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.

Slow down

Had some beer the other day.

Back in June, at the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival, I had some beers I really liked from Ticketybrew, Conwy and Red Willow. I wasn’t so keen on the Blackjack Farmhouse Brown, which I wrote up as “Good but not actually likeable”. (On a side note, I think I’m going to avoid this kind of review in future – too charitable, or too lacking in confidence about my own opinions, or possibly both. If I don’t like what I’m drinking, I don’t think I should end up calling it ‘good’!)

I wasn’t making notes at the Chorlton Beer Festival the other weekend, although Moor Hoppiness stands out in my memory, as do a surprisingly light cherry stout from Wharfbank and two rather fine black IPAs (Blue Monkey and Brass Castle). Almost the only tasting note I did make related to the Blackjack Belgian Honey Porter, of which I wrote “???” – I remember thinking it didn’t taste of honey, or particularly Belgian, or very much like a porter (in fact it tasted quite a lot like a black IPA).

The Font are pretty reliable at the moment. I’ve had some fine Mallinson’s single-hop pale ales there lately, as well as a superb stout from Blackjack. ‘Liquorice and chocolate notes’, the pump clip said, and the pump clip was not wrong – either about the complexity of the flavour or about the subtlety. It’s a beer to sink into – one of those really big, deep, enveloping flavours. At the Font I also had Blackjack Orange Cream Beer the other day, which was little better than peculiar. It was almost still (I may have hit the end of the barrel), and slightly hazy; flavour-wise there was a definite taste of orange peel and a bit of orange fruit, fighting it out with a fairly heavy-bodied aromatic golden ale and mostly winning. If anything it was stranger, and less pleasant, than I’ve made it sound – very un-beer-like. I’ve also had some fine beer at Dulcimer over the last month or so; as well as superb beers from Ticketybrew, Celt and Siren, there was a 6% ‘white IPA’ from Blackjack which was terrific – almost good enough to persuade me that ‘white IPA’ is a thing. I saw the same beer at the Gaslamp in town but didn’t have it again (partly because it was 25% dearer) – but I was sufficiently tempted to try the Blackjack Belgian Triple on the keg fonts along the bar. It was pale, very strong and slightly sweet, but there the resemblance to Belgian triples ended; hops were strongly in evidence (both aroma and bitterness) and there was a strong, harsh alcoholic burn.

So I’ve been seeing a lot of Blackjack beers around the place recently – and a lot of different beers. In fact these six beers were in six different styles – some of them very different indeed.  Some time ago (in comments on another blog) I suggested that American craft brewing suffered from the “world in miniature” tendency – like those tourist attractions where you can stroll past the Eiffel Tower on your way to the Taj Mahal, brewers seemed to work on the basis that the main qualification for brewing an Abbey tripel (say) was getting up in the morning and deciding to brew an Abbey tripel. (“And if you liked our milk stout, don’t leave without checking out our Leipziger Gose!”) What Blackjack are doing at the moment seems to exemplify this approach – and, I’m afraid, its pitfalls. For my money, only two of those beers were really successful. I’d have either the white IPA or the stout again like a shot – the stout especially; the other four I shall be avoiding.

There are obviously some talented brewers at Blackjack, and they’re doing some great stuff – for the same brewery to produce a good white IPA and a great stout is quite something, if you stop to think about it. But I wish they’d focus, and avoid spreading themselves so thin; I wish they’d just slow down.

 

PS An interesting couple of comments over at B&B’s, reproduced without, er, further comment.

Alan

Making 27 beers at Max production, many cycling or one timers, and selling each at top price regardless of intrinsic quality is manufactured scarcity and a hall mark of the last few years. There is an age old duty in both brewing and capitalism to maximize return and it is being honoured in a very robust manner. At least you have a CAMRA to offset the avarice with a voice for consumers. And it is effective as the lower price for cask proves.

DavidS

I’m unconvinced by this – producing stuff inefficiently by doing large numbers of beers in small quantities drives up the cost of production, so the fact that they then charge more for it doesn’t really benefit the brewer very much. As sharp practices go, that’s not particularly effective.

Isn’t it more likely that they’re producing lots of different beers because they like producing lots of different beers, and because there are enough people around who are willing to support that even if it costs a bit more?

Mixing it

Late contribution to The Session #88.

