…the AtmosphereÂ in which you enjoy beer. Where is your favorite place to have a beer? When? With whom? Most importantly:
We thought that we’d focus on the why — what is it that make for a good atmosphere?
- The time, the place. Obvious really, but we’ve had some great times in terrible pubs just because there’s something magical about the circumstances. For example, when you’ve stepped in out of a sudden shower, or from the freezing cold; or when you’ve taken a week-day off work, and you should be sitting at your desk, but instead you’re in the boozer, with two elderly alcoholics, a dog and a couple of bluebottles for company. Almost any pub feels good on Christmas Eve, or if your country has won in a big sporting event.
- The company. Who you’re with is probably the most important contributor to atmosphere — the worst pub in the world can have a great atmosphere if you’re with good friends. Remember, the point of the pub is to socialise! And it’s nice, too, if the other people in the pub are of different ages, classes, races and so on. A pub full of people in suits can be miserable. A pub full of football fans can be miserable. A pub full of students can be miserable. But mix them all up, and suddenly no-one feels on guard or out of place.
- Pubs you’ve hiked to on holiday. Any pub you’ve walked a long way to get to, perhaps along a coastal path, in the rain, will have a great atmosphere. A pint you’ve earned tastes twice as good. A pint of bog-standard Flowers at the Anchor Inn, Burton Bradstock tasted like nectar after four hours walking from Abbotsbury and, again, it’s great to know that you’re there when you should be at work.
- Decor. Small rooms, subdued lighting, rich dark colours. Pubs like that don’t always have good atmosphere, but they’re more likely to than ones with large, white, echoing rooms with bright lights. The legendary and brilliant Pembury Tavern in Hackney has only one flaw, perhaps best summed up in a graffito from the gents toilets: “This place is like an Anglican church”. (We should add that the atmosphere there gets better every time we go, and that for some people, it’s one of the main attractions.) Good pubs are designed so you can hear what your friends are saying but no-one else can. They’re intimate, cosy and comfortable, like a home from home. They shouldn’t feel too “corporate”, as Fullers pubs have started to do.
- Friendly bar staff. It’s not always the case, but generally a pub with a landlord as opposed to a “management team” will be friendlier. Nothing crushes the atmosphere quicker than dead-eyed, tired, grumpy staff wearing identical polo shirts glaring at you over the pumps. It’s not usually their fault — they’re underpaid and treated like drones. But it’s great when bar staff engage you in conversation, know about the beers and say goodbye when you leave.
- The lock-in. A uniquely British tradition, the significance of which has declined with the change to licensing laws. Until recently, pub landlords had to call “last orders” at 11:00 and kick you out by 11:20. The “lock-in” was where the pub landlord spontaneously decided that he liked the crowd he had in, so decided to flout the law, shut all the doors, draw the curtains, and stay open later. Guaranteed good night out. I’d name a couple of pubs famous for never shutting, but I wouldn’t want to get them in trouble. Often local Irish boozers (not big Irish chains). Nowadays, it’s supposed to be easier for landlords to get late licences, and we haven’t been in a lock-in since.
- Noise or music. It doesn’t have to be music, but some kind of background noise is usually a good thing. Beer snobs seem to have some problem with music in pubs, which I don’t really understand. It’s preferable to complete silence or — worse — an echo. A good jukebox can’t be beat. And the best ever: sitting in a beer garden in Munich listening to the hubbub of conversation, and a distant oompah band.
- Busy but not claustrophobic. A pub should be busy enough that it has some life in it, but not so busy you can’t get a seat after, say, 2o minutes. Claustrophobic pubs — anywhere in central London between 5-8 on a Friday, for example — are a nightmare.
- Beer gardens and town squares in the sun. This is a cheat, really, because the atmosphere is that of the town or city you’re visiting. Sunlight, shade, bustle and beer are a great combination. Watching the world go by under a parasol.. just perfect.
Note that good beer does not appear in this list. When we started to think about this post, we noted that almost all pubs where we’d had a truly amazing time had indifferent beer, at the very best. And we often choose to go to pubs with mediocre beer but great atmosphere whenever we’re meeting “normal friends” (ie those that aren’t beer obsessives). If it’s just the two of us, that’s different, but most people are not willing to trek to a “weird” pub because they have an interesting beer or two.
We wondered whether, in fact, “good beer” and “good atmosphere” were negatively correlated. How many times have you gone into a new pub with a “good beer” reputation, tried all the beers you’ve never had in as short a space of time as possible so you can move on and try somewhere else. We certainly have on day trips to,e.g., Oxford. Does this help create an atmosphere?
However, with a bit more consideration, we thought of a few places that do manage to pull off both great atmosphere and great beer:
- The Rake, near London Bridge. A tip from Stonch, which we can’t drag ourselves away from now we’ve found it. Great range of beer, very friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff. Very busy, but we’ve got a seat within 20 minutes every time we’ve been. It’s tiny, which is, in fact, probably what gives it a “buzz”, even when there are only 10 people in it.
- The Fitzroy Tavern, near Oxford Street. A nightmare in the evenings, but on a Sunday afternoon, a lovely place for a pint. Victorian style booths break up what is actually a big space, and make it feel more intimate. Sometimes there’s music, sometimes not, but there’s always the sound of the street outside. And we love several of Sam Smith’s beers “real” or not.
- Quinn’s, Camden. It’s a normal pub — one that looks too scary to go into at first glance — with a mixed and friendly clientele, but which also has fridges full of great German and Belgian beer. Sitting drinking Schlenkerla Rauchbier in a normal pub is how it should be.
This was a great topic!