Saturday 31 December 2011

Happy New Year

Thanks to everyone who looks at this blog ~ some of my ramblings must be worth reading, as I've had nearly twice as many hits this year than I had in 2010.  All the best for 2012.  Perhaps I'll see some of you at the National Winter Ales Festival, the next festival I'll be going to.  Cheers!

Friday 30 December 2011

Wigan Real Ale Pub Map

I've just been sent a link by Ken Worthington of Wigan CAMRA to an interactive map he's put together of real ale pubs in Wigan town centre ~ you can see it here.  I like Wigan pubs and have visited many of those listed; Wigan is of course convenient for many towns, including Southport where I live, with train routes in all directions.  Pictured is the Swan and Railway, close to both railway stations.

There are 18 pubs listed at the moment and Ken tells me the map's still being developed.  If you click on a pub name in the list to the left of the map, you are given the location and details of that pub.  I've saved the link in both my beer links list and on my pub crawl page.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Pubs around Merseyside - end of an era

The cover shows the Albany in Old Swan
where I sometimes went for quiz nights
around the time of this guide.
Looking through a box of old books, I came across a copy of The Best Pubs Around Merseyside, which was published by six local CAMRA branches:  Merseyside, Southport, Wirral, Chester and South Clwyd, Central and North Cheshire and South East Lancs; the names of the branches involved indicate what a large area the guide covers, far beyond the bounds of the county of Merseyside.  There’s no date in the guide, but a “stop press” item about Boddington selling its breweries to Whitbread dates it to 1990.

It’s interesting how much the pub and brewery scene has changed since those days, certainly a lot more than it had in the preceding 21 years.  North West breweries mentioned in the guide that have vanished include:  Boddingtons, Matthew Brown, Greenall Whitley, Higsons, Hartleys, Peter Walker and Tetley Walker.  Guinness seems an odd entry nowadays, but it was listed because it was still producing bottle conditioned Extra Stout, a practice discontinued few years later.

The guide gloomily states that “all indications are that Higsons, Liverpool's only brewery, will close in the very near future with the consequential loss of jobs and the loss of the last Mild and Bitter beers brewed in Liverpool.  So-called Higsons beers brewed elsewhere, particularly by Whitbread, will not be the same.”  Right on all counts, although the conviction that many of us had at the time that this would be the end of brewing in Liverpool has proved to be wrong, I'm glad to say.  Oak Brewery of Ellesmere Port is mentioned, but with the comment that the stranglehold of the big brewers prevents Oak from expanding in its own area, and that as most of its output goes to Yorkshire, Stoke and Manchester, “it is possible that this year will see the brewery move closer to the areas it supplies.”  That proved right too, and Oak is now the successful Phoenix of Heywood in Greater Manchester, and its beers are now quite frequently available on Merseyside.

John Smiths is commended for reintroducing real ale in 1984 with cask Bitter and Magnet, and for removing keg versions when cask was restored to a pub (“other brewers please note!”), while Samuel Smiths gets a ticking off for serving “keg beer through hand pulls and the purchase of John Smith’s stock of cask breathers.”

The preamble to the guide includes an instruction to “use this guide wisely, there are a few – only a few – independent regional brewers left in the area – value them.”  Not the advice I would expect in any modern counterpart, as it seems to me it’s fashionable nowadays to slag off the regionals.

As for the pubs, the guide is charmingly eccentric.  All music, except for live music, is bad:  “no noisy canned music”, “no juke box ‘music’”, “pleasantly free of music”, “no recorded music”, “loud music”, “usually no ‘noisy muzak’” and “no noisy music” are just some of the comments that suggest to me that the compilers would nowadays be seeking out the quiet sessions at beer festivals, although I did find “good juke box” and “music of NON top 20 variety on tape”, but these are exceptions.  It’s not afraid to be judgmental:  “now a mainly young persons (upwardly mobile?) posing place”, “if it sold Oak beer it would be excellent”, “the most chic pub in town if that suits the readers taste”, “pity about the standard beers ‘wot no Oak?’” and the former St Helens Greenalls brewery apparently used to produce “flavoursome beers unlike Warrington”.  The Roscoe Street Grapes’s only real ale was Boddingtons and we’re told that its inclusion “shows CAMRA to be fair, we have included it even though totally opposed to only the Manchester beer being on sale.”  Not blowing your own trumpet then!  In fact, real Boddingtons was an improvement for the Grapes, as it had previously sold only keg Higsons through electric pumps concealed behind handpumps.

