Saturday, 8 June 2019

Death of a pub

"Borrowed" from the Liverpool Echo article,
which used a picture I'd taken without credit.
The Blundell Arms in Birkdale was for more than 30 years the home of the Bothy Folk Club of which I'm a resident singer. Regrettably, over many years the pub was run into the ground by the pubco and deteriorated from respectable street corner local to scruffy and, frankly, slightly dodgy dive. The Bothy was increasingly made to feel unwelcome, despite the amount of custom it brought in every Sunday night, and moved elsewhere. Finally, and perhaps inevitably, on 6 March 2016 the pub closed its doors for the final time.

Shortly afterwards, a campaign to convert it into a community pub was set up by Jason MacCormack and succeeded in gaining Asset of Community Value (ACV) status for it. The site on which the pub sits is large, and developers bought it to turn it into housing, leading to something of an impasse.

There the matter had remained until last weekend when, according to the Liverpool Echo, a huge fire swept through the building. The cause of the fire has not yet been announced, but empty buildings with no gas or electricity supply don't tend to go on fire spontaneously. I have read three different speculative explanations, although obviously I have no idea which is the right one:
  • Vandalism.
  • An accident by homeless people who, it has been said, were staying in the building.
  • A convenient fire to scupper the community pub campaign.
The campaign has said it will try to get an estimate of the cost of repairing the fire damage to see whether they can still proceed, but even if they can, there's no doubt their task has become considerably harder. I wish them luck, but I fear it will soon be a building site.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs

The Office of National Statistics states that the average price of a pint of draught bitter in 1988 was 91p and that 30 years later in 2018 it was £3.06. We all expect prices to rise, but according to the Bank of England inflation calculator, 91p in 1988 is equivalent to £2.39 in 2018. If inflation had been the only pressure on beer prices, that's what we'd be paying nowadays.

A year ago, YouGov conducted a survey with more than 40,000 respondents and found that beer was on average around 60p dearer than what drinkers considered reasonable. This means that, not just that beer is dearer in real terms, but drinkers feel they are being overcharged for it. How did this come about?

When the big brewers sold off their huge pub estates, most were bought by pub companies, who financed their purchases by mortgaging their newly-acquired properties. The 2007 financial crash then put most pubcos into massive debt; they are however too big to fail or they'd take the lenders down with them. To service these debts, pubcos charge very high rents for pub tenancies and insist the tenants buy their supplies through them, adding mark-ups that can be as much as 100% - just for passing on the order.

Then it was the government's turn. Beer duty has during this period been pushed up by much more than inflation, notwithstanding the odd duty freeze now and then. In addition, business rates, also set by central government, are disproportionately high when compared to other businesses with comparable turnovers. Talk about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs: if pubs are driven to close, they pay no duty or rates at all.

If you ever feel your pint is dearer nowadays in real terms, you're quite correct!

This is from an article I wrote for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Some previous write-ups are here.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Select 4 at the Southport Tavern

Local rock band, Select 4 which is led by guitarist Mick Cooper, will be playing a gig at the Southport Tavern (formerly the Albert) on London Street this Friday evening, 24 May.

The band plays a mixture of interesting well-known songs along with a few neglected classics. They tend to avoid the usual standard rock songs that many bands reach for.

To the right is a logo I designed for the band, but I don't know whether they have taken to using it!

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Asset stripping through neglect

Passing this closed pub in Southport recently, the Hoghton Arms, I thought the obvious neglect gave one compelling reason why pubs are closing. Letters are missing from the name and the paintwork below the windows hasn't been touched for years. If I were looking for a pub to run, I'd just walk past this one. It wouldn't surprise me if planning permission was sought to develop the site.

Two views of the same corner on Google street view.
Slightly further away it still shows the London.
Move closer and the new houses magically appear.
I've seen this happen before. On my last visit to the London Hotel in Southport, the place had clearly not been decorated since long before the smoking ban as the ceiling was still heavily stained with nicotine, several of the light bulbs were broken and the whole place was dingy and unwelcoming. Unsurprisingly, there were only about three or four people in what was a large street corner people in a residential area, even though there wasn't another pub or bar nearby.

