Sunday, 22 April 2018

A sense of entitlement?


Following on from my last post about CAMRA, I want to pick up on another thread which surfaced on the CAMRA unofficial Facebook page. This time it focuses on the alleged sense of "entitlement" felt by some CAMRA members in respect of discounts on the price of a pint.

Now I know there are pubs up and down the country which offer a price reduction to card-carrying CAMRA members. I don't know of any pubs in our local branch area which do this, but the practice does seem quite prevalent in several neighbouring branches. One even goes so far as to list these pubs in their branch magazine.

Wetherspoon's vouchers aside, I don't think I've ever received a discounted pint in over 40 years of CAMRA membership, and I've certainly never asked for one. And whilst I accept that every little helps, as the proverbial lady who p*ss*d in the sea said,  a 10% reduction is small beer or, to continue the above metaphor, a mere drop on the ocean!

A slightly cheaper pint, might be nice, but it's not what I joined CAMRA for;  anymore that I signed up for the Spoons vouchers. (Incidentally, I rarely use all mine and often forget to carry them around with me, because of the space they take up in my wallet).

So how does his square then with the assertion of   "CAMRA members demanding a discount", as raised on the CAMRA unofficial Facebook page? The simple answer is I don't know, as this is an area I have very little experience of. Besides, the person who raised the  subject was taking the matter a whole stage further by complaining about what he/she saw as a sense of "entitlement" amongst certain members of the Campaign for Real Ale.

Before we go any further, the above story is little more than another stick to beat CAMRA around the head with. I have heard the old chestnut, about a group of archetypal CAMRA members (faded brewery T-shirts, unkempt-beards, beer bellies plus socks & sandals), descending on a pub and demanding, rather too assertively, discounted beer, purely on the strength of their CAMRA membership. This tale has certainly grown in the telling, and has now become something of an urban myth. It may have happened on the odd occasion, but it is trotted out, rather too frequently by those with an axe to grind against CAMRA.

So back to the real world, where it is true that some licensees do indeed offer discounts to CAMRA members. Why do they do this? Do they feel obliged to? Do they think they ought to? Are they trying to compete with Spoons? Is offering a discount off-set by increased beer sales? And at what level does this practice become untenable?

Personally I would rather see pubs offering "loyalty card schemes" to all their customers, as quite a few do in the West Kent area. These schemes normally involve getting a card stamped with every pint you buy, and then getting the 10th one free. This treats all real ale drinkers in the pub equally, and must surely guarantee a return trade in a way that confining discounts to CAMRA members only, cannot.

Just as I moved to post this article, news reached me about a motion which was passed at CAMRA’s National AGM and Member’s Weekend, which has just finished in Coventry. The gist of the motion was CAMRA should not be demanding discounts, and the coverage written by “What’s Brewing” editor,  Tom Stainer is worth reproducing, as it basically sums up much of what I have been saying.

Members clearly supported a motion stating a belief that pubs and breweries should not be expected to give discounts, and criticised when they failed to do so – but recognised the freedom of pubs and breweries to offer discounts if they wished.

The Conference was told by a former chairman of the Small Independent Brewers Association (SIBA), that there was increasing financial pressure on publicans and brewers and that it seemed perverse that some members of CAMRA insisted on demanding a discount.

The spokesman added: “Not only is this culture eroding the margins that can be earned but it threatens the stability of the supply chain and counters the aims of this organisation. It also creates a negative feeling about CAMRA.”

There were no speakers against the motion, which was clearly carried.

So some good news there, and plenty of other developments coming out of the AGM. Most, but not all, of these concern the much vaunted “Revitalisation Project”, and I expect a number of bloggers are already tapping away on their computer keyboards. Watch this space, and others for further details.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Making one's presence known


This is the post I've been writing on and off for the past few days, and like the previous one, it has  an element of  social media about it. I have a Facebook account which I actually use on a fairly regular basis. The site came into its own earlier this year, when my wife was ill in hospital, as a means of updating family members of her progress, so Facebook does have its good points, if used wisely!

