Wednesday 31 August 2016

Ormskirk Beer, Food & Wine Festival

A joint venture by the Cricketers pub and Ormskirk Cricket Club. 
Click to enlarge the flyer. More info on website

Tuesday 30 August 2016

Knowing your Borders

A Border Morris side
Border is a type of Morris dancing in which most sides (teams) usually black up their faces. It is an old tradition which owes nothing to acts like the black and white minstrels which it predates by centuries. It was a traditional method of disguise at a time when dancing for money could be construed as begging, and was thus illegal.

The Shrewsbury Folk Festival has decided to ban any Morris side that continues to black up. This very much reminds me of an incident that I wrote about in June 2009 - see the original post in which I also explain the origins of the custom in more detail.

The festival director said: "We have been approached by one group that has requested we no longer book sides that use full face black make up and another that has asked us not to change our policy and to continue to book these sides. The festival finds itself caught between two sides of this opposing argument. The festival has never wished to cause offence to any person and as such, from 2017, we will no longer book sides that use full face black make up."

The complaint came from an equality group called FRESh (Fairness, Respect, Equality Shropshire).

I accept the fact that the festival was caught between two sides of an argument, but it seems perverse to side with the one that got its facts wrong by perceiving racist undertones that aren't there. In Otley, I have seen a Border side who painted their faces blue, which I always assumed was to avoid precisely this kind of misunderstanding, although it does leave them open to jokes about Smurfs.

Some Border sides may compromise; others definitely won't. The one good thing is that this ban has been covered by both local and national press who have explained the origins of the practice, which should mean that more people now know its origin is not racist. I can't help feeling that information is a better way forward than a ban.

'Equality and Diversity' is the current term for what we used to call 'Equal Opportunities'. Aren't we in danger of forgetting the Diversity bit?

Monday 29 August 2016

The Up Steps in Birkdale

Sunny day at the Up Steps
Birkdale's Up Steps reopened just over a year ago after a lengthy closure; it is now a family-run free house and seems all the better for it. It has been attractively refurbished, although I liked seeing the old Lion Ales etched glass windows from its days as a Matthew Brown pub. There is a single bar serving three separate drinking areas and a snug; fortunately the pub managed to survive the 1970s tendency to knock pub rooms through into one.

They have two regular real ales, Thwaites Wainwright and Up Steps Ale, plus one changing guest which when I visited was Waterloo Sunset from the Rock The Boat Brewery of Little Crosby. Other guest ales are usually from other local breweries such as Lytham, Parker, Red Star and Southport. I enjoyed my Waterloo Sunset, especially at £2.50 a pint.

My visit was on Sunday afternoon during the bank holiday weekend when they were busy with a charity fundraiser for the Southport Stroke Club with a hog roast, barbecue, raffle, and live music the night before. Children are allowed on such special occasions, but are not normally admitted. They do not do food, other than occasional free bar snacks in the evenings: this pub is intended for people who simply wish to go out for a drink and a chat in a sociable atmosphere, and in this aim it succeeds. Dogs are welcome.

There is an outdoor drinking area to the front of the building and a pleasant enclosed beer garden to the rear which was full of customers enjoying the sunshine when I had a look.

They have been putting on live music recently and expect that it might settle into a pattern of alternate Saturdays; music events are publicised on their Facebook page. There are Sky Sports for the big matches and they show horse racing every day: you can find a handy bookies across the road if you enjoy a flutter.

There is a very small car park, but no shortage of free street parking; buses and trains stop in Birkdale village less than 10 minutes' walk away.

The Up Steps is open from midday to midnight every day. It is at 20 Upper Aughton Road, Southport, PR8 5ND. Tel: 01704 562943.

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 28 August 2016

September Guest House singaround cancelled

The room in the Guest House
where the sessions are held
I've just come home from Whitby Folk Week to learn that my local, the Guest House, Union Street, Southport will be closed from 3 to 8 September. Not sure why yet, but it does mean that my song session which takes place on the first Monday of each month will not take place on Monday 5 September. There shouldn't be a problem with October.