I e-mailed the owning company and asked about the rumour that the pub was to be closed down. I initially received nothing back but after a couple of reminders was sent a very guarded reply asking what my interest was: was I interested in buying the pub? I replied no, I was just a customer concerned about its future. I received no further response. Shortly afterwards came the inevitable announcement that the pub was unviable, although unsurprisingly they didn't mention that they had run it into the ground. A group of new houses now sit on the site.

Most pub companies are property companies and have no vested interest in maintaining their pubs, especially when they can get the equivalent of a massive lottery win by selling the land for redevelopment. Breweries were more likely to maintain their estates of pubs because they were outlets for their core product, beer, but as is well known such brewery estates are uncommon nowadays.

Even many apparently successful traditional pubs are, behind the scenes, struggling under inequitable tenancy agreements that require licensees to take responsibility for often quite major maintenance costs, as well as overcharging for the products on sale: licensees have told me about 50% to 100% mark-ups on beer as compared to the open market. Many pubs would be much more successful if they weren't tied and could buy their supplies where they wanted. Although I'm a Leftie, my understanding is that under capitalism competition is supposed be good for the economy by bringing prices down to benefit all of us - well, that's the theory we're fed. The tie ensures that pubco-owned pubs are denied even that dubious benefit.

Nothing is likely to be done because our rulers are quite happy if pubs close and we all stay at home, but people cannot be bullied into such behaviour against their will. The rise of new micropubs and bars, not tied to any company, are stepping into the breach, or even opening in areas that weren't previously served by any drinking establishments. For example, the Hillside area of Southport had no licensed premises at all until three years ago: now there are two new bars and a micropub, with two of them serving real ale (the Grasshopper and the Pines).

The down side is that we continue to lose irreplaceable traditional pubs that, if the owners had the will, could remain open. The success of various community pubs which had previously been closed by pubcos as unviable simply shows that the pubco business model is itself the problem.

I do know there are other factors in pub closures, such as excessive tax, unfair business rates, changes in how people socialise, and so on, but I have seen pubs allowed to deteriorate, often (in my opinion) quite deliberately.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Bob Fox in Concert

  • The Atkinson, Lord Street, Southport 
  • Saturday 11 May 11th 
  • 2.00 p.m. 
  • Tickets £12 - buy here or at the box office. 
A great afternoon concert hosted by Pete Rimmer.
Part of the Southport Festival - 10 to 12 May.

What they're saying about Bob Fox:

"Fox always was one of the scene's superior singers and his voice is as confident and ebullient as it ever was." - Colin Irwin - Folk Roots Magazine 

"Bob, in my view, is a greatly under-rated singer and musician, if he were pushier he'd be up there with the Carthys and Gaughans and he could certainly teach the upcoming generation a thing or three!" - Raymon Greenoaken - Stirrings Magazine

"Bob Fox’s supreme voice is full of life and clarity." - New Zealand Folk Newsletter

"The most complete male folk artist on the British folk scene, his voice and singing style is envied by many of his contemporaries." - Colin Randall -The Daily Telegraph

"As soon as I heard him sing I realised that Bob Fox must have one of the best voices in England, he is an artist of great ability and integrity." - Ralph McTell

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Magic Mild Festival

As I wrote on 17 April, CAMRA Southport & West Lancs' contribution to 'May is Mild Month' is to run the Southport Mild Trail throughout May in conjunction with eight great local real ale pubs.

One of those pubs, the Grasshopper in Sandon Road, Hillside, will be taking the concept further and will be holding its own 'Magic Mild Festival' over the May bank holiday weekend, 3rd to 6th May. They will be offering eight different cask milds from various breweries including:
  • Dunham Massey.
  • Timothy Taylor.
  • Salopian.
  • Local breweries – Southport, Rock the Boat and George Wright.
  • Moorhouses Black Cat.
The full range of blonde, golden and bitter beers will still be available as usual. There will also be music, a barbeque and Morris dancing.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Perhaps The Twain

The Pub Curmudgeon has written a good post 'Never The Twain' on his blog comparing cask beer to craft, and pointing out that many handcrafted real ales could be justifiably called craft. While he's correct, it's an argument that's probably been lost because popular linguistic usage isn't always logical - for example, did you know that 'flammable' and 'inflammable' mean exactly the same thing?

