Thursday, 14 December 2017

Child's play

Regular readers of this blog will have realised that I don’t have much enthusiasm for selling beer in “child-sized” 330 ml cans, or for adorning them with vibrant psychedelic colours. But that doesn’t mean I gained any pleasure from the decision of the Portman Group to require Tiny Rebel Brewery to change the design of the cans for their Cwtch Welsh Red Ale on the supposed groups that they had undue appeal to under-18s. And nor, it would seem, did my Twitter followers. That’s by far the biggest response I’ve ever gained for any Twitter poll.
Of course it’s something that is open to debate, and several voices were raised in the beer world arguing that the decision seemed reasonable enough, for example by Boak & Bailey.

The full text of the adjudication, including Tiny Rebel’s exhaustive attempts to defend their position, can be read here. The brewery have now responded in detail to their decision, setting out clearly their concerns about the potential wider implications.

We’re not the victim here. The industry is.

This sets a precedent, but the boundaries on that precedent aren’t clear and the decisions are enormously subjective, and take in a very limited view of the world. How the hell do you not appeal to under 18s?! There is no clear difference between what is and isn’t allowed, and that’s a major problem.

It forces companies to be over-cautious in design, which is inherently limiting. Instead of designing something for what consumers would like, companies have to design bearing what the most prudish among us wouldn’t like.

Taken in isolation, the matter is relatively trivial, and it doesn’t stop anyone from selling or drinking a can of Cwtch. The photo above clearly shows the relatively minor nature of the changes that were required. But the case does raise a number of more general issues.

The first is that the investigation was triggered by just a single complaint. Can we be confident that was from a genuine member of the public rather than some purse-lipped professional health zealot? And is it reasonable that one vexatious miseryguts can cause a relatively small business having to incur – as they say themselves on their site – costs in excess of £31,000? The potential scope for mischief is boundless.

It is absolutely clear than there was no deliberate intention on the part of Tiny Rebel to target children, and is it really credible that any child would genuinely mistake it for a soft drink? One point made in the adjudication was that 330ml cans are widely associated with soft drinks, but they have been used for many years for beers such as Gold Label and Mackeson, and are now commonplace for craft beers. The major soft drink brands tend to use minimalistic designs highlighting the brand name and completely eschewing cartoon characters. Might we see in future particularly types and sizes of packaging being mandated for alcoholic drinks to distinguish them from soft ones?

It’s also not hard to see this as a baby step on the road to plain packaging for alcoholic drinks, as suggested on Twitter:

The restrictions on what is acceptable are likely, slowly but surely, to become ever tighter.

As explained in Tiny Rebel’s response, the Portman Group is a self-regulatory organisation set up and run by major alcohol companies. Some have suggested that it constitutes a kind of restraint of trade by seeking to stifle the innovative efforts of smaller producers. I’m not really convinced by that, but it’s a funny kind of self-regulation where you’re subject to its judgments even if you haven’t signed up to it. If large companies avoid its censure, it will be because their marketing departments are more savvy as to what will pass muster. But it does have form in cracking down on tiny breweries over the same kind of issue.

Several people have made the point that surely self-regulation is preferable to a system imposed by government. But the question has to be asked as to how far industry should be prepared to undermine its own business on a voluntary basis. We have already seen this with the drinks industry having its arm twisted to reduce the strength of popular beers and ciders, and the food industry being pressurised to reduce the sugar content of soft drinks, confectionery and cereals, often at the expense of taste. If you’re going to be crucified anyway, it’s little consolation that you’ve been allowed to build your own cross.

Alarmism? Scaremongering? Yes, these points may at present only be straws in the wind. But they will need to be carefully watched in future to see how far we end up going down the road. And we have already seen it all unfold before our eyes with the regulation of tobacco products.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Shine a light

In pictures of people drinking in the 1930s, a distinctive straight, ten-sided tankard often features. Indeed, it was adopted as a symbol of British beer for the “Beer is Best” advertising campaign. However, after the war it lost popularity to the familiar dimpled mug, and the last examples were manufactured in 1978. Although I started drinking in pubs around that time, I can’t recall ever having encountered one.

The dimpled mug itself, once perceived as aspirational, has long since fallen from favour, and the vast majority of draught beer is now drunk from straight glasses of various kinds. However, Stockport-based licensed trade suppliers Stephensons have now decided to revive the traditional lantern tankard for the 21st century, as described by Zythophile here. They were kind enough to send me a sample.

It’s a handsome, solid glass with a particularly thick base, but it fits nicely in the hand, despite apparently being slightly heavier than a dimpled mug. Of course I held it in the time-honoured fashion, by gripping it round the body, with my fingers through the handle. After all, if the handle falls off, then all you lose is the handle. As the surface area at the top is greater than that of a Nonik, the room left for the head naturally appears somewhat shallower.

I deliberately chose a pale beer – Black Sheep Golden Sheep * – to show the light filtering through the glass to its best advantage, although this is always something that is difficult to catch in a photograph. It is much better in this respect than a dimpled mug as, while you still get the jewel-like effect from the multiple facets, the lack of any vertical divisions doesn’t break up the clarity and colour of the beer. This was even more pronounced when I later tried it with a bottle of Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier.

