We went to our local Wetherspoon pub twice last weekend and found its craft makeover quite startling.
As usual, what drew us through the door in the first instance was a craving for beer that isn’t local. Oh, yes, local beer is great, and very worthy, and all that, but blimey, can it get monotonous. During the regular Spoons real ale festivals, even our fairly conservative branch usually has something pale, hoppy and from up north on offer. On this occasion, Rooster’s Union Gap, at a mere £2.25 a pint, fit the bill admirably.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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 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.
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.