A lot of the narrative descriptions are very terse, such as “two room roadside pub with a separate public bar” and “two room street corner local on busy shopping road” but certain pubs get fuller descriptions – for instance, the Philharmonic’s runs to 13 lines and the Roscoe Head’s to seven, including the unsurprising comment “no ‘noise’”.  No mention in the latter’s entry to its residency in every Good Beer Guide, but that achievement probably wasn’t uncommon in 1990.  The Everyman Bistro, which closed just recently, is described in terms that customers 21 years later would recognise:  “Large three roomed basement bistro.  Main room is the bar, with fresh flowers and wall ad’s for past goods.  Second room has food servery which is open all day serving a wide range of food – including vegetarian – at very reasonable prices.  Good beer, good food, good atmosphere.  Families welcome and no recorded music.”  Well, of course not.

The Carnarvon Castle, which sold Higsons and Boddingtons Bitters, was “famous for its toasties … [and] no extraneous noise”.  It’s still famous for its toasties; I had one there not long ago.  A lot of familiar Liverpool alehouses are present, such as the Baltic Fleet, the Globe, the Poste House, the Railway and the Lion.  The Swan in Wood Street was very unusual in selling six real ales (one a guest) and a real cider, but this effort is not enough for the compilers:  “Bring back Oak!” they demand.

It’s interesting which pubs aren’t mentioned, such as the Ship and Mitre, Rigby’s, the Vernon, or the Dispensary (which had a different name then), and although there is a Dr Duncans, it’s not the one you may be thinking of:  this one was a Tetley house in Seel Street, which later changed its name to Pogue Mahone.  The current Dr Duncans in St Johns Lane was at this time still an insurance office.

The biggest changes are in the beers.  Most pubs sell only one or two beers, usually a mild and a bitter from the owning company.  Where there is a different beer, it has usually come from another brewery that the company owns.  True guest beers are very rare.  One of the few exceptions was the Philharmonic, which sold Jennings Bitter as well as Tetley’s Mild and Bitter.  Beer strengths are all given in original gravities rather than percentages; for example, the strength of Higsons is given as 1038, instead of 3.7 or 3.8% that would probably be the equivalent.

This guide describes the local pub and brewery business right at the end of an era: the infamous Beer Orders, which subsequently forced the sale of vast pub estates*, had been published but not yet implemented, but strangely there is no mention of them in the guide.  Within a couple of years of its publication, pub companies were established to hoover up the breweries’ estates, financed by mortgaging the pubs that the breweries had usually owned outright.  Thus was the present situation created, but this guide tells us how it was at the very end of the old order.

A couple of odd omissions:  it encourages readers to join CAMRA, but doesn’t have an application form, and it doesn’t include a map of the large area covered by the guide.  However, at £1.75 (perhaps £3.50 now), it was good value and helped spread the real ale message in the best way – by telling people where to buy it.  I’ve found it very interesting to browse through.

I'll examine the Southport changes in a future post.

* Please see comment below by John Clarke concerning this point. 

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Government to encourage smuggling

So, David Cameron wants to raise alcohol prices, does he?  I'm really fed up writing about this, so I'll just point out that:
  1. UK alcohol is now so dear that HMRC lose £800 million because of smuggling (government estimate).
  2. 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 (EU figures).
Cameron's preferred policy will only make both those situations worse.  I've argued before (most recently on 19 December) that further increases in alcohol duty will raise no significant revenue and may be counter-productive.  That is uniquely a lose-lose-lose situation, but you can't stop a politician once he's got the nanny state bit between his teeth:  reason and common sense are left far behind.

Mr Cameron:  how about dealing with the economy and getting people back to work?  Stopping the erosion of ordinary voters' spending power so they can put money into the economy?  Plugging the loopholes whereby rich corporations and individuals collectively dodge £95,000 million tax every year?

No, when your policies are bankrupt, like the country you're supposed to be running, just go after the drinkers.  That'll sort it out.

New Year music

Music events in the local area kick off again fairly sharpish after the New Year.  First off the starting block is my singaround in the Guest House in Union Street, Southport on Monday 2 January.  A singaround is the most informal participative music event possible, much less intimidating than an open mike night.  Performing is of course optional and you can simply listen while supping one of perhaps eleven real ales.

The Maghull Folk Club has a singers night on Tuesday 3 January.  It meets at the Maghull Community Association, 604 Green Lane, L31 2JH.  Bottled ales.

Following close behind is the Mason's singaround on Wednesday 4 January.  The Mason's is a Robinson's pub on Anchor Street, behind the main post office on Lord Street, Southport.  There's often a real fire to welcome us on cold nights.

