Tag Archives: Scotland

Neoprohibitionist lies exposed in one simple statistic

Where does the UK stand in the league table for consumption of alcohol per head? You’re probably saying to yourself something like, “oooh, we must be pretty high up – not as much as the Czechs, surely, they’re notorious for knocking back the pilsner, and I bet the Poles still drink lots of vodka, and doesn’t little Luxembourg have some weirdly high consumption per head figure because all its neighbours pop across the border to buy cheap booze? So, I dunno, fourth?”

A cartoon from 1920, when the American prohibitionist campaigner William ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson was  in Britain pushing the extreme temperance line

If you’ve caught any of the neoprohibitionist nonsense from organisations such as the Institute for Alcohol Studies – descended directly from the International Order of Good Templars, a campaigning temperance group founded in the 1850s – and the Alcohol Health Alliance, both currently crowing because they have managed to persuade the Scots to adopt minimum unit pricing of alcohol, and both pushing hard to have the same policy adopted in England and Wales, then you’ve probably subconsciously absorbed the idea that here in this green and sceptical isle we drink lots and lots, enough to have a problem about it, and certainly more than most others.

In fact, on average, we don’t. And in fact, on average, the UK comes 25th out of a list of 27 European countries for alcohol consumption per head (*). Third from bottom. Not “qualifying for the Champions League” levels at all – “relegation into the Championship” levels. Of the other nine leading economies in the world, only three – China, Japan and India – drink less alcohol per head than the UK does. The Germans drink more than 40 per cent more alcohol per head than we do. The French drink 24 per cent more. Even the United States drinks slightly more, at 7.1 litres of pure alcohol equivalent per head, against the UK’s 7 litres (all 2015 figures).

Other statistics also show that the UK today is a relatively sober nation. Overall alcohol consumption is 9 per cent down on 2001. Convictions for drunkenness are barely a third of the level they were even in the Second World War, when beer was weak, wine and spirits unavailable and your local pub, if it hadn’t been bombed to bits, was shut because of rationing; and only a tenth of what they were in 1973, when we all had long hair and loon pants and a pint cost 15p (though current statistics have probably been affected by the rise in fixed penalty notices). The number of positive breath tests has dropped two thirds since 1980, and more than halved since 2000. The percentage of 11 to 15-year-olds who have ever had an alcoholic drink is down by more than a third since 2001, and the percentage of 11 to 15-year-olds who had an alcoholic drink “in the last week” had plunged by more than two thirds.

None of this matters to the wowsers of the Institute for Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol Health Alliance, however. They point to the fact that some people abuse alcohol, and they have convinced themselves that the answer to that is the nonsensical “whole-population model”, which claims that if you lower total alcohol consumption, then “problematic” alcohol consumption will fall as well. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence to show this is true.

What is more, the figures from the Sheffield Alcohol Pricing Model, which was put together by academics at the University of Sheffield, and has been used to justify the introduction of minimum unit pricing, look instinctively ridiculous and untenable: the model claims that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol (a unit being 10ml/8gm of pure C2H5OH) would result in a “harmful” drinker, defined as someone who drinks 50 units a week (equivalent to just under three pints of medium-strength beer a day) cutting back consumption by half a pint a day, or increasing their spending by £2.88 a week. That’s less than the price of two corner-shop sandwiches: some deterrent.

The Institute for Alcohol Studies and the Alcohol Health Alliance, of course, say it’s not just about the heavy drinkers, that minimum unit pricing will also make the moderate drinker cut back, by two thirds of a unit for men and half a unit for women, per week. That’s cutting back by a fifth of a standard glass of red wine for women, and just over a quarter of a glass of wine for men. Per week. This, they claim, will “slash” the occurrence of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.

Paul Chase, in his excellent (though badly titled) book Culture Wars and Moral Panic: The Story of Alcohol and Society, sums it up very well:

“This is really all about symbolism and control. Once government becomes the ‘price-giver’ for the licensed trade, the image of alcohol as ‘no ordinary product’, and as something dangerous that we all need protecting from, becomes official policy. The Medical Temperance view of alcohol is in the ascendance. Their view chimes with government – not least because it gives [governments] a health-concern smokescreen behind which they can introduce what is nothing more than a sin tax.”

Minimum unit pricing is apparently now under consideration for England. If you want to stop this nannying and pointless nonsense, support Drinkers’ Voice, follow it on Twitter, and help campaign to be able to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol, moderately and sensibly.

