Saturday 24 July 2021

The Tin Shed, Formby

The Tin Shed in Formby village
It's always good to hear about a new pub, so I was pleased to learn that a new micropub, the Tin Shed, had opened in Formby a couple of months ago. My old school friend Roland and I hadn't met since several months before the first lockdown, so we chose this for our first pint together for a long time.

It is in a former shop on Brows Lane in Formby village. It is pleasantly decorated with woodchip and wood planks on one wall, perhaps to suit the name 'shed', and with some outdoor seating to the front. We were made very welcome by Jack who runs the pub, and we found there was generally a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.Thirst things first: there are four handpumps with a changing range of real ales. When we called in, the choice was Wily Fox Dublin' Up Stout, Black Lodge Pale Ale, Wily Fox Citra Golden, and an unfined Blonde ale. Roland and I tried them all and we were happy to find they were well looked after and enjoyable.

Other drinks included Shed Head and Poretti lagers, Fiery Fox 6.5% cider and Somersby keg cider. Also available are gluten-free and alcohol-free options, plus spirits, wines and coffee. You can buy two large wines and a cheesebox for £20, but otherwise there's no food other than snacks such as crisps; however, you can take your own food in as long as you're buying the beer.

Your canine pal is welcome, there is free WiFi, and there is a TV which was on for the sport for part of our visit, but after a while was switched off.

All in all, Roland and I had a great afternoon catching up over some good beers in a great bar that is definitely a welcome addition to the Formby real ale scene.

The Tin Shed is at 60 Brows Lane, Formby, L37 4ED, less than ten minutes' walk from Formby Station and near the main bus routes. Their phone number is 01704 808220 and they are on Facebook and Instagram. Opening times are 2pm to 10pm Monday to Saturday and 2pm to 9pm on Sunday.

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

Tuesday 29 June 2021

The Beer Den in Crossens

The recently-opened Beer Den in Crossens
Great news: Southport has a new real ale micropub! The second branch of the Beer Den opened in Crossens in northern Southport on Wednesday 19th May. By 4.00 p.m., there was already a queue of thirsty customers waiting for the doors to open. This is hardly surprising, seeing that Crossens has been a beer desert since the Plough was demolished.

Converted from a shop, the single roomed bar is attractively decorated with a wood panel effect up to waist level and the bar in the far corner. Rick Parker and Debbie were on hand to welcome everyone through the door, and very soon there was a happy buzz of conversation among the many customers who turned out.

Both branches of the Beer Den (the first is nearer the town centre on Duke Street) are run by the Parker Brewery based in Banks. There were three handpumps serving two Parker beers, Saxon Red Ale and Viking Blonde, and a guest beer from Bury's Deeply Vale Brewery, Optimum Best Bitter. Our group found all the real ales to be in excellent condition.

Goose Eye Midway Session IPA, Lowenbrau and Camden Hells Lager were available on tap, and other drinks included the usual spirits, with some specialist gins, wine and a choice of bottled beers in the fridge.

It is good to see a micropub open in a residential area not previously served by any pubs and bars at all. Drinkers in Crossens have previously had to travel to Marshside, Churchtown or even the town centre for a sociable drink and a chat outside the home with friends and family - or even people you don't yet know, as happened to me on opening day.

The Beer Den is at 125 Rufford Road in Crossens; opening hours are:

Monday: Closed

Tues-Thurs: 4-10pm

Fri & Sat: 2-10pm

Sunday: 2-9pm

You can find it on Facebook and the brewery's website is here. If you get hungry after a few drinks, there is a takeaway next door.

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

Saturday 3 April 2021

Are COVID-19 passports the answer for pubs?

As we approach the reopening of pubs on 12 April for outside service, a late complication has been thrown into the mix with the suggestion that pubs and bars may choose to operate a COVID-19 passport policy so that customers could show that they'd had either a vaccination or a negative test. As the possibility of COVID passports has been discussed for months, I don't see why the government is raising the matter only now - so soon before reopening.

