Thursday, 26 February 2009

Tory call to end '24-hour licensing'

Grayling calls for
'more robust rules'

If you thought the pub trade and brewing industry couldn't face any worse threats under the present Labour government -- here come the Tories!
Tory home affairs spokesman Chris Grayling said in a speech on 24 February that his party, if returned to power, would be "more robust about licensing rules".
"There is now a strong case to end Labour 24-hour drinking regime," he added. "It has not created a continental cafe culture -- it has just made things worse in many town and city centres."
Mr Grayling did not say precisely how the Tories would change the current legislation. This is understandable, as Mr Grayling does not understand the law he wishes to change.
There is no such thing as "24-hour licensing". Owners of licensed premises can now choose flexible hours within a 24-hour cycle. This means pubs can choose to stay open longer at weekends to suit the demands of their customers. Apart from airport bars, I don't know of any pubs that open for 24 hours. The only purveyors of alcohol that do open 24 hours are supermarkets.
If Chris Grayling did some research, he would discover that many pubs that extended their hours when the new law came in soon reverted to more restricted hours when their trade did not increase. Most of the pubs listed in the Hertfordshire section of the Good Beer Guide still close at 3pm and open again from 6 to 11pm: I choose Herts because that's where I live, but it is not untypical. No pub owner will stay open during the afternoon or the wee small hours if nobody walks through the doors.
Tony Payne, chief exectuive of the Federation of Licensed Victuallers, put it well when he responded to Mr Grayling: "If he has concerns about 24-hour drinking he should first find out how many pubs has 24-hopur licences. It is very few. Most 24-hour licences are held by supermarkets. If there are problems at premises, there are already powers to deal with them."
The simple fact, which Chris Grayling ignores, is that such problems as binge drinking and city-centre drunkenness have diminished since the law changed. Before the change, when all city-centre pubs had to close at 11pm, there was often mayhem. Chris Grayling ignores the improvements in order to jump on a bandwagon created by the Daily Mail to pillory the pub trade for problems it is not responsible for.
The Tories are afraid, be very afraid.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Oz & James reach the end of the road

After eight weeks, all they
wanted was a cup of tea...

If you stayed the course and watched all eight episodes of Oz and James Drink to Britain, you may have wondered what all the fuss was about. The two tyros sampled beer, wine, whisky, cider, perry, gin and vodka...and then decided that after all they thought a cuppa was the drink that speaks for Britain.
Thanks, chaps, you've really done wonders to boost the craft brewing movement. What is astonishing is the sheer lack of intellectual coherence to the series. Why visit so many companies producing alcohol only to decide that tea was the best beverage, even though there had been no reference to tea during the series. Oz rather lamely claimed that beer was his favourite while James seemed at first to be plumping for wine, even though he has rubbished English wine for the past eight weeks.
In common with the lamentably bad Morrisey/Fox series last eyar, this was an opportunity lost. With the craft brewing sector growing against all the odds, surely cask ale is the beer that speaks for Britain. But it would seem that Tetley tea beats Tetley Bitter every day of the week.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Beeb series gets more bizarre

Who is in charge of
BBC2 drinks series?

A footnote to my piece on Oz and James Drink to Britain. After many phone calls, in which I attempted to discover why any reference to CAMRA had been removed from the episode screened on 10 February, the BBC finally passed me on to RDFMedia, the independent production company that made the series. RDF told me they were governed by Ofcom rules. The BBC does not come within the remit of Ofcom, which only governs productions by independent radio and television companies. But because RDF may sell the series on to other independent channels, Oz and James does come within Ofcom's remit.
Ofcom rules firmly oppose "product placement" -- of which more later -- and say that there should not be undue prominence given to organisations in programmes. However, the rules add, if an organisation is not named in a programme, it should be given a credit at the end.
CAMRA is not a commercial organisation. It was not named in the programme as the organiser of a beer festival, and it was not given a credit at the end of the episode. In the same episode, Gwatkin's cider company was named and a bottle of Gwatkins' Perry was shown in close up. This surely amounts to product placement.
A week later, in the episode screened on 17 February, Oz and James were shown enjoying pints outside a pub in Cornwall. The pub was not named -- it was the Blisland Inn -- but our heroes were several times shown holding pint glasses with the prominenet name of Tribute to the camera. So no mention of the pub but a good plug for the St Austell brewery's flagship brand.
This is known as product placement and breaches Ofcom rules.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Double standards at the Beeb

Camra: the love that dare
not speak its name...?

