Monday 31 October 2016

The Hop Vine, Burscough

The Hop Vine in Burscough
It's been a while since I visited the Hop Vine, so I hopped on the train try it out. It is unique locally in that it has its own brewery behind the pub, Burscough Brewing Company, which brewed its millionth pint last June. When I visited, the pub was very busy with both drinkers and diners: this is a pub that successfully caters for both. The pub is very attractively decorated and in the drinking area there are barrels as tables and a fireplace with a wooden surround. I found the busy bar staff to be friendly and helpful.

First the real ales: Hope Vine Bitter at an extremely reasonable £2.60 a pint; Burscough Mere Blonde; Timothy Taylor's Landlord; Epic IPA; Camel Town IPA; and Oasis Stout. The Camel Town IPA is brewed on site and the name is derived from the old CB radio name for Burscough, Camel Town, a reference to the two hump bridges in the town over the railway and the canal. At 5.5%, it is deceptively drinkable. Two craft beers were on offer: Tiny Rebel Cwtch, which in its cask form was crowned CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain, and Lucky Jack. All the beers I tried were in good form.

This pub is well-known for its food, and it has a very extensive menu as well as an extensive list of specials. I asked a woman who was confirming a group booking for a Christmas meal (she had made the provisional booking last January) what she thought of the food, and she had nothing but praise. Food is available daily between midday and 2pm and 6pm and 8.30pm, except Sunday when it's midday to 8.30pm.

Quiz night is Tuesday and there's live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A gents club-style new function suite upstairs is available for bookings. The pub has disabled access, beer garden, car park, free WiFi and welcomes children. It is on Liverpool Road North, Burscough, L40 4BY, three minutes' walk from Burscough Bridge Station. Phone: 01704 893799. Their website is here, and they're 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 30 October 2016

The Smiths to re-form?

Johnny Marr has suggested that Morrissey is talking about possibly re-forming the Smiths.

If so, heaven knows I'm miserable now.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Ruddles County

An old County pumpclip from its glory days
Last night, my local had the current incarnation of Ruddles County on. I used to love this beer when Ruddles was an independent brewery, but it was taken over 30 years ago and has since been owned by Watney's, Grolsch and Morland, until the latter was taken over by Greene King.

I haven't had this beer for 20 to 30 years, so I was interested to see how it might compare. I found quite acceptable, but it has no resemblance whatsoever the original County that I remember. For a start, the strength is now 4.3%, whereas 30 years ago it was advertised, as you can see, as O.G. 1048° - 1052°, which would roughly translate as 5% nowadays.

I don't think it's just the strength that has changed, although a change in strength usually does alter a beer's flavour. It has a touch of the Greene King flavour, sitting somewhere between their utterly bland IPA and the over-flavoured Abbott. I'd be amazed if they claimed their current brew is in any way derived from the original recipe, but even if it were, it's no longer brewed in Langham where the well water was famously reputed to give beer a unique character.

It's not a bad beer, but if there's anything on the bar that looks more interesting, I'd suggest you have that instead.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Sidestepping the Code

In July, the Pub Code finally came into force allowing pub tenants to ask their pubco for a market rent only (MRO) deal, which would allow them to buy beer on the open market in exchange for paying a commercial rent on the premises. All well and good, except that pubcos, most of which have accrued a mountain of debt (basically because they're rubbish capitalists), are not playing ball.

One tenant reported that when he requested a change to an MRO tenancy, as is his legal right, the rent offered was double, which would have left him much worse off as the rent would have been nearly double the national average for free-of-tie rents. Punch have consistently refused to explain the figure.

Another tactic is the insist on a new contract, although it is much simpler and cheaper to vary the existing one. Thousands of pounds are then demanded in stamp duty, legal fees, and a premises licence fee, whatever that is. Other charges added to the switch to MRO mean some licensees have been expected to find nearly £200,000 up front.

It's a good job we've got the Pubs Code Adjudicator then, except that there are serious doubts about Paul Newby's impartiality (see my earlier post about him). The first referrals have arrived on his desk, but as such referrals costs £200 each plus legal costs, which can add up to thousands, licensees are not going to go down this path lightly.

