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Sunday, 30 April 2017

Bar 45

Bar 45
Just around the corner at the north end of Lord Street, Southport, you will find Bar 45 on Leicester Street. I don't know any other drinking haunt remotely similar to this one: its Facebook page describes it as a "record shop with a bar and live music [with] a large selection of vinyl, all genres, available to purchase or just to listen to over a drink". 

As I walked in, 'Love Resurrection' by Alison Moyet was playing, which was a promising start. This was followed by the Stranglers, then Buddy Holly, so the music is certainly eclectic. There are boxes of records on the tables from which you can choose something you want to hear to be played on a proper turntable. The venue is simply decorated: a bare wooden floor, tables and chairs around the walls and painted walls that are adorned with a large variety of LP record sleeves. 

There are two real ales which, when I called in, were Fullers London Pride and Bowness Bay Swan Blonde, a dry, blonde beer from the Lake District that I hadn't come across before; I wasn't disappointed. There were several beers on tall fonts, including Shed Head American Pale Ale (brewed, to my surprise, in Sweden) and a couple of keg ciders along with the lagers. There is a good range of other drinks, coffee as well, and I saw they also sold sandwiches.

Live music is a feature of this bar and they have a range of artists who appear here. On Monday evenings there is a music quiz and cash music bingo night. Opening hours are from midday to midnight. Their website is here, and their phone is 07956 768771. 

I feel that music lovers in particular will find Bar 45 is well worth a visit.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Getting into the spirit

Years ago, pubs would very often just sell one type of whisky, gin, brandy and vodka, along with a bottle of red wine and another of white. If you weren't a beer drinker, that was your choice. Of course, if you were a beer drinker, your choice was usually limited to a bitter, a mild a lager and Guinness.

In the last couple of decades, real ale choices have expanded massively, but other drinkers had been left behind in terms of options, until recently. Having visited more than 60 pubs over the last three years in order to write about them in the local papers, I've noticed how they are increasingly expanding their ranges of wines and spirits. Quite a few have wine lists with 20+ wines listed, but the biggest changes have been in the choices of spirits. There have always been a few pubs that had a range of malt whiskies, but the biggest recent expansion has been gin.

The first local gin I became aware of around here was Liverpool Gin, created by the owners of Liverpool Organic Brewery who sold the brand last year to the company in Halewood, south east of Liverpool, that makes Lambrini. The cheapest price I could see on-line was £43, so this drink is clearly not aimed at the Gordon's market (£15 a bottle in the supermarket). More recently we have had Formby Gin and Ormskirk Gin, both also costing more than £40 a bottle. Other gins I've been seeing more recently include brands such as Hendrick's and Bombay Sapphire.

The number of new distilleries rose by 17% in 2016, according to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. At the same time, there is evidence that the coffee shop boom is slowing: the Costa chain will be cutting its number of outlets by up to 10%, and Starbucks has recorded a 60% drop in its profits in the UK.

I've often seen assertions that, for pubs to survive, they'll have to sell food and hot drinks, especially good quality coffee, in order not to lose custom to coffee chains and café bars. I'm sure there's some truth in that, and the slump in growth of coffee shops would suggest opportunities for pubs, which usually provide a more social environment than coffee shops: very few people would go into a Caffè Nero to drink coffee and, perhaps, chat to strangers all evening.

That all said, it seems to me that there is a lot to be gained by expanding the choice of alcoholic drinks beyond the traditional range. The trend of making original spirits is spreading to other types, such as whisky, rum and vodka - we even have English and Welsh whiskies now. A wider choice of wines and spirits will make pubs more attractive to more potential customers, particularly women, and that in turn will help keep the pubs going for real ale drinkers such as me. Trebles all round!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Lion song session moves

The Lion Tavern, Moorfields, Liverpool
From May, my acoustic song session, aka singaround, in the Lion Tavern will move from the second Thursday of the month to the second Tuesday. This is because something similar takes place every Thursday afternoon in the Belevedere in Liverpool, and one or two people have commented to me that they'd prefer the two sessions to be on different days.

No sooner said than done. Well, not quite, as people have been saying this for years, but Tuesdays weren't available until the new management took over the pub fairly recently.

The next session is therefore on Tuesday 9 May, beginning at around 8.30 pm. All welcome, including non-performers. The Lion has eight real ales and a real cider.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Button it!