I liked it. It certainly brings more of a sense of occasion to drinking a pint, and it would be good to see it taken up by more pubs to give cask beer a more distinctive identity.

It has also been tested out by Pints and Pubs.

* incidentally, examination of the bottle revealed that the strength of Golden Sheep has been surreptitiously reduced from 4.7% to 4.5% ABV :-(

Friday, 8 December 2017

Touched by wood

Innis & Gunn occupy a rather odd position in the British beer firmament. They are an independent company, founded in 2003, who make a distinctive product that is different from pretty much anything else on the market. Yet, despite describing themselves on their website as “Scottish craft brewers”, they don’t seem to gain acceptance as “proper craft”. Maybe it’s a case of “not invented here syndrome”.

Their USP is ageing their beers in whisk(e)y barrels. You might imagine that this would imbue them with a peaty smokiness, but in fact what they gain from the oak is more of a soft, vanilla and toffee character. They have recently gone through a rebranding exercise and kindly sent me a couple of bottles to sample. I have actually had these for a few weeks but have only just got round to tasting them. I have drunk both of these beers in the past so they’re not entirely new to me.

First up was their signature beer, Innis & Gunn Original (6.6% ABV), which states on the bottle “Our unique bourbon barrel ageing process unlocks flavours like vanilla and toffee, which combine with the malty character of our Scotch Ale to create an incredible taste experience.”

This poured a mid-brown, copper colour, with a decent head but little aroma. The flavour is malty, but fairly dry, with a hint of vanilla but little hop character. It’s quite drinkable for its strength. A woody and faintly musty note comes through in the aftertaste.

This was followed by Blood Red Sky (Rum Finish) (6.8% ABV), which says “Jamaican rum barrels meet Scottish red beer in an explosion of cool spicy rum notes, vanilla and rich fruit.”

This was much darker, mahogany in colour without any noticeable hint of red. It had slightly less head, and again little aroma. It tastes stronger than the 0.2% differential would suggest. There’s a burnt roasty coffee flavour, rather like a stout, with less of a hint of spirit than I remember from previous examples.

My conclusion is that the Original is an interesting, complex beer that may not be to everyone’s taste, but provides a contrast with many of the aggressive flavours found under the craft banner. The Blood Red Sky, on the other hand, was disappointing, lacking the spirit notes of the previous version and not really offering anything particularly distinctive.

However, Innis & Gunn cannot be discussed without mentioning the controversy around their switch from actual barrel ageing, to breaking down used barrels to place in the fermenting vessels to give the beer a touch of wood character, which is discussed here by the Morning Advertiser. To my mind, using the term “barrel-aged” implies that the beer is allowed to mature while stored within actual physical barrels. What they are doing now could be described as “wood ageing”, but to call it “barrel ageing” is distinctly disingenuous.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Life outside the bubble

“How about a trip to Crewe?” suggested Ian Woosey aka Hardy on the Beer and Pubs Forum. “There’s a couple of National Inventory pubs I want to tick off there.” My first reaction was that it didn’t sound the world’s most promising destination, but a bit of research revealed that there was enough there to make for a worthwhile day out, so we duly set out on a bright but chilly sunny morning last Thursday. We were also met by Paul Mudge from Stafford and Jon Benger, who had made a very long round trip from Frome in Somerset, albeit at a bargain price of only £17.50.

Crewe grew up in the 19th century around the railway works, and has an oddly sprawling layout with the main part of the town centre a good three-quarters of a mile north of the station. It still has extensive areas of Victorian terraced housing, although with rather fewer street-corner pubs than there once were. Near the station there is a strip of shops, restaurants and a few pubs along Nantwich Road. We passed the handsome 1930s tiled facade of the Brunswick Hotel, currently up for sale by Greene King for £235,000 freehold, before arriving at our first stop, the Beer Dock.

This is a new off-licence-cum-bar in the modern style, where the downstairs seating just comprises one row of tables and benches down the middle of rows of shelving on either side. There’s also some more seating in an upstairs room. It has a very wide range of bottled beers including an impressive German selection, but oddly no prices are displayed either on bottles or shelf edges. The bar offers a number of “craft kegs” plus a solitary cask beer, on this occasion Neptune Aegir Pale, priced at a very reasonable £3 a pint. It was tasty enough, although a touch hazy. You have to commend their enterprise, but it wasn’t to my mind a very congenial place to linger over a drink. So look forward to it appearing in next year’s Good Beer Guide.

A long walk north along Edleston Road brought us to Hops on Prince Albert Street, which has been a fixture in the GBG for a number of years. Outwardly resembling a private house, this is a modern bar which nevertheless has a fairly pubby interior with an L-shaped bar on the left and plenty of comfortable seating including a few benches. It has a very large selection of imported, especially Belgian bottles, and six cask beers on handpump. Of these we had Northallerton Gundog Bitter, Beckstones Black Dog Freddy and Coastal Proper American Pale Ale, all of which were pretty good. As they don’t serve meals, it was quiet at lunchtime, but I suspect it gets much busier in the evenings. Of the pubs in the town centre this would probably be my favoured choice for a drink.

