Classic Pubs in Posh London

Meeting up with friends at the weekend we decided that, instead of trawling round the usual haunts from our post-student days, we’d take the opportunity to test out another section of Green & White’s Guide to London Pubs from 1968.

With a plan to catch the last train out of London back to Bristol we didn’t want to stray too far from Paddington and so picked the section entitled ‘Chelsea’ which includes The Victoria not far from the West Country terminus. Based on a review of the pubs’ own websites, and previous experiences with this kind of exercise, our expectations were fairly low.

The book's map of Chelsea.

We went first to a pub we did know, The Star Tavern in Belgravia, where we used to drink occasionally even before we started blogging, when we both worked in Westminster. Green & White say:

The Star Tavern… is one of the handsomest pubs in London, both outside and in, contemporary with its surroundings. It is a fine Georgian mews pub (a rare Fuller’s house in this part of London) built on generous lines and — being away from the hurly-burly of the main roads or business areas — free from that maddening tidal crowd which packs more central pubs at lunchtime and evening opening…. The Star is the kind of place you might expect to run into James Bond, and if he is not familiar with the pub, he should be.

Approaching The Star is still magical, through a stuccoed arch and over cobbles, and into the pub’s warm tractor beam glow. Inside it felt approximately (runs calculations) 32 per cent less ‘authentic’ than we recall it, having apparently had a visit from Fuller’s corporate style police. But there were still plenty of normal people knocking back pints (“They get a lot of butlers and doormen in,” someone said at one point) and the overall feel was of a secret refuge, especially in the implied snug by the counter. Fuller’s ESB tasted as good as we’ve ever had it, with the quality of the London Pride not far behind.

Door at The Antelope.

Next, we made a brief detour to The Antelope — not in the 1968 book but also in a mews and with similar ‘classic’ status — to pick up another of our mates. This pub, too, was stunningly cute. In this part of town, in 2017, it ought to have gone full grey-paint-gastro but, no, it was dark, well-worn, sparkling and intimate, all corners, cubbyholes, ale and gin. The beer (more Fuller’s) was great there, too.

Back on track we pushed on to The Nag’s Head which upped the ante considerably. How is this pub real? With its Adnams ale and creaking floorboards it feels as if it’s been transplanted from Southwold or perhaps more specifically the Southwold of 1985. Or maybe it’s a film set? It is tatty in the best sense with an eccentric layout which means you can find yourself sitting below the level of the bar staring at a rack of knives under a sagging union jack, or next to a vintage end-of-pier penny slot machine by a roaring Victorian range. NO MOBILE PHONES say the signs but nobody — not the couple snogging intensely at the bar or the moustachioed bloke in mulberry-coloured waistcoat and bow-tie doing a crossword — looked as if they particularly wanted to.

The Nag's Head.

The Wilton Arms a few doors along was a comparative let-down being too bright and too Shepherd Neame, with Spitfire at its nail-polish-remover worst. Even so it was rammed and rowdy with more genuine pub character than many others in London — a miracle considering the sterile acres of pristine mansions for absentee millionaires that surround it.

Sadly The Grenadier, the classic of classics, was closed for public order reasons (there is a Christmas fair in the park nearby and the authorities are apparently concerned that people will stagger to the pub from there and cause trouble for the well-to-do mews dwellers) so we finished with one more in the Star. There the whole party sat in quiet amazement.“I can’t believe I’ve never been to any of these pubs before,” said our mate, a born-and-bred Londoner who has been to Italy more times than he’s been to Belgravia.

It is odd, given that these pubs are recommended in the 1968 guide, the 1973 edition, many editions of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz’s 1981 rarity Capital Ale, and so many others. Perhaps it’s because we’ve all been trained to assume the worst — that what was good 30 years ago must almost inevitably be either gone or gone to rot today, and that London in particular Ain’t Wot it Used to Be. But here, in these mews pubs at least, protected from the real world by the sheer weirdness of West London, there’s some kind of persistence.

If you haven’t been, and especially in the run up to Christmas when twinkly and twee is in order, do treat yourself.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 November 2017: Fenlands, FOBAB, Froth

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from pastry stout to cask quality.

First up, Canadian beer historian Gary Gillman has done something that, for some reason, nobody in the UK seems to have thought worthwhile, and looked into the history of that most controversial of widgets, the sparkler:

The sparkler was invented and patented in the early 1880s by George Barker. He advertised the device for sale in 1885 and identified himself as from the “Crown Hotel, Ince, near Wigan”.

(As always the mention of a sparkler summons Tandleman to the comments which are worth reading for additional context.)


Dunwich sign.

