Tag Archives: Greene King

The ‘I was a teenage under-aged drinker’ 50th anniversary pub crawl

How many people in Britain ever waited until their 18th birthday before they ordered their first alcoholic drink in a pub? Not you, I bet, and not me, certainly.

In fact this year marks half a century since I started regularly drinking in pubs, and as I’m still a little shy of 68, you may assume, correctly, that my earliest out-of-home pints were seasoned with the spice of illegality. Not that it was much of a spice: 50 years ago bar staff, and the authorities, bothered even less about not-quite-legal under-aged drinkers than they did about drink-driving, which was not, shamefully, taken very seriously at all.

Not that I drove to the pub: strictly public transport. Onto the 801 bus, my throbbing green diesel-powered Routemaster to pleasureland, and away to Stevenage Old Town, where the High Street, once part of the Great North Road, offered a sufficiency of pubs, all ancient and characterful, to satisfy the keenest crawler. (And all a total contrast to the soulless boxes that were the pubs on the new town estates. But that is another essay, for another day.)

Not, either,  that I crawled that much back in 1969: there were two pubs out of the eight on the High Street itself where most of my pals would be found, so those were the two where I did most of my drinking. Generally Friday and Saturday evenings those pubs would be rammed almost to bursting with, largely, under-20s drinking pints (or brandy-and-babycham for the teen females: at least, that was what they always seemed to be drinking when I was getting the rounds in). I don’t recall any trouble or violence: the physical aggro was restricted to the only two pubs in Stevenage’s vast pedestrian shopping centre, and mostly to only one of those, the Edward the Confessor, know universally as the Ted the Grass..

The Chequers, Stevenage, a more welcoming pub today than it was to teenage me 50 years ago

I moved from the town almost four decades ago, back to London, where I was born: grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts have died, other friends have moved away, and now my brother has sold his house in Stevenage to move permanently to enchanting Norfolk, cutting the last big link I have with the town I moved to when I was two. I went up a few months ago for a last look round, a couple of weeks after Lewis Hamilton, who also grew up in Stevenage, infuriated most of its inhabitants by calling it “the slums” on the BBC (he did correct himself immediately, but Twitter, of course, was already ablaze). No better way to say goodbye, my brother and I decided, than one last pub crawl down the High Street, starting at the bottom and moving north until we’d had enough.

Stop number one, the Chequers, was not, in fact, a pub that featured regularly on my nights out, being out of what today would be called “the circuit”. It was once, until the middle of the 20th century, the first drinking place travellers saw as they entered Stevenage proper from the south up the main road from London to York. The building of the new town’s huge pedestrianised shopping centre obliterated a long stretch of the old Great North Road at the gateway to the Old Town, and left the Chequers down what had become a largely unhurried cul-de-sac. It’s a quietly attractive, faintly arts-and-crafts influenced building, rebuilt in 1889 at a cost of £500 by its owners at the time, the Lytton family of Knebworth House, a couple of miles to the south, who were the big local landowners. (Edward Bulwer “dark and stormy night” Lytton was a big friend of Charles Dickens, which is why there was once a pub about 400 yards down the Great North Road from the Chequers called the Our Mutual Friend, after one of Dickens’s novels, which opened a month or so after the novel was first published: that pub is now demolished, but the name was transferred to a newly built pub in the New Town, close to where I grew up,)

When I started going into pubs regularly, about 1968/69, the drinkers at the Chequers were mostly Old Towners whose ancestors had lived in North Hertfordshire for, probably, 500 years or more, and who spoke in a noticeably different accent from the tens of thousands of New Towners, like my parents, who had moved to North Hertfordshire in the early and mid 1950s from North London suburbs such as Willesden and Burnt Oak, 30 miles to the south. (A few years ago I met a work colleague of my wife, and recognised her accent immediately: turned out that she had grown up in a village about two miles outside Stevenage.) Today the Chequers is probably one of the best pubs in Stevenage: its two bars, almost inevitably, have become one, but the deep black, hefty, solid oak serving area, surrounded by black and white floor tiles, the settles and oak table, have a comfortable pubby authenticity as welcoming as a hug from your favourite aunt, and although it is still owned by Greene King (who took over the local big brewer, Simpson’s of Baldock, in the 1950s) the beer range is excellent: the first place I can remember finding two dark milds on sale, one Greene King’s own, the other from the Tring Brewery away over the other side of the county.

