Saturday, 24 June 2017

Tap & Bottles acoustic song session

This monthly singaround in the Tap & Bottles, 19 Cambridge Walks, Southport, Merseyside, PR8 1EN. Next Monday 26 June will be the fourth at this venue.

As the poster suggests, it is open to all comers, although performing is not mandatory.

The Tap & Bottles is now well-established in Southport town centre as a venue offering a good choice of real ales, craft and bottled beer.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Brewdog climb down

From a post in September 2015 about a petition against an offensive Brewdog video:
I wrote on the 3 September how Brewdog's campaign to wrest money from their fans to fund their business had caused offence: they've been accused of mocking homeless people, trans women and sex workers in their video, with the message: don't force them [i.e. Brewdog] to do such humiliating things to raise money. Despite 20,508 signatures on the petition, Brewdog are unrepentant. Their response was: "If you believe we are ridiculing [trans people, homeless people, sex workers], you are either misguided, ill-informed or out of your tiny mind."
At the time, I thought I'd like to see how that kind of defence would stand up in court: "If you think I stole that car, you are either misguided, ill-informed or out of your tiny mind." Guaranteed to win over the hearts and minds of any jury.

Brewdog have now quietly removed the offensive video from their YouTube account. They have done this without fanfare or comment - which is in itself completely out of character - to avoid the press reporting that they had backed down in response to external pressure, in this case from a petition that eventually gained 36,961 signatures. These cartoon punks don't want to be seen admitting they did anything wrong, but it's clear to me that the campaign had the desired effect.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Getting back to normal

I've been out of the game for most of the last month with a rather nasty chest infection. It's difficult to keep a music and real ale blog going when you're more or less housebound. Writing my weekly CAMRA column for the local paper hasn't been easy either. The fact that my voice had degenerated into a croak meant that practising songs on my guitar wasn't an option to pass the time. Although the infection has been dealt with by antibiotics, my voice - my singing voice particularly - has yet to return fully. I have spent a lot of the time catching up on all the TV programmes I'd been recording, but this palls after a while. It's quite surprising how much Taggart is shown each week.

The thought has crossed my mind that I've had a mere three weeks of this, while for some people this is their life. I've visited housebound people in the past when I worked for the DSS, and I did what I could within the job's constraints, but the forbearance most of them showed puts my few weeks of confinement into perspective - and not in a way that flatters me!

I'm now pub-going again. Gail, the licensee of my local, the Guest House, has welcomed me back, as have the staff, and it's nice to have that feeling of belonging to a pub. She says that I can resume my monthly gigs there as soon as I can sing again. And there's a point: your voice is something you just take for granted. Most of us don't think about it: it's just there - until it isn't. Still, I'm on the mend, and I hope not to get another chest infection like this one for some time to come.

The good news is that the Phoenix Brewery May Fly was definitely in good nick last night.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Turning Back The Clock

'Chucking Out Time' by Edward Foster
The good old days UKIP wants back
Why does UKIP still exist? The UK has now voted to leave the EU, so you'd think they'd just have a victory party and disband. Not a bit of it.

Continuing as a party, even though it has lost its main raison d'être, requires it to produce policies on a variety of issues, even though everyone knows they will never be enacted. This is why they have produced a policy on pubs. Their manifesto includes plans to "reduce the density of alcohol outlets and restrict trading times" for pubs and bars, and to replace the Licensing Act 2003 with new, more restrictive legislation. This is a good few steps away from the frequent image of a smiling Farage standing outside a pub, pint and cigarette in hand. I have no time for Farage, but I have to concede that bit of PR was quite effective.

UKIP is at one with the anti-alcohol brigade in that they see pubs and bars as the root of all alcoholic evil. Control them and you control the problem. This point of view takes no account of the huge growth in recent decades of drinking at home, a trend that has been encouraged by the disproportionate mismatch between on- and off-sale prices. As long as the problem is out of sight off the streets, they don't care much. The fact that drinking on your own at home can lead to problems associated with isolation, such as depression, doesn't seem to cross their minds. Not all home drinking is solitary, of course, but even drinking in company at home eliminates interaction with people outside your immediate group.

