Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Here we go again

Not surprisingly, following the reduction in the drink-drive limit in Scotland in December 2014, there have been renewed calls to follow suit south of the border. Transport Minister Andrew Jones has said that the government will consider this if there is “robust evidence” that it has improved road safety in Scotland. Well, there’s certainly robust evidence that it has been highly damaging to the licensed trade. Many would say that was the main intention in the first place.

I’ve discussed the whys and wherefores of this issue at length in the past, for example here, so don’t intend to repeat myself. However, there are three specific points that spring to mind.

  1. It would be ironic if this ended up being implemented by a Conservative government, when the Tories have long been seen as the natural champions of the motorist, the licensed trade and the countryside. Many long-standing Tory voters will be distinctly unhappy about it, and I can imagine Cameron touring his constituency in rural Oxfordshire being asked by angry landlords why he wants to put them out of business. If it does happen, it will produce an abiding legacy of bitterness in rural areas. I’m convinced that the smoking ban has had a greater effect on eroding working-class support for the Labour Party than is usually acknowledged.

  2. Talk of cutting the headline limit ignores the issue of penalties. Most Continental countries that nominally have a 50mg limit do not impose driving bans until an offender is over 80mg, and sometimes even at a higher figure. In contrast, Scotland now has one of the strictest drink-drive regimes in Europe, as it imposes year-long bans at 50mg and, because of a quirk in the law, does not even allow the small margin of tolerance that applies in England and Wales. Surely a less serious offence should deserve a lower penalty.

  3. This will inevitably focus more attention on the “morning after” issue, as the threshold for the amount you can drink in the evening and be under the limit the following morning will be correspondingly reduced. Given that, outside London, well over 50% of commuters drive themselves to work, this will potentially have an impact on pubs even in dense urban areas.

    The government has also traditionally been very reluctant to explain the principle of “unit counting” which drinkers can use to give an approximation of when they will be able to legally drive after drinking. So, following the declaration of an official line that no quantity of alcohol can be considered safe in terms of health risk, might we see broad-brush, catch-all advice that, if you have drunk anything at all, you shouldn’t drive for a further 24 hours?

Saturday, 6 February 2016

It’s real ale, Jim, but not as we know it

Probably the most controversial issue in CAMRA for a long time is the question of whether some “KeyKeg” beers can be classified as “real ale”. I wrote about this here, which included this admirably clear description of what a KeyKeg is.

So I thought I would do a poll on people’s attitudes to this. The results show a fairly even split between “Yes” and “No, but it’s still worth promoting” with a lesser number going for “Keg is Keg”. Overall, 59% thought that keybeg beers should not be recognised as real ale. It should be pointed out that on the blog I added the following caveat “For the avoidance of doubt, I'm referring to KeyKeg beers that are unpasteurised, unfiltered and not injected with additional CO2.” The comment by “Dickthebeer” is worth reproducing:

Good CAMRA members know the definition of real ale and know that dispenses are not always all they seem, but CAMRA has defined Real Ale very closely. A beer not meeting that definition, for brewing, storage and dispense, by definition is NOT real ale. The majority of French and Belgian ales, though clearly top-fermented, naturally conditioned etc. do not meet the definition but are fine beers. Find an honest term for what could become an international variant of the real ale that is peculiar to the UK, and one we should be proud of.
A KeyKeg
CAMRA has always been prone to having passionate debates about the minutiae of dispense methods – the Scottish air pressure system and the cask breather being two good examples. This can be classed as another in the same vein. But it is important to remember that the conditioning, storage and dispense of beer is something that fundamentally underlies CAMRA, so claims of “ignore dispense, good beer is good beer” ring hollow.

At the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, there was a dedicated “craft keg” bar, and I tried a couple. It wasn’t a big scientific survey, but both were quite nice. But it must be said that they obviously came across as keg in terms of temperature and carbonation, and very different from real ale as usually understood.

There are two arguments often advanced in favour of craft keg beer. The first is the “East Sheen Tennis Club” argument, that keg beers are ideal for venues that have limited and infrequent turnover. The second is that they allow pubs to stock low-volume beers for longer. But I get the impression that the reason most people go for craft keg is that they prefer its essential characteristics – that it is served cooler, and has more carbonation, than real ale. Bringing it within the fold of real ale may assuage some CAMRA consciences, but it’s unlikely to make much difference to whether people choose to drink it. Being a touch cynical, I wonder whether the real motivation is making it acceptable to serve keg beers at CAMRA-run beer festivals rather than improving the lot of drinkers in the pub.

When CAMRA was founded, getting on for half of the real ale sold in Britain was dispensed through electric pumps, which may have led to its founders underestimating the amount of real ale there actually was out there. While electric pumps have their advantages, one thing they don’t do is to give a clear indication of the type of beer that comes out of them. Over the years, pub operators have steadily replaced electric pumps with handpumps for this very reason, and electric dispense has now pretty much entirely died out. The once-common practice of serving keg beer through handpumps has also been largely eliminated, so if you go in a pub and see a bank of handpumps you can be confident about what you’re going to get. But if we get “real” craft keg, are we going to get little stickers on the taps saying “CAMRA Says this is Real Ale”? Will we have pubs included in the Good Beer Guide purely on the strength of their craft keg offering? There is also the risk that the boundary with conventional filtered and carbonated keg beers such as Shipyard and East Coast IPA will be blurred.

One of the recurring themes of this blog has been that CAMRA is too dogmatic in making a black-and-white distinction between “good” real ale and “bad” everything else. This is not to say it shouldn’t define real ale clearly and put it at the centre of its campaigning, but it should be far more willing to recognise merit in beers that do not qualify. Most members to some extent enjoy non-real beers, so why should the organisation officially ignore this?

I make no claim to be an expert on cellarmanship, but I would say it is questionable whether keykeg beers really fit the definition of real ale anyway. As pointed out in a letter in February’s What’s Brewing from veteran activist Peter Judge, the beer contained in the bag does not vent to the atmosphere, and the part of the container outside the bag is pressurised with CO2 to dispense the beer, although the CO2 does not actually touch it. Of course it’s vastly better than Red Barrel, and something I’d be happy both to drink and promote. But, to my mind, it isn’t “real ale” as understood by the general drinking public. Rather than arbitrarily extending the definition to encompass something you happen to like, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept that some beers that aren’t technically “real” can actually be very good?

And I can foresee some lively debate at CAMRA’s forthcoming National Conference in Liverpool at the beginning of April.

Friday, 5 February 2016

I'm not eating that!

A slightly undercooked
chicken goujon
Martin Taylor recently reminded me of my very unsatisfactory bacon sandwich at the otherwise rather wonderful Cock Inn at Broom in Bedfordshire. In retrospect, I should have sent it back rather than struggling my way through it, but it illustrates a wider problem – when is it reasonable to reject food? The question of returning beer has been extensively discussed on this and other blogs, but not returning food.

