“The world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams, it's Heaven and Hell.” Black Sabbath

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Doing things by halves

I've just come across this picture on a website called the Fowndry (sic) which at great expense will provide you with toys like these half pint glasses. On the thread below, one person has written, "Brilliant,Freakin Brilliant!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" and another, "Awesome!!!" My own assessment is "Mildly amusing", without a plethora of exclamation marks.

If you like the visual joke, they're £8.99 for one or £14.99 for a pair. Or you could just use a normal half pint glass.

However, it did get me thinking about halves. I tend not to drink halves, except perhaps at the end of the night as a final top-up. It is often said that you drink halves at a faster rate than you do pints because after a couple of mouthfuls, there doesn't seem much left, so you're more inclined just to down the remainder.

Yesterday I spent the day in Liverpool at a friend's wedding. When I returned to Southport, I had a less than a quarter of an hour wait for the last bus, and so popped in the Tea Rooms in Birkdale (a bar, not a café) for a swift half of Wainwright. I drank it and left with more than five minutes to spare. I'm certain that if I'd ordered a pint, I wouldn't have drunk anywhere near a half of it by that time.

I appreciate that a sample of one isn't scientifically valid, but it does seem a common perception that halves go down at a faster rate than pints. If that's the case, then if you used halves only, you'd sell more beer. Is that the reason, I wonder, why it seems that CAMRA beer festivals are increasingly supplying half pint glasses only?

To my mind, the dark beer on the left is a short measure.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Bellowhead's ale

Here's another band to have their own real ale: Radio 2's favourite folk band, Bellowhead, is to have their own beer called Revival, named after their latest CD. It will be brewed by Harvey's to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the band. The brewery states that it is the first of their beers to be available on national distribution. I can find no description of the beer other than it is "a new golden ale, brewed using Sussex hops".

The band is noted for its big sound (there are 11 of them) and they intend to do sessions in pubs serving Revival after their gigs on the forthcoming tour. As I recall, Status Quo did a tour of pubs about 15 years ago, and they have recently acquired their own beer, Piledriver brewed by Wychwood. A real ale and a folk-based band do seem to go well together (or in modern jargon "are a good fit").

I'll try it if I see it anywhere, but as its strength is 3.7%, I can't see myself getting too excited.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Nailing the lid down

"Promoting child abuse", apparently
I don't normally subscribe to the "what's gone wrong with the world" way of thinking, but I did a bit when I saw this sign, which was placed outside the Black Lion pub in Leighton Buzzard, Bedforshire. Not the actual sign itself, you understand, but the reaction to it. It is obviously a jokey way of asking parents to ensure their children behave without putting up heavy-handed notices along the lines of: "Children must be kept strictly under control".

Apparently complaints have been posted on Facebook, including from one moron (anonymous of course) who said: "Personally I find this sign disgusting. [The licensee] should be arrested for promoting child abuse and closed down by Trading Standards for the same offence." The editor of the Babyworld website said it is important young children are "exposed to social events" such as pubs and restaurants, which is okay in itself, until she added that she thought the sign was aggressive.

Two different licensees I've chatted to both told me they have had to chase after children running out of the pub doors into busy streets while their parents chatted and drank oblivious of the danger to their little darlings. One of them got so sick of doing so that she banned children altogether. Even without the element of danger, it's strange how some parents can't see that noisy children running wild in a pub annoy most other customers, or perhaps they simply don't care. I'm not hostile to children in pubs, but I have turned round at the door and walked out when faced with a noisy room that resembles a crèche more than a public house.

Most pubs are not great places for children. It's fine for a short time, especially if there's a meal, but when they understandably get bored, the parents should put the other customers as well as their own children before their own wish to continue drinking. If they want to carry on, they should take some booze home. The Black Lion doesn't serve food and there's no TV or music, so there aren't any distractions for kids; all the more reason to watch out for them becoming restless.

Anyone who gets offended by this sign really is a humourless moaner. As for Trading Standards, the only grounds I can see for them taking action is for false advertising on the basis that the pub doesn't actually nail children to the tables.

To be fair, a lot of the regulars have leapt to the pub's defence and are delighted with its 15 minutes. One wrote: "Better idea nail the parents they caused the problem !!!"

