Friday 22 January 2010

Picking Up The Pen

Pete Brown's latest post reports on his success in challenging some of the data used by the BBC News website in their 'factual' reporting of numbers of alcohol-caused deaths and costs to the economy. He urges readers to use his research to challenge dodgy statistics and other errors when they spot them.

With this in mind, I've just written to the Radio Times to clarify the source of stats used to buttress an article on portrayal of alcohol and pubs in the latest issue, written by their Soaps reporter Gareth McLean. I've used some of Pete's figures to counter the arguments presented about rising consumption (as we know, over 10 years, consumption, especially in the on-trade, is falling). We'll see if they use the letter, but even if they don't, I'm going to persist until I know how and where he got his numbers.

It's all got me thinking about whether there's any benefit to trying to set up a system of alerts around the beer blogosphere, so that many voices can respond instead of just one or two. Some charities use letter-writing successfully, the obvious example being Amnesty, and Greenpeace also had (have?) a pool of supporters with sharpened nibs poised. CAMRA have used postcard mailings to MPs as a lobbying tool. What do you think? Do orchestrated letter-writing campaigns have any place around here?

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Tories: We Hate Beer Drinkers

Pete Brown has done sterling work on debunking the Health Select Committee report on alcohol abuse, and Melissa Cole reports on the Temperance mob hiding behind an 'independent' think tank. But the shitkicking continues apace...

The BBC News website this morning reported on Home Office plans for "cracking down" on alcohol abuse. These include bans on all you can drink promotions, offering smaller measures, compulsory ID checks and the availability of free tap water. Enforcement would include fines and/or imprisonment.

Chris Grayling, shadow Home Secretary, pitched in with some Tory measures. He'd already proposed changing labelling of alcoholic drinks so that units were replaced by centilitres of alcohol. Now, however, he added some new bits of meat to the pot - local authorities would have the power to levy a surcharge on on-trade establishments open after a certain time; establishments breaching licensing rules would be closed down. And, most controversially if you like beer, he suggests that strong beer, alcopops and some types of cider (tramp juice, mainly) be subject to huge increases in duty, labelling them "problem drinks".

Grayling then turned up on The Daily Politics (watch him here) at lunchtime to amplify his party's thinking. Andrew Neill had already interviewed BBPA's Brigid Simmonds (their latest response to the measures is here) but there was, sadly, no open discussion where she could challenge or question Grayling.

Neill wanted to know why gin, whisky, wine and sherry would not be classified as "problem drinks" but failed to get a meaningful response. Grayling, doing what our beloved politicians do and talking in stereotypes, offered the "little old lady who likes a glass of sherry" as an unintended victim of such a move. When asked what would happen if those priced off beer and lout went to gin, he didn't reply.

Unchallenged, Grayling was allowed to assert that beer was different to when Neill and he were young men - that it was today some 30-40% stronger. His party didn't want to proscribe scrumpy, he earnestly related, just the drinks causing the problems on our streets.

Beyond the bullshit and the attack on the on-trade, what really winds me up is the idea that those who consume wine, sherry and spirits aren't problem drinkers. How much have wine sales rocketed in pubs over the past decade or two? This is about that shorthand again. Who drinks beer? The working/underclass. Who's out there turning our town centres into war zones every week? Have a guess. What about all that cost to the NHS? Hmmm, I wonder...

And this whole nonsense about drinking games? When did any MP witness the Dentist Chair? They didn't. They saw it where they meet real life, on the front page of the tabloids, in this case in 1996, and the event was in fucking Hong Kong.

I never voted for some smarmy pol so he or she could tell me how I have to live. I don't expect to have to feel guilty about my fondness for good beer once or twice a week, or to carry any kind of stigma because of it. And yet, if our rulers and wannabes aren't quite speaking with one voice, their direction of travel is the same. My weekly bar-propping at The Rake will label me as a binge drinker, supping on "problem" strong beer. So what if I didn't rob a shop or try and kill somebody on the way home? It's only a matter of time...

Monday 18 January 2010

The Future Of Pubs: Doubleplusungood?

I've been musing a bit on how the pub would look in The Future. Would we still have them? What would they sell? Who will use them? I got to thinking about George Orwell and The Moon Under Water as a benchmark for the perfect pub, so I thought I'd flick through his novel dealing with future society and see what he has to say about pubs and drinking.

We've had Nineteen Eighty-Four, so, ladies and germs, it is with profound pride and no sense of shame in ripping off one of the classic first lines in 20th century literature, that I present Twenty Eighty-Four!

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Boggle, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, thought, "bugger this, I fancy a pint!"

Maybe not.

In Orwell's classic, I wouldn't be permitted beer without risking investigation and arrest by the Thought Police. Beer was for proles, sold in filthy overcrowded pubs. He describes the "hideous cheesy smell of sour beer" when he enters a pub in order to mine the memory of an old man about the times before the Revolution. The old man empties his bladder into a "stinking urinal" at the side of the main bar room.