Punch say they are "open to negotiation at any rent event". If they were prepared to enter negotiations in good faith, then licensees wouldn't be turning to the adjudicator. The fact that some of them are shows that being open to negotiation is by no means the same as being prepared to negotiate.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Hunter Muskett this Sunday

Guest post by Clive Pownceby, Bothy Organiser:

A word or two about the guests at the Bothy Folk Club this Sunday 30 October - Hunter Muskett. Way back in the early 70s I had two favourite folk-rock bands which never really hit big. The JSD Band who supported David Bowie in the Ziggy era was one, and Hunter Muskett was the other. I guess that Steeleye and Fairport had the scene sown up but these lesser-known bands were certainly not musical inferiors.

Hunters made two LPs, both of which are now expensive collectors’ items and we’ll be hearing classic songs such as 'Silver Coin' and 'Magician' on Sunday. The band broke up in 1974 but still with the original line-up, got back to the road in 2010.

This is a rare chance to catch a slice of legendary and innovative UK music which not only stands the test of time but retains an on-going force to reckon with.

Do come along: we’ve had a season of ups and downs this far, and I’d love this gig to be a turning point. Band website here. Doors open at 8.00 pm at the Park Golf Club, Park Road West, Southport, PR9 0JS.

Sex equality just a swift half away

A worldwide study of drinking habits has shown that women have almost caught up with men in terms of drinking. A team at the University of New South Wales in Australia analysed data from people all over the world and they discovered that:
  • In the early 1900s, men were 2.2 times as likely as women to drink alcohol at all.
  • For those born towards the end of the century, men were only 1.1 times as likely as women to drink at all.
  • The closing male-female gap is most evident among young adults.
As this is a global study, the answers as to why this is happening don't lie in the British context alone, but it isn't unreasonable to suggest that factors may include the increasing availability of alcohol, and the fact that alcohol advertising is often targeted specifically at women, especially young women.

Predictably, Alcohol Concern states that this trend shows the need for mandatory health warnings on alcohol products and a mass media campaign to raise awareness, while the Portman Group points out that "Official data shows significant declines in women's alcohol consumption, frequency of drinking and binge-drinking rates over the last decade."

The latter point is supported by the fact that overall alcohol consumption has been in decline in the UK for a number of years now. The only conclusion I can be certain about is that if this trend continues, women will probably overtake men in the not too distant future.

Friday 21 October 2016

Scottish minimum pricing ruled lawful

In 2012, the Scottish Parliament voted for minimum pricing of alcohol, but implementation was delayed when the Scotch whisky industry launched a legal challenge, claiming the plans breached European Law. The Court of Session in Edinburgh has dismissed the challenge which means that, unless the drinks industry appeals to the Supreme Court in London, 50p per unit can be implemented north of the border. The price of a bottle of spirits is likely to exceed £14.

The Scotch Whisky Association's argument was that the policy is a restriction on trade and thus contrary to EU law. The opposing argument is all about alcohol misuse, asserting that minimum pricing would help address Scotland's "unhealthy relationship with drink".

My reasons for opposing minimum pricing are not personal; as I'm a beer drinker in pubs, it wouldn't make much difference to me. I previously explained my reasons here just before the 2013 CAMRA national AGM in Norwich, where a motion had been tabled to end the campaign's support of the policy. Pleasingly, the motion was passed, much to the chagrin of the top table.

Not everyone who buys cheap alcohol is a binge drinker - many simply don’t have much money, so minimum pricing will mainly affect the poorest in society. It is in effect a poll tax levied equally on every drinker, without reference to their ability to pay. The better-off and rich will still be able to buy as much drink as they like, unhampered by nanny state interference. I have never heard anyone assert that alcohol misuse is confined to the poorest in society; this law affects certain strands in society disproportionately and is therefore inherently unjust. Is this an unintended consequence? I don't think so.

I'm hoping the Scottish drinks industry does appeal further, even though I don't particularly share its motives.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Local breweries winning awards

I always like seeing our local breweries win awards, so I'm particularly pleased that three local breweries have won awards at SIBA’s North West Independent Beer Awards 2016 held in Bolton this month.