"If you don't have humour, then you may as well nail the coffin lid down now." Roger Moore.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Taking beer to heart

Dr Simona Costanzo
Yet another study demonstrating the health benefits of alcohol. Dr Simona Costanzo was speaking at the European Beer & Health Symposium in Brussels which took place this week. She stated that men could have up to four drinks a day, and women up to two without increasing their chances of developing heart problems. She explained that studies had consistently shown a “protective effect of regular and moderate alcohol consumption against fatal and not fatal cardiovascular events and mortality for any cause”. 

She added that research had proved that teetotallers and heavy drinkers were at the highest risk of heart problems, while moderate drinkers were at the lowest end, explaining that, “We have lots of evidence that shows moderate and regular beer consumption is protective. One or two beers a day reduces the overall risk of dying young.” Furthermore, it seems that the health effects of wine and beer are comparable, contrary to the common perception that wine is healthier.

She said the hazards of binge drinking still needed to be explained, but that people with heart problems should be advised of the risks associated with complete abstention from alcohol. Not the kind of message out friends from Alcohol Concern would particularly welcome, but that's life.

With more and more studies disproving the contention that alcohol is the root of all evil in society, how much longer can the government persist with its current anti-alcohol stance, which is largely determined by the zealots of Alcohol Concern, which is itself mostly funded directly or indirectly by government - thus completing a self-perpetuating (and, in my opinion, corrupt) circle? 

More info here and hereDr Costanzo works as Epidemiologist at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention, IRCCS Mediterranean Neurological Institute, Pozzilli, Italy.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Anti-booze pill? Nice

I see in yesterday's Guardian that drinkers who have half a bottle of wine or three or four pints a night are to be offered a pill which helps reduce their alcohol consumption. It is estimated that nearly 600,000 people will be eligible to receive the nalmefene tablet which works by blocking the part of the brain which gives drinkers pleasure from alcohol, stopping them from wanting more than one drink. 

Predictably, "experts" claim the drug could save as many as 1,854 lives over five years and prevent 43,074 alcohol-related diseases and injuries. I'd like to know the rigour of the methodology that produces such precise figures. There's nothing wrong with treating people who have problems with alcohol, and if this pill helps some people, all well and good. I do think, though, that a threshold of 3 pints or half a bottle of wine is rather low.

What irritates me is the mea culpa attitude of certain people who, having lacked any self control themselves in the past and frequently ended up in a mess, then seem to think that makes them an expert with a special insight into drinking. The comedian Frank Skinner is one such, and another was Guardian columnist Hugh Muir who wrote in an article about the new pill:

"When you’ve suffered ulcers at 21, principally because you drank too much on a regular basis and didn’t make time to eat, you tend to take an unmoralised stance on those who drink too much alcohol. When you’ve tried and failed to get off the Central Line before being sick after a night’s boozing, you see the issue in a certain way. When you’ve woken in strange places, strange beds, travelled comatose around the entire Circle Line for a couple of hours, thrown up from taxi windows … you have the sense that the human capacity for self-control is sometimes superceded by the craving for our national stimulant of choice. These are my war stories as a young journalist in the hard drinking days of our profession in the 1980s and 1990s."

I've been drinking for quite a lot longer than Hugh Muir, but I have never ended up in the kinds of scrapes he describes. No matter how much I've had, and there have been times when I've had a lot, I've always got myself home or to where I was supposed to be, taken my contact lenses out and put them in their storage case, got undressed and gone to bed. The fact that he drank himself into such ludicrous states means he is not a typical drinker.

He does make the point that you can't expect a pill to resolve all the country's problems with drink, but do we need a journalist to state the obvious? It is worth pointing out that the original article stated that NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recommended the use of the drug because trials showed "it cut drinking by 61% over six months when used with counselling" (my emphasis). So, how much of the pill's success can be attributed to the chemicals, and how much to the one-to-one attention the patients received in counselling sessions? No way of knowing.

Jim Causley gig in Southport

The cover of his new CD
Sorry, I should have posted this earlier about the Bothy's guest singer tomorrow night (Sunday).

Jim Causley is a folk singer and musician from Devon who specializes in the traditional songs and music of the West Country. Hailing from the village of Whimple in East Devon, he was born in Exeter and is a relative of the Cornish poet Charles Causley. His 2013 album Cyprus Well is based upon the poetry of Charles Causley, who died in 2003.

