Category Archives: The workers’ beer

How much is that pint on the menu?

A brief note about a curious experience we had in Manchester the other day.

The other half & I were in the market for a meal before going to the cinema, and decided to aim a bit higher than Spoons. (I won’t name the place we went to, but it was – as the ads used to say – Five Minutes From This Cinema, ‘this’ being the OdeonVue in the Printworks.)

The meal, although not fancy, was very nice indeed – it’s good to be reminded sometimes what a hamburger tastes like when it’s been made from scratch. What it wasn’t was lavish; the burgers, while perfectly adequate, were on the small side of large, and my wife’s salad had been portion-controlled to within an inch of its life. My chips were served in one of those odd metal canisters (a small vase? an ornamental tin can?), which appeared to have been quite generously filled; on inspection, however, the chips were sitting in a small greaseproof paper bag which was perched in the neck of the canister, the bottom half of which was completely empty. It was fine – I didn’t go hungry, and the quality of the food was excellent – but it did give the impression that they were trying to make a little go a long way.

As for beer, the drinks menu had several bottles and cans in the £3-£5 range, including a couple from small brewers. I fancied something bigger than 330 ml, though, so I looked at the ‘draught’ section – and was surprised to see that ‘craft ales’ [sic] were on offer. Getting our waitress to tell us what they actually were took several questions (on my part) and a bit of running back and forth (on hers), but eventually I was served with a pint of RedWillow Faithless – presumably the latest (#91), as it was a hoppy bitter. Rather to my surprise, it was on cask; it was in good nick, too, and went well with the meal.

At the end of the meal we were in a hurry to get to the pictures, so didn’t worry too much about the bill; the total sounded about right, so we paid up and scarpered. The curious experience came later, when we got the bill out to check what we’d paid for what. For my beer – a pint of a high-quality short-run beer from a well-respected local brewer, on cask, in a restaurant – I’d paid £3.85. £3.85! You could pay more than that over the bar in Chorlton; come to that, you could pay more than that for a bottle of lager in Nando’s or Pizza Express. And this in a restaurant which clearly had a policy of not leaving any money on the table (or on the plate) as far as food was concerned.

I’m not saying that £3.85 is cheap in pub prices, let alone that it’s too cheap. But £3.85 in a restaurant – and a restaurant that wasn’t giving anything away otherwise – for a quality beer like that…! I can only imagine that the restaurant’s paying a correspondingly low rate to the supplier – and I can only imagine that they’re doing that because of a perception that cask beer has to be sold cheap or not at all.

I’m all in favour of a £4 ceiling, and of keeping beer affordable generally. But there are bound to be exceptions, and I think the kind of restaurant where a burger costs a tenner could legitimately be one of them. The fact that, in this case, it wasn’t an exception – although they did feel free to charge ‘restaurant’ prices for beer in cans – makes me wonder if some of our campaigning on behalf of cask has been too successful, or if it’s succeeded in the wrong way.


In your own way

OK, so here’s what I think about the Cloudwater announcement.

It seems to me that a lot of the reaction to the announcement was based on a – mostly unstated – train of thought that goes something like this.

  1. Cloudwater are getting out of cask.
  2. This is a very bad thing.
  3. The reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they can’t make it pay.
  4. This just goes to show that cask is too cheap.
  5. People need to start paying more for cask.
  6. One thing that will help is going on social media to tell people that they need to pay more for cask.
  7. Another thing would be for CAMRA to recognise the importance of beer quality…
  8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…
  9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

I’m sorry to see Cloudwater getting out of cask, but apart from that I disagree with almost all of these statements.

2. This is a very bad thing.

Yeah… no. I’m sorry to see them go, but Cloudwater have never looked like a cask brewer. You know what a successful cask brewer looks like? They’ve got at least one year-round regular beer within hailing distance of session strength (Ringmaster, Hophead, Lumford, Seamless); they’ve probably also got one that looks a bit like a best bitter, which is still what a lot of people go to a pub expecting to find (Hat Trick, Partridge, Lord Marples, Feckless). They put seasonal stuff, experimental stuff and downright silly stuff on cask as well, but they’ve got a core range and they keep turning it out. Cloudwater actually make a feature of not having the same beers on all the time. Their nearest thing to a regular cask beer was a double IPA – and that was only regular in the sense that it was re-brewed every year. I’m not saying this puts me off – I’ll try a Cloudwater beer whenever I see it – but then, I’m serious about beer (God help me). For a non-expert – punter or publican – they’ve never looked like a good regular proposition. “If you liked our India Pale Lager you’re going to love our grisette”? Yeah… no.

3. The reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they can’t make it pay.

I think it’s fair to say that’s an over-simplification. Looking at it another way, the reason Cloudwater are getting out of cask is that they project that they won’t be able to make brewing for cask in the way they’ve chosen to do it pay as much as they currently need it to. And this needs to be understood alongside the alternative projection that they will be able to secure the profits they need by brewing in the way they’ve chosen to do it for keg, bottle and can. Cloudwater have made a huge upfront investment in kit and substantial continuing investments in materials and people; they need to do that if they’re going to maintain the high quality and consistency that they’re celebrated for, not to mention that ever-changing list of beers. That’s what launching a business is like; you start with money (your own or a loan), you spend like a drunken sailor and you wait for the money coming in to match outgoings. It’s a bit like launching a plane by pushing it off a mountain, and hoping that you can pull out of the down curve before you hit the ground. I would imagine that the capital Cloudwater were sitting on at the outset was probably more substantial than is the case for many newly-launched breweries, and I suspect it’s dwindled more rapidly as well. Whatever the facts of the matter are – and their statement was commendably open about their current position – the size of Cloudwater’s launch mountain and the shape of their down curve aren’t the same as those of any other brewer. Because of that, their experiences don’t necessarily generalise.

4. This just goes to show that cask is too cheap.

The idea here seems to be that keg is dear where cask is cheap, and if only cask were dear too we wouldn’t be having these problems. I have trouble with this argument straight off; within 15 minutes’ walk of my house I could pay £5.50, £4.50 or £3.50 for a pint of cask beer, and half an hour’s bus ride away I could pay £2.50. (And the £5.50 stuff is bloody good, let me tell you. Mind you, the £2.50 was rather nice.) Is £4.50 too cheap? If you’re visiting from the land of viaducts you might think it’s a sight too dear. The market’s segmented all over the shop. Also, from the figures Steve posted recently it looks as if the margin on a keg is just as poor as on a cask, despite the higher price – but nobody ever seems to say that keg is too cheap.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that if publicans were willing to pay (say) half as much again for a cask of Cloudwater Session IPA, Cloudwater would have carried on casking it – and that if punters were willing to pay half as much again for a pint, ditto, then publicans would also have been willing to pay the extra. The trouble is, this tells us nothing about the price of cask, except that it would be possible to manipulate it to a level that would keep Cloudwater interested – if only we had a mind-control ray.

But there are no mind-control rays, and the market is brutal. Once a price-range is established – even if it’s only established in Stockport, or in Chorlton – then it’s properly established; it’s hammered home in people’s minds with every purchase that they make. The price for a commodity may not be a rational reflection of the labour and materials that have gone into it, but (in the immortal words of Keynes) “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” Try selling against the market – for instance, by insisting that your cask beer simply has to go at £6 a pint (£4 in Stockport) – and you’ll find out how true that is.

The only way to peg prices permanently, short of government control, is by establishing a cartel; unfortunately this is illegal. Where there’s a relatively small number of suppliers and nobody has an overriding interest in undercutting the others, something cartel-like can develop informally – and if nobody is letting their keg IPA go out below £5 a pint, it doesn’t matter (to the drinker) whether this is being managed formally or not. Perhaps brewers have managed to hold the line on a higher price range for craft keg, in part by appealing to novelty and the ‘reassuringly expensive’ snob factor; I suspect we’re still in the phoney war on that front. But even if craft keg prices are permanently pegged in the £5+ range (£3+ in Stockport), that says nothing about what can be done with cask prices, or how it can be done – not least because there are so many more players in the cask field.

5. People need to start paying more for cask.

I object to this on a number of levels. Firstly, it makes no sense: starting to pay more for cask – more than the price it’s currently on sale at – isn’t something I can choose to do. I’ll certainly pay more for cask when I start being charged higher prices across the board – as I have done many times before – but that’s not really a choice either. Secondly, it implies that spending more money is an easy and neutral choice, which for most people is far from being the case. My current income makes the choice between a £3 and £4 pint painless, but I’m in the top 20% of the national income distribution. I know what it’s like to budget for a couple of pints at the weekend – and, I’d suggest, a lot more people have that experience than don’t. Thirdly, it’s economically irrational: how often do you make a purchase – of any kind – and think “I wish I was paying a bit more“? Unless you’re making a charitable donation or paying a “solidarity price”, the point of paying money for goods is to pay as little as possible. (Some high-end goods manage to peg their prices high, associating price with quality, but even in that context nobody wants to pay more than they have to. You may pay £700 for an iPhone instead of £50 for an HTC, but you won’t pay the Apple Store £705 if John Lewis have got them for £695. And you may pay £2.50 for a third of Un-Human Cannonball, but you won’t be happy to pay £3 if the bar down the road has it on for £2.40.)

So if you’re saying “people need to start paying more for cask”, you’re asking people in general to do something impossible, which might cause them hardship if it were possible, and which in any case goes against everyday economic rationality. But there’s an even bigger question, which is: why? Suppose I launch It’s Wicca, Man!, a line of refreshingly frothy pagan-friendly ales, with the unique selling point that every cask that leaves my garagepremises has been individually blessed by a qualified Wiccan. (We’ll handwave the question of what makes a qualified Wiccan. That’s probably what they do anyway.) Then suppose that, shortly before the launch, I have a falling-out with the Wiccan down the road, and it turns out that the nearest alternative qualified Wiccan lives in Holyhead and has a sickly rabbit which she refuses to leave for longer than a day. Now I’ve got worries – and they’re money worries. I’m starting small, so I’m only shipping out one cask at a time – and every one carries the additional overhead of paying my Wiccan friend’s travel costs from Holyhead to Manchester and back. I’m going to go broke in short order, unless I can persuade stockists to pay quite a bit more for each cask – either that or just lie about the Wiccan thing, but the Goddess really wouldn’t like that.

The point here is that nobody, in this rather far-fetched story, is stopping me making cask beer – not even the Goddess. What I can’t do is make cask beer in precisely the way I want to. Not, that is, unless I can persuade a substantial number of punters that I should be able to make cask beer in precisely the way I want to, and that this is important enough to make it worth paying more for my beer. But that’s a really hard sell; mostly punters (and publicans) are liable to take the view that beer is beer, and that the world doesn’t owe anybody a living. Not because they’re evil or selfish or brainwashed, but because that’s how selling stuff in a free market, and the rationality the market is based on, work. (Approaching a smaller number of punters directly – through crowdfunding or some kind of share issue – could work; I wish Dave all the luck in the world and look forward to his announcement. But that’s by the way; the point here is that there isn’t a viable route through “voluntarily pay more for cask”.)

I’ll speed up for the last few points.

6. One thing that will help is going on social media to tell people that they need to pay more for cask.

Given that telling people that they need to pay more for cask is pointless and worse – as we’ve just established – telling them on social media really can’t help. But telling people anything on social media is highly unlikely to help. It’s a tiny, self-selecting coterie; we only disagree so bitterly about trivial things because we share the same outlook about so much.

7. Another thing would be for CAMRA to recognise the importance of beer quality…

CAMRA does recognise the importance of beer quality; the days when all the organisation cared about was getting one more handpump in one more pub are gone, if they ever existed.

8. …stop agitating for cheap beer…

CAMRA doesn’t agitate for cheap beer. The idea that CAMRA has somehow driven down the price of cask beer is really widespread – at least in the CAMRA Critics’ Corner of my own social media coterie – but I don’t know where it came from. I can only assume it’s a kind of reverse association – CAMRA = real ale = not keg = not expensive. By the same logic you could accuse CAMRA of promoting the spread of nonic glasses.

9. …and start agitating for expensive beer instead.

Won’t happen. CAMRA represents drinkers, not producers; if push comes to shove, it represents the interests of drinkers, not producers. And it’s not in the interest of drinkers to have less money in their pocket. CAMRA can – and does – advocate on behalf of good, interesting, well-produced cask beer, and very little of that beer will be available at bargain-basement prices. But explicitly pushing higher prices just isn’t going to happen.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t want to overstate point 3; I don’t think this is a complete non-problem. Clearly, Cloudwater aren’t the only brewery finding it hard to make cask pay. But I do want to stress point 5: if the price peg has been hammered in too low for some (or many) brewers, moving it upwards will take a lot more than exhorting punters to pay more (or exhorting CAMRA to exhort them). Market forces put it where it is, and it’ll be market forces that move it. Ultimately, I’m afraid that what’s going on now is simply that there are too many breweries, and we’re seeing the downward pressure on prices that predictably follows a glut in supply. (As a result we’ve already said goodbye to Waen and Quantum – although thankfully both the brewers involved are going to carry on brewing.) Here’s hoping that, across the industry, the innovators can survive – with a tactical retreat from cask if necessary – and it’s the corner-cutters and back-of-a-lorry merchants who go under.

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.

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!

As we drive through the rain

Following the IndyManBeerCon, another defining characteristic of craft beer has been proposed:

we knew it was going to be pricey and so it proved, but something labelled “craft” is, allegedly, supposed to be pricey, so I felt you could roll with that punch

Apparently most cask beers at IMBC worked out at three tokens per pint, while the keg beers were (mostly?) six tokens per pint or more. With tokens available at 11 for £10, the cask was pretty reasonable but that keg was expensive stuff.

Does this matter?

I agree, pricing was high for some beers. I guess I just expected that though. Plus I’m willing to pay higher prices for the opportunity given: so many interesting, unique, and hard-to-find beers in one place on draught! Stunning!
– a commenter on Tyson’s post

Evidently not to some people. But I think it’s a road beer-lovers should be very wary of going down, or encouraging brewers to go down.

Look at it this way. The drinking-age (over-17) population of the UK is just under 50,000,000. Ten million of those are over 64, so presumably living on a pension. Some pensioners seem to do OK, but it’s not a wild generalisation to say that people in this group tend not to have money to burn.

That leaves 40 million – 80% of the total – of working and drinking age. 70% of those 40,000,000 are in fact working – the remainder are classed either as unemployed or as economically inactive (we can go into the difference between those another time if anyone’s intrigued).

Now, median annual earnings across the working population – the level that splits the working population in two, with as many people above the line as below it – are about £21,000. After that the income graph slopes upward quite slowly; the 75th centile, the point at which you leave three-quarters of the working population behind, is somewhere around £33,000.

So, out of 50 million people who either drink beer or could do so without breaking the law, ten million are on pensions; twelve million are of earning age but not actually earning, because they’re on benefits or being supported by somebody else; and fourteen million, half of the remainder, are in work but earning less than 21k. Anyone earning 33k or more is in the top 25% of the working population – which itself is not much more than half of the total drinking-age population.

I’m not suggesting here that people on low incomes can’t afford expensive beer – you could use very similar logic to say that they can’t afford beer full stop, and you could argue that if you can only afford one beer a week you might as well make it a good one. The point is that people on low incomes are much more likely to be put off by high prices – and people on low incomes are actually the large majority of the population. Saying “of course the prices are high, what would you expect” amounts to telling seven out of eight drinkers that they’re not wanted.

Skim the cream off

For the last year I’ve been recording a folk song a week and uploading them to a site called 52 Folk Songs. As the name implies, my plan when I started it up was to keep going for a year. I’ve now reached week 52; over the last year I’ve uploaded something like 130 songs and taken up four different instruments* as well as the ones I played at the start**. Time for a bit of a breather, I think.

And there’s a beer connection. Well, sort of. As well as the 52 main weekly songs, I’ve been recording one or two extra songs a week, not all of them folk songs. This week the ‘non-folk’ selection was Ewan MacColl’s song Ballad of Accounting – a slightly unfortunate title, calling to mind somebody trying to be hearty and come-all-ye about double-entry book-keeping. Actually it’s not that kind of accounting. Not at all.

What did you learn in the morning?
How much did you know in the afternoon?
Were you content in the evening?

The song’s a challenge thrown down to everyone who was ever born without a silver spoon in their mouth. As if to say: This life of yours, what did you make of it? And, most importantly: People wanted to keep you down – did you let them?

What’s it got to do with beer? This. Verse four:

Did you ever demand any answers,
The who and the what and the reason why?
Did you ever question the setup?
Did you stand aside and let them choose while you took second best?
Did you let them skim the cream off and then give to you the rest?
Did you settle for the shoddy? Did you think it right
To let them rob you right and left and never make a fight?

Did you settle for the shoddy? That, for me, is exactly what CAMRA came to combat – shoddy beer; more precisely, shoddy substitutes for decent beer. Decent beer is what I believed in when I first heard of CAMRA, and what I still believe in now – decent beer for everyone. Which is also why I try to avoid getting drawn into the world of the £12 bottle and the £5 half; I don’t think there’s a future for beer in letting them skim the cream off, even if I can sometimes be one of the ones doing the skimming. With Tim Martin a Kipper and Right-Libertarians making themselves heard on the smoking ban, it’s easy to forget how left-leaning the real ale scene was in the early days of CAMRA. But I think the founding ideas of CAMRA had a real affinity with the Left: it was all about the drinkers (not the brewers) and it was all about all the drinkers, not just the tickers and cognoscenti. There was a campaign for real ale, because real ale needed to be fought for – and it needed to be fought for because big business wasn’t on our side: there was too much money to be made out of not selling it and not brewing it in the first place. I read this evening (in comments at B&B) that the CAMRGB (look it up) holds that “it is important that a brewer makes their beer how they choose” – after all, “if the consumer doesn’t like it they won’t drink it”. The capitulation to the business point of view is total. Presumably, if a brewer wants to reduce the quality of their beer and spend the money on advertising, that’s OK too – people wouldn’t drink it if they didn’t like it.

This has come out a bit more Mr Angry than I intended – I guess that’s what comes of doing Ewan MacColl songs.

So, anyway: 52 Folk Songs. Featuring 52 traditional songs, 42 other traditional… shall I start this again? Featuring 94 traditional songs, 34 non-traditional songs, and some others that I haven’t kept tabs on. Also featuring me singing and playing a bunch of different instruments. Lots of multi-tracking. Lots of songs you probably don’t know. All good stuff, apart from this one Dylan song which didn’t come out quite… er, never mind. Basically, all good stuff. Check it out.

*Melodica, zither, concertina, ukulele.
**Flute, recorder, whistle(s), drums.

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.

Avoid the humdrum

Following a fairly unusual session at a highly unusual pub, Zak wrote:

If I can go into a pub in small town in Yorkshire and buy these beers, are they in any way elitist? They may be imported, out-there, flavour of the moment and expensive (in relative terms, even at The Grove) but does that make them elitist? Or is elitism just another word for expensive?

I think this is asking the wrong question, or at least starting the argument too late. Real ale may be a living thing, but it doesn’t have feelings – beer can’t be ‘elitist’ any more than it can be intelligent, left-wing or prone to depression. Obviously what Zak meant by ‘elitist beer’ is ‘beer which is designed for elitists and shows it’, but that begs the question of who these elitists are.

So what is elitism in beer-appreciation? A while ago in a thread from hell on BeerAdvocate, I advanced the argument that the term “real ale” isn’t inherently elitist:

it may be eccentric, it may even be reactionary, but it’s basically just saying “let’s everyone do it the way they used to, because it was better”

This position did not meet with universal approval:

seems like the definition of elitism to label all other beers as “fake, phoney, ersatz, imitation.”

Hmm. So is that the definition of elitism – saying “the thing I like is the real thing”? And if not, what is?

Proposition 1: Saying “this beer is good” is not elitist.
Anyone who doesn’t agree with that one isn’t going to feel very comfortable with the beer blogosphere, or other people. Moving on:

Proposition 2: Saying “this beer is better than that beer” is not elitist.
I suppose there is an argument (at this point you can probably hear me bending over backwards to be fair) that it would be arrogant to say that a beer I happen to like is better than a beer I don’t like. It’s not an argument I share. I don’t think you can like beer (or anything else, really) without at some point thinking “now that’s good!“; it’s even possible to recognise that a beer you don’t particularly like is a good piece of work. (I’m happy to agree with the general opinion that Jaipur is a very fine beer. I’d also be happy never to drink it again.)

Now it starts to get a bit more controversial.

Proposition 3: Saying “this beer which I’ve had and you haven’t is better than that beer which you’ve had” is not elitist.
It can’t be, logically – otherwise it would be an act of elitism to introduce someone to a new beer. I think this gets confused in people’s minds with a slightly different statement:

Proposition 4: Saying “this beer which I can get and you can’t is better than that beer which you can get“… may or may not be elitist.
This is a difficult one. The key question is, why can’t ‘you’ get it? If the answer is, because you’re not in Huddersfield (or Helston, or St Helier) then I’m with Zak – Huddersfieldism is not elitism. I mean, there is no conceivable elite whose membership is defined by commuting distance from Huddersfield (I’m fairly sure about this one). Going back to BeerAdvocate, banging on about the real-ness of cask ale to a bunch of American beer geeks with no way of experiencing the difference might not have been sensitive or tactful, but it wasn’t elitism; just Huddersfieldism on a larger scale.

If the answer is, because you haven’t got a spare £350 to spend on 24 bottles of beer, the relevant definition of ‘elite’ seems a bit more obvious. I think I disagree with Zak on this point – I think money does make a difference. There is a kind of rough-and-ready elitism which is defined by having cash to burn and moving in circles where everyone else does too. An example would be the slighting reference in the Guardian‘s listings section a while back to “the kind of people who buy their clothes from Next”. (Me, I only go to Next when I’m feeling flush.)

But I’m more interested in a third possible answer, which I think gets us closer to a definition of beer elitism. What if the reason why you’ll never taste Brew X is that it costs a tenner a bottle, and you just wouldn’t dream of blowing that kind of money on a bottle of beer, even if you had the money lying around? Or what if it’s a short-run bottling which was consumed in its entirety at a beer writers’ dinner (invitation only naturellement)? I think I’m on stronger ground here:

Proposition 5: Saying “this beer which I can get and you can’t because of who I am is better than that beer which people like you can get” is elitist.

And the reason it’s elitist is that it’s not about the beer or even the price of the beer: it’s about the people. Elitism is fundamentally about saying “we’re better than you”:

Proposition 6: Saying “this beer which I like because of who I am is better than that beer which people like you like” is elitist.

And this attitude has got nothing to do with price or availability; elitists often find it satisfying to demonstrate that they are different from the rest of us through the amount they spend on their passion, but the elitism comes first. You can have a passion for making good stuff available to everyone who wants it and still end up selling at the high end (or on Guernsey). (I don’t think of Dave as an elitist, for example, despite his keen awareness of who’s got money to spend.) On the other hand, you can be an obnoxiously blatant elitist, broadcasting your contempt for the common herd, and still put affordable beer on supermarket shelves; why you would want to do this I’m not quite sure, but I know that it can be done. Elitism is quite compatible with mass appeal: all you need to do is make everyone feel like they’re better than the common herd. At every university in the country there’s a group of first-year students who are dedicated to experiencing the hottest curry, the best drugs, the most alcohol, and think the rest of their year are wusses – and there are a lot of universities in the country.

So was Zak drinking ‘elitist beer’? I’m not sure. The Mikkeller thing with all the IBUs certainly sounds like something brewed for a very specific market – a kind of wannabe-connoisseur crowd, lacking the palate or experience of genuine connoisseurs but filling the gap with a juvenile passion for extremes (not unlike those first-year curry warriors). So that one sounds a bit on the elitist side; the others don’t, particularly. (I do envy Zak the Celebrator – but that’s Huddersfieldism rather than elitism.)

I intend to drink some good beer on Thursday evening, but it won’t be uniquely good beer – beer like nobody else is drinking for miles around – and I’d be worried if it was. I’m not interested in peak beer experiences nobody can share but equally dedicated geeks. More good ale, everywhere, for everyone!

Never mind the weather

Name this beer! (No, they haven’t named it already.)

Yes, I’m still here. I’ve been working on one very long post for the last few nights – it’ll be great when it’s finished. I’m also planning to enter Zak’s competition – but you can’t see that one till it’s finished either.

In the mean time, here’s another compy you might want to have a crack at, also closing on Friday. This also marks a personal milestone: after the first beer I’ve been sent to review, here’s my first press release. (On reflection the beer was more fun.) You don’t get any of this stuff out in the general-purpose blogosphere, I tell you.

Butlins is launching a premium real ale as part of its 75th birthday celebrations and is challenging the nation to brew up an appropriate name for the beer.

The birthday beer will be produced by world famous brewery Marston’s in the home of British Brewing, Burton-on-Trent, and will be available in bottles and on draft [sic] at the three Butlins beachside resorts.

Said Butlins MD Richard Bates: “Whoever names our beer will become part of Butlins history, because both their name and the beer’s name will appear on the label together.
And who better to bottle our heritage, than the Great British public!”

The Butlins Beer is a premium English pale ale, described by the brewers as “golden, zesty and hoppy”.

The winner will pull the first pint at a celebratory event at Butlins, be treated to a VIP break on resort – and also enjoy a VIP visit to The Marston’s Brewery, known as ‘the Cathedral of Brewing’, to witness the creation of their new brew.

Visit www. butlins. com/ beer for more information or email your name suggestion to realale @ by 26 November 2010, providing your full name, age, address and telephone number.

So there you go.

I’ve got slightly mixed feelings about this story. On one hand, the association with a company whose image is still stuck in the 1950s – i.e. before the majority of the population was born – surely can’t be much help in pitching real ale to the young, edgy, brand-aware crowd; viewed from the perspective of the average Style supplement, it could almost be calculated to make real ale look like an old man’s drink. On the other hand, an awful lot of people don’t see the world through Style supplements; an awful lot of people don’t drink real ale; and an awful lot of people pass through Butlin’s in Bognor, Minehead and Skegness. Never mind the image, feel the footfall, in other words.

On balance I think this is the main thing. This initiative is going to put what will hopefully be a pretty decent real ale in front of a lot of people who don’t currently drink it, in a setting where they’ll have ample opportunities to acquire the taste. It’s going to be an ale with a very ordinary image – but I think we sometimes forget that an ale with an ordinary image would actually be a very good thing. Good one, Butlin’s (and Marston’s).

The competition closes on Friday, so there’s still plenty of time to get your name in – have at it. (But you can’t have the obvious one, because I’ve just suggested it.)

Thoughts on the Cask Report, part 2

Quick recap:

  1. Cask ale sales aren’t rising, they’re holding steady.
  2. They’re holding steady at a low level, having dropped by 30% since 1999.
  3. If cask appears to be gaining market share, this is the result of cask sales holding steady while overall beer sales fall.
  4. This fall in overall beer sales is an established trend, but a new and worrying one.
  5. It is not clear whether cask is actually immune to this trend, or if its effects are being cancelled out by a separate rise in cask drinking.

The fact that cask ale drinking rose in the South-East of England in 2009, while falling in the rest of the country, lends some support to the ‘separate rise’ theory.

And here’s a relevant thought from the Curmudgeon:

In the early 1970s, interest in real ale was almost an archaeological exercise. It was a declining product, produced by old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud breweries, sold in grotty backstreet boozers and drunk by middle-aged and elderly working men. … In the early days of CAMRA, many of its supporters felt that they were just marking the passing of an era, in the same way as steam locomotive buffs were. Possibly in the future there might be the occasional brewpub producing real ale on a cottage scale, a bit like a preserved steam railway, but no more than that.

However, it didn’t work out like that. … the nature of the relationship between producer and consumer has fundamentally changed, and is far more interactive. Brewers and pub operators are far more aware of what their customers want, and responsive to their requirements. It is a very big change from basically exploring a static or declining field of interest. It is almost as if the National Trust, aware of a wide and growing interest in stately homes, had suddenly decided to start building new ones.

I think there’s a lot in that, and it chimes with another aspect of the Cask Report which I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. A representative quote:

cask ale drinkers tend to agree with statements that are more thoughtful, inquisitive and curious. They are active in their leisure time, interested in what goes on in the world, and like to stay informed about everything from international events to developments in technology. This attitude is also reflected in the fact that they read a lot of newspapers. They’re twice as likely to read quality dailies like the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent, but more likely to read any newspaper overall apart from the Star, Sun and in Scotland the Daily Record.

We are also substantially more likely than average to “go for premium rather than standard goods and services”; keg drinkers are slightly less likely than the average. Plus we like to try new drinks, we like a night at the pub (duh!) but don’t go out just to get drunk, we think it’s worth paying extra for good quality beer (hold that thought) and, by jingo, we’re prepared to pay more for good quality wine. In short:

No doubt this is connected with another finding:

Cask ale drinkers tend to be upmarket (68.5% are social grade ABC1). They are more comfortable about their financial situation, and tend to be at a life stage with fewer financial commitments. They tend to wear cravats and sit at the bar talking in loud braying voices, before driving home in their red MGs which were actually a bloody good investment when you really look at it.

(OK, only two of those sentences appear in the Cask Report. Full disclosure: I used to live in the South-East. Never regretted leaving.)

All this is partly smoke and mirrors: according to the 2001 Census (with some post-processing), 55% of the working-age population falls into either the AB group (professional and managerial) or C1 (supervisory and clerical). There’s a difference between a 55/45 split and 68.5/31.5, but not a huge one (Fisher’s exact test gives a p value of 0.08, stats geeks). All this statistic is really saying is that a random sample of cask ale drinkers is a bit more likely to include white-collar workers than a random sample of the population as a whole.

Nevertheless, the trend of the argument is clear: put on more cask ale and you’ll attract responsible drinkers who like good quality wine and read quality dailies. Nice people, in short – well, middle-class people, anyway. You know that old bloke who used to be in there every time you went in, sat in the corner with a fag on and an everlasting pint of Tetley’s and the Daily Mirror, and on Friday lunch his son would come in and they’d have lunch together? Not people like him.

The future of cask lies with a different type of customer altogether. Quoth the Report, “cask is enjoying a steady trend towards premiumisation, with people opting for slightly stronger, more expensive beers”. And why wouldn’t they, what with liking to try new drinks, being comfortable about their financial situation, being into premium goods and services and being willing to pay extra for good quality beer. Which brings us to page 11 of the Report, which deserves quoting at some length:
One of the absurdities of cask ale is that, as the most crafted, quality drink on the bar, it is often the cheapest. If we compare premium sausages to mass-produced mechanically recovered meat sausages, farmhouse cheese to processed cheese, real coffee to freeze-dried granules, we routinely expect the premium version to cost more. The fact that cask is cheaper is doubly absurd because cask drinkers actually expect and are prepared to pay more for cask beer – especially the younger drinkers the category is so keen to recruit.

OK, let’s break this down. First point: the statistics don’t say what the Report says they do. They specifically don’t say what drinkers are prepared to pay for cask beer, just what they’d expect to be charged. Moreover, the averaged-out figures for all the over-34 age-groups don’t show much difference from the £2.50 baseline, ranging from £2.62 down to £2.39; the fact that they aren’t any lower probably just reflects a general awareness that £2.50 is pretty cheap for a pint these days. The only striking result is in the under-35 age group – the younger drinkers the category is so keen to recruit, or in other words people who haven’t got much experience of drinking cask ale.

Second point: there’s a reason why cask ale is generally cheaper than the alternatives, and it’s historical. When keg bitter was introduced it was new, different and modern; it had an instant superficial appeal (why, every pint tastes the same! and they’re all fizzy!); and it did well. The breweries took the opportunity to jack up the price, even though the beer was actually cheaper to produce and distribute. When the big push on lager came in the 1970s, the same thing happened: your Hofmeister and your Heineken were new and exotic, so naturally they were priced even higher. Same story with nitrokeg Guinness. In short, there’s a reason why cask ale is generally cheaper than the alternatives, and the reason is that keg drinkers are being ripped off. Since the rip-off has been going on for literally four decades, it’s probably not going to end any time soon – but to see it used as a reason for ripping off cask drinkers as well is a remarkable bit of chutzpah.

Fundamental point: cask beer is not a “premium” product. Ground coffee is not a premium version of instant coffee, it’s the real thing: instant coffee is a cheap substitute for ground coffee. (I drink it all the time, but (with all due respect to Rula Lenska) you would never imagine you were drinking ground coffee.) Sausages made from recognisable cuts of meat aren’t a premium version of mass-produced mechanically recovered meat sausages, they’re the real thing; the nameless-pink-slurry variety are a cheap substitute. What Pete appears to be suggesting here is that lager and keg bitter are cheap, mechanically-produced substitutes for hand-crafted real beer. It’s a point of view that had a lot of currency in CAMRA in the early days, but I understood the debate had moved on a bit.

What’s going on here is, essentially, rhetorical softening-up for introducing the idea of ‘premium’ beer; on the back of bracketing real ale with foods that aren’t cheap and nasty, we’re being asked to bracket it with semi-luxury goods like farmhouse cheese. Like some other bloggers, I like a nice bit of cheese, and I’ll buy the odd bit of Stilton or chèvre without counting the cost too carefully. But when I go to the pub on a Saturday, I do not want to order the beer equivalent of an artisanal Brie. There’s good beer and then there’s New Special Different Original Rare Short-Run Hand-Finished Beer – or novelty beer for short – and never the twain shall meet. I will buy novelty beer from time to time – I’ve got all four of the recent Marble bottlings, each waiting for its own special occasion – but it really isn’t what I want to find on the bar on the average Saturday.

In the previous post I commented on the Report’s use of statistics, as well as the detail of the conclusions it draws from them, and concluded that it’s at least as much a piece of advocacy as an analytical report. I also asked: “if it is trying to influence people, what goal does it have in mind – and is that a goal I share?” My ideal world, as far as beer is concerned, is one in which the decline of cask is reversed: a world where I could go into any pub in town – including the ones where people read the Daily Mirror; including the ones where people drink Vod-Bull, come to that – and find at least one hand-pump on the bar dispensing a beer that’s in good condition, because people have been drinking it. I’m lucky; good, interesting, relatively inexpensive cask beer is part of my everyday life (well, 2-3 times a week rather than everyday as such, but the point stands). My ideal world is one where many, many more people have that experience.

I’m really not sure that that’s the ideal world the Cask Report is envisaging. Rather, I can see a vista of high-priced ‘premium’ and novelty beers opening up, with a new class of beer-drinkers to go with them: ABC1, Guardian and Telegraph-readers, responsible drinkers, comfortable with their financial situation, willing to pay for quality, and so on and so forth. And, perhaps, living mainly in the South-East. The really worrying thought is that the Cask Report may genuinely be reporting the future of cask: perhaps the shift towards “premiumisation”, the prominence of broadsheet readers and the anomalous rise in cask volumes in the South-East are all part of the same trend. Perhaps what’s continuing to decline in most of the country is the world of the pub and club as we’ve known it, and what’s on the rise in the South-East is a new kind of cask drinker: people who are already used to the £3 pint, and can pay more than that without really noticing; people who, as Gazza suggested, come to single-varietal beers knowing all about “the characteristics of individual grapes used in wine production”; people who genuinely see cask beer as a ‘premium’ product, in short, and don’t mind paying a premium for it.

These are not my kind of beer drinker – and I’m not convinced their beer is going to be my kind of beer.