Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Jez Lowe this Sunday

Jez Lowe is a singer songwriter from County Durham. His songs frequently deal with daily life in the North East, particularly in his hometown of Easington Colliery, and cover a wide range of subject matter, including economic decline, mining disasters, and the narrow opportunities set by living in a depressed area. As well as performing solo, Jez sometimes plays in a band format with the Bad Pennies, and in various collaborations, such as the Pitmen Poets.

Jez is an old friend of the Bothy Folk Club and her performed there many times, both as a guest and on occasion as a floor singer. He is appearing in Southport at the Bothy next year (aka next Sunday 3 January). The Bothy meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS, which serves Southport real ale. Tickets available on-line and on the door, and the show begins at 8.00pm.

This night is likely to be very busy, so I recommend an early arrival.

Monday, 28 December 2015

BBBB new venue

I wrote in August that the Bent & Bongs Beer Bash in Atherton had lost its customary venue, Formby Hall, due to redevelopment, and that a new venue had been found at Atherton Community School. It seems this has fallen through - I've no idea why - and the new venue is the Atherton Roller Rink on Bolton Road, Atherton, M46 9JQ. This is closer to the station, which is about three tenths of a mile away, than both the original venue and the school.

The new dates are Thursday 4 to Saturday 6 February, a fortnight earlier than those planned for the school: this change is probably to prevent a clash with the Liverpool Beer Festival. Admission prices will be reduced and the festival will stay open all day on Saturday until 9.00pm. Go to their website for full details of times and prices.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Free speech in pubs?

The Stoke Inn in Plymouth has put a few rules for its customers for New Year's Eve, covering the wearing of Christmas jumpers, fancy dress, indiscriminate snogging, New Year countdowns and regulars getting preferential treatment as they pay the bills throughout the remaining 364 days. To see the post, click on the date:
New Year’s Eve sucks..........it’s always a disappointment, so this new year’s eve, the Stoke Inn is hosting; “Thursday...
Posted by The Stoke Inn on Tuesday, 15 December 2015
Only partly tongue in cheek, I feel, but it did get me thinking about the rules that some people claim apply to pubs, particularly concerning talk about politics or religion. Why are such subjects apparently forbidden in pubs which are, after all, the most popular voluntary meeting places in the country?

I can understand that there are times when discretion may mean that silence on certain subjects is sensible. For example, speaking in support of the IRA in a pub frequented by the Orange Lodge, or singing The Sash My Father Wore in a Republican pub would only be a great idea if you like hospital food - or can run very quickly. The same applies to praising a football team in a pub associated with hostile supporters of a rival team.

Generally, however, I haven't found any subjects that are out of bounds, and on those occasions when I've discussed politics, it's never seemed to be a problem. After union meetings or conferences, my fellow reps and I sometimes had political chats in pubs and survived, although we weren't fanatics (well, most of us weren't) and might end up talking about anything but politics. The point is I don't think anyone was bothered, and if they were, they shouldn't have been earwigging. Besides, pubs have often been used for political meetings, as assembly points before and after going canvassing or leafleting, and political plots have been hatched in pubs. The back room in the Vernon in Dale Street, Liverpool, was a popular meeting place for Militants during the Hatton era, and Nigel Farage has based a whole political career on being seen with a pint in a pub.

Religion isn't something I discuss very often, but a few months ago I was talking in my local about how I had dealt with some religious door knockers. The two fellows on the next table interrupted me to say that you weren't allowed to talk about religion or politics in pubs. I think I replied, "Says who?" In the end they moved away to another table, which I thought was a laughable reaction: not only had they been listening in to our conversation, but they'd also missed the point: I hadn't been talking about religion, but how I had got rid of religious cold callers. Their attitude was interesting, seeing how much money the Salvation Army raises by collecting in pubs without there ever being the slightest murmur of objection.

Apart from my previous examples where avoiding certain subjects is simple self-preservation, who decides these rules, and why? I know some people say that their political allegiance is a secret between them and the ballot box, an attitude I used to gently mock by saying the same thing while wearing a political party badge; while that's fine for them, why does their reluctance to discuss something mean no one else should either? I find treating politics like a guilty secret quite odd, seeing how comprehensively it affects our everyday lives.

I've been trying to think of any subject that should automatically be out of bounds in pubs, but I can't. I find talk about sport boring, but that's only because I'm uninterested in sport; I wouldn't ban such talk, not that there'd be much chance here in Merseyside.

In case anyone thinks I spend all my time in pubs spouting politics, I don't. I simply can't see why some people consider it a taboo subject.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Bad Reputation II

Last night I went to the Mount Pleasant in Southport, my nearest pub, to see Fag Ash Lil, an excellent local band playing what is now called classic rock, such as Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Joe Cocker, Black Sabbath, Cream and Fleetwood Mac. It was a great gig, and towards the end I gave the sign of the horns (a hangover from my heavy metal days).

One of the two female singers noticed and said that it was good to see me in the audience, "but I wouldn't recognise Nev without a pint in his hand!"

Cheeky!

But they did perform a really good and extremely energetic version of this song:

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Dreaming of drink

At this time of year, we are being bombarded with messages, not only to buy-buy-buy, but also to take it easy on the drink over the holiday, and next year to go on the wagon in "Dry January". Paul Bailey has covered this barrage of propaganda pretty thoroughly here, thus saving me the bother.

A bit of personal history: I last took my car to the pub without any regard to the limit on Friday 13 February 1981, when I was stopped by a foot bobby who gave me a stern warning and let me off, providing I left the car where it was until next morning. So much for Friday the Thirteenth being unlucky. I wrote more about drink-driving, including my own, in May 2013.

Considering how long ago that was, it was strange to have a dream last night about me drinking and driving. I got into the car and remember nothing more until I came to, finding the car had moved. I arrived at the gathering I was going to, and afterwards everyone began cracking jokes about all the things I couldn't remember doing.

I do wonder whether this dream had been provoked by the anti-drink messages that gladden the hearts of alcohol campaigners at this time of year. While the rest of us are proposing toasts and wishing each other a happy and peaceful new year, they are tut-tutting that there's no reason why you can't have perfectly a good time on a half of shandy.

Fortunately no one was injured in my dream, just as - through sheer luck rather than skill - they weren't in my real life drink-driving days. But seeing that for nearly 35 years, I have walked or travelled by bus, train or taxi when drink is involved, I sometimes just wish the killjoys would put a sock in it. But I suppose that for some people, this is the season to be Scrooge.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Bad Reputation

I realised this evening that I have a certain reputation with the staff in my local when the fact that I had bought a half pint became a talking point behind the bar!

Which reminded me of this great song by Thin Lizzy (from the John Peel sessions):

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

To Boldly go

I went into the Bold in Churchtown, north Southport, last night. My main reason for going was to check whether the Southport Swords, friends of mine, could dance there as part of their customary Boxing Day dance tour, but I also wanted to see how the pub looked after more than £300,000 had been spent on refurbishing it. I wrote about this pub and its neighbour, the Hesketh, in July last year.

A few weeks ago, our local paper, the Southport Visiter, published an artist's impression of what the renovated pub would look like, and it was really quite hideous with wooden slats on the ceilings and walls. I should have realised the artist's impression was sheer guesswork when I noticed that, through the pub windows in the picture, you could see traffic going the wrong way down the one way street.

