Monday 25 May 2015

24 hour drinking hysteria

It was interesting to see a report by the Right-inclined Institute of Economic Affairs called Drinking Fast and Slow: Ten Years of the Licensing Act. I'm sure most people here won't be shocked that it found that binge drinking, public order offences and violent crime have declined in the last decade. Far from leading to a culture of drunkenness, since the Licensing Act was passed alcohol consumption has declined by 17% during the period, with the biggest drop in the 18-24 age group. Among all the findings, it was interesting - encouraging, even - to see that incidents of domestic violence have dropped by 28%. violence.

The reasons for changes in drinking habits are many, but excessive rises in duty and declining living standards must be significant factors. It's possible that the reduction in violence can, at least in part, be attributed to an easier licensing regime: restricting access to alcohol encourages among some drinkers a tendency to neck as much as possible in the limited time available: it's blindingly obvious that the quicker you drink, the stronger the effect. Having said that, in my experience most drunks are not violent, and there's nothing in the chemical make-up of alcohol that encourages violence. But, regrettably, some violent people do drink.

I've little doubt that the anti-alcohol brigade will take little notice of this report, as it does not fit the booze-sodden apocalypse they prefer to predict. The nonsense peddled by groups such as Alcohol Concern wouldn't bother me too much, except that nearly all of their funding comes from public funds.

As for 24 hour drinking, I don't know anywhere that stays open round the clock.

Friday 22 May 2015

CD launch & charity fundraiser

The Making History CD sleeve
Local rock bands, bluesmen and folk singers will come together for a special gig in support of local charity, the Southport Kidney Fund. On Friday 29 May, Southport-born poet Geoff Parry will launch his new album, Making History, at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Every song has lyrics written by Geoff with the tune written by the artist or band that performs it. Playing their songs from the album are the Sue Raymond Band, Equal Terms, Raphael Callaghan, Chris & Siobhan Nelson, Colin Wayte, Dai Thomas, Geoff Parry and Nev Grundy.

Geoff, who now lives in Hounslow but who maintains his close links with Southport, said of the album: “Making History is the 10th album of my songs and poems recorded by friends of mine. Since we made the first one in 1993, the world has changed tremendously, and we all have too. This album reflects both personal and international histories, with all their highs and lows.”

Admission to the event is free; all proceeds from a voluntary collection and CD sales will go the Southport Kidney Fund. The music begins at 7.30pm, and all are welcome to this special fundraising event. The venue sells real ale from Southport or Thwaites.

Tuesday 19 May 2015


Boak and Bailey have written an account of how CAMRA has viewed lager over the years, which is well worth looking at. I thought it was about time that I wrote on this subject, without going over all the ground they covered.

When I was a student, I tried various drinks: mild, bitter, brown and bitter, Guinness, lager, lager and lime, and cider (probably Woodpecker) to find out what I preferred. I settled on bitter. I was a student in Padgate, just on the edge of Warrington, and as the local brewery used to boast in adverts, it was Greenall Whitley Land - they owned nearly every pub in the area, and if you were a lager drinker, that was Grünhalle. You didn't have to be a genius to realise that Grünhalle was German for Greenall, so I was often surprised how many people didn't realise that fact, or that it was brewed in Warrington. As I recall, lager drinkers didn't rate Grünhalle highly, but in those days, you drank what was on offer, or not at all - and that applied to bitter and mild as well as lager.

Pinched from Tandleman
In those less enlightened days, lager was often dismissed, including by myself I have to admit, as a woman's drink, but such sneers didn't slow down the rise of lager during the 1970s. However, even then, there was a view that continental lager was good and that British lager couldn't hold a candle to it: the contempt was for the inferior domestic version. However, the critics were whistling in the wind because none of this mattered to the millions who increasingly adopted British-brewed lager as their usual beer.

