Tuesday 31 May 2016

End of the Pier for Southport Beer Festival

Argarmeles Clog dancing at the
Sandgrounder Beer Festival
Last year I wrote that a dissatisfied customer had sent a highly critical letter about the 16th Sandgrounder Beer Festival last October to our local paper, the Southport Visiter. I considered the complaints unfair and refuted them on this blog. At the same time the CAMRA branch published a reply in the paper; it made similar points to me, although there'd been no collusion between us.

I haven't been to many CAMRA meetings recently and didn't learn until last Saturday when I was on the branch's pub crawl in Wigan that as a result of the letter and the negative publicity it provoked, there will be no festival this year. I'd heard rumours that the last festival had made a big loss, but I was assured on Saturday that it had in fact broken even.

CAMRA beer festivals take at least six months of planning, all carried out by unpaid volunteers who do it all in their own time. The staff at the festival are unpaid too: they can have free beer, but if they overindulge, they'll be asked to stop working.

If the criticisms had been fair, no one could complain. After all, while the organisers and staff might be volunteers, they have to put on as professional an event as possible, seeing that the festival was charging similar prices to pubs in the area.

Anyone who has read ReARM for some time will know that I have never shied away from criticising CAMRA nationally and at local level (my own branch and others); consequently I wouldn't have argued with these complaints if I'd thought they were justified. But they weren't; the volunteers have consequently become disheartened, and the festival is no more.

Monday 30 May 2016

Wigan Central - Wigan CAMRA's Pub of the Year

Wigan Central -
click on the pictures to enlarge them.
Last Saturday, I joined the Southport and West Lancs CAMRA pub crawl of Wigan. We were shown around by Ken and Carol Worthington of Wigan CAMRA. There are some really good pubs there, and we ended up in Wigan Central where we were made welcome by Jo Whalley and her enthusiastic and helpful team. I've written this for the CAMRA page in the Southport Visiter:

Just yards from both of Wigan's railway stations is Wigan Central, situated in railway arches. This bar aims to provide good beers and ciders “from across the region and beyond”. Named after a long-closed railway station, it is decorated in British Railways livery and along one wall there are train seats with overhead luggage racks. Electronic screens show the train arrivals and departures in the nearby stations. Another similar screen shows which beers are likely to depart soon as the casks run out, and what their replacement new arrivals will be.

The Beer Library
Seven real ales and four craft ciders are always available. When we visited, the beers were: Brass Castle Brewery Loco Stock Bitter, Deep Vale American Pale Ale, Prospect Nutty Slack, Prospect Totem, Seven Brothers Stout Porter, Torrside Brewing Katakana and Vocation Brewery Bread & Butter, and while we were there, a couple of these ran out and were replaced by different beers. The Beer Library gives drinkers a choice of more than 120 bottled beers. All of our party were very happy with the choice and quality of our drinks, as you'd expect in CAMRA Wigan Branch's Pub of the Year for 2016.

The new second room
They have just taken over a second arch, and this opened last weekend. This too is in a railway style, but also has a stage for the live music they put in every Sunday from 2.30pm. Other regular events are a quiz every Monday and a beer club on the last Tuesday of each month. Children and dogs are welcome, and they offer free WiFi.

Opening hours:
Monday to Thursday 12:00 to 23:00; Friday 12:00 to midnight;
Saturday 11:00 to midnight; Sunday 12:00 to 22:30.
You'll find it at: Arch No. 1, Queen Street, Wigan, WN3 4DY.
Tel: 01942 246425.
Website: www.wigancentral.bar. They are also on Facebook.

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.

Sunday 29 May 2016

Stats: 100,000

Stat counter before & after a visit to the pub.
Last Friday evening, when I went out to the Guest House, the stat counter showed 99998 hits. By the time I got home a couple of hours later, the figure was 100003. In my absence, I'd reached six figures.