In 2006, he was nominated for a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award under the Horizon Award (best newcomer) category and the following year his vocal trio, The Devil's Interval, who have previously played at the Bothy, were nominated for the same award.

He's appearing on Sunday 5 October at 8.00pm at the Bothy Folk Club, which meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Real ale from either Thwaites or Southport breweries.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

2014 Sandgrounder Beer Festival, Southport

The Southport Beer Festival is getting close now - next weekend in fact. It's close to the town centre and less than 3 minutes' walk from the railway station. I'll be posting the beer list in the next day or so. You'll find more information here.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Zetland in Southport - a community pub

The Zetland (picture from pub website)
Here is part of an article I've written for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter:

The Zetland Hotel is a popular local community pub – and it has a CAMRA community pub award to prove it. It is a friendly and welcoming pub in a residential area not far from the town centre. Thirst things first: the pub has up to 5 real ales on at any time, with the popular Jennings Cumberland on at all times, plus a rotating selection of guest beers. It has rightly earned a place in the 2015 Good Beer Guide.

The pub has two rooms: a vaults and a lounge and a small function room suitable for quizzes or small meetings. Live sports shown. Two quiz teams and two pool teams have made the Zetland their home base. They have a quiz night every Saturday night, and bingo every Sunday night. You can also play classic pub games such as darts and dominoes, but the jewel in the crown is its excellent bowling green. Sadly, this is the last pub bowling green left in Southport, but it is popular and well-used. For those who want to make a day of it, they offer bowling packages: from £13 per head, you can have breakfast, a full day’s bowling and an evening meal.

They serve food on Friday and Saturday between midday and 6pm. To find out more, including availability of the bowling green, phone 01704 808404. The Zetland is at 53 Zetland Street, Southport, PR9 0RH.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Go Sober For October

What a strange nation we are. We enjoy various indulgences, but then meekly accept being directly or, in the case of Go Sober In October, indirectly harangued for doing so. Go Sober is a health campaign with a difference, as its aim is to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, undoubtedly a worthwhile charity. The Go Sober website is mostly devoid of the moralistic disapproval of the likes of Alcohol Concern, and I see that it's nicely timed to avoid the build up to the Christmas season: I wouldn't have put any money on Go Sober In December succeeding. I shan't be joining in, but I don't have much of a problem with this particular campaign.

In contrast, we have Dry January, which is run by Alcohol Concern. Same idea, and you are invited to "become a Dry January fundraiser, and help make a difference to the lives of those affected by alcohol harm." The website is fairly coy about the recipient of your money, but with a little digging I confirmed what I expected: all the money goes to Alcohol Concern itself. I wrote about this supposed charity most recently on 7 September, saying among other things: "The fact that Alcohol Concern is itself almost entirely financed from public funds completes the circle whereby the government squanders our money to pay a pressure group [i.e. Alcohol Concern] to lobby that selfsame government." Not the behaviour you'd get from a responsible and respected charity such as Macmillan.

What I do wonder is how effective dry months really are. The likelihood is that some participants will have a quick binge before the dry period, and if they last the course, another to celebrate their success, which will surely negate some of the health benefits of abstention. On the other hand, I doubt a Take It Easy In October campaign would raise much money.

If you want to give up booze for charity, I'd go for October and support a very good cause, although there is of course nothing to stop you supporting it anyway.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Gold 'n' Brown

I own a pre-Thwaites Lancaster
Bomber pump clip like this one
I popped into the Mount Pleasant, my nearest pub, last night. The two real ales on were Andwells Gold Muddler (3.9%) and Thwaites Lancaster Bomber (4.4%). There was also Old Rosie cider, but I don't drink cider very often after accidentally over-indulging at the Wigan beer festival a few years ago.

The Gold Muddler was a pleasant enough blonde beer, touch of citrus and all that, that I had no problem drinking but it was nothing memorable. Then I switched to the Lancaster Bomber. I've had this beer many times before, and as usual it was slightly malty with noticeable bitter aftertaste. It struck me that it was very like the better beers that we had in the 1970s. I think I might be getting tired of many blonde and golden beers that don't offend but which lack any distinct flavour, because I particularly enjoyed my pints of Bomber - 1970s nostalgia, I wonder?

