The Pub That Does That One Beer Brilliantly

A perfect pint of Bass in Plymouth.

You know the kind of place we mean: it’s perhaps a bit curmudgeonly, perhaps a little old-fashioned, and everyone knows it’s the place in town to go for a perfect pint of [BEER X].

Most often these days, it seems, BEER X is Bass. Certainly in the West Country that’s the case, and there are famous Bass pubs in Penzance, Falmouth, Bristol and no doubt many other places. Here’s a bit we wrote for our now defunct Devon Life column:

Several pubs that sold great Bass 40 years ago are still doing so and one of the country’s very most famous Bass pubs is in Plymouth… The Dolphin on the Barbican is a place to drink, not to dine or pose. There is a range of ale on offer but the main event, as it has been for as long as anyone can remember, is undoubtedly Bass. An ornate plaque outside the front door advertises ‘Bass on draught’; a huge Bass banner hangs behind the bar; and the beer comes in straight-sided vintage-style pint glasses bearing the famous logo…. Though Bass may not be the beer it once was, at The Dolphin under the stewardship of veteran publican Billy Holmes, it still has some of its old snap and crackle, with a chalky dryness and a wonderful mild funkiness. It is unfussy but certainly not bland…. The Dolphin is by no means the only Bass stronghold in Plymouth, however. At the Artillery Arms in Stonehouse Belinda Warne has been learning its ways for 20 years. ‘It’s temperamental,’ she says, reflecting the popular mystique that surrounds the beer. ‘I’ve known it be fine and then, bang, there’s a clap of thunder outside and it’s turned bad in an instant.’

Becky's Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we'd still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).
Becky’s Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we’d still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).

Becky’s Dive Bar, all the way back in the 1960s and 70s, made its reputation on being one of the few places in London you would ever find Ruddles, for example, and we once made a pilgrimage to Putney in search of Timothy Taylor Ram Tam. (That pub sadly gave up on this unique selling point.) The Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury, a nice pub but otherwise unremarkable, is a go-to place for Theakston Old Peculier.

We reckon the King’s Head here in Bristol is on its way to gaining a reputation for its Harvey’s Sussex Best which seems to be permanently on offer and as good as we’ve ever had it. The Bridge Inn round the corner seems to have a similar relationship with Dark Star Hophead, a beer we still love despite its ups and downs.

For this model to really work the beer ought to be from another part of the country, the further away the better, and ideally one that doesn’t have wide national distribution through Wetherspoon pubs or other such chains and pub companies. But that doesn’t have to be the case: the selling point is really absolute reliability. If you fancy a pint of BEER X, the pub will have it, and because they always have it, and perhaps not much else, they’ll both know how to care for it and get through plenty. (See: Proper Job at The Yacht Inn, Spingo at The Dock.)

The publican has to hold their nerve, of course, when all the other pubs in the area are offering three, five, ten, twenty guest ales, plus kegs, plus bottles. How long does it take to build a cult reputation and a steady clientele around selling one beer really well? Years, probably — perhaps decades. And if a customer craving BEER X turns up and it’s not there you might find yourself back at square one.

What are some of your favourite One Beer Done Well pubs? Let us know in the comments below.

28 thoughts on “The Pub That Does That One Beer Brilliantly”

  1. Two London pubs that immediately spring to mind for draught Bass are Simpsons Tavern in Cornhill in the city (the oldest chophouse in the country) and the Express at Kew Bridge. Both have served draught Bass for decades . Always on good form.

  2. I can think of two in Bath, one known for it, and one that is just always on superb form and that we frequent weekly.
    The Star Inn on the Paragon, used to do draught Bass from a barrel (until with no notice ABInBev stopped doing the cask size needed) so now serves it from handpump.
    Second and more obscure is the Charmbury Arms in East Twerton, which does an always brilliant Proper Job, one of the main reason it is our pre-Bath City game pub of choice, despite many other pubs in the area.

  3. My first thought 0n perfect beer/pub (with the beer from another part of the country) St Albans is Harvey’s Sussex Best in the Robin Hood – and to a lesser extent – Oakham Citra in the Mermaid.

  4. In the days when Bass was Bass, the West of England was a good area in general to drink it.

  5. Have to say that I’ve generally thought of “One Beer Brilliantly” pubs as being pubs very close to the brewery concerned – for example, the Boltmaker’s Arms in Keighley was always a superb place to drink Timothy Taylor’s Best Bitter – to the extent the beer is now named after the pub. When Tetleys was brewed in Leeds, the very best pint of it was to be found in the Adelphi, the de-facto brewery tap. All the good places to drink it pretty much were in Leeds, for that matter. I can think of several other examples…
    Bass, though. Bass was always dependent on being kept well – ditto Pedigree. The proper sulphurous Burton character needed a hand from a sympathetic cellarman, and it’s my experience that anyone who kept either of these two really well often didn’t keep other beers well – and vice-versa. For many years, by far the best pint of Pedigree I knew of was at the Royal Oak in Kenilworth. These days, their choice of beers is more interesting and the don’t have the Ped on any more, but it was gorgeous.

  6. Oakham Citra at the Live and Let Live in Cambridge. Although it’s acceptable to upgrade to the Green Devil if they’ve got that on.