Sorry about that; please mention this to anyone else who might otherwise turn up. 

Friday 19 August 2016

CAMRA mission statement 1972

"Feeling bitter about your pint?" was the headline over this extract from the very first Good Beer Guide produced by the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale in November 1972. It wasn't a professionally published volume, just eighteen sheets of paper stapled together and posted out to members. It states that the Campaign supports "a really good pint" (the term "real ale" hadn't yet been coined) and the premises where it's served, and pledges to "fight against the spread of all pressurised and keg-type beers and harmful takeovers". The first properly printed GBG was published in 1974. 

The address of CAMRA's first HQ in Salford was in fact the home of founder Graham Lees's mother. Annual subs were 50p (about £6 now).

Thursday 18 August 2016

The Beer Station in Freshfield

The Beer Station, near the train station
Right next to Freshfield Station you will find the Beer Station, a new micropub that was opened on 22nd July by father and son team Ian and Keir in a former newsagent's. It is a light and airy single-roomed bar with plain white walls exhibiting paintings and prints by local artists which you can buy. A church in Wallasey provided the bar, which was adapted from the choir stall – you can still see the angel's heads at each end – and much of the seating in the form of pews and chairs. We found the pub welcoming and were soon chatting away to the licensee and other customers when a friend walked in out of the blue – small world!

The real ales available when we called in were Liverpool Organic Bier Head, Liverpool Organic Cascade and a stout from Formby's Red Star Brewery, Havana Moon. All were in good nick and, although I am not usually a stout drinker, I did enjoy the Havana Moon. The beers usually come from local breweries and have previously included brews from Melwood, Neptune and Rock The Boat.

A row of fonts offered three beers from the Freedom Brewery of Staffordshire: Authentic Lager (matured for four weeks), King Koln, described as a homage to Kolsch, and Prototype Pale Ale. We were given a sample of the pale ale: we agreed it perhaps needed a few more hops, but it wasn't bad at all, although to my real ale tastes it seemed a bit like bottled beer. We were told the lager is brewed to Bavarian purity standards.

Happy 2-legged and 4-legged customers
The bottled beer range includes the products of Red Star, 3 Potts of Southport, and Sentinel of Sheffield. Wines and spirits are available, in particular Formby Gin and Gregal, which we were informed is a particularly fine rosé from the Maltese island of Gozo.

Children and dogs are welcome, they offer basic snacks such as pies and crisps, and there is free WiFi for customers.

The Beer Station is at 3 Victoria Buildings, Freshfield, L37 7DB. Tel: 01704 807450. Opening hours: Mon-Thu 3.00 to 9.00; Fri 3.00 to 10.00; Sat 12.00 to 10.00; Sun 12.00 to 9.00.

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 15 August 2016

Browned off

Squaring up for a fight
Occasionally you read an article and you not only disagree with the conclusions, but you also dispute all the premises upon which they are based. In other words, you think: what planet is this person on? So it was with this report in the Morning Advertiser of a speech by Pete Brown at the GBBF about the relationship between craft beer and real ale.

Personally I am bored to death with this issue, which really only vexes people who spend too much time in the world of beer (yes, I did actually write those words), but if we are going to discuss it, let's not set up fake arguments to inform our conclusions.

He asserted that some people claim 'craft beer' is a marketing term with no relevance. Really? I've never heard that in any conversation I've been involved in. It is certainly not something real ale drinkers on the ground are likely to say - only industry insiders, by which I include beer journalists such as Pete Brown.

The article then goes on to assert that "[Pete Brown] then ... shut down real ale fanatics’ defence that the brew only came in kegs and craft beer was just sold in bottles or cans." It's not clear whether the heavily loaded term 'fanatic' is Pete Brown's term or the Morning Advertiser's, but such language is uncompromising and certainly not suggestive of being open to discussion and debate. More relevantly, I have never heard anyone make such an assertion, not have I read it in anything written by a lover of real ale. I get the impression that real ale drinkers are fully aware that craft beer comes on tap as well as cans and bottles, so I regard the premise behind the conclusion to be flawed. I have heard the perfectly sensible argument that the term craft beer can be applied to some real ales. Not all, of course: no one would seriously describe cask versions of Tetley Bitter or Greene King IPA as craft.

We real ale drinkers are apparently are hostile to craft because, he asserts, of its American origin. Again, not an argument I've ever heard expressed. I am fully aware that some real ale drinkers regard craft as the new keg, and it is not entirely unreasonable for drinkers who remember with a shudder beers such as Double Diamond, Trophy and Red Barrel to be extremely wary of what they judge to be the attempted rehabilitation of something they utterly loathed. They had good reason: real ale was insidiously being replaced by keg in the 1960s and 1970s, even to the extent of getting rid of handpumps so that you couldn't tell whether a beer was real or not until it was served. I was a student for four years in the Warrington area, then a town with three breweries, and we knew of only one pub that had handpumps; what real ale there was almost always came through electric pumps that were identical to those used for keg. Pete Brown came of drinking age in 1986 and the microbrewery revolution took off while he was still in his twenties, so he cannot fully appreciate why the term 'keg' is a such dirty word for many more experienced drinkers.

He asserts that Americans don’t discount real ale as "boring and British", and that the contrary is the case. I've not heard anyone assert that Americans do think that, but I have read British craft beer aficionados make exactly that point about real ale, so perhaps he should direct some of his criticisms in their direction. In the CAMRA circles I move in, craft is rarely mentioned: there isn't a real ale Taliban at work determined to root out all deviance from the path of real ale purity. When it is mentioned, it is more along the lines of "Fine if people want it, but not for me", which is pretty much my attitude. It seems to me that it's only people in the bubble of the industry and beer journalism who see a significant schism between true believers and heretics. They're too close to the subject - or perhaps like rock journalists in the late 1970s who all converted to punk overnight, decrying the Genesis albums they'd been praising 6 months earlier, they're anxious not to appear old fashioned and fuddy-duddy.

If Pete Brown was trying build bridges, he hasn't succeeded, but having come across his antipathy to CAMRA types previously (even though he actually joined in 2012), I'm not sure he was trying to. In general, I detect a certain impatience that some of us refuse to be persuaded by the arguments of those who regard themselves as experts. They seem to forget that customers can spend their own money on what they like, and if they don't wish to buy craft beer, they don't have to. Drinking beer - whatever form it takes - is meant to be a pleasure: it is not an evangelistic duty, nor ultimately is there any right or wrong. In my local which sometimes has up to 11 real ales, there are plenty of drinkers who choose lager or John Smiths Smooth. I would never berate them - it's what they want, after all - so why should we real ale drinkers be criticised for our choices?

Ignorant people would probably regard me as a real ale fanatic, because cask real ale is the only beer I really enjoy, but they'd be wrong because my preference is driven by my taste buds, not dogma. Even real ale in a bottle isn't to me as good as draught. I have tried craft beer a number of times, out of curiosity as much as anything else. I wrote in June last year about the Pied Bull, a brewpub in Chester: "They're also brewing their own craft beer of which they gave me a sample, which I found quite heavily hopped. Not my bag, but not too bad at all." To be more specific, I found it full of flavour, but as the half pint went down I could increasingly detect the carbonation. My few experiences of craft have led me to conclude that if I were in a social situation where such a beer was all that was available, I'd find it more than tolerable. However, I'd still prefer real ale.

Some other beer bloggers have broader tastes than I do: both Tandleman and the Pub Curmudgeon have written about having enjoyed a pint of lager in certain circumstances, whereas the last time I drank a pint of keg lager was more than a quarter of a century ago when my line manager bought me one in error. Before that was in the 1970s, but that's through personal preference rather than some fundamentalist principle. Each to their own.

I also like tea and drink quite a lot of it. I occasionally drink coffee. Personal choice, not tea fanaticism.

