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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
Next beer book - now called 'Miracle Brew' - is finished! You can still subscribe to it here.
You can still listen to The Apple Orchard on BBC iPlayer radio
I'm taking the pub on tour - four dates between now and Christmas.
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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Why it's OK to drink a lot this Christmas

Ah, Christmas: the time for peace, love, laughter, and stern bollockings about how dangerous our socialising behaviour can be.

Let’s get the essential disclaimers out of the way up front. Firstly, I am aware that some people in Britain suffer from the effects of alcohol abuse, either directly or indirectly. I know that drink problems can kill, and I make no attempt to trivialise that.

Secondly, I know that Christmas is a time when many take it too far and end up vomiting in the street, visiting A&E, or worse. I have no desire to defend these people – they spoil it for the rest of us, both when they’re screeching in pubs or fighting outside, and afterwards when the vast majority of happy, convivial drinkers are demonised for the actions of a childish minority.

My problem is that reports of truly destructive behaviour are invariably accompanied by warnings from medical experts that 25% of us are drinking to hazardous levels. What they tend to omit is that the definition of ‘hazardous’ is anyone who has drunk more than the recommended daily guideline of alcohol consumption, which equates to a pint and a half of beer for men, or one pint or one medium-sized glass of wine for women.

That’s right: the shocking truth of Binge Britain is that one in four of us drinks at least two pints of beer or one large glass of wine on at least one day in any given week.

Doesn’t quite sound so 'hazardous' when you put it that way, does it?

That’s why those seeking to persuade us to cut down on our drinking turn to ever more extreme methods to scare us (fact: most of us already are cutting down. New figures released last week show overall alcohol consumption, as well as heavy drinking, have fallen yet again). There’s a deliberate blurring of the yob who drinks a bottle of whisky and trashes the place and the couple who share a bottle of wine over dinner.

Just two weeks ago, the latest horror story was that people in their forties are the latest group that are drinking themselves to death and bankrupting society as they do so. Apparently, the shocking truth is that 20% of all alcohol-related hospital admissions are comprised of people within this age band.

When I first read this, it reminded me a bit of that spoof stat about how we're all skivers because 40% of all sick days fall on a Monday or Friday.

I honestly didn’t think the figure too high: if you have been abusing alcohol for most of your adult life, you’d expect your forties to be the age when it would start to take its toll (unless you’d rather believe the alternative shock stories about how binge drinkers in their early twenties are swamping hospitals with cases of liver failure). And while health problems increase with age, older people tend to drink less (unless you'd rather believe the alternative shock stories about how the over-65s are a ticking time bomb of alcohol-related woe.)

In any case, 20% didn’t sound particularly high. And by the time I had Googled ‘UK population split by age’ and learned that there is a population spike in this age group (14.6% of us are aged 40-49, compared with 13.6% aged 20-29, 13.1% aged 30-39, 12.2% aged 50-59 and 10.8% aged 60-69) I realised that this supposed shock was a complete non-story. It’s a shame no one in the national press undertook the same due diligence before repeating it (inevitably accompanied by images of people drinking beer, of course).

Alcohol is an addictive and potentially dangerous drug – we know that, because we are told it every day. But it also happens to be intrinsic to our civilization, a constant in our history, both sacrament and everyday treat.

Like fire, alcohol kills, maims and wrecks lives every year, and has done since the Stone Age. But also like fire, alcohol is one of our greatest ever discoveries, something it's hard to imagine living without, something that has, in general, immeasurably improved the quality of our lives.

We know that fire needs to be treated with respect and caution. We understand completely that if we control it, it’s a boon, but that if we let it get out of control, it can cause devastating damage. That’s why we keep children away from it, and why there are very clear guidelines on how to handle it.

We don’t see people calling for the abolition of fire. We rarely see people blaming fire itself when it destroys. We understand that when it kills, it was either deliberate and criminal human action, a tragic accident, or the result of negligence. We might say that such tragedies show the need for better education around fire or clearer warnings, and of course that's right. But we don’t hear anyone arguing that a house fire proves we should only be allowed to cook a meal or stay warm once or twice a week.

It's a sign of our collective sickness and anxiety that anti-alcohol rhetoric peaks at Christmas.

Christmas, like birthdays and weddings, is a time of celebration. Intoxication lowers inhibitions, creates feelings of euphoria, relaxes us and helps us interact with people. We think we, and those around us, are funnier, sexier, and more interesting than when we’re sober. And as a society, we are somehow in the process of convincing ourselves that this is a bad thing.