I have to admit I am a somewhat eccentric and picky eater, and so I have to make a judgment as to whether something is actually horrible or just not to my taste. I often have no alternative but to order dishes in pubs in the full knowledge that I will not eat some of their components. This is why I tend to avoid eating main meals, as opposed to snacks, in pubs.

But, over the years, I’ve had plenty of utterly terrible food in pubs. The chicken burger that was a vile chunk of grey rubbery meat immediately springs to mind, likewise the supposed chicken tikka baguette where the contents were essentially just a curry-flavoured slurry. And the ploughman’s that firstly lacked cheese, and then after being sent back still lacked bread. Most of these things I’ve just left on the table and moved on.

I well remember some years back when I went out for a drive with my late father around the Shropshire Hills on the day after Boxing Day, and called in for lunch at the Green Dragon in Little Stretton. It was a sunny day, and I think there were a lot more customers than the pub expected, resulting in us having to wait a long time for our meals. My dad had plaice and chips, but was given a fish where the tail had obviously been hanging out of the pan and was completely raw. Some locals even had the cheek to say out loud “Some people only come out to complain!”

The ridiculously undercooked bacon in the Cock wasn’t an isolated example – the previous year I’d had similar in the Crown in Hawes in North Yorkshire, another good pub spoilt by crap food. Again I said after the event that the bacon was undercooked. The one example I recall when I did actually send something back was when staying in the Wellington Hotel in Boscastle, Cornwall, where I ordered a pizza from the bar menu that came out scarcely cooked at all. While the English are often accused of overcooking their food, most of my bad experiences have come from dishes that were seriously undercooked.

Tandleman has made the point in the past that you go out for a quiet drink and a meal, not for an argument. If you are given poor food or drink, the very act of complaining sours the occasion, even if you receive complete recompense. So it’s hardly surprising that people so often struggle through food that is at best borderline acceptable.

Maybe we need to take a more assertive approach. But I’d still say that returning food – as opposed to complaining about it afterwards – still requires another level of gumption above returning a poor pint.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The old man and the pub

A phrase we’re hearing increasingly often nowadays, used in a dismissive sense, is old man pub. The connotations are pretty clear, but is it all that different from what we used to call a “traditional pub”? Going back a generation, there were some pubs that were clearly defined as “young people’s pubs” with garish colours, knocked-out walls, chrome furniture, pool tables, loud music and TVs showing music videos. These were the pubs that didn’t tend to get into CAMRA guides. That style of pub has now largely disappeared, but a different kind of divide has opened up.

From the mid-80s, there was a growing number of specialist multi-beer alehouses, but they generally adopted a bare-boards kind of ambiance and couldn’t really be said to be trendy. However, more recently, over the past ten years, we have seen the development in major city centres of “craft beer bars” which adopt a much more modernistic style of industrial chic – very open-plan, dominated by long bars, with hard textures and a dearth of comfortable upholstered seating.

The interior of a trendy pub
popular with hipsters
Many brewer and pubco refurbishments have started to follow this style, especially in urban areas with a high proportion of younger drinkers. And anything that doesn’t conform to this model is dismissed as an “old man pub”. But what is wrong with a pub that offers cosy, intimate spaces, comfortable seating and a limited role for electronic distractions? Last year I saw groups of students having a good time in Sam Smith’s Colpitts Hotel in Durham, which even by Sam’s standards is about as traditional as you can get.

It’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast distinction – things like being popular for food, welcoming children, loud piped music and live bands can all make a traditionally-styled pub less “old mannish”. Even TV football on its doesn’t debar a pub from qualifying. In Heaton Moor, not too far from me, the Crown definitely is an “old man pub”, despite showing all the football, while the nearby, much more stylised and designed Plough and Elizabethan are not.

The writer of the article has suggested that “old man pubs” should make more effort to appeal to a younger generation by putting craft beers on the bar, but that will make no difference to the pub’s overall ambience. The other night I was in the Blossoms in Stockport, where they have plenty of craft bottles in the fridge and Pilsner Urquell on the bar. But the general cosy, multi-roomed feel would still be “old man” regardless of what beers were on sale.

Surely there is a parallel here with dismissing established real ales as “boring brown beers”, another product of the US-influenced British craft evangelists deciding that their main enemy was not the mega-brewers, but the existing, successful craft real ale scene. It’s all a bit divisive and counter-productive.

Eventually, the wheel will come full circle. I remember in the 1970s seeking out the most down-to-earth, basic, old-fashioned pubs there were in the search for real ale, and being captivated by their atmosphere. In more recent years, the tide has swung against valuing tradition, but, one day, young drinkers will realise once again that “old man pubs” have a story to tell.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Two steps back, one step forward

Last year, the Labour-run Welsh Government put forward plans to ban vaping in all indoor public places in the same way as smoking has been banned. This was widely criticised as being draconian and indeed possibly counter-productive, as many people switch to vaping as a means of stopping smoking. Perhaps surprisingly, the most vocal opponents have been the Welsh Liberal Democrats under Kirsty Williams. It makes a refreshing change to see the LibDems actually standing up for something liberal.

After due consideration, health minister Mark Drakeford has come up with slightly watered-down proposals which would allow vaping in some enclosed places, including pubs that did not either serve food or allow children. That sounds suspiciously like the proposals relating to smoking in the 2005 Labour manifesto, which of course they later “welshed” on.

These would have led to a two-tier pub trade, divided between down-to-earth, working-class boozers with no kids or food, and sanitised midde-class dining outlets filled with the smell of cooking and the tinkle of children’s happy laughter. No prizes for guessing which I would have preferred! Obviously this would have been preferable to the current situation, but it still would have been far from ideal. Many pubs where food was only a sideline would have ended up dropping it to keep their drinking customers.

I’m not sure whether vapers have yet reached the critical mass where pubs would think it worthwhile to abandon food to retain their business, but it’s certainly the case that where the vaper goes, his or her friends will follow. And Wales, perhaps more than any other part of the UK, certainly still has plenty of basic, wet-led, adults-only boozers.

Surely the best solution would to allow pubs and other businesses to choose whether to allow vaping or not, and let the market decide. Just as it should have been with smoking. Let’s hope the Welsh Government eventually see sense.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

What do you think this is, a pub?

My latest poll was about whether pubs should be excluded from the Good Beer Guide if they at times reserved all seating for diners. Perhaps one might have expected a landslide in favour, but in fact there was a substantial minority of 26% who didn’t agree, although perhaps some might have voted for a “depends on the circumstances” option. Sunday lunchtime only is very different from ten out of fourteen sessions in a week.