The separate rooms and nooks and crannies that I previously wrote about still exist, as does the old carved woodwork, including the arches over the bar. The floor is now either wood or stone, which will increase the noise levels when the place is full, and some of the tall new tables are on old wooden barrels with high stools, but most of the furniture is more conventional. Overall, I'm quite pleased that this pub, which dates to at least the seventeenth century, hasn't been spoilt.

The real ales that were on at the time of my visit were:
  • Churchtown Best Bitter (the house beer, brewed by Greene King).
  • St Austell Tribute.
  • Tetley Mild.
  • Greene King IPA.
  • Hardy and Hanson Rocking Rudolph.
This isn't the most adventurous range, but a lot of people like standard beers like Tribute and Greene King IPA. I chose the Rocking Rudolph which I quite enjoyed: it's certainly preferable to its boring IPA stablemate. The presence of a cask mild is to be welcomed. While I am well known as someone who doesn't like Tetley Bitter - I was once booed at the CAMRA AGM for stating what I thought of it - I always used to find Tetley Mild more acceptable. I haven't drunk it since the Tetley brewery in Leeds closed, but perhaps I should try it some time in the interests of research.

I also noticed among the whiskies, Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I can only assume that the word does not have the same connotations in the USA as it does here, rather like the surname of a certain obnoxious American presidential candidate. The pub offers a reasonably priced standard pub food menu with a specials board, and there are televisions for sport. 

Chatting to one of the staff, I mentioned how inaccurate the picture in the paper had been. She suggested that perhaps the idea was to make it look so bad that you'd be relieved with whatever lesser changes were made. She was joking, but I wonder whether she might have a point.

Incidentally, the Southport Swords will be dancing there on Boxing Day at around 12.15pm. Times for their whole tour can be found on this page.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Never say never

I've just come across an article in the Liverpool Echo on-line about breweries in Merseyside. They list nineteen, and I have to say I didn't realise there were that many; there's even a couple I hadn't heard of before. I must keep my ear closer to the ground.

Here in Southport, there are three: Southport Brewery, a veteran now of 11 years; Parker Brewery in Banks just outside the Southport boundary, but proclaiming its Southport credentials; and the newest, 3 Potts, which is a near neighbour of Southport Brewery. Other breweries nearby include Burscough Brewery in West Lancs, Neptune Brewery in Maghull, Red Star Brewery in Formby, and Rock The Boat Brewery in Little Crosby. More details of these and other Merseyside breweries can be found in the Echo's article.

The most interesting point about all of this is that before 2003, none of these breweries existed at all. After the old Higsons Brewery in Liverpool was closed by Whitbread in 1990, Merseyside and the surrounding areas didn't have a single brewery, and I certainly recall the Liverpool CAMRA branch mourning the loss of all its breweries in a city that had once proudly had quite a few. Although some of us tend to think we know about this subject, none of us ever anticipated the resurgence that has occurred.

I've had beers from most of the breweries listed in the article, and haven't been disappointed. Some aren't entirely to my taste, but that's not the same as saying they're no good. In contrast, some of the old regionals and locally based nationals that we had, such as Matthew Brown, Greenall Whitley and Tetley Walker produced at best mediocre beer, and at worst unpleasant slop (Higsons was the honourable exception). Such an accusation cannot be aimed at these newer breweries, whether you like their products or not.

As for all our previous mourning over the passing of the era of brewing in and around Merseyside, never say never.

The one odd note in the article is that it states that the owners of Cains say they hope to be brewing again within two years. My message to them would be: either seriously get your act together or don't bother. Cains beers became utter rubbish before the company went bankrupt for the second time. While they were thereby destroying any remaining brand loyalty, far superior competitors appeared on the scene. My view is that in the changed beer scene in Merseyside, they'd have a hard job re-establishing themselves.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Sky's the limit

I've just read that a Birmingham licensee has been told that if she shows Sky Sport illegally again, she could end up paying £50,000 and may even be sent to prison. This only the latest in a series of prosecutions of pubs and bars, and if you put 'pub illegal sky sports ' into Google, you'll find loads more. Sky says that it is committed to protecting pubs who invest in legitimate Sky Sports subscriptions, and while there must be some truth in that, I'm certain that protecting Sky's profits is the main motivation. There is nothing wrong with that in itself - Sky is a capitalist company, and it is the raison d'être of such companies to make profits - but does Sky represent good value for money?

The Sky website gives no indication of charges, but I read in a newspaper article that Sky costs pubs around £15,000 a year. Recovering that amount requires a massive number of bar sales. I have come across pubs who discontinued Sky because it wasn't paying its way. I have also been in pubs where: the sport is on but no one is looking at it; the pub is largely empty; or where people have turned around and walked out when they've seen that a noisy, large screen showing sport is dominating the room. I am usually in the last group. I have been told that, even when you have a pub full of sport fans, many of them make one or two drinks last the whole match, which doesn't do wonders for the takings.

We in this country are often described as sports mad, but this is all hype generated by the media which stands to gain if it can encourage more of us to tune in to sporting events. The reality is that sport is a minority interest that often gets far fewer viewers than dramas, soaps, and even so-called reality shows. Big name events, such as the Cup Final, the Grand National, Wimbledon and the Olympics will always get lots of viewers, but these are the exceptions. Big crowds of males (they're almost all males) in front of large, noisy screens do deter some drinkers, including people like myself who tend to drink rather more than they do. I know I'm not the only one who prefers not to be encircled by a crowd of testosterone-fuelled fans shouting pointlessly at a referee who is hundreds of miles away.

I have no doubt that some pubs find providing Sky Sports worthwhile, but I'd seriously doubt that the massive investment required would help less successful pubs, and possibly may have a detrimental effect. When Sky salespeople are extolling the worth of their product to a pub or bar, do they explain that their product may deter some custom? Or are they just peddling the myth that we are all enthralled by sport?

I know I'm not.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Policing pubs

Reported in almost comical terms is the tale of a pub, Cooney's Bar in Llandudno, where the theme tune to Peppa Pig was played when some police officers visited the premises last October. The DJ also made snorting noises. It was apparently the last straw after in a series of incidents going back to April 2014; the police then decided to refer the pub to the licensing committee.

Given in evidence was the fact that one officer who dealt with a former door supervisor was not happy about going to the bar on his own, and the licensing committee was asked: "If an officer is not happy to visit then how do members of the public feel?"

Reading this last point reminded of a story my grandmother once told me. She used to work in pubs and ended up acting as her son's (and my uncle's) relief manager on his days off. In earlier days, she had worked at the Cherry Tree in Kirkby, near Liverpool, when it was notorious for trouble. At weekends, fights often broke out and the police would be called. She said they'd wait outside until it all went quiet, and then they'd go in and make a couple of arrests. She understandably described them in unflattering terms, unimpressed that they preferred to leave the fights for a couple of barmaids to deal with.

Violence in pubs is no joke, and I have very rarely seen it during my 40+ years of pub-going. Licensees are responsible for enforcing much of the law relating to licensing hours, smoking, drug misuse, noise levels, excessive drinking and customer behaviour. If they fall down in any of these areas, they could lose their licence or have punitive conditions imposed. In return for upholding the law in so many areas that aren't necessarily directly linked to their core business, licensees can reasonably expect support on the odd occasion they may need the police. I say "odd occasion" because I can't recall a single instance of the police being called out to a pub when I was there.