Also on Wednesday is the Jazz Night at the Shrimper with the The Merseysippi Jazz Band.  The Shrimper is on Fylde Road, Southport and has Tetley cask bitter.

That covers the next week, so you see, there's no need for a post-holiday lull:  start the New Year as you intend to go on!

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Recent pub losses in Southport

We were talking about pubs in the Guest House last night, in particular local pubs we have lost.  The discussion was prompted by the closure of the Blue Bell in Barton near Ormskirk, that I wrote about a few days ago.  Southport has lost several pubs within recent years:

The Herald on Portland Street.  This hadn't been a real ale pub for many years, although 20 years ago it used to serve John Smith's Bitter and Magnet on handpump.  In latter years it became a local live music venue, and I've played there 2 or 3 times myself.  At the moment it's fenced in with a skip in front, and the inside is being ripped out for conversion, to flats in all likelihood, but it certainly won't be a pub again.

Nigel's Bar (in the Shelbourne Hotel), Lord Street West.  Always a good pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, and also the first place I drank George Wright beers.  This hotel was the venue of the Bothy Folk Club for three years until the hotel was closed for conversion into flats.

The Two Brewers, Kingsway, (previously the Tudor) was a training pub for Tetley Walker and was unique in that it sold both Tetley's and Walker's beers, hence the name.  When the licensee of the Old Ship in Southport, a Walker's house at the time, was given a CAMRA award, he told me was pleased but slightly embarrassed, because surely the training pub - Tetley Walker's flagship pub in the town - should in theory always win any awards going.  Once I entered and the barman shouted across the room, "No jeans allowed", whereupon I told him a sign outside the door rather than a humiliating shout across the pub might be better customer service.  If that's how they were trained, no wonder it didn't survive.  It has been demolished and replaced by a completely different business.

The Berkeley, Queens Road.  Famous for a good range of real ales, including Pendle Witches Brew, its great range of pizzas and at one time a resident Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.  Our band once played a charity gig there.  It was closed for redevelopment into flats at around the same time as the Shelbourne, and it was owned by the same family.  The name was variously pronounced as 'berkly' and 'barkly'. 

Two pubs have been demolished and rebuilt:

The Blowick on Norwood Road was an old Tetley house which was demolished and rebuilt a few yards to the right of the original site and reopened with a thatched roof as the Thatch and Thistle.  Last year it became the Carvery Grill and this year the Thatched Pub and Grill.  The name changes show that it's going for the food market and on my last visit, the real ale had declined to Greene King IPA only.  The Richmond was also an old Tetley house that was demolished and a new pub using the same name built on the same site.  It's known for food and sells beers from Holts of Manchester.  Although both these pubs have been replaced, the originals both had character and features of their own that haven't been replicated in the replacement buildings. 

Before the smoking ban obsessives trot out their simplistic comments, I know for certain that some of these closures have nothing to do with the smoking ban.  My assessment of the reasons for pub closures can be found here.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Jean's Christmas pub crawl

Tonight is the Christmas pub crawl organised by my friend Jean Pownceby when we visit an array of great Liverpool pubs.  If you're around and would like to join us for a pint, the itinerary is below.

P.S. This is a rather good pub crawl at any time of the year.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Bye bye Blue Bell

In August last year, I wrote about the Blue Bell in Barton near Ormskirk that it had "recently been redecorated and was selling George Wright Nectar and Black Sheep Bitter when we visited. They generally like to have a George Wright beer on sale."  On earlier visits, it had been selling a house beer called Blue Bell, brewed for them by George Wright.  The pub never seemed to have many customers in, and in February this year I wrote that it had unexpectedly closed.  I noticed that it remained closed every time I drove past and was looking increasingly neglected. 

Earlier this month planning permission was granted to convert it into houses; this had been applied for in November last year.  As they had advertised in our local CAMRA magazine, Ale & Hearty, as recently as Autumn last year, I can only assume the advert was a last ditch attempt to keep the pub afloat, as you wouldn't advertise if you were intending to close down your business.

The pub was on the main road from Liverpool and Maghull to Southport, and so will have been passed daily by thousands of commuters, but it wasn't surrounded by many houses.  Another victim of the current recession.

Monday 19 December 2011

Two faces are better than one

I've just been listening to Nick Clegg (deputy prime minister, in case you were wondering) talking about the Tory proposal of tax breaks for married couples; he's fundamentally opposed to the idea that "the state should use the tax system to encourage a particular family form".  The idea's laughable anyway - "Let's get married darling and get our £3 a week tax break" isn't exactly Mills and Boon - but the comment on not using taxation to influence people's behaviour is worth examining.