Only a few doors along the same street is Albert’s Corner, which has the look of a 1930s public building, and indeed we discovered that it had originally been the Crewe Labour Exchange. Christmas decorations were already up in the very spacious interior, which had a mixture of posing tables and bench seating. There were three cask beers on the bar – Beartown Brown Bear, which was very good, Salopian Darwin’s Origin, which was OK, and Titanic Cappucino Stout, which unfortunately turned out to be on the turn, but was replaced without demur. The main purpose of coming here was lunch, and we weren’t disappointing, choosing from an extensive and reasonably-priced menu covering snacks and full meals. The others had fish and chips and a steak wrap, both of which were pretty good, while I went for lasagne with garlic ciabatta, which was advertised as a “light bite”, but was a substantial portion and a very appetising take on a dish that can often be a touch dull and bland. Possibly with the imminent closure of Crewe’s Wetherspoons they will attract more dining trade.

The three casketeers - Ian, Jon and Paul

A ten-minute walk west along Wistaston Road past the closed Park and Earl of Chester led us to the Hop Pole, the first of the two National Inventory pubs, and also a current GBG entry. A little opening-out, including knocking holes in one of the internal walls, means that it only qualifies for regional rather than national status, but it remains a splendid traditional multi-roomed pub. There’s a central bar with glass shutters, no longer actually in use, surrounded by a quarry-tiled public bar, a front pool room and a long lounge at the rear with alcoves of comfortable seating upholstered in a bright tartan pattern.

The pub has its own bowling green at the back which in the summer is busy with teams playing in various leagues, and also shows an unusual level of concern for our canine friends. There were two real ales available, Moorhouse’s Pride of Pendle and Weetwood Cheshire Cat, both in good nick, with a cask of Bradfield Farmers Blonde waiting in the cellar to come on. A blast from the past was M&B Mild spotted on keg. We received a friendly welcome from the landlady and chatted with her about various topics including particularly pubs in Uttoxeter. All in all a classic community local that for me was the highlight of the day.

Retracing our steps back to the town centre, we took a look inside the Crown, a former Robinson’s pub, but spotted no real ale, so doubled back a little to the Cheese Hall, owned by Amber Taverns. This is a spacious modern pub with a number of large TV screens, but did feature plenty of comfortable bench seating, and had Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde and Hobgoblin on the bar, both of which were good. Clearly you can successfully serve cask beer in a contemporary style of pub if you do it right. Three and a half pints came to a very reasonable £8.37 – presumably the cask beers are £2.39 a pint. The pub was visibly filling up in the late afternoon.

We crossed the bridge over the West Coast Main Line on the eastern fringe of the town centre to reach the King’s Arms, the second National Inventory pub of the day. This one only qualifies for “some regional importance” status, partly because its most recent refurbishment has treated the interior to an unsympathetic pastel blue colour scheme. However, it still has a multi-roomed layout including a lobby area by the main bar counter, a rear pool-cum-function room, a snug in which an elderly lady was sitting in semi-darkness, and a spacious public bar at the front with a distinctive glazed door with the inscription “Games Room”. Initially we only spotted the Bombardier handpump on the back bar, and only saw that they had Tribute once we had taken our drinkers through to the public: both beers were pretty good.

Opposite the King’s Arms and almost on top of the railway bridge is the Borough Arms, which is Crewe’s original multi-beer free house and a long-standing Good Beer Guide entry. It doesn’t open until 5 pm on weekdays which rather dictated the order of the crawl. It has an L-shaped one-room interior on several levels with a rather hard to spot step between two sections which must have caught many drinkers unaware over the years. We sat in a snug area at the rear with a number of wooden settles, but unfortunately on a cold night there was something of a lack of heating in this part. There’s another seating area downstairs which we didn’t venture into. There were ten handpumps on the bar including Oakham Citra and Inferno and Otter’s Remembrance special Poppy Otter, but we were all drawn to the Harvey’s Sussex Bitter which did not disappoint. I can’t say I paid much attention to the keg lineup but I did notice the rare Manns Chestnut Mild.

From here it was a rather long and chilly walk back to the station for the return train to Stockport. In summary, an excellent day out, much better than I’d imagined when the idea was first mooted, with plenty of good beer and good conversation. Crewe is never going to win any awards for historic townscape or become a major beer destination, but this illustrates what can be found in somewhere often perceived as an ordinary, workaday town. And it must be remembered that it’s in places like this that most people in the UK live and do their drinking. However, you can imagine some bleeding-edge crafterati struggling to understand the appeal of a place like the Hop Pole.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Unconsidered consequences (Part 97)

Whenever some headline-grabbing “public health” policy is announced, there are always some implications that haven’t been fully thought through, and minimum alcohol pricing is no exception.

