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Friday, 29 July 2011

Move aside CAMRA

It's dangerous to begin reading too many beer blogs - I try to keep my intake to around four units a day - because you sometimes read some outrageous rubbish that you feel you have to respond to, but then a quiet voice at the back of my mind will say, "Leave them, Nev, they're not worth it!"  Mind you, I don't always take notice.

My friend Tandleman wrote a cheery post that it's the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) next week and let's all have a good time (you can read what he wrote here).  A simple enough suggestion, you'd think, but no:  controversy raged in the comments below his post that CAMRA was stifling innovation in the beer world, that the Campaign should embrace "alternative methods of dispense" (a euphemism for keg), and whether the withdrawal of egomaniac Scottish brewery Brewdog from the GBBF was CAMRA's fault or the brewery's.  Who cares?  As I wrote myself, some beer bloggers certainly know how to party!

I've written about Brewdog and the craft keg debate before, but there was a novelty in this selection of rantings:  Tandleman pointed out a bizarre suggestion that "the GBBF is outgrowing CAMRA & their approach. Is it time someone else organised this countries [sic] flagship beer festival? I think so."  Tandleman wiped the floor with that stupid comment, pointing out that the GBBF is CAMRA's, not the country's, and it would be difficult for anyone else to organise a festival on such a scale without the army of volunteers that CAMRA can call on - he said a lot more, but you can click on the link above if you'd like to read it.

Another stupid comment was that as it's the Great British BEER Festival, CAMRA should not be selling ciders and perries, and as CAMRA promotes real ale, there should be no continental beers.  Well, as it happens, I was outraged the other week when I went into a café and discovered as well as coffee, they also served tea.  Even more damning, they even sold food.  Don't they know the word café means coffee?

In case anyone thinks there is a sensible point to be answered here:
  • CAMRA has since its early days supported real ciders and perries because they are traditional British drinks which have been even more at risk than real ale.  I expect the reason why they're not included in the name CAMRA is because CAMRACAP is a bit of a mouthful, but they are clearly written into in CAMRA's aims.
  • Continental beers, although they often do not conform to CAMRA's definition for British beers, are served at CAMRA festivals in a manner appropriate to their own traditions.  After all, that's all CAMRA wants for British beer:  that it be served in accordance with our beer traditions.  It is not inconsistent to respect other traditional styles.
As for all those who say CAMRA should do this, or shouldn't do that (usually not members), they misunderstand what CAMRA is:  a campaign whose policies are decided by its members, and not by certain embittered beer bloggers, of whom a few admit they rarely or never go to pubs, preferring to sup their supermarket selections of bottled beers in their own living room.  I have no problem with people enjoying a beer at home, but when that's all you do, you've reduced beer to a private pleasure, like eating a box of chocolates while watching TV.  To me, beer is not an end in itself, but is a part of my social life - quite a big part, I'd agree, but a part nonetheless.  I rarely drink beer at home.

Most beer bloggers are fine; I enjoy reading what they write, and I sometimes chuck in my own two penn'orth.  Disagreements can be fine too.  I suppose that some of the simmering rage that occasionally shows among a noisy, aggressive minority is because they know that, whatever they blog about, it won't make the slightest bit of difference to CAMRA, or the world of beer in general.  Having spent years involved in a trade union and a political party, I've learnt to accept that it's no good merely ranting about how things should be.  Either you get involved to try to change things, or you don't bore others with your impotent frustrations - in other words, put up or shut up.  Besides, don't you know that beer's supposed to be fun?

Blogs can be interesting, and there are quite a few links on the right to a variety of blogs:  the Pub Curmudgeon has three categories of blogs among his links, one of which is headed:  Beer and pub blogs (may contain nuts).  And yes, that's where he's put me!

I'm not going to the GBBF this year, but if you are, I hope you enjoy yourself - and just ignore the nitpickers and hair splitters, but if they're at home supping their bottles, I don't suppose you'll come across them.  Cheers!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Higsionary - pt 1

Clive Pownceby has scanned some of his precious Higsionaries for me.  These were produced by the old Higson's Brewery of Liverpool, which always had the knack of producing funny, local adverts. 

All good fun ~ click on the Higsionary so you can read it more easily.  More to come!

