Wednesday 29 June 2016

The good old days are now

The Best Pubs Around Merseyside is an old CAMRA guide from 1990, and I contrasted in 2011 and 2013 what it wrote about pubs and breweries at that time with the situation as it is now. A 'stop press' item in the guide reported that Boddington's, which owned Liverpool brewery Higson's, had sold all its brewing interests to Whitbread. It explained sadly that "all indications are that Higson's, Liverpool's only brewery, will close in the very near future with the consequential loss jobs and the loss of the last Mild and Bitter beers brewed in Liverpool. So-called Higson's beers brewed elsewhere, particularly by Whitbread, will not be the same." This gloomy prognosis proved correct in every respect, and the general view was that we wouldn't see brewing in the city again.

The writers had no way of knowing that within two and a half decades, Britain would have more breweries than at any time since the 1930s. Six months ago the Liverpool Echo listed 19 breweries in Merseyside, also mentioning several others slightly further afield. Sales of real ale are standing up with actual increases reported in recent years, in contrast to the beer market as a whole which remains in decline, although the rate of decline is slowing.

The reduction of beer sales mirrors the continuing closures of pubs every year. There are new outlets such as micropubs and small niche bars opening up, but while these are welcome and many seem to be doing well, they tend to be small and don't replace all the pub capacity lost to closures.

I've written before that at some point the simultaneous phenomena of more breweries and fewer pubs will collide. I was chatting to the licensee of a real ale pub last week and he was telling me that we are beginning to lose small breweries to closures, a process he saw accelerating in coming months and years. While some new breweries may still open, I can't see the increases we've seen in recent years continuing indefinitely as we edge closer to market saturation.

I suppose that brewers who don't have to rely on beer sales for their livelihood might be able to survive better by undercutting their competitors, but that isn't a good long-term strategy for the industry as a whole. Given a broader choice, customers are increasingly expecting quality as standard, and brewers whose products are inconsistent or lacklustre will go to the wall.

The proud talk of there being a record number of breweries describes a situation that is not sustainable in the long term, and I expect that at some point we'll be mourning the demise of some of the breweries whose existence we are now celebrating. We're probably enjoying something of a golden age, but golden ages never last.

Monday 27 June 2016

The Cricketers in Ormskirk

The Cricketers in Ormskirk
I decided recently that it was time to have a look at some of the pubs in Ormskirk. Having heard good reports of the Cricketers, we made our way there. It has an attractive frontage, and the interior décor is decidedly stylish. The front bar area is more pub-like, and to the rear there is a pavilion set out for dining. The overall effect is pleasing.

There was a good selection of real ales when we rolled up: Lancaster Red, OSB Exam, OSB Headmaster, Live Ale Golden Ale, George Wright Pure Blonde and Thwaites Nutty Black. The beers we tried were well-kept, and we all enjoyed our choices. This pub was the CAMRA Southport & West Lancs Branch Pub of the Year (Lancashire area) in 2015.

As well as the real ales, there is a selection of quality wines, continental lagers, craft beers, whiskies and barista coffees.

The Cricketers is known for its food and it has several menus, including a children's menu, a Sunday menu, a graduation menu and a group menu for 10 or more. The food on offer ranges from simple pub classics to seasonal dishes and innovative specials.

They have regular events including a pub quiz on Mondays, tapas with a Lancashire twist on Tuesdays, fish and chip Fridays, and live music in the bar on the last Friday of each month. They also have a loyalty card which gets you a 15% discount between noon and 6.00 pm on Mondays to Thursdays, and between noon and 3.00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

The Cricketers is at 24 Chapel Street, Ormskirk, L39 4QF. Tel: 01695 571123. Website: It is close to the bus station where the 375 and 385 Southport to Wigan buses stop, and the railway station is a short walk away.

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.