Southport Brewery won:
  • Gold for bottled Dark Night, a mild.
  • Silver for bottled Golden Sands, a golden ale.
  • Bronze for cask Golden Sands.
Liverpool Organic Brewery won:
  • Silver in the bottled premium strong beers category for Imperial Russian Stout.
  • Bronze in the pale ale category for Cascade.
Formby's Red Star Brewery won: 
  • Gold in the bottled porter category for Partisan.
The full results are here. Well done to all concerned. The only one I haven't had here is the Imperial Russian Stout: I must keep an eye out for it.

Historical fact: Southport Brewery's Dark Night was named after the tragic Mexico lifeboat disaster of 1886 which happened locally.

SIBA is the Society of Independent Brewers.

Sunday 16 October 2016

The Lifeboat, Formby

In Formby again this week to visit the Lifeboat, a JD Wetherspoon house. It was opened in July this year in the ground floor of a private members club, which still operates in the upstairs rooms. It was named after the former Formby Lifeboat Station, said the be the first in the country. It is an attractive brick-built building and the interior decor is light and airy with timber that blends nicely into the overall d├ęcor. Behind the pub is a pleasant beer garden and covered shelters for smokers.

Wetherspoons pubs currently have a beer festival running until 23 October, and the real ales on sale when we called in were: Sharp's Doom Bar; Greene King Abbott; Everards Pitch Black; Moorhouse's Blond Witch; Hot Night in the Village; Recreation Ale IPA; Ruddles Best; Phoenix Pale Moonlight; Liberation Pilsner Cask Lager; and Morland Old Crafty Hen. They have Cask Marque accreditation for the quality of their beers. Real cider is also available.

On 29 October the pub is holding a Hallowe'en night, with Moorhouse's - whose beers include Pendle Witches Brew, Blond Witch and White Witch - coming along between 6pm and 8pm. They will be bringing down samples and some of the ingredients they use in the brew, such as hops, and will provide an explanation of the brewing process. The pub also has a brewery tour of the Parker Brewery in Banks coming up, but the details of that are still to be confirmed – please contact the pub if you're interested.

The Lifeboat offers: disabled access; baby changing facilities; free WiFi; and children are welcome. They serve food all day until late and have an open kitchen where you can see your food being prepared. There is also a window through which you can see the beer barrels in the cellar.

Opening hours: Mon-Wed 8 to 11.30; Thu-Sat 8 to Midnight; Sun 8 to11.30. Address: 41 Three Tuns Lane, Formby L37 4AQ. Tel: 01704 830839.

The pub is just over half a mile from Formby station, and Formby circular buses run past the pub. More buses stop just around the corner in Cross Green, including the X2 and 47 on the Liverpool-Southport route. No car park.

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 13 October 2016

More pub losses?

Tarleton's Cock & Bottle
Bad news about the Cock & Bottle, a Thwaites pub in Tareton, Lancs: it closed on 5 October and a sign appeared stating: "Due to unforseen [sic] circumstances we will close tonight (wed) and reopen on Sat 8th Oct". Unfortunately, the promised reopening did not happen.

Thwaites are now saying: "The pub has been abandoned by the lease holder and we intend to recover possession today. We will be working with a new operator to get it reopened as soon as possible and medium term we will be investing in the pub, ensuring The Cock and Bottle is at the heart of the community and the fantastic pub we know it can become and that the people of Tarleton deserve."

I like the Cock & Bottle because, even though it is very much food-oriented, it is a pleasant place that still has room for people who just want a drink. It's a bit out of my way, but I have called in on CAMRA business every so often.

Our local paper, the Southport Visiter, published the news of this on Facebook, and underneath someone commented that the Shrimper in Marshside (in the north part of Southport) and the Old Ship in the town centre are both likely to close in the near future. So far I know no more than that. The Old Ship was my local for many years in the 80s and 90s and although it's not the pub it used to be, I'd be sorry to see it go. The Shrimper has been the home of jazz nights for many years now.