My thanks to Clive.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Beer sales plummet

Rather alarming news from the British Beer and Pub Association that beer sales have slumped by almost 10% in the past few months, including a 15% fall in supermarkets.  In detail, the BBPA stated that pub sales were down by 4.5% in the three months to June as beer tax and VAT rises wiped out the positive impact of the warm weather and the royal wedding, and in the year to June, beer sales were down by 7.1% as the various tax rises added 10p to the price of a pint in pubs.  More details can be found here

As these reductions have happened this year, the smoking ban introduced four years ago cannot be held responsible, although I shouldn't be surprised if those who see the ban as the cause of all the pub industry's woes will still find a way of blaming it.  A more balanced assessment would include factors such as beer tax increasing at more than the rate of inflation, 20% VAT and the effects of the recession on people's jobs and levels of disposable income.

It's clear that giving the public extra bank holidays to mark royal weddings and jubilees are in the long term of little economic value; the 'feel good' factor soon wears off.  A sustainable economy cannot be achieved by one-off royal celebrations, nor indeed by sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics; it's like giving occasional teaspoons of water to someone dying of thirst - it solves nothing and does no more than keep them going just a little bit longer. 

The effects on the pub industry are highly visible to any who care to look:  pubs that used to be packed may still be fairly busy, but have lost trade nonetheless, and pubs that weren't so busy are facing lean times.  Southport where I live is supposed to be a holiday resort, but many of the local pubs are almost empty at the height of summer, which should be their peak time, and I fear that some may close.  This is true of a lot of businesses - a local builder's yard employing quite a few staff recently said they had done £18 worth of business in a morning, considerably less than the wages bill for that day.  Many businesses are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and sooner or later some will have to give up the struggle.  Pubs, being subject to especially vindictive tax increases, are even more vulnerable to the malign effects of current austerity measures, which are nothing more than a form of economic anorexia.

It's no good politicians supporting campaigns to save the pub and setting up parliamentary beer groups if they then vote for the harmful taxation policies that are helping destroy pubs across the land.  Hypocritical tears over pints of subsidised ale in the Strangers Bar will not prevent the closure of a single pub.

Monday, 25 July 2011

A weekend of deaths

It's difficult to write a post that refers both to the death of Amy Winehouse and to the massacre in Norway, but I feel impelled to because the two events have been linked in many people's minds:  some individuals have poured scorn on those who have been saddened by Amy Winehouse's death for - as they've put it - mourning a junkie while nearly 100 innocent young people were ruthlessly gunned down by a deranged neo-Nazi fanatic.  My view is that Amy's death is no less devastating to her family and friends than the deaths of those killed in Norway are to their own families and friends.  I also tend to have an aversion to condemning people for the way they live when they're not harming anyone else, but on Facebook and in comments beneath articles about Ms Winehouse, there is no shortage of people ready to condemn her; it was her own choice, they say, she brought it on herself.  I'm not so sure:  I don't believe she began taking drugs and horrendous amounts of alcohol with the attitude, "This will kill me, therefore I choose it."  Addiction is not a choice, it is a consequence of bad choices, which isn't the same thing at all, and once you're an addict, the concept of choice becomes rather hypothetical.

It's better to remember her undeniably great talent rather than her sad end.  Unfortunately she has joined the ranks of those who in different ways burnt out, such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison, Phil Lynott, Ian Curtis, to name just a few.  Like those others, it's best to remember her through her music.

As for those killed in Norway, I can't believe there's anyone who reads this blog who isn't shocked and outraged by the senseless massacre and waste of so many young lives in the name of an odiously misguided ideology.  But among the comments to various on-line articles, I've seen some rather vile anti-Moslem statements, as though this mass murderer's warped motives had some validity, a deceit I believe most decent people would utterly reject.  If, like me, you'd like to send a message of condolence to the people of Norway, there is a link here where you can do so.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Fag Ash Lil at the Blundell

Late notice I know, but I've just heard that Fag Ash Lil are playing tonight at the Blundell Arms, Upper Aughton, Road, Southport.  Classic rock with a touch of blues, Fleetwood Mac and Zep, plus some original songs.  When they played the George a few weeks ago, the place was heaving.

It begins at around 9.00pm.  I don't think the Blundell has real ale; it's so long since I've there - probably the last time Fag Ash Lil were on.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Drink to me only with thine eyes

An American study has shown that people said they preferred a glass of wine that they were told came from Italy over one that came from India, when they both came from the same bottle.  Similarly, they preferred chocolates supposedly from Switzerland over ones from China, when they in fact came from the same supermarket brand.  The full story is here.  We know that people will knowingly buy counterfeit goods and pretend they are the originals, but this goes much further - people detect differences that don't exist because their preconceptions, or prejudices, tell them one product is better than another. 

