How much is too much?

The Department of Health today launched a £6m “know your limits” campaign, the point of which is to make people aware of how much they’re actually consuming. Interestingly, the scenarios it highlights are very “middle-class”, i.e it’s aimed at the middle-aged couple sharing a bottle of wine at home, rather than binge-drinking teenagers.

As the press-release points out, most people are unaware of how many units of alcohol are in their usual tipple. And so here’s a handy units calculator from the NHS, which incorporates strength and portion size.

There are two problems with this campaign. Firstly, it features one of the most seductive pints of lager I’ve ever seen in my life and had me craving lager at 7am when I saw it on breakfast telly. (Time to wonder about being an alcoholic again?)

The second, more serious problem, is that many British people’s reaction to being told what their limits are is to question the science. Perhaps correctly, because as Zythophile pointed out a while ago, the evidence supporting the current limits (2-3 per day for women, 3-4 per day for men) is not exactly conclusive. And certainly compared to what the average Brit actually drinks on a Friday night, it seems extremely low.

Then again, when I come back from the continent, these “limits” seem perfectly sensible, and I become convinced that we Brits drink too much.

I wouldn’t want to get accused of neo-Prohibitionism, and we’ve expressed on many occasions our view that “binge-drinking” is nothing new in our culture. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for some sensible reflection and education about exactly what we’re consuming.

Boak (up to four units already tonight…oops!)

¿Cómo se pide una cerveza?

This post was written in response to a “meme” passed to us from CAAC, and begun on Culturilla Cervecera, on how to ask for a beer in your home city. This is a useful topic, as in Spain every part of the country has a different word to describe different measures, as you can see from following the links. There’s even a link here to a Portuguese version if you’re planning a holiday there…

If you’d like to chip in with how to order a beer in your respective country, then do feel free. I remember getting totally lost when an Australian tried to explain about “schooners” and “middies”.

En Londres, como en todas partes del RU, se pide “a pint” [paynt] o “a half” [harf] de cerveza que quieres p.e. “a pint of Pride, please”. Se puede usar nombres genéricos como “bitter” o “lager” si hay sólo una opción.

Si quieres beber de una botella, sólo necesitas decir el nombre (p.e. “A Duvel, please”). No tenemos nombres distintos para tamaños distintos. A veces se oye la expresión “nip bottle” para una botella pequeñita, pero nunca la he oido en un pub.

NB: Una pinta británica es 568ml, y una media es exactamente eso – pero una pinta americana es 473ml. En teoria, se puede comprar un tercio de pinta, pero nunca he visto estos vasos en un pub, sólo en beer-festivals.

Otras cosas muy importantes:

  • Normalmente no hay camereros en pubs británicos o irlandeses. Se pide la cerveza de (a? en?) la barra, y se paga imediatamente.
  • Se compra cerveza “in rounds” – se turna para comprar cervezas para sus compañeros. “it’s my round” = “me toca a mi”
  • Normalmente no damos propinas a los barmanes. Si quieres darle una propina a alguien en un pub, dile “and one for yourself” (“y uno para usted”) después de pedir tus bebidas. El barman añadirá el precio de una pequeña bebida a las que has pedido. Pero eso es muy inusual – yo he dado una propina en un pub inglés sólo una vez en mi vida.
  • No se olvides “please” y “thanks” – yo sé que los españoles ríen de nosotros ingleses en España porque decimos “gracias” todo el tiempo pero en Inglaterra no es posible sobreusar estas palabras.
  • Si quieres probar cerveza tradicional, busca la descripción “cask conditioned” o “real ale”.


Historical roots of beer vs wine snobbery? A Spanish perspective

Our amigo Chela has posted an interesting entry on the “Compañía Asturiana de Amigos de la Cerveza” blog about the supposed battle between wine and beer. He suggests that in “wine countries”, wine has always been democratic in its appeal to high and low society alike. In traditional beer-drinking countries, on the other hand, we’ve developed a bit of an inferiority complex towards wine over the ages. And from this has recently emerged the trend for trying to make beer “the new wine”, and leading in some cases to a “Manichean battle” between beer and wine, or at least lots of words being written on why beer is superior to wine.

This can be seen from googling “beer is the new wine”, and is a topic that recurs on American beer blogs in particular. Appellation beer, for example, have a whole series of posts about beer and wine, making “beer is not the new wine” one of their rules. Amen to that. There are enough bloody know-it-alls as it is, without making beer into some rarified “interest”. That said, it would be nice if it had a bit more respect, i.e. articles in the weekend papers, the odd nice beer in a restaurant, that kind of thing.

