Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Lockdown thoughts & pubs

One of the rooms in the Guest House (floor not shown)
The last time I went for such an extended time without going to the pub was forty years ago when I was on the dole. That spell of involuntary abstinence ended on 7th July 1980 when I began working for the DHSS in Liverpool which, as I used to say at the time, involved me jumping from one side of the counter to the other.

Back then I'd sometimes walk past busy pubs in which it seemed everyone was having a really great time. They probably weren't especially - it would have been just another day to them - but forbidden fruit does have a special allure, particularly when you can observe others enjoying it seemingly without a second thought.

The big difference is that today, while everyone is currently excluded from pubs, abstinence has not ensued: off sales have gone through the roof as people resort to drinking at home. This includes me, even though previously I rarely did so as I view having a pint as a social activity. Home drinking is easier today than it would have been had this pandemic occurred 40 years ago. In 1980, only heavily-regulated off licences were allowed sell alcohol for consumption off the premises. The current situation whereby supermarkets, corner shops, petrol stations and other retail outlets can sell alcohol in the same way as any other goods was still years away.

I remember in the 1980s when a supermarket in Southport applied for a licence to sell alcohol, rigid restrictions were imposed: the alcohol had to be confined to a separate room with its own till, and you couldn't wander into the main shop with a bottle and pay for it at one of the normal tills. This controlling, paternalistic approach to the sale of alcohol was based on a mistrust of ordinary people who, it was thought, would go on wild booze-filled orgies of destruction if restrictions on selling alcohol were eased. I recall worried letters in the local press about the dire consequences of allowing that particular supermarket the licence it wanted. Images were dreamt up of of drunken crowds in the streets and tipsy housewives neglecting child care and household duties - the ultimate horror of paternalists everywhere: no dinner on the table!

Curiously, the world didn't end, and I'd expect that younger drinkers today would regard the restrictions on alcohol sales that I grew up with as a quaint, ancient curiosity as remote from their own lives as rationing or the BBC Home Service.

A demo to save the Roscoe Head in September 2015.
Licensee Carol Ross is centre front.
I've had quite a few chats with friends who, like me, are looking forward to when we can go to the pub again, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that we won't be returning to the way things were. Most of us realise that some pubs will be unable survive a loss of trade for so long and will never reopen, but there will be two other causes of permanent closures. After restrictions are lifted, I anticipate that home drinking will remain significantly higher than it was pre-CV19, and I've little doubt pub-owning companies will use the prolonged closure to argue that reopening some pubs is not viable, allowing them to implement lucrative redevelopment schemes that have previously been successfully opposed. For example, Liverpool's Roscoe Head, which has been run by the same family for 35 years and is the only pub in the North to be in every edition of the Good Beer Guide, was under renewed threat even before we'd heard of lockdown. For this pub, the timing of the pandemic couldn't be worse.

I have read in the CAMRA newspaper that it is possible that we may lose as many as 40,000 pubs. I sincerely hope this is wrong, but am not much reassured by the fact that such worst case scenarios rarely come to pass.

► I was pleased to see on the Facebook page of my local, the Guest House in Southport, a photo of the newly-varnished floor. It had been looking rather tired, and the fact they have used the closure to improve the pub is encouraging news, suggesting it is not in line for redevelopment or conversion to another use. I hope so anyway.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Locked down beer in pub cellars

Two locked down pubs in Churchtown, Southport.
The Bold (left) and the Hesketh (in the distance)
The order to close pubs, like many other businesses, was not unexpected, but the actual date came at very short notice. As a consequence, pub licensees had little chance to run down their stocks by reducing the size of their orders in the run-up to closure, meaning that the cellars of many pubs and bars have large quantities of unused beer, cider and perry. It is estimated that if they stay closed into the summer, 50 million pints will have to be discarded.

"It's a very sad waste of all the work and talent that goes into producing great beer," says Tom Stainer, CAMRA's chief executive. "People won't get to drink it and all those resources have been used up for nothing."

The shelf life of beers, ciders and perries depends on how it's produced, stored and served. Keg products, which include most beer sold in British pubs such as lagers, smoothflow beers (including a famous Irish stout) and ciders on fonts, can last for several months. Real ales and ciders, on the other hand, will only last for weeks, with any that have been already opened going off after a few days. All real ales, ciders and perries that had been opened at lockdown will probably have already been disposed of.

