Children in Pubs: Tangents

The debate about children in pubs (like sparklers, BrewDog, finings, &c.) only seems to get gristlier the more it’s chewed and so we’re staying out of it. Having said that…

When we thought aloud on Twitter last night suggesting there ought to be a guide to child-friendly pubs, we were reacting specifically to this Tweet…

We’ve seen variants on this question a good few times over the years from people on holiday in other countries, or other parts of this country. We’re not qualified to write a guide ourselves — we don’t have kids and, thinking about it, most of our favourite pubs aren’t terribly family friendly — but our general observation would be that small and/or historic pubs in city centres are a dead loss; chains tend to be more child-friendly; and pubs in the country or suburbs are usually a good bet. So, in summary, if you’ve got kids, get on a bus, train or tram and ride a few stops.

* * *

There is also this bit of historical info which we offer with perhaps a touch of mischief in mind: the idea that children shouldn’t be allowed in pubs only really arose at the end of the 19th century and was championed by… temperance campaigners. The author G.K. Chesterton wrote a series of snarky anti-temperance columns for the Illustrated London News in the Edwardian era; here’s a bit from 23 April 1910:

Take, for the sake of argument, the clause recently introduced by the Lords into the Children’s Act, by which no child is allowed into any inn or hostelry. I will not stop to argue about this; it is enough to say it was founded on the great primary temperance principle that everything about public-houses should be settled by the people who have never been inside them. It thus involved the absurd notion… that a public-house is a peculiarly secret sort of private house where awful things occur of which no whisper can reach the street. These people talk about a tavern as if it were some sort of sacred enclosure within which devils were worshipped… It never seems to occur to them that a public-house is very like a public street, because it is public. If an inn-parlour is quiet and kindly, it is because the village outside is quiet and kindly. If a public bar is squalid and noisy, it is because the street outside is squalid and noisy…

He goes on to conclude that if we stop children going into pubs, it’ll be bookshops next, then butchers’ shops, then the street, until we have them safely locked up in the coal cellar. So, if you fear creeping prohibition, it is your moral duty to lobby for more kids in pubs

PS. Tandleman — ‘gawd bless ‘im’? — has a post prompted by the same Twitter discussion.

Impressions of Pubs in Newcastle

Based on our week holidaying there we reckon Newcastle is a great city, a great place to drink, and we’ll definitely be going back.

For one thing, we loved the sense that there’s less of a stark line there between ‘craft’ and ‘trad’, posh and rough, town and suburb, than in some other parts of the country. The Free Trade and The Cumberland, for example, were both just the right side of grotty. There and elsewhere, basic but decent pints were available at reasonable prices, alongside more extravagant, trendier products, with no sense that one is better than the other.

Newcastle Breweries branded Formica tables.

At the Gosforth Hotel we had what might be our beer of the year, Allendale Pennine Pale, at £2.85 a pint, but we could have gone for pints of keg BrewDog Punk at £3.55 — about the price of Bass in Penzance — if we’d been in that mood. Prices were displayed clearly in front of the pumps so there was no need for embarrassing conversations or warnings over price. In fact, prices were plainly on show, as far as we can recall, everywhere we went.

All of this made for genuinely mixed crowds, even if there was sometimes a self-segregation into lounge and public bar crowds — literally where the partitions survived.

The Crown Posada was one of a handful of pubs that was so good we made time to visit twice. Even on a busy weekend night in town we didn’t have any trouble getting in or getting a seat. The beer was great, the service was fantastic, and there were cellophane wrapped sandwiches going at two quid a pop. It’s a tourist attraction but not a tourist trap. When we went back on Sunday lunchtime, though, we found it deserted — just us and a barman — and, as a result, much less charming.

The more full-on craft outlets — BrewDog, The Bridge Tavern brewpub — seemed out of place, superimposed rather than integrated, as if they might have been picked up in any another city and dropped into place. (If we lived there, we no doubt welcome the variety.)

An inter-war improved pub with 'Flaming Grill' branding.
The Corner House, Heaton, built c.1936.