The other day I noticed a string of posts on the CAMRA Unofficial Facebook page, which sparked off a lengthy debate. It started with a pub landlord complaining that despite installing seven real ale pumps, and successfully promoting real ale, the only time he saw CAMRA members was when he offered them a "free session". He went on to say that, "these sessions apart", CAMRA members never visited his pub, or indeed any of the other pubs in the area, to promote or support the sale of cask ales. 

Well this was a rather provocative statement and, as you can imagine, it provoked a puzzled, and at times quite angry response from a lot of CAMRA members. Most of these were along the lines of, "How do you know if CAMRA members are visiting your pub or not?", or "I love the assumption that all CAMRA members go around proclaiming their membership". Another correspondent even added, "Guess we should make it mandatory for every CAMRA member to grow a beard and wear socks & sandals".

Most CAMRA members, of course, don't wear a badge or announce they are a member, when they walk into a pub, and why would they? With this in mind it's perhaps not surprising that the comment, "CAMRA never come here," is a fairly common one. But is it justified? And why should licensees expect CAMRA members to identify themselves when they're just ordinary people out for a drink.

CAMRA has nearly 200,000 members, so it's difficult to believe a licensee's claim that his or her pub is the only one in the country they don’t drink in, but if you have decided to install hand pumps and promote real ale, has your business suffered because of it? If it hasn’t, it might seem a bit galling to think that CAMRA are ignoring all the effort and hard work you have put in, if they don’t happen to call in.
But perhaps the local CAMRA contingent do pop by from time to time, because as one contributor to the debate put it, “I love the assumption that all CAMRA members go around proclaiming their membership. I've drunk in lots of pubs and my membership status has never come up in conversation.”

I have been a CAMRA member for over 40 years, but have always preferred to keep quiet about my membership status when visiting pubs. The only times I have revealed my membership of CAMRA, have been whilst carrying out surveys for the Good Beer Guide. I don’t do those any more, so publicans beware, that quiet, unassuming, slightly over-weight, middle-aged bloke sitting in the corner, minding his own business, might just be a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. 

Joking aside, there is a more serious side to my reticence, and that is because on those occasions where I have revealed my identity, there have been times when I’m asked questions like, “What do I have to do to get my pub into the Good Beer Guide?” Worse are those embarrassing moments where a pub has been dropped from the Guide, and I’m expected to provide an explanation.

“Sorry your beer is below par,” doesn’t feel the right thing to say; even if it happens to be true, and as selections for the GBG are made on a group basis, I don’t want to be the person who gets put on the spot by having to justify the exclusion of a pub, following what was a collective decision.

It is understandable for licensees to be upset, and many take it as a personal affront. After all their pub is their home, their livelihood and often their passion as well. Despite my desire to remain in the background, I have become known over the years, to quite a few publicans in the area, and have been made to feel rather uncomfortable under such circumstances.

I’ve even had one landlord message me on WhatsApp, asking why his pub had been dropped from the guide. Even worse though, is having to listen to a landlord blaming the failure of his pub directly on CAMRA’s decision to drop it from the Good Beer Guide. A friend suffered a similar experience with the landlord of another pub. Deflecting the blame for the failure of your business, onto CAMRA may seem an easy option, but did the Campaign make that much of a difference to your beer sales? 

Both pubs were dropped from the Guide for the simple reason that their beer quality failed to meet the standard expected. Both had too many pumps on the bar, and there was insufficient trade to ensure an adequate turnover of all these beers.Both pubs have been converted into private dwellings, which would have fetched considerably more then they would have done as pubs, so the real losers here would have been the local community and not the individual licensees. CAMRA was nothing more than a convenient “whipping boy”.


It can be fun being a CAMRA member folks, but it’s also worth remembering it isn’t all beer and skittles, and neither is it all cakes and ale!


Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Who needs social media?


I had intended posting a piece about CAMRA, which I promised Retired Martin would be less controversial than the previous one. However, I’m still working on it, after having been side-tracked by the allure of dry weather and longer evenings. Our patio is in urgent need of a tart-up, so I’ve been on my knees raking out the weeds and the old pointing between the paving slabs, ready for some nice new grouting to fill the cracks.

Instead, here is a short piece about Tim Martin, everyone’s favourite pub chain boss, who certainly hit the headlines yesterday, when he announced that with immediate effect, he was pulling the plug on Wetherspoon’s social media accounts.