Back to Chela’s post. There were many interesting comments in response about people’s preferences, whether one really was better, and trends in shopping for wine. But what really interested me were the historical reasons put forward for the cultural superiority of wine. Obviously, in the UK, it’s always been a status symbol, as only the rich could afford it, but why should it be considered a superior drink in countries where it’s common, cheap and easy to produce, like Spain? Galguera suggested it has its roots in the Roman empire — wine being associated with the sophisticated Romans, while the barbaric huns drank beer. Cotoya suggests the religious influence is more important — you don’t get communion beer, after all.

I thought these were interesting points. I’ve had the occasional debate with a wine-lover about how sophisticated beer can be, how it can be just as complex as wine, but I’d never really thought about the origins of our cultural prejudices, or how common they were across Europe, despite the differences in drinking cultures.


Chela, Cotoya and Galguera all contribute to Compañía Asturiana de Amigos de la Cerveza. If you don’t speak Spanish, Google translate does a pretty good job these days, but don’t trust it to translate English into Spanish.


Wetherspoons suffer from smoking ban?

Marketing magazine has a good piece this week on the fortunes of the Wetherspoons pub chain. Their sales have dropped 13 per cent to £28.5m in the six months to the end of January, apparently.

They’re blaming the smoking ban and rising energy costs — some of those barn-like pubs are costly to heat, it seems. The article also suggests that the smoking ban has hit them because poorer people smoke more, and are more likely to drink at Wetherspoons because it’s cheap.

Marketing mag then goes on to ask to brand experts to advise on how the chain can turn around its fortunes. Mike Taylor of Monkey Communications hits the nail on the head:

Wetherspoon is now a vernacular for a certain type of pub. Definitely not a bad pub, but maybe not one for “people like me”.

Dave Clements of McCann Erickson is a bit less astute in his comments:

[Wetherspoons] championing of real ale may warrant an award, but it has hardly increased footfall. It may have attracted a mid-market audience, but it is exactly those people who can’t imagine enjoying a pint without a cigarette.

Eh!? That’s certainly not true in our experience. In fact, like your wine snobs, real ale types tend to be rightly sniffy about anything that interferes with their appreciation of the flavour of the beer.

Maybe we’re being hopeful, but surely the downturn in Wetherspoons fortunes has something to do with another story in the same issue of the magazine — Tesco Finest (the supermarket’s “premium brand”) has just become the UK’s biggest grocery brand with sales of 1.2bn. People — even people without wads of cash — are getting a little but fussier these days.

Searching for a good dark lager

Dark lager: wonderful idea. When done well, you get the refreshing crisp qualities of lager but with much more going on in the nose and mouth. Simutaneously restorative and stimulating.

But when it’s done badly, it’s either indistinguishable from the pale stuff if you close your eyes, or worse, a sweeter version thereof. We had many disappointing dark lagers in Germany. Not so much in Franconia, where they’re not afraid of a bit of character in their brews, but certainly outside.

We decided to escape from the “eurowhiff” and have a tasting session at home of some dark lagers we’d picked up at Utobeer. And by dark lager here, we’re not talking about a strictly defined style, but rather anything that’s a lager and is dark.

Bohemia Regent Dark4.4%

One of the more commonly available Czech dark lagers (i.e. I’ve seen it in at least two places…)

This reminded me of a Franconian beer – refreshing, incredibly gulpable, but with interesting flavours to analyse. It has a good long aroma of treacle, which makes you think the beer’s going to be overpoweringly sweet, but it’s not. You get a soft burnt caramel flavour, with the hops adding subtle spiciness, although not much bitterness. It leaves a light roasted malt flavour on the tongue.

The Bohemia Regent site is here.

Hirter Morchl, 5%

This is from Austria, and that’s about all we’ve been able to work out from their website. It’s a similar dark red colour to the Regent, with a lovely toasty aroma with hints of smoke. It’s not particularly fizzy, giving it a richer, fuller body. It’s slightly on the sweet side, and gets sweeter as it warms up, becoming rather cola-like. Can’t really taste much hops.

Budvar dark, 4.7%
Well, it looks great, with a towering frothy head. Mildly smoky. It doesn’t have the same pronounced malty flavour as the others we tried today, but it’s got interesting sour notes, like a good stout, and very discernible, almost raw, hops.

We’d happily drink all of these, but we didn’t think any of these were as good as the Bernard dark beer we had in York last month. That was lovely stuff, with a full body and coffee bitterness, and yet incredibly drinkable. An exotic mild…?

What are your dark lager recommendations?