Monday 31 July 2017

The hidden agenda of the drinking guidelines

An increasing sight in town centres
The back page of August's What's Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper, features an article written by Christopher Snowdon on how alcohol units are unscientific nonsense. This is a theme I have covered here before several times, such as here in January last year.

What motivates people to tell untruths about alcohol? I partly addressed this point in March 2013. I get the impression they don't actually consider themselves to be liars, because alcohol is surrounded by loads of fallacious preconceptions and myths that have widely been accepted as true. I have noticed that the suggestion of having a drink sometimes provokes a roguish reaction from some adults, particularly among those who don't drink very often, as though they are doing something slightly naughty. Given that mindset, along with the dual myths of a drink crisis in the UK and a genuine, but mostly baseless, fear about going into town and city centres at weekends, some people are persuaded that it's not just naughty, but genuinely dangerous.

In the real world, alcohol consumption is in slow decline in the UK, and my own experience of various town and city centres is that you are in no more danger than when you go out shopping in the same areas in the daytime. The various anti-alcohol killjoys usually insert a sentence into their propaganda to the effect that they don't want to stop people enjoying alcohol (although some of them really do, but they can't afford to be that frank) or destroy the great British pub, but then propose various measures that will do precisely both of those things. 

They seem incapable of distinguishing between drinking and getting drunk. If the anti-alcohol brigade took the trouble to wander around a few pubs at weekends, they might be surprised to see how few drinkers are falling over, getting into fights or otherwise behaving badly. Nearly all enjoy their drinks, chat to their friends and go home peaceably when time is rung.

As I wrote in 2013:
I have sympathy for anyone who has suffered from drunken aggression, but the fact is that violent drunks are not transformed by alcohol: they are simply violent people who have learnt to associate aggression and violence with drink - a learnt behaviour, not caused by drink. Blaming alcohol for bad behaviour is also a convenient excuse if trying to appear apologetic after sobering up, or when in court.
A year or two ago, a local lout who had launched unprovoked attacks on several people one evening blamed his disgraceful behaviour on alcohol in an attempt to distance himself from his actions. I wrote a letter to the local paper making clear my view as an experienced drinker that such a defence did not stand up - that the violence is in the person and not created by alcohol - but it wasn't printed, probably because it was too obvious which court case I was referring to and could have risked a libel case.

As I've said many times before, only a fool would claim alcohol is a risk-free activity whatever the circumstances, but that is true of many other activities. As far as I know, no one campaigns against all driving because some idiots drive far too fast, or after too many drinks: we try to deal with the bad behaviour and let everyone carry on in the controlled environment of the road. The anti-alcohol campaigners would probably argue that's all they're trying to do with alcohol, but they are not: the main weapons they propose are rationing by minimum price and taxation, abolishing advertising and restricting licensing hours. Nothing even vaguely comparable is proposed for drivers and the car industry.

Among legal activities, only gun ownership and tobacco are more controlled. At the CAMRA AGM in 2008, I attended a discussion group about the neo-prohibitionists. It was explained to us that they weren't a new phenomenon, but they had been emboldened by the success of the smoking ban nine months earlier. With that ban, alongside "New" Labour's alcohol duty escalator which was still in place, they must have thought their time had come. It hadn't: the escalator was scrapped and duty was even cut for a couple of years; the extension of the smoking ban that some have campaigned for and fully expected hasn't materialised; and it seems the appetite among politicians to micro-manage people's social activities has diminished. Or, more likely perhaps, they simply feel there are no votes in it. No one likes preachy killjoys.

The Chief Medical Officer of England can use her public position to burble nonsense on Radio 4 about when she's at a dinner party, she calculates whether it would be sensible to have a second glass of wine. Naturally I didn't believe her for a moment because it's such a silly thing to say, and regrettably the interviewer didn't challenge it. However, despite such nonsense, because she and her neo-prohibitionist allies have clout and the ear of government, there are no grounds for complacency.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

A new Head of Steam for Liverpool

I was interested to read in the Liverpool Echo that the Head of Steam pub chain is taking over the Abbey on Hanover Street in Liverpool. There was a Head of Steam previously in Liverpool on Lime Street in what is now the North Western, a Wetherspoons pub that I wrote about here. That Head of Steam began well, but ended being a dingy, unwelcoming, under-used dump, which was vastly improved when Spoons took it over and expanded it.

