Advance notice of the Southport Beer Festival 2015

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Volunteer Canteen, Waterloo

Waterloo is fortunate in that it has four Good Beer Guide pubs within a quarter of an hour walk, all reasonably close to Waterloo Station on the Liverpool to Southport line. Of these, only the Volunteer Canteen on East Street is a traditional pub, the others being converted from shops and a bank. The Volly is a mid-terrace, Victorian pub with an interesting exterior in a backstreet less than 10 minutes from the station and bus stops. Originally called Waddington's Canteen Vaults after an early landlord, it gained its present name in 1906 as a tribute to the fact that some of its then regulars had survived fighting in the Boer War.

The lounge still has table service
It used to be owned by Higsons of Liverpool, as you can still see in the engraved windows (you can just make the name out if you click on the top photo). It is a two-roomed pub in which I could see few signs of modernisation. The attractive lounge still has table service, while the vaults seem to be more popular with regulars. They are in the process of setting up a community book swap/library in the lounge, making use of the old wooden bookcases. The bar serves both rooms, and I was told that the bar fittings on the lounge side are listed. There is a quiz night on Tuesdays, and a TV for sports, but other than those, it relies on just being a good local: a sign outside declares: "No pool - no jukebox - no fruit machines. Plenty of good traditional beer. Bar food". I found the people there to be very friendly, and I ended up chatting to several people who were obviously regulars.

The listed bar
The real ales that were on were:
Liverpool Organic Pilsner;
Liverpool Organic Special 857;
Peerless Storr; and
Courage Best Bitter.
The beers I had were all very drinkable, and I ended staying rather longer than I had planned.

The Volly was awarded Community Pub of the Year in 2014 and I can understand why. I wrote about it previously six years ago, and I'm pleased that it remains a fine pub that is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the North Merseyside area.

If you suffer from technology dependency, there's free WiFi too. 
You can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

National Beer Day?

I see from my What's Brewing (WB) that 15 June was National Beer Day; apparently there was a national "cheers to beer" with drinkers raising their glasses to beer in pubs throughout the land at 12.15pm, the exact time, according to WB, when the Magna Carta was signed. I've completely missed all of this, and if I'd realised, I might well have decided to go to the pub and join in just for fun. Well, it would have been a good excuse.

First of all, the time: WB has cocked up here. Time wasn't standardised across the country until the coming of the railways, and it certainly wasn't so precisely measured 800 years ago that we can say something had happened at exactly 12.15pm. The 12.15pm time is obviously to reflect the year the Magna Carta was signed: 1215 AD, which is a bit embarrassing for our leading real ale newspaper.

Secondly, the relevance of the Magna Carta is that article 35 states:

Let there be throughout our kingdom a single measure for wine and a single measure for ale and a single measure for corn, namely the London quarter and one width of cloth, whether dyed, russet or halberjet, namely two ells within the selvedges. Let it be the same as with weights as with measures.

Yes, it mentions beer, but it's not really about beer; it's about weights and measures, but that's okay too because it shows that CAMRA magazines printing the contact details of local trading standards have an 800 year old precedent.

I don't mind campaigns like this and "Let There Be Beer", even if I do think the latter is a bit naff, because they depict beer as something normal and not a scourge on society causing uncontrolled mayhem and disorder. I just wonder how far the general public were aware of National Beer Day when someone like me who is interested in real ale completely missed it?

Friday, 26 June 2015

Survey: why we go to pubs

A survey by Mintel has thrown up a few less-than-astonishing findings. To mention just a few:
  • One in five people in Britain drink in a pub at least once a week.
  • One in ten regularly go to the pub for a meal each week.
  • 22% say food is the most important factor.
  • One in five say they'd visit more often if drinks were cheaper.
Other findings relating to food show that people increasingly expect it to be good quality and made on the premises with locally sourced ingredients; it seems that the attractions of cheap and cheerful pub grub are diminishing (although not for me!). This, the report states, reinforces the importance of food to the pub trade: while I don't disagree, I note that that if 22% consider that food is the most important factor (and that is a lot of people), logically 78% of those surveyed do not. 

The 20% who said they'd go more often if drinks were cheaper constitute a big loss of potential trade; as I've long thought, price is driving people away. Silly duty levels and exorbitant pubco pricing certainly have made pubgoing a costly extravagance for many, especially against a background of a long decline in the value of wages in real terms. I was interested to see that there was no mention of the smoking ban; after eight years, it's probably no longer a significant factor.

There is some acknowledgement of the social and community aspects of pubgoing. Mintel's Chris Wisson said: “In less urban areas in particular, pubs can be an important community space for residents to meet and socialise. Providing an experience more tailored to the local catchment area, by stocking products from local brewers and farmers for example, can be a good way for landlords to underline their importance and relevance to the community.” I can see that, but the same applies to urban pubs, perhaps in a more diluted form owing to the greater choice of pubs that's usually available. I drink mostly in town and city pubs and I have noticed that genuinely local beers do tend to be popular.*

The survey merely reinforces what most of us had assumed anyway: that food is increasingly important to the pub trade. With overall alcohol sales in decline, food makes up some of the shortfall for those pubs that are able to provide it, but that doesn't alter the fact that food isn't the most important factor for nearly four out of five customers. It also doesn't alter the fact that not every pub is able to put food on.

* Hence the significance of Molson Coors' decision to move production of bottled Doom Bar from Cornwall to Burton on Trent.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Bold Beer Festival

This is all I know about this event. Please note this is the Bold in Lord Street, not the Bold in Churchtown. Click on the poster to enlarge it.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Bent & Bongs Beer Bashed?

