The World on your Sofa

It can sometimes feel as if drinking anywhere but the pub is a betrayal of ‘proper beer’, but it’s actually played a huge part in developing the culture Britain has today, and has broadened the palates of many.

That thought was prompted by this Tweet from Zak Avery, who runs legendary bottle-shop Beer Ritz:

In conversation recently, we said that we didn’t particularly enjoy beer festivals because they aren’t ‘how we like to drink’, which prompted the question, ‘Well, how do you like to drink?’ The honest answer is either (a) in the pub (once or twice a week) or (b) in the front room (more often).

Unless you live conveniently close to a good multi-pump real ale pub or a craft beer bar, then home is the only place to satisfy a spontaneous craving for a bit of strange. As we’ve said before, we like St Austell Tribute, but we don’t want to drink it every night, which is where a case of oddities from Beer Merchants or Beer Ritz, or even a few things from Tesco, fill the gap.

The majority of our most profound beer experience have, as it happens, occurred in pubs or beer gardens, but, for example, the first really aromatically-hoppy beer that ever made us say ‘Wow!’ we drank at home — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from ASDA, in, we think, around 2005.

Drinking fancy-pants beers at home is a fairly recent phenomenon which arose alongside the Campaign for Real Ale, meeting a demand among newly-assertive consumers for better beer.

Belgian beer didn’t start appearing in Britain in any great variety until the 1980s with ‘bottle shops’, run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. One of the first, and perhaps most famous was the one on Pitfield Street. The founding of Cave Direct (Beer Merchants) is covered briefly in our book. Another such shop we read about but didn’t look into in great detail was Grog Blossom in Notting Hill, which was profiled in the Financial Times in 1989.

As for bottled British beer, here’s how Richard Morrice, a long-time industry PR man, put it when we interviewed him last summer:

You have to remember that, in the seventies, ‘premium bottle beers’ didn’t exist. Bottled beer was Mackeson’s, Bass, Forest Brown, that kind of thing, and usually came in 550ml returnable ‘London pint’ bottles, or in ‘nips’. There was a limited choice of regional brands and that was it.

In the late eighties, Shepherd Neame released a range of 500ml bottled ales, which was a risky enterprise, and there was a limited take-up by supermarkets. These ‘PBAs’ (premium bottled ales) sat in a price gap between the very cheap drink-at-home lager and draught beer in the pub, on a pence-per-litre basis, and the supermarket buyers just weren’t convinced. When Marston’s launched their range of PBAs as late as 1991, there were still no retailers really willing to take them.

[But, fairly] quickly… you started to get things like Marston’s Head Brewer’s Choice series, and seasonals, until there was quite a lot of choice.

If you want to experience the Michael Jackson vision of a world where beer comes in every shade and strength, from the beefy blackness of imperial stout to the barely-intoxicating pallor of Berliner Weisse, your own front room remains the place where you’re most likely to find it.

12 thoughts on “The World on your Sofa”

  1. Well, in Britain anyway. The best place to experience the wide wide world of beer is out in the wide wide world, IMO. It’s a lot of work to set up your own Bavarian bierkeller, Spanish deli counter or American baseball field to find out what the beer’s like there.

  2. It is easy to forget how hard it was to actually get hold of interesting beers, even relatively recently. Part of the motivation for starting Microbar in 2001 was to have people bring us interesting beer rather than us having to go out to obscure places on the hunt. Until then, there was: Pitfield Street (we named it Pitiful Street for its condescending/ambivalent service), Nelsons Wines in Merton; and a small but interesting selection in Selfridges; a few Belgians in the Army & Navy Store in Victoria Street; An unreliable range in Oddbins; a few tasty items in Safeways. That was it.

  3. You make a good point. Those of us who live in or near metropolitan centres can forget that a wide and changing choice of good beer (however you choose to define it) is not the pub-going norm for a lot of people. Drinking at home is often the only option for a wide range of beery experiences but some people do rather look down their noses at it.

  4. Not all of us have the freedom to frequent pubs as much as we used to or would like. Between my early and mid twenties I was in a pub (usually the same pub) every single night of the week. Now, married with a four year old, I’m lucky if I can get to a pub once a month. Bottles at home are pretty much the only choice.

  5. I think the choice is whether you are inclined to disgrace yourself with pissed.

    If you chuck up or cannot control your bowels then you are better off in a pub as someone else has the clear up. You don’t want to do that in your front room.

    If however you are a seasoned drinker, that can keep the bodily fluids in, you might as well save a few bob and sit on the sofa.

  6. Not taking into account factors quality, diversity or (in my case, living in a village) choice and convenience, I prefer drinking at a pub (café or bar) than at home (and I do like drinking at home) because of the social aspect of it. A couple of my favourite boozers are places that I don’t go so much for the beer, as for the people I meet there, come to think of it, I don’t go to those places for the beer, at all.

    That being said, opening a bottle, putting your feet up on your garden table while relaxing, listening to the sort of music you feel like listening at the very moment, it’s also very pleasant, regardless of what you happen to be drinking.

    PS: I don’t too much going to festivals either. Not anymore.

  7. Certainly one of the big problems pubs face is that its now far easier to find nice, interesting beer to drink at home.

    It used to be that people went to the pub specifically for the beer, now in some ways people go to the pub despite the beer.

    That said, I like pubs. I like the easy, friendly, sociable atmosphere. I like having a pint of some random beer I have never heard of. I am hoping to go a bit more this year now I’ve got more free time, 3-4 times a week preferably.

  8. I live about a mile and a half from beer Ritz. Sadly I pass a damn fine pub at the 1 mile mark so usually skint before I reach beer Ritz.

  9. Absolutely. Drinking at home has also fuelled the bloggin explosion, which in turn has fuelled general interest in beer. When I wrote the intro to the bottled beer book this year, i found myself ‘treading carefully’ in what I was saying, careful not to put too much emphasis on drinking at home for fear of angering the hardcore pub-savers, which is an odd situation to find yourself in. But drinking at home is modern life now; cost, ease and choice all playing huge factors in it. plus, as someone else rightly said, we don’t all have ‘decent’ pubs near us – let alone if you’ve got a family in tow. Going out for a ‘pint’ on a weekday night simply isn’t an option if you want/need to spend time with the kids.

    1. “i found myself ‘treading carefully’ in what I was saying, careful not to put too much emphasis on drinking at home for fear of angering the hardcore pub-savers”

      We hear you…

  10. When I first went to beer fests c.2001 (aged 22, for context), I had no idea of the wide range of beer out there. In 2005 a visit to SF was something of an epiphany, being my first Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam among others. But it was only when the Internet mail order really started taking off around 2007 that I really got into what we’d describe today as ‘craft’. Even 5 years ago there wasn’t the range of pubs or beer within pubs, even in London. Drinking at home or in another town, city or country was the only option to broaden one’s horizons.

  11. You live in a town, as brewery own most of the pubs in town, it could be wells, greene king shep neame etc . Chances are they will have genric lager and hand pumps with there own ales on. This is my experience of beer in pubs outside London or cities I wouldn’t have tried half the varieties i beer if it wasn’t for home drinking. Which got me wondering I was in a bottle shop in London , about 5 clock with men finishing work collecting some crafty take outs to have at home. Is the craft beer seen a lot of the time blokes sitting on the sofa alone drinking beer then blogging about it ?

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