In October 2012, I was able to write about craft:
I don't have a problem with the existence of craft beer, including keg, and wouldn't refuse to try it, if I knew anywhere I could buy it, but the nearest place I'm aware of is in Manchester, 40 miles away.
There were probably closer places that I didn't know about, but the point that craft wasn't generally available was correct at the time. However, such days are long gone and it is now commonplace. In the spirit of experimenting I have tried a few and, as I've previously written, have found that some have been well brewed and have a good flavour. The main difference concerns the method of dispense, and drinking craft is to me like drinking bottled beers, which is something I might do at home or at a party. In the pub I simply prefer real ale. 

When writing about pubs for the weekly CAMRA column in our local papers, I'll always mention craft beers if they're on sale; I have been writing these for more than three years now and none of our local 800 members have ever complained about it, which tends to counter the 'stick-in-the-mud' accusations against the campaign. Indeed, some CAMRA festivals have even been putting on a craft bar.

I know some drinkers who happily drink both styles regularly, and I expect that tendency will increase as the original craft drinkers grow older and the subsequent generations of beer drinkers simply see handpumps, craft fonts and bottles as normal components of pub or bar scenery - not as defining their personal identity. If I'm right, then 'Never The Twain' will become history.

Today I don't detect the hostility between vociferous cask and craft advocates that I certainly used to see on some blogs and websites, in the risible antics of BrewDog, and in the letters page of 'What's Brewing', the CAMRA newspaper - but, oddly enough, didn't tend to encounter in the real world.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Southport Mild Trail 2019

Click on picture to enlarge the map.
In May Southport and West Lancs CAMRA is running the Southport Mild Trail. Eight local pubs have agreed to offer customers a cask conditioned mild option for the whole month of May. The participating pubs are: 
  • The Beer Den.
  • The Bold Arms (Churchtown). 
  • The Cheshire Lines. 
  • The Corridor. 
  • The Grasshopper.
  • The Guest House.
  • Southport & Birkdale Sports Club.
  • The Windmill. 
Join the Mild Trail either by using the card printed in the local CAMRA magazine 'Ale and Hearty' or by picking up a Mild Trail card (as shown above) at any of the eight pubs, ordering cask mild at each participating pub and asking them to stamp the card. Completed cards will be included in a draw with a chance to win one of the prizes listed on the local CAMRA website.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Who's singing? You or the computer?

I've just been listening to BBC Radio 2 late at night and I have been dismayed - not for the first time - by how many singers have, in my judgement, had their voices adjusted by Autotune. If you can't sing in tune, you have no right to fob off a fake product on the public.

Judging by this image I found on-line, I am clearly not alone in regarding Autotune as the musical equivalent of sports people using performance-enhancing drugs. In both cases, the public is being conned.

For the record, I am on at least 18 albums (possibly more), and I know I can sing in tune without computerised assistance. That's not just my opinion: it's also the view of a friend who has perfect pitch. And I'm just a local, mostly amateur, singer.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

The EU, free speech, and Tim Martin

I wrote a few days ago about how some people can, in my opinion, be quite snooty about Wetherspoon's pubs. In recent weeks I have been hearing another explanation for avoiding them, a more political one. As I said in my earlier post, anyone who chooses not to patronise Spoons because of Tim Martin's strident views on leaving the EU is of course perfectly entitled to do so, but although I completely disagree with him on that issue, it won't stop me using the pubs.

Why not? Quite simply, I take the view that Tim Martin is entitled to his views, although I must question the business sense of potentially alienating up to 48% of your potential customers, but that's his problem, not mine. As I also previously said, if I knew the views of senior directors of a lot of pub chains, breweries, or indeed any companies that get money from me, I'm sure I'd find plenty to disagree with. Sensibly from a business perspective, most people in such positions will be much more guarded in their public statements than Tim Martin.

This second post on the subject of Spoons was prompted by a friend giving me a few vouchers, saying that she'll never use them because of Martin's public statements on leaving the EU, so I might as well have them. Fine by me. While I'm a very political animal, having been involved in unions, political parties, demonstrations and campaigns for most of my adult life, I accept the principle of free speech.

So let's define free speech: it doesn't just mean that you have the right to say what you believe in, it also includes other people having the right to say things that you fundamentally disagree with. In this country, there used to be an attitude of, "I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it", often more simply expressed by agreeing to disagree. Increasingly the attitude is, "How dare you say that!", very often accompanied by insults and abuse.

