PIROTGIMOs and others

Interim report on the Winter Warmer Wander 2014

Doing the WWW for the fourth year running – on top of several Mild Magics and (this year) a foray into the Cider Circuit – reinforced my impression that there are three categories of pubs involved: the pubs I go to anyway; the ones I only go in when there’s a sticker to be collected, and don’t much miss the rest of the year; and (most importantly) the Pubs I Really Ought To Go In More Often, or PIROTGIMOs. (“Pirr-O-jim-oh”? I’m sure I thought of a much better acronym – one you can actually pronounce – on my way home from one crawl, but by the time I got up the next day I’d forgotten it.)

In Chorlton, I’ve already mentioned my slightly unsatisfactory encounters with Oddest and the Marble Beerhouse; I should add that this was early on in the WWW, and the last time I was in the Beerhouse they were serving the celebrated ‘Stouter’ Stout. What I had in the Font escapes me; the last time I was in there, on the other hand, I had Ticketybrew‘s odd but successful Mint Choc Stout, which would certainly qualify. The Sedge Lynn (JDW) had Theakston’s Old Peculier, a beer of which I’ve yet to get tired. No problems on the sticker front except for the Sedge Lynn, where the server managed to find the WWW pack but no stickers.

No stickers could be found at the Paramount (JDW) in town, although to be fair the place was heaving; I thought the server deserved credit for looking at all. Otherwise the only places in town which couldn’t find me a sticker were the Wharf (who, I’m fairly sure, have been reminded about their participation in the WWW already this year) and Bar Fringe (who, er, aren’t in it – but did serve me a very nice half of Facer’s porter). The beer at the Paramount was – as ever – the rather wonderful Elland 1872 Porter, at its full strength of 6.5% and a distinctly un-Spoons-like price of £3.19. The beer at the Wharf was a dark bitter nudging into old ale territory – as was the beer at the Smithfield (although the latter was quite a lot cheaper).

Another few in town: what the Castle were serving I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure it was a stout; certainly this year’s Old Tom n’est pas arrivé. The Waterhouse (JDW) didn’t have anything particularly dark, but they did have Phoenix Wobbly Bob, and if that’s not an old ale I don’t want to know about it. The Marble Arch had Chocolate Marble, which I reckon can pass for a stout; the Knott Bar and the Crown and Kettle had two of my very favourite dark beers, Red Willow Smokeless (porter) and Ticketybrew Stout, respectively.

Another few pubs dotted about the place: in Rusholme the Ford Madox Brown (JDW) had Full Sail Wassail, a stonking old ale brewed, rather surprisingly, by a brewer from Oregon. Down the road in Fallowfield, the darkest thing the Friendship was serving was Fireside Ale from “Westgate Brewery” (Greene King); the Hyde’s Beer Studio beers looked far more interesting, but paler. What I had in the Great Central (JDW) across the road I couldn’t tell you, although I suspect it was something in the “not quite old ale” category. In Salford, lastly, the New Oxford served… um… a cask stout from a brewery I hadn’t heard of. It was nice, that I can tell you.

That’s sixteen pubs (seventeen with Bar Fringe!), and the beers lined up as follows:

Stout: 5
Porter: 3
Old ale: 3
Not quite old ale: 4
No qualifying beers: 2

Generally there’s a much higher level of ‘compliant’ beers available. The last category but one, above, is perhaps a bit over-critical on my part. I’m not talking about the “Santa’s Drawers” variety of novelty Christmas beers (which I have been reduced to occasionally in past years); all the beers in this category were genuinely darker, spicier and heftier than your average brown bitter. It’s just that, next to something like the Full Sail beer – or Old Peculier, for that matter – they don’t really stand up as capital O, capital A Old Ales. All three of the beers in that category were served in JDW’s, interestingly enough.

As for the pubs, one of the reasons I enjoy these crawls is the feeling of settling down with a beer, looking around and thinking, I really ought to come in here more often. When I get that at two pubs in a row, that’s a good crawl. But then, the pubs I go to anyway are home turf, and as for the once-a-year pubs – well, I can always move on.

So far this year it’s roughly:

Pubs I go to anyway: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 5

Let’s hear it for the Crown and Kettle and Bar Fringe (what a beer range! what a cider range! what great, atmospheric, welcoming pubs); for the New Oxford (I’ll get round to the bottles one of these days); for the Knott, the only bar I know where you can be guaranteed to spot a beer you really fancy immediately after you’ve ordered; and, of course, for the Marble Arch.

Next: Stockport. All those places with an SK postcode – they’ll basically be within walking distance, won’t they?

By ‘eck!

It’s Winter Warmer Wander time again; I’ll write a bit about that another time. It’s going pretty well: I haven’t been reduced to major-brewery Christmas novelty beers yet, and I’ve had some rather fine stouts and porters. (Not so many old ales – but what, as they say, are you going to do.)

Early on, though, I hit a bit of a dry patch in Chorlton, picking up two successive stickers for halves of mid-strength bitter. They had a couple of dark beers on at the Marble Beerhouse, but both on keg; I did try the 7% black rye beer, but I thought I should have something on cask for the purposes of the WWW. So (Manchester) Bitter it was – and what a fine beer that is. In comments threads elsewhere it’s been nominated as a good example of the dry ‘Manchester pale’ style, & hence a decent substitute for Boddies’ for anyone not equipped with a time machine. Having reacquainted myself with it, I’m not entirely sure; I think tastes have evolved in the last decade or two. The Bitter probably occupies very much the same position that Boddies’ once did – at the pale and uncompromisingly dry extreme of the standard bitter flavour spectrum – but that spectrum has broadened and shifted towards the hoppy since Boddies’ heyday. It’s a bit more full-on that Boddies’ would have tasted back then, in other words, unless you were just off the National Express from somewhere where beer actually looks and tastes like beer is a bit different. There’s also something else – but I’ll get to that in a minute.

My second half of bitter was in Oddest, where Blackjack‘s Oddington seemed to be the darkest thing available. Not that it was dark dark, but it did have a definite brownish tinge and a bit of a burnt-caramel flavour to go with it. Despite the name, I concluded, it was nothing like Boddies'; unlike the Marble beer, it was much less pale’n’oppy than Boddies’ bitter was in its time. But then the similarity hit me, literally as an afterthought – or rather, an aftertaste. Oddington has a light, somehow creamy quality to its aftertaste, which I haven’t tasted in very many other beers: Coniston Bluebird bitter is one, and Boddington’s bitter was another. (That ‘cream of Manchester’ slogan didn’t just refer to the head. At least, that’s my theory.) Marble Bitter doesn’t have it; Lees MPA doesn’t have it; but Oddington does. It’s a shame the flavour – and the look – of the beer is so far off its glorious original, but as far as the aftertaste is concerned Blackjack have absolutely nailed it.

Any time they want to collaborate with Marble on something that really tastes like Boddies’, I’ll be ready and waiting!

It comes in thirds

These are a few of my favourite things

A few of my favourite things

I had a bit of a revelation the other night, as I sat with a third of Magic Rock Cannonball (keg, of course). I suddenly thought: if you were Stuart Ross (or any other forward-thinking contemporary brewer) and someone suggested going down the ‘craft keg’ route… why wouldn’t you? Lots of people seem to like the stuff, and there are enough outlets that stock it, so no problem about shifting it. Then there are the positive advantages: the stability and consistency of keg would mean that you wouldn’t have to worry about the odd dud barrel, or about losing re-orders to incompetent cellaring (letting the beer spoil or putting it on too soon). As Dave Bailey recently commented, kegs are easier to export than casks, for much the same reasons.

Then there’s the price issue. In the cask world it’s rare to sell anything over £4 a pint, and it would be a brave brewer who insisted on £4+ prices: if competition from other brewers didn’t get you, you’d be sunk by all the ale-drinkers who think they know the right price for a pint and dislike being ripped off. Now, I am one of those ale-drinkers – I do think I know the right price for a pint, I do suspect rip-offs at every turn and I have to grit my teeth to pay anything over £4 a pint for anything. From my perspective, that combination of free-market competition among producers and penny-pinching drinkers is basically a good thing; if I was asked why I’d say something like “it keeps brewers honest”. In any case, it keeps my pint relatively cheap, and that’s a good thing in itself. (I’ve drunk some Stella in my time, but I’ve never been reassured by expense.)

