3 September 2020

Daedalus and the Joy of Flight

The following takes place in a COVID-free world. Remember that? Well, look forward to it too.


Flights. Thirds. Quarters. Samples. Snifters.

They are Schrodinger's Order. They run the risk of being the bane of the beer enthusiast's life. Order one and you immediately look like a complete wanker. The server has to do thrice the work they usually do and there's a danger that you'll forget which beer is which by the time you've delicately, awkwardly and precariously walked your paddle halfway across the room to your little solitary table in the corner to commence photting and Untapping. (Other beer rating apps are available).

Incidentally, it always amused me that a flight came in a paddle.

On the other hand, the law, and your personal choice, is clear. You are not obligated to order a single pint of beer any more, or indeed halves. Why bet the farm on something new in case it turns out to be a slog? That thimbleful sample you've been graciously granted and have gratefully gulped may offer up some idea, but may not be enough to form a solid opinion on. 

Similarly you may not be too keen on wading through a full measure of the latest 6.5% roast coffee porter infused with the juice of the rare berry of the upper Ugandan bonkoko tree which only flowers once every three years when it is blessed with the urine of a young male virgin zebra.

It's totally tempting to tumble into the trying trial of tentatively tasting a triplet of tantalising tipples. But in a busy bar, on a busy night, with a queue behind you tapping their imaginary watches because who wears watches anymore now we've all got phones?

I feel we need a parable in order to make the decision for us. An ancient Greek parable of intrigue, invention and incest. Because it's Ancient Greece.

It's a warm summer's evening in ancient Greece. Upon ascending to his throne, King Minos of Crete, being a spiritual sort of fellow, prayed to the sea-god Poseidon to send him a beautiful white bull as a symbol of support for his claim to the throne. Minos, you see, like most little boys, was squabbling with his brothers about who should be king, and he decided to react in a completely normal way by attempting to get a vindictive sea-god on his side.

Nevertheless, Poseidon obliged and sent Minos a beautiful white bull with the instruction that, to show honour to the god, the bull must be sacrificed. Minos, upon seeing the fine beast, thought "I can't kill that" and decided to kill another, less beautiful bovine specimen.

This pissed off Poseidon. You really don't want to piss off a Greek god. They can dish out some creative punishments. Just ask Oedipus. Poseidon, as it happens, was well in with Aprodite, the goddess of love, so she paid a visit to Minos' wife Pasiphae and made her fall in love with the bull. As you do.

You following all this so far?

So Pasiphae is in love with the bull. Madly in love. Infatuated even. So she decides she wants to take human/bovine relations to the next level, a score of centuries before James Herriot made TV audiences wince every Sunday as he drove all over Yorkshire fisting livestock as he went. His excuse was he was a vet. Her excuse was she was horny.

Fortunately the Queen just happened to know an inventor called Daedalus, whose name fortuitously means "the inventor". Nominative determinism isn't just a modern phenomenon it seems. Daedalus knocked up (unfortunate phrasing) a wooden cow-shaped contraption that would allow Pasiphae and the bull to.....interact.

At no point did Daedalus think this was a bad idea. And he must have done a good job because nine-ish months later Pasiphae gave birth to a half-human half-bull creature known as the Minotaur.

A Minotaur is not to be confused with a "minor Tory", although to be fair both creatures are subhuman bastards full of bullsh*t.

Once he'd got over the shock of being stepfather to a walking manbeefburger, Good King Minos, alas, was perturbed to say the least. What to do with this thing? Only one option...build an inescapable prison. And who should build it? Well he looked in the phone book and.... yeah this guy Daedalus seems like the right man for the job.

Daedalus proceeds to builds Minos an unescapable prison, dubbed the Labyrinth, for the Minotaur to live in. To prevent knowledge of the Labyrinth from going public, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in a tower on Crete. Because, again, that was the Only Option!

You get the feeling Dominic Cummings would have liked to have worked for this guy.

So after all his help, Minos threw Daedalus under the bus which was all the more impressive given buses were the one thing Daedalus hadn't invented yet.

Of course father and son tried to escape, but all boats leaving Crete were heavily searched and the waters were unswimmable. Daedalus and Icarus were trapped by Poseidon's waves.

So the only way to escape was by air. And this is the time before aeroplanes, balloons or drones, so they had to either wait a few aeons for Leonardo da Vinci to be born, or invent something.

They attempted to escape by flying from their prison using wings made from feathers, string and wax, three materials that just happened to be lying around an Ancient Greek prison. No Sky TV though.

And do you know what, they worked. But, Daedalus warned young Icarus, that due to the wings' fragile nature, it would be important not to fly too high lest the sun melt the wax, or too low lest the water of the waves weigh down the feathers.

Yeah, Icarus. Had they had rear view mirrors, Crete would have been a distant speck in them when he forgot his father's sage advice. It was probably a good job that Daedalus didn't have a rear view mirror, otherwise he would have seen Icarus' wings melt from being too close to the sun, and his subsequent death plummet into the Mediterranean.

Daedalus escaped to a rival kingdom on the south coast of Sicily and, having built a temple to Apollo using his extant wings as an offering to the god, lived out the rest of his days in relative peace. In a delicious irony that only Greek myths serve up, he eventually got the opportunity to drown Minos in a bath with boiling water after Minos had discovered him living there. 