I wonder how far this applies to beer.  Judging by how some people write on the subject, probably quite a lot.  We have now moved beyond the realms of the real ale snob:  some real ale drinkers blithely dismiss what they call brown beer, meaning I suppose traditional bitters; some condemn many of the products of micro-breweries as being poor quality beers produced by hobbyists rather than serious brewers; some won't have anything to do with the old regional brewers; and some declare that the big brewers are incapable of producing anything worth drinking.  I'm oversimplifying for illustrative purposes, but I'm sure you get the general point.

There is some truth in all of these opinions, because the quality of products across brewers will obviously vary; the mistake is to generalise from them.  The current buzz word is 'craft', an undefined term imported from the USA, which is really quite meaningless in the British ale context, but is employed to imply a level of discernment:  if it's a craft product, it's good, but as far as I can see, we are simply replacing one set of assumptions and generalisations by another.  The problem with using undefined terms is that there is nothing to stop anyone from using them.  The term 'real ale' was invented and defined precisely by CAMRA and is now accepted to the extent that it's in most modern dictionaries; any brewer who described a beer as real ale when it wasn't could be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act.  This is not so with the term 'craft beer', which is often used to describe the new style of keg (which I wrote about in March - here if you're interested), and I can see nothing to stop Tetley's or John Smith's describing their beers thus, even their smoothflows.  Certain craft keg fanatics are so evangelical that they condemn CAMRA for not supporting the style, one which is almost certainly undefinable and is excluded by the very name of CAMRA. 

To me, all of these people, those who nitpick about real ales and those who advocate craft keg - whatever that is - remind me of those who took part in that wine and chocolate study that I opened this post with.  They like to draw lines and say, "This is what I like".  We all like boundaries; they make things easier to understand and defining what you do and don't approve of so much simpler.  However, if you go too far down that path, like the wine and chocolate people, there is a real chance that what you taste may be influenced by what you see, or what you've read on the pump clip or bottle label.

Most drinkers would probably agree with the statement that you should drink with your taste buds rather than your eyes, but I'm certain from what I've read that many do quite the opposite.  Well, that's their loss.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

When Jones's ale was new, me boys ...

A new brewery near Wigan: Jones Brewery, set up by Neil Jones, who's had 20 years experience of the brewing industry.  Ken Worthington of Wigan CAMRA told me about this, and I get the impression they knew nothing about it until it was up and running.  The brewery is in Haigh (pronounced 'hay', I believe), which is North West of Wigan.  I hadn't heard of Haigh, but it does look very small; it doesn't even appear in my road atlas.

Their normal range consists of a dark bitter, a stout and a pale ale, with a seasonal winter warmer and the intention to brew other seasonal beers.  I'm looking forward to trying their beers out, perhaps on one of my visits to Wigan.

The title of this post is explained here!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Safe as a Brick

The Southport Swords
dancing in the Baron's Bar.
I understand that the Scarisbrick Hotel, home of the Baron's real ale bar and the Southport CAMRA beer festival in September, has been taken over by Britannia Hotels.  It's a pity that a another privately-owned hotel has been taken over by a chain, but it's better than it closing, I suppose.  The local CAMRA branch are confident that the Baron's Bar, one of the top three real ale venues in town, isn't at risk, and they don't see any threat to our beer festival either.  Well, let's hope they're right. 

Link to Baron's Bar here and to the beer festival here.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Summertime and the living's breezy ...

Now that summer's here, with its attendant gales and wind, what better to do than go out for a warming drink (in July) and listen - or even play - some music to take your mind off the disappearance of the sun?
  • Tomorrow night is the 3rd Monday music session in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport, from around 8-00pm.  Up to 10 real ales.
  • On Wednesday there is the singaround in the Masons on Anchor Street (behind the main post office on Lord Street), Southport, beginning at around 8-30pm.  Real ale from Robinsons of Stockport. 
At both, you're welcome to join in or just listen. Cheers!

For other music events in the area, click here.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Pete Morton at the Bothy

The final guest night of the season features a return visit by Pete Morton, a singer-songwriter I rate very highly.  The range of his topics is very broad:  there's the hilarious Battle of Trafalgar, not about Nelson's sea battle, but about a pub named after it and you'll recognise many of the characters described.  Another Train is a reflective and evocative song that has been covered by many people including Sally Barker and the Poozies.  Two Brothers takes an unconventional approach to the Palestine/Israel conflict, while the affectionately mocking Six Billion Eccentrics takes the opposite view of humanity from the Monty Python sketch in which a crowd chant en masse, "we are all individuals".  Naseby Field tells a human tale in the context of the English Civil War.  The whole is delivered with humour, enthusiasm and commitment.