Saturday 13 August 2016

Take it to the limit

The question of alcohol units has been raised again, this time by CAMRA who have pointed out that in a YouGov poll that surveyed 2040 people, 61% agreed that alcohol can be part of a healthy lifestyle, and 51% disagreed that the recommended units should be the same for men and for women. In another poll of doctors earlier this year, two thirds disagreed with the Chief Medical Officer for England's (CMOE's) assertion that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

Colin Valentine, CAMRA's national chair, made a point that has been made on this blog previously: if the current units lack credibility, as the YouGov poll suggests, or if there is insufficient plausible scientific evidence to support them, people will simply ignore them. That should be rather obvious, even to the CMOE.

A couple of years ago, the Independent reported that a former World Health Organisation alcohol expert Dr Kari Poikolainen had analysed decades of research into the effects of alcohol on the human body, concluding that drinking is only harmful when you consume more than 13 units a day - four to five pints of beer or more than a bottle of wine. He added that drinking more than the CMOE-approved recommended daily intake may in fact be healthier than being a teetotaller, but that heavy drinking could be worse than abstaining.

The CMOE's position is illogical anyway. On the one hand, she says that 14 units is the recommended safe limit, but she then claims that here is no safe limit at all. It has to be one or the other, not both. Such mixed messages will only reduce her credibility even further.

Thursday 11 August 2016

So that's what they do with my subs!

Why has CAMRA commissioned a YouGov survey asking which politician we'd most trust to run a local pub? Under the headline "Pint of the usual, Boris!", they have issued a press release declaring:

"The former Mayor of London and now Foreign Secretary would be most trusted to pull pints and lend a sympathetic ear across the bar, according to figures released at [CAMRA's] Great British Beer Festival, running all this week at Olympia London.

"More than one in five (22 per cent) of those surveyed by YouGov on behalf of CAMRA said they'd trust Johnson to run their local pub."

A closer look at that the figures can produce rather different interpretations:
  • 78% did not opt for Boris Johnson, or
  • 32% opted for no politician, and 22% (the same percentage that Johnson got) said they didn't know, which totals 54%. A more accurate headline would have been: "Most drinkers don't trust any politician to run a pub". 
  • Jeremy Corbyn, who says he drinks " very, very little", is ranked much higher than Owen Smith (drinking habits unknown). 
You could regard this poll as merely a bit of harmless fun, or a pointless waste of money. Take your pick.

You can see the full results of the poll here.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Champion Beer of Britain 2016 - all the results

I've had 9 of these 23 beers. Slightly disappointed that there are no beers from local (Merseyside and West Lancs) breweries.

Supreme Champion 
  1. Gold – Binghams, Vanilla Stout
  2. Silver – Old Dairy, Snow Top
  3. Bronze – Tring, Death or Glory
Bitter Class
  1. Gold – Timothy Taylors, Boltmaker
  2. Silver – Tiny Rebel, Hank
  3. Joint Bronze – Hawkshead, Bitter & Salopian, Shropshire Gold
Best Bitter Class 
  1. Gold – Surrey Hills, Shere Drop
  2. Silver – Salopian, Darwin's Origin
  3. Joint Bronze – Colchester, Colchester No.1 & Tiny Rebel, Cwtch
Strong Bitter/Ale Class 
  1. Gold – Heavy Industry, 77
  2. Silver – Hawkshead, NZPA
  3. Bronze – Adnams, Ghost Ship
Golden Ale Class 
  1. Gold – Golden Triangle, Mosaic City
  2. Silver – Grey Trees, Diggers Gold
  3. Bronze – Marble, Lagonda IPA
Mild Class 
  1. Gold – Williams Bros, Black
  2. Silver – Mighty Oak, Oscar Wilde
  3. Bronze – Acorn, Darkness
Speciality Beer Class 
  1. Gold – Binghams, Vanilla Stout
  2. Silver – Saltaire, Triple Chocoholic
  3. Bronze – Titanic, Plum Porter

Monday 8 August 2016


I attended the CAMRA Revitalisation meeting last Saturday in the Augustus John pub in Liverpool. The discussions were steered around a set of predetermined questions which we then voted on electronically.