One suggestion is converting out-of-date beer into hand sanitiser by extracting the alcohol, which independent brewer Brewdog is already doing, but this is ultimately a very limited solution.

According to the BBC, supermarket alcohol sales increased by more than a fifth last month after pubs, cafes and restaurants closed.

"People are missing these things in their lives," says Tom Stainer. "It's not the biggest issue that the country is dealing with, but aspects of life like going to the cinema or café, or going for a pint, are something we treasure." 

Many breweries and distributors have offered to take back barrels at no charge once the lockdown is over, taking some of the financial pressure off licensees. However, more can be done, as Tom Stainer, explains:

“The Government needs to recognise the impact of an extended lockdown on [hospitality] businesses and confirm that the support package in place is extended until all restrictions are lifted. It must also consider a support package for pubs, breweries and cideries after they reopen, in recognition that it will take many months for businesses to recover fully.”

► 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.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Keg Buster RIP

Bill Tidy has announced in the latest edition of the CAMRA newspaper What's Brewing the sad demise of the legendary real ale campaigner, Keg Buster. This news is not very surprising, seeing that Bill himself is 84 and in poor health. Over the years he has created several wonderful long-running cartoon strips in addition to Keg Buster, such as The Cloggies and The Fosdyke Saga.

In the 1980s, Bill Tidy was a neighbour of ours in Westbourne Road, Southport. He was a regular at the Berkeley Arms, a hotel bar well-known for a fine choice of real ales and home-made pizzas; my friends and I spent a lot of time there. I occasionally saw Bill with his friends in the bar, although I never had the opportunity to speak to him. Bill drew a cartoon about the Berkeley which was framed and proudly displayed on the wall. I can't recall after all this time what the joke was, and this was in the days before we all had a mobile phone camera in our pockets. Unfortunately the Berkeley closed well over a decade ago when the building was converted to flats; I have occasionally wondered what happened to the cartoon.

By affectionately mocking us real ale campaigners, Keg Buster was a welcome corrective to the tendency to solemn self-importance and pomposity that some committed advocates for any cause can occasionally be prone to. I don't know whether there are any plans to replace Keg Buster, but if there are, the cartoonist concerned has a hard act to follow.

RIP Keg Buster, and best wishes to Bill on his retirement.
From November 2017. Click on the cartoon to see a larger image.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The Four Ashes micropub, Waterloo

The Four Ashes in Waterloo
The Four Ashes is a micropub in Waterloo which opened just three years ago. It is on a street corner, close to the Plaza Cinema, and has just one room with the bar on the far side as you enter. The surroundings are comfortable and the atmosphere relaxed. Rob Ashe welcomed me, remembering me from a previous visit, even though I had been there only twice before. It is run by four members of the same family, hence the name.

The choice of real ale changes and the five being served when I visited were: Coniston Special Oatmeal Stout; Bank Top Bad To The Bone Best Bitter; Stodfold Amarillo American Pale; Cwrw iâl Pocket Rocket; and Lancaster Mosaic Blonde Ale. The real ales always include a dark beer and a bitter. A real cider, Happy Daze Medium, was available, and other drinks included continental bottled beers, craft beer, premium vodkas and gins, wine (including prosecco and cava), plus alcohol-free and gluten-free beers. Tea, coffee, soft drinks and bar snacks are also served.

To encourage conversation, it has no music or large-screen sports - there is also no Wi-Fi, presumably for a similar reason - and this all works: I found myself chatting to several regulars at the bar. Board games are provided and there is a monthly quiz, the next being on Thursday 19th March.

Children and dogs are welcomed, and the pub has featured in the local paper for having raised nearly £7000 for CHICS, a local children's cancer support charity based at Alder Hey, a great reflection of the generosity of its customers.

It is one of five finalists in the CAMRA Liverpool & Districts 2020 Pub of the Year competition, the only pub outside of the city centre and the only micropub, which is a remarkable achievement.

The Four Ashes is a fine addition to what is already a good real ale scene in Waterloo, an area blessed with quite a few pubs and bars all within a short walk of each other. It is at 23 Crosby Road North, Waterloo, on several major bus routes and close to Waterloo railway station. It is closed on Monday, and you can check its other opening hours on its Facebook page.