I believe this change began with Mrs Thatcher because that was very much her approach, but she is not solely, or even mostly, to blame: social media have given very public voices to people with genuinely nasty attitudes who are incapable of tolerating, not only views they don't like, but people they disapprove of, often for irrational reasons such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, political views, or even just because they don't find them physically attractive. In other words, bigots. Bigots don't respect free speech in others, which is one of the reasons why we have laws against the hatred they spew out.

The tone of some discussions, especially on-line, has become distinctly unpleasant: calling your opponents 'Brexiteers' or 'Remoaners', by no means the worst terms I've seen, isn't likely to encourage a respectful exchange of views, which is why I have never used them: I prefer 'Leavers' and 'Remainers'. Besides, adults engaging in such silly name-calling is an unedifying sight.

Getting back to Tim Martin. As far as I know, he has not demonstrated any bigotry; he simply has very strong views on leaving the EU and has used his public profile to try to persuade others. He is, in short, exercising his right to free speech. Unfortunately, this issue has become so toxic that rational discussion is becoming increasingly difficult, but as long as he stays within the bounds of civilised debate on an issue about which we've all had the chance to have our say through the ballot box, I have no intention of boycotting his pubs.

One thing I have observed is that the old convention, one I have never fully agreed with, that you don't talk politics in the pub seems to have gone out of the window. In the last month or so, I have heard several animated conversations in pubs about leaving the EU.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Whiskey in the Jar


The song 'Whiskey in the Jar' is probably most associated with Thin Lizzy, but it is of course an old traditional Irish folk song, and before Lizzy got their hands on it, the Dubliners' version was probably the best known. Thin Lizzy never intended it for release, and were in fact just larking around in the studio when they recorded it. They consequently weren't too pleased when Decca released as a single anyway as it wasn't representative of their sound, although I expect they were to some extent consoled by the higher profile they gained when it reached number one in Ireland and six in the UK.

I remember it was on our college bar jukebox and one night at the student  folk club, the club organiser got up and announced he was going to sing the song, "the proper version, not that abomination on the jukebox." I remember thinking that I rather liked the abomination on the jukebox.

With line-up changes, Lizzy dropped the song from their repertoire, and they never played it on the five occasions I saw them live. However, that wasn't the end of the line for the song. In 1990, the Dubliners re-recorded it with Celtic punk band the Pogues with a faster, more rocky sound. In 1998, Metallica recorded a version similar to Lizzy's, but heavier as you'd expect, even winning a Grammy for the song in 2000 for Best Hard Rock Performance.

The song has come a long way from Irish pub folk sessions to heavy metal recognition.

The video sows the original line-up of Thin Lizzy featuring drummer Brian Downey, lead guitarist Eric Bell and Phil Lynott on vocals and bass guitar.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

CAMRA local pubs of the year awards

The Southport and West Lancs CAMRA branch covers parts of two counties: Southport and Formby in Merseyside and, as you'd expect, western Lancashire. Consequently the branch makes two sets of awards, and these are the results.

The North Merseyside Pub of the Year is the Sparrowhawk, Southport Old Road in Formby. The Cider Pub of the Year is the Grasshopper, Sandon Road in Hillside. The Club of the Year is the Fleetwood Hesketh S&S Club, Fylde Road, Southport.

The West Lancashire Pub of the Year is Tap Room No 12 in Burscough Street, and the Cider Pub of the Year is the Court Leet in Wheatsheaf Walk, both in Ormskirk. By coincidence, I wrote about these two pubs in January. No clubs were entered for Club of the Year.

These awards are determined after visits over twelve months by ordinary CAMRA members, and a shortlist is derived from their scores. The pubs on the shortlist are then visited by a team of judges (including Yours truly this time for the cider pub scoring) who make the final decisions. The pubs themselves do not usually know they are in the running for an award.

My congratulations to all the winners.

Please note that CAMRA receives no money or payment in kind for making such awards. The same applies to entries in the Good Beer Guide; if someone claiming to be from CAMRA asks a licensee for payment in return for an award or for being listed in a beer guide, it is a scam. I have recently heard reports of this happening in the north west.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Spoons - just stirring it up?