Pubs need more notice to help them plan staffing levels and how much drink to order, especially after a year of lockdowns. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) has calculated that up to 87 million pints of beer - equivalent to £331m in sales - will have been thrown away in the UK as a result of COVID lockdowns.If pubs operate a passport policy, whether voluntary or mandatory, they would have to pay for a bouncer on the door to check passports before admitting people. Many pubs, smaller ones in particular, would struggle to pay for the extra staff member, especially after a year of lengthy closures interspersed with restricted trading due to COVID regulations.

The BBPA has expressed concern that passports will lead to confrontations between disappointed customers and staff. While this is distinctly possible, my view is that such incidents will be more likely if passports are voluntary because licensees will not be able to argue that they are simply enforcing the law.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: "It is crucial that visiting the pub and other parts of hospitality should not be subject to mandatory vaccination certification. It is simply unworkable, would cause conflict between staff and customers.”

Both organisations have pointed to the millions spent by the sector on ensuring a safe environment for customers and staff, and to the fact that, when pubs could open, no surges in infections have been linked to them.

CAMRA is opposed to vaccine passports because pubs have suffered badly over the last twelve months and could do without unnecessary restrictions. Furthermore, passports could prevent younger drinkers going to pubs while they wait for the vaccine rollout to reach their age group.

► This is word-for-word the article that I wrote for the CAMRA column in two local papers, the Southport Visiter and the Ormskirk Advertiser. The following is my own opinion which did not appear in the papers.

In relation to the idea of CV19 passports, I am frequently hearing claims, including from one member of my own CAMRA branch, that insisting on them before entry to pubs would be a form of discrimination. This use of the term 'discrimination' usually refers to prejudice in thought or action against people for irrational reasons such as skin colour, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and so on. A suggestion of discrimination is potentially a serious accusation which needs to be examined.

I am a committed equality and diversity person and in my last job, there was a time when I was simultaneously an equal opportunities trainer for my employer and an equality and diversity spokesperson for my trade union. I cannot see how any licensed premises that did refuse admission because the customer didn't have a passport would be guilty of any breach of discrimination laws, no more than if admission was refused on, say, dress code grounds. If introduced now it would, for example, certainly prevent younger drinkers from being able to enter pubs, but not because of irrational prejudice, but as a health & safety measure to try to combat a pandemic that has so far killed 2,840,000 people worldwide. Measures to combat disease are not irrational, so to insist upon them cannot be described as discrimination, even they do disadvantage certain sectors of the population.

That is my view on the principle, but there are a number of practicalities that would have to be addressed before a passport scheme could be implemented:

• The potential for confrontation when people are refused admission must not be underestimated. 
• Confrontations would be more likely if the scheme were voluntary because licensees could not argue that a passport was required by law.
• Some pubs would struggle to meet the cost of an extra member of staff on the door to check passports before letting people in.
• Timing: when would be the best time to implement a passport scheme to ensure that as few people as possible were disadvantaged?
• How do we deal with those who cannot have the vaccine for genuine medical reasons? (In my view, this doesn't include a dislike of needles)
• Any new CV19 variants against which existing vaccines were inadequate would instantly make the passport scheme pointless. 
• We would need adequate measures to prevent forged passports. 
• Far from encouraging confidence in pub-going, the scheme may well deter some drinkers from returning to the pub. 

I've not heard of any surges in infections that have been linked to pubs and bars. Indeed, every one I visited during the gaps in lockdowns was very conscientious in administering and enforcing the official guidance, so we have to question whether the cost, effort and practical difficulties involved in such a scheme would be worthwhile. Although I don't have a problem with the principle of CV19 passports, I consider that the difficulties I've referred to and the potential consequences render the idea a non-starter.

Thursday 18 March 2021

Harassment down the pub

The Old Ship today - closed down
This is a slightly unusual story of sexual harassment that I witnessed at least 30 years ago in my local at the time, the Old Ship in Southport, now closed.

The pub was quiet. I was at one table with two or three friends, on another table was a bunch of noisy lads, and at the far end of the room were three young women, who I thought were about 16, dressed up to the nines for a night out. The lads began cat calling down the pub and I remember hearing terms such as 'jail bait' being bandied around. They didn't just call out once, which would have been bad enough, but went on and on until I noticed that the young women were beginning to look rather intimidated.