The queue outside Formby Hall (I'm in there
somewhere). 'Borrowed' from BBBB website.
The long-running Bent & Bongs Beer Bash has been held in Formby Hall in Atherton for very many years. I've attended the Saturday afternoon session quite a few times, and it has always been tremendously popular. We'd arrive at least three quarters of an hour before opening when the queue would already run from the door round the corner, along the entire length of the building and across to the far side of the car park. You look at the building and think that there's no way that number of people will be able to get in, but they always do. It has always attracted a wide age range, including quite a few women drinkers; it has also provided live music that has generally gone down down well with the crowd (I've never heard anyone at the festival whinge about the music) and - obviously - a good range of beers.

An old BBBB logo
All of this is now under threat as the building has been sold to a housing association that provides supported accommodation. I can't see anyone having any objections to the building of supported housing, but was this site the only one available? Seems improbable to me, and the loss to the community of this amenity (it's not just the beer festival that uses it) is a high price to pay. Steve Hall of Left Unity Wigan said the hall "was needlessly sold off by Wigan's Labour controlled Council to Rose Leisure back in 2012, despite bids by the then existing Council workforce, and a consortium of local residents, both of which would have seen it continue as the town's principal leisure venue for years to come." He tells us that it could be knocked down as early as August 2016. Wigan Council says it has no contact from the new owners yet, but that is surely only a matter of time. Full story here.

The beer festival is now looking for a new venue, but it can be surprisingly hard to find suitable premises. I hope it's not the end of the line for the popular and quirky BBBB.

P.S. (25 June) Ken Worthington of Wigan CAMRA tells me that a new venue in the town centre is under consideration.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Spooning in Hounslow

Photo pinched from the JDW website
I was down in Hounslow over the weekend, booked to play at a birthday party as a duo with my friend Mick, a very good lead and acoustic guitarist. The party went very well, but as it was a daytime do, we wanted to wind down later. There's only one Good Beer Guide pub in Hounslow: the Moon Under Water, by the name obviously a Wetherspoons.

It looks as though it's been converted from three shops, so there are three front doors, and the pub has a beer garden out the back. A horseshoe-shaped drinking area surrounds a central bar with local history illustrated on the walls. It's about 14 years old and in the original Spoons design. The customers were mixed in age and gender: it's clearly popular as a local. The overall atmosphere was good-humoured, and the staff were friendly and efficient, keeping an eye on who was to be served next, unlike some Spoons where they just call out "Who's next?", which often just results in the pushiest customer jumping the queue.

£7.39 for two meals is not the price we'd expected to pay in London, and the real ales were £1.99 for the Ruddles Best, and £2.15 for all others - certainly no "London price blues" here. The range was good: Ruddles Best; Abbott; Acorn Old Moor Porter; Nottingham Dreadnought; Burton Bridge Stairway to Heaven; Oakham Inferno; and Old Rosie cider. I enjoyed both the Stairway to Heaven and the Dreadnought, and my friends seemed happy with the beers they'd chosen. There were quite a few adverts around the place for a forthcoming cider festival.

The pub was busy and buzzing, and my friend Geoff, who lives Hounslow, said that it contrasts with most others in the area which generally are not so well used. It's close to Heathrow so you get loads of planes flying overhead, but if you're staying overnight prior to a flight, this would be a much better choice than any soulless hotel bar.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Leopards, spots, etc

Is that Burton on Trent I see before me?
So bottled Doom Bar is not brewed in Cornwall after all? I have to confess I've struggled to set my reaction to shock mode. When Sharp's was taken over by Molson Coors, it did create quite a stir, but as I wrote in February 2013: "Molson Coors has pleasantly surprised many real ale drinkers by taking over and investing in - rather than shutting down - the Cornish brewery, Sharp's." But that was in a post called Molson Coors - not the cuddly capitalists after all, describing how Molson Coors had issued a notice to a local amateur football team evicting them from their ground, while ostentatiously supporting the Scottish national team. In May that year I had further criticisms of Molson Coors.

The point of all this is not to show how prescient I was, but to demonstrate how the warning signs have been there all along. You could take the view that no harm has been done, Sharp's Brewery has been expanded, the draught beer is still brewed in Cornwall, so what's the problem? The problem is a little thing called honesty. Why not announce they were moving the production of bottled Doom Bar to Burton on Trent because of capacity problems, while confirming that the draught version will continue to be brewed in Cornwall? As the BBC tells us: "The labels on bottles of Doom Bar contain seven references to Rock Cornwall, but none to Burton-upon-Trent, but the small print reads 'brewed in the UK'."

This suggests an intention to deceive: Molson Coors has probably now forfeited the trust of those drinkers who had been prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt after they had acquired a small British brewery. In May 2013 I said that, "If we see any more good news stories concerning Molson Coors, it's worth bearing in mind that any good PR from this company is just a mask." That still applies, perhaps even more now that they've been caught out.

If anyone is thinking: "What's all the fuss about, as long as the beer is all right?", I'd reply that, if it's so unimportant, why weren't Molson Coors open about moving their bottled production in the first case?

Boak & Bailey have written about this from a slightly different perspective.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

New micropub for Brighton le Sands

I've just heard about a new micropub being set up in the Crosby area called the Corner Post. It's in a former post office, hence the name and the postbox in their badge, and is a short walk from the Blundellsands & Crosby railway station. Work has been going on since April and they hope to open soon.

It's at 25 Bridge Road, Brighton le Sands, L23 6SA. I have an old friend who lives nearby and we'll visit when it opens: more info then.

Brighton le Sands is an area surrounded by Blundellsands, Crosby and Waterloo, and is a name that that I'd thought was falling into disuse.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

In Through the Out Door

I was having a drink with my friend Ann in the Park Hotel in Birkdale village in Southport a while ago and we were joined by the licensee. He told us stories about a large corner pub he used to run in Huyton, near Liverpool. One night, a regular was completely off his head, so our licensee said to him: "I'm not barring you and you'll be welcome back tomorrow, but I'm not serving you any more beer tonight."

