Tuesday 27 September 2011

Do You Believe This?

According to HM Revenue and Customs, illegal imports of beer - beer that has not had UK duty paid on it - amounts to 14% of UK beer volumes. Now I am assuming here that legally imported beer for personal consumption is not included in these figures, but then again can that be so, as including those beers would make the problem much worse? On the other hand then legally imported beer for personal consumption can be sold illegally. Is that what they are saying, or is it some kind of some kind of combination? What do these guesstimates really mean?  It's as clear as mud.

The problem with this sort of thing is that when you start to think about it, the whole premise becomes less and less likely. Where does this beer come from? Where does it go? Is it being imported in such quantities when we are told supermarkets are giving it away? It can't be being sold in pubs to any great extent either can it? For such quantities to be true, you'd have to import it by the truck load rather than the (white) van load and surely HMRC and the Immigration Department still check loads, even if it is just for VAT, security and illegal immigrants? It all seems rather far fetched to me.

The Revenue say that the country is losing (in 2009/10) an incredible £800 million in duty due to this. (Spirits which to me is more believable, account for another £440 million). This is up an incredible 40% in one year.

Anyone got any thoughts on this?

Coming on the day after the publication of the Cask Report, this would mean that illegal beer imports exceed total cask beer sales.

Monday 26 September 2011

Cask Still Doing the Biz

The Cask Ale Report for 2011/12 is out. Well sort of. You can't download it from their site yet, so if you want to know what's in it, you have to rely on its author Pete Brown (who better?) or the good old Morning Advertiser.

The key message is that in a beer market that declined by an overall 7.8%, cask declined by only 2.3%, though there is a complex scene of increasing cask beer drinking (especially among the young), more pubs stocking it and cask now taking 15% of the on trade market, which itself declined by around 7%. Any further number crunching will have to wait until I get my mitts on the report itself.

Crucially Pete Brown, quoted in the MA says; “Cask ale can help pubs to not only survive, but to thrive. It’s attracting new drinkers who spend more in the pub than non-cask drinkers, making them valuable customers,"  This is a very important point. Cask beer drinkers, by and large aren't sippers of beer. They drink it freely and that means more spend.  The attractiveness of cask mirrors my own recent experience. I had two phone calls from landlords asking for my advice recently. One has been now given by his (very small) pub company, freedom to pursue a cask beer policy and wean customers off smooth in an all smooth pub and the other has bought an excellent pub, which had been ruined by Enterprise and wanted advice on how to rebuild the cask ale trade when it re-opens.  Optimistic stuff indeed.

There is a host of opportunity here and hopefully more and more pubs will take it.  I am not one of those that thinks the future of real ale is assured. It is still a niche product (though a big niche) and still needs to ensure quality is always top notch, but the trends are good. Even family brewers (a particular interest of mine)are upping their game. In this area Thwaites, by sheer power of will and canny marketing, as well as producing beers that people really want to drink, have transformed their image. They have become nationally known and are doing a lot right. Robinsons promise great things and innovative products, from both a new brewery and a new brewing team.  Adnams are already well down that path and others are looking for ways in which they can up their game. Staying as you were just isn't an option.  What's the point of being vertically integrated, if all your pubs are empty because your products are out of step with the times?  Owning a brewery and pubs gives family brewers the opportunity, perhaps not to lead the revolution, but certainly to take great advantage of it.

Cask ale has a bright future and what we need both locally and nationally, is to keep pushing forward with great products, fantastic quality and a touch of innovation. Those that don't,  those that rest on their laurels or past glories, be they pubs, PubCos, or breweries, will end up down among the dead men. 

I'd have liked an advance copy of this, albeit an embargoed one.

Friday 23 September 2011

Short Measure Riles

There are quite a few siren voices that complain about CAMRA's stance on full measure pints - a policy I don't particularly see the need for when there are bigger priorities - but I didn't know the Germans were concerned about this aspect too and that there is actually an organisation that you can join to combat it. Even more astonishing, to me at least, is that the group concerned is over 100 years old.

I have noticed a fair bit of short measure in Germany, even though oversize glasses are always used. Like most I have just put up with it, while noting grimly that the benefit of the doubt almost always seems to fall to the server of the beer rather than the customer. It varies a lot of course, with Cologne to my mind, being the worst culprits. Now the Oktoberfest is notorious for short measure. You just have to look at the photos to see that. It seems though the the VGBE (League Against Fraudulent Pouring) - don't the Germans just love a snappy title? - are kicking up a song and dance about it. With the price of a litre of beer at €9 each on average, it seems that many maßkrugs are only being filled to 90 percent. This is because Munich’s government allows a variance of up to 0.1 litre. I think it fair to say that this variance is rarely in the customer's favour.  Anecdotally according to one commentator, a kellner (pourer) can squeeze up to 200 litres out of a 100 litre cask,  though that seems more than a tad optimistic to me I have to say.