In the 1980s, when I was working in Liverpool, Higsons pubs used to stock Carling Black Label, but decided to brew their own lager. Thankfully, they didn't call it Higstein or some such nonsense, but simply Higsons Lager. As I recall, lager drinkers often weren't keen, although some bitter drinkers said it was better than most lagers! They gave up after a while and brewed Kaltenberg under licence instead, but their nice new lager brewery made them attractive for takeover and was instrumental in their closure: proof, surely, that lager isn't good for you.

The success of micropubs and bottled beer shops means that interested drinkers are becoming more aware of the range of beers available from both this country and abroad. However, much as I welcome a discerning approach to beer, I'm not much interested in bottled beers myself. Even if they are beers that I like, I much prefer the draught real ale to its bottled equivalent. Bottles are fine at home, on the odd occasion I drink beer at home.  I've occasionally had a Budweiser Budvar, Pilsner Urquell or similar; pleasant enough for a change, but not a Road to Damascus moment.

Despite my distinct preference for real ale from casks, I fully accept the CAMRA policy that it is pro-real ale, and not anti-anything; the campaign stands for choice, including the choice not to drink real ale. This point was made crystal clear by CAMRA's founders (as B&B's post makes clear) and was reiterated by Colin Valentine, the national chair, at the AGM I attended in Norwich two years ago. This means that comments such as 'chemical fizz' and 'zombeers' - to name a couple of the milder insults - are not only childish and deliberately obnoxious: they are contrary to CAMRA's ethos. Some real ale types - a minority - take the view that, if only we could get lager and smooth drinkers to try real ale, they'd be converted, but  such a view is misguided. Many of them have tried it and didn't like it; others are simply happy with what they drink and see no need to experiment. In addition, we all taste things differently: for example, I can't stand fish, and the sight and smell of seafood makes me feel queasy. If everyone sensed fish and seafood as I do, I'm certain no one would eat either.

We have the modern phenomenon of quality lagers being brewed being brewed by micros and craft breweries. Harviestoun Schiehallion was the first of such beers I came across; as I recall, it was in cask at Fleetwood Beer Festival. It's a while since I've had it, but as I recall, it seemed to have more in common with modern golden ales than it did with Skol or Fosters.

My position is quite simple: I prefer cask real ale, but you can drink whatever you like. I don't think my attitude is radically different from most real ale drinkers I come across and, as a member, it's logical to assume that I meet a fair number of other CAMRA members.

This post has turned out much longer than I originally intended. However, I'll end with this: if I'm buying a round and a drinker asks for lager without specifying a brand, I'll just order the cheapest on the assumption he or she isn't bothered.

Monday 18 May 2015

Power of the press

Our local paper, the Southport Visiter (sic), has published an on-line list of our best local pubs, and I was pleased to see my local, the Guest House in Union Street, come top. The full list is here. I wouldn't necessarily agree with the entire list; there are some I wouldn't have included and others that are surprising omissions, such as the Zetland, the Mount Pleasant, the Bold (in Churchtown), the Hesketh and the Freshfield. That said, we're quite fortunate in Southport for having some good pubs locally, which is often not the case in seaside towns: at union conferences, we found Blackpool and Bournemouth particularly deficient in this respect.

It's good that our local paper is supporting local pubs. For just over a year, CAMRA has been given a weekly column, which has mostly been written by local CAMRA stalwart, Mike Perkins and, until my previous computer broke down, I contributed several articles, which can be found here. Now that I'm on-line again, I intend to write more; for one thing, Mike could do with a break. I know from my period of editor of local CAMRA magazine, Ale & Hearty, that the local Branch likes to have a magazine and the newspaper column but, with a couple of exceptions, don't feel obliged to lend a hand. I've spoken to a couple of editors in other Branches who have had similar experiences. Regrettably, the tendency to dump tasks on individuals is by no means confined to CAMRA: many mass membership organisations tend to leave the bulk of the work to an individual or small group. Sometimes the individuals concerned prefer it that way, but mostly not.

The list is derived from CAMRA's What Pub website.

Saturday 16 May 2015

BB King - the thrill has gone

I'm just a local amateur singer-guitarist and my music doesn't have a lot in common with the blues, but it's a mistake to assume that the music someone plays is the only music they like, but I've found it's an assumption a lot of people make.