Friday 24 June 2016

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Lion Tavern closed

A detail in one of the Lion's windows
I was quite shocked to learn that the Lion Tavern and the Cross Keys in Liverpool have been closed as a result of a dispute with Punch Taverns over the rent, according to the Liverpool Echo. Both are run by Sean Porter and Michael Black. The Echo's report of the dispute is here.

The Lion particularly is architecturally interesting with old tiles, wood panels, mosaic floors, a glass-domed ceiling in one room and etched windows; it is listed in CAMRA's National Inventory.

Sean used to work in the Mason's in Southport and asked me six years ago to start an informal song session in the Lion like the one in the Mason's that I usually attended. They have had to cancel their advert in Ale & Hearty, the Southport & West Lancs CAMRA magazine, after I'd just spent some time redesigning it - not that that is the main issue here. At the time of writing it's uncertain whether the pub will reopen with Sean and Michael, or with someone else in charge.

From a personal point of view, I am concerned about the future of my monthly music session, but more importantly, I hope that Sean and Michael are able to resolve their differences with Punch and stay on. The Lion has always struck me as well-run with eight real ales and a couple of real ciders since before I began my singarounds in 2010; the beers have always been in good condition, with some interesting changing guests.

Fingers crossed.

This is the revised advert. I hope it can be used at some point!

Monday 20 June 2016

Punk and the British Empire

Not being a royalist, I take little interest in the Birthday Honours list, so I'm rather late with this piece of news. The self-styled punks who founded the Brewdog brewery in Aberdeenshire, James Watt and Martin Dickie, have been given MBEs, which only confirms what I've always thought about these highly successful self-publicists: they're about as 'punk' as Phil Collins. The Pub Curmudgeon greeted the news with this on Twitter: So much for being punks and rebels then.

Advertisers dream of creating in the customer a feeling of personal connection with the product or a person representing the product. To varying degrees, this has been done with business people like Steve Jobs and Apple, or celebrities such as Gary Lineker with crisps. The sadness a lot of people feel when a High Street chain closes, such as Woolworth's, C&A and BHS, is another aspect of the same phenomenon of identifying with a brand.

In the case of Brewdog, it has been through irreverent and occasionally controversial (or perhaps deliberately offensive) stunts usually featuring Watt and Dickie themselves, and proclaiming they are a new kind of punk business, completely unlike anything that has gone before. It's no more than a modern twist on good old-fashioned hype really.

Facts: the Brewdog two are multimillionaires and are now Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Cheers, chaps!

Here are some punks who inexplicably were not honoured by her madge:

Sunday 19 June 2016

Southport Beer & Folk Festival

Southport's Atkinson and the Liverpool Organic Brewery have teamed up to present a beer and folk music festival next month in Southport. Liverpool Organic Brewery have a record of running beer festivals in unusual venues, such as the old Christ Church in Waterloo, and in Liverpool at the famous bombed out church, the old Cain's brewery and St George's Hall. Now it is the turn of Pleasureland in Southport.

The festival will offer more than 200 real ales, ciders, perries, continental bottled beers, wines and Liverpool Gin, plus local food. Each session will feature live music from various folk and Americana acts:
  • Kaia Kater (Friday afternoon).
  • Flats & Sharps (Friday evening).
  • The Elephant Sessions (Saturday afternoon). 
  • Elbow Jane (Saturday evening).
  • The Wilsons plus Treacherous Orchestra (Sunday afternoon). 
If you're coming some distance, camping for campervans only is available at £10 per night. For more information and to buy your tickets on-line, click here. Tickets cover admission to the beer festival and live music for the session purchased.

The organisers are calling for volunteers. There will be five sessions, and you can volunteer for whichever one (or ones) you prefer. You will be required to work on the real ale bars and possibly do some stewarding. In return you will receive: 
  • Free festival t-shirt. 
  • Free souvenir half pint festival glass. 
  • Discounted food from the festival vendors. 
  • Free entertainment during the session you work. 
  • Most importantly, free cask beer and cider. 
You will be able to enjoy the real ales and ciders while you work and also in the break following the session. To find out more about volunteering, click here.