I'm uncertain what restricted opening hours UKIP would favour. They would have to be standardised, otherwise when one pub closed, drinkers would simply be able to drift to another that was still serving, thus defeating the purpose of restricted opening. Standardised hours would bring back the old closing time rush that led to virtually all the drinkers in a town centre being discharged onto the streets at the same time. In the past, this was often blamed for public order problems, and is thus at odds with UKIP's professed aim to "protect emergency workers from abuse" from drunks. While I fully agree that people should not suffer abuse or assaults for simply doing their jobs, the party hasn't done any joined-up thinking here.

As for reducing the density of pubs: how would they achieve that? Will businesses be forcibly closed? Will they be taxed out of existence? Because if the latter, going out for a drink would become a pastime only the rich could afford in a small number of expensive outlets. Anyone else who wanted to drink would have to do so at home.

As Kate Nicholls of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers has said of UKIP's opening hours policy, "Any return to the old system would be a hugely retrograde action and unhelpful for pubs, restaurants and bars. Thankfully, there is little chance of UKIP sweeping to victory at the general election."

Quite.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Study shows 'hair of the dog' works

Not available on prescription
In the Woody Allen film Sleeper, a health food shop owner is cryogenically frozen. After he is revived 200 years later, his doctors have this conversation:
Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or ... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy ... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible!
In an example of life imitating art, researchers at the University of Greenwich have discovered that two pints of beer are better at relieving pain than painkillers such as paracetamol. If your blood alcohol content is raised to around 0.08%, your pain theshold is raised slightly, thus noticeably reducing the intensity of the pain.

According to the researchers, "Findings suggest that alcohol is an effective analgesic that delivers clinically-relevant reductions in ratings of pain intensity, which could explain alcohol misuse in those with persistent pain, despite its potential consequences for long-term health."

Predictably, the report on these findings in The Independent was obliged to conclude with a warning about the health risks of excessive consumption of alcohol, along with a reminder that the official recommended safe limit is 14 units. If it were discovered that, say, beefburgers had certain health benefits, would they end every item with a warning that excessive consumption of them could lead to obesity and other health problems? I seriously doubt it, but - tediously - they insist on doing it every time alcohol is mentioned.

Anyway, it's now official: hair of the dog works at a level of about two pints. Best not exceed the dose or, tragically, you might have to apply the cure again the following day.

A packet of paracetamols costs around a tenth of the price of two pints but won't work as well, and are undeniably less enjoyable to take. You pays your money ...

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

We've been here before - and will again

Although music is an important part of my life - it's one of the reasons for this blog - I'm not too surprised that, until last night, I'd never heard of Ariana Grande; after all, I am not what might be called her target demographic. I can of course relate to the enthusiasm of going to a concert by a favourite performer, and for those young girls, the evening should have left them feeling good and providing them with fond memories for the rest of their lives, even if in time they had grown out of the music. With 22 dead and 59 injured, last night will certainly stay forever with those young women and children for the worst of reasons.

Like the Bataclan massacre 18 months ago in Paris, the murderers deliberately targeted people who were out enjoying themselves. I have no doubt that this evil attack was in retaliation for our actions in the Middle East. Yesterday's victims cannot be held responsible for the deaths, injuries and major political and social disruption caused by Western governments and Russia through proxy wars, invasions, and policies of regime change, but on the other hand, the civilian victims of our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, etc, aren't to blame either.

Defiant statements that terrorism will not change our way of life and our values cannot disguise the fact that we are particularly vulnerable to such terror attacks, as the IRA proved a generation ago. Nowadays it's even easier: if you have the stomach for it, just drive a car at high speed into a crowd.

