of Tandleman's beer blog, and at the Winter Ales Festival in Manchester in 2009, I asked him how much it cost to run a blog. "Nothing, it's free," he replied, sounding slightly surprised at the question. It's then that I decided to begin a blog.
The forerunner of ReARM

Looking back, I see that my most read post is The Lost World Of Smoking on 22 June 2012, which has had 2207 page views so far. I wanted to write a personal view of smoking from the perspective of a non-smoker upon whom smoking has nonetheless had quite an impact in life. It was definitely not about the smoking ban, which I wrote about on 28 November 2009 (75 page views), provoking this surprising response from beer blogger Curmudgeon: "This has been debated elsewhere ad nauseam ..."! It's curious that my most-read post covers neither beer nor music, but it didn't occur to me until much later that I'd gone off topic. Despite that, it's a personal post that I'm still happy with. In contrast, one post has had no page views at all; I won't mention which since it was about a local event, and the people concerned are still around.

I sometimes click on the "Next Blog" link at the top of the home page to see what comes up. It surprises me how many blogs are inactive with fewer than half a dozen posts, after which the blogger seems to have lost interest, often despite lofty intentions expressed at the beginning. Perhaps they had dreams of fame through blogging and became disheartened when it seemed that only two men and a dog were reading their masterpiece. Or perhaps they'd simply run out of ideas.

When I was off-line for three and a half months earlier this year, I received a fair number of enquiries about people asking why my blog had become out of date; it was nice to have clear evidence that some people had missed it. For better or worse, it's going to be here for a while yet. Now the big question is: what shall I write for my 1001st post?

Friday, 18 July 2014

Ken Nicol & Becky Mills at the Bothy

Ken Nicol & Becky Mills are the Bothy Folk Club's guests this coming Sunday

Ken Nicol is a highly acclaimed musician, singer, songwriter, producer, playwright and composer who has been a member of folk/rock bands Steeleye Span and The Albion Band and also worked with artists ranging from Al Stewart to Phil Cool. He plays acoustic and electric guitar, resonator guitar, 5-string banjo, mandolin and ukulele. His music includes folk, ragtime, blues, rock, ballads, jazz, amazingly intricate instrumentals and singalong comedy numbers.

In the early 2000s, Becky Mills became one of the four female stars of the genre-busting acoustic music group Waking The Witch. After three albums, successful tours and appearances at scores of folk, indie and blues festivals around the UK, Waking The Witch broke up. Since then, Becky has performed solo and in a duo with her fellow "Witch", Patsy Metheson. She also contributed vocals to Historic Events And Other Subjects, the latest solo album by Ken Nicol. Although Ken heralds from Lancashire and Becky from Yorkshire, cross-Pennine harmony prevails.

This Sunday 20 July at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS at 8.00pm. Tickets on-line, or take your chance on the door.

Ken and Becky are the Bothy's final guests until September, but don't despair: the music continues throughout the summer with free singarounds every Sunday evening from around 8pm. "The show that never ends".

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Tommy Legs at Spoons

I met my friend Clive, who also happens to be the Bothy organiser, in the Sir Henry Segrave on Lord Street in Southport yesterday evening. There's a cider festival on at present, which I'd forgotten, but I wasn't in the mood for cider anyway; I do think it's good that Spoons do things like that, though, making the point that there is a lot more to cider than just Strongbow. I began with a beer, the name of which I forget, which is appropriate because, while it wasn't actually objectionable, it wasn't especially memorable either.

I then went on to the curiously named Tommy Legs (4.5%) by Derwent Brewery. The Derwent website describes it thus: "A complex, hoppy copper ale. Hopped three times, giving a full flavoured beer with a hit of cascade hops." I'd say it is a good example of a nicely flavoured, fairly bitter beer, light brown in colour and slightly old-fashioned in this modern world of golden ales, but none the worse for that. The strength too was in my favourite range of (4.2 to 5%); I rarely drink anything under 4%, as too often I find them thin and insipid, although - before anyone protests - I have drunk three point something beers that are exceptions to that experience. I was chatting to the friendly barmaid and she told me she'd worked in a Spoons near Preston, but had transferred here and was enjoying it; I suggested it might be because you get a better class of scally in Southport.