Mind your Ps & Qs if you want to drink OBB
There might be a general election looming, but one pub chain has banned all blue talk. It is Sam Smith's, probably one of the most eccentric pub chains in the country. They have just issued this instruction to its 200 pubs: "We wish to inform all of our customers that we have introduced a zero tolerance policy against swearing in all of our pubs." I find that to be a curious development, although it won't affect me for two reasons: there are no Sam Smith's pubs in this area, and I don't swear much anyway.

Sam Smith's pubs are different from most others anyway in that they only stock their own branded products, they don't have TV or music, and they are generally very cheap. They haven't allowed live music for about 15 years because the company refused on principle to pay for the new music licences introduced by 'New' Labour in 2003. I wrote in 2009 about the Plough, a large, multi-roomed pub in Whitby where I go every year for the folk festival: I don't understand a principle that turned the Plough from a large pub that was heaving during the 7 days of folk week with music sessions in 3 separate rooms and another in the large back yard, weather permitting, to one that looked almost deserted most of the time. Doesn't Sam Smith's want to make money?

Although those stupid music licences were scrapped in 2012, Sam Smith's still won't let the Plough reintroduce live music, not even unamplified. I bet the licensee looks enviously at the heaving pubs that do allow song and music sessions while he serves his half dozen customers.

As for swearing, I don't take too much notice except when people are loud and repetitive, at which point I find it irritating. I've occasionally heard people in my local, the Guest House, being told to cut it out when they go too far, and I'm quite happy about that level of control. While I find a pub full of swearing drinkers - usually male - off-putting, an outright ban does seem to be going too far.

That's Sam Smith's for you: they'd cut off their own nose to spite their face to make a point.

The BBC report on the swearing ban is here.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Un-Baezed

Before the 2016 presidential election, legendary political folk singer Joan Baez apparently hadn't written a song for 25 years, but she has been prompted by recent events to put musical pen to paper. She says of this composition that it's "not a good song, but it will make people laugh". Now I wonder who it could be about?

Monday, 17 April 2017

Local pubs: good and bad news

The Hop Inn Bier Shoppe, Ormskirk
I have recently learnt that the Hop Inn Bier Shoppe in Ormskirk, which I visited last July, has closed; I don't know why. I've been told that there has been a parting of the ways at the parent pub, the Hop Vine in Burscough, between the proprietor, Mike McCombe, and the brewer in the Burscough Brewery which operated in outhouses to the rear of the pub.

Brewing has ceased, apparently, and the Hop Vine's house beer is now brewed by Parker Brewery of Banks. This has all come to me by word of mouth, and I can't find any information on-line, except to note that the last entry on the brewery's Facebook page was in December 2016.

The Pageant in Kew,
The Pageant in Kew, which I visited last February, has also closed, apparently to deal with some essential repairs, but I've learnt to distrust handwritten signs put in pub windows to explain sudden closure; they are very often untrue. I hope my scepticism is proved wrong in this case, as the young licensee was enthusiastic about making the Pageant into a proper community pub, and I gained the impression that his efforts were beginning to pay off.

The Blundell Arms on its last day
A more positive piece of news is that the Blundell Arms in Birkdale has been declared an Asset of Community Value (ACV) by Sefton Council. I visited this pub on Sunday 6 March 2016, its final day of opening, and had assumed that was it. However, as I wrote in September, Jason MacCormack set up a campaign to convert the Dell, as it was often called locally, into a community pub, and his campaign has culminated in this granting of ACV status. There's still a long way to go, but this is a very significant result, for which Jason deserves the credit.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Health benefits of moderate drinking

I've just written this for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and the Ormskirk Advertiser. They've published a few 'campaigning' articles from me among the pub reviews (another one was about the lack of real science behind alcohol units), and I've been expecting a backlash from local anti-alcohol busybodies. I'm pleased to say there has been none, not so far anyway. They're local papers, not the national media, but as Tesco tells us, every Lidl helps!
The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has published a study that found moderate drinkers have a lower risk of heart attack, angina and heart failure when compared to teetotallers. They discovered that lifelong non-drinkers have a 24% higher mortality rate than moderate drinkers, and that the death rate among former drinkers is even higher. The study involved nearly two million people.

CAMRA national chairman Colin Valentine responded: "The study published in the BMJ, which shows that moderate alcohol consumption, such as a pint of real ale in the pub, is good for the heart is just the latest piece of research that demonstrates the benefits associated with moderate drinking.