The great hall in the North Western on Lime Street
A recent negative comment ("poor food cheap drinks") on a Facebook post about Wetherspoons got me wondering why some drinkers are so dismissive about the pub chain. I accept that Tim Martin is perfectly capable of being complete prat, particularly on those occasions when he spouts his views on issues beyond his immediate business, but if I knew the views of managing directors or CEOs of most breweries or pub companies, I'd probably find quite a lot to take issue with.

Anyone who chooses not to patronise Spoons because of Martin's strident views on leaving the EU is of course perfectly entitled to do so, but although I completely disagree with him on that issue, it won't stop me using the pubs.

Comments I've read over the years, sometimes inserted anonymously on other beer blogs, have been along the lines of:
  • Pensioners drooling into their meals.
  • Brats running wild.
  • People on benefits squandering their 'handouts'.
  • Alkies drinking from opening time.
And so on. People writing such things are clearly looking down with contempt upon some of their fellow citizens: not an admirable trait. 

I have never noticed anyone drooling into their food, beer or anything else; I regarded that kind of comment as snobby ageism. How dare older people want to go out for a drink? They should be tucked up at home with their slippers and cocoa, getting increasingly isolated and depressed - but out of sight. Any children I see in Spoons are no worse than those in other family-friendly pubs, and calling them 'brats' is just another instance of snobbery. As for people spending their benefits: first of all, how would you know? And secondly, even if they were, they're entitled to some kind of social life.

I've also read a number of times, especially recently for some reason, that CAMRA shouldn't give £20 of beer tokens to its members.  Some people seem to think that the beer tokens constitute a subsidy of Spoons by CAMRA; if so, they have got it completely wrong. The vouchers are a CAMRA membership benefit entirely paid for by Wetherspoons, and it's not the only company that provides perks - have a look here - but no one ever suggests that CAMRA should turn those other offers down. This type of whingeing is just a handy stick to beat both Spoons and CAMRA, even if it does involve getting the facts wrong, but that's indicative of the times we live in, unfortunately.

There are a number of pubs in Southport that I like to frequent, and they include traditional pubs, micropubs, and Spoons. The one I go to most is the Guest House, one of the most unaltered traditional pubs in the town centre, but on occasion I like to go to one of the town's two Spoons, the Sir Henry Segrave and the Willow Grove. I also like the magnificent North Western in Lime Street, Liverpool, and, although I don't get there very often, the Court Leet in Ormskirk. The Twelve Tellers in a former bank in Preston is also rather impressive.

Nearly ten years ago, I wrote how Southport's two Spoons outlets were a thorough disappointment. I'm pleased to say that post is completely out of date today, and a good choice of well-kept beer is available in both. I mention this to demonstrate that I am not an uncritical fan of Wetherspoons, and if I am dissatisfied, I am prepared to say so.

From an old local guide that listed every real ale outlet.
Perhaps some slightly younger Spoons detractors simply don't know how lucky they are. In the 1970s and 1980s, we would have a thought a pub like Spoons was marvellous at a time when most pubs had only one or two beers on, usually from the same brewery. My chart shows the number of real ale pubs in the whole of Southport (not just the town centre) in 1985, categorising them by how many real ales they had on. Nowadays you can get a better choice in the area around the northern end of Lord Street alone.

People are of course fully entitled to dislike like Spoons as pubs, but the nature of some of the criticisms has made me wonder whether there are other factors, such as feelings of superiority, perhaps?

In response to the comment that provoked this post, I wrote: 
I don't agree the food is poor: it's good for what you're paying. I also have no problem with cheap drinks.
Wetherspoons provides many people on restricted incomes with an opportunity to have an afternoon or a night out with a few drinks and a reasonably-priced meal, that they certainly couldn't afford in an overpriced gastro-pub.
Not everyone can afford to be as choosy as you!

Saturday, 9 March 2019

St Patrick - Southport's most famous son?

As the 17th March approaches we prepare ourselves for the annual carnival of Hiberniana. There will be mass parades of emerald green in the big cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, Dublin and even London. It will be a celebration of all things Irish and people will be encouraged to wear ‘the Green’ and sup the famous Irish stout.

Well, it may surprise some to discover that St Patrick was not even Irish. He was from England. In his diaries he describes how he was brought up in the North of England until the age of 16. He was then kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. With the advancing and receding shoreline there is no archaeological evidence to identify St Patrick’s home and the place names used then are no longer recognised. However, some historical texts place St Patrick’s home between The Mersey and The Ribble. In my book that puts him in Southport.