I was curious about the name: I first assumed 'Tommy' was a First World War reference, but in fact Tommy Legs is the nickname of a lighthouse in the Solway Firth near Silloth (where the brewery is situated) in Cumbria: click here and scroll down to near the bottom for a fuller explanation.

Clive and I later ended up in the Guest House drinking Golden Sands (4.0%), one of Southport Brewery's best in my view, and at £2.50 a pint as well.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Long Spoon

The CMIC logo
Twenty five years ago, CAMRA set up the CAMRA Investment Club for members who wished to put their money into a portfolio of shares in the brewing industry. I very strongly disagreed with this at the time on the grounds that it would blur the distinction between the Campaign and the companies it was campaigning about, but unfortunately some CAMRA people have the political awareness of an empty lager glass. It still exists today, renamed the CAMRA Members' Investment Club (CMIC) in an attempt to put it at arm's length from the parent organisation; they no longer use the CAMRA logo for the same reason.

CMIC has been criticised recently for owning shares in pub companies (pubcos) such as Punch and Enterprise, who are widely regarded as one of the main causes of the problems pubs are currently facing. At the CAMRA AGM, the National Executive was accused of being far too cosy with the pubcos, and urged to take a more radical stance against them - in other words, campaign against them, as in the first word of the organisations' name.

The argument for holding the shares is that it entitles CMIC to attend the pubco AGMs. That's not much of a defence, especially as I've yet to hear of a single campaigning achievement resulting from attending. In my view, holding the shares can be interpreted as endorsement by CAMRA of the pubcos, even though I know that was never the intention; the trouble is you can't dictate how other people construe your actions. It would help if CMIC renamed itself something like the Real Ale Drinkers Investment Club, because so far the attempts to put some distance between it and the Campaign haven't really worked. To be fair to CMIC, they've said they will sell the pubco shares if CAMRA asked them to. So it's up to CAMRA, which should bear in mind what they say about he who sups with the devil.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Are you 18?

The only time I was ever asked whether I was 18 in a pub was in the week after my 18th birthday; I thought it was funny as I'd been going to pubs for a while, at least as far as my very limited finances allowed. I got served when I simply said 'yes': it's not so free and easy now.

A recent article in the Morning Advertiserthe weekly publication of the UK's pub trade, states that, "Pubs have fallen well behind the off-trade when it comes to staff carrying out age verification checks". In 2013 66% of pubs passed checking tests, down 4% on 2011 and 8% on 2010. The figure for supermarkets in 2013 was 85%. The leased and tenanted sector is apparently the worst, mainly because pub companies don't provide effective ongoing staff training.

Should we be shocked? I don't think so. These are not government checks, but are run by Serve Legal, a private company funded by various parts of the retail and hospitality industries. According to the Morning Advertiser, "To pass a test, Serve Legal’s team of visitors purchase an age-restricted item and records key information about the transaction, particularly whether ID was requested. All its visitors are young looking 18 or 19 year old people, who should be asked to provide ID to complete the transaction. If a visitor is required to provide official ID to complete the transaction then the site passes. If they purchase the items without showing ID then the site fails." 

Such failed tests do not mean that the law was broken, because the mystery shoppers were all of legal drinking age (unless you live in Scotland - more about that later). Besides, the age someone looks is a matter of opinion, not demonstrable fact.

The social consequences of extremely rigid application of the law have resulted in unintended consequences. As I wrote in February 2012, "Under age drinkers used to go into a pub and behave themselves because they knew that if they didn’t, they’d draw attention to themselves and get thrown out.  So now they get cheap supermarket booze and drink at each other’s homes or in the park, and it’s not ordinary beer:  it’s strong cider, lager or cheap vodka.  And in an unsupervised environment, they don’t learn how to behave when drinking.  The consequence is that binge drinking develops at an early age without social controls, resulting in bad behaviour.  So the rigid enforcement of a law to prevent under age drinking has probably had quite the opposite effect."

