Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2008
It takes a severe sense of humour failure to seek to ban an award-winning ale
BACK IN the distant past, beers were simply called “Mild”, “Bitter”, “Best Bitter” and the like. However, as interest in beer grew and guest beers and multi-beer pubs spread, brewers increasingly gave their beers distinctive names to attract customers’ attention. It is very common for these names to combine historical associations with a tongue-in cheek element.
Unfortunately one of these beers, Orkney Brewery’s 8.5% ABV Skull Splitter strong ale, a former CAMRA Champion Winter Beer of Britain, which takes its name from a 10th century Viking Earl of Orkney, has fallen foul of the self-appointed drinks watchdog the Portman Group. These po-faced individuals have decided there is an unacceptable link between the name and the beer’s strength, and are demanding that it be withdrawn from sale. Now obviously you’re not going to call a light bitter Skull Splitter, but in this case they really seem to have spectacularly missed the point.
Skull Splitter is not some super strength lager or white cider designed as a rapid route to oblivion, it is a carefully crafted premium strong ale that is not sold through supermarkets and will be found only in specialist free houses and off-licences. In practice it appeals to discerning drinkers and is not in any sense a cause of problem drinking. Along similar lines, locally, during the winter months. a number of Robinson’s pubs offer draught Old Tom, at 8.5% ABV one of the strongest draught beers in the country, yet you never seen troublemakers swilling it down before going out to cause mayhem.
You can’t apply a one size fits all policy to drinks publicity, and have to recognise who particular drinks are aimed at, and how they are going to consume them. The adult customers of strong ales such as Skull Splitter should be credited with both a sense of responsibility and a sense of humour.
Ale and responsible drinking seem to go together
OF COURSE this raises a wider issue. There is currently a lot of concern about the abuse of alcohol in Britain, which to my mind all too easily degenerates into hysteria, but is not without substance. But very little of the blame can be placed at the door of ale. Have the young people brawling and puking in city-centre streets on Saturday night, or the under-18s swigging booze on park benches, been drinking ale? In almost all cases the answer is no, not even John Smith’s Smooth.
If you go in pubs that place an emphasis on ale, whether traditional locals or multi-beer freehouses, you will scarcely ever see any significant trouble, even if very strong beers are available. The difference, of course, is that ale drinkers think about what they are drinking and do not judge it purely by its alcoholic content.
It is perhaps asking a bit much to want to see deliberate discrimination in favour of ale through taxation or licensing policy, and such measures would have the potential to backfire. But there can be no doubt that the ale sector, both in pubs and the off-trade, offers a model of responsible and discerning alcohol consumption that sets a salutary example to the rest of the licensed trade. Ale should not be tarred with the same brush as shooters, blue WKDs and British-brewed fake premium lagers.