The Minotaur itself was eventually slayed by an enterprising chap called Theseus who, upon sailing triumphantly back to Athens, having abandoned his new girlfriend (Minos' daughter) en route, unfortunately forgot to signal to his father, King Ageus of Athens, that he had survived the encounter. His father immediately committed suicide by throwing himself into what became known as the Aegean Sea.

Seriously - go and read some proper Greek myths. They're hilariously horrid.

Now, I'm not suggesting for a single moment that the next time you walk into a bar you make merry with the meat on the menu. Nor would I suggest you navigate a Labyrinth, unless of course you're trying to find the toilets in your local Spoons. However, I would urge you to, when faced with a situation where there are two unpleasant options, to take the compromise. Instead of missing out on a new beer, or betting the whole farm on it, be like Daedalus and take a difficult but necessary decision to take flight. 

You may look and feel a little silly as, clutching your glorified repurposed mobile spice rack, you navigate your way past the rival kingdoms of bearded Beer Dudes fuelled by milkshake IPAs, and the local CAMRA branch's bitter discussion. 

But eventually you will find your promised land, having neither taken the plunge into the dark depths of passing up the opportunity of a new taste, nor soaring to the unmanageable unsustainable height of a full measure of something that could turn your palate to a waxy mush.

Flights are cool man. Strap in, relax, and if you need to bail out, the emergency exits are here, here and here....

2 September 2020

Reboot / Update

 A quick blog post to say three things:

1) I'm sorry - again - to anyone who was upset by the discourse on Twitter over the bank holiday weekend, provoked by another emotive Hopinions poll about supermarket beers. My views as a pro-choice anti-niche consumer have been made quite clear in my earlier blog post "Magic Rock Haywire" and I stand by them - in fact they should be no secret as that is the most read post on this website. However my opinion seemed to trigger a few sensitive souls and I found myself blocked and/or unfollowed by four followers who, up until yesterday, I had quite cordial relations with, including one major player in beer discourse. C'est la vie. This however prompted me to trim my "Following" list myself, down from over 1200 to a much more manageable 964.

2) I have binned off my Beer Wales project, so the Twitter handle @beerwales and the URL www.beerwales.com are available as of October 2020. Interested parties wishing to acquire these items should email me before they slip out of my control and go back on the open market.

3) I am rebooting my offering. From now on I will stop trying to model myself on some of the more highbrow, highend writing out there and just do me - honest, ill-informed, reactionary, gut-driven blogging, storytelling and ranting. I am never going to appear in Pellicle (certainly not now), I am never going to be a member of any Beer Writers Guild, I am never going to have any books published. 

That's not to say I won't occasionally turn my hand to a more longform in-depth article that may one day allow me to grace Boak & Bailey's - and perhaps other - weekly email shots.With that in mind I have spruced up the website to make it more accessible, will be taking down some of my more embarrassing old YouTube vids, and will try to be more coherent a contributor to Twitter.

I make no apologies for who I am, and the stance I take on issues. I said to myself when I started this malarkey that I wouldn't get sucked into political matters unnecessarily, or take a side in an unwinnable war of ideals or morals. I will continue to drink and enjoy the beer I like to drink, buy it in whichever fashion I wish, and be unashamed about it, regardless of how others see me. This year has been trying enough without having to worry about the shenanigans of SIBA, SBDRC, Spoons or sycophantic sippers.

The simple solution to all of life's fear is to join us, our friends, and bring on the beer. 

11 August 2020

Pennbloodh Lowen, Tribute


From the banks of the Tamar to the bank of the Usk

It's been 21 years since the Total Eclipse of the Sun was seen (ish) in the skies over Kernow. The Eden Project was still just a mass of steel and china clay dust, Falmouth University was still just an art college, and Doc Martin was still just a man behaving badly in a London flat.

As it turns out, the eclipse wasn't seen much. It was very cloudy, the British summer being what it is. On the BBC, Patrick Moore was however his usual ebullient self, staring defiantly at a particularly stubborn cumulus cloud.

Away from the pizzazz in Penzance and the thrills in Truro, just up the A38 in the quiet, neglected former mining town of St Austell, a talented pard decided the best way to commemorate the occasion was to turn out a celebratory beer. 

This was because Roger Ryman had just become the new head brewer for St Austell Brewery, a 149-year old family concern which gently but notably dominated the Cornish beer scene. It was the first beer he would develop. It would not be the last. 

On the big day itself, the numerous stargazy daytrippers crammed into the peninsula's pubs were treated to a 4% cask, 4.2% bottled amber ale made with Oregon hops. It was dubbed Daylight Robbery, the subtle humour of the name reflecting the subtle flavours it exuded.




Folk took to it. This was good stuff. Can we get some more? You can't stop making this.

What was initially a one off special changed the face of the brewery. Renamed Tribute in anticipation and celebration of the brewery's upcoming 150th birthday, it soon became the flagship beer, won a string of industry awards and now accounts for 90% of St Austell's output.

It is the house bitter on GWR intercity trains and on British Airways transatlantic flights. It can be found on tap as far away as London and South Wales. It fills supermarket shelves the length and breadth of the land. It is plastered on the side of London cabs and Bristol balloons. It adorns cricket, soccer and rugby shirts, most notably that of the Cornish national team. 


Yours truly, outside Twickenham

And in Tribute's wake came other iconic additions to the St Austell lineup - their very agreeable stout Mena Dhu and their intensely satisfying lager Korev - named after the Cornish word for beer.



