Small town blues

bridgwater.jpgI’ve just come back from my home town (Bridgwater, in Somerset) where the pubs are having something of a crisis. For years, it’s been one of those towns that claims to have more pubs per head than any other. I don’t know if that’s true, but there are a lot of pubs. And, for almost as many years, those pubs have managed to make their way, despite the heavy competition.

Sadly, in recent years, a couple of big (and, crucially, cheap) chain pubs have opened in the town centre, leaving many of the smaller “locals” all but empty, even on Boxing Day (traditionally a very busy day).

Big business and the council are partly to blame here, but I have to say that some of the pubs are doing themselves no favours. In the face of stiff competition, they should be rising to the challenge and making the local the place to be. Instead, the pub nearest my parents house has decided that:

1. the best way to make the pub feel more lively is to put Radio 1 on at full volume and turn off the juke box

2. they’re too depressed to greet people when they enter the pub, or smile at them during service

3. it doesn’t matter if the excellent local bitter — Butcombe, on which more later — is stale or off

4. there’s no need to wash the glasses

5. that currying favour with five grumpy regulars is more important than making newcomers feel welcome.

This is typical, sadly. So, in my home town, the local pubs are now less friendly, more expensive, dirtier, less atmospheric, and have worse beer than Wetherspoons. And that’s saying something. My Dad, who has been drinking in Bridgwater pubs since he was old enough to lie to a barman about his age, got so depressed we had to leave.

I suspect that in Bridgwater, and many other towns across the UK, we’re going to see an end to the days when a population of 36,000 can support almost 200 pubs. Bad pubs are going to die. Cheap chain pubs will prosper. But good pubs — pubs that keep a small range of ales in good condition, which make their customers feel welcome, that create atmosphere, and that make you feel like a regular, or even a friend, when you’ve been twice in a month — will survive.

I’ll name names: the Bower Manor is a fairly unassuming restaurant/hotel, with a small bar. It, too, was quiet on Boxing Day, but the landlady was friendly; there was one fresh, well-kept real ale (Sharp’s Doom Bar — the best pint of this I’ve ever had); a roaring fire; and a Christmas Tree. It was hard to leave!

Oh, and I promised to say something about Butcombe Bitter: it’s a great beer. One of my favourites (my judgement being partly clouded by homesickness, I’ll admit). At its best, it’s very bitter, very satisfying, and slightly sulphurous on the nose. I can’t vouch for how it will taste if you see it on tap outside the West Country, but try a half and let me know what you think.

Bailey

Happy bingeing

Apparently today is the day most chosen for Christmas parties, and therefore the day when ambulance crews are most poised to pick up the pieces. I seem to remember that last year there was a lot of hysteria in the media about this, but there aren’t so many silly stories this year, perhaps because society didn’t in fact break down and the streets did not run with blood as predicted.

The Evening Standard and other related papers are having a go, though, with the story that Londoners are estimated to spend £120m on booze in two days (today and yesterday). However, that’s only £20 per Londoner (assuming 6m adult Londoners*), spread across two days. £10.00 doesn’t buy you many drinks in Central London these days, particularly in a wanky City bar (bottle of Becks – £4.20!!!!!!!!!**)

Given the hysteria about binge-drinking at the moment, £120m seems surprisingly low.

Boak

*Figure derived from the Office of National Statistics estimates in 2006. The figure of 6m includes the over 16s (because apparently they’re all drinking a bottle of wine a week) and excludes short-term migrants.

**That’s about a million dollars for our readers across the pond.

Accountants and breweries

Accountants get a lot of stick from home-brew books, beer blogs and the like. Apparently we’re responsible for everything bad that has ever happened in beer, such as the move from cask to keg in the UK, use of rice as an adjunct, and the development of high-alpha (i.e low-flavour) hops.

I’m fed up with this laziness. Firstly, as anyone with any business experience knows, the job of the finance team is to support the goals of the company. If the company wants to sacrifice quality for profit, that’s the board’s call. And of course the board will take that decision based on (a) shareholder opinion (b) analysis of the market. So it’s all the fault of the consumers really…

Secondly, in my experience, real-ale lovers are well-represented within the accountant population. Maybe not that surprising given our reputation for being pedantic bores.

Thirdly, we just don’t have the (diabolical) imagination for the crimes we’re accused of.

Now the marketing team — that’s a different story…

Boak

Why the Galicians are the Irish of Spain

WARNING: Contains generalisations presented as facts without evidence to back them up.

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Galicia is a fascinating part of Spain, tucked away above Portugal. It has its own language (between Portugese and Spanish) and some uncanny parallels with Ireland.

  1. It rains all the time and is consequently very green.
  2. It’s battered by the Atlantic.
  3. Weird similarities in traditional music.
  4. According to some, there are more people of Galician origin in America than Galicia, due to famine and poverty in the 19th century.
  5. Getting onto the beer angle. Their major beer is seriously over-rated. Estrella de Galicia is probably my least favourite beer in Spain. How can you manage to have smooth flow lager? I also tried their 1906 “Reserva” which was actually worse than the normal lager.
  6. The reputation for being twinkly-eyed, salt of the earth types. Particularly when it comes to bars. It’s a broad generalisation (I warned about those) but Galician bars in cities like Madrid and Barcelona are often extremely friendly places, with very good service and excellent atmosphere. What’s interesting is that I think we’re seeing the start of the “Galician theme bar” (i.e. like O’Neill’s in the UK), cashing in on this reputation. I certainly visited one in Burgos.

The food choice tends to be more exciting in Galician bars than Irish bars though…