Of course, the Welsh claim him but then they claim everyone. Last I heard, they were claiming that King Arthur and even Robin Hood were Welsh.

So what of the young lad sold into slavery? Eventually he escaped, came home and joined the church. He decided to go back to Ireland to spread Christian culture to the war-like tribes of Ireland and the rest is history.

Did St Patrick drink The Black Stuff? There is little doubt that St Patrick would have drunk dark ales. That was the staple drink in monasteries at the time. The malts would have been darker and smokier because of the traditional methods used, resulting in a darker ale. St Patrick would not have drunk anything like the nitrogenised, pasteurised, super-cooled commercial products associated with St Patrick’s Day but would have enjoyed a cask ale much more like our local brews: Parker’s Dark Spartan, Red Star’s Havana Moon or Southport’s Dark Night.

What about all this green? For over a thousand years St Patrick was depicted in blue. In fact he had a shade of blue named after him. St Patrick’s blue is a pale blue. The green has come in over the last hundred years or so to make St Patrick seem more Irish.

On 16 March, the Grasshopper in Sandon Road, Hillside, has a double cause for celebration: St Patrick’s Day and their 3rd birthday party. They invite you to put on your best blue outfit and join them in raising a glass to St Patrick – Southport’s most famous son.

On the same day, the Guest House in Union Street, Southport, is hosting 'St. Patricks shenanigans with ukulele rebels', aka Uke-Rhythmix.

Wishing you 'Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh' – Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

This is a guest post by Andrew Frith of the Grasshopper pub.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Churchtown pub tour

The village of Churchtown is known for its picturesque qualities: St Cuthbert's Church, the village green, the stocks, thatched cottages and two of the oldest pubs in Southport. The Bold Arms and the Hesketh Arms, listed buildings dating from the 18th century, sit on opposite sides of the village green. I recently visited them, along with one of the resort's newer pubs, Peaky Blinders. All three pubs allow children and dogs, and all have outside drinking areas.

The Hesketh (Google street view)
The Hesketh is a large pub that has a central bar with several separate drinking areas, various nooks and crannies, and is popular for food. On one wall, I saw this sign: “Dogs welcome – owners tolerated”! The real ales that were on when I called in were: Sharp's Doom Bar, Thwaites Wainwright and Bombardier, which I was told usually alternates with Black Sheep. William Sutton, credited as the founder of Southport, was the landlord here when it was known as the Black Bull. Every Boxing Day, the Southport Swords dance outside this pub as they have done for decades.

The Bold (Google street view)
Strolling past the village green, you quickly reach the Bold. This three-roomed pub is an old coaching house and it too is popular for food. You can watch the big football matches here as you enjoy your pint. Talking of beers, they were serving: St Austell Tribute, Robinson's Dizzy Blonde, Taylor's Landlord, Abbot and IPA (both from Greene King), and Tetley Cask. Their website advertises the imminent launching of a gin club, and I saw that Thursday is their quiz night.

Peaky Blinders
Leaving the Bold, you pass the Remedy bar – no real ale, but just the place if you're into gin – and a few minutes later you reach Peaky Blinders. This is an L-shaped bar with modern furnishings and large windows overlooking the road. It is light and airy, with walls decorated with a reproduction of old newspaper adverts and cuttings. The real ales available on my visit were: Taylor's Landlord, Wadworth's Horizon, Black Sheep and Cumbria Way which had run out just before I arrived. Cheese platters and paninis are available.

This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Previous write-ups are here.

Monday, 18 February 2019

North Merseyside Pub of the Year shortlist

The Guest House is the only traditional
pub in the competition
CAMRA Southport & West Lancs Branch has produced a shortlist for the North Merseyside Pub of the Year award.

The only traditional pub on the list is the Guest House, Union Street, Southport. As well as offering up to 11 real ales and a real cider, they also hold a popular quiz every Thursday, live music most Saturdays and informal acoustic song and music sessions on the first and third Mondays of the month. Free bar snacks are sometimes provided.

The Tap & Bottles in Cambridge Walks, Southport, presents a choice of real ales that you rarely see elsewhere, craft beers and a wide selection of bottled beers. Live music also features here with Grateful Fred's Ukelear Deterrent on the last Tuesday of the month, and an informal acoustic song session on the final Monday. Other musical events also feature.

