Wednesday 27 August 2014

Lethal weapons? Fine - but no beer!

I found the news that a 9-year old child had accidentally shot her gun instructor shocking in a couple of ways: the death itself obviously, but more the fact that it is perfectly legal for a child of that age to handle and fire a high-powered Uzi submachine gun, as long as a parent or legal guardian was present. That little girl will have to live with the memory of that terrible sight as well as her guilt for the rest of her life, all because her parents decided that their Second Amendment rights were more important than their child's safety and well-being.

This deeply disturbing, but also frankly bizarre, situation brought some other strange American age limits to mind:

In the USA, young people can get behind the wheel of a potentially lethal piece of equipment much younger than over here. A learner driver's licence can be obtained between the ages of 14 and 16, and a restricted full licence between 14.5 and 16.5, depending on which state you live in.

You can lose your life fighting in the USA's armed forces at the age of 18.

On the other hand, the age at which you can legally purchase and possess alcohol is 21. The system is skewed to maintain that age nationally, because any state that lowers its alcohol purchase or possession age would lose 10% of its federal highway funding, a significant reduction in its income. In some states you can drink alcohol below 21 with the agreement of your parents or spouse, as long he or she is over 21, but nowhere can you buy or own it.

I can't help feeling that our American cousins have some priorities badly wrong.

I also can't help wondering how many domestic rows result from people aged 21 or more telling their spouses they can't have a drink.

Monday 25 August 2014

Was alcohol-free beer really a gaffe?

I've just read the results of a survey by ComRes (commissioned by AB InBev UK) stating that drinking alcohol-free beer is now seen as more socially acceptable than it was 5 years ago in the opinion of 49% of those surveyed, with 59% saying they'd now be comfortable ordering it in front of friends in public.

I find this all rather strange because I hadn't realised that ordering alcohol-free beer had ever been viewed as a social blunder. It never bothered me in the past when driving to far flung music events where a pint consisting of a half of bitter topped up with an alcohol-free beer would mean that I could have three weak pints quite safely over an evening.

The only explanation I can come up with is there must be a macho attitude that real men don't drink anything but the real thing. I had a J2O in a pub before a four-hour drive last Saturday, and didn't in any way regard it as embarrassing (I know that's not alcohol-free beer, but I think the principle is similar).

But thinking about it, perhaps it could just be a fake image problem created for marketing purposes so that brewers can now get the message across that "surveys show it's now okay to drink this pariah drink!"

My problem with non-alcohol beers and low alcohol beers (or NABLABs as we used to call them) was that I found they invariably tasted bland, tinny and not quite genuine. They're mostly lagers, although I remember a 1% bottled bitter from Whitbread called White Label. Nowadays, if I'm in a pub and driving, I'd prefer to drink real ale safely within the limit or have a soft drink or coffee.

Sunday 24 August 2014

Back home from Whitby

I got home from Whitby Folk Week yesterday afternoon. I've written about the pubs in Whitby several times before (particularly in 20092010 and 2013) and not a lot has changed since last year.

JDW's Angel Hotel (from JDW's website)
The Angel Hotel (not to be confused with the Little Angel on Flowergate) by the harbourside was taken over by Wetherspoons early last year, raising hopes that it would impact on the prices of beer locally which, apart from the reliably cheap Sam Smiths pub the Jolly Sailors, seem high to me with my North West perspective. In fact, we found that Wetherspoons' prices weren't much less than the average for the area, starting at £2.95 a pint. It has also been refurbished in a more modern style than the usual Spoons decor. In one way it is a typical JDW house: if you're stuck behind people ordering meals or various coffees, you can wait a while to be served, which is frustrating when all you want it a pint, although to be fair, this wasn't the fault of the staff who were working hard.

Whitby Abbey Blonde
(from the brewery's website)
It was good to see the products of the new Whitby Brewery, which was set up last year. I tried two of their beers, Abbey Blonde and Platform 3, which is specially brewed for the Station Inn. I found them a bit too malty for my taste - even the Blonde - but other people were clearly enjoying them.