One obvious one is the inclusion of alcoholic drinks in combined offers with something else, which has already caused a question mark to be raised over Marks & Spencer’s “dinner for two” deals. How will this affect the ubiquitous Wetherspoon meal deals, if the value of the alcoholic drink element can’t be accurately assessed? Are you sure you’re not undervaluing that burger to give an attractive price for the pint? The easiest answer is likely to be simply to ban such deals entirely. At least that way there will be certainty.

Then we come on to the issue of free samples. Go round any distillery in Scotland, many of which offer tours for free, and you’ll be given a dram of their own distinctive product. Obviously a nominal charge of a quid would cover it, but it’s another factor added into the equation. Is the value of the tour in itself really zero? Just the same applies to brewery tours, which historically have often provided generous hospitality in the sample room at the end.

And how about tasters in pubs, now seen as an integral part of the promotion of different beers? Individually they may be trivial, but there are plenty of reports of cheeky customers abusing the offer to get themselves a substantial amount of beer? Or the free pints sometimes given by licensees to favoured customers? It rarely happens any more, but in the past I would often get a pint in some pubs when delivering the local CAMRA magazine. There are also the free samples often provided to journalists and bloggers in the hope of a favourable write-up. I once got five cases of eight bottles each from Wells & Youngs. Will there be some definition of “fair dealing”, or will the whole concept become off-limits?

Looking at another angle, last week the beer community breathed a sigh of relief when the Chancellor decided to freeze duty in his budget. But, at the bottom end of the scale, surely the authorities will start to cast envious eyes over the gap between the value of duty+VAT and the minimum retail price. Duty+VAT on a 440ml can of Carling is 40.3p. I’m not saying anyone’s actually making a loss when they sell 40 cans for £20, but nobody’s making much profit either. But at 88p a can, there’s a massive slug of extra revenue for Tesco. Why shouldn’t more of that go to the public purse instead? And, for cheaper drinks, any inflationary effect of duty increases would be minimal, so the argument about it impoverishing customers would no longer apply.

Plenty of issues there for the Scottish government to consider. As has often been said, “legislate in haste, repent at leisure”.

Monday, 27 November 2017

A cloudy cider issue

There was some confusion following last week’s Budget as to exactly what the proposals for cider were. Initial reporting gave the impression that the intention was to seek legislation to come up with a specific definition for “white cider” to introduce a higher level of duty, which prompted me to tweet the following.

However, further investigation revealed that in fact the intention was to introduce a new duty band that would encompass all forms of cider. The official Budget document says:

Following the consultation launched at Spring Budget 2017, the government will introduce a new duty band for still cider and perry from 6.9% to 7.5% alcohol by volume (abv), to target white ciders. Legislation will be brought forward in Finance Bill 2018-19, for implementation in 2019, to allow producers time to reformulate and lower their abv.
The implications have been discussed by Drinks Retailing News and the Morning Advertiser.

Now, as I wrote here, I hold no particular brief for white cider, but it’s very questionable to seek to target a particular product through higher duty purely because you believe it’s worthless crap, and in any case it would be extremely difficult to come up with a watertight legal definition to separate “white” from “amber” cider.

But it is equally unreasonable to seek to target all ciders just because one particular variant is thought to be problematic. For example, respected independent cidermakers Sheppy’s and Thatcher’s both produce Vintage Cider at 7.4% ABV, which I don’t think are particularly associated with problem drinking. It’s yet another case of an indiscriminate blanket measure with implications that go far beyond the specific issue it is intended to address.

It remains to be seen exactly what the new duty proposals will be. But, if it’s simply a case of lowering the threshold for the current duty applying to ciders between 7.5% and 8.5% ABV, it may not be all that much to worry about. Currently, cider duty is £40.38 per hectolitre up to 7.5%, then £61.04 from there to 8.5%. Don’t ask me why one isn’t exactly 50% more than the other. So the duty on a pint of 7.5% cider would increase from 22.9p to 34.7p, which still compares very favourably to the 81.3p on a pint of 7.5% beer.

The makers of white cider could simply reduce the strength of their product to 6.8% to avoid the new duty band, or they could accept a hit of 40p for a two-litre bottle and keep the strength for the same. After all, High Strength Beer Duty hasn’t caused super lagers to disappear, or to be reformulated down to 7.5%. Currently, Westons happily sell their 8.2% Henry Weston’s Vintage, which is one of the top-selling premium bottled ciders, often found in supermarket 3 for £5 offers, and there are several other similar products on the market.

Yes, it’s another undesirable increase in alcohol duties, but it’s hardly the end of the world. And you do have to wonder whether some of those calling for an increase in the minimum juice content to qualify for cider duty aren’t actually angling for the exclusion of products like Strongbow, which just isn’t going to happen.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

It does happen

Last month, I wrote about how there was a collective delusion in the British pub trade in refusing to accept that over-ranging was a major factor in poor cask beer quality. One aspect of this is the very prevalent attitude in CAMRA that adding an extra handpump is pretty much always a good thing.