The Head of Steam chain was taken over by Cameron's in 2013 and seems to have been given a new lease of life. The Abbey is in Hanover House, underneath the Epstein Theatre; it is large, modern-styled bar with bare floors, big screen sports and a couple of real ales. Cameron's say it will have 34 keg and 10 cask lines, and will be "a very different proposition to the previous the Head of Steam pub that had previously traded in Liverpool" - just as well, considering how that ended up. Apart from the name, I don't see much of a connection between this pub chain and the old Head of Steam group.

It's due to open in September, and it should be an interesting addition to the fine array of pubs that Liverpool already boasts.

Sunday 23 July 2017

The Blue Anchor, Southport

The Blue Anchor complete with a - ahem - gold anchor
I was recently told that the Blue Anchor on Tithebarn Road, Southport, had begun to serve real ale, so I went along with a couple of friends to investigate, writes Neville Grundy. The pub is a conspicuous landmark in the area with an attractive frontage; it has two rooms, a comfortable lounge and a bar, and was pleasantly refurbished earlier this year. I particularly liked the old stained glass windows with sailing scenes and blue anchors in the lounge. Outside is a beer garden with wooden furniture.

There are two handpumps serving Deuchars and Caledonian XPA, although the range of real ales will change; the real ales are on offer at £2 a pint until the end of July. They are considering getting a range of the artisan gins that are increasingly very popular.

The bar area houses the pool table and darts board, and there are three pool teams and two darts teams based at the pub; pool is free on Sundays and Tuesdays. Three big screens sometimes show important sporting events.

Children are welcome until early evening and there is a free bouncy castle during the summer. The pub is dog friendly. The pub also offers karaoke and DJ on Fridays, live music on some Saturdays, free WiFi, and food served all day to 7.00pm from Thursday to Sunday.

Opening hours are: Mon-Wed 3-11; Thu 12-11; Fri 12-1am; Sat 12-12; Sun 12-11. The pub is on Facebook and the phone number is 07487 246785.

With the loss of the nearby London Hotel to housing, the Blue Anchor is the last pub in this part of Southport, and it looks well set up to fill the role of local community pub.

This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and the Ormskirk Advertiser. Previous reviews are here.

Thursday 20 July 2017

Sam Smiths - the dotty auntie of brewing

The increasingly eccentric Sam Smiths brewery has been accused of banning bikers. One biker recently rolled up at The Royal Oak at Ulley, near Rotherham, and was told he could no longer be served because of an instruction from the brewery. The owner of the brewery, Humphrey Smith, told a woman biker who had been using the pub for many years that "local people have no wish to have them in this establishment" and he did not want "undesirables" in the pub. This particular diktat follows the brewery's announcement in April that swearing is banned in all its pubs.

Unlike the swearing ban or the ban on music that arose from a fit of pique about 'New' Labour's absurd pub music licences (mentioned in a post here in 2009), this particular ban seems confined to one pub. The bikers' magazine, MCN, is distinctly unimpressed, stating that Sam Smiths' pubs "all feature a Victorian theme and don’t have televisions or play music ... It would seem that Mr Smith’s attitude towards bikers is as Victorian as the theme that runs throughout his pubs."

Having drunk in pubs favoured by bikers, I have found that there is no more trouble than in any other pubs, and in fact rather less than some. Is this discrimination? Certainly, because a whole group of people has been banned, regardless of how the individuals in that group have behaved - imagine the reaction if the members of any ethnic or religious group had been described as "undesirables". However, as bikers are not a "protected group" under the Equality Act, there is no recourse in law.

The brewery has ignored requests for comments from several journals and newspapers. I wonder what Humphrey will find to ban next?

Sunday 16 July 2017

Open house at the Grasshopper

With the Open Golf coming to Southport, Birkdale to be precise, the Grasshopper in nearby Hillside tells me that they are putting on 'The Open mic night' which will very loosely have a golf theme. It will an acoustic-only evening (so not deafening!) to celebrate the Open without the 'mic', and anyone who is so inclined is welcome to join in.

Pete Rimmer of the Bothy Folk Club will be running proceedings, and I've been asked to go along and contribute a few songs. 

The Grasshopper always has a good range of real ales on offer, and is at 70 Sandon Road, Southport, PR8 4QD, handy for bus and train.

Friday 14 July 2017

Elvis 1 - Brewdog 0

The King of Rock & Roll
I see that the increasingly risible owners of Brewdog have come unstuck with the name of one of their beers, Elvis Juice. The estate of Elvis Presley had objected as they did not want anyone to assume that the beer had been endorsed by them.

