December 2012

Responsible Reductions?

Official moves to water beer down are patronising and likely to be counter-productive

BACK IN 2009, I predicted that we were likely to see the government aim to “persuade” brewers to voluntarily reduce the strength of widely-available beers in the interest of public health. And, while I take no pleasure from successful crystal ball gazing, so it has come to pass, with the government announcing a “Responsibility Deal” earlier this year with the major drinks manufacturers in which they undertook to take one billion alcohol units out of the market by 2015.

So far, we have seen the strength of several top-selling premium lagers such as Stella Artois and Carlsberg Export reduced from 5.0% to 4.8%, and that of canned and bottled Strongbow from 5.3% to 5.0%. Although perhaps done for different reasons, a number of well-known cask beers such as Bombardier and Batemans XXXB have also had their strength cut.

This has been described by the House of Commons health select committee as no more than a token gesture. Maybe it is, but in a competitive market there must come a point when such strength reductions start to encounter consumer resistance, especially if not everyone moves at once. Drinkers are not stupid, and in reaction to such moves there is every likelihood that they will start to drink more to compensate, or switch to other beers where the strength has not been cut, or even transfer their allegiance to other drinks categories.

It’s also predictably disappointing how the focus of strength reductions is always placed on beer and cider, never on wine or spirits. Indeed, with spirits, EU law prevents them being sold at below 37.5% ABV.

And, if the powers-that-be do not think the brewers have gone far enough, there must be a real risk in the future that we will see further tiers of higher beer duty introduced, probably kicking in at a level well below 5%, and also the government setting the drinks industry a year-on-year target for a reduction in the average strength of beer and cider sold in the UK. Within a few years, we may be left with little choice but to drink weak and watery beers.

Which People’s Pint?

Lower duty for 2.8% beers is a pointless gesture if nobody wants to drink them

FROM October 1st last year, the duty on beers of 2.8% ABV or below was halved, in an attempt to encourage the production and consumption of lower-strength brews. This was trumpeted by some who really should have known better as ushering in the era of the “People’s Pint” – low gravity, refreshing beers sold at an affordable price.

However, on the ground very little has happened. A few existing products have been reduced in strength to take advantage of the lower rate, most notably Skol lager which was already only 3.0%. Some of the larger brewers have launched new bottled ales, but in general these have either been dismally thin or had an unpleasant gloopy texture stemming from arrested fermentation. There has been virtually nothing in the real ale market, where shelf life is a serious issue. The less alcohol in a beer, the quicker it will go off, which is not ideal for products where demand is low anyway.

In fact, the brewer who seems to have taken this most seriously is Samuel Smith, who have reduced the strength of their keg dark and light milds, and Alpine lager, to 2.8%, and are selling them at a bargain price in their pubs. Indeed, these must be the cheapest regularly-priced draught beers in the country. No doubt they appeal to a particular cost-conscious market, but there’s little evidence of other brewers or pub operators following suit.

Those championing this measure seem to have missed the point that one of the reasons people drink beer is actually that it contains alcohol, and also that alcohol is an essential part of the character of a beer. It is extremely difficult to produce a beer with much appeal to the tastebuds at such a low strength, and few will choose a poor product solely because it is cheap.

November 2012

Careless with the Facts

If university researchers can get their figures wrong by a factor of four, can we trust any of their work?

BACK IN September, the BBC screened an episode of “Panorama” entitled “Old, Drunk and Disorderly?”, taking a predictably hysterical line towards levels of drinking amongst older people, and presented by the erstwhile “thinking man’s crumpet” Joan Bakewell (incidentally a native of Stockport). The programme made the somewhat surprising claim, apparently based on research by Sheffield University, that imposing a minimum alcohol price of 50p per unit would, over a ten-year period, save the lives of no less than 50,000 older people in England. When the total of deaths wholly or mainly attributable to alcohol amongst all age groups is running at about 7,000 a year in England, such a figure is hard to believe, to say the least.

This was challenged by a member of the public and, after investigation, it turned out that the original figure had been overstated by more than four times. The actual figure, based on the research, was more like 11,500. This led to an embarrassing retraction on the the BBC website, and Ms Bakewell being called back in to the studio to re-record the relevant sections of the programme for BBC iPlayer.