By closing the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as the separate accounts held by over 900 individual Wetherspoon outlets, Mr Martin is turning his back on social media and taking what he believes to be a stand against the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In doing so he is effectively waving goodbye to 44,000 Twitter followers and more than 100,000 followers on Facebook.

Citing concerns over issues such as data privacy, the addictive nature of social media and the trolling of MPs, the boss of the discount pub chain said, “It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion.”

He went on to say that whilst this move was "going against the conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business”,  he and the company's pub managers, do not believe that closing the accounts will have any affect on the business "whatsoever". He added that "on a commercial basis it saves people in the company time, and that will enable them to get on with their own jobs."

It is hard to disagree with his decision, and when viewed in the context that much of the social media feedback which Spoons were getting, was negative and centred on people complaining about the size of the portions they were getting, or that their breakfast was poorly cooked. And as each pub manager was responsible for maintaining the Facebook page for their own individual pub, this must be a distraction they will be glad to see the back of.

There is of course, no such thing as bad publicity, and Mr Martin has never been afraid to court controversy; especially when it suits his purpose. Not wanting to spark any further controversy of my own, I won’t mention his leaflets or the beer mats, in support of a certain cause, but there have been other equally contentious issues, such as dropping the Sunday roast from the menu along with the traditional roast-turkey Christmas dinner. 

Installing large-screen TV’s in many JDW outlets, has also not been without its share of criticism as, even with the volume turned right down, the screens are at best a distraction and at worse a complete intrusion on a night out.

The reaction to Tim’s latest move which ironically, was announced on Twitter as well as in a press release, seems quite muted, so let’s leave the final comments to a company spokesman.

"We don't feel social media is worth it in the social climate. There's not one event that led to this move. You know Wetherspoon’s – we take our decisions and that's what we do. We don't care what other people think.” 

"We're not bothered by social media and we're not hiding from anything."

In a strange kind of way I admire Tim Martin for taking a stand against the increasing encroachment of the tech-giants, and from a personal point of view I am not concerned in the slightest. I don’t have a Twitter account and tend to use Facebook as a source for various news feeds, and as a platform for keeping in touch with friends and family. I’m pretty confident then that he will weather the fallout from this decision with relative ease.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Something more solid


I have written on this subject before, but I thought it was worthwhile re-visiting and exploring in a little more depth. The subject I am referring to is drinking on an empty stomach.  It's an age-old rule about drinking that everyone knows and most people have broken, but always fill up on food before filling up on alcohol. 

I am no exception, and like to have something more solid inside me, either before or whilst I am drinking. I know I am not alone in this, as logic suggests a simple reason, that drinking on an empty stomach will lead to intoxication more quickly. But just how much of a difference does eating before imbibing really make?

Studies on the effects of food on alcohol absorption have found that there is truth to this rule, and that ingesting food before drinking doesn’t just slow the rate of alcohol absorption into the bloodstream, but also lowers the peak concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream.

Looking back I must have been made aware of this rule quite early in my drinking career, but it wasn’t my parents who imparted this wisdom. Neither of them were drinkers, and both were definitely not pub-goers, so despite being the “black sheep of the family” as far as enjoying a few pints is concerned, something must alerted me to not drink on an empty stomach.

It is a rule I have followed for over 40 years, and it has stood me in good stead; especially at lunchtimes. Although I normally shy away from a lunchtime pint during the working week, due to the soporific effect which even a single pint can have on me when I return to the office, things are different if, for example, I am on a CAMRA outing, or have spent the morning walking around a picturesque or historic town. Then there is nothing finer than stopping for a few pints, along with a bit to eat, particularly when the pub offers good, honest pub food, served at a reasonable price.

The same applies when out for a ramble, and probably more so, as the combination of exercise and all that fresh air, are guaranteed to have worked up an appetite as well as a thirst. Some might argue that beer stimulates the appetite, whilst others would say that distending of the stomach, with all that liquid, is the stimulus responsible for the feelings of hunger. This may be true, and each to their own, but for me some form of "blotting paper", in the form of food, is essential when my stomach is empty and I've had a few beers.