(*) BBPA Statistical Handbook 2017, p95

Caley’s self- crafted approach to being craft

Are you a mature but still lively Victorian brewery? Do you worry that younger breweries, with their weird American hop varieties, shiny stainless steel lauter tuns and one-off wacky recipes, are luring your customers away? Is your 150-barrel minimum brewlength too inflexible to make experimental brews on? Worry no more: install your own microbrewery on the premises, and you too can be hitting the bartops with mango-flavoured double IPAs and smoked malt saisons. Comes with clip-on manbun and removable extra-bushy beard for all brewhouse operatives …

That’s unfairly sarcastic: I have no problems at all with big brewers who respond to the craft micro-brewery challenge by bringing in their own tiny set-up: I had great fun playing with the 10-barrel mini-brewery Brains installed at its site in Cardiff. The Brains plant, like those installed at Shepherd Neame in Kent, Hook Norton in Oxfordshire and Adnams in Suffolk, is designed to brew short-run one-off beers for selling in the company’s pubs. The Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, however, has gone for something craftily different: an on-site microbrewery that is solely for experimenting with, making brews that, should they prove to be successful, will then be scaled up for commercial production in the main brewery.

The Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh in 1989
The Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh in 1989

I last visited the Caledonian brewery more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, which was just two years after it had been the subject of a management buy-out to acquire it from Vaux, the Sunderland brewer, which had bought it in 1919. The brewery was founded by George Lorimer and Robert Clark in 1869, and Vaux took it over to supply the North East of England with Scotch Ale, a style of dark, fruity beer then very popular in the region. Edinburgh was once the third biggest brewing city in Britain, after Burton and London, and even in 1958 it has 18 surviving breweries. One upon one they closed: Vaux announced it wanted to shut the Caledonian in 1985. Fortunately for posterity, its then managing director, Dan Kane, an active Camra member, and his head brewer, Russell Sharp, felt there was enough demand for the traditional beer it made for the business to be viable on its own. In a regular irony, the lack of investment by Vaux over the years meant the Caledonian brewery still retained old-style equipment long replaced elsewhere, most notably open direct-fired coppers, which gave the brewery an excellent marketing story.

Steaming wort runs into an open copper at the Caledonian brewerry, Edinburgh, in 1989
Steaming wort runs into an open copper at the Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, in 1989

Despite a couple of fires at the brewery in the 1990s, those coppers are still there (though one is a replica, replacing a vessel lost in the fire of 1998, and they now appear to have suspended lids I don’t remember from before). Brewery manager Craig Steven says the now unique coppers give all the brewery’s beers a distinctive rotundity he always recognises in blind tastings. In 1991 the brewery launched a golden IPA using the name of another old Edinburgh operation, Deuchar’s, which had closed in 1961. That beer’s popularity was cemented with the award of the Champion Beer of Britain title by Camra in 2002, and it remains one of the UK’s best-selling cask ales. Then in 2004 the Caledonian Brewery lost its independence again, being bought by Scottish & Newcastle after S&N closed the old McEwan’s Fountainbridge brewery in Edinburgh. Just four years later the Dutch giant Heineken swooped on S&N, and Caledonian is now the second-smallest brewery (out of 165-plus) in what is currently the world’s third-largest brewing group.

Marble bust of George Lorimer, founder of ther Caledonian brewery
Marble bust of George Lorimer, founder of the Caledonian brewery

Which is why, presumably, they can afford to fly me up to Edinburgh, stick me in a four-star hotel, take me out for a very fine dinner in one of the Scottish capital’s best eateries, and all so I can see the new “Wee George” microbrewery (named for George Lorimer) and try the first beer to be scaled up and rolled out after trials on Wee George, an American-style IPA called Coast to Coast. There are those beer writers who would turn down being filled full of roast venison at a brewer’s expense in the belief that it would compromise their independence: I like to claim I’m not that cheaply influenced. (That is to say, you CAN influence me, but it will cost you lots …)

Talking of independence, Caledonian’s MD, Andy Maddock, who joined the Scottish brewer in March last year after six years as a senior sales and marketing man at Heineken, says his operation has an “arm’s length” relationship with its Dutch parent, allowing it to be entrepreneurial and to follow its own path as a “modern craft brewer”. There seems to be considerable fondness for the Caledonian brewery at the top in Heineken: they like its hands-on old fashionedness, and Michel de Carvalho, husband of Charlene Heineken, who inherited the business from her father Freddie in 2002, has apparently said Deuchars is his favourite beer.

Three Caledonian keg tapsThe advantages Caledonian has over most of its rivals, of course, are that as part of a huge conglomerate its financing is cheaper to arrange than a totally independent operator could manage, though it still has to have “all the rigour” in its budgets that any commercial operation has to have; and it can use its Heineken connections to get into other markets. Currently 95 per cent of sales are “domestic”, but in the next four to five years, Maddock says, he wants to see exports increasing, with Deuchars in particular and also Coast to Coast and the brewery’s new “craft lager”, Three Hop, being aimed at Western Europe. He also wants to see Caledonian’s beers making a bigger impact in the off-trade (“We haven’t punched our weight there yet,” Maddock says), and a greater awareness among drinkers that Deuchers is a Caledonian beer: it appears many Deuchars drinkers don’t actually know who makes it.