I am fortunate in my own branch in that one of our current Good Beer Guide entries, the Boar’s Head in Stockport, only sells one cask beer (although it shifts three full barrels of it a week) and indeed was our Pub of the Year in 2016. But other areas aren’t so enlightened.

There have been plenty of reports of pubs being told that they couldn’t go in the Good Beer Guide because they didn’t stock enough beers, or because their range was too dull and didn’t include any guest beers. “Nonsense,” people have replied, “it’s just hearsay.” But Martin Taylor has now unearthed the evidence on the ground at the Green Man at Hatton near Heathrow.

The landlady was very chatty... I congratuated her on their Beer Guide place, and told her the Starry Night (NBSS 3+) was good. Beer Guide standard. Then she told me she’d had a visit from “one of those CAMRA people” last week.

He’d been very upset about the beer range, as one of the three had just gone, and told her she couldn’t be in the Beer Guide with just those beers on. If we can’t support and encourage suburban dining pubs with good quality beer to keep the appropriate range of beers on, we’re stuffed.

Get your heads out of the clouds.

And, until this attitude changes, it will continue to be a major reason behind poor beer being sold to unsuspecting customers. If cask beer is to be saved, we need to go back to the days when the one- and two-beer pub was the norm.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Does dearer mean better?

“Craft beer costs more because it uses better ingredients to produce a higher quality beer.” It’s almost become received wisdom nowadays. But I was interested to read an article recently suggesting that this may well not be the case.

“A big misconception is that craft brewers use better grains or hops, or that they use superior products to create their beers than the larger-scale producers,” Fritts said. The craft brewers themselves have encouraged that misconception, but Fritts said it’s not so.

“Busch, for example, isn’t using worse grain or products, they’re probably using better or at least as good,” he said. “They’re just making a product that they know their audience wants.”

Part of the argument is about strength. The situation in the US is different from here, as beer in general is taxed at a flat rate rather than proportionate to strength, so any additional expenditure on materials will not be multiplied by additional duty. Clearly a stronger beer will need more materials per gallon, but it’s important not to confuse strength with quality. This happened in the article by Pete Brown I dicussed here, where he was arguing that a £9 pint showed how people should be prepared to pay more for top-quality beer, but omitted to mention that the main reason for it being so dear was that it was 10.5% ABV.

I have no professional involvement in the brewing industry, and so can’t speak from the horse’s mouth in terms of a cost breakdown. But I think it’s fair to say that the impact of direct costs on the price paid over the bar is considerably less than often supposed. I do, though, have information as to the prices actually paid for beers at our local beer festival.

For example, we bought some beer from a well-regarded local micro that successfully straddles the border between cask and craft. For a 3.9% beer, the price was £67 for a firkin, or £80.40 plus VAT. That is £1.12 per pint, for a beer than would usually retail at three times as much. Let us assume that direct brewing costs, excluding labour, overheads, distribution etc, account for half of that. That is 56p a pint, or a sixth of the retail price. I assume this brewery are already using pretty high-quality raw materials, but if they decided to splash out and increase that by 50%, it would still only be one-twelfth of the price the customer pays.

Of course the way the industry tends to work is that pubs apply fixed mark-up percentages, so any additional wholesale cost filters straight through to the price paid across the bar. But it does not need to be so, and in general the biggest factor affecting the retail price is not the purchase cost but the level of mark-up involved. Within a couple of miles of my house, I can easily pay 33% more for the same, or similar beers, in pubs that aren’t noticeably smarter than the cheaper ones. That has nothing to do with beer quality, and everything to do with pub operators’ financial models.

One obvious difference is that some craft breweries use a lot more hops, or exotic varieties of hops. But what proportion of the overall cost do hops represent? At a guess, no more than 10% of direct costs, and that’s probably an overestimate. Or 6p a pint. Even if you double it through buying special hops grown on the south-western slope of Mount Rainier and watered with otters’ tears, it’s hardly going to make much difference to the end price.

In fact, rather than ingredients, it’s likely to be in overheads that craft beer costs more to make per pint. Small breweries will be more labour-intensive than big ones, and also less energy-efficient. Their costs may genuinely be higher, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to a better end-product. I’m not really that interested in whether my pint is a labour of love resulting from backbreaking toil.

Returning to the original article, I’d be very sceptical that craft brewers actually are using significantly better raw materials than their bigger brethren. My guess would be that the likes of Robinsons and Fullers aren’t using any worse ingredients than the typical microbrewery, but they’re certainly paying less for them because of economies of scale and the skills of professional buyers.

I’m not saying there’s nothing in it, but in practice, once you strip out any effect of strength differentials, the impact of better ingredients and production processes is pretty trivial as a part of the over-the-bar price.

And, as I said in the blogpost I linked to above, in the early days of CAMRA there was often, broadly speaking, an inverse relationship between retail price and quality.