I didn't take notes but here are some of the results:
  • Most people present were not of the view that real ale had irreversibly been saved.
  • The place of cider and perry in the campaign was not accepted by all, with some present of the view that the cider and perry tail was wagging the CAMRA dog.
  • Pub closures are a main concern, although one or two expressed the view that the closure of pubs that don't serve real ale is no loss. 
  • Quality was an important issue.
  • The conversion of CAMRA to a much wider brief, such as all drinkers or even all beer drinkers, was unacceptable.
I personally have no problem with cider and perry being part of CAMRA's remit. I have heard at different times people say that it's the Campaign for Real Ale - clue in the name - so we should have nothing to do with cider and perry. I expect that the reason why they aren't mentioned in the name is mainly because an effective and widely recognised acronym would not be enhanced by becoming CAMRACAP. I am quite happy that our campaign covers traditional cider and perry, although I rarely drink either. For one thing, Merseyside isn't a cider stronghold.

The attitude that it doesn't matter whether pubs without real ale stay open or not is extremely selfish and short-sighted. One speaker correctly pointed out that, while the real ale situation in Liverpool city centre is very healthy, there are whole swathes of the city that are real ale deserts where 20 or 30 years ago real ale was routinely available in brewery-owned pubs. Pubs aren't just about serving real ale, and I have been in pubs that don't offer it - usually to see particular bands - that were in every other respect great pubs: busy, with a diverse range of customers, including by age, many of whom are clearly regulars, and a good atmosphere. Such pubs do meet a need in their own communities, and to dismiss them because they don't serve real ale is very much a 'dog in the manger' attitude. Besides, any pub might decide to offer real ale in the future, as long as it stays open, but a new housing development or supermarket never can.

I don't think the revitalisation meeting was a waste of time. If CAMRA's remit doesn't change much, that doesn't matter because it will have reaffirmed what it stands for. No one will be able to accuse the campaign of operating to a 1970s agenda. After such a lengthy and widely cast consultation, whatever is decided should represent what the majority of members now want, and not what craft keg advocates or other detractors keep on saying the campaign should be doing. After all, it belongs to us members.

It must really irritate the knockers that, although they like to proclaim CAMRA as increasingly irrelevant, membership keeps on rising (approaching 180,000 now). That is not all down to Wetherspoons vouchers.

By the way, any members who disapprove of the vouchers are welcome to pass them to me.

Friday 5 August 2016

Úna McBride

I was sorry to hear that Úna McBride had passed away at the age of 59. Úna has deservedly been in the news recently because, despite terminal cancer, she raised large sums of money for charities such as Queenscourt Hospice and MacMillan Cancer Support, culminating in a special 'Courage and Sparkle' event in St George's Hall, Liverpool.

The Bec in happier days with brass band and brewery dray
Six years ago, Úna was involved in an entirely different campaign: to reopen the Becconsall pub in Hesketh Bank. The Bec, as it was known, was originally the hunting, shooting and fishing lodge for the local aristocratic Hesketh family. It eventually became a pub and was run for 25 years by Úna's parents, Frank and Úna McBride. Being the only local pub, it was central to village life, although in latter years it went in to decline. After it closed in 2009, Úna began a campaign in the name of her elderly mother, known locally as Mrs Mc, to reopen the Bec, not just as a pub, but as a community social enterprise for use by local groups and residents for meetings and functions. 

She set up the 'Save The Becconsall' committee which quickly became very active and was able to attract interest in the project from a pub entrepreneur. Úna and her team worked tirelessly to resurrect this fondly-remembered pub, hoping to provide a valuable asset for the community. I spoke to her on the phone several times so that I could cover the campaign in the local CAMRA magazine Ale & Hearty, which I then edited. I also mentioned her campaign on this blog. 

Maureen Baldwin from the action group said at the time: “The Becconsall was always a very attractive family pub when it was owned by the McBride family and it would be great if we could recreate that once again.”

Sadly that was not to be because a structural survey revealed that the building had been so badly neglected by its final owners that it was beyond economic repair. Demolition followed and the site was then redeveloped into houses and flats.