Cooney's, incidentally, kept its licence but with extra conditions imposed. If you're interested, you can read the full story in Wales Online.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

"Middle class parents turn kids on to drink"

I was interested to read an article in The Independent that quoted a report about the health of young people with this headline: "Middle-class parents more likely to turn their children to alcohol". I looked up the report, which was published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (a government quango): it runs to 161 pages and covers all aspects of the health of young people, including drink, drugs, exercise, diet and so on. It is not a report solely about youthful drinking, although you wouldn't know that from the press coverage. The lines that caught the journalists' attention were:

Rates of drinking also varied by deprivation, with young people in the least deprived areas being more likely to have ever drunk alcohol than those in the most deprived areas (70% and 50% respectively).

There was an association between age of first drinking and frequency of drinking. Among those who had first had a drink at less than 10 years, 28 per cent were regular drinkers, while among those who had their first drink at age 15 or 16, 3 per cent were regular drinkers.

A regular drinker is defined in the report as someone who has at least one drink per week. The report defines various risky behaviours, and for alcohol this is described as at least one drink a month.

While there may be a correlation between the age of the first drink and the later level of drinking, suggesting this is because of parents giving children alcohol earlier might provide an explanation. However, it could be equally argued that in areas of deprivation there is logically going to be less disposable income to spend on alcohol, which might provide either an alternative or an additional explanation. It seems to me that suggesting middle class parents are the cause of the level of drinking later in life is less politically troublesome than suggesting that deprivation itself may the cause, with all the suggestions of social inequality that naturally follow. Provoking middle class angst is less controversial than talking about inequality.

It's an interesting finding, but as is often the case with such reports, the conclusions drawn by the press are overly simplistic and not entirely supported by what the report actually states.

Friday, 11 December 2015

First HS2 pub victim identified

Photo borrowed from pub website
A bit out of my area this, but I was really quite sorry to hear that a pub near Euston station in London may be demolished to make way for a proposed rail project.

I discovered the Bree Louise in Coburg Street, NW1, a couple of years ago after we had been on a massive anti-austerity demo in London. It was a real find in the normally boring landscape of London pubs, which so often just plump for the obvious and unoriginal - and then charge you through the nose for the privilege.

The Bree Louise, on the other hand, had 6 handpumps, and 11 beers on gravity dispense, plus an extensive range of real ciders. We didn't have any of the food, but it looked good. The beer was £4 per pint, but the discount for CAMRA members of 50p brought it down to a more palatable - for this Merseysider, anyway - £3.50 a pint. The pub was busy, but with a relaxed atmosphere and we were a bit disappointed when we had to go for our train home.

I've just learnt that one consequence of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway development may well be that this pub might be demolished, which would not only deprive the licensee, Craig Douglas, and his staff (to whom he pays the living wage, not the minimum wage) of their livelihoods, but Craig and his family of their home. He named the pub Bree Louise after his daughter who had died, so it is clear this pub is much more than just a job. Let's hope the government sees sense, and doesn't apply plans that result in the unnecessary closure of successful businesses such as this one.

More info here.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Fred McCormick

I've just returned home from the funeral of Fred McCormick, folk singer, trade unionist and socialist; the chapel at Landican Crematorium was packed with friends and family, including many stalwarts of the local folk scene. Fred was a regular at my acoustic song session in the Lion in Liverpool and also at the Belvedere sessions, but his reach was much greater than that. He was also a lover of jazz and blues, and the local jazz scene also honoured his passing.

Peta Webb gave a beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish song 'Our Ship Is Ready'. Afterwards in Misty Blues in Wallasey, Ken Hall sang one of Fred's own songs, the comic 'The Bacon Butty Song', which lightened the mood, followed by several rousing songs from the Socialist Singers.

All in all, a suitable send-off.

RIP, Fred.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Have you no homes to go to?

I recently had a conversation with a friend in the pub about drinking up time.

We well recalled the time when you had ten minutes to sup up, a rule that often honoured on the breach rather than observance; for instance, some drinkers might buy double rounds at closing: to stay within the law, they'd have to drink two pints in 10 minutes, and obviously they didn't. Then it became 20 minutes of course, which was rather more sensible.

It was even worse was when I visited Glasgow in December 1972. Although I was quite delighted when I walked around a corner and saw the TARDIS - yes, they still had police boxes in Scotland then - there was another, less welcome, outdated relic from another age that I discovered: the pubs stopped serving at 10.00 pm, with no drinking up time whatsoever. I thought then, quite rightly, that that was an incredibly stupid state of affairs. Subsequently, of course, Scotland led the way in liberating licensing laws.

But now? My friend insisted that by law you still had to stop drinking 20 minutes after the bar closed. I told him I was fairly sure that wasn't the case any more, but I'd check. I subsequently learnt that the Licensing Act of 2003, which came into force in November 2005, made no mention of drinking up time, because the consumption of alcohol itself was no longer considered a "licensable activity" under the Act. However, this doesn't give drinkers licence to tell the staff to get stuffed when they ask you to empty your glasses, because a licensee has the absolute right to take your drink off you and ask you to leave at any time without explanation.

My friend was quite surprised that drinking up time is no longer regulated by law, and that it is up to the individual licensee to decide the rules that apply; I suppose after so many years, some things can seem set in stone. My advice if you're in an unfamiliar pub and are wondering how many drinks to get in at last orders is quite simple: ask. Remember that licensees have every right to take your beer off you if you've overstayed your welcome.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

In the Meantime ... divorce

What's a poor, spurned craft brewery to do? London craft brewery Meantime was taken over by SABMiller in May this year. Like most marriages, SABMiller promised to love and honour its new craft bride, assuring its customers that Meantime wouldn't be forced to change and would still be allowed to get on with doing what it did best: loyal customers need not fear.

But, heartbreakingly, SABMiller has found a new love in AB InBev, and not only is the honeymoon period with Meantime over, but divorce papers have already been served. AB InBev is looking to sell Meantime, as well as brands such as Grolsch and Peroni. They promise to look after these brands until the decree absolute comes through, but the question of maintenance afterwards must be a worry, especially for the staff at Meantime brewery. Unlike when they sold out to SABMiller, they won't have any say over who owns them in future, which must be unsettling to say the least.

Selling out to a big beer corporation must be a temptation for the owners of a highly successful small brewery, but the problem is that you are instantly converted from a company to a brand, and brands are no more than commodities to bought and sold like any other.

You'd think the example of Sharp's, taken over by Molson Coors who subsequently moved all the brewing of bottled Doom Bar hundreds of miles north, would have rung a few warning bells, but obviously not.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Local breweries win awards

Red Star is a new brewery in Formby, between Liverpool and Southport. It's a 10 barrel microbrewery and has been producing cask ales for about six months. I first tried their beers three months ago in the Corner Post, a micropub in Crosby, and more recently in the Guest House, Southport. I've liked all their beers that I've tried so far.

I'm pleased to learn that they won a gold in the Speciality Beer cask category at the SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) annual beer competition. The successful beer was their Weißbier, a naturally cloudy Belgian-style wheat beer; I've yet to see this, but I'll keep an eye out for it.

Southport Brewery won gold for the bottled version of their Dark Night Mild and bronze for the bottled version of their Shrimper. I've enjoyed both of these in draught form.

Well done to all concerned.

