Cask ale sales: gloom or boom?

If you enter the words “beer sales UK” into Google News right now you might feel in need of a strong ale or six, with headlines saying: “Beer sales slump to Great Depression levels” and “Decline in sales of beer in the UK accelerating”.

(Actually, that last headline really reads: “Decline in sales of bee in the UK …“, another powerful blow for those of us who insist web news needs copy editors just as much as dead tree news does, but that’s a debate for another forum.)

So: all gloom and doom from the tomb in Britain’s breweries? Well, no.

Read the British Beer and Pub Association’s UK Quarterly Beer Barometer, and it doesn’t look good: total beer sales are down 4.5 per cent compared with the same quarter last year, with sales in pubs down 10.6 per cent, equal to 5,500 barrels a day.

Now, you can probably work out that if pub sales have fallen, percentagewise, more than twice as much as total beer sales are down, then sales elsewhere must be up: and indeed, supermarkets and off-licences have seen a 3.8 per cent increase in beer sales on the same quarter last year. This is not in the slightest surprising: in the past 10 years the price of a pint in British pubs has more than doubled, while in supermarkets the cost of premium lager has actually fallen by eight per cent.

But that’s the total beer market. If you look at the cask beer market, and the premium ales market in the off-sales trade, the picture is very different.

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Heather ale: Scots or Irish?

Thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote a poem about it, and Bruce Williams, who started brewing it commercially 15 years ago, heather ale is now firmly associated with Scotland.

But in fact the Irish have just as great a claim to be the home of heather ale, with good evidence that it was brewed in Ireland and exactly the same folk myths found in Ireland about “the most delicious drink the world has ever known” and the father and son who died to keep its recipe a secret that are also found in Scotland – though with one fascinating difference in the protagonists.

In almost all the Scottish versions of the legend of heather ale, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century poem on the story, the people who know the secret of brewing heather ale were the Picts, the mysterious people, perhaps Celtic, perhaps not, speakers of an unidentified language, who inhabited the northern and north-eastern parts of Caledonia from pre-Roman times until their lands were conquered from the west by the kingdom of the Scots under Kenneth mac Alpin around 843AD.

In the usual telling of the story, a father and son are captured by the Scots after a tremendous battle when all the rest of the Picts have been killed. The king of the Scots tells the Pictish pair they can go free, if they tell him the secret of brewing the heather ale. The father says he will tell, but they will have to kill his son first, as the son will otherwise kill the father for revealing the great secret of heather ale to another race. The son is then killed by the Scots: but the father just laughs at them, saying they have done what he wanted. His son might have revealed the secret to save his life, but he, the father, never will. The recipe thus dies with the last of the Picts.

The Irish versions, of which around 200 have been collected, are almost identical, except that the race with the secret of brewing heather ale is almost always not the Picts, but the Vikings. The Irish knew who the Picts were, since several Pictish tribes lived in Antrim and Armagh in Ulster. The Irish called them, and their Scottish brothers and sisters, Cruíthin, the Irish or Q-Celtic version of the British or P-Celtic name for the Picts, Priten. (Which is, incidentally, probably the source of the name Britain). So why did the Vikings become the heroes of the legend of heather ale in Ireland, when it was the Picts in Scotland?

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Bonkers Boris backs barmy booze-buying ban

If you’re 20 and planning a big party for your 21st, or you’re 20, soon to be married, and arranging a jolly wedding reception, and in addition you live in London, you should buy all the drink you’ll be needing for your guests now, because Boris Johnson, the new Mayor of London, and a rising number of local councils in the capital want to ensure that you will be refused service in off-licences and supermarkets.

The idea of getting off-licences and supermarkets to refuse to sell alcohol to people aged 18 to 21 comes from Croydon Council, where a local councillor called Steve O’Connell apparently thinks stopping young adult tax-payers and voters from exercising their legal right to buy beer or wine in Tesco or Threshers “could help to significantly reduce disorder”.

Naturally, O’Connell offers no evidence on how much disorder is caused by people aged 18, 19 or 20 bladdered on booze legally bought, with their own money, from off-licences or supermarkets. I’m willing to say he doesn’t have a clue: he’s just a petty politician after some publicity. All he can say in favour of the plan is that “it would affect [off-licences’] profit margins” – no it wouldn’t, you economic illiterate, it would affect their takings, but not necessarily profits or margins – “but it would stop some violent incidents taking place.” Really? How many? How do you know it “would” stop even one incident? What actual statistics do you have to back this up?

It doesn’t bother this idiot that seriously inconveniencing the non-disorder-causing 99.99 per cent of the population aged 18 to 20 who might want to buy a bottle to take to a party while the 0.01 per cent who cause drunken aggravation continue to nick their drinks supplies from their parents is a steamhammer that won’t come anywhere near cracking the nut of alcohol-fuelled drunken disorder.

Sadly, neither does it seem to bother Boris Johnson. I’d always thought London’s new mayor looked as if he had a libertarian side to him, which would reject this sort of blanket restriction on people’s rights. Nope: the same old economically libertarian, socially authoritarian Tory mindset runs through Johnson, like “Brighton” through a stick of seaside rock, as you’ll find in the rest of the Conservative Party. He told the Evening Standard, London’s daily paper, that it was “the type of solution that Londoners would welcome to the ‘huge problem’ of binge-drinking by the young.” Really, Boris? That would be why every comment so far on the story on the Standard‘s website has said what a stupid idea it is, and how it will make no difference at all except to hack off 18 to 20-year-olds. How huge a problem is it, and how is it not already affected by the ban on under-18s buying drink?

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Loch Fyne could be finer with decent beer

At the top of the (long) street where we now live is what used to be a pub called the Lord Nelson, the middle one of a trio of boozers with Napoleonic names between Hampton Hill and Twickenham Green. (The other two being the now-closed Wellington and the Prince Blücher, which is named after the Prussian general who pulled Wellington’s derrière out of the hot fat by turning up just in time at Waterloo, and which is a fine Fuller’s outlet.)

The Lord Nelson was well known for specialising in fish dishes, and it had half of a fishing boat outside the main entrance. Soon after we moved to this area, however, it was taken over by Loch Fyne Restaurants and converted from a pub specialising in fish to a proper fish eatery (with, as it happens Loch Fyne’s head office upstairs above the restaurant).

I never got there when it was a pub, though I’ve dined there several times since its reinvention as a Loch Fyne outlet, and the food is well up to the mark: properly cooked (it’s easy to do fish badly) and very reasonably priced. But the beer selection is absolutely dreadful: Beck’s, Stella, some other awful eurofizz lager, and (the only saviour) bottled Guinness.

I had hoped that after Greene King, which has been making some serious nods at beer and food matching (it actually has a website called Greene King Beer With Food, and its Hop bottled beer used to be called The Beer To Dine For) took over Loch Fyne not quite a year ago there would be an improvement. But a trip up the road for our wedding anniversary recently revealed that everything was just as awful as ever on the beer menu.

Not one of Greene King’s beers was available, so, still no ales, though ales, including Greene King’s, go extremely well with fish: Abbot with mackerel, for example, where the beer’s heaviness, slight sweetness and full mouthfeel works well with the oily fish; or XX dark mild with salmon, setting off the coffee/roast notes of the beer against the sweetness of a good wild Alaskan; mussels with IPA; a creamy smoked fish pie with Strong Suffolk; or bouillabaisse with Hen’s Tooth, one of my favourite bottle-conditioned ales.

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