Whingeing smokers

A smoker
This man is a smoker. Do you really want to be associated with HIM?

I hate smokers. Not because of the habit: no, it’s the endless whingeing, the dreadful and utterly unwarranted claims to victimhood, the going on and on, tediously, like 15-year-olds, “’Snot fair! Why can’t we smoke in pubs? ’Snot fair!”, the hysterical over-reactions against anyone who suggests that, actually, pubs (and restaurants, and cinemas, and workplaces) are vastly pleasanter places now that smoking is banned, the constant attempts to use the “slippery slope” fallacy to get drinkers to support the campaign to end or amend the pub smoking ban, the false claims that it’s all the fault of supporters of the smoking ban that so many pubs have been closing.

Let’s deal with the “slippery slope” first. It is claimed that the attack on tobacco, if allowed to be successful, will be followed by an even greater attack on alcohol, and therefore drinkers should support smokers in opposing tobacco bans – “It’ll be you next.” But if a slippery slope going from complete freedom to choose our own risks to complete risk regulation exists, shouldn’t the smokers have been fighting further back up that slope years ago, defending the rights of drivers who didn’t want to wear seatbelts, and, before that, motorcyclists who didn’t want to wear helmets? If, somehow, everyone from moped riders to Harley-Davidson owners was still allowed to ride around the UK with the wind rushing through their hair, the government and safety campaigners having conceded the right of every rider to choose to wear a helmet or not, would that have helped prevent the smoking ban? Of course not.

And if drinkers need to be defending smokers’ “rights” as an important step in defending their own right to consume alcohol, how exactly would that have helped prevent, eg, prohibition in the United States? Was there a smoking ban in the US first, which led inexorably to a drinking ban as well? You’ll not need to look up the answer, I think.

What about the “it’s your fault pubs are closing” argument? Here we have to go into some lengthy historical analysis: stick with me. First, pubs have been closing at greater or lesser rates for the past 120 years. It’s difficult, unfortunately, to give precise figures for pub numbers in the past, in large part, over recent years, because of the problem in deciding what proportion of premises with full on-licences are actually pubs and not, eg, hotels, and partly because commentators do not always make it clear if they are talking about the UK total or the England and Wales one. But looking back, between 1894 and 1904 the number of public houses in England and Wales fell by almost 4,000, from over 105,000 to 99,500, 7.7 closures a week. Between 1904 and 1914, when there was a concerted drive by licensing magistrates to cut back on licensed outlets, the number dropped again to 87,700, a rate of 24 a week.

Continue reading Whingeing smokers

Endangered beers

Beers, like animals, can be endangered species: some can even go extinct. Nobody’s seen West Country White Ale in the wild for more than 125 years.

Camra, I’m very pleased to say, has recently decided that it could be doing much more than Make May a Mild Month for promoting endangered beers, and has set up a Beer Styles Working Group to look at ways of plugging and encouraging endangered beer styles of all sorts.

I’ve managed to blag my way onto the working group, mostly because I’m keen to point out to Camra members, and beer festival organisers (and brewers) that endangered beer styles in Britain go a long way beyond mild, stout and porter, and to try to get the other half-dozen or more endangered British beer styles recognition and promotion as well: and maybe even get some of the extinct beers remade. (That’s the advantage of beer: it may turn out to be impossible to resurrect the mammoth, but reproducing a vanished beer style generally only requires the will, a recipe and the right ingredients.)

So what ARE Britain’s vulnerable and endangered (and extinct) beer styles? Here’s my personal checklist: Continue reading Endangered beers

Real Camra versus the revisionals

Is this newspaper report about ructions on Tyneside the start of civil war in the Campaign for Real Ale between “Real Camra”, those who hold to the original verities, that all keg beer is bad, and “Revisional Camra”, a younger set who argue that the campaign needs to accept “craft” keg?

I very sincerely hope not: Britain needs a “beer drinkers’ union”, and whatever criticisms anyone might have, Camra is and is likely to remain the best organisation to represent the concerned beer consumer that we have.

But the division in the Tyneside and Northumberland Camra branch reported on by the local Sunday Sun newspaper under the headline “Beer war erupts” does seem to have taken place along a faultline that I predicted 18 months ago, when I suggested that if Camra did not take care

it is going to become increasingly irrelevant to the real concerns and desires of keen younger drinkers unfettered by a too-rigid application of the tenets of the Founding Fathers. Instead it will become a beery equivalent of the Royal British Legion, the only active members those at or approaching bus pass age.