If alcohol were that bad for us, we probably wouldn’t be here now. Because in the past we drank a hell of a lot more alcohol than we do today.

If it were that bad for us, the other piece of booze related news last week – the latest in a long line of studies that proves yet again that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotallers as well as alcoholics – would never have appeared.

So this Christmas, don’t drink responsibly - not all the time. Christmas is a holiday from our day-to-day responsibilities, and that’s why it exists, as an essential safety valve from our lives.

Don’t drink to black out. Don’t drink till you throw up. Don’t drink to punish yourself or others. That’s the behaviour that suggests you have a problem in life that isn’t drink itself.

But do drink more than two units per day for men or 1.5 units for women. Drink until you feel like singing. Drink until you feel epic and marvellous. Drink until you feel confident and comfortable enough to ask out that person from work on a date. Drink until you feel a hangover the next day, on a day when having a hangover doesn't matter, and reflect on the yin and yang, on our ability to heighten euphoria to new levels and then take the knocks for it the next day with good grace.

Christ’s first miracle – if you believe that particular superstition – was turning water into wine at the wedding in Canaan. According to the Bible – and I think this is a fairly close translation from the original script – the saviour of mankind announced his presence on Earth by getting people shitfaced and showing them a good time.

So don’t get drunk every day over Christmas. But do get drunk at least once. And if they complain, tell our Puritan overlords that it’s what the Baby Jesus would have wanted.

Merry, merry Christmas.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Golden Pints 2013

I don't normally join in this annual beer bloggers' exercise in navel gazing because I'm too busy and I think I can do something similar but better and used to do my own round-up before they came in. But this year I'm not too busy and, more importantly, I can't think of anything better, and Zak Avery just did a really wonderful post that has urged me to try my own hand, so let's see how we get on.

Two things happened for me in 2013: one, I turned 45, moving into the 45-54 demographic. I'm middle bloody aged and that came about far too quickly. Second, I celebrated Man Walks into a Pub, my first book, being in print continuously for ten years. In 2003 I was a fresh young voice in beer writing, younger than pretty much every other writer I met. Now I'm an establishment old fart. That's how quickly it happens and it's just not fair.

In keeping with this development, I'm becoming curmudgeonly and going retro. This year the headlong rush of craft beer in London started to get a little wearing.

"HEY LOOK AT ME, I'VE MADE YET ANOTHER SINGLE HOP CITRA PALE ALE USING TWICE AS MANY HOPS AS I SHOULD HAVE. I'M A CRAFT BREWER AND I'M AWESOME."
No you're not, you're a hipster chancer who needs to learn how to brew a balanced beer. Remember how Picasso had to learn how to paint properly before he could do all those seemingly random paint splashes and make them work? You need to know how to brew boring brown ale well before you're qualified to mess around with more diverse stuff. And cloudy, yeasty, alcoholic grapefruit juice became the new boring blond beer in 2013.

"YES BUT I'VE STARTED MAKING AWESOME SAISONS NOW INSTEAD."
No. You really haven't. Go away, drink a Saison Dupont and think about what you just said.

"OK BUT BEFORE I GO WOULD YOU LIKE TO BUY A BOTTLE OF MY AWESOME NEW EXPERIMENTAL BEER? IT'S STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS, IT'S NOT QUITE RIGHT YET..."
Well what the fuck do you think you're doing charging people four or five quid for it?

There were brilliant new craft beers this year of course. But for me 2013 was the year I remembered about Belgian Trappist ales, perfectly balanced, crystal clear best bitters, the original American IPAs, and stopped worrying about whether or not I was keeping up to speed with the latest new opening.

Best UK Cask Beer
How should I know? If I drank all 4000 of them I'd be dead. Because of what I said above, the beer that had the biggest impact on me was Truman's Runner. It took me back to simpler times when I first got into beer, and anyone who dismisses this style as 'boring brown beer' needs to figure out whether they actually understand flavour.

Best UK Keg Beer
Camden Hells. The best lager in the world. I was there when it was judged to be so and rarely have I seen an international group of brewers unite around something so completely.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Thornbridge Chiron. The once unimpeachable Jaipur has become a little patchy of late. Chiron simply rules - a slam dunk that pulls me up short whenever I've tasted it.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
A popular choice in the GPs, Lagunitas IPA. I was delighted to see it appear in craft beer pubs this year. One of the first US IPAs I ever tasted back in '04, despite the marketing moving on and becoming bolder and more diverse around it, it still kicks ass.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Rochefort 10. Always.

