Sainsbury’s Merry Christmas for Traditional Beer

When all the supermarkets are doing 3 huge crates of fizzy pop beer for £16 or £20 at least most make an effort over Christmas to promote traditional British bottled ale.

Waitrose has a fantastic selection, Majestic has beers from Rebellion, Loddon and Tring and Asda and Morrisons make a reasonable effort. Bigger Tesco’s, such as the two Extras in Aylesbury, also have some great beer, such as the Finest ‘Double’ IPA (see previous post). Even the modestly sized Tesco in Princes Risborough has three or four metres of shelving of bottled British beer, including some local breweries.

But Sainsbury’s, at least the Aylesbury branch, has a pathetic offering — see photo below. This is quite a large branch, albeit a town centre one and there’s a long aisle of wine, spirits and other beers (of the crateloaded discount variety). But only two rather pathetically chosen shelves of British traditional beer are on offer — and all below knee level where most people might not even look.

And look at the diversity: Newcastle Brown, plus Fullers, Hall and Woodhouse (available in almost every supermarket), Greene King Abbot, Marston’s Pedigree and Hobgoblin, Young’s and Wells Bombardier and Courage Directors (whoever brews that these days). At least they were selling them at 3 for £4 — maybe ale drinking doesn’t fit with the pukka Jamie Oliver cheeky chappie image. No doubt he’s guzzling champagne on all his book sales but I reckon Sainsbury’s probably pose him with something like a bottle of inoffensive, profitable Peroni.

Aylesbury Sainsbury's Christmas Ale Range
Aylesbury Sainsbury's Christmas Ale Range

Innovation and Tradition

Here’s a photo taken in the Belle Vue in High Wycombe this week. The left shows an exhibition of photographs in the pub’s new art gallery, the right shows the more traditional image of ale drinking.

Belle Vue: Tattoo Culture and Pub Culture
Belle Vue: Tattoo Culture and Pub Culture


In the Aylesbury and Wycombe area we thought we’d suffer a lot more pub closures post-smoking ban and post-credit crunch than we actually did. However, it seems like the bad news may have been postponed. The Rising Sun at Little Hampden closed over the summer — and it was a smart country dining pub in an idyllic Chiltern hamlet. Sadly it had been granted permission for conversion to a private house in 2006 — so the battle had been lost already.

In the summer a pub in Aylesbury, the Duck in Bedgrove, was demolished after being sold to new owners without any change of use permission being sought. (See the local LibDems blog for a good photo.) This was a type of pub that is fast disappearing — an estate community pub. It certainly wasn’t the sort of pub that lured real ale drinkers. However, huge areas of towns like Aylesbury are now without pubs.

In a couple of years the Southcourt and Walton Court estates have lost the Steeplechase (boarded up) and the Skinny Dog (now a Muslim community centre) and the Huntsman is due to disappear in a redevelopment of the local shopping centre. The first pub that’s on the road between Southcourt and Aylesbury town centre, the Old Plough and Harrow, has recently undergone one of the most common conversions for dead pubs (and one that doesn’t need any planning permission) — into an Indian restaurant.

Twenty or thirty years ago these sort of estate community pubs would be packed with drinkers, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s not hard to think of reasons why they’re now in trouble — the smoking ban has hit these pubs harder than most (many customers no doubt went there specifically to smoke as well as drink) and the idiocies of modern marketers have also done their damage — targeting drinks like lager and alcopops at young people with relatively large disposable incomes but also very disposable common sense once they’d had a few wife-beaters down their throats. Pool tables and noisy machines would also target this particular demographic — and many pubs weakened their community links as a result.

But the main factor is surely economic. The typical price of a pint is now fairly close to £3, if not more, and is set to rise a lot further when VAT rises in the New Year as well any beer duty rises in the pipeline. Even using the government’s recommended 21 units of alcohol, this would work out at £31.50 per week (based on a session bitter)…and that would realistically only have a person in for 3 or 4 pints three times a week — far less than the traditional customers of such pubs would tend to do. The likes of Professor David Nutt would no doubt find this cause for celebration, except that the previous customers of community pubs are not likely to have moderated their consumption — they will be down the town centre supermarkets where, on a good day, £31.50 could buy them about 36 cans of Stella (more than four times the units of alcohol) and probably enough to keep most people stocked up with a tin to hand while watching TV for the whole week.