In this regimented and stratified society, gin was for the Outer Party. Orwell refers to the "Chestnut Tree", a café marked by its patrons - "haunt of painters and musicians" - as a place "ill-omened". Whatever passes for an intelligentsia in this part of Airstrip One congregates here, and indeed Orwell's hero is himself to be found here at the end of the novel. The Chestnut Tree Café appears to sell only the ubiqitious Victory Gin, albeit tweaked by a flavouring of cloves. Otherwise, Outer Party members appear to do their drinking at work during lunch or at home. Wine is the preserve of the Inner Party, the elite of Oceanic society.

Orwell may well have been using these drinks as a kind of shorthand for each of the clearly-defined strata of this society, and of course, he could have used Britain (as he knew it) as his model. However, it occurs to me that with the growing intrusion into personal lifestyle choices in Britain, perhaps we could end up with a kind of Ingsoc. One that uses language, state apparatus and peer disapproval to manage personal habits. One that uses unverifiable or distorted statistics to sell us on the idea that our lives are better, will get better still, especially if we cut out the demon booze, stop eating red meat or sausages, march to the beat. We get all that now. It's demonstrably possible to bring all these mechanisms to bear to get the right outcome, as the smoking ban proves.

So what if dozens, hundreds, of pubs close? Less opportunity for the proles to get wankered in public. Minimum pricing? It'll keep the gin out of their hands, as well as WKD and Bacardi Breezers. And all the time, keep pouring out the messages - 1 unit of alcohol increases cancer risk; the Scots drink a bottle of vodka a week, and spend £20 million a year on Buckies; 25% of the population are problem drinkers; two pints yesterday? Your health records say you're a binge drinker...

I'd like to think that somewhere down the line, somebody will revisit Orwell's favourite pub for the 21st century (no bloody kids, though!). Even if the decline in pub closures is arrested, I'd hate to think that, like Winston Boggle, I must seek my favourite tipple in some grim back street in a grey conurbation somewhere in Airstrip One. However, all of this neopro stuff seems to have momentum behind it, and I fear the worst...

Thursday 7 January 2010

52 Pubs A Week Close. And..?

Have you ever wondered about these numbers? The entire industry is working (sometimes together, sometimes seemingly at odds with each other. Guys, can't we all just GET ALONG?!) to slow or stop the loss of so many public houses and, with the curious exception of News International, all agree we are losing 52 pubs a week across the country. NI are odd because, while they seemingly agree that around 2600 pubs have gone to the wall in the past year, this somehow equals 26 per week.

Anyway, this data has to come from somewhere, so I decided to try and find out. Not too hard, just casually. Having read Pete Brown's 2009-10 Cask Ale Report, I decided to follow some numbers. First stop was the BBPA, who issue regular press releases on pub losses, and usually include some regional or other info. That suggested that they get numbers based on type of outlet, net losses (including new openings), and the regional structure they use. They didn't respond, and why would they? Sid Boggle is just a pest.

So, remembering that CGA Strategy got a namecheck in the Cask Ale Report, I had a wander over to their website. They have a number of products which slice and dice on-trade data according to type of ownership and a bunch of other factors. Drinks Places Plus, for instance, provides a full breakdown of tenure, trading suppliers, choice of supplier and who operates the place.

I emailed them to ask if they could clarify how their data went back to BBPA. It's fair to assume that BBPA get regional breakdown, since it's included in their most recent press release on pub closures, but I've never seen any of the numbers under the banner of "XX PUBS LOST A WEEK!". However, I never received a reply. Fair enough, why should they? Sid Boggle isn't in the market to licence their data from them.

I've seen previous comments about the credibility of the BBPA, since they are strong supporters of the pubcos that many people blame for the loss of many pubs, and certainly there's a degree of smugness in the press release they issued following the OFT's rejection of CAMRA's super-complaint in October. I don't know about that, but I would like to see some more meaningful numbers accompanying the regular reports on pub losses. Would you?

Monday 4 January 2010

The Hop

If I was Zythophile, this heading would be your invitation to peruse a couple of thousand well-joined-up words on the place of the hop in brewing. Not over here, though...

Yer Man Peter Fowler at Pitstop Brewery has created a beer which is intended to brew out at 500 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). The piece is scarce on other beery details such as final ABV etc., but a sample has gone to Brewlab for testing and, if he gets beyond 200 IBUs, he'll be able to ask The Guinness Book Of Records to include it. I suppose if BrewDog can get in with Tactical Nuclear Penguin, then the whole of brewing will up for grabs with budding mad scientists looking for records to break.

However, will anybody actually be able to taste it? The second comment on the Oxford mail's site sums up the apparent pointlessness of this, so, answers please on an e-postcard telling me why in the name of Tiger Tim Peter Fowler would bother? I thought brewing as dick-waving was a by-product of the "hell, yeah!" US scene.