Two of Newquay's famous Central Bar's finest drops


There's even an extra strong, bottled conditioned version if you fancy it.


Image credit: Roger Protz

For me, my connection with Tribute is particularly special as it was one of my gateway beers. Despite living in Cornwall from 2002 to 2005, I only got around to trying it, along with HSD, on a revisit in 2007. A few years later we found ourselves crossing the Tamar end to end again and toured the brewery, and were treated to the full range of Roger's bottled talents.

In non-COVID affected years, my mate Justin and myself make an annual pilgrimage to Falmouth to drink as many pints as we can. And we usually succeed.



Yep, I even bought the t-shirt

Roger brewed his last firkin earlier this year, snatched from us at the horribly young age of 52. Taking over his mantle is Georgina Young who cut her teeth with Smiles, Fullers and Bath Ales, sister brewery of St Austell. The future is secure in her hands.



Image credit: Mike Searle from the Falmouth Packet

The coincidental cosmic confluence which occurred in August 1999 was the last to be seen in the skies over Britain until 2090. Although it's highly likely a lot of us won't be still propping up the bar, let's hope whenever that day comes they're still serving Tribute.

Pennbloodh Lowen, Tribute. Meur ras, Roger.



2 July 2020

Waiting for a Welcome In the Hillsides

EDITOR'S NOTE : This was written and published just before the Welsh Government announced they will begin allowing pubs and restaurants to reopen from July 13th 2020.

As we have seen this week, the official UK Government stats, which are
 consumed and analysed daily by a public desiring to paint a more hopeful picture of how the virus is behaving at the moment, are incomplete and misleading. Despite a sense of optimism, a lot of folk wearily worry and suspect Leicester won't be the last local flareup, nor the last lockdown.

That said, with the apparent general trend appearing to show the virus being brought more and more under control, it is still fair for hospitality businesses on this side of Offa's Dyke to be frustrated at what they perceive as over-caution by the Welsh Government; especially when they see their friends, some mere metres away in the Borders, being allowed to reopen when they can't. 

Some have even postulated it's a political ideological tactic. Some say that Welsh Labour just *have* to be seen to be different to English Tories because of hatred or distrust between the two political wings and nations. However accusations of this type are narrow-minded in themselves and don't stand up to scrutiny because why on EARTH would any Government deliberately and consciously make itself more unpopular with unjustifiable tactics? Especially one so flaky as this uninspiring lot in the Bay? 

The obvious answer, which disappoints conspiracy theorists and political pundits on newspapers alike is: they wouldn't. At school, you never copied off the dumb kid misbehaving in the corner of the class, who kept forgetting his PE kit, who at break time ran out into the rain without an umbrella or overcoat. Which is why they are apparently taking a higher, harder road than Boris Johnson's nakedly populist, potentially damaging but politically damage-limiting agenda.

An objective overview could likely conclude that the four corners of the UK are opening at different times for different reasons. Northern Ireland has done by far the best of our family of nations due to the good fortune of being physically cut off from the rest of us and being connected to a country which has had its own relatively remarkable success in containing the virus and keeping excess deaths to a minimum. They open on Friday.

Scotland has done well, despite some obvious wobbles and the Nike Conference scandal. They can genuinely say they are opening because the science says they can. But they're still not opening just yet because they're giving their businesses a relatively long amount of time to prepare compared to their southern neighbours.

Boris has, given the devolved nature of these issues, been acting solely as de facto Prime Minister of England during this time, and the brutal truth is that he has had little choice but to force open the doors earlier than can be considered safe. The Dominic Cummings affair, the PPE ordering debacles, the fudging of numbers, the NHS tracing app failure and numerous other missteps have raised the collective ire of a by-and-large patient populace, which unfortunately gave the less scrupulous an excuse to break the government's already confusing "guidelines" to the extent that people are fighting on the beaches. I'm not sure that's the kind of Churchillian effect he desired.

So, in desperation and not unironically like an unfit parent, he's placating the tantrum-throwers (and his friends in the big hospitality companies) by giving them back what they want. Unfortunately he's doing it so quickly he's not given small business a chance to get ready. What's worse, he's doing it without a fully working test and trace system. He's doing it off his own bat without proper guidance. His approach is devoid of care, or attention, or anything. 

As usual.

So the shysters of England - Marstons, Wetherspoons etc - are having their grand reopening with daily deaths still in the hundreds and daily infections still in the thousands. All because he fears losing what support he hasn't already vacated to an opposition leader who, let's face it, while effective isn't remotely effusive, engaging or enticing.

Now Wales. We don't have a charismatic, identifiable leader like Scotland or England. We are lumbered perpetually with Welsh Labour, a notoriously slow-moving unevolved branch of the party. It is so cosy in its position as Wales' default #1 choice it's practically a walking, talking, snooze-inducing Monty Python punchline. 

Welsh Labour gets in year after year by default in the Valleys. Stick a red rose on a donkey we wearily say. And sometimes they actually do, if Chris Bryant is anything to go by. 

So they've been resting on their laurels for a long time. But those laurels are being challenged by an increasingly indycurious population on one side and yet also an Anglo-centric one. Removal of tolls on the Severn Bridge coupled with lower property prices have meant English immigration into Wales has risen, with the threat of the border around the Severn becoming even more blurred. And yes, the effect of Brexit on the poorest communities coupled with the other factors have left Wales feeling genuinely unsure politically for the first time in years. Real change, in one direction or another, is possible if, at present, improbable.