"While no one would disagree that excessive consumption of alcohol causes harm, there is a long list of scientific evidence that shows moderate alcohol consumption can have a positive impact on people’s personal and physical well-being.

"It is heartening to see this story covered by the media among the current atmosphere of increasing alcohol ‘scare stories’ and misreporting of alcohol research. We hope this study will go some way towards helping people make informed choices about how they consume alcohol in the future."

These findings follow a report in January this year that moderate and low-alcohol consumption could improve people’s personal and mental well-being. Researchers at the University of Oxford combined data from three separate studies, including a national survey by CAMRA, and demonstrated that people who visit their pub frequently tended to be more "socially engaged and contented" with their local community than those who did not.

At a time when most studies on alcohol focus on the health and anti-social behavioural problems caused by over-consumption, this study explained that: "Alcohol is known to trigger the endorphin system, and the social consumption of alcohol may thus have the same effect as the many other social activities such as laughter, singing and dancing."

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Ship & Mitre, Liverpool

The Ship & Mitre, Dale Street
The first thing that strikes you about Liverpool's Ship & Mitre is its impressive Art Deco exterior. The inside is quite a contrast with wooden beams and benches, a central bar serving several drinking areas and the Galley which serves food. This pub is famous for its wide choice of drinks, including real ale.

When we visited, there were 11 real ales on handpump: Lee's MPA and Brewer's Dark, Jennings Golden Host, Milton Pegasus, Stonehouse Cambrian Gold, Heavy Industry Freak Chick, Milestone Imperial Pale Ale, Dowbridge Onslaught, Ship & Mitre Silhouette Stout and Wychwood Oatmeal Stout, with 8 further real ales on the 'coming soon' list, including beers from Stamps. Saltaire and Epicurus. There was also a choice of 6 draught ciders.

The draught beers included 6 from Germany, one from Belgium, 3 from the USA, 5 other world beers, 8 British craft beers, and more 100 bottled beers. Beer drinkers would be hard pressed not find something they like here. They will also be hosting their first vodka tasting night on 4th May.

The Galley serves traditional pub food, including Liverpool's trade mark dish, Scouse, using local ingredients and suppliers. I didn't have anything to eat this time, but I have enjoyed their food in the past. It's available all day until mid-evening, except Sunday (6pm).

The Ship & Mitre's beer list
They host several in-house beer festivals with varied themes during the year, and since 2014 have been running the biannual Wirral beer festival at Hulme Hall in Port Sunlight at Easter and in November. Regular events in the pub include: darts night on Monday, sci-fi night on the 1st Tuesday and creative writing on the 2nd to 4th Tuesdays, on Wednesday there is Scouse on the house and Thursday is quiz night. Upstairs they have a lovely Art Deco function room with its own bar and roof terrace.

The pub is open until 11pm Sunday to Wednesday, and midnight on Thursday to Sunday. It is at 133 Dale Street, Liverpool L2 2JH, a few minute's walk from Moorfields Station. Tel: 0151 236 0859. Website here.

This is part of a series of articles that I am writing for the CAMRA column in our local paper, the Southport Visiter. Previous reviews are here.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

A Peerless review

I wrote on 20 March about the Corridor, a real ale café bar on Lord Street, Southport. My article was also printed in the Southport Visiter's CAMRA column, which the editor decided to post on Facebook. Underneath were a few dismissive comments, such as it wasn't very informative and how could I write a review of the place without trying the food? I wondered whether to ignore it, but decided that as I'm not a journalist, I'd reply to the criticisms. I explained, among other things, that it was the Campaign for Real Ale column, not a restaurant review; my main priority was the drinks. The critics shut up, and the column achieved quite a pleasing number of Facebook 'likes'.

I popped in again last night and discovered a beer I hadn't had before: Peerless Knee Buckler IPA (5.2%). I usually find I like Peerless beers; this one was a very drinkable golden-coloured beer with a certain hop bitterness and citrus flavours. My friend Alan and I both decided to stick with it; it apparently won Gold in the SIBA North beer competition in October 2014 in the Strong Bitters category.

While I was talking to the licensee, he told me that several people had called into the Corridor as a result of my column in the Visiter, which I was particularly pleased about: stuff the on-line whingers - at least someone's taking notice of my scribblings.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Beer quality - 2 out of 3 ain't bad

Quality counts
The recently-published Beer Quality Report 2017 shows us where the dirtiest pints are pulled in the country: it's in the South West where 40.8% of pints were pulled through unclean lines. The best area was the North East with 29%, which represents 3 pints in every 10, which I'd say is still too high.

