Pub Perfume

The corner of a pub lounge in Chester.

The recent tenth anniversary of the introduction of the ban on smoking in pubs prompted quite a few comments like this one:

It’s funny how rarely the smell of pubs is discussed when it’s such an important part of the sensory experience, and capable of conveying so much. One of our favourite ever quotes is this from an essay by Adrian Bailey for Len Deighton’s 1967 London Dossier:

“Before opening time there is a virgin aroma of freshness, an inimitable pub-perfume mixture of hops and malt, spirits and polish with perhaps a faint touch of violet-scented air-freshener. This is my boyhood nostalgia. Spilt ale, dried and sugar-sticky.”

Over the years, we’ve noticed a few distinct ‘pub perfumes’.

There’s the spore-laden waft of cold air from the cellar for example that, at the right dosage, seems to enhance the atmosphere; but, in excess, can be nauseating, suggesting damp and decay. Similarly, there’s the tang of stale beer soaked into old carpets that a certain type of down-to-earth old-school pub wears proudly, like a 1970s aftershave.

There are a couple of pubs we can think of whose toilets are an intrusive presence, however many equally intrusive air fresheners are deployed, accompanied by meandering and thirsty fruit flies. This is never appealing.

One of the most pleasant smells in a pub is that of an open fire — rustic and homely, a link to the past.

Sometimes the customers contribute to the aroma with too much in the way of toiletries, or too little — a particular problem in the crush at the bar. Increasingly, vapers add unsubtle but not always unpleasant layers of cinnamon, vanilla, apple and so on.

But, generally, most pubs these days smell almost neutral (deliberately perfuming pubs is frowned upon even as scented candles take over the world) thanks to rigorous cleaning regimes and fans designed to suck away the pong of the deep fat fryer. That’s probably better on the whole but, as is often the case, consistency can sweep away character along with the problems it was sent to fix.

12 thoughts on “Pub Perfume”

  1. I once went into a pub in the West Midlands that smelled like it needed loads of smoking to hide the smell of the pub. Sticky carpets too. But that’s my only bad smell pub experience in the UK since the smoking ban.

  2. The talk of “old man beer farts” was one of the smoking lobby’s favourite weapons against the smoking ban, and has proved to be absolute nonsense; not that the smokers would know, as they can’t have much sense of smell left. My local was non-smoking long before the ban, and has always smelled faintly beery, which suits me far better than stale smoke, one of the most disgusting things known to man. One pub I avoid always smells of fried eggs. Another smells of disinfectant and/or bleach, which is disconcerting as well as unpleasant. I remember in my teens walking past one pub in Leeds on the way to school each morning – the smell of stale beer emerged from the doors and windows as a wall of smell as they cleaned the pub from the night before. Mind you fresh Tetleys often smelled the same anyway. 😉
    I have never, ever been in a pub that smelled of stale farts; the odd fresh one, of course…. and yes, some that suffered from BO. Not nice, but possible to get away from. And yes, a few unpleasantly musty ones. Some that have smelled of mud. And some of glorious wood fires. But mostly, as you say, fairly neutral – at most a little food aroma.

  3. A pub at opening time should smell of furniture polish and pulled-through beer. I do miss the smell of pipe tobacco, but it was always quite rare.

  4. Brewpubs often smell delicious, but the biscuity maltiness of that aroma often puts non beer-heads off, i guess it can be over powering.

  5. The smell I get most in pubs these days is that awful lavender/cammomile fabric conditioner that seems to be included in every washing powder being sold.
    I can recognise it walking down a street in a strong gale on someone 20 yards in front of me.
    You only need a couple of people in a pub wearing clothes doused in the stuff and perhaps a plug-in air freshener and I’m sneezing like the middle of the hayfever season.
    I wish I could tell these people they smell like a chemical factory and not like someone romping through a meadow carpeted with lavender.

  6. I agree all comments about Bree Louise -the place needs knocking down.Too many pubs stink of toilets now -I think the odd cigar should be allowed in every so often

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