But the signs are there - and not just the ones bolted to motorway gantries proclaiming the Second Severn Crossing to be the Prince of Wales Bridge. Labour's Red Wall in the North of England crumbling was a warning to the Welsh branch - if they don't up their game, they're next. If it hadn't been for a lot of Plaid and LibDem and Green voters holding their noses and voting for Team Red in 2019, they would have been goners too.

So Welsh Labour need to prove they're on the side of the Welsh people. And in this crisis, they've done mildly OK - we have the least amount of excess deaths on the mainland GB and an R0 number averaging lower than most English regions. So far, so good. 

But in a country where a large majority of our 3 million live within stones' throws in Valley and city communities, any uptick in infections could be devastating. Forget Leicester - if anything like that happens in the Valleys, it would be carnage, especially given our aged population.

So caution has to be the name of the game, and while slow progress provokes and foments impatience and its own brand of distrust, it could reap its own rewards. 

We could open later, but more fuller. Tortoise and hare. We have more preparation time for businesses. We can watch and learn how things go down with the Saes. Let others make the mistakes for us.

That's not to say there isn't a political angle, of course there is, because unlike Sturgeon and Johnson, Mark Drakeford doesn't command popularity and support levels which makes him fairly comfortable in his positions. He literally can't afford to get this wrong.

The brutal truth however is that both the Welsh Government and the leisure and hospitality business sector are caught fast between the unforgiving, brutal rock of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the hard place of potentially tanking economy as the Westminster Tories pull the furlough support monies out from under them both. So there's Hobson's Choice: open too soon and folk get sick, or open too late and business gets sick.

For all my innate cynicism surrounding the governments in Cardiff Bay and Westminster, I have to believe that here the sweet spot of compromise has at least been considered in a more nuanced way than in Downing Street's hellish ideological autocracy. The trends and data will have been analysed and over-analysed and a decision made for Welsh pubs and restaurants to reopen. Remember, the data we as consumers and business owners see in public - and our decisions influenced by - is incomplete and has the potential to infer the wrong consequences.

And that it is about to be promulgated. Frustration will soon yield to excitation and anticipation. As I write this, it appears July 13th is the magic date.

But one thing must be clear : England's, or Scotland's, or Wales' approaches are not to be held as pantheons or even examples. In any comparative relationship, if one side get it wrong, and one side gets it right, who will be smiling come September?

If local lockdowns in cities all over England suddenly become the norm, while Cardiff is bustling with folk able to sit closer than 1m apart, will there be grumbling from the hospitality sector? Of course, that's a huge IF. 

But one thing's for sure. It can't as hell happen the other way round. If after the Welsh Government allows pubs to reopen in Cardiff, and there's a spike which closes them two weeks later while Bristol is bustling and London is lively, that will be devastating for all of us.

9 June 2020

Back To The Future

I know there was some excitement earlier today when it seemed pub gardens would reopen on June 22nd, and then those rumours - that the government started in the first place - were squashed by the, er government.

I know a lot of us are squeamish about how pubs...will look and, more importantly, feel, after lockdown is over.

I know a lot of us are yearning dreadfully after that wonderful and enriching experience that a session in the pub can give us.

I know a lot of us are getting fatigued with relying on deliveries of bottles and cans and desire the magic that is cask with company.

I feel it too.

I feel it keenly, and long for it as much as anyone. But I'm willing to wait, because for me, it has to be right.

Not perfect, but right.

I want to go to a pub and relax, and not be second guessing others' behaviour. I don't want paranoia (at least, no more than usual). I don't want people being overly wary, on edge, around me (again, no more than usual).

So I can wait. I can wait until such time as social distancing is relaxed for scientific reasons, not financial or political reasons. I can wait until the life that we will be permitted to lead is as close as damnit to the life we had until March. I can wait until such time as we can have the "Now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?" moment.

Some can't. Some will go back on Day 1. Good luck to them, they will need it. For all sorts of reasons. They may find the changes to pub life in the interim acceptable, or they may find them intolerable. They may find their local's landlord is not as scrupulous as the security guard at Aldi and who will let more in than is safe. They may find themselves sat near to someone with a heavy cough who refuses to wear a mask because they believe the virus is a deep state conspiracy. They may find themselves queuing for so long outside a pub that all desire and keenness for a pint evaporates in the cooling British summer air.

I'm not willing to take that risk.

The way pubs have been treated during all of this, both by our government and by big pubcos is appalling, and if we had authorities with teeth who cared then we wouldn't have to feel the obligation to rush back before it's safe to ensure our locals survive. It's unjust, unfair and unseemly. But such is modern Britain. Once this is all over, there will be a deep and searching probe into how our hospitality industry was abandoned, how ruthless big business strangled the very lifeblood of their businesses with unfair rent demands, and how beer drinkers and enthusiasts reacted and what they did afterwards. I will never willingly or conscientiously step in a Spoons, or a Greene King's, or a Marstons, ever again.

All over the beer social media channels I see folks in pain. Folks who have lost hope of life ever returning to normal. I simply say be strong. Be as strong as your hearts will allow you. Do not think of pubs and publife as a memory. Think of it as a joyous day yet to come. We will have our Pub Christmas, possibly before actual Christmas. We are currently opening the doors on a seemingly never-ending advent calendar and guzzling the tiny morsels of chocolate. It's nowhere near enough to sate our hunger and our desire, but it reminds us of the feast and the fiesta to come. We are rowing across an ocean, but the darkness of night is behind us, and the sunrise, and the promised land, are on the horizon. But we must keep rowing.