As for the music, I stuck to the fringe this year and spent a lot of time time in informal pub music and song sessions, particularly in the Station, the Elsinore and the Golden Lion. Our Lunchtime Legends rock & roll gig had the Elsinore packed out again on Wednesday lunchtime; it was great to have several young children aged between 4 and 9 bopping along, waving their hands in the air to anthems like Daydream Believer, and generally taking the opportunity to be silly like all the adults around them. Young Jessica was given the mike to sing a word-perfect chorus of Poison Ivy.

My week ended in the Station at a lively song and music session, although the non-folkie elements present loudly demanded old pop and rock & roll songs from me: it sounded like the whole pub was singing along to Those Were The Days. So much for my intentions to be more 'folkie' in my material on the last night.

Some good beers along the way: Saltaire Blonde, Wold Top's Golden Summer and Headland Red, and Ossett Silver King were highlights for me during the week. An honourable mention goes to a golden beer called Carnival Ale from the Truefitt Brewery of Middlesbrough, which I had in the Golden Lion.

It always seem a bit flat the day after you get back from holiday, but I've already booked my accommodation for next year, which will be the 50th Folk Week.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Friday 15 August 2014

New mini-pub - Tap and Bottles

I discovered Tap and Bottles while strolling through Cambridge Walks in Southport town centre last week; it had been opened the previous week in a former lingerie shop by Julian Burgess whose family has a long association with the licensed trade. It is a small bar, attractively furnished, with four handpumps selling Southport Golden Sands and Liverpool Craft American Red when I visited, with more on at weekends. Beer is available in thirds of a pint if that's what you want. The Liverpool Craft was on good form when I tried it.

The fonts on the wall sell beers from Dortmunder, Pilsner Urquell and Duvel, a craft beer White Fox from Liverpool Craft Brewery, and a raspberry cider from Orchard. There are also more than 100 different bottled beers on sale from Britain, America and Europe which you can drink in or take away. They also sell bottles from the new Parker Brewery in Formby.

Wines, spirits, and soft drinks complete the drinks on sale, and there are plans to sell coffee and light snacks soon. They hope to get permission for seating outside, which would be all-weather seeing that the bar is in a covered arcade; there is some additional seating upstairs. The bar is open to 11.00pm, later if the demand exists. Julian is considering the possibility of some unamplified music in the future.

Particularly handy for a drink after a strenuous shopping trip, if you like that sort of thing (shopping, I mean).

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Thursday 14 August 2014

MPs take the soft option

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse has come out with a document calling on all political parties to commit themselves to 10 measures to minimise alcohol-related harm in the UK. Such documents have no formal standing and merely represent the views of the members of the group, which itself has no formal status, but is simply a collection of politicians who have an interest in the topic. Alcohol Concern, the fake, publicly-funded charity, also has its name prominently displayed on the cover. This publication is intended to influence the content of party manifestos for next year's general election.

I've reproduced the exact wording of the recommendations below but there is nothing new here, particularly the calls for minimum pricing, strengthening regulation of alcohol marketing, health warnings on labels, and lowering the drink-driving limit (the links are to older posts on the subject concerned).

As I've previously written on some of the individual recommendations, I won't cover old ground again, but it is worth noting that it has just been announced that drink-drive deaths are at their lowest since records began, under-age drinking is also at its lowest since records began and alcohol consumption in general is at its lowest level for decades. So how do those facts, based on government statements, sit with the report's assertion that "alcohol abuse has become a national pandemic and needs to be treated as such"? It's sounding more like a bunch of busybodies with an agenda rather than a sober assessment of the situation. Further evidence of this is in the introduction which cheerily says: "We want to be clear that this manifesto is not designed to end or curtail people’s enjoyment of alcohol". When they have to make that point clear, I tend to assume that that is precisely what they have in mind.

With MPs paid £66,000 per year, and ministers more than £100,000, I do wonder why our legislators are wasting time doing no more than rehashing familiar recommendations that have previously been published many times over the years. Although, to be fair, it often seems that repeating themselves is the stock-in-trade of our MPs.

