The Best Of Curmudgeon - 1994
Highlights from Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Columns during 1994
It's depressing to see the number of new "draught beers in a can" launched recently - Theakstons, Stones, John Smiths, Tetleys, to name but four. CAMRA may have successfully convinced the discerning drinker that ordinary "tinnies" have little to recommend them, but the big brewers have hit back by persuading people, apparently with great success, that drinking this stuff is much closer to the genuine article on draught in the pub.
Nothing could be further from the truth. These beers are filtered, carbonated and pasteurised just like any other canned beers. And then they are subjected to a highly artificial process involving the use of nitrogen, a gas which has no place in real ale dispense, to simulate the appearance of a pint pulled through a tight sparkler to give a creamy head.
Appearance is all they do simulate, though. They have to be served at refrigerator temperatures, rather than the 13°C appropriate for real ale, thus killing almost all the flavour. They also have a very "soft" character, which may suit Draught Guinness but totally lacks the crispness given by the condition in real ale. At their best, they taste like very tired, flat cask beer, pulled through an over-tight sparkler to give a thick head while knocking all the condition out. At their worst, well... the libel lawyer forbids!
If you want a decent drink of beer, the best advice is to go to the pub. But if you do drink at home, don't imagine for a minute that "Draught Boddies in a Can", or whatever, bears any more relation to a pint of real ale than any conventional packaged beer, because in reality it is an even more artificial and processed product.
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For years we have been bombarded by so-called health advice insisting that if we drink more than 21 units of alcohol a week if we are men, or 14 if we are women, the risk of all kinds of health problems will be dramatically increased. Now an in-depth study carried out by Sir Richard Doll, the respected medical scientist famous for proving the link between smoking and cancer, has shown that, in a sample of over 12,000 men, the healthiest group were those consuming between 20 and 29 units per week. In other words, that is those routinely drinking more than the officially recommended maximum limit.
While this does no more than prove what anyone with any common sense knew already, it's reassuring to have some scientific proof to back up one's gut feelings. Rather than trying to impose ludicrous maximum limits on millions of moderate drinkers, the health campaigners should concentrate their efforts on helping those who really do have a drink problem.
Has anyone noticed the decline in lunchtime drinking? While town centre pubs serving food can still be busy, neighbourhood locals have become very quiet every lunchtime apart from Sundays. A number of pubs have even started closing weekday lunches, something hardly any did before the so-called "liberalisation" of licensing hours.
You might think this has its good side, leading to fewer drunken drivers and snoozing, unproductive workers. But how many are going to drink more than a pint or two anyway? Isn't it really a sign of a subtle and corrosive change in society - the move from the pub being an integral part of daily life to a specific "destination venue" for a night out? It particularly annoys me when self-righteous people claim "Oh, I never drink at lunchtimes". Maybe this is because they're usually too hung over from the night before, but by taking this line they do nothing to help pubs.
Next time you have the chance, call in to the pub near your home or work for a lunchtime pint - it might become an enjoyable habit and save the pub at the same time.
In his excellent CAMRA Guide to the Best Pubs in Yorkshire, Barrie Pepper rightly praises the licensee of the Mother Shipton Inn in Knaresborough for refusing to hand bottles over the bar. "Like me", Barrie writes, "he detests the obnoxious practice of drinking straight from the bottle. Ugh!" It's a great pity more pubs don't follow this licensee's example. A better way of missing the finer points of beer and revealing yourself as a right prat at the same time is hard to imagine - although most of the beers subjected to this kind of treatment are the likes of Budweiser and Sol where there's precious little character to spoil.
And maybe it's sexist and politically incorrect to say so, but I find most distasteful of all the sight of a young woman necking a bottle of Diamond White, "K" or some other high-strength rubbish which passes for designer cider, showing a complete lack of style and taste, and soon left with no sense either....
I recently read an ill-informed condemnation of CAMRA as a group of "fearsome beards and anoraks". Now just what is it about anoraks that causes the word to be used as a term of abuse? It has almost become a synonym for "nerd". Anyone who has an intelligent interest that doesn't involve galvanic twitching in a nightclub or kicking a ball around a muddy field is likely to be condemned as an "anorak" and banished from normal society. If you're out and about birdwatching or trainspotting you need clothing that keeps you warm and dry and has plenty of pockets to put things in - you really would be a nerd if you went on the Cumbrian fells in an Armani suit.
Compare the anorak wearer to those boneheaded Geordie lads who go round the Bigg Market in Newcastle in January wearing nothing warmer than a short-sleeved shirt, to show that they are real hard men and not puffs. When they're in their fifties and crippled with bronchitis perhaps they will look back on their misspent youth and conclude that perhaps wearing an anorak might not have been such a bad idea after all.