A North-South divide is apparent in England, with the North East, the North West and Yorkshire in the top three, and the results getting worse the further south you go. This would seem to reinforce the Northern stereotype about Southern beer.

Poor beer quality is a major issue, one that too many licensees don't take seriously enough; according to these figures, across the country, a lot of pints sold - more than 1 out of 3 - are substandard. Quality is something that beer blogger Tandleman, among others, often bangs on about, and he's completely right. Most people, faced with a substandard pint, will tend to leave it, walk out and not come back: one bad pint can result in the loss of dozens of future sales. I wrote last year in greater length about beer quality here.

It's not as though beer is cheap: at more than £3 a pint, it isn't. In 1972, bitter was 13p a pint where I lived. Adjusted for inflation using the Bank of England calculator, that's £1.57 today. There are various factors that have caused the price of beer to increase at double the rate of inflation in the intervening years, but wages certainly haven't risen at the same rate during that period. In terms of the spending power of ordinary people, beer in pubs is much dearer than it used to be. Drinkers deserve better for their hard-earned cash.

Unclean beer lines - breakdown by region 
  • 29% - North East 
  • 31.3%  - North West 
  • 31.6% - Yorkshire  
  • 31.8% - East Midlands 
  • 33% - West Midlands
  • 34.3% - Scotland 
  • 35.8% - London 
  • 37.3 % - East England 
  • 38.1% - Home Counties  
  • 38.8% - South East 
  • 39% - Wales  
  • 40.8% - South West 
These figures relate to cider, stout, premium lager, standard lager, keg beer and real ale.
The Beer Quality Report is compiled using information from Cask Marque and Vianet.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Licensing Act 2003: proposed overhaul

The House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003 has produced its report. As some of the proposed changes are administrative, I'm can't be sure how they may affect the ordinary drinker. Here are some of the main findings:
  1. The committee, dissatisfied with the operation of licensing committees, proposes abolishing them and passing their functions to planning committees. Licensing appeals should no longer go to magistrates' courts but should, like planning appeals, go to the planning inspectorate.
  2. They rejected the principle of Late Night Levies and concluded that in practice they aren't working as intended. Unless amendments that have already been made prove to work, they should be scrapped. They proposed business improvement districts as a more feasible option for tackling problems in the late-night economy. They also propose repealing Early Morning Restriction Orders, which no local authority has yet introduced.
  3. Fees for licensing should be set locally, not nationally, although councils should note that they can only charge for the actual cost of processing applications: demanding more could be illegal.
  4. The Licensing Act should apply to sales airside at airports.
  5. If Minimum Unit Pricing is (a) found lawful by the Supreme Court, (b) introduced in Scotland and (c) successful in reducing excessive drinking, it should also be introduced in England and Wales.
  6. Scotland's example should also be followed in helping disabled people to access licensed premises by requiring licence applications to include disabled access statements.
My assessment:
  1. I'm not sure whether, for routine applications, this would have much impact on ordinary drinkers. I suspect any difference would be small. However, it could well be another matter if applications go to appeal: the planning inspectorate is not a local body and has form in overturning local decisions. I can't assess how this would affect licensing appeals, but I have some reservations about local decisions being handed to an unaccountable national body.
  2. The abolition of late night levies may benefit some establishments that moved their closing times to midnight to avoid paying the levy, and will be a cost all premises open after midnight will no longer have to find. The use of business improvement districts is likely to bring pubs, bars and clubs closer to other businesses in the area, rather than being ostracised as potentially troublesome neighbours, a view I feel the levies can encourage. 
  3. As long as councils don't see this as a money-spinner in these times of cutbacks, I don't see too much of a problem with this.
  4. I agree; I'm surprised this is not the case already.
  5. This is how minimum pricing can be introduced all over Great Britain. I am opposed to minimum pricing because, as I wrote in 2013, "I consider that the phrase 'responsible drinking' means that the drinker is responsible both for the quantity that he or she consumes and his or her behaviour. As responsibility rests with the person, not the product, I oppose both excessive taxation and minimum prices on the product, especially as both measures disproportionately affect the people with least money, while having a diminishing impact the higher you go up the income scale. I don't believe that anti-social behaviour and binge drinking are the preserve of the poor alone." Concerning my last point, I'll just say 'Bullingdon Club'.
  6. I can't see any problem with this, although I'd hope there'd be exceptions for historical buildings that would be seriously damaged by having to be made accessible. Having said that, accessibility has to be the norm.
A bit of a mixed bag there, I'd say, with minimum pricing probably being the most contentious. One argument against the measure has been that it contravenes EU law. With the UK heading towards the exit, this obstacle will at some point cease to exist, meaning that, sooner or later, minimum pricing will be imposed across the whole country.