Would you let this long-haired teen into your pub?

Teenage me, beamed forward half a century, would still probably not come in here, since there continued to be no other teens in the place, even if there would not be the slightly hostile vibration there was in 1969 from middle-aged small-town working class pub-goers against somewhat feminine-looking 17-year-olds with wavy hair down to their shoulders. (My father, a bricklayer, once told me that one of his fellow brickies, astonished by his toleration of his sons’ long hair, asked him why he did not take the scissors to us while we slept.) Teenage me knew next to nothing about beer, except that he liked the taste, and he had not yet realised that there was good beer and bad beer (that would only come a couple of years later, at university in a town dominated by Watney’s). Teenage me went to the pub to meet friends and chat, in particular try to chat to girls (with almost no success). The Chequers in 1969 was not a place to find girls to try to chat to. Old man me, however, now with very much less hair, was entirely happy to be drinking in the Chequers, however. Still no teenage girls in there, but, of course, they’d be even less interested in me today than they were 50 years ago, and the lack of interest among girls in the 1960s in getting to know spotty teenage me better was an almost solid thing even then.

I have always enjoyed the atmosphere of pubs, what Iain Banks in one of his novels calls the frague, the almost indefinable vibration that a good pub has going on between its walls, the interaction of multiple people intent on having an enjoyable experience, the surroundings (which should be a barely heard basso ostinato of warmth, comfort and security), and friendly, attentive service, that makes even sitting in a bar on your own a pleasure. I still enjoy the crack that comes with good company in a good pub, too. Now, however, the beer is probably the most important part of the mix, up from something that didn’t matter at all when I was a teen. Great pub, poor beer or poor pub, great beer? Today it would have to be a really great pub, a “not to be missed”, to make up for the beer not being up to scratch. Fifty years ago, teenage me would have considered that an incomprehensible question.

The Coach and Horses, Stevenage: attractive exterior but a fine example of that excellent rule: ‘Never go into a pub advertising its pool tables’

It was poor pub, poor beer at the next stop on the anniversary crawl, another place I rarely visited 50 years ago, the Coach and Horses. Despite being quite attractive on the outside, a solidly built 19th century brick-and-red-tile inn that, as the sign suggests, catered for travellers until the railway arrived in the town in the early 1850s, this never had much appeal to teenage me, being, like the Chequers, mostly full of people then twice my age or more, and an early example, if I recall correctly, of the banquette and padded Windsor chair style of pub furnishings. In 2019 the interior is now darker and more basic, and the large pool table in the knocked-through bar attracts exactly the sort of customer you would expect to be attracted to a large, dark bar with a pool table. The one handpump had the clip turned round, so it was a half of Hop House 13 (strange how Guinness still provides the one fall-back for a discerning drinker in a pub with no properly acceptable beer, but now in the form of a flowery pale lager-like beer rather than a bottle-conditioned stout) and off up the road.

Pub number three on the anniversary crawl is probably the one I spent most time in during 13 or so years of drinking beer in Stevenage, the Marquis of Lorne. A converted 17th or 18th century cottage built of now worn red bricks, it is named for the man who married Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, in 1871, and thus ought, pedantically speaking, to be the Marquess of Lorne. I doubt the signboard has ever carried the correct version of the name. The Marquis is a rare example of a pub that still retains its original two drinking spaces, a “tap” or public bar at the front and a long, narrow saloon or lounge bar at the side. For reasons that remain unknown to me, I and my teenage friends drank exclusively in the lounge bar, though, this being the 1960s, when the distinction still remained between public and saloon, we were probably being charged a couple of pence or more per pint for the privilege of carpet on the floor and cushions on the seats than the drinkers in the more basic, bare-boarded tap. Nevertheless, the lounge bar of the Marquis was hugely popular, and frequently, on a Friday or Saturday night, more rammed with teens than a telephone box filled with rag-stunt students. This is not an exaggeration. Sometimes it was almost impossible to move.

