The Pub as Quasi-Happy Eater

Good George Pacific PearlOur local Wetherspoon’s isn’t a very good one. It rarely has anything other than Doom Bar, Ruddles or Greene King IPA on offer, usually a degree or two too warm, served in an ambience that brings to mind a faux-pub on a cross channel ferry. We pop in from time to time, though, just in case something exciting might be available and, yesterday, we were tempted to stop for a couple of pints from the international beer festival range.

Pacific Pearl, brewed by Good George of New Zealand (Kelly Ryan (PDF link)) was very good indeed though, yes, a bit warm. A sort of a black IPA or citrusy porter, like an oily Terry’s Chocolate Orange melted in a very posh coffee, it was certainly worth £2.15. Fly by Night, brewed by the chap from La Trappe in the Netherlands, on the other hand, was all sweaty socks and cardboard — bad rather than off, we think. Swings and roundabouts, eh?

As we drank, we talked about why, apart from the beer, we didn’t like the pub. Our conclusion: it feels like a fast food restaurant with some pub-like features — very convenient and obviously good value, but naff. Then, coincidentally, last night, we came across this passage in the 1985 CAMRA Good Beer Guide, on the subject of Host Group, Grand Met/Watney’s newly announced pub chain:

‘The Host packaged pub enterprise is as much of a threat to those who love individuality and consumer choice, as the packaged beer phenomenon was in the last two decades,’ says Peter Lerner of CAMRA’s Pub Preservation Group. ‘We cannot let our pubs decline to become chains of look-alike quasi-Happy Eater, Kentucky Fried Chicken bars or motorway service stations.’

A quasi-Happy Eater is a very good description of our local JDW.

Not a proper pub, but not so bad

Sometimes, holding an establishment up to the standard of the mythical perfect English pub can be unfair because there are now so many different business models operating successfully under that banner.

One of the most common alternative models is one we associate particularly with Wetherspoons, although we’ve got no idea if they originated it. These kind of pubs:

  • are “food-led”, but certainly not gastropubs
  • high turnover
  • operate on a “what’s your table number?”, order food at the bar basis
  • are usually based in very big hall-like buildings and
  • have some of the trappings of a traditional pub, e.g. dark wood.

In Cornwall, with its busy tourist trade, there are lots of these places, half empty in the winter but heaving in summer. Most are run by St Austell but not all.

What does a good pub of this type look like? Let’s take a St Austell pub in Newquay as an example.

  • Despite being food-led, a great range of beer in tip-top condition.
  • Efficiently run — not too much waiting, food delivered quickly.
  • Clean and tidy — no peas rolling around the floor or crumbs on the tables.
  • As cosy as possible — big enough to house a Zeppelin but warm, with booths and pillars to hide behind.
  • No illusions — this pub doesn’t claim to be traditional, historic or characterful.

We’ll always choose a proper pub first but, in their own way, pubs of this type give beer a home in unhospitable territory. They’re rarely charming, but they surely have their place.

Bailey used to work in a pub like this as a student waiter (a “Brewer’s Fayre”). One of his jobs was picking chips and peas out of the revolving sauce tray and stirring in the crust on the ketchup. That is why they always have sauce in sachets these days.

Hunting for Ale in Exeter

A pint of Exeter Brewery 'fraid Not at the Waterfront pub

We couldn’t find many recommendations for pubs in Exeter on the Blogoshire, so thought we’d use our instincts and try out a few places on spec.

We started with the Wellhouse Tavern which is attached to Michael Caines’ hotel and restaurant on the cathedral square. We’re always interested when chefs say they like beer: it’s usually done in the middle of a spiel about how normal they are and how nothing hits the spot like good beer, after which they proceed to recommend Innis and friggin’ Gunn. Anyway, in this case, Chef or (at last his bar manager) turns out to have decent taste with five west country ales on offer, and not just the usual suspects. Standouts were O’Hanlon’s Stormsayer, a gingery, chunky 5% beer, and Bay’s Up and Under, a refreshing and moreish amber bitter. The pub itself can’t quite decide if it’s trying to be a real ale pub (large selection of beer), a party pub (bangin’ dance tunes and Jäger bombs) or a gastropub (sandwiches with pancetta) but definitely worth a look.