In relation to a copyright case involving one of their own brands, Brewdog had previously declared on their website:
"By protecting our trademarks, when we have to, we are just looking after our business and our team. We own trademarks just like we own our buildings, our brewing equipment, and our dogs. If someone stole our dog or our bottling machine we would not be happy, intellectual property is no different."
However, when it came the Presley estate's intellectual rights they tried to brazen it out, declaring that the move was "baseless litigation" and that they had not chosen the beer's name to massage the egos of late celebrities. To support their case, the two owners both changed their names by deed poll to Elvis to 'prove' that the name was not exclusive. I'd have thought the word 'punk' was not exclusive, but that hasn't stop the duo from copyrighting the word. 

Will Brewdog ever appear on a stamp?
Furthermore, their scorn for "baseless litigation" didn't stop them from setting their lawyers earlier this year onto a Birmingham pub which had the cheek to call itself the Lone Wolf, not knowing this was the name Brewdog use for their spirits. With Brewdog, when anyone else does it, it's theft, but when they do it, they try to trample any objections under foot by a combination of gimmicky publicity and rapacious lawyers - more bully than punk, surely?

The UK's Intellectual Property Office has decided that they cannot use the name Elvis on the grounds that it is so closely associated with the King of Rock & Roll that people could wrongly conclude that it was an officially licensed product. Oliver Morris, the Trademark hearing officer, ruled: "I consider most average consumers, on seeing the name Elvis alone, are likely to conceptualise that on the basis of Elvis Presley." Brewdog have been told to pay £1500 costs.

I have no particular objection to a business protecting its copyrights, but I find it distasteful when a company demonstrates such hypocritical double standards as Brewdog have. They have the right to appeal; on previous form, I think it unlikely that they will give in gracefully.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Hearing the flavour

Karaoke - my own bête noire
I read in the Morning Advertiser that a neuroscientist has demonstrated that music can alter the way we taste. Experimenting with food, he discovered that a change in music, such as pitch, tempo, volume or instrumental, alters diners' wider perceptions. For example, people tended to eat more quickly when the music had faster beats and consequently did not taste the fuller range of flavours in the food. The opposite effect occurred when the music was slower. The Advertiser suggested that food pubs may wish to take advantage of this finding.

We tend to think of our senses as separate, but they are all inter-connected. For example, when the appearance of food is changed using food dye, people often claim the taste has been affected, even though food dye is odourless and tasteless. Our eyes tell us that, say, a blue tomato isn't right, so the taste buds concur. Green beer for St Patrick's Day had one friend unimpressed, even though without the dye it was the kind of beer he favoured.

Another experiment was with Pringles. Test subjects were told to taste them in a sound booth with headphones, through which the sound of the crunching was modified by boosting or muffling particular frequencies, or the overall volume. Test subjects then described some Pringles as fresh and others as stale. In fact all were the same.

What applies to food should logically also apply to drink. It is certainly true we all have places where we prefer to have a drink and some we tend to avoid. While other factors come into play, such as comfort, the presence of people we know and the ability to have a chat without shouting, I wonder whether a prominent musical background can affect the way we actually taste our beer.

I have no scientific way of determining this, but seeing that there does seem to be a link between hearing and taste, perhaps drinking in, say, a rave with fast beats and rapidly flashing lights might make our pint actually taste different than if you drank it in a heavy metal concert with slow ponderous chords. Does the absence of all music alter the taste again?

Some pub regulars aren't especially fond of music in pubs, and there are certain beer festival goers who like quiet sessions so that they can appreciate their pint properly. While 'properly' is a matter of opinion, I wonder whether from this research we could conclude that perhaps the simple presence of music of any type might affect how we actually taste our beer.

I don't know the answer to that, and in some cases a preference against music might merely reflect a dislike of the particular music being played, or even of music in general. However, the research does throw up one possible scientific reason, perhaps among other non-scientific ones, for the varying attitudes to music in pubs and beer festivals.

Sunday 9 July 2017

Lion song session

A detail in one of the Lion's windows 
Just a reminder that the Lion singarounds - acoustic song sessions with no PA - have begun again and are now on the second Tuesday of each month and not the Thursday as before, beginning at around 8.30 pm.

The Lion survived more than 6 months' closure last year and a refurbishment early this year, and has come through largely unscathed. The licensee, Dave, was hoping to have a beer festival this summer but it looks as though the location of the pub on a very busy corner in the city centre close to a major railway station may make the logistics of all the deliveries a festival demands unfeasible. Blocking a busy junction while unloading dozens of casks may not go down too well with our constabulary friends.