The drinker agreed, and peaceably left by the side door. A minute later he re-entered by the front door and headed determinedly towards the bar. The licensee intercepted him and said: "I've just told you that I'm not serving you any more."

The drunk looked confused and asked: "How many pubs in this street do you run?"

Monday, 15 June 2015

Reflections on Merseyside GBG pubs

Flicking through the current Good Beer Guide (GBG), I wondered out of curiosity how many of its
pubs I'd been to. I'll never know because I'm not going to spend days ploughing through the whole thing, so I decided to limit myself to Merseyside, which took about 10 minutes. I live in Southport at the northern end of Sefton, which also includes Formby, Crosby, Bootle, Maghull and Aintree. Yes, Aintree race course is in Sefton, not Liverpool.

In Southport itself, my record is 100%, as you'd expect, and in Liverpool city centre, all but one (the Clove Hitch on Hope Street), but I decided to work it out by Merseyside's five constituent boroughs:
  • Sefton: 18 out of 19. *
  • Liverpool: 21 out of 26. #
  • Knowsley: 0 out of 2.
  • Wirral: 1 out of 16.
  • St Helens: 2 out of 7.
  • Whole of Merseyside: 60%.
My first thought was how my pub visits within Merseyside have rarely ventured into three (Knowsley, St Helens and Wirral) out the five boroughs, for which I have little excuse since public transport in Merseyside is generally quite good. 

My next thought was how uneven the distribution of real ale pubs is in Merseyside, with the whole of Knowsley having only two pubs in the GBG, and St Helens seven. If I were to try to explain it, I'd suggest that the greater the economic deprivation, the fewer the real ale pubs. Even in better-served boroughs such as Liverpool and Sefton, there are fewer real ale pubs in the less well-off parts; for example, Kirkdale has one in contrast to Liverpool city centre's nineteen, and in Sefton, Bootle has two while Southport has nine.

A simplistic explanation would be that real ale is mainly a middle class concern, but from experience I wouldn't agree. It would be wrong to assume that everyone who lives in Southport or who drinks in Liverpool city centre is middle class and therefore well off - they're not - but in areas where there is generally considerably less disposable income, there is less room for choice. I've lived in Kirkby in Knowsley, and there are far fewer pubs than in Southport, and I get a similar impression when I've been to Huyton, also in Knowsley.

My conclusion, based I'll admit on subjective observations rather than hard statistical facts, is that the uneven distribution is economic rather than class-based. This is not splitting hairs: being working class does not automatically mean being poor, just as being middle class is no guarantee of being well-off, even though in both instances there can be some correlation. The fact that non-real ale pubs in economically disadvantaged areas are often struggling and sometimes closing, even though there are often fewer to begin with, suggests that lack of money is the problem, not a class-based dislike of poncy real ale, because that hadn't been an option anyway. 

It's surprising what thoughts my casual flick through the GBG has provoked, but they are only my opinions, not a sociological thesis.

Notes:
* - The one exception is the Frank Hornby, a Wetherspoons in Maghull.
# - I mean all of Liverpool here, not just the city centre.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Thatch & Thistle

The Thatch & Thistle
The Thatch & Thistle in Southport is something of a local landmark, being the only thatched building in the Blowick area. It might look like an ancient pub but it's not; it was built in the 1990s on the site of the old Blowick pub. In 2008, its future looked bleak for a while when its owners, Cains Brewery, went bust and the pub closed. A few years ago it was renamed the Carvery Grill and then the Thatched Pub & Grill, so I'm pleased to see the original name restored after these various ups and downs.

Outside there is a large car park and an open air seating area. The inside, like the exterior, is designed in the style of an old country pub and was tastefully refurbished to a good standard last year. You are faced with a long single bar as you enter and there are several separate drinking areas. When I was there, four of the five handpumps on the front of the bar were in use serving Thwaites Wainwright, Marstons New World Pale Ale, Weetwood Cheshire Cat and Flipside Farthing Mild. These beers are constantly changing, although I was told that Black Sheep Bitter is usually on and is very popular. If you can't decide, you can buy three different beers in third of a pint glasses for £3.50. I noticed a Cask Marque certificate on the wall, and the two beers I had were fine.

The Thatch has always been known for food, and I've had enjoyable meals there in the past. There is a varied, reasonably priced standard menu, plus a specials board and a two-course evening special menu. However, the Thatch retains its pub atmosphere and is not just a restaurant with beer.

They have live music every alternate Saturday, although they are thinking of increasing this to weekly. They advertise disco and karaoke on Fridays and hold a fun quiz night on Sundays. Sometimes you can watch big sports events on TV. The pub also is the home venue for a pool team and a darts team, so overall you can see there's quite a lot going on here. 

The Thatch and Thistle is at 147 Norwood Road; for more information, phone them on 01704 501825.

This is another in my series of pub articles for publication in the Southport Visiter.

Friday, 12 June 2015

This is about me, not you

Curmudgeon has written a post about beer festivals, including the question of whether a festival should hold beers back for the later sessions, or put them all at once and let the later sessions have fewer. He points out that increasingly festivals incline to the latter, but read the post for his full reasoning. One thing he said caught my attention: "... it has to be recognised that a beer festival is run in the interest of the customers, not for the convenience of the staff." As a principle, I agree, but how far does this translate to practice?

As a former civil servant, I could claim to have been a professional bureaucrat, but I've noticed that amateur and volunteer organisations often love to create red tape - it seems there are loads of wannabe civil servants out there, and CAMRA is no exception. Compare the traditional festival experience to a pub.