It doesn’t say much for the standards of journalistic rigour practised at the BBC nowadays that such a self-evidently questionable claim was allowed to pass without challenge. And, given that an error of this magnitude managed to get through the system of academic peer review, what credence can we give to any of the research produced by the University of Sheffield that is being used to support the case for minimum pricing?

Even 1,150 a year, which is a sixth of the total, seems a questionable figure. The truth is that, as it has never been tried, we simply do not know what the impact would be, and it is well-known that across-the-board reductions in average consumption are not necessarily reflected equally amongst all categories of drinkers. Alcohol consumption is already steadily falling year-on-year, and I would guess that, in practice, it would be hard to spot any significant variation from existing trends.

This is also another example of a growing trend to portray the older generation as being irresponsible and criticising them whenever they have the temerity to actually enjoy themselves.

Real Beer, Real Counties

Traditional beers should be associated with traditional counties, not their modern keg equivalents

LOCAL Stockport brewery Robinson’s have recently, as part of their rebranding exercise, adopted the identity of “Cheshire Family Brewers”. Some have jibbed at this, saying it is living in the past, and that Stockport was moved from Cheshire to Greater Manchester in 1974. However, it was never the intention of the 1974 local government reforms to change geography. As a spokesman for the Department of the Environment said at the time: “The new county boundaries are solely for the purpose of defining areas of local government. They are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of Counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change.”

Since then, we have seen a whole raft of piecemeal reforms to the 1974 structure, which has resulted in a confusing and inconsistent mishmash of administrative areas with different statuses and levels of power. As argued by that admirable organisation, The Association of British Counties, “what we need is a fixed frame of popular geographical reference that is independent of the successive whims of local government reorganisation”. This happens in Northern Ireland, which has been divided into 26 unitary districts, but where people still continue to strongly identify themselves with its six traditional counties. So why can’t the same work in England?

Stockport, in geographical terms, is indisputably within the county of Cheshire, and long may it and its beers remain so!

October 2012

A Pump too Far?

Will some pubs simply never have sufficient demand to make real ale viable?

“OPENING TIMES” is a magazine produced by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale, and so obviously promoting the availability of real ale is one of its core aims. If a pub has put on real ale, that is naturally reported positively as a “gain”, whereas if it has been removed, it is viewed negatively as a “loss”. Any pub encountered on a “Stagger” serving only keg beers will be briefly dismissed as “no real ale”. So it’s not surprising that some pubs, feeling they may be missing out on publicity, have decided to put real ale on their bar where there was none before. If they can make a go of it, that’s all to the good.

However, real ale isn’t just like any other product – you can’t just stock it and forget it. You have to take some degree of care to look after it properly, and it also needs a certain level of turnover to stop it going off. It’s also, unlike in the past, no longer a matter of simply replacing keg bitter with cask bitter, as real ale brands are now very much distinct from keg. So you have to do one or both of persuading your existing drinkers to switch, and attracting new customers who want to drink it.

In recent months, sadly, we have encountered a handful of previously keg-only pubs that have put real ale on, but haven’t been succeeding on the above criteria. The beer offered has varied from extremely tired, through borderline “on-the-turn”, to absolute vinegar. In the last case, it was handed back and a refund provided without question.

“Opening Times” is entirely within its rights to severely criticise licensees for not looking after their beer properly. But, if poor quality is entirely due to low or erratic turnover, does it maybe need to be accepted that some pubs, because of the profile of their trade, are never going to be fertile soil for real ale, and they should not be criticised too harshly for recognising that stocking it is simply not viable?

Sorry, This Beer’s Off!

Some pub customers are still far too reluctant to return poor beer to the bar

ON A TOUR of Scotland, some friends called in to a hotel in a remote location on the North-West coast. They were pleased to see a handpump on the bar, and so ordered a round of pints which they took outside to drink. However, apparently the beer was so vile that they just left it on the table and walked away. Given that they are not exactly a bunch of shrinking violets, I was surprised to hear that they hadn’t gone back in and asked for it either to be changed or a refund given.

Admittedly, sometimes you feel that you just can’t be bothered, particularly if the beer’s only borderline returnable and it’s somewhere you won’t be going again. I have occasionally left near-full pints and walked away that in a familiar pub I would undoubtedly have returned with a comment like “sorry, but this really isn’t on very good form today”. After all, you’re going out for a relaxing drink, not a confrontation.