The sad fact is that, unless we fundamentally alter our approach to international affairs and stop trying to be the world's police force, there will be more attacks like this, with more innocent deaths followed by more essentially similar defiant statements. We're in a vicious cycle and I see no signs that we are making any efforts to get out of it. British prime ministers love putting on their serious face and posing for the world's press next to the American president in front of the White House: Tony Blair loved it, and as we saw recently, so does Theresa May. While strutting on the world's stage and talking about taking 'difficult decisions', they can continue pretending that Britain is still a world power.

The major powers have been meddling in the Middle East for a hundred years now since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, and the region is in about the worst mess it has ever been in as a result of all that interference. We need to recognise that we cannot do any good there, especially as nowadays you can have the most advanced, well-trained and well-equipped armed forces on the planet, only to find they are incapable of preventing a deranged individual from planting a home-made bomb or driving into a crowd. The fortune we spend on defence did nothing to protect those young concert-goers yesterday.

I can't imagine the grief that some families are suffering today, or the frantic worry of those who don't yet know what's happened to their loved ones. My thoughts are split between them and the sickening certainty that, in the predictable absence of any serious soul-searching about our role in the world, we will be going through all this again in the not too distant future.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Quaffing All Over The World

I'm posting this information as a service for beer drinkers planning to go abroad. Deutsche Bank has compiled a chart showing how much it costs in 2017 to buy either a pint or a half litre of beer in a local pub in an expat area of the city concerned.

The dearest is Oslo at $9.90 (£7.59), London is $6.40 (£4.90) and the cheapest listed is Prague at $1.30 (£1.00). I find it interesting that in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, both capital cities of countries with large Muslim populations (indeed, Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country), the prices in sterling work out at £3.15 and £3.22 respectively - considerably less than London.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Voting for a pint

Now here's a curious thing: pubs offering a free drink to people who have registered to vote since the announcement of the General Election on 18 April. The "Vote This Year Get A Free Beer" campaign was begun by Joby Andrews who owns three pubs in the Bristol area. Quite a few pubs have signed up, not just in Bristol.

People who register on-line will receive an e-mail confirming their registration. If they produce this in participating pubs, they'll get a free drink. The only two places offering this locally that I'm aware of are both in Liverpool: Ma Boyles in Water Street, and Constellations in Greenland Street.

As I understand it, this is not illegal as it is not rewarding for people for voting a particular way, but simply for being on the electoral roll. It's probably worth it for a free pint and not getting an £80 fine. The thing is: you've only got three days.

Monday, 15 May 2017

CAMRA's manifesto

The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has stated that, as a consequence of leaving the EU, it's probable that people's spending power will decline in real terms as inflation rises and real wages fall. Logically, people will have less spare cash to spend in the pub.

CAMRA is asking candidates to pledge that the pub and beer industry be protected and promoted throughout the Leave negotiations, and suggests extending duty cuts on lower strength beers, and reducing duty charged on beer sold in pubs and clubs. CAMRA is also urging our negotiators to ensure that any potential adverse effects on pubs and breweries are avoided during EU exit negotiations.

Personally I think they are whistling in the wind, and if Mark Carney is correct, you don't have to be Mystic Meg to predict that pubs are going to have a difficult time in the near future.

Colin Valentine, CAMRA's National Chair has suggested that the General Election and upcoming negotiations to leave the EU will give us a unique chance to change some of the tax rules that have significantly increased the price of a pint in the pub, but I see no political will to introduce the measures that would be required. Furthermore, the negotiations will cover a multitude of issues, and pubs and beer will be nowhere near the top of the list, assuming they feature on it at all.

Still you can't blame a campaign for trying, and CAMRA has prepared an on-line tool where any member of the public, not just members, can lobby their local candidates to pledge support for pubs, and also where all candidates can commit themselves to the pledge. The link for both voters and candidates is here. CAMRA's General Election manifesto can be seen and downloaded here.