This year has been unfairly robbed from our lives. But this year has also unfairly robbed lives from all of us. We owe it to those we have lost - from my grandfather, Ken Buck, who loved those stubbie bottles you get at Asda; to Wilko who used to pull pints at the Baneswell Club - to not inflict unneccesary suffering on others, to not prolong this artificially and to not inflate to the numbers. We will return to our lives. Others have had their lives upturned.

1 May 2020

#TheSession : Pressing Pause on the Cassette Tape of Life

With an ugodly, screeching squelch, the great cassette tape of our lives has been put on pause. Our carefully crafted music mix - planned to the last detail with mood-enhancing uplifting soaring melodies counterpointed with more personal gentle ballads - is being held up artificially by a big unseen, dirty, warty finger.

But it is important to remember: it is the PAUSE button which is being pressed, not STOP, or even REWIND.

I haven't blogged or written anything at all during the lockdown. Not because I haven't had anything to say (as those poor sods that still follow me on Twitter know) but mostly because I don't feel that what I have to say merits recording in the annals, even if it is on some second-rate blog, a blog bolted onto the side of BeerTwitter to make the whole thing look untidy.

But I've had 5 beers tonight so....

My circumstances are this: I'm OK. Just OK. I'm not happy, or sad; I'm not fearful, or buoyant. I'm OK. Surviving would be an overly crass term to use considering the impact this disease has had on other folk.

I have a shop over the road which is keeping me supplied with milk, bread, mint Club bars and bottles of cheap pop. I have a canal which I can utelise for my once-a-day state-sponsored walk where I can (just about) dodge middle-aged folk in lycra.

I am a key worker, apparently. I make sure trains are staffed for one of the big Train Operating Companies.  For the first week or so of lockdown I had to continue my 2 hour commute to and from the office which was fun on a reduced rail service. I had to sit in a gilded turd of a building with 1970s-standard air conditioning surrounded by over 50 possible viral vectors. That was until our company managed to rustle up enough laptops from behind the sofa so that a good proportion of us could work from home.

Since then I've been woken up by the cat, rising groggily at about 9am, only occasionally going so far as to dress myself, before bashing enough numbers into a glorified spreadsheet to keep the trade unions happy and then wishing Beer O'Clock would get earlier.

During the first couple of weeks, my alcohol consumption skyrocketed faster than Elon Musk's ego. From having one beer a night in week 1 of The Event, rising to three or four. And not middling sessionable stuff either. We're talking impies, barrel aged, barleywines.... Fortunately it's settled down this past fortnight or so, although as mentioned earlier I am currently on my fifth tonight. Probably why I have the dutch courage to jot this down while I still can.

I suffer with horrendous mood swings - I am cyclothymic, which means I suffer from a mild form of manic depression. I have intense periods of optimistic productivity and equally intense periods of pessimistic doubt. A project, a goal, a wonderful idea can become nought in the dust of a catastrophic moodswing.

Which is why my current, relatively comfortable ambivalence, and general sense of coping, scares me. Like everyone I miss the pub, I miss socialising, I miss normality - but I also know those days will return. This too will pass. We have not bid farewell, merely au revoir.

We are the lucky ones. Our lives continue. Others lives - literal, physical - haven't. As many people have died as can fit into the Cardiff City soccer stadium, at least. Businesses will fail, pubs will close, lives will change - through no fault of the business owners' own. Whatever mass binge this country will go on post-CV will never compensate for this.

Drinking at home is not like drinking at the pub. Emma Inch's perfect blog about the last time she was in a pub summed up everything we were all thinking. And yes it's been great to support breweries and bottle shops during this time by ordering online, and the delivery folk have been great. But I really really really want to see, hear, smell and taste a pint poured from a cask pump sooner rather than later.

But I look at it this way. Whatever sadness and nostalgia and longing we feel for times past, if we flip those into anticipation, and hope, and readiness for the time in the future when this will be but another chapter in our history books, we can at the very least balance or mitigate our negative feelings into something more manageable, bearable and even pleasurable.

That feeling you feel when you're about an hour away from your first pint of the weekend? Take that and multiply it by a billion. That's what you could, and perhaps should, be holding on to right now.

But the cold hard truth is those days are a little away yet. Not as far away as they seem, but they are still on the horizon. Between there and us is a Narnia-like expanse of trees and plains which are still to be navigated. We may be stuck in the wardrobe, but there is always the light of the lamppost to hold on to.



CODA
Without wishing to end on too harsh of a note, I have this to say to the naysayers, the whingers, the complainers, the know-alls, the entitled middle-class wankers missing their champagne and caviar parties paid for by corporate wankers : This year has been unfairly robbed from our lives -- but we have had lives unfairly robbed from us this year too. You may be looking forward to walking out onto sunlit uplands. Some folk are having to look forward to walking out to graveyards.

4 March 2020

Power & Influence & Beer

This will be just one of a series of hot takes you will find floating around the internet in the wake of the Portman Group's decision to issue a Retail Alert Bulletin after finding that the label of Lost & Grounded's excellent Running With Sceptres can violated their seemingly arbitrary, inconsistently-applied, endlessly subjective, malleable, wishy-washy beery-weery code of practice; a code which despite updates seems forever destined to be out of step with the constantly living, breathing, evolving state of the beer industry.


