Thursday 29 September 2011

Sarah MacDougall at Grateful Fred's

Sarah MacDougall is a Canadian singer songwriter who is making waves, not only in her home country, but also over here in England.  She was born in Sweden, and Canadian newspaper 24 Hours Vancouver described her as "one of the most promising exports out of Sweden since Abba".  Yes, well ... so, here's what else they're saying:
  • “She could make stone weep. Classic North American folk.” - Q Magazine ****
  • “Heartbreakingly beautiful” - Americana UK
  • "I love your album." - Bob Harris, BBC 2
She is appearing locally with Bob Hamilton on bass and Tim Tweedale on lapsteel at Grateful Fred's in the Freshfield Hotel, Massams Lane, Formby on Thursday 6 October.  Support is by British singer songwriter, Steph Fraser.  The Freshfield has a good range of real ales. 

Tickets on line here, and as some recent G/Fred events have been sold out, advance purchase may prevent disappointment.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Treasury boosts foreign imports of beer

Following on from my previous post, I learnt about this news item on Tandleman's Beer Blog.  The extract below is from the Morning Advertiser, the pub trade news paper:

"Illicit beer now accounts for up to 14% of total UK sales, up 40% in just one year, according to figures from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).  Duty: £800m in lost revenue from duty and VAT.  It means the Treasury lost an estimated £800m in 2009/2010 in lost revenue from duty and VAT. In 2008/2009, the figure was £550m, with illicit beer making up 10% of the market share.  The figures suggest that rising duty and the VAT increase at the start of the year is fuelling the rise in illegal imports of beer that generate no tax revenue for the Exchequer. Meanwhile, there was also a noticeable rise in illicit spirits in the UK. Illicit spirits in 2009/2010 accounted for up to 11% of the market share (2008/2009: 8%), with estimated losses for the Treasury as much as £440m (2008/2009: £310m)."

Tandleman opens an interesting discussion about how accurate the figures are, with contributions from other people, and while that discussion is relevant and informed, my main conclusion is this:  if the government believes these figures, no matter what doubts any of us may have about their accuracy, then they are fiscally irresponsible to continue raising alcohol duty above the rate of inflation, especially when the economy is still in the mess the bankers created.  As an aside, I'm not sure which is going up more quickly - beer tax or bankers' bonuses?  Either way, we're being ripped off.

Freezing beer tax (I'm not naïve enough to foresee a cut) therefore would:  help save pubs from closure and reduce job losses; help the economy by not making illegal imports even more attractive; and will help our brewers by restricting illegal competition.  Will a fiscally prudent chancellor see it that way?

Saturday 24 September 2011

A plague on both their houses

On Radio 4's You and Yours yesterday, there was a discussion about the report by the Business Innovation and Skills select committee on pub companies (‘pubcos’) that recommends "the introduction of a statutory code, with a genuine free of tie option, based on an open market rent review to help balance out the tenant/pubco relationship".  The select committee chair was adamant that, as pubos had failed with self-regulation, statutory regulation was required to safeguard the pub industry.

Then came a spokesperson from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) who said that inflexible statutory regulation was unnecessary as the industry was sorting the problems out, and that the pub tie was an excellent businesss model whereby people who wanted to run their own businesses could do so quickly and easily.  She said that if politicians were so concerned about the pub trade, they should stop piling on the beer tax, which has gone up by 35% in recent years.

Both of course are right and both are wrong:  each correctly criticises the other, but neither takes responsibility for their own part in the problems facing pubs, including the high rate of closures.  As someone once said, take the plank out of your own eye before offering to remove the speck of dust from your brother's.

In the meantime, a new report from accountancy firm Ernst & Young states that British beer tax accounts for 40% of the entire European beer tax bill, even though the UK accounts for only 13% of EU beer consumption.  In my view, increases in beer tax have become self-defeating, with no increased income for the government as people drink less and less to compensate for the rocketing prices, and despite what you read alcohol consumption in the UK is slowly dropping.  Throw in the costs of businesses going bust, including bankruptcies, job losses and state benefits, and you'd probably find that further increases in beer tax will actually lose the Treasury income.