The staff should have stopped the verbal harassment, but as they hadn't, I decided to go and have a word with the women myself. I told them that we weren't all like those idiots and I hoped that their behaviour hadn't put them off returning, although in reality I didn't expect they'd ever come back after what had gone on. When I'd chatted to them for a few minutes, I stood up and said I'd leave them in peace and return to my own group, at which point one of them said, "Can we join you?" I was surprised but said yes. I strolled down the pub, past the table with the sexist idiots, followed by the three young women.

They sat with us until the pub closed, were very pleasant company and left with us to go to a late bar we were heading for. I've sometimes wondered how the idiots interpreted what they had witnessed: me walking over to a table, chatting to three very young women, walking back with them all in tow and finally leaving the pub with them.

Unfortunately at the late bar, the bouncer refused to admit them because of their age. In vain I argued that they were part of our group, and so I ended up apologising to the women that they weren't allowed to go in with us; they took the disappointment in their stride - perhaps it had happened before. We didn't see them again, but I hadn't expected to anyway.

It would be good to be able to say that such bad behaviour is much less likely to happen nowadays, but I really doubt there has been significant change in the intervening decades.

Sunday 21 February 2021

Hospitality: no further room for mistakes

I've been told the pandemic may have
already killed off the Belvedere in Liverpool
The constant refrain we have heard from the government during the pandemic is that they are 'following the science', and yet sometimes that is the last thing they appear to do. To give just one example: the insistence that the UK must be open over the whole Christmas period, until a last-minute U-turn limited it to one day. A pandemic cannot be defeated by breezy optimism and a conviction that the British Bulldog spirit will see us through.

The hospitality industry has had many restrictions - some reasonable, some less so - and shutdowns imposed upon it, often at very short notice, causing huge amounts of avoidable waste. It is impossible for pubs and restaurants to order adequate stocks of food and drink to meet customers' requirements while simultaneously be ready to close at the drop of a hat. Food and beer are perishable – real ale particularly because once the cask is opened, it must be consumed in days, not weeks.

A survey across the hospitality sector by Lumina Intelligence found that 67% of businesses wouldn't be able to reopen if the sale of alcohol was banned, with 19% stating that such a restriction would have an extreme impact upon their businesses. Furthermore, the British Beer & Pub Association has found that limiting reopening to outdoor service would leave 60% of pubs closed while causing an estimated drop in turnover for the sector of £1.5 billion compared to normal trading.

Some parts of the national media haven't helped by demanding dates for the lifting of lockdown, with one national paper proclaiming “Free by Summer”. Unjustifiably raising hopes only causes extreme disappointment if they cannot be fulfilled, and is likely to encourage further breaches of restrictions as people conclude that our leaders don't have coherent plans.

Restrictions such as requiring pub customers to have a 'substantial meal' with their drinks, and then debating in public as to whether a Scotch egg constituted one, gave the impression that policy was being made up on the hoof.

Hospitality is rapidly approaching a 'make-or-break' situation; after nearly a year there is now little room for yet more wrong decisions to be made. Let's hope that measures are proportionate and considered, and not based on back-of-the-envelope science and knee-jerk reactions.

Thursday 11 February 2021

Pubs with no beer? You cannot be serious!

The fine frontage of the Crown
on Lime Street, Liverpool
It is rumoured that as lockdown eases, the government may allow pubs and bars to reopen without the 10.00 pm curfew and with no requirement to have a substantial meal. This all sounds quite hopeful - until you hear that they are also considering banning any alcohol sales.

The chief medical officer Chris Whitty is concerned that drinking alcohol will destroy any attempts to maintain social distancing. This is not a scientific judgment: it is simply an opinion, and it's not one that is borne out by my own experiences last summer. Every pub I went into observed all the rules and required their customers to do the same. Sometimes I forgot and more than once I was ordered by bar staff: “Oi, Neville! Go back and sanitise your hands!”