There aren’t as many inter-war ‘improved pubs’ in Newcastle as in Birmingham (on which more in our next post) but we found a couple, manorial in scale, chain-branded, but otherwise doing what they were built to do nearly a century ago: providing un-threatening environments in which men, women and children can socialise together over beer, food and afternoon tea. They’re not much good for serious beer lovers — just lots of Greene King IPA, well off its own turf, but even that was in good nick when we did try it.

We came away with a clear impression of what seemed to us to be the dominant breweries in the region: Allendale, Mordue and Wylam were almost everywhere. We’d tried Wylam beers in the past and thought they were decent but we’ve noticed a renewed buzz around them on social media in the last year; now we see why.

Almost every pub we went in had one beer we really wanted to drink and most had a couple more we were keen to try, or already knew we liked. Across the board there was a tendency to provide a range from dark to light, and from weak to strong. Only in one pub-bar (the otherwise likeable Cluny) did we find ourselves thinking that the vast range of hand-pumps might be a bit ambitious — the beer wasn’t off, just a bit tired.

Light shining through coloured glass into a dark pub.
Stained glass at the Crown Posada.

But even if the beer had been terrible everywhere it wouldn’t have mattered too much because the pubs are just so pretty — stained glass, fired tiles, decorative brick, shining brass, layers of patina — and often set beneath the cathedral-like arches of the city’s many great bridges.

And, finally, not in Newcastle but a short train ride away in Hartlepool, we got to visit our first micropub, The Rat Race — the second ever, which opened in 2009. We stayed for a couple of hours, interviewed the landlord, Peter Morgan, and chatted to some of his regulars, and to others who drifted through. We think we get it now and, yes, we reckon they’re probably a good thing.

Interior of the Rat Race micropub.
The Rat Race. Yes, that’s Astroturf on the floor.

This is a part of the world which, to our eyes, definitely seems to have a healthy beer culture. If you decide to pay a visit yourself — and you should — do check out these local publications for tips:

  • Tyneside & Northumberland CAMRA’s Canny Bevvy newsletter
  • Independent magazine Cheers North East edited by local expert Alastair Gilmour

Questions and Answers: Which Beers Excite ‘Traddies’?

‘Are there still any widely sought-after beers among traditional Real Ale afficionados? It’s pretty easy to spot what’s hot with craft beer geeks, but less so with traddies, probably because they aren’t all on Twitter. Are there still beers that would clear the floor at a CAMRA AGM if the rumour went around that a cask had just gone on at a nearby pub?’  — Dave S, Cambridge

(Dave is a regular commenter here and an occasional blogger; he is also on Twitter.)

This isn’t a question with a right-wrong answer — it’s an invitation to a thought experiment, which is fine by us. But we did begin by asking a few people we thought might have some insight into the tastes and desires of ‘traddies’ (a new word inspired, we assume, by the similar, faintly sneering ‘crafties’).

John Simpson's depiction of middle class student CAMRA members, 1975.
John Simpson’s depiction of middle class student CAMRA members, 1975.

First, Tom Stainer, head of communications at the Campaign for Real Ale (disclosure: we’re sometimes paid to write for CAMRA) took issue with the question:

I’ll gently accuse you of stereotyping. I’m not sure there is a broad, identifiable group of ‘traddies’ who all respond in the same way. I’d also suspect that… a fair number of AGM attendees would be as likely to sprint for the bar whether you announced a rare cask of Greene King 5X was being tapped, or a Camden collaborative keg.

That’s something to start with, though. Greene King 5X, the strong wood-aged beer that GK use for blending but otherwise don’t sell to the public, was a sensation at the last Great British Beer Festival we attended in 2012, strictly rationed and triggering the kind of agitated, faintly panicky queuing behaviour at which we Brits excel.

Tom also suggested that at the GBBF whatever is named Champion Beer of Britain ‘disappears pretty quickly’, and that anything in an unusual style is also popular, e.g. chilli porter. He asked around and got no other suggestions.

Tandleman couldn’t think of anything that quite fit the bill either, although he agreed with our suggestion that the humble Batham’s Bitter might get people a bit excited.

Continue reading “Questions and Answers: Which Beers Excite ‘Traddies’?”

Session #112: The Secondary Beer Economy — Bought the T-Shirt

This month Carla Jean Lauter asks us to consider all those businesses that aren’t breweries but that support or surround the brewing industry.

