Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 1997

* Sowing Dragons' Teeth *

There's been a lot of hysteria about alcopops recently, and in the past I've had some harsh words to say about them myself. However, those of us who wish to promote pubs and beer must be careful of being too ready to jump on this particular bandwagon, as much of it comes from groups who are opposed to alcoholic drinks in general, and see alcopops as an easy target to latch on to. If we are to be critical of these drinks, we must make sure that this is not on the grounds that they're alcoholic as such, but that they're products of no intrinsic worth which are aimed at under-age drinkers.

Over the past twenty years, the drinks industry has enjoyed a more liberal climate than at any time in the previous century. Licensing hours have been extended, the rate of duty, although still too high, has fallen in real terms, alcohol is much more freely available in supermarkets and off-licences, and the range of both the type and the strength of drinks has greatly increased, particularly in the field of beer. Many of these are things that CAMRA welcomes and has campaigned vigorously to bring about.

Unfortunately, this new-found freedom has been abused by certain sections of the industry. They have introduced new categories of drinks, first high-strength designer ciders, now alcopops, which are products totally devoid of character and integrity and which, despite their protestations, are unashamedly targeted at impressionable young people, including the under-18s, with the aim of getting them legless as quickly and painlessly as possible. They have forgotten that, in the past, when there were very strong temperance and prohibitionist movements in society, they had to work long and hard to establish an image of being a responsible and public-spirited business. They are now putting all this in jeopardy.

They have been attacked for this by their own self-regulatory watchdog, the Portman Group (a body, incidentally, which takes much the same view as CAMRA on "responsible drinking"). However, this good advice has, by and large, been recklessly ignored in the drive for short-term profit. The drinks industry are creating a dangerous hostage to fortune, which is likely to come back to haunt them. In the future, when there may be a harsher regulatory environment and a more hostile climate of public opinion - and there are already signs today of a shift in that direction - the irresponsible marketing of designer ciders and alcopops may be something they come to bitterly regret.

* Real as a Plastic Leprechaun *

I see that our local Hydes pubs are now offering "Harp Irish Lager". Now, I suppose I understand what they're getting at - that this is the same recipe and strength of Harp as that sold in Ireland. But what recommendation is that anyway? Ireland may be renowned for its stout, but it doesn't exactly spring to mind as a country with much of a tradition of lager brewing. And in any case, this beer isn't really Irish in the first place, as it's brewed under licence in the UK. It's about as authentic as a Scottish Cheddar which turns out to have been made in Limerick - or, for that matter, the proverbial Irish three-pound note.

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