Monday, 30 November 2015

No Rhyming With Orange

Cancelled!
I'm sorry to report that the gig by local band, Rhyming With Orange, which was to take place at The George in Duke Street, Southport, this Friday 4 December has been cancelled. This is because the pub has closed down again and is all locked up and in darkness. It is sad news for the pub that it seems to be on the brink of permanent closure yet again, but pubs in suburban areas do seem to be at particular risk, a subject I wrote a post about last month.

A certain support act, Nev Grundy, is reported to be devastated. Perhaps there'll be another time.

The Farmers Arms, Burscough

The Farmers Arms
The Farmers Arms is a canal-side pub on New Lane in Burscough, Lancashire. It was taken over fairly recently and the new owners are keen to improve what's on offer at the pub. It is an attractive brick building with moorings on the canal, a patio area for outside drinking, weather permitting, and some fine views. The pub is a popular stopping point for both walkers and cyclists with cycle racks and track pump available. The pub even played a part in the local defence of the area during the Second World War. The two storey tower next to the car park entrance was actually built as a gun tower and was manned to defend against invasion via air or the canal system.

Like many country pubs, food is important here as well as beer. It is served every day at lunchtime and in the evening during the week and all day on Saturday and Sunday; last food orders are at 8.30 pm. Children eat free with a paying adult. On Sunday they offer a roast dinner, Monday is burger night and Thursday is steak night. They can cater for functions such as weddings and funerals, and they are also accepting bookings for Christmas parties. 

Serving our beer 
The real ales that were on when we visited were Moorhouses Black Cat, Wells Bombardier, Tetley Bitter, Moorhouses Pride of Pendle, Sharps Doom Bar, and they usually offer a changing guest beer. Everyone in our party was happy with the quality of the beers they were drinking. There is a happy hour Monday to Thursday 4.00 pm till 6.00 pm, and 4.00 pm till 8.00 pm on Fridays, and the pub is open until midnight every day. They may decide to hold a beer festival in future. There is a quiz night on Thursdays and an open mic night on Saturdays. The pub is family friendly and dogs are permitted in the bar. Car park available. 

Contacts: phone 01704 896021; pub website.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Mixing your drinks

Black and tan
A casual comment about snakebite last night got me thinking about how people used to mix two different beers, or beer with cider, a lot more than they do now. Having decided to write something about it, I noticed that Boak and Bailey had recently written about mixing beers in the present day, but I had in mind the old mixes that used to be quite popular.

The most common one was probably bitter with brown ale. We called this 'brown and bitter' when I was student in Warrington, but later when I worked in Liverpool a colleague firmly told me that it was called 'brown bitter'. When I asked why he chose it, he pointed out that you got well over a half of bitter along with your brown ale: this is the same mentality as people who get pint glasses in beer festivals but order halves, thus getting overgenerous measures from lazy bar volunteers.

Another mixture I came across was light and bitter - a bottle of light or pale ale with the bitter. This was sometimes misheard by bar staff in noisy pubs as mild and bitter. I have wondered whether these mixtures arose as an attempt to disguise poorly kept draught beer in the 50s and 60s by diluting it with bottled beer, which would at least have the virtue of consistency. Other combinations I came across included (using the Liverpool terms) 'mixed' (bitter and mild) and 'brown mix' (brown and mild).

'Black and tan' was bitter and Guinness, although I've seen suggestions it should be a pale or light ale rather than bitter. This was often poured to create two layers, as in the picture. I've heard the term used to describe dark mild and Guinness, although using the word 'tan' as part of the description of a mixture of two dark drinks seems odd to me. Light mild would make sense, but that wasn't readily available where I used to drink. The term 'black and tan' was never used in Ireland for obvious reasons; they prefer to call it 'half and half'.

'Snakebite' was bitter and cider in the 70s, but more recently I've heard the term applied to lager and cider. This was quite a lethal mixture, or at least it seemed so at the time. Guinness and cider was called 'poor man's black velevet', the original of course being Guinness and champagne. Once for my birthday party I made a black velvet punch which was very popular, although I replaced the champagne with Pomagne. If I were to try it again today, I'd probably use cava.

There were other mixtures, such as lager and lime, lager and blackcurrant, Guinness and blackcurrant and cider and blackcurrant, but these were just ways of sweetening beer for people who basically didn't really like the taste of it. Also, obviously, they are not mixtures of two alcoholic drinks.

Nowadays I very rarely hear people ordering such mixtures. Perhaps draught beers are more consistent and interesting nowadays. Price too may be a factor, bottled beers being significantly dearer than draught. Or it could just be that the times they are a-changing.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

7 out of 10 pubs serve real ale

Great news: research* has shown that 70% of pubs now serve real ale'. However, I note that CAMRA says that "micropubs [are] leading the way". I tend to find hyperbole irritating, and this statement is a good example. There are in the UK:
  • 53,444 pubs.
  • 37,356 pubs serving real ale.
  • 150 micropubs.
This means that micropubs represent 0.4% of real ale pubs. The oldest, the Butcher's Arms in Herne, Kent, is now 10 years old, and yet the turnaround in real ale's fortunes goes back a lot longer than that, as we all know. While I fully agree micropubs are a very welcome addition to the real ale scene, I am struggling to see precisely how they are leading the way. As this hype was contained in a CAMRA press release about the next Good Beer Guide, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised: commerce often supplants reality when you've a product to sell.

Still, the good news is that nowadays we generally don't have to hunt very hard to find a reasonable pint as we had to in the past. I say 'generally' because there are certain types of areas in the UK that remain real ale deserts, such as some economically depressed areas, many council estates and anywhere else devoid of a middle class voices and, more importantly, comfortable disposable incomes. The attitude is clearly any old smooth rubbish for the masses. 

* Research conducted using CAMRA's WhatPub database and CGA-CAMRA Pub Tracker.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Whatever happened to 24 hour opening?

I found this interesting article by Camila Ruz on the BBC news magazine website about the impact of 24 hour opening hours. It was published on 24 November, 10 years to the day since the Licensing Act came fully into force. As the article states:

It was reported that the act would lead to round-the-clock drinking and there were warnings that extended hours would cause chaos. The Royal College of Physicians said it would increase alcohol consumption. Police chiefs complained that their forces would be stretched. One judge said that easy access to alcohol was breeding "urban savages".

The article goes on to show how the anticipated chaos never materialised. As most of us know, alcohol consumption is in decline, as is violent crime, including that attributed to drinking. Teetotalism is on the increase, including among young people.

So how did so many authoritative people get it so badly wrong? Because those people were not speaking objectively, but were applying their own preconceptions, prejudices, preferences and motives. Or, more concisely, they had their own agendas. The consequence of getting things so badly wrong is that future predictions of doom are more likely to face a sceptical eye, which is what happens when you keep on crying 'wolf'.

This scepticism already greets the official guidelines of 14 or 21 units per week. Among my friends and acquaintances, there are people who drink regularly, and others who don't drink much at all, but I don't recall anyone ever suggesting to me that they take the guidelines seriously. If they are mentioned at all, they are usually treated as a joke. Now we find that the prophets of doom have been decisively proved wrong about 24 hour opening which means, as pundits, they are less likely to be taken seriously in future. The irritating thing is that I doubt they realise this.

I don't know anywhere that opens for 24 hours. There was one bar that did so in Southport, but it doesn't any more.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Lancashire Day 2015

This Friday 27 November sees the annual celebration of Lancashire Day, and many pubs in our local area will be taking part. Lancashire Day commemorates the day in 1295 when the county sent its first representatives to attend what later became known as the Model Parliament during the reign of Edward I.