Monday, 3 April 2017

David becomes Goliath

Now just The Wolf
In one way, it's quite funny watching BrewDog setting their lawyers onto a Birmingham pub which had the temerity to call itself the Lone Wolf, which is the name BrewDog uses for its spirits. They claimed trade mark infringement, which is what the estate of Elvis Presley claimed when BrewDog called one of its products Elvis Juice: they put two fingers up to the Elvis estate by reportedly both changing their names to Elvis by deed poll. At the time they wrote: "Here at BrewDog, we don’t take too kindly to petty pen pushers attempting to make a fast buck by discrediting our good name under the guise of copyright infringement."

They clearly hadn't anticipated the bad publicity surrounding their hypocrisy, so they changed tack in a hurry, offering to send some Lone Wolf spirits when the pub, unable to afford a legal battle, altered its name to, simply, the Wolf. The reality of this pair of very rich chancers has become clear to see: while the Guardian reported that they had backed down, I don't see it that way. They may have called off the lawyers, but they still got their own way with the name in the end.

They are punk entrepreneurs in the same way that Richard Branson is a hippy entrepreneur. When you hijack youth culture - of past youth in both of these cases, hippy and punk - the businessman will in time take over. In this case, they have blamed trigger-happy lawyers; whether that's true or not I can't be certain, but the point is that they employed these lawyers and therefore are responsible for whatever actions they take. Blaming people you pay to do a job seems somewhat spineless: it would have been more honest if they'd simply admitted without qualification, "Yes, we got this one completely wrong." But admitting they've made a mistake is not what BrewDog ever do; for example, in 2015 they completely rejected what were, in my view, well-grounded accusations of mocking homeless people, trans women and sex workers in one of their videos - I wrote about it here.

No one thinks of Branson as a hippy nowadays; similarly, does anyone, other than their loyal fans, take BrewDog's self-proclaimed punk credentials seriously?

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Unjustified discrimination

Southport Golden Balls, brewed for the
2006 World Cup, proved popular and was
retained under the name Golden Sands
Not being a sports fan, I was quite surprised to learn that there are some special laws governing the consumption of alcohol at football matches - not sports events in general, just football. I learnt this from an article by Matthew Hall, associate lecturer in law, including sports law, at the University of the West of England.

He points out that, while alcohol can be consumed in 'direct view' of sporting events at rugby, cricket and horse racing, none of which have been immune from disorder recently, consuming alcohol in 'direct view' of football matches remains forbidden. This has led to the absurd situation in a Norwich hotel which is next to the football ground where guests in pitch-facing rooms have to agree and sign 'FA Match Day Rules' when a game is due to be played. One rule states that: 'No alcohol is to be consumed in hotel bedrooms during the match and for a period of one hour before kick-off and one hour after the final whistle has blown.'  The rules end with: 'These premises are controlled by Norfolk Constabulary.' If your room is not pitch-facing, or if you are watching the match in the hotel bar, there are no restrictions. I wonder whether anyone has actually been arrested for glancing out their hotel window at a match while sipping a tin of beer?

I'd guess that this law was motivated by a fear of drunken football hooliganism and, more generally, a simple fear of the ordinary people of this country gathered en masse. Our ruling classes have always been jittery about mass gatherings, which is why measures such as 'kettling' are employed against political demonstrators. Historically, such fear led to the Peterloo massacre by cavalry at a peaceful political rally in Manchester in 1819. Today, football causes frequent mass gatherings of people in far greater numbers than any other activities, sporting or otherwise; they know they can't ban football, but they'd really prefer it if all fans watched it at home on TV.

This is much the same mentality that demonises pub going, describes town and city centres at weekends in 'Wild West' terms, and sees alcohol and uncontrolled ordinary people as a real threat. As I said, I have no interest in sport but I don't see why football fans should be singled out for special treatment that is not applied to the followers of any other sport. It seems especially perverse, seeing how often beer companies have sponsored football events in the past. Football fans are being subjected to unjustifiable discrimination based on ignorant prejudice.