Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 1999

* ...But Most of It Has Been *

Last month's article was headed "It Hasn't Been All Bad", and looked at the positive developments during my legal drinking career, so the vitriol bottle took a rest. Now, of course, it's full to overflowing. So what are the worst things that have happened in the past twenty-two years? (And, yes, some of these partly contradict what I said last month)

  • Beer Spotters do nothing to promote good real ale. They couldn't care less about quality. For God's sake, they put the stuff in plastic bottles, take it home and swap it with each other! Too many micro breweries waste their efforts in producing spotters' specials rather than quality beers with a long-term appeal. And too many people's energy and enthusiasm goes into spotting rather than campaigning for beer and pubs.
  • Designer Bottles. Why are so many young people willing to spend 2.50 on a half-pint bottle of bland muck such as Budweiser or Fosters Ice? And then neck it from the bottle as if their table manners had been frozen at the age of two? There can be no other consumer market where so much overpriced, worthless product is palmed off on people. And the stuff is an insult to the many high-quality, authentic lagers that are available.
  • Destruction of Pub Interiors. Far too many traditional interiors of real character and quality have been swept away in the name of progress and convenience, when all they needed was new upholstery and a lick of paint. If you remember, say, the George on Mersey Square in Stockport as it was, and go in it now, you will weep. You can put real ale back in a keg pub, but a historic interior is lost for ever. And why do pub designers today seem to insist on making pubs as uncomfortable as possible, and in particular removing all fixed seating?
  • Drink-Driving. The hysterical and exaggerated campaign of misinformation on this subject is slowly destroying the British pub, even without a reduction in the limit. Of course people should not drive when drunk or significantly impaired by alcohol, but to claim that they represent any meaningful kind of danger after only a couple of drinks flies in the face of the facts. It may be politically incorrect to say so, but law-abiding car-borne drinkers put money in the tills of most pubs in Britain and are vital to at least a third. It's the pub-going that dare not speak its name. Without moderate and lawful drink-driving, tens of thousands of pubs would be no more. And the refusal of the authorities even to acknowledge the "morning after" issue and the injustice it causes is a disgrace.
  • High Prices. When I was a lad, draught in the pub was the cheapest beer you could get. Today, it's at least 50% more expensive than beer from the off-licence, and twice the price if your tipple is premium lager, and that's without considering cross-Channel imports. People may not choose between pubs on the basis of price, but it sure as hell affects how much in total they drink in pubs. This is one of the key reasons - along with the one above - why so many pubs are struggling and closing.
  • Loss of Independent Brewers. We have lost Oldham, Higsons, Matthew Brown, Yates & Jackson, Home, Simpkiss, Wem, Shipstones, Davenports, Border and, most recently, Wards, Vaux and Mitchells. It is incredibly sad and unnecessary. Their beers are lost forever, their once distinctive pubs now sell the same national brands, and in many cases no real ale at all. A gaggle of tiny micros is scant consolation.
  • Nitrokeg. It took us all by surprise when keg came back from the grave in the ghoulish form of nitro. It really is horrible stuff, far worse than traditional keg or tank beers. Yet it has been encouraged by the obscurantism of real ale supporters and the fact that too many pints of real ale are still downright poor, to the point when many drinkers actively seek it out. And the irony is that without real ale it would not exist, because it is basically a sixth-rate imitation of real ale which has been pulled through an ultra-tight sparkler.
  • Short Measures. In the past twenty years, there has been a dramatic reduction in the use of oversize glasses, which has been a disaster for full pints and has put millions into the pockets of brewers and licensees. Despite its theoretical support for full measures, CAMRA has in effect connived at this process by encouraging the replacement of electric meters with handpumps. At two successive general elections, the winning party has promised to legislate for full measures, and then lost its nerve or its interest afterwards.
  • The Anti-Drink Lobby. While drinkers have gained new freedoms, the general tenor of media comment about alcoholic drinks has become increasingly negative. There is a constant drip-feed of alarmist health warnings, and many organisations now take a dim view of even very light drinking amongst their employees. There must be a serious danger of a legislative backlash in the next twenty years.
  • Too Many Beers. Nobody can keep real ale consistently well, however busy their pub, if they have ten or twelve different beers on the bar. That includes numerous Good Beer Guide listed pubs. Those who insist that particular pubs manage to pull it off are looking at them through rose-tinted spectacles. While beer buffs may be willing to risk a bad pint or two for the chance of getting a brilliant one, the broad mass of beer drinkers aren't. That's why they're turning to nitro....

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