And as for the BBPA's rosy view of the pubco tie, there are so many people (some I have spoken to) who have sunk their savings into running their own pub only to find the figures for turnover were exaggerated, that they have to pay well over the market rate for supplies of all drinks, that if they manage to turn a pub around despite pubco restrictive conditions and it become a success, the rent is arbitrarily increased so that it is the pubco, not the licensee, who reaps the benefits of all that hard work, and that if they are less successful, they may have to give up the pub and are left with nothing but debt.

If it were up to me, I'd take the BBPA's recommendations on beer tax and the select committee's report on statutory regulation.  That couldn't solve problems overnight, but would perhaps begin a process of recovery rather than the slow decline we are now witnessing.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Sandgrounder Beerfest Beer List

The beer list is now available for the Southport Beer Festival - click here.

For times, entry charges and a map, click here.

It begins tomorrow at 6pm and is open all day Friday and Saturday.  I hope to see you there.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Dave Thornley and the Dharma Bums gig

A free gig by Dave Thornley and the Dharma Bums at the Park Golf Club on Thursday 29 September, beginning at 9.00 pm:
The Park Golf Club is on Park Road West, Southport, PR9 9DU, and it sells real ale from Thwaites.

If you want to sound knowledgeable, The Dharma Bums is a novel by Jack Kerouac, author of On The Road.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Sandgrounder Beer Festival 2011

Next weekend, Southport plays host to the 12th Sandgrounder Beer Festival.  It opens at 6pm on Thursday 22 September and at midday on Friday and Saturday; it closes at 11pm on all three days.  Entry is free to CAMRA members (£1 on Friday after 6pm), and £3 to non-members (£4 on Friday after 6pm).  The extra pound on Friday evening is for the local band Gallimaufry who went down rather well last year.  They play a wide range of music from folk to the Beatles, and are not deafening.

I have decided not to do my usual Saturday afternoon slot after complaints from one or two individuals yet again that my solo voice and acoustic guitar were too loud!  The festival is in two rooms, so if you don't feel like listening to the music, you can go into the other room; the bars are in the room without the music.  There will be more than 60 beers, ciders, perries and fruit wines.

The festival is upstairs in the Scarisbrick Hotel, 239 Lord Street, Southport, PR8 1NZ, about 5 minutes walk from the railway station.  Click here for more details and a map.

Just in case you're wondering, a Sandgrounder is a person who was born in Southport.  As I was born in a certain city 20 miles to the south, I don't qualify.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Southport's pubs are "thriving"

The latest edition of our local paper, the Southport Visiter, has a cheery headline about local pubs: "Pub scene thriving as nine Southport locals make CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide."  The article itself is okay as far as it goes, but it's the headline that drew my attention.  Are our local pubs really thriving?  Sadly, the answer is no, they're not.  As I reported in July, according to the British Beer and Pub Association, pub sales were down by 4.5% in the three months to June as beer tax and VAT rises wiped out the positive impact of the warm weather and the royal wedding, and in the year to June, beer sales were down by 7.1% as the various tax rises added 10p to the price of a pint in pubs.

I added that pubs that used to be packed may still be fairly busy, but have lost trade nonetheless, and pubs that weren't so busy are facing lean times.  Southport is supposed to be a holiday resort, but many of the local pubs were almost empty at the height of summer, which should be their peak time, and I fear that some may close.  The full post is here.

Southport is fortunate in having some great pubs, better than many seaside towns I've been to, but I find the complacency of that Visiter headline irritating.  I understand it was meant to be a "feel good" article, but if it misleads people into thinking that all's well with our local pubs, I'm not sure that it's doing them many favours.  Perhaps I'm overreacting; let's hope it encourages a few more people to go out and enjoy what's on their doorstep.

Thursday 15 September 2011

It was 50 years ago today ...