P.S. 16.5.17: I've just heard on BBC Radio news that prices are now rising faster than wages. It looks as though Mr Carney got it right.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Labouring the pint

It's encouraging to see one political party taking pubs and communities seriously. Labour's leaked manifesto includes plans to:
  • Set up a national pub review to investigate why they're closing.
  • Set up a task force to consider the sustainability of pubs in the long term.
  • Give greater protection to pubs.
  • Give communities a greater say in the future shape of town centres, which would obviously affect town centre pubs.
  • Switch business rates from RPI to CPI and providing a better appeals system.
  • Review the entire business rates system in the long term.
A review of business rates is long overdue, seeing that pubs pay 2.8% of the business rates levied, even though they account for a mere 0.5% of turnover.

According to the Morning Advertiser, the pub trade newspaper, these proposals are broadly welcomed by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the British Institute of Innkeeping and the British Beer & Pub Association.

It seems to me that some thought has gone into these suggestions. Most politicians that I've seen asked about pubs just waffle on about "foaming pints" in the "great British pub", or in John Major's case, "warm pints": we must make sure he never serves at a CAMRA beer festival.

Well, they've got to get themselves elected first, but if they manage that, let's hope these considered proposals don't lose their momentum.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Craft breweries - take cover

I see in the Morning Advertiser that Carlsberg has announced that it intends to acquire a craft brewery in the UK. This is hardly surprising news, and quite a few beer writers and bloggers have suggested that craft breweries would become targets for takeover as the popularity of their beers grew. The fate of Meantime, taken over by SABMiller, and then sold on a short while later (as I wrote here), should make any small brewery think twice before agreeing to being bought out. They should also remember Sharp's, taken over by Molson Coors who subsequently moved all the production of bottled Doom Bar hundreds of miles north, while still putting 'Rock, Cornwall' on the labels. As I wrote in December 2015, "Selling out to a big beer corporation must be a temptation for the owners of a highly successful small brewery, but the problem is that you are instantly converted from a company to a brand, and brands are no more than commodities to bought and sold like any other."

I suppose if you've had enough and don't care what happens to your brewery after you've been paid the asking price, then fair enough, although your customers may not be so sanguine, otherwise you have to be very careful and yet could still come unstuck.

Those of us who remember the domination of the beer market in the UK by the Big Six (Whitbread, Scottish and Newcastle, Bass Charrington, Allied Breweries, Courage Imperial and Watneys) will be only too aware of the promises that followed brewery takeovers to keep the beer local, brewed to local tastes, etc, etc. In nearly all cases, these pledges were broken within a few years - months, sometimes - and a sizeable proportion of British beer ended being brewed in huge beer factories. Whitbread, who had the cheek to run an advertising campaign to try to persuade us that Trophy Bitter was brewed differently around the country to suit local tastes, were the worst culprits. The swathe they cut through the British brewing scene was mocked as the  'Whitbread Tour of Destruction', depicted on rock tour-style T-shirts and posters that listed all the breweries they'd taken over and closed.

The situation today isn't an exact parallel: in the Big Six days, takeovers were usually to acquire the target brewery's pub estate, which isn't a consideration now. I suspect that Carlsberg, despite their advertising campaigns, must know that their products lack any credibility: what better way to gain instant cred than buying an established, successful and well-regarded craft brewery?

It's becoming increasingly the case that well-regarded small breweries can provide an instant, off-the-peg solution for any mega-corporations who want to enter markets that their existing products could never reach. I don't see this just as a craft problem; the takeover of Sharp's shows that real ale breweries can go the same way. I'm not sure that ordinary drinkers can do much about it; let's just hope we don't sleepwalk into a repeat of the relentless cycle of takeovers that we saw in the 1960s and 1970s.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Beer Street, Southport

The Tap & Bottles in Cambridge Walks, Southport, are running their second Beer Street festival based around their pub and extending along the arcade. Described as Southport's only cask ale and craft beer festival, it will have more than 75 beers in one location. Opening times: Friday 19th May 1.00pm to 11.00pm; Saturday 20th midday to 11.00pm; Sunday 21st midday to 7.00pm.