Licensees face a £5000 fine and put their licences at risk if they serve underage drinkers, so it is not surprising that the trade has come up with the Challenge 25 scheme which requires you to prove how old you are up to 7 years after you reach the legal minimum drinking age. As other bloggers have suggested, it's no wonder young people are less inclined to go to pubs. In Scotland, the arch-nanny state SNP government made Challenge 25 mandatory in the Alcohol etc. Scotland Act 2010.

We live in a country where you can get married, have children or join the armed forces at 16, drive at 17, fight and die for your country at 18, but you will be subjected to age checks, compulsorily so in Scotland, to have a pint until you are 25. It's a joke isn't it?

The laws relating to age in pubs aren't as straightforward as you may think, and can be a minefield for busy licensees - click here.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Old bus pub trips

There is another Lancashire Bus Running Day this Sunday afternoon, 13th July, between about noon and 6 pm.  Old preserved buses (a few from Liverpool Transport and the MPTE) will run from Ormskirk and Burscough bus stations, and there will be a real ale bus, plus music and other events and static stands.  There are also some nice pubs close by.

Travel will be free, but the Merseyside Transport Trust does ask for donations to help with maintenance of the vehicles; do try to have nice summer afternoon out in the area. For more details, have a look at the trust's website: here.

If, on the other hand, you're thinking of going into Southport town centre tomorrow afternoon, don't forget the Orange Lodge will be out in force, so pubs will be either full of their followers or closed completely.

Thanks to Mike Perkins of the local CAMRA branch for the information.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Keep your hands to yourself!

A licensee, yesterday
Politicians can't resist meddling with pubs, can they? You'd think with the UK trying to act as the world's police force (or at least police dog to the world's police force, the USA), they'd have better things to do with their time, wouldn't you? Apparently not.

So what are they up to now? Changes are proposed to the Licensing Act 2003 that, if passed by Parliament, would oblige pubs and bars to display the price of the smallest unit of alcohol available “in a menu, price list or other printed material available on the premises”, and if customers doesn't specify a measure, to make them “aware these measures are available”. So when I go into my local and just say, "I'll have a Sandgrounder, please", bar staff would be committing an offence if they didn't tell me that it was available in thirds and halves, even though they know I mean a pint.

The trade is up in arms because:
  • There was no meaningful consultation with them.
  • The potential for entrapment by Trading Standards if the smallest unit wasn't offered when an officer hadn't specified a measurement. How easy would it be for busy bar staff to fall foul of the law?
  • Licensees would face extra costs, such as reprinting all their menus and price lists, and ensuring all staff are trained.
  • The proposal lacks detail - essential with legal requirements - and the timescale is ridiculously short (the implementation date would be 1 October).
  • The sector is already overburdened with regulation.
In relation to that last point, this proposal gives the lie to the government's claim that it wishes to lighten the burden on business, reduce the dead hand of over-regulation, et cetera ad nauseam.

I wonder whether a person found guilty of some alcohol-related offence could try to deflect the blame by saying he or she wasn't advised about smaller units. Not much of an defence in my opinion, but that wouldn't stop some trying it on and causing trouble for a licensee.

Quite simply, this proposal doesn't treat drinkers like adults. I just wish that politicians would stop patronising us and let us make our own choices.

You can tell the World Cup's over, at least as far as England is concerned: they're back to bashing pubs again - see my post of three weeks ago.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

No Silver Spoons for Guinness

Guinness-free (not free Guinness)
JD Wetherspoons is opening its first pub in the Irish Republic next Tuesday: the Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock, County Dublin. Because of a dispute between Diageo, owners of the Guinness brand, and Wetherspoons over price, they will not be selling Guinness, but will stock Murphy’s and Beamish instead at €3.95 (£3.15) a pint.

