This Tweet got us thinking because we instinctively read into ‘character’ in this context an implication that the more characterful beer might also have been more challenging, or less universally appealing. That is, probably from the point of view of many people, worse.
We usually use ‘characterful’ to acknowledge that we think a beer is distinctive (that’s another one) but that we don’t necessarily like it, or dare to assume that others will either. (‘It’s certainly different, I’ll give it that.’)
As we talked it over, though, we realised the utter vagueness of the word. We’d always thought it was a more precise and useful word than ‘good’ — that someone could acknowledge a beer they dislike as having character — but now we’re not so sure. Can’t one drinker’s characterful be another’s bland, or another’s gimmicky crap?
A beer can be weak and mild but still highly distinctive, e.g. (again) Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, but to people who aren’t tuned into these things, it’ll just taste like Doom Bar. Equally, someone not focused on the wackier end of craft beer might find those beers homogeneous — a general mess of sour, boozy, hazy, oily grapefruit juice. In other words, characterful is mobile:
Those two circles mark where our imaginary Person A and Person B might locate ‘characterful’ — they’re quite close to each other really, aren’t they?
We suppose Person A might learn to love characterful bitters if they tried, and Person A could develop a taste for barrel-aged imperial stouts, but neither is going to find character in basic, well-mannered beers where it just doesn’t exist.
So maybe ‘characterful’ does still work, and does describe a quality of the beer regardless of the drinker’s palate?
If we’re in a bubble, then the bubble is getting bigger, or getting crowded, or leaking, or something.
There is a prevalent idea that beer geeks over-estimate the impact of what’s going on with beer at the moment because they’re — we’re — in a kind of echo-chamber. We’re inclined to agree with that up to a point, but then things like this do keep happening.
1. A friend from university who as far as we recall had no particular interest in beer back then, has started a brewery in Japan. A proper one, and apparently successful. He was in the UK recently taking part in a collaboration brew with a well-established British outfit. It’s all over Facebook and it weirds us out, in a quite delightful way. (Hakuba Brewing Co.)
2. Another old pal tells us that his best friend from secondary school has opened a specialist beer shop, where he was himself working the occasional shift until recently. (The Dronfield Beer Stop.)
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.
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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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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:
‘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
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’).
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.
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.