There’s only one beer mix I’ve drunk at all… well, I was going to write ‘at all regularly’, but now I think of it the last word isn’t necessary; there’s really only one beer mix I’ve drunk at all. I was introduced to it one time when I was travelling and bought a round for some people I didn’t know very well. This was at a time when for some reason I thought it would be terribly uncool to actually ask somebody what they’d been drinking – either that or I was just shy – so some guesswork was involved. Mostly people were drinking straight lager or bitter, but one guy was mixing his drinks. I took a stab and ordered him “a half of Guinness in a pint glass with a bottle of Guinness poured into the same glass”; it took a bit of explaining to the barmaid, and came out looking all wrong (about six inches of cumulo-nimbus head, apart from anything else). Next round someone else was getting them in, & I heard him asking the mixed stout drinker if he wanted a “black and tan” – which turned out to be a half of bitter with a bottle of Guinness on top, and no massive head. I tried it myself when I got back to civilisation and found it a great improvement on Holt’s bitter without the Guinness, although on reflection I found I couldn’t say exactly why. The closest I could get was that it didn’t taste of anything at all. I’ve never much liked sourness in beers, and in the Guinness/bitter mix the citric sourness of the bitter and the burnt-grain sourness of the Guiness somehow cancelled each other out, leaving me with this big, rich, mouth-filling… nothing very much. I alternated bitter & B&T for a while, then started reserving a B&T for the last drink of the night and eventually gave it up; by this time I was drinking in places that offered a bit more choice than Holt’s bitter and bottled Guinness.

So the idea of the Session #88 didn’t appeal to me very much. But the round-up made it sound interesting enough to make me want to give it a go, particularly when I noticed that – while B&B had tried a couple of Burton & Bitters – nobody had had a go at a ‘mother-in-law’, a.k.a. old and bitter (ho ho). So I pulled out a bottle of Landlord and one of Old Tom and set to.

Timothy Taylor’s Landlord (4.1%): light, thin-bodied, big tannic bitterness, very drinkable.

Robinson’s Old Tom (8.5%): heavy, sweetish, complex, superb.

Lord Tom (2/3 Landlord, 1/3 Old Tom): surprisingly thin. There’s a bit of sweetness there but without the oomph of Old Tom, and almost all the bitterness of Landlord seems to have gone. There’s not much flavour there at all, to be honest. Tastes like a mix, in a bad way – or else it just tastes like a rather bland bitter with some kind of syrup dropped in it.

Old Landlord (1/3 Landlord, 2/3 Old Tom): a bit more successful. The sweetness of the Old Tom is more in evidence in this mix, but oddly enough so is the bitterness of the Landlord; they combine & conflict in some fairly interesting ways. In a blind tasting I think I would have taken this for an actual beer, perhaps a relatively light Belgian dubbel – although not a particularly good one, if I’m brutally honest. If you were determined to mix Landlord and Old Tom I’d recommend you did it in these proportions – but only after I’d tried to talk you out of it.

How was my mother-in-law? Well, I wouldn’t say my mother-in-law’s thin, but… it was; also, just a bit bland and uninteresting. Perhaps the problem was using two beers which have such a strong character of their own – or perhaps the problem was just using two beers I like.

All in all, the experiment confirms my initial view of beer-mixing: that it’s something you do with two beers whose taste you don’t much like, to mask those flavours and leave you with something that’s drinkable but doesn’t taste of much. And the only time you’d want to do that is when there was nothing to drink whose taste you did like. I’m as nostalgic as the next CAMRA member for the world of pubs serving two bitters and a mild from the brewery down the road, but that lack of choice – unless you got on your bike – obviously had its disadvantages. Beer-mixing was, perhaps, a way of mitigating those disadvantages; it solved a problem, but a problem that we don’t have any more.

 

…thou art my darling

Here are my tasting notes from the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival, as composed at the time (mostly).

Conwy/Dobbin Yakima Grande **** 5=7.5 Oh yes. Very bitter indeed, in a good way.

Red Bank Crackin’ Pear Perry ** 6.5 -> 14 Yeah but no but… Bit on the sour side.

Red Willow Faithless XXXII ***** 6 -> 20 The good stuff has arrived. An IPA only more so; one to explore.

Bootleg The Real McCoy *** 9.2 >> 29.2 A decent barley wine, which is a good thing.

Buxton Moor Top *** 3.6 = 5.4 >> 34.6 Very very dry, not much more.

Squawk Pomegranate Porter **** 3.7 >> 38.3 Does exactly what it says.

Ticketybrew Black IPA **** as ever 5.5 >> 43.8 Weirdly, not much like a black IPA – more like a dubbel porter. V drinkable.

Nook Liquor-ish Stout 5.2 >> 49 **** Rich, fruity, a bit mad.

Alechemy 10 Storey Malt Bomb *** 4.5 >> 53.5 OK but not as brilliant as it would like to be.

Day’s Cottage Butt perry ??? 7.5 >> 61 Insanely cloudy, sweet attack, v v dry finish. Also strong.

Blackjack Farmhouse Brown *** 4.8 >> 66 Good but not actually likeable.

Kirkstall Dissolution *** 5 >> 71 = just under 6 pints. Very nice but really quite drunk now.