A well-known Stockport restaurant
I wasn’t asking this out of the blue, but had a specific situation in mind. We are now in the season of selecting pubs for CAMRA’s national Good Beer Guide for 2017. The Arden Arms in Stockport is a pub that features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, and indeed many would think it ranks near the top of that list. It has been in the Guide for many years, and serves a wide range of Robinsons beer well, at reasonable prices. The current licensees formerly ran That Café in Levenshulme, and have consistently served excellent food at the Arden. The interior, with its almost unique snug that can only be accessed by walking through the servery, must be the most characterful in Stockport.

But there is a fly in the ointment. In the past year or two, it seems the pub has adopted the practice of reserving all seating for diners. This applies every lunchtime, and early evenings Thursday to Saturday. Only a couple of weeks ago I arranged to meet a couple of friends in there early on a Friday evening, and one complained that he had been moved to accommodate diners. This is clearly outlined by Simon Everitt here – he was not at all happy, but managed to find solace in the nearby Boar’s Head.

Now, while I retain a soft spot for the wet-only pub, it has to be accepted that, in the current climate, most pubs need to offer food to a greater or lesser extent. I have nothing against pubs serving food, pubs serving excellent food, or pubs where most of the customers are there for food. I’m a bit uneasy about pubs reserving some tables, but recognise that may be a sensible business decision. But if a pub decides to allocate all tables, and all seating, to diners, it crosses a line and sends out a clear message that drinkers are unwelcome. It isn’t just advance bookings either – tables are also prioritised for walk-in diners.

I have to admit that I am torn here. The Arden Arms is a fine pub in many respects, and outside of dining hours drinkers will have no problem. We regularly hold meetings of the local CAMRA branch there. Many Good Beer Guide users will be happy to be directed there and, at lunchtimes, many will be seeking food anyway. But, if it goes in the Guide, it needs a clear qualification that “at time all seats are reserved for diners”. And should a pub taking that attitude towards the casual drinker be included at all?

Friday, 29 January 2016

Held in trust

The Fleece, Bretforton - a historic pub owned by the National Trust
Cooking Lager has sometimes been known to tease me by arguing that pubs are just like any other retail business and, if they’re not successful, the best thing is to shut them down and replace them with something else. He’s certainly got a point, that some people seem to struggle with the concept that pubs are commercial businesses at all, and few are likely to mourn the demise of a trendy bar in the ground floor of an office block, or a Hungry Horse on a retail park.

But some pubs mean much more to people than that – they become part of the community, memories of good times and past landlords are handed down from generation to generation, and they are valued as a local resource even by people who don’t visit them much. Pubs, after all, are about the only kind of business that people actually visit to spend time socialising. In the centre of many English villages, you will find a pub and a church opposite each other, and they are seen as something that defines the character of the place. The problem, though, is that affection alone does not put any money over the bar or in the collection plate. As Rowan Pelling has perceptively written, We love pubs and churches, but don’t want to use them.

Many of the vocal “Save the Pub” campaigners seem to view the decline of pubs as the result of an unholy combination of asset-stripping pub companies, greedy developers, apathetic councils and lax planning laws. There’s something in this, and pub companies certainly can’t be regarded as model businesses, but the activists pretty much entirely ignore the long-term decline in the demand for pubs. Yes, some pubs have been revived by better management but, seriously, all those beached whale estate pubs, inner-urban locals where all the drinkers have disappeared, isolated rural inns? Nothing could have saved most of them and, at the end of the day, you can’t force people to keep unprofitable businesses going.

So maybe, if we want to keep endangered pubs, we need to grasp the nettle and accept that many will never be successful in strict commercial terms. This will mean stumping up the money to buy them without any expectation of financial return. There’s a clear precedent for this in the form of the National Trust which, from small beginnings, has expanded to have over four million members and to be custodians of hundreds of precious historic buildings. In a sense, unspoilt pubs could be regarded as “the people’s stately homes”. The National Trust does own a handful of pubs, amongst which the lovely Fleece at Bretforton in Worcestershire, pictured above, is probably the best known. You could also consider the amount of time and money that has been expended over the years on preserved steam railways.

It wouldn’t necessarily need a National Pub Trust: it could be done regionally, or through associations of local co-operatives. Possibly pub operators could be given a tax incentive to dispose of pubs to pub trusts rather than for alternative use, just as owners of historic buildings can waive inheritance tax if they bequeath them to the National Trust. If the trust owned the freehold and paid for upkeep, then outside operators could be invited to run the place as a pub for minimal or zero rent. If nobody was even interested in that, volunteers could open it up on Sunday afternoons for afternoon teas and a few bottles. Yes, it might lead to a lot of twee, middle-class pubs preserved in aspic but, as long as the fabric remains intact, then surely that is infinitely better than no pub at all. And, if you want to keep pubs that no commercial operator considers viable, it’s the only way it can be done.

Individual membership of the National Trust is £60 a year. I’d happily stump up £30 for pubs. Would you?

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The wrong kind of diversity

In recent weeks we have had discussions on the amount of diversity (or lack of) in the beer world in the spheres of race and class. And it’s long been a source of complaint in terms of female representation. But is there another aspect of diversity we’re missing?

The great (and black) American economist and philosopher Thomas Sowell once said: “The next time some academics tell you how important diversity is, ask how many Republicans there are in their sociology department.”

Which could easily be paraphrased as “The next time some craft brewers tell you how important diversity is, ask how many Tories and Kippers there are amongst their number”.

And the growth of microbreweries and craft beer in recent decades could be seen as a perfect example of individual enterprise and free markets in action.

For a recent example of the limits of diversity, look no further than here.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Happiness is a warm pub

There’s been a lot of publicity this week about the benefits of having a good local pub. The value of companionship and belonging in pubs is something I’ve often referred to, and so I will wholeheartedly agree. As Dr Johnson famously said, “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.”

But I have to question whether this represents a sentimental idea of pubs viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. How many people really have a “local” that produces that warm, inclusive feeling? I have a local pub, which I’ve written about extensively on here, that in many respects is very good. But, at many times, it isn’t welcoming to me because of part being reserved for diners and the rest dominated by TV football. You can’t go in and just have a chat with other customers.

For many people in Stockport, their “local” is the Crown, Magnet or Railway, even though they’re far from the closest to their houses. The pubs where I feel most at home are ones I have to travel some distance to reach. And the Rover’s Return, while it may have been vaguely realistic in 1960, would simply not exist in an inner-city location today.