You can see Pete at the Bothy this Sunday 17 July at 8.00pm.  It is likely to be busy, to arrive early if you want a good seat.  The club meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS.  The real ale is Thwaites Wainwright.

The Bothy will run free singarounds every Sunday throughout the summer in the same venue until the autumn season begins on 11 September with Jim Causley.  And don't forget the one-off Friday special with Isambarde on 12 August.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Live in Liverpool

Two events in Liverpool I'm interested in this week:

Click on flyer to enlarge it.
Firstly, my monthly singaround in the Lion Tavern, which is by Moorfields Station. Free, all welcome, and 8 real ales. from around 8.30pm. This Thursday 14 July - performing is optional.

Secondly, the Peace and Ecology Festival on Saturday 16 July from midday to 6pm, in St Lukes Church (the bombed out church), corner of Leece Street & Berry Street, Liverpool. It's free, with 6 hours of music and dance, with stalls and food. Black Lamp (Keith Price, Kevin Littlewood and me) are on at around 1pm. The festival is organised by Merseyside CND, with support from generous sponsors.

Soft drinks only at the festival, but loads of good real ale pubs nearby; click here for the Georgian Quarter pub crawl. If the weather is bad, there will be directions to an indoor venue nearby.

P.S. please note: owing to the lousy weather forecast, the festival will be moved indoors to St Brides Church on Percy Street and Catharine Street, Liverpool 8 ~ map here.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Pub In A Box

We often hear tales of youths without any bladder control using our traditional red phone boxes as public toilets (confirmed by the smell the last time I entered one), but I think this idea is much better:  a village in Cambridgeshire converted their phone box into a pub to have few drinks and a get-together the night before their village fête, calling it the Dog and Bone.  Their old village pub, which had been popular with aircrew during the Second World War, had been sold - despite local opposition - for conversion into a house.  The full story is here.  Did they ring last orders, I wonder?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Brick for sale

An e-mail early last week tipped me off that the Scarisbrick Hotel on Lord Street in Southport might be going into administration as some creditors, including brewers, were having difficulty getting their money, then on Thursday the local press announced that the hotel is up for sale (it's going for £3,250,000, if you want to dip into your pension pot).  The speculation in the press is that this privately-owned hotel will bought by a hotel chain, but it's not the only town centre hotel on the market:  the Bold Hotel further down Lord Street is up for sale too, so it's probably not a good time for selling such a business.  This suggests that the sale is a result of necessity, perhaps forced by the possible administration, rather than preference.  If so, I wish the creditors good luck.

This raises two questions for real ale lovers in the area:
1.  What will happen to the hotel's Baron's Bar, one of the best real ale outlets in Southport?
2.  What will happen about the CAMRA Beer Festival which is due to take place in the hotel in September?

I don't know the answers, but I'll post news here as I find it out myself.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Farmers Club award

Last week, our local CAMRA branch caught the bus to Ormskirk to present the Lancashire Pub of the Year award to the Farmers Club in Burscough Street.  This unusual colonnaded building was built in 1830 as a dispensary, and operated as such until the opening of the local cottage hospital.  It became the Farmers Club in 1898, so the club has quite a history.  When we arrived, we noticed that the A-board was already proudly proclaiming the club's new status. The front doors open into a foyer that houses a full-size snooker table (which you can just make out in the picture below) and has a raised glass ceiling, with the bar to the left and a seating area with dart board to the right. It is an in interesting place, which I'd never heard of previously, even though I lived near Ormskirk for a few years.  Our chair, Ian Garner, presented Elaine Gore, the Club Manager for more than 20 years, with her award, and complimented the club for having such an individual building and for serving real ale. The beers that were on were Tetley Bitter and a changing guest, which happened to be a Tetley seasonal, Midsummer Madness - nothing special, perhaps, but apparently what the club's members like.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Danny Schmidt at Grateful Fred's

This Thursday, 7 July, Grateful Fred presents Danny Schmidt from Austin, Texas. He has a big reputation in the USA where Sing Out Magazine described him as “the best new songwriter we’ve heard in 15 years” and after three tours of the UK he has a growing following here too. 

"In his use of parable and allegory, there are inevitable comparisons with Cohen and Dylan, but these are songs of such quality and beauty that they more than hold their own in this exalted company."  5 stars out of 5, Maverick Magazine UK.