The numbers, if you’re interested, were my way of keeping track of how much I’d had; add up the a.b.v. of each third of a pint and divide by 12 for the equivalent number of pints at 4% (my personal ‘reference pint’). (A couple of them are multiplied by 1.5, because in those cases I had a half rather than a third.)

So, how was it? The beer was generally good, and some of it was very good indeed. I missed out on a few beers which had gone off, hadn’t gone on yet or (in one case) had never arrived, but – possibly because I was there on Friday evening – fewer than on some past occasions. In any case, the big question in these situations isn’t what’s not on but what is, and in this case there was more than enough. I went straight for the much-trailed Yakima Grande Pale Ale, which was reassuringly superb. While I’ve got fond memories of some West Coast beers, I don’t remember ever having the original version of this one, so I can’t judge it on that basis. But any concerns that it might seem a bit tame by 2014 standards weren’t borne out; it was very hoppy. For me, though, the beer of the festival was another pale ale, Red Willow’s latest Faithless: a really complex beer, in the sense of having a flavour that develops the more you drink (rather than in the sense of having multiple flavours thrown together).

This year saw the introduction of Bar Nouveau, a bar serving beers which had never been on sale before. This calls for a brief digression about the layout at Stockport. The beer, the cider and most of the other stalls are set up in a long, narrow concourse (a broad corridor, really) running behind the main stand. Seating is in the main stand itself, while food, entertainment and the bottle bar are in a function room on ground level. It’s a bit of a walk from the concourse to the stand; from the top end of the concourse to the stand is about twice as far as you’d take your drink even in a large pub. It’s not that far, and there are only a few steps to deal with, but it’s a big enough disincentive to produce a lot of milling around and standing around – particularly when you’ve only got a third in your glass and you think you’ll be getting another in a couple of minutes anyway. By 7.00 on the Friday the concourse was heaving. I took my half of Moor Top downstairs to get some food, and while I was down there I made the acquaintance of the aforementioned Bar Nouveau. As you can see from the list above, I had five four- or five-star beers on Friday, and three of the five (from Squawk, the ever-reliable Ticketybrew and Nook) were on at Bar Nouveau. Very fine beers, the Ticketybrew in particular. The arrangement also meant I could drink my beer while sitting at a table and listening to a covers band, which isn’t a bad way to do it.

A word about the perry. I hadn’t had any cider or perry at Stockport for a few years, but I decided to branch out this time – not entirely successfully. My first visit to the cider & perry end of the room was early doors, while business was still slow, and the volunteer I spoke to gave me three samples before I settled on one; even then I was the one who called a halt (I think he would have been happy to carry on until I found one that was just right). The whole thing made me feel a bit like Goldilocks, rejecting one for being too sour and one for being too sweet; the one I settled on wasn’t that great, either (not too sour, but still basically a sour flavour). The second perry I had, much later in the evening, carried a hand-written label saying “Cloudy. Very cloudy”, and it was; in fact it was opaque. Flavour-wise it was an odd combination of a heavy, honeyed sweetness on the lips and a harsh, screamingly sour finish. I think it was probably meant to taste like that; not sure it was meant to look like that, though. What I was really looking for was something light and floral, and not really on the sweet/sour continuum at all – although, on consulting some ancient tasting notes, this seems to be an effect you’re more likely to get from cider than perry. Anyway, it was interesting, and I’m sure I’ll be back.

Afterwards, finally, I didn’t really feel all that drunk. Six pints (equivalent) is a lot for me; I think my all-time giddy limit is seven, and I’ve been properly drunk on less than that. But I wasn’t falling-down drunk on Friday night – or throwing-up drunk, or world-going-round-and-round drunk, or falling-asleep-on-the-bus drunk or even having-difficulty-focusing drunk. I was quite poorly the next day, on the other hand – although this may have something to do with mixing beer and perry. Opaque perry in particular, perhaps – although I can’t say I wasn’t warned!

It’s a cold place in winter

…is old Hartlepool. It’s not so warm in April, either.

I spent the weekend in the oldest part of Hartlepool, for the Headland Folk Festival. Organised by esteemed folk trio the Young ‘Uns, the Headland FF didn’t aspire to be a competitor to Cambridge or the Green Man – no James Yorkstons or Ukulele Orchestras here. There were concerts – Polish shanty singers Brasy were particularly memorable – but the main business of the weekend was the singarounds. In my memory the weekend is already blurring into one continuous singaround, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon (when the Young ‘Uns and the Wilsons led everyone who was still there in a mass rendition of… Sea Coal, what else.)

Anyway, over the weekend I spent a fair amount of time in pubs, and here’s what I saw. And drank.