Yes, pubs can be great, and people will tend to seek out pubs and become regular customers where they feel welcome and which suit their tastes. But I suspect few of us can genuinely claim that we have that cosy, friendly, supportive, mythical “local”.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Both hands required

Last week I attended the Manchester Beer & Cider Festival held in the former G-MEX in Manchester City Centre. In general, I’m not a great fan of beer festivals as a customer, as I much prefer drinking in a pub environment, but this one was hard to fault, in particular the generous provision of seating. Martin Taylor gives it a highly positive review here. I also had the pleasure of meeting face-to-face a number of people who I’d previously only encountered through Twitter and the blogoshire.

However, it reminded me of a perennial problem encountered by the solo drinker at a beer festival (which wasn’t me on this occasion) – what to do with your glass when you go to the toilet. If you’ve found a seat, you can leave it there, but the chances of it disappearing must be far greater than in a pub, especially since the glass deposit is worth three quid. But, if you’re standing up, you have little choice but to take it in with you. There were guys holding a pint glass in one hand while unzipping and aiming with the other, which takes a bit of practice. In happier days, I remember seeing a bloke doing this with a fag in his mouth too! Others managed to balance their half-pint glasses on the top of the urinals. I assume the ladies take them into the WC and put them on the floor.

The whole thing is blatantly unsanitary, and unsatisfactory on many other levels. It’s the sort of issue that people are reluctant to discuss but really needs to be addressed. Maybe a table could be placed at the entrance to the toilets for people to leave their glasses.

Incidentally, while I wouldn’t regard this as a criticism of the organisers, as it’s the responsibility of the venue, the gents’ had small queues on Wednesday evening. I wonder if they were overwhelmed on Friday night – and the ladies’ maybe even worse. This is a common problem at beer festivals, because the demand for toilets is inevitably going to be much greater than at any other events held in the venues. Not an issue at Stockport, though, which is held in a football ground where the toilets are designed to cater for large numbers at the same time.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Is brewing immoral?

There’s a rather hysterical article in today’s Guardian claiming that the alcohol industry makes most of its profits from “problem drinkers”. In a sense this is no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious that they will make more money from customers who buy more of their product. And the definition of “people whose drinking is destroying or risking their health” is anyone who consumes more than the official guidelines, which includes many whose mortality risk is better than that of teetotallers. It is basically just a regurgitation of a press release from the Alcohol Health Alliance, who can’t be regarded as impartial observers.

This does in some people’s minds raise the question of how alcohol manufacturers can sleep at night when they are selling products to people who consume them in a self-destructive way. Or are they just evil monsters happy to profit from others’ misfortunes? The correct response to this is surely that alcoholic drinks are legal products that are consumed by most in a moderate fashion and bring pleasure to vast numbers of people. Adults must be treated as empowered individuals responsible for their own life decisions, not as children who must be protected from themselves. People who develop a drinking problem deserve help, but it should not be used as a justification for imposing restrictions on everyone else. And it is well nigh-impossible to draw a clear dividing line between products targeted at “responsible” and “irresponsible” consumers.

But it is part of a process of delegitimising alcohol producers. The official line is steadily edging towards the position that no level of consumption can be regarded as safe, and when that happens, brewers, vintners and distillers will be making all their profits from problem drinkers. This is what has already happened to the tobacco industry – it is regarded as a “toxic trade” and excluded from any involvement in policy discussions about the tobacco market. The last cigarette factory in the UK recently closed, but many will have said “good riddance”. How long will it be before the producers of alcoholic drinks are viewed in the same way?

Edit: the article is dissected here by Christopher Snowdon with his usual aplomb.

Friday, 22 January 2016

And Jill came tumbling after

Sad news, although not entirely unexpected, that the Jack and Jill in Brinnington has closed its doors after around sixty years of trading. It was the last pub serving this large estate – the Farmers Arms and Cheshire Cat have both been closed for many years, and the Horsfield Arms, on the main road at the other end in front of Robinsons’ packaging plant, shut a couple of years ago and has recently been demolished.

It was a long, rather elegant single-storey building that architecturally could easily have passed for a primary school from the same era. Certainly it was very different from the grim, brutalist estate pubs of a decade later. I hadn’t been in for years but remember it retaining many original design features. To Robinsons’ credit, they are marketing it without any restrictive covenant, and say “The pub will be offered for sale on the open market and we fully support the property being sold as a licensed premises.” I’d be very surprised if anyone did come in to buy it as a pub, though.

The classic estate boozer is now a rapidly dwindling species, and you have to wonder, as I discussed here, whether it was a misconceived concept from the start. Of course, wet-led pubs in working class areas were always going to be hit particularly hard by the smoking ban, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe there could be scope for specialist operators such as Amber Taverns to make something of them, whereas they don’t really fit in with Robinsons’ business philosophy which is to aim for a much more up-market appeal. In the past few years they have closed or sold probably about a quarter of their estate, mostly from what would be called the “bottom end”.

But never mind, a new micropub one-twentieth the size has just opened up in a location nowhere near Brinnington, so all’s well with the world really.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Not so special

A while back, I did a number of posts about extra-strong “super” lagers and the potential effect on them of High Strength Beer Duty. I predicted that there was a good chance that their makers would either reduce their strength to 7.5% ABV to avoid HSBD, or bring out cheaper 7.5% versions. In fact, this didn’t happen, and, with the exception of Gold Label (which is a barley wine anyway) they remained defiantly stuck at 9%. It’s an odd hidden backwater of the beer market where there’s no advertising, and product innovation is virtually impossible.

However, as Ed Wray reports, the strength of Carlsberg Special has now been reduced to 8%, which perhaps was the price to be paid for getting it back into the mainstream supermarkets. (Thanks Ed for the picture) I’m not going to go round dodgy corner shops peering at the super lager section, so I can’t confirm whether this also applies to Kestrel, Skol and Tennents, although the Kestrel website does state that it is “now also available in an 8% variant.”

The Kestrel tasting notes are a classic, and taken in isolation would surely imply a brew that is an acme of “craft”:

Appearance: Honey-hued polished gold and ephemeral white foam create an intriguing spectacle.

Aroma: A perfumed sweetness and oaked spirit nose indicate something special to be discovered in this handsome liquid.

Flavour: Sweet toffee and honeyed twists, turns and loops combine with a concentrated wine-like fruitiness, feisty light rum, swirls of malt, and decidedly ripe dessert apple richness.

Mouthfeel and finish: Powerfully spirited and a juicy spice palate with astonishing depth.

I get the impression that the Carlsberg Special strength reduction has more to do with pressure from anti-drink groups about selling cans of beer that contain more than the daily guideline, than about moving to a more market-friendly price point. Now that the guideline has been reduced to 3 units a day, will it have to be cut further to 6.8%, I wonder. I’ve sometimes thought that it would make sense to repackage these beers in “craft” 330ml cans.