Lancaster Bomber was originally brewed by Mitchells of Lancaster, and was seen as their flagship beer at the time; the 4.4% strength seemed quite strong at the time. In 1999, Mitchells decided to close their brewery to concentrate on their pubs and hotels, and the brand was acquired by Thwaites who have brewed it ever since. I note that the strength remains the same.

Chatting later in the evening in another pub, the Guest House, a friend saw me ordering a pint of Phoenix Arizona (4.1%) which according to the website is, "Dry as a desert. Refreshing as an oasis." I'm not sure, but it doesn't seem as dry to me as it used, but is still worth drinking nonetheless. My friend commented that he preferred brown, malty beers such as London Pride and Spitfire, and it is perhaps too easy for beer aficionados to forget how well such beers do sell well. Perhaps they deserve some reappraisal; as Meer For Beer once colourfully wrote, not everyone wants to be slapped in the face by their drink.

These thoughts were reinforced by a pint of Brains Craft Brewery's Atomic Blonde, which the brewery describes as, "A burst of tropical fruit aromas leads to flavours of peach and sweet grapefruit to create a refreshing beer with a balanced bitterness." I detected no burst of anything, and it seemed inoffensive and bland, not unlike quite a few blonde and golden beers nowadays. I also wonder about the carbon dray print of beers brewed from hops imported from the other side of the world.

Of course, it needn't be an either/or situation. It is possible to enjoy good traditional bitters as well as the better golden and blonde beers. Quality is surely more important than style.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The dangers of drink

I've seen the light! Drinking is undeniably dangerous.

A leopard in India is attacking drunken villagers as they stumble home in the dark. It has been reported that the man-eater has killed twelve in the Didihat region of the Kumoan hills in Himalayan India since 2012, with the latest victim being a 44-year-old man.

Madan Panerua, who lives in the area, said: "Villagers are terrorized by the wild animals and it's almost impossible to venture out after dark. Moving from one village to another or to markets through forested area becomes difficult. People carry sticks with them and remain alert all the time. Many in the village believe that drunk people are easy prey.”

Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India said: "Quite frankly, when people are drunk and weave their way back home to the village, they are easy prey. I don't think the leopard is targeting drunk people, just people stumbling along the path at night. I'm sure you won't taste any better because you've consumed liquor."

So it's not an example of feline beer and food matching then.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A crumb of comfort

CAMRA's pop-up bar at the
Labour Party conference in Manchester
Ed Miliband made his keynote speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday and received the mandatory standing ovation. Talking about proposals for funding the NHS, he specifically referred to increases in taxes for tobacco companies, and the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) has taken some comfort in the fact that he didn't mention any increases in alcohol duty or other taxes on the beer industry. The chief executive of the BBPA, Brigid Simmonds, welcomed this omission from the speech, even though the failure to announce a policy cannot really be construed as some kind of manifesto commitment.

Personally, I think it is far too early to draw any conclusions about what Labour will do about beer duty if elected next year. It was, after all, the Labour government that introduced the extremely damaging beer duty escalator in 2008. Considering that dismal record, I can't help concluding that the BBPA is clutching at straws.

Having said that, I do know that CAMRA has a stall at the conference, as you can see in the photograph. Let's hope it's having a positive effect.

Picture pinched from Graham Donning's Facebook page - thanks, Graham.

Monday, 22 September 2014

It's on the cards

A while ago in the Guest House, Southport, a group of young people whom I hadn't seen before ordered a large round of drinks and offered to pay with a card. "We don't take cards," the barman replied. This resulted in a scramble to get the necessary cash together. At the time, I thought it odd that they assumed that all pubs take cards, but if where they normally drink does, perhaps it's not so surprising after all.

The Guest House did try taking cards for a while, but abandoned the experiment. I don't think there were many takers, and there are costs involved for businesses that accept them. As it's a drink-led pub, perhaps the charges ate too much into the margins. I might out of interest ask the licensee why she stopped to see whether my guess is correct.