If pubs can't serve alcohol, there is a greater danger of the virus spreading in unsupervised conditions such as when groups of friends gather in one house, not for a party as such, but just to have a few drinks from supermarkets. Such behaviour will continue if reopened pubs can sell only non-alcohol drinks: very few regular pubgoers will return just for tea, coffee and soft drinks.

Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UKHospitality, tweeted: “Reopening in name only inflicts irreparable damage on hospitality as we saw October to December with restrictions with little meaningful impact on health or harm, pushing revenues as low as 20% to 30%. Unsustainable for restaurants and pubs.”

She explained how pub and bar operators had taken meticulous measures to reopen safely last summer, and how few cases of COVID-19 infections had been caused by the industry. She emphasised that, operating under such extreme limitations, the pubs and hospitality industry did not break even.

While there is always the occasional idiot on either side of the bar who will selfishly break any rule that gets in the way, when pubs reopened last year I saw no chaotic scenes of drunken abandonment, and neither did anyone else I know. This industry's problem during the pandemic is that decisions are being made about its future by politicians who know nothing about it because they never go into pubs themselves, except for photo opportunities at election time. That simply isn't good enough.

Monday 11 January 2021

CAMRA - coping manfully with the 20th century

From Viz magazine: I have occasionally heard
such sentiments - supposedly made in jest.
In my capacity as press officer of CAMRA's Southport & West Lancs branch, I sometimes use national CAMRA press releases in my articles in the local papers, and one thing that increasingly irritates me about them is the description of Nik Antona as the campaign's national 'chairman'. This term was even used when two women, the late Paula Waters and Jackie Parker, held the post.

I have belonged to a number of organisations, campaigns and political parties over the years and CAMRA is the only one that still uses such old-fashioned terminology. When I became a union rep in 1984, my union had scrapped gender-specific terms years earlier and - believe it or not - the world didn't implode. There are three main reasons why I feel that change is long overdue:

  • Use of terms such as 'chairman' reinforces the stereotype of CAMRA as a lads' drinking club rather than a campaign to represent all real ale drinkers, an image problem that has discouraged some people, mostly but not exclusively women, from joining. Such a stereotype also has the effect of diminishing any influence we may hope to have. Viz magazine had a cartoon strip that mercilessly took the mickey out of real ale drinkers, and if we're being honest, we real ale drinkers have all met people who resembled the Viz caricatures.
  • Gender-specific terms are on the decline in general, with terms such as police officer, fire fighter and seafarer increasingly becoming the norm. There are women in the acting profession who prefer the term 'actors' to 'actresses'. Some gender-specific terms have become completely obsolete, such as baxter for a female baker and brewster for a female brewer; I have seen one or two beer writers pretentiously, but pointlessly, using the latter term, but they really are swimming against the tide.
  • Whether you agree or not, it is a fact that some people find such terminology irritating, or worse. For a mass membership organisation, discouraging potential supporters by using outdated language really is an own goal, one that is both wholly unnecessary and very easy to prevent. 
One argument that I've heard deployed against change is, "I'm not a piece of furniture!" This is, frankly, quite silly. The term 'chair' when used as the title of the person presiding over a meeting is being used symbolically, not literally. Other examples are:
  • The use of the term 'the crown' in reference to our head of state: as far as I know, the queen has never been heard to say, "I'm not a piece of jewelry". 
  • The Crown Prosecution Service will take you to court in the queen's name and not on behalf of an expensive trinket, and the Netflix series 'The Crown' is not a multipart documentary about royal jewelry.
  • Magistrates are routinely referred to as 'the bench', and yet you don't hear them complain, "I'm not a piece of furniture!"
Dea Latis is an organisation committed to "bringing beer to women". While I welcome this organisation and its aims, surely this is something CAMRA should have been doing; I think we missed a trick here and our image is part of the problem.

A genuine commitment to equality and diversity has to include the language we employ. Clinging on to outdated terms simply reinforces stereotypical attitudes, especially among our detractors. We are foolish to give them ammunition, while at the same time discouraging people who might otherwise support us.

In CAMRA's 50th anniversary year, surely it's about time the organisation took a decisive step forward into the 1980s.