Thursday 30 May 2013

Legh Arms days numbered?

Picture borrowed from pub website.
Simon Finch of the local CAMRA branch has told me that he believes the Legh Arms in Mere Brow may be closed soon. He chatted to the licensee during a recent visit and was told that the pub hadn't made a profit in a single month over six years of trading. The licensee will be leaving soon and he expects the pub to be boarded up within six months.

The pub is just yards from the busy A565, the main road between Southport and Preston, but when he put a sign advertising his pub next to the road, West Lancs District Council removed it, even though a local coffee bar is allowed to put signs all over the A565 without hindrance. The local council needs to understand that a pub is a local business and provider of jobs; I can only assume that some kind of moralistic attitudes are at work here, which is not the job of the local council. 

For some reason, although the pub is in a small village, his customers have tended to come from further afield, insufficient in the long term to sustain the pub. Looking at the website, I notice that the opening hours on Sunday and Monday are marked as variable depending on demand . While some people may be disinclined to visit on those two days if they cannot be sure that the pub will be open, this doesn't explain why this attractive pub hasn't been sufficiently supported over the whole week.

The Legh Arms is currently still open, usually serving real ales such as Thwaites Wainwright and Lancaster Blonde, and a good food too. Use it or lose it.

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Martyn Wyndham-Read this Sunday

Martyn Wyndham-Read
Making yet another return visit to the Bothy this Sunday is Martyn Wyndham-Read. Although he was born in England, he is noted for his wide repertoire of Australian folk song, a love of which he gained when he went to work on a sheep station in Australia for quite a few years.

"He was described as a singer of Australian songs and true to his billing he gave a fine example of his vast repertoire of songs and poems of an antipodean flavour. One of the most engaging performers you're ever likely to see. His exceptionally intimate performance combined songs, humorous bush poetry recitations, stories and anecdotes of outback life and comments on Australian history and culture.

"The club was packed to greet Martyn and his two sets raced by. They included Jackaroo which recalled his early experiences in Australia, Farewell to Anzac, A Shearer's Lament and Shining down on Sennen, among many others. Great songs performed by a great singer." - Tynefolk.

He's on at the Bothy this Sunday 2 June. It starts at 8.00 p.m. at the Park Golf Club (a real ale venue), Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Click for on-line tickets.

Monday 27 May 2013

Caledonia saved!

The Caledonia, Catharine Street, Liverpool
Great news: it looks as though people power has triumphed for a change. As I reported on 28 April, Admiral Taverns sold the Caledonia pub in Liverpool without any warning that it was up for sale, giving Laura King, the licensee, 28 days' notice to give up her job and home. This prompted a petition which has been signed by more than 3000 people, and steps were taken to register the pub as an ACV, an Asset of Community Value.

However, the new owner, who still wishes to remain anonymous - am I being too anxious in finding this slightly worrying? - has renegotiated the terms, agreeing the pub can stay open with Laura still in charge for five years, with an option to stay indefinitely. The pub has operated continuously as licensed premises since 1838, and was a dead-end dive until Laura took it over in 2010. By sheer hard work, she has completely turned it around and it has become well-known, not just for decent beer, but also as a music venue; it was even shortlisted for live music venue of the year at the inaugural Liverpool Music Awards last November.

You'll find more information on the Liverpool Confidential website. Looking back at a few of my recent posts about pubs and breweries, it's nice to be able to write something positive for a change.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Pay up, Cains!

Cains workers demonstrate outside Dr Duncans in Liverpool
Cains Brewery in Liverpool is looking ever more disreputable as we learn precisely how production is being ended at the Parliament Street site (I've previously written about the suspension of brewing here). Thirty eight workers were told by phone that they were to lose their jobs and were offered neither the money owed them since the Dusanj brothers closed the brewery, nor any redundancy or holiday pay; some had worked for Cains for 20 years. Managing director Sudarghara Dusanj told them to apply to the government’s Redundancy Payment Scheme, but this usually only pays redundant workers when a company has actually failed. 

Their union, Unite, organised a demonstration outside Dr Duncan's, a Cains' pub in the city centre, to make the public aware of what was going on and to urge drinkers to boycott the company's beers until the workers had received what they are owed.  

Franny Joyce, a Unite regional officer, said: “The aim was to take our fight to the streets of Merseyside to explain what’s going on and ask people to support us. We achieved a further goal, because due to our protest they closed their flagship pub, Doctor Duncan’s. We didn't get one negative response from the public to our requests for support.”

Cains argues that it has had to suspend brewing due to an “extremely competitive and difficult trading environment”, especially after it had lost key contract work. The owners say brewing will resume on the site as long as they get planning permission for their £50 million brewery village development (I've written about that here). One factor they don't mention is that their sales of real ale have been in decline for a while because the beer has become utterly mediocre with little resemblance to how it used to be. The responsibility for this decline rests not with the workforce, but with the use of cheap ingredients to cut costs, a management decision. So bad is it that one of Cains' own pubs in the city centre stopped selling Cains beers several years ago.

All I can say is that Cains just keeps getting worse. Other people's jobs are something that this company seems to regard just as commodities to be used and discarded at will, and they've done it before: the reverse takeover of Honeycombe Leisure, which went pear-shaped in 2008, resulted in quite a few licensees losing their livelihoods and homes. 

The question Cains management should be asking themselves is this: if they do get the go-ahead for their brewery village plan and they manage to restart brewing on the site, will anyone be interested? With repeated examples of bad business practice by the two brothers who own the brewery, accompanied by the decline in the quality of their products, the very name of Cains is in danger of becoming a liability. In the meantime, the dole queues in Liverpool have grown that bit longer.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Molson Coors - look behind the mask

Just window dressing?
In recent years, Molson Coors has been carefully honing a positive image for itself among drinkers and the public. Unfortunately, the gap between their PR and their actions is becoming an unbridgeable gulf. Here are some examples:

1. Molson Coors won a lot of brownie points when it took over the Cornish brewer Sharps, best known for Doom Bar, and instead of closing it, actually invested in it and declared that it was committed to its future. This certainly helped improve their image among real ale drinkers. I wrote about this in January.

2. Molson Coors has sponsored the grandly-named beer bloggers conference (in reality, a themed holiday). The conference website urged attendees a year or two ago: "If you are attending this weekend, please make sure to thank MolsonCoors when you get the chance!" What a great endorsement from one of the organisers.

3. Carling, a Molson Coors brand, is sponsor of the current Scottish national side and was until recently sponsor of the English League Cup.

Points 1 and 2 are designed to get beer drinkers on board, and to that end have been quite successful. Point 3 is aimed not only at sports fans, but also at the general public by getting the Carling name displayed prominently on TV and in the press.

1. In February I wrote about how Molson Coors, despite their sponsorship of national football, was trying to evict Alton Town FC, a football team in the regional Wessex League, from its ground to build houses, even though alternative venues aren't readily available and the team may fold as a result. As I previously wrote, they probably counted on the fact that this spiteful piece of money grubbing, which must be worth peanuts to the world's seventh largest brewer by volume, would be unlikely to make national news; if so, they're right, although Private Eye did its best.

2. Unite members at the Molson Coors Burton Brewery and Shobnall Maltings are fighting plans to sack the 455-strong workforce and re-employ them on inferior terms with pay cuts of up to £9,000 per year. Agreements previously made with the workforce would be torn up and replaced by terms unilaterally imposed by Molson Coors. Earlier this year, the company had been campaigning for a reduction in beer duty to help its profitability, but even though this has happened, they are still attacking the pay and conditions of their staff.  More information here, and if you agree with me that such behaviour is unacceptable, there's a petition here.

These examples show that their commitment to sport is only to high profile events - stuff the grass roots - and to brewing only to make money; Sharps and bloggers' conferences are just so much window dressing. I understand that capitalist companies exist to make money, but there is more than one way of going about it: trying to crush your workforce into submission is not the only option. If we see any more good news stories concerning Molson Coors, it's worth bearing in mind that any good PR from this company is just a mask.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

MrsAckroyd ~ unashamedly barking

MrsAckroyd are playing at the Bothy this Friday 24 May, presenting a performance of dubious sanity and featuring the poems of Les Barker put to music by the acclaimed talents of (IAO) Chris Harvey, Hilary Spencer and Alison Younger, all veterans of many varied groups and duos on the acoustic music scene over the years: 

“Despite the absence of Les Barker his strange imagination still soars to musical heights through the stunning voices of Alison Younger and Hilary Spencer and the keyboard wizardry of Chris Harvey. Alison, Hilary and Chris musically recreate the weird and wonderful world of the internationally acclaimed poet,
MRSA - no known antidote
philosopher, photographer and fruitcake and continue to perform the marvellous nonsense that is MRSACKROYD. A remarkable trio of musicians that will delight and entertain you. Funny, witty, thoughtful, emotional - but always brilliant!” Cleckheaton Folk Festival.

“What a privilege to witness the inaugural gig of MrsAckroyd. We were treated to a feast of great singing, expert accompaniment and of course humour both subtle and zany. Alison, Hilary and Chris have a gift of communicating with the audience which guarantees an evening of total enjoyment.” Croydon Folk Club.

"If you thought Mrs Ackroyd without the physical presence of Les Barker was unthinkable, then think again! They had the audience in fits of laughter throughout and it's really refreshing to find an act that is not only "different" but one that oozes quality and really communicates with its audience. Of course, this doesn't just "happen" but is underpinned (to be serious for just a second!) by the brilliance of Les's lyrics, the superb vocal skills and comedic timing of Hilary Spencer and Alison Younger and the fine musicianship of Chris Harvey. A rare treat." Folk On The Moor, Ivybridge, Devon.

It starts at 8.oo p.m. at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Click for on-line tickets.

Saturday 18 May 2013

POTY about pubs

The Freshfield
Southport and West Lancs Branch of CAMRA covers North Merseyside and West Lancs, and so has two awards for pub of the year (POTY for short).

The 2013 POTY for the Merseyside part of the Branch is the Freshfield in Massams Lane, Formby. This pub has had a good selection of beers for many years, but there were concerns in late 2011 and early 2012 that it would be converted to a Hungry Horse eating house with little or no emphasis on real ale. Fortunately, such worries have proved unfounded, and the Freshfield reopened last July with an even greater range of real ales than previously. The Freshfield is less than ten minutes' walk from Freshfield Station on the Northern Line.

The Hop Vine
The West Lancs POTY for 2013 is the Hop Vine, Liverpool Road North, Burscough. This pub sells changing guest beers as well as the products of the Burscough Brewing Company which operates in outhouses behind the pub. It is less than five minutes' walk from Burscough Bridge railway station. The Hop Vine will be holding its 4th annual Spring Beer Festival from 24 to 27 May.

Both these pubs are well worth a visit, and both are known for doing food as well.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Dorothy Goodbody is no Amazon

Wye Valley Brewery is a small family-run company in Herefordshire, famous for beers such as Butty Bach, Wye Valley Bitter and the Dorothy Goodbody range. It's in a different league entirely from multinational tax avoiders such as Vodaphone, Google and Amazon. I therefore found it quite bizarre to read this post by the brewery on Facebook: 

"This morning we are shocked to hear that as a relatively small family business we pay MORE tax than Amazon UK, who have sales of £4bn. They only paid £2.4m in tax and received government grants of £2.5m!" The BBC news story on Amazon's taxes is here. I don't think you need to be a financial expert to get the impression that, rather than pay tax, they are in fact subsidised by us mugs, the tax payers.

I've written about beer tax before, but usually from the drinkers' point of view. Here is proof, if it were needed, that it's not just drinkers who are being ripped off by the tax system: breweries are as well. I wonder whether that also applies to multinational brewing corporations that have businesses in the country, such as Molson Coors? Call me a cynic, but somehow I doubt it. It's only businesses that are wholly based in this country and pay all their tax here, without the option of shipping their liabilities around the globe to the cheapest jurisdiction, who are hammered in this way, and our own home-grown drinks industry is hit even harder than other businesses.

It was the utterly ruthless American capitalist, Leona Helmsley, who once said: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Although she was eventually prosecuted and spent 18 months in prison, she still left £4,000,000,000 when she died in 2007. Modern tax avoiders aren't as obvious as her, spending a great deal more on clever accountants and tax lawyers and leaving no chance - sadly - that we'll see any of them doing porridge, but their attitude is identical to hers.

One of the comments below Wye Valley's FB post says: "Can I pay for my beer in Luxembourg please?" Quite.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Mason's and Swords

A couple of events this week:

l In the Mason's: it's the usual singaround, or acoustic song session, tomorrow night (15 May). The pub's in Anchor Street, Southport, behind the main post office on Lord Street. Real ale from Robinson's and they usually provide butties too. From 8.30pm.

The Swords at the Albert Dock
l Southport Swords Annual Day of Dance is in Liverpool this Saturday 18 May with ten different guest dance sides. It should be a chance to enjoy traditional English dance, and an opportunity to see how varied the different styles can be. Traditional dance often involves real ale pubs, so Liverpool is a great place for it. It always seems to go down well with bemused, but fun-loving, Scousers. I've have checked the Swords website, but I have no idea about their itinerary or timings. I've asked for them and will add them to this post, should they let me know.

P.S. (15 May): 10 teams, the best from the North West, will be entertaining from 10.30am onwards. 

Dance spots are Church Street/Whitechapel, Church Street/Church Alley, Mathew Street, Williamson Square, Bold Street/Central Station with a massed stand at the Podium (Church Street/Parker Street) possibly about 15.45.

Monday 13 May 2013

Downtrodden String Band

The Downtrodden String Band consists of four musicians who all have long experience of playing acoustic music of all kinds. They first came together to provide music for an Appalachian dance group based in Bakewell in Derbyshire. They have moved from there to playing concerts, barn dances and festivals all around central England. Their line-up consists of mandolin, banjo and guitar resulting in a distinctive, driving style, and most of their songs feature 3- or 4-part harmony. Reviewers are saying things like this:

l The music is tight and together but also fun ... the CD makes for entertaining listening with stand out moments throughout. (Living Tradition)
l From start to finish what we are presented with is an authentic sounding band specialising in old-time music with a high 'feel-good' factor. (Maverick)
l A very enjoyable CD. Good choice of songs, well-sung and well-played. (Old-Time Herald)

They're making their second visit to the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS this Sunday 19 May at 8.00pm. Thwaites real ale. On-line tickets available here.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Goodbye Cains? Probably

When the old Higsons brewery was closed down by Whitbread more than twenty years ago, there was a genuine sadness among local beer drinkers because everyone thought that was the end of a long tradition of brewing in the city. When a Danish brewing company reopened the brewery and relaunched the old Cains name, there was a tremendous outburst of enthusiasm and - pleasingly - the beers were good. Unfortunately, the company became loss making, but was saved from closure by the Dusanj brothers. Initially this was something that was welcomed, especially as the brothers announced their commitment to real ales: I recall that at the CAMRA AGM in Southport in 2004, one of the Dusanj brothers gave a speech and a powerpoint presentation reiterating that commitment, declaring that Cains was a friend of CAMRA. What happened a couple of years later I've copied from Wikipedia:

A reverse takeover of ... pub operator Honeycombe Leisure PLC was agreed by the company’s board in June 2007, giving Cains access to Honeycombe's 109 outlets ... On 7 August 2008 the company was placed in administration following problems caused by an unpaid tax bill. Negotiations with its bank failed to reach a conclusion that would have avoided administration. The brewery and eight original pubs have since bought back by the Dusanj brothers.

They had overreached themselves and, as bad creditors, they had to buy their ingredients wherever they could for cash - credit was not an option. The end result was that their beers were brewed on the cheap with whatever ingredients they could lay their hands on, and quality went through the floor. Beers that I had previously enjoyed, such as Cains FA, Sundowner and Raisin Beer, became utterly mediocre.

Cains has now mothballed its brewery, pending the ambitious redevelopment plan that I wrote about here. They have completely abandoned the supermarket own brand trade, once crucial to its financial stability, but now loss-making, and are looking to find someone else to brew their real ales under contract while they redevelop the site. 38 jobs have been lost, but with the promise that their plans will create 800 new jobs; the Liverpool Echo reports on the story here. Unfortunately the track record of this management team cannot inspire the people of Liverpool with confidence. The worry is that, once they have contracted out the production of the beers, will they ever come back to Liverpool? A bigger worry for Cains must be whether anyone will want them back? Liverpool now has several small breweries producing beer that is far superior to anything from the Cains stable. Just owning the old Higsons brewery site will no longer ensure loyalty to Cains beers, whether they are brewed in Liverpool or elsewhere under contract. Closing their brewing operation down and getting their beers brewed under licence is precisely the wrong thing to be doing. Having beer brewed under contract elsewhere doesn't inspire confidence among real ale drinkers: outsourcing mediocre brews is a double risk. To regain credibility among beer drinkers, they should be developing good recipes locally.

My view is that this may well be the end of the line for Cains as a brewer. I can't claim to be surprised, but I am disappointed that yet again Cains seems to have made a complete hash of running its business.

Monday 6 May 2013

New Fleetwood has reopened

The New Fleetwood
Having reported the bad news about the imminent closures of the Caledonia in Liverpool and the London in Southport last week, it's makes a pleasant change to write about a pub reopening. The New Fleetwood has been closed for some time, and we were beginning to think that we'd never see it open again. Mike Perkins of the local CAMRA branch has told me that it had reopened recently with a new, but experienced licensee, who has bought the pub, which is now free of tie. It had two Southport beers on handpump, and the licensee has promised more good beers shortly. It also has a meeting room, which are becoming few and far between.