But, of course, in the craft keg bubbleworld those factors don’t obtain – there’s no bog-standard pint of wallop pulling keg prices down, and no great mass of drinkers who think it’s their birthright that beer should be both good and cheap. From my point of view, this just shows what’s wrong with the craft keg world. In particular, the idea of beer drinkers being happy to pay high prices seems all wrong: it’s like workers taking pride in accepting a pay cut. From the brewer’s point of view, though… blimey. Say you did all the sums and came out with an estimated retail price of (say) £5/pint – that would be OK! You wouldn’t need to go back and work out how to do the same thing a bit cheaper! And if the bar wanted to be a bit cheeky and stick another 50p on, that would be OK too – nobody would even notice!

In short, I realised (as I drank the Cannonball) that going keg has the potential to get rid of a lot of quality worries, removing possible obstacles to repeat orders, while also gaining both the brewer and the retailer a significantly higher margin. It’s a whole new world! Why wouldn’t you do it?

I understand the thinking, but I think it misses out one crucial factor. The answer to the question, I honestly believe, is “because any given beer is better from a cask than a keg (or bottle, or can)”. But those like-for-like comparisons aren’t easy to make (I’ve never seen Cannonball on cask, for instance). And sometimes, maybe, a keg beer is the one to go for.

Here are some thoughts on recent encounters with keg, thinking about when – and why – it does and doesn’t work.

The “Yeah But, No But”: Cannonball

I described Magic Rock Cannonball once before as a big disappointment:

I could taste something – just not all that much. I tried the swilling technique halfway down the glass, but it wasn’t a success. The beer didn’t so much outgas as deflate – and, since it hadn’t been ultra-cold to start with, I was left holding half a glass of warm-ish, flattish beer. Swilling didn’t do much to enhance the flavour, either, although it did liberate a blast of hop aroma in my direction – a particularly pungent, dead-leaves, old-books sort of aroma.

I trust The Beer Nut’s reviews, and what he said about this one recently made me think I’d been missing something – quite a lot, in fact:

an exceedingly dry beer, the massive hop flavour being centred on a flinty mineral quality. The high alcohol is very apparent but that hop complexity balances it beautifully. A low level of residual sugar means the end product is still very drinkable and surprisingly thirst quenching. Limes and damp cut grass make for a beautiful final flourish

So I had to give it another try, and the other weekend I duly handed over my £2 (for a third). And it was… quite nice. I’d certainly agree with ‘drinkable'; it slipped down very nicely. I didn’t get ‘massive’ hops, though – compared to Magic Rock Curious (which is roughly half the strength) the hops were dialled right back. It’s certainly hoppy, it’s just not “being smacked in the mouth with a hopsack” hoppy. I couldn’t say I noticed the 7.4% alcohol, either. A few days later I had a third of Red Willow Ageless DIPA (7.2%), which was on cask in another Font bar – and, I think, had been sitting around in the cask for a while; it was a bit lacking in condition and warmer than I would have liked. Despite those disadvantages, it was a massive beer – a big, uncompromisingly smoky hop attack, broadening out as I went down the glass into an extravagant flowering of citrus flavours on a dense alcoholic background. Perhaps not the nicest beer to drink – even a bit offputting on first sip – but a great beer all the same. (It was also going for £3.60 a pint, which – once you’ve taken off the CAMRA discount – works out at 90p for a third. I felt slightly guilty paying so little.) The Cannonball didn’t really develop in the same way, perhaps unsurprisingly for a keg beer: it was the same all the way through, like Blackpool rock. So you got your citrus-y aroma and your smokey bitterness, and you got a bit of alcohol (not much), all in a very drinkable, well-put-together package. It just wasn’t terribly impressive, or overpowering, or memorable; nice, but not great.

The “Think Of It As A Very Large Bottle”: Electrik/Blackjack LFO

That ‘developing’ thing – where ‘halfway down the glass’ actually tastes different from the first mouthful, and the last mouthful tastes different again; I’ve never known a keg beer do it. But it’s not really something bottled beers do, either, and there is some great bottled beer out there. This is what went through my mind when I tasted the Electrik bar’s fourth collaborative brew, which is a keg lager named LFO (in response to some recent sad news). Fittingly, LFO is an absolute monster – very dry, very bitter, very hoppy on top of all that, and then all of the same again. It reminded me of nothing so much as my first taste of Jever Pilsener: it’s a great big beer that just keeps on coming at you. And if it doesn’t unfurl new flavour dimensions halfway down the glass, well, too bad – the Jever wouldn’t have done that either. (And it was on at £4/pint, which squeaks into the affordable bracket.)

The “Think Of It As A Very Small Bottle”: Mikkeller/Siren White Stout

For obvious reasons, really strong beers are a rarity in cask; they don’t tend to go, and if they don’t go they tend to go off. I think the strongest beer I’ve had from a cask was 8.5%: it’s a tie between Coniston No 9 barley wine (at a beer festival) and Robinson’s Old Tom. Old Tom is unusual in being widely available in Robbies’ pubs, and the brewery deserves a lot of credit for not abandoning it but building it up as a cask beer. It’s generally in pins to minimise spoilage, though – and I’m sadly familiar with the warmish, flattish, slightly metallic taste of old Old Tom!

So if somebody brews a beer at 12% – stronger than many wines – the chances are you’re only ever going to see it in a small, expensive bottle; what’s more, the chances are you never will physically see that bottle, and that if you do you’ll think the price is just a bit too silly. Kegging to the rescue: someone who might baulk at paying (say) £3.50 for a 250 ml bottle may well be amenable to paying £2.80 for a third of a pint (even though that equates to £3.66 for 250 ml). At least, I was.

Why Mikkeller and the ever-impressive Siren have called this beer a white stout I’ve no idea, given that all the information this really conveys is that it’s (a) strong and (b) not black. What it is, as far as I could see, is a barley wine. What it is, to be more precise, is a very, very good barley wine – a rich, dense, marmaladey fruitiness, smooth without being syrupy, heavy without (amazingly) any overt alcoholic heat. A stonkingly good beer, quite honestly, and one which I would probably never have had if I’d only seen it in bottles.

You don’t want beer squirted out of a tin! a stranger in a pub said to a friend of mine, unprompted, some time in the early 70s. By and large I’d agree with that; by and large, I don’t want beer squirted out of a tin. But, like CAMRA, I’m pro-cask rather than anti-keg; and I’m increasingly finding that there are times when the list of the best – or most interesting – things on the bar includes some beers on keg. Keg vs cask, I still think the keg is likely to be second best. ‘Cold and fizzy’ I can live with; what I’m thinking of here is more a ‘light, drinkable, rough edges shaved off’ sort of thing, not to mention the absence of the ‘developing in the glass’ thing. But if what you’re getting is something you can’t get on cask – something you would only previously have found in bottles – some of the objections become a bit academic.

(I still wish it wasn’t so expensive, though.)

Play us out, Mark:

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: final thoughts

After all that, what do I think? Would I recommend you get this book?

In two words, Hell, yes! (Other expletives are available, but you get the idea.) Absolutely definitely. Get it now. I haven’t got a huge beer book library – before I acquired this book it consisted mainly of Amber, Gold and Black (Martyn Cornell), Beer and Skittles (Richard Boston) and Pulling a fast one (Red Rog). Brew Britannia fully deserves a place in that company. If you’re only going to buy one book about beer, if I’m being brutally honest it should probably be Amber, Gold and Black, but this one’s not far behind. (Anyway, why would you only buy one book about beer?)

So what’s so good about it? Four main things, I think. I’ll put down my thoughts in the form of a numbered list, a device I’ve recently had great success withused.