Her announcement of the topic opens with this eyebrow-raising statement:

Last year, the total economic impact of the beer brewing industry in the state of Maine was approaching the same scale as the lobster industry. Let that sink in for a second.

What leaps out at us from Ms. Lauter’s post is the omission of pubs and off licences (bottle shops) which are not (usually) breweries but are a considerable step up in terms of fundamental importance from some of the examples she gives, e.g. a firm that makes fancy bottle-openers.

And that’s one way of cutting this:

  1. Businesses that are essential to drinking beer.
  2. Those that can enhance the enjoyment of beer.
  3. Parasitic businesses that add little or nothing.

Tempting as it is to spend the entire post ripping into number three — all the press releases we get about beer-flavoured soaps — we’re going to focus on something we think belongs in that middle section, even if at first glance it might seem classically parasitic: T-shirts and hats and the like.

Continue reading “Session #112: The Secondary Beer Economy — Bought the T-Shirt”

Is It OK Not To Be OK With Brewery Takeovers in 2016?

A few years ago if a big brewery took over a small one, it was a disaster — (almost) everyone agreed. But now, is the consensus in the process of swinging the other way?

In yesterday’s News, Nuggets & Longreads round-up we mentioned in passing that New Zealand brewery Panhead had been taken over by Lion and that people generally seemed fine with this. This prompted Luke Robertson, who is based in Australia and blogs at Ale of A Time, to drop us an email. Quoted with his permission, here’s a chunk of what he said:

To me it feels like people don’t want to be lumped in with the stereotypical angry beer nerds. So as a result everyone comes out in 100% full support without a hint of any concern. I mentioned to a good friend yesterday that I think everyone is trying to outdo each other in that aspect. With blindly positive cheering and clapping. The more positive, the better; regardless of what you actually feel.

Deep down I think there is a lot of concern. Panhead are beloved and the founder is a great guy who has built a great and unique brand with the beers to back it up. While Lion have handled their acquisitions amazingly well in both Aus and NZ, I think if people were pressed on the issue they wouldn’t be as in support as they are in public… I may be way off base but the lack of dissenting opinion, or anything that isn’t ‘Yay isn’t this awesome?! GO BEER!’ is beginning to all seem a bit fake.

Second guessing whether what people say is sincere, unless you know them personally and well, is a mug’s game, but we have certainly noticed the same shift in the (ahem) ‘discourse’ and felt uneasy about it.

The Small is Beautiful party line goes something like this: big breweries taking over little ones is never good news; those breweries lose their character and the beers get more boring; and overall consumer choice is reduced as those beers become more ubiquitous. (We have some sympathy with this view.) And the most extreme critics — the angriest of the beer nerds — argue that it’s all part of a global conspiracy to crush or at least control the threat of craft beer. (Which can sound a bit hysterical but that doesn’t mean there’s not something in it.)

Let’s wait and see if the beer changes before we complain, goes one of the well-established, more neutral lines of argument. This is might be good news, goes another, because takeovers can increase the availability of a beloved brand, and might also improve quality and consistency. (On which more in a later post.) And these kinds of deals get craft beer into more outlets and so spread the word, advance the cause.

What we’ve been hearing in the last year or so, though, as the pace of acquisitions has stepped up, is something else: an expectation that drinkers won’t just accept takeovers, or cautiously welcome them, but will be delighted by them.

At the same time, anyone who does have concerns is dismissed as immature, or as a god-damned tree-hugging hippy who should go and live in Soviet Russia if they hate capitalism so much. (Sorry, straw-manning there. But only a bit.) Dissent is hysteria — we got in on the act with this two paras up, for goodness’ sake — and dissenters are loons.

Maybe this is just a natural turn for the conversation to take — the result of fatigue after a decade or two of evangelising, whooping, branded T-shirt-wearing hop-tattoo craft beer tribal triumphalism. And perhaps there’s some old-fashioned hipsterish contrarianism in it, too.

"Likes Mainstream because liking mainstream is non-mainstream" hipster meme.

At any rate, if we were in charge of PR for a multi-national brewing firm we’d be delighted. The outstanding question is, would we also be taking credit? Would we be looking at a bill for lobbying and ‘influencing’ — a sponsorship deal here, a blogger outreach event there — and thinking, ‘Well, that was money well-spent’?