An original Deuchar's brewery mirror, now in the tasting bar at the Caledonian brewery, rescuded from a pub in Bath
An original Deuchar’s brewery mirror, now in the tasting bar at the Caledonian brewery, rescued from a pub in Bath

On the other hand, they know why they drink it, or at least Caledonian does: “drinkability”, that mysterious characteristic no brewer knows for certain how to achieve, but which is vital for a beer to win a substantial slice of the market. Strangely, Caledonian is one of the few breweries I’ve visited where “drinkability” has been emphatically placed in the heart of the business strategy. Maddock says that the future of Caledonian will be based on a “modern” range, with beers such as Coast to Coast, that emphasises “distinctiveness and accessibility”, and a “traditional” range, led by Deuchars, where “drinkability is really important”. The idea, clearly, is that if you fancy trying one of those new craft beers, you can be reassured by the Caledonian name that it won’t be a frightening experience you’ll never want to repeat; and if you’re looking for something comfortable and more familiar, Caledonian has that for you as well. “Comfortable and familiar” are, frankly, far too under-rated among beer raters: most people most of the time don’t want to be challenged by their beer. Indeed, probably, most people don’t want to be challenged by their beer any of the time. “Predictable but not boring” is a great position for your brand to take, if you can capture it. “Predictable” also has to mean “predictably good”, of course, and part of that means making sure your raw materials are top quality: Caledonian has insisted for a long time on using what it says is the best malting barley in the world, from the east coast of Britain, both Southern Scotland and East Anglia, it also only uses whole-leaf hops, and it has now altered the way it buys hops, eschewing the traditional hessian hopsack for vacuum-packing in foil, believing this to keep the hops fresh for longer.

THe 'Wee George' microbrewery set-up at the Caley
The ‘Wee George’ microbrewery set-up at the Caley: note mini-hopback above the drain

So to Wee George: Caledonian’s answer to the fact that there are now 100 breweries in Scotland, very few of which can match it with the popularity of its “traditional” line-up, but at least some of which offer are going to have widespread appeal – “widespread appeal” being the market sector Andy Maddock and his crew would like to own most of, thank you. It’s a £100,000 collection of hand-assembled stainless-steel kit capable of producing just 400 litres at a time, around a thirtieth of the main brewery’s capacity, but it has its own filler that can be used to put the beer into bottle, cask or keg, and it even has a hopback, just like the “big” brewery. Hopbacks are an old-fashioned item of kit today, replaced almost everywhere by whirlpools, but brewers who have kept them have realised that a hopback can be a terrific tool for adding all sorts of flavour to your hot wort. The new kit went in on June 1, and since then it has been producing one beer a week – the first being a version of Deuchar’s IPA, presumably to see how different the recipe would turn out on the Wee George kit compared to the Big George kit. Scaleablity was a problem at first, but the Caley brewers are getting better, they told me, at working out what tweaks were likely to be needed to translate a brew from Wee George to the main brewery.

The first Wee George beer to make it from experiment to scaled-up bar-top brand, Coast to Coast, was pushed through in eight weeks, which shows that for a 146-year-old, the Caley can be nimble enough when it wants to be: most big breweries barely have a meetings cycle that short, never mind the NPD pipeline. The name comes from the combination of West Coast of American hops – Simcoe, apparently – with East Coast of Britain barley. It’s a perfectly fine craft-beer-with-training-wheels, I suspect there’s an as yet untapped market for such brews among people looking for a beer to have when you’re only popping in for one and you want something with more flavour that usual but not TOO much, and I’d give it a fair chance of doing very well. Though if I were any good at predictions, I’d be much richer than I am.

Many thanks to the Caley crew for taking me north to meet Wee George, and I look forward to tasting future roll-outs.

Mash run with Steele's masher, Caledonian brewery
Mash run with Steele’s masher, Caledonian brewery
Inside the drained mash tun, with the grains still waiting to be removed
Inside the drained mash tun, with the grains still waiting to be removed
SONY DSC
Filling a copper at the Caledonian brewery, 2015
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One of the three copper coppers at the Caledonian brewery
A lovely rocky head in a fermenting square at the Caledonian brewery
A lovely rocky head in a fermenting square at the Caledonian brewery
A steaming louvre over the copper room at ther Caledonian brewery
A steaming louvre over the copper room at the Caledonian brewery
Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, 2015
Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, 2015