The Marquis of Lorne, Stevenage: mis-spelt name, wildly ahistoric pub sign, but still a very good pub

The draught beer in the Marquis 50 years ago was, I now know (and certainly didn’t then), top-pressure: cask ale, brewed at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade, up the road in Bedfordshire, but served up from the cellar with the help of a cylinder of CO2, the taps on the bar shaped like miniature porcelain handpumps. Greene King IPA was the most popular choice, but nobody called it “IPA”: the order was always for “a pint of bitter”. Nobody, that I can recall, drank lager: there might have been a Harp fount on the bar counter, and there were bottles of Satzenbrau, Guinness’s attempt at a pilsner, on the shelves behind. Teens, of course, did not drink mild (that was what your dad drank), and I don’t recall seeing Greene King’s excellent dark mild on sale in any Old Town pub, though since my beer consciousness was minimal in 1969, consider me a deeply unreliable memorialist. Other Greene King pubs in the Old Town still had proper handpumps, though teenage me failed to notice any difference in the quality of the beer. What did I know? Forgive me, at the time I had probably drunk the products of fewer than half a dozen breweries. (It would, in fact, be another nine years or so years before the Marquis got its handpumps back, as Greene King finally caught up with the real ale revolution that began in 1971: by that time I was vastly more beer-aware, and on the local Camra branch committee, and we recorded these changes.)

Today the Marquis seems pretty much unchanged, the alterations in 50 years minimal: of all the pubs on the 50th anniversary crawl, it is the one teenage me could step into today without blinking. It has kept the pubby vibe, the smart but comfortable feel that would have made it worth visiting even if it had not been so popular with my teenage peers. Unlike the Chequers, the beer selection is entirely GK, but while nobody’s heart leaps today at the sight of a GK IPA handpump the way we did in 1978, when it meant another gain for the anti-fizz cause, when it’s looked after, GK is entirely acceptable: the Marquis wouldn’t, now, be my first choice of Stevenage pub as it was in 1969, but if you suggested it, I wouldn’t insist on going somewhere else.

The next pub going north 50 years ago, the White Hart, closed in 2010, and is now an Indian restaurant. I spent more time here after I became beerily “woke”, around 1975, than I did as a teen, since it was a rare local outlet for Ind Coope of Romford and, thus, their Burton ale and KK light mild (and, later, the revived Benskins bitter, named for the former Watford brewery), and I miss those vanished beers more than I do the pub.

Happily, the Red Lion, smallest of Stevenage’s former coaching inns and third call on the anniversary crawl, is still open: this was the other Old Town pub deeply popular with teens half a century ago, and it still seems popular with their grandchildren. Teenage me might have been slightly puzzled by the music being played over the sound system today, late 1970s heavy metal and its derivatives, but not that puzzled: I was an early fan of Led Zeppelin (I owned, and gave away, one of the first copies of Led Zeppelin I, with the turquoise lettering on the cover, which would be worth several hundred pounds today: ho hum) and I remember being deaf for at least an hour after sitting in row E for a Zeppelin concert circa 1970 at the Albert Hall. The pub is now properly a music venue, with regular rock band appearances at weekends and an annual “Redfest”, and it is with intense amusement that I note one band due to perform there this October, Gridlock, does a version of “Whole Lotta Love”, a song itself 50 years old this year. (There’s a theme for another essay: it’s like 1969’s teens and early 20s listening to the Original Dixieland Jass Band. What is the continuing attraction of granddad’s music?)

The Red Lion, Stevenage, magnet for teens for the past 50 and more years

The Red Lion’s interior has been worked over, the back bar extended sideways into the courtyard where coaches once pulled up to have their sweating, tired teams of horses changed, and it is now possible to walk from the front bar to the back without going outside and through the arch that connects the courtyard with the High Street. The unbelievably manky men’s urinals, with their strange bright green mossy growths on the walls, have vanished, and so have the bar billiards table, and the darts board, where George Newberry, the tall, thin, elderly landlord, and a former News of the World darts champion, would occasionally come out from behind the bar and demonstrate how to hit treble 20s with six-inch nails, a performance even more remarkable since he had artificial legs. The walls, at least in the back bar, are now painted black rather than the nicotine-stained light caramel they were 50 years ago. (When the pub was decorated in the late 1970s, the brewery – Greene King again – actually chose a shade of paint almost identical to the effects of 40 years of cigarette smoke on white emulsion: perhaps Farrow & Ball should try adding “Public Bar” to its shades of cream and off-white.)