The Cambridge Arcade runs between Lord Street and Chapel Street in Southport town centre; the Lord Street entrance is next to the Atkinson arts centre. The buses on Lord Street and Southport railway station on Chapel Street are all just a few minutes' walk away. To find out more about Southport Beer Street, go to the website here, where a beer list should be available soon.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Bar 45

Bar 45
Just around the corner at the north end of Lord Street, Southport, you will find Bar 45 on Leicester Street. I don't know any other drinking haunt remotely similar to this one: its Facebook page describes it as a "record shop with a bar and live music [with] a large selection of vinyl, all genres, available to purchase or just to listen to over a drink". 

As I walked in, 'Love Resurrection' by Alison Moyet was playing, which was a promising start. This was followed by the Stranglers, then Buddy Holly, so the music is certainly eclectic. There are boxes of records on the tables from which you can choose something you want to hear to be played on a proper turntable. The venue is simply decorated: a bare wooden floor, tables and chairs around the walls and painted walls that are adorned with a large variety of LP record sleeves. 

There are two real ales which, when I called in, were Fullers London Pride and Bowness Bay Swan Blonde, a dry, blonde beer from the Lake District that I hadn't come across before; I wasn't disappointed. There were several beers on tall fonts, including Shed Head American Pale Ale (brewed, to my surprise, in Sweden) and a couple of keg ciders along with the lagers. There is a good range of other drinks, coffee as well, and I saw they also sold sandwiches.

Live music is a feature of this bar and they have a range of artists who appear here. On Monday evenings there is a music quiz and cash music bingo night. Opening hours are from midday to midnight. Their website is here, and their phone is 07956 768771. 

I feel that music lovers in particular will find Bar 45 is well worth a visit.

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, 27 April 2017

Getting into the spirit

Years ago, pubs would very often just sell one type of whisky, gin, brandy and vodka, along with a bottle of red wine and another of white. If you weren't a beer drinker, that was your choice. Of course, if you were a beer drinker, your choice was usually limited to a bitter, a mild a lager and Guinness.

In the last couple of decades, real ale choices have expanded massively, but other drinkers had been left behind in terms of options, until recently. Having visited more than 60 pubs over the last three years in order to write about them in the local papers, I've noticed how they are increasingly expanding their ranges of wines and spirits. Quite a few have wine lists with 20+ wines listed, but the biggest changes have been in the choices of spirits. There have always been a few pubs that had a range of malt whiskies, but the biggest recent expansion has been gin.

The first local gin I became aware of around here was Liverpool Gin, created by the owners of Liverpool Organic Brewery who sold the brand last year to the company in Halewood, south east of Liverpool, that makes Lambrini. The cheapest price I could see on-line was £43, so this drink is clearly not aimed at the Gordon's market (£15 a bottle in the supermarket). More recently we have had Formby Gin and Ormskirk Gin, both also costing more than £40 a bottle. Other gins I've been seeing more recently include brands such as Hendrick's and Bombay Sapphire.

The number of new distilleries rose by 17% in 2016, according to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. At the same time, there is evidence that the coffee shop boom is slowing: the Costa chain will be cutting its number of outlets by up to 10%, and Starbucks has recorded a 60% drop in its profits in the UK.

I've often seen assertions that, for pubs to survive, they'll have to sell food and hot drinks, especially good quality coffee, in order not to lose custom to coffee chains and café bars. I'm sure there's some truth in that, and the slump in growth of coffee shops would suggest opportunities for pubs, which usually provide a more social environment than coffee shops: very few people would go into a Caffè Nero to drink coffee and, perhaps, chat to strangers all evening.

That all said, it seems to me that there is a lot to be gained by expanding the choice of alcoholic drinks beyond the traditional range. The trend of making original spirits is spreading to other types, such as whisky, rum and vodka - we even have English and Welsh whiskies now. A wider choice of wines and spirits will make pubs more attractive to more potential customers, particularly women, and that in turn will help keep the pubs going for real ale drinkers such as me. Trebles all round!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Lion song session moves

The Lion Tavern, Moorfields, Liverpool
From May, my acoustic song session, aka singaround, in the Lion Tavern will move from the second Thursday of the month to the second Tuesday. This is because something similar takes place every Thursday afternoon in the Belevedere in Liverpool, and one or two people have commented to me that they'd prefer the two sessions to be on different days.