The Grasshopper in Sandon Road, Hillside, has seven real ales and a choice of real ciders. It often holds special events, such as beer and cider festivals, quizes, and Lancashire Night. There is an acoustic song session on the second Wednesday of the month, and CoLAPS, the Coast of Lancashire Ale Preservation Society, meets here on the first Monday.

The Sparrowhawk on Southport Old Road in Formby describes itself as a “pub restaurant serving fresh food, cask ales and wine”. It is a gastropub, but one with a good choice of changing real ales and, on my last visit, a real cider. While the menu looks impressive, you are welcome if you simply want to go there for a drink.

The Beer Station in Victoria Road, Formby, close to Freshfield Station sells a range of local real ales, quality lager, wines and spirits, with pork pies and other snacks available. They have held Meet The Brewer nights and will present a gin tasting event featuring Turncoat Gin on Thursday 28 February.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Debating the future of pubs

An important debate is taking place in Parliament this Thursday, 7 February, in which MPs will be discussing the issues affecting beer and pubs and their valuable contribution to our society, economy and culture. MPs must stand up for the diminishing number of places in their constituencies where ordinary people can enter free of charge, meet their friends or make new ones, celebrate special events, watch sport, play darts, listen to music, have a meal prepared on the premises, or even just enjoy their own company – not forgetting, of course, savouring a pint of British real ale.

Following on from CAMRA's well-supported lobby of Parliament last October, members all over the country have recently been e-mailing their MPs about today's debate with the following demands:
  • A preferential rate of duty on beer sold in pubs.
  • Full reform of business rates to fix the unfair amount that pubs pay.
  • Reforming the Pubs Code so that tenants get a fair deal. 
Let's hope enough MPs have got the message!

••••••••••••••••••••••••

Tax freezes on alcohol that CAMRA has been vigorously calling for came into effect last week on 1 February. Duty on beer, cider and spirits was frozen in the 2018 Autumn Budget. Duty on wine was left to rise with inflation and a higher rate was imposed upon 'white ciders'. The Treasury claims that a standard pint of beer is now 14p cheaper than if taxes had risen in line with inflation.

It's a welcome measure, not only because it helps protect the great British pub and pint, but also because it has saved at least 3,000 jobs that would have been lost if duty had gone up, according to an estimate by the British Beer and Pub Association.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Fuller's Brewery sold to Asahi

Coming to a local near you?
It was announced last week that the well-known British regional brewer, Fuller's of London, has sold its brewing concerns to the Japanese brewing multinational, Asahi. Fuller's Griffin Brewery in Chiswick is home to the famous London Pride which is popular across the UK and often seen locally in Merseyside and beyond. Fuller's will now concentrate solely on running its pubs with Asahi as its primary supplier, so I expect that in the short term drinkers may not notice much difference.

Over the years, Asahi has taken over many other breweries, such as Meantime, also in London and mainly known for craft beer, Grolsch in the Netherlands, Italy's Peroni, and Pilsner Urquell from the Czech Republic. As a truly international concern, it also owns many other brands not so well known in the UK.

It's always worrying when a piece of Britain's traditional brewing heritage falls into multinational ownership, not for Little Englander reasons, but mainly because the breweries acquired in this manner are in the control of boardrooms thousands of miles away. Fuller's has gone from being an independent traditional British brewer to just another brand in Asahi's large international brewing portfolio; as a result, decisions will be made by executives who are unfamiliar with the individual breweries concerned and who would be inclined to see them as little more than entries on a profit and loss account.

I expect that some drinkers will say that it's no great loss - someone usually does - but such a 'dog in the manger' attitude is quite contemptuous of the tastes of the many drinkers, the majority in fact, who have no wish to experiment on their nights out and consequently find a beer, or a few beers, that they like and stick to them. For many such drinkers, Fuller's beers, especially London Pride, fits the bill.

There have been all the usual reassurances about maintaining the production of the popular brands on their traditional site, and I do hope that those promises are kept. However, beer drinkers with long memories will remember similar commitments were regularly made after takeovers in the past - and almost as regularly betrayed. The fact that Meantime Brewery remains open might give us some reason to hope.