There are support acts and the gig begins at 8.00pm.  Tickets are £6.50.  To learn more about Danny and how to get tickets, click here.

Grateful Fred's is at the Freshfield Hotel, Massams Lane, Formby (a short walk from Freshfield Station). The pub has 9 real ales and a real cider.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Real Ale Capital of the UK

CAMRA Derby branch logo
CAMRA Liverpool Branch is fond of calling Liverpool the real ale pubs capital of Britain.  As I have written before, there are a lot of great pubs in Liverpool and as I was born in Tuebrook, which isn't far from the city centre, I've been quite happy to repeat the claim myself.  However, the latest issue of What's Brewing, CAMRA's national newspaper, reports that another city has thrown down a challenge, or at least a cat among the pigeons. 

Under a headline "City is UK's Beer Capital", Derby CAMRA has staked its claim to be real ale capital of Britain per population head, based on its annual census, which took place in February and involved 8 different pub crawls around the city.  A record number of real ales were available on any one given night.  270 were counted (up 21 on last year) with 161 different ones available (up 2 on last year) and these came from just 60 pubs averaging 4.5 real ales per pub.  In total 68 pubs were visited, 2 were shut and 6 had no real ale. 

I have to say it does sound impressive, but how will my home city respond to this usurpation of the crown it has claimed for a number of years?  At a guess, not lying down; if I hear anything, I'll let you know.

As an aside, I've occasionally wondered whether Southport, where I now live, should claim the title of seaside real ale capital of the UK?  I have visited many seaside towns, both for union conferences and for leisure, and in my experience there would be some justification in the claim.  However, I'm not sure that the local CAMRA branch would be willing to adopt a title that the Liverpool branch might interpret as a challenge, or a send-up.

Friday, 1 July 2011

March ends up in the cells

The Baltic Fleet
Yesterday was the day of the public sector strikes, and I went to Liverpool to join the march there.  I'd guess that there were a couple of thousand there from various unions, including some not officially involved in the strike, with loads of placards and banners.  Even the weather was on our side.  For some reason, the council at short notice decided to move us from the front of St George's Hall, which they'd previously agreed, to the rear; no idea why, but it added an extra half mile to the route, meaning more traffic disruption and more people seeing us.  The police, who had to move people from the well-publicised meeting point, were irritated, not with us but with the owner of the land, as they put it, meaning the council.  Own goal there, I think, Liverpool council!

Outside the Crown in Lime Street a group of drinkers having a smoke began singing "David Cameron is a wanker".  A marcher from the FBU was chatting up a young police woman, and I heard another police woman saying to a veteran marcher, "I suppose we're a bit like civil servants too", and he replied, "Yes, you are".  Horns were blown in support by buses, cars, lorries and one road sweeping vehicle, and groups on the pavements clapped and waved as we went by.  The irate, alienated public our leaders warned us of were nowhere to be seen.

The Main Bridewell, when
it was, er, a bridewell.
 The march ended up with a rally in the Blackie in Chinatown.  With the rally over, the important decision was, "Which pub do we go to?"  On the basis that the pubs on the way back into the town centre would be heaving, we set out for the dock road and the Baltic Fleet, Liverpool's only brewpub.  I tried three Baltic Fleet beers, beginning with Wit, a wheat beer.  This left a very bitter after taste, so I went on to the Summer Ale, a light golden ale, about 4.2%, which I think most of the others were drinking, apart from a couple of lager drinkers in our group.  I also had a pint of the Hale Rock (4.5%), not bad but I went back on the Summer Ale.

From there we went to the Bridewell in Campbell Square, a pub converted from the old lock up, and you can drink in the former cells.  There beers were from the Liverpool One Brewery (which is actually situated in Liverpool 3), and I had two light beers, Three Graces and Liverpool Light; I had two of the latter, so I must have preferred that one.

We finished in the Globe, a pub I've written about before, but the range, unusually, had only obvious beers; we settled on Bombardier.  Leaving for last buses and trains, we were accosted by a drunk who told us we shouldn't have gone on strike, what about the poor kids?  It turned out he thought we were teachers.  I asked, "What about the poor kids who lost a days schooling for the royal wedding?"  But that was all right, apparently.  The argument went from bad to worse when I discovered he hadn't a clue what the strikes had been about. 

Anyway, that was the only sour note; it was a great day, both for the march and the drinks afterwards with good friends in my favourite city.