Although I can't claim to be an expert, I love the blues, from the classic bluesman like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and BB King, to blues-influenced rock artists such as Eric Clapton, the Stones and Peter Green. The influence goes further because, as Muddy waters sang, The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll. He was right: rock & roll was heavily influenced by the blues, and the basic chord structure of blues and rock & roll can be quite similar, which is no coincidence. Rock & roll also was influenced by country, gospel and doo-wop, but the blues provided the template that took rock & roll through to rock: Fleetwood Mac, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Whitesnake - among many other bands - all acknowledged their music and singing style were derived from the blues. For my money, U2's finest moment was when they played When Love Comes To Town with BB King.

BB King is one of the last of the genuine Mississippi bluesmen. 'BB' has in recent years been explained as meaning Blues Boy, but I remember years ago reading that this was a later revision and it originally had a more racist derivation: Black Boy*. I find this quite plausible, given the racism that these performers had to face through much of their lives: refusal of admission to hotels, or referred to the back door, and the lawful segregation in many aspects of everyday life that they grew up with in the old 'gallant' South. I think we British can take some credit for the fact that, because these blues singers were treated like conquering heroes over here even before they'd played any gigs in Britain, they were ultimately respected by white audiences in the USA. The Rolling Stones must take a lot of credit for showing white Americans what they had in their midst when they insisted on BB King supporting them on a US tour in the late 1960s.

I once thought 'BB King' when I heard on the radio the very first guitar note of one of his songs. I'm quite sure I couldn't have recognised any other guitarist on such scanty information,

Quite simply, an era has passed.

* P.S. (4 June): having listened to a lot of media coverage and done a bit of research on the internet, I've now concluded that this derivation is unlikely, and is probably no more than an assumption. However, my description of the discrimination black performers were subjected to is completely accurate.

Here is BB King playing with the late Gary Moore. It's definitely worth nine minutes of your time.

Friday 15 May 2015

A crafty snack for SABMiller

Craft beer enthusiasts will be weeping into their beer (assuming they can find anywhere that sells it) at the news that the London-based Meantime Brewing Company is to be taken over by SABMiller, producers of such varied beers as Fosters, Grolsch, Miller, Peroni and Pilsner Urquell. SABMiller operates in 80 countries on every continent on the planet, so it's not exactly a merger of equals.

I can't help feeling that becoming part of the second biggest brewing corporation on the planet rather destroys the rebel image that many of these small craft brewing capitalists like to cultivate. With any luck, it might put ideas in to the head of Anheuser-Busch InBev: there's an irritating little brewery in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, that might suit their portfolio nicely.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Mild thing!

I can honestly say that I have never bought a pint of mild as a result of CAMRA's May Is Mild Month campaign. I don't see it as my job to spend my money promoting a commercial product. Does this mean I never drink mild? No, not exactly.

The first beer I bought was a half of Tetley's Mild in Liverpool, which I wrote about here. It cost 10d (worth about 53p today). Although I switched to bitter at 18, I occasionally drank mild and still do. In more recent decades, when the Warrington Tetley brewery closed and all production moved to Leeds, everyone said, "Oh good; we'll now have the superior Leeds Tetley Bitter." No chance! From then on, the output from Leeds was worse than the less-favoured Warrington bitter had been, although it hadn't actually been quite as different from the Leeds version as everyone claimed. Why the beer was worse I've no idea, but it was. The consequence was that, if I ended up in a pub that sold only cask Tetley Bitter and Mild, I'd always opt for the latter. It wasn't wonderful, but was reasonable enough without that unpleasant chemical taste that I detected in latter day Tetley Bitter.

A popular mild is Moorhouses Back Cat; they don't call it mild any more, but that's what it is. I've drunk other pleasant-tasting milds such as Nutty Slack from Prospect of Wigan and Dark Mild from Bank Top of Bolton. I've had others, but can't bring the names to mind. I remember going round the Cains Brewery in Liverpool in the very early days when they brewed only bitter but were experimenting with mild. We tried the test brew and it was delicious. Unfortunately this was not the recipe that they settled on, because the mild that subsequently went on sale was, to my mind, quite unexceptional.