... when a group from Hawthorne in California called The Pendletones attended their first real recording session at Hite Morgan's studio in Los Angeles. They took their name from the classic Pendleton wool plaid shirt, which then became popular among American youth.  The band recorded Surfin’, a song that would help shape their career as The Beach Boys.  Later with albums like Pet Sounds, they went way beyond the surfing sound that they, and groups like Jan and Dean, popularised.  As it happens, Brian Wilson is currently on tour in Britain.

The Beach Boys sound is present and correct here, although a bit rudimentary compared to their later classic pop singles.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Deregulation - music to the ears!

The government has finally announced proposals to remove regulations from a whole swathe of activities, including live music performances.  You can read the announcement and a link to the consultation paper on the DirectGov website, and in an article in the Morning Advertiser.  This is something I've written about before, most recently in July last year (here if you're interested), and the document echoes my comparison between acoustic music played in a pub and big screen sports ~ I'd like to think my blog is read by ministers, but I doubt it!  The consultation paper describes the current confused situation as:

"You will need a licence if you want to put on an opera but not if you want to organise a stock car race. A folk duo performing in the corner of a village pub needs permission, but the big screen broadcast of an England football match to a packed barn-like city centre pub does not. An athletics meeting needs licensing if it is an indoor event, but not if it’s held outdoors. A free school concert to parents doesn’t need a licence, but would if there is a small charge to raise money for PTA funds or if there are members of the wider public present. A travelling circus generally needs a permit whereas a travelling funfair does not. A carol concert in a Church doesn’t need a licence, but does if it is moved to the Church Hall."

The proposal is that music events will require no licences with audiences up to 5,000.  This is rather more than the 100-200 figure that some groups were lobbying for.  The document sensibly asks whether unamplified music needs any limit at all, on the basis that "no audience limit is necessary due to the self- limiting possibilities from the event’s acoustic reach", but I can't think of any unamplified event where a 5,000 limit would ever be even remotely approached.

In the run-up to the "New" Labour government's implementing the current regime in 2003, Kim Howells, a junior Culture Minister at the time, contributed to the debate in 2001 by saying, "For a simple urban boy such as me, the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell."  This caused a lot of anger in the folk world and provoked West Country folk group Show of Hands to respond with the song Roots, which includes the lines:

And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well, I've got a vision of urban sprawl
There's pubs where no-one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps

Apologies and attempts to claim it was a joke soon followed but I can't help wondering whether it was just such personal prejudices among many MPs about all types of live music, not just folk, that led to the dog's breakfast of regulations we are stuck with now.

This consultation is looking very positive, as the government says it is inclined to accept deregulation unless persuaded otherwise; when I work out how to take part in the consultation, I'll publish another post.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

The Pitmen Poets, Wigan

Click on the picture to enlarge it.
Friday the 14th October will see a rare line-up of four of the North East's most popular folk singers and song writers for a special concert to celebrate the coal mining traditions of their region.  Billy Mitchell, Bob Fox, Benny Graham and Jez Lowe, under the collective name of the Pitmen Poets, will be playing at Wigan Parish Church from 8pm (there's no support act) with doors at 7.15 pm.  I'm posting this more in advance than I usually would as I've been told tickets are going fast.  They cost £15 in advance and £17 on the night. Phone 01942 824291 or e-mail for tickets and further details.

The church is on Crawford St, Wigan, WN1 1NL, about 5 minutes' walk from the railway stations and close to the bus station. I understand wine is available in the venue, and I know that there are several good real ale pubs just a few minutes' walk away (click here).

Monday 12 September 2011

Beer rip off ~ no surprises there!

A study carried out by the GMB union shows that the price of beer is far higher than can be justified by inflation and taxation alone, and blames the sky-high rents charged by the property/pub companies who own a huge number of pubs.  It estimates that lager drinkers are charged an excess 80p, while the figure for ale drinkers is 65p.  The article is here

It's clear to me that pub companies don't really care whether a pub succeeds or not; if it fails, then they have a valuable piece of property to sell.  When brewers owned most of the pubs, they needed them as an outlet for their products and it wasn't in their interest for their pubs to fail.  Then came the Beer Orders of 20 years ago that by forcing breweries to sell most of their pubs created the present situation which has perhaps the most stupid business model going, one that has no incentive to succeed and which rewards failure.  The Beer Orders were supported by CAMRA at the time, which with hindsight was a magnificent own goal, and another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  

It's not really news, but it's interesting in a depressing sort of way to have one's opinions confirmed. 

If you wish, you can find out how much beer has gone up above inflation since you bought your first pint by using the historical price converter in the right hand column.  I entered the price of a pint of bitter in the year I went to college (13p in 1972); if beer had increased only by inflation since then, a pint would be £1.30 today!

Liverpool Pubs Map

Liverpool & Districts CAMRA have just updated their real ale pubs map which is available free in pubs that stock their magazine, Mersey Ale.  It covers several areas:  the city centre, Crosby, Waterloo, Bootle, North Liverpool, West Derby, and South Liverpool.  With more than 100 pubs listed, it certainly gives plenty of scope for pub crawls, and I was surprised to find out how many pubs I haven't visited.  There is a large advert for Caledonian, which is fair enough as they sponsored it, but as for the rest, there is a picture of each pub, the name of the road it is in, with a corresponding number on the map.  It makes no comment on the types or quality of beer available - it's simply a list of pubs that sell real ale at the time of publication. 

I think this is an excellent idea, but unfortunately not possible for my own branch (Southport and District) owing to its much larger geographical area.  You can see the map on their website - find it here - and download it if you want, but I find a paper copy is much easier to use.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Liverpool One Brewery

Our local branch of CAMRA (Southport and District) had a trip to the Liverpool One Brewery last Friday.  We met in the Lion Tavern in Moorfields, where licensee Sean Porter was surprised to see me two nights running (it had been my singaround the previous evening).  After a couple of pints there, we left on the 10-minute walk to Vauxhall Road (in Liverpool 3!) and reached the industrial unit that houses the brewery.  There's nothing outside to show what business the building contains, but when you go in, you can't mistake the familiar paraphernalia of a micro-brewery.

It's a 5-barrel brewery, although they hope to expand in time, but at present it is running close to capacity.  The head brewer Gary gave a brief talk to us as we ate our bowls of scouse about the brewery, including how he'd learnt brewing from Stan Shaw at the Wapping Brewery in the Baltic Fleet, no doubt an excellent apprenticeship.  The brewery has been going for around 18 months, and is one of an increasing number of micros in the Liverpool area, which is great for us drinkers.  On sale to us at £1.50 a pint were two cask beers:  Liverpool Light, a pale hoppy citrus beer (4.1%) and Liverpool Dark (5%), described as "a traditional stout, packed with roasted and toasted flavours with a dry finish."  I found the latter very powerfully flavoured, and though I liked it, I don't think I'd drink much more than a couple, but I could have drunk the Light all evening; it's a very good example of the style.  One of our group asked about the bottling process:  we were told that the bottles were done by hand, surely very time-consuming.

I was interested to learn that the Bridewell pub, which I visited at the end of June (you can read it here), is actually their brewery tap, and very useful for them to try beers out and, if necessary, tweak them before going into full scale production.  The Bridewell, a former lock up, is one of Liverpool's most unusual pubs where you can drink in the former cells. 

Everyone seemed to enjoy the visit to the brewery, and afterwards Ian, Carole and I went to the extremely crowded Ship and Mitre on Dale Street for a couple of beers before catching the last train to Southport.

I've just noticed that the brewery's website proudly proclaims that their beer Mersey Mist won Silver in the IPA and Lager category at this year's Macclesfield Beer Festival.  I'm sure there'll be more.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Beer festivals and stats

Looking at the stats for this blog, I see that my updated beer festival page is by far the most popular one on the blog with 83 recent hits, followed by my events page with 36.  I've included every kind of beer festival I can find, including those organised by CAMRA, Rotary, pubs, sports and social clubs and charities.  I've gone as far afield as Cumbria, Cheshire and the Manchester area because drinkers are often prepared to travel to a festival they like the look of.  Besides, there may be a few people in those areas who read this blog.  I also included one in Belgrade for a laugh, but I'm not sure anyone noticed.  There is of course looming close now our own Sandgrounder Beer Festival in Southport from 22 to 24 September - more info here.

While on the subject of stats, the 2nd anniversary of me installing the stats counter has just been reached (I installed it when the blog was 6 months old) on 1 September. In the first year of the counter, I got 7138 hits; in the second year the figure was 14,961, which is slightly more than double. I'm pleased about this indication that people find the blog a useful source of information which isn't collated anywhere else as far as I know.  And you definitely won't find my views, opinions and rants about beer and music anywhere else at all - for which no doubt some people will be eternally grateful!

Monday 5 September 2011

Beer range in Baron's Bar

I'd heard various reports that the beer range in the Baron's Bar (in the Scarisbrick Hotel on Lord Street, Southport) had diminished from nine to 2 or 3 after the takeover of the hotel by Britannia Hotels, so I decided to check this CAMRA award-winning bar for myself.  I went in yesterday afternoon and found every one of the 10 handpumps in operation.  The beers served were:

Flag and Turret (the house beer); Fullers ESB; Spitfire; Tetley Bitter; Black Sheep; Bishops Finger; Hobgoblin; Pedigree; and Old Hooky.  The 10th handpump as usual served Weston's Old Rosie cider.  For interest, the Fullers ESB, a 5.5% beer, was £2.60 a pint, rather less than the £3.70 I paid in London six months ago.

This range seems to concentrate on regional brewers rather than microbrewers, and can therefore be seen to be less imaginative; it'd be a pity if the Baron's stopped selling the local Southport beers altogether, but perhaps I'm drawing too many conclusions from one visit.  The good news is that all the handpumps are operating; a few more visits will show us whether in future the range will consist only of "the usual suspects", although if we're honest, a lot of real ale drinkers would be quite satisfied with the choice available yesterday. 

Local drinkers' concerns about the Baron's Bar after the takeover have been added to by Greene King's planned conversion of the Freshfield to a Hungry Horse (see post of 31 August), which will almost certainly mean the loss of the great range of beers that that pub currently offers; real ale fans have been worried we might be losing two good local real ale venues.  It just shows the truth of the cliché that you can't take anything for granted.

One other piece of news is that the Scarisbrick's new management have confirmed that they will honour the booking for the Sandgrounder Beer Festival (22 - 24 September) to take place in the hotel.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Back to normal

Now that we are in late summer, our local music events begin to return to normal.

The Bothy:  tonight is the final free summer singaround, and next Sunday the first guest of the autumn season guest is Jim Causley, a young singer from Devon.  He has appeared at the Bothy before as part of the Devil's Interval.  He also opened for the Lunchtime Legends in Whitby last year, perhaps something he'd prefer to forget!

On Monday, my singaround in the Guest House, Union Street, Southport will take place from around 8.30 p.m.  Up to 10 real ales, which last night included the excellent Moorhouse's Blond Witch.

On Wednesday there will be a singaround in the Mason's Arms in Anchor Street, behind the main post office on LordStreet, Southport.  The beer is either Robinsin's Unicorn or Dizzy Blonde.

On Thursday, my singaround in the Lion Tavern in Moorfields, Liverpool.  A splendid little pub with eight changing real ales.

These singarounds are free and anyone can join in ~ and these are just the ones I'm most often involved with; for others, see my What's On page.

Friday 2 September 2011

Higsionary - pt 2

Another volume of the Higsionary from the old Higson's Brewery of Liverpool, courtesy of Clive Pownceby. Click on it so you can read it more easily.  Click here for Higsionary - pt 1.