Monday 10 October 2016

The Cross House Inn, Formby

The Cross House Inn
It has been years since I visited this pub and, to be honest, I couldn't remember what it was like inside. It has been refurbished in recent years and may have been different last time I was in. I was pleasantly surprised, and here is what I wrote for the local paper:

Formby's Cross House Inn stands prominently facing a local landmark: a roundabout with a Grade II listed stone cross. The pub itself has five separate areas all served by a long bar, and extensive wood panelling creates an old-style atmosphere. On the bar were six real ales: Morland Old Speckled Hen; Salopian Lemon Dream; Greene King Abbott; Greene King IPA: Rock The Boat Bootle Bull; and Salamander Ruffled Feathers Blond Bitter. The three beers I had were all in good condition; my favourite was the Lemon Dream.

There were also five real ciders: Black Dragon; Devon Mist; Rosie Pigg; Lilley's Apples & Pears; and Lilley's Sunset. The guest beers change regularly and tend to come from local breweries. Other drinks include a good wine selection, a choice of gins, and a range of coffees.

When I visited, there were quite a few people enjoying the reasonably-priced food, which is served every day until 10.00pm; there are also Sunday roast and children's menus. However the pub isn't just about a food, and the bar areas were busy with customers who had just come in for a few drinks. Dogs are permitted in the bar area.

Every Monday all cask ales are £2.50. Monday to Thursday is the Golden Years menu. Every Wednesday, curry banquet. Thursday evening is quiz night, and on Fizz Friday you can buy two glasses of Prosecco for £5. Live music features on the last Saturday of the month. There are several TV screens around the pub for sport, but the sound was off when I was there. They are holding a Hallowe'en children's party on Sunday 30 October in the afternoon.

There is extensive outdoor seating, including a covered balcony, and a large car park. The Cross House is about half a mile from Formby Station, but buses stop right outside, including the X2 and 47 Liverpool to Southport services. Opening hours: Monday-Thursday 11.00 to 23.00; Friday 11.00 to 00.00; Saturday 10.00 to 00.00; Sunday 10.00 to 23.00. They are on Facebook. Address: Three Tuns Lane, Cross Green, Formby L37 4BH. Phone: 01704 873775.

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.

Saturday 8 October 2016

Amber warning

Copied from Rock Against The Right's Facebook page
This may surprise some people but, as a rule, I am not a great follower of political speeches; words are cheap, after all, and I prefer to judge our rulers by what they do, not what they say. However, there are times when the words should be heeded, and one example is Home Secretary Amber Rudd's speech to the recent Tory Party rally.

In particular, among a whole swathe of proposals designed to appeal to the large xenophobic element in her audience, she floated the idea of forcing companies to reveal what proportion of their workforces are migrants. At a time when hate crimes are on the increase after the EU vote, it seems irresponsible to give the bigots more ammunition. I'd say there's a good chance that 'named and shamed' companies would face a racist backlash, a reaction that would rapidly extend from the company to the workers themselves. They might as well put signs outside proclaiming: "Here be foreigners!" 

I can see no point in this idea, except to try to foment consumer boycotts which, if they gain enough support, may close businesses down and put people out of work - not forgetting the loss of provision of goods and services to us. Less drastically, employers may reduce their workforces to shed migrant workers, or not expand if that growth could only be achieved using migrant staff. This interference in an employer's right to choose the people he or she sees as most suitable will benefit neither the business concerned or the country as a whole. Young white males who drift into ultra-right politics, blaming foreigners for taking 'their' jobs, should have got their finger out at school, instead of dismissing it all as rubbish, failing, and then becoming angry when potential employers pick others who worked hard to make themselves more employable.

The UK's hospitality industry relies on migrant workers, who make up an estimated 24% of the workforce. The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers has said: "Pubs, bars and restaurants do not actively recruit abroad seeking foreign workers; they recruit locally and it is unfair to imply that businesses are failing to support the UK workforce or failing in their duty to provide opportunities or training."

To give an example: according to the People 1st, a skills and workforce development organisation, the British hospitality industry will have to recruit 11,000 chefs in the next eight years. With colleges reporting a decline in applications for full-time chef courses, employers will have no option but to look elsewhere for staff. What does anyone gain from such employers publishing the proportion of migrant workers they employ? 