I find it hard to explain why the pub, in particular the back bar, was so popular with 1969’s teens: it was a classic Old Town boozer unchanged, at that time, since at least the Second World War, and should have been full of cloth-capped middle-aged Old Towners drinking the probably well-looked-after hand pumped bitter, or Abbot, and smoking roll-ups with, in the front bar only, their wives drinking Babycham or a small sweet sherry. Likely it was because George the landlord (his wife was known, inevitably and semi-accurately, as the dragon) was entirely laissez-faire about under-age drinking, provided you bought him the occasional rum-and-pep. Once it became a. place for teens to meet, and drink, then it stayed a place for teens to meet, and drink: we went there because we knew our friends were likely to be there. We might have driven the locals out, but we packed the place, and drank, very likely, as much as they would have.

After George and his wife retired to a home for ex-publicans, the Red Lion became more biker-oriented, and eventually music-oriented, and in half a century it has not lost its attraction to that apparently constantly renewing demographic in its 20s which enjoys shaking its hair to very loud guitar solos. Would teenage me still enjoy going down the Red Lion? Yes, I’m sure I would think it was tremendous. What about 50-years-on me? I have no problems still with loud music designed to make the audience bounce up and down – the last concert I went to, in June, was the fabulous Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans, which was strictly standing room only – but Led Zep covers, perhaps not.

The Standing Order, Stevenage High Street, a former butcher’s shop and then a bank, ‘spooned’ in 2010, which from the outside looks little different from other old Stevenage pubs

However, we have a pub crawl to finish, so drain that pint and on up the road, past the two bars in the High Street that have opened in the past 50 years, balancing the two that have closed (the new pubs are a Wetherspoon’s in, inevitably, a disused bank and another large outlet in a former hardware shop, which at one time was selling a beer called Four Candles) to what was once Stevenage’s leading coaching inn. This thrived under the sign of the White Lion for more than 400 years: Greene King, with the thoughtless ignorance that characterises the company’s attitude to its heritage, decided to toss that in the skip four years ago and rename the inn the Mulberry Tree, for no known reason.

The Mulberry Tree, Stevenage High Street. That plaque on the wall giving the inn’s history still calls it the White Lion

It’s another attractive old red-brick 18th century building on the outside, and another that I didn’t use that much as a teen: this was the most up-market of the Old Town pubs, popular with young couples on their tenth date, and my only reason for revisiting was to see how much it had altered. Teenage me would not have recognised the interior: the bar had been completely repositioned, the layout chopped about, walls demolished, and the entire set-up now making it clear this was a place expecting you to dine rather than drink: pub dining, of course, is a phenomenon that became widespread only in the past 30 years. The Mulberry Tree, like the White Lion, probably remains popular with young couples on their tenth date: teenage me would hate it, and modern me was pretty underwhelmed.

Conclusions? It was a surprise to me to realise, reflecting on the changes in the pubs, how much I had altered myself as a pub-goer in half a century, without losing a love for pubs. Thank heavens, frankly: going down the pub played a large and enjoyable part in my life 50 years ago, and I still enjoy it greatly today, but for wider and, I think, deeper and more considered reasons. I have no idea how many pubs and bars I have been in, from Sydney to San Francisco, since I first started drinking in Stevenage, but the ordinary British boozer remains my favourite place to have a beer, after 50 years.

Why the clear glass bottle question means I’m not bothered Marston’s is buying Charles Wells

Estrella believes in the power of the brown bottle: it’s a pity a few more British breweries don’t

Yesterday’s announcement that Marston’s is acquiring the Charles Wells Brewing and Beer Business for £55 million and loose change (or “working capital adjustments”), at a pretty conservative 5.5 times ebitda, adds another five historic old brewery names, Courage, McEwans, Young’s, William Younger’s and Wells, to a portfolio that already reads like the line-up at a quite good small beer festival circa 1990: Marston’s itself, Banks’s, Jennings, Thwaites, Ringwood, Wychwood, Brakspear, Mansfield, Mitchells (with Lancaster Bomber) and, if you include beers Marston’s brews under licence, Bass and Tetley.