As I’ve reported in the past, all the 9% super lagers were actually pretty unpleasant, their only function being as an easy way to neck large quantities of alcohol. Skol Super was perhaps the best of a bad lot. Ironically, reducing their strength may end up making them more palatable. The 7.2% Carlsberg Elephant Beer (not seen for ages) is actually an excellent brew.

At £7.30 for a 4-pack, Carlsberg Special at 51.8p per unit, doesn’t by any means offer the best bangs-per-buck ratio in Tesco. The 7.3% McEwans Champion (another unheralded tramp favourite) can be got for £6 for 4x500ml bottles (41.1p), while the apparently classy 6.5% Old Crafty Hen, on the same offer, is 46.2p. You have to wonder how long it will be before some of the stronger “craft” offerings end up in the same category.

While these products are often dismissed as “tramp juice”, I get the impression they also have a strong customer base amongst respectable drinkers who want to trade quantity for strength. A few years back, I remember seeing in my local convenience store a bearded guy of about 60, who certainly didn’t come across as a derelict, pay £12 for two 4x500 ml packs of Tennents Super, load them into his 4x4 and drive off. Well, I thought, that’s his weekend sorted, then!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The past is a foreign country

In May 1988, I went on a CAMRA-organised march to protest against the closure of Oldham Brewery by Boddingtons, who had taken it over in 1982. This moment was captured forever in the picture above, which appears in the 1989 Good Beer Guide. The gormless speccy twat second from the right is me, looking considerably more fresh-faced than now. The gnome-like fellow in the foreground is the late stalwart of North Manchester CAMRA Pete Cash.

I remember it being a fairly balmy Spring day in Manchester, but once the ancient diesel unit had climbed the five hundred feet to Oldham it was bitterly cold with intermittent snow showers. We eventually managed to find some of the remaining stocks of OB ales in a couple of pubs. To be honest, nobody imagined that the march would change Boddingtons’ mind – it was more a question of bearing witness to the cause and marking the passing of the brewery.

Veteran pub-crawler Alan Winfield, who has contributed many photos and pub descriptions to Pubs Galore, has recently started his own blog The Never Ending Pub Crawl to record his various expeditions over the years. In February 1987 he undertook a pub crawl of Oldham to experience Oldham Brewery pubs before being “Boddingtonised”. He covered 13 pubs in one lunchtime, accompanied by his long-suffering wife, to whom he is apparently still happily married. Why have I never found a woman like that?

These pubs were mostly basic inner-urban boozers, but most served real ale and had their own distinctive character. Today, most are probably closed, and those that remain are unlikely to have cask beer. I remember doing crawls like that in the 1980s in places such as Eccles and Stourbridge, but you couldn’t do it now. I don’t think I ever went to 13 pubs in one lunchtime, though. When you consider that kind of pub devastation, which is paralleled in many other areas, all these claims that “it has never been a better time to be a beer drinker in Britain” ring very hollow.

Ironically, after the takeover, Boddingtons gave the OB pubs a much more stylish livery. But the brewery’s identity didn’t last, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that over half of the OB pubs in existence in 1987 have since closed. They had a very tight-knit estate, with few pubs more than five miles from the brewery in the town centre.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Boar’s Ahead

A few jaws must have dropped last Thursday night at the news that the Stockport & South Manchester Branch of CAMRA had chosen as its Pub of the Year for 2016* the Boar's Head on Stockport Market Place, a Sam Smith's tied house.

It’s rare that such an award goes to a family brewer’s pub at all, and especially to one outside the well-known local four of Holts, Hydes, Lees and Robinsons, that is well-known for its eccentric and secretive management style What’s more, it only serves one real ale, and one that very much goes against the current pale and hoppy trend.

But it serves that one beer consistently well, meriting a place in the Good Beer Guide for the past three years. Last year we had a tour of the extensive cellars and saw the row of wooden barrels of Old Brewery Bitter on the stillage. Yes, full 36-gallon barrels. How many pubs still have the turnover to justify them? There was, of course, also an extensive array of kegs – it serves eight different keg beers, plus cider. Cellar tours proved very popular during Stockport Beer Week in September.

It always seems busy, even when other nearby pubs are quiet, and is heaving on market days. Vast quantities of beer are shifted – it must be amongst the top pubs in Stockport for sheer volume of beer sold. It has been run for seven years by Terry and Sue Wild, who provide a warm welcome and also have a team of cheerful and enthusiastic staff. There’s a wide cross-section of customers, and it's the kind of place where complete strangers will start chatting to each other, the absence of TV football and piped music making this much easier.

It may be difficult to define a "proper pub", but this certainly qualifies. Plus it's cheaper than the Wetherspoons a couple of hundred yards away, with Old Brewery Bitter currently just £1.80 a pint. I wrote about a lunchtime visit last year here - I wonder if the pub cat will make an appearance on the presentation night.

It would be dull if all Pubs of the Year were of the same type, and it makes a refreshing change to see one selected on the basis of atmosphere and welcome rather than number of different beers.

I was going to do a post about how people have a kind of mental image of pubs, which increasingly varies from the reality, except in Sam’s pubs. In many areas, they’re becoming about the only places where you can enjoy a quiet drink and a chat in comfortable, cosy surroundings. So many others are now dominated by food, or TV sport, or are specialist beer outlets with a narrow clientele. This award rather makes my point for me.

* It should be pointed out that the Pub of the Year is chosen from the previous year’s twelve Pubs of the Month, and that Ye Olde Vic in Edgeley, which has been the subject of a community buyout, was a strong second.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A solution looking for a problem?

Many members of CAMRA will have been somewhat taken aback to read an article in December’s What’s Brewing about “Real Ale in a Keg”, which is to be trialled at the forthcoming Manchester Beer & Cider Festival. Surely, some may think, this is the ultimate betrayal – an organisation originally set up to fight keg ending up embracing it. As Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Of course, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. Many of the new wave of “craft keg” beers are essentially conventional kegs, where the beer is filtered, and a cylinder of CO2 is connected up to the container to propel it to the tap at the bar. However, some use a system called “KeyKeg”, which is well explained here by Magic Rock Brewing. Here, the beer is held in an inner bag within the container, in a similar way to bag-in-box wine, and the dispense gas exerts pressure on this bag to push the beer to the bar, but doesn’t actually come into contact with it. A big advantage of this for small breweries is that it uses one-way containers, so all the trouble of reclaiming empty kegs is avoided, although obviously there is a cost penalty.

People soon realised that, if the beer in the keykeg was unfiltered, and therefore retained its natural yeast, it could qualify as “real ale”, as it could undergo a secondary fermentation, and avoids all contact with the CO2 used to pressurise the outer container. Now, CAMRA has always been notorious for pedantic nitpicking over methods of dispense, which I have to say I’ve never been able to get particularly worked up about. It’s not so much the principle, as the mind-blowing black and whiteness of it all. Ideally, it would be better to serve cask beer without a cask breather, but to my mind it’s far preferable to either proper keg or sour cask. A potential problem immediately occurs to me that, as the inner container does not vent to the atmosphere, if a meaningful secondary fermentation does take place, it could lead to a build-up of CO2, thus producing very fizzy beer and possibly stirring up the sediment to dispense cloudy beer. But I’m no expert.

