How We Choose What to Drink

You walk into a pub or bar and are faced with, say, eight or more beers. Which do you go for, and why?

We were trying to work out if we have a system, subconscious or otherwise, and here’s what we reckon our order of preference is.

  1. Anything that’s on our wish list.
  2. Something new by a favourite brewery.
  3. An old favourite we don’t see often.
  4. A beer we’ve tried but want to give more thought to.
  5. Something from a new brewery we’ve heard is interesting.
  6. Anything new that doesn’t ring alarm bells.
  7. An old favourite we have all the time.
  8. Whatever vaguely OK but boring cask ale or ‘craft beer’ they’ve got.
  9. Guinness, or gin and tonic.

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Defining a ‘Classic Pub’

We recently exchanged a few Tweets with pub blogger Martin Taylor (AKA @NHS_Martin) about his term ‘classic pub’ — what does it mean? Does such a thing exist?

There is the abstract idea of the perfect or ideal pub, explored most famously in George Orwell’s rather over-quoted 1946 essay ‘The Moon Under Water’, and at length in a book it inspired, The Search for the Perfect Pub by Paul Moody and Robin Turner, published in 2011. Moody and Turner conclude that perfect pubs are those that possess

individuality, wit and wisdom… which fly the flag for independence in the face of corporate domination and the onset of a homogenised ‘clone town’ Britain: the ones which feed the community yet give back in double measures, at happy hour prices.

We reckon that in this context, perfect and classic are synonymous — both imply a quality that bears reflection, that goes beyond mere function, and to which the drinker has a reaction deep in the soul.

The thing is, Orwell tried to draw up a set of rules — no music, cheap food, pink mugs, and so on — but that’s a flawed approach because it just invites a different kind of homogeneity, and homogeneity (as Moody and Turner suggest) is the enemy of character, which is what causes a pub to latch on to your heart.

Inside the Hunter's Inn, Devon
Inside the Hunter’s Inn, Devon.

On the whole, we prefer pubs with lots of dark corners, but there are pubs which have that but that we don’t like at all, and pubs with bright open spaces, chrome and stripped wood that (against the odds, perhaps) we love. We’ve fallen for pubs with food, and pubs without; pubs with jukeboxes, and those as silent as monasteries; crowded pub, quiet pubs; Olde Inns, new builds; round the corner from our house, or on holiday; full of friendly locals, or big-city-aloof. And so on.

Where this conversation so often goes wrong is in the idea that only pubs that match the observers’ particular preferences (which might take a decade of therapy to understand) are Proper Pubs — TRUE pubs. But pubs have been all sorts of things mixed up and inter-mingled since they faded into existence over the course of a few centuries — wine, beer, gin, food, music, art, theatre, children, bareboards, plush furnishings, cut glass, spit and sawdust — you name it. They’re all part of what is and has been The Pub.

Window of the Star Inn.

And when we talk to people for whom a post-war prefab was the Local, their memories are as fond as yours might be of a favourite Victorian corner pub or distant craft beer bar.

Ultimately, for us, the only defining feature of a pub is that we can walk in off the street without making an appointment and drink a beer or two without eating. (And, we suppose, without being made to feel guilty for not eating either.) Beyond that, what defines the meaning of Pub is its diversity, and what makes for a classic pub is that it gets to you, that you remember it and (optional?) that you find yourself longing to go back.

Q&A: Which Are the Best New Wave Takes on Brown Bitter?

Detail from an old beer mat: BITTER!

‘Which new wave micros make what could be considered a quality brown bitter, possibly with just a slight modern twist, that could compare favourably to Harvey’s Sussex Best or Adnams’s Southwold Bitter?’ Paul, Ealing (@AleingPaul)

This question was prompted by our previous Q&A post on ‘Traddies’ and came with an example of the kind of beer Paul has in mind: Brass Castle’s Loco Stock.

We’ve been repeating a standard line for a few years now: one possible very broad indicator of a brewery’s ‘craft’ status (def. 2) is that its best-known or flagship beer will be an American-style pale ale or IPA rather than, as with Fuller’s or Wadworth, one of its brown bitters. What this acknowledges is that many post-2005 new wave British breweries do still brew a bitter, even if it’s an also-ran in their line-up.

For example Thornbridge (disclosure: various) still make a version of Lord Marples (PDF), the cask bitter they brewed before Jaipur was invented, which was designed to appeal to traditional Sheffield drinkers. We’ve not tasted it for a while but we recall it being notably deep brown and distinctly bitter. It uses only English and/or European hops and contains crystal malt — indicators of its old-school identity.

But Paul’s question is quite specific: which of these new wave brewery bitters are as good as the best examples from the trad-regional-family brewers? Lord Marples is one of the best of the new breed but, being totally honest, faced with choosing between it and Sussex Best for one pint, all else being equal, we’d choose the latter every time. (As, we suspect, would most so-called ‘crafties’ these days.)

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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.

QUICK ONE: The Ubiquity of Coastal Chic

Sign outside the First & Last: New Look, New Menu, New Team.

Pubs in Cornwall are ditching the cosy smugglers’ den look for airy-and-aspirational, and it doesn’t always work.

On Saturday we went for a walk to Land’s End looping back to check out The First & Last, a pub we usually end up visiting a couple of times a year. Having closed for a time it has now re-opened after a refurbishment, and under new management.

We used to find it pretty decent: there were always a couple of beers worth drinking, it was snug in winter, and had a fairly bin-free garden for when the sun happened to be shining. The refurb hasn’t been drastic and most of that still applies — the beer, in fact, is better — but we reckon the attempt to brighten it up has taken away some essential character.

Things have been painted light teal — why is it always teal? — and there are more bare surfaces. It doesn’t look bad, as such, but it’s not what we’re looking for in a pub caught between moorland and rugged cliffs.

We’ve seen a few other makeovers like this, too, most notably The Sir Humphrey Davy here in Penzance.

Cornwall’s problem (and maybe this applies to Devon, too) is that it is really two different places depending on the weather: on a sunny high-season day, an artfully gloomy pub with wood and low beams is no use to anyone. Equally, when it’s dark at 4pm, raining and blowing a gale, a pub decorated in beach hut colours, tiled and metal-trimmed, can feel like a morgue. At the moment, the trend is, quite understandably, to cater to the lucrative summer trade.

The thing is, though decor can give a slight lift, it can’t make light where there is none: at The First & Last, the windows are still low, small and facing west, and it still felt dark.

It’s not always a disaster. At the Old Coastguard in Mousehole — perhaps the inspiration for some of these other makeovers — it works, because the light floods in through huge windows at the back of the pub, with no obstructions as the garden slopes down to the sea.

We can’t help thinking, though, that some pubs ought to accept that, through circumstances of location, history and architecture, they are destined to be Cosy Old Inns, and just double-down on it. If the pub lacks light, then give up and make a feature of shadowy corners. If it feels cluttered, get more and more intriguing rubbish to fill any gaps. If it looks old-fashioned, don’t waste time trying to be hip: settle into it.

‘Contemporary’ ages fast; snug is eternal.