Category Archives: Not that anyone asks me

Campaign for the Revitalisation

As you probably know, CAMRA’s recently asked its members to vote on the organisation’s overall policy and direction. There are some interesting things about this vote. One is that – despite the heading in the leaflet that’s been sent out – we’re not being asked what CAMRA is for. The question being asked is who CAMRA is for – who should CAMRA represent in future? If you’re someone who feels very strongly about the English pub, that’s how you’re going to answer this survey – regardless of whether you believe that the future of the pub would best be served by the reintroduction of the Beer Orders, or by having all ‘failing’ pubs compulsorily purchased and ownership transferred to J. D. Wetherspoons, or by the repeal of the sm*k*ng b*n, or for that matter by leaving well alone. This is odd – it’s not as if they were short of space on the form.

The question, anyway, is ‘who should CAMRA represent?’ and the choices are these:

  1. Drinkers of real ale
  2. Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry
  3. All beer drinkers
  4. All beer, cider and perry drinkers
  5. All pub-goers
  6. All drinkers

Another odd thing is that we’re instructed to select one option only; I naturally went for option 1, but not without regretful backward glances at 2, 5 and 6. There’s also one very odd omission; see if you can spot it. (Two words, first word begins with ‘c’.)

No matter; it’s

  1. a harmless bit of navel-gazing
  2. a bold experiment in participatory democratic policy-making
  3. a pseudo-participatory (or ‘spectacular’) façade behind which the real policy-making process has probably already taken place
  4. a bit of fun

I anticipate a victory for the status quo, particularly given the multiplicity of alternative options (not to mention the absence of the c-word). What was more interesting – although it’ll probably be even less influential – was the ‘free text’ question, giving us the opportunity to explain why we were voting as we did. Naturally, I took the opportunity – and, half a second after I pressed Enter, I thought ‘this would make a nice quick blog post’. Alas, my words had already disappeared into the ether, but here’s what I think I said.

Can ‘real ale’ be defined consistently and comprehensibly? If so, is ‘real ale’ – as we’ve just defined it – a good thing? And if it is a good thing, does it need any support?

If the answer to these three questions is Yes – as I believe it is – the survey answers itself: there is such a thing as real ale, it is a good thing and we still need a campaign for real ale. If CAMRA turned its back on cask beer – to embrace beer in all its forms, or to represent all drinkers – then we’d need a new campaign for real ale. Since there is a Campaign for Real Ale, it seems only economical to use the one we’ve got.

The other advantage of keeping the focus on real ale is that other campaigning priorities follow naturally from it. So I’d vote

YES to campaigning against unreasonably high taxation on beer: real ale has always been an affordable luxury (if it is even a luxury)
YES to campaigning against neo-prohibitionism, which risks depriving a generation of the opportunity to drink real ale
YES to campaigning for pubs, which are after all the only place where real ale is available in either cask or key keg
And (very importantly) YES to campaigning for beer quality: if every pub in the country was serving real ale the job wouldn’t be done, not until they were all serving well-made beers in good condition (that’s the campaign’s original objective, ‘the revitalisation of ale’)

But I’d vote

NO (reluctantly) to campaigning for cider and perry; the definition of ‘traditional’ cider has never been a good match to the definition of ‘real ale’. Besides, APPLE is reaching the point where it can function as a separate organisation; let them sort it out.
I’d also vote NO to giving any official endorsement to ‘craft beer’ (unless it’s real ale), for similar definitional reasons. In any case, a campaign for craft beer might or might not be needed, but the Campaign for Real Ale isn’t the place to start it.
And NO to denigrating any other beer purely because it isn’t real ale. Nobody at leadership level in CAMRA does this anyway, but we could do with getting the message out a bit more clearly.