The question occurs, though, as to what problem this system is actually meant to solve. It reminds me of the great Dr Johnson when he said: “Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” So, you can (perhaps) serve real ale from a keg. But I doubt whether that will make any difference to the customer who is already happy to drink craft keg, and the average punter who goes into a pub and looks for handpumps on the bar will just regard it as another keg beer, even if it has a little notice saying “this is actually real ale”. And some may fear that it is, in a sense, relegitimising keg beer and may end up to be the thin end of the wedge.

I’ll give it a try if I come across it, but I can’t really see it becoming a mass-market phenomenon, especially given the extra cost and dubious environmental credentials of disposable containers. And, personally, if I order a keg beer, the least I would expect is that it will be crystal clear, as that surely is one of keg’s key advantages. At the end of the day, it’s hard to see “real ale in a keg” being any more than an exercise in proving a point.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

No hiding place

Over the past few days, the media have been full of stories about the decision of the UK’s Chief Medical Officer to reduce the recommended maximum levels of alcohol consumption, and to state explicitly that no level can be considered “safe”. This has been thoroughly demolished by Christopher Snowdon, and there’s little I can add to that.

The subject has also attracted the ire of some of our most respected newspaper columnists. In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins wrote that The state needs to butt out of Britain’s drinking habits, concluding by saying “France has the best government guidance on alcohol consumption. It has none.” And this surely is the nub of the matter:

Everything we do in life is risky, including much that some people enjoy and others deplore. Most daily risks we assess and accept for ourselves. We would be furious if Whitehall laid down risk and safety limits for riding horses, climbing mountains, eating foreign food and playing rugby. All involve far greater danger than marginal changes in consuming alcohol.
Then, in today’s Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore has urged Don’t let the public health zealots demonise us innocent drinkers, in which he makes this crucial point:
But something more important is being missed. These guidelines are not intended to stand alone. They are twists of a ratchet. Public health zealots, like environmentalist ones, work always to construct a net of public policies that will eventually ensnare whatever group it is they dislike.

The model in their minds is tobacco. Having succeeded in virtually outlawing smoking, they want to do the same with alcohol. If they can create the public “fact” that there is no such thing as safe drinking, they can then attack everyone who brews, distils, makes wine, or runs a pub, club or restaurant, for pushing something which is unsafe.

If there is no safe level of consumption, then producers and retailers of alcohol are denied any cloak of respectability. They are no longer valued corporate citizens: they are engaged in a “toxic trade”.

JTI Gallaher are currently in the process of closing down a large cigarette factory in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, which employed 800 people. Local MP Ian Paisley Jr has protested about the economic blight this will produce. But a lot of people will think “I’m sorry people are losing their jobs, but maybe in the long term we’d be better off without that.”

Brewers, distillers, cidermakers, wineries, pubs, bars, off-licences – one day, in the not too distant future, that could be you.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Keep your powder dry

This month we are yet again being subjected to Alcohol Concern’s Dry January campaign which aims to encourage people to give up alcohol entirely during January (and hopefully beyond that too). In past years, this has just been seen as an irritant, but it seems to be here to stay, and brewers and pub operators are coming up with ways to turn the slogan round to their advantage. For example, Dark Star have launched a special “dry” version of their renowned Hophead ale, and cidermakers have been emphasising their range of “dry” interpretations.

More and more pubs are using the “Tryanuary” or “Try January” themes to encourage people to come in and try something a little out of the ordinary. Incidentally, while I’m aware these two campaigns have different origins, their purpose is much the same, and surely someone needs to knock their collective heads together to make them combine their efforts. One of the key reasons for the success of the beer duty campaign was that everybody in the industry united around the same message.

And this statement on the FaceBook page of RedNev’s local pub in Southport, the Guest House, shows that pubs have given it some thought and come up with a considered response.

We believe that a responsible approach to drinking is the only way to go, and so would like to state our position on ‪#‎Dryanuary‬.

Dryanuary is an ill-conceived scheme whereby tens of thousands of people across Britain will be convinced that, by boycotting their local pubs, they'll actually be achieving something. What really happens, guys, is that these businesses lose money in their toughest period of the year and we lose more local pubs. Instead of giving up for a month, why not just have 11 pints when you go out instead of 12?

‪#‎Tryanuary‬ is designed to protect our local pubs against the devastating effects of a scheme that seems intent on destroying our industry.

"If you’re considering Dryanuary please fully consider the ramifications."

Make no mistake, this campaign has gone well beyond appealing to people’s individual conscience to become a direct attempt to undermine the pub and brewing trades, as I have said in this month’s column in Opening Times. January has always been the quietest time of the year for pubs, and encouraging large numbers of people to boycott them is just going to drive more to the wall. It is no good saying that people can go to the pub and have soft drinks, as realistically they are never going to match their spending on alcohol, and many might feel that if they want to avoid alcohol entirely it’s best to avoid the temptation of the pub.

In this context, this open letter from Alcohol Concern to pubs really is an example of the most disgusting hypocrisy. Ultimately, they don’t give a toss about pubs, they want to see them all closed down or at best reduced to emasculated dining venues. Who has ever made a point of visiting a particular pub because of its choice of soft drinks? No pub should have anything to do with promoting or encouraging this campaign.

It’s even worse for small breweries. Pubs can supposedly fall back on food and soft drink sales, but that isn’t an option for brewers. They are also often critically dependent on keeping cashflow going. Drastically reducing their income for one month in a year will be a real kick in the balls.

It’s also disturbing that Dry January are referring to giving up alcohol as “one less sin”. Sin isn’t a very fashionable concept nowadays, and many things that were once considered sinful are now generally accepted. But is drinking alcohol per se a sin? Really? Presumably that is why Jesus turned the wine into water at the wedding at Cana. Oh wait...

In the past, it’s been possible for alcohol producers to claim that “drinking in moderation is compatible with a healthy lifestyle” but, especially with the recent reduction in the risible official consumption guidelines, this is becoming an ever-shrinking figleaf. If you can only drink one and a half pints of weakish beer a day, and are expected to have two days off a week, it seems hardly worth bothering. As I argued here, if the drinks industry tries to directly engage with the antis on the health issue, they will always lose.

Instead, we need to encourage a more sensible and mature approach to risk. The media are full of stories saying that x or y will double your risk of cancer, but that risk usually turns out to be absolutely infinitesimal. Twice sweet FA is still sweet FA. As the American satirist P. J. O’Rourke said, “Everything that's fun in life is dangerous. And everything that isn't fun is dangerous too. It's impossible to be alive and safe.”