In Southport the following pubs will be involved as far as I know (there may be others):
  • The Tap & Bottles, in Cambridge Walks, from 1.00pm will be providing traditional Lancashire beers and entertainment.
  • The Inn Beer Shop, in Lord Street have announced that Pete & Pam Bardsley invite you to join them to celebrate Lancashire Day, with Proclamation at 6.00pm, traditional Lancashire beers, music, hot pot, cheese board, cheese & onion pie, Chorley & Eccles cakes, prize for the best dressed Lancastrian. Tel: 01704 533054.
And in West Lancashire similar events as below:
  • The Cricketers, at 24,Chapel St, Ormskirk, traditional Lancashire beers, hot pot and tapas. Tel: 01695 571123.
  • The Ship Inn, Wheat Lane, Lathom, traditional Lancashire beers and menu. Tel: 01704 893117.
  • Ring O' Bells Lane, Lathom, Near Burscough L40 5TE, Join the Lancashire Society at the Ring 0' Bells for a "Lancashire Night" with entertainment by "Tackers Tales" (Sid Calderbank & Mark Dowding) as well as clog dancers, musicians, Lancashire dialect, poems and traditional Lancashire beers, All welcome free entry 7.30pm till 11.pm. Tel: 01704 893157.
  • The Farmers Club will be providing free Lancashire hotpot from about 4.00 pm until stocks run out.
  • The Hop Vine, Liverpool Road North, Burscough, Lancashire Day beer offer, Burscough Brewery, Duke of Lancaster at £1.50 per pint! Tel: 01704 893799.
  • Infusions Bistro, 2-4, Orrell Lane, Burscough, Seven Course Lancashire Feast, Lancashire bottled beers. Tel: 01704 893356.
Info from Jeff Carter, via Mike Perkins, with additional info from Brian Brighouse. Thanks to all.

Other Lancashire Day events, not necessarily involving pubs, can be found here on the tourist board website.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

ACV - safeguard or fig leaf?

Sorry for the lapse in postings; I don't like to leave things so long but, as I said on 31 October, I've had recurring minor ailments that have made me feel generally under the weather since September. On the mend now, though.

I've just noticed an item in the Morning Advertiser that may well be a significant setback to CAMRA's strategy of campaigning for pubs to be granted Asset of Community Value (ACV) status. Woking Council has revoked the ACV status of the Star Inn in Wych Hill, Surrey, and has granted permission for it to be turned into a Co-op supermarket. They said that a local community group had failed to show that it had community value as a pub, citing an e-mail from one councillor that stated that the pub had deteriorated with licensees who "tended to cater to younger, rowdy, non-residents of the local area."

The residents said that they'd like the Star to become a gastropub as it was the only place that could provide food, drink and accommodation in the area, which - they added - was already well served by supermarkets. The council replied that another supermarket could also become a valued local asset.

So there you have it. While I know that no one has claimed that obtaining ACV status conclusively and permanently saves a pub, I do feel it may have been relied upon rather more than it merited; it is merely a tool in the process of saving a pub, not the final result. As with so many campaigning issues, it is a mistake to assume a success is permanently in the bag: you often have to fight for things over and over again.

The only other thought that occurs to me is that if the good people of Wych Hill had made greater use of the pub before it became at risk, perhaps it would not have come to this. Use them or lose them.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A dissatisfied customer

I expect CAMRA Southport and West Lancs Branch is rather upset by the letter in our local paper, The Southport Visiter, stating that, far from being the success that a branch spokesperson had asserted, the Southport Beer Festival was in fact a disappointment: there weren't enough tables, the beer choice didn't impress him, and people had to dodge discarded food and plates. He said he spoke to 20 or 30 people who felt as he did. The gentleman concerned is entitled to his opinion, of course, but in my view, he has been rather harsh. I attended the festival twice: I was a floor walker for the Friday evening session, and was a punter on Saturday afternoon.
  • Not enough tables. The hall is small and space is limited; when the festival is busy, there simply isn't the space to provide as much seating as they'd ideally like to. There isn't another venue in or near the town centre that is suitable, available and affordable.
  • The beer choice didn't impress him. The festival had beers from many local microbreweries that you may not readily come across in Southport pubs, such as: 3 Potts (Southport); Big Clock (Accrington); Burscough (Burscough); Connoiseur (St Helens); Problem Child (Parbold); Red Star (Formby); Parker (Banks); Third Eye (Eccleston); Melwood (Knowsley); Rock The Boat (Crosby).There were also beers from more established small breweries, such as Bank Top, Southport, Prospect, Liverpool Organic and Liverpool Craft. The original point of beer festivals was to introduce people to beers they don't usually come across, and in this respect I regard the festival as a success. I also approve of supporting local microbreweries. But, whatever beers you put on, you won't please everyone.
  • Loads of dissatisfied customers. Did he really spend all the time it would have taken to conduct market research on 30 people at the beer festival? Or has he exaggerated ever so slightly? As a floor walker on the Friday evening, I spoke to a lot of people, rather more - I suspect - than the letter writer. I didn't hear a bad word about the festival; nor did I on the Saturday as a customer. 
  • On neither day did I see discarded food lying around in any great quantities.
To be fair to the writer, he did give his name and address. I am unimpressed when people write scathing letters to the papers (or, for that matter, put highly critical comments on blogs) and then hide behind anonymity. I am not, however, convinced that his views are as representative as he would like to claim.

In general, I appreciate the efforts of the volunteers on the festival committee who put in a lot of work in their own time for no reward to provide a significant local event which this year supported our local breweries, quite a few of which are very new. That work deserves a better acknowledgement than the letter in the Visiter would suggest.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

No robo-licensees

I've just read in What's Brewing that pub licensees are highly unlikely to be replaced by robots in the foreseeable future. Researchers at Oxford University found that there was a 0.4% chance of automated licensees, largely because of the social interaction and cultural knowledge required.

I also expect the robots were unable to inject sufficient sarcasm into phrases such as:
  • No one else has complained.
  • Haven't you got homes to go to?
  • It's meant to be like that.
  • This is a pub, not a nightclub.
  • No, we don't have WiFi - we talk to each other.
  • We opened by that clock and we're closing by it.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Courage Directors

The Guest House in Southport quite often has Courage Directors on, and in recent years I've tended to ignore it as a debased relic of a beer I used to seek out. In the past, it wasn't a common sight in Merseyside, or Warrington where I was a student, but we knew the story of how it was brewed for the directors of the Courage company, and was put on general sale owing to public demand. If we came across it on trips down south, we'd leap upon it with enthusiasm.

The beer is now brewed by Charles Wells of Bedford, brewers of Bombardier and all the Youngs beers. In the last month or so, I've been giving it a try and I have to say that, far from being a brewing relic like, say, Tetleys or Boddingtons, it remains a perfectly acceptable pint in its own right, that stands up well among the newer beers that often surround it on the Guest House bar.

As usual, I looked at the brewer's own tasting notes: "Full bodied with a clean, bitter taste, balanced with a sweet burnt, malty and fruity notes with a distinctive dry-hop aroma and flavour." Actually, that's not too far from the mark at all. It's difficult to remember tastes accurately over a long period of time, and I cannot be certain how the original Directors used to taste, but from what I do recall, it is still recognisably the same beer. I'm wondering whether the Wells version has improved, as I remember not being so impressed in their early days of brewing it.