Thanks to the Baedeker raids, where there ought to be quaint backstreets and half-timbered buildings, there are post-war shopping complexes, and so the city centre seems short on pubs. We headed out of the immediate centre towards the Topsham Road and came across the White Hart. This is a proper, wonky old coaching inn with a courtyard, hidden rooms and cosy corners, despite attempts by Marston’s to turn it into a plasticky chain pub. Of particular interest is their unique house beer, Old Wallop (5.6%), brewed by Ringwood (part of the Marston’s empire). It’s got a really rich, chewy toffee character, set off nicely by that famous Ringwood yeast. Good stuff.

Down by the quayside, there is The Prospect, another large, historical pub. Unfortunately, they’ve gone even further down the chain pub route having done away with the cosy corners, leaving one great big echoing chamber. It feels like an upmarket Wetherspoons or a cut-price Pitcher and Piano. Cotleigh Old Haka, with Motueka hops, was in good nick, though, and the first beer from this brewery we’ve really enjoyed in a while.

The Waterfront, a few metres further along the quayside, was a pleasant surprise. From outside, it looked like a chain tapas bar but, inside we found attractive arched brick ceilings, friendly bar staff and regulars, and several ales in absolutely excellent condition. It’s the first time we’ve had O’Hanlon’s Yellow Hammer in a state where we could appreciate the subtle spiciness. ‘Fraidnot (4%) by the Exeter Brewery was the highlight of the trip — a golden ale with the kind of lip-smacking, doughy, bready malt flavour we associate with JW Lees Bitter and Bristol Beer Factory beers.

The Hourglass, around the corner on tucked-away Melbourne Street, is a fabulous old pub building with early 20th century brewery livery and some quirky decor, like a backstreet bar in Brussels. Lots of laptops and Moleskines about, if you catch our drift. It’s a pity that the beer was in indifferent condition and that the range included two from Otter (a brewery we just don’t get). They had another Exeter beer, Avocet Ale, which was herbal, watery and, frankly, weird tasting. This is probably an amazing place in which to drink red wine and philosophise but, on the beer front, we’d recommend the Waterfront over this.

It’s probably an indictment of the Exeter beer scene that one of our top recommendations is still the Imperial, a Wetherspoons that’s a ten minute walk from the station and occupies the old Imperial Hotel building, including its incredible orangery. The beer is reliably good and they have by far the best range of unusual local beer. We particularly enjoyed Bath Ales’ Ginger Hare (not very gingery, more like singed cinnamon UPDATE: and maybe not Ginger Hare at all, as Bath Ales tell us they’ve not done a cask for a while — did someone forget to change the pumpclip?) and Eddystone by South Hams  — a rare West Country beer with veritable hops!

We didn’t find any really top-notch pubs and began to realise the benefits of big regional brewers: with no St Austell or Fuller’s of its own, Exeter is being filled with invasive species: Marston’s and Greene King pubs. Not local and certainly not exciting.

Finally, a food tip: Lite Deelite is a very authentic Chinese/Japanese snack bar and restaurant on the Cathedral Square. We’ve been twice and been very impressed by the food on both occasions. The gangs of trendy Chinese students tapping away on their iPhones only add to the atmosphere.

Wetherspoons suffer from smoking ban?

Marketing magazine has a good piece this week on the fortunes of the Wetherspoons pub chain. Their sales have dropped 13 per cent to £28.5m in the six months to the end of January, apparently.

They’re blaming the smoking ban and rising energy costs — some of those barn-like pubs are costly to heat, it seems. The article also suggests that the smoking ban has hit them because poorer people smoke more, and are more likely to drink at Wetherspoons because it’s cheap.

Marketing mag then goes on to ask to brand experts to advise on how the chain can turn around its fortunes. Mike Taylor of Monkey Communications hits the nail on the head:

Wetherspoon is now a vernacular for a certain type of pub. Definitely not a bad pub, but maybe not one for “people like me”.

Dave Clements of McCann Erickson is a bit less astute in his comments:

[Wetherspoons] championing of real ale may warrant an award, but it has hardly increased footfall. It may have attracted a mid-market audience, but it is exactly those people who can’t imagine enjoying a pint without a cigarette.

Eh!? That’s certainly not true in our experience. In fact, like your wine snobs, real ale types tend to be rightly sniffy about anything that interferes with their appreciation of the flavour of the beer.

Maybe we’re being hopeful, but surely the downturn in Wetherspoons fortunes has something to do with another story in the same issue of the magazine — Tesco Finest (the supermarket’s “premium brand”) has just become the UK’s biggest grocery brand with sales of 1.2bn. People — even people without wads of cash — are getting a little but fussier these days.