But, to my mind, if beer is blatantly sour or murky, then really it’s almost your duty to take it back and politely request that something should be done about it. British people are still too often unwilling to “make a fuss” or “cause a scene”, and this reluctance to point out poor beer ultimately does the reputation of real ale no good. On several occasions I’ve seen people who really should know better struggling through seriously below-par pints that should have been sent straight back.

September 2012

Taste the Difference

Pub food was far more interesting and surprising thirty years ago

ON A FEW occasions, I’ve made comments along the lines that, thirty years ago, food in pubs was often more varied and innovative than it is now. This has often been met with incredulity and people saying “from what I remember it was absolute rubbish”. So it’s worth trying to explain what I mean. I will start with an important caveat – I freely admit to being a somewhat picky and idiosyncratic eater, so I don’t remotely claim that what I say about food is in any way authoritative or applicable to the general population. In particular I can’t stand the bad side of “traditional English” – the gristly meat, lumpy gravy, tasteless spuds and soggy veg.

Back in those days, pub food was more in its infancy, and to a large extent licensees were left to their own devices. Even in managed pubs, food was usually the licensee’s perk. While there were Berni Inns and the like, the chain dining pub was virtually unknown. There was a huge disparity amongst what was on offer – some was dreadful, some was superb, and so going in new pubs could be a voyage of discovery. Pubs were still experimenting and finding out what worked and what didn’t. It could well be described as a wide variety of simple, informal food, more food for existing drinkers than food for a destination meal out.

You were much more likely to see substantial snacks alongside main meals, for example Cumberland sausage with crusty bread or smoked mackerel with bread and butter. The White Hart at Chobham in Surrey, near to where I was living then, did a main course “Mushrooms Bistingo” – breaded mushrooms with garlic mayonnaise and bread – which I still remember now. Quite a few pubs offered extensive cold buffets, something you never see nowadays. The one at the Bull’s Head in King’s Norton, Birmingham, particularly sticks in my mind. And you were much more likely to get a proper Ploughman’s than the pathetic cheese salad with a roll that often passes for it nowadays.

Back in those days, many pubs served pizzas, which at the time were in the vanguard of the reaction against old-fashioned stodge. I remember having excellent pizzas, for example, at the now-closed Highwayman at Rainow. While often derided nowadays, pizzas still form the core of the menu at fashionable restaurant chains like Pizza Express and Ask. But when did you last see a pizza on the menu in a pub? (Praise must go to the refreshingly different pizza-centred menu recently introduced at the Plough in Heaton Moor)

Some pubs made a speciality of particular national cuisines from around the world. I remember one featuring Austrian and Balkan dishes, and several with a Mexican-themed menu, again something you don’t see now. The modern focus on locally-sourced ingredients, while laudable in some ways, tends to restrict the range of dishes that is offered. All too often, there seems to be a consciously retro emphasis on nursery food and public school dinners, when to my mind there should be more Mediterranean and less Marlborough College.

Far too many pubs nowadays offer, with a few variations, a predictable, standardised menu of “pub grub” majoring on traditional “meat, spuds and veg” dishes and a handful of assimilated favourites such as lasagne and chill con carne. There is remarkably little inspiration and innovation, and equally little embrace of the revolution in eating habits that has occurred in Britain over the past thirty or so years. A good indicator of how genuinely progressive a pub’s menu is must be the proportion of main dishes that come with something other than some form of potatoes as the default accompaniment.

Thirty years ago, there was certainly less pub food around. Fewer pubs did food overall, and it was harder to find food in the evenings and Sundays. Some pub food was dire, although that’s still the case today. But there was more variety in terms of approach and styles of presentation, and more of a sense of pubs trying new and different things to see if they worked rather than just settling into a comfort zone. Pub food was, quite simply, more interesting.

August 2012

Five Years On

The smoking ban has devastated the pub trade, but its supporters still refuse to admit it

THE BEGINNING OF JULY saw the fifth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket indoor smoking ban in England. During that period, over 10,000 pubs have closed in England alone, over a sixth of the total that were open before, and beer sales in pubs have fallen by 27%, compared with 13% over the preceding five years [1]. On any road journey through town, suburbs or countryside, the sight of closed and boarded pubs has become depressingly familiar.

