Saturday 31 October 2015

A matter of taste

I've been a bit under the weather over the last 7 or 8 weeks: it's nothing serious, only my recurring sinus trouble accompanied on this occasion by a particularly nasty dose of conjunctivitis that has taken three courses to clear up (at least, I'm hoping it's cleared up). I don't have a very strong sense of smell at the best of times, but I have noticed on occasion recently that when I can't breathe through my nose at all, beer is either almost tasteless or actually unpleasant. I hadn't realised precisely how important even my limited sense of smell was to the flavour of beer.

I've sometimes taken the mickey out of some tasting notes (and doubtless will again) when they are excessively florid in their descriptions of the smell and taste of beer, but I have to accept that some drinkers will inevitably sense more from their pint than I can. This is not news, of course, as we all sense things differently from each other - obviously - because otherwise we'd all tend to have very similar preferences, and clearly we do not. To give a personal example relating to food, I loathe fish and seafood - in fact, the sight of the latter makes me feel queasy - to the extent that I cannot understand how people can put something that tastes so vile in their mouths. But as they do, they must taste fish and seafood very differently from me. Logically, the same applies to beer.

I draw a few conclusions from all of this:
  • Tasting notes only have value if you sense beers in a similar way to the person who wrote them.
  • The view of certain diehard CAMRA dinosaurs that, if you can only get people to try real ale, they'll be converted and never touch keg or smooth again, is misconceived.
  • Beer competitions that are based on panels of experts are of little real value.
Overall, though, vive la diffĂ©rence: the beer world would be much more limited and boring if we all had similar tastes.

Friday 30 October 2015

Scottish pubs hit by change in the law

The reduced drink-drive limit in Scotland has hit pubs hard, according to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association. They report that more than half of pubs reported a drop in trade over the summer months; the worst affected were rural pubs with more than a third stating that their sales had fallen by more than 10%. In England and Wales, the alcohol limit for drivers is 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, but in Scotland the limit was reduced from 80mg to 50 last year. The effect on pubs was entirely predictable, and indeed it was predicted by wise sages such as Curmudgeon and me.

Quick easy fixes that show you've "done something" are popular with many politicians, and the nanny state meddlers of the SNP are no exception. The real problem with drink-driving is that some drinkers will drink whatever they want and then climb into their car and drive, without ever giving a second thought to the limit. The driver who carefully drinks within the limit is not the problem, but he or she will be hit by a reduced limit, not the lunatics who are the real danger on our roads.

At the time the Scots adopted the lower limit, the UK government said it had no plans to reduce the drink-driving limit in England and Wales as it said this would have no impact on "high risk offenders". Despite that sensible approach, I can't help wondering whether, with the ongoing cuts in police numbers, it may at some point become tempting to cut the limit in the rest of the UK. Okay, the result is that you spoil the pleasure of careful drivers, and you close some pubs in the process - but you can claim you're "doing something" and being tough on the causes of crime. And not only that, it's a nice, cheap option - much cheaper than tackling the hardened offenders.

Monday 26 October 2015

Roscoe Head campaign

There has so far been no progress in the campaign to ensure the future of the Roscoe Head in Roscoe Street, Liverpool 1. The assurances provided by New River, the property developers who have bought this pub, one of only five in every Good Beer Guide, are wholly inadequate. As I previously wrote:

The only assurance New River have given is that there are no plans to redevelop the Roscoe Head ... into convenience stores "at this stage". There is no guarantee about conversion into something other than a convenience store, or how long "this stage" will last.

The campaign is being stepped up. There will be another rally at the pub at 12.30 pm on Saturday 7 November, which will attended by CAMRA's National Chair, Colin Valentine, which is a measure how seriously CAMRA is taking this issue. There may be some music, but at any event Liverpool Branch are hoping for a good, vociferous turnout. I'll be there certainly.

Click here for my other posts on the campaign.

Saturday 24 October 2015

An American's view of British drinkers

I was irritated by the BBC's coverage of certain aspects of the visit to the UK of President Xi Jinping of China. While I have serious reservations about the deal concerning the new nuclear power station, it's not that particularly piqued me. It was the stage managed visit to the pub, especially when the BBC newsreader referred to the President being given a pint of warm beer, thus reinforcing the stereotype promulgated by John Major 22 years ago: "Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer ..."

Another foreigner, Scott Waters from the USA, has visited us recently for a long holiday. He has written about his impressions of life in Britain, and these have been circulating on the Internet. His observations are quite witty, many pertinent, and I'd say quite affectionate, although it's clear that some of our ways are slightly mystifying. It's always interesting to see an outsider's view of ourselves. I have extracted from his list those comments that refer to drink:

I was in England again a few weeks ago, mostly in small towns, but here's some of what I noticed: 
  • The pubs close too early. 
  • Pubs are not bars, they are community living rooms. 
  • If someone buys you a drink you must do the same. 
  • Avoid British wine and French beer. 
  • Beer comes in large, completely filled, actual pint glasses and the closer the brewery the better the beer. 
  • The beer isn't warm, each style is served at the proper temperature. 
  • Cider (alcoholic) is quite good. 
  • Excess cider consumption can be very painful. 
  • Drinks don't come with ice. 
  • Every pub seems to have a pet drunk. 
  • Their coffee is mediocre but the tea is wonderful.
  • The universal greeting is "Cheers" (pronounced "cheeahz" unless you are from Cornwall, in which case it's "chairz")

It's interesting that an American tourist understood beer temperature better than a British newsreader or a former British PM. To anyone who's not convinced: if you think our beer's warm, try having a bath in it. You won't linger.

Have a look at the full list - it's here.

Thursday 22 October 2015

We British prefer 'weaker' beers

According to recent research, we British prefer beer that is nearly half as strong as those on the Continent. The average strength of our favourite beers is apparently 4.4%, as opposed to the 7.9% European drinkers prefer. I'm not very surprised: most of us know that the British brewing tradition is radically different from most of those that can be found in Europe. This is not just a matter of brewing techniques.

The First World War brought serious restrictions on pubs and brewing; at one point it was illegal to buy a round. I've read an account of how a man wanted to buy drinks for himself and his wife and was refused because that constituted a round; his wife had to go to the bar to buy her own. Under the Defence of the Realm Act, licensing hours were introduced, beer was watered down and an extra penny tax put on a pint. The Temperance movement was quite a force in the UK and the brewing industry was not immune to what was, at that time, its increasing impact; these laws gave them a significant boost, although a Temperance appeal to the monarch to declare that a toast to the king could be made just as loyally with a non-alcoholic drink was given short shrift by the Palace. The Temperance movement eventually lost most of its influence when Prohibition was ended in the USA, but the effects of First World War legislation on beer, including upon its strength, continued long after the war ended. In particular, the precedent of gradually but continually cutting beer strengths continued until the 1970s when CAMRA published the strength of all beers: brewers who didn't voluntarily reveal the strength, or weakness, of their products were angry and dismayed when the Campaign had their products analysed and published the sometimes embarrassing results.

Beer drinking was was strongly identified with industrial labour. Workers wanted to slake their thirst after a day's work, especially those in heavy industry: cool pints that didn't have you sliding under the table after just a few were preferred, hence the former popularity of mild in the old industrial heartlands. The decline in mild drinking must be partly due to the ending of much of our industrial base. (There's also another possible factor that I wrote about in May.)

Traditionally, we Britons used to spend long evenings in the pub, often meeting early in the evening and staying until closing time: such long evenings demand a beer that can be drunk in fairly large quantities. Additionally, formerly popular pub games such as darts, dominoes and bar billiards required the players not to be legless.

Our beer strengths have recovered to some extent since CAMRA's exposure of the scandal of weak beer sold at premium prices. It used to be said that one national brand could have been sold legally during the American Prohibition, and there were frequent rumours that some brewers put chemicals in beer to give you a slight headache so that the next day you thought you had a hangover. I've no idea how true these stories were, but the fact that they circulated shows how some drinkers viewed the beers they were sold with a certain amount of distrust.

All these factors are specific to the UK, and have shaped our preference for beers that are less strong than those on the Continent. Personally, I'd prefer to have more pints in the 4.0% to 5.0% range than fewer at 7.9%, but that's what I've grown up with and what I've become used to. I don't think I'm untypical in this respect.

The research was by academics at Anglia Ruskin University based on 65,000 reviews on the app Pint Please.

Monday 19 October 2015

Has CAMRA had its day?

We found little to smile about in
Greenall Whitley pubs in the 70s.
Does CAMRA have a purpose any more? It seems that I've been reading articles and blog posts on this theme almost since I first joined CAMRA in 1985. At their least contentious, they say that there are now loads of different real ales from a record number of breweries, so it's job done. Others, often written with a 'more in sorrow than in anger' tone, prefer to twist the knife. They went to a CAMRA meeting once, and found a load of bearded weirdos who were loud about their likes and dislikes, while ignoring outsiders, which is usually interpreted as a deliberate snub. Everyone else in the pub was apparently annoyed by the CAMRA types, and the writer concludes by shaking the dust from their feet and swearing never to attend a meeting again. This attitude has recently been astutely parodied in the Seeing The Lizards blog. Another group of detractors are a vocal minority from the 'craft' beer tendency who don't like the Campaign because it won't endorse a beer type that doesn't fit CAMRA's definition of real ale. This is a bit like ranting against the Cat's Protection League because it won't take in dogs.

Beer font? Or the headstone
over many lost breweries?
I am not an undiscerning member of CAMRA, and I have criticised the organisation quite a few times here. I do, however, take issue with suggestions that the Campaign is now redundant, or even that it's insular and exclusive. CAMRA members are not all of a type, no more than the members of any other voluntary mass membership organisation, although there are always those who do fit the stereotype. To present an analogy: Lefties often stereotype Tories, but in my years of local political activity on the Left, I have come across local Conservatives who are likeable people who, in their own way, want to do the best for the local community. From my perspective they're misguided, of course, but the point remains. Reality is always much more multi-layered and complicated than simplistic generalisations suggest - it's also much more interesting. CAMRA is no exception to this. Most CAMRA members don't go round boorishly taking over pubs, insulting lager drinkers and demanding privileges from licensees. Even more shockingly, most male CAMRA members I know don't even have beards. But recycling these myths provides sufficient excuse for some of these writers to feel justified in not playing a more active role in the Campaign. If you don't want to be involved, fine, but don't justify that by peddling hackneyed misconceptions.

The mainstay of
1970's parties
Is the Campaign's work done? We have a record number of breweries and most pubs not only sell real ale, but many have a good selection on offer. We've become so accustomed to this that people sometimes turn their noses up at selections of 'the usual suspects', forgetting that in the 70s and 80s we would have been delighted with such offerings. The snobby attitude to Wetherspoons is a good example of this: when I was a student in 1970s Warrington, we would have thought we'd gone to heaven if we'd come across a pub like Wetherspoons. I recall in the 1980s finding myself in a pub in Hampshire which had six real ales on handpump, mostly from the Gales range. I thought it was wonderful, but today there are some who would turn up their noses because of the lack of variety. 

This is all good, isn't it? Yes, of course, but in the long term there can be little room for complacency. The number of brewers is constantly increasing, but the market is shrinking: pubs continue to close, and beer consumption overall is going down. At some point, these two contradictory pressures must collide, resulting in many small brewers closing, though a few may be taken over by bigger concerns. In ten or twenty years' time, we may look back on the present situation as a golden age. Campaigning to save pubs is a logical response to this problem, because fewer pubs will mean less cask beer, the growth of micro-pubs notwithstanding. Those who short-sightedly argue that CAMRA has no business campaigning for pubs should bear that in mind.

In general, no advances can ever be taken for granted: what was hard fought for can be lost again. The current attacks on workers' rights, the trade union movement, the NHS and the benefit system bear testament to that. Whether or not you agree with such measures is irrelevant: the point is that nothing can be seen as safely in the bag. Progress is not inevitable. In the case of real ale, there are many threats that I've covered many times before, so here is a brief reminder of some of them in no particular order:
  • Attacks by the anti-alcohol brigade, aka the health lobby.
  • Predatory property companies buying up pubs for redevelopment.
  • Debt-ridden pub companies overcharging tenants and redeveloping sites to offset debts.
  • Punitive tax levels.
The Plough, Southport, in the
process of being demolished.
There is also the fact that multinational beer corporations want to move in on the market that is currently dominated by micro and regional breweries. I can see nothing that would prevent a repeat of the infamous Whitbread Tour of Destruction which swallowed up so many local brews, replacing them with Whitbread 'Big Head' Trophy Bitter, the deluded pint that thought it was a quart. Sharps and Meantime have already been hoovered up, and I have no doubt that other breweries are currently being eyed up for takeover. A proliferation of new small breweries suggests our beer scene is healthy but it can do little to combat such threats, whereas a campaign of 174,690 members has more of a chance.

The Sir Henry Segrave (JDW), Southport.
If only we'd had pubs like this in the 70s.
CAMRA is often dismissed as just a drinking club. This may be true for some members, and the Wetherspoons vouchers are often cited as proof of this, but most members that I know did not join for the vouchers. Another shocking fact: quite a lot of members don't use their tokens. In addition, I've known even 'drinking club' members become activated when faced with a threat to something dear to them, such as a local brewery or much-loved pub. If there's nothing local to campaign on, they are keeping a network of local branches going so that if a campaign is needed at any time, the structures are already in place. Okay, it might take a bomb to get some people moving, but it's massively better than trying to build a campaign from scratch in the future, should one be needed.

CAMRA's list of some of its successes can be found here - link provided to save me just repeating what they say - and some of these are recent, which refutes the suggestion that the Campaign no longer has a purpose. Many attempts to rubbish CAMRA are motivated by people who are hostile, often with agenda of their own, such as talking up 'craft' beer, and decrying real ale as old hat. CAMRA is not perfect, but then neither is any other mass membership organisation. I should know: I've belonged to quite a few over the years. Despite the fact that I sometimes get impatient or annoyed with certain things in the Campaign, I'll stick with it. People who sit around waiting for the perfect organisation that suits them in absolutely every respect will end up belonging to nothing. For me, this one is still worth belonging to.

References to craft beer advocates in this article refer to a partisan vocal minority. Most drinkers, whether of real ale, craft beers or both, are tolerant and don't mind what others choose to drink.

Friday 16 October 2015

Askew Sisters gig

The guests at the Bothy Folk Club thus Sunday 18 October are the highly talented Askew Sisters, Hazel and Emily. "[They] are fast becoming one of the most popular and respected duos on the English folk scene. From dark ballads to uplifting dance tunes, they play with driving energy and the unity of two people who have played together all their lives. The sisters use fiddle, melodeon and concertina to breathtaking effect, creating cinematic arrangements that get to the very heart of each song. These create a perfect setting for Hazel’s striking voice, which won her Best Female Singer at the Spiral Earth Awards 2011."

"A definitive album of the current English Folk scene." - Spiral Earth

"Inspired arrangements of traditional music, striking versions of tricky ballads – this is traditional folk in a fine, fresh form." - The Telegraph

"An album of singular and iconic beauty." - FolkWords

" Vocals shimmering above fiddles, viola, melodeons and concertina, [this album] casts its spell." - The Sunday Times

"The edgy alchemy of melodeon and fiddle makes for a vivid and revitalising sound throughout… one of the most atmospheric and erudite albums you’ll hear this year and a model of consummate taste." - EDS

The Bothy meets at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS. Tickets on-line, or on the door. This will probably be a popular night, so best not arrive too late. The venue sells real ale from Southport Brewery.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

16th Sandgrounder Beer Festival

This year's CAMRA Southport & West Lancs Beer Festival opens at 6.00 pm tomorrow Thursday 15 October. It is open from midday to 11.00 pm Friday and Saturday. Only £3 to get in (free for card-carrying CAMRA members). Food available at all sessions. Click here for more details.

Monday 12 October 2015

Will the National Living Wage close pubs?

I've just read an article in the Morning Advertiser by William Lees-Jones of the Middleton brewery, JW Lees, suggesting that the National Living Wage (currently £9.15 in London and £7.85 elsewhere) will close pubs. I don't usually take much notice of economic apocalypse predicted by capitalist companies when they are forced to implement social or welfare measures, or - as I prefer to think of it - are required to face up to their social responsibilities, seeing that the doom and gloom they anticipate rarely materialises. Is this situation any different?

I think it might well be. The gradual introduction of the Living Wage over the next five years is coupled with immediate cuts in tax credits. I have long thought that the state shouldn't be subsidising low wages, currently with tax credits, and previously with Family Income Supplement and then Family Credit. However, it has been the policy of both Tory and Labour governments in the last 35 to 40 years to cultivate a low wage economy to make us "more competitive". It's a typical British response: countries like Germany and Japan modernised their industries to improve the products and make them more attractive to customers. We just tried to cut costs. That is why in the 1970s British Leyland was selling mostly unattractive-looking cars with 1950s engines. The same applied to the brewing industry: the 1970s was a terrible time for beer as companies tried to get us to drink mass produced, low quality national brands.

Our motor industry is now mostly foreign owned, but our brewing situation has - against the flow of the tide of British industry - improved beyond recognition, although that has little to do with the industry as it was. The Beer Orders of 1989 liberated brewing by causing the national brewers to shed their massive tied estates, thereby creating a bigger market for small new brewers. Unfortunately, they also led to the parlous situation that many of our pubs are now in, the reasons for which I've covered many times previously, although the huge debts of pub companies must take much of the blame.

The government is transferring responsibility for dealing with low wages from itself to employers. In principle I agree with this, but their motive is not any concern for employees, but simply to save money. This is demonstrated by the gap between the ending of tax credits and the full implementation of the Living Wage, which will undoubtedly cause hardship. You cannot overturn decades of government policy relating to a low age economy within a single parliament: the more quickly you introduce major changes, the higher the chance of unintended consequences. Just as the removal of tax credits without any immediate replacement may drive many workers into further poverty, the requirement to pay the Living Wage may drive pubs that are just about holding on into deficit. Consequently, I think William Lees-Jones may just have a point to some extent, although I feel that his pronouncements are still partly derived from the usual business habit of crying wolf about increased costs.

An increased level of pub closures is not inevitable: the industry's call for a lower level of VAT for the hospitality industry and cuts in alcohol duty could help pubs deal with the extra cost of the Living Wage, but I see no sign of any of that happening. The government's strategy is high risk, not just to pubs. Time will show how risky, but some casualties do seem quite likely. Regrettably, this may include some pubs.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Suburban pubs most at risk

A partly demolished Plough in Southport
Suburban pubs face a greater chance of closure than rural or town and city centre pubs, according to CAMRA. During each week of the first half of 2015, seventeen pubs were lost suburban areas, nine in the countryside and three on the High Street. This follows separate research that showed there has been a 4.4% decline in wet-led outlets over the last year, higher than the the overall figure.

This is borne out by our experience locally: suburban pubs we have lost in Southport include The Herald, The Portland, the Shakespeare, the London and the Plough - all in predominantly residential areas. A CAMRA spokesperson said: "Suburban pubs are classic street-corner, wet-led pubs and community locals that have been an integral part of British culture for hundreds of years. Unfortunately though, as drinking habits change and property prices rise, they are being hit the worst."

I think that's true, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Debt-ridden pub companies are reluctant to invest in pubs that may be only moderately profitable. Older suburban pubs often sit on large sites in areas that already residential in character; redevelopment into accommodation must be very tempting for the owners. In this way, a pub that isn't doing a great deal for a pub company can suddenly become a lottery win.

It's my view that the pub companies sometimes help this process along by neglecting their pubs so that they become dingy and uninviting, thus driving customers away and into the town centre pubs, which are generally better maintained (three of the pubs named above were very close to the town centre anyway). The pub is then deemed unviable and closed.

The call by industry organisations for further cuts in beer duty, business rates and a hospitality rate of VAT. These might help, but they won't do anything to sort out the debt mountain the pubco industry is stuck with. Cashing in their assets will therefore remain a preferable alternative to continuing investment and moderate returns.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Big Blues Festival, Southport

The Stumble are playing on Saturday
This weekend (9 - 10 October) there will be a blues festival in The Atkinson on Lord Street, Southport.

The Atkinson says that: "The weekend is all about the food, and drink, music and a bunch of people who all love the same thing … great music! Featuring Martin Harley, Jaywalkers, Gilmore & Roberts, Amelia Curran, The Coal Porters and Danny & The Champions Of The World ... The line-up is big and bold and presents music that is desperate to be heard! Come along and hear Chicago style rhythm & blues, gospel, rock and roots to the experimental across the 2 day event."

Real ale will be provided by Southport Brewery, Sandgrounder and Golden Sands, and there's a food menu as well. Festival tickets here.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Getting wasted

I was in the Mount Pleasant in Southport with some friends last night watching local rock band Fag Ash Lil put on a great show as usual. The pub was quite busy, probably not as busy as it would have been had the Southport Musical Fireworks Championships not been on.

At some time during the evening, a group of young lads walked out of the pub, leaving four pints of lager and cider on the table: one untouched, two with no more than one sip taken, and one more than half full. At closing time a couple of hours later, the bar staff removed them and poured them away. I estimated that about £12's worth of drink went down the drain.

I've periodically noticed this kind of behaviour before: certain groups of people, usually young, will suddenly decide to go and, instead of drinking up, just walk away. In the Sir Henry Segrave a couple of months ago, there was a large group consisting of a couple of dozen males, mostly young, who did exactly the same thing, except on that occasion there were probably about 18-20 abandoned drinks.

Leaving beer is not something I've ever been in the habit of doing, nor people I know. I can only assume they've got more money than sense.

Saturday 3 October 2015

CAMRA AGM Liverpool 2016

I've just had an e-mail inviting me to register for the CAMRA AGM in Liverpool. It's great to have it back in Merseyside; it was in Southport in 2004. Liverpool is a wonderful city for pubs, and I'm not just saying that because I was born there. With trains every quarter of an hour between Liverpool and Southport where I live (the last one home is at twenty to midnight), and a free Merseytravel pass, the only cost for me will be the beer. So perhaps I'd better get saving then.

I like the logo that's been devised for the occasion. Liverpool Branch have had T-shirts made with it on; I wonder whether I can get hold of one. Are any fellow bloggers or ReARM readers intending to come next April to our fine city?

The first day of the AGM is All Fools' Day. I do hope that's not an omen.

Friday 2 October 2015

Posh pub grub

The Hop Vine in Burscough is well known
for its food, but is still a good real ale pub.
An interesting post on Curmudgeon's blog was about how some pubs have gone upmarket by switching the emphasis of their trade to food. Not just any old pub grub, but quality food that is correspondingly expensive. With the layout of the pub clearly arranged with diners in mind, such pubs aren't particularly welcoming if all you want to do is have a drink. I added a comment, which I reproduce it here:

I've just done a tour over two days of ten of our local country pubs [in West Lancashire], many canalside, to distribute our local CAMRA mag, and also to take notes and pictures for my pub articles for the local paper. I took friends with me as my drinking was seriously limited by driving; they were my surrogate drinkers, and we spent some time in each pub chatting to bar staff and licensees.

All the pubs did food, and only one, a residential hotel with a real ale bar, asked if we'd be eating, but there was no problem when we said no. All were welcoming and friendly, and I got the impression that all, including the hotel, had a core of regulars who came in just to have a drink. Perhaps that's the difference: when a pub ceases to have such regulars, it has completed the transition from pub to restaurant where drinkers are seen as table blockers rather than customers.

The Mount Pleasant, nearest pub to where
I live: good food, but still a real pub.
Although there are quite a lot of food pubs in the local area, I can think of only one that might fit into the upmarket food category described by Curmudgeon: the Sparrowhawk in Formby, which used to be a popular wedding venue and is now primarily a restaurant that serves real ale. I've never been because: it is out of my way; I prefer not to drink in restaurants; and I've no wish to pay the high prices for beer. I can drink elsewhere locally for 50% to 80% of the prices they charge. This isn't a criticism of the venue: the Sparrowhawk has its own market, and that's fair enough - horses for courses, after all. It was never intended to be a local.

For myself, if I choose to have a meal in a pub, I prefer the kinds of pubs I visited in Lancashire to any gastropub. Curmudgeon specifically mentioned Cheshire, which in parts is much posher than Southport. That may explain the number of pricey food pubs he has encountered.

I've just found a webpage called "Leading Gastropubs Southport". The nearest is 12.4 miles away.