Beer in pubs is too expensive — simple as that. The social act of going down to the pub as an end in itself has been priced out of many people’s reach — and those who can afford it are too busy making more money for themselves or are eating in poncey restaurants or swilling their bonuses away in pubs in the City.

Town centre pubs will still do OK as people go to a destination for a night out. Also some pubs, particularly in the country, will keep their heads above water by concentrating on food — although the example of the Rising Sun shows that even serving up upmarket pub grub is less lucrative than turning the place into a country retreat for the kind of person who’s too posh to go to pubs.

And this also underlines another reason why supermarket beer has become far cheaper than beer in pubs — because pubs, like houses, have had their property values massively inflated and most pubs are now owned by companies who’ve foolishly raised money on the financial markets against these notional values — and the servicing of this debt has been passed on to landlords and customers.

Whereas a generation ago pubs only had to open their doors to get customers coming in, the above factors mean that pubs now have to differentiate themselves to generate custom — and offering interesting and well-kept real ale is a way to do this. The Whip in Lacey Green is an example of a pub that has a bar that’s still packed out most nights — offering five real ales that turn over, on average, every two days. The pub did about 800 different ales last year — that’s well over two a day. And the pub steadily built a reputation on quality — only adding a fourth and fifth beer when demand allowed, unlike the many pubs who offer more real ales than they can turn over before they spoil.

The Bull, Stoke Mandeville
The Bull, Stoke Mandeville in Sunnier Times (Summer 2006 -- there's now a smokers' shelter at the front).

There’s now cause for concern about one pub, which has been a Good Beer Guide stalwart for several years. The Bull in Stoke Mandeville is an old-fashioned, two-bar community local which has bucked the downward economic trend in large part by serving three well-kept real ales. Due to various complicated reasons not entirely unrelated to those above, Stuart, the long-standing landlord has left the pub. His last day was Wednesday this week when I went along to watch the Manchester derby on Sky. It’s a particular shame as the Bull, under Stuart’s management, was a quiet gem of a pub and embodied many of the attributes that many would reel off as intrinsic to the British pub.

A Nutty Report

The BBC gave huge publicity today to a study in the Lancet that supposedly compared the harm done inflicted by various ‘drugs’. As it was co-authored by Professor David Nutt and his ‘Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’ it will be no surprise to anyone that alcohol is the worst drug by a long way.

It seems the BBC will jump in ecstasy to report any supposed scientific ‘facts’ about alcohol but most reasonable and scientifically literate observers should now realise that these neo-prohibitionists are overstating their case so much they’re now discrediting themselves.

How is it that they can  possibly equate the harm of alcohol usage with that of heroin and crack cocaine when the vast majority of the population of the UK use alcohol without inflicting any harm whatsoever on the rest of society? Because for the simple reason that more people use alcohol in aggregate.  What kind of scientific logic is this? When interviewed on Radio 2 today Nutt readily accepted the equivalent argument, based on his premise, that knives cause far more harm to society than guns — their ready availability might mean they are implicated in more crimes overall than guns but is that an argument for removing them from everyone’s kitchen?

There are valid points to be made about alcohol abuse and (proper) binge drinking but this study is such a lightweight piece of self-re-inforcing prejudice that it’s surprising that it ever got published in The Lancet. If I understand the BBC report correctly then it’s just a weighted model of the subjective opinions of a group of self-selected experts.

I wouldn’t like to live in a society where the numbers of people using crack cocaine and alcohol were reversed. It seems the last home secretary was right to dismiss Professor Nutt as he’s clearly a man with his own agenda. As a Daily Telegraph report from last year showed he is not without his own person interest in this debate — they report he’s working on a commercial alcohol substitute.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect the government to protest too much at shoddy statistical prejudice declaiming the evils of drink — they stand to cut a substantial amount of deficit by taxing our sin. It’s a shame that the actions of the likes of Nutt, by providing a supposed justification for higher duty, might cause responsible alcohol consumption in pubs to be endangered in favour of supermarket tinnies of wifebeater — but that’s what perhaps they’d like to see more of?

When Is A Pub Not A Pub

…when it’s the Shoulder of Mutton in Wendover and it mysteriously decides that the whole pub is to become a private function room for a night. Last night two of us cycled to this picturesque small town at the foot of the Chilterns (now blighted by the prospect of the HS2 line ripping through the hills right at the end of the High Street).

We enjoyed a very nice pint of ‘London Pride’ in the White Swan then walked up the hill to the Shoulder of Mutton and breezed in, slightly underwhelmed by the choice of Old Hooky, Adnams Broadside and Courage Best. The barmaid told us ‘guys’ that sadly we couldn’t have any beer (not even if we sat in the garden to drink it) due to a private function — of which there had been no mention on the outside. Maybe she didn’t like the sight of my sweat soaked body — having underestimated the effort required to cycle up the hills on the way to Wendover. The pub is a massive Chef and Brewer with many rambling low-beamed rooms so it must have been some function.

There’s something deeply wrong about this to my mind — it’s bad enough when a part of a pub is sectioned off but a pub that excludes the public isn’t really a public house at all.

We then went on the King and Queen where we had the extraordinary experience on leaving of being described as ‘two gorgeous men’ by a lady of a certain age.

Buoyed by the compliment we sampled the wares at the Red Lion, George and Dragon and finished with a nice pint of Okells at the Pack Horse. Shame about the Shoulder of Mutton or we’d have done all the pubs in Wendover — although perhaps, on that night anyway, maybe we did visit all the genuinely public houses.

A Summer ‘Tradition’ We Can Do Without

I’m sure John Major in his rather risible but memorable speech about warm beer, long shadows on cricket grounds and so on from the early 90s would have included Morris dancing in his wistful list of unchanging Englishness (see the photo below of the Towersey Morris and Aldbury Morris Men performing outside the Swan, Great Kimble on 7th July).

Towersey and Aldbury Morris Outside the Swan, Great Kimble
Towersey and Aldbury Morris Outside the Swan, Great Kimble

That speech is a particular bug bear as beer should NEVER be warm — the belief that real ale is best drunk tepid has allowed bad landlords to get away with serving undrinkable crap. It should be cellar temperature (about 10-12 C) and it’s sometimes so difficult to keep it that way in unrefrigerated cellars that even usually reliable pubs might be wisely avoided in temperatures of the upper 20s and even 30s C of the sort we experienced at the end of last week and this weekend.

In fact, on our trip on Saturday to the Black Country, I had more than one pint in usually exemplary pubs that, while by no means bad, that certainly weren’t on top form. It’s not a problem we’ve really had to worry about over the last couple of summers but, in hot weather, if the beer comes out as anything like ambient temperature you know you’re likely to be in trouble — whatever rubbish John Major came out with years ago.

Best London Pubs?

I’m spending so much time in and around ‘That Big Place’ at the end of the railway line that I’ve even bought the last couple of editions of ‘Time Out’ — possibly regressing about 15 years when I used to have it delivered every week and used it for the TV listings (now I use the cheaper ‘Radio Times’).

This edition was worth buying as it lists their Top 20 London Bars and Pubs (note the word order, it says a lot about these metropolitan types). The article is really a puff for the new edition of their bar and pub guide book, which has 500 of them in.

But it’s interesting to see which pubs Time Out picked as worthy of inclusion in their top 20. Here are a few with my own observations.

One is the Rake near Borough Market. This is really just a place that people visit for curiosity value — an old greasy spoon building with a patio bigger than a drinking area — is it really a pub at all? It has quite a lot of interesting ‘world beers’ and a couple of real ales that people apparently rate highly — but on the couple of occasions I’ve been then they’ve not been out of this world.

The Old Brewery in Greenwich is Meantime Brewery’s pub. It’s the wrong side of London to me and I’ve always had mixed feelings about Meantime. I read an interview with someone involved with them who suggested they liked to export their beers to the US because Americans had better palates than the British and appreciated their beers more. I also view their packaging and labelling as ludicrously pretentious (and lazy — one label on a bottle I bought said the beer should be ‘refridgerated’) — and they’re expensive. Yet Meantime still have the CAMRA politburo purring over their supposed quality and championing of ‘lost’ beer styles. Maybe I’ll go there and see for myself.

The Sloaney Pony in Parson’s Green gets in there (White Horse) fairly predictably — along with a mention of the nectar of Thornbridge Jaipur IPA — any pub in London that sells this lovely beer is automatically in my Top 20.

Also included is the Charles Lamb in Islington — it’s a sort of trendy-ish gastro place by all accounts near Angel but I’d like to go there as it’s in the GBG 2010 (I think). Highest placed pub, and another I’d like to visit, is a place called Draft House in SW11 which apparently does 17 ‘unusual’ draft beers (not all of these are real ale, though). I took a look at the website and it’s suitably pretentious for the area (Battersea) but the beer list looks pretty good — and they do some interesting selections of thirds of pints.

Haggis and Kangaroo Crisps for Tickers?

Seems like Walker’s Crisps have learned something from many microbreweries — give the same old product a new, gimmicky name and people will queue up to buy it for the novelty value.

For the World Cup Walker’s has introduced a national range of crisps based on World Cup qualifying nations (mostly!). They are listen on Wikipedia but also listed below:

  • England-Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding
  • America-Cheeseburger
  • Argentinean-Flame Grilled Streak
  • Australia-BBQ Kangaroo
  • Brazil-Salsa
  • Dutch-Edam Cheese
  • France-Garlic Bread
  • Germany-Bratwurst Sausage
  • Ireland-Stew
  • Italy-Spaghetti Bolognese
  • Japan-Teriyaki Chicken
  • Scotland-Haggis
  • South Africa-Sweet Chutney
  • Spain-Chicken Paella
  • Wales-Rarebit
  • While these flavours may be completely honed to resemble their inspiration dishes, there’s a certain similarity between various ingredients — a few cheese (Rarebit, Edam, the cheeseburger, etc,). Also the meaty flavours: English Roast beef, Flame-Grilled Steak, Spaghetti Bolognese, Haggis, Kangaroo and so on aren’t probably very different from each other.

    It reminds me of the microbreweries that produce a differently named brew every month which are so beloved of the CAMRA ticker tendency. Surely their beers are not that radically different from each other once around half a dozen styles have been covered. I’ve never understood why the novelty seekers are so easily taken in by a gimmicky name or pump clip design. If I drink a decent beer I’d like to be able to go out and find it again — not for it to disappear into the oblivion of a few tickers’ notebooks.

    It might be a good business opportunity for Walker’s to get the kind of multiple hand pump pubs beloved of tickers to stock the full range of these crisps — perhaps rotating them through the run up to the World Cup — and see if the beer lovers start ticking them off too.

    Talking of beer that’s worth seeking out again, ‘Trashy Blonde’ from Brewdog was on at ‘The Angel’ — a Wetherspoons opposite the eponymous tube station in Islington. I would have had a pint but I’d already ordered a ‘Dark Rider’ from Kelham Island — which was strong and rather nice so I had another pint.

    A Majestically Local Selection

    I had a pleasant surprise on going into my local Majestic. Large quantities of locally brewed

    Majestic Cases
    A Selection of the Interesting Ale at Majestic

    beer were piled high at the back of the store behind the wine. They had beers from Tring (Side Pocket and Death or Glory), Loddon (Ferryman’s Gold and Hullaballoo), Rebellion (Blonde plus another one I’ve forgotten) plus others from within fairly local distances like Hook Norton. There are other unusual small breweries represented, such as Bath Ales, St. Peters and Hop Back. Bigger brewers’ beers are also there — Fuller’s London Porter was a nice discovery (if you forgive the pun).

    I was talking to the manager there and he was saying that Majestic don’t want to compete with the 20 cans of Wifebeater for £10 at the supermarkets (loss leaders that our government seems so reluctant to curb) and so they really want to push the local beer angle — and that this is what their customers say they want. He’s hoping to get beers from Chiltern soon (that’s really LocAle to them) and Vale as well. He’s also wondering about stocking minipins and similar.

    There’s a photo of a lovely selection of ale, not all local but I’m one of the people who still drinks local beers in the pub. There’s the exquisite Summer Lightning (still the hoppiest and best golden ale), Loddon Ferryman’s Gold, which is almost as good as Summer Lightning and a little less hoppy, Fuller’s London Porter, which is completely different (I don’t know it so well in bottle but it’s great on the occasions you can get it on draught) and a selection of Bath Ales beers, which is a consistent micro. I’d like to see Rebellion and Tring follow suit and do a selection pack like that as I like their beers but would find it difficult to opt for 12 of one (as you have to at Majestic) — particularly if it’s something like Tring Death or Glory (who says real ale brewers go for macho names?).

    A Welcome Report Against the Tide

    The tide of scare stories in the press about alcohol has been temporarily stemmed by reports, first mentioned in the Sunday Times, of a study in Boston (the US one) that suggested that alcohol isn’t actually as fattening as commonly assumed — for women anyway. Alcohol contains a lot of energy and it had been assumed that any excess in the body was converted into fat, as with any other foodstuff. However, it’s now hypothesised that regular drinkers’ livers process energy from alcohol in a more complex way than previously thought and that much excess energy is turned to heat, not fat. So the argument goes that alcohol is not as fattening as its calorie count might suggest.

    A couple of pieces of anecdotal evidence might support this. One is that while there are many CAMRA types who have large beer bellies, they’re probably not as large as their calorie intake might lead one to believe. A moderately heavy ale drinker might drink twenty pints a week — at a couple of hundred calories a go that’s four thousand extra calories — almost the equivalent of two days worth of energy for an adult male — or about 15 Mars bars a week. Most drinkers in this category take a surprisingly long time — several years — to develop a belly. I’ve also been on an alcohol reduction drive recently and have expected the weight to fall off. Even allowing for my new found substitute of chocolate digestives, I’ve not seen my weight plummeting to the extent that the shortfall in calories might suggest. And also there are plenty of women wine drinkers, as the study suggests, who aren’t anorexics but don’t put on the vast amounts of extra weight that the calorie content alone of the wine might suggest.

    However, I don’t subscribe to the point of view that’s current in some drinking circles that beer is entirely unfattening and it’s the fondness for curries and takeaways that it creates which is wholly responsible for bellies.

    This article in the Daily Mail summarises the various healthy effects that have been scientifically proven for a number of drinks — from red wine to beer via Baileys, gin, cider and others. It has to be added that the overall negative health effects of alcohol aren’t included but these generally tend not to be pronounced at moderate levels anyway. Beer is revealed as being a particularly nutrient-rich drink, with four pints giving an adult’s complete daily intake of folate.  There’s even a study that purports to dismiss the causative effect of beer on large bellies.

    Beer Better for You Than Food?

    Well, in this particular case, I picked up a leaflet from the Moon on the Square in Feltham last night with the nutritional breakdown of everything on Wetherspoons’ menu (there’s a version on line). The large mixed grill Dave Roe had in Shrewsbury was 1885 calories, 168% GDA of fat, 211% GDA of Saturated Fat. It was the most fatty and second most calorific item on the whole menu. So in his case all the beer that he consumed throughout the day probably had less calories than the food. My ham, egg and chips was 683 calories.

    Duty Increase Filters Through…And More

    Fuller’s seem to be confident enough about the economic climate to push through the New Year increase in beer duty — at least in The Euston Flyer near St. Pancras station and on their London Porter. A good pint,and a nice pub with lots of pleasantly available tall blonde barmaids (I got served twice by the old bloke, of course) but I probably paid the most ever for a pint of real ale — a whopping £3.70.

    Boots Ales for Gene Hunt

    I’ve been given a gift box of beers from  Boots that, is slightly in keeping with their Salvation Army roots. I originally subliminally thought the box was from M&S perhaps because the beers were more widely seen in the time of ‘Life on Mars’. It’s marked as ‘Regional British Ales’ but three of the four are light ales — and three of the ales are admirably from small breweries. The full list is: Cotswold Farm Ale (3%); Young’s Light Ale (3.2%); Ridgeway Thames Valley Ale (3.4%); Ridgeway Bitter (4%).

    Boots British Regional Ale Box
    Boots British Regional Ale Box

    I guess Boots is also making quite a profit on this because they probably didn’t price the gift pack according to the relative amount of duty they would pay on these light beers — and the bottles are half pint size as well. Nevertheless, it’s good to see light, delicate beers with sensible names being put in the nation’s Christmas stockings rather than some syrupy 6% Old Fetid Gonad type brew.


    Enjoy Charlie’s Christmas baking.  I was very pleased with the Stollen but it’s Delia’s lemon icing sugar glaze that’s covering the top (it might have been different if it was a Nigella recipe).

    Not Your Common or Garden Tesco's or M&S
    Not Your Common or Garden Tesco's or M&S


    The Stollen was baked to commemorate me missing visiting a real German Christmas market for the first time in several years. It sat by the fire to prove and really expanded. Yeast does the most miraculous things (creating beer and wine for instance). It really is the basis of civilisation.

    The First ‘Out’ Gay Rugby Player — They’ll All Be Taking Their Clothes Off Next

    Apparently former Wales and British Lions rugby captain Gareth Thomas has outed himself as gay. According to the BBC he said “It’s pretty tough for me being the only international rugby player prepared to break the taboo. Statistically I can’t be the only one, but I’m not aware of any other gay player still in the game.” Good luck to him in having made this public as a player in “the toughest, most macho of male sports”.

    In my experience rugby has such a bizarre, almost homo-erotic culture that it would likely provoke the most strange reactions in a genuinely gay player. It’s well known that rugby players like to get extremely drunk. This often culminates in clothing being removed and it’s quite common for a bunch of rugby players at the end of a night to be stark naked in the bar — usually but not exclusively in an all male environment. This seems to be a rite of passage. Not exactly related to nudity but on a scatalogical theme is that it’s also considered by the more extreme drinkers that someone hasn’t had a good night’s drinking unless they have drunk so much they’ve lost control of their bodily functions — vomiting and losing bladder control are a bit passé, the ultimate is to wake up in bed caked in one’s own fæces.

    I used to live with (in the non-biblical sense) a member of the university rugby team. When on tour his teammates used to play a hilarious trick on any player who they spotted asleep. It was better if the slumbering student had his mouth open as the trick was that another team-mate would place his penis as far into the sleeper’s mouth as possible. The rest of the team would then wake the victim and laugh at his shock at what was resting on his lips. One of the team also had an ambition that he was well on the way to realising — to drink ‘a pint of piss from every county’. This meant that in the bar after the match a pint pot would be passed around the opposition, who would urinate in it until it was full. Our hero then downed the pint in one — to much enthusiastic applause.

    I also lived with another club rugby player who went on a European tour with his club. He brought back the most strange set of holiday photos — he was quite lucky to get Boots to develop them. There was the obligatory tour photo of course — all thirty or so players (all male) stood in a familiar school photo tiered arrangement with the minor detail that none were wearing any clothing. Some had their modesty covered by the players in front but plenty of the team were happy to bear all. That’s probably fairly par for the course. What was most bizarre was their game of human skittles. This involved turning the bar into a bowling alley by piling up chairs and stolls at one end like skittles and then making a bowling lane along the length of the bar. This was lubricated with soapy water. The human skittle was then propelled down the makeshify bowling alley at the ‘skittles’ with the objective of knocking over as many as possible. Naturally, to avoid friction the human skittle himself had to be stark naked and was thrown face down as hard as possible by four teammates who grabbed each limb and swung him forward to gain momentum before releasing him down the alley. This was all captured on the photos in step-by-step detail and the skittle himself seemed quite pleased with his achievement.

    This subculture would no doubt be of fascination to anthropologists practised, as it was, by red-blooded heterosexual males. No wonder Gareth Thomas went to great lengths (he got married) to keep his self-knowledge secret.