Nobody is claiming that the smoking ban has been the sole factor behind the recent wave of pub closures, but there has been a clear step-change in the rate of decline. The recession is often blamed, but in the past pubs, as a kind of “affordable pleasure” have been relatively resilient to economic downturns, and there was a marked increase in closures in the second half of 2007, well before the credit crunch kicked in [2].

Brewers and pub operators from J. W. Lees [3] to J. D. Wetherspoon [4] have reported a significant fall in trade and profitability in the wake of the ban, and there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence from licensees that their trade has been severely affected. In the words of licensee Mark Daniels, who was far from a diehard opponent, “The smoking ban has certainly caused most pubs, especially those that were traditional drinking outlets (like mine, for example), a lot of pain - and it has caused a lot to close, too. To say it hasn't is, frankly, ridiculous and shows a severe lack of knowledge of the problems the pub trade is facing right now.” [5]

While many pubs continue to do reasonably well at the traditional busy weekend times, it is noticeable that they are much quieter at lunchtimes and early evenings, and the “baseload” trade of regulars they once enjoyed is greatly diminished. This affects non-smokers too, as if your smoking friend has stopped going to the pub you might well choose to do the same. The naïvely optimistic forecasts that pubs would attract a whole new wave of non-smoking customers have proved to be totally misplaced.

In hindsight, surely it would have been far better if some compromise could have been reached that allowed smoking to continue in separate rooms in pubs, but ensured provision for those who preferred a non-smoking environment. This would have undoubtedly have avoided much of the damage that has ensued. If those who supported the ban back in 2007 were prepared to admit they had been wrong, they might be deserving of some respect, but by continuing to insist in the face of all the evidence that it has done no harm they forfeit all credibility.

It was always claimed by supporters of the ban that smoking was a special case, and that the principle would not be extended. However, it is now becoming ever more clear that, just as predicted by opponents of the ban, the campaign against smoking is being used as a template for action in other areas, including many aspects of diet, but especially alcohol. For example, there was a recent article in “The Independent” from columnist Steve Richards in which he said “binge-drinking can go the way of smoking”, and drew an explicit parallel between the two [6]. Scarcely a month goes by now without some new anti-drink measure being proposed or implemented, many of which are obviously copied from tobacco control.

In the short term, there may be little chance of any relaxation of the ban, although similar bans have been amended in other countries, but any campaign to defend pubs that does not at least acknowledge the damage it has caused is an exercise in hypocrisy and denial that is doomed to failure. In the words of Chris Snowdon, author of “The Art of Suppression”, the definitive study of modern-day Prohibitionism [7], “If I see one more politician who voted for the smoking ban crying crocodile tears about the state of the pub industry, I may throw up.” [8]


[1] BBPA Beer Barometer – First Quarter 2012

[2] Guardian - Where have all the pubs gone?

[3] "JW Lees, the family-owned brewery based in Middleton, blamed another poor summer and the continuing impact of the smoking ban introduced in 2007 for a 34 per cent drop in profits in the year to March 31, 2009."

Retrieved in 2009 from:

[4] Telegraph - Wetherspoon fumes over smoking ban

[5] Retrieved from The Publican website, 2008, no longer on line

[6] Independent - Binge-drinking can go the way of smoking

[7] The Art of Suppression

[8] Strange, strange bedfellows

Note: Opening Times was not published in July 2012

June 2012

Hazy Thinking  

A move to embrace hazy cask beer risks reversing decades of work on improving standards of cellarmanship
IN THE LATE Seventies and Eighties, I had too many experiences where I was served a pint of soup masquerading as beer and, on taking it back to the bar, was told “it’s real ale, Sir, it’s meant to be like that.” On a couple of occasions the barperson even said “and you’ve had a drink out of it!” as a reason not to change it. And there were a handful of times when I was handed a pint with obvious bits of white stuff floating in it. At that time, the perception that it was frequently cloudy was a major disincentive to many drinkers trying real ale.

Fortunately, things have greatly improved now. Many brewers, including Robinson’s, have introduced cellar quality initiatives, and the Cask Marque scheme has done much to drive up the quality of beer handed over the bar. It’s now generally accepted that real ale should be crystal clear, 100% of the time, and any failure of clarity is sufficient grounds for a refund or exchange, no questions asked.

However, recently there has been a growth in mutterings that demanding clear beer is a bit passé and 20th century, and drinkers should be willing to embrace a new wave of funky, artisanal cloudy beer. Moor Brewery of Somerset put forward a motion to the 2012 AGM of brewers’ organisation SIBA that it should remove clarity as a requirement for beer compe­titions. It was passed, albeit watered down to say that not all beer styles required clarity.