Dave S, a regular commenter here, lives in Cambridge and has been pondering  The Psychogeography of Fenland Mild. As well as some rather lovely prose evoking the landscape of East Anglia he offers this incisive suggestion:

My advice to a brewer wanting to make beer with a ‘sense of place’ is that they should stop worrying about where their ingredients come from and look at where their end product goes to. They should sell locally, and drink locally themselves. They should see what people respond to – what makes sense for their local drinkers, in their surroundings, with their climate – and adapt and evolve to the place where they’re based.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 November 2017: Fenlands, FOBAB, Froth”

Minimum Unit Pricing: Let’s See How it Goes

BrewDog Beers on a shelf.

This week, after much deliberation, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government can set a 50p minimum price-per-unit for alcohol.

This is a discussion of which we’ve tended to steer clear because following the arguments is a full time job and other people are more invested in it; and because it tends to get a bit frothy as libertarians with complicated connections to think tanks and the booze industry yell at researchers and policy-makers with complicated connections to the historic temperance movement and government, and vice versa.

With that in mind, we can’t say with any confidence whether MUP is a good policy or not, and we’ve heard convincing arguments for and against from both sides.

For example, we do worry that it will make it harder for ‘responsible drinkers’ on low incomes to get tiddly while middle- and upper-class drinkers can continue to get as wasted as they like on whatever they like. (A few years ago we wondered about setting up a Christmas Booze Bank dishing out bottles of whisky or slabs of beer to people who might otherwise have to choose between having fun or having the heating on.) It seems clear that MUP is intended to target very strong white ciders and super-strength lagers — the kinds of thing few people actually choose to drink if they can afford otherwise — but will catch lots of other types of less sinister booze in its net.

Equally, it seems daft to ignore the reality of the problems alcohol causes for some of the most vulnerable in society, especially when it’s wilful ignorance in support of absolutist anti-regulation dogma. Some people drink too much — we’ve all seen the evidence of this, or known family members who demonstrates it — but their lives, and those of their loved ones, might be prolonged and made happier in the long run if they drank at least a little bit less. This is reality, people’s actual lives, not a philosophical parlour game.

We certainly don’t think all alcohol policy campaigners and researchers are cynics and killjoys attempting to introduce prohibition via the thin ends of various wedges. (Even if some of their fellow travellers might be that way inclined.) In general, the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument winds us up — we’d never do anything if point B inevitably leads to point Z. No, we tend to think they are motivated by genuine concern for their brother man, even if that sometimes reads as condescension or meddling; and, in the case of researchers, we’ve no reason to doubt that they are striving for scientific objectivity.

(If you believe otherwise we’d be genuinely interested to know what you reckon motivates them – surely not religion, in 2017? Chronic dourness? Insanity?)

Politicians, government PR people and newspapers on the other hand… Well, they’re prone to over-simplifying, over-dramatising, grand gestures. If there’s a problem, it might be there.

So, again, we don’t know if MUP is a good idea. What we do know is that Scotland won’t be taking this step without due process having been followed. Much research has been undertaken; hours have been spent labouring over every detail and footnote; the final judgement from the Supreme Court seems balanced and cautious (PDF); and there’s going to be a substantial evaluation project to judge its impact.

Good policy or not, this is how it ought to work – small steps, cautiously implemented, challenged in court where appropriate, followed by a serious assessment of whether it has achieved what was intended, and whether they have been any undesirable side-effects.

There is, after all, no way to really test policy without trying it in the real world, and there’s never been any policy, however well-intentioned, that didn’t wing a few bystanders along the way.

Ultimately we have to accept that pubs and the alcohol industry aren’t the only things that matter, even if they’re very important to us, and if the collective judgement is that they have to take a hit for the greater good then, well, that’s part of the give and take of living in a democracy.

Further Reading

Tinkering With Casks

Casks at a beer festival.

In a comment on yesterday’s post reader AP said: ‘I’m surprised that in the current climate there isn’t more experimentation with cask conditioning going on.’ Well, having put AP’s point to Twitter, it turns out there’s quite a bit.

First, we know that the people behind our local in Bristol, the Draper’s Arms, have acquired a brand new wooden cask from the White Rose Cooperage which they are hoping to get filled by local brewers, putting a subtle twist on familiar beers. This is a similar model to the Junction at Castleford, West Yorkshire, which specialises in ‘beer from the wood’, and has its own casks which filled with beer from all sorts of breweries, including some on the Continent, that don’t normally use wooden vessels.

Various people came forward with tales of casks laid down in cellars to age for varying periods of time. Steve at Beer Nouveau recalled his days as a cellarman in Ipswich ageing Adnams Tally-Ho barley wine for up two years and then selling three different ages side-by-side. He also mentioned his habit (c.1998-99) of ageing Greene King Abbot Ale for six months before serving, without advertising it as aged or otherwise special. Hali and Brian, both former team-members at The Grove in Huddersfield, recalled keeping a cask of Bass P2 Imperial Stout in the cellar for 8 years before serving.