Evenings are a little different, in that I will normally have my dinner when I arrive home from work, and then ideally allow a couple of hours to pass before heading off to the pub. Holidays are different again as the evening meal will invariably be in a local bar or restaurant, where I can enjoy a few pints with my meal. but at weekends, and especially whilst on holiday, I still prefer something solid inside me at lunchtime, even if it is just a couple of rolls or a pie, to soak up the beer.

Pubs have known for a long time, about the importance of serving food, particularly at lunchtime, and increasingly so have beer festival organisers. Having attended CAMRA’S national Great British Beer Festival over the years, I have seen the food offering slowly increase, from simple filled rolls, to full blown catering offering anything from fish and chips to spicy Asian street food.

Food also plays an important part at Munich’s world famous Oktoberfest, which attracts around six million visitors a year. As well as downing almost seven million litres of beer, festival goers munch their way through half a million grilled sausages, 250,000 chickens, umpteen giant pretzels and for those really wanting to soak it all up, around 100 wild oxen!

So next time you are sat there with a pint in front of you, and feeling peckish, consider that it’s your body telling you that something solid to go with your beer, is probably a good idea.


Monday, 9 April 2018

Going against the grain


I have been a member of the Campaign for Real Ale since 1975. I was 20 years old at the time and CAMRA was very much a young persons' organisation. There were older members of course, and it was good talking to them, as many had been drinking before keg, and top-pressure dispensed beer appeared on the scene.

Virtually all draught beer was cask back then, and there was still a healthy sprinkling of local independent brewers spread throughout the country, but whilst it was good listening to these older drinkers, and learning what beers were available, twenty of thirty years previously, there's no getting away that in the main most CAMRA members were under thirty or, like me, in their early twenties.

Four decades later, and the reverse is true, with the over 50's making up the majority of the membership, and people in their 20's as rare as hen's teeth. This is now a major problem for the Campaign, and it's no exaggeration to say that unless more volunteers come forward and CAMRA, manages to attract new blood onto its ranks, it will die on its feet.

I have first hand experience of this within my own local CAMRA branch, where we have struggled for some time to fill all the various posts on the committee. I don't want to pre-empt anything, but I strongly suspect that when we hold our AGM later this month, we may even have trouble filling some of the more important positions (Chairman, Social Secretary and Treasurer).

I am sure we are not alone in this, and as I have written before, there is no easy answer. CAMRA has been well aware of this situation for some time, which is why the organisation embarked on its Revitalisation Project. I have no intention of going over the findings of the project, or the in-depth analysis which resulted from it; especially as matters are about to come to a head, and this is what leads me on to the all important Special Resolutions which CAMRA'S 190,000+ members are being asked to vote on.

CAMRA'S National Executive, in effect the organisation's directors, believe that by broadening the Campaign's appeal and changing not just its remit but its entire articles of association, CAMRA will receive a much needed shot in the arm and experience a new lease of life. Without going into too much detail, the people behind the Revitalisation Project are unashamedly chasing after the so-called "Craft-Beer" sector, with all that entails.

Whether the younger generation, which makes up the bulk of the flourishing craft beer scene, will want to get involved with an organisation which, up until now, has shunned them, remains to be seen. Personally I don't see anything more than a slight trickle of new blood finding its way into CAMRA'S ranks; and that's being optimistic! Despite this I do feel that the campaign has to try something, and for this reason I voted in favour of all the Special Resolutions, with one notable exception.

I fully understand why CAMRA felt it had to go down the path of change, because not to do so would, in my opinion, be a betrayal of the membership, and could also spell the end for what has been labelled "Europe's most successful consumer organisation". So whilst it may seem strange for someone like me, who voted for the country to remain a member of the European Union, to then be challenging the established order by voting for change, I feel it is the only way forward for CAMRA.

There's no guarantee of course that the Special Resolutions will be carried. For them to take effect will require a "super majority" of 75% of the votes to be in favour, rather than just a simple majority; something David Cameron would have been wise to insist on! With the majority of CAMRA's active members likely to oppose the changes, it might be difficult to achieve even a simple majority.

