Saturday, 24 January 2009

'Big Beast' is back

Is Ken Clarke the man to
fight for future of the pub?

How the media loves a cliché! The return of Ken Clarke to the Tory front bench was greeted with endless headlines and those annoying running titles at the foot of the TV screen announcing “The Big Beast is Back”.
I’ve always thought that Clarke – who I’ve interviewed once and chatted to at the Parliamentary Beer Club’s annual dinner -- seems a convivial cove. But we live in a confrontational age and so the media portrays him, cigar in mouth, pint in hand and Hush Puppies on feet, as a beast.
The hard pressed pub and brewing industry is in urgent need of a big beast. Clarke now speaks for the Tories on business and let us be hopeful that, as a beer lover, he will call for action to stop pubs closing at a rate of knots.
He will be up against Peter Mandelson. I’m not an expert on parliamentary procedure but it seems odd that Clarke will speak in the Commons while the newly ennobled Mandelson is in the Lords. It would be wonderful to see them across the aisle in the Commons. I suspect the sight of Mandelson defeated, gutted and generally hung out to dry by Clarke would bring much-needed cheer to millions – including quite a few Labour backbenchers.
Of course, Ken Clarke speaks for the Opposition. He cannot legislate. But he can make recommendations for easing the problems of publicans and brewers. I don’t think the current government will take any action but Clarke is in a powerful position to flag up much-needed changes that could be adopted by a new government.
And, oh boy, how we need a new government...
First, of course, is the key matter of excise duty. I don’t need to tell readers of this paper that Nobody’s Darling twice increased the duty on beer last year, once in the budget, the second time in the autumn statement to parliament. The second increase was one of the most disgraceful examples of parliamentary sleight-of-hand that it’s possible to imagine: a cut in VAT that had the pub trade cheering, followed by an increase in duty that immediately wiped out the VAT relief.
Britain is the most highly taxed country within the EU where alcohol is concerned. We used to be second to the Irish Republic but the Dublin government actually cut duty last year. We need to follow suit. We need a freeze on duty followed by cuts in successive budgets.
There will be squeals from the Daily Mail and the anti-alcohol lobby. But Ken Clarke would have to make it clear that cheaper beer does not lead to an increase in consumption. It will get people back into pubs and out of supermarkets. Increased pub trade means a greater tax take for the government. It also means job opportunities for those thrown out of work by the current economic nightmare – I’d love to have a pint pulled for me in my local by an unemployed hedge fund manager.
Any cuts in duty must be underscored by a frontal attack on the behaviour of the supermarkets that continue to sell beer, wine and spirits as loss leaders. The multiples merely laugh at increases in duty. There’s the celebrated example of the Bargain Booze chain that told its suppliers last year, following the budget, that they had to absorb the duty increase or the retailer would cease to trade with them. I think that’s known as blackmail.
As Ken Clarke is both a lawyer and a politician, he will know how to tackle the obscene power of the supermarkets and insist they sell alcohol at a price that reflects the costs of production, distribution and retail. The Scottish parliament is looking at a minimum pricing policy for sales of alcohol in the off-trade and the national government should follow suit.
Pubs are not booze shops. They are pillars of the community. They offer drink in a pleasant and controlled environment. Drunkenness is not only frowned on but publicans that permit it can be prosecuted and lose their licences.
Ken Clarke could make the telling point that the government actually fuels binge drinking by forcing people out of pubs and into the arms of the supermarkets. We need to get drinkers moving in the opposite direction, off the pavements and back into pubs.
Pubs desperately need small business rate relief, something refused them by the present government. If billions can be pumped into banks then surely far smaller amounts can be used to help struggling pubs.
The smoking ban needs to be revisited. As Ken Clarke enjoys a puff with his pint, this demand should not be lost on him. I’m not a smoker but I recognise the damage done to the pub trade by ill-thought-out legislation that has driven many customers away. It would not require major legislation to allow pubs – as is the case in Belgium – to set aside one room for smokers.
The pub needs help. Ken Clarke is the man for the job. So up and at ‘em, Ken -- and give Mandelson hell.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Victory for craft brewery