The New Fleetwood is at 1 Hoole Lane, Banks, PR9 8BD, not far outside Southport.

Saturday 4 May 2013

Mad Hatter Beer Festival

This looks as though it might be fun:

The Mad Hatter Brewing Company is Liverpool's newest microbrewery, so new that I've yet to try their beers. The nearest station to this festival is Aigburth on the Northern Line. You can get tickets here.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Don't drink and drive ~ you might spill some!

Better than a ban - or a crash
New rules have been introduced for the worst drink-drivers, especially those caught driving while more than 2.5 times over the limit, or done for drink-driving twice in the last ten years. The measures include requiring high risk offenders to have a medical examination to prove they don't have a problem with alcohol misuse before they can get their licence back. More details can be found here.

This is all to the good. These measures will do more about drunken driving than reducing the legal limit, which I have written about several times previously, e.g. here. Personally, I'd go even further: anyone who is convicted of drink-driving for a third time should be banned for life - three strikes and you're out. If you haven't learnt by then, you clearly never will.

In the 1970s, when I learnt to drive, the attitude towards someone who'd been banned for drink-driving was "Bad luck!", but this changed during the 1980s to become "Serves you right!" as people increasingly understood how alcohol impairs your abilities. I recall one evening about 25 years ago a friend of mine who was well over the limit and about to drive home being harangued by drunks around the bar to leave his car keys behind and collect his car the next day.

In the 1970s, I often heard drivers claim that they could drive better after a few drinks. I had thought that such a dinosaur view had died out, but not a thing of it. After a fatal accident in Southport a year or two ago, a young woman who'd been injured in the crash said that the driver, a young male, used to claim that he drove better after few drinks, and I heard exactly the same nonsense a couple of weeks ago in a TV documentary about young drivers. Seeing that road accidents are the biggest killer of people under 25, it is worrying to hear some of them express such an attitude. I've heard a lot of suggestions about how to tackle this, such as prohibiting new drivers from driving late at night, limiting the number of passengers they can carry, maximum car engine size, maximum speed and even a zero alcohol limit, but it's no use making yet more new rules if there aren't the resources to enforce them. In the long run, education as part of the driving test is probably the best way forward, including shocking pictures of real accidents and people describing the devastating impact drink-driving can cause.

Like many people at the time, I occasionally used to drink-drive in the late 70s. I'm not proud of that, and I never thought I was a better driver after drinking. Fortunately nothing ever went wrong, although I had one near miss which didn't result in an accident mainly because the other driver was more on the ball than I was; I was lucky. Shortly after that, I reflected that I knew lots of people who had perfectly good social lives without using cars, that there were trains, buses and taxis, and also that I actually had a lot of pubs within walking distance. As one near miss taught me a lesson, I can't understand the mentality of people who, despite having been caught, sometimes even after accidents caused by drink, offend again and again; such people would ignore any limit, even a zero one. If the new rules help stop some of these high risk offenders, they'll be worthwhile.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Southport Jazz Festival ~ jazz and real ale

Not recommended as a drinking vessel
The Southport Jazz Festival returns this month, 10 to 12 May, and it will be based in the newly refurbished arts centre, now known as the Atkinson, which will feature most of the main events. CAMRA will be running a small beer festival in the Cambridge Theatre Bar area; it's open to all and there is no admission charge to the bar, although there is to the concerts. The beer festival will be open throughout the jazz festival, unless the beer runs out first. You can see who's on, both in the Atkinson and around the town in the brochure here.

Jazz in other real ale venues around the town (very few this year)

Credo in the Sandgrounder Bar, Lord Street at 8.30pm. Free.
Chameleon in the Coronation, King Street, at 9.00pm. Free.

Modjango in the Inn Beer Shop, Lord Street at 2.30pm. Free.
Cottonhouise Shakers in the Coronation, King St. at 9.00pm. Free.

However, if you can cope without real ale, you'll see from the brochure that there are plenty of other jazz events around the town in various places, some in the open air in the Town Hall Gardens, and the CafĂ© D'Art in Formby is hosting free events for diners. There's even a couple of free concerts on Saturday afternoon in Christ Church on Lord Street, although I doubt anything stronger than tea will be available. I'm not sufficiently familiar with jazz to comment upon the various acts that will be on, but I will be going to some of the events and working for three sessions in the beer festival in the Atkinson. Even if you don't like jazz, the beer festival is surely worth a visit!