Does your local suffer from the phenomenon of "pillocks at the bar"? Personally, I've never really understood the attractions of "perpendicular drinking" in pubs - I much prefer to enjoy my pint sitting down - but I recognise that some people do like to stand up by the bar. However, all too often they display a total lack of consideration for other customers, blocking narrow passages and hatchways, refusing to let people get through to the counter to be served, and reacting rudely if politely asked to make way. They can just as easily be Hooray Henries as shaven-headed yobbos, but is there something in the nature of stand-up drinking which breeds ignorance and offensiveness? I'm certainly convinced that encouraging more customers to sit down is a good way of improving the atmosphere in pubs, and reducing the chance of trouble.
Have you ever seen drinkers in pubs swirling their beer around in the bottom of the glass and wondered just what they're trying to achieve? I first came across this phenomenon in Birmingham in the late 1970s. In many of the pubs there it had some point, because much of the beer was keg, and it had the result of releasing some of the CO2 dissolved in the beer, making it less gassy and at the same time restoring a better appearance to the head. But it's rare indeed to find over-conditioned cask beer - beer that's too flat is much more common, particularly if pulled through a "swan-neck". In the absence of excess CO2, all that swirling your beer round does is to give a very short-lived improvement to the head while making the beer flatter than it was before. Do these folk see any purpose in what they're doing, or has it just become an automatic habit?
A sight becoming increasingly common in our free houses and beer festivals is the "beer spotter", a kind of alcoholic equivalent of trainspotters, typically clad in grubby anorak with a dog-eared Good Beer Guide, rushing around the country in search of another "scratch" when they find a beer they haven't sampled before.
There's nothing wrong with enthusiastically seeking out and sampling new beers - anyone with an interest in beer has probably done it to some extent. But it's something else entirely when it becomes a narrow-minded fanatical pursuit of novelty for its own sake, ignoring any considerations of pub atmosphere, standards of service or beer quality. They have even been spotted putting samples of beers they haven't got time to try into plastic bottles to drink later at home - when the beer will surely have become warm, flat and not worth drinking anyway. And it gets beyond a joke when they start abusing bar staff for refusing to put on a rare beer that they want to try, for no better reason than it isn't ready to be served yet.
Some of my most memorable drinking evenings have been spent sampling the products of a single independent brewery on their home territory (Brakspears in Henley particularly springs to mind) and comparing the subtle variations in the flavour of the beer and the character of the pubs. To the beer spotter, though, that would be a nightmare - just think, a whole evening without the prospect of a single "scratch"! The poor sods really don't know what they're missing.
I meet a number of people nowadays who make the self-righteous claim that they "never drink and drive", and yet are quite prepared to go out and have a skinful in the evening and then drive a car first thing the following morning. Five pints from 9 pm to 11 pm will almost certainly leave a trace of alcohol in your bloodstream at 8 am the next day, while eight may very well put you over the limit.
What these folk are really saying is that they have no qualms about driving with alcohol in their bloodstream, even to the extent of being over the legal limit, but they won't even have a half of mild and drive immediately afterwards when others are there to see, for fear of their halo slipping. At the same time, they're usually quite happy to cadge lifts home from the pub from those who, while keeping well within the law, are not quite as sanctimonious.
If you can't, or don't want to, restrict your drinking to stay within the legal limit, or feel unable to control a car if you've so much as sniffed a glass of whisky, that's your business. But to use that choice to claim moral superiority over others who might take the wheel after having one or two perfectly legal drinks is more than a little hypocritical.
The only drinkers who can say with total honesty that they never drink and drive are those who quite simply never drive. Any driver who drinks at all regularly, which in reality is most of us, will drive from time to time with at least a little alcohol in their bloodstream. Whether that comes from drinking one pint just before driving, or seven pints ten hours earlier, the reading on the breathalyser, and the danger, or lack of it, to other road users, is the same. The only people these moralisers are really kidding is themselves.
November's "Opening Times" reported the opening of "Durty Nelly's" in Fallowfield, an Irish theme bar targeted at students, selling a 4.3% ABV beer at a staggering £1.80 a pint. This is only the latest in a stream of new pubs which have opened in "studentland" over the past few years, such as the Flea & Firkin, Jabez Clegg and Joshua Brooks. These places, along with long-established favourites like the Lass O'Gowrie, seem to do tremendous business slaking the thirsts of Britain's largest student population outside London. But at the same time students keep telling us how hard up they are, and how cutbacks in grants mean it's ever harder to make ends meet. What they say just doesn't stack up with what they do.
Undoubtedly some students, particularly those who get no parental support, do find it a struggle to manage, but at the same time it's obvious that many others have plenty of spare cash to pour down their throats. It's not as if they even drink in the Grafton where the beer's cheap. When you see the crush at the bar of the Lass or the Flea, you can understand why the general public - many of whom work hard all their lives and never reach a "graduate starting salary" - find it hard to have much sympathy with the plight of "penniless students".