The brewery's bravado is to be applauded, although in situations like this where the cards are stacked heavily against them, more cautious folk would wonder whether this is a battle worth fighting. Tiny Rebel lost "a five figure sum" attempting to make Cwtch compliant after a similar complaint.

Oh - about the complaint, and the complainant. He or she appears to be a serial offender, randomly wandering into supermarkets and scanning the craft beer shelves for potential violators. Their recidivist-ego-stiffening and pencil-sharpening exercise is being performed in the shadow of one of the Portman Group sponsors' regional breweries, a place of employment with over 300 disgruntled macro beer worker ants. A coincidence perhaps.

There was never any doubt about what the verdict was going to be from the "independent" panel towards an independent brewery. Yet on the face of it, many beer commentators have agreed that the label does break the code in featuring anthropomorphic animalia in a garish cartoonish scene. Some have even gone so far as to victim blame L&G for inciting this ruling as if the brewery have been playing a very self-owning game of chicken with the regulator.

Perhaps it would be handy if the Portman Group, when they're not at the beck and call of A.N.Onymous (yes, the brewery doesn't even get to know who their tormenter is) drew up a list of which animals are allowed to be used on cans and how anthropomorphic they can appear. We already know from the Tiny Rebel saga that battered and bruised bears are out. Even more established names don't escape the wrath of the animation antagonist : Delerium's pink elephant was also compared to a cartoon character (Dumbo's mother?) in a previous complaint. It appears anyone can make a spurious comparison or link between two sets of imagery, and have said comparison taken seriously by actual adults, if it suits a narrative they feel necessary to drive.

For their part, the Portman Group had the nerve to tweet out that day "We don't react to vexatious complaints." However, even after Tiny Rebel had altered their can design for Cwtch to that suggested by the Portman Group, it still fell foul of the watchdog.

This is why some of us cynically smell rats. If compliance still isn't enough for A. N. Onymous of Caldicot, who could then make a further complaint, where does it end and how much power is vested in one very punitive individual with either an axe to grind or an ulterior motive?

But wait, I hear you say. Didn't the Portman Group rule against Oranjeboom (prop. InBev) on the same day for breaches of labelling? Well, yes, but that's a bit of a dead cat thrown on the sacrificial altar - Oranjeboom 8.5% is being withdrawn from UK market anyway so actual effect is negligible bordering on insignificant with a touch of meh. As an interesting footnote to this, the same design was ruled compliant by the Portman Group back in 2017.

Elsewhere, Purity Brewing's "Lawless" was ruled non-compliant for promoting crime in its name. That was even more laughable, but a name can be changed easier than a piece of artwork. Just ask Tiny Rebel, whose Clwb Tropicana had to rename itself to Clwb Tropica for fear of being confused with orange juice. Then again there's Loka Polly, a brewery who had to rename themselves entirely. And let's not forget Boss Brewing, who lost upwards of £10,000 in a fight against a vexatious complaint from Hugo Boss for daring to sell merch with their brewery name on it. Their cause is being taken up this week by Joe Lycett, who has changed his name to Hugo Boss by deed poll as part of the campaign. Watch out for the results on Channel 4 soon.

So what's the answer to the fact that the Portman Group, with its undeniable ties to big macro beer, its befuddled attitude to craft and its willingness to bend to the will of one very sad individual from Monmouthshire? Self regulation in its current form isn't working. The PG is dominated by vested interests in an industry that is (sometimes bitterly) divided into factions, tribes, groups. Having such a skew towards one such tribe leaves space for inconsistent interpretations

One ultimately undesirable solution is statutory regulation. For all its scary sounding inferences, whereas the Portman Group's code is not fit for purpose and would not stand up to scrutiny, statutory regulation could theoretically be challenged and changed with due process and reflect changing attitudes. For example, the state regulated alcohol industry in Sweden, where the Systembolaget only exists due to previous generations' pathological state-wide alcoholism, was recently relaxed to allow alcohol advertising in print media. Things can change depending on political and societal progress.

Not that our current government would want to get involved in that of course, and any state-backed regulator would be just as vulnerable to anti-alcohol and other pressure groups as any self-regulator. The big beer companies would also ensure a lions' share of representation too. But at least the complainants would be public, discussions open, industry representatives drawn from a wider demographic and censure would require reasons more justifiable than "I think kids will be unable to contain themselves at the sight of a non-Tigger".

So if self regulation is to remain, it needs to be reflective of the current state of the industry and be accountable to all players, not just its sponsors. Also needs more transparency, less inconsistency and more realism. It needs to be proactive and not reactive, working with the whole industry, not against certain sectors of it. I don't see why it can't be more dynamic. Comparatively, the ASA has to update its guidelines every time a new media comes along. YouTubers in particular hav to be careful with their channel sponsorship spots etc. Such a thing was unimaginable just a short time ago yet that industry adapted readily.

For now, Cwtch and Running with Sceptres are to remain, although if the Retail Bulletin has any bite, they will eventually disappear from the shelves of Waitrose and other outlets, and everyone loses: the brewery, the customer, the retailer and the beer world as a whole.

The only winner is one very self-satisfied killjoy; relaxing tonight safe in the knowledge they have saved the United Kingdom's children from falling under the devious evil spell of craft beer for another week.