It’s important to draw a distinction here. There are plenty of beer styles around the world such as Belgian witbier and German Hefeweizen which are traditionally and authentically cloudy. If British brewers wish to take up these styles, or brew other types of beer that are intentionally cloudy, then fair enough, so long as the customer is told what to expect at the point of sale. Cloudy beers can stand or fall on their own merits in the marketplace.

But this movement seems to go beyond that to suggest that the importance of clarity in normal cask beers is greatly overstated. It seems to be a case of “look at me, I'm a really serious, sophisticated beer enthusiast, I don't need to conform to such tedious mass-market norms as clarity.” It's a bit like a car buff saying that reliability is so bourgeois. It has been described by prominent beer blogger Tandleman as a “silly kind of artisanal snobbery”. If this view becomes widespread, there is a real risk of undoing twenty years of promoting good cellar practice and putting a whole new generation off cask beer.

The vast majority of real ale is intended to be served clear, and with vanishingly few exceptions, a cloudy pint is a sign of a brewing fault or poor cellarmanship – either serving green beer that hasn’t yet had chance to settle properly, or a cask having been disturbed in the cellar, or trying to eke out the last dregs and sucking up some sediment. You don’t need to taste it – it’s obviously not up to scratch, and should be sent straight back.

Some may criticise this as “drinking with your eyes”, but I make no apology for expecting beer to appeal to the sense of sight as well as taste, and to be well-presented and look good in the glass. Food is all the better for being carefully arranged rather than just flung on the plate, and so is beer. And that attitude is not all that far from suggesting you shouldn’t be that bothered about the taste so long as it gets you drunk.

Many of you will have been in the position where you order a pint in an unfamiliar pub, and it comes out borderline cloudy, with a thin, scummy head, and a glass that is warm to the touch, and you just know before a drop passes your lips that it’s not going to be any good. Clarity doesn’t guarantee a good pint, but for the general run of British ales, a lack of it is a sure sign of a poor one.

May 2012

Measuring Up

Drinkers are now left on their own if they want a full pint

I WAS RECENTLY in a pub next to a group of drinkers, one of whom went to the bar and returned with a round of drinks, including a pint of bitter for his companion with a head at least one and a quarter inches deep. “I asked for a pint, not a half,” the guy said. “Well, take it back to the bar for a top-up,” the other replied. He pondered this for a moment and said “You know, I really can’t be bothered.” Now, in this particular pub, if he had left the pint on the bar it would almost certainly have been topped up by the bar staff without asking, so in a sense he only had himself to blame. But this clearly illustrates that the problem of short measures in pubs is still very much with us.

On two occasions in recent years – under the Conservatives in 1992 and Labour in 2001 – the incumbent government has gone into a general election promising to bring in legislation to define a pint of beer as a full liquid pint. However, on each occasion, after the party in question was returned to power, the plan was quietly dropped and the prospect of it being revived now seems remote. So we are left with the unsatisfactory situation that, while serving short measures remains an offence, there is no watertight legal definition. It is a myth that the “trade guidance” seen on notices in many pubs stating that a pint must consist of at least 95% liquid has any force in law.

So in effect drinkers are left on their own to ensure that they receive a full measure when ordering a pint at the bar. It has to be said, though, that it doesn’t seem to be an issue that many people get particularly excited about. The number of pubs using oversize glasses has steadily dwindled to the extent that now the practice has virtually disappeared, and no pubs promote it as a factor differentiating them from others.

Ironically, while CAMRA policy strongly favours full measures legislation, and CAMRA beer festivals all set an example by using oversize lined glasses, it is often the drinkers of Guinness and smooth beers rather than those of real ale who come off worst. It’s worth adding that, in my view, as often as not short measure results simply from sloppy bar practice rather than from any deliberate intention to short-change the customer. And I have often seen drinkers who really should know better take pints off the bar that would have been gladly topped up, often without asking, if they had not been so hasty.

Reservations about Reservations

Reserving tables for diners is something that should have no place in a public house

I’M ALWAYS a bit annoyed when I see tables in pubs with “Reserved” signs on them. It suggests both an excessive concentration on food and a somewhat snooty, exclusive attitude. Surely a “public house” should be just that – open to all comers, and first come, first served for the available seating. And “Please Wait Here to be Seated” is a notice that really should never be seen in anywhere that lays claim to the title of “pub”.