“We like to sell our drink to customers at a certain price and the price that Diageo wanted us to sell the product at was too high,” a spokesman for the pub company said this week. The wording here is significant, as it makes clear that Diageo wanted to dictate the price charged by JDW (so much for the free market economy that's supposed to benefit us consumers). I suppose that if you do have such a massive market share with almost monopolistic powers to dictate prices, you don't want one pub to sell sell your product significantly cheaper in case customers begin to question your profit margins everywhere else. Diageo claims its pricing is competitive, but its actions with JDW suggest that it is anything but. They duck out of further explanation by citing commercial confidentiality, the usual method of closing down discussion.

Other Diageo brands the Three Tun Tavern will not be selling include Smirnoff vodka, Bushmills whiskey and Baileys Irish cream liqueur, but it will stock craft beers from Eight Degrees Brewing, including Howling Gale, Knockmealdown Porter and Barefoot Bohemian Pilsner. Cask will be represented by two Adnams beers, Hobgoblin and a guest ale from local Irish brewers. The presence of Tetley Smoothflow, also at €3.95 a pint, is puzzling.

As usual, JDW has linked the pub to local history by reviving the name of a former eighteenth century tavern which had been "kept by one Bishop, a worthy host and was renowned for its good cheer" and, according to the Irish Times, by including "a reading room, with 'panelled ceiling and vintage books dedicated to Blackrock’s most famous author James Joyce.'"

I've read several reports about how shocking the lack of Guinness will be to the average Irish drinker, and while I understand the predominance of Guinness in the Irish beer market (one third of all pints sold), I can't help wondering whether there is a bit of stereotyping going on there. JDW has a further site lined up in Cork and is seeking others: will Diageo change its mind as Spoons expands, or will Irish drinkers anxious for a reasonably-priced pint simply find that they can do without Guinness? I'm rather hoping for the latter.

Having just posted this, I've noticed that Curmudgeon has written on the same subject, but with quite a different approach.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Can a pint be hard work?

I came across this last night:

"A survey by 02 has found that two out of five workers in Britain spend four hours or more a week working from places away from the office, with pubs and coffee shops particularly popular. In total, Britons spend 131 million hours a week working from coffee shops, and 8% of those working outside the office do so from the pub."

With the right to ask (and be refused) flexible working hours being extended to all employees, could pubs gain a new place in the world of work? Instead of lunchtime or after-work drinks, might we see pub-going actually taking place during the working day?

I can't see it myself: this is a story written specifically to provide a startling headline. Drinking during the working day, even during the employee's own lunch hour, is increasingly frowned upon, and I doubt that employers would want their business to be conducted via all those insecure free Wi-Fi connections in places such as pubs and coffee shops, nor risk beer being spilt on work laptops. So that's that: I don't see this being a route for pub salvation.

However, if I'm wrong and it does take off, it would be something of an unintended consequence for the government, and it would really annoy their mates in Alcohol Concern. So not all bad then.

The article in AOL Money is here, assuming you're sufficiently interested.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Dave & Boo - "wholly in tune musicians"

Dave and Boo performing at Hitchin
Dave Ellis & Boo Howard are making the third visit to the Bothy Folk Club on Sunday 6 July at 8.00pm.

"Their songs are intelligently constructed, elegantly articulated and never less than entertaining. The mix is eclectic (from folk to jazz to blues to bluegrass) but the songs are at the heart of it all, served by imaginative and stylish arrangements and by the singing and playing of two seasoned, wholly in tune musicians." Anonymous reviewer.

"You like your jazzy blues n' folk smooth and urbane? Come on in for these laconic vignettes of love, life and laundry with a modern sheen." Clive Pownceby.

Tickets on the door, or on-lineThe Bothy meets every Sunday at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS; it serves real Thwaites Wainwright.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Thwaites brewery on the move

A pint of Thwaites, in
case you'd forgotten
what it looks like.
Ain't no stopping Thwaites now - they're on the move. Or they will be as soon as they have finalised the purchase of the site they've chosen and built a new brewery, so it will be a while yet. Thwaites has been saying for some time that it is outgrowing its current site in Blackburn. Thwaites has four permanent beers - Original, Nutty Black, Lancaster Bomber and Wainwright - plus a range of seasonals, but it is Wainwright that has proved to be a runaway success and therefore may well have hastened the necessity to move.