This last point is one I feel strongly about, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. I drink keg beer fairly often – including the kind that’s not ‘real ale’ – and when it’s good I’ve been known to rave about it. I’ve even had a couple of keg beers I’d class as better than their cask equivalents. But that’s me as a drinker, not me as a CAMRA member. I don’t think CAMRA should be campaigning ‘for’ good keg beers – not even those two – any more than CAMRA should campaign for particularly good types of gin or wine or coffee. What we can expect from CAMRA, though, is that it doesn’t campaign against beers without good reason.

At its core CAMRA is a single-issue campaign – and, despite how specific it is, ‘real ale’ is the best way to give that single issue a focus. But it’s a campaign, not a cult. What we want, if we’re members of CAMRA, is more, widely-available, good-quality real ale. That’s probably also going to be reflected in what we drink, given the choice – but if we do range more widely, frankly that’s nobody’s business but ours.

Update 5th April In comments, Rob Nicholson writes:

there is nothing wrong with CAMRA’s current values and aims except they are not vibrant and needy enough to get the next generation engaged. Sadly that’s a big “except” as without active members, the campaign has no future in the long term not matter what it supports. If CAMRA doesn’t change *something*, then it’s almost signing its own death warrant.

A few thoughts in response. Firstly, CAMRA isn’t going to run out of members any time soon. Where we do have a problem is in converting fee-paying members to active members – but that’s a problem faced by membership organisations of all kinds. In these days when nobody ever needs to face an evening with nothing to do and no social contact, the allure of serving on a Branch Committee or similar is necessarily reduced. In any case, if the problem is how to engage people who are already members of CAMRA, why should we imagine that adopting new values will do the job?

Secondly, let’s suppose that CAMRA membership – not just active membership – is heading for a demographic cliff, as the bus-pass contingent near the end of their drinking career, to put it no more bluntly than that. (I don’t believe this is the case, but I may be wrong – I haven’t seen the figures.) Does that mean CAMRA needs to attract young people? This is the usual conclusion, but it doesn’t follow. To see why not, look at the age profile at the average beer festival on a busy day – which is to say, everything from 18 to 80, with a bulge in the mid-20s and another in the 50-70 region. Then think what the age profile of CAMRA would look like if we were massively successful in recruiting under-25s, every year for the next ten years. It wouldn’t just keep CAMRA going, it would transform the organisation completely. I’m not saying this would be a bad thing – it might be a very good thing – just that nobody is actually arguing for it: nobody is saying that we need to turn into an organisation consisting mainly of young people. But if we directed all our recruiting efforts to young people – and if we got it right, which is a big ‘if’ – then that’s what would happen.

I don’t think anyone’s got a hidden agenda here; I think it’s just a case of not thinking it through. What CAMRA will need – if and when that demographic cliff catches up with us – is a steady supply of new members, but ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘young’. I see something similar at the traditional folksong sessions I go to. The room typically divides into two groups: the old stagers, who got into folk in the 1970s and never gave it up, and the new recruits (like me). Some the new recruits are in their 20s, but most of us are much older; traditional song didn’t knock on my door till I was 47. What CAMRA needs, as our own old stagers get older and greyer, is something similar: a continuing supply of new members of all ages. (Which, as far as I can tell, we are actually getting.)

But let’s suppose (thirdly) that we do need to attract young people. In that case we’re basically in the position of trying to second-guess the population group that is most conscious of image, branding and group identity, and cares most about the microcosmic cultural shifts which make one fashion statement cutting-edge and another old news. So, er, good luck with that. Nobody knows what’s going to be hip next year – people are paid a lot of money to answer questions like that, and most of them get it wrong. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed not to work is to pitch to where we (old gits) think young people are now. In the unlikely event we get it right, the message will still be hopelessly wrong by the time the intended audience gets it. Failing that, we can either guess what the next big thing is going to be, or stick to what we were going to put forward in the first place. Will real ale be hip in 2017? Probably not, but who knows? (Did anyone see dimple mugs coming?)

In short, changing our values to appeal to young people is a complete shot in the dark – but, fortunately, we don’t need to appeal to young people;  we probably don’t even need to appeal to new members in any large numbers. We do need to ‘activate’ existing members, but – considering that these are, by definition, people who joined CAMRA with its current aims and values – changing the organisation’s values isn’t going to be the way to do it.

In fact, the more I think about this ‘revitalisation’ exercise, the more I don’t know what’s going on!


Martyn’s recent post on the relaunch of Greene King IPA strayed, for me, a little too close to following the GK party line – a view shared, and stated rather emphatically, by some contributors to the ensuing comments thread. But I thoroughly agree with the final point:

Meanwhile, here’s a small rant directed at all those idiots who keep chuntering on about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale” and how IPA has to be “strong and strongly hopped”, so it would survive the long journey to the Indian sub continent, over 200 years ago. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Let’s rush past the fact that 19th century IPA wasn’t strong at all, for the time, but comparatively weak, at around 6% abv. Do you complain because today’s porters aren’t matured in 30-feet-high oak vats for 18 months, as they were 200 years ago? Or that today’s stouts are as weak as 19th century porters? Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. American IPAs, in particular, lovely beers though they often are, are nothing whatsoever like 19th century IPAs: totally wrong hops, totally wrong emphasis on hop aroma, often too strong, and meant to be drunk much more quickly after being brewed than 19th century IPAs were. After the First World War, and the huge rise in the tax on beer, all beers, of all styles, were brewed to lower strengths than they had been in the 19th century. What Greene King IPA is, is a perfect example of a mid-20th century IPA, just like those once brewed by Charrington, Palmers, Eldridge Pope, Wadworths, Wethered’s, Youngers and others in the 1960s and 1970s, all 1035 to 1043 OG. Go and get your Camra Good Beer Guide 2015 edition and look up Phipps IPA (page 844, column 2): OG 1042, abv 4.2%, “recreated from old recipes”: recreated from genuine 20th century recipes, as a genuine 20th century IPA. Just like Greene King IPA.

I’ve never had anything from Phipps, but I did stumble on Wall’s Explorer IPA (4.7% in cask) the other day and noticed that the pump clip described it as “a traditional style India Pale Ale”. So I tried it, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

Clearly, somebody at Wall’s remembers mid-20th-century IPAs too. What was it like? You get a big, fairly heavy, malty body with just a little sweetness. Then you get the bitterness – a tannic bitterness, which hits in mid-mouth, but it’s dialled right up, almost to the charcoal level. The bitter aftertaste isn’t immediately apparent, but it kicks in hard  at the bottom of the glass.

One of my pet hates is the phrase ‘with a twist’. I’d be useless as a judge on Bake Off – I’d much rather see a straight Dundee cake recipe brought off really well than a competently-executed Dundee-with-a-twist, using pecans instead of almonds, chillis instead of glace cherries and polenta instead of flour. The same goes for beer, obviously – I’ve had some really good raspberry beers, damson beers, chocolate beers and w.h.y., but a straight style done really well will usually beat them all. But that IPA made me think that ‘twisting’ a style need not be such an artificial process. A fuller body, a more bitter aftertaste, much more bitterness mid-mouth – the 20th-century IPA was, basically, a twist on best bitter (the same way that black IPA emerged as a twist on stout, perhaps).

To compare and contrast, I made tasting notes for the next few beers I had with ‘IPA’ in the name. Harbour IPA (5%) is a favourite of mine; perhaps the best way to review this one is to say that, if there was ever a juicy banger, this beer is it. There’s bitterness from the off – it leaves your lips buzzing with it – and then a big, bursting hop flavour, fruity without being sweet, citric without being sour. It’s light, goes down very easily and finishes with an emphatic bitter aftertaste.

Another comparison: BrewDog Punk IPA (5.3%). One thing BD’s bottled beers really get right, in my experience, is the aroma – by which I mean, they’ve got lots of it: you really know when you’ve opened the bottle. In this case the aroma was mostly citrus, but with an odd, grainy, burnt-toast quality blended in. The flavour began with citric freshness, building to a big grapefruit character but with some of that burnt toast mixed in. Some sweetness on the finish, too; a distinct lychee or pear-drop flavour lurking in among the bitterness. Like the Harbour it’s very drinkable, and has almost nothing in common with the Wall’s beer.

The impression that IPA means (or has meant) two completely different things was strengthened by a bottle of Shepherd Neame‘s ‘historical recipe’ India Pale Ale (6.1%). Comparing with the Wall’s beer, the same key elements were there: the big, heavy body with a sweet edge; the strong, uncompromising bitterness mid-mouth; both were intense enough to combine in a pleasantly marmaladey way. In fact, the flavours were stronger all round than in the Explorer. Indeed, compared to the Wall’s beer the Shep’s beer was stronger, with more citrus at the front of the mouth and a more intense bitter-lemon aftertaste: in other words, it was like a halfway house between a twentieth-century IPA and the much more extreme contemporary style.

One final comparison: Greene King IPA. I jest – I don’t know where I’d go to find it (my local Spoons serves Ruddles and Abbot Ale). No, what I’m comparing with this time is Metropolitan Lone Wolf – which is to say, a 6% IPA sold in supermarkets in 330 ml bottles (with a rather stylish branding reminiscent of Peter Saville’s Manchester M logo) and brewed by, um, Greene King. The label boasts of seven different hops, with dry hopping for added ‘intensity’. What I tasted, bizarrely enough, was a rather bland variant on the twentieth-century IPA style. Heavy body, sweetness, tannic mid-mouth bitterness and a drying bitter finish were all present and correct, although for my money there was rather too little tannin and too much sweetness; in fact a malty sweetness dominated throughout, perhaps with some hop fruitiness a long way down in the mix. I don’t know if this is in any way related to Greene King IPA in any of its guises, but I’d be surprised if it was startlingly different. Why GK are trying to sell this quintessentially undemanding old-school beer into the ‘craft’ market is anybody’s guess. About the best I can say of it is that, if it were a better beer, it’d be good example of a twentieth-century IPA.

Which – returning to my starting-point – would be no bad thing. To quote a comment I left on Martyn’s post,

I got into real ale as soon as I was old enough to drink, then had a break from beer (or at least from taking beer seriously) between about 1980 and 2000. Coming back into a vastly changed (and rapidly changing) beer scene, one of the things I remembered clearly from ‘before’ was how an IPA ought to taste. Imagine my surprise (among other reactions) when I first tasted one of the new breed of IPAs. I’m not about to start drinking GK IPA in preference to Bengal Lancer et al – that ship has sailed – but I’m sure my 18-year-old self would have recognised & liked it

Even at my current advanced age, I recognised the Explorer IPA as such – and liked it. (But I like the Harbour too.)

Golden wossnames

I can’t really be bothered doing a full-on Golden Pints for 2014, not least because I’ve no idea what I’d put in most of the categories. (Best bottled beer? I did have a Rochefort 10 over Christmas, but was it my peak bottled beer experience? Set and setting…) Anyway, here are some random thoughts about last year, jammed awkwardly into an ‘awards’ format. It is, after all, only blogging.

Cask Beer Of The Year Spingo Middle. No, Special. No, Middle. I think. Or maybe the Special. (When can we go to Cornwall again?) Runner-up: about half the Blackjack beers I had this year.

Keg Beer Of The Year Electrik/Blackjack LFO (and not only because I was muttering “Ell, Eff, Oh” for the rest of the evening). Runner-up: Wild Fresh.

Worst Cask Beer Of The Year Wild Evolver, which looked and tasted almost exactly like an off pint from the bottom of the barrel. (For all I know it may actually have been off – how would I know? come to that, how would the bar staff know?) Runner-up: the other half of the Blackjack beers I had this year.

Most overrated and overpriced beer Of The Year, probably Wild Wildebeest, which was insanely strong, Tarquin Fintimlinbinwhinbimlim Bus Stop F’tang F’tang Olé Biscuit Barrel expensive and tasted, well, kind of like a chocolate stout. Except for about every third mouthful, when it somehow changed into a monster of enveloping gorgeousness and almost persuaded me it was worth the money. Only then it changed back again. Runner-up: Magic Rock Cannonball. (OK, it’s not the beer, it’s me – I still don’t get it, though. It’s so… moderate.)

Disappointment Of The Year Unreliable breweries. See also TwIshhpOTY, below.

Actually reliable (and consistently interesting) brewery Of The Year Ticketybrew. I can’t believe nobody else is raving about these people yet – I’ve never had a duff beer from them, and when they’re good they’re superb.

Pub/Bar Of The Year I’ll stick my neck out a bit on this one. OK, it’s a bit cavernous and lacking in atmosphere, like others in the same chain – it could certainly never be mistaken for a traditional pub. And OK, the clientele isn’t necessarily composed of people I’d choose to mix with. But the service is civil and efficient – even if there is a bit of a wait sometimes – and there’s always something decent on one or more of the hand pumps. All that and money off for CAMRA members – what’s not to like? So my vote for this year goes to the Font, Chorlton.

Trend which I haven’t quite caught up with yet Of The Year Sours. Well, I say sours – I like saisons, and I was drinking Rodenbach years ago. Full-on bretty ex-bitters, though… I’m not really there for them.

Trend which I sincerely hope has peaked Of The Year I’ve called it ‘poker dice’ brewing in the past, but on reflection ‘fruit machine’ brewing is probably a better label. Pull the handle (showing my age, I know), set the reels spinning and see where they stop: red… imperial… bourbon cask… pilsner! I first started noticing beers that couldn’t be named in fewer than three words around the start of this year (they’ve probably been doing it for ages in that London); I’ve had a few, but I’m struggling to think of one that I really liked. (Hang on – Ticketybrew Jasmine Green Tea pale ale. So there’s one.) The problem with this sort of multiple-compound-style brewing, it seems to me, is that neither you nor the people drinking the beer can really know whether you’ve got it right, or got it as good as it could be. (And quite often, in my experience, it’s not – this year I loved Blackjack’s Stout and White IPA, but hated their Orange Cream Ale and Belgian Honey Porter.) There’s a craft to making a good bitter (or pale ale, or stout, or porter, or mild, or…) and a fair amount of trial and error; comparing batches of what’s essentially the same beer, and tweaking the recipe to include the best bits of different batches, is quite a big part of my idea of being a brewer. So you’ve made a hickory-smoked cranberry porter: I’m sure the smoke and the berries come through loud and clear, but is it a decent porter? Can you tell? And, more importantly, are you going to hang around to find out – or are you already busy on your imperial white IPA? I was pleased to see Pete inveighing against craft neophilia the other day; perhaps one day we’ll look back at fruit-machine styles and think “that’s so 2014…“.

Book Of The Year Although the cynical young pups obstinately refuse to acknowledge that the foundation of CAMRA was a Very Good Thing, this was without doubt the year of Boak and Bailey and Brew Britannia (my review is hereabouts). Other beer books are available, but I bet they’re not as good.

Spectacularly Unmet Resolution Of The Year Looking at my Golden Pints for 2013, I didn’t do too badly on I will try and stop going on about ‘craft beer’; or I will stop going on about my experience of ‘craft keg’ beers, unless it changes interestingly (e.g. I find one I really like); or even I will remember that this stuff is supposed to be fun. The one resolution I really fell down on was the one that was beer- rather than blogging-related: I will drink more session bitter. That went out the window very early on, with results which – as you’ve just seen – weren’t entirely satisfactory. Maybe in 2015.

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:

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.)

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…mn. 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.

The world is full of women and men

Please understand I respect and admire the frailer sex
And I honour them every bit as much as the next
– Jake Thackray, “On Again”

[With apologies to Dave, who probably wants to forget any of this ever happened. I’ll try to be brief.]

I was surprised by the post by Emma (or Chris) in reaction to Dave’s now-deleted “Beer Drinking Women Are Not Attractive” post. I was surprised, because I expected to agree wholeheartedly & generally feel that I was in the presence of someone who’d got it. Instead of which, I found phrases like “bit of a tangent” and “was it that bad?” bubbling up, followed closely by “well, maybe, but I wish she’d explain…”

If I have to explain why discriminating in this way is a very bad thing I think my head might actually explode. I could say a lot more on this topic. A LOT MORE.

OK, we’ll skip the explanation.

Anyway, I’ve sat with it & come to the conclusion that the person not getting it was probably me. Here’s the offending passage from Dave’s post:

There were several women drinking beer. Mostly, but not all, by the pint. Generally they didn’t actually register in the “drop dead gorgeous” category, more the “she looks interesting, I’d like to get to know her better” category. Indeed, there might be some sort of inferiority complex, perhaps even the fault of my Mum, that causes the “drop dead gorgeous” category to significantly overlap the “She’s a tart, thinks she’s God’s gift, would be hard work even if I did stand a chance, which is unlikely” category anyway.

Chris (or Emma) zeroed in on the third ‘category’, stressing how discriminatory it is to (mentally) affix labels like ‘would be hard work’ – let alone ‘tart’ – on the basis of appearance. Which is true. But I think when I first read it that particular passage didn’t seem too bad, for two reasons: firstly, it’s acknowledged in a hazy way that labelling women in this way is a problem; and secondly, there are plenty of social situations in which it’s normal to informally triage potential partners in this way into “interesting/attractive/out of my league”, and Dave could be describing one of those. (Never mind Dave’s marital status; we could just say that old mental habits die hard.)

What struck me today, reflecting on this, was that the problem of judging women on their appearance goes further than this scenario – or, to put it another way, that thinking in terms of this scenario is the problem. Look at the second category: “she looks interesting, I’d like to get to know her better”. Men: do you ever look around a group of men and think “he looks interesting, I’d like to get to know him better”, about every single one of them? Of course you don’t – even if they were all interesting blokes (and how could you tell?), why would you want all those new people in your life? (How many more friends do you need?) What you do is look around a group of men and think, “here I am in a group of men”; or “isn’t there anyone here I know?”; or “at least I’m not the youngest/oldest/beardiest person here”. You look around at the group, and you take it as a group of people. But for a group of women – even for the women in a mixed group – the paragraph quoted only has three possibilities: “I want to chat you up”, “I want to chat you up (but I’d be scared)” and “I don’t want to chat you up, definitely not, but I would like to get to know you“. (As men so often do, when they meet women who interest them, in a purely platonic way. I’m sure it happens all the time.)

The underlying assumption – and I really don’t think I’m overthinking this – is that a woman in public is always on show. If you’re good-looking and well turned-out you’ll attract attention, although some of it will be negative (“thinks she’s God’s gift” etc); and if you’re not, then… you’ll attract attention (“she looks interesting”, etc). The option of just being somebody in a group of other somebodies isn’t on the table; that is, the option of just going places and doing stuff, like an ordinary person, and minding your own business until you happen to get talking to somebody else.

I feel a bit bad to be banging on about Dave’s post, not only because he’s taken it down but also because it was thoughtfully written and well-meant; it was nothing like as bad as Ding‘s wilfully obtuse sexism, in other words, and by rights deserved to get nothing like as much flak. But there’s a way of stepping back from prejudice which isn’t really stepping back at all. Like the polite racism I remember from the 1970s, dressed up in genteel phrases like “our coloured brethren”, or the courtly sexism mocked by Jake Thackray, Dave’s post didn’t put as much distance between him and the sexist attitudes he was criticising as it may have seemed to. If you say (in so many words) “I don’t judge women by their appearance – I prefer women who look interesting” then you are judging women by their appearance; in effect, you’re only seeing women by their appearance. And I don’t want to worry you, chaps, but there are a lot of women out there; that’s an awful lot of people not to be seeing properly.

Ban this filth

A quick look under my stairs…

Manchester Star, 7.3% Southwold Winter IPA, 6.7%
Duvel, 8.5% Old Tom, 8.5%
Past Masters Double Stout, 7.5% Brakspear Triple, 7.2%

What do all these beers have in common? Five of them are terrific beers (and I’ve got high hopes of the (Adnam’s) M&S Winter IPA, which I haven’t tried yet). The Double Stout is a limited edition and a bit pricy, but none of these is particularly rare, exotic or expensive – every one of them was bought from a supermarket.

Oh, and there’s this:

News from Suffolk: The local Police, fed up with ‘offies’ selling super-strength cider and lager to known nuisance characters, are encouraging the offies to stock nothing above 6.5% ABV. It is a voluntary scheme, with a slow take up, but it is a positive step towards dealing with the products that are associated with most of the problems. Responsible drinkers will be heartened by this news and we look forward to seeing the scheme adopted locally.

This is a quote from the (frankly rather strange) Nottingham CAMRA magazine Nottingham Drinker, which startled me somewhat on a recent visit to the town. When it was discussed here some more information about the Suffolk scheme was forthcoming in comments:

While the Ipswich scheme is “voluntary” the Plod have been dropping hints that those NOT joining in may find a few objections come licence review time. Oh, and the Co-Op has already stated it’s adopting the scheme across ALL Suffolk stores.

Ipswich off-licences, the Co-operative across Suffolk – it sounds like it’s foot-in-the-door time.

Let’s hope this is just a misguided initiative in one corner of the south, and that if it does spread any further it will get a robust response from CAMRA – although if it comes to Nottingham, it sounds as if they’ll be pushing at an open door. Hands off our strong beers!

Thank God you’re here, Captain Pedantic!

Craft beer means beer made for a more discerning audience than the mass-market beers that ubiquitously line bars around the world.

craft beer is beer brewed with the deliberate intention of appealing to “beer enthusiasts”

“craft” means “beer like what hobbyists and homebrewers make, except done more properly”

Craft beer is beer made for people who like craft beer. That’s not a tautology, it’s a feedback loop
me (18 months ago)

I’ve spent far too much time on this blog going on about the concept of ‘craft beer’, and I don’t want to spend any more time on it than I can help. But here’s a slightly different angle, suggested by some comments over at Tandleman’s. Four points:

  1. ‘Craft beer’ is an imported concept; it originated in the US.
  2. In the US it’s defined primarily in terms of the size and independence of the brewery and the use of traditional ingredients.
  3. This definition doesn’t work in the UK: applied literally it would mean that Holt’s RegalCrystal Lager is ‘craft’ and Worthington White Shield isn’t.
  4. We haven’t imported the concept of ‘craft beer’ at all; all we’ve done is import a two-word phrase.

Step 4 is the lightbulb moment. That’s why it’s so hard to arrive at a definition of ‘craft beer’ in the UK: in the UK, it has no definition. It’s got a hole where a definition ought to be – or rather, where the original definition used to be.

What’s happened as a result is what always happens when a group of people start using a term without any definition: it’s been defined by how it’s used, and especially by the people who use it. ‘Craft beer’ drinkers are the people who see themselves as drinkers of craft beer. ‘Craft beer’ is the kind of beer craft beer drinkers like, and ‘craft brewers’ are the brewers who cater to them.

And, er, that’s it. That’s all there is to it.

Mine’s a light and bitter!

Zak writes:

There are a lot of naysayers who object purely on principle to paying £10 for a bottle (or a pint) of beer. I’m not exactly sure why that is – it would be easy to say that it’s jealousy, but I think there’s something more fundamental going on. I think it’s the idea that there is something posh, snobby, pretentious – call it what you want – about spending your money on fancy, rare or expensive beer. Just as I’d defend anyone’s right to spend their money on anything that they want (as long as it isn’t criminal, in the legally defined sense), I’d also defend anyone’s right to express their discomfort about it. But that’s just what I think – I’d love to hear your views on that idea.

Tied into this is the idea that people who buy fancy, rare or expensive beer are doing so because they somehow think they are better than people who don’t. For this to be true, there would have to be a substantial amount of blog content denigrating the sort of beers that “only” cost below £3 a pint.

Elitism is a difficult one. If you like good beer, it’s hard to get away from saying that you prefer better beer, which is only a hop and a skip away from saying that you like the best beer. And if you like the best, and if the best happens to be within your price range, what could be wrong with that? Clearly it would be wrong if you looked down on all the people drinking inferior beer, but (Zak argues) this doesn’t actually happen – not in the British blogosphere, anyway – so what’s the problem?

Something’s got lost in this argument, and – ironically – it’s money. I’ve got no objection to the existence of people who are keen to buy beer priced at twice or three times the level I find affordable, although for obvious reasons I prefer not to socialise with them much. I don’t think they’re bad people, or that they hold offensive attitudes; I don’t really care what attitudes they hold. What I object to is seeing beers priced at twice or three times the level I think of as affordable – and being told that those beers are the latest & greatest, where it’s at, just too, too fab and groovy, etc. (NB check current slang before publishing). Down at the Marble Beerhouse, the new Decadence 750ml has gone on sale at £16 and the new barleywine at (no lie) £19. £16, let alone £19, represents a new high for Marble, and although I generally wish them well I would be delighted if they couldn’t sell them at those prices. I should think they will sell, though, which saddens me. I don’t like being priced out of a market, least of all this one. It makes me feel that I’m losing something I’ve always thought of as mine – and mine to share, potentially, with just about anyone (there aren’t many people who can’t afford a pint in a pub).

There are two parts to this. For myself, firstly, I suppose it’s not quite true to say that I can’t afford those beers. I could find the money if I really wanted to, but – as I said over at B&B – that’s a bit of a red herring: I mean, I could find the money to buy a Rolex if I really wanted to. Beer is something I’m used to buying without worrying about what size hole it’s going to leave in my bank account, and I don’t find that frisson of stress and anxiety adds much to the experience. A bottle of beer at £10 isn’t unaffordable, it just comes in on the wrong side of a sharp intake of breath.

That’s the part about me; the other part of it is about everyone else. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the 70s – when the old hippies were settling down and starting businesses – but I’ve always bracketed real ale with real bread and real cheese. I don’t want to live in a world where most people drink Carlsberg and eat processed cheese squares on white sliced, while the cognoscenti compare notes about their muslin-wrapped Stilton, their wood-oven ciabattas and their, well, you fill in the beer. People who say – to quote a commenter at Zak’s – that “brewers have the right to charge as much as they want for the product of their labour” (to whoever wants to pay that much) don’t often acknowledge the other side of the coin: just as there will always be people willing to pay top whack for ultra-premium specialist goods, there will always be people willing to buy substandard goods if it means paying a bit less. Left unregulated, food producers (and large brewers) are quite happy to fill both of those niches – have a look round the supermarket next time you’re there.

So I’m not offended by people buying bottles of beer priced at the level of a bottle of champagne; what I’m offended by is the pricing of the beer. Beer at those prices is effectively out of my reach, and it’s out of reach of all the people with an income like mine or lower – and there are plenty of them. Every time a blogger raves about one of those bottles, it nudges the image of ‘beer’ a little further towards that end of the scale. My ideal world is one where everyone is eating and drinking good wholesome stuff – where cotton-wool bread, ‘cheese food’ and whatever it is they brew in Moss Side aren’t even available. My big problem with the £10 bottle is that it doesn’t bring that world any nearer; it may even push it further back, by turning campaigners for a good honest drink into connoisseurs of the latest, weirdest, rarest… and most expensive.