Best Beer For quiet contemplation
Worthington White Shield still nails it for sitting there and being mindful, always revealing more, always developing.

Best Beer for gabbling with mates and seizing the day
The beer that has evaporated from the glass, pint after pint, while we make plans and put the world to rights, is probably Howling Hops Pale Ale number 2.

Beer I haven't drunk enough of in 2013
Magic Rock.

Welcome surprise beer style that crept up on us and is likely to be huge next year 
Rye/RyePA/Red ales

Best beer for crying into
The new Fuller's Imperial Stout. A case of this arrived at my door about ten minutes before the vet who came to put Captain the Celebrity Beer Dog to sleep after ten brilliant years with us. Two bottles of this 10.7% ABV magnificent bruiser gave him his wake.

Best Branding, pump clip or Label
Box Steam's Brewery's lovely Evening Star is the only beer I've impulsively tweeted a picture of like a giddy fanboy.

Best UK Brewery
Sharps. No really. I'll never knowingly drink another pint of Doom Bar, but the Connoisseur's Choice range has been consistently excellent and thought-provoking without being weird for the sake of it. Although I still haven't yet tried the beer brewed with woodlice. Not weird for the the sake of it at all. 

Adnams were a very close second, making any debates about a supposed distinction between craft brewers and real ale brewers irrelevant.

Best Overseas Brewery
I haven't visited any overseas breweries this year so on the basis that nothing has come across my radar to change the view I've held for years, it's Brooklyn Brewery.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013
I dunno. I'm going with Wild Beer Co. Yes I know they opened in 2012, but I didn't do the Golden Pints last year so I can include them this year if I want to.

Pub/Bar of the Year
One's local is a strange thing. There are lots of pubs we go into regularly, but few to which we give that special distinction. It's a relationship we change less frequently than marriages or bank accounts, but I changed mine this year. My new local, 25 minutes walk from my house, is the Cock Tavern in Hackney.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
Like what I said about Wild Beer Co, the Hops and Glory opened in late 2012, but still feels new and exciting to me. 

Beer Festival of the Year
The only one of the new wave of craft beer festivals I managed to get to this year was IndyManBeerCon. I'm glad I made it - craft beer growing up, showing its longevity as well as its imagination and creativity.

Supermarket of the Year
M&S

Independent Retailer of the Year
Geerts Drankenhandel in Oostakker on the outskirts of Ghent is the best beer retailer I've ever visited. €1 for Saison Dupont? €10 for Deus 750ml? €1.25 for Rochefort 10? I should coco. €318 euros later the car boot was so full the axle was groaning.

Online Retailer of the Year
Haven't really used any but there are some interesting new ones coming up - Eebria is very new but looks like it could become really interesting - love their approach.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Pocket Beer Book by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb. Because together they're two of only maybe four or five writers on the planet who could honourably take up the reins that Michael Jackson left. And because it's the book that told me about Geerts Drankenhandel.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Zak Avery chose Adrian Tierney Jones' blog for its "non-linear relationship with narrative." I'll echo that, with Zak as runner-up for that observation alone.

Best Beer App
Craft Beer London is the only one that seems worth using at the moment.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Simon Bloody Johnson of course! He'd already done enough before his cruelly premature passing in May to walk this one.

Best Brewery Website/Social media
I wish I could say Let There Be Beer, but the execution got off to the worst start imaginable. The intent is sincere, but the execution was botched. They are trying to remedy this now and not giving up, and I've been chipping in a bit of advice. Hopefully there'll be a turnaround next year. But given how rubbish it was in 2013, I think the winner this year goes instead to Brew Dog. I don't always agree with the beers they brew or the things they say, and inevitably they're not as fresh as they were with so many people inspired by them now setting up in competition, but James Watt and Co still know how to use social media better than anyone. 

Music and Beer Pairing of the Year
Jimi Hendrix's take on All Along the Watchtower paired with Chimay Blue. 

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Dinner cooked by Tim Anderson at Dukes Brew & Que back in May. Not all of it successful but all of it audacious and interesting. Gave me the most epic food hangover I've had this year, and my best celeb namedrop story ever.

Now - time to try that woodlouse beer...

Monday, 2 December 2013

Pubs do not "further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community" - says who?

It's bad form to post two blogs in the same day, especially if they're about the same topic, especially if you normally struggle to blog once a week, like I do. But a tidbit has just fallen into my lap that I can't wait to share.