The festival will run from 11.30 on Friday 15 July to 19:00 on Sunday 17 July at Southport Pleasureland, Marine Drive, Southport, PR8 1RX.

Saturday 18 June 2016

Equal Terms at the George

Local rock band, Equal Terms, is playing tonight at the George on the corner of Duke Street and Cemetery Road in Southport. Lead singer is Derek Boak and lead guitarist is Mick Cooper, with whom I've had the pleasure of performing with on occasion. It begins at 8.00pm. There are some samples of their music on the band's website.

On my last two recent visits to the George, there was one handpump serving Doom Bar on my first visit and Purple Moose Elderflower Ale on the second, both well kept. They intend this to be a changing real ale.

Equal Terms at the LankyKats night in Standish Unity Club

Wednesday 15 June 2016

The Park Hotel, Birkdale

The Park in Birkdale
Close to the level crossing in Birkdale village, you'll find the Park Hotel. It is a large pub and although it is open plan, it has several distinct separate drinking areas. Refurbished a year or so ago, it now has wooden floors and wooden panels and cladding in different parts of the pub. The split levels have gone and the pub has disabled access. The long bar featured four real ales when we visited: three Greene King beers - Purple Reign, London Glory and IPA - plus Thwaites Wainwright. I noticed a small range of bottled beers as well.

The Park is popular for food; they do reasonably priced meals until 10pm every night, and have a children's menu. There is a large beer garden to the front of the pub, a car park to the side, a covered smoking area and a dog bar for man's thirsty best friend. Dogs are allowed in a designated area indoors. Also inside are pool tables, darts, large wall TVs and WiFi.

Each night has a different theme. Monday is poker night, Tuesday darts, and Wednesdays Spice Club (curry night) and a quiz. On Thursdays they offer 10% off cask beers, Friday is Fizz Night with offers on certain sparkling wines, and Saturday is dedicated to sport. On Sunday you can try their roast dinners. I also saw a notice advertising a Motown Night on the last Friday of the month, so overall there's plenty to choose from.

The pub is at 36 Weld Road, Southport, PR8 2ED; telephone 01704 569941. Website here, and they are on Facebook. It opens at 11am every day except Sunday (midday), closing at 11pm every night except Saturday and Sunday (midnight). Birkdale railway station is a minute's walk away and the 49 and the X2 buses stop nearby.

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.

Monday 13 June 2016

Beer Day Britain 2016

I wrote this for the local paper, the Southport Visiter; most of the info came from the Beer Day website. Personally, I don't need a specific Beer Day, but I have no objection to this initiative.

Beer Day Britain is on Wednesday 15 June, the date when the Magna Carta was agreed in 1215. Article 35 states: "There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom." To be mentioned in one of the most significant legal documents in our history shows how important ale was in England at that time. It is in fact an early example of a weights and measures policy and while we do not know what the legal measure for beer would have been at that time, it probably was not the pint.

From the 16th century English (and later British) ships spread the taste for beer far and wide. Many styles of beer invented in Britain are now brewed regularly around the world, including pale ale, India pale ale, mild, brown ale, stout, porter, imperial Russian stout, and barley wine.

Visitors to the UK often view pub culture as an important part of our identity and a trip to the pub for beer and typical pub food such as fish & chips is in the top five activities they want to do. Beer is also an important part of our economy; every year, the British Treasury receives £22 billion from the brewing and pub industries.

The idea of Beer Day Britain is for people to drink a beer, ideally in the pub, and celebrate our national drink. Join in by raising a glass and saying "Cheers to Beer" at 7pm on 15 June. To find out more about Beer Day Britain, click here.