BrewDog wins label battle
with industry's watch dog

BrewDog, a Scottish micro brewery, is celebrating victory after a long, eight-month battle with the drinks industry watch dog, the Portman Group. The drinks regulator had threatened to force the brewery to withdraw three of its beers following complaints about the wording on bottle labels.
But the Portman Group's independent complaints panel said it had considered the complaints and had not found any breach of the group's code of practice. BrewDog managing director James Watt was delighted by the ruling but criticised the Portman Group's policies.
He said: "It's incredible to think that ,with all the issues there are with alcohol in society, the Portman Group spent eight months chasing us over words on a bottle label. Surely the group must be taking a long, hard look at itself and wondering what its reason for existing is?
"We refused to be rolled over and bullied into changing our packaging by what is basically a cartel funded by our larger competitors. We were determined and stood our ground to keep our dream and our business alive."
On BrewDog's flagship brand, Punk IPA, the complaint stated that the product is described on the label as an aggressive beer", thus associating its consumption with anti-social behaviour.
"The panel decided that the phrase 'this is an aggressive beer' on the label described a flavour characteristic of the product," James Watt said.
The description of the brewery's Hop Rocker beer, which included the phrase "nourishing food stuff" and "magic is still there to be extracted from this drink", raised concerns relating to the implication the beer could enhance mental or physical capabilities. The Portman Group decided this was unlikely to be taken literally.
Finally, on the brewery's Riptide brand, the complaint had been that "the product is described as a 'twisted merciless stout', potentially associating its consumption with anti-social behaviour".
The panel also threw this out, stating: "The company claimed the name and label text were based on a pirate and nautical theme and that the description was in keeping with this theme."

Big beast back on front bench

Could Ken Clarke be the best
friend of beleagured pub trade?

The return of former Chancellor Ken Clarke to the Tory front bench could be good news for the pub trade. At long last pubs -- reeling from the smoking ban and regular increases in beer duty -- have a sympathetic voice in a powerful position in parliament.
As a young MP in the 1970s, Clarke introduced a private members' bill in an attempt to reform the hours pubs were allowed to open. As chancellor, he avoided many of the swingeing increases in duty that has bedevilled the pub trade in recent years. He even delivered his budget speeches with the aid of a glass of single malt Scotch whisky! He is is renowned for his love of good beer and is a leading member of the All-Parliamentary Beer Group.
The Labour government can be written off as far as pubs are concerned. In recent years it has piled misery on misery on hard-pressed publicans. Five pubs a day are closing, unable to compete with the deep discounts offered by supermarkets. The smoking ban was badly planned: the government should have followed the European norm of allowing bars to set aside one room for smokers instead of imposing a blanket ban. The result has been the need for pub owners to invest millions in heated outside areas while smokers have preferred to stay at home and drink cheap supermarket beer.
Chancellor Alistair Darling, a man in urgent need of a personality transplant, seems to have no idea of the damage he inflicts on pubs. He increased excise duty twice last, each time putting around 20 pence on the price of a pint. The government says it is concerned about binge drinking but it drives people into the arms of the supermarkets by hiking up pub prices.
From the opposition front bench, Ken Clarke is in a powerful position, as the spokesman on business and enterprise, to speak out against the terrible damage being done to pubs by Brown and Darling. And if the Tories win the next election and Clarke returns to government, he could undo much of Labour's damage to the pub trade by cutting or at least freezing beer duty. And, as a smoker, he could ease the smoking ban by allowing pubs to set aside rooms for smokers.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Mortlake brewery to close