15 January 2020

How Not To Be A Beer Blogger





I don't really count myself as a beer blogger. If I did, I'd certainly write more regularly and pick more interesting topics. The problem is I don't actually know that much about beer so my contributions to the conversation are limited. So, in the spirit of Boak & Bailey's Guide to Beer Blogging linked in Matthew's tweet above, here are my tips, based on my own experience, on what not to do if you want to join this eclectic, eccentric, engaging bunch of ty-pisseds.


1) Always avoid alliteration. Continuous and copious couplets, wearisome weak wordplay and plentiful predictable prose are always avoided.

2) Don't start your blog with the word I.

3) Don't write hideously long boring stories about how some random supermarket beer changed your life.

4) For the love of god don't try to mediate in a deathmatch between two warring factions

5) An embedded video from your embarrassingly painful YouTube channel is not a blog post.

6) Never, and I repeat never, try to be funny.

7) If you set out to attack a particular part of beer appreciation, make sure you attack the other side too, just to ensure that both sides think you're a tiresome wanker.

8) Always use the good and wholesome and paradigm shifting work of others as a convenient springboard to write your entitled white middle-class male guff.

9) If you want to get noticed, suck up to the big boys.

10) Seize the opportunity of current news or sporting events to shoehorn in the most tenuous of metaphorical comparisons into your latest screed.

and finally remember

11) Listicles are such old hat. You're a beer blogger, not BuzzFeed.

4 January 2020

Tryanuary vs Dryanuary : Dawn of Just-ified Outrage

After a season in which revelry, good will to all persons and fighting your way to the bar past the once-a-year amateurs (we love them really) continue to be the order of business, the clock has struck twelve and suddenly the magic of December has been shoved aside by the grey, bitter, remorseful month that is January. If years could have a Monday morning, January is a solid lump of meh comprising 31 of the buggers. No wonder the only decent song to be written about it contains the words "sick and tired" in the first line.


Outside of the obvious emotional comedown that comes with realising you've reluctantly sat through yet another Hootenanny, the sheer mundanity of this back-to-work, back-to-routine, back-to-the-loft-with-the-tinsel period somehow prompts numerous organisations, pressure groups, special interests and other entities with nothing better to do to attempt desperately to split you from whatever copper coins you have left after Black Friday, Christmas and the Boxing Day DFS Sale (not to be confused with the other DFS Sales).

It used to be so simple. Just a few short years ago, January was all about getting fit and burning off the four tins of Quality Street that somehow attached themselves to your midriff. Lycra pants and yoga mats everywhere. January was also the time when holiday companies began bombarding you with pictures of white sand beaches and sun umbrellas in an attempt to make you book your package trip to some godforsaken resort for you to spend a fortnight with far too many red-faced people called Dave or Sharon.

But now, oh, the sheer plethora of options is more overwhelming in terms of choice than an IPA menu at a craft beer bar. Veganuary!! Tryanuary!! Dryanuary!! Whateverelseanuary!! Enoughalreadyanuary!! It's the Ryanuary Rumpus and the moment when you, as a beer drinker and free thinker, decide which letter you put in front of it - a T or a D.

Cards on the table - I have done both. January 2018 was a Dry one which coincided with the release onto the market of Budweiser Prohibition Brew. January 2019 was one in which I was obliged by my humongous collection of undrunk Xmas beers to make a sizeable dent.

I won't go into the perceived benefits that having a month off the beer can have for your body. Mostly because I don't have an agenda to push but also because I'm not a medical professional, nor do I own a white coat.

Anecdotally, for my own part, whenever I have a dry month (and I tend to have two a year), it's nice to just have a break from hangovers; a break from spending increasingly eye-watering amounts of money on increasingly eye-opening beers; and it (usually) indirectly serves as an aide to weight loss and general improvement in self.

These are three entirely unsurprising and frankly uninteresting benefits that are already well-known and well-appreciated by the public at large, whether regular drinkers or not. These are things that we, as informed and intelligent adults, do not need ramming down our throat by state-sponsored, state-endorsed organisations.

Yet it always surprises - and concerns - me that campaigns from so-called alcohol concern groups are reported to have, on the surface anyway, an effect on a discerning populace. According to a poll taken in December, this year's army of Dryathletes is set to number 5 Million! That's nearly 11% of 18-65 year olds! One in ten of the working population!

Which means 9 in 10 are still drinking.

And I find estimations of 5 million Dryathletes to be a little dubious frankly. That number is from a poll commissioned by an anti-alcohol organisation, conducted by YouGov and reported in the Daily Mail. You couldn't get a more trivial triumverate of truthbenders.

For starters, that is just the folk who said they "may attempt" to do Dryanuary. That is just the folk who set themselves this laudable goal back before Xmas. Anyone who's seen Yes Prime Minister will know how opinion polls can be rigged to coerce a desirable answer out of the respondent, and my cynical soul senses similar shenanigans here.


Perhaps we'll see another poll at the end of the month showing how many actually did it, or a release of how many folk signed up to the official Dryanuary campaign website, although I doubt it as the numbers could be less headline making.

Furthermore, I do wonder what proportion of people who do Dry January are regular pub goers? Is there any data that the campaign has a direct effect over and above the usual new year post-indulgence lull? What studies have taken place? I can't find anything hard and fast. I suspect that a huge proportion of regular pub goers will continue to go to the pub, a huge proportion of home drinkers will keep drinking their supermarket box sets, and the two groups of people being targeted by the two campaigns - occasional drinkers and problem drinkers - will see neither a benefit to their wellbeing nor any encouragement to change their behaviour.

