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.'"

Monday, 23 July 2018

The centre cannot mould

Rumours are circulating yet again of a new centre party that is about to be launched and will reshape British politics.

British political parties have always been broad coalitions, with people in them who could easily be in other parties, and would be except for some quirk of geography or their personal history. The first past the post electoral system forces politicians without much, if anything, in common into the same parties because, whilst it works in a two-party system,  it doesn't in one with three or more parties, hence those which get millions of votes at General Elections, but evenly distributed across all constituencies rather than concentrated in a few hundred (the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP), ending up with little or no parliamentary representation.

There are now three broad camps in British politics:

1. Socially conservative, anti-EU, pro-free market economics (the right-wing of the Conservative Party and UKIP);

2. Socially liberal, pro-EU, generally pro-free market economics ( the Lib Dems, the right-wing of the Labour Party, the left-wing of the Conservative Party);

3. Socially liberal, generally pro-EU, interventionist economics (Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, left-wing of the Labour Party)

So where would a new centre party draw its support from? The Lib Dems seem to be the main players in the project, with between a dozen and twenty right-wing Labour MP's also rumoured to be ready to join it. I can't see many, if any, pro-EU Tory MP's joining up given that they have far more influence in their own party, if they choose to stand up to the leadership. Some of the more maverick Labour MP's who oppose Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party (Frank Field, John Mann, Kate Hoey) are also anti-EU, as well as having conservative views on other issues that already don't fit well in a mostly socially liberal party, and would do so even less in a new one.

I really can't see a new centre party becoming a reality, and if it did having any chance of taking off with the electorate. As well as the problem of the electoral system - and, at constituency level, simply splitting the left of centre vote to the benefit of the right - there's also the question of establishing brand loyalty/recognition, with all three major British political parties having stood for election under pretty much the same name since the early twentieth century.

We have of course been here before. The example of the Social Democratic Party in the early 80s, formed by twenty-eight right-wing Labour MP's and one Conservative with masses of publicity, an intial surge of support and some notable by-election victories, which later found itself forced to ally and then merge with the Liberals, is instructive here, and will no doubt be on the minds of those tempted to go down the same path.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Tanks of the Tyne

I'm reading So They Brewed Their Own Beer, a history of the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, at the moment, having been tipped off about it by this post from Boak and Bailey.

The Fed, as it became popularly known, was established just after the First World War by social and working men's clubs  on Tyneside in North East England to brew beer of a better quality and at cheaper prices than that which they could get from the outside commercial breweries which had supplied them till then (it was also unusual in publicising the original gravity of the beers it brewed, thus indicating their approximate strength, in contrast to the big brewers who refused to divulge them to their drinkers until towards the end of the twentieth century). I'm up to the bit where the Fed switched from cask to tank beer in the sixties. You might think this would spark something of a backlash (my Dad who worked as a waiter in a Sam Smith's pub in Manchester in the early sixties remembers the furore amongst drinkers there when they went over from cask to keg beer) but apparently there wasn't much if any complaint from either drinkers or managers in the clubs it served.

"The efficiency of the tank system caused beer sales to increase and was more than beneficial to the transport department. With a cask wagon there were three men on board to manhandle the beer. With a beer tanker two men are needed. The drayman's work is so much easier that it has led to a noticeable reduction in staff-turnover at the Federation Brewery since tanks were introduced. The innovation also helped to speed up the disappearance of cellars, for centuries one of the main characteristics of any British public house. Modern refrigeration has enabled cold-rooms to be used for beer storage. The only point of digging a hole in the ground was to achieve lower temperatures. The Federation has long had the policy that beer should be kept and sold under temperature-controlled conditions, argiung that as beer is produced under controlled temperature if it is to reach the club members in a perfect state it must be stored at the club in the same way and not allowed to stand in cellars where the temperature fluctuates because of lack of adequate refrigeration."

Tank beer is of course not the same as keg beer, lying somewhere between it and cask beer in being unpasteurised, and in some cases unfiltered, in which case it would be closer to bright beer which is racked into casks without the sediment which would otherwise allow for a secondary fermentation in the cellar.

If the beer was kept under a fairly low blanket of carbon dioxide pressure, only roughly filtered, not overly chilled and drunk while still fresh (the clubs which owned the Fed had been turning over between thirty and seventy 36-gallon casks a week before tanks replaced them), it's possible that the drinkers supping Fed Pale Ale and Special in the working men's clubs of Tyneside didn't notice that much difference, especially since throughout its trading area of Northern England lots of draught beer, both cask and bright, was by the sixties already being dispensed by metered electric rather than tradtional hand-pumps.

Other beer writers of the period also noticed the changeover to tank beer, and generally seem to have approved of it. Andrew Campbell in his 1956 Book of Beer notes that "Some brewers are now delivering beer in bulk. Watney's barrel-shaped tanks are a familiar sight in London's streets. The beer is racked into measured tanks at the brewery, forced by CO² into road tanks, and then run by gravity at the public houses into cellar tanks which hold as much as one hundred gallons" while Richard Boston in his 1976 book Beer and Skittles says, "But fot the real draught Guinness you must go to Ireland where a glass of stout is poured with proper reverence. Draught Guinness in Ireland is still a naturally conditioned unpasteurized beer, and is sold in the living state, though it now arrives at the pub in a container known derogatarily as 'The Iron Lung'."