“The tolerance level has to go,” said the VGBE’s president, Jan-Ulrich Bittlinge, who called the results of the test “sobering.” “We ordered and paid for seven mugs in every tent. But, in fact, we received on average only six litres of beer.” Some results were particularly bad: In one tent the mug only contained 0.73 litres of beer, meaning the customer was cheated out of €2.43 worth of beer.

So, a couple of things.  Doesn't seem that the VGBE has been that successful in the last 100 years does it? And secondly, if you didn't have a good enough reason not to go to Oktoberfest (the only valid one to go is to see the lasses in dirndls) then you have now.

I like the sound of this though. The Beer Inspectors use a mobile phone app that measures the beer content by photograph. Handy. Pun intended.

Gratuitous dirndl photo and story details courtesy of the local.de

Thursday 22 September 2011

Noisy CAMRA Types

I was struck by a remark of a commentator on my blog about CAMRA people. Saga of Nails said " A problem that CAMRA has is that most people's impressions of the organisation stem from the standard but vocal CAMRA drinker that they see in the pub."  Let's think about this.  I'm casting my mind back and believe me I drink in a lot of pubs and have done for around forty years and I have had very few experiences of this kind of thing.  Obviously I do go to pubs where they know me, but I just mind my own business about what people are drinking and if I have a problem with the beer, I have a quiet word with the bar staff.   On the contrary I am often engaged by people to talk about beer.  I also go to many pubs where they don't know me from Adam and just quietly enjoy (or not) my drink. I think I am fairly typical, except of course I write a beer blog. (The fact that I may report my findings here isn't covered in this case.)  I certainly don't stand at the bar banging some kind of CAMRA drum.

I can remember once at a pub beer festival (at the Rake) some CAMRA beer bores going on about this and that, but the problem was to me only that they were blocking the bar.  So how common is this experience of my commentator?  What are these people being vocal about? How often does this happen and what annoyance is caused?  Am I just tuning out this noisesome behaviour somehow? Clearly of course there will be times when,  mob handed after a meeting say, there will be loud talking and dominating space, but is that somehow different to other such groups as football teams, quizzers etc?

In my experience CAMRA people go to pubs in the same way and with the same intentions as anyone else - that is to have a good time - and rarely (no more than the pub bore) bother anyone. In most cases, you won't even know they are there.  Proselytising is unusual and if it atypically happens, it is probably done by the CAMRA equivalent of the aforementioned pub bore.  Agreed it may be unwise to engage some CAMRA types in conversation, (no more than most types though)  that's not the allegation. Is it true that most people's impressions of CAMRA members are derived from overly vocal behaviour in the pub?

Let me know what you think. I am genuinely puzzled and interested to know your thoughts.

I'd be interested to know too, the definition of the "standard" CAMRA drinker

Wednesday 21 September 2011


Manchester Food and Drink Festival is a bit of annual fun which culminates in various eating and drinking events in St Annes Square in front of the impressive Town Hall. This year Robinson's will have a pub and there will be a Bavarian Beer Keller as a tribute to Munich's Oktoberfest. Sounds like fun, with a load of German beers to swig while being oompahed along the way. Not quite. The sole beer will be Veltins Pils. I quote "This year we're creating a full-on Bier Keller on the Square - the perfect Autumn pop-up drinking destination. There'll be Bavarian beers provided by Veltins, one of Germany's oldest and most established Braueries, and steins of their refreshing pilsner will be the order of the day

So what I hear you cry? One small problem. Veltins hail from Meschede in North Rhine Westphalia, not Bavaria.  I know it won't matter to most, but surely if they want it to be Bavarian, rather than just German, they could have got beer from Bavaria?

After all, there is around 640 breweries to ask.

Still a lot of fun though and worth a look if in the area.

A Bit of Fun or a Serious Proposition?

You will all no doubt remember the recent (and ongoing)arguments about craft beer and how difficult it is to decide what constitutes craft brewing and all the circumlocutions consequently being trotted out? These sort of amounted to "well it is done with care and love" or some such oily euphemism, which meant really, that "craft" is what we want it to be. Fine and dandy I suppose, but maybe one reason why the nascent organisation Craft UK, seems on the face of it, to be dead in the water. Won't this bird fly then? "No" would seem the ready answer, as it makes itself difficult to identify with, seems complicated and without any real conviction. It kind of whistles in the dark. I think if  I were a craft brewer, I'd prefer SIBA to carry my torch.