If pubs want to reserve tables for diners, then it’s quite simple, they should have a separate restaurant, distinct from their bar areas. Indeed, twenty years ago there was quite a vogue for pubs opening up restaurants, as it was seen as something bringing a bit of extra cachet. I can think of at least one where the former public bar was turned into a restaurant.

But more recently, the tide has been running the other way, with the separate restaurants being stripped out and in effect colonising the rest of the pub with their place settings, pretentious, pricey food and table reservations. It is more true than ever before that many pubs have, to all intents and purposes, turned themselves into restaurants and left behind their original purpose in life. Very often, there’s no attempt to provide even a small area that feels welcoming to casual drinkers.

April 2012

Prohibition by Price

Minimum alcohol pricing is a thoroughly bad idea that should not be entertained for a second by anyone concerned for the pub and brewing industries

THE IDEA of setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol has been widely touted as a means of reducing the level of alcohol-related problems in society, and at the same giving a boost to the pub trade. It has been adopted as the official policy of the devolved Scottish Government, and has been talked of sympathetically by David Cameron. But would it really deliver the benefits that are claimed for it?

While it is often portrayed as only affecting drinkers of cheap cider and bulk-buy super­market lager, in reality the effect would spread far wider. An investigation by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that 71% of all alcohol units bought in the off-trade ware under 45p per unit, and that setting a minimum price at this level would affect 91% of all households buying off-trade drinks. It could easily make a couple £300 a year worse off without even approaching the official “recommended” drinking levels, something not to be sneezed at when many people are already struggling to make ends meet. Heavy drinkers, and especially those clinically dependent on alcohol, could end up sacrificing other items of household expenditure to keep up their intake. It has been said that one of the main results of hiking drink prices is simply poorer alcoholics.

It is also a fundamentally patronising and élitist idea, implying that it is fine for the well-heeled to continue swigging single malts, claret and craft ales, but that the irresponsible proles are not to be trusted with an abundance of Carling, Glen’s Vodka and Lambrini. As the famous Victorian liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “Every increase of cost is a prohibition to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

The major brewers have been oddly quiet on the subject, with some, such as Mike Lees of Tennent Caledonian, even expressing qualified support. No real surprise there, as, given that the overall demand for alcohol is not highly price-elastic, it would in effect be legitimising a price-fixing ring by alcohol producers, something normally prohibited by competition law.

It would inevitably lead to an upsurge in alcohol smuggling and illegal brewing and distilling. The authorities have signally failed to make any inroads into tobacco smuggling resulting from ever-increasing duty rates, and it is unlikely they would do any better with alcohol. Unlike legitimate retailers, smugglers are hardly going to exercise much discretion about selling to underage customers. Recently, a Sheffield student had her eyesight permanently damaged by drinking counterfeit vodka, and last year five Lithuanian men were killed in Boston, Lincolnshire, by an explosion at an illegal vodka distillery. Minimum pricing would lead to many more such tragedies.

While it might somewhat reduce the price differential between the on- and off-trades, there is no guarantee that minimum pricing would actually do anything to tempt more people into pubs. Under any credible scenario, off-trade alcohol would still be substantially cheaper, and it wouldn’t give people a single extra penny to spend in pubs. Indeed, by squeezing house­hold budgets, it could end up reducing their discretionary spending. What is more, the study by the University of Sheffield that is used to underpin the argument for minimum pricing actually concludes that the most “beneficial” results would come from setting differential minimum prices for on- and off-trades, with that for pubs and bars more than twice as high.

Once introduced, what guarantee would there be that, if it was felt not to be “working”, the minimum price would not be ratcheted up year-on-year by considerably more than the rate of inflation? It would be letting a Trojan Horse of government pricing control into the entire drinks trade.

And, if you still think minimum pricing might have something to be said for it, just pinch yourself and look at who you are lining up with – all the miserable, Puritanical, pub-hating killjoys of the anti-drink lobby like Don Shenker, Anne Milton and Sir Ian Gilmore. If you care at all about pubs and the brewing industry, is that really the side of the debate you want to be on?

March 2012

Tipping Point Approaches

Can anything be done about the remorseless increase in off-trade beer sales relative to the on-trade?