I've drunk and enjoyed bright/tank beer a few times myself, notably Augustiner Spezial, filtered and racked into the wooden barrels from which it's dispensed by gravity in the brewery's beer garden opposite Munich's central station, and Pilsner Urquell tankovna fresh from metal tanks above the bar of Manchester's Alberts Schloss.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Mile High Try in Denver

The England rugby league team will play a mid-season Test match against New Zealand tonight at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado.

It'll be interesting to see what American viewers make of rugby league (the match is being shown on CBS TV as well as BBC Two here). Some of it will be familar to them from American football - especially the six tackle rule which is similar to gridiron's four downs - but obviously much of it will be unfamilar, and will need to be explained by the commentators.

The match is of course part of rugby league's mission to expand the game internationally - there's already a North American team playing at professional level, Toronto Wolfpack, and plans for another in New York.

I've heard opposing opinions on the Denver Test match, part of an ongoing debate within the game between traditionalists, who opposed the Challenge Cup Final being moved from the North to Wembley in the twenties and attempts to expand the game beyond its Northern heartlands of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumberland through the decades, some of them successful (Australia, New Zealand, France), others less so (London, Wales), and modernisers who want to see it become a global sport.

The former camp often claim that international expansion of the game is being pushed by the sport's governing bodies at the expense of the grassroots game and less fashionable, once leading but now often semi-professional, clubs in the North such as Bradford, Featherstone, Swinton and Barrow, but the decline of those sides has more complex origins, often combining deindustrialistion with mismanagement off the field.

If rugby league can become even a minor professional sport in the United States, with its huge TV and sponsorship markets, surely it can only be good for the profile and funding of the game as a whole.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Votes for Women?

I've just watched Emmeline Pankhurst: The Making of a Militant, shown on BBC Four last night at the same time that the England football team were taking on Tunisia at the World Cup.

I wasn't expecting much from the programme, but it managed to be even worse than I thought it would be. The Guardian trumpeted it as an "excellent biography" of the suffragette leader, but it was actually a hagiography, the life of a saint, with gushing pieces to camera replacing any critical analysis of her politics, and almost everything about her presented in a misleading or partial way.

That slipperiness started at the beginning of the programme with Pankhurst described as a working mother from Moss Side, Manchester, which, while strictly true, is misleading given that Moss Side was then home to the prosperous merchant class, as was nearby Chorlton-on -Medlock which she moved to, and become a part-time registrar in to supplement her income from the store which she owned, after the death of her husband, a radical barrister whose sudden demise she learnt of while travelling back by train from a holiday in Switzerland.

You would never know from watching the programme that about a third of men, in particular unskilled workers, didn't have the vote in 1914, because of property qualifications - a number that rose as men who had the vote moved into the army or munitions factories in the First World War (other men had more than one vote as business owners or university graduates, a privilege that wasn't abolished until 1948).

Emmeline Pankhurst was in favour of women being enfranchised on the same basis as men, which would have had added about a million upper and upper middle class women like herself to the electoral register; the acts of petty terrorism which she inspired (setting fire to postboxes, smashing windows) to further that modest demand is what gained her the reputation as a militant compared to other women from the same class background, like Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned with marches and petitions, as well as the working-class men and women who campaigned for universal suffrage (I once saw the play "Tea with Mrs Pankhurst" at the old Independent Labour Party hall in Nelson, Lancashire, in which the main character, the millworker and trade unionist Selina Cooper, delivers the immortal line to her, "You don't want votes for women, you want votes for ladies!").

While Pankhurst started out on the left, joining the ILP in the 1890's, she later moved to the right, enthusiastically supporting the First World War, and in the 1920's putting herself forward as a Conservative parliamentary candidate (unlike her daughter Sylvia, who, along with several other of her former supporters, split from what had essentially become a personality cult around her mother and moved to the left).

None of this though has put Manchester's Labour council off from commissioning a statue of her which will soon be erected in the city centre.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Will Travel For Beer

I went to Edgeley Park football ground in Stockport on Saturday afternoon for a talk and tasting session hosted by the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont, part of both a British tour he's doing to promote his new book Will Travel For Beer and the annual beer and cider festival organised by Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA there, with drinkers enjoying themselves in the sunny Cheadle End overlooking the ungrassed, just reseeded, off-season pitch and, on the horizon, the dark line of the Pennines beyond which the rain-hit Second Test at Headingley had lately resumed as we assembled in one of the function suites behind the stand.

I enjoyed all the beers we tasted, from the draught, cask-conditioned Cwtch, a candyish, floral bitter from the Tiny Rebel brewery in Newport, Wales, which won Champion Beer of Britain in 2015, served from a large plastic jug, to the three bottled beers, all of which benefited from being left on a table to come to room temperature rather than being opened straight out of a fridge, an amber barley wine from Arcadia Ales in Michigan, Op & Top, a dry-hopped pale ale from Dutch microbrewery De Molen, and the one which really stood out for me, Rodenbach Grand Cru, a sour Belgian ale in the Flemish Red style.

I hadn't drunk Rodenbach Grand Cru before, one of the beers often listed by connoisseurs as among the best in the world and one championed by the late drinks journalist and writer Michael Jackson, who indeed was responsible for its creation at the brewery in Roeselare, Belgium, where he suggested that they release it as an older, sharper ale rather than just blending it with the younger one also being aged in the giant wooden tuns there. It reminded me a bit of the draught Kriek lambic I drank at the Mort Subite cafe in Brussels, although unlike that beer Grand Cru's appetising tartness is derived solely from the wild Brettanomyces yeast which the oak barrels it spends at least eighteen months maturing in are impregnated with rather than the addition of sour cherries (I was also reminded that I'd bought a bottle online and stashed it away, so opened and drank that too yesterday).

The book which I bought at the end of the session, and most of the talk he gave about it, describe the author's travels around the world in search of great beers, the former tilted towards Europe, apparently at the behest of its British publisher. There are lots of high-quality photos, each chapter is, at one or two pages, short enough to be read quickly before moving on to the next, and it includes every city I've travelled to myself to drink beer (Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bamberg, Munich), ones I've been to for other reasons, including blues, baseball and political history, but have also drunk at specialist beer bars/cafes in whilst I was there (Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Dublin, Brussels), and quite a few I've still to get round to (Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam).

I've also learnt a couple of things I didn't know before from the book and talk about beer styles and cultures around the world which very few people outside the countries they're from must have experienced, including sahti, a Finnish beer partially brewed with unmalted rye and flavoured with juniper twigs, being drunk in saunas there, and bia hoi, a light lager served fresh from metal containers into plastic buckets, from which it's then dispensed into glasses at very cheap prices, at roadside cafes of the same name in Vietnam.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Clubbing together

I've just finished reading Not Just Beer and Bingo: A Social History of Working Men's Clubs by Ruth Cherrington, a secondhand copy of which I picked up online after flicking though the pages of one which Cooking Lager brought along to the Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA branch meeting earlier this month (fellow bloggers Boak and Bailey and Shut Up About Barclay Perkins have also written extensively about clubs in the last few months).

The book is primarily a social history, looking at the role of clubs in community life, as the venues for entertainment, family events, sports clubs and political and other meetings, but the author does sketch out their beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century as working-class educational institutes which paralleled the upper-class gentlemen's clubs with their reading rooms and snooker tables. It is also tilted - being partly a personal narrative - towards clubs in and around the author's native city of Coventry. One thing she doesn't get round to looking at though, and admittedly a bit beyond the scope of the book, is the breweries established by clubs, such as the famous Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, to supply them with beer at lower prices than those which they could obtain from outside brewers.

The first licensed premises I drank in was a Labour club in Stockport where, as a teenager in the late eighties, I attended meetings of the local Young Socialists branch. It was supplied by the Greenalls' brewery in Warrington, whose keg bitter I would sip a couple of halves of over the evening. After some financial shennanigans and the running up of a large debt to the brewery, the club closed a few years later (as did the brewery itself not long after that) and is now a children's nursery.

Since then, I've visited a wide range of clubs - Labour, Conservative, Catholic, Irish, football, cricket, rugby, railway and social - for the weddings, funerals, birthdays and baptisms of friends, relatives and co-workers, trade union meetings, works' socials and leaving dos. Although by no means a clubman, I do appreciate their appeal, especially the cheap beer prices.

The number of clubs has been dropping sharply since at least the eighties, for a combination of reasons: deindustrialisation and unemployment, people living further away from their workplace (making a few post-work pints there less common, especially if you're driving), demographic changes (the author shows how some clubs operated an official, and later unofficial, colour bar), increases in beer duty and tax, chain pubs undercutting their prices and offering cheap meals too, the smoking ban and the drift towards a more individualised society in which leisure takes places more and more in the home, thus undermining traditional communal institutions, a similar trend to the one which also affects wider civil society, from pubs and clubs to churches, political parties and other voluntary organisations.

The book ends though, happily, on a much more upbeat note, looking at the things the surviving clubs are doing to meet those challenges and to attract more members so that clubland can continue its hundred and fifty year-long, and almost uniquely British, function of acting as a social, sporting and cultural centre for working people into another century.

Working men's clubs have been the subject of some cheap humour on TV, from the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, Granada TV's seventies recreation of a Northern club (which apparently many people watching thought was real!) to Phoenix Nights in the early noughties with its archetypal entertainment committee before which prospective club acts had to perform.

CAMRA is also doing its bit for clubs, with members, including myself, surveying some of their local ones for WhatPub, the organisation's national database of licensed premises.