  1. It tells a story… You know the criticisms I put forward in the previous post? They’re not (for the most part) criticisms, not in the sense that “the book’s too long” is a criticism – they’re disagreements. The authors don’t tell the story I would have told, but why would they? What’s important is that they have got a story to tell, and they follow it through from the first encounter with the Society for the Protection of Beers from the Wood to… well, the final encounter with the Society for the Protection of Beers from the Wood (much later and in a very different world). You know those books you read sometimes – particularly books by bloggers or newspaper columnists – which are basically just a lot of disparate bits pulled together? This isn’t one of those; if anything, it gives the impression that the authors’ blog is just somewhere to put offcuts from the book.
  2. …and it tells it well. It rattles along, frankly. One of the things I would have done differently would actually have been to slow it down, brake the narrative and put it on pause for a while in a number of places. But that’s not the way the authors have written it – and the way they wrote it does work. Everyone won’t be equally interested in all the subject matter – personally I started to glaze over a bit somewhere between Belgo and Mash – but there’s always something different round the corner; the book moves along quickly enough that you won’t get bored.
  3. The ruthless efficiency of the freelance journalist. Some beer books are like poems, with a blast of green hop suddenly striking the nose as a door opens somewhere and a waft of air carries jaunty fragments of shop talk and banter, familiar yet incomprehensible, while the beer itself slips down casually, almost unnoticed in the golden afternoon haze of sub-clauses and (cont’d p. 94). Some are the record of a personal quest; some are more about the writers than they are about the beer; some are encyclopaedic reference works; some tell you nothing you don’t already know from reading blogs. This isn’t any of those things. As I said earlier on, the authors write like freelance journalists – they’re readable, reliable and above all efficient. If you’ve got to make your writing pay and you don’t know where the next commission’s coming from, you develop a certain way of working. You find out what you don’t know, get the facts and get it down; then you cut it to shape, then you move on. It makes for a good, solid read.
  4. The interviews. Saving the best till last – the interviews! Michael Hardman, Graham Lees, Christopher Hutt; David Bruce, Alastair Hook, Brendan Dobbin (Brendan Dobbin!); Stuart Ross, Jeff Rosenmeier, Justin Hawke… With a couple of exceptions (wot no Protzie?) the authors seem to have spoken to everyone who is anyone, who’s still around and has a story to tell. I was really impressed with the range and number of people they’d managed to track down and talk to. Especially Dobbin, obvs.

It’s not a timeless classic; it wouldn’t be my desert island book; it hasn’t changed my life. But it’s a fine book, and if you’re interested in beer (i.e. if you haven’t arrived at this page completely by accident), you should definitely contact the publishers about a review copy, they were really nice about it when I askedbuy a copy with money (here’s a link).

[Personal to RB and JB: OK, guys, that’s your lot – you can come out now. Seriously, I’d be really interested in your reaction to any of these posts.]

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: critical thoughts

My Brew Britannia review, part 3 of 4: the critical part.

As you can probably see from the previous post on this topic, most of my doubts about the book had to do with history. Put simply, I had trouble with the overall shape of the story B&B tell – it’s not the shape that story has in my mind – and, although the content is mostly excellent, I kept stubbing my mental toe on the structure. This has three main aspects: where the story’s coming from; where it’s going; and the role of CAMRA.

To begin with, while the book’s subtitle is “The strange rebirth of British beer”, it doesn’t contain very much about what it was that needed to be reborn. The thing is, even the most dramatic processes of reform & revitalisation build on what was there before. I remember a letter to the Guardian about the English Reformation, challenging the idea that Henry VIII had founded a whole new church when he declared himself head of the Church of England. Quote: “Asking ‘where was the church before the Reformation?’ is like asking ‘where was your face before you washed it?'”. Like the English church, the British brewing industry was right there before anyone ever tried to transform or revitalise it, and had been for some time. Obviously the authors are well aware of this, but they begin the story with the first (major) reform campaigns, without doing much to sketch in the background. Hence some of my notes: “History of brewing industry consolidation/introduction of keg skated over.”; “Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)”; “Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved”. I’m not saying that this book should have been Amber, Gold and Black – on top of what it is already – but a few pages on what beer and brewing looked like pre-kegging and pre-Big Six would have been very welcome, both in general terms and as background to the rise of CAMRA. (On a side note, I’m pretty sure the authors know what ‘crystal malt’ is (although they put it in quotes), and I suspect they also know what the ‘air pressure’ debate (dismissed as “an obscure technical issue”) was about. Again, a few words of explanation would have been welcome (at least to the geekily-minded) and wouldn’t have slowed things down very much.)

Secondly, the authors tell the story of CAMRA – particularly in its early days – in oddly detached, almost cynical terms; there’s a lot about image, position-taking and organisational machinations, not so much about CAMRA as a group of people trying to achieve something. I’m not saying that the first generation of CAMRA activists were idealists or romantics, just that they were campaigning – against heavy opposition – for something worthwhile which they genuinely believed in. While the authors draw a parallel with the contemporaneous formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the Homosexual Law Reform Society and others, they underplay the association with contemporary environmentalist, ruralist and wholefood campaigns, which seem a much closer parallel. My (youthful) perception of CAMRA in the 1970s was that it was the ‘beer wing’ of a much broader and more diffuse countercultural movement, in favour of small scale production using traditional methods, against adulteration and industrialisation. To my eye the book doesn’t really capture this, or take it entirely seriously. (There is a reference to small brewers producing ‘pure, virtuous beer’ later on, but the phrase is presented as a marketing pitch; the overstatement is telling.) On the other hand, the big brewers’ reintroduction of cask bitter is presented in the same tit-for-tat style, as a dastardly plot to take the wind out of CAMRA’s sails; again, the framing of the narrative obscures a much simpler and more obvious reading, which is that this was a defeat for the Big Six (or, at the very least, an enforced change of direction).

What gets lost, or downplayed – or, at the very least, taken for granted to the point of being downplayed – is what CAMRA fundamentally was in that first decade: a highly political consumer campaign, using the tactics of political campaigns of the time, which protested against the effective destruction of British beer through the industrialisation of brewing and the monopolisation of pubs, and was more successful than anyone could have imagined. (Some would insist that CAMRA did no more than spearhead and give voice to a wider protest against the effective destruction, etc, and I think that’s arguable. It would still be a pretty significant achievement.) Whether, as of the early 1980s, CAMRA had won all the battles it was ever going to – “Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – is another question. Personally I’m more hopeful: the fact that the major pub chain with the cheapest beer (by a long way) is also the one with the best cask selection (by a long way) has got to mean something. I also think the presence of CAMRA throughout the contemporary beer scene is easy to underestimate. On ‘third’ measures, advocated by CAMRA, the authors write that the smaller glasses have only really been taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'”. Personally I can only think of two places where I’ve drunk beer in thirds more than once. One is the local J D Wetherspoon’s (home of the CAMRA token), which regularly offers three thirds for the price of a pint during its ‘beer festivals'; the other is a craft beer bar (10 handpumps, 20 keg taps) – which offers CAMRA members a 25% discount on cask. (Thus making the keg prices even more ouchy, ironically.)

As for where the story’s going, I think the difference between my point of view and the authors’ is summed up by that Mark Twain quotation, and perhaps by my rather grumpy note to chapters 11 and 12 – Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene? (To which I guess the answer is “yes, it is – partly”. Well, maybe.) I get the impression the authors look at places like the three Bristol bars in the Prologue and think – this is it – we’ve arrived! Whereas I’d be more inclined to think this, too, shall pass. (I’d still go in the bars, mind you – I may be grumpy but I’m not stupid.) Basically I don’t think ‘craft beer’, in any except the broadest possible sense, is the future of beer; there was good beer before that phrase was ever used, and there’ll be good beer after it’s been forgotten. Nor do I think people who would identify as ‘craft beer’ drinkers are numerically significant at the moment, as interesting as the beer they’re drinking may be. In terms of numbers, the state of British beer at the moment is still that a lot of people are drinking Tetley’s smooth and a very large number are drinking Carling; I’d love to see that situation change, but I don’t think it’s going to be craft beer that changes it. But this isn’t really a criticism of the book, more a comment on what I brought to it.

Lastly, a couple of points about ‘craft keg’. On craft beer itself, a definition would have been nice! (I know, I don’t ask for much.) To be fair, there is a thoughtful and interesting discussion of the term in chapter 12, but without any firm conclusion; when the phrase is used again in chapter 17 it seems to have drifted into marketing-speak, largely unmoored from what it had meant before. It would have been good to stick to a single meaning – or, if that’s not possible (which it probably isn’t), to put the narrative on pause and take a page or two to set out what the various meanings seem to be. Then there’s the issue of new-wave keg vs cask; here I felt the authors were trying to sit on the fence – again, for the sake of keeping the narrative going – and not really succeeding. So we learn that some people denigrate keg as ‘cold and fizzy’ (in quotes), only to then be told that “A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing’” (also in quotes); the implication seems to be that some people think they don’t like cold and fizzy beer, but they’re wrong. (Also, “whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself”; I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘in itself’, but as it stands this certainly hasn’t been my experience.) Rather than taking a view, I think the chapter – and the book – would have benefited from stopping for a moment to present the different views in a bit of detail.

Coming soon: part 4, which explains why, having taken all of this into account, you should buy this book pronto.

To you it may be taboo

I’m afraid I won’t be going to the Independent Manchester Beer Convention. Or rather, I didn’t go (it was this weekend). Having missed the first one last yearthe first two (h/t Tyson in comments – time flies eh?), I wrote off this year’s IMBC when ‘sold out’ messages started appearing, several months in advance of the event itself. However, not all the advance tickets got used – as is bound to happen when tickets go on sale with a lot of time to spare – and a few were being touted around on Twitter as late as Friday.

So I did have the choice whether or not to go, and in the end I chose not.


  1. Lots of interesting beers from cutting-edge brewers.
  2. The food sounded pretty good too.
  3. And it was in Victoria Baths, which would be unusual if nothing else.
  4. So, really, whatever the beer was like, it would have been an interesting experience and made a good blog post (as long as I hadn’t got too drunk to remember anything).
  5. (Even if I didn’t much enjoy it, it would have been an interesting experience.)


  1. It was £13 to get in. For that (according to the Website) you got a glass, a programme and er. Making it approximately £10 dearer than most CAMRA beer festivals.
  2. If last year was anything to go by, the beer would have been fairly pricey, too.
  3. Not to mention the food.
  4. More to the point, about 3/4 of the beer (at least, for the session I checked) was keg.
  5. I didn’t want to go and then spend the evening roaming the halls disconsolately looking for cask beers that (a) were on (b) looked interesting and (c) I hadn’t had.
  6. Nor did I want to spend it trying keg beers and hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. Because I do keep trying them and I do keep being disappointed – not every time, but definitely most times.
  7. And I certainly didn’t want to be the old bloke leaning accusingly on the Magic Rock bar and saying “Got any real ale, young man? No? Aye, well, think on.”
  8. In terms of interesting experiences, the last three possibilities wouldn’t have been very interesting – and “man who doesn’t like craft keg tries craft keg, doesn’t like it” doesn’t make a very good blog post.
  9. I know, I’ve written it.
  10. More than once.
  11. Most importantly, and setting aside any consideration of beard length -
  12. (May I point out at this point that I’ve recently gone clean-shaven myself, and am confident this will be the next trend. At least, I hope it is. I cannot be doing with those Iain-from-Bake Off full beards that the real hipsters seem to be sporting these days.
  13. I saw a little short bearded guy unlocking his bike from the railing of a bar down the road the other week – 5′ 4″ at most, long shorts, full beard. Not many things make me stare, but I could not stop staring at that guy. I think my subconscious must have taken him for a gnome.)
  14. Anyway, the point is that there’s a selection effect here. An event like IMBC, with lots of fanfare about its general awesomeness and cutting-edge-icity, will attract a lot of people who like the idea of going to an awesome cutting-edge event. (And I’m willing to bet that a lot of them will have full beards, but that’s not important right now.)
  15. And an event with what I imagine to be expensive beer and food, and what I know to be expensive admission tickets, will attract people who don’t mind paying a lot for their beer festival experience.
  16. Also, and most obviously, an event where 3/4 of the beer is keg will attract people who (at the very least) don’t mind that.
  17. In short, if I had gone I strongly suspect I would have been surrounded by well-heeled trend-following keg-drinkers.
  18. I’ve got nothing against well-heeled trend-following keg-drinkers, but they are not my people.
  19. (I mean, the guy with the ponytail and the Hobgoblin shirt drinking a pint of Old Tom from his own pewter tankard isn’t exactly my soul-mate, but I’d much, much rather be surrounded by people like that. Really much rather.)
  20. Also, the festival glass is a third of a pint. And serving bitter in thirds is just wrong.

So that’s five reasons in favour, twenty reasons against. The result was a foregone conclusion. To me the IMBC is – still – something to say ta-ta to.

(H/t John Hegley.)

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: second thoughts

Although I liked Brew Britannia a lot, it wasn’t long before I started noticing – and noting down – things which, I felt, the authors had got wrong. I hasten to add that I’m not talking about factual errors, or anything that could be added to their scrupulous Errata. There’s ‘wrong’ as in ‘you spelt my name wrong’ – category 1 wrong, with no room for opinion; then there’s category 2 ‘wrong’ as in ‘this beer tastes wrong’, which is a statement of fact filtered through opinion (some people may like the taste of a beer that’s sour, full of yeast or both); finally, there’s category 3 ‘wrong’, which is pure opinion (as in ‘serving bitter in thirds is just wrong’). When I say B&B have got something wrong I’m mostly talking about category 3, with a few excursions into category 2. I also kept a list of things the authors had left out. This is a bit less challenging as a concept, although we should note that the list of things not included in any book is infinite; obviously when I say that a particular topic was left out, I’m saying it should have been included – or that leaving it out was… er… wrong. In some sense.

More from Philosophy Today next week. In the mean time, here (without much editing) is my list of omissions:

History of brewing industry consolidation/ introduction of keg skated over.

Earlier drinking clubs – much more!


CAMRAIL story starts to get political and is immediately dropped

Top pressure – at least tell us what it is!

Long history of brewpubs – next to nothing. (Blue Anchor – nothing at all!)

Golden ales – again, nothing about how ‘brown bitter’ came to be dominant, or the brewing techniques involved

Craft beer – not exactly a gap, but the subject is dropped very quickly (though not without a decent attempt at a definition). Crops up later in the context of Crafty Dan, Brains etc – could really do with a definition by that stage

Could have done with much more (than one paragraph) on Spoons

Ditto on present-day CAMRA

And here’s my list of things that I thought were… other than right, in whatever way.

Prologue: is this what it was all for? Mark Twain (Eiffel tower)

Any real connection between Victorian Society etc and SPBW?

Any real connection between CAMRA and CHE etc? Boston green/”real food” campaigning connection underplayed by contrast. Frustratingly, they get this in Ch 4 but treat it as spin (“pure, virtuous beer”)

Marches and TU alliances against brewery closures – loss of “political neutrality” – ? (This was 1973-4)

Big Six reintroduce cask: authors assume this is a cunning plan to undermine CAMRA, despite informants not saying anything of the sort. Surely a retreat and as such a victory for CAMRA.

Lager explained by 60s social mobility, in turn explained as a generational shift, leading to the conclusion that “People liked lager, and the fact that CAMRA did not made the organisation seem rather parochial and backward-looking.”

“Cask-conditioned ale was never again to be the everyday drink of the people, but CAMRA could claim to have ‘saved it’ as a niche product” – fighting talk!

Firkin thrived because of higher prices? Bears investigation

Beer Orders – could unintended consequences have been avoided?

Mash, Belgo, North Bar – is this a history of the bar scene?

“whether a beer is kegged or cask-conditioned makes very little difference to its flavour in itself” – ???

“A little more carbonation and a slightly cooler serving temperature” – as distinct from being ‘cold and fizzy’ – “has a distinct intrinsic appeal: it is more ‘refreshing'” Quite a contentious point, and what are those scare quotes doing there?

“some people have a strong preference for one, while others are able to appreciate both”

“There are young professionals … who think nothing of spending £8 on a pint of beer” Are there?

Thirds taken up by “CAMRA-ambivalent ‘craft beer bars'” Really not convinced by this narrative – look at Font

Wild – are they using wild yeasts or not?

I’ll pull together these thoughts in a third post. For now I’ll leave you with the quote from Mark Twain which I referred to above. For background, the Prologue features a thumbnail sketch of a street in Bristol with three (count ‘em) separate craft beer joints, each one craftier than the last. (“We shake our heads in disbelief and ask, ‘How the hell did beer get so hip?'”) Take it away, Mr Clemens:

Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

Boak and Bailey, Brew Britannia: first thoughts

This isn’t a review of Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey (a copy of which the publishers sent me to review). At least, this isn’t the whole review; this is just what I think is special about the book, and – for what it’s worth – what I think is unusual about the authors, as authors of beer books go.

It’s always a good rule of thumb, faced with any kind of encyclopedia or comprehensive overview, to check the bit you know. If they’ve got that bit wrong, it doesn’t tell you that the rest of it is wrong, or even that any of the rest of it is wrong. What it does tell you is that you can’t assume that the rest of it isn’t wrong. In other words, a known error in one part tells you that you can’t trust the rest. (You may remember a celebrated anthology with encyclopedic ambitions falling foul of just this kind of fact-checking on quite a large scale.)

Boak & Bailey’s book isn’t an encyclopedia but it does cover a lot of ground, from Betjeman to BrewDog and beyond. Intuitively, it seems that covering that much ground will come at a cost. Nobody is as keenly aware of changes in pop music between the ages of 36 and 38 as they were between the ages of 16 and 18; similarly, there may well be people out there who have drunk Penrhos Porter, Bruce’s Dogbolter and Wild Evolver, but I don’t think anyone could be equally enthusiastic about all three. You never forget the first one that really hit the spot, whether it was Punk IPA or Ruddles County – but that necessarily means that everything else is likely to fade into the background a bit.

As a writer you can correct for this kind of bias – draining your writing of any excesses of enthusiasm for the stuff you like and dutifully pumping up the descriptions of the stuff you don’t – but the end result is likely to be a bit flat and brochure-y. It also does a disservice to your readers, who – hopefully – are enthusiasts themselves. The telltale sign of this kind of writing is that you notice – as with the fact-checking – when they’ve got your bit wrong. The stuff you don’t much like or weren’t around for, fair enough, the book seems to have done a reasonable job. But for the stuff you like – nay, love – this lukewarm approach is no good at all. This is the cue, in an encyclopedia, for porter enthusiasts to complain that their beer isn’t given its due, while IPA lovers complain about the praise being heaped on porter. Or, in a history, for first-generation CAMRA veterans to complain that the early sections are thin and bland compared to the endless ravings about ‘craft beer’ later on, and hipsters to complain about all the space that’s wasted on beardie nostalgia.

Or, in this history… not. What’s struck me about the reviews of this book is that different generations of beer enthusiasts have expressed satisfaction with the section on ‘their’ period, even if they don’t think the other sections work so well. (I’m no exception – I found the parts about the period I knew best to be particularly interesting and informative.) This is a remarkable achievement, and suggests that this book has something to offer quite a wide range of beer-drinkers – and will continue to do so for some time to come.

Having raved, in general terms, about the book, I’m going to say something about the authors which will sound a bit uncomplimentary. It’s not meant that way; bear with me. It’s like this: it’s tempting to conclude a complimentary write-up like this by saying something like “Boak and Bailey know their stuff”. On one level that would be true – I certainly didn’t see any factual errors – but on another level it’s not. I actually don’t think Boak and Bailey do know their stuff in the broader sense; I don’t think they’re authorities on half the subjects they cover in this book. That’s not what they do; that’s not why this is a good book.

What B & B are is journalists, and good ones. When I was a freelance journalist I had one regular job which involved writing a thousand words about a (specified) famous person, usually in the course of a week: it might be John Betjeman, it might be Prince Naseem, I had no way of knowing before the request came in. Essentially, I had to make myself an instant expert. (Sometimes ‘instant’ was the word. My single favourite assignment involved Crawfie – the Queen’s childhood nanny – and a deadline measured in hours rather than days; I’d barely heard of the woman when I got up that morning, but by the time I went to bed I’d got the thousand words written.) There’s a knack to rapidly absorbing information in that way, and it’s about finding angles and ways in. If two different sources refer to your subject’s love of horseriding or her difficult relationship with her mother, you dig there; you don’t waste time and effort filling in all the blanks (how many brothers and sisters, where did she go to school, did she have any childhood illnesses…) unless you absolutely have to.

In other words, I wasn’t an authority on Wallis Simpson or Helen Keller – the kind of person who would know their shoe size and what time they were born – but I could give you an account of them; I could tell you a coherent and believable story, with facts to back it up. And that’s essentially what Boak and Bailey have done here, on a much larger scale: they’ve become experts on Penrhos and Firkin, Brendan Dobbin and James Watt, the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and the CAMRGB. It’s a journalist’s book, in the best sense of the word: they’ve done the work, they’ve got the facts right (as far as I can tell) and, most importantly, they’ve found a way in to the story. Specifically, they’ve tapped into the enthusiasm of the people they’re speaking to and writing about, and echoed it in what they write. It’s a fine book. If you’ve read this far and you haven’t got a copy, you probably should; I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Next: part two of the review, which will be about what they got wrong and left out.

(But do get it.)

They’ll like us next year

Two recent pints got me thinking about the craft tsunami which is seemingly about to engulf us.

I was drinking in a group at Dulcimer (a bar in Chorlton) when one of my friends suddenly called out, “Can we have a vote on Phil’s pint?” He got me to hold it up and asked the room in general, “Does that look right to you?” Explanations were required. I was drinking Wild‘s Evolver (“Hops+Brett+Hops”) and, yes, it did look almost exactly like a bad, end-of-barrel pint: almost completely flat; heavy-looking somehow; and cloudy without being turbid, as if every drop of the beer itself was a bit less than clear. Not only that, but it tasted almost exactly like a bad, end-of-barrel pint – i.e. sour. It was quite an interesting and complex sour flavour, I’ve got to give them that, but it got to be hard going – just a bit too sour, and flat, and, well, off-tasting. (On a side note, more recently I had Wild‘s Fresh on keg and was musing on how drinkable the cold fizziness made it, when it struck me – anything is more drinkable if it’s cold and fizzy; with a mouth full of froth the beer just slips down, and if it’s cold enough you barely taste or smell it anyway. So all credit to Wild for putting Evolver under the more unforgiving spotlight of cask.)

On another occasion I was in a Spoons’ and happened to spot their Alchemist collaboration, made by a legendary brewer who is so modest that nobody knows his name. I’ve seen this beer described as an ‘American brown ale'; I’d call it a black IPA from the colour and the pineyness. I had a pint – £1.85 with my beard token – but by the end I would have been glad of a smaller measure. What that beer does it does extremely well, but the thing it does is so full-on – I can practically taste those resiny hops even now. It was nowhere near as much of a slog as the Wild beer, but it was a slog.

I seem to be getting out-geeked all round; it looks as if rampant craft-driven extremophilia has landed, both at Dulcimer (a bar with three handpumps, one of them usually devoted to Wainwright) and, er, at JDW’s. Craft beer may not exist, but it’s arrived.


Stay dry

Cross-posted from The Gaping Silence. Long (5000 words).

1. It’s great when you’re straight, yeah

I have a beer most nights – just the one, usually. I have one dry day every week and often two, and tot up my weekly units every so often (the number’s never been at all alarming). But I drink most nights, and certainly most weeks – well, all weeks. I don’t think I’ve gone as long as ten days without a drink since an ill-advised ‘detox’ attempt back in the 90s (three long weeks of muzzy caffeine withdrawal); before that you’d probably have to go back to my teens or early 20s.

I’m not a heavy drinker and never have been; I’ve never worried I was overdoing it, never felt I ought to cut down, never been tempted to go Dry for January or whatever. (I have occasionally worried that I might overdo it; this may be connected to my lack of anxiety about my actual consumption, by a kind of precautionary anxiety principle.) If I did try and abstain for as long as a month, mind you, I think I’d find it tough. Pete has written a couple of times about his own personal ‘dry January’ routine (“I try to go dry for January every year, and have done so for years – since long before it became a piece of nonsense to beat people with”). His account makes it sound – as Guy Debord wrote of his own alcoholism – émouvant mais difficile:

In the first few days, you notice the better sleep, the higher energy, the greater clarity of thought. My blood pressure, which landed me in hospital in October, is now verging on normal. After a couple of weeks, you realise you’re thinking differently. You’re more in the moment, more thoughtful, more connected. This is not always pleasant. But like the physical benefits, it does feel like it’s doing you some good.

By the second week you start to feel like a cultist praising the virtues of abstention. By the third week, you start to notice that everything is bright and shiny and hard. Perhaps a little TOO bright. It’s natural and healthy to sometimes want to fuzz the edges and turn the lights down to mood. I’ve missed that. But I’ve missed the sensory experience of drinking – the aromas and tastes of good beer, cider, wine, sherry and the occasional malt whisky, and the stories that go with them, the associations they have, the connections they make, the contemplations and flights of fancy they inspire – a whole lot more.

Whether that ‘you’ would include me – whether somebody who averages (say) one and a half beers per day is limescaling his sensorium in this way, such that three weeks’ abstention would give his system a hard reset and make the world turn dayglo – is an interesting question; I tend to think the answer’s No, but I’m not in a hurry to find out. That small point aside, it’s clear from Pete’s post that it was quite a long month. Which is no surprise – alcohol is a normal part of most adults’ lives: in a 2011 government survey, two-thirds of men and 54% of women claimed (admitted?) to have had a drink in the previous week. For anyone other than a very occasional drinker, I think a month would be plenty. Admittedly, alcohol is less normal that it has been – in 1998, a similar survey put the drink-in-previous-week figures at 75% of men and 59% of women; in another recent survey, only 39% of under-16s reported ever having drunk alcohol, the lowest figure this survey has ever recorded. But it’s normal for all that; after all, giving up alcohol for a month wouldn’t be something you do for charity if it were something you’d do anyway.

So how about going cold turkey for four months?

People who repeatedly commit alcohol-related crime will be forced to wear ankle tags that monitor if they are still drinking, under a year-long pilot scheme. The “sobriety tags”, to be worn around the clock, will enforce abstinence by measuring a person’s perspiration every 30 minutes and testing to see if it contains alcohol. If any trace is found, an alert will be sent to the offender’s probation officer and they can then be recalled to court, where they may be resentenced or face sanctions such as a fine.

It is anticipated that up to 150 offenders will be fitted with the tags. They will be banned from drinking alcohol for up to 120 days, and the tag will test them to see if they flout the ban. Offenders will be screened before being tagged, and the scheme will not be used on people who are alcohol-dependent and require specialist support. The scheme, being introduced by the mayor of London, Boris Johnsons, builds on a similar scheme in the US and aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending, ease pressure on the police and courts, and make streets safer.

A salutary initiative which will help some potentially dangerous problem drinkers clean up their act (the view of Deborah Orr in the Guardian)? Or should we be more sceptical?

2. Your weakness is none of my business

The London pilot was provided for in section 77 of LASPO; on its completion the scheme will either be rolled out nationally or repealed altogether. (Section 77(7) is an interesting bit of drafting; I don’t remember seeing an “if this doesn’t work, let’s just forget about it” clause in an Act of Parliament before.)

There are two ways of reading the pilot: it depends whether you see it as having a good chance of success, or as being highly likely to fail. My initial reaction was the latter. If you put me (or, I venture to suggest, you, dear reader) on a total four-month alcohol ban, the result would be a foregone conclusion; as for inflicting a scheme like this on repeat alcohol offenders, that would just be setting them up to fail sooner rather than later. Repeat offenders are people with problems, if that’s not stating the blindingly obvious – you don’t persist in putting yourself at risk of arrest if you’ve got lots of other, less liberty-threatening options. Repeat alcohol-related offenders, specifically, are more likely than not to be people with a problematic relationship with alcohol – and, since alcohol problems tend to involve compulsive activity and impaired judgment, people with alcohol problems are more likely than not to breach controls imposed on them. (Although if candidates for this scheme do have drink problems, they’ll have to deal with them on their own. A nasty detail here is that the scheme excludes anyone whose problems amount to dependency, hence qualifying them for support as well as for control measures.)

If the scheme works as described – if an alarm goes off every time a tagged offender has a drink, leading automatically to the decision that the offender’s alcohol abstinence order has been breached – the scheme will “reduce alcohol-related reoffending [and] ease pressure on the police and courts” by one means only: by making 150 offenders’ lives a bit less pleasant, subjecting them to stress and anxiety for a while, then recalling them to court and rubber-stamping a prison sentence. (Admittedly, the scheme is not predicated on prison sentences for breach; alternative sentences are available, for example a fine. But the idea that imposing fines on repeat alcohol-related offenders might deter them from reoffending rests on rather unrealistic assumptions about human nature.) Overall, its effect on those 150 people will be to interfere with their lives, imposing technologically-mediated humiliation and harassment, before stigmatising them as failures and disrupting their lives still further. This isn’t rehabilitation, it’s sadism.

If the scheme is intended to work as it is described here, it is being undertaken either naively (in which case it will fail horribly) or cynically. And if it is being undertaken cynically, it represents a peculiarly debased and unlawlike use of the criminal justice system: the imposition of behavioural conditions on an offender, in place of a punitive sentence, in the expectation that the offender will breach them and incur a punitive sentence for the breach. This use of criminal penalties will be familiar to anyone who recalls the history of the ASBO: I remember cases where rowdy youths were barred from particular streets, a graffiti-sprayer from using public transport, a suspected drug-runner from sitting in the front passenger seat of a car – in each case, with the force of a criminal offence. In each case, the offender has (ostensibly) had the option of modifying his behaviour and walking free; in each case, the behaviour prohibited is legal and normal for other citizens; in each case, the behaviour modification requirements are impossible to comply with, or not without intrusions into the offender’s daily life so extensive as to greatly reduce his freedom to lead a normal life. Most importantly, in each case the offender is held responsible for any breach and for the penalty attached to it, thus incurring the stigma of indiscipline and recidivism as well as that of law-breaking. Barring repeat drink offenders from drinking – by law – is only a more direct and straightforward version of the same logic. The inference is that problem drinkers – like anti-social youths – are now seen as a subject population, a minority group needing to be controlled for the sake of the majority, and whose own rights can be disregarded.

3. Computer says No

If the scheme is intended to work as described here… But that may be a big If. The Alcohol abstinence and monitoring requirement was added to LASPO after lobbying from a group of American professionals with experience of a similar scheme in South Dakota; one member is Keith Humphreys, a Stanford professor of mental health policy and former White House drug advisor. In the South Dakota scheme, Humphreys writes,

[alcohol-related repeat offenders were sentenced] to mandatory sobriety coupled with daily testing. Those who tested positive were arrested immediately and given a modest sanction, such as a night in jail. In the 24/7 sobriety model, a slow, inconsistent and capricious system of monitoring offenders was transformed into one that provided swift, certain and fair sanctions for drinking.

The effects were dramatic. A stunning 99.4 per cent of the over five million breathalyser tests administered to offenders have been negative. Despite the punishment for drinking being modest, its certainty and swiftness motivated many previously recalcitrant offenders to change their ways.

Research by the RAND Corporation – a US-based non-profit global policy think tank – found that 24/7 sobriety dropped repeat drink driving arrests by 12 per cent. The same study also yielded a pleasant surprise: domestic violence arrests dropped by 9 per cent, despite not being a focus of the programme. … This week, under the leadership of Mayor Johnsons and his team, a pilot of the programme will be launched in South London. Leaping the pond will come with some challenges, particularly around delivering sanctions swiftly within the constraints of British law, but local tailoring of innovations is always an essential part of making them spread.

It works, in other words. The figures are in: not only do offenders comply with the stay-straight provisions more than 99% of the time, the effects can be seen in the crime figures.

