Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2001

* Taste or Effect? *

Many of the most characterful and enjoyable beers are those of modest strength

I was dismayed to see recently that Stella Artois had been named as one of Britain's top three grocery brands. This is a beer that, at least in its British licence-brewed incarnation, is largely devoid of flavour and character, and best suited for necking from the bottle by undiscerning customers. But it's also, at 5.2% ABV, a pretty strong beer, and you must conclude that people are drinking so much of it not because they like the taste but because they want to get drunk as simply and painlessly as possible.

Compare it with Moorhouse's Black Cat, last year's Champion Beer of Britain, a highly distinctive beer full of flavour and character, which may only have a modest strength of 3.4% ABV, but in every other respect is immeasurably superior to British fake Stella. Which would you prefer to drink?

To be honest, if your main aim in drinking is simply to get drunk, then you've got a bit of a problem. A couple of strong beers are fine to give you an appetite for your lunch, and there's nothing to beat a soothing glass of Old Tom before retiring for the night. But if you're going to spend a session on pints, both your wallet and your liver would be much better off sticking to milds and ordinary bitters with a strength of 4% or less, and you don't need to sacrifice anything in terms of taste.

Some may dismiss beers of this strength as weak and watery, and that's certainly true of standard lagers and keg bitters. But the category includes some of Britain's most distinctive contributions to the brewer's art, from the rich maltiness of Bateman's Dark Mild through to the uncompromising hoppiness of Hartington Best Bitter, and locally nobody can accuse Holts', Hydes', Lees' or Robinson's everyday beers of being in the least bit lacking in taste and body. And it's not the case that they have no effect on you - merely that it's much more gentle, gradual and pleasant. It's also a pity that so many pubs that have the option of serving guest beers seem to ignore good beers of moderate gravity in favour of those with strengths of 4.5% or above.

* Death of a Curmudgeon *

A tribute to Auberon Waugh, champion of country pubs and scourge of the politically correct

I was saddened last month by the news that Auberon Waugh, one of the great curmudgeons of our time, had died, aged 61, at his home at Combe Florey, Somerset. Despite losing a lung during National Service in the 1950s, he always believed in living life to the full, and enjoyed a prolific career as a journalist and commentator, working for a number of national newspapers and magazines. In recent years he was best known for his "Way of the World" column in the "Daily Telegraph". His greatest moment of fame came in the general election of 1979 when he stood against former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe as the candidate of the Dog Lovers' Party.

Like any true curmudgeon he had a variety of strongly-held views that would not fit into a convenient pigeonhole. But he was always a staunch opponent of the efforts of the politically correct to ban anything that people actually enjoy doing. In particular he was a great champion of country pubs and had the courage to speak out against the efforts of the police to close them down through over-zealous enforcement of the drink-drive laws.

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