Pub:
  1. Walk into pub.
  2. Order drink at bar.
  3. Hand over cash and begin to drink.
Festival:
  1. Enter festival hall.
  2. Queue at admissions desk to pay entry.
  3. Sign in, giving name and home town (CAMRA members only).
  4. Queue for beer tokens.
  5. Queue for glass.
  6. Order drink at bar.
  7. Pay by token and begin to drink.
Whenever I asked why we got members to sign in, I was told it was interesting to see where people had come from: in other words, we had an additional queue to satisfy people's curiosity. Most festivals have in more recent years tried to make the admissions process more user friendly, but other strange practices remain:
  • Although CAMRA succeeded in its campaign for all day opening in pubs 27 years ago, some of its festivals still close in the afternoon.
  • Festivals have separate counters for glass and beer token refunds.
  • Festivals are increasingly moving to having half pint glasses only. 
I have asked about opening hours, and was told that the staff needed a break to clear up for the evening session. Perhaps, but CAMRA didn't accept this argument when the pub industry used it. In reality, it is to justify having two separate admissions charges in a single day. Either way, it's for the convenience of the festival.

The separate refund counters are more convenient for the festival, but not for the public.

Half pints: a couple of reasons for this. Some staff are over-generous when serving half pints in pint glasses or giving tasters. I have to say that, although I've worked at festivals since the mid-1980s, I've never known any kind of instruction about the financial importance of serving a correct half measure in a pint glass, nor about not giving too much away in tasters. I have wondered whether some volunteers think the beer is free. The solution is to instruct them and keep an eye on them, correcting any mistakes, not to eliminate pint glasses.

The other is that customers are more likely to keep half pint glasses rather than pints, so that the festival isn't left with unsold stock. At a festival, most drinkers probably have half pints anyway, but there are some who prefer pints. Unsold stock is not the concern of the drinker, so it seems unreasonable that punters should be dictated to in terms of the quantities they can buy their drinks for this reason. Try that in a pub!

Non-CAMRA festivals are even worse: as well as dictating the size of the glass, they insist you buy and keep it. They also don't refund unsold beer tokens. 

Often there is a good reason for a practice: festivals have to have admission charges, deposits on glasses and beer tokens, although a few festival organisers disagree and operate cash bars; inevitably all these can cause certain delays, which are acceptable as long as they're unavoidable. It isn't right when a festival determines its processes for its own benefit and convenience. Festivals and pubs aren't the same thing, but organisers should try to replicate the pub experience as far as is practicable.

I have deliberately not named any festivals as all the points I have made refer to more than one.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A trip to Chester

The Bothy Folk Club celebrated its 50th birthday in April, and the planning committee for the celebrations decided that our final meeting would be a social event in Chester. And so it came about that we caught the train last weekend to enjoy an evening in this historic city visiting four pubs. (* = in the 2015 Good Beer Guide)

The Pied Bull
The first pub for the early birds was the Pied Bull* on Northgate Street. This pub is home to the only microbrewery in the city. An attractive stone-clad exterior leads into a wood-panelled interior where on handpump there were a real cider (Black Rat) and five real ales (Adnams Broaside, Pied Bull Sensibull, Pied Bull Bull's Hit, Pothole Porter and Trinity 3 Exit 33). The three beers I had were all fine, and the staff were very helpful and friendly. They're also brewing their own craft beer of which they gave me a sample, which I found quite heavily hopped. Not my bag, but not too bad at all. The pub serves food, provides accommodation and puts on occasional beer festivals.

The Old Harkers Arms
We had to leave this great pub to meet those who had set out later, so we went to the Old Harkers Arms* on Russell Street. This pub has been converted from an old warehouse right next to the Shropshire Union Canal. Bare boards, iron columns and a ceiling made from old packing boxes are relics of its warehouse days. It served nine beers: London Pride, Weetwood Cheshire Cat, Bragdy Conwy IPA, Bragdy Conwy Gold, Big Shed Sentinal Amber Ale, Spitting Feathers Old Wavertonian, Conwy Surfin' IPA and Bruning & Price Original, plus some real ciders. Surfin' IPA prompted a spontaneous Beach Boys impersonation, although I don't think Brian Wilson need worry too much. We all enjoyed the various beers we had. This venue was filling up while we were there; it is very popular for food. It also has outside seating by the canal.

The Forest House
Our next pub was the Forest House, a Wetherspoons pub on Love Street where we went for a meal. This is in a Georgian house dating from 1759, and it is a particularly attractive building, both inside and out. It is multi-roomed and they have preserved much of the original layout and features. There were four real ales on: Brogdy Conwy Minera Mountian, Ruddles Best, Abbott and Weetwood Cheshire Cat. Everyone had fish and chips, except me: I had a Chicken Tikka Masala as I can't stand fish. Beers and food were fine.

Our final port of call was The Cellar* on City Road. Despite its name, this bar is at street level; basic furniture and bare brick walls create a venue mostly for standing. It was popular and was filling up while we were there. The beers on were: Left Handed Giant Brewing Co USPA, Thornbridge Ruin, Wild Beer Co Rod Nam Sang, Deva Gladius, Squawk Brewing Co Porter and Buxton Brewery Buxton IPA. It does snacks, and often has live music; in fact a band was setting up while we there. Again, the beer was well-kept.

Team photo about half way through
We left just before 10.00pm, most of us to catch our trains back to Southport. Two of the group live more locally and acted as our guides: they assured us there were many more great pubs in this city, so perhaps there will be more trips and further posts here. It was a very enjoyable trip.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Liverpool beerex to go?