As I have banged on here before, we are grossly overtaxed on our beer - 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.  Why is this?  Obviously, the first reason is that beer is seen as a cash cow - an easy way of raising a lot of money quickly.  Except it's not nowadays, as I suggested on 24 September: "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."  However, no current politician has the guts to challenge the received wisdom that beer tax increases are good.

But the main point I wanted to make in this post relates to the other main reason for excessive beer taxes:  to control people's behaviour.  Tax increases are advocated by the quango-in-all-but-name, Alcohol Concern, an organisation paid by the government to lobby the, er, government.  Here the argument is occasionally wrapped in economic disguise, such as cost to the NHS and so on, but the main motive is to change people's drinking habits through the tax system.  At times the language employed can be reminiscent of the old Victorian moralisers.  Anyone who thought the tax system exists mainly to finance illegal wars and fund the bonuses of reckless gamblers in failing banks had better think again:  it's also there to make sure you do as you're told.

LibDems, with their Liberal traditions, should be wary of supporting the use of the tax system to interfere with how people live their lives, not just in marriage, but also in relation to alcohol, letting people decide for themselves whether to have a drink, and how much they choose to drink, although the idiotic "tipple tax" they suggested in August does not lead me to believe they know how to apply their professed principles to practical policy-making.

I'm not suggesting that alcohol is free from harm - only a fool would say that - but the role of government is to provide the information to let people make an informed decision without applying the tax system to make sure they choose correctly.  Such a position is entirely consistent both with Liberal traditions and with Nick Clegg's view on tax breaks for married couples, so there's little doubt in my mind that it's not one he'd adopt.

I think I'll write to Nick Clegg in the New Year to make this point, and I'll publish my letter and his reply (if any) on this blog.  If he supports beer tax for manipulating behaviour, we'll know for certain he's full of humbug.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Walkers pubs but no Walkers beer

One of my Walkers glasses from the
early 1960s.  I couldn't get the words
'Walkers Ales' any clearer.
I went on a quick trip to Liverpool today for an optician's appointment and, as I was driving, I decided against any pub visits.  What struck me as I strolled around, as opposed to scurrying to from one ale house to the next, was the fact that so many pubs in Liverpool still show the old Walkers livery, often still displaying the full legend, Walkers Warrington Ales.  Peter Walker merged with the original Cains in 1921 and I can recall my grandmother and uncle, who both had worked for the company, still referring to it as "Walker Cain's" into the 60s and 70s, even though it had become Tetley Walker in 1960.  The Walker brand was revived for a few years in the early 1980s and produced some good beers, most notably Warrington Ale and Winter Warmer, but was kicked into touch again when the company lost interest.  I've written in more detail about the Walker brand here.

The pubs I particularly noticed on my flying visit were The Crown and The Vines on Lime Street, The Central and The Midland on Ranelagh Street and The Beehive on Mount Pleasant.  There are others, but these were the ones that prompted this train of thought.  I'm rather glad that they managed to avoid being corporately standardised both by Allied Breweries (who'd have made them into Tetley houses) and by the pub companies that now own them.

Fag Ash Lil gigs

Local classic rock band, Fag Ash Lil, have two gigs in Southport before Christmas.  I've written about them a couple of times before, so it's no secret I like this band. 

The first gig is in the Blundell Arms, Upper Aughton Road, Birkdale, on Saturday 17 December.  The second at On The Fringe (formerly the Shakespeare) on Scarisbrick New Road, Southport on Friday 23 December.  Both gigs begin at around 9.15 pm, and unfortunately neither pub sells real ale, but that's true of most local venues that regularly put on rock bands.  I've no idea why - do they think rock fans don't like real ale?  That's not true in my experience.  Most likely they simply feel "Why bother?" when the rock fans will come in and spend money anyway.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Christmas carols

Thus Sunday, Jeff Stoker will be running his annual carol singing session in the Fisherman's Rest, Weld Road, Southport.  Jeff has been doing this for many years supported by local singers and musicians, and invites anyone who will to join in or just listen.  Carol sheets are available for those who can't remember the words from their school days, and it's free.  The Fish has recently been nicely refurbished and sells 4 real ales (sadly, not free!).

To complete your Sunday, in the evening the Bothy has Bill Whaley and Dave Fletcher from Lincolnshire as their final guests of the season.  That's at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS, at 8.00pm. Thwaites real ale. On-line tickets or pay on the door.

