Category Archives: pubs

Cruzcampo beer mascot, Toledo, Spain.

Breaking the Cycle of Recommendation

In the comments on this post last week, a side debate broke out about whether people ought to research a town’s beer scene before visiting, rather than hoping to stumble upon a good pub or bar.

A similar conversation, with a more hysterical tone, followed Pete Brown’s post about Chesterfield earlier in the year.

It’s obviously a bit rich to dismiss a town or city as having nowhere good to drink if you haven’t done any research (although that certainly wasn’t Mr Brown’s point) but playing it by ear from time to time can be both fun and illuminating.

The risk to relying on the guidance of others is that the loop can end up closing: everyone goes to the same handful of famous places, drinks the same few ‘must try’ beers, ends up writing more-or-less the same articles and blog posts, and then makes the same recommendations when they’re asked. The same places end up appearing in listicles and guide books, often for years after they’ve lost their lustre.

By all means carry out research before your trip, but do also leave a little time to explore, and to follow your instincts — you might find a new place struggling for custom but destined to be the next big thing; or stumble upon a great pub that no-one recommends because the beer is terrible; or just get really under the skin of the town you’re visiting.

You might even strike-out completely and end up back in the hotel bar, but that’s fine, too: if every single drinking session is ‘world class’, none of them are.

Inside the Magpie & Crown, Brentford, on a Saturday night.

Passing Through Brentford

For reasons too boring to explain, we spent the last night of our holiday in Brentford, West London, where we set out to satisfy a craving for Fuller’s beer.

There are two Fuller’s pubs on the high street — the Beehive and the Six Bells. Though both are ornate palaces to booze c.1910, we chose the Beehive for the perfectly sensible reason that its exterior tiling and lettering is the more eye-catching.

The Beehive, Brentford.

Inside, we were bumped back down to earth by football on the telly and bright, functional lighting. It’s what you might call a community local — that is, people who actually live nearby drink there regularly enough to know each other and the staff by name — and we did get stared at just a little bit, even after we’d retreated to a table in Billy-no-mates corner with the lone crossword puzzle solvers and plastic bag clutchers.

The beer? ESB tasted good, though not as good as at the Jugged Hare on Vauxhall Bridge Road earlier in the same week, and the Pride was very decent, too. It is also the kind of pub that has Fuller’s Pale Ale in tiny brown bottles (we’ve not seen this since the Plough in Walthamstow c.2007, now a convenience store) and something we couldn’t resist trying: keg Chiswick bitter. We can’t recommend it, but that probably won’t surprise you.

When we Tweeted about keg Chiswick, we got into a conversation via private messages with a local expert who told us that (a) he’d been told never to go into the Beehive if he valued his life and (b) that the Magpie & Crown just up the road was a must-visit pub.

Now, here’s a thing: we’d instinctively taken the fact that the M&C is a freehouse in London as a warning sign. If it was anything other than on its last legs, wouldn’t a brewery or pub company have snapped it up by now? And it does look a bit tatty from the outside — has any item of pub livery aged worse than those Watney Combe Reid roundels? But we took our correspondent’s advice, left the Beehive, skipped the Six Bells, and went to the Magpie.

* * *

We found something that looked like a classic ‘real ale pub’ — resolutely un-trendy and, like the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, with shelves full of paperback sci-fi novels. Metal-band-T-shirt-and-pony-tail rather than ironic-moustache-and-no-socks territory. The clientele seemed to be made up mostly of Brentford’s hidden middle-aged, middle class, with the odd walk-in pub-crawler.

At second glance, we noticed a dangling sign advertising ‘Craft Keg’, as well as a decent lot of Belgian and American British bottles. We were after cask-conditioned beer, though, and loved what happened when we scanned the pumps: the chap behind the bar said, “Hello!” and then, pointing at each in turn, “This one’s good; this one’s very good; this is good but will be better tomorrow; good; very good.” This bit of showman’s patter found the sweet spot between a know-it-all lecture and complete indifference — much more helpful than (shrug) “They’re all nice.”

All the beers we tried were in good nick and well-made, and if we didn’t especially like a couple of them, it was purely because they weren’t to our taste. (We weren’t taking notes, hence no specifics, but there were beers from Thornbridge and Hardknott among others.) It’s certainly no surprise that the local CAMRA branch loves the place.

It won’t appeal to everyone — pubs with personality never do — but it might just be your new favourite. If you find yourself out West, it’s surely worth a bus ride and the price of a pint to find out.

* * *

We got another pass at Fuller’s on the way out of London with our now traditional pre-train lunchtime session at the Mad Bishop & Bear at Paddington, where we can report that cask Chiswick tasted better than ever. What a great beer.

