Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 2015

* Magical or Mundane?*

Robinsons’ new mythical brew has a strong grounding in reality

EARLIER this year, Robinsons discontinued their once best-selling 1892 Mild, in the face of steadily falling sales. While they could perhaps have made more effort to continue to make cask mild in some form available to their pubs, very few of them were selling enough to make it viable, so the decision, while sad, was entirely understandable.

At the same time, they launched a new 3.7% amber bitter called Wizard, not as a direct replacement for 1892, but to plug a gap at the bottom end of their range. Not surprisingly, this was not greeted with much enthusiasm by those who look down on any beer that isn’t hoppy enough to take the skin off the roof of your mouth. However, it’s intended to be a classic session bitter, not an in-your-face beer, and it fills that role very well.

It’s a fairly dry beer, mid-amber in colour (a little darker than Unicorn), with a touch of the distinctive Robinsons house character and a good balance of malt and hops. Robinsons say that they “have combined five English hops, pale, wheat & crystal malts”, and there’s certainly considerable depth and complexity in there.

Historically, Robinsons have been in the unusual position of selling a “best bitter” as their everyday quaffing bitter. Some breweries in other parts of the country also did this, but it was pretty much unique in the North-West. Many people, unaware of the relative strength, used to complain that a night on Robinsons Best Bitter gave them a “bad head”, when in fact it was markedly stronger than most of its competitors. In recent years they have introduced the 3.8% golden ale Dizzy Blonde, but it has never claimed to be an ordinary bitter and indeed often sells at a premium to the stronger Unicorn.

It seems a sensible move to bring out a lower-strength ordinary bitter that will also allow Robinsons to be more price-competitive in many of their urban pubs. And initial reports are that it has been selling very well.

* Scotched *

The European courts have predictably dealt a severe blow to the SNP’s minimum pricing plans

SCOTTISH drinkers will have raised a glass last month at the news that the SNP government’s plan to introduce minimum alcohol pricing has been dealt a major blow by the European Court of Justice. In a preliminary ruling, the Advocate General stated that the proposals were clearly in violation of EU rules on competition and free trade. While there may be a public health justification for it, the same objectives could be achieved by other measures that were less discriminatory. It’s very rare for the main court to overrule such decisions and, while the idea isn’t completely dead, it has certainly been kicked into the long grass, as many commentators had predicted.

Some people have argued that minimum pricing might help pubs by reducing the price different­ial against the off-trade, but it wouldn’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs and off-trade drinks would still be much cheaper. CAMRA sensibly abandoned this policy a couple of years ago following a conference motion by two prominent Greater Manchester members arguing that it was basically putting the organisation on the wrong side of the debate.

Even if it did give pubs a slight boost, which is very doubtful anyway, it would be extremely short-sighted for one section of the drinks trade to seek a temporary advantage from what is essentially an anti-drink measure. In the words of Winston Churchill, “an appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”

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