If anyone has any actual cost breakdowns of brewery costs, then I would be very interested to see them.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Meanwhile, back in the real world

The Morning Advertiser has recently published a feature on the leading products in the on-trade for each drinks category. The top ten cask beers are as shown below:

Their combined sales volume is 814,000 hectolitres, which equates to 514,000 barrels, or over a quarter of the entire cask beer market. The leading brand alone, Doom Bar, accounts for 7.25% of the market. Their average ABV is 4.2%, and only one, Abbot Ale, is over 4.5%.

But one thing that springs out is that most of them are beers that many beer commentators and enthusiasts would describe as “bland macro crap”. In this day when all the attention is focused on limited edition single hop beers, one-off collaborations and barrel-aged stouts, it’s all too easy to dismiss out of hand well-known brews from the bigger breweries which don’t assault the tastebuds and may even commit the cardinal sin of being popular.

It wasn’t always so, though. Just flicking through the 1978 Good Beer Guide, it’s easy to find pubs offering only a single everyday beer from the Big Six brewers. For example, the Pebley at Barlborough in Derbyshire had Stones Bitter, the Half Crown at South Benfleet in Essex Charrington IPA and the Parkers Arms at Paignton in Devon Courage Best. They may not have been considered the finest beers in the land, but there was no problem in recommending them and the pubs that served them.

On the ground, it’s still the case that a large majority of the real ale drunk by ordinary people in ordinary pubs consists of beers of the kind featured in the list above. But are some sections of CAMRA* in danger of losing sight of the organisation’s core purpose by looking down their nose at them? There’s a risk that it will become perceived as the Campaign Against Most Real Ale. There’s a fundamental contradiction in an organisation that claims to campaign for something, but in practice often gives the impression of not thinking much of most of what makes up that something. It’s not difficult to imagine someone thinking that, if the local CAMRA bod doesn’t think this Doom Bar is much cop, why shouldn’t I drink Carling instead?

* For the avoidance of doubt, this is emphatically not a criticism of CAMRA per se, just of the impression frequently given by some of its representatives

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The road to hell paved with good intentions, as the saying goes. And there have been quite a few people trying to make a partial defence of the Scottish minimum alcohol pricing plan by saying that at least the intentions of its supporters are good. But the question has to be asked as to how benevolent it really is to seek to control the actions of other people, against their will, to achieve a result that you, but not they, believe is in their interest? It is effectively treating others as your property, upon whom you have the right to impose your values and desires. But surely a fundamental principle of a free society is the self-ownership of mentally competent adults. In the words of John Locke,

Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.
And John Stuart Mill says on the subject:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others...

...All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.

Throughout history, some people have always sought to exercise control over how others live their lives, which was summed up by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein when he said:
The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.
The aspects over which control has been exercised have varied through the centuries, and in many cases what was once severely restricted has become a free-for-all, while in other areas the opposite is true. Often there has been an appeal to religion or some other higher moral principle. But the basic motivation has always been the same – that Person A believes he knows better than Person B how Person B should live his life.

And the end result of such a tyranny of morality may be far from the contented, harmonious society of which people dream. As C. S. Lewis wrote:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
A further issue is that people who are experts in one particular field often take a very narrow view of its application to wider society and are blind to any more general considerations. If you know all about hammers, every problem looks like a nail. So the anti-smoking zealots who cheered on the smoking ban and celebrated any reduction in smoking rates were completely indifferent to the fact that it ripped the guts out of working-class communities by destroying the institutions around which they revolved. And if minimum pricing achieves a 2.7% fall in alcohol-related hospital admissions, the anti-drink zealots won’t care that it has made one of the few pleasures available to people of limited means significantly less affordable. In the words of Friedrich Hayek,
There could hardly be a more unbearable - and more irrational - world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realisation of their ideals.
The announcement has certainly led to an outbreak of examples of the Burden of Proof Fallacy:
A: “The Scottish government are introducing minimum pricing to reduce alcohol-related health problems.”
B: “I’m not sure it’s going to be that effective, you know.”
A: “So you’re happy to see people literally die from drink, then?”
People occasionally say to me “So what would YOU do to tackle alcoholism, then?” Well, I certainly don’t breezily dismiss the subject, and fully accept that the misuse of alcohol does cause serious problems for some people. But I don’t see it as my role to address that misuse in detail, just as it isn’t the job of the restaurant critic to tackle malnutrition, or that of the motoring journalist to investigate drug-driving.

What I do know is that most people manage to deal with alcohol without it causing any serious problems, and the consumption of alcoholic drinks, especially in company, can bring great pleasure. So any attempt to tackle the specific problems of the minority by indiscriminate, whole-population measures is wrong in principle, may do little to deal with the individual issues, and is likely to have wider negative consequences which, while maybe relatively minor at the individual level, add up across the whole of society. And that applies in many other areas beyond alcohol policy.

Of course there are infinite ways in which the human condition can be improved – this is certainly not a counsel of despair. But they seldom involve curtailing the choices and responsibilities of individuals to force them on to what others see as a better path. Mankind is not perfectible by compulsion. As Karl Popper observed,

The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Do I get points with that?

