Thursday 31 August 2017

CAMRA - losing its Marbles?

It's been interesting to see the spat between Manchester's Marble Brewery and CAMRA, with Marble claiming that they were blacklisted from the Great British Beer Festival. According to the brewery, a Marble staff member was victim of a sexist remark by a CAMRA volunteer at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival (MBCF), in January 2016. The brewery e-mailed the festival organisers to resolve the matter and have subsequently said that they felt great headway had been made with this. They are now asserting that their complaint led to their being blacklisted at the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). CAMRA has investigated and states there is no evidence to support such an allegation.

Ultimately, I've no idea who's right here, but I have not read of any demonstrable evidence of a link between these two incidents. Marble seems to saying: "We had this problem at the MBCF, and then we weren't selected for the GBBF - there must be a connection." Well, not necessarily.

I know there are people in CAMRA with sexist attitudes, just as there are in most walks of life; for example, a long time ago I used to know a union rep who thought it was okay for him to crack sexist and racist jokes, not a view most of us shared. Nowadays most people who do hold such crass attitudes usually know when to keep them to themselves, but occasionally some idiots don't, as seems to have happened at the MBCF. From the very few incidents in a CAMRA setting that I've been aware of, I know that the campaign generally takes them seriously.

As I see it, there are three possible scenarios here:
  1. The brewery is mistaken: there is no link.
  2. They are correct: they were blacklisted.
  3. Publicly slagging off CAMRA is good publicity.
I don't know which is correct, although I tend to think point 3 is the least likely because such publicity is short term - next week's chip paper, in fact. In addition, to use an allegation of sexism for publicity purposes would downplay the seriousness of the complaint.

Bearing in mind that no brewery has an automatic right to be at the GBBF, and if one puts the suggestion of blacklisting aside for a moment, there are two possible explanations:
  • There are lots of good beers that have to be left out simply because the GBBF cannot accommodate them all; Marble was just unlucky.
  • Marble's beers simply weren't as good as the competition on this occasion.
Again, I don't know which applies. Any satisfactory resolution to this dispute seems unlikely in the near future, but I doubt anyone will gain by continuing it in public. There will have to be either an agreement to disagree or a permanent falling out, because this public war of words is going nowhere and benefits no one.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Open mic at the Cock & Rabbit

Joanne Louise - banished to the wilderness
after Bar Eighty Eight pulled the plug
Local singer-songwriter Joanne Louise is running an open mic night tomorrow at the Cock & Rabbit, (formerly just the Rabbit) on Manchester Road, Southport. This is a fairly new venture, and it will be taking place once a fortnight on Thursdays; after tomorrow, the next one will be on the 31 August.

She was running them in Bar Eighty Eight on Lord Street in Southport, but the management decided to call it a day for some reason. It can't have been the quality of the performers, which were generally of a high standard. I won't miss Bar Eighty Eight much because its beer wasn't very good, and there have been two violent incidents there in the last month or so, as sometimes happens in places which unsuccessfully try to be classy.

The open mic begins at around 8.30 pm tomorrow evening, 17 August. Performers welcome. The Rabbit usually serves real ale, last time a rather nice pint from Wigan's Wily Fox Brewery.

Monday 14 August 2017

High as a kite

The BBC reports that arrests of passengers suspected of being drunk at UK airports and on flights has gone up 50%: 387 people were arrested between February 2016 and February 2017; the figure for the previous year was 255. Seeing that there are around 236,000,000 air passenger journeys in the UK annually, that represents roughly one incident every 600,000 passengers, which doesn't sound much at all, but it's not as simple as that.

19,000 cabin crew members of Unite the Union were surveyed; 4,000 responded, with one in five saying they had suffered physical abuse. Ally Murphy, a former cabin crew manager with Virgin, said: "People just see us as barmaids in the sky. They would touch your breasts, or they'd touch your bum or your legs. I've had hands going up my skirt before." I get her point, badly expressed though it is: barmaids in pubs are entitled not to be groped as well.

How come 387 incidents constitute such a big problem? The answer is that the real figure is not 387: for every incident that results in an arrest, there will be loads that don't get that far. Calling in the police will seriously delay flights, with a knock-on effect for connections, so I expect that they are called out only in the worst cases. 

It's not only the cabin crew that are affected: other passengers can find raucous, perhaps aggressive, passengers unpleasant and sometimes intimidating: a couple of badly-behaved drunks can ruin a flight for hundreds of people, as well as directing sexual and violent assaults at the crew, who are just trying to do a job which nowadays is not as well-paid as it used to be. I'm not suggesting good wages justify assaults: just that assaults, aggression, noise and arguments from drunks are more likely to make the employees conclude: "I'm not paid enough to put up with all this!"