Of course he was quite right. Everything in life involves some risk. If we never took any risks, we would never achieve anything. If you stay in the house, you’re at less risk of being involved in a traffic accident. But you may die from starvation. Most sporting activites, notably rugby, horse-riding and mountaineering, carry a much greater risk of injury or death than simply abstaining. But we accept that people gain pleasure and fulfilment from these things and, if they choose to engage in them, that’s their decision.

Exactly the same is true of alcohol, and indeed any other alleged dietary “sins” such as eating chocolate bars or sausages. Yes, it may involve a bit of risk, but unless you really overdo it, that risk is pretty small. Risk in human life can never be wholly eliminated, and surely, as adults, we should be trusted to make our own decisions about which enjoyable activities we choose to engage in. It’s also worth remembering that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence points to the overall health risk from alcohol following a J-curve (image courtesy of Christopher Snowdon). And you have to drink a fair bit more than the official guidelines to equal the risk of total abstention. It may well be true that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.” But that includes zero.

We recently mourned the death of Ian Fraser Kilmister, better known as Lemmy, who actually began his musical career in Stockport. He was hardly a role model for moderation of any kind, but he said “Everything that is pleasant in life is dangerous.” And he was right.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Passing on the torch

Recent months have been notable for a number of examples of major international brewers taking over some of the more successful craft breweries – Lagunitas and Ballast Point in the US, and Meantime and Camden in the UK. This has resulted in widespread disappointment amongst craft beer fans, feeling that they have been sold out or even betrayed.

Many would argue that the size of the company making it shouldn’t affect your opinion of a beer, but this attitude is understandable given that, at least in the US, the craft brewers originally sprang up to challenge the big boys and their sea of mediocre, bland beer. Selling out to “the man” is, for many, hard to forgive. On the other hand, if you are offered £85 million for a business that on a normal return-on-investment basis is worth £15 million, you will have to have some mighty principles to refuse.

It’s easy to see these takeovers in simplistic terms as buying out potentially threatening competition but, in reality, the reasoning is more complex, as Zak Avery explains here. It’s a recognition that “interesting” beer is the only section of the market that is growing, and the major brewers want a share of that. It also offers much higher margins. But they will have to be very careful not to devalue the brand equity by cost-cutting and dumbing down. Beer probably has more vocal and savvy buyers than any other consumer product.

There is a parallel in the way that, over the lifetime of CAMRA, many well-loved independent brewers have been taken over by their bigger brethren. Yates & Jackson, Simpkiss, Hardys & Hansons, it’s a long list. If you have a copy of the 1989 Good Beer Guide you will find a photo of my good self on a protest march about the closure of Oldham Brewery. But this was all about acquiring more tied pubs, not buying brands. Promises about maintaining the character of beers and keeping breweries open almost always turned out to be written in sand. And, with very few exceptions, the brewery owners agreed to be bought out rather than being subject to a hostile takeover bid. Family brewers tend to sell up when the owning family are no longer interested in the business.

But this raises an important point. It may not seem remotely relevant when you’re just starting up, but ultimately every business requires either an exit strategy, or a continuation strategy. Over the past couple of years, we’ve had a number of “meet the brewer” presentations at meetings of our local CAMRA branch. It’s hard to generalise – some are young people who still have a day job but hope to go full-time, some give the impression of doing it on daddy’s money, some have a fully worked-out, ambitious business plan, some are doing it as a retirement or redundancy project. The one thing they have in common is an enthusiasm for beer beyond simply wanting to make money.

There will come a time, though, when every individual small business owner wants to move on. Most micro-breweries eventually just shut up shop because the owner has become too old, or unwell, or has lost interest, or isn’t making a worthwhile profit. If you look at the micros from the first couple of decades of CAMRA, few are still in existence in any form. In many cases, the brewing kit will be sold to someone else wanting to start up a brewery, which will give them a welcome leg-up.

Sometimes, the brewery can be sold as a going concern to someone else. This has happened both to small one-man operations and sizeable, established concerns such as Butcombe and Exmoor Ales. Or you can pass it on to your children or relatives, which has been the modus operandi of the family brewers. I’m sure there have been examples of this amongst micros, but I can’t readily think of any examples.

Ultimately, there’s the possibility of turning it into a listed company that is owned by a broad spread of shareholders and run by professional managers. But I think the last British start-up brewery to do that was set up in the 19th century. Or you can sell your operation to a larger rival, which is what start-ups in all sectors have been doing since the dawn of business. If you’re approaching retirement, or if you get an irresistible offer, who can blame you?

And there’s always the question of when Messrs Watt and Dickie of BrewDog will eventually get the offer they can’t refuse, even though they have been quick to exclude sell-out beers like Lagunitas and Camden from their bars and nail their flag of independence to the mast. Or will BrewDog become a world-bestriding colossus of craft beer? Only time will tell.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

What’s another year?

Around this time of year, many bloggers come up with lists of “Golden Pints” which they have enjoyed during the previous twelve months. Now, as I said last year, that’s not really what this blog is about, and “the news that a new bar had opened where I could perch on an uncomfortable stool and pay £3 a third for beer that tasted like Ronseal wouldn’t exactly fill me with an urge to visit.” But here are a few of my peaks and troughs of 2015:

  • Continued Achievement – no change from last year in Sam Smith’s for pub operator and the Armoury in Stockport for individual pub. Sams’ pubs have continued to provide ultra-keen prices and great atmosphere, and they’re currently engaged on a much-needed refurb of the Swan next to the station in Holmes Chapel. The Armoury is a classic street-corner boozer which is the go-to pub for the best kept Robinsons’ beer for miles around, and managed to become runner-up as local CAMRA Pub of the Year. The Magnet is an excellent pub in many ways, but the Armoury really should have won.

  • New pubs visited – I finally managed to get to the famous Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen in Pembrokeshire, which is more in the nature of a pilgrimage. I was served Bass from the jug by the legendary Bessie, and saw a party of American tourists totally fazed by the whole thing.

    Amongst more “normal” pubs, I was struck by the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice in Northumberland. While it’s in a spectacular setting, the pub, though very congenial, isn’t outstanding in terms of either character or beer range. But the attention to detail and the friendliness of the welcome reflected an operation that was doing everything it could to get things right, in sharp contrast to the grudging, slapdash approach you unfortunately encounter all too often.

    Another memorable pub was Sam Smiths’ Victoria Hotel in Cleveleys, Lancashire, a mammoth, although externally rather plain, 1930s roadhouse-cum-estate pub tucked away in Blackpool’s northern suburbs. It must be one of the biggest purpose-built pubs still trading in the country. Internally it has a spectacular L-shaped lounge accessed from the corner door, a disused off-sales department, and an entirely separate vault. I overheard a classic pub conversation about the local Wetherspoon’s and pubs that showed football. You have to wonder how near full it ever gets, though.