A good choice of eight real ales and a real cider is always available.

The Lion is on Moorfields in Liverpool, diagonally across the road from the railway station.

Thursday 6 July 2017

Lager than life

A recent survey by the There’s A Beer For That campaign has shown that 45% of consumers prefer to drink lager than any other drink, and that 60% had only ever tried up to five different styles of beer, despite the massive range that is currently available.

Some frustration was expressed at the reluctance of so many British drinkers to experiment, but this merely demonstrates a failure to recognise why many people drink as they do. For a lot of drinkers, the beer is merely an adjunct to a social event; it is not the purpose of it. If they've found a beer that suits them - whether it be a particular brand of lager, a national real ale brand such as Doom Bar, or a national smoothflow bitter - they feel no need to look any further. Furthermore, there are still people, a diminishing number admittedly, who feel brand loyalty: I've known people who have declared that Tetley Bitter was the finest pint on the planet. I've even known certain CAMRA members assert this, despite the beer's plummeting quality during the final years of the Leeds brewery.

I think it's unlikely that most drinkers of real ale, or of craft beer for that matter, want to spend every moment of their time in constant experimentation. If you're out for a night with friends and find a reasonable pint, you might decide to stick with that while you enjoy your evening, rather than experiencing a constant itch for something different.

There's no real need for impatience, considering that until the early 1990s, the choice of beer in most towns was severely limited to the products of the breweries who owned nearly all the pubs. We've come a long way since then, but there will always be drinkers who will stick to their favourite brand, or small range of brands. Changing people's drinking habits is a slow process, not unlike trying to do a U-turn in a cruise liner. The best approach is vive la différence - assuming we're still allowed to say that after the Leave vote.

Sunday 2 July 2017

Keeping mum costs money

It might be simpler just to do this
In February I wrote a piece called Tell people what you're up to, in which I explained how some pubs don't see the need for accurate and timely publicity, even when they've gone to the expense and effort of putting on a beer festival. A month earlier I had written about the lack of notice the Freshfield Hotel gave for its Winter Ales Expo, something the new licensee there has recently done (see previous post) by giving less than a fortnight's notice for a festival that begins tomorrow.

This weekend has seen the Funky Beer Festival at Southport's Pleasureland which began on 30 June and ends today. It was, I believe, run in conjunction with Cross Bay Brewery, but the problem is that the first publicity as far as I could see was on Thursday in the local paper, the Southport Visiter. I think it had been on Facebook a bit longer, but unless you're already linked to the relevant page or someone points it out to you, you're unlikely to see it - not forgetting that quite a few people aren't on Facebook at all.

The local CAMRA branch, to which I belong, wasn't given any more notice. As I wrote in January:
Oddly enough, most drinkers, including CAMRA members, have lives outside of pubs, such as families, jobs, other commitments, social activities and hobbies, and can't always drop everything at short notice.
It's no good just giving a festival a snappy title and 'cool' video and then expecting drinkers to turn out in droves. It also doesn't make sense to be imprecise about what you're offering. The Funky Beer Festival advertised it would be selling 'craft beers', along with gins and Prosecco, but with no mention of real ales. I'm told that in fact it had around 30 cask beers, but this wasn't clear from the publicity. I'm not the only one who would have little interest in going to a craft-only festival, especially when I can get a good range of real ales in the town centre with no admission charges and real glasses.

The organisers seem likely to lose money, which may cause them to conclude that there's no market for beer festivals in Southport. This simply isn't true, as the recent Beer Street festival organised by the Tap & Bottles showed. Even the last CAMRA festival in the town, despite being dubbed a failure by some (maliciously in my view), managed to make a small profit.

I've tried to think of any other types of events, such as sport, concerts, drama and so on, that expect people to turn out with little or no notice, but most aren't so complacent that they take their customers for granted. On the contrary, they are usually publicised well in advance so that people can make their plans around them. Beer festivals take months to organise, so no one can say there isn't enough time.

It's a cliché that there's no such thing as bad publicity (try telling that to our hapless prime minister), but it's obvious that little or no publicity multiplies the chance of failure. With beer festivals, financial losses can be large: unopened barrels can be sold on, assuming you can find a buyer, but once they have been opened, they can't be moved and have to be used or poured down the drain. Twenty half-full barrels at the end of a festival can lose an organiser close to a thousand pounds.

There's another cliché that can be applied here: spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar.