Signs and Hints and Signals: No Bloody Swearing!

Publicans find lots of ways to signal who they want to drink in their establishments and, of course, who they don’t.

We’ve been pondering this post on and off for months — maybe even years — but the news today that Samuel Smith of Tadcaster has banned swearing across its entire pub estate brought it into sharp focus. This is surely an attempt to nudge the estate in the direction of upmarket, isn’t it? An indirect way of saying ‘no riff raff’.

These kinds of signs and signals are one of the most powerful tools a publican has when it comes to shaping their clientele. For example, we’ve been collecting these lately:

A set of written rules is in itself a signal: this is a pub run by human beings; it has quirks and character; and bad behaviour, however it is defined, will not be tolerated. But in their detail the rules are a kind of manifesto for each pub — a challenge: ‘This is who we are. If you don’t like it, please go somewhere else.’

About a decade ago, before London had a ton of overt craft beer bars, there were a handful of (literal) signs that publicans used to attract the attention of desirable (that is, relatively wealthy) customers: Illy Coffee Served Here, free Wi-Fi, This is a No Smoking Pub, Board Games Available. There’s nothing there that’s necessarily tied to any particular social class but still it made a statement about the atmosphere you could expect to find inside.

On the flipside, we sometimes interpret a prominently displayed DRUGS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED ON THESE PREMISES poster as a form of advertising: ‘Gotcha. Say no more.’ [wink] More benignly, some aspects of decor that might be off-putting to the snooty — a bucket of sand full of fag ends, SKY SPORTS SHOWN HERE — may well read as reassuringly down-to-earth to others.

The Salutation, Mangotsfield, Bristol.

Then there’s the extravagant display of national symbols. This is a complicated issue which people have no doubt written entire theses and books about. Frankly, we’re nervous even mentioning it but, in brief, displaying any flag is always a choice — what is it intended to say, and to whom? And, more to the point, what do people think it is saying?

Sometimes, even if the message being sent isn’t one that makes you feel welcome, it can still be honest, and oddly helpful. After all, no-one wants to crash a party where they’re not welcome.

It Conceals Its Lardiness Well

Illustration: a packet of lard.

What do we mean when we say we want a boozy beer to really taste boozy?

In yesterday’s review of a Colchester Brewery porter we mentioned our delight at discovering it had only 4.6% alcohol which was perhaps the immediate prompt for this from The Beer Nut:

We reckon we’re in the clear here — we rejected the first of those two options a few years ago, although Duvel (which we worship and adore) might be an exception.

Trying to think of an analogy, the best we could come up with was this: when you eat a 2,000 calorie pizza, you want to taste those calories. So, when people say ‘It was 9% but had the body and flavour of something half the strength — so drinkable!’ it sounds like ‘…but the cheese was so well concealed I was able to eat an extra six slices.’ Which might make sense if you’re bulking up for a marathon, or have a lot of cheese to dispose of for some reason (hey, that’s none of our business) but otherwise, just seems barmy.

An amazing, rich-tasting dessert that turns out to have barely any fat? Great news! Something that seems virtuous but turns out to have a load of hidden filth? Gutted. (The 1993 Seinfeld episode ‘The Non Fat Yogurt’ plays on this very premise.)

Alcohol isn’t good for us. It can, and often does, make us feel like death the day after. We’re willing to accept those downsides for a sufficiently thrilling, deep, mind-blowing beer. Otherwise, we’ll just drink a lighter, simpler, less intense, and probably cheaper beer and swerve the hangover.

But maybe what people really mean, as per Twitter discussion yesterday, is that they want the good things booze brings to beer — body, richness, headiness — without the burn. In which case the fat analogy works: a hugely calorific meal should taste luxurious, silky, unctuous, and all those other words we use to put a positive spin on fat. It shouldn’t taste greasy or oily, like hour-old battered cod from a chippy that doesn’t manage the temperature of its fryers properly.

Things cooked in lard taste great but no-one wants to eat it with a fork.

Confession Time — Which Beers Are You Embarrassed to Like?

Text: CRUSH ON YOU.

Why do people feel uncomfortable admitting to liking (or disliking) certain beers? And which beers do you have a secret soft spot for?

We were prompted to ponder this subject by this Tweet from Rhys Daltrey:

Twitter screenshot: "Embarrassing​ revelation: I have a weakness for Tanglefoot. I keep it quiet, so as not to spoil my 'craft' pretensions..."

As it happens, we too have more time for certain Badger beers than you might expect. They were among the earliest ales we really got to know at Hall & Woodhouse outposts in London, as well as during a series of holidays in Dorset and around. We don’t talk about them much these days because the bottles don’t excite us — they seem to taste particularly stewed even by the standards of supermarket ales — and we don’t get much chance to drink the cask incarnations, but we’re certainly not embarrassed to mention them.

Perhaps it’s a result of having blogged about beer for 9.99999 years but we’re not much ashamed to admit to liking, or disliking anything. We’ve paid our dues and if we say we do or don’t like a beer, it’s an honest reaction. (Which is not to say it might not be stupid, misinformed or confused — that’s a whole separate issue.)

Even now, though, we know we’ll draw a bit of fire if we express a liking for, or even tolerance of, certain beers. That’s why we so often resort to the language of extreme subjectivity, such as ‘soft spot’ above — like Rhys, we couch it almost as a failing on our part.

Another approach is to go on the offensive: unlike you sheeple, I controversially like Budweiser/Bass/Special Brew, and if you’ve got a problem with that, you can see me outside in the car park. It’s the same thing though, really — an acknowledgement that The Community won’t approve.

Be Honest, Fess Up

What we’d like to see, more generally, is people stating plainly what they like, and what they don’t. There’s no wrong or right answer, and you don’t need special expertise or training to know whether a beer tastes good to you, right now. (Even if down the line you might be baffled by your own judgement.)

People holding back from expressing an honest view skews the whole conversation to a handful of consensus breweries and beers.

And, of course, for that to happen, others need to respect the preferences of others. (Last year, someone told us they were disappointed in us for naming Duvel as a great Belgian beer. Weird, right?)

With all that in mind, let’s have an amnesty: which beers do you have a secret crush on that you don’t want the kids at school to know about?

And you can also tell us which beers you know you ‘ought’ to like but don’t, although we actually had a pretty good round-out on a related topic a couple of months back.

Here are some beers we feel slightly naughty liking — but nonetheless publicly admitted to liking — in recent months, to get the ball rolling: Guinness (Bailey, every now and then); Hoegaarden (not what it used to be, apparently); Bass (NWIUTB); Marston’s Pedigree (NWIUTB); LIDL’s own-brand Bière de Garde; Ringwood Forty-Niner (cask, at The Farmer’s).

A Contribution: Why We Drink at Home When We Drink at Home

Record spinning: 'Sittin on my Sofa' by the Kinks

We’re always rather pleased when a Topic of the Week arises among the beer chatterers. This time it seems to be drinking at home vs. drinking in the pub.

The subject has inspired at least three Twitter polls (Beer O’Clock Show, Peter McKerry, The Pub Curmudgeon) and so far one substantial blog post with the threat of more to come. We responded to the Beer O’Clock Show poll with a comment on Twitter which we wanted to expand on a bit.

We split our drinking about evenly between the pub and home, we reckon, though of course some weeks, or seasons even, it might wobble one way or the other. But why drink at home at all?

A few years ago when we were trying to learn as much about beer as possible and were a bit snootier (sorry about that) we’d have said that beer choice was the main deciding factor. If we wanted to drink much other than bitter or golden ale near where lived c.2008 home was really the only option. Our local shops and supermarkets had more interesting beer, cheaper, and at home we could use fancy glassware and all that stuff that seemed very important.

Engraved windows, Islington, North London.
Engraved windows, Islington, North London.

But we still went to the pub a lot. If we’d had a tough day at work, if the Tube was broken, if the trains were delayed, if we passed a pub with especially twinkly lights, if we’d heard an interesting beer was on somewhere, if we were sick of the sight of the four front room walls, if we wanted to see our friends, or hang out with colleagues — any excuse, really.

A few things have changed. First, we’re not in our twenties any more and our capacity for booze has diminished. We don’t drink every day and, when we do, we drink less per session.

Secondly, most of our friends are (a) several hundred miles away and/or (b) married with kids and/or (c) working every hour of the waking day. Even when they are at hand, the days of popping to the pub for a casual pint or six on a Tuesday night have passed.

And, finally, we don’t commute these days. In other words, the peripheral parts of our lives are less stressful and chaotic, and we have settled into a small town routine: work, home, tea, then go out, if at all.

And that’s the point at which we sometimes come unstuck. Let’s go to the pub after dinner, we say, excitedly. But then dinner takes a bit longer to prepare than expected; a relative phones, or needs phoning; dinner makes us drowsy, the sofa is comfy, and the thought of putting on boots to go out seems suddenly… unappealing. Especially when there’s a gale shaking the window frames.

After all, particularly in winter, the chances are that even the pubs we like will be uncomfortably quiet, and the already limited beer range will be further diminished. At home, on the other hand, we’ve got a cupboard full of genuinely exciting things to drink and, of course, media to consume, mindless drones that we are.

Beer is important to us but when we’re not indulging that obsession, we also like music and films, and have various creative hobbies that don’t work anywhere but home.

We don’t feel guilty about this. Well, maybe a little. But this is normal. When we do go to the pub, it’s because we really want to, and we invariably have a good time. As we’ve said so many times now, it shouldn’t be a grim duty.

Would we go to the pub more often if it was cheaper? Probably not, though we do wince at the price of a round sometimes. Would we go if there was variety on offer in town? Maybe, a bit, especially if we knew what was on before heading out of the door.

No, on balance, the deciding factor is convenience, which leads us back to a thought we’ve expressed before: pubs need to work on finding new customers rather than on turning the ones they’ve already got into seven-nights-a-week alcoholics.

New Breweries, Classic Styles

Pilsner as an LP

It’s easy to mock self-consciously ‘craft’ (def 2.) breweries — [Chortle] ‘I suppose they make barrel-aged imperial India pilsner with passion fruit and freeze-dried raspberries! Hur Hur!’ — but it seems to us that the same breweries also do more than they are sometimes given credit for to keep classical styles alive.

A few years ago we stuck up for Brodie’s of Leyton, East London, who were accused of brewing ‘silly beers’. They did, and do, brew sour beers with fruit and a whole range of hop-heavy pale ales but they also did something that no-one had done in the London Borough of Waltham Forest for about 40 years by our reckoning: they made a standard cask-conditioned dark mild.

(We don’t know if they still do — their website is pretty useless and the last Untapp’d check-in appears to be from last August.)

Then, last month, we were astonished to see this line-up at BrewDog Bristol:

Beer menu at BrewDog Bristol.

For clarity (bad photo, sorry) that’s a straight-up stout (Jet Black Heart), a Dortmunder, an altbier (Candy Kaiser) and an eighty shilling, all on draught. All of them were respectful, straightforward attempts to brew (for better or worse) as per accepted style guidelines.

Elsewhere we have Buxton which has brewed straight-up and very convincing Belgian-style tripel, dubbel and patersbier; Thornbridge’s takes on helles, Kölsch, doppelbock, and more; and Harbour’s new line-up which also includes helles along with pilsner and even a bitter actually called Cornish Bitter.

There are plenty of other such examples, and likely to be yet more as Craft with a capital C converges with established breweries’ bandwagon-jumping efforts in Wetherspoon pubs, Tesco and other mainstream outlets.

Perhaps if people (hey, including us) stop sneering for a second and encouraged this kind of thing, they’d do more of it. And then maybe Fuller’s could jump on that bandwagon by making their ordinary bitter (Chiswick) and mild (Hock) more readily available all year round.