I'd now describe it as a good example of a classic British beer style; it's not innovative (how long can any beer remain innovative?) and probably not to the taste of those who dismiss 'brown beers' out of hand, but I find it an enjoyable pint nonetheless.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

A matter of taste

I've been a bit under the weather over the last 7 or 8 weeks: it's nothing serious, only my recurring sinus trouble accompanied on this occasion by a particularly nasty dose of conjunctivitis that has taken three courses to clear up (at least, I'm hoping it's cleared up). I don't have a very strong sense of smell at the best of times, but I have noticed on occasion recently that when I can't breathe through my nose at all, beer is either almost tasteless or actually unpleasant. I hadn't realised precisely how important even my limited sense of smell was to the flavour of beer.

I've sometimes taken the mickey out of some tasting notes (and doubtless will again) when they are excessively florid in their descriptions of the smell and taste of beer, but I have to accept that some drinkers will inevitably sense more from their pint than I can. This is not news, of course, as we all sense things differently from each other - obviously - because otherwise we'd all tend to have very similar preferences, and clearly we do not. To give a personal example relating to food, I loathe fish and seafood - in fact, the sight of the latter makes me feel queasy - to the extent that I cannot understand how people can put something that tastes so vile in their mouths. But as they do, they must taste fish and seafood very differently from me. Logically, the same applies to beer.

I draw a few conclusions from all of this:
  • Tasting notes only have value if you sense beers in a similar way to the person who wrote them.
  • The view of certain diehard CAMRA dinosaurs that, if you can only get people to try real ale, they'll be converted and never touch keg or smooth again, is misconceived.
  • Beer competitions that are based on panels of experts are of little real value.
Overall, though, vive la différence: the beer world would be much more limited and boring if we all had similar tastes.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Scottish pubs hit by change in the law

The reduced drink-drive limit in Scotland has hit pubs hard, according to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association. They report that more than half of pubs reported a drop in trade over the summer months; the worst affected were rural pubs with more than a third stating that their sales had fallen by more than 10%. In England and Wales, the alcohol limit for drivers is 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, but in Scotland the limit was reduced from 80mg to 50 last year. The effect on pubs was entirely predictable, and indeed it was predicted by wise sages such as Curmudgeon and me.

Quick easy fixes that show you've "done something" are popular with many politicians, and the nanny state meddlers of the SNP are no exception. The real problem with drink-driving is that some drinkers will drink whatever they want and then climb into their car and drive, without ever giving a second thought to the limit. The driver who carefully drinks within the limit is not the problem, but he or she will be hit by a reduced limit, not the lunatics who are the real danger on our roads.

At the time the Scots adopted the lower limit, the UK government said it had no plans to reduce the drink-driving limit in England and Wales as it said this would have no impact on "high risk offenders". Despite that sensible approach, I can't help wondering whether, with the ongoing cuts in police numbers, it may at some point become tempting to cut the limit in the rest of the UK. Okay, the result is that you spoil the pleasure of careful drivers, and you close some pubs in the process - but you can claim you're "doing something" and being tough on the causes of crime. And not only that, it's a nice, cheap option - much cheaper than tackling the hardened offenders.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Roscoe Head campaign

There has so far been no progress in the campaign to ensure the future of the Roscoe Head in Roscoe Street, Liverpool 1. The assurances provided by New River, the property developers who have bought this pub, one of only five in every Good Beer Guide, are wholly inadequate. As I previously wrote:

The only assurance New River have given is that there are no plans to redevelop the Roscoe Head ... into convenience stores "at this stage". There is no guarantee about conversion into something other than a convenience store, or how long "this stage" will last.

The campaign is being stepped up. There will be another rally at the pub at 12.30 pm on Saturday 7 November, which will attended by CAMRA's National Chair, Colin Valentine, which is a measure how seriously CAMRA is taking this issue. There may be some music, but at any event Liverpool Branch are hoping for a good, vociferous turnout. I'll be there certainly.

Click here for my other posts on the campaign.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

An American's view of British drinkers

I was irritated by the BBC's coverage of certain aspects of the visit to the UK of President Xi Jinping of China. While I have serious reservations about the deal concerning the new nuclear power station, it's not that particularly piqued me. It was the stage managed visit to the pub, especially when the BBC newsreader referred to the President being given a pint of warm beer, thus reinforcing the stereotype promulgated by John Major 22 years ago: "Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer ..."

Another foreigner, Scott Waters from the USA, has visited us recently for a long holiday. He has written about his impressions of life in Britain, and these have been circulating on the Internet. His observations are quite witty, many pertinent, and I'd say quite affectionate, although it's clear that some of our ways are slightly mystifying. It's always interesting to see an outsider's view of ourselves. I have extracted from his list those comments that refer to drink:

I was in England again a few weeks ago, mostly in small towns, but here's some of what I noticed: 
  • The pubs close too early. 
  • Pubs are not bars, they are community living rooms. 
  • If someone buys you a drink you must do the same. 
  • Avoid British wine and French beer. 
  • Beer comes in large, completely filled, actual pint glasses and the closer the brewery the better the beer. 
  • The beer isn't warm, each style is served at the proper temperature. 
  • Cider (alcoholic) is quite good. 
  • Excess cider consumption can be very painful. 
  • Drinks don't come with ice. 
  • Every pub seems to have a pet drunk. 
  • Their coffee is mediocre but the tea is wonderful.
  • The universal greeting is "Cheers" (pronounced "cheeahz" unless you are from Cornwall, in which case it's "chairz")
Cheers

It's interesting that an American tourist understood beer temperature better than a British newsreader or a former British PM. To anyone who's not convinced: if you think our beer's warm, try having a bath in it. You won't linger.

Have a look at the full list - it's here.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

We British prefer 'weaker' beers

According to recent research, we British prefer beer that is nearly half as strong as those on the Continent. The average strength of our favourite beers is apparently 4.4%, as opposed to the 7.9% European drinkers prefer. I'm not very surprised: most of us know that the British brewing tradition is radically different from most of those that can be found in Europe. This is not just a matter of brewing techniques.

The First World War brought serious restrictions on pubs and brewing; at one point it was illegal to buy a round. I've read an account of how a man wanted to buy drinks for himself and his wife and was refused because that constituted a round; his wife had to go to the bar to buy her own. Under the Defence of the Realm Act, licensing hours were introduced, beer was watered down and an extra penny tax put on a pint. The Temperance movement was quite a force in the UK and the brewing industry was not immune to what was, at that time, its increasing impact; these laws gave them a significant boost, although a Temperance appeal to the monarch to declare that a toast to the king could be made just as loyally with a non-alcoholic drink was given short shrift by the Palace. The Temperance movement eventually lost most of its influence when Prohibition was ended in the USA, but the effects of First World War legislation on beer, including upon its strength, continued long after the war ended. In particular, the precedent of gradually but continually cutting beer strengths continued until the 1970s when CAMRA published the strength of all beers: brewers who didn't voluntarily reveal the strength, or weakness, of their products were angry and dismayed when the Campaign had their products analysed and published the sometimes embarrassing results.