If defining craft is difficult enough, we now have the new (though Zak Avery says it came first) intending to appeal to all comers, Campaign for Really Good Beer. Not good beer mind you, but really good beer. Try defining "really good beer" in a way that anyone will agree with, though I suppose that isn't really the point. The point is probably to cock a snook at CAMRA, to subtly and not so subtly pressure them to change in some way and to have a bit of a laugh all round. The problem with that approach is somewhat obvious. If you don't set out clearly defined aims and don't take yourself seriously, then in the long run, nobody else will either. As Zak Avery says here about Craft UK, though it would seem to fairly apply to both,  "it is somehow simultaneously so broad and so narrow as to be meaningless".CRGB seems particularly vulnerable to lack of definitive purpose

So is either actually a bad thing? No of course not. I'm very relaxed about it, both from a CAMRA and a personal point of view. It is good to see that people (however inadequately) are prepared to stick their heads above the parapet and try and kick off something that they feel is needed (however poorly judged) and it does indicate at least that people are taking beer a bit more seriously - more seriously in fact than their curiously ill defined organisations seem to be doing - but that's fine. It takes time to get a proper track to run on, so we have to wait and see in some respects. It could be big, though I have a sneaking suspicion it won't be.  Personally though, given that they bothered at all, I'd like to have seen a Real Keg emphasis, as that at least could have begat a movement that could be generally understood, had some ready proponents and would have filled a gap in the market. Neglecting to find a gap, territory that can be claimed,  a place of their own if you like, to my mind dooms both of these organisations to being sideshows at best. The other obvious problem as I see it, is that there are overlaps with existing organisations such as CAMRA and SIBA. It is difficult enough to elbow your way into a gap, but much more of a mountain to climb, if you want to challenge existing incumbents.

The optimistic scenario is that CAMRGB will somehow become a populist movement, but there are obvious problems. Really good beer is really just "beer I like". No common sense of purpose and lack of easily assimilated definitions will be a deterrent to many. And if a charge starts to be made to be a member, it is unlikely to retain more than a handful.

No-one wants to pay something for nothing and "really good beer" is as glib as it is meaningless. Both organisations have missed the target here.

Monday 19 September 2011

Just Another Commodity

Beer is. In Spain, or at least the lovely part of it I was in. The little town of Orgiva is full of bars (and the great unwashed). We didn't try them all - the bars that is - preferring a couple in the centre and two on the long walk back up the hill to our rented place, some distance out of and above the town. (For the record, we didn't try the various great unwashed at all.) Beer in Andalucia is it seems, a cold pale tasteless fluid that means so little its brand name isn't even listed in most menus. You have to find out by a quick shufti at the bar on your way to the bogs, or take a punt that the name on the napkins or chairs is actually what is being served. I am pretty sure that over the piece we had, in no particular order, San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Alhambra, Mahou and Estrella. All much of a muchness, as was the own brand stuff from supermarket chain "Dia", which at about €6.50 for 24 x 25cl, was just as good as the rest really, made a good poolside sun quencher and had the straight to the point and perfectly logical name of "Lager".

What was interesting too, was that most of the bars seemed to be thriving inside, even though we sat outside, sun starved as we were. The recent smoking ban seems not to have dampened down enthusiasm much and all seemed lively most of the time. Another oddity was the prevalence of non alcoholic beer and its relative popularity. So while it is bloody freezing here, it is nice to be back and have to have a genuine choice of beer again, both in brand and in style.  Not that I drank that much beer, preferring often to have a cold glass of white wine, though I do confess to the odd "tubo".  I can't say I missed beer that much,  though perhaps tellingly, before going home, we headed straight to the Angel in Manchester, where the Hawkshead Windermere Pale didn't touch the sides.  Hops. Yes I missed hops.

Despite complaints about this and that, it is a useful reminder that we are a beer country here and that makes me both pleased and grateful.

Actually, Alhambra Especial, despite the maize, wasn't too bad, with better body than the rest.

Friday 2 September 2011

Pause for Hols

Sorry this blog has been a touch quiet of late, but I'm on the downward slope to my hols and am struggling for inspiration. And yes, despite retirement, my batteries, particularly my beery ones, need recharging and I need some sun. So a couple of weeks of the odd Spanish beer, mostly Cruzcampo I suppose, a lot of wine and gin and two weeks with the lovely E and a load of books is my plan. That should do the trick.

So be good and watch out for a tweet or two over the next two weeks.

Hasta la vista.