The only time I've used a card just to buy drinks was during that short-lived Guest House experiment; I just did it for the novelty, and was slightly taken aback paying for my evening's drinking in one go. I prefer to see my cash dwindle in dribs and drabs as the evening goes on. Besides, there is a hole-in-the-wall about two minutes' walk from the pub. I sometimes use a card in a pub if I'm buying meals with my drink, but that's it: beer on its own is part of the cash economy as far as I'm concerned.

Pubs that don't take cards must be among the few businesses that operate solely on a cash basis nowadays. There is a corner shop I know that has a 'cash only' sign on the door, and perhaps there are small newsagents that are cash only, but in the world of business as a whole, such a way of operating must be uncommon. I wonder whether such pubs will ever join the cash-free economy. If they do, I'm sure I'll adapt, but in the meantime. I prefer to pay cash for my beer.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Does truth matter?

This is something I've been thinking about for a while.

A few years ago, a blogger who then ran a pub wrote a post about a stroppy customer that I found frankly implausible. I wrote a comment explaining why I wasn't convinced and was surprised to be told that the story was about separate incidents that the writer had condensed into one, and that he'd done so in order to try to develop his writing skills. While there is nothing wrong with self-improvement, this deceit meant that the incident which he'd reported as fact never actually happened.

Another blogger wrote how in a pub in London, he'd observed a drinker order a pint and tell the barman that he should get free beer because CAMRA had saved real ale, and he was a member. I found this unconvincing because, despite having been a member myself for around 30 years, I've never seen a member behave in such a bad way. The writer then added that the drinker joined his mate at a table where they began to exchange train spotting videos. Not just a bad mannered CAMRA member demanding free drinks, but a train spotter to boot! I thought this pudding well well and truly over-egged with stereotypes.

I have a couple of other unconvincing stories I can cite, but the question is: does it really matter if people make up, or grossly exaggerate, stories? I believe it does because in all cases the writer wants you to accept that the incident actually happened as reported. I stopped buying daily newspapers a few years ago because, as I read them, I found myself wondering how much was true, how much exaggerated, and how much downright lies. I don't want to be doing that with blogs.

I'm certain that most bloggers are honest in their writing, if only because I can't see any point in doing this kind of thing otherwise. Unlike professional journalists, most of us don't make a living from writing blogs, so there can be no financial benefits from lying or exaggerating. If you have to be dishonest to make a point, why bother? There's is absolutely nothing wrong with making up a hypothetical example to illustrate a point, as long as you make it clear. Just don't tell lies: it really annoys me.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Craft keg fans - look away now!

An extract from a recent CAMRA press release:

New research released to mark the launch of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide 2015 shows that over a third of young people aged 18-24 have tried real ale and of those 87% would drink it again. The book’s publisher CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, say that interest in real ale is increasing year on year and more young people are being attracted to the joys of Britain’s national drink.
...
 The research also shows that new real ale drinkers are far more likely to be in this 18-24 age bracket. 65% of 18-24s tried real ale for the first time within the last three years, compared to 11% across all ages. So it is clear that real ale is not only attracting new drinkers – as one in ten real ale drinkers tried it in the last three years – but these new recruits are far more likely to be young.

This is curious, because it means that certain beer bloggers who present their own opinions about beer as though they were incontrovertible facts seem to have got it completely wrong. So often I have read on various blogs that real ale is a drink with an ageing customer base, only served in grotty spit-and-sawdust pubs to men with Capstan Full Strength hacking coughs, cloth caps and whippets. Instead, the future of beer is grossly overpriced craft keg supped by the fashionistas of the alcohol world in bars designed to look as little like pubs as possible. Ignore the fact that such beer is still scarce and hard to find - unlike real ale which is now sold in more than 50% of pubs - this, we are told, will leave us boring old stick-in-the-muds behind until the Grim Reaper has disposed of the last of us.

Except for that embarrassing piece of research. Unusually, I agree with Roger Protz who said, "That old stereotype of real ale drinkers being in their dotage never was true, but now it’s dead and buried."

I have no doubt this research will be dismissed by CAMRA detractors for no better reason than it was commissioned by the Campaign. I look forward to reading any research they can produce to the contrary.