Today's silly question: have you heard of Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale? Of course you have. An opinion poll some years ago showed that even the most casual pubgoer, with little interest in cask beer, had heard of the organisation.
It's probably the most famous single-issue consumer movement in the world. Sometime this year it's likely to hit the magic milestone of 100,000 members, proof that a growing number of beer drinkers want to belong to an organisation that champions Britain's unique beer style.
All that is a given. So why do I need to raise the issue? The answer is that the BBC, our revered public service broadcaster, thinks you cannot mention the existence of Camra.
You may be aware of an eight-part series currently running on BBC2 called Oz and James Drink to Britain. It features wine writer Oz Clarke and James May from Top Gear touring Britain to sample home-grown beer, cider, whisky, wine and even vodka. During the course of the series, they have both attempted to make their own home-brewed beer that at some stage would be judged by 'beer experts'.
During last week's programme (10 February), judgement day loomed. Clarke told May, as they tooled around in their expensive Jaguar, they were at last to have their beers evaluated. 'I'm taking you to a beer festival,' Clarke said. He told May, who is steeped in Top Gear-style cynicism and makes it clear throughout the series that anyone who takes beer seriously is a big-bellied., bearded bore, that the people running the festival are 'passionate and intense' about the subject.
Who can these people be? As a journalist taught to name names, I waited notebook and pen to hand to scribble down the venue and the organisers of the event. The information did not come. We were not told where the festival was held - it was Worcester - or who was filling large tents with casks of beer.
I immediately recognised Camra activists, including Brett Laniosh, who is a member of Camra's ruling national executive. But this was a Camra festival of a special kind. The walls of the tents were denuded of posters and signs.
Every Camra festival I have ever attended has been ablaze with brewery memorabilia and above all the familiar campaign logo. But not in Worcester. The very name of Camra was banned, verboten. If you looked really hard you might have spotted the logo fleetingly and out of focus on Brett Laniosh's polo shirt - but blink and you missed it.
To ban the name and existence of Camra is not only bad broadcasting but it denudes the whole series of its meaning. Most of the beers that Clarke and May have sampled on their journey have been cask ales. Camra is the story. Without the campaign's 'passion and intensity', cask beer would no longer be brewed in Britain.
The campaign saved regional brewers from takeover and closure in the 1970s. It encouraged the development and growth of the craft brewing movement from the 1980s. Thanks to its efforts, there are now more than 500 micro-brewers in Britain. Along with the remaining regionals and family brewers, they are the only sector witnessing any growth in beer sales and demand.
I repeat, Camra is the story. Yet in this programme it was reduced to a prop, its name and role censored.
Before writing this piece, I waited three days for the BBC to respond to my simple question: why was Camra's name expunged from the programme. No official reply came, but a spokesman did tell me that the Camra organisers were 'happy to take down their banners'. Brett Laniosh tells a different story. He says the production company told him they would only film if the banners were removed, which he reluctantly agreed to do.
There are double standards at work. In the same programme, a cider producer, Denis Gwatkin, was named and his bottle label was shown. He is a commercial producer. But Camra is not a commercial organisation. It's a not-for-profit consumer movement run by volunteers. All its income is ploughed back into its campaigns.
Two weeks ago, a team of leading Camra activists took part in the BBC2 quiz, Eggheads. They were named and captioned as 'the Campaign for Real Ale' and the presenter, Jeremy Vine, asked them what their current main campaigning initiative was.
But on the self-same channel, Camra could not be identified as the organisers of a beer festival or, more importantly, as the organisation that had saved cask beer from extinction.
As James May would say: 'It's all a load of bollocks.'

Friday, 6 February 2009

Fresh look at beer by Budweiser

Consumers angered as InBev
relaxes rules for A-B brands

The St Louis Examiner in Missouri, U.S., reports that drinkers have been angered by a decision by InBev A-B to relax its attitude to "fresh beer". The group is the result of the biggest merger in brewing history between the Belgian-Brazilian InBev and the American Anheuser-Busch, best known for the world's biggest beer brand, Budweiser.
InBev is renowned for its cost cutting and brewery closure policies. It has brought its tough marketing attitudes to bear on the A-B brands by relaxing the American brewer's strict attitude to fresh beer.
For many years, A-B attacked its rivals by claiming it brewed the freshest beer. It was unyielding in its attitude. If a bar or restaurant stocked unsold beer that was more than 110 days old, the A-B "crew" would sweep into the outlets and hand the retailers cheques for the value of the beer.
"They would grab the unsold beer, break the bottles and pour the liquid out," the St Louis Examiner reports. There were no exceptions.
"But now the company says it has realised the 110-day limit may not be necessary. Why? The company says it has improved its brewing processes and packaging -- using new filters and bottle crowns that reduce the amount of oxygen in its beer, for example."
In St Louis, home city of Anheuser-Busch, where the first version of Budweiser was brewed in the middle of the 19th century, drinkers have been less than impressed with the news. One drinkers said: "How stupid do these Belgian goofs think we are?" while another commented, "It's just beer, not medicine."

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Pub prices to rise again

Brewers add to woes with
another round of increases

It gets worse. Smoking ban, budget increases, unfair competition...and now the giant brewers are adding to the problems of pubs and beer drinkers with another swingeing round of increases.
Carlsberg has announced it will increase prices of its beers from March by 2.8%. Tha will means pub prices will rise by around 5 to 6 pence. But as many pubs -- managed ones in particular -- tend to round prices up, the increases could be as high as 10 pence.
The Carlsberg increase follows in the wake of a 7 pence a pint rise by InBev and 5.4% by both Guinness and Scottish & Newcastle. Last year Carlsberg twice increased its prices by a total of 5.4%. These are the same brewers who minimise prices rises or even absorb them completely when they are dealing with supermarkets yet seem determined to drive the pub sector even deeper into recession.
With imperfect timing, Carlsberg's increase in March will coincide with an automatic programmed rise in the budget as a result of Chancellor Alistair Darling's duty escalator, introduced in the 2008 budget. The escalator is linked to inflation and even though inflation has fallen it's though a budget rise of 2% would put 2-3 pence on the price of a pint.
This means that pubs and drinkers could face a total increase of 15 to 20 pence on the price of a pint in March. So stand back and watch even more pubs close.