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.

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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.

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The ploughman’s lunch – guilty or innocent?

How much metaphorical baggage can you pile on a simple bar snack? Can bread, cheese and pickle (plus some lettuce and a sliced tomato, if you like) really be placed in the dock and charged with representing the worst kind of British fakery? Does the ploughman’s lunch masquerade as a false representation of simpler times, when muscular farmworkers furrowed the fields with the aid of a couple of tons of Clydesdale or Shire, while in reality it’s the invention of Italian-suited marketers in slick Soho offices? And what does the father of Martin Bell, the BBC journalist and former MP for Tatton, have to do with the story?

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Out of step …

There’s an entry in The Guinness Book of Guinness, the volume of reminiscences produced in 1985 to mark the 50th anniversary of the building of the Park Royal brewery in London, which talks about the daily tastings of bottled Guinness undertaken by senior staff in the Park Royal sample room. Guinness being the sort of company that it was, bureaucratic, very strongly process-driven, all the tasters’ individual results were logged and compared, so the stats department could tell who were the most reliable. Edward Guinness, whose branch of the clan were actually from the non-brewing side, but who joined the company anyway in 1945, was “i/c sample room” in the late 1940s, and records:

… my worst taster by a wide margin was JF Brown, who upset every graph, and I had to be tactful in finally suggesting to him that he might forgo the privilege …

As John Brown was then head of raw materials, and went on to be Head Brewer at the Guinness brewery in Dublin, it is understandable Edward Guinness felt he had to be careful about telling the poor fellow he couldn’t taste his way out of a hop-sack …

I’ve got reasonable faith in my own tastebuds: I’ve raved over new beers, such as Little Creatures that others have later raved over too, and I’ve dissed beers, like Jupiler that most others seem to compare to weak stale dishwater too. But there are a couple of brews that turn up on “beers to try before you croak” lists that I fail to get at all, and I don’t know why everybody else is out of step except me.

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Waggle-and-Special

My third-nearest Young’s pub (which is named after the unpleasant, and unreadable, poisoned dwarf Alexander Pope, but I try not to let that damage my enjoyment of it) is currently selling draught Waggledance, the honey beer now, since all brewing of Young’s beers moved to Bedford, on its third brewery. This is not a beer I drink at home, but as I was in a pub I thought I’d experiment with Waggledance as a mixed beer. Young’s ales, since they have plenty of individual character, make excellent mixes, the best being a classic, Winter Warmer and Ordinary. This is the traditional “Mother-in-Law”, or old-and-bitter (no reference is intended here to any of my mothers-in-law, living or dead, and certainly not to you, Kate, as if …).

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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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Anchor-ite

Not particularly a propos of drinking Courage Imperial Russian Stout as brewed at the Anchor Brewery, I called at the Anchor Tap in Horselydown Lane, round the back of the old Courage Brewery and a tourist’s gob from Tower Bridge, just for an update.

Architecturally it’s a fine old pub with an interior layout dating back 150 years at least, and in a style now hard to find – two bars, lots of little rooms off those, and rooms off corridors, there’s even a darts board … Of course. the wasp in the pintpot is that the beer is now Samuel Smith’s, which means, as it does in most Sam’s pubs in London, no handpumps, and their own eccentric choices of fizzy keg beers that are apparently meant to be Tadcaster’s answer to the best-sellers from other brewers – Sam Smith’s wheat beer instead of Hoegaarden, Sam Smith’s Extra Stout instead of that stuff from Dublin.

I feel when I’m in a Sam’s pub that I have entered the premises of a peculiar cult, where nothing from the outside world can be allowed to sully the Yorkshire purity that exists between these four walls: “Tha keeps thy Guinness to thissen, lad! Us’ll ‘ave nowt but gradely beer from God’s Own County!” Continue reading Anchor-ite

A trio of old beers

 

The birthdays that are generally regarded as landmarks are mostly the ones that end in a zero: 30, 40, 50 and on upwards every ten years. Many get deeply gloomy as the anniversary odometer clicks over another decade. But the most depressing, I think, are the “demographic milestones”, the birthdays that indicate you’ve gone into a different category as far as marketers and demographers are concerned: 25 to 34, 35 to 44, 45 to 54 and so on. Suddenly, in the middle of your forties, or whatever, you are ticking a new box on forms, re-categorised with people nearly 10 years older.

This month I have been demographically re-sorted, and shifted in with people who might be only days from retirement. Please! I still buy records by people like Amy Winehouse, Rufus Wainwright and the Arctic Monkeys – do I have to line up in the same cohort as 64-year-olds? OK, I would rather sit naked on broken glass than go to Glastonbury, but I’ve felt that since three days of enforced constipation at the Shepton Mallet rock and blues festival in 1970 when I was 18.

Still, another birthday is an excellent excuse to try out some of the old beers I have slumbering upstairs, and there are three that are themselves reaching significant anniversaries. One I was particularly keen to sample again was Whitbread Celebration Ale, brewed to mark the 250th anniversary, in 1992, of Samuel Whitbread becoming a brewer, and made at a whopping 1100.5 OG . It was brewed at the former Tennant Brothers’ Exchange brewery in Sheffield, which closed the following year. I bought 12 bottles when it came out, and tried the first bottle five years after, in 1997. The nose was fantastic – blackberries, raisins, a mass of fruity flavours. However, tasting the beer it was clearly still far too young, with immature “meaty” flavours, and over-sweet, from heavy sugars that had still not broken down. Another bottle five years later was also still too young, and so was one I tried two years ago, when it was 13 years old but it was getting there, so at 15 I thought the beer ought to be ripe by now, and I fetched one down from the attic.

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FES three different ways

The arrival of increasing numbers of African immigrants to the UK in the 1990s meant that demand sprang up for Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, the strong (7.5 per cent ABV) version of Dublin’s black brew, which is made in breweries across Africa, and is one of the biggest selling beer brands on the continent. Guinness had never sold FES in the UK (or Ireland), except briefly (under the name XXX) in the 1970s, but by the mid-1990s it was available in Britain, where it competed with “grey” imports of FES from Nigeria for the immigrant trade.

One of the unique aspects of FES is that it is brewed using a special roast barley, malt and hops concentrate, deeply black and amazingly bitter, invented in the early 1960s by Guinness scientists, and originally called Concentrated Mature Beer. Now, under the name Guinness Flavour Extract, it is sent out from Ireland to the 50 or so breweries around the world that brew FES, where it is added at the rate of two per cent GFE to 98 per cent pale locally brewed beer. The boom in Guinness FES sales around the world meant that in 2003 Guinness decided it could not make enough GFE in Dublin, and refitted the former Cherry’s brewery in Mary Street, Waterford to make six million litres of GFE a year, using 9,000 tonnes of barley.

Today, while FES is still imported from Dublin, the Nigerian version is now legitimately available here via proper import channels – with the result that you can find the Dublin version in Sainsbury’s, while Tesco has versions brewed in Nigeria. I say “versions”, because a study of the back labels shows there appear to be two different sorts of Nigerian FES. Both use sorghum, a traditional African grain (used to make traditional African beers), at the insistence of the Nigerian government, which wanted locally-grown produce in locally brewed and sold beer: you can’t grow barley in Nigeria. However, alongside the sorghum, some bottles of Nigerian FES in Tesco say they also contain wheat, while others say they contain maize.

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'Zee-tho-fyle', by Martyn Cornell, an award-winning blog about beer now and then, founded in 2007