Beer drinking was was strongly identified with industrial labour. Workers wanted to slake their thirst after a day's work, especially those in heavy industry: cool pints that didn't have you sliding under the table after just a few were preferred, hence the former popularity of mild in the old industrial heartlands. The decline in mild drinking must be partly due to the ending of much of our industrial base. (There's also another possible factor that I wrote about in May.)

Traditionally, we Britons used to spend long evenings in the pub, often meeting early in the evening and staying until closing time: such long evenings demand a beer that can be drunk in fairly large quantities. Additionally, formerly popular pub games such as darts, dominoes and bar billiards required the players not to be legless.

Our beer strengths have recovered to some extent since CAMRA's exposure of the scandal of weak beer sold at premium prices. It used to be said that one national brand could have been sold legally during the American Prohibition, and there were frequent rumours that some brewers put chemicals in beer to give you a slight headache so that the next day you thought you had a hangover. I've no idea how true these stories were, but the fact that they circulated shows how some drinkers viewed the beers they were sold with a certain amount of distrust.

All these factors are specific to the UK, and have shaped our preference for beers that are less strong than those on the Continent. Personally, I'd prefer to have more pints in the 4.0% to 5.0% range than fewer at 7.9%, but that's what I've grown up with and what I've become used to. I don't think I'm untypical in this respect.

The research was by academics at Anglia Ruskin University based on 65,000 reviews on the app Pint Please.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Has CAMRA had its day?

We found little to smile about in
Greenall Whitley pubs in the 70s.
Does CAMRA have a purpose any more? It seems that I've been reading articles and blog posts on this theme almost since I first joined CAMRA in 1985. At their least contentious, they say that there are now loads of different real ales from a record number of breweries, so it's job done. Others, often written with a 'more in sorrow than in anger' tone, prefer to twist the knife. They went to a CAMRA meeting once, and found a load of bearded weirdos who were loud about their likes and dislikes, while ignoring outsiders, which is usually interpreted as a deliberate snub. Everyone else in the pub was apparently annoyed by the CAMRA types, and the writer concludes by shaking the dust from their feet and swearing never to attend a meeting again. This attitude has recently been astutely parodied in the Seeing The Lizards blog. Another group of detractors are a vocal minority from the 'craft' beer tendency who don't like the Campaign because it won't endorse a beer type that doesn't fit CAMRA's definition of real ale. This is a bit like ranting against the Cat's Protection League because it won't take in dogs.

Beer font? Or the headstone
over many lost breweries?
I am not an undiscerning member of CAMRA, and I have criticised the organisation quite a few times here. I do, however, take issue with suggestions that the Campaign is now redundant, or even that it's insular and exclusive. CAMRA members are not all of a type, no more than the members of any other voluntary mass membership organisation, although there are always those who do fit the stereotype. To present an analogy: Lefties often stereotype Tories, but in my years of local political activity on the Left, I have come across local Conservatives who are likeable people who, in their own way, want to do the best for the local community. From my perspective they're misguided, of course, but the point remains. Reality is always much more multi-layered and complicated than simplistic generalisations suggest - it's also much more interesting. CAMRA is no exception to this. Most CAMRA members don't go round boorishly taking over pubs, insulting lager drinkers and demanding privileges from licensees. Even more shockingly, most male CAMRA members I know don't even have beards. But recycling these myths provides sufficient excuse for some of these writers to feel justified in not playing a more active role in the Campaign. If you don't want to be involved, fine, but don't justify that by peddling hackneyed misconceptions.

The mainstay of
1970's parties
Is the Campaign's work done? We have a record number of breweries and most pubs not only sell real ale, but many have a good selection on offer. We've become so accustomed to this that people sometimes turn their noses up at selections of 'the usual suspects', forgetting that in the 70s and 80s we would have been delighted with such offerings. The snobby attitude to Wetherspoons is a good example of this: when I was a student in 1970s Warrington, we would have thought we'd gone to heaven if we'd come across a pub like Wetherspoons. I recall in the 1980s finding myself in a pub in Hampshire which had six real ales on handpump, mostly from the Gales range. I thought it was wonderful, but today there are some who would turn up their noses because of the lack of variety. 

This is all good, isn't it? Yes, of course, but in the long term there can be little room for complacency. The number of brewers is constantly increasing, but the market is shrinking: pubs continue to close, and beer consumption overall is going down. At some point, these two contradictory pressures must collide, resulting in many small brewers closing, though a few may be taken over by bigger concerns. In ten or twenty years' time, we may look back on the present situation as a golden age. Campaigning to save pubs is a logical response to this problem, because fewer pubs will mean less cask beer, the growth of micro-pubs notwithstanding. Those who short-sightedly argue that CAMRA has no business campaigning for pubs should bear that in mind.

In general, no advances can ever be taken for granted: what was hard fought for can be lost again. The current attacks on workers' rights, the trade union movement, the NHS and the benefit system bear testament to that. Whether or not you agree with such measures is irrelevant: the point is that nothing can be seen as safely in the bag. Progress is not inevitable. In the case of real ale, there are many threats that I've covered many times before, so here is a brief reminder of some of them in no particular order:
  • Attacks by the anti-alcohol brigade, aka the health lobby.
  • Predatory property companies buying up pubs for redevelopment.
  • Debt-ridden pub companies overcharging tenants and redeveloping sites to offset debts.
  • Punitive tax levels.
The Plough, Southport, in the
process of being demolished.
There is also the fact that multinational beer corporations want to move in on the market that is currently dominated by micro and regional breweries. I can see nothing that would prevent a repeat of the infamous Whitbread Tour of Destruction which swallowed up so many local brews, replacing them with Whitbread 'Big Head' Trophy Bitter, the deluded pint that thought it was a quart. Sharps and Meantime have already been hoovered up, and I have no doubt that other breweries are currently being eyed up for takeover. A proliferation of new small breweries suggests our beer scene is healthy but it can do little to combat such threats, whereas a campaign of 174,690 members has more of a chance.

The Sir Henry Segrave (JDW), Southport.
If only we'd had pubs like this in the 70s.
CAMRA is often dismissed as just a drinking club. This may be true for some members, and the Wetherspoons vouchers are often cited as proof of this, but most members that I know did not join for the vouchers. Another shocking fact: quite a lot of members don't use their tokens. In addition, I've known even 'drinking club' members become activated when faced with a threat to something dear to them, such as a local brewery or much-loved pub. If there's nothing local to campaign on, they are keeping a network of local branches going so that if a campaign is needed at any time, the structures are already in place. Okay, it might take a bomb to get some people moving, but it's massively better than trying to build a campaign from scratch in the future, should one be needed.

CAMRA's list of some of its successes can be found here - link provided to save me just repeating what they say - and some of these are recent, which refutes the suggestion that the Campaign no longer has a purpose. Many attempts to rubbish CAMRA are motivated by people who are hostile, often with agenda of their own, such as talking up 'craft' beer, and decrying real ale as old hat. CAMRA is not perfect, but then neither is any other mass membership organisation. I should know: I've belonged to quite a few over the years. Despite the fact that I sometimes get impatient or annoyed with certain things in the Campaign, I'll stick with it. People who sit around waiting for the perfect organisation that suits them in absolutely every respect will end up belonging to nothing. For me, this one is still worth belonging to.

