Category Archives: Rants

Stupid scaremongering at the Burton Mail

Really, the Burton Mail should be ashamed of itself. This is the local newspaper in what is, historically, at least, the beer capital of Britain, Burton upon Trent, still the home to two major brewing companies, Coors and Marstons, and it’s running factoid alcohol scare stories designed to pander to the latest moral panic, that we’re all going to hell in a booze-powered handcart.

“Hospital alcohol incidents soar” is the headline in the Burton Mail this week, and the intro declares: “Alcohol-related admissions at Burton’s Queen’s Hospital have rocketed by 808 per cent over the last five years, the Mail can reveal.”

Now, ignoring for a moment the distorting effect of giving us percentages, not actual numbers, we have an important lesson here: if some fact seems, on the face of it, unlikely, that’s probably because we’re not being given the whole picture. Hospital admissions put down to drink rising nine times in just five years? That scarcely seems credible.

Continue reading Stupid scaremongering at the Burton Mail

Why extremophiles are a danger to us all

I was going to ignore the latest claim by Ratebeer to have found “The best 100 beers in the world as rated by tens of thousands of our worldwide tasters” on the grounds that nobody in the real world cares what a bunch of loopy extremophiles drinks or thinks. Especially when there are far more important things going on outside in the streets. Really – a “world’s top beers” in which seven out of the top 10 are imperial stouts? You are having a laugh. As Stephen Beaumont pointed out on his blog, “In the style listing of the top 50 beers, the word ‘imperial’ appears 39 times!” This has nothing at all to do with what most people who enjoy beer actually drink or want to drink. I enjoy a good imperial stout, but it’s just one of a wide range of styles I rate highly, and not even the top one.

However, as I watched Mubarak attempt to save his sorry arse by telling the Egyptians it was all the fault of the people he had appointed, and he was going to appoint another bunch of people instead, a corner of my brain was rolling over the deeply dangerous implications of Ratebeer people’s obsession with the extremities of beer.

Because the first problem is that more normal drinkers, if they see that list, are going to look at it and get an utterly distorted and entirely false idea of what really great beer is all about. It’s like telling people that the best dishes available in restaurants are all vindaloo curries, or the best bands in the world only come from the different varieties of metal. And that won’t encourage them at all to explore the huge variety of other fantastic beers that are available.

It will also encourage journalists who know no better to frame beer enthusiasts as people totally out of touch with the “normal” beer drinker, and only interested in beers with 100 IBUs and abvs of 10 per cent or more.

The second, and perhaps worst problem is, as Stephen Beaumont hints, that this sort of utterly distorted listing encourages brewers to concentrate on “extreme” beers, with more hops, more numbing flavour, more strength, to try to impress the blinkered tasters that seem to form the majority of Ratebeer members, to the detriment of those of use who want nuance, subtlety and depth in our beers.

And if you want a perfect example of how the “enthusiasts” of Ratebeer know absobleedinglutely nothing at all about beer, here’s their “best beers of the British Isles 2011”, in which Guinness Draught Stout, a barely average beer at best, is not only at number 13, but three places ahead of Guinness FES, a world classic.

(Incidentally, when that Ratebeer list first went up, it listed the styles of each beer, so you could speedily see that the top was dominated by imperial stouts. Strangely, after uncomplimentary comments about that aspect of the results, the “styles” column has disappeared. You may think this is an Orwellian attempt to rewrite history: I couldn’t possibly comment.)

So what beers does a seven-star hotel serve?


The Burj Al Arab – the second-tallest hotel in the world, and deliberately designed to be an architectural icon in the same world-class league as the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House – is a spectacular place to take afternoon tea. The arrogant, curving exterior, more than a thousand feet tall, demands that you admit you’ve never seen any building like it. The blingtastic interior is a triumph of money over taste, with 20-feet-high aquaria in the lobby, gold leaf on almost every surface, fancy fountains and waterfalls. Book a table in the Skyview Bar, 27 floors up, just below the helipad, about half an hour before sunset. To the east you’ll see out of the ceiling-to-floor windows the Burj Khalifa, half a mile high from tip to sandal-sole, flare orange-gold as it catches the descending sun’s rays. Look west, and the Palm Jumeirah, a three-mile-wide collection of artificial islands covered in expensive homes and more expensive hotels, is gunmetal dark against the gleaming deep turquoise of the early evening Arabian Gulf.

Afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab

The Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, calls itself a “seven-star hotel”, though official designations only go up to five stars. Its labours in attempting to give guests a seven-star experience include having the names of everyone who books afternoon tea (at £70 a head – though to be fair this is only a little more than the Ritz in London charges for the same experience, and a much poorer view) mapped to a specific table, and that map then memorised by the staff, so that even the smiling Filipina who comes to top up your Darjeeling will address you by name. The food was, as it should be, excellent: the slice of pastry-wrapped salmon served before the sandwiches and pastries came up on a Burj Al Arab-shaped cakestand was perhaps the most perfectly cooked fish I have eaten, whipped from the chef’s domain and arriving on my plate at exactly the correct second. I have rarely enjoyed teatime food more: as both a gastronomic experience and hotel theatre, it gave value for every dirham.

But as you politely refuse the last proffered chocolate, lest you do a Mr Creosote, there is the opportunity to finish with a flourish: how about a beer at the bar itself, as the sun’s final gleam disappears from the darkening sky somewhere out over Qatar? The chance to sip something foaming and hoppy on a barstool 660 feet above the sea probably won’t return for a long time. What acme of the brewer’s art does the Burj Al Arab offer its seven-star customers? Continue reading So what beers does a seven-star hotel serve?

Maybe they should have kept to ‘revitalisation’. And dropped the ‘ale’

The biggest mistake that Camra made, I fear, was to change its name in 1973 from the original “Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale” to “Campaign for Real Ale”. The second-biggest mistake was to have ever used the word “ale”, rather than “beer”, in its title.

Am I serious? Surely coining the phrase “real ale” was a superb marketing tactic, enabling the campaign to put across its message simply and effectively: that it supported traditionally brewed and served British beer against the tide of over-carbonated keg ales and lagers that threatened to destroy this country’s drinking heritage. Would an organisation with similar aims, to stop cask beer disappearing, but called, I dunno, “Anti-Big Brewers Alliance” or “Confederation Of British Beer Lovers and Experts” have risen to become what the National Consumer Council declared as early as 1976 to be “the most successful consumer organisation in Europe”?

Maybe. But as the campaign approaches its 40th anniversary next year, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that its name, and the mind-set that name creates, makes Camra today part of the problems facing beer in Britain, as much as it may still be part of the solution.

Continue reading Maybe they should have kept to ‘revitalisation’. And dropped the ‘ale’

The boss of Molson Coors is an idiot

I’m basing that headline solely on the report in the Morning Advertiser, but if the pub trade paper’s summary of what Mark Hunter, UK chief executive of Molson Coors, just said to the International Brewing Convention 2010 in Manchester is correct, Mr Hunter needs to step down straight away and let someone who actually understands the UK beer business take his place.

According to Mr Hunter, the answer to all the problems the beer market faces in Britain is – fanfare please – beer menus in pubs! Yes, the reason why beer’s share of the alcohol drinks market has fallen from 70 per cent in 1970 to under 40 per cent now, with beer being replaced for many by (I quote Mr Hunter) “more relevant, unisex, innovative, exciting categories” is because you don’t get handed a list of the beers available that night by the landlord as soon as you pop your head round the door at the Duck and Dive.

You’ll have spotted, of course, that the rise in sales of wine, spirits, alcopops and the like over the decades is solely because even the meanest backstreet boozer puts a lengthy winelist on every table, chalks up its wide range of whiskies and vodkas on a board prominently positioned behind the bar and features a floodlight cabinet right inside the entrance containing every flavour and colour of RTD beverage known to marketing science.

Mr Hunter also called for “greater innovation” in the industry, and apparently, according to the MA, declared that “not much” new has been offered since flat-top beer cans were introduced in the mid-1950s. Right. So the rise of keg beer, the explosion in sales of lager, nitrokeg “smooth” beers, the whole cask ale/Camra thing, the massive boom in new small breweries, the introduction of new styles such as golden ales and whisky-cask-aged beers, the big expansion in beer choice in supermarkets, the arrival in the UK of previously unknown beer styles from continental Europe such as wheat beer and lambic, the flood of innovative new brews such as DIPA from the US, the recent envelope-pushing efforts of British brewers from Brewdog to Sharps, that was all a figment of my beer-sodden imagination. I can go back to sleep, and wake up again in a time when every pub had at least two draught milds and Watney’s Red Barrel was a well-respected bottled pale ale.

Continue reading The boss of Molson Coors is an idiot