Why do these idiots get this way, when drinking in the UK in pubs and bars is for the most part a peaceful matter? These is my speculations:
  • Some drink too much because they're nervous of flying. Others have taken sedatives to relax themselves, then add alcohol. Neither is a good way to deal with the situation.
  • As people are going on holiday, inhibitions are down and the holiday begins in the airport bar.
  • Drinkers don't take account of the effect of alcohol on the system at unusual times of the day. For example, drinks taken in the morning can have a stronger effect.
  • Similarly, drinkers don't take account of the effects of altitude which can also increase the effect of alcohol.
  • Being on holiday, some are consuming more alcohol than they are used to and go beyond their personal tolerance level.
  • Again, being on holiday - as opposed to being in the real world of getting up for work, etc - does in some people engender a feeling that the normal rules of behaviour don't apply.
  • Similarly, but even worse, some people are just bad-mannered, abusive slobs anyway - they don't need much excuse to show their true colours.
It seems clear to me that air crews need more support; no matter what training they have, dealing with irrational drunks is not an easy task, especially when, unlike in pubs, throwing them out of the door is not an option. 

Some suggestions include making the consumption of your own alcohol on the plane a criminal offence and limiting the amount supplied to individuals on planes. There are voluntary codes but they're clearly not working. This is one area where serious restrictions on alcohol wouldn't bother me in the slightest: no one wants drunks disrupting flights thousands of feet in the air.

Although I've not flown for some time now, I did quite often many years ago. I never once had a drink on a flight, and if I were on a plane now, I wouldn't particularly want one. It hardly seems an ordeal to wait until you've arrived before getting stuck in.

Thursday 10 August 2017

Goat's Milk is Champion

I see that CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain for 2017 is Churchend Goat's Milk, a 3.8% beer described on the brewery's website as 'Golden yellow nectar. Pale barley, crystal malt and oats, blend to fill the palate with flavour. Aromatic hops dance over the tongue for a gentle hop finish.' That sounds like the kind of beer that is very popular at the moment, although that's not a criticism. A brewery spokesperson explained the name: "We originally brewed and named it for a festival taking place in the Goat pub, and the beer just caught on."

Silver in the Overall Winner category was won by Bishop Nick Brewery's Ridley’s Rite, with Tiny Rebel Cwtch taking the bronze. Two years ago, Cwtch won the Champion Beer award. When I tried Cwtch after it first won, I was distinctly unimpressed and didn't see it as anything special at all, which just goes to show how subjective judgements on flavour can be.

Only two beers from around this area (Merseyside and Lancashire) feature, both from Blackedge Brewery in Horwich, which is about 25 miles from Southport: Pike won Silver in the Best Bitters category, and Black Port Porter won Joint Silver in the Speciality category. The only other beer from the North West was Red Bull Terrier from Barngates in Cumbria which won Silver in the Strong Bitter category.

For the full list, click here and scroll down. It is difficult to comment on the beers that have won awards, seeing that, as far as I can recall, I've had only three of them: Cwtch Tiny Rebel, Oakham Citra and Saltaire Triple Chocoholic. 

I tend to take these awards with a pinch of salt because the final choice is made by a comparatively small number of people on a panel chosen by CAMRA. I'm not sure how it could be done otherwise because, as my own experience of knowing only three beers among the 2017 award winners shows, ordinary drinkers don't have access to the full range of beers available nationally - not unless they spend every waking hour touring pubs and beer festivals all over the country, in which case they'd also have to be quite rich. A simple ballot of all members would just throw up a bewildering range of local choices without any clear winner. While consultation among members does take place via local tasting panels and regional heats, in the end final decisions have to be made, so I accept this system, though imperfect, as probably about as good as we can get.

Most industry awards are simply marketing devices. For example, the Oscars, which get a ridiculously disproportionate amount of attention, are no more than industry gongs awarded by insiders to each other. Impartial assessments of quality they are not. In fact, they are of less value to us consumers that, say, the UK Plumber of the Year award - much more use if your boiler packs in.

The CAMRA awards are genuinely different in that they are not industry gongs, but awarded by outsiders from an independent campaign, which is why winning them is valued more highly than other awards determined by insiders: this award, brewers can justifiably claim, was decided by informed customers.

Ultimately, while they're not perfect, they're not worthless either. If I were a brewer, I'd be very pleased to receive one.

Monday 7 August 2017

Women and Beer

Ninkasi, Sumerian Goddess of Beer
According to legend, beer was a gift from a goddess to womankind. Beer has been brewed for at least 10,000 years, and for most of that time women were the brewers. In the early 18th century, three quarters of brewers in this country were female. So why is only 13% of beer in this country drunk by women, a far lower figure than in the USA or most of Europe? Dea Latis, an organisation committed to bringing beer to women, suggests it’s because of misconceptions that beer is ‘fattening’ (it’s not, in moderation), ‘all tastes the same’ (it doesn’t) or is ‘a man’s drink’ (it doesn’t have to be).