Monday 5 December 2011

CAMRA magazine not issued - again!

Ale & Hearty from April - June 2009
My job as editor of Ale & Hearty, the magazine of the Southport and District Branch of CAMRA, is becoming more and more theoretical.  Our Summer edition, due out in August, didn't materialise because Fred, who collects the adverts for us, was in hospital for an operation, which was followed by a period of recuperation.  No adverts = no money = no magazine.

The Winter edition, due out in November, fell by the wayside because two advertisers withdrew their adverts at the last minute:  one because the licensee never got around to designing it (we'd have done it if he wanted), and the other because of a change in licensee.  This created an immediate loss of £330 and as we have no reserves to fall back on, all the work in trying to get adverts and in obtaining and writing articles has gone completely to waste, and our credibility with licensees has taken a bash.  Unsurprisingly, Fred and I are feeling rather deflated at the moment.

Ale & Hearty is basically a two-man operation nowadays, and it's too much for us, but requests for extra help at meetings usually result in silence with people staring fixedly ahead.  I have a plan to resolve this, but if extra help is not forthcoming, I will with great reluctance (as I was very keen when I took over) consider throwing in the towel.  I hope it doesn't come to that.

Sunday 4 December 2011

A Few Striking Pints

The 30th of November saw me joining the picket line in Bootle at the crack of dawn - oh okay, 8.45am - on the great day of action on pensions.  It was good to see friends again, and at ten the Cat and Fiddle (built in the ground floor of the office block we were picketing) opened early specially for the strikers.  There were four real ales on in this formerly keg-only pub:  the house beer, Cat and Fiddle (brewed by Tetley; £1.69 a pint), Tetley Bitter, and two guests (£2.30 a pint) from Liverpool Organic Brewery:  Styrian and Jade.  I had two pints of the Jade, a very pale, dry 4.4% beer, which went very nicely with the excellent full English breakfast.  I never thought I'd do beer and food matching, but there you go.

Looking across the front of
St George's Hall
On to Liverpool to join the thousands marching through the city centre, with hundreds on the pavements applauding as we went by.  I don't remember a demo of this size in Liverpool since the worst of the Thatcher years.  I met quite a few friends there, some of whom I hadn't seen for years, including an ex of mine - we agreed to meet for a few drinks in the new year.  You can see this politics isn't all just doom and gloom, as I'm sure the local pubs and shops would confirm. 

I didn't check the shops myself, but after the rally, I went to the Ship and Mite on Dale Street, which happened to have a beer and cider festival on.  It was several deep at the bar when I arrived, a combination of festival-goers and demonstrators, but eventually I got my pint of Cambrinus Lamp Oil, a full dark beer - I do like dark beers occasionally.  This was followed by Flaky's 50th Festival from Phoenix, brewed to mark the fact that this was the Ship and Mitre's 50th beer festival; it was good, as Phoenix beers usually are.  Burton Bridge Staffordshire Knott and Milestone's Little John were others I tried.

We moved to the Lion in Moorfields, home to my monthly singarounds that I sometimes mention here - in fact, there's another one next Thursday the 6th December (all welcome).  Eight beers on:  I chose Liverpool Organic 24 Carat Gold, a great beer I've had before and Steve chose the Higsons Bitter.  This led to a discussion as to how it compared to the original, or indeed whether you could even remember a taste of a beer accurately after two decades.  I think we agreed that you can't.  Steve said was a good pint regardless.

We suddenly realised that it was twenty past eleven, so we disappeared in different directions for last buses and trains.  The end to a day that had been great in many different ways.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Bothy guests - Christi Andropolis & Mark Harrison

Christi Andropolis
These artists have cancelled at short notice due to ill health.  Last minute replacement is local lad, singer guitarist Jon Brindley, who has kindly agreed to step into the breach.  Jon has appeared at the Bothy before, but not for a few years.  It will be good to see him back.

Christi Andropolis & Mark Harrison have been described as: "Fiddle player and singer Christi hails from New York State, her inspirations ranging from the Delta blues and Appalachian mountain music of her homeland to the Scots and English music she’s picked up during her time studying here.  Joined by Teesside singer/writer/guitarist Mark Harrison, this new pairing gives new meaning to the phrase ‘transatlantic session!'"

Sounds an intriguing combination and it's all on this Sunday at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS.  Yours truly is doing one of the opening spots.  Thwaites real ale. On-line tickets.  The music begins at 8.00 pm and the bar sells real Thwaites Wainwright.