Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 2000

* Putting Beer First *

The "Good Beer Guide" is the only pub guide to celebrate the central role of beer

People sometimes complain to me that CAMRA's Good Beer Guide includes many pubs that are at best unappealing and at worst downright awful, and excludes others that in many ways are very good. Itís certainly true that it contains a few pubs that probably every reader would not want to visit, but they will be different pubs for different people. Indeed, in reality that is its great strength, that it is the only guide to cover the full spectrum of pubs from the basic inner-city boozer to the family-friendly country inn, from the style-conscious cafť bar to the saloon bar full of retired military men, united only by the common factor of serving good beer.

The Good Beer Guide is the one pub guide that unequivocally puts beer first - which of course was the reason for pubs existing in the first place. Without beer, there would be no pubs, and any pub forgetting that is not worthy of the name. If you read the descriptions carefully youíll get a good idea of what to expect and can choose the kind of establishment that suits you. And, if you do make the effort to visit a few that don't sound like your idea of a good pub, you may be pleasantly surprised and end up broadening your mind.

Pubs may be excluded for good reasons that are not obvious to the casual punter, such as a recent change of licensee, and equally there are plenty of pubs that have a lot going for them, but fall short in terms of beer quality compared to others nearby that may superficially be less appealing.

If what you want is a guide to comfortable pubs that serve well-presented food and have old beams and roses round the door, then the annual "Good Pub Guide" fits the bill admirably - but it doesn't include many pubs in the Holts estate, and it will lead you to a lot of lacklustre, overpriced pints. The AA have gone one further and produced a guide to the "Best Country Pubs", which begs the question of why there is no companion volume for towns, and is something of a contradiction in terms, as a pub guide produced by a motoring organisation is by definition hardly going to give the drinker top priority.

* Dump the Pubs *

The fuel crisis has laid stealth taxation bare for all to see

Fond as I am of beer, I couldn't really claim it as a necessity of life. The same, however, is not true of road fuel, which last month's protest clearly underlined is, for most of us, most of the time, absolutely essential. So it seems a touch inconsistent that the duty levied on the "luxury" item is about 30% of the base price, while the necessity is taxed at a staggering 300%. Alcoholic drinks, of course, can be fairly easily imported from abroad, legally or illegally, and can also be manufactured at home, neither of which is true of fuel. But the reality is that governments of all colours decide policy on indirect taxation not on the basis of logic, but on what they can get away with, that is until someone pulls them up in their tracks.

Nobody is blockading breweries as a protest against alcohol taxation, but, in practice, we are "dumping the pubs" much more effectively than we "dumped the pumps". Every white van that crosses the Channel laden with beer bought in France at less than half the British price represents a few hundred pub visits foregone. So it's hardly surprising that local pubs are closing all over the country, and pubgoing is increasingly becoming a once-a-week special event rather than part of daily life.

Hopefully last month's events will have the result of laying bare once and for all the concept of stealth taxes, and make it much more difficult in future for Chancellors of the Exchequer to constantly ratchet up the rates of indirect taxation, particularly on alcoholic drinks, in the belief that nobody will notice. But donít hold your breath.

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