Thursday, 11 October 2018

The lines they aren't a-changin'

The publication of the annual Cask Report has prompted reflections on the state of cask beer from bloggers including Paul Bailey, Pub Curmudgeon and Pete Brown, particularly on the issue of pubs having far too many handpumps than their sales of cask beer justifies, leading to slow turnover and tired, off-tasting pints. The figures on falling sales come at the same time as a study showing that about a third of 16-25 year olds now don't drink alcohol at all, let alone in pubs.

Ideally, of course, a cask would be put on and emptied the same day, and failing that in 2-3 days. That gives us the following guide as to how many pints a pub should be selling a day to have x handpumps on the bar, assuming they're using standard 9 gallon/72 pint firkins, with the left hand column being the ideal, the middle one still acceptable, and the right hand one the absolute minimum (there will naturally be considerable variation between how fast different casks sell, and some less popular beers, especially in non-cask specialist pubs, should probably only be sold in 4½ gallon/36 pint pins, but the bottom line is that if you're not selling at least twenty-four pints a day, serving cask beer to your customers becomes a quality lottery for the people handing their money over the bar and a risk to your reputation as a business).

Monday, 8 October 2018

London Calling

London Broncos claimed the final place in next season's Super League last night, beating Toronto Wolfpack 4-2 in the Million Pound Game (maybe it should have been called the Two Million Dollar Game given it was played in Canada). Their win followed equally narrow results for Warrington and Wigan in the Super League semi-finals this weekend, also dominated by defences and the kicking of penalties and drop goals rather than try-scoring, and was the final edition of a single playoff match introduced in 2015 to determine which team takes the last berth in the next season's competition, having just been dropped in favour of a traditional one up, one down system of promotion and relegation.

I found myself rooting for Toronto during the game, mainly I think because having a Canadian team in Super League would be a significant step foward for the expansion of rugby league in North America. London itself has of course long been a target for the game's expansion, with the first professional clubs formed there in thirties, partly to attract workers who had moved south to escape the industrial depression in the North, and partly as a second-string attraction and source of revenue for the owners of greyhound racing tracks, and later football grounds. The recurring problems with rugby league clubs in London are low attendances at matches, only partially masked by large contigents of away fans from the North, and a lack of the amateur clubs which provide the more successful Super League sides with a succession of talented junior players.

Admittedly there would have been travel issues with a Canadian team in the Super League, although those have already been managed pretty successfully for more than a decade with the Catalans Dragons from Perpignan in southwest France, and west London on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon isn't exactly an easy trip from Hull or St Helens given Britain's low-speed and fractured transport system. I'm sure that just as away fans make a weekend of it in Catalonia, either driving up to the ground from Barcelona or exploring the area between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees, so people would enjoy spending a few days in the Toronto spring and summer sunshine before and after a match there. Having only formed two years ago, and set themselves a target of reaching the Super League within five, I'm also sure that Toronto, who topped the second-tier Championship and would have been promoted automatically under next season's rules, will soon achieve their ambition of playing top-flight rugby league.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Eleven days a week

We're about halfway through Stockport Beer Week, an annual event now in its fourth year which celebrates the town's pubs and breweries. I went to both the press and public launches for it last week, kindly hosted by Robinson's Brewery and their market place house the Bakers Vaults respectively, and am planning to go to a couple more events on it this week too.

There are a few things which are notable about Stockport Beer Week:

1. Although termed a week, it actually lasts eleven days (20-30th September), paralleling National Cask Ale Week;

2. It's the only beer week in England hosted by a town rather than a city;

3. It's the only one, I'm pretty sure, which is organised by the local CAMRA branch, the others being commercial ventures promoted by pubs and breweries.

Official beer of Stockport Beer Week, Cherry Cross the Mersey, a cherry stout from Thirst Class Ale, Reddish, at the Petersgate Tap.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Stockport tops the Carbuncle Cup

The Redrock entertainment complex in Stockport has won the Carbuncle Cup, an annual architectural award for the worst-designed new building in Britain whose name comes from Prince Charles' description of a proposed extension to the National Gallery in London.

I've never actualy stepped inside the place myself, but some of my younger relatives have been to the cinema there and seem to like it, and it doesn't strike me as any worse than the other buildings which were nominated for the prize, or lots of others that easily could have been. I also know that, unusually for a place like this, one of its bars serves a cask beer from the Stockport brewery Robinsons, their golden ale which CAMRA's rules on inclusivity preclude me from naming (at least they've changed the pump-clip to a less sexist one).

Stockport really is two towns now: the area around the market place, and to a lesser extent along the main Wellington Road, where there are lots of new bars, eating places, museums and music venues, and Merseyway, the sixties-conceived shopping precinct at its centre which, although perhaps thought futuristic when it was built, has aged badly and, despite a couple of renovations in the last three decades, is now looking a bit sad and forgotten, with most of its large retail units standing empty.

I know that the council has redevelopment plans for the area between the bus station and Stockport's most impressive architectural and engineeering feat, the Victorian railway viaduct which spans both the River Mersey and the M60 motorway, from which Friedrich Engels once looked down (both literally and metaphorically) on the town, and which you can just about see in the background of the photo below, but the thing which I think would really transform the centre is if the council opened up the section of the river which runs beneath the pedestrianised Merseyway, which was hidden with concrete slabs when it was built in the mid-60s , and made it into a feature, as has already been done to a small extent at one end of it. That radical action might not make Stockport the Venice of the North, but it would create a natural feature that could then become a focal point for a hopefully more successful regeneration of that part of the town.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

How low can you go?

I watched the TV programme Drinkers Like Me last night, in which sports presenter Adrian Chiles documented his relationship with alcohol. reminiscing about teenage underage drinking in the pubs of his native Black Country before having his current weekly intake monitored by medical staff.

While Chiles described most of his drinking as social, pre-match pints before watching West Bromwich Albion with his mates or bottles of wine at birthday drinks and meals with his friends back in London, he also admitted to using alcohol to relieve the stress, anxiety and depression he has struggled with throughout his career, consuming between 75 and 100 units a week, equivalent to between forty and fifty pints of beer or ten bottles of wine (the Government-recommended limit is fourteen units a week, about six to seven pints of beer or ten small glasses of wine).

I now almost always drink fewer than fourteen units a week, mostly at home, and often little or nothing in the week, unlike in my twenties and thirties when I was a student and then a junior civil servant and socialised in pubs with mates and colleagues: that's largely due to being, as I wrote about here, in an area without a decent pub; if I lived two or three miles to the north or east, where there are several Good Beer Guide entries, I would no doubt be a regular in one of them, although I'd still probably follow the current medical advice of having three of four alcohol-free days a week.

By the end of the programme, Chiles had cut down to around 21 units a week (which was the weekly limit for men until 2016, when it was reduced to 14, the same as for women).  The question that struck me is how sustainable the pub and brewing industry would be if everyone followed his example, let alone the new, lower limit, and also restaurants and supermarkets, much of whose profits come from alcohol sales (there is also a daily alcohol limit of 2-3 units, equivalent to about a  pint and a half of standard-strength beer, or two small glasses of wine). Not very I suspect.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Remembering Peterloo

I went to the Peterloo memorial event in Manchester city centre yesterday afternoon to remember the fifteen victims of the massacre in 1819 when a crowd of working-class men and women, assembled on St Peter's Field to demand the vote, then restricted to upper-class men, were cut down with sabres and trampled by horses after the city's magistrates, watching the protest from the upper windows of a house on nearby Mount Street, ordered cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, a local part-time volunteer regiment mainly composed of wealthy merchants and mill-owners, to disperse them. Hundreds more of the protestors, many of whom had - as some people did yesterday - walked into Manchester from the surrounding industrial towns of Lancashire and Cheshire, were seriously injured after being attacked by the reservist troops charging at them on horseback and then flung against a wall of bayonet-wielding regular soldiers guarding the edge of the sixty thousand-strong demonstration.

Although a memorial event has been held for the last decade, alongside a campaign to erect a permanent one to the victims near the site of the massacre, this was the first one I'd been to. There were probably a hundred of so my fellow lefties and trade unionists there, mostly my age or older, some of them wearing the red liberty caps first donned by the French revolutionaries of 1789,along with actors from the Manchester area including John Henshaw from Ancoats and Bolton's Maxine Peake who appears in Mike Leigh's soon to be released film about Peterloo.

Mike Leigh has said that he never heard or was taught about Peterloo when growing up in the Higher Broughton area of Salford in the 1950's, despite it having happened only a few miles down the road, and similarly I was never told about it or taken to the site when I was a pupil at primary and secondary schools in Stockport in the 1970s and 80s. It was only a decade or so a go, as result of the ongoing campaign, that a new plaque was placed on the outside of the former Free Trade Hall, now a boutique hotel, which, unlike the one it replaced, acknowledged that people had actually died in the massacre.

I'm hoping that the new film about Peterloo will spark increased awareness, interest and activity around the event and that next year's memorial, on the two hundredth anniversary, will be bigger than those which have preceded it.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The price of a pint (again)

CAMRA always gets a bit of media attention round about now, partly because of the trade session at the Great British Beer Festival yesterday which lots of journalists attend, partly because we're only a month or so off the launch of another Good Beer Guide, but mainly because we're in the becalmed days of slow news when most people are on holiday and eager editors are happy/desperate to fill their pages with whatever subject the PR department at its St Albans headquarters has decided to run with in their press release this year, normally by reprinting it all but verbatim alongside other "silly season" stories about barley, hops and carbon dioxide being set to run out soon as a result of heatwaves, droughts, forest fires and/or the World Cup.

The theme of this year's press release is the rising price of a pint, which it directly links to increased taxation, leading to pub closures, along with competition from supermarkets and off-licences. As always, it's very hard to judge whether the cause and effect being attributed to those factors here actually bears much scrutiny given the myriad costs of brewing and selling beer (the price of raw materials, transportation, wages, rents and business rates as well as duty and VAT), the other, non-price, factors which might lead to people going to the pub less (social attitudes to daytime drinking, deindustrialisation of areas which once supported dozens of pubs, the smoking ban, a lack of public transport, especially in rural areas, and other leisure opportunities now being available) or the reasons why breweries and pub companies sell off viable pubs (as land for housing developments, or conversion to other uses such as flats, shops, cafes or restaurants).

With cask beer being an unpredictable purchase, price doesn't really have much to do with quality either: I've had some great pints in the £2-3 range, and some average ones in the £3-5 one. What's certainly true is that the price of a pint has far outstripped inflation in the last couple of decades. Beer was 80-90p a pint when I started drinking in pubs in the late 80s, and even that would have seemed expensive to older drinkers back then, like this guy who remembers it being a shilling and threepence a pint, which, with my dodgy, post-decimalisation, maths, I make to be between 6 and 7 new pence, when he lived in London in the 60s.

Beer being dearer, and not as good, now than it was in the past is naturally not a new complaint amongst drinkers, as the old man whom Winston Smith meets in a London pub in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four tells him: "The beer was better,' he said finally. 'And cheaper! When I was a young man, mild beer - wallop we used to call it - was fourpence a pint. That was before the war, of course.'"