A 'Merseyside Beer Exhibition' glass
from 1978, given to me by Tru Smith.
I've had a couple run-ins with Liverpool CAMRA Branch, mainly over my views on their antiquated methods of selling tickets for their beer festival that I wrote about in November 2011 (they steadfastly refused to put tickets on-line until a year or two ago). I was, bizarrely, even accused of hating Liverpool by someone with a seriously malfunctioning sense of proportion: he was completely wrong, of course.

CAMRA's beer festival in Liverpool is one of the earliest in the country, and was originally called the Merseyside Beer Exhibition. It has been in a number of venues, but for many years has taken place in the impressive venue of the Catholic Cathedral crypt. It is always well-run, has a good range of beers, interesting food on sale and live music in one room. Our band has played there too, something of a career high!

So what is the problem? Quite simply, lack of volunteers, as reported in the Liverpool Echo. Having worked at quite a few beer festivals over the years, including Liverpool once, I know that there's usually no problem staffing the bars: everyone wants to work behind the bar, enjoying the craic with the customers and the easy access to the beers. Fewer people want to do the other jobs, including setting up and taking down, stewarding the event, sitting on admissions, etc, but these are essential. A few cheeky volunteers insist they they will do nothing but bar work, but that is to my mind unacceptable.

There's no shortage of competition in Liverpool nowadays, something I referred to in April, but it would be a shame to see this long-standing festival go to the wall.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Jennifer Crook plays Southport

A Brief Encounter moment for Jennifer
Jennifer Crook is the guest artist at the Bothy Folk Club this Sunday.

In a career that has led her from the BBC Young Tradition Award to touring with Snow Patrol, Jennifer has earned a reputation as a harp player, singer, songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist. She has appeared on national television, recorded the music for the BBC David Attenborough series The Private Life of Plants and was recently invited to contribute to the Radio 2 programme Girl On Guitar about Joni Mitchell. Jennifer’s 2011 release Merry-Go-Round featured contributions from Eddi Reader and Darrell Scott and was produced by Boo Hewerdine. The album earned her national airplay and a live session with Bob Harris on Radio 2.

Carnforth Station is Jennifer’s third solo release; she wrote many of the songs on the lever harp and much of her musical history (elements of trad Irish, bluegrass and alt country) finds its way into this collection. Touring with this album included a special performance at Carnforth Station itself.

See her this Sunday 7 June at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS at 8.00pm. The venue sells real ale from either Thwaites or Southport Brewery. Tickets on-line or on the door.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Marcus Jones - new pubs minister

I don't put much faith in government pubs ministers. I'm sure I'm not the only person who is sick of politicians declaring their undying love of what they usually describe as that great British institution, the British pub - particularly galling from governments that operated the beer duty escalator.

Marcus Jones was appointed to the role of pubs minister a couple of weeks ago. He was also given the high street brief, and I suppose I can see some logic there. The best town centre streets are those with a varied selection of shops interspersed with cafés, restaurants and pubs, making them lively and safer places from early morning until late at night, unlike some shop-only streets that are sad, deserted places after 6.00 pm, such as Chapel Street here in Southport.

He recently said in a speech: “I want to be a proactive minister who really supports pubs. I want to get around the country, I want to talk to people and listen to their views on what’s needed to save the great British pub. I’m always very keen to get involved in the industry and support events.”

Fine words, but will he be any different?

He worked part-time in a pub for 10 years, so he'll understand that most pub-goers are a cross section of society who generally behave in a perfectly civilised manner. He helped secure a debate on the beer duty escalator in 2013, and said in the Commons: "From my postbag, I know that popping down the local for a pint is becoming more and more expensive and out of reach for many of my constituents. Incomes have been squeezed over the past five years or so, and the cost of a pint has become more and more unaffordable. Beer is fast heading towards being a luxury item."

Titanic Brewery have welcomed his appointment, saying that if they were to ask for one thing, it would be stability because of the number of changes imposed upon the industry - it now just needs the chance to get on with the business of brewing and selling beer.

So it's not sounding too bad, although it is extremely early days. He is of course a Tory, but that shouldn't really make a difference. Traditionally, the big old brewers were staunch supporters of the Conservative Party; more recently it's not political ideology but surrender to the propaganda of the anti-alcohol brigade that has led to governmental attacks upon the pub and brewing industry. The nanny statists of "New" Labour who introduced the escalator were little better, and their ludicrous music licensing laws, scrapped by the Coalition, were a serious impediment to local live music of all kinds.

Breweries and pubs are capitalist companies that provide a lot of employment and it should be natural for a Tory government to support them or, at the very least, not attack them. I'm not holding my breath on that one, not least because of the completely disproportionate hysteria that greeted the three cuts of a penny in beer duty during the last government: those people are not going away. In the real world - as opposed to the microcosm of political dogma - pubs and brewing are not, and should not be, subject to partisan politics.

Politically, Marcus Jones and I are miles apart: for example, his record includes voting against gay equality rights four times and for the repeal of the Human Rights Act. Despite all that, if he does this job well, I'll happily give him the credit that is due.

Ten facts about Marcus Jones.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Kennedy's 'demons'

"Charles Kennedy dead: A lovely, fun man whose demons cost him dearly" - Kevin Maguire reaches for the cliché dispenser in the Daily Mirror.

Although I've never supported his party, I have a lot of respect for Charles Kennedy: he said no to the invasion of Iraq, he opposed his party going into coalition with the Tories, and he had a good sense of humour, as shown on shows such as Have I Got News For You when he dished out the jokes while cheerfully accepting being ribbed by his fellow panellists. In politics, he didn't speak as though he'd been groomed by a script adviser or informed by a focus group. As is well known, he was also an alcoholic.