The rather ironically-named Cosmopolitan had one handpump, offering Hobgoblin. I swerved it and looked in the beer fridge, which had some passable supermarket-ish bottles (Maxim, Marston’s EPA, that kind of thing) – including one from a brewery I’d never heard of. Local speciality ahoy! I ordered that one and turned it round to check the details of the brewery on the label. The details of the brewery on the label began with the word “Lidl”. (The beer wasn’t great either.) To be fair, I never saw that beer again – and I checked that fridge every time I went in the Cos, what with not really fancying the Hobgoblin. Next time I was in, the most interesting thing I could see in the fridge was the Maxim, which I duly asked for; the barman said it had only just gone in the fridge and would I prefer Newcastle Brown. “I’ll have the Maxim,” I said. “Right, Newcastle Brown,” he said. (I don’t think he was doing it deliberately – I had terrible trouble making myself understood the whole time I was there. Simple things like asking a bus driver for a £1.70 fare – my whole intonation was off, somehow.) Anyway, I had the Newkie Brown, which was… well, what do you want, it was Newkie Brown; it was OK. What I will say for the Cos was that they did a very nice roast meat bun with chips and gravy (even if the barman tended to hear the word ‘pork’ as ‘beef’); they also hosted quite a few acts over the weekend, including the self-explanatory women’s vocal group She Shanties. Nice pub, shame about the beer, basically.

The programme for the Folk Festival listed one venue as Harbour of Refuge (Pothouse); I assumed this was a pub called the Pothouse which the organisers had romantically designated the Harbour of Refuge for festival-goers. It’s actually a pub called the Harbour of Refuge, which everybody calls the Pothouse – or rather, the pub management call it the Pothouse (it’s even on their beermats), and everybody else calls it the Pot. They had two handpumps, serving Jennings’ Cumberland and Cameron’s Strongarm; I naturally went for the latter, only to find it was just going off. I had a genuinely local bottle, Lion’s Den Headland Bitter, which unfortunately didn’t appeal to me at all (can’t remember why, but I don’t think it was an interestingly strong flavour of any description – I think it was just rather insipid). The next time I was in I noticed a barmaid pulling half-pints of Strongarm with enormous frothy heads into pint glasses, then stashing them carefully in the beer fridge; I took this as a hint that there was still something wrong with the Strongarm and had a bottle of Black Sheep. When I finally got a pint of Strongarm at the Pot it was pretty good – a red-brown bitter, with a big, densely malty flavour.

Having half an hour to kill one morning I wandered into the Globe. The Globe is an unpretentious boozer, which hosted acts and sessions during the weekend but on that particular morning hosted nobody but a bunch of regulars and me. The landlady clocked me as a folkie the moment I walked in and asked, “Are you going to be entertaining us?” Er, no, I muttered – to which one of the old boys standing around said, “Ah, but y’already are.” Cheers. My pint of Strongarm was served with the biggest head I’ve ever seen – a massive Mr Whippy thing, standing two or three inches proud of the top of the glass and making the beer quite difficult to drink (what are you supposed to do with it?). (This may also explain the thing with the half pints at the Pot.) The beer, when I got to it, was rather good – it was very cold and bordering on flat (unsurprisingly) but somehow both of those things worked in its favour. The flavour was better than it had been at the Pot and quite distinctive – a dark, woody maltiness, not at all sweet. Cheap, too. The prices at the Cos, the Pot and the Fish (see below) were at what I think of as Stockport rather than Manchester levels – £2.50-90 rather than £3.20-60. The Strongarm at the Globe was going for £2 flat.

Leaving the best of the Headland to last, I can’t think of anything bad to say about the Fisherman’s Inn, except that it’s carpeted throughout. This is a disadvantage because it means that when a group of rapper dancers turn up to do their thing (after making themselves the bare minimum of room in the midst of a crowd of shanty singers) you can’t actually hear their feet on the boards, which in turn means that seeing it from two feet away is merely gobsmacking rather than outright incredible. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Fish (they don’t have much truck with long pub names in Hartlepool) is a lovely little pub with a great atmosphere; it’s also got great beer and some appreciative punters, judging from how quickly the guest beers turned over in the course of the weekend. I had Wold Top Headland Red (a mildly hoppy variant on the local dark bitter style), Bradfield Farmer’s Bitter and Stout, and Burton Bridge Porter; nothing outlandish (and certainly nothing pale’n’oppy), but all good solid beers and all in good nick. They also do pork pies for £1 – sadly, I never got round to checking them out. Should fate for any reason guide your steps to the Headland, get yourself down there; I’d even say it’s worth the detour from Hartlepool proper (10-15 minutes on the bus, don’t try walking it unless you absolutely have to). And if, like me, you get the chance to push your way into the pub while it’s crammed to capacity with people singing shanties very loudly, don’t miss it. I was hoarse the next day, but it was worth it.