Having said all that, there is no room for complacency - I'm not like the CAMRA regional director from London who claimed we've won the war for real ale. The situation is never static, new drinkers reach 18 every day, tastes can change and - it is true - as drinkers get older, quite often they don't drink as much as they used to. Add to that the expensive marketing that tries to lure young drinkers in any direction except towards real ale, and it becomes clear that CAMRA's work is by no means complete. Nevertheless, that research is encouraging.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Tich Frier at the Bothy

The Bothy's guest this Sunday is Tich Frier. It might seem apposite to have a Scot as the guest at the Bothy in this particular week, especially as the Bothy itself is named after the tradition of singing Bothy ballads, which mostly come from the north east of Scotland. In fact it's just a coincidence and anyway folk music recognises no national boundaries.

It's more than forty years since Tich began singing folk songs in his home town of Edinburgh. In that time he has established an enviable reputation as a first class entertainer, and he is held in high regard for his powerful and passionate singing, skilled guitar work and inspired sense of fun.

His repertoire can best be described as eclectic. It ranges through traditional and modern Scottish songs, Burns, his own compositions, parodies, music hall songs and contemporary classics, all linked together with his inventive off the cuff stories.

What they've said about Tich:
  • "Inspired and energetic" (The Herald).
  • "Spiked with humour and full of heart" (The Scotsman).
  • "Uniformly positive to effusive reports from members". Acoustic Music Club, Kirkcaldy. Fife.
  • "Makes Burns come alive in verse, music and song." - Bill Nolan, Director, Eglinton Burns Club
  • "A great night, can we do it again next year?" Guisborough Folk Club.
That's this Sunday 21 September at 8pm in the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS, a real ale venue. Tickets on the door or on-line here.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Local Good Beer Guide pubs 2015

The CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG) is fully revised and updated every year and lists the pubs across the UK that serve the best real ale as determined by drinkers on the ground, the local CAMRA members. This means every pub has been recommended by people who know a thing or two about good beer. The 2015 GBG has been recently published and is now available in all good book shops, or if you prefer you can buy it on-line here

While you're waiting for your guide to be delivered, here is a complete list of all the GBG pubs in the Southport, Formby and West Lancashire area.
Happy drinking!

Monday, 15 September 2014

St George’s Hall beer festival

The Concert Room
Liverpool Organic Brewery are holding their second beer festival in the magnificent surroundings of St George’s Hall in Liverpool from 25 to 28 September. St George’s Hall is considered to be the finest neo-classical building in the world making it an unusual but spectacular venue for a beer festival, and it's just 44 minutes by train from Southport.

The organisers promise that in the Great Hall you will find more than 300 real ales from 100+ UK breweries, ciders, continental beers and lagers and locally sourced food. There will be live music at all sessions in the Concert Room, so if you prefer not to have music with your beer, just stay in the Great Hall. More information and tickets here. You can see what beers will be on here.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The power of the press

I do love the local press!

The Southport Visiter kindly published a mention of my pub singaround in the Guest House as "the Bothy Folk Club moves to the Guest House". I pointed out that the Bothy had not moved and was still in the Park Golf Club, and that my singaround is not an official Bothy event.

To be fair, they subsequently published a correction about my singaround in the Guest House, but - believe it or not - wrote that it takes place in the Park Golf Club. No, my Guest House session is always in the Guest House.

In a separate development, they published an article about the Bothy's most recent guest artists as being on Tuesday 9th, when they were on Sunday 7th - the Bothy is always on Sunday. I hope no one turned up on the wrong day.

I don't think I'll ask for another correction, as heaven knows what they'd say next.

Deciding the best

The Grafton in Kentish Town, London has been declared the Sky Great British Pub of the Year 2014. These awards are organised by the Publican's Morning Advertiser, the weekly newspaper of the pub trade, and Sky is a significant sponsor. There are 17 awards; you can find the full list here.

For all I know the Grafton may well be a worthy winner, but what struck me was that of these 17 awards, 4 are in the north of England, while the remaining 13 are firmly in the south, as this interactive map makes clear. Three of the northern pubs are in Yorkshire and one in Lancashire, while the northernmost of the remainder is in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. Most of the winners are in the country or small towns: cities are seriously under-represented. The same bias applies to most of the regional winners.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the awards reflect a certain perception that English country inns represent the best of British pubs, a view supported by the fact that no Scottish or Welsh pubs appear in what is supposed to be a list that covers all of Britain. In fact, Wales is bundled together for judging purposes with the West Midlands, and Scotland with Yorkshire and the North East: devolution seems to have gone right over the Morning Advertiser’s head.