By removing the previous restrictions on opening new pubs and bars, the 2003 Licensing Act has certainly allowed a thousand flowers to bloom in the sector. As a lover of heritage pubs, I have to say that many of the new establishments don’t hold much appeal for me, but it can’t be denied that it has led to much more competition and diversity, most notably in the areas of micropubs, craft bars and bottle shops.

But the latest novelty has raised some eyebrows, in the form of Morrisons announcing that they have obtained a drinks licence for the café in their supermarket in Guiseley, Yorkshire. There are already thousands of licensed cafés in existence, without the sky having fallen in, but if you were to listen to some people, this is yet another front opened up by supermarkets in their war against pubs. Bizarrely, they have claimed that it is another threat to the on-trade, despite it being by definition a section of the on-trade.

I can’t say I’ve ever personally eaten a meal in a supermarket café, but if people want to wash down their ham, egg and chips with a drink, then why shouldn’t they? And it obviously invites the cliché of the husband enjoying a pint while his wife wheels the trolley round the store. But it’s hardly somewhere that people will make a point of going to just for a drink, or linger long once they have eaten their meal, and indeed Morrisons wouldn’t want to encourage them to do that. They’re not after the destination trade. So I’d say any predictions of doom are misplaced.

You do also have to wonder whether there will be sufficient turnover to maintain the cask beer in good condition. It’s rather reminiscent of the early days of CAMRA when the organisation would badger small hotels and restaurants to put real ale on even though the level of trade was never going to be sufficient to justify it. Most licensed cafés in practice manage with just bottles and cans.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Dry run

Last month, I wrote about how people had exaggerated expectations for alcohol-free beers. The problem is that, however good they taste, they’re never going to be anything more than a poor substitute for normal-strength beer, simply because they don’t contain alcohol. People choose to drink beer because it is alcoholic; they choose between beers on the grounds of taste. Therefore it makes more sense, and shows them in a better light, to consider them in comparison with soft drinks.

As I’ve been trying to have one alcohol-free day a week, I thought I would give a couple of the best-known brands a try, as an alternative to a can of Pepsi Max or suchlike while settling down to watch The Great War in Numbers or Bettany Hughes on Eight Days That Made Rome. The ones I chose, both bought from Tesco, were Beck’s Blue (6x275ml, £3.49, 58p per bottle, £2.12 per litre) and Heineken 0.0 (4x330ml, £2.49, 62p per bottle, £1.89 per litre). I think the Heineken was on a special introductory offer and the standard price would probably be £3.49.

The full-strength versions of these are not beers I would normally buy to drink at home, although I wouldn’t turn my nose up at them. The lack of volume in comparison with standard beers doesn’t really matter too much, as that’s bound up with the alcohol content. Both I found palatable enough. The Beck’s has a distinctly beery initial aroma, and is slightly the drier of the two, but has that somewhat cardboardy flavour note often found in alcohol-free beers. The Heineken, in contrast, is a little sweeter and less obviously beery, but probably the better of the two as a stand-alone drink. It possibly has a hint of lemon in it.

Are they as good as normal-strength beer? Of course not. But would I drink them again in that situation? Probably yes, although not really to wash down my lunch.

By way of comparison, I also tried an alcohol-free ale, St Peter’s Without (500ml bottle, £1.30, £2.60 per litre). This, however, was distinctly unpleasant, and most of it went down the sink. It had a thin, scummy head which quickly disappeared, and a thick, cloying, glutinous texture. I can’t disagree with Martyn Cornell when he says:

I cannot imagine what St Peter’s thought they were doing, because as a product it’s actively terrible. It smells like raw, unfermented wort, and while there is enough hop usage for it not to be sickly sweet, it’s still too much like the “strengthening medicine” Kanga fed to Roo, and nothing like the refreshing drink beer ought to be.
Martyn’s whole article is well worth reading, as he questions the periodic bouts of enthusiasm about the alcohol-free beer market. From time to time, people claim that it’s going to make substantial inroads into the sales of normal beer, but it never happens, simply because it doesn’t contain alcohol and is therefore missing the point. People will only substitute it for normal beer as a distress purchase. As he concludes,
I’m looking forward to a cool frothy pint of non-alcoholic beer tonight” said NOBODY, EVER.
They’re just not products anyone would actively seek out in the way they do normal-strength beers.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Red elephant?

Anyone who hasn’t visited Stockport for a couple of years will be surprised, to say the least, to see the new Redrock leisure complex rising up on the site of the former car park between the M60 and Princes Street. It takes its name from the red sandstone of the cliffs opposite, and is due to open on Friday 24 November, a week today. It will include a cinema, a gym and new shops and restaurants.

The intention, obviously, is to revitalise the town centre and attract more visitors, and it has to be said that much of it is in need of a shot in the arm. The former BHS store on Merseyway is still unlet over a year after the chain fell into bankruptcy, and the area of Little Underbank and Lower Hillgate, which could be a cornucopia of independent shops, is very tatty and rundown, with as many vacant units as live businesses. One clear benefit it will bring is introducing smart chain restaurants including Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Pizza Express and Zizzi, as currently there is a serious dearth of decent places to eat.