In contrast, just 11 MPs (1.7% of the total) bothered to turn up on 17 July for a debate about the provision of education for children with autism. Such a debate would require concentration, knowledge and thought, whereas cobbling together a report consisting of ideas that have frequently been regurgitated in the past is probably a fairly effortless way of passing time while apparently doing something worthy. I wonder whether the legislative busybodies adjourned to one of the many subsidised Palace of Westminster bars when their onerous task was complete?

The recommendations are:
  1. Make reducing alcohol harms the responsibility of a single government minister with clear accountability. 
  2. Introduce a minimum unit price for alcoholic drinks. 
  3. Introduce public health as a fifth licensing objective, enabling local authorities to make licensing decisions based on local population health need and the density of existing outlets. 
  4. Strengthen regulation of alcohol marketing to protect children and young people. 
  5. Increase funding for treatment and raise access levels from 6% to 15% of problem drinkers. 
  6. Commissioners should prioritise the delivery of identification and brief advice identification and brief advice should be delivered in a wide range of different settings including health care, involving GPs routinely asking questions, and in-workplace programmes. 
  7. Include a health warning on all alcohol labels and deliver a government-funded national public awareness campaign on alcohol-related health issues. 
  8. For all social workers, midwives and healthcare professionals, introduce mandatory training on parental substance misuse, foetal alcohol syndrome disorder and alcohol-related domestic violence. 
  9. Reduce the blood alcohol limit for driving in England and Wales to 50mg/100ml, starting with drivers under the age of 21. 
  10. Introduce the widespread use of sobriety orders to break the cycle of alcohol and crime, antisocial behaviour and domestic violence.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Champion Beers of Britain 2014

These were announced yesterday at the Great British Beer Festival in London. How many have you had? I think my total is seven. Some people will probably whinge that a regional brewer such as Timothy Taylor won, but that is just prejudice. We shouldn't discriminate against a brewer just because the beers are brewed in a proper brewery rather than a shed in the garden. 

Supreme Champions
Gold - Timothy Taylor, Boltmaker
Silver - Oakham, Citra
Bronze - Salopian, Darwin's Origin

Champion Bottled Beer
Gold - Marble, Chocolate Marble
Silver - St Austell,Proper Job
Bronze - Spire, Prince Igor Imperial Russian Stout

Gold - Bank Top, Dark Mild
Silver - Branscombe Vale, Mild
Bronze - Castle Rock, Black Gold

Best Bitter
Gold - Salopian, Darwin’s Origin
Silver - Redwillow, Directionless
Joint Bronze - Langton, Inclined Plane Bitter, and Purity, Mad Goose

Gold - Saltaire, Triple Chocoholic
Silver - Offbeat, Way Out Wheat
Bronze - Peak Ales, Chatsworth Gold

Gold - Timothy Taylor, Boltmaker
Silver - Mighty Oak, Captain Bob
Joint Bronze - Flowerpots, Flowerpots Bitter, and Sambrooks, Wandle Ale

Gold - Oakham, Citra
Silver - Hawkshead, Cumbrian Five Hop
Bronze - Salopian, Hop Twister

Strong Bitter
Gold - Church End, Fallen Angel
Silver - Blue Monkey, Ape Ale
Bronze - Loch Ness, HoppyNESS

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Lazy thoughts

It's not the enemy; it's a very naughty lager.
"It is generally acknowledged that lager and keg beers are the enemies of “proper” beer aka ale" is the opening sentence of an article in the Morning Advertiser (the newspaper of the pub trade). It's a typical journalistic technique to create a false disagreement and present it as fact; in this case suggesting that there are ranks of ideologically opposed, implacably hostile drinkers. The writer, Robyn Black, was referring to the fact that two big regional brewers noted for their ale had launched keg lagers - Marston’s Revisionist and Fuller’s Frontier.

As a real ale drinker, am I shocked? Not particularly. My actual reaction was, "So what?" But that's not how Ms Black sees it. She wrote: "The beard and sandal brigade will no doubt be up in arms. CAMRA has fought a long, hard battle to rid the world of bland keg beers and to champion real ale." There's that false disagreement again: where are these people who will be up in arms? I don't view the pleasure of having a drink in such confrontational terms, and I do not choose my friends by their taste in drinks; while many do drink real ale, others prefer the likes of smoothflow, Guinness, lager, wine, or even diet Coke.

Ms Black does refer to the fact that real ale has in recent years had a modest growth while sales of all other types of beer have fallen, but nonetheless, the biggest selling style of beer remains lager. It might look as though real ale has "won" some kind of war as it is now available in more than 50% of pubs, but that doesn't mean it constitutes 50% of sales: in reality, sales of real ale are nowhere near such levels. With the resurgence in recent years of craft keg beers, it's hardly a surprise that brewers might turn their attention to producing a better quality lager than what's on offer in most pubs. I'm assuming that's what Fuller's and Marston's are trying to do - Fuller's describe Frontier as a "new wave craft lager" - because it isn't worth the time, trouble and money to produce yet another lager along the lines of Carling and Fosters: you might as well just buy in a well-known brand.

So why is Ms Black wrong? Because CAMRA, as I have written before, is about choice, and it always has been. In the early days, it was about campaigning for real ale drinkers to have the choice of drinking real ale, but the logical consequence of such a position is accepting that other drinkers have a choice too. Choice is something that Colin Valentine, the CAMRA national chair, strongly emphasised at the national AGM in Norwich last year.

Her reference to "the beard and sandal brigade" is simple stereotyping - neither I nor most CAMRA members I know wear beard and sandals - and is no more than another cheap trick from the Ladybird Book of Lazy Journalism.

P.S. I've just realised that Robyn Black's article was written a while ago, and therefore isn't latest news. However, I haven't seen either of these craft lagers anywhere, not even in Marston's houses (there are no Fuller's houses around here that I could comment on).

Sunday 10 August 2014

Best laid plans ...

Probably in good nick, but never
got the chance to find out
... and all that.

I went to the Zetland Hotel on Friday night to see local band Fag Ash Lil. Walking down Zetland Street, we could hear the music more than 100 feet away. The car park was busy with boisterous drinkers, as was the pub. I was surprised because, while Fag Ash Lil are certainly popular, they're not this popular. I have never seen the Zetland so busy.

The reason for the packed ale house soon became clear by the "Happy 60th Birthday" streamers over the bar, but even so, whoever the birthday boy or girl was must have a lot of mates. I queued up, and was waiting for at least 15 minutes before I actually reached the bar: the bar staff were working hard, but were overwhelmed by the demand. The real ales on offer were Brakspear Oxford Gold, not a common beer around here, Wychwood Hobgoblin and Jennings Cumberland. Normally if I'm waiting for more than 5 or 6 minutes at a bar and I'm on my own, I'll go somewhere else, but on this occasion I wasn't alone and so waited.

In the middle of Fag Ash Lil playing Fleetwood Mac's The Chain (from the album Rumours, if you're interested), all the lights and the power to the band went out to raucous cheers, although the television in the bar and the electric beer fonts were still working. At this point, I'd had enough. We left and went for one in the Mount Pleasant just down the road and then onto the Guest House.

Informed drinkers will have worked out that the Zetland is a Marston's house.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Membership has its privileges

At last I've discovered a reason to live in Greater Manchester. Paul Heaton of the Housemartins and the Beautiful South is part owner of the Kings Arms in Salford, which has decided to designate Fridays as "Trade Union Friday", with discounted drinks on production of a union membership card.

Paul Heaton has had a close working relationship with the GMB union in recent years. His latest tour was sponsored by the GMB and he played on the main stage at this year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in Dorset. He originally offered discounts to strikers during the last industrial action, and then decided to make the discount permanent, saying: “I’ve done a bit of work with the GMB and liked them a lot. So I’ve bitten the bullet and said as long as they’re out fighting for change, I should show my appreciation to all of those men and women who are keeping the Tories on their toes.”

In 2011, the GMB pointed out the fact that the cost of beer has risen much faster than inflation, a point I have made several times myself, most recently in May this year.

The Kings Arms is at 11 Bloom Street, Salford, M3 6AN, close to Salford Central railway station.

Monday 4 August 2014

Fag Ash Lil at the Zetland

Classic rock band Fag Ash Lil are playing a local gig in Southport this Friday.

Formed in 2001, Fag Ash Lil have produced two CDs, both recorded at Parr Street Studios, Liverpool, entitled "How It Really Is" and "Not Sorry". As well as performing original material, they also play songs by Free, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Skunk Anansie, and even The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.

Great musicians and singers, the Lil have always got the place rocking on the many occasions I've seen them. They're on at the Zetland Hotel, 53 Zetland Street, Southport, PR9 0RH, at 9.30pm. The Zetland serves three changing real ales (Southport, Ringwood and Jennings last time I was in there).

Click here for the Zet's beer festival starting on the 23rd.

Sunday 3 August 2014

Priory a local priority

Picture from campaign website
The Priory Hotel in Litherland is a pub I occasionally went into when I had a temporary job in social services in Bootle a long time ago; I think it was a Tetley house in those days. I recall on one occasion a disgruntled social worker who had lost his brief case earlier in the day arriving in the pub with it in pieces. Someone had reported finding a suspicious object and it had been blown up. Apparently the Beatles drank in there on the 20+ occasions they played at Litherland Town Hall, just 150 yards away.

The pub closed last year and was bought by Adactus Housing, but the council refused planning permission for its conversion into flats after a successful campaign by a community action group which plans to make the Priory the first community-run pub in Merseyside. They need £400,000 to buy the pub, having raised £170,000 so far and applied for grants to help bridge the gap.

CAMRA keeps on encouraging local branches and members to oppose pub closures by having them declared as assets of community value under Part 5 Chapter 3 of the Localism Act 2011. That's all very well, but such applications cannot really succeed unless there is evidence that the community actually values its pub, as in Litherland. Here in Southport, Mike Perkins of local CAMRA has done sterling work in applying for ACVs but in each case the council has refused; this is the same council that has said yes in Litherland, so our failure is not a result of municipal stonewalling.

Opposing a pub closure is an uphill battle. The owner can easily produce accounts to demonstrate how the use, and therefore profitability, of a pub has been in decline, which tends to pull the rug from under any argument that the community values it. There are many reasons why pubs decline, and I don't intend to list them here, except for one: deliberate neglect of a pub by its owner to discourage custom and thus provide an excuse to close it - in other words, a process of managed decline. Some closed pubs around here certainly hadn't had a penny spent upon them for years, other than for essential maintenance. Pub owners know that, with the price of pub drinks nowadays, customers won't want to spend their hard-earned cash in a dingy room that hasn't seen a lick of paint this side of the millennium.

My view is that CAMRA centrally is being oversimplistic with its exhortation simply to get a threatened pub declared an ACV. There is the risk that, if local people keep on trying this and get knocked back too often, they will lose heart. With the best will in the world, CAMRA can't do this alone: genuine community support is needed, and that is the really hard bit. If you can't show you've got that, your chances of stopping a pub being redeveloped are slim.

Friday 1 August 2014

Zetland Beer Festival - August

The Zetland Hotel, Zetland Street, Southport is holding another beer festival beginning on Saturday 23 August. It's on for a week from midday each day. Food is served Saturday & Sunday from 12.00 until 6.00pm. On Saturday night there will be a quiz beginning at 9.30pm and on Sunday night bingo at 9.30pm.

The Zetland has a well-kept bowling green; in fact, it's the last pub in Southport to have one. The pub as at 53 Zetland Street, Southport, PR9 0RH, about 0.6 mile from Southport station.

( 01704 808404 for enquiries, including bowling green availability.

This is the beer list; click on it to expand it.