Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2010

* Fancy an Ersaztenbrau? *

The idea of a “safe” alcohol substitute completely misses the point

SCIENTISTS led by the appropriately-named Professor David Nutt, who was sacked from his government post last year for suggesting ecstasy and cannabis were safer than alcohol, say they have come up with a form of synthetic alcohol that they claim will eliminate many of our supposed alcohol problems. Apparently it replicates the effects of alcohol but can then be reversed by an antidote, leaving people hangover-free.

However, this completely misses the point. Alcoholic drinks have been enjoyed for thousands of years – they are part of our history and culture. Even when produced on an industrial scale, they are essentially made from natural ingredients rather than being synthesised in a laboratory.

It often seems to be believed by members of the drug lobby that people only, or primarily, drink alcohol to get drunk, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. People consume alcoholic drinks, even the bog-standard ones, because they like the taste. Beer and cider in particular can be extremely refreshing, while whisky may raise your spirits on a chilly day. And wine in particular, but beer and cider too, can be an excellent complement to food. If people purely wanted to drink for the effect, they would drink vodka diluted with the mixer of their choice. But, in general, they don’t.

It’s also probably true to say that, on a large majority of occasions when people drink alcohol, they experience nothing more than a slight glow. Of course people are not indifferent to the effect of alcohol, but it is not consumed solely for the effect in the way that cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine and LSD are. Despite what the drug lobby claim, it is not “just another drug”. And I can’t honestly see beer, cider, wines and spirits disappearing any day soon.

* Bigger Spoonfuls *

Wetherspoons’ expansion is a double-edged sword

BEFORE Christmas, J. D. Wetherspoon announced that over the next five years, they planned to open 250 new pubs, which would create over 10,000 new jobs. At a time when much of the pub trade is struggling, you have to give them credit for knowing what they are doing and creating a chain of busy, successful pubs. They offer a wide range of food and drink at reasonable prices in a welcoming, non-threatening environment, and now sell more cask beer than any other pub company. And Chairman Tim Martin is one of the few industry leaders who is willing to question the prevailing anti-drink orthodoxy.

However, you have to wonder how many of those 10,000 will be a net gain for the pub trade, and how many will simply replace jobs in other pubs that end up closing because of the competition from Wetherspoons. And it’s difficult not to feel a twinge of regret for the loss of small, quirky, individual pubs, however grotty they may have been, to be replaced by what often come across as bland, standardised drinking emporiums.

But independently-run pubs can’t be sheltered from the realities of competition, and if they want to continue to exist alongside Wetherspoons, and justify charging higher prices, they need to offer something distinctively different and better in terms of atmosphere, standards of service and quality of food and drink.

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