Voter apathy is another problem, and the Campaign's attempt to involve more of its members in the democratic process has not been a success. It is claimed that only 5,000 members voted in last year's National Executive elections. Although this is an improvement on the typical AGM attendance of 1,000; the forum where policy was, and to a certain extent still is decided, it doesn't say much for the commitment of the Campaign's other 185,000 members.

We will know the outcome of the vote soon enough, but whichever way it goes it's worth me placing on record that I have been disillusioned with CAMRA for some time. In fact for the past couple of years I have seriously considered whether I wish to remain a member of an organisation which seems increasingly irrelevant in the modern world. Over the years I have put my heart and soul into the Campaign of Real Ale, so in many ways it would be sad for me and CAMRA to part company. Before committing to anything though, I will see what the outcome is of the Revitalisation Project, and will also wait and see what fallout there is from the vote.

I don't have life membership, and still have seven months membership remaining before deciding whether or not I wish to renew my subscription, so there's no hurry as far as I am concerned. But there's no getting away from the fact that CAMRA has reached a crossroads and is at a point where it can either move boldly forward, or literally wither away on the hop-bine

Finally, the Special Resolution I voted against was the one which proposed including cider and perry amongst CAMRA's campaigning aims. I joined a group which campaigned for better beer, not for cider and perry. Lovers of these drinks should go off and form their own campaign and not hang on the back of CAMRA's coat tails!

Friday, 6 April 2018

A place in the sun

Today apparently was the hottest day of the year so far, but seeing as temperatures in this part of Kent only managed to reach 17º C, this isn’t really saying much. Still we must be grateful for small mercies, and even though we’re already a quarter of the way through 2018, it was nice to get out and enjoy the sunshine.

Seeing as it was Friday, and I’d had a productive morning at work, I decided to take a walk up to the Greyhound at Charcott; a pub I have written about at length these past few years. Fortunately the company I work for has a fairly relaxed policy towards the odd drink at lunchtime, and whilst I don’t make a habit of this, it’s good to know I won’t be looked down on if I do treat myself to the occasional pint.


 
I took the longer route up to Charcott, crossing the former Penshurst airfield, by means of the tarmac footpath which bisects it. This is part of my normal lunchtime walk, and today it was nice to walk across this exposed area without getting blown away, or chilled to the bone.

The Greyhound was busy when I arrived – always a good sign, with a mixed clientele of passing diners and casual walkers. There was a pile of very muddy boots stacked up by the door, and very few tables at which to sit, inside. After ordering my pint (Larkin’s Traditional), I decided to sit outside and take advantage of the warm weather.

It was whilst sitting there, nursing my pint that I began to notice a wonderfully hoppy aroma emanating from the beer, which brought back pleasant memories of outdoor drinking, on a warm summer’s day. It is said that the sense of smell, perhaps more than any other of our senses, can invoke memories which have lain hidden for years, or perhaps expunged from our consciousness altogether; and this was certainly the case today

The hoppy nose I experienced, is most noticeable when drinking outside on a hot summers day. The action of the sun's rays has an affect on some of the more volatile components  present in the beer, which gives rise to the most wonderful aroma. The presence of the sun, rather than just high temperatures, appears to be required before this effect occurs, as the hoppy aroma is still noticeable even on sunny days in spring or autumn, when the thermometer can be struggling to register anything remotely respectable.


 
That hoppy aroma was certainly present today, and added that extra something which definitely enhanced my drinking experience as well as my pub visit. This is one of the many pleasures of beer drinking, and the sense of anticipation it gives to the enjoyment of a well-crafted pint, is one of the bonuses of outdoor drinking. Indeed, from early spring to late autumn, sitting outside in a pub garden, whenever the weather is kind, whilst enjoying a well-hopped pint of bitter is, for me, one of life's great pleasures. Even at either end of this extended period it can be worthwhile finding a sheltered spot, away from the wind, in order to add that extra enhancement to a pint.

Well I trust I’ve made you thirsty and you are now hankering after a beer, but I thought I’d share this little bit of spring magic with you. And as for the Greyhound, it good to see the pub thriving. It just goes to show that in the right hands,  even pubs which have more or less been given up on, can have a bright future.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Drink Moor Beer


"Drink Moor Beer". If you owned a brewery company called Moor, then you couldn't possibly wish for a better advertising slogan, nor indeed a better name for your beer. And if your beer had won numerous awards and umpteen accolades, then you'd be even prouder of your name and to encourage people to drink more of the stuff.