► 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. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Philharmonic: a Grade I Listed Pub

Liverpool's Philharmonic Dining Rooms
I paid a visit to the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, Liverpool, last week. This pub has just been upgraded to Grade I listing, making it the first purpose-built, Victorian public house to receive such a listing, the highest level for a historic building. It now joins the top 2.5% of protected historic buildings in England, such as Buckingham Palace, Chatsworth House and Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.

Sometimes referred to as a 'cathedral among pubs’, the Philharmonic is one of the most spectacular pubs from the late 19th century, considered the golden age of pub building. Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “English pubs are some of our best-loved community buildings and are often threatened with closure ... We are proud that the Liverpool Philharmonic pub, a remarkable survival from the Victorian era, has been given a Grade I listing which will help maintain and preserve its outstanding interior fittings and exterior fabric for the future.”

A stained glass window in the Liszt room
The pub has several separate rooms: the main bar, a public bar, two side rooms (named with Scouse wit as Brahms and Liszt), and a rear dining room. The gents are famously made of Victorian marble, and I expect this is the only pub in the country where women regularly visit the gents. Indeed, I was chatting to two couples from Gloucestershire who were in Liverpool on holiday, and the two women insisted on visiting them. They were also taking photos of the stained glass windows, the elaborately carved woodwork, the detailed ceilings and the mosaic floor and bar front. Everywhere you look is something interesting.

This includes the ten real ales on handpump: St Austell Nicholson's Pale (the house beer), Adnam's Mosaic Pale, Fuller's London Pride, Farm Brewery Jarl, Titanic Plum Porter, St Austell Proper Job, Black Sheep Bitter, Exmoor Fox, Wainwright and Doom Bar. I didn't try all ten, but those I did have were well-kept. There are also extensive gin and whisky ranges, a choice of wines and craft beers.

The menu is quite extensive and includes starters, a pie menu, choice of main dishes, salads, burgers, sandwiches and desserts.

When John Lennon was asked about the downside of fame, he replied that it was not being able to go to the Phil for a pint. This magnificent pub is on Hope Street, close to the famous Philharmonic Hall, and is an easy train ride from the Southport and West Lancs areas.

► 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. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Women and pubs

Two discriminating women drinkers at the GBBF
Photocredit: Tom Leishman
This year sees a couple of important anniversaries. Firstly, this month is the 50th anniversary of the UK's first Women's Liberation conference which was held at Ruskin College. Secondly, it is 45 years since the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) became law. I believe these two events are connected.

The SDA had a profound effect on pubgoing, enabling changes that still resonate today. It would seem strange to a younger generation of drinkers that there were pubs that excluded female customers (but not always female staff), either from the entire building or from particular rooms.

A famous example was the Hole In The Wall, Hackins Hey, Liverpool. This pub claims to be the oldest in the city, dating from the eighteenth century, and it has an old-fashioned charm as well as good beer, but until the SDA, women were barred entirely. Even after the Act became law, they were slow to provide toilets for women who had to go to the neighbouring Saddle Inn. A CAMRA local beer guide at the time wrily described the pub as “coping manfully with the Sex Discrimination Act”.

More locally, the very fine Guest House on Union Street in Southport had one room restricted to men. The door to the room on the right was permanently shut with a sign saying, “Gentlemen only”. Out of curiosity, I entered the pub shortly after the SDA became law: the sign had been removed and the door wedged open. I don't recall seeing it shut since.

Although this is all now history, it's a fact that even today some women feel wary of going into a pub on their own, and are much less likely than men to do so. Any who do might take something, such as a book to read, to suggest that they have a specific reason for being there – and are not seeking male attention. In a way, it is a pity that such worries still exist 45 years after the SDA became law.

However, things are changing for the better with groups of women more inclined to patronise pubs than formerly and with many pubs becoming more family friendly. While this is not entirely popular with some traditionally-minded beer drinkers, CAMRA as an organisation welcomes the increasing inclusiveness of our pubs and bars.

I am conscious of the incongruity that I'm a male writing this.

► 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. Older articles on local pubs are here.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Peter Walker - a personal reflection

The Crown, Lime Street, Liverpool
I was a student at Padgate College in Warrington in the 1970s. The area at that time had three breweries: Burtonwood, Greenall and Tetley, although you wouldn't have known it because the vast majority of pubs were Greenall's. The brewery's adverts told us to, "Smile please, you're in Greenall Whitley land". They produced funny beer mats and even 'GWL' car stickers, like the 'GB' plate you use when driving abroad. I sometimes used to wonder whether they had ever caused any confusion at border checks on the continent. If only they had put as much effort into the beer as they did into the hype because, at best, Greenall's beers were mediocre.