A pound, or even a guinea (£1.05), won’t buy you a lot of beer these days. In a Spoons on a Monday, I’ve had a £1.99 pint knocked down to £1.49 with a token, but that’s the absolute limit – or so I’d have said. I’d come to Hartlepool with a walletful of Spoons tokens, and back in Hartlepool proper on the Sunday I found myself with half an hour to kill before my train at the Ward Jackson, one of Hartlepool’s two JDWs. At the Fish I’d been intrigued by some old pump clips above the bar from Black Paw brewery – a micro down the road in Bishop Auckland, it turns out; when I saw Black Paw Bishop’s Best on the bar at the Ward Jackson, I had to go for it. Another brown, malty, not particularly sweet, vaguely woody-tasting beer; it reminded me of the way Holt’s bitter used to taste. On form it would have been really interesting, if a bit challenging (i.e. it would have taken me two or three pints of the stuff to actually get to like it – another similarity with old-style Holt’s). Unfortunately the pint I had was rather noticeably lacking in condition, either because it was ready to go off or because sparkling those enormous heads had sucked all the CO2 out of the cask (Are you sure about this? Zymurgy Ed.) Not at all dislikeable – I’d have it again – and at least it didn’t break the bank. At my local Spoons, the session-strength guest beers are priced up at £2.25; at the Ward Jackson they were £1.55. With the beard voucher, that made it £1.05. Not all the prices were affected; they were offering two cans of Sixpoint for a fiver, same as in town.

I didn’t go into the Ship; as a bloke I met on the bus put it, “A lot of people won’t go in there, they think it’s a bit rough… well, it is rough…” Then there was the bizarrely polysyllabic Gaietys, which looked closed every time I passed; from the outside it somehow managed to combine the dourness of a Scottish back street boozer with the teenage tackiness of a 70s sports pub (“that’s more of a modern place” – bloke on the bus). After the Globe I was in no mood for mingling with the locals, or not without a bit of folkie backup. I somehow doubt I missed much in the way of beer. (I saw lots of Whitbread Trophy, incidentally – on keg it’s still big in the north-east, apparently.)

I was ready for a pale bitter by the end of the weekend – but then, by the end of the weekend I was ready for a number of things, including a good night’s sleep. By Sunday evening I’d been to two concerts, sung eight songs at seven sessions (two at the Fish, the rest at the Pot), drunk thirteen pints in five pubs, and slept for about twelve hours. It was a good weekend.

Wild wild life

‘You are sad,’ the Knight said in an anxious tone: ‘let me sing you a song to comfort you.’

‘Is it very long?’ Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

‘It’s long,’ said the Knight, ‘but it’s very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it — either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else –‘

‘Or else what?’ said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

‘Or else it doesn’t, you know.’

Went out for a pint the other day. Cost me a tenner. Tell a lie, I had a pint and a half. Keg stuff. Twelve quid all in. Wasn’t too bad, though, there was a bag of crisps in there as well. And the beer was…

Well, the beer was… The thing about the beer is, it was…

The thing about the beer is, it was almost worth it. Possibly. Unless it wasn’t.

I’d better start again, and this time put in some information. The Font in Chorlton recently had a Meet the Brewer event with Wild. I didn’t go, but I was intrigued by some of the beers that they left behind when they went – notably a trio of stupidly high-strength and ridiculously high-priced beers on the keg fonts, Modus Wine, Raconteur and Wildebeest. Modus Wine was the weakest and cheapest of the three – and I’m using those words strictly in a comparative sense, as it was 8.3% and £7.80 a pint.

Anyway, a couple of weekends ago I headed down there to check them out. Fortunately Font serve beer in thirds, which made it realistic for both my liver and my wallet to try all three; I even hung around for a half of the same brewery’s Fresh, which was as zingy and herbal a pale ale as I’ve ever had on keg, at the almost reasonable price of a fiver a pint.

As for the main event, Modus Wine – which I guess is a version of Modus Operandi, an old ale aged with wild yeast, only aged in wine casks – was distinctively winey; very distinctively winey. Sweet, too, and fruity, but with that winey quality cutting through. If you imagine a fruit punch that’s had about six bottles of Madeira poured into it, it was a lot like that. An interesting and memorable flavour; my only reservation was that it wasn’t much like beer. Raconteur (9.9%), secondly, is a barley wine aged in marc de bourgogne casks. It was less sweet and fruity than the Modus, with more of a malty old ale character, but here again the wine casks were doing a lot of the work; that ‘Madeira’ flavour kept cutting through. As for Wildebeest (11%), Wild’s “imperial espresso chocolate vanilla stout”, this was probably the least distinctive of all; it didn’t really drink its strength, and tasted a lot like Young’s Double Chocolate stout, only sweeter.