It will give the company six working breweries, and more than 50 “ale” brands, from Bank’s mild to McEwan’s Champion. That’s around twice as many as its closest rival, Greene King, which runs just two breweries, its own original home in Suffolk and Belhaven in Scotland, and continues brewing under the names of just five vanished brewers: Morlands, Ruddles, Ridleys, Hardy’s & Hansons and Tolly Cobbold. On the retail side, however, Greene King owns around 3,100 pubs and bars, making it the third biggest operator in the country, Marston’s “just” 1,750 or so, meaning it vies with Mitchells & Butlers for fourth place.

So what’s with Marston’s policy of adding ever more seemingly pretty similar “twiggy brown bitters” to its line-up? I interviewed the company’s chief executive, Ralph Findlay, two years ago, right after Marston’s had acquired Thwaites’s beer portfolio and made those beers available to all its pubs, and he was pretty specific about the desire to increase further his already considerable ale offer: “Choice is where the market is at,” Findlay said. “Range is something you simply have to have, both for licensees and their customers.” Even after the Thwaites acquisition, he said. Marston’s would continue to look for “opportunistic” purchases if they came up: “We look at potential acquisitions that are consistent with our strategy and which can contribute to our return on capital. We have had a strategy over the past five years that’s not been reliant on acquisitions, though we’ve made them when it’s been opportunistic to do so, such as the acquisition of the Thwaites brewing business. I think we’re in the fortunate position of having an incredibly strong beer range from the various breweries that we’ve got. It’s a strategy that is undoubtedly working.”

Why not, like others, just buy in beers, rather than buy breweries? Because, as Findlay says, it’s a strategy that is working. Marston’s also revealed its half-year figures yesterday. Own-brewed beer volumes were up two per cent, in a declining market. Sales were up three per cent, to £440.8m. Average profit per pub was up three per cent. Like-for-like sales were up between 1.6 and 1.7 per cent. More City analysts than not continue to have the company as a “buy”.

Should we mourn the capture of more beer brands by one large company? Not in this case, I believe, and the reason is something you probably don’t know, because Marston’s has never, curiously, made a big parade about it. Five or so years ago, Marston’s brewers made a mighty oath that they would not let any of their beers continue to go on sale in clear glass bottles, believing that the dangers of the product they poured their hearts into being light-struck and skunky through not using brown bottles was too great. The company’s marketeers accepted the brewers’ ruling, something that brewers at no other large UK ale brewery, apart from Fuller’s have been able to achieve: Greene King, Shepherd Neame, Hall & Woodhouse, all sell some or several of their beers in clear bottles, and even Charles Wells has at least one several of its brands, includingWaggle Dance (originally, history fans, made by Wards of Sheffield Vaux of Sunderland, then Vaux, then Young’s, and thus about to be on its fourth fifth owner) and the Burning Gold iteration of Bombardier (as the Beer Nut reminded me) in flint glass. The commitment by Marston’s to beer quality ahead of spurious marketing arguments about how consumers are supposedly encouraged to buy beers that they can see the colour of makes me more confident that Wells’s brand are in relatively safe hands under the boys from Wolverhampton.

Ironically, or at least I think it’s ironic, one of the brands Marston’s is acquiring distribution rights to via the Wells purchase, the Spanish lager Estrella, has just been running an ad campaign un the UK under the slogan “Darker bottle, better beer”, explaining to consumers that “research has shown that exposure to light damages beer and affects its flavour”, and for that reason it was darkening its bottles by 30 per cent.

I’m slightly puzzled that Charles Wells has said that, while it will now be concentrating on its pub estate, it will also be building a new small brewery in Bedford to brew the Charlie Wells “craft beers” and John Bull range, which it is not selling to Marston’s. Is this continued toehold in the brewing world a way of appeasing the family shareholders (many of them formidable elderly females who, Paul Wells once told me, all had his phone number and would ring him up when they felt the company’s figures weren’t good enough) who might try to vote down the sale of the main brewing operation if they felt the company was cutting off its roots after 141 years of supplying beer to the people of Bedford?