Saturday 11 June 2016

MerseyAle on-line poll

A Liver Bird, yesterday.
CAMRA Liverpool and Districts Branch has set up an on-line poll to find out people's views about MerseyAle, the branch magazine. This poll is open to everyone, whether you are a CAMRA member or not; it closes on 27 June. The branch website states:

As part of the review of MerseyAle an online consultation has been set up. The review will look at content, costs, and style of the publication, and how it links to other aspects of campaigning and communication undertaken by the branch and its members.

The Survey will close 27th June. Results will be published beginning of July. Consultation is open to everyone. 

If you're interested, you can find the survey here.

Friday 10 June 2016

Who will adjudicate the adjudicator?

It doesn't look as though the anger over the appointment of Paul Newby to the new post of Pubs Code Adjudicator (PCA) by the BIS secretary Sajid Javid is likely to dissipate soon. Newby has conceded that he has worked mainly for Enterprise, Punch and Marstons over the last five years, but either does not, or chooses not to, understand that his new role could bring him into conflict with his former paymasters. However, this matter goes further than that.

Newby was a director of Fleurets, which describes itself as a 'UK business property valuers and surveyors specialising in pubs, hotels, restaurants, licensed property and business properties for sale and to let.' He resigned as director a couple of months ago, but still owns an 11.52% stake in the company. The company hasn't been doing well in recent years and the directors and their spouses had to make secured loans to it of £2.5 million, with further unsecured loans of more than £600,000. We don't know the size of Newby's loan, but it is clear that he still has a major financial interest in Fleurets' survival.

Pub companies pay Fleurets more than a £1 million a year for its services, and should Newby decide to adjudicate against them, they may well take their custom elsewhere; Fleurets would then collapse, taking his investment with it. LibDem MP Greg Mulholland's assertions that Newby would not be independent as PCA have been branded a 'disgraceful set of slurs' by BIS minister Anna Soubry, but her mock-indignant huffing and puffing does not address the fact that Newby stands to lose a lot of his own money if pubcos decide to punish his company for any adverse decisions he might make in his PCA role.

It is not hard to see why Newby lacks credibility among the people who would have to rely on him to adjudicate on disputes with their landlords, given that the latter are major customers of the company in which he has a big shareholding and which owes him a lot of money. Is this a gigantic cock-up? Or were pubcos persuaded to accept the creation of the Pubs Code on the basis that the adjudicator would be someone whom Sir Humphrey Appleby would describe as 'sound'? Either way, if the government is serious about the code, it needs to back down and appoint another, more obviously independent, person to the job.

The only surprising thing about this whole affair is how the government has walked blindly into a controversy that was both foreseeable and avoidable.

Main sources: Private Eye and The Morning Advertiser.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Quality Counts

A popular refrain among some real ale drinkers is quality. In a way, this is obvious: poor quality doesn't attract customers, but real ale is different from many other drinks and foodstuffs in that the vendor is an important part of the process. It's not an exaggeration to say that knowing how to prepare, keep and serve real ale after it has been delivered to the pub can make the difference between a good pint and an undrinkable one. It's also important to know when to stop serving it once it has passed its best.

This latter point can be a major part of any problems concerning quality. To stop using a barrel which isn't empty involves a financial loss; the beer is usually just poured down the drain, and the cost comes out of the licensee's pocket. The temptation is to leave it on longer to squeeze out a few more pints, but a poor quality product will not encourage repeat purchases, so the problem is likely to get worse.