The Britannia, Copenhagen, 1955

The Britannia Inn, Copenhagen. SOURCE: The House of Whitbread, Winter 1955-56.
The Britannia Inn, Copenhagen. SOURCE: The House of Whitbread, Winter 1955-56.

Three years before Whitbread presented their state-of-the-art modern pub at the Expo in Brussels in 1958, they tested the water with a more traditional inn of the same name in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The British Exhibition in Copenhagen ran from 29 September to 16 October 1955 (exactly 59 years ago, by the way) and included representations from some 600 British concerns, including Whitbread.

The Britannia Inn was converted from an existing box-like modern restaurant on the exhibition ground site at the Tivoli Gardens and was intended to resemble a traditional Victorian pub:

Rustic seats stood by the doors leading to the saloon and public bars. Over the front door was the usual inscription in small letters: Frits Guldbrandsen. Licensed to sell beer, wines, spirits and tobacco.

Fixtures and fittings were borrowed from working Whitbread pubs back home. The sign — apparently the same as later used in Brussels — was taken from the Britannia Inn on High Road, Leytonstone, London E11, while several china barrels from the Nag’s Head, Covent Garden, were displayed behind the bar.

The Duke of Edinburgh drinks at the Britannia Inn, Copenhagen, 1955.
The Duke of Edinburgh. SOURCE: The House of Whitbread, Winter 1955-56.

Only bottled beer was sold but ‘beer-engine handles had been fixed to the bar to give the right atmosphere’. When the Duke of Edinburgh arrived on the royal yacht Britannia on 12 October, however, draught beer was sent over specially, and he drank it from a presentation tankard which he promised to keep on the yacht as a souvenir. (The Queen of Denmark visited on 4 October and made do with a glass of sherry in the public bar.)

Pathe Newsreel: Britannia Inn at 1:30.

Britain was rather proud of its pubs and breweries back then, wasn’t it?

We recently acquired, through a response to our wanted page, several vintage issues of the Whitbread magazine, The House of Whitbread. This draws on the issue for winter 1955-56, cross-referenced against articles in The Times.

QUOTE: Nairn on Northern Pubs

“The Vines was built in the last year of the [19th] century and every majestic detail is kept up as good as new… Tall and luminous, brown and gold giant pilasters combining elegance with immense force, and huge Victorian paintings between. Sitting in it, you feel ten feet tall, for it is the kind of grandeur that raises you up rather than crushes you. Drinking beer which is both better and cheaper than the metropolitan brew — any kind of Liverpool bitter is a good drop — you realize that London has nothing like this.”

Ian Nairn in the essay ‘Liverpool’ first published in The Listener in 1964 and collected in Britain’s Changing Towns in 1967, reissued and updated in 2013. There’s more information about The Vines on the CAMRA pubs heritage website.

Keg taps.

Beer, Beer Everywhere…

Last week, we watched with interest as an American customer tried to buy a beer in a British pub.

The pub in question had a slightly larger than usual selection of bottles and (self-declared) ‘craft keg’ along with several cask-conditioned ales in very good condition.

Behind the bar was a twenty-something with a sleepy manner bordering on off-hand.

Enter the American, white-haired and friendly: “I gotta get a beer. What IPA’s have ya got?”

The twenty-something blinked, recalling staff training, and pointed at a keg font. “Uh… This one’s new in, from… uh… the US–”

“Oh, that’s a great beer, but I didn’t come all this way to drink something made 20 miles from where I live! What else have ya got?”

The twenty-something looked startled. “Well, on cask–”

“Oh, I can’t drink that flat beer! I need the carbonation, know what I mean?”

At this point, what we’d thought was a pretty decent selection started to look rather narrow, like a Guess Who? board in the final stages of a game.

The twenty-something was struggling and stretched out a hand, hesitantly, to the font for a kegged pale ale. “This is from London, it’s quite hoppy–”

“IBUs?”

“Er…”

“How bitter is it in international units? Yeah, gimme a taste,” he said, realising the twenty-something wouldn’t be able to answer. On sipping, he screwed up his face.

“What else have ya got?”

“We have another pale ale from a local brewery–”

“Lemme  taste it.” Clearly unimpressed by its flavour, he nonetheless shrugged in resignation. “Yeah, OK, I guess I’ll take a small glass of that — a half a pint.” (He didn’t drink it.)

* * *

There were several things about this exchange that interested us. First, by ruling out the cask-conditioned ales, the visitor was fatally limiting his own choice and missing out (in our opinion) on the best beer that particular pub had to offer.

At the same time, the fact that there wasn’t a single beer he could really get excited about out of a range of 12 or so draught products suggested to us that British craft beer (definition 2) in the mainstream still has plenty of catching up to do with the US equivalent.

And, finally, the poor twenty-something’s struggle shows that training is a good start but only goes so far without (sorry) ‘passion’ to back it up.