Charles Wells currently brews several beers I’m very fond of, including Courage Imperial Russian Stout, Young’s Winter Warmer and McEwan’s Champion, that will now be brewed under Marston’s control. For probably the only time ever, I’m going to let Tim Page, chief executive of Camra, speak for me: giving a cautious one thumb up to the takeover, he said yesterday: “Marston’s has a positive track record of keeping the breweries it acquires open, in situ, and in many cases investing in the sites to increase capacity, and we urge them to continue that policy. We’d also encourage them to protect the brands that they have acquired and increase the range available to beer drinkers, by continuing to supply them alongside the existing beers produced by Marston’s owned breweries.”

Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look
The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

Continue reading Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Why Rooney Anand is talking rubbish on minimum alcohol pricing

I was disappointed and angry to see Rooney Anand, chief executive of Greene King, calling in the Daily Telegraph last week for minimum unit pricing for alcohol. Disappointed because the arguments for minimum unit pricing have been totally debunked, and Mr Anand should really have known he was talking rubbish – or his advisers should have told him. Angry because I cannot understand why he is using his position as boss of one of the largest brewers and pub operators in the country to promote the agenda of the neoprohibitionists for whom minimum unit pricing is but a small step on the way to totally restricting the sale of alcohol.

“Binge drinking continues to adversely affect our nation,” Anand cried, insisting that we have a “growing culture of irresponsible drinking”. And yet since 2004 there has been an 18.9% fall in alcohol consumption per head and consumption is now at its lowest level this century. Violent crime linked to alcohol has fallen by 32% since 2004 and by 47% since 1995. Where is your evidence for a “growing culture of irresponsible drinking”? Since 2005 the number of men “binge drinking” (a dubious concept in its own right, as I pointed out here) has fallen by 17%; the number of women binge drinking has fallen by 23%; and binge drinking among 16 to 24-year-olds has fallen by 31% among men and by 34% among women. In 2012-13, alcohol consumption in England and Wales fell by 2.1% year-on-year, to its lowest level since 1990. “When it is possible to walk into a shop and buy a bottle of beer for less than a bottle of water, it is no surprise that, as a nation, we are moving in the wrong direction in our relationship with and consumption of alcohol,” Anand asserts. So a fall of almost a fifth in alcohol consumption in the past ten years is a move in the wrong direction, Rooney? Or do you not actually know that consumption is falling? Incidentally, that fall of nearly a fifth in alcohol consumption is actually far more than its proponents claimed would have been achieved by introducing minimum pricing. Oh, and it’s NOT possible to buy a bottle of beer for less than the price of a bottle of water, and never has been, unless you are talking about the most expensive designer water.

The first mash at the new Greene King brewhouse, Bury St Edmunds, 1939
The first mash at the new Greene King brewhouse, Bury St Edmunds, 1939

Anand goes on to claim that a 50p minimum unit price “could” reduce the costs to the NHS caused by alcoholic overindulgence by “as much as” £417m a year. Ignoring the two sets of weasel words there – “could” and “as much as”, the use of which sucks all the veracity out of his claim– it’s a pathetic claim anyway. £417m equals 31p per household per week. Big swing.

Next up, Anand references “a recent study by the University of Sheffield” which “indicated that minumum unit pricing” would have a larger positive impact on those in poverty, particularly high risk drinkers. Allegedly, minimum unit pricing “targets those prone to binge drinking, with their consumption expected to fall 7% through raising the price of approximately 30% of units sold to harmful drinkers.” But as Paul Chase, author of the excellent book Culture Wars and Moral Panic: The Story of Alcohol and Society (I’ve nicked all the stats here from him), has pointed out, “the Sheffield minimum pricing model is based on absurd assumptions, such as the belief that heavy drinkers are much more price-sensitive than moderate drinkers, and assumptions made about the price-elasticity of demand for alcohol that are at odds with what economic research and common sense tell us about the relationship between price and consumption.” To fill that out: there is no evidence at all that making drink dearer for heavy, problem drinkers will stop them drinking as much as they already do. Indeed, it seems more than likely that what will happen is that they will cut down on expenditure elsewhere in order to find the money to carry on drinking as much as ever.