I don't recall any Burtonwood pubs in the town, and most of the few non-Greenall pubs were Tetley. Tetley's beers were better than Greenall's but not by a great margin. Tetley had merged with Peter Walker in 1960, and in the 70s, they were still brewing the old Walker's Bitter, although they sold it under the Tetley name, which I found slightly odd seeing that most beer drinkers I knew preferred the Walker's Bitter to the Tetley's. The local CAMRA branch produced stickers for the few pubs that still sold Walker's to put in their windows, something my friends and I found very useful.

I had a sort of family connection to Walker's because my maternal grandmother had worked in Walker pubs for many years, as did her son, my Uncle Bernard. He rose to be manager of several pubs, and I can remember visiting two as a child, the Sefton Arms in Croxteth and the Victoria in Bootle. My grandmother used to be his relief manager on his day off. I remember calling into the Victoria for a pint a couple of times when I was older and working in Bootle; he was rightly proud of the quality of his beers. In later years, knowing about my involvement with CAMRA, he was pleased when I told him that he had kept an excellent pint.

At some point in the 1980s, Tetley Walker decided to relaunch the Walker brand. Some Tetley pubs were re-badged as Walker's and new beers formulated. In the process they scrapped the old Walker's recipe, which had been around 3.5%, like many beers at the time, and replaced it with Best Bitter (3.5%), Bitter (3.3%), and an even weaker mild. The beers weren't bad but I preferred the old brew. Later added to the range was a stronger Warrington Ale and a Winter Warmer, both of which I did quite like.

The 3.3% strength of the new Walker's Bitter became something of a joke in Liverpool:
Policeman: "Excuse me sir, have you been drinking?"
Driver: "Yes, officer, Walker's Bitter."
Policeman: "Very good, sir, carry on."

Walker's beers are no more, possibly disappearing around the time of the 1989 Beer Orders, but the name can still be seen on quite a few pubs in Merseyside, as shown in the photographs which I took in Liverpool yesterday.
The Vines, Lime Street, Liverpool
P.S. Since I posted this less than an hour ago, it has correctly been pointed out to me that someone is brewing a smoothflow version of Walker's Bitter, although I've no idea who or where. When saying that Walker's beers were long gone, I was thinking of the Warrington-brewed beers. Anything else would be a poor facsimile just to cash in on the name.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Ralph's Wife's bar, Banks

Ralph's Wife's bar in Banks
A friend told me about a new bar that had opened about five months ago in Banks, Ralph's Wife's, that I hadn't heard about before, so I decided to pay a visit.

The bus (Stagecoach 2 or X2) takes around 25 minutes from Lord Street, Southport, and drops you just yards away. The building was originally a bank, the logo of which is still in one window, after which it became the Village Pantry. It is just across the road from the New Fleetwood pub.

I arrived just as it had opened, and saw that it had two handpumps, one of which was serving Parker Barbarian Bitter, the other not being in use at the time. As I entered, Mal, the owner, said “You look like a real ale type”, which surprised me slightly as I don't have beard and wasn't wearing sandals! I found the beer to be on good form.

He explained that they usually had two real ales on at weekends, but sometimes during the week it needed to drop to one while custom builds up. He is aiming to have three ales available in time. Previous real ales have included: Neptune Ezili; Neptune Lorelei; Southport Golden Sands; Red Star Formby IPA; Parker Golden Samurai; and Parker Viking Blonde.

Two fonts were dispensing Hop House Lager and Guinness, and there was a fridge full of various bottles, including, Belgium, Trappist and German beers. There was a good choice of wines and the usual spirits, but with one interesting addition: among the gin selection was Forgan's, a hand-crafted gin made in Banks.

Tea and coffee are also served, including a range of speciality teas. They have held tapas nights and cheese and wine events. Children are welcome until 8.00 p.m. and dogs are admitted. There is free WiFi for customers, and he intends to offer snacks soon. One interesting feature is that the original night safe from its days as a bank is still in use.

As other customers came in, I found them to be friendly and ended up chatting to several at the bar. It is pleasantly decorated and has a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere.

Ralph's Wife's bar is at 4 Hoole Lane, Banks, Lancashire PR9 8BD; tel: 01704 214678. See their Facebook page for more information, including opening hours.

► 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. Older articles on local pubs are here.