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The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

We're going down the pub

"You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline."- Frank Zappa.

Belgian beer is good, as long as it is not Stella Bleedin' Artois, which has the nickname "Wifebeater" here for very good reasons. Apart from the Irish with their stouts and the Czechs with their Budvars and Pilsners most countries export their rubbish beers. For instance, Budweiser from the USA; Molson from Canada; Heineken from Holland; Kronenbourg from France; Steinlager from New Zealand; Fosters & Castlemaine from Australia; & Stella from Belgium.

I'm not sure what the English export abroad to be honest. I don't go abroad to drink beers I can easily get here, so what's the point of keeping track of what we export? The trouble is too many English people are under the impression that a lot of the beers other countries dump on us are native to our soil. Carling for example was originally Canadian but has somehow managed to wrap itself up in the Union Jack (the Conrad Black of beers?), and I'm not sure you can get any of their stuff in Canada any more. If so, lucky Canada...

Anyway, decent beer and other decent alcohol should be supported and defended the world over. Such pleasures are under attack from an unholy alliance of the anti-drinkers (often religious in their inspiration- but what about JC turning the water into wine at that wedding?) and the transnational corporations who spew out gassy tasteless pisswater (sorry Mum for the language!) to inflict on the unwary and uncaring. I'm convinced after my visit to Brugge that the world would be a much better place if everyone had a decent lunch with a couple of decent drinks followed by a couple of hours of siesta. Perhaps such a lifestyle would make the Presidents of Iran and the USA calm down a bit.

Anyhow, to fight the good fight the following guide from the pages of Red Pepper may be of use:

GUERILLA GUIDES: That will be the booze talking by Fiona OslerThere’s no longer any need to wait until the pub closes to start the revolution with a guide to ethical drinking

Support independent breweries
The Society of Independent Brewers reckons that some 85 per cent of beer in the UK comes from just four companies – Scottish and Newcastle, Interbrew, Carlsberg Tetley and Guinness. Before the first world war, some 6,000 pubs brewed their own beer but material shortages ended this and the practice has never recovered.

A few ‘brewpubs’ exist, such as the Porterhouse in London’s Covent Garden or the Marble Arch in Manchester, home of Marbles Beer – a vegan, organic microbrewery ( The independent brewers, St Peter’s Brewery, have their own pub, the historic Jerusalem Tavern, in Clerkenwell, London, where customers can drink in the ghostly company of various former bar proppers such as Handel, Samuel Johnson and William Hogarth (

Some microbreweries prefer the trendier term ‘craft’ brewery but the principles are the same – non-chain, independent, innovative, traditional, cask-conditioned real ales. For a list of microbreweries, visit

Vegetarian and vegan

Beer and wine are ‘fined’ (clarified) with isinglass (fish bladders) or even blood and gelatine. Many wine producers now label their wines as vegan or vegetarian and supermarkets such as the Co-op and Waitrose stock a reasonable range, but for more variety check out Samuel Smith breweries produced only vegan beers and are registered with the Vegan society

Champagne Gordon

Gordon Brown has the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) hopping mad over his 2006 budget, freezing duty on champagne while increasing it on beer. Join Camra’s campaign (

Health benefits of booze

We all know about the ‘French paradox’ and the benefits of moderate red wine drinking; now it seems beer may have the same rejuvenating qualities. Beer contains anti-inflammatory components and other antioxidants such as polyphenols, B vitamins and minerals. Well, how else do you explain students surviving on ‘the beer diet’?

Stick a cork in it

Plastic stoppers and aluminium screw tops may be great for the weak-wristed, but they are not doing much for the environment. Natural wine corks come from the bark of the cork oak, Quercus suber, grown in Portugal, Spain and parts of north Africa. Cork oak forests are rich in wildlife, including endangered animals like the Barbary deer, Spanish Iberian lynx and imperial eagle. Cork farmers sustain the woods but if the trade becomes uneconomic it spells disaster for these woods. Chelsea manager José Mourinho is fronting the Portuguese Cork Association campaign, having been chosen for his, er ‘sophistication and appeal’.

Boycott wine (again?)

This is what the United Farm Workers Union (UFWU) did last year with Gallo wines, the world’s second biggest wine maker – and it worked. It is not just Gallo who exploit workers rights, however. Vineyard pruners all over the world are paid piece-rates and encouraged to work without concern for their health and welfare. Vines are sprayed with hazardous chemicals and there is little job security. Buy Fairtrade wine from a number of suppliers, including Traidcraft and the wonderful Vintage Roots (, who do a great line in vegan, vegetarian and biodynamic wines at reasonable prices.

Support the cheese eating surrender monkeys

The US boycott of French wine over the Iraq war has cost the country an estimated £64 million in wine revenue, with a 26 per cent slump in weekly sales. Go to for some great organic French wines.

Bruiser not Breezer

One of the biggest political booze battles of all time must be Barcardi v Havana Club (note that Red Pepper is open to donations of Havana Club at any time). Barcardi, in connivance with the US government, have worked some dark arts over the years against Cuba and by extension Havana Club ( This has included alleged involvement with paramilitary groups and terrorist attacks, as well as links with the CIA and the Bush administration. For more information check out Bacardi: The Hidden War by Hernando Calvo Ospina (Pluto Press).