Even some of the most respectful media reports have made reference to his struggle with his demons. What does this actually mean? The implication is that there was some kind of tragic inner flaw or failing that could not be overcome, leading to a reliance on alcohol. This tends to runs counter to the more general view that alcoholism is a problem people bring on themselves through their lack of self control, and perhaps removes some of the element of blame. It could be that people prefer not to be too critical after the death of someone who is widely respected, liked even; or it might just be lazy journalism. After all, it's easier to trot out a cliché than write thoughtfully about an awkward subject.

In reality, neither position tells the whole story. Alcoholism is an illness, and its treatment isn't helped by over simplistic stereotyping. Blaming an alcoholic for his illness is like blaming an injured pedestrian who carelessly steps into the road: it might help the accuser feel superior, but it doesn't help the victim at all. It's counter-productive to tell people they're to blame for their condition as it only makes them feel worse. But then blaming inner demons and fatal flaws isn't any more helpful, implying as it does that the consequences of the fatal flaw are unpreventable.

Alcoholics and other addicts will be better served when they can be treated in a blame-free manner. Charles Kennedy struggled with the condition while under the severe stress of a prominent political career; I doubt that he was helped by the fact that he was not allowed the privacy the rest of us would have expected as a right. It seems rich that the press, having made his condition so public - often in a judgmental manner - should then go pontificating about his 'demons'.

Women alcoholics, especially if they are mothers, come in for particular condemnation,
as shown in this depiction of the female's inevitable booze-driven descent into disgrace.

The Mount Pleasant

The Mount Pleasant
The Mount Pleasant, known as the Mount, is a large attractive redbrick pub on Manchester Road. It apparently got its name because some joker noticed it sits on a piece of land that is a couple of feet higher than the surrounding land. On the outside, there is a beer garden, a smoking shelter and a car park. Inside it is attractively decorated in a light and airy style with five drinking areas, including a vaults and a conservatory. The art deco windows proclaiming "Lion Ales" are a relic of when the pub was run by Lion Brewery of Blackburn. The ground floor is fully accessible with a disabled toilet. The conservatory and an upstairs function room are available for bookings.

There are three handpumps, one serving Sharps Doom Bar and the other two changing guest beers. They have been deservedly awarded Cask Marque for the quality of their real ale. There is also a range of lagers and keg beers. The Mount is also known for its good value food, home cooked on site, and available all day until 8pm (9pm Friday and 7pm Sunday).

As well as food and drink, there is plenty going on at the Mount. On the first Monday of the month, there is Philosophy in Pubs, and the second and fourth Mondays poetry and creative writing sessions. Every Tuesday evening, the Southport Swords, our local longsword and Morris side, practice there: if you're interested, either roll up and chat to the lads or phone Geoff on 01695 575235. Also on Tuesday, the Southport Chess Club meets in the pub. Wednesday is quiz night, and they show a film on Thursday afternoon on their three-metre screen, which is also sometimes used for sports. Thursday evening is poker night. They have live music on Saturdays with local soul or classic rock acts.

The Mount is about a ten-minute walk from the north end of Lord Street. If you need to know more, phone Joan or Jo on 01704 514131. The full address is 107 Manchester Road, Southport, PR9 9B


This is the most recent of my pub reviews written for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. 

Monday, 25 May 2015

24 hour drinking hysteria

It was interesting to see a report by the Right-inclined Institute of Economic Affairs called Drinking Fast and Slow: Ten Years of the Licensing Act. I'm sure most people here won't be shocked that it found that binge drinking, public order offences and violent crime have declined in the last decade. Far from leading to a culture of drunkenness, since the Licensing Act was passed alcohol consumption has declined by 17% during the period, with the biggest drop in the 18-24 age group. Among all the findings, it was interesting - encouraging, even - to see that incidents of domestic violence have dropped by 28%. violence.

The reasons for changes in drinking habits are many, but excessive rises in duty and declining living standards must be significant factors. It's possible that the reduction in violence can, at least in part, be attributed to an easier licensing regime: restricting access to alcohol encourages among some drinkers a tendency to neck as much as possible in the limited time available: it's blindingly obvious that the quicker you drink, the stronger the effect. Having said that, in my experience most drunks are not violent, and there's nothing in the chemical make-up of alcohol that encourages violence. But, regrettably, some violent people do drink.

I've little doubt that the anti-alcohol brigade will take little notice of this report, as it does not fit the booze-sodden apocalypse they prefer to predict. The nonsense peddled by groups such as Alcohol Concern wouldn't bother me too much, except that nearly all of their funding comes from public funds.

As for 24 hour drinking, I don't know anywhere that stays open round the clock.

Friday, 22 May 2015

CD launch & charity fundraiser

The Making History CD sleeve
Local rock bands, bluesmen and folk singers will come together for a special gig in support of local charity, the Southport Kidney Fund. On Friday 29 May, Southport-born poet Geoff Parry will launch his new album, Making History, at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Every song has lyrics written by Geoff with the tune written by the artist or band that performs it. Playing their songs from the album are the Sue Raymond Band, Equal Terms, Raphael Callaghan, Chris & Siobhan Nelson, Colin Wayte, Dai Thomas, Geoff Parry and Nev Grundy.

Geoff, who now lives in Hounslow but who maintains his close links with Southport, said of the album: “Making History is the 10th album of my songs and poems recorded by friends of mine. Since we made the first one in 1993, the world has changed tremendously, and we all have too. This album reflects both personal and international histories, with all their highs and lows.”

Admission to the event is free; all proceeds from a voluntary collection and CD sales will go the Southport Kidney Fund. The music begins at 7.30pm, and all are welcome to this special fundraising event. The venue sells real ale from Southport or Thwaites.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Lager

Boak and Bailey have written an account of how CAMRA has viewed lager over the years, which is well worth looking at. I thought it was about time that I wrote on this subject, without going over all the ground they covered.