Asahi and Fuller's have both expressed satisfaction with this deal and complete confidence in the future of their two companies. As Mandy Rice-Davies might have commented: they would say that, wouldn't they?

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Peaky Blinders, Southport town centre

Peaky Blinders, decorated for Xmas 2018
Peaky Blinders, named after the popular TV series, is a bar and hotel situated in what we now call Northern Quarter. The main bar is prominent on the corner of Lord Street and Seabank Road; next door is their own cocktail lounge, and they provide accommodation above. The bar has been extended to create a lounge area, the décor hints at a 1920s style in keeping with the theme, the seating is comfortable and the large windows allow you to watch the world go by on Lord Street as you sip your drink.

I went on a Tuesday night with my friend Alan, expecting it to be quiet on a weekday. It was in fact fairly busy with quite a varied range of customers. I found the two staff friendly and helpful in answering my enquiries. We didn't go into the cocktail lounge (no real ale!), but I've seen from the outside that it can be busy at weekends.

Between us, Alan and I tried all five real ales on offer and found no problems with any of them. Cumbria Way from Robinson's is usually a regular beer, but it wasn't on when we visited. The real ales were: Cross Bay Blonde Sunset; Appleby Hawes Water; and three from Bowness: Gold, Swan Verdi and Amazon Amber. Peaky Blinders has been listed in the 2019 edition of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide.

Twelve fonts sell a variety of keg beers from Guinness to Hop House Lager and there's a choice of bottled beers, wines and a wide choice of spirits, especially gin, vodka, whisky and rum. There can't be many drinkers who wouldn't find something to suit their taste. 

There is an outdoor seating area to the front on Lord Street for when the weather improves. Children are allowed in until early evening and dogs are permitted. They have a website, and also a Facebook page; I noticed that you can hire the cocktail lounge for your private function. The bar is open until 11.30 pm every day except Friday and Saturday when it closes at 12.30 am.

There is another branch of Peaky Blinders in Churchtown which I wrote about last July.

This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Previous write-ups are here.

Monday, 14 January 2019

A short Ormskirk pub crawl

My friend Ann and I decided to pay a visit to the historic market town Ormskirk to stroll around the centre and have a look inside some of the pubs. The market was in full swing when we arrived by train; both the railway and bus stations are just a few minutes' walk from the town centre and all three pubs that we visited.

Our first port of call was the Cricketers on Chapel Street. It is pleasantly decorated and consists of the main pub room and an extension called the Pavilion, which is more set up for dining. There is also an upstairs room and a beer garden. Five real ales were on offer: Gold and Hen Harrier both from Bowland, OSB (Old School Brewery) Headmaster and Detention, and Salopian Shropshire Gold. The Cricketers has won local CAMRA awards for West Lancs Pub of the Year in 2015, 2017 and 2018. The pub is popular with diners and has an interesting menu; children are welcome. Monday evening is quiz night.

A short walk brought us to Tap Room No. 12 on Burscough Street. Formerly a shop, it was converted into a single-roomed bar, and the wooden panels and genuine pub furniture successfully recreate the atmosphere of a traditional pub room. They had the following real ales when we called in: Salopian Oracle, OSB School's Out, Problem Child Rapscallion and Wainwright. They can also sell you 20+ gins as well as craft and continental beers. Although it is a small bar, there are several regular events each week: quiz night on Wednesday, open mike on Thursday and live music between 4.00 and 10.00 pm on Saturday.

Our final stop was the Court Leet in Wheatsheaf Walk, just off Burscough Street. The most interesting feature of this pub is its open air balcony on the first floor. The real ales available were: Sharp's Doom Bar, Greene King Abbott, Clipaty Hop and Cheshire Gold, both from Coachhouse, Ruddles Best, Saxon Red Ale and Barbarian both from Parker, and Big Bog Quagmire. Ann was drinking wine and particularly enjoyed the Shiraz. For food, there is the usual Wetherspoon's range, and children are admitted.

The beer was in good order in all three pubs, and I hope to write about other pubs in this characterful town soon.

The name Court Leet was taken from the original Court Leet which used to run Ormskirk's municipal affairs from a building on this site until its abolition in 1876. Sometimes the town officials would adjourn after their business was concluded to a long-gone pub called the Old Wheatsheaf, after which Wheatsheaf Walk is named.