Susannah at the Station House micropub in Durham said (slightly edited):

We love experimenting with ageing. Mostly just, as previously noted, cellar till it’s ready. But Taylor’s beers usually get a minimum of a week, ideally two. There’s the Bass we aged for a month and sold as a mystery beer for our birthday last year (winner got a prize)… Currently ageing is a cask of Fortification from Cullercoats Brewery. Brewed in January, I think. Going on sale this week.

Angus from Mad Hatter Brewery recalled his time at the Wapping Brewery:

[We] used to keep a firkin or two back of our Winter ale for the following year as Vintage Winter. As long as you don’t fine on racking and your sanitation is up to scratch (and the cellar has the space) you’re all good… the spices mellowed out and the beer seemed richer.

One other person mentioned that a pub near them, with the agreement of the brewery, adds a bottle of spirits to casks of one particular strong ale. This is, of course, frightfully naughty. (Bet it tastes interesting though.)

But, still, we see what AP is getting at — it would be interesting to go to, say, a Fuller’s pub and find two different ages of ESB on offer, or vintage London Porter alongside fresh.

We’ve often wondered what effects might be achieved by adding the dregs from a bottle of Orval, or even a commercial Brettanomyces culture, into a straight cask ale and leaving it for a few months. This might even make Doom Bar interesting.

There are also plenty of opportunities for bold experiments with dry-hopping in the cask, with the permission and perhaps even guidance of brewers.

And this business of Guinness on hand-pull fascinates us — what’s to stop anyone buying keg beers, decanting them into clean casks, and throwing in some fresh yeast with some priming sugar? Perhaps only the faff of the paperwork and the risk of being told off by the brewery.

It strikes us that this kind of thing could help to convey the complex fascination of cask-conditioning and might add a bit of fun back into something which, at the moment, is largely the preserve of berks like us muttering about ‘subtle magic’ and ‘sessionability’.

Cask Ale: a Kind of Magic?

“[Modern] beer is little more than a symbol. What would a pint of ‘mild’ taste like except dishwater if it were poured down the rural and metropolitan throats anywhere but in a public house?”

‘Y.Y. ’, New Statesman, 13 March 1943

Y.Y. was the pen name of Belfast-born writer Robert Lynd (1879-1949) and coincidentally it was a conversation with a barman from Northern Ireland the other night that got us thinking about the effects of magic upon the perceived quality of beer.

The barman we spoke to rolled his eyes at the suggestion (not from us) that Guinness is somehow better in Dublin: ‘It’s just because they pull through so much. And because, you know, you’re in Dublin, on holiday.’

It’s often been observed that particular beers that taste bland or even bad at home gain a certain glamour in a bar in Barcelona. Here’s Zak Avery on that subject from back in 2010:

In my memory, Cruzcampo was my holiday beer par excellence – cold, snappy, crisp, and perfect to wash down plates of jamon or gambas. In actuality, Cruzcampo is an ordinary mass-produced lager, tasting slightly oxidised and having a faintly sweet yellow apple note, neither of which are appealing or refreshing.

So, if Spanish sun makes bad lager taste good, and being in sight of St James’s Gate makes Guinness taste better, could it be, as Y.Y. suggests, that the pub itself — that romantic, almost sacred institution — is at least part of what gives cask ale its appeal?¹

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

Let’s put that another way: we’ve asked several people over the years exactly why we might prefer cask ale to keg² and the answers we’ve received have tended to point to gentler carbonation, lack of filtration and/or pasteurisation, and slightly warmer serving temperatures. And perhaps those are the tangible reasons, but isn’t it also to do with the paraphernalia?The brass and porcelain hand-pump, for example, could just as easily be (has been) an electric push-button if everyone was being coldly logical about all this. But those pumps add something.

We have a theory that a mediocre pint of, say, Timothy Taylor Landlord in a Victorian pub full of cut glass and dark wood, or a country pub with a crackling log fire, would register as tasting better than a technically perfect one in a laboratory. Or, indeed, that a pint of keg bitter would taste better in that ideal pub than a mediocre cask ale in the lab.

There are limits, of course: at a certain threshold, the spell is broken, and a bad beer will taste bad whatever the occasion or setting.

The point is, it’s complicated, and most of us aren’t coldly logical, and that’s fine: if you’re susceptible to being bedazzled, as we are, then let it happen.


  1. Not to everyone — we know.
  2. We do, on the whole, but of course that’s not the same as saying cask is better. Subjective, innit?