Over recent decades, beer marketing has mostly been aimed at men. In TV adverts, hunky Tetley Bittermen turned away from beautiful women to pick up their pints – the message being: 'don't let women get in the way of your beer'. More recently with the real ale revival, some brewers have deliberately chosen sexist names with suggestive illustrations on their handpumps. To give a few: Slater's Top Totty; Slack Alice Cider; Teignworthy Bristol's Ale with a crude visual pun on 'Bristol'; and York's Naughty Noelle – all with demeaning pictures to match. A few names are so crude that I would not mention them here.

Faced with all this, it is hardly surprising when women don't relate to beer, so those brewers who deliberately alienate 51% of their potential market are scoring an own goal. Fortunately most aren't so juvenile, and the situation can only improve further with the increasing number of women brewers.

In recent years, Jean Pownceby of Liverpool CAMRA tried to redress the imbalance by arranging social evenings where knowledgeable female drinkers would bring along woman friends unfamiliar with beer to try out various brews, and have a good night out in the process. 'Snowball', as it was called, was a very successful local initiative.

Nationally, a quarter of CAMRA members are female - that's around 47,500 women signed up to support real ale. With the increasing choice of real ales in pubs and bars, along with the bottled beer shops that are springing up, the chances of men and women finding a beer they like have never been better than now.

The post above was another article I wrote for the CAMRA column in the local press. I wanted to refer to the brewery set up a few years ago by a young woman to brew beers deliberately aimed at women. This brewery seems to have vanished, I can't recall the name of either her or her brewery, and I've been unable to find anything through a search engine. 

My opinion at the time was that the assumption that there was a beer just for women was misguided, and had it come from a male would deservedly risk being described as patronising or sexist. Having worked at many beer festivals over the years, I know that women drinkers will choose a wide range of beers, including dark milds and stouts. A pale lightly-flavoured beer with citrus flavours might be a suitable introduction to real ale for lager drinkers, but that applies to men as well as women.

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.

Saturday 5 August 2017

Fined at the Grasshopper

A 'Meet The Brewer' night with a difference: the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of COLAPS (Coast Of Lancashire Ale Preservation Society, a branch of SPBW) at the Grasshopper on Sandon Road, Southport, will be John Marsden from Melwood Brewery giving a talk to on 'Fishy Business - what brewers add to beer!' Apparently he has offered to bring samples.

I presume the reference is to isinglass, a substance derived from the swim bladders of fish and used as finings to clear beer by dragging all the yeast and any other particles to the bottom. As I cannot stand the smell, let alone the taste, of any form of fish or seafood, it's just as well finings cannot be detected in the beer by our senses, remaining as they do at the bottom of the cask with the yeast.

Melwood Brewery is based in Knowsley Park in the old Kennels that once housed Lord Derby’s gundogs. The meeting is on Monday 7 August at 7.30 pm.

Thursday 3 August 2017

Pubs – watch out for con merchants

Pubs are basically small businesses, and there are always people happy to relieve them of their hard-earned cash. One con trick is to approach a pub and invite them to be in a good beer or pub guide, perhaps showing some examples of artwork, and asking for a sum on advance, usually in the region of £30 to £50, although I have heard £250 mentioned. Once they have the money, they disappear. One conman even used the name of a legitimate pub guide publisher, Bernie Carroll.

This kind of con has happened recently in Liverpool, and I have been told it occurred in the Southport and West Lancs area a few years ago. Earlier this year, I read that a conman was going round Manchester pubs asking for money to go in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide (GBG). Anyone doing this is definitely a liar because CAMRA never charges pubs to go in the GBG, or in any of its local guides.

Pub guides published by other organisations may charge for entries, and with these it is important to see credible ID. In addition, I'd suggest not letting anyone hustle you into a deal, ask the person to come back another day and take the time to check their credentials thoroughly. No legitimate publisher would have a problem with this. Some licensees don't report such cons because they are embarrassed, but that leaves the thief to prey on other pubs.

This is not a small problem - Bernie Carroll said the list of victims "would fill a small volume" - so it's best to report all such cons, whether successful or not, to the police.

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 articles, mostly pub reviews, are here.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

Restless Angels at the Mount

The band at a previous gig in The Mount
Rock band Restless Angels are playing the Mount pub this Saturday 5 August. They perform tracks by artists such as Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Julie Driscoll and The Small Faces along with other 60s classics; Blondie, Tina Turner, Ace and more from the 70s; and a sprinkling of later tunes from the likes of Texas, Duffy and many more to provide a wide range of music that doesn't necessarily go for the obvious 'rock classics'.

Yours truly played one gig with the band at New Year as a temporary replacement for a guitarist who was unavailable at short notice. I enjoyed it, although it was a bit nerve-racking for being far out of my usual style!

This Saturday evening in the Mount Pleasant, Manchester Road, Southport, PR9 9BD ; it is a real ale pub. Free admission - all welcome.