I wrote a post in 2010 reporting that I had reached 6,666 hits, and suggesting it was the number of ten beasts. I doubt I was certain then that I'd still be doing this blog nearly six years later. I've sometimes perused blogs randomly and have found quite a few that begin with a bold statement about what the blogger intends to achieve, and see that the grand plan has crumbled within half a dozen posts. In contrast, this post is my 1,262nd.

Forerunner of this blog
from 9 years ago this month.
So why do we write blogs? I'd say that we all have different reasons: for example, Curmudgeon's blog was originally, at least in part, to argue against the smoking ban, while the Ormskirk Baron reviews bottled beers. Some are campaigning, while others record meanderings around various pubs. Such variety makes them interesting. The original purpose of ReARM was to publicise local real ale and live music events - especially those where both were available. It began in March 2009, replacing the flyers I used to produce and distribute, which I found to be very costly in printing cartridges. By and large, it still serves that function, although its brief has expanded.

I wonder whether it will take me another seven years to clock up the next 100,000.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Real ale events in the next two weeks

There are several real ale events happening locally over the next two weeks:
  • Wigan is fortunate in having a varied range of good real ale pubs, so CAMRA Southport and West Lancs is organising a social trip by train to Wigan town centre on Saturday 28 May. If you are interested, join in, member or not. Meet at 10.30am to organise people into pairs so that they can buy the cheaper Duo tickets, then depart at 10.51am. There are six pubs in Wigan listed in the Good Beer Guide: the Anvil, the Berkeley, Doc's Symposium, the John Bull Chophouse, the Raven and Wigan Central (Wigan's Pub of the Year), all fairly close to the station. The precise itinerary will be decided on the day when Wigan CAMRA members will join the group.
  • CAMRA West Lancs area Pub of the Year
    CAMRA Southport and West Lancs will be meeting in the Heatons Bridge on Wednesday 1 June to present the Branch's Pub of the Year (West Lancs area) award at about 8.30pm. Non-members who are interested in seeing this old canalside pub receive its well-deserved award are welcome to come along. Get there by catching the 375 bus on Lord Street by Morrison's at 7.45pm; it stops right outside the pub and the last bus back is at 10.20pm. The Heatons Bridge is at 2 Heatons Bridge Road (B5242), Scarisbrick, L40 8JG. Phone: 01704 840549.
  • Liverpool Organic Brewery is holding another Waterloo Beer Festival from Thursday 26 May 2016 to Sunday, 29 May 2016. It will take place in the atmospheric surroundings of the Old Christ Church in Waterloo Road, Liverpool, L22 1RE, a short walk from Waterloo Station. They will be offering more than 150 Real Ales, Ciders and Perries, continental bottled beers, wines and Liverpool Gin. There will also be food stalls. More info and tickets here.
    Live music (Pete Rimmer & Bill
    Hackney) in the Tap & Bottles
  • The Birkenhead Beer and Cider Festival, organised by Wirral CAMRA, will be taking place from Thursday 2 June to Saturday 4 June at the Recreation Centre, Prenton Park (Tranmere Rovers FC) in Birkenhead. Tickets and more information here.
  • CAMRA Southport and West Lancs will be meeting in the Tap and Bottles micropub on Tuesday 7 June to present the Branch's Pub of the Year (Merseyside area) award at about 8.30pm. As it's a pub, non-members are of course welcome to come along. The pub is at 19 Cambridge Walks, Southport, PR8 1EN, next to the Atkinson (arts centre).

Monday 23 May 2016

Smallest decline in beer sales for years

According to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), beer sales in the first quarter of 2016 showed the smallest decline (1%) since 2008, compared with the same quarter last year. Off-sales dropped more at 1.8%, than on-sales at 0.2%. For pubs, this is the smallest drop in the first quarter since 2002. The BBPA credit the three duty cuts followed by a duty freeze since 2013. In comparison, the notorious duty escalator increased tax on beer by 42% between 2008 and 2013, and the UK remains one of the most highly taxed beer markets in the EU.

As I see it, the danger is that if beer sales do stabilise, the government will begin to consider the industry can bear new tax increases, and there can be little doubt that fake charity, Alcohol Concern, will be pressing for this. I'm sceptical enough to think that the probable reason for the three cuts and the freeze in beer duty was because the government realised it was killing the cash cow. I hope I'm wrong in thinking that beer tax might be increased if our rulers decide pubs and beer sales can take it. We'll see, but in the meantime, this is better news than pubgoers have had for some time.

Saturday 21 May 2016

Rhyming With Orange in the George

Short notice, but I am one of the special guests mentioned on this flyer. The George is on the corner of Duke Street and Cemetery Road and has just reopened after a while. I've no idea whether there's real ale - soon find out! Should be fun anyway.

Thursday 19 May 2016

Liverpool Snowball melts

You'll never sup alone
The situation in the divided CAMRA Liverpool and Districts Branch has developed further. To set the context: in September 2012, MerseyAle reported that,

The Liverpool CAMRA Snowball Campaign to Bring New People to Real Ale has "ticked all the boxes" to win the first national CAMRA Membership Initiative Award. So said the Chair of the national CAMRA Membership Committee, Julie Squires, when she presented the award at a Bringing New People to Real Ale event at the Dispensary in Liverpool ... She praised Liverpool CAMRA for its path finding success in developing innovative and successful methods of Bringing New People to Real Ale, particularly with women and young people. The Snowball method of "bring a friend" had been very effective in spreading the real ale message and building a strong network of new contacts based on shared friendships.

The current committee wants to kill off this campaign four years after the branch earned the award because Snowball events are just an "exclusive drinking club". Well, knock me down with a feather: who'd have guessed that a CAMRA event might involve drinking?

Campaigning for real ale isn't just about earnest articles on the cask breather, methods of dispense, beer quality, and so on, important though such issues might be. It's about saying drinking real ale is enjoyable, so why not give it a go? To that end, it would include:
  • A branch magazine that is entertaining - no one will read it otherwise.
  • Putting on and working at beer festivals.
  • Pub and beer awards - local and national.
  • Publicising real ale pubs to the public, including in the Good Beer Guide, local guides and in my branch's case, weekly articles about beer and pubs in the local paper.
  • Educating the public to view real ale as normal and not the province of bearded weirdos with sandals.
  • It's even includes just going to the pub, drinking real ale and inviting others do the same, drinking being the best way of saving it.
It doesn't matter if some people choose to interpret such activities as a beer club; as long as the message is "You too can join", it's still a form of campaigning for real ale.

The consequence of this internal conflict is the loss of an award-winning membership initiative as well as an award-winning magazine (reported here). The new Liverpool committee called a meeting with a week's notice to discuss the future of the branch magazine scheduled at 1.00 pm on a Sunday. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd conclude that the short notice and timing had been chosen to prevent maximum membership participation.

The action over Snowball has, like the proposed changes to the magazine, led to resignations, but I'm wondering whether these are seen as a price worth paying to get rid of an old guard with opinions clearly at odds with the current leadership. Surely this isn't the only way of dealing with dissent?

Monday 16 May 2016

The North Western, Liverpool

The North Western, Lime Street
Anyone travelling through Liverpool's Lime Street Station has now the choice of using the new station bar: the North Western. JD Wetherspoon has taken over the former Head of Steam, refurbishing and expanding it to a high standard; it cost £2 million, a staff member told me. The pub is in part of the impressive old North Western Hotel building, which was closed for 60 years. The pub shows off features of the old hotel to great effect, such as the existing columns in the main room, wood panels and the great hall at the far end of the pub. Chandeliers and a staircase with individually-lit steps suggest an air of 1930s glamour, and the front windows all have a fine view of St George's Hall across the road.

The usual Wetherpoon's offer of food from opening time until 11.00pm is particularly useful to those travelling very early or late, with tea and coffee available if needed. In beer terms, there is the usual range of lagers, bottled craft beers and a choice of twelve real ales. In addition to the regular beers, Greene King Abbott, Ruddles Best and Sharp's Doom Bar, the guest beers on our visit were: Coach House Dick Turpin, Everards Original, Moorhouse's Black Cat mild, Naylor's Spring Loaded, Nelson Midshipman Mild, Phoenix Arizona, Springhead Roaring Meg, Titanic Lifeboat and Wychwood Hobgoblin.