So why might beers go off?
  • There simply isn't a market for real ale in the pub.
A few years ago, I asked a licensee why she had stopped selling real ale, and she replied that we CAMRA members hadn't supported it. I didn't ask her how she would know they hadn't, seeing that not all CAMRA members conform to an obvious stereotype, or have CAMRA stamped on their foreheads. Instead I simply explained there weren't enough CAMRA members in the area to keep every real ale outlet going, and that she needed to build up her own custom for real ale if she wanted to serve it. If a pub does try that through publicity, announced launches, perhaps even tastings, but still gets nowhere, then perhaps it's time to give up on the idea. That might seem like heresy on a blog partly devoted to real ale, but rather than serve real ale that's off, it's better to have none at all.  
  • There are too many real ales on.
A long row of handpumps seems to gladden the hearts of some real ale drinkers, and if all the beers are selling enough, it is a welcome sight. If, as can happen, the turnover isn't sufficient to keep all the beers turning over quickly enough, then you'll end up with either a flat, flavourless pint or, worse, one that smells like vinegar. The solution is to reduce the number of handpumps operating. With better quality beer, the sales may well climb in time and those spare handpumps might come back into use when the pub has a sufficient market to justify using them.
  • The pub doesn't know how to keep real ale.
There are other reasons why failures in beer quality occur, such as it being served too cold or too warm, whether the lines are cleaned often enough, and so on, but the cost of serving sub-standard beer for a pub can be considerable. The Cask Marque’s Beer Quality Survey of 2016 said that 61% of people would not drink poor quality beer if they were served it in a pub; instead they'd complain about it and tell their friends, which is not enviable publicity. The answer is surely refresher training.

I've had a couple of undrinkable pints in recent months in two different pubs; in both cases, it was because it was the end of the barrel, and both pints were changed without any problem. This has been my experience for a long time now, and I can't remember the last time I had an argument about taking beer back. Some drinkers say that returning a pint leads to replies from the pub such as: "No one else has complained," and "It's real ale; it's supposed to taste like that." Obviously I can't contradict what they say, but for my part, I last had the former response at least 25 years ago, and I don't recall hearing the latter at all.

Now and then, I read of sarcastic comments addressed to bar staff about unsatisfactory beers, such as, "If I wanted vinegar, I'd have asked for chips," or, in relation to the size of the head, "I didn't ask for ice cream" (or shaving foam, or similar). Some people seem so proud of their witticisms that occasionally they send them to the letters page of What's Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper, or record them on social media. Here's an idea: be polite and friendly when returning a pint and don't raise your voice so the whole room can hear - that's just bad manners. If you do face resistance, then that would be the time to get stroppy.

One response to a bad beer that I don't understand is simply to leave it, walk out and then whinge afterwards - often on social media - without having given the pub a chance to address the problem. If they don't deal with your complaint well at the time, that's a different matter and they deserve to be criticised accordingly; otherwise, be fair. I can only conclude that some real ale drinkers have money to burn if they can afford to abandon something that can cost more than £3 a pint without even a murmur of complaint.

As has been said by Tandleman and Curmudgeon, who have both covered this theme recently, you don't go into a pub for an argument, just for a convivial night out. I agree, but on the odd occasion I've politely taken a pint back, there hasn't been a problem - certainly not an argument. Perhaps I've just been lucky, but I doubt that's the reason.

Monday 6 June 2016

The Pines real ale café bar in Hillside

Customers sunning themselves
outside The Pines
Looking in my local paper, I read an article that stated a new café bar had opened in Hillside, just around the corner from the Grasshopper micropub that I wrote about in March. I've been watching this site for a while and it seemed for ages that nothing much was happening. I decided there and then to drive over to have a look (two buses otherwise).

It's called The Pines, and it serves two real ales, which when I called were Old School Brewery Hopscotch and Southport Golden Sands. I went for the Hopscotch, and was charged £1.65 for a pint. It seems I had called during their happy hour when on weekdays drinks are half price. My pint was fine. They also serve food, coffee, wines and spirits. It was a nice sunny day and the front doors were wide open, with everyone sitting outside.

I stuck with one pint as I was driving, but will pay a proper visit soon. In the space of a few months, Hillside has gone from no pubs or bars to two; you can have a mini-pub crawl there now. It's easy to get to: the 47 bus passes just yards away, and it's a five minute walk to Hillside Station.

Saturday 4 June 2016

Not number one in my book

As I wrote last August, I don't have a high opinion of TripAdvisor, but I looked at it today as I was curious to find out how it ranks the pubs in Southport. I was quite surprised to see at number one the Falstaff in King Street. This pub had a £325,000 revamp last year, but when I went in on a Monday evening shortly after it had reopened, I was unimpressed, because the landlady had decided close the pub at 10.00 pm. I heard she was replaced shortly afterwards.

On Thursday last week I agreed to meet a friend there for the open mike night; I also thought it would be a chance to see what the pub is like now. I arrived at about 8.45 pm to find I was the only customer. Other than the staff, the only other person was setting up the PA system, which struck me as odd because the open mike was scheduled to begin at 8.00 pm. I saw only one advert for it, an A4 notice on the bar; if it's going to take off, it will need rather more publicity than that.

Two handpumps, but only one in operation serving Brain's Rev James. There was nothing wrong with the condition of the beer, but it's hardly an interesting offering. I had a look around at the refurbishment. The Falstaff is a long pub and down the middle they have installed a solid barrier made of rough-hewn planks, separating the drinking area by the bar, which is to the rear of the pub, from the front area. I think it looks awful, and it creates an unnecessary visual obstruction. A wooden banister rail with spindles would have been preferable.

My friend arrived at around nine and we had a drink together. Shortly after, two more customers arrived. There was clearly going to be no open mike (I was glad I hadn't brought my guitar along), the place was dead and the beer unremarkable, so my friend and I went to the busy Sir Henry Segrave, a JDW house around the corner, where we had a choice of ten real ales.

Looking at the reviews on TripAdvisor from January onwards, I noticed that they were all talking about the food; none referred to drinks, except in passing. That's all well and good, but it's not what I go to a pub for. I regret to say that in my estimation, the Falstaff remains nothing special for the real ale drinker. I say 'regret' sincerely because many years ago this was my local and I really used to like the place.

Friday 3 June 2016

Dave Swarbrick

Dave Swarbrick in characteristic pose with fag
I'm sorry to hear that the virtuoso violinist Dave Swarbrick has died today aged 75. He was best known for his pioneering work with Fairport Convention, particularly on the ground-breaking album Liege & Lief which combined traditional English songs and tunes with rock instruments. So used have we become to what became known as folk rock that it easy to forget how controversial this was at the time. Folk purists regarded it as selling out, and as an innovation it was as contentious as Bob Dylan going electric. He was proficient on several other instruments, wrote songs and tunes in the traditional style, was in demand as a session musician, and released a string of solo albums.

I first saw him with Fairport Convention in the Southport Theatre in the late 1970s in the tour that preceded the group's calling it a day, except for annual reunions at Cropredy; eventually those reunions led to the band reforming. I later saw him on tour with Martin Carthy, a collaboration that happened periodically over the decades, and finally a couple of years ago at Cropredy, the festival that Fairport still holds annually. He was musically brilliant live, infectiously enthusiastic and, until his health problems began to take hold, a highly energetic performer.

In 1999, during one of his spells in hospital, the Daily Telegraph reported his death and published an obituary. Swarb was delighted with the highly complimentary nature of the tribute, bar the one obvious mistake, declaring "It's not the first time I've died in Coventry." He later told the Oxford Times: "I photocopied the obits, took them to gigs, signed them 'RIP Dave Swarbrick' and sold them for £1. After all, where else are you going to get a signed obituary? I had to stop, though, when The Telegraph got in touch and told me I couldn’t do it as they had the copyright."

He was received many awards for his work, including a lifetime achievement award, and saw Liege & Lief voted "Most Influential Folk Album of All Time".

Here is a masterclass of violin playing from 2014 with Richard Thompson who was in Fairport with Swarb in the early 1970s. After performing a set of tunes accompanied by Thompson, he plays along to Thompson's poignant song, Waltzing's For Dreamers.