When I was a student, I tried various drinks: mild, bitter, brown and bitter, Guinness, lager, lager and lime and cider (probably Woodpecker) to find out what I preferred. I settled on bitter. I was a student in Padgate, just on the edge of Warrington, and as the local brewery used to boast in adverts, it was Greenall Whitley Land - they owned nearly every pub in the area, and if you were a lager drinker, that was Grünhalle. You didn't have to be a genius to realise that Grünhalle was German for Greenall, so I was often surprised how many people didn't realise that fact, or that it was brewed in Warrington. As I recall, lager drinkers didn't rate Grünhalle highly, but in those days, you drank what was on offer, or not at all - and that applied to bitter and mild as well as lager.

Pinched from Tandleman
In those less enlightened days, lager was often dismissed, including by myself I have to admit, as a woman's drink, but such sneers didn't slow down the rise of lager during the 1970s. However, even then, there was a view that continental lager was good and that British lager couldn't hold a candle to it: the contempt was for the inferior domestic version. However, the critics were whistling in the wind because none of this mattered to the millions who increasingly adopted British-brewed lager as their usual beer.

In the 1980s, when I was working in Liverpool, Higsons pubs used to stock Carling Black Label, but decided to brew their own lager. Thankfully, they didn't call it Higstein or some such nonsense, but simply Higsons Lager. As I recall, lager drinkers often weren't keen, although some bitter drinkers said it was better than most lagers! They gave up after a while and brewed Kaltenberg under licence instead, but their nice new lager brewery made them attractive for takeover and was instrumental in their closure: proof, surely, that lager isn't good for you.

The success of micropubs and bottled beer shops means that interested drinkers are becoming more aware of the range of beers available from both this country and abroad. However, much as I welcome a discerning approach to beer, I'm not much interested in bottled beers myself. Even if they are beers that I like, I much prefer the draught real ale to its bottled equivalent. Bottles are fine at home, on the odd occasion I drink beer at home.  I've occasionally had a Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell or similar; pleasant enough for a change, but not a Road to Damascus moment.

Despite my distinct preference for real ale from casks, I fully accept the CAMRA policy that it is pro-real ale, and not anti-anything; the campaign stands for choice, including the choice not to drink real ale. This point was made crystal clear by CAMRA's founders (as B&B's post makes clear) and was reiterated by Colin Valentine, the national chair, at the AGM I attended in Norwich two years ago. This means that comments such as 'chemical fizz' and 'zombeers' - to name a couple of the milder insults - are not only childish and deliberately obnoxious: they are contrary to CAMRA's ethos. Some real ale types - a minority - take the view that, if only we could get lager and smooth drinkers to try real ale, they'd be converted, but  such a view is misguided. Many of them have tried it and didn't like it; others are simply happy with what they drink and see no need to experiment. In addition, we all taste things differently: for example, I can't stand fish, and the sight and smell of seafood makes me feel queasy. If everyone sensed fish and seafood as I do, I'm certain no one would eat either.

We have the modern phenomenon of quality lagers being brewed being brewed by micros and craft breweries. Harviestoun Schiehallion was the first of such beers I came across; as I recall, it was in cask at Fleetwood Beer Festival. It's a while since I've had it, but as I recall, it seemed to have more in common with modern golden ales than it did with Skol or Fosters.

My position is quite simple: I prefer cask real ale, but you can drink whatever you like. I don't think my attitude is radically different from most real ale drinkers I come across and, as a member, it's logical to assume that I meet a fair number of other CAMRA members.

This post has turned out much longer than I originally intended. However, I'll end with this: if I'm buying a round and a drinker asks for lager without specifying a brand, I'll just order the cheapest on the assumption he or she isn't bothered.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Power of the press

Our local paper, the Southport Visiter (sic), has published an on-line list of our best local pubs, and I was pleased to see my local, the Guest House in Union Street, come top. The full list is here. I wouldn't necessarily agree with the entire list; there are some I wouldn't have included and others that are surprising omissions, such as the Zetland, the Mount Pleasant, the Bold (in Churchtown), the Hesketh and the Freshfield. That said, we're quite fortunate in Southport for having some good pubs locally, which is often not the case in seaside towns: at union conferences, we found Blackpool and Bournemouth particularly deficient in this respect.

It's good that our local paper is supporting local pubs. For just over a year, CAMRA has been given a weekly column, which has mostly been written by local CAMRA stalwart, Mike Perkins and, until my previous computer broke down, I contributed several articles, which can be found here. Now that I'm on-line again, I intend to write more; for one thing, Mike could do with a break. I know from my period of editor of local CAMRA magazine, Ale & Hearty, that the local Branch likes to have a magazine and the newspaper column but, with a couple of exceptions, don't feel obliged to lend a hand. I've spoken to a couple of editors in other Branches who have had similar experiences. Regrettably, the tendency to dump tasks on individuals is by no means confined to CAMRA: many mass membership organisations tend to leave the bulk of the work to an individual or small group. Sometimes the individuals concerned prefer it that way, but mostly not.

The list is derived from CAMRA's What Pub website.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

BB King - the thrill has gone

I'm just a local amateur singer-guitarist and my music doesn't have a lot in common with the blues, but it's a mistake to assume that the music someone plays is the only music they like, but I've found it's an assumption a lot of people make.

Although I can't claim to be an expert, I love the blues, from the classic bluesman like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and BB King, to blues-influenced rock artists such as Eric Clapton, the Stones and Peter Green. The influence goes further because, as Muddy waters sang, The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll. He was right: rock & roll was heavily influenced by the blues, and the basic chord structure of blues and rock & roll can be quite similar, which is no coincidence. Rock & roll also was influenced by country, gospel and doo-wop, but the blues provided the template that took rock & roll through to rock: Fleetwood Mac, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Whitesnake - among many other bands - all acknowledged their music and singing style were derived from the blues. For my money, U2's finest moment was when they played When Love Comes To Town with BB King.

