Claire Smith: Camra plan to refresh drinkers’ approach to pub culture

Camra's Colin Valentine and Patrick Harvie MSP, left, enjoy a beer in the Cafe Royal Bar in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Camra's Colin Valentine and Patrick Harvie MSP, left, enjoy a beer in the Cafe Royal Bar in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WITH pubs in Scotland closing at a rate of two a week, these are tough times for the licenced trade.

WITH pubs in Scotland closing at a rate of two a week, these are tough times for the licenced trade.

However, Colin Valentine, national chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale, believes there is still plenty to celebrate about Scottish pub culture.

Next week a Camra-sponsored reception in Parliament, hosted by Green MSP Patrick Harvie, will present the case for a minister for pubs who will be able to act on behalf of Scotland’s drinkers in Holyrood.

I meet Colin Valentine and Patrick Harvie in the Cafe Royal – one of Edinburgh’s best-loved and most beautiful public houses – which has five hand-crafted Scottish ales on tap, to discuss why pubs and pub lovers need a voice in parliament.

“The Scottish Government is far too focused on the damage alcohol can do. Alcohol is a controlled substance, it is a drug, but we need to get away from the idea that all alcohol is bad. It is easy for politicians to talk about bevvying but the vast majority of us treat alcohol with the respect it deserves.”

“Well-run community pubs are part of the answer to Scotland’s alcohol problem, not part of the problem.”

According to Camra, there were 4,935 pubs in Scotland in September 2012 compared to 5,045 a year earlier. A total of 110 Scottish pubs closed down last year. Across the UK pubs are closing at a rate of 18 a week.

Rising prices, particularly in comparison to the amount drinkers pay at off- licences, are one of the main factors behind the decline. But there is also an unwillingness to speak up for the pub trade and for the interests of drinkers.

Nationally Camra is campaigning against the beer tax escalator, the rising tax on beer introduced by Alistair Darling, saying it is pricing beer drinkers out of pubs. The organisation is also pushing for fairer deals for tenant licensees – particularly those who rent their pubs from large pub chains.

In Scotland, the organisation is focusing its campaign on a minister for pubs who could represent the interests of the licenced trade and beer lovers in Parliament. Currently there is no such portfolio in Holyrood – in Westminster Tory MP Brandon Lewis holds the brief as part of his communities and local government post.

In its Charter for Scottish Beer Drinkers, Camra says a minister would “represent the interests of Scotland’s three million pub goers”, “support the economic growth of Scotland’s micro breweries,”, “promote well-run community pubs” and “champion the social, economic and cultural importance of pubs”.

Valentine, who became the first Scottish chairman of Camra in 2010, says the debate about drinking in Scotland fails to recognise the positive aspects of pub culture. He believes if we allow pubs to keep closing at the current rate we risk losing something really worthwhile.

“When people come to the UK one of the things they want to do is to come to a British pub. There is nothing else like it in the rest of the world.

“People do enjoy the pub experience, especially if they come to a place like Edinburgh. I think Edinburgh is one of the best drinking places in the UK.”

However, the Scottish Government does not currently recognise the need for a designated minister. A spokesman said: “The Scottish Government already works well across departments to support the licensed trade industry.

“Our pubs, hotels and restaurants are places where we can gather to enjoy a drink or a meal with friends and they also provide thousands of jobs and help support wider industries like tourism.”

Patrick Harvie, who is hosting next week’s parliamentary reception, agrees it is time for a more positive approach towards social drinking.

“I have been a member of Camra for a long time – my dad got me a membership. I have often be frustrated by the debate about alcohol in Parliament – it always comes down to social harm.

“We need to talk about the structure of the industry. I believe there will be more social benefit if we were more focused on supporting independent pubs and breweries that have more of a human scale about them.

“There are ways we can use planning system to protect community pubs. If a big brewer has given up the premises we can try and offer the local community the chance to step in and run it. And we can protect pubs if they are threatened with a change of use.

“We should be supporting Scottish independent brewers. We should be pulling pints at parliamentary receptions instead of offering people tepid white wine.”

Unsurprisingly, Camra believe Scotland’s growing taste for real ale is also something to be celebrated. Colin Valentine says: “People want provenance. Often they will try several different beers in an evening.

“People have decided that if they are going out for the night and they are going to have four or five pints they want quality.”

The rise of a home-grown micro brewing industry has been one of the biggest changes in Scottish pub culture over the last 20 years.

Although the big brewers – Belhaven, Caledonia and Tennents – are now in the hands of English, Dutch and Irish companies, the last ten years has seen an explosion in micro-breweries.

In the Cafe Royal there are five Scottish real ales on offer – Keltic, Pivo Estivo and Dark Moor, from Kelburn in Barrhead, Three Wise Men from Stewart of Loanhead and Dark Horse from the Scottish Borders Brewery.

According to the 2013 Good Beer Guide there are now 57 independent brewers in Scotland – up from just 47 last year. There are 12 independent breweries in the Highlands and Western Isles alone.

Valentine believes the smoking ban has helped drive the trend towards gourmet beer. Although the ban has also been blamed for the decline in the pub trade, he says: “I haven’t come across one licensee who says they would like to go back to the way it was.”

The chairman has already decided what to offer guests at the reception in Parliament next week, but he’s keeping it secret. “I know what it is going to be but I’m not telling anyone,” he tells Patrick Harvie.

But you can be sure the MSPs will be offered something more interesting and more local than a choice of orange juice or tepid white wine.