Figures show January pub drink trade, as dismal as it is, only dropped by about 1% last year when compared to 2018. It would be unfair and disengenuous to attribute this entirely to Dry January campaigns, and there is an argument that pubs that serve food should be more concerned about vegan and diet based campaigns. Other external factors must come into play and indeed have been cited in the limited analysis that has been conducted in the past.

But pubs can't mitigate against Brexit uncertainty, squeezes on wages or anything else that folk may wish to blame. So what can they do?

Well, offer a greater selection of low and non-alcoholic beers for starters. A common theme of staying away from pubs during Dryanuary is the dearth of options for the non drinker. Lime and soda or soft drinks seem to be the go to. All very well in theory, but as someone who stayed dry for 5 months in 2016, the psychological aspect of drinking soft drinks in a pub, not to mention the gut rot from the sweeteners or the caffeine bang head, can be overwhelming enough to make you avoid socialising in pubs full stop.

Like it or not, a key demographic being targeted by both campaigns is the stereotypical white male with a fragile ego and concerns over image. The prospect of a ribbing off your mates - or worse off folk who are definitely not your mates - when ordering a glass of diet Coke at one's local, is powerfully dissuasive.

But the options are out there! Adnam's Ghost Ship, already a gamechanger in the industry, has become a Wetherspoons staple, as has the aforementioned Bud Prohibition Brew, Brewdog Nanny State and Heineken 0.0. All four are socially acceptable, taste half-decent and, at £1.99 a pop, well priced. Now other chains, pubcos and indies need to join the party. I do feel the industry has been caught a little on the hop by this, but producers of all sizes are now numerous and readily available, and, away from the indy brewers, big brands and macro are slapping their names on good quality product. The time is now. If not now, never.

If the effect of Dry January is so noticeable and detrimental, why oh why is the industry not moving more decisively towards embracing lo/no instead of certain representatives within it attacking folk making personal decisions for their health and also raising money for cancer charities?

I wouldn't for one moment decry desperate business owners for being miffed at a campaign that they perceive as seeking to undermine their footfall at a needy time of year. But I would like to know if it's been proven that that's where their ire should be directed. Blunt, hostile rejection of the "other" camp is completely illogical and does more harm than any abstinence campaign ever could. If a pub does put out a tweet saying "Forget (or stronger) Dryanuary" it makes it less likely that folks will come into their pub to partake of a soft drink or two, so they're basically shooting themselves in the foot.

It must be said that any individuals or pubs using strong, dismissive, threatening or hostile language towards Dryanuaryists do not have the support of the official Tryanuary Campaign.
On the other hand headlines like this one (which was RTd and linked to on the official Tryanuary twitter feed) openly and nakedly stating that campaigns like Tryanuary want to "destroy" Dryanuary, don't help that message :
‘Dry January’ Is Destroying Bars. This U.K. Movement Wants to Stop It

Nor does it help that the website of Alcohol Concern, one of those advocating Dry January, buries its own non-alcoholic beer feature under a mountain of alarmist anti-booze posts
Top ten alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks for Dry January and beyond

The media at large don't help either. Certain sectors of the popular press attack DRYanuary as being emblematic of the so-called snowflake millennial generation. But their editors then won't countenance overtly endorsing any opposing campaign for fear of being seen to promote alcohol consumption.

Overall though, I do feel that both sides' claims and indignation are amplified somewhat by social media attention seekers and it's yet another front in the ongoing culture wars; meanwhile most of the population are just getting on with what they do anyway.

So what's the answer? Well, for starters, ignore social media noise and deal with hard facts and figures. By doing that, you come onto another pathway: there is a sector of the beer industry that has seen incredible growth this year: LO/NO! Perhaps there is an opportunity within Tryanuary for the beer industry to play the more vocal of the anti-alcohol brigade at their own game and undercut their abstinence message. After all, lo/no is not just for January either. There are signs of this already occurring:

It is also true however that many pubs' lo/no offerings continue to be limited, craft lo/no availability is sporadic and location-dependent, and often the best or only place to pick up lo/no is macro brands at supermarkets.
The industry has lo/no producers of all sizes that should feel that this is the time of year they can come into their own. Availability, diversity and visibility of that sector can only increase from this point on.

For the time being, despite attempts by both campaigns, there is still all-too-ready evidence of a reluctance by the more vehement proponents of either side to even consider an inclusive approach. You're either with us or against us is still a theme running through the more passionate discussion of this topic.

As one very unscientific metric, I have had folk unfollow me on Twitter this week due to my daring to approach (and to be fair, wring to death) this topic in a nuanced way. But then I've experienced both sides of this coin - I love trying new beer and I appreciate the gaps I take between beers to recover. Perhaps as a consumer without a dependency on alcohol I have the freedom to pick and choose what I do, when I do it. Businesses can't do that, and neither can folks with addictions.

And therein lies the irony. For two campaigns aimed at helping beer sellers and alcoholics, it seems that neither of them actually have much effect. It can be argued that Tryanuary doesn't drive more folk to pubs in January than those who would go anyway, and Dryanuary is mostly partaken by folk who sensibly drink in moderation. Which means that, when you strip away the superficiality of likes, retweets, shares, headlines and humblebragging social media posts, the real world effect is negligible at best.

Which kinda sums up January to be honest. A pointless endeavour which no-one really cares about much and which just has to be endured until February comes along and rescues us.