I will tend to gravitate towards a mild or low strength bitter on the rare occasion I go to the pub in my car, which - despite the best efforts of the anti-alcohol brigade - is still completely legal, as long as you don't exceed the limit.

About five or six years ago, there was an attempt to launch a campaign to persuade CAMRA to Make March Mild Month. The argument was: "Like them or loath them, golden ales are in full swing by then [May] and mild ain't going to get much of a look in, certainly not as far as we are concerned. Mild is associated with cooler and cold weather; it is not considered a drink for late spring/early summer." I agreed with this idea, although it didn't go anywhere: May is still Mild Month. But this begs the question: why? A once a year surge won't enable a brewery to keep a beer style going throughout the year. CAMRA members are urged to encourage pubs to stock mild: as a person who usually drinks bitters and golden ales, I'd be a charlatan to expect them to stock something I am likely to drink only occasionally. Further to that, licensees have told me that they have stocked a real ale, not necessarily mild, in response to suggestions from CAMRA members, whom they don't see again even though the requested beer has been put on. A bit cheeky that.

Mild's poor reputation was originally partly due to the practice of pouring all the beer slops into it. One irate CAMRA member took me to task for spreading scurrilous urban myths, but he was wrong; this practice did go on. I know because I had several relatives who worked in the pub business from the 1940s to the 1980s, and also some longer serving licensees have told me. I wrote in some detail about this in September 2013, and covered the possibility of infection and the effects of returning flat beer into the cask. What I didn't cover was that, by putting different beers into the cask, you'd be changing the nature and flavour of the beer in an unpredictable way. No wonder keg caught on: at least you knew what you were getting.

Can mild make make a comeback? It's certainly possible, because people's tastes do change and the golden ale bubble may not last forever. Or drinkers may adopt it as one of a range of beers they're happy to drink, in contrast to the past when you'd just drink bitter, mild or lager. One thing I do believe is that a once a year campaign is unlikely to make any significant difference to its chances of survival.

Sunday 10 May 2015

On Your Bike!

The Manchester Beer & Cider Festival, which for the last two years has taken place in the unusual surroundings of the National Cycling Centre (NCC) in Manchester, known as the Velodrome, has been unable to agree dates for next year's festival with British Cycling, the main tenants of the building. The festival's organiser Graham Donning said: "This is extremely disappointing. The Velodrome has made an excellent setting for Manchester’s premier beer and cider event and both CAMRA and the NCC management wanted to continue to build on the success of the event." Full story here.

My impression from what I've read is that British Cycling simply didn't want the event there at all and placed barriers in the way of any attempts to compromise, even though the NCC was keen. This festival, when it was the National Winter Ales Festival, has moved before so I think we can be fairly confident a new venue will be found.

I paid my first, and now only, visit to this venue this year. It is strange drinking beer while cyclists hurtle around the track at incredibly high speeds, but once you get used to that, it is very enjoyable. Unusually for a CAMRA festival nowadays, it takes cash rather than tokens. The possible snag here is that volunteers who work at other beer festivals are likely to be more accustomed to dealing with tokens: at least, that is my explanation for being given change for £15 when I handed over a £20 note to buy a pint. From an organisational point of view, cash bars are labour intensive and you need loads of change to ensure your tills don't run out, but if they can handle that - as it seems they can - it's not a problem that need concern the customer. There is also a session when CAMRA members get in free, a perk that some CAMRA festivals are discontinuing nowadays.

Let's see what next year brings.

While there, I saw a stall for Real XS Radio ("Your Classic Rock Station") with two empty guitar racks in front of it. The sign read: "Free air guitars - please take one".

Thursday 7 May 2015

Song For Today!

Robinson's Wizard

The Masons acoustic song session was particularly busy last night, with 9 or 10 performers rolling up. The Masons is a small local in Anchor Street, Southport, and the regulars seem to quite enjoy having unamplified live music in their pub a couple of times a month (every 1st and 3rd Wednesday).