The problem is that any Camra member younger than 40 wasn’t born when the Campaign began, cannot remember what all those beers that so revolted the Founding Fathers, such as Whitbread Trophy and Courage Tavern, were like (and they were, truly, very poor indeed), and they simply will not accept the mantra “all keg is bad” if it clashes with their own current experiences.

Those experiences, I suggest, are that some modern “craft” keg can be very good indeed, and certainly much better than badly kept cask. And if you try to tell them that it’s irrelevant whether or not they enjoy a particular beer, if it’s not served from an unpressurised cask it must automatically be cast into the outer darkness, they will regard you as an unreconstructed old beardy who is stuck back in the days when “internet” is where you tried to put a football.

I’m not in any place to pass judgment on the argument between the Tyneside and Northumberland Camra old guard and the youth squad, since I know only what little I have been able to gather from the Sunday Sun article, a comment piece from the local Journal newspaper’s website and from links provided by Tandleman on his blog. The battle seems to encompass a number of different issues, including proposals for a new website, and the choice of beers and ciders at the branch beer festival, as well as “craft” keg, and it has ended up with two different websites running under the “Canny Bevvy” label used for the branch’s newsletter, one (the “official” site) dot-co-uk and the other (the “revisional” site) dot-com.

But I suspect the statement on the website run by the “revisional” wing of the branch sums up what a lot of Camra members under 35 feel:

Beer and cider should be most of all about having fun, experiencing new things and if you can, supporting local producers and pubs. We don’t mind if a landlord wants to use more modern technology to keep their beer in tip top shape, or if there’s another fruit flavour in our cider. We don’t even mind if a brewery wants to have their beers served from a keg. After all, surely it should be up to the person who creates something how they think it’s best to drink it, and for pub-goers to decide if they like it?

You can argue all night about whether that’s the best position to take in modern Britain to safeguard great beer. All I will say is that it’s an argument Camra is going to be increasingly hearing from its younger members, who have tasted and liked craft keg beers. What happened in Tyneside and Northumberland branch when the “revisional” wing put forward that argument, according to the “revisional” website, is that

the “beards” started shouting things about “mutiny” and “bringing the campaign into disrepute” and a great deal about why they didn’t want to change.

which might, some may suggest, be the surest way to drive away the new young enthusiasts Camra needs to keep it going as the Founding Fathers pass through their sixties and head towards their seventies.

How Brazil’s favourite beer arrived from Scotland

‘If the man who invented the censorship bar had drunk Skol, it wouldn’t look like this – it would look like this. Skol goes down round’

It is one of the stranger results of global beer marketing that the biggest-selling beer in Brazil, which is also one of the biggest beers in Africa, from Algeria via Guinea to Rwanda, and is sold across large parts of Asia, from India via Malaysia to Hong Kong, began life more than 50 years ago in a small Scottish town on the north side of the Forth estuary.

I doubt too many drinkers of Skol in Rio de Janeiro know that the drink that “goes down round”, according to its advertising, came originally from 6,000 miles away. Today a beer that was one of the pioneers of mass-market lager in Britain is seen in Brazil as so Brazilian that drinking it turns Argentinians into supporters of the Canarinhos.

Skol is also huge across the South Atlantic in the Congo, where it inspires what I suggest may be one of the best music videos in support of a beer ever, by the too-little-known Bill Clinton Kalonji. (Give yourself eight minutes 33 to watch, and if you’re not grinning broadly by two minutes in at the latest, you can have your money back. The Portman group would turn into steam.) In Malaysia (where the beer is brewed by a Carlsberg subsidiary) and the Far East, meanwhile, it has been launched as a “value for money” brew.

In Britain, Skol was the biggest-selling beer in the market 25 years ago. But it had fallen out of the top 10 by 2004 and is now a commodity lager, sold in cans at just 2.8 per cent abv to take advantage of the UK’s new low-alcohol tax band. Skol is currently the fifth best selling beer in the world, thanks to its popularity in places such as Brazil and the Congo. But in the country where it began, Skol is a sad, tired brand.

The other curiosity is that brewery mergers and takeovers mean that Skol-the-brand is owned by Carlsberg in Britain and Asia, A-B InBev in South America, and UniBra, a Belgian company, in Africa. How all did this happen to a beer from Alloa? It’s a long story, and it properly starts in Burton upon Trent more than 110 years ago, where a substantial but struggling pale ale brewer, Samuel Allsopp & Sons, decided in 1898 to get into the lager-brewing business.

Allsopp’s Lager ad, Daily Mirror, 1906. Love that typeface …

Continue reading How Brazil’s favourite beer arrived from Scotland