The new site is in Mellor Brook on the A59, less than 5 miles north west of its present site, and will house the brewery, visitor centre and head office, while the distribution team will remain at the depot in Blackburn for the foreseeable future. Brewery management are hoping to drill a borehole at the new site so that they can tap into the same aquifer, which would help ensure that their beers would remain unchanged. I wish them good luck with that: I recall the old Higsons brewery moving production a matter of yards and inadvertently changing the taste of the beer. It was a while before they were able to sort it out.

In the past, a brewery moving would usually be regarded as bad news because it would often signal the end of the beers as you'd known them; the name would continue as a brand but there'd be no real effort made to match the original taste. Nowadays we have become used to microbreweries moving because of the need to expand, and I've little doubt that regionals such as Thwaites are acutely aware that the old high-handed approach to beer brands would not work today - at least, not if they wish to retain any real ale credibility. I'm certain they will do their best to match the beers as we now know them.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Statutory code - a massive diversion?

I made clear on 5 June my reservations about Government plans for a Pubs Adjudicator and Statutory Code. I wasn't coming over all Private Frazer - "We're all doomed!" - but was expressing caution in contrast to CAMRA's unalloyed, and in my view uncritical, joy concerning the proposals. As I said previously, I hope CAMRA's optimism is right, but I remain doubtful.

"He would, wouldn't he?"
Peter Furness-Smith, the managing director of McMullens brewery, has also expressed serious doubts about the proposals, which he suggests would make the pub owners responsible for business risks that are normally the responsibility of the tenant. If the government decides to increase, for example, business rates, VAT, duty, employment or regulatory costs, they would become the responsibility of the pub owner as they are "outside the tenants' control" . He further states that this could apply even to an increase in, say, fuel costs; the tenant could negotiate his rent downwards, thus passing the cost the owner. I'm fully aware that what he says could be interpreted as a predictable Mandy Rice-Davies response, but that doesn't mean we can glibly dismiss his opinions.

His further points include:
  • Government costs for pubs, including tax, amount to more than 40% of sales.
  • Even after recent duty reductions, a small community pub contributes to government coffers five times its profits.
  • For pubs to thrive, the high levels of taxation and bureaucracy need to be reduced.
The more I think aboutthe more I'm concluding that the adjudicator and statutory code represent the government putting the blame for all the woes of the pub industry onto the pub owners. McMullens is a brewery with a tied estate and so doesn't really come into the same rapacious category as pub companies (pubcos) such as Punch and Enterprise. As I've written before, the government and the big pubcos share the bulk of the responsibility for the problems pubs are facing.

So, some final questions:
  • Why a statutory code when in all other areas of industry, business and finance the government prefers voluntary codes to statutory "burdens on business"? In other words, why is this particular sector singled out for special treatment?
  • By getting CAMRA all delirious about an attack on the pubcos, have the government created a massive diversion away from their own responsibility for pub decline? 
  • And is CAMRA therefore inadvertently letting the government off the hook?

Monday, 23 June 2014

Are you a Two-Pot Screamer?