Anand calls the failure to introduce a minimum pricing of alcohol in Scotland “disappointing”. But Scotland’s attempt to introduce minimum pricing hasn’t gone through because it is currently the subject of an investigation by the European Court of Justice, which is likely to give its decision on whether the proposal is legal, or breaks EU competition law, only at the end of 2015 or early in 2016. Expert betting is that it will be ruled illegal.

It is hard not to assume that Anand is backing the idea of minimum unit pricing because he thinks that it makes him appear on the side of the “good guys”, despite being a producer of “demon alcohol”. Perhaps, too, he thinks that minimum unit pricing will hurt the supermarkets more than it will the brewers and pub owners, and for that reason it’s a Good Thing. But he really needs to think about who he is getting into bed with by promoting minimum unit pricing. These are people prepared to lie and distort to promote their aims – the claim that “up to” 35% of A&E admissions are “alcohol-related”, for example, which is completely made up, of the equally preposterous claim that “Alcohol misuse hands a hefty annual bill of £21bn to UK taxpayers”, which is, again, based on unverifiable guesses and false reasoning. But the anti-alcohol lobby genuinely doesn’t care if its statistics aren’t true. It only wants to see its policies adopted, because it thinks it knows best what is good for all of us. To quote Paul Chase again: “Public discourse on alcohol is dominated by an absolutist, loony-left dominated, alcophobic public health movement that has become a vehicle for Big Business bashing.” Really, Rooney, do you think you should be promoting a policy these people want?

In defence of old men with beards

OMWBAWYIt happened, I’m guessing, about the time that the first wave of Camra members were hitting their late 50s and early 60s, that is, at the beginning of this century. If “real ale” had been pejorated almost from the beginning as the drink of men with beards, generally accompanied by sandals, soon after the millennium the cliché became old men with beards, sitting in a corner of the pub clutching a half-filled glass of something tepid, lifeless and tan-coloured in their wrinkled, liver-spotted hands.

Rooney Anand, viridian monarch at Greene King, seems to have been one of the first to favour the expression, complaining in 2002: “It’s time to explode the myth that real ale is for old men with beards. It’s not, it’s for everyone.”

Since then, the meme has trundled on, gathering speed: “Cockermouth brewer Jennings hopes to use Cask Beer Week to shatter the stereotype that bearded old men are the only ones who drink real ale” (Times and Star, Cumbria, September 2004); “real ale … seen as only for old men with beards and beer bellies” (BBC website, December 2005); “pubs full of old men with beards who drink real ale” (Farmers’ Weekly, April 2008); ” real ale drinkers … smelly old men with beards” (Metro, October 2008); “Normally when people think real ale, they picture old men with far too much facial hair, reeking of pipe smoke” (Metro again, August 2011); “real ale drinkers … crusty old men with beards” Hull Daily Mail, October 2011; “Real ale … for old men with beards and woolly jumpers” (Scotland on Sunday, October 2011); “real ale … a flat, warm brown liquid that old men with beards drink” (Bristol Evening Post, April 2012); you’re getting the idea. Continue reading In defence of old men with beards

And the winner is … 961?

I’ll forgive myself for never having heard of 961 Beer, because its products are apparently not yet on sale in the UK. But they ARE available in Hong Kong – and 961 Lager has just been declared the best lager in the city, after the blind tasting by me and 11 other judges I blogged about last month.

Those of you with an encyclopediac knowledge of international dialling codes will recognise 961 as Lebanon: the brewery, based in the village of Mazraat Yachoua, six miles or so north-east of Beirut, is now six years old and claims (I’m sure it’s true) to be the only microbrewery in the entire Arab world. It triumphed over 38 competitors in the lager category at the 2012 Hong Kong International Beer Awards, suggesting strongly that founder Mazen Hajjar, who started the operation in his kitchen, knows what he is doing.