One of the practices for which PubCos are taking a significant amount of stick for is selling pubs off to become shops or flats. Fair enough - perhaps - if the pub has failed and closed and there's no real call for it any more. But when the people running the pub really want to stay there and continue running it as a pub, and when there is a dedicated bunch of regulars happily spending money there, turfing them out against their will looks a bit mean, to say the least.

The Sir John Barleycorn is thought to be the oldest pub in Hitchin, having served the community for about 150 years. It's the perfect model of a community boozer, with darts on Monday, a pub quiz on Tuesday, and crib or dominoes on Thursday. It hosts various local sports teams and a steady diet of live bands from the area. It's currently owned by Punch Taverns.

Following the closure and conversion of other nearby pubs, a group of concerned regulars got together this autumn and applied to have the pub listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). This makes it much harder to change the use of the premises, helping preserve it as a pub for a five year period. ACV status was introduced by the 2011 Localism Act, and was brought into effect on 21st September 2012. Since then, around twenty pubs have successfully achieved ACV status.

When the Sir John Barleycorn applied for ACV status, there was an objection. This objection claimed that there was no need for the pub to be protected because there were plenty of other pubs nearby. And anyway, many of the valuable community activities listed in the application - the bands, quizzes and sports teams and so on - didn't necessarily have to happen in a pub - they could happen in other community venues, such as, er... well, anyway, they didn't need to happen in pubs. Even though that's where they normally do.

But out of three objections, point two was perhaps the most vociferous:

"2. The various activities mentioned by the nominee in the application are ancillary to the use of the premises as a public house. They do not therefore comply with the purposes set out in Section 88 (1) of the Localism Act 2011. With regard to Section 88 (2), the current use of the premises as a public house i.e. a place where alcohol is consumed and sold, does not itself further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community and therefore is not land of community value." 
[my emphasis]


It's sad but not entirely surprising to see such an objection. We do after all live in an age of neo-prohibitionism, where various groups are only too happy to see the decline of the pub, and where alternative means of buying alcohol for home consumption are proliferating.

So who was it who objected to the attempt to preserve a fine old pub in its traditional use? Who believes so strongly that pubs do not further the social wellbeing or social interests of the community? Alcohol Concern? A local church group or nearby school? A big supermarket chain?

Nope.

These are the words of Punch Taverns, the owners of the Sir John Barleycorn. A company that owns over 4,300 pubs believes those pubs are not good for local communities.

On its website, Punch Taverns says:

"At its core the Community Pub should always provide a relaxed and friendly atmosphere for customers living in the neighbourhood. To excel, Community Pubs need to be at the hub of their neighbourhood, a focal point for locals. Supporting the many and varied interest groups of the community; darts, pool, fund raising, local schools, business networking, whatever they may be, is key."

And yet here they are, vociferously protesting against one of their own pubs which is doing exactly that, actively opposing attempts to keep one of their oldest pubs trading as a pub.

Happily, the local council disagreed with the UK's second-largest pub landlord, and decided that pubs such as the Sir John Barleycorn do in fact perform an important social function in the community. They awarded the pub its community asset status.

Enterprise Inns: empowering publicans with cutting edge market information

A brief footnote to the sad story of one of my favourite locals, the Alma on Newington Green.

The Alma is now being offered up as a new tenancy, with applications closing this week. I was impressed by the level of detail on the website for prospective tenants - every aspect a curious publican might want to know about is covered. There's even a guide to local competition - clearly a key factor in how the business might perform. So it's great to see the website giving a run-down on what else is in the area so interested parties can accurately assess the opportunity:

Screen grab from Enterprise's website about the Alma tenancy

There's just one problem with this. No, actually, there are quite a few:

  • In 2011, the Nobody Inn was renamed the Clarendon. In 2012 it has a massive refit, substantially changing its offering, and was renamed the Dissenting Academy.
  • Bastille Brasserie closed down at least three years ago and is being converted to flats.
  • There's no such pub as the Crafty Fox in the area. They might mean the Snooty Fox. But you can't be too hard on them for getting the name of the pub wrong; it's not as if they own it or anything. Oh, hang on - yes they do.
  • There's no mention of the Hops & Glory (formerly the George Orwell) or the Leconfield (formerly the Oak Bar) - two craft beer pubs that offer significant competition to the Alma, each less than five minutes walk away. But you can't be too hard on them for not knowing these pubs exist; it's not as if they own them or anything. Oh, hang on - yes they do own the Leconfield. 
It's great to see Enterprise's local area manager having such a great grasp on the area he is paid to look after.