Smells like teen spirit

‘There cannot be too much vodka, there can only be not enough vodka.’ So says an old Russian saying from long before vodka became the favourite tipple of teenagers in the west.

Vodka packs a real political punch; the entire history of communism is wrapped up in it. Lenin believed vodka to be a major obstacle for communism. So he banned it. Stalin, on the other hand, was a big advocate encouraging the Russian state vodka industry. Interestingly, his predecessor in terror, Ivan the Terrible, established the first state-run vodka industry in the 16th century. It flourished until Gorbachev, a near teetotaller, tried to ban it to combat alarming rates of alcoholism.

Vladimir Putin brought vodka back under state control, but not before the mafia got a serious grip on distribution. If you’d rather not contribute to Russian Mafia profits try UK5 organic vodka (

Political booze (part 1)

The Alternative Beer Company ( was set up in 2004 to import Taybeh beer from Palestine. The company also supports Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and the Israeli refuseniks charity, Yesh Gvul. Shipment is a bit hazardous – they describe their beer as ‘the most difficult to import in the world (probably)’.

Political booze (part 2)

Moreno Wines (11 Marylands Road, London , W9 2DU, Tel 020 7286 0678) help fight the good fight by donating wine for various Red Pepper events and fundraising activities. Thanks Manuel!

Political booze (Part 3)

The Workers Beer Company has helped thousands of non-profit groups, NGOs, trade unions (and Red Pepper) through its beer tent scheme at festivals and other events. WBC also runs the Bread and Roses free house in London (

Of the above I would definitely recommend Sam Smith's beer (the English version; I think there's an American one as well, which might be just as good). Sam Smith's Pale Ales and Wheat Ales are definitely worth tasting, and their pubs (all over the place for a West Yorkshire Brewery. I've drunk in several in London, one in Chester and another in Morecambe over the years) are extremely cheap places to get ratted (like the Eskimos/Inuit vis-a-vis snow, there must be at least 25 different expressions to be found in the British Isles for being under the influence of alcohol).

I've been to the Bread and Roses pub in Clapham not so long ago and it is worth visiting. If you are in London for whatever reason there are two independent London breweries, Fullers and Youngs, that are well worth supporting for the quality of their beers, and they have pubs all over the place (perhaps Fuller's London Pride and Young's Special are the best to have at their respective watering holes). If you are around Greenwich please visit the Greenwich Union (56 Royal Hill, Greenwich SE10 8RT) owned by Meantime Brewing . If you want pints of chocolate or strawberry beer, as well as more conventional types of ale, this is a good place to go (Meantime beers are also available in Sainsbury's if you look).

I did read an article a year or two back in the Financial Times (of all places) about Meantime's founder Alistair Hook. Basically he wanted to introduce German style lager beers into England, and he learnt his craft over in Germany. As a student he had gone up to the leading academic establishment in the UK for studying beer, Herriott-Watt University in Edinburgh, but what he learnt was purely negative. Hook was told by his lecturers that the best beers in the world are those which sold the most. Yeah, right. Hook was also forced by his lecturers to make a blind tasting of several beers. They all tasted the same and was told that was the whole point of making beer. This is the sort of corporate propaganda against decent tasty alcohol the discerning drinker worldwide is up against!

Hook also has had problems with the like of CAMRA. The Campaign for Real Ale is a body I've thought about more than once of joining but I've been put off because although I think diversity and quality in the making of beer should be wholeheartedly supported, there is a lot of accompanying gumph with CAMRA I can't stand. For example, CAMRA doesn't want much food in pubs. I can't stand gastro-pubs, where everyone is forced to sit down and eat expensive pretentious rubbish (sorry- that's a restaurant with pretentions of proletarian authenticity ie sausages and mash with Thai grass for £30 a head), but I do like pubs where you can get a decent bit of stodge along with your pints. Also CAMRA seem to make a fetish of "old scrote" pubs where most of the clientele have been sitting in the same seat for the last 40 years nursing their half of bitter while reading the Racing Post.

Getting back to Meantime's Mr. Hook: he had been trying for years to get his very good beers into competition at the Great British Beer Festival, run by CAMRA every August at Olympia in London. However, he was barred on the grounds that his beers were lagers. Blimey, we're not talking here about mass produced rubbish like Stella or Hoffmeister (no German I've ever met has come across this monstrosity- I think it's strictly for export. I remember the adverts from the 1980s, with some poor bloke dressed up in a George The Bear outfit complete with snazzy yellow jacket and pork pie hat telling the viewing public "For Great Lager, Follow The Bear"- presumably to have a shit [sorry Mum!!] in the woods with the other bears after several pints of that fizzy industrial paint stripper). After all a lot of bitters the big brewers offer us are hardly worth drinking- ie John Smiths. I had a pint of that in Chester on my birthday in December and I think it's the last time I didn't finish a pint as it was so bad. Anyway, the FT article (thinking now it was last year) said that CAMRA had relented and Meantime beers would be up for competition at the Great British Beer Festival for 2005- under the Foreign Lagers section!! With friends of decent beers like CAMRA, who needs enemies?


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