BB King is one of the last of the genuine Mississippi bluesmen. 'BB' has in recent years been explained as meaning Blues Boy, but I remember years ago reading that this was a later revision and it originally had a more racist derivation: Black Boy*. I find this quite plausible, given the racism that these performers had to face through much of their lives: refusal of admission to hotels, or referred to the back door, and the lawful segregation in many aspects of everyday life that they grew up with in the old 'gallant' South. I think we British can take some credit for the fact that, because these blues singers were treated like conquering heroes over here even before they'd played any gigs in Britain, they were ultimately respected by white audiences in the USA. The Rolling Stones must take a lot of credit for showing white Americans what they had in their midst when they insisted on BB King supporting them on a US tour in the late 1960s.

I once thought 'BB King' when I heard on the radio the very first guitar note of one of his songs. I'm quite sure I couldn't have recognised any other guitarist on such scanty information,

Quite simply, an era has passed.

* P.S. (4 June): having listened to a lot of media coverage and done a bit of research on the internet, I've now concluded that this derivation is unlikely, and is probably no more than an assumption. However, my description of the discrimination black performers were subjected to is completely accurate.

Here is BB King playing with the late Gary Moore. It's definitely worth nine minutes of your time.

Friday, 15 May 2015

A crafty snack for SABMiller

Craft beer enthusiasts will be weeping into their beer (assuming they can find anywhere that sells it) at the news that the London-based Meantime Brewing Company is to be taken over by SABMiller, producers of such varied beers as Fosters, Grolsch, Miller, Peroni and Pilsner Urquell. SABMiller operates in 80 countries on every continent on the planet, so it's not exactly a merger of equals.

I can't help feeling that becoming part of the second biggest brewing corporation on the planet rather destroys the rebel image that many of these small craft brewing capitalists like to cultivate. With any luck, it might put ideas in to the head of Anheuser-Busch InBev: there's an irritating little brewery in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, that might suit their portfolio nicely.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Mild thing!

I can honestly say that I have never bought a pint of mild as a result of CAMRA's May Is Mild Month campaign. I don't see it as my job to spend my money promoting a commercial product. Does this mean I never drink mild? No, not exactly.

The first beer I bought was a half of Tetley's Mild in Liverpool, which I wrote about here. It cost 10d (worth about 53p today). Although I switched to bitter at 18, I occasionally drank mild and still do. In more recent decades, when the Warrington Tetley brewery closed and all production moved to Leeds, everyone said, "Oh good; we'll now have the superior Leeds Tetley Bitter." No chance! From then on, the output from Leeds was worse than the less-favoured Warrington bitter had been, although it hadn't actually been quite as different from the Leeds version as everyone claimed. Why the beer was worse I've no idea, but it was. The consequence was that, if I ended up in a pub that sold only cask Tetley Bitter and Mild, I'd always opt for the latter. It wasn't wonderful, but was reasonable enough without that unpleasant chemical taste that I detected in latter day Tetley Bitter.

A popular mild is Moorhouses Back Cat; they don't call it mild any more, but that's what it is. I've drunk other pleasant-tasting milds such as Nutty Slack from Prospect of Wigan and Dark Mild from Bank Top of Bolton. I've had others, but can't bring the names to mind. I remember going round the Cains Brewery in Liverpool in the very early days when they brewed only bitter but were experimenting with mild. We tried the test brew and it was delicious. Unfortunately this was not the recipe that they settled on, because the mild that subsequently went on sale was, to my mind, quite unexceptional.

I will tend to gravitate towards a mild or low strength bitter on the rare occasion I go to the pub in my car, which - despite the best efforts of the anti-alcohol brigade - is still completely legal, as long as you don't exceed the limit.

About five or six years ago, there was an attempt to launch a campaign to persuade CAMRA to Make March Mild Month. The argument was: "Like them or loath them, golden ales are in full swing by then [May] and mild ain't going to get much of a look in, certainly not as far as we are concerned. Mild is associated with cooler and cold weather; it is not considered a drink for late spring/early summer." I agreed with this idea, although it didn't go anywhere: May is still Mild Month. But this begs the question: why? A once a year surge won't enable a brewery to keep a beer style going throughout the year. CAMRA members are urged to encourage pubs to stock mild: as a person who usually drinks bitters and golden ales, I'd be a charlatan to expect them to stock something I am likely to drink only occasionally. Further to that, licensees have told me that they have stocked a real ale, not necessarily mild, in response to suggestions from CAMRA members, whom they don't see again even though the requested beer has been put on. A bit cheeky that.

Mild's poor reputation was originally partly due to the practice of pouring all the beer slops into it. One irate CAMRA member took me to task for spreading scurrilous urban myths, but he was wrong; this practice did go on. I know because I had several relatives who worked in the pub business from the 1940s to the 1980s, and also some longer serving licensees have told me. I wrote in some detail about this in September 2013, and covered the possibility of infection and the effects of returning flat beer into the cask. What I didn't cover was that, by putting different beers into the cask, you'd be changing the nature and flavour of the beer in an unpredictable way. No wonder keg caught on: at least you knew what you were getting.

Can mild make make a comeback? It's certainly possible, because people's tastes do change and the golden ale bubble may not last forever. Or drinkers may adopt it as one of a range of beers they're happy to drink, in contrast to the past when you'd just drink bitter, mild or lager. One thing I do believe is that a once a year campaign is unlikely to make any significant difference to its chances of survival.