Having said this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Redrock falls into the category of “Something must be done. This is something. Let’s do it, then.” It’s unsightly, it’s out of scale with its surroundings, and, although there is a kind of piazza linking it to Princes Street, it’s poorly integrated with the rest of the town centre.

One point that immediately sprang to mind is how the new cinema could hope to compete with those a few miles along the M60 in each direction at Ashton and the Trafford Centre, if people were expected to pay for parking. I have since learned that parking will be free for cinema and gym customers, but how many of them will go on to spend money elsewhere in the town centre? Wouldn’t a better way of revitalising the night-time economy be to allow entirely free parking after 6 pm?

Better parking isn’t an instant panacea for town centres, but making it more inconvenient and expensive is a sure-fire recipe for undermining their viability. Too many councils have treated it as a cash cow and ended up killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. And the fact that the council have introduced free parking after 3 pm and all day Sunday in their central car parks in the run-up to Christmas indicates that they recognise it is a problem.

I don’t claim to be an expert in urban regeneration, and if there was an obvious formula then many towns would have adopted it. I hope it does prove successful in drumming up more business, but I can’t help having some reservations. And it certainly is a singularly ugly set of buildings! it does, however, for those who like such things, feature a rare spiral multi-storey car park ramp.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

More minimum pricing thoughts

Following yesterday’s announcement, here are a few more thoughts off the top of my head on the minimum pricing issue.

  • None of the people praising this will be personally affected by it

  • It’s widely imagined that it will only hit cheap, bottom-end products, but in fact it will affect most beer, cider and spirits, by volume, sold in the off-trade, and about a third of wine

  • It will seriously undermine the alcohol sales model of discount supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl

  • All the benefit will accrue to producers and retailers of alcohol, not government. It is in effect a legalised price-fixing ring. No wonder some brewers like Greene King and Tennent’s are foolishly supporting it

  • It will have a marked inflationary effect. If applied across the UK, it would add a few points to the headline inflation rate

  • It will create an unprecedented differential between prices for the same product in different parts of one country, with an inevitable surge in cross-border shopping and grey-market reselling

  • Will it be possible to apply it to purchases made from Internet vendors in England but delivered in Scotland?

  • It will eliminate all the cheap value brands that currently exist, and turn minimum price alcohol into a commodity product

  • And it will also push up prices higher up the scale as producers seek to maintain a price differential

  • Paradoxically, it may encourage alcohol producers to spend more on advertising as they can no longer differentiate products by price

  • If implemented in England, it would have a devastating effect on the farmhouse cider industry, much of which currently pays no duty and sells its products at the farm gate for well below 50p/unit. Many producers would probably abandon commercial sales entirely, or just sell to friends “off the books”

  • It will negate the effect of High Strength Beer Duty, as it will no longer be possible to sell weaker beers for a lower price per unit. For the same reason, it will remove any benefit to the consumer of lower strength duty relief

  • It will result in a much closer association in consumers’ minds of “premium” with “stronger”

  • It will lead to an increase in illegal distilling, with potentially serious health consequences. By supposedly addressing one health issue, you create another

  • There will inevitably now be strong pressure to implement it in England

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Minimum effectiveness

It was disappointing, although not entirely surprising, news that the Supreme Court has rejected the Scotch Whisky Association’s appeal against the Scottish government’s plans for minimum alcohol pricing. I’ve been over all this many times before and don’t propose to go into the detail again. But it will do little or nothing to combat alcoholism, while hitting poorer households hard in the wallet. It will encourage bootlegging and illegal distilling, with all the potential health issues that causes.

Hopefully the UK government will see sense and not extend it south of the Border. But, assuming they don’t, it will obviously lead to a huge amount of cross-border shopping, with a procession of white vans trundling north up the A74(M) from Carlisle ASDA. And, if they did, it would deal a grievous blow to farmhouse cidermakers, many of who may abandon selling commercially.

There will be some useful idiots within CAMRA who will welcome the decision as getting one over on the supermarkets, but it won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs. Indeed, as Christopher Snowdon argues here, it could even lead to people spending less in pubs if they need to reallocate a fixed budget for spending on alcohol.

And don’t imagine that it will leave the on-trade completely unscathed. It’s not uncommon for Wetherspoon’s to price their guest ales, including those of 6% ABV and above, at £1.99 a pint. With the 50p CAMRA discount voucher, that would take them down to a mere 44p a unit!

Some will say “well, Mudgie, it’s ironic that this was one example of where the EU was protecting British consumers”. I will accept that its partial attempts to stop countries erecting barriers to trade in the name of health policy was one of the few good points about the EU, but even that has now been thrown out of the window. And we really shouldn’t need a supra-national body to protect us from ourselves – we should be free to make our own laws, however stupid they may be.

An all-round bad day for the interests of drinkers in the UK. Plus, of course, once it proves to be ineffective, there will be the inevitable pressure to ratchet the minimum price ever upwards...