Despite her own battles against cancer, Úna later applied her formidable campaigning skills to raising thousands of pounds for health-related charities for which she was honoured just a few weeks ago at the Merseyside Women of the Year Awards. I admire her inspiring fundraising work for good causes undertaken when she was seriously ill herself, but also remember her earlier work as a highly committed pub campaigner on behalf of her community in Hesketh Bank.

An edited version of this will appear in the CAMRA column in the local paper, the Southport Visiter.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Raising a glass to 1966

A tasteful souvenir
of a sporting triumph
It seems to me that there is something desperate about being an England football fan. For half a century, 1966 has been held up as a great moment in England's sporting history, even though with the passage of time it increasingly serves to highlight how much the national team has declined since. I do recall the competition, but I didn't watch any of the matches. The shops were full of tacky memorabilia featuring World Cup Willie, the England mascot: you could even get World Cup Willie rolykins, which, as I recall, didn't roll as well as the Dalek ones that I owned.

A year or so ago in a discussion programme on TV, a Scot in the audience said that 1966 was 50 years ago, so get over it. Frank Skinner, who was on the panel, replied that Bannockburn was 700 years ago, so get over it. I agree with both statements: if your access to national pride is solely through history, it strongly suggests that as a nation you are living on past glories. A few days ago, both Radio 2 and Radio 5 Live devoted an afternoon to celebrating that far off sporting achievement. I fail to see why both stations had to be taken over by this because there was nothing to stop people changing the station if they wanted to hear the programme. I suppose it was a good excuse to save a few bob in production costs.

Greene King's tribute
Greene King, manufacturers of the the most boring IPA in the universe, have decided to mark the anniversary of the event by producing a beer called Bobby in tribute to the 1966 England captain, the late Bobby Moore. It will be a blonde beer brewed to a strength of 4.2% to represent the final 4-2 score. Apparently the design for the pump clips and beer mats was inspired by the logo of this year's film Bobby about the sporting legend. I have nothing against Bobby Moore, who seemed to be a genuinely popular public figure both during and after his football career. I just hope the beer isn't just a cheap cash-in and is instead a product worthy the high regard that many football fans still hold him in. The problem is that it's brewed by Greene King.

At least it's appropriate in one way - Bobby Moore was known to enjoy a drink.

Monday 1 August 2016

The Pines bar in Hillside

Happily drinking in the
sunshine outside the Pines 
Just three months ago, a new bar called The Pines was opened in Hillside just around the corner from The Grasshopper micropub. Its Facebook page describes it as a “wine bar specialising in cask ales, continental lagers, whiskeys, gins and everything fine, including a tapas menu”. Converted from a former shop, it has a glass front that can be fully opened on nice days. The décor is light, simple and quite comfortable to sit in. To the front there is an outside drinking area which was busy both times I have called in.

Two real ale handpumps were recently serving Red Star Formby Blonde and Salopian Lemon Dream. On my previous visit the choice was Old School Brewery Hopscotch and Southport Golden Sands. Their real ales are usually from local breweries. There are several tall fonts, two of which dispensed Blue Moon Belgian-Style Wheat Ale and Prosecco.

There is a broad spirit range including several gins: Liverpool Gin and Formby Gin are available now and are set to joined soon by Ormskirk Gin. They also offer a good choice of wines, including champagne. Bottled beers include Belgian beers and the full range from Southport Brewery, and you get 30% off bottled beers to take away. They sell tea and coffee too.

The food menu includes light bites, breakfast, sandwiches, lunches, tapas and desserts. See the full menu via their Facebook page. The bar is child-friendly and dog friendly. They provide free organic dog treats (Hillside dogs are very choosy) and a bar to the front.

Special offers: Happy Hour runs from 6.00 to 7.00pm Monday to Friday and apparently you have to get there early. There is also a two-for-one deal on cocktails at the same times Monday to Wednesday. They also have free WiFi.

The Pines is at 3 Hillside Road, Hillside, Southport, PR84QB. Its opening hours are: Monday to Saturday 8:00am to 10:30pm; Sunday 8:00am to 10:00pm. Tel: 07454 453090. To get there: the 47 bus passes just yards away, and Hillside Station is a five minute walk.

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.