Let's hope this pointless proposal does not make it beyond the conference rostrum, but if it does, it will over the years cause difficulties for all areas of the hospitality industry without any discernible gains for those of us who use it, or indeed for the country generally.

There's a petition on this subject asking Ms Rudd to abandon this ill-considered idea.

Thursday 6 October 2016

When Moor is less

The shape of things to come?
I was going to write a much lengthier post than this will be about Moor Brewery's decision to produce real ale in a can, but why reinvent the wheel when two other beer bloggers have made most of the points I intended to? You can read Curmudgeon's view here, and Paul Bailey's here.

If we accept the concept of real ale in a bottle, there is no logical reason why we should not accept real ale in a can, although there is one obvious disadvantage: as the others have pointed out, with a can you cannot see the beer when pouring so you may end up with a hazy or even cloudy pint, which is obviously not good news if clarity is important to you. Other than that, I can't see how there'd be any difference between real ale in bottles or cans.

Justin Hawke of Moor Brewery believes that we over-value beer clarity in this country, but that is his opinion, nothing more. As a former home brewer on quite a large scale for an amateur brewing a variety of styles in the kitchen (up to 200 pints at any given time), I never used finings and I rarely had trouble with clarity. If an amateur like me could consistently make clear real ale in a bottle, I don't understand why professionals can't.

The simple fact is that we do eat and drink with our eyes as well as our mouths. We needed to in the distant past because it was an essential survival skill. The instinct (if that's what it is) is still there: most of us wouldn't eat food that had, say, mould growing on it, with the possible exception of blue cheeses. If we don't like the look of something, we won't eat or drink it, and plenty of people prefer clarity in their beer. They're not wrong: quite simply, they know what they're prepared to put into their own bodies.

Although I won't take back a hazy pint if I judge the flavour to be unaffected, I prefer my beer to be clear. The reasons why most people prefer beer to be clear are really quite irrelevant. Clarity is what most customers want, and as they're paying, I think they're entitled to get what they ask for. It has been suggested that our preference for clarity dates from when a cloudy pint really meant the beer was off. That's possible but I'm not entirely convinced: I think people simply like what they're eating and drinking to look good, however they choose to define that quality. If looks weren't important, how come restaurants take such trouble to make their food look good? Why don't they just slop it on the plate in any order and tell diners to eat with their mouths, not their eyes? Because the appearance of what we consume matters to most of us.

Getting back to real ales in cans or bottles: the differences between cask beer and keg or smoothflow are quite significant. I find the differences between real ale in bottles and brewery-conditioned bottled beers considerably less so, and I expect the same would apply to real ale in cans. From my point of view, this is all a lot of fuss about not a great deal, although I expect the publicity has done Moor Brewery no harm. I have no ill-will towards this venture - I may even try the beer if I come across it - but I shan't be rushing out to find canned real ale for much the same reasons that I don't now rush out to buy bottled real ales.

Sunday 2 October 2016

Award-winning mediocre brewery

I'll try it if I see it
Under a headline "Scotland names its best beers", the Morning Advertiser states that at the Scottish Beer Awards, "BrewDog, Caledonian Brewery and the Tempest Brewing Company have been named, among many other brewers, as producing some of Scotland’s top beers." Caledonian received a single award for Best Pale Ale with its Coast To Coast.

I haven't come across this particular beer, but my experience of Caledonian beers does not fill me with confidence. They have a very distinctive corporate flavour that I dislike. My local is a Star pub, a Heineken company which also owns Caledonian, so beers from that brewery do feature regularly on the bar. I no longer drink them. They even supply a house beer with its own special pump clip, but I find it still has that Caledonian flavour. I've little doubt that it's another beer re-badged: my friend reckons it's the old 80/-.

I used to quite like Deuchars IPA as a pleasant if unremarkable beer. Deuchars was taken over by Caledonian, and since then I've found that it has acquired the unmistakable Caledonian flavour. If Coast To Coast actually deserves (as opposed to receives) an award, it must have broken the mould. I'll give it a go if I see it on the bar but, on Caledonian's record to date, I won't be hopeful.