What should we make of this? I’ve got three comments, of increasing generality; let’s say, one technical, one analytical and one philosophical. The technical comment is this: I can’t believe it. I’ve looked at the South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety Program Evaluation Report (PDF here; more information and links here); it tells me that, when 4,009 drink driving offenders were ordered to report to a judge twice a day to be breathalysed, for periods averaging three months, 98.1% of those tests were negative and only 0.3% positive (1.3% of tests did not take place because the participant was excused; 0.3% of tests were unauthorised no-shows). Pace Humphreys, this isn’t “a stunning 99.4 per cent of … over five million breathalyser tests”, for two reasons. Firstly, the 4,009 offenders in the sample took 817,926 tests (an average of 204 apiece); I’m not sure where the ‘five million’ figure comes from. Secondly, the figure of 99.4 per cent includes the 1.3 per cent of tests ‘excused’ and excludes the 0.3 per cent of no-shows. The real positive rate is the total of positive tests as a proportion of the tests taken, or 98.1/(98.1+0.3), which works out as a (stunning) 99.7% pass rate. In the course of their participation in the programme, 2,659 of the 4,009 participants – slightly less than two-thirds – had no negative tests at all. (These are convicted drink drivers, remember, being breath-tested twice a day for a period of months.) Of the remaining 1,350, between 584 and 802 (between 14% and 20%) had precisely one negative test; the number who had four or more negative tests is somewhere between 131 (one in 31) and 267 (one in 15). (The published figures lump together unauthorised missed tests and negative tests as ‘Failures’, making it difficult to derive the exact number of participants who had a certain number of negative tests.)

These figures seem to represent a level of behaviour modification which I find, literally, incredible. The programme’s advocates argue that the novelty of this outcome is related to the novelty of its key innovation, the use of those “swift, certain and fair sanctions” – if people know that one drink will infallibly earn them a night in the cells, they’re strongly motivated to stay clean. Maybe so (I’ll say a bit more about this approach further down). Even so, purely based on my knowledge of human nature, I find it very hard to imagine any combination of rewards and incentives having a 99.7% success rate in modifying entrenched behaviour, in any population (imprisoned populations included). Or perhaps I should say, based on my knowledge of British (European?) human nature. I have just as hard a time imagining the participants in such a scheme meekly turning up to be breathalysed 98.4% of the time – again, whatever the incentives and whoever (and wherever) the participants were – but that certainly appears to have happened in South Dakota. It’s a cultural difference, perhaps; when it comes to criminal justice agencies, the British (and British law-breakers in particular) just don’t respect their authority – or not the way that South Dakotans do. (“I thought they were big on liberty over there?” – my wife.)

With regard to the London pilot the point about showing up is moot – the testing is to be carried out by an ankle bracelet, replacing the stigma and inconvenience of twice-daily reporting with the stigma and humiliation of wearing a shackle that spies on you. But the point about the near-as-dammit 100% negative test rate, and the seemingly total behavioural transformation brought about by the programme, is absolutely key – and I think there’s a genuine case for saying that, like a Communist bloc election result, these figures are just too good. A clue of sorts is provided by the RAND research referred to by Humphreys – presented, in the form of a paper by Beau Kilmer, to the ISSDP conference mentioned earlier. In the published version of the paper, Kilmer and his colleagues (Nancy Nicosia, Paul Heaton and Greg Midgette) write:

More than 17,000 individuals participated in the 24/7 Sobriety Project between 2005 and 2010 and their tests indicated that there were approximately 2.25 million days without a detected alcohol violation. This does not mean that there was absolutely no drinking on those days. Rather, it provides support for a reduction in the incidence of heavy drinking among a population with a history of problem drinking.

Emphasis added. Perhaps the South Dakota breathalysers weren’t all that sensitive; perhaps the scheme operated, in practice, like a benign version of the Philadelphia Lie Detector, scaring offenders into cleaning up their act without, for the most part, actually detecting whether they had done or not. The tiny minority of negative tests might be accounted for by the tiny number of occasions when participants turned up with a really substantial amount of alcohol in their system, e.g. still drunk from the night before. The use of breathalysers to carry out the twice-daily test raises the question of what level of blood alcohol concentration constituted a positive result; if the standard DUI level of 0.08% was being used, this would be entirely compatible with participants maintaining a relatively normal level of consumption of alcohol – which in turn would make that 99.7% pass rate considerably less surprising.

This kind of approach is not planned for the London trial, however. The Alcohol Abstinence Monitoring Requirement Toolkit produced by the Mayor’s Office (downloadable here) notes:

[LASPO] allows the court to specify that the offender cannot drink more than a specified amount of alcohol (expressed as the proportion of alcohol in any one or more of the offender’s breath, blood, urine, sweat or by some other means); thus allowing for the possibility of minimal drinking rather than abstinence. For the purpose of the pilot, this provision will not be used and complete abstinence will be enforced.

Sure enough, the statement to be signed by participants in the London trial states baldly “I must not drink any alcohol until my requirement ends.” This, however, raises the question of evidence. The most widely-cited figures for the South Dakota scheme appear to be based on a sample of 4,009 participants who submitted to a twice-daily breath test, which (according to Kilmer et al) did not return a positive result for low levels of alcohol. Generalising these results from South Dakota to South London – a vastly different setting both culturally and legally – is problematic enough. Using a ‘low consumption’ success story to justify a ‘total abstinence’ trial – in a different country, with a different legal system – is problematic in a more fundamental sense; it’s not comparing like with like.

4. He’s got ‘em on the list

Still, the effectiveness of the South Dakota pilot is proven; there’s that 12% drop in repeat DUI arrests that we heard about, and the 9% drop in domestic violence arrests. (According to Kilmer et al, after being implemented the programme was rapidly extended to cover arrests for offences other than DUI – specifically including domestic violence – so it’s not quite correct for Humphreys to describe the fall in domestic violence arrests as a ‘pleasant surprise’, a side-benefit of a programme focusing on drink driving.) You can’t argue with the numbers.

Well, maybe not. But on reading the Kilmer et al paper it turns out that the ‘12% drop’ isn’t anything like as simple as a comparison between year 1 and year 2 in area A, or for that matter between area A and area B in year 2. Although the initial five-county pilot of the scheme might have lent itself to the second approach, analysis was made more complicated by the rapid and uncontrolled adoption of the scheme in other counties. The writers’ approach was to make a virtue of necessity, taking arrest data from the 66 counties of South Dakota – all of which had adopted the scheme by the end of 2010 – and calculating the overall extent to which the arrest rate was affected by the introduction of the scheme. The scheme was defined as having been introduced at the point where the numbers in the scheme in a given month first equalled 25% of the county’s average DUI arrests. The much quoted 12% drop is actually an incident rate ratio of 0.883 (p < 0.05), derived from a Poisson regression of five parameters. The outcome (arrest rate) for a given county and time period is assumed to be given by the sum of α, the effects of the scheme itself; β, other known factors associated with the county; γ, “unobservable characteristics of each county that are fixed over time”; δ, “fixed effects for each month in the sample”; and ε, an undefined variable associated with both county and time period (and not referred to in the text).

More data is better than less; in principle a 0.883 regression coefficient is actually more reliable, and hence more informative, than an eyeball comparison of two figures showing a 12% drop. (If you find this counter-intuitive, join the club.) The authors’ approach is also an ingenious way to circumvent the muddying of the waters brought about by the wide adoption of the scheme. But concerns remain, particularly given the relative weakness of the results (the coefficients relating to repeat DUI and domestic violence arrests are the only programme-related results to rise to the level of p < 0.05). What difference might alternative estimates for ‘county’ and ‘month’ effects (β and δ) have made? How did the researchers arrive at values for the unobservable γ or the undefined ε – and what difference might they, in turn, have made? There are also some signs of data-mining and cherry-picking, both in the data presented and in its interpretation. The authors report “no statistically or substantively significant effect of [the programme] on first-time DUI arrests” and “suggestive evidence that it may have reduced reported traffic crashes involving men aged 18 to 40 years”. The coefficient for crashes involving 18- to 40-year-old males is 0.956 (95% CI 0.909-1.006); the figure for first-time DUI is 1.062 (0.955-1.181). One may be positive or null but is probably weakly negative; the other may be negative or null but is probably weakly positive; and neither of the two is statistically significant. In other words, the evidence for an effect on first-time DUI is no weaker than the crash-related evidence, but the effect in this case is positive – which is to say, on an uncharitable reading, this is “suggestive evidence” that the programme may have increased first-time DUI arrests. The single strongest result reported has nothing to do with the programme: according to the data, the Sturgis Rally (an annual motorcycle rally held in and around Sturgis SD) has an effect on repeat DUI arrests of 1.477 (1.330-1.641) and on crashes of 1.642 (1.293-2.086), in both cases with p < 0.001.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the figures are good. Let’s take it as given that Kilmer et al have shown that the effect of introducing twice-daily-breathalyser-monitored sobriety in county X in month m will be that county X‘s repeat DUI arrest figures, averaged over months m+1…m+n, are 12% lower than they were when averaged over months m-1…m-n. Now what? Or rather, now why? What’s the mechanism? I ask this not because failure to say how the effect occurred would call the effect into question – it wouldn’t – but because Kilmer et al do seem to have a specific mechanism in mind. Consider the threshold used to define when the programme had been implemented – when the numbers in the scheme in a given month equalled 25% of the county’s average monthly DUI arrests – and the alternative threshold suggested later in the paper, five scheme participants for every 10,000 population. South Dakota has a population of 825,000, of whom 17,000 were on the programme between 2005 and 2010. This is over 2% of the entire population, and a considerably higher proportion of the population typically involved in DUI offences; Kilmer et al note that, in some counties, more than 10% of men aged between 18 and 40 participated in the programme at some point. Lastly, consider the expansion of the programme following the passage in 2007 of South Dakota House Bill 1072:

The unanimous passage of House Bill 1072 dramatically expanded the 24/7 program. The bill went into effect July 1, 2007, and provided funds to counties that wanted to adopt the program. The new law allowed judges to order anyone they believed had an alcohol problem, pre- or post-conviction, to participate in the program. The law also changed rules for those who lost their license for a repeat DUI offense. It had previously been possible for some of these individuals to receive a permit to drive only to and from work, but these permits were now conditional on 24/7 participation.

So participation could be ordered by a judge without the individual involved being convicted of anything. Moreover, continuing participation could be made a condition for holding a (restricted) driving licence, making participation in the programme more or less a life sentence.

On first reading of the Kilmer et al paper I wondered if a measure for long-term rehabilitation and reform was being assumed to be successful on the basis of a confusion between outcome effects and programme effects. In other words, I wondered if the reduction in repeat DUI arrests might not be a sign of problem drinkers taking the (enforced) opportunity to turn their life around – as in Orr‘s optimistic account – but merely of drinking being temporarily suppressed by the imposition of a stressful and demeaning twice-daily reporting requirement. On re-reading it, I’m not convinced that the authors are even thinking in terms of outcome effects. Got an alcohol problem? Right – you’re on the programme; no drinking until I say so. You’ll get off the programme eventually; if you start causing trouble then, guess what – you’re back on the programme. No alcohol problem now!

5. As sloshed as Schlegel

In technical terms, I think the individual test data can’t possibly show what it appears to show, and hence that it doesn’t give reliable guidance for the London pilot. Analytically, I think the programme as described by Kilmer et al is one of mass behaviour modification rather than criminal justice – the idea seems to be, not to use the programme to help former offenders reform, but to put as many people as necessary through the programme for as long as necessary to bring crime down. This leads into my philosophical concerns about the programme – concerns which remain even if we assume the validity of the test data and the crime drop figures.

Humphreys describes the scheme as delivering “swift, certain and fair sanctions for drinking”; Kilmer and colleagues describe the South Dakota programme as combining “frequent monitoring with swift, certain and modest sanctions for violations”. Swift and certain: you test negative, you’re off to the cells, no ifs, no buts, no phone call, no duty solicitor. What’s the problem? Maybe there isn’t a problem at all – maybe the problem’s with our way of thinking, or the presuppositions of our system?

The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice. The pilot’s weakness is that it could take weeks for action to be brought against offenders who drink while tagged. If an offender breaches the sobriety order, they will first have to be returned to court where further sanctions can be imposed. Imprisonment is only likely to result from persistent non-compliance. This isn’t swift and sure justice, but neither is it the Mayor’s fault – it’s a fundamental weakness in our system of probation which needs fixing.

Opinion polling for the GLA in 2011 found that sobriety orders were popular with the public (well over two thirds supported the idea). Doubtless some will disagree. I recall the horror of a prominent politician, partial to a shandy, on being told that an electronic device might be used to monitor someone’s alcohol consumption. And I wonder how long it will be before the civil libertarians complain that sobriety tags are an egregious breach of human rights…

Thus Nick Herbert MP (Con). (It’s interesting, in passing, to see the reference to ensuring an “instant and decisive penalty”, emphasis added; Humphreys and Kilmer et al both stressed that the near-automatic sanctions for non-compliance were modest.) I think this line of argument needs to be resisted. It’s fundamental, not to “our criminal justice system” but to the rule of law, that the law governs us as free individuals. We obey the law because the law is worth obeying, not because we have personally been commanded to do certain things – still less because we have been threatened with adverse consequences if we do not. To break the law is also a free choice, and one which may be justifiable. To be put on trial is thus to enter a field of judgment, to have our actions ‘tried’ (tested) against the standard of the law; the possibility always exists – however remote it may be in the day-to-day operation of the courts – that it will be the law that blinks. However clear and unambiguous the law may appear to be, the outcome of a trial is never certain; a judge’s guidance may be overruled by a jury verdict; the law itself may be amended by an appeal court judgment.

To say that we are governed by law, then, is to say two things. The first is that the law is a system of rules with certain characteristics – universality, comprehensibility, followability – which make it possible for each one of us to arrange our lives so that we obey it: the law respects our freedom. The second is that those who break the law are not only brought to account but allowed to put their case, protected by certain fundamental safeguards – the rules of procedural justice – which exist to ensure that nobody is unjustly criminalised. The law respects us as free and rational citizens, when we break it as well as when we obey it.

The ‘sobriety tag’ scheme is unlawlike twice over. On one hand, the idea of “fair sanctions for drinking” tends to suggest that drinking should be sanctioned; I wouldn’t have thought this was a route the USA wanted to go down, again. At best it suggests that drinking should be banned for certain, arbitrarily chosen people – as unlawlike a proposal as you could wish for, effectively substituting the rule of individual law-enforcers for the rule of law. On the other, contra Herbert, closing the gap between infraction and sanction is not “swift and sure justice”, or not for any meaning of the word ‘justice’ associated with the law. Any kind of automaticity in declaring somebody a law-breaker – including but not limited to the technological automation delivered by alcohol shackles – subjects the law-breaker to the law, without defence or excuse, in a way that is corrosive to respect for the law (which we are presumably asking those law-breakers to carry on obeying in other areas of their life).

Perhaps the most telling part of Herbert’s comment is his sneering reference to a critical politician being “partial to a shandy”. Herbert himself may be a teetotaller, but he must be aware that the great majority of his fellow-citizens are, in fact, “partial to a shandy” – and as such might have well-grounded concerns in response to the development of technology that enforces total abstention. The unstated minor premise, underlying that two-thirds vote as well as Herbert’s complacency, is that alcohol shackles will never be a threat to us. Herbert’s confident that these measures will only be applied to them, that unruly minority whose behaviour needs controlling – and that we can trust law-enforcers to identify the people to control and modify their behaviour in the right way. (Deborah Orr’s message is much the same, dressed in more liberal language.)

But this isn’t the rule of law. It’s using the law, but using it as a means of controlling a deviant minority (problem drinkers). It’s using the law – in Hegel’s image – like a man raising a stick to a dog.

Feuerbach bases his theory of punishment on threat and thinks that if anyone commits a crime despite the threat, punishment must follow because the criminal was aware of it beforehand. But what about the justification of the threat? A threat presupposes that a man is not free, and its aim is to coerce him by the idea of an evil. But right and justice must have their seat in freedom and the will, not in the lack of freedom on which a threat turns. To base a justification of punishment on threat is to liken it to the act of a man who lifts his stick to a dog. It is to treat a man like a dog instead of with the freedom and respect due to him as a man. But a threat, which after all may rouse a man to demonstrate his freedom in spite of it, discards justice altogether.
Hegel‘s Philosophy of Right, thesis 99.


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