Category Archives: Beer

I Told You Those Lying Bastards Were Making It Up

It was fantastically satisfying to see the front page splash in The Times declare what I’ve been saying for years – that the government’s “safe drinking guidelines” of 21 units of alcohol for men and 14 for women a week have no basis in fact, and were literally made up on the spot with no evidence to support them 20 years ago, solely because the “experts” thought they ought to be saying something rather than nothing.

To quote The Times:

Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal and a member of the college’s working party on alcohol, told The Times yesterday that the figures were not based on any clear evidence … “David Barker was the epidemiologist on the committee and his line was that ‘We don’t really have any decent data whatsoever. It’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t’. And other people said, ‘Well, that’s not much use.’ … So the feeling was that we ought to come up with something. So those limits were really plucked out of the air. They weren’t really based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee.”

On that basis, as The Times says, public health care policy, and private advice by doctors to individuals, has been conducted ever since, with the figures treated as if they were stone-hard, incontrovertible fact, wheeled out again for the latest report that claimed the middle classes are the new danger drinkers. To quote The Times again:

Professor Mark Bellis, director of the North West Public Health Observatory, which produced this week’s study, felt able to say that anyone exceeding the limits was “drinking enough to put their health at significant risk”. That a host of epidemiological studies had filled the intervening years with evidence to the contrary seemed not to matter one jot.”

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More anti-alcohol brigade rubbish

Sky TV rang me up at 1.45pm today to come into their studio in Isleworth to rant at the latest rubbish from the anti-alcohol brigade. Drinkers in middle-class areas are more likely to consume “hazardous” amounts according to the North West Public Health Observatory, commissioned by the Department of Health. But “hazardous amounts”, according to these people, starts at one and a half pints of beer a day, or a large glass of wine ditto. What planet are they on?

Second, while all the newspaper headlines today are about how the allegedly greatest number of “hazard level” drinkers are in affluent areas such as Runnymede in Surrey, and Harrogate in Yorkshire, the Department of Health have literally made these figures up. Their own report admits they don’t have figures to anything like that degree of geographical detail:

Sample sizes are not sufficiently large enough to allow for annual analysis of the data below Government Office region and even combining years does not allow local authority measures to be derived except through the use of synthetic estimates. Although many local areas conduct local lifestyle surveys it is currently difficult to aggregate the data from such surveys since the questions asked and the methods of collection can be sufficiently different to not allow consistent data definitions.”

What they have done is take the percentages of particular social types nationally who “drink to a hazardous level”, who tend to be the more affluent, settled, secure types found in areas such as Runnymede, Guildford, Harrogate and so on, and mapped those social classes to their percentages in individual local authority areas, multiplied one by the other, and claimed this as the percentage of “hazard level” drinkers in those areas.

Sadly, I had an unbreakable appointment to be elsewhere, so I couldn’t get out my soapbox and enlighten Sky’s (small) audience with my views on rubbish statistics, distortions and mythical and invented drinking limits.

Of course, the proper response to health fascists has to be: “Sod off and mind your own business. ” It is the responsibility of individuals to freely weigh up for themselves the risks of their freely chosen actions, from hang-gliding and mountaineering to taking the top off a bottle of beer. Self-appointed nannies should present the evidence, if they wish, and then butt out, and certainly not presume to lecture, harass or threaten.

Continue reading More anti-alcohol brigade rubbish

Government ale

A mention over on Patto’s blog about Government ale reminded me of one of my favourite beer songs – Ernie Mayne’s Lloyd George’s Beer from 1917. Click that link and check it out – it’s fantastic.

Mayne was a 20-stone (that’s 280 pounds for Americans) music hall artist who died 70 years ago this year, aged 56, and who specialised in numbers such as You Can’t find Many Pimples on a Pound of Pickled Pork (“whether you come from China, Japan or Carolina, you can go to Pimlico and then go on to York but you can’t find many pimples on a pound of pickled pork”) and I Can’t Do My Bally Bottom Button Up (that would be all the pickled pork, Ernie).

Lloyd George’s Beer was, by the standards of the time, hard-hitting social commentary that undoubtedly deeply annoyed the government. Around the time the song came out, the Central Control Board, which was in charge of wartime brewing restrictions, and pub pricing and opening hours, banned brewers from using the term “Government Ale” on price lists for beers under 1036 OG, presumably because the government did not want to be associated so directly with watery pints.

But for the brewers, and the beer drinkers, the situation was rough. Under the impact of the U-boat campaign, which was badly affecting food imports from America, and making supplies scarce, in February 1917 all malting of barley was stopped by government order.

In April 1917 brewers were ordered to produce no more than a third of 1915/16’s “standard” barrelage, that is, the total actual alcohol produced had to be just a third of the year earlier – which meant if you wanted to make the same amount of beer, it had to be only a third as strong. As it happened, both strength and output suffered: the average strength of beer in 1917 was a fifth lower than in 1916, and only three quarters of the pre-war level, while production fell more than a third from 30 million bulk or “real” barrels in 1916 to 19 million barrels.

Industrial unrest in the summer of 1917, at least in part caused by the beer situation, made the government think again, and the restrictions were eased for the second half of the year. But no doubt a thirsty populace, taking solace in the music halls, cheered Mayne until the limelights shook when he sang:

“Have you read of it?
Seen what’s said of it
In the Mirror or the Mail?
It’s a substitute and a pubstitute
And it’s known as Government Ale
… or otherwise …
Lloyd George’s beer, Lloyd George’s beer,
at the brewery there’s nothing doing –
All the waterworks are brewing
Lloyd George’s beer.
Oh they say it’s a terrible war
And there never was a war like this before
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Was Lloyd George’s beer.”

There Are No Favourites in Our House

Michael Jackson, whose funeral was yesterday, used to complain that people kept asking him what his favourite beer was. It annoyed him, I think, because it showed what a limited view the questioners had of great pleasures and deep enthusiasms, as if you could only like football by supporting one favourite team.

I have a favourite wine – Sauvignon Blanc for whites, Shiraz or Zinfandel for reds – and I have a favourite whisky (Lagavulin, thanks, though I wouldn’t spurn The Macallan). But what that shows to me is that I’m not a huge enthusiast for wine or whisky, and certainly not a real wine or whisky lover. Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker won’t have a favourite grape variety, and if I went into my local cigar specialist down the hill, I am sure the proprietor would tell me he doesn’t have a favourite cigar. Like Michael, I believe anyone who has a favourite beer doesn’t like beer that much (and Mr Jackson wouldn’t have had a favourite whisky; he showed as much enthousiasmos for, and knowledge of barley spirit as the undistilled version.)

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RIP MJ

In January 1988 I was sitting in the back of the Brugs Beertje in Kemelstraat, Bruges (rightly called by Tim Webb “one of the finest beer cafes in the world”) with an assortment of other zythophiles including Roger Protz, Webbo himself, who got the idea for his Good Beer Guide to Belgium that night, Pitfield Brewery owner Martin Kemp, Brian Glover and Ted Bruning. We were being taken through a tutorial on Belgian beer – and Belgian cheese – by the bar’s hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic owner, Jan de Bruyne, on a trip organised by the West Flanders Tourist Board for the just-formed British Guild of Beer Writers. As we began the tutorial, a man from the tourist board came in, and said Michael Jackson, even then probably the most famous beer writer on the planet, would be joining us later: he was flying in from judging at a beer festival in Finland …

I believed we all cheered ironically, while secretly thinking: “What a fantastic job!” However, when Jacko did arrive, he immediately showed how hard-working he was: taking extensive notes on every beer, photographing those bottles he hadn’t already got pictures of, while the rest of us were happy just to slurp and trough. Later I learnt that he made notes every time he drank a beer, and stored the notes in filing cabinets in his office in Hammersmith, so that he could track whether a particular brew was changing over time …

Now Michael is dead, and the beer world will miss him enormously. As others have said, his influence cannot be overestimated, in Europe, in America and elsewhere, after a river of books and articles over the past 30 years. Rightly, he won more tankards in the annual BGBW awards – 13, including three golds and two silvers and the guild’s first “lifetime achievement” award – than anybody else. It has to be recorded that not only was he a great beer writer, he was a fine essayist as well: I remember a beautifully written piece he wrote about being trapped at an obscure airport in the United States with nothing to drink in the airport bar except American Budweiser, and how he decided that, out of duty, he really ought to try a glass to see if it was as bad as he kept telling everybody it was … I was given his World Guide to Beer in 1979, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it since: 28 years ago it opened for me windows on brews I had hardly heard of before, from gueuze to Bavarian Weisse, and I still refer to it today.

Because of the enormous range of his beer writing, Michael found himself widely plagiarised, something he would dismiss with a shrug: despite all the fandom he received, and his own vast enthusiasm for the pleasures of beer, Michael was a quiet man, without an ounce of “side”. It’s a little-known fact about Michael that he was the first editor of the UK advertising trade magazine Campaign, and when he discovered that I had worked on Campaign too, he would speak with wry humour of the magazine’s earliest days. I remember being hugely flattered when he namechecked me in his book The Beer Companion in 1993 for something I had written on the origins of the name AK – he didn’t have to do that, but it was typical of Michael that he would give credit to others. Sorry you’re gone, Michael – along with the rest of your millions of fans, I’ll be raising a glass of something hoppy to you this lunchtime … and probably another one tonight …

Spinning the stats

I’ve known a number of journalists who were brilliant before 1pm and useless after 2.30: Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, had a raft of reasons for naming its archetypal Fleet Street reporter character Lunchtime O’Booze. The advance of new technology into journalism, however, has sunk the five-pint lunch: you just can’t fly a computer keyboard after a good session in the Stab in the Back the way you could a manual typewriter.

It may be because bibulous, red-nosed excess has almost entirely vanished from British journalism that our national newspapers get so up their own posteriors about any story involving alcohol consumption, pub opening hours, “binge drinking”, teenage drinking, “alcohol-fuelled violence” and other staples of the Daily Mail-style scare story. They credulously accept all the propaganda that the anti-alcohol lobby puts out, and spin stories themselves to put the worst possible interpretation front and centre.

The Times last week splashed on crime figures it claimed showed “alcohol-fuelled crime figures rose in the first full year of relaxed licensing laws, with a particular jump in the hours after midnight”. The page one headline roared: “Drink, Drugs and All-Night Violence”, But the figures eight paragraphs down in the story showed serious violent crimes, woundings, assaults and criminal damage cases between 6pm and 6am were up just 0.74 per cent. There had been a “surge” of 22 per cent in the number of such cases between 3am and 6am since pubs and clubs stayed open later, the paper shouted – but the actual number of cases was tiny, and had risen by fewer than five per police force per week. The average police station probably saw one extra case a fortnight. Surge? Not even a ripple across a teacup.

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Pete Brown, Cape Crusader

When Coors decided to redesign the packaging for Worthington White Shield, they added a couple of florid paragraphs to the label declaring that this was one of the last surviving original 19th century India Pale Ales, and describing how casks of IPA would be taken out to India by sailing ship, around Cape Horn.

Ahem.

Continue reading Pete Brown, Cape Crusader

Two and a half cheers for Heinrich Beck

One of the funnier five minutes on the BBC programme Antiques Roadshow, where the public brings its mouldering rubbish along hoping for the experts to tell them it’s worth thousands, was a couple of years back when a woman turned up while the programme was being filmed in Scotland with a painting signed by someone called Jack Hoggan. She liked it, she told the Roadshow’s art expert, she had bought it quite cheaply in a junk shop, and she kept seeing pictures that reminded her of it, so the thought she would bring it along to try to find out more about this Hoggan chap.

The BBC art expert was obviously tortured by, on the one side, being able to tell the woman the painting was indeed worth much more than she had paid for it, and on the other, by having to say this was because it was by the painter who later changed his name to Jack Vettriano, the artist the experts loathe and the public adores. Vettriano’s The Singing Butler is one of the most reproduced pictures in Britain (you know it – it’s the one with the couple in evening dress dancing in the rain, while the butler and maid hold wind-blustered umbrellas). Art critics insist his work is flat and derivative. Vettriano is sheltered from their jibes by the £500,000 a year, at least, he makes from reproduction rights to his paintings.

There are plenty of beers that fit into the Jack Vettriano category – loathed by the “experts”, drunk in enough volume by the public that the brewers who make them don’t care. I don’t like Jack Vettriano that much, but there are at leat a couple of beers I’m not supposed to like that I really feel need to have a flag waved on their behalf: they’re, you know, actually, not that bad. Maybe it’s because they’re both from that global megacategory the pilsalikes that they come in for the ritual dismissal. The World’s Top Writer On Beer™ insists

“Even if you want nothing more than simple refreshment, you could do much better than the familiar Foster’s, Corona, American Bud, Carling, Heineken, Grolsch, Beck’s and similar international-style golden lagers from Ruritania, Xanadu or Bongoland. People imagine that these beers are enormously different from one another, but they are all lighter-bodied, blander-tasting, distant impersonations of just one style: the Pilsner lager of Bohemia. None of these imitators is truly individualistic.

but there are two errors in that position.

Continue reading Two and a half cheers for Heinrich Beck

A short history of beer glasses

(Note: for a longer and more thorough treatment of this subject, go here)

I’m not, when I’m in a pub, a great worrier about what shape of glass my beer is served in, unlike my father, who would only drink out of a thin-walled straight glass – he said he couldn’t stand the feel of the thick-glass “mug” against his lips. The straight-sided, or slightly sloping-sided pint beer glass has been around from the early 20th century at least. But the authentic English “four-ale bar” (public bar) pint mug up to the end of the First World War was actually a china pot in a bizarre shade of pink with a white strap handle – see George Orwell’s classic “Moon Under Water” essay from the Evening Standard in 1946, where Orwell, always the inverted snob, complains that this working-class mug was getting hard to find.

The usual sort of glassware in Edwardian pubs was a handle-less sloping-sided, thick-walled “straight” pint mug (pewter was restricted to the saloon bar). Around 1928 the 10-sided or “fluted” handled glass pint mug came in, and this is the pint glass seen in all the “Beer Is Best” advertising put out by the Brewers Society in the 1930s (it is also, in this drinker’s opinion, the finest glass to consume English ale from).

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