It was also absolutely divine – a beautiful beer. At least, I think it was. I’m not saying that because my memories are unclear, but because that was the experience of drinking it – as the glass went down, I went from “is that all there is? and why is it so sweet?” to “my God, this is superb!”, and back again. Similarly with the wine-cask beers – I genuinely couldn’t decide whether they were works of sublime (if warped) brewing genius or just examples of how to combine some big, brash flavours with a lot of alcohol. Either they were some of the best beers I’ve ever tasted or else… or else they weren’t, you know.

I will say this, though – for several days afterwards I found I was drinking some terribly uninspired, pedestrian beers. Yeah, yeah – so it’s a strong IPA with American hops. So what? Where’s the Madeira?

Gratuitous equine dentistry while you wait

A few weeks ago, in common with a number of other bloggers, I was sent a box of (eight bottles of) beer by a company called Beer52, which was launching a subscription service where you pay them a monthly fee for a monthly box of (eight bottles of) beer. I didn’t break out the bunting at the time, pointing out that (a) while I do write reviews (and will invariably write something about anything blog-relevant which I’m sent) this blog is not part of the advertising industry and does not feature posts beginning “Those nice people at XYZ” and ending “why not drop them a line quoting BLOGAD?”; (b) the company’s initial approach to me had been so tired, unoriginal and impersonal that it looked almost, but not quite, exactly like spam; and (c) the freebie itself was equally impersonal, and frankly a bit unimpressive in terms of PR – while a free box of beer does mean quite a lot to me as a punter, to a company whose business is sending out boxes of beer it’s just some spare stuff. Also (d) I wasn’t sure about the price point – the price you actually pay if you take up the service, that is, once you’re past the first month where a discount may be available. (The full price is £24 per month.)

But I plugged it, and I mentioned the discount code they gave me, so there you go.

In the storm of adverse publicity which my post didn’t inspire, in which fellow bloggers didn’t denounce me as an ingrate or express bafflement at my refusal to ‘play the game’, a point which wasn’t made repeatedly (or at all) was that I hadn’t said anything about the actual beer. Be that as it may (or, er, mayn’t), I didn’t say anything about the actual beer, and it was a bit of an omission. So here goes.

Summerhall Barney’s Good Ordinary Pale Ale 3.8%
Too ‘ordinary’ by half. Tasted of nothing in particular. A good thirst-quencher, perhaps – particularly at that strength – but in that case, why is it in a 330 ml bottle? If I’d spent £3 on this I wouldn’t be pleased, to be honest.

Grain 316 Extra Pale Ale 3.9%
This was a lot more like it. Very pale, very hoppy – mostly the ‘dry’ end of hoppy rather than the ‘fruit salad’ – and very nice. I could drink a lot of this; 500 ml, in particular, would pose no problem at all (yes, this was another 330 ml bottle).

Top Out Staple Pale Ale 4.0%
Better than the Barney’s, but a bit raw and twiggy; there was a creamy quality to it which I wasn’t sure about.

Church Farm Harry’s Heifer 4.2%
The third new brewery to me (I had heard of Grain) – and I’m afraid I haven’t yet found one I’ll be seeking out again. This was a best bitter, and a bit on the sweet and heavy side for me.

Oakham Citra 4.6%
This surely needs no introduction – a mighty beer. I was surprised to see it in this box, though; it’s currently on sale at the Wythenshawe branch of B&M Bargains for £1.79. (To be fair, perhaps what it’s doing there is the real question.)

Stevens Point Brewery Black Ale 5.2%
Another small bottle (355 ml). I’m not a style Nazi, but it did bug me that I couldn’t work out what this was meant to be. I’m a big fan of contemporary porters and strong milds and dark old ales, and it didn’t strike me as any of those. Well made – not at all twiggy – and pretty nice, but just a bit unadventurous; a B+ rather than an A. (Stevens Point beers are available in our local Tesco’s, although not this one (or the next one).)

Stevens Point Belgian White 5.4%
Another tick in the “OK, fine, nothing actually wrong with it” column. (Also, another small bottle.) American brewery does ‘Belgian’ witbier. I kind of wish they wouldn’t, but the actual beer was… well, fine.

Ticketybrew Dubbel 6.5%
This was the first beer I tasted from my current favourite brewery, and I think it’s fair to say that this is the beer they’ve gone on to great things from; it doesn’t stand up to their stout, let alone the pale ale or that amazing bitter orange thing. But back to the beer I’m actually reviewing. It’s a good one. A dubbel it ain’t, really, but if you told yourself it was from a Belgian commercial brewer mimicking the abbey style you’d probably fall for it. Really very nice.

So that’s three beers that didn’t really work for me, two that were fine but no more than that, and three greats. I’m happy to have got them free. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I’d paid £24, though, or even £14.

(Other reviews are available; here’s a less curmudgeonly view from Paul Bailey.)

Condition, condition, condition

I never used to care about condition in cask beer. I think this is because I never used to get served beer in poor condition; occasionally you’d get a pint that was downright sour and have an interesting conversation with the barman, but flabby, lifeless, borderline-flat beer has always been a rarity in my experience. (At least, for beer out of a pump; with beers on gravity you take your chances.)

As noted a couple of posts ago, I had a pint of Dark Star‘s eponymous Dark Star a couple of weekends ago which looked like flat Coke; some vigorous pump-jockeying produced a bit of a head, but the effect was cosmetic – there was little if any carbonation left in the beer. And now this (a record of a weekend’s drinking):

Sedge Lynn (JDW)
Wicked Weed Sir Ryan the Pounder. Nice APA, in good nick.
Adnam’s Broadside. Big heavy dark bitter. Tired and flabby.

Beagle
Milestone Welsh Dragon. Decent best bitter. Very tired, almost flat.

Milson Rhodes (JDW)
Kelham Island Zombies of the Stratosphere. Hoppy pale ale. Tasted fine, but almost completely flat – no condition at all. Seriously considered taking it back.
Adnam’s Broadside. In good nick (about time!).

Gaslamp
Blackjack The River. Weird-tasting brown ale; will give benefit of doubt (brown ale). In good nick.
Coastal Hopmonster. Pleasant light golden ale (not a hopmonster!). In good nick.

This may not mean anything – apart from suggesting that the Gaslamp’s policy of only having two cask ales on (at most) isn’t entirely a bad thing. I may just have been unlucky in those three beers (or four, if we count the Dark Star the other week). But if condition problems are surfacing in outlets as diverse as the Font and the Beagle, on one hand, and two separate Spoons’ on the other, I do wonder if it’s a sign of something else – the most obvious candidate being over-supply, meaning that pubs can’t shift all the beer they have on before it gets tired. Just as ‘craft’ (or the idea of ‘craft’) goes mainstream, are we hitting Peak Beer – or Peak Bar?

¡Bien! ¡Bien! ¡Super super!

If only they could both lose…

In a statement the Portman Group said: “The independent complaints panel considered that the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘loco’, listed as ‘crazy, or off one’s head’, was problematic when used in relation to an alcoholic drink, as it could suggest irresponsible or immoderate consumption, and that care must be taken when using the word on packaging or promotional material.”

Jim Sloan, President of Phusion Projects, said: “We respectfully disagree with the decision of the Independent Complaints Panel of the Portman Group. Phusion Projects has made clear from the outset that the ‘Four Loko’ brand name was intended to refer to the product’s unusual flavours and its four original ingredients.”

Got that? Four as in four (original) ingredients; Loko as in… um… ‘loco’ meaning ‘crazy’, obviously, but referring to unusual flavours. Oh, those crazy flavours. (Flavours include grape, coconut, watermelon, peach, lemon and lime, lemonade and cranberry lemonade.)

We’ve been here before. Four Loko is, basically, loopy-juice; it’s made with malt liquor in the US and with grain alcohol in Europe, with a variety of flavours (all of them sweet), and sold at strengths of 6%, 8% and most commonly 12%. One other thing: it’s sold in cans, of 23.5 US fluid ounces – just under two standard 12-oz bottles, in other words, or 695 ml. That’s an awful lot of alcohol, in readily-neckable form.

And those four (original) ingredients? One of them is alcohol (which at least has the virtue of frankness). Another is taurine, the substance which gave Red Bull its name and whose properties, despite a huge multi-year natural experiment in adding it to soft drinks, remain unclear. The other two are caffeine and guarana, which – whatever else of an exotic and rain-forest-y variety might be in it – is a natural source of caffeine. So, effectively, it was Two Loko: alcohol and caffeine. It’s a powerful combination, and works in (let’s be honest) an enjoyable way; when I was younger and had fewer responsibilities I once spent an entire day going from bar to bar in Barcelona, alternating wine and espresso. (I didn’t have a lot to do the next day.) But neither alcohol nor caffeine is actually good for you in large quantities; the combination, by keeping you alert for longer, makes it easy to drink potentially harmful amounts of alcohol, while simultaneously making it easy to drink potentially harmful amounts of caffeine. Mixing alcohol and caffeine in large quantities (such as 695 ml – just under a pint and a quarter) and at high alcohol concentrations (such as 12%), is basically a bad idea. Put it another way: if you drink a can of old-style Four Loko you’ve basically just drunk 2/3 of a bottle of Buckie (“the UK’s version of Four Loko”, confirms Vice magazine).