It may have been Watney's but
we can still mourn heritage site

The news that InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, plans to close the Stag Brewery in Mortlake in London has not led to the usual outbreak of weeping and wailing from the ranks of beer lovers. One email to me from a member of the Campaign for Real Ale spoke for many: “It only made keg beer so we won’t mourn it.”
But the loss of any brewery is a sad occasion and the Stag Brewery, despite its infamy in the late 20th century, is yet another loss. And those who rush to point the finger of derision at the plant should bear in mind that around 200 workers stand to lose their jobs in an industry that is not exactly bursting with new opportunities.
As the local MP, Susan Kramer, said last week, the Mortlake plant is part of our industrial heritage and deserves to be preserved. It dates from 1487 when it was attached to a monastery and brewed for the local abbot and his monks. It became a substantial commercial brewery in 1765 and was rebuilt 100 years later by John Phillips and James Wigan. They created the sprawling, 100-acre site that stands today and which was acquired by the large London brewer Watney in the 1890s.
It’s the Watney’s link that is the cause of derision. It was the first to make keg beer in the 1930s with Red Barrel. In the 1960s it re-branded the beer simply as Red and launched it with a frenzy of advertisements aimed – ludicrously – at radical young people marching against the Vietnam War.
Look-a-like figures of Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro were used in an attempt to give the beer what was called at the time “radical chique”. Radical cheek would have been more appropriate. The young militants shunned the sweet, gassy beer and it was soon abandoned. Watney’s pubs, all painted a glaring red, were quietly redecorated in green.
Peter Mauldon was at the heart of the Watney’s brewing empire. He was head brewer at Mann’s in Whitechapel in London’s East End and when Watney’s bought and closed the plant he moved to Mortlake. Peter, who went on to found the highly successful Mauldon’s craft brewery in Suffolk, has a fund of stories about the bizarre goings-on at the Stag site.
He was sitting in his office in the mid-1970s when a director of the company walked in and said: “Mauldon, I see that cask beer is making a come-back as a result of these Camra people. We need to brew some. See to it, will you.”
Nobody would dare speak to a head brewer in such terms these days. Peter took a deep breath and ran after the director. “There’s only one problem with brewing cask beer, sir – we don’t have any casks,” he said. While the other big brewers of the day – Allied, Bass and Whitbread – still made large amount of cask beer, Watney had gone hell-for-leather down the keg route and had phased out all cask production.
The result was a beer with the awful name of Fined Bitter – the joke in Camra circles was that the name reflected the fact it was hard to find – served from converted kegs. A curious device was welded to the keg so that a spile or venting peg could be inserted to allow the beer to breathe. It didn’t deserve to breathe because it was a truly dreadful concoction, though another beer from the Watney’s subsidiary, Truman, produced a rather good beer called Tap Bitter, also served from converted kegs.
Neither beer lasted long. Watney’s became part of the Grand Metropolitan leisure group and lager became the buzz word in the brewing division.
The Mortlake plant reached an agreement to brew the leading German beer Holsten under licence. Peter Mauldon said he was impressed with the German brewers who came to see him and told him in meticulous detail how the beer should be brewed and stored in the correct continental tradition.
It was rather different when Watney’s took on the Australian lager, Foster’s. Peter recalls a large body of Australians coming to Mortlake and taking him out for a long, boozy lunch. They dropped him off back at the brewery and bid him a cheery “G’day, mate”.
“Hang on,” Peter called out. “Aren’t you going tell me how to brew Foster’s?”
The Aussies looked bemused. “Brew it? Just make it up as you go along, mate – that’s what we do.”
Not surprisingly, Watney’s eventually gave up the will to live and sold all its plants to Courage. Courage in turn became part of Scottish & Newcastle, which leased the Mortlake plant to Anheuser-Busch when the American giant planned to brew Budweiser in Britain. A-B makes much of the fact that its beer is “matured over beechwood chips”. This didn’t impress one brewery worker at Mortlake who asked: “Why are we putting bleeding planks of wood in the beer?”
Good question. The next question is: will Susan Kramer MP succeed in her bid to keep the plant open? Sadly, I doubt it. The merger of A-B and InBev has created a giant with too much capacity at a time when global lager brands are in serious decline.
The Stag is at bay and, Watney’s aside, I’m sorry to see it go.


White Shield going great guns
I have received frantic emails from lovers of Worthington's White Shield to say it is no longer on sale in Waitrose. All is not lost. I spoke to Coors Brewers in Burton-on-Trent, owners of the brand, and they told they have had to halt temporarily sales to Waitrose because the beer -- a bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale -- is breaking record in Sainsbury's. "It's going like a steam train," a Coors spokesman told me. "Asda also want to stock it but we haven't any to spare."
So hurry along to your local Sainbury's and lay in a stock of this delicious beer. And while you're there, also buy some bottles of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. This is another beer that has survived from the 19th century and, at 7.5%, is full of roasted malt and bitter hops character. It's hard to find in Britain and good news that Sainsbury's has a stock.