Moor Beer is named after the Moors and Levels area of Somerset, which is where the original company started brewing in 1996.  Things did not work out, and Moor Beer closed in 2005. Two years later Californian, Justin Hawke, bought the company and started it afresh; ditching some of the original brands, adding new ones, and reworking the rest.

Hawkes’s bold new approach was to combine the German tradition of naturally hazy beers with that of the American, "flavour-forward" philosophy. He then mixed this in with uniquely British practice of secondary fermentation. In doing so, Justin created what Moor Beer call Modern Real Ale. The company are now regarded as one of the top-rated breweries in the world.

In 2014 the brewery moved to central Bristol, in the area behind Temple Meads Station. The new site also includes a taproom and brewery shop and, as I discovered the other Friday, they have now opened a taproom in London. I heard the news from journalist and fellow beer-writer BryanB, whilst attending the Budvar Imperial Lager tasting event at the Trading Post.

Bryan mentioned he would be going along to the Moor Beer taproom opening, later in the afternoon, and asked if I was going? I wasn't aware of the event, especially as I hadn't received an invitation, but Bryan thought that as a fellow beer-writer, admission wouldn't be a problem. He told me the location of the taproom - in yet another railway arch a short walk from Bermondsey Underground station, shortly before he departed from the Budvar event.

Having just refilled my glass with the 7.5% Imperial Lager, I wasn't in a terrific hurry to leave, so I told Bryan that I might see him there. Seeing as I was in town for the afternoon, I decided to throw caution to the wind, despite starting to feel the effects of my lunchtime indulgence. The Budvar event was drawing to a close, so I made my way along to Bank Underground station and took the tube to Bermondsey.

The Moor Taproom wasn't hard to find, and after showing my card to the person on the door, I was allowed inside and given five beer tokens; each worth a half pint. There were quite a few people inside the arch, some milling around by the open entrance, others hanging out at the bar, but most were seated on wooden benches inside the arch.

Owner and brewer, Justin Hawke was present on what was obviously a big day for Moor Beer Co, mingling and chatting with the guests as well as helping out behind the bar, where necessary. I  noticed Bryan sitting at one of the tables, tapping away on his laptop like a true professional, putting me and my pile of hand-scribbled notes to shame! After saying hello I wandered over to the bar to grab myself a beer. There were six cask and twelve keg beers on offer. The four beers I sampled were all excellent, showing just what can be achieved with the right approach coupled with correct formulation. 

On cask I enjoyed Nor' Hop, a 4.1% "Ultra Pale Ale"  and Dark Alliance, a 4.5% Coffee Stout, with a nice hoppy aftertaste. On the keg front, the 3.5% All Dayer Session IPA and the 5.0% Smokey Horizon, Smoked Rye Pale Ale completed the line-up as far as I was concerned.

It is worth noting that all the company's beers are un-fined, and are designed to be served with a slight natural haze. Their cask beers do not contain isinglass finings, and are described by the brewery as "natural"Moor Beer Co now supply all their beers as un-fined and naturally hazy, claiming this is best for the beer and for the consumer. Even their cans are un-fined, and because they still contain "live yeast" CAMRA has given them its seal of approval, designating them as "real ale in a can". 

I used four out of my five tokens, wisely deciding not to make use of the fifth. Bryan had already departed, and dusk was starting to fall as I made my way back to Bermondsey station. I left thinking that the presence of a taproom belonging to a brewery with the standing of Moor Beer, was a definite positive addition to the London beer scene; even if  it is rather crowded in the Bermondsey area.

It was a good way to end what had already been an excellent day in the capital, and I was really pleased to have had the opportunity to enjoy some of the excellent beers which Moor produce. My only comment would be that, like virtually all the other establishments along the famous Bermondsey Beer-Mile, the taproom could do with some more enhanced toilet facilities!

Footnote: I have just received news that on 3rd May, Moor Beer will be holding a Tap Takeover & Meet the Brewer session, at Fuggles Beer Cafe, just down the road from me in Tonbridge. The date is firmly in my diary!