British winners were BrewDog, which came top in the Amber Ale category with 5am Saint; Saltaire, which took the Stout first prize, with Triple Chocoholic; Little Valley, from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in the Organic category with Python IPA; and in the “British Style Ale” category, Strong Suffolk from Greene King. That wouldn’t be my personal first choice for a “British Style Ale”: I’ve always had a problem with Strong Suffolk, it’s a beer I really want to like, because of the almost unique way it’s made, by blending an aged 5X old ale with a younger Burton Ale, and yet every time I try it I go away underimpressed. However, I’m glad it won, simply because I hope it encourages Greene King to carry on brewing 5X.

Pacific Coast American craft brewers also swept up four of the prizes, a sign of the boom in imports of microbrewed beers from the West Coast US to Hong Kong in the past 12 to 18 months. The Californian North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw took the Pilsner prize, Rogue of Oregon won both the Pale Ale category, for its Chatoe OREgasmic Ale, and the Brown Ale category, with its Hazelnut Brown Nectar, and another Californian operator, Mendocino Brewing, had the top Bock with Eye of the Hawk.

Despite strong competition from American craft brewers, the “Belgian Style Ale” winner was a proper Belgian brewer, Brouwerij Huyghe (best known for Delirium Tremens) of Ghent, with Artevelde Grande Cru, and Huyghe also walked off with the prize for best Fruit Beer with Floris Fraise. The Wheat Beer prize went to a German entry, Hopf White, from Weissbierbrauerei Hopf in Miesbach, in the far south of Bavaria.

The big surprise, however, was the winner in the IPA category – not an American, but Feral Brewing, from Baskerville, Western Australia, with its Hop Hog. Indeed, the judges loved this beer so much, they gave it the highest number of points of any of the more than 250 entries in the competition, meaning Hop Hog also carried off the palm for Champion Beer of the 2012 Awards.

Reports say the microbrewing scene in Western Australia is booming: hopefully Feral’s success will encourage more brewers from there to look north to the market in Hong Kong.

(Addendum: apparently Feral was extremely surprised to win, because it didn’t even know the competition was on, let alone that it was entered.)

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.

Continue reading Loch Fyne could be finer with decent beer

Everything you wanted to know about X

This is going to bring me large numbers of search engine hits from people looking for something else entirely, but I’m going to talk about the joy of X, which inevitably means mentioning XX, and XXX of course, and XXXX and so on, right up to Simonds of Reading’s strong stout, Archangel XXXXXXX.

The usual (and only semi-likely) explanation of the original use of X and XX as markings on ale and beer casks, and subsequently as beer names, was that they were used as a guarantee of quality by monastic brewers: Frederick Hackwood’s Edwardian-era Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England says that

in shape the crosses were at first more akin to the crucifix, and served to indicate that by the oath of the monks, ‘sworn on the cross’, the beer was of sound quality, fit to drink.”

though, of course, there is no contemporary documentary evidence given for this, and it seems unlikely, frankly, that monks would use Christianity’s holiest symbol on casks of ale. In any case, † is † and X is X.

Another explanation is that it comes from the habit of excisemen from the middle of the 17th century, when beer was first taxed, marking XX on casks of strong ale or beer and X on casks of small beer. The problem with that idea is that the excisemen’s marks were X for strong beer and T for table beer.

Continue reading Everything you wanted to know about X

Come-back for the Burtons

One of the particularly interesting facts to emerge from the papers prepared for last week’s BGBW seminar on wood-aged beers was that Greene King has been giving everyone, including our leading beer writers entirely the wrong tale about the name of BPA, the beer that is blended with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk.

The initials BPA do not, in fact, stand for Best Pale Ale, as writers from Michael Jackson to Roger Protz have been misled by the brewery into saying. They stand for Burton Pale Ale – and if you read the recipe for BPA, which included dark sugars and crystal malt, this makes perfect sense.

The trouble is that nobody today can remember what Burton Pale Ale used to be, and everybody now thinks it’s a synonym for India Pale Ale. It isn’t, at all – they are two totally different beers, in colour and flavour, and united only in being associated with the same brewing town.

Burton Pale Ale, also known as Burton Ale is the original dark, rather sweet beer the brewers of Burton upon Trent made and exported to Russia before they started brewing even paler, bitterer India Pale Ales in the 1820s.

Continue reading Come-back for the Burtons