No sooner said than done. Well, not quite, as people have been saying this for years, but Tuesdays weren't available until the new management took over the pub fairly recently.

The next session is therefore on Tuesday 9 May, beginning at around 8.30 pm. All welcome, including non-performers. The Lion has eight real ales and a real cider.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Button it!

Mind your Ps & Qs if you want to drink OBB
There might be a general election looming, but one pub chain has banned all blue talk. It is Sam Smith's, probably one of the most eccentric pub chains in the country. They have just issued this instruction to its 200 pubs: "We wish to inform all of our customers that we have introduced a zero tolerance policy against swearing in all of our pubs." I find that to be a curious development, although it won't affect me for two reasons: there are no Sam Smith's pubs in this area, and I don't swear much anyway.

Sam Smith's pubs are different from most others anyway in that they only stock their own branded products, they don't have TV or music, and they are generally very cheap. They haven't allowed live music for about 15 years because the company refused on principle to pay for the new music licences introduced by 'New' Labour in 2003. I wrote in 2009 about the Plough, a large, multi-roomed pub in Whitby where I go every year for the folk festival: I don't understand a principle that turned the Plough from a large pub that was heaving during the 7 days of folk week with music sessions in 3 separate rooms and another in the large back yard, weather permitting, to one that looked almost deserted most of the time. Doesn't Sam Smith's want to make money?

Although those stupid music licences were scrapped in 2012, Sam Smith's still won't let the Plough reintroduce live music, not even unamplified. I bet the licensee looks enviously at the heaving pubs that do allow song and music sessions while he serves his half dozen customers.

As for swearing, I don't take too much notice except when people are loud and repetitive, at which point I find it irritating. I've occasionally heard people in my local, the Guest House, being told to cut it out when they go too far, and I'm quite happy about that level of control. While I find a pub full of swearing drinkers - usually male - off-putting, an outright ban does seem to be going too far.

That's Sam Smith's for you: they'd cut off their own nose to spite their face to make a point.

The BBC report on the swearing ban is here.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Un-Baezed

Before the 2016 presidential election, legendary political folk singer Joan Baez apparently hadn't written a song for 25 years, but she has been prompted by recent events to put musical pen to paper. She says of this composition that it's "not a good song, but it will make people laugh". Now I wonder who it could be about?

Monday, 17 April 2017

Local pubs: good and bad news

The Hop Inn Bier Shoppe, Ormskirk
I have recently learnt that the Hop Inn Bier Shoppe in Ormskirk, which I visited last July, has closed; I don't know why. I've been told that there has been a parting of the ways at the parent pub, the Hop Vine in Burscough, between the proprietor, Mike McCombe, and the brewer in the Burscough Brewery which operated in outhouses to the rear of the pub.

Brewing has ceased, apparently, and the Hop Vine's house beer is now brewed by Parker Brewery of Banks. This has all come to me by word of mouth, and I can't find any information on-line, except to note that the last entry on the brewery's Facebook page was in December 2016.

The Pageant in Kew,
The Pageant in Kew, which I visited last February, has also closed, apparently to deal with some essential repairs, but I've learnt to distrust handwritten signs put in pub windows to explain sudden closure; they are very often untrue. I hope my scepticism is proved wrong in this case, as the young licensee was enthusiastic about making the Pageant into a proper community pub, and I gained the impression that his efforts were beginning to pay off.

The Blundell Arms on its last day
A more positive piece of news is that the Blundell Arms in Birkdale has been declared an Asset of Community Value (ACV) by Sefton Council. I visited this pub on Sunday 6 March 2016, its final day of opening, and had assumed that was it. However, as I wrote in September, Jason MacCormack set up a campaign to convert the Dell, as it was often called locally, into a community pub, and his campaign has culminated in this granting of ACV status. There's still a long way to go, but this is a very significant result, for which Jason deserves the credit.