  • Pub anecdote – I walked into a Good Beer Guide listed pub that was advertising a 10% discount on cask beer for CAMRA members but, not having my membership card on me, I wasn’t in a position to take advantage. However, the barmaid asked whether I was a member and, when I replied that I was, she let me have the discount anyway. Possibly the sight of a middle-aged bloke, wearing glasses and jumper, scanning the row of handpumps might have been a giveaway. I put the difference in the charity box. Unfortunately, I ended up with a cloudy pint and had to take it back to the bar to get it changed, which I felt slightly bad about.

  • New beer – nothing exotic, but for me it has to be Robinsons’ Wizard. It’s rare to see a brewery launch a new “ordinary bitter” as a permanent beer, and this is a very good one. Inevitably it was dismissed as dull and bland by the hop fiends, but ordinary bitter isn’t meant to take the skin off the roof of your mouth. Actually it’s a rewarding beer with a good balance of malt and hops and a surprising degree of complexity, which provides a tasty lower-strength alternative in Robinsons’ pubs. I’m told it has been extremely successful.

  • Best pub refurbishment – Hydes’ scheme at my local pub, the Nursery in Heaton Norris. I wouldn’t say this has improved it as such, beyond giving it a general smartening-up, and some of the carpet and wallpaper patterns are a touch garish. But they have respected all of this National Inventory listed pub’s original layout and stained glass, with the only structural alteration being the entirely sensible replacement of the disused off-sales counter with a ladies’ WC to serve the vault. It’s a big demonstration of faith in the future of the pub by Hydes and, with the help of a new but highly experienced manager, it has been trading very well and also selling consistently good cask beer.

  • Worst pub refurbishment – as last year, Robinsons are the guilty party, with their work at the Bull’s Head in Hale Barns. This is a big, upmarket pub with an attached lodge. Maybe twenty-five years ago it was given a smart, clean-lined, comfortable interior in conjunction with multiple operator Kalton Inns. However, it has now been transformed into a fussy, over-styled mess which is one of those places where there are plenty of seats, but nowhere you really fancy sitting. In particular, the two south-facing rooms with bay windows have had all their fixed seating stripped out and replaced in one case by a steamer trunk in place of a table. Their website describes it as “a pub full of theatre and intrigue”, but I’d say it’s more a monument to impracticality and pretention. I have to say I am becoming seriously dismayed by Robinsons’ systematic vandalism of large chunks of their estate, against which the once-derided “Robinsonisation” pales into insignificance.

  • Off-trade retailer – upmarket North-West supermarket chain Booths have opened a branch this year in the suitably upmarket suburb of Hale Barns (just round the corner from the Bull’s Head), which isn’t too far from me and somewhere I regularly pass. Following my local Tesco culling its beer range, I decided to give them a try and wasn’t disappointed. They have a far wider beer range than any of the major supermarkets, including a lot of “craft” stuff, and at only slightly higher prices. If you spend over £10 at the weekend you even get a free national newspaper. Yes, there are specialist beer shops with more obscure bottles, but they come at a price and their range of everyday beers is often limited.

  • Pub cat – to be honest, I follow more pub cats on Twitter than I encounter in the wild. It’s impressive how they manage to negotiate social media without opposable thumbs. But my favourite was a cute little dark tortie in the Bunch of Grapes in Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, who was happy to sit in one of those boxes normally used for charity sweets, placed on top of the bar. At first, I wondered if it was a stuffed cat, but in fact she was perfectly happy to be given the occasional stroke, and to raise her head and look around. The Draught Bass was good, too.

    And the Bag o’Nails in Bristol, run by occasional blog commenter Luke Daniels, got extensive news coverage for its large feline population. Unfortunately I’ve never been there personally. Typically, the RSPCA weren’t impressed.

  • Beer book – as with last year, I’ve only really bought one, in this case The Red Lioness by Cathy Price, recording her quest to visit all the 650-odd pubs in Great Britain called the Red Lion. A noble endeavour, and it benefits from her not being a professional beer or travel writer and so giving a fresh perspective. But, ultimately, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, including plenty of amusing and insightful anecdotes, but at the same time often coming across as a list of “first we went here, and then we went there”. I like the fact that she ended up in a pub featuring Britain’s only democratically elected village idiot. I’m planning to do a full review in the near future.

  • Beer blogging – in the early part of the year, Stonch, mentioned last year, continued to go from strength to strength, and assembled a team of contributors. Later on, one or two dropped by the wayside, and Stonch himself became fully occupied with a troubleshooting role in Manchester, but it continues to stimulate much discussion. Beer blogging itself seems to continue to wither on the vine. I’m likely to record my lowest tally of posts since 2007, which was only a half-year, and it looks as though Tandleman will do the same. I blame Twitter!

    I was also pleased to see long-time commenter Martin Taylor set up his own blog to record his travels around the country in pursuit of visiting every Good Beer Guide listed pub. This is a thoughtful, well-written blog that conveys a strong sense of place. It was also good to meet Martin on our local CAMRA branch’s annual Hillgate Stagger.

  • Unintended consequence – there was a huge amount of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in the twitter- and blogospheres over the news that ABInBev had bought well-regarded London craft brewery Camden Town. And I must claim some responsibility for this. A couple of weeks before, I bought a can of their India Hells Lager from Booths, and thought it was rather good, if pricey. As is well known, any beer that Mudgie enjoys can’t really be regarded as proper hardcore craft, so that must have been the signal for the vultures to swoop.

  • Best public policy – as last year, George Osborne’s decision to make a third small cut in beer duty, and indeed freeze all other alcohol duties. Combined with the economic recovery, this has made a noticeable difference to the level of trade in pubs, which must be welcomed. If the duty escalator had continued for three more years, the typical pint would probably be at least 30p dearer.

  • Most cheering news – the decisive rejection by the European Court of Justice of the Scottish government plans to implement a minimum unit price for alcohol. It’s not completely dead, but I’d be surprised if it sprang back to life, and this will also set a precedent that will affect similar proposals in Ireland. Maybe Cameron should throw down the gauntlet to Sturgeon and devolve alcohol duties to Scotland. I’d lay money they wouldn’t dare vary them, even if they had the power.

  • Tourist attractionSeaton Delaval Hall, just up the road from the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice mentioned above. A striking, monumental house designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in the early 18th century, where the central block was gutted by fire in 1822 and remains a shell, although fully roofed. Just down the road, Tynemouth Castle and Priory are also well worth a visit, with spectacular views over the mouth of the river.