I've just read an article about Australian slang, which unfortunately is in decline, so I decided to see what drink-related phrases from Down Under I could find. Quite a few were similar to British phrases, such as 'shout' for 'round', but here is a selection of the most colourful:
  • Neck oil: beer.
  • Amber fluid: beer.
  • Skull: down your drink in one.
  • Counter lunch, or Countery: pub lunch.
  • Bottle-o: liquor shop.
  • Buck's night: stag party.
  • Tinny: can of beer.
  • Roadie: a beer bought to take away.
  • Two-pot screamer - someone who can't hold their drink. A pot is a half-pint glass.
  • Booze bus: police van used for random breath testing for alcohol.
  • Spiffed: drunk.
  • Chockers: drunk.
  • Gutful of piss: drunk, as in "he's got a gutful of piss".
  • Butcher: small glass of beer in South Australia (because a butcher can sneak off for a swift half while in work).
  • Schooie, or Schooey: a schooner of beer.
  • Longneck, or Tallie: a very large (750ml) bottle of beer.
  • Middy: 285 ml beer glass in New South Wales.
  • Turps: alcoholic drink (also turpentine).
  • Mouth like the bottom of a cocky's cage: a dry mouth, especially after drinking or smoking (a cocky is a cockatoo).
And finally:
  • Durry: tobacco, cigarette.
  • Chunder: vomit.
  • Liquid laugh: vomit.
It all tends to make "Fancy a pint?" seem quite bland, doesn't it?

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Freshfield - twice as POTY

The Freshfield in Formby recently managed the remarkable achievement of being presented with two CAMRA Pub of the Year (POTY) awards in one evening: for Southport and West Lancs and for Merseyside.

The Freshfield, Massams Lane
The first thing you see when you go in is a row of 14 hand pumps serving a wide range of beer from all over the country, including local beers, so we found Burscough and Liverpool Organic beers sharing bar space with St Austell from Cornwall and Hawkshead from Cumbria. The several beers I had were all well kept. The pub also stocks a craft keg beer: Brewdog Punk IPA.

The pub was extensively refurbished two years ago: the front area is undeniably a pub, but you can walk through to the large, attractive restaurant to the rear where good, reasonably-priced meals are served until 10pm. They’ve tried quiz nights and live music, but found them unnecessary. In general, I've usually found there a comfortable and relaxed buzz of conversation here. A darts team plays on Mondays.

The Freshfield has two beer festivals each year in January and July: the next one is 21 to 27 July and will feature more than 100 real ales (including two from the new Parker Brewery in Formby), craft beers and ciders, plus live music and food. It's in Massams Lane, less than 10 minutes walk from Freshfield station.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Blues at the Bothy

Tom Doughty and Graham Bellinger are the guests at the Bothy Folk Club at 8.00pm this Sunday 22 June. Tom Doughty is a superb lap slide guitar player whom I have seen playing at the Bothy on several occasions as well as in Liverpool, but Graham is new to me. I'm told that the two mesh well together. If Tom's previous gigs are anything to go by, the term 'blues' will used on a broader sense - blues have often been featured at the Bothy.

The Bothy meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. On-line tickets. Thwaites real ale.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Pigeon goes POTY

The eponymous, but
extinct, Liverpool Pigeon
The Liverpool Pigeon is Merseyside’sfirst micro-pub, and is CAMRA Liverpool and Districts Pub of the Year (POTY) for 2014. It opened last October in a former children’s clothes shop. The Liverpool Pigeon is an extinct bird (pictured), probably from Tahiti; the only remaining specimen is in the Liverpool World Museum. The pub isn't quite a small as you might expect; it is simply but pleasantly decorated with the bar at the far end of the room, which on my visit boasted beers from Liverpool Organic, Saltaire, Big Hand and two from Hawkshead. The beer range changes, although Liverpool Organic often features. I hadn’t heard of Big Hand, a Wrexham brewery, whose beer, Zeta Two, is an American style IPA. I had four of the beers and the quality was good. There were also four real ciders.

The bottled beer range included 9 Belgian beers, 4 German beers and 4 British beers. Wine (2 red, 2 white) and soft drinks are available but strictly no lager, spirits, alcopops, TV, juke box or gaming machines. It was quiet when I called in at around 4.30pm, but as people arrived, a relaxed atmosphere conducive to pleasant chat developed.

It is at 14 Endbutt Lane, just yards from Liverpool Road (the A565), a major bus route where Southport buses such as the 47 and the X2 stop.

Opening hours: Mon closed; Tue-Fri 4-9; Sat 12-9; Sun 12-5.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Swords and Spoons

The Swords outside the
Arts Centre on Lord Street
I heard only last night that our local Longsword and Morris side, the Southport Swords, are out tomorrow evening (Tuesday). At 9.00pm they are appearing at the Willow Grove on Lord Street, Southport - that's our local Lloyds No 1 Bar. They are then moving on to the Sir Henry Segrave, our Wetherspooons pub, also on Lord Street. Good range of real ales in both, especially the latter.

Perhaps not the most extensive tour, but certainly economical. If you're around, why not come and watch? After all, there's only some football on the TV.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

New Café Bar: the Barrel House

A few days ago, I went into Southport's newest bar: the Barrel House, which opened on 24 May at 42 Liverpool Road in Birkdale village. It has been converted from an old newsagent's because of the new Sainsbury's that has opened across the road; the owners felt that if they couldn't compete, they'd change their business. And what a change!

Although it is very small, you don't feel hemmed in: it has stripped wooden floors, wooden topped tables, a light, fern-patterned wallpaper, and a couple of tables in the windows that look out onto the street. At the far end is a bar with two handpumps and three beer fonts. When I went in, the real ales were Robinson's Trooper and Southport Sandgrounder; these change but always include one from Southport Brewery. I had both and they were nicely kept. The fonts sold Krusovice lager, Symonds cider and Theakstons smooth bitter. They also had a range of 10 red, white and rosé wines, some spirits, plus a choice of various teas and coffees. I believe food is planned too.

To one side there were shelves and beer fridges containing more than 140 bottled beers from the UK and the continent, and I was told by Martin, the owner, that the range is increasing all the time. One interesting bottle was Barbarian Bitter (4.2%) from the new Parker Brewery in Formby - I'll do a separate post about Parker.

As it happened there were several people I knew when I wandered in, and so had a very convivial evening; it wasn't busy, but that's not so surprising on a Monday. I’m not sure what you’d call the Barrel House - mini café bar would seem to be most appropriate - but it's certainly a welcome addition to the limited real ale scene in Birkdale. Opening hours are 10am to 10pm.

Oh, and they still sell newspapers!

Friday, 13 June 2014

In two minds about pubs

Beer - not just for
boosting sales of Sky Sports
I think I'm becoming fed up with the authorities' schizophrenic attitude to pubs. This thought was prompted by reading Boris Johnson's pronouncement that "one of London's many fantastic pubs" is the best place to watch the World Cup. He was announcing that there would be more late buses and taxi ranks to enable football fans to get home safely because the time difference will mean some matches will end after the last Underground trains have gone.

It reminds of me of other national occasions, such as the Olympics or royal weddings, when inanely smiling politicians dole out licence extensions "so that we can all celebrate as one nation", or some such prattle. At times like this, pubs are great British institutions, unique in the world, part of what made Britain great.

At all other times, pubs are a problem, responsible for binge drinking, disorder on the streets, violence and injuries. Duty has to be raised, minimum prices considered, and a flood of intensive propaganda published to tackle an undesirable social scourge. In my last job, some of my colleagues were amazed if I happened to mention about going into town centre pubs at weekends. They looked unbelieving when I told them I saw very little trouble; clearly the propaganda that town centres are like the Wild West at weekends has done its job.

But when politicians want to benefit from the feel-good factor that a national occasion might foster, it's all: "go down the pub, enjoy the party, let your hair down".

But then, should I be surprised that politicians can be two-faced?

I won't be watching any matches, but I don't need such excuses to go to the pub.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Upsteps next for the chop?

The Upsteps in Birkdale
Slightly saddened to hear that the Upsteps in Birkdale, Southport, is likely to close in about a month's time if no buyer can be found. The pub has been on the market for quite a while now. It has been allowed to run down so that it doesn't particularly look inviting, but with four cosy separate drinking areas, it is potentially attractive inside. It's in the middle of an established residential area with only one other pub, the Blundell Arms, nearby, so there should be no problem with potential customers. It tried real ale a few months ago, but it wasn't selling so they stopped, as they understandably couldn't afford to keep pouring unsold casks down the drain.

Unfortunately it hasn't got the best reputation, a problem that is difficult to shake off. With the smarter pubs in the town centre only 15 to 20 minutes walk or a short taxi ride away, its owners have made no effort to compete in recent years. I can't help feeling that this is another example of managed decline: let a pub become run down and then redevelop it because it has become unviable. I'm not certain what will happen: demolition or conversion into accommodation.

The open mike nights are likely to move to the Falstaff in King Street, where by coincidence my monthly singaround session in the Guest House originally began many years ago.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The British Guild of Beer Writers

The first example of beer
and pub writing that I read
Sometimes when I've read an article on a beer-related issue on-line or in a magazine, I see the phrase, "X is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers". This reminded me of how sometimes during the credits of television dramas in the 60s and 70s, a voice would reverently say of a member of the cast, "X is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company".

I'd never really given the guild much thought until recently when I decided to find out something about it. The website states: "The British Guild of Beer Writers was formed in 1988 to help spread the word about beers, brewing and pubs, and our website is dedicated to exactly that pursuit." That's all well and good.

I then had a look at how you qualify for membership, and it's quite simple: pay them £40 per year. Presumably it's better if you have done more than just drink beer, otherwise your CV on the website would look rather silly, but I was slightly disappointed that I could join with no need to prove my credentials. In fact, I'm probably quite well qualified: as well as writing this blog, I was until recently the editor of our local CAMRA magazine, which I still contribute to, and have written a few beer and pub-related articles in the local press. But, basically, it's just a club. I have no problem with that at all; it's just that in future when I read the someone is a member of the guild, I'll know that all it means is the writer has put a cheque in the post.

This is the logo, added after
info given below by Adrian
Tierney-Jones, BGBW secretary.
One minor criticism I do have is that the application form looks as though it's been thrown together by someone who can barely use a computer. Considering that the guild is all about communication, I'd expect it to look professional. For a similar reason, I'm also surprised that they don't seem to have a logo.

Will I be joining? No, not interested; belonging to CAMRA at £23 per year is much better value. And it's got a logo.

RedNev is not a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

"Great News!" it says here . . .

A pub tie, yesterday
I've received two ecstatic e-mails today from CAMRA declaring: "Great News! Thousands of licensees will be protected from unfair business practices in the pub industry and our nation's pubs protected following today’s [3 June] Government announcement which unveils plans for a Pubs Adjudicator and Statutory Code."

These are steps in the right direction, certainly, but I seem to be having a feeling of déjà vu. I recall CAMRA being equally rapturous when the Beer Orders were announced. At the time I simply couldn't help wondering who was going to buy all these pubs that the big breweries were going to dispose of. Both CAMRA and the government expressed the expectation that many licensees would take the chance to invest in their pub and convert them into free houses. With thousands more free houses, the range of beers would improve and everyone's a winner. But it didn't happen: we got pub companies instead.

CAMRA states: "Publicans could see the price they pay for beer fall by up to 60p a pint if the new Adjudicator forces the big Pub Cos to match open market prices. As a result we could see cheaper pub prices for customers, more investment in pubs and ultimately fewer pub closures."

Well, I hope that's true, but I have some reservations. Pub Cos are ripping off tenants because they are horrendously debt-ridden, with massive loans taken out when finance was good, but leaving them in a bad situation to cope with the current recession. If the Adjudicator does crack down on sky-high rents and beer prices charged by the big pub companies, the question is: what impact will that have on the Pub Co business? Will they be able to survive? If not, what will happen to pubs suddenly cast adrift? Few licensees would wish to buy their businesses, assuming they could afford to, so would the newly freed pub estate get hoovered up by supermarket - or indeed other retail - chains? I can't see any saviours waiting in the wings.

I've little sympathy for Pub Cos, as they brought their current precarious financial state upon themselves, but I do hope we are not sleepwalking into another disaster of Beer Orders proportions.