The great hall
There are three separate rooms downstairs, while the upstairs houses a balcony drinking area and a rooftop beer garden. The pub has become very popular with travellers, for whom there is a train times screen, and with local drinkers on a night out. Conveniently, the rear entrance opens straight on to the station concourse.

The pub is at 7 Lime Street, Liverpool, L1 1RJ. Tel: 0151 709 6825. It opens at 6.00am, except Sunday (8.00am), and closes at midnight except Friday and Saturday (1.00am).

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 12 May 2016

Giving a heads-up

I came across this headline in the Stockton and Darlington Times: Disbelief as pub landlady prosecuted over 'pint short by six teaspoons of beer'. My first thought was: why disbelief? Most of us would object if we were offered a box of eggs with one missing, or a loaf with a couple of slices removed, even though both of these purchases are cheaper than a pint. Should we be tolerant of short measures of beer? After all, the customer had paid for those 'six teaspoons of beer'.

Looking at the article, I conclude that some of the reaction seems to be that taking the licensee, Michelle Craggs, to court is disproportionate to the offence, especially as the council incurred costs of thousands of pounds, including the hiring of a barrister, at a time of serious cutbacks, only for the case to be thrown out anyway.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) guidelines suggest:
  • A measure of beer served with a head must include a minimum of 95% liquid
  • The beer should not be made available to the customer until bar staff are satisfied with the measure
  • Requests from customers for top-ups should be received with good grace and never refused, subject to avoiding spillage of liquid.
Ms Craggs claimed she had never heard of these guidelines, but that's no excuse: ignorance is no defence. However, the magistrates dismissed the charge after accepting she trained her staff adequately and took care to ensure that correct measures were served. It's a pragmatic approach permitting occasional slip-ups as long as the licensee takes all reasonable steps to prevent them.

Serving just the right amount of beer can be problematic, mainly because the product, whether real or not, has conditioning which gives it life and creates the head on your pint. I've worked at many CAMRA beer festivals and I know that it can sometimes be quite difficult to pour an exact pint even if you're using lined glasses. The liveliness of beers can vary a lot: some beers create big heads no matter how carefully you pour them, while with others you struggle to get a small head. It is not always immediately obvious whether a pint will settle into an acceptable measure; to be certain, you might have to let it stand for perhaps a minute, but a bar full of glasses slowly settling is not what you want on a busy Friday night. This is a problem that is unique to beer and does not apply to any other liquids sold in pubs such as wines, spirits or ciders.

I've always regarded this to be a problem that CAMRA is partly responsible for by its promotion of handpumps over electric dispense. It is perfectly possible to serve a full pint of real ale through metered electric pumps into oversized glasses, and indeed that was how most was sold in the 70s and well into the 80s. I recall a CAMRA trip in the 80s to Hydes Brewery when we shown around by Mr Hyde himself, and he firmly told us that his company preferred electric pumps and oversized glasses for all their beers, whether real or keg, as it prevented all the arguments about short measures. This didn't go down too well with some of our number, although it amused me that he seemed to enjoy puncturing CAMRA preconceptions. However, if the Campaign was serious about wanting to get rid of short measures of beer at a stroke, it would adopt Mr Hyde's policy, but then we'd have to sacrifice our treasured handpumps.

I like handpumps: they add the the atmosphere of a pub, and tell you at a glance that real ale is available, which you could never do with electric pumps. I think we have to accept that always getting 100% liquid in brim measures from handpumps is not feasible. Oversized glasses will never catch on generally because it is inevitable that too much will be served; you only have to look at some of the measures served at CAMRA beer festivals to see that. The usual response I've seen from full-pint advocates is 'improve staff training', but no amount of training will adequately address all the problems that I've mentioned: part of the problem is the nature of the product itself. A once-a-year CAMRA festival can afford to give excess measures because nobody's livelihood depends on it; a pub cannot afford to give away free beer all day every day.

Where beer is served through handpumps into brim glasses, pubs would be wise to display signs stating that beer will automatically be topped up on request. In turn, drinkers should try not to be shy about taking them up on it, and should accept that 100% liquid is for the most part unrealistic. I realise such tips are neither original nor perfect, and that it's not always easy to ask for a top-up when drinkers are six deep at the bar, but it's probably the best we can do as things are. After all, life isn't perfect either.

I wonder whether the trading standards officers asked for a top-up.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Susan Lambert clàrsach player at Edda

I've just heard from my friend Sue Raymond that Susan Lambert, who plays the clàrsach or Gaelic harp, will be giving a concert at Edda this Friday 13 May. Susan, who hails from Cumbria, plays a varied mixture of ballads, classics, jigs and some unexpected covers; last year she performed on Hadrian's Wall on the One Show for BBC Music Day. She will be supported by various other musicians.

Edda is the community arts centre and library on Liverpool Road in Ainsdale, Southport, PR8 3NE. There is a small bar serving wines, bottled beers and coffee. The event begins at 8.00 pm and tickets are £5. Here is a short sample of what she can do:

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Lion session this Thursday

An old Walker's window in The Lion
Just a quick reminder that the regular 2nd Thursday of the month acoustic song session in the Lion Tavern will take place this Thursday 12 May from around 8.15 pm after a month off in April. The Lion Tavern is in Moorfields, Liverpool, just across the road from Moorfields station.

All welcome, whether you want to sing or not. The Lion serves eight real ales and a real cider too.

Please note that Moorfield station platform 2 (Northern Line} is currently closed for refurbishment. Merseytravel advice here.

Monday 9 May 2016

Swords in Liverpool

The Swords in Southport on May Day
Our local longsword and morris side, the Southport Swords, will be in Liverpool tomorrow evening. It's not what you'd normally expect to see in the city centre on a Tuesday evening but, as they say, what's seldom's wonderful. I assume it's a bit of a warm-up for this Saturday when they will have a full-blown Day of Dance in Liverpool with several guest teams. I'll be there on both occasions, as I gather some real ale will be consumed.

Tomorrow night, Tuesday, they'll be at the Dispensary in Renshaw Street at 8.00 pm, but I've no idea where they'll move on to after that.

Friday 6 May 2016

Derby Arms Beer Festival

Fest open: Fri 17.00 to 24.00; Sat 12.00 to 24.00; Sun 12.00 to 22.00.
I previously wrote about the Derby Arms in 2014. 
Click on the flyer to enlarge it.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

A house divided against itself: Liverpool CAMRA

An eye-catching MerseyAle cover
I'm finding it disturbing to hear of serious splits in the ranks of Merseyside's biggest and undoubtedly most influential CAMRA branch: Liverpool and Districts. John Armstrong has been editor of the branch magazine MerseyAle since 2003 and has produced forty six editions. He tells me that the branch committee has decided without any reference to, or consultation with, him to discontinue the magazine in its current form. From now on, the committee will produce a much reduced magazine:
  • Major change to the content from the present emphasis on campaigning to a focus on social activities and sound bite news.
  • A cut in the number of pages from 56 to around 24.
  • Printing a much reduced number of copies (probably less than half the current 11,000 print run which attracts advertisers) with reduced print and paper quality.
  • The style to be dumbed down to suit those who find anything more than 140 characters a challenge to read, with sound bite-style news which will date rapidly.
  • The Branch Committee taking over the editorial control of the magazine and its content.
John has stated that there is no problem with funding, the magazine is popular with readers and advertisers (something I have observed myself), and there has been no pressure for change from any source. The decision about MerseyAle was made by the committee alone and excluded him, the magazine's editor, as well as everyone else in the branch. I'd have thought it would have been better to refer such a big decision to an all-members' meeting. After all, if you're certain you are doing the right thing, surely you'd have nothing to fear from a bit of democracy.

Storm in a teacup, you may say. Perhaps, but it is certainly significant locally. I find this quite a bizarre decision, and precisely the kind of thing you get from committees that are so often stronger on criticism than action. In support of this last point, I'd mention that at the Roscoe Head demo a few months ago, which was supported by many CAMRA members from across and beyond Merseyside alongside those from Liverpool branch, the Liverpool branch chair was conspicuous by her absence - even though this is a major campaign that has attracted national attention about a pub that is one of only five to have been in every edition of the Good Beer Guide.

I expect this committee will find that the constant commitment of producing a magazine, even in a reduced form, requires rather more effort and imagination than they envisage. Yes, the first few of issues will undoubtedly look different and be produced without too much trouble, but the relentless schedule will, in time, become wearing. What they probably see as a great revolutionary idea - taking control of the branch's mouthpiece - will become a burdensome chore. I'd hazard a guess that they will reach this stage about 3 to 5 issues in. They will then realise that sacking a committed editor because he exercised a certain degree of autonomy was a mistake: the long-term commitment of an editor doing the job for nothing requires autonomy to maintain his or her interest; it's different when an editor is paid because the salary provides the incentive. Everyone's an enthusiastic expert, until they have to get their finger out themselves.

So many CAMRA magazines across the country are interchangeable, and consequently quite uninteresting. Although I've had my occasional differences with MerseyAle, one thing you can say is that it has always been distinctive. I cannot see that being maintained by the new regime: committees and imagination rarely go hand in hand.

The first results of this decision are that there have been resignations, a lot of support for John from advertisers, and a lot of bemused or angry members. You simply do not treat volunteers in this way, unless you have an agenda: I strongly suspect that this is all part of an attempt to sweep away the old guard, some of whom have been active in the branch since the 70s, 80s and 90s, but even if I'm wrong, it is a disgraceful way to thank someone who has freely given so much time and effort for so many years to producing the magazine. If John had been paid as editor, he'd have an excellent case for unfair dismissal.

I expect it will all end up in tears. In the meantime, a good magazine, which has won awards, will be lost.

Monday 2 May 2016

The Masons, Southport

The Masons, Anchor Street
It's surprising how many people don't know about the Masons. When asked where it was, I used to say “behind the main post office on Lord Street”. Although our post office has now closed forever, the Masons is still going strong. It is a small pub with one main room and a small snug to the left as you go in. The surroundings are enhanced by wood panels, glass cabinets, attractive old glass lampshades and golfing memorabilia. An arch design in the woodwork on the front of the bar is echoed in the shelves behind it and in the partition that divides the snug from the main bar. A roaring log fire in the snug warms the pub in winter.

This is the only pub in Southport owned by Robinsons of Stockport, and the real ale rotates around beers from that brewery: Unicorn, Wizard or Hartleys Cumbrian XB, with Dizzy Blonde making an occasional appearance: I've always found the beer on good form.

For many years, the pub has been home to an unamplified acoustic song session on the first and third Wednesdays of each month ; these are open to all, whether you want to perform or just listen. They put on live music regularly, and they are known for having a great juke box, the best I've come across in a long time.

This is definitely a pub with a big heart. They are always fundraising, and the landlady Brenda Kelly told me that they have raised more than £22,000 for various good causes, including MacMillan Nurses, Queenscourt Hospice and Broadgreen Hospital.

In the summer you can sit in their roof garden which, as far as I know, is the only pub roof garden in the town. I've always found this to be a friendly pub, it is happy to welcome dogs and children, and it was listed in the Southport Visiter's list of top nightlife venues, based on TripAdvisor scores. You can follow what's happening in the Masons on their Facebook page.

The Masons is on Anchor Street (just off London Street), Southport, PR9 0UT. Tel: 01704 534123. It is a short walk from Southport railway station and from all the main bus routes on Lord Street.

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.