Island mentality

From The Publican

18-Apr-2007

Related topics: General News, Drinks & Brands News, Business Support, Ale & Stout, Lager

The Isle of Man brought in extended licensing hours in 2001, a successful move which has helped cut the rate of alcohol-related assaults on the self-governing land mass to less than half that of the UK.

 

Arriving more than four years before the UK brought in similar measures, it has gradually brought about significant changes to the way the isle's pubs are run. The situation today could provide a forecast for how later licensing will pan out on these shores.

 

Manx brewers also have the unique selling point of beer purity laws, a factor which has made it a Mecca for real ale enthusiasts.

 

The Publican visits the Isle of Man to investigate a pub trade which could provide lessons for the UK.

 

The Pure Beer Act

 

A copy of the Isle of Man's Pure Beer Act hangs on the wall of the Bay, a fine pub overlooking the choppy Irish Sea in the island's Port Erin. The laws are still enforced and are a major factor in Manx brewers' favour. Any customer looking at them can see why they were established in 1874.

 

The act prohibits the use in brewing of 'copperas, coculus Indicus, nux vomica [more commonly known as strychnine], grains of paradise, Guinea pepper, or opium'. Modern drinkers may be unfamiliar with these ingredients. However, it's a safe bet they would not want to taste a pint brewed by any of the rogues whose actions the act was designed to check, and who included such suspicious-sounding chemicals as a substitute for taxable alcohol.

 

The fact that they can use nothing more than water, malt, sugar and hops is used by the island's three breweries, Okells, Bushy's and Bosun, as a valuable marketing tool. And the beers are recognised by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) as quality tipples.

 

Both Okells' and Bushy's exports are clearly appreciated over here, too. Okells runs pubs in Liverpool, Chester, Leeds and Aberystwyth, and the two in Liverpool - the Fly in the Loaf and Thomas Rigby's - are particularly successful.

 

Okells' head brewer Dr Mike Cowbourne thinks drinkers want purer beer. He says the purity laws have been instrumental in the beers gaining popularity. The Liverpool pubs offer an extensive range of continental beers, but Cowbourne says: "We know from our export sales that it's the guest ale offering which has pushed us.

 

"There is a growing trend among consumers for 'the purer the better'. The pure beer law has got to help."

 

Nicer than nice

 

Bushy's chief Martin Brunnschweiler says: "Too many products these days have become a commodity. The big beer boys never say 'this is a nice beer we make'. We can."

 

Although traditional ales' struggle has been less marked on the island than in the UK, Okells downsized to a new brewery in 1994. It was the decline of real ale on the island that forced Okells and Bushy's to start exporting, they both explain.

 

There was also much debate eight years ago over whether the Pure Beer Act should be repealed. Okells had an injection of funds shortly after the new brewery was built through its brief dalliance with brewing Labatt's on licence, a sign that many took to mean it was shifting focus wholesale to lager.

 

This, claims Bushy's, led Okells, by far the most powerful of the Isle's three brewers, to attempt to get the act completely scrapped. The move would allow it to brew lager.

 

Okells tells a different story. It was the government that tried to have the act scrapped, and all the brewers campaigned against it, according to Cowbourne.

 

The eventual outcome of the episode was the act remaining in place, with several exceptions: it could be broken for the brewing of lager, wheat beer and fruit beer.

 

Popping into the pub

 

"The pub over here still has community spirit. The pub is central to that, is the hub of everything that goes on." So says Ian Caines, head of micro-brewer Bosun, of a pub culture which each year records a rate of alcohol-related assaults that is about 40 per cent of the UK's. When the Isle of Man's government abolished licensing hours six years ago, it added another initiative to a set of projects which have made its pubs a pleasant place to be.

 

Each month, members of the on- and off-trade meet with police and licensing authorities in an Alcohol Forum unique to the island. The police force also features an unusual Alcohol Unit that focuses specifically on pubs and off-licensed premises. Its 'Operation Centurion' sees bobbies popping into pubs in the evenings for a cup of tea and a chat with the licensee. If a customer is banned from one pub, they are banned from every single pub on the island, with a list updated each month and mailed to licensees.

 

Pubs agree that the Manx police have a positive communicative approach to the trade not found among the UK's boys in blue.

 

"Police on the mainland seem to view pubs as constant trouble spots, not places to entertain people. Here, the police never come steaming in," says Caines.

 

It has not always been so, says Brunnschweiler: "Before we all started to get round the table with the police for the forum, it was more like them against us.

 

"It had previously not been in the interest of pubs to operate responsibly. Every call to the police - whether to report underage customers or a fight - was held against you by the police."

 

With all these measures in place, ensuring calm policing of the licensed trade, there is surprisingly little noise made about the effect on law and order that the island's liberalisation of licensing hours has had.

 

Over here, Daily Mail journalists seem to have been crossing their fingers in the hope that later licensing, under which the majority of pubs give customers an hour or two more drinking time, will trigger social meltdown. But it seems the furore has calmed in the middle of the Irish Sea.

 

What the new regime has done is subtly changed licensees' approaches to closing time. The Bay, for example, is often open as late as 3am on weekends and is typical of Isle of Man pubs in allowing the night to peak at a certain hour and customers to calm down by the time they leave. Its manager, Jimmy McGuire, says: "We have a music licence until midnight. Having live music and no jukebox means the pub is based on the art of conversation. We don't just turn off the music and the lights when we want people to leave."

 

The three brewers

 

Okells

 

Pubs: 47

 

Core real ales: Okells Mild, Okells Bitter, Okells Smooth

 

Bushy's

 

Pubs: Four on island; five in UK

 

Core real ales: Castletown Bitter, Ruby Mild, Bushy's Bitter

 

Bosun

 

Pubs: One

 

Core real ales: Bosun Bitter

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