IN 2011, just over 47% of beer drunk in the UK was sold in the off-trade, as opposed to 53% in pubs, bars and clubs. This compares with a mere 32% ten years earlier. The British Beer & Pub Association reckon that 2012 might well see the “tipping point” where off trade sales exceed on-trade for the first time, possibly after the quarter including the European football championships. To the lover of pubs, this may be a cause for regret, but is there really anything that can be done about it?

This shift is often laid at the door at the growing disparity between pub and supermarket prices. But it has to be remembered that pubs are selling an experience, not just beer, and over time, as real incomes increase, the cost of services will tend to rise relative to that of goods because of their greater labour content. I doubt whether many of those complaining about this disparity are advocating a reduction in the minimum wage, and any attempt to rig the market by artificially increasing the price of off-trade alcohol is likely to bring only a short-term respite.

There is also of course the smoking ban, which over the period since its introduction in 2007 is reckoned to have reduced drink sales in pubs by about 15% over and above the long-term trend. But, while this has undoubtedly accelerated the relative decline of pubs, it was still happening well before 2007.

Beyond those two factors, there are a whole range of wider changes in society that have contributed to the rise in at-home drinking. The decline of heavy industry has meant that there are far fewer manual workers for whom going in the pub every night and drinking numerous pints is a way of life. Plus there has been an erosion of traditional gender roles, meaning that it is no longer acceptable for the husband to go out to the pub while the wife stays at home with the kids.

There has been a long-term trend away from beer towards wine. Historically, pubs have done wine very poorly and in any case it is something generally drunk with a meal rather than simply during a drinking session. This has been associated with the rise in eating out, which tends to replace simple drinking sessions and is often not done in pubs.

Mass car ownership makes taking loads of cans or bottles home a much more practical proposition than it used to be. At the same time, while more people have cars, they are increasingly reluctant to drive after drinking even within the legal limit, thus reducing the number of potential opportunities to go for a drink in a pub.

There is a much wider and more interesting choice of drinks available in the off-trade than there was thirty years ago, whereas, unless you're a cask beer fan, the range of drinks in most pubs can be somewhat limited. Homes themselves are much more congenial places than they were in the 1970s and offer far more in the way of entertainment, with central heating, multi-channel TV, DVDs, internet and computer games.

Employers are in many cases much less tolerant of even light lunchtime drinking by their staff. In addition, the ever-increasing public demonisation of even moderate drinking means that, when people do drink, they are more likely to do it outside the public eye, to the inevitable detriment of pubs.

The conclusion must be that there are a whole range of factors contributing to the shift from pub to at-home drinking. While a good pub will always offer a better drinking experience than the living room, realistically the days when pubgoing was a routine part of most people’s everyday lives are not coming back, and any Canute-like attempt to stem the tide is unlikely to meet with lasting success.

(And yes, I know very well that Canute was making the point that he couldn’t stop the tide)

February 2012

When is a Beer not a Beer?

To claim that well-known IPAs are not “true to style” is unenlightened pedantry

THE TERM “India Pale Ale” or IPA originates from strong, heavily hopped beers that were specifically brewed for export to India in the early part of the 19th century. By the middle of the century, beers of this style had become popular on the domestic market, and the export trade eventually died away as local breweries were established. The First World War saw a dramatic cut in beer strengths across the board, and for much of the 20th century IPA became a common name for a relatively light bitter, mostly, but not exclusively, in the South of England. Thus we had beers such as Darleys IPA, Wadworths IPA, Bass’s Charrington IPA – which must have been one of the sweetest and least hoppy bitters known to man – and Greene King IPA, which has now become probably the best-selling cask beer in Britain.

In recent years, though, there has been a move by some of the new breweries to revive something more like the original style of IPA, and this has led to accusations that existing beers bearing that name are in some way fake or inauthentic. However, the meaning of words changes over time, and for many decades of the last century the weaker, lighter IPAs were the only game left in town. To claim that something is not “true to style” because it differs from something that had died out but has recently enjoyed a small-scale revival is nitpicking obscurantism comparable to that of people who bemoan the change in the everyday meaning of the word “gay”.

One of the best things about the current brewing scene is the willingness of innovative brewers to experiment and mix and match styles and traditions rather than rigidly sticking to formulas dating back two centuries. For example, I was recently reading about a “White Stout” which would have been totally unheard of in the Victorian era. And, given that most milds in the early 19th century were well over 5% in strength, it could be argued that anything under 4% calling itself a mild nowadays is equally inauthentic.