Tasting Notes
Brewer's tasting notes for Robinson's Wizard
It's a Robinson's house, and the usual real ale is Unicorn, with occasional visits by Dizzy Blonde or, more rarely, Trooper. Last night there was one I hadn't come across before: Wizard, named after the legend of the Wizard of Alderley Edge. I've attached the tasting notes from the Robinson's website, which I regard as wildly optimistic. It has a subdued version of the distinctive Robinson's flavour that is particularly detectable in Unicorn or Trooper, but is lighter flavoured than either of these. Beyond this, it is an unremarkable amber beer, pleasant enough in itself, but no flavours that either especially please or offend. At 3.7%, it is below my preferred strength, but as the Masons has only one real ale on at any time, beggars can't be choosers. I didn't mind it, but neither would I cross the road for it. Conclusion: typical example of a regional brewer's speciality beer.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Waterloo Beer Festival

My friend Roland texted me about going to this beer festival. I said yes, and agreed to book the tickets on-line. When I did so, I got a message that my tickets had been e-mailed to me, and I'd need to print them off. Oops! My printer was broken, and I'd been promising myself for perhaps 9 months that I'd replace it: well, you can't rush these things. Off to Argos and an hour later I'm the proud owner of a new printer, and the first documents it printed were our tickets.

Old Christ Church
The festival is run by Liverpool Organic Brewery in the Old Christ Church in Waterloo, which is a great, if draughty, venue. A jazz band called Swingology provided some good music, and not too loud; I noticed that entertainment was provided at all sessions, so if you're one of those who find that music affects your taste buds, this festival may not be for you. The noise levels were high, but through conversation rather than the music; the acoustics are such that noise of any kind bounces all over the place.

I was wearing a badge that hinted at my support for nuclear disarmament, and the fellow who served me couldn't stop laughing when I ordered a beer called Bomb from Atomic Brewery (5.2%), a hoppy golden ale. Dragon Slayer (4.5%) from B&T Brewery was bland to my taste, but probably fine for people who prefer the likes pf Wainwright. I tried 9 different beers in all (half pint glasses) and my favourite was Buzz (4.6%) from the Animal Brewing Co. The most extreme beer was the aptly-named Hop Monster (4.5%) from Exit: very enjoyable but it certainly scorched my taste buds to the extent that the next beer I had, Moondance (4.5%) from Melwood initially seemed disappointing and bland, but as the taste of Hop Monster receded, it became clear that this beer, brewed near Kirkby, was really quite pleasant.

When the session ended, we went to the new Wetherspoons in Waterloo, the Queens Picture House, very close to the station. It was formerly a carpet shop, but before that, there had been a cinema on the site. The decor is bright and more modern than our older Southport Spoons and I quite liked it: Roland said that the last time he'd been there was to buy a carpet. I can't remember what I drank but it was fine. After one pint, we decamped to the Volunteer Canteen, East Street, Waterloo. This small, two-roomed, mid-terrace pub was full with football fans and refugees from the beer festival, but despite the bustle and noise, it was very friendly as usual. The excellent Lemon Dream (4.5%) from Salopian was my drink, until it ran out, and then it was on to Liverpool Organic Cascade (3.8%).

After that, it was on the train back to Southport.

Liverpool Organic Brewery are running another festival from 30 July to 2 August in St Luke's Church, the famous bombed out church at the top of Bold Street, Liverpool.

Friday 1 May 2015

Keith Hancock in Southport

Keith Hancock is a singer, songwriter and musician from Manchester originally and has toured internationally: more details of what he's done over the last 30+ years on his website here. He now lives in Saigon and makes a living as a musician, singer/songwriter, author, writer and contributor to various websites. 2013 saw him returning to serious touring for the first time in 7 years, so an appearance locally in Southport is thus an extreme rarity. The good news is that you can see him this Sunday at the Bothy Folk Club, Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS, at 8.00pm this Sunday 3 May. The venue serves real from Southport Brewery or Thwaites.

Here is a sample of what he does: