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What's new?
Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
News about my next books!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

If you really care about the rise in liver disease, read this

Gin Lane

So the main beer-related headline this morning (given that George Osborne deliberately misled the nation over his 5% alcohol duty rise by saying there was 'no change' to beer duty, which most people don't realise means the punitive duty escalator remains in place) is that deaths by liver disease rocketed by 25% between 2001 and 2009.

This is shocking stuff, and any responsible drinks writer or commentator needs to acknowledge the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.

What's actually positive about this news is that alcohol isn't being blamed for every liver disease death - in the past, the Office of National Statistics has, for the sake of simplicity, recorded every liver disease statistic as being alcohol related, even while admitting this is inaccurate.  At least in this new survey, they admit that it's only one factor, along with obesity and hepatitis.  But this reveals that alcohol actually contributes to a sizeable chunk - 37% of people who die of liver disease in their forties essentially drink themselves to death, for example.

If alcohol is going to continue to be the life enhancing treat that it is for most responsible drinkers, we need to understand why it becomes something much darker for a significant minority.

Which is why it doesn't exactly help that every story I've seen on this so far this morning is illustrated by - yep, you guessed it - a pint of beer.

This is not me being defensive as a beer writer.  This is me being angry at ignorant media creating a grossly inaccurate picture.

So liver disease increased by 25% from 2001 to 2009.

OK, here are some more numbers.

Over the same period as this rise, beer consumption FELL by 18%.

Most of the beer market is lager, and within this figure, premium lager (around 5% ABV) fell by 18%, while standard lager (around 3.5-4.4% ABV) fell by only 4%.  So less beer is being sold, and within that, the steepest decline is for higher ABV drinks.

Kind of makes it hard to blame beer for a 25% rise in alcohol-related liver disease, no?

At the same time, wine consumption in the UK rose by 8%, and the average ABV of wine rose from 12% ABV to 13.5%.

Want to know what happened to spirits consumption between 2001 and 2009?

Up by 18%.*

As I proved in my last post, I'm no mathematician.  And I do know the difference between correlation and causation.  But it seems to me, reading these figures, that there is a very strong correlation indeed between the rise in alcohol-related liver disease and a trend for people to switch from beer to stronger drinks.

Beer, once again, is being used as the scapegoat.  No doubt it makes sense to some, when we see that the biggest rises are among poor people, especially men, especially in deprived parts of the north, and the media stereotype of beer drinkers remains that of the northern working class male.  But this stereotype is inaccurate, as I've pointed out many times before.

Liver disease is increasing because people are switching from beer to stronger drinks.  We already know this though, because this has been true of every major alcoholism epidemic in history.  In the gin epidemic of the eighteenth century, beer was part of the solution, not the problem, as the immortal cartoons by Hogarth show.  It should be seen as that today.

And there's another factor going on which NEVER gets written about (apart from by my excellent co-writer in this area, Phil Mellows).  Most alcohol consumption takes place among affluent southerners.  Statistically, the wealthier you are, the more you drink.  And yet the poorer you are, the more likely you are to die of drink-related liver disease.

A child could see that alcohol-related mortality therefore has nothing to do with overall consumption.  And yet the government and NHS strategy remains firmly founded on the fundamental belief that the best way to reduce alcohol-related harm is to reduce overall consumption (by measures such as minimum pricing etc).

Not only does this approach stigmatise and punish responsible drinkers, it does nothing to help those drinking harmfully.  Put up the price of booze, and an alcoholic will spend less on food, and so on.  There's overall pattern of evidence to suggest that reducing overall consumption is the best way to reduce harm.

So what is it that makes poor drinkers in the north more likely to drink themselves to death than affluent drinkers in the south, who on average drink more?  Oh, that's too hard.  That might involve addressing the societal, cultural and economic problems that are the REAL reasons some people drink harmfully.

Much easier simply to blame beer.

Beer Street

* All figures from the BBPA's Statistical Handbook 2011

Monday, 5 March 2012

Why beer duty numbers just don't add up - and what YOU can do about it

Soon he'll be the only person the country who can afford a pint

It's nearly budget time again.  On 23rd March, the Government will yet again add inflation plus two per cent to the tax on beer.  This will bring the total tax rise on beer since the duty escalator was introduced in 2008 to about 45%.  The Conservative government has committed to the duty escalator until 2014. Even if they don't add any other taxes - and we can't rule that out - what was already the second highest duty rate in Europe will almost double within a decade.

It makes no sense.  This is a Treasury measure to raise revenue, not a Department of Health measure to reduce drinking.  But word reaches me from one source that an MP very close to David Cameron has admitted that they are now into diminishing returns - each time the duty escalator goes on, the total amount of revenue goes down, because it's killing volume so much.

I've written a lot before now about how the duty escalator is hurting pubs.  But the other day I was with a family brewer who is seeing their business shafted by this relentless punishing of the industry.  I hadn't thought it through before, but it goes like this:

Say inflation is 4%.  Which it is.  So the duty on beer goes up by 4% + 2% = 6%.

But that's just the duty - inflation is still 4% on top of that.  Which means the cost to the brewer of making beer is also going up by 4%.

So if a brewer just wants to stay still, with no increase in profit at all, the duty escalator means the price of their beer must go up by 10%.

The public won't accept this.  The supermarket and the pub trade won't accept this.  So the brewer has to take a hit and see his profit margins sliced.  Every year this happens, those slices get thinner and thinner.  

To make matters worse, that 4% inflation figure is an average across everything.  Some of a mid-size brewer's biggest costs are transport, energy, packaging and barley - all of which are increasing much more rapidly than the headline rate of inflation.  With the above maths in place, there's absolutely no question of them being able to do anything other than take a hit on these costs.

If this carries on, there soon won't be a reason for many brewers to stay in business - some could make more money demolishing their breweries and turning the space into car parks, which is what's happening to Tetley's.  

This equation impacts different sized businesses in different ways.  Microbrewers aren't hit as hard because they get tax relief if they brew below a certain volume.  So that's good news for fans of eclectic, interesting beer.  But they still face the same business pressures, and many use this tax relief to sell their beer to pubs cheaper than bigger brewers can, further shrinking the profitability of beer overall.

Multinational brewers are hit hardest, with their profits reduced to an average now of around 1%.  They'll survive as businesses because they're big enough to invest in developing markets.  South America, Asia, Africa and Russia are the countries that interest these guys now.  You might say good riddance to them, but they're not going to abandon Europe and America - they're just going to relentlessly cut costs to remain competitive - lowering the strength of their beers, using cheaper ingredients and compromised processes, lowering the quality of mainstream beer even further.

And then in the middle you've got Greene King, Fullers, Wells & Young's and Marstons and so on, and the family brewers like Black Sheep, Batemans, Robinsons etc.  These brewers are too big to get duty relief, and too small to go anywhere else.  They're being squeezed to death, facing a situation where it's hard for them to actually make beer at a profit.

If you're a blinkered fan of micros, you might welcome this.  You might say you don't need boring brown beer and that pubs would be better places if they were only stocked by micros.  But I'm afraid you're wrong.  Who do you think installs cellar equipment and services it, guaranteeing the quality of all beers on the bar?  Who do you think puts most of the hand pumps on the bar that the micros use?  Who do you think offers staff training and quality management services?  Who do you think microbrewers phone up when they want to start bottling beers but don't have a bottling line of their own?  Who do you think funds brewing research and laboratory services?  There are many wonderful things about microbrewers, but the whole appeal of them is that they are small and nimble.  They don't have huge staff to support so they can take risks.  They don't have huge pub estates so they don't have to invest in lots of cellar management resource.  However much you love them, and I do, they couldn't survive on their own - as they'd be the first to admit.

This middle tier is getting shafted the hardest by the relentless duty escalator.  They are small to medium sized manufacturing businesses, a rarity in Britain these days, and yet they're the very businesses David Cameron believes will save the economy.  As he said last year:

"There's only one strategy for growth we can have now and that is rolling up our sleeves and doing everything possible to make it easier for businesses to grow, to invest, to take people on.  Back small firms. Boost enterprise. Be on the side of everyone in this country who wants to create jobs, and wealth and opportunity."

He said that.  We can't let him get away with doing the direct opposite to one of the best manufacturing industries we have.

I've hated the Tories with venom ever since I grew up during the miner's strike and watched them turn the apparatus of the state - including the army and secret service - on their own citizens and destroy communities including the one in which I grew up.  But this issue is not a party political one.  This cursed duty escalator was introduced by a Labour government, and last week Andrew Griffiths, the Tory MP for Burton-on-Trent and current chair of the Parliamentary Beer Group, introduced an Early Day Motion to debate the duty escalator in Parliament.

But we have it in our power to force another debate.  

Last week Hobgoblin beer launched a campaign to get 100,000 signatures on an e-petition which would force the issue to be debated in Parliament again.  The wording of the petition is as follows:

Stop the beer duty escalator

Responsible department: Her Majesty's Treasury

Every year, the beer tax escalator increases the tax on beer by 2% above the rate of inflation, thus adding considerably more pressure on the British pub, the cornerstone of many of our communities. Removing the beer duty escalator at the next budget will help keep beer more affordable and go a long way to supporting the institution that is – the great British pub.  Going to the pub is a core British tradition and so is enjoying great beer. If you want to continue enjoying your fresh pint in your local pub then it’s crucial that you support our campaign to grind the beer duty tax escalator to a halt.  If we don’t show our support for the great British pub, we risk losing more pubs and more jobs within our local communities.  Support great beer in the great British pub and sign our e-petition now..... British Pubs Need You.

There are 135,000 members of CAMRA.  And there are millions of people who are not CAMRA members who are passionate about great pubs and great beer.  If we can't get 100,000 signatures on this petition, we don't deserve an affordable pint.

Sign it. Now. 

And then make your friends sign it.

It's not as if it take any effort - it'll take you about a minute, and the link is here.  And while it probably won't do anything this year, it just might have an effect next year.  They're not making any money off this; they're killing the brewing industry; they're threatening thousands of jobs in pubs, and they're making our pints almost unaffordable.  

This is politics - Governments can't be seen to U-turn without good reason, but this is a chance to provide that reason, to allow them to scrap a misguided measure that benefits no one.  It makes sense whatever you drink, and whatever your politics.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Yeeeessssss, it's in(n)!

The George Inn, Borough High St, SE1. A while ago.
After a couple of false starts (or false endings I suppose) I'm back in the real world.  On Thursday I pressed 'send' on the manuscript of my new book, and this weekend my editor becomes the third person in the world to read it (after me and the Beer Widow).  From here it's full steam ahead with edits (hopefully not too many) cover designs, bound proofs out to reviewers and so on, leading up to the launch later this year.

I started this book almost a year ago.  Then in October I had my laptop stolen.  It wasn't backed up (it is now) and I lost every last bit of work I'd done on the book.  I started making my notes again from scratch on 7th October.  I sent the book off on 1st March.  I hope I never have to work to that kind of timetable again, but I think I got away with it.

It's been confirmed that the book will be called SHAKESPEARE'S LOCAL: Five Centuries of History Seen From One Extraordinary Pub.  It tells the story of the George Inn, Southwark, South London, and everything that has happened in it, to it and around it, and the people who have eaten, drunk, stayed, worked, performed and fought there.

It's not really a beer book as such - it's a bit of a departure on that score (though there is one chapter that centres on one of the most famous breweries the world has ever seen).  But it is a book about pubs - not just this one pub, but all pubs, especially inns.  These days we use words like 'inn', 'tavern', 'alehouse' and 'pub' interchangeably, but at one time the differences were so stark they were enshrined in law.  One aspect of the book is the story of how inns were essentially the lynchpins for Britain's entire economy, facilitating the movement of goods, money and people that enabled both the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a mercantile class.  Before we had town halls, municipal buildings, assembly rooms, theatres and concert halls, the inn was the only building in town with large meeting rooms and spaces, and it performed all these functions.

It's also the story of Southwark - an extraordinary town that was once the centre of the world.  London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames from Roman times until 1750.  Anything coming to the capital from the south east or Continental Europe came up Borough High Street and past the George - that's why this pub was just one of twenty or so inns along a half mile stretch of road, along with innumerable alehouses and taverns.  The bottleneck across the bridge meant many people simply stayed in Southwark.  It was just outside London's jurisdiction and the Citys' laws didn't apply, so Southwark became home to nonconformists of every stripe, fugitives and refugees from across the world, villains, rogues, whores and wasters, most of whom popped in for a pint (all except the puritans, who dismissed pubs as the 'blockhouses of the Devil'.)

The story of the George is the story of the last survivor of these great inns.  It was never the biggest, most famous, most beautiful or important - even though it was big, famous, beautiful and important.  Chaucer chose the inn next door to the south as his start point for the Canterbury Tales.  Both Dickens and Shakespeare chose the inn next door to the north as the setting for key scenes in their respective works.  But they all knew the George, and the George is the one that survived, carrying the legacy of what was once the most important street of pubs in the world.

The story of the George is also the story of some bizarre characters who once drunk there.  There's Sir John Mennis, Comptroller of Charles II's Royal Navy and inventory of a literary genre I've chosen to call Stuart-Era Fart Poetry.  There's John Taylor, the Water Poet, who once rowed from London to the Isle of Sheppey in a boat made from paper with oars of salt cod tied to sticks.  There's Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Dick Turpin, the Sugababes, Samuel Pepys, Philip 'the most miserable man in the world' Stubbes, Samuel Johnson, a monkey riding a horse, and possibly the greatest pub landlady who ever lived.

But the main character is the pub itself - just a pub, and so much more, like all pubs are.  When you see what it's been through, the survival of the George makes a mockery of anyone who says pubs are dying out.

That's the gist of what I told my publisher's sales force when I had to present the book to them a couple of weeks ago.  It wasn't easy - I had to follow a debut novelist whose book is already tipped for great things and is in discussions about movie rights - and Rastamouse.

Wha' g'wan? I share a publisher with this mouse.
The creators of Rastamouse had them a-rockin' and a-rhymin', grown men and women squealing with delight.  "Follow that," said my publisher.  I tried.  It seemed to go down well.

So well, in fact, that they moved the publication date.  Shakespeare's Local will now be published on 8th November, right in the middle of the peak Christmas book buying period, competing with comedians' memoirs, 'Katie' 'Price' 'novels' and glossy cookbooks.  The cover design hasn't been finalised yet, but even from early designs it's going to look like a very nice present to buy someone.

So now, finally, I'm back to blogging.  I've got loads to write about as I reacquaint myself with the beer world and start leaving the house again.

I hope you all played nice while I was gone.  It's good to be back.