Brass in Pocket

Only in the distorted world of anti-drink campaigners are children buying alcohol from their pocket money

YOU OFTEN hear representatives of the medical profession and other anti-drink campaigners moaning about alcohol being available at “pocket-money prices”. However, they’re always vague about exactly what they are talking about. It would be illuminating to get them to name the specific products they are referring to, and to demonstrate that they have some kind of disproportionate involvement in alcohol-related health problems. In any case, the average weekly pocket money for a child is reported to be almost £7, which would comfortably buy a four-pack of pretty much any beer in the off-trade, a half-bottle of spirits and the vast majority of wines, not to mention a couple of pints in the pub.

And are they talking about the price per individual pack, or the effective price per unit? Tesco will sell you a single bottle of Czech lager for 99p, but in terms of bangs per buck that is a lot dearer than a 20-pack of Fosters for a tenner, and the latter is beyond reach of even a weekly £7.

In reality, the UK has about the third-highest alcohol duties in the European Union, and in no meaningful sense can alcoholic drinks in this country overall be regarded as cheap. If anything really is available at “pocket money prices”, then that suggests one or both of it being very weak and in a very small measure. This is a dishonest and emotive use of words that is only too typical of the anti-drink lobby, and regrettably is occasionally taken up by some claiming to represent the interests of drinkers who really should know better.

January 2012

Falling Off a Cliff

The risks of exceeding the official alcohol guidelines are too often greatly exaggerated

THE HOUSE of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee are currently carrying out an inquiry into the official government guidelines on alcohol consumption. Even though these were effectively plucked out of the air with no proper scientific basis, it is perhaps asking a bit much for them to be raised, although a move to restate them as weekly rather than daily limits might better reflect real-world drinking patterns.

However, a major problem with these guidelines is that, all too often, they are presented not as an ideal but as an absolute upper limit, above which the drinker falls off a cliff of risk. In fact, as pointed out by CAMRA in their submission to the inquiry, even taking the figures at face value, you need to exceed them by a considerable margin before there is anything more than a slight increase in the risk level. There is a wide gap between the recommended limit and the point where drinking is likely to have a severe health impact.

The way they are often presented, though, is on a par with suggesting that only eating four portions of fruit and veg a day will inevitably lead to contracting scurvy. It also results in skewed priorities in public policy, with health campaigns often giving the impression of trying to make responsible people drinking 30 or 40 units a week feel guilty, while in effect washing their hands of those drinking at genuinely dangerous levels.

An inconvenient truth of the statistics is that you have to drink around three times the official guidelines before your health risk reaches that experienced by total abstainers. The anti-drink lobby often try to claim that the figures are distorted by the inclusion of people who have had to give up drinking for medical reasons but, even allowing for this, there is still a huge body of evidence that moderate drinking is much better for you than abstention. It may simply be the case that moderate drinkers are more relaxed and less uptight, but the strong correlation is undeniable. This is a major problem for those wanting to promote the message that there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol. But no doubt they are working on coming up with more dodgy figures to get round it.

Never Too Late to Stop

Giving up drink may not help you live to 100, but it will certainly feel like it

AND IT GETS even worse as you get older. A recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists says that the existing alcohol consumption guidelines need to be “drastically reduced” for people over 65. Apparently they should drink no more than one and a half “units” of alcohol a day, so even going to the pub and having a pint of bitter is bad news.

They point out that some older people turn to drink as a way of coping with changes in life like retirement and bereavement, or feelings of boredom, loneliness and depression. No doubt this is true, but the same can happen at any stage of life, and the vast majority of pensioners don’t seem to succumb. In my experience, most older people settle down to a regular routine of moderate drinking and rarely if ever overdo it. They have learned the difference between “just enough” and “too much”.

And, for many, a regular couple of drinks with friends in the pub is one of the few pleasures in life they’re still able to enjoy. Telling them not to drink will just lead to misery and social isolation. It’s also not going to cut much ice telling someone in their eighties that having that extra half-pint is going to reduce their life expectancy. Perhaps the doctors should concentrate on people with genuine drink problems rather than trying to cultivate anxiety amongst those engaged in normal behaviour.