References to craft beer advocates in this article refer to a partisan vocal minority. Most drinkers, whether of real ale, craft beers or both, are tolerant and don't mind what others choose to drink.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Askew Sisters gig

The guests at the Bothy Folk Club thus Sunday 18 October are the highly talented Askew Sisters, Hazel and Emily. "[They] are fast becoming one of the most popular and respected duos on the English folk scene. From dark ballads to uplifting dance tunes, they play with driving energy and the unity of two people who have played together all their lives. The sisters use fiddle, melodeon and concertina to breathtaking effect, creating cinematic arrangements that get to the very heart of each song. These create a perfect setting for Hazel’s striking voice, which won her Best Female Singer at the Spiral Earth Awards 2011."

"A definitive album of the current English Folk scene." - Spiral Earth

"Inspired arrangements of traditional music, striking versions of tricky ballads – this is traditional folk in a fine, fresh form." - The Telegraph

"An album of singular and iconic beauty." - FolkWords

" Vocals shimmering above fiddles, viola, melodeons and concertina, [this album] casts its spell." - The Sunday Times

"The edgy alchemy of melodeon and fiddle makes for a vivid and revitalising sound throughout… one of the most atmospheric and erudite albums you’ll hear this year and a model of consummate taste." - EDS

The Bothy meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Tickets on-line, or on the door. This will probably be a popular night, so best not arrive too late. The venue sells real ale from Southport Brewery.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

16th Sandgrounder Beer Festival

This year's CAMRA Southport & West Lancs Beer Festival opens at 6.00 pm tomorrow Thursday 15 October. It is open from midday to 11.00 pm Friday and Saturday. Only £3 to get in (free for card-carrying CAMRA members). Food available at all sessions. Click here for more details.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Will the National Living Wage close pubs?

I've just read an article in the Morning Advertiser by William Lees-Jones of the Middleton brewery, JW Lees, suggesting that the National Living Wage (currently £9.15 in London and £7.85 elsewhere) will close pubs. I don't usually take much notice of economic apocalypse predicted by capitalist companies when they are forced to implement social or welfare measures, or - as I prefer to think of it - are required to face up to their social responsibilities, seeing that the doom and gloom they anticipate rarely materialises. Is this situation any different?

I think it might well be. The gradual introduction of the Living Wage over the next five years is coupled with immediate cuts in tax credits. I have long thought that the state shouldn't be subsidising low wages, currently with tax credits, and previously with Family Income Supplement and then Family Credit. However, it has been the policy of both Tory and Labour governments in the last 35 to 40 years to cultivate a low wage economy to make us "more competitive". It's a typical British response: countries like Germany and Japan modernised their industries to improve the products and make them more attractive to customers. We just tried to cut costs. That is why in the 1970s British Leyland was selling mostly unattractive-looking cars with 1950s engines. The same applied to the brewing industry: the 1970s was a terrible time for beer as companies tried to get us to drink mass produced, low quality national brands.

Our motor industry is now mostly foreign owned, but our brewing situation has - against the flow of the tide of British industry - improved beyond recognition, although that has little to do with the industry as it was. The Beer Orders of 1989 liberated brewing by causing the national brewers to shed their massive tied estates, thereby creating a bigger market for small new brewers. Unfortunately, they also led to the parlous situation that many of our pubs are now in, the reasons for which I've covered many times previously, although the huge debts of pub companies must take much of the blame.

The government is transferring responsibility for dealing with low wages from itself to employers. In principle I agree with this, but their motive is not any concern for employees, but simply to save money. This is demonstrated by the gap between the ending of tax credits and the full implementation of the Living Wage, which will undoubtedly cause hardship. You cannot overturn decades of government policy relating to a low age economy within a single parliament: the more quickly you introduce major changes, the higher the chance of unintended consequences. Just as the removal of tax credits without any immediate replacement may drive many workers into further poverty, the requirement to pay the Living Wage may drive pubs that are just about holding on into deficit. Consequently, I think William Lees-Jones may just have a point to some extent, although I feel that his pronouncements are still partly derived from the usual business habit of crying wolf about increased costs.

An increased level of pub closures is not inevitable: the industry's call for a lower level of VAT for the hospitality industry and cuts in alcohol duty could help pubs deal with the extra cost of the Living Wage, but I see no sign of any of that happening. The government's strategy is high risk, not just to pubs. Time will show how risky, but some casualties do seem quite likely. Regrettably, this may include some pubs.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Suburban pubs most at risk

A partly demolished Plough in Southport
Suburban pubs face a greater chance of closure than rural or town and city centre pubs, according to CAMRA. During each week of the first half of 2015, seventeen pubs were lost suburban areas, nine in the countryside and three on the High Street. This follows separate research that showed there has been a 4.4% decline in wet-led outlets over the last year, higher than the the overall figure.

This is borne out by our experience locally: suburban pubs we have lost in Southport include The Herald, The Portland, the Shakespeare, the London and the Plough - all in predominantly residential areas. A CAMRA spokesperson said: "Suburban pubs are classic street-corner, wet-led pubs and community locals that have been an integral part of British culture for hundreds of years. Unfortunately though, as drinking habits change and property prices rise, they are being hit the worst."

I think that's true, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Debt-ridden pub companies are reluctant to invest in pubs that may be only moderately profitable. Older suburban pubs often sit on large sites in areas that already residential in character; redevelopment into accommodation must be very tempting for the owners. In this way, a pub that isn't doing a great deal for a pub company can suddenly become a lottery win.

It's my view that the pub companies sometimes help this process along by neglecting their pubs so that they become dingy and uninviting, thus driving customers away and into the town centre pubs, which are generally better maintained (three of the pubs named above were very close to the town centre anyway). The pub is then deemed unviable and closed.

The call by industry organisations for further cuts in beer duty, business rates and a hospitality rate of VAT. These might help, but they won't do anything to sort out the debt mountain the pubco industry is stuck with. Cashing in their assets will therefore remain a preferable alternative to continuing investment and moderate returns.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Big Blues Festival, Southport

The Stumble are playing on Saturday
This weekend (9 - 10 October) there will be a blues festival in The Atkinson on Lord Street, Southport.

The Atkinson says that: "The weekend is all about the food, and drink, music and a bunch of people who all love the same thing … great music! Featuring Martin Harley, Jaywalkers, Gilmore & Roberts, Amelia Curran, The Coal Porters and Danny & The Champions Of The World ... The line-up is big and bold and presents music that is desperate to be heard! Come along and hear Chicago style rhythm & blues, gospel, rock and roots to the experimental across the 2 day event."

Real ale will be provided by Southport Brewery, Sandgrounder and Golden Sands, and there's a food menu as well. Festival tickets here.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Getting wasted

I was in the Mount Pleasant in Southport with some friends last night watching local rock band Fag Ash Lil put on a great show as usual. The pub was quite busy, probably not as busy as it would have been had the Southport Musical Fireworks Championships not been on.

At some time during the evening, a group of young lads walked out of the pub, leaving four pints of lager and cider on the table: one untouched, two with no more than one sip taken, and one more than half full. At closing time a couple of hours later, the bar staff removed them and poured them away. I estimated that about £12's worth of drink went down the drain.

I've periodically noticed this kind of behaviour before: certain groups of people, usually young, will suddenly decide to go and, instead of drinking up, just walk away. In the Sir Henry Segrave a couple of months ago, there was a large group consisting of a couple of dozen males, mostly young, who did exactly the same thing, except on that occasion there were probably about 18-20 abandoned drinks.

Leaving beer is not something I've ever been in the habit of doing, nor people I know. I can only assume they've got more money than sense.