Jacob Sullum of the right-Libertarian Reason magazine has tried to defend Four Loko on two occasions, on general “keep the government out of my business” grounds, but it’s a tough pitch. The best he could come up with was to point out that making the cans resealable (to reduce the temptation to neck the entire can) wouldn’t actually stop anyone necking the entire can if they wanted to (true, but so what?); that coffee is used in some cocktails (which aren’t usually served in glasses holding 695 ml); and (my favourite) that “A can of Four Loko contains less alcohol … than some big bottles of craft beer.” A can of Four Loko contains 83.4 mls of alcohol; for an Imperial pint to deliver that much alcohol it would need to be 14.7%. Those are some big bottles of craft beer.

Anyway, a couple of years ago and in the wake of some horribly predictable and happily only near-fatal excess consumption incidents, the powers that be in the US decided (to Reason‘s chagrin) that the whole alcohol/caffeine thing was bad news, and Four Loko was reformulated to contain alcohol and, er, that’s it. So that’s One Loko, then – only not Loko in the sense of… er… can we get back to you on this? Which is where we came in: with Phusion Projects gamely trying to push their 12%-by-volume grain-alcohol-and-Starburst three-pints-of-lager-inna-can confection in the UK, and our old mates at Portman gravely ticking them off for being so irresponsible as to suggest that getting drunk might be enjoyable in some way. As I said at the top, if only they could both lose!

The best beer I drank last night

Going to Font in Chorlton on a Saturday night is becoming a bit of an ordeal. I was there last night for about 45 minutes, a good third of which I spent standing at the bar waiting for someone to take my order. (I blame the cocktails – great way to make every single drink take as long to prepare as a round of pints.) I wasn’t the only one feeling the time dragging, either. When the guy next to me ordered a pint of (Magic Rock) Ringmaster, the young and nervous barmaid made him repeat it twice, then turned round three different pump clips (including the right one) to check, then turned the pump clip round again to double-check, then asked him to repeat it again. “When I say ‘Ringmaster’ I mean Ringmaster,” he explained, not entirely kindly.

The all-but-universal “pour, leave to stand, top up” system for pulling pints didn’t help, either; it took a good three or four goes before my pint of Burning Sky Aurora was ready. (When I got it, it was… OK. There’s a bit of a buzz around Burning Sky, but I don’t think it can be because of this beer: a perfectly decent hoppy pale ale, but no more than that. There was an odd kind of creaminess in the flavour, I thought; probably an effect of the hops, but it got me wondering about stray yeast. Pretty clear, though, so it was probably fine.) Obviously trying to avoid the repeat-fill problem, the young and nervous barmaid pulled my pint of Dark Star Dark Star delicately, precisely and gently enough not to wake a baby; unfortunately this wasn’t one of the lively ones, and her efforts produced what looked like a glass of flat Coke. Someone else had a go at it, and with a bit more vigour on the pump handle managed to kick up a bit of a head, but first impressions were accurate: although the flavour of the beer was fine, it was either very tired or over-vented, and in any case practically flat.

Two pints will usually do me early doors on Saturday, but these had both been so disappointing that I felt the urge for another half. So I had a half of Magic Rock Circus of Sours. Unlike the other two, this one was on keg; unlike them, it was £4.50 a pint; unlike them, it was much colder than I like and rather irritatingly fizzy. Also unlike the other two, it was superb. Despite the name, this isn’t an out-and-out sour beer, like a saison. The best way I could describe it would be to say that it took the sour edge of a lot of hoppy pales – the rougher ones, in particular – and made it work: it’s a really interesting flavour, with a sour quality that feels like it belongs. There’s a distinct – and separate – sour after-taste, too, which doesn’t sound particularly nice but is. For its strength, which is under 4%, the range and intensity of flavours it delivers is extraordinary. Really terrific beer.

Whither my CAMRA loyalties? Well, Font offer a CAMRA discount; my membership saved me £2 on my two pints of cask beer, so you could almost say I got the half free. More generally, I don’t think one evening when the best thing I drank was on keg justifies any broader conclusions about where the best beer is coming from – apart from anything else, I would love to see Circus of Sours on cask; I think it would fly. But it does remind me of a point Tandleman has made more than once, that condition is the Achilles heel of cask beer. In my experience, keg at its best is never as good as cask at its best – but good keg beer vs poorly-conditioned cask beer is a very different comparison. I’ve always said that with keg you get consistency at the expense of some of the quality of cask – particularly that part of its quality that derives from how the beer changes over time: that Dark Star would almost certainly have been a very different beast a few days earlier. But if the quality of a cask beer can’t be relied on, the consistency of keg starts to look a bit more attractive.

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