I'm not an uncritical CAMRA member, but I do believe that CAMRA's network of local, regional and national pub awards - decided as they are by ordinary drinkers, not by a self-appointed panel, a newspaper or the industry - provides a fairer and more representative cross-section of our best pubs. It's not perfect, but in my opinion it's the best system currently available.

I'll be publishing a list of our local pubs in the 2015 Good Beer Guide in a future post soon.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Parker Centurion Citrale

I finally got round to trying a Parker Brewery beer recently. Parker is a new brewery in Formby which currently produces only bottled beers. There are three in the range, all bottled conditioned and all alliteratively named:
  • Barbarian Bitter (4.2%).
  • Dark Spartan Stout (5.0%).
  • Centurion Citrale (3.9%).
I was in the Tap and Bottles and decided to try out the Citrale. I don't drink much bottled beer as I generally prefer draught, but needs must. It was well-carbonated and retained its condition. The predominant taste for me was the citrus - just as well given the name - with something of a bitter aftertaste. All in all, a pleasant bottled beer which is quite superior to the "4 for a fiver" offerings in supermarkets. Ian Wareing, a former local CAMRA chair who knows his beers, described the stout as "bloody lovely".

I understand that, as they want to brew cask ales, they are looking for alternative premises (the beer is currently brewed at home); one site being considered was in Churchtown in north Southport. I look forward to seeing their draught beers on the bar.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Do you want the good news first?

According to the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), the number of breweries in the UK has risen 188% since 2000: there are now 1,442. Long gone are the days when a reasonably well-informed beer drinker was familiar with the names of most breweries; nowadays when I travel elsewhere in the UK, I almost always find local breweries I've never heard of. Increased choice is of course good news in general but, contrary to what non-real ale drinkers tend to assume, that doesn't mean that every beer is excellent or that every real ale drinker likes every beer. Despite that, I'd say that overall things are looking good for drinkers who enjoy variety.

However, in the spirit of the beer glass being half empty, there has to be a note of caution. BBPA figures, which are based on tax revenues, show that alcohol sales fell by 1.7% in the year ending in 2013, and by 18% since 2004. There must come a time when declining alcohol sales will curb the increase in the numbers of breweries, and probably lead to some closures; I made a similar point last Wednesday when discussing the related issue of pub closures.

Are the anti-alcohol zealots pleased? Fat chance! As I reported on 14 August, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse (APPG) has come out with a document calling on all political parties to commit themselves to 10 measures to minimise alcohol-related harm in the UK. Despite the official sounding title, this is a group of "self-appointed busybodies with no official status" (to use Curmudgeon's words) who are attempting to influence the manifestos of all parties in the direction of more restrictions.

But it's even worse than that. As Xopher wrote in the comments to my post of 14 August:
  1. The secretariat for the APPG was provided by Alcohol Concern who researched the report.
  2. The APPG secretariat and the printing costs for this report were funded by Lundbeck Ltd.
  3. Lundbeck is a pharmaceutical company which paid for Alcohol Concern's alcohol harm map and report (The Case For Better Access To Treatment For Alcohol Dependence In England). 
  4. Lundbeck sells alcohol dependency drugs in the UK and across Europe.
The fact that Alcohol Concern is itself almost entirely financed from public funds completes the circle whereby the government squanders our money to pay a pressure group to lobby that selfsame government. Using the mechanism of the APPG looks suspiciously like a way of trying to obscure the audit trail. 

And is no one on the APPG bothered about the vested interest that Lundbeck has in helping to steer UK official policy in a way that would boost their own profits? Obviously not.

Enjoy the brewery boom while it lasts.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Quaffing All Over The World

I found an interactive map of alcohol consumption across the globe on the internet. It's interesting, but the UK result will shock you: while we rank among the more committed drinkers, we are by no means the worst on the planet. Surely our friends in Alcohol Concern* couldn't have got it so badly wrong?

Click here for the map.

* A government funded quango granted charity status to save on its tax bill.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Bothy autumn season begins

Mick Ryan and Paul Downes
Mick Ryan is well known on the folk scene as a fine singer of traditional and original songs He was described by "Folk Roots" as 'definitely the most underrated singer in the country.' His duo with Paul Downes has been well received: "Positively oozes skill and professionalism" (Folk North West); "The singing, as we have come to expect from Mick Ryan, utterly superb" (Shreds and Patches).

Paul Downes has a sensitive, yet fun approach to live performances which puts him among the most respected artists on the British acoustic music scene today. Paul has a rich musical background that has progressed through working with Phil Beer, The Arizona Smoke Revue, Pete Seeger and, currently, The Joyce Gang.

Together Mick and Paul provide singing, music and entertainment of the very highest quality.

They are the first guests of the autumn season at the Bothy Folk Club this Sunday 7 September at 8.00pm in the Park Gold Club, Park Rd West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Real ale either from Thwaites or Southport. Tickets on-line or on the door.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Have we won the real ale war?

"The battle for real ale has been won. We must now turn our attentions to saving our pubs!" says CAMRA's Greater London regional director, reported by Geraldine Rolfe in What's Brewing, the campaign's newspaper. It's an interesting thought, but is it true?

It is true that we have a highest percentage of pubs selling real ale in decades, and that the range of real ales available in most localities is greater than at any time since the rise of the big brewing companies. I know individual pubs that have a greater range of real ales than some towns did in the 1970s. Despite all that, I am not convinced by the Greater London regional director's assertion.

Firstly, real ale and pubs are inextricably entwined. You can't have the first without the second. I know there are bottled real ales, but they constitute a very small percentage of total real ale sales. It's obvious, therefore, that a threat to pubs is a threat to real ale.

Secondly, there are communities where the only significant real ale provision is in Wetherspoons. Such communities are not enjoying the benefits of winning the battle for real ale.

Thirdly, it is a naïve campaigner who assumes that a victory, once achieved, can be treated as being in the bag and therefore no longer in need of attention.

Pinning our hopes of saving pubs by getting planning regulations tightened up is to miss several points. While there are a few exceptions, most pubs that are converted to other uses were not previously thriving. Why not? I wrote three years ago:

In no particular order, the causes of problems for pubs include:
  • Beer taxes rising by more than the rate of inflation. 
  • Pub companies overcharging their tenants for rent and supplies (including drinks).
  • Falling beer sales overall (except for real ale ~ just).
  • Cut-price drink in supermarkets.
  • Sophisticated home entertainment systems.
  • Changes in drinking habits, with young people increasingly going to their preferred bars and clubs, and less to what they call “old men’s” pubs.
  • More choices of places to drink, such as bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs.
  • The recession, leaving people with less cash and either unemployed or worried they might be.
  • Rising costs for brewers (e.g. raw materials) and pubs (e.g. utility bills).
  • The smoking ban.
  • Tougher drink-drive enforcement.* 
* By this, I really meant the increasing pressure against driving within the legal limit.

To these I'd now add: 
  • Pub companies deliberately running pubs down to the point when they become unviable. Most people don't want to sit in a dingy pub that hasn't seen a lick of paint this millennium.
  • Draconian under-age drinking laws, resulting in the next generation of drinkers developing drinking habits unlinked to pubs.
Even if CAMRA achieved exactly what it wanted with planning regulations, none of these factors would be addressed. Changing the planning regulations is not the cure, in the same way that the 2p cut in beer duty has not, as far as I can see, saved a single pub. If pubs aren't safe, neither is real ale.

No gains can be taken for granted. Most people have a lot less disposable income than they did four years ago and alcohol consumption is in decline. If the government decided to introduce an adverse change to beer taxation, perhaps even a reduction or abolition of Progressive Beer Duty, many micro-brewers would close. It's not impossible that anti-alcohol campaigners could gain even more influence on government policy. The corrosive effects of all the factors I've listed above may become more pronounced. 

My aim with this post has been to explain why I believe real ale's apparently healthy situation is more precarious than it looks and that it wouldn't take much to send it into decline. It's certainly true that the current proliferation of micro-breweries cannot be maintained if the outlets for their products continue to close. At some point, the latter will impact upon the former. Overall, I do not share the complacency of CAMRA's Greater London regional director. CAMRA should stop finding a "Reason of the Month" for pub decline and take a more holistic view if it doesn't wish to look like it is clutching at straws when determining campaigning priorities.