  7. My absolute best pub experiences do seem to centre around finding an excellent pub – usually a bit old fashioned, as you say, but preferably with ‘regulars’, ample seating and tables, music not too loud etc. – where you discover they have a regular cask beer you really like, and then you find it is always in excellent condition too – so much so that you can be confident in walking in the door and ordering a pint straight off (which isn’t my default). Just thinking about the pubs that deliver this makes me feel warm & happy. Notables for me are (recent find) the North Star in Leytonstone (always has well kept Oakham JHB; occasionally this might be replaced by Green Devil but that’s fine by me); the Harp in Cov Garden of course – we usually go for Dark Star’s APA which they almost always have on beside the Hop Head; and the Great Western, near the train station in Wolverhampton – a Holdens pub so you can reliably find their Black Country Bitter there, or Golden Glow, or Mild – and occasionally they have Bathams on as well. It’s that type of “reliably good” pub and cask beer experience that I seem to have been missing / craving since moving to London – having had more time to fathom out likely candidates around the Midlands – but the recent discovery of the North Star by chance (popped up on Google Maps when I was looking at a walking route) gives me hope there may be more to discover out there!

    1. The Great Western is a cracking old-fashioned pub. Their cheese and onion cobs along with a pint of Holden’s is Black Country heaven. One of the other examples of pubs close to the brewery being best for the beer I was thinking of was the Bull and Bladder, stonking Bathams, and the Park Inn at Woodsetton is obviously a great choice for Holdens; but probably all three go a little beyond just one beer done well.

    2. Tania_nexust, If you’re looking for a pub as you describe then the Sultan in South Wimbledon fits the bill admirably. The only Hopback pub in London, it always has the GFB in cracking condition. Note The solid wooden square tables installed by brewery owner John Gilbert many years ago to facilitate conversation between customers. Well worth a visit but be warned, it is one of those pubs that is a pub crawl all of its own. You go there intending to visit a few more pubs in the area but just don’t want to leave! But that’s another story…..

      1. @Sue Hart.
        Had the very good fortune to be in the Haunch of Venison in Salisbury when John Gilbert walked in with his lady while on their way to the station and home.
        The landlady happened to mention to him that her Crop Circle/GFB/Summer Lightning(can’t remember which )wasn’t on good form.
        He asked for a pint,took one pull and announced ” no finings.”
        He then asked to borrow a ‘phone and proceeded to give some poor fellow at the other end an almighty bollocking before promising fresh supplies would be in the next day.
        Just before he left I shook his hand and thanked him for getting me drunk so often over many years of GFB.
        He was delighted.

    3. Oooh, hadn’t heard of the Great Western and have been spending more time in Wolverhampton than i thought possible recently! Will have to give it a go.

  8. The Sun Inn. Stockton On Tees. The Bass is served using Bankers, half pints previously pulled and kept in the fridge.
    It could be its a remnant of the days when many pints had to be pulled as quickly as possible.

  9. White Horse at Parsons Green used to be famous for Bass in the Mark Dorber days. Youngs’ WW at the White Cross in Richmond.

  10. Slightly at a tangent to your theme, as I understand it, is the pub that only does one real ale but does it superbly. Most of the time it seems that the sort of pub that has only one hand pump sells so little of the beer that it’s more often off than on. (There’s no call for real ale, you see.)

    A standout exception to this is the Empress in the centre of Hull (see https://www.pubsgalore.co.uk/pubs/54543/). Here the solitary beer is John Smiths Cask, but in comparison with the same beer drunk elsewhere, well – it’s just not the same beer!

  11. The pub in question – The Kings Head – Deane, Bolton.

    The beer – Flat Cap, Bank Top Brewery.

    Whenever I am back up North visiting family this is usually my first ‘Port O’Call’, which rather fittingly happens to be the name another of Bank Top’s other popular beers.

    The Kings Head is a tied house and the landlady is only permitted to sell one local guest ale, which happens to be their best seller by a country mile. A lot of love and care goes into preserving the lines but the sheer turnover of this beer by the numerous regulars makes it an extremely reliable pint. The other real ale on offer is Bombadier, but I’m fairly certain that if one was to make the error of ordering this particular beer in The Kings Head, the hand pump would pull back, simultaneously opening a trap door sending the unfortunate punter into mediocre beer oblivion. I would go as far as saying that the Kings Head serves a better pint of Flat Cap than in either of the two brewery pubs.

    On an unrelated note; if Mild is on the agenda in 2018 then town of Horwich in Bolton is well worth a visit. Both local brewies (Blackedge and Bank Top) serve up award winning dark versions.

  12. The fixed tap to me generally implies ownership, if I’m thinking through Yorkshire pubs few still owned by breweries.(or are but are more famed for guests, or are owned by national brewers who I’ve zero interest in ). The only good examples I’m thinking of are timmy taylor pubs (I’ve had two opportunities to buy bolt maker today, one landlord, all in pubs that are known for their guests not the reliable pump in the corner), have to admit that the only true “one beer that’s perfect always on but little else to say about the pub” examples im thinking of are pubs I’ve not been in for so long name checking is questionable.

  13. A lot of the ones I was going to suggest have been mentioned – my default suggestion in the West End for out-of-towners or in particular foreigners who might have had some bad cask experiences goes something like “Go to the Harp. Buy a pint of Harvey’s. Drink. Then see if they’ve got Fuller’s Porter on. If not, get the Dark Star APA. Drink. Then have one of the guests. Drink, and decide it’s not as nice. Go back to the Harvey’s…”

    If they don’t “get it” from Harveys at the Harp, then they can fairly say that they don’t like brown bitter.

    I know they’re effectively brewery taps but I would also have mentioned the Bull & Bladder and Boltmaker’s – if only because there’s so much _bad_ TT around, even in their own pubs.

    The best Pedigree in the land is at Test matches, even though it’s served in plastics. It’s in Marston’s hands end-to-end with no middlemen and they’ve known from before it was brewed that on a particular day they would be selling several kils per hour. Mind you, England’s performances on the cricket field are often enough to drive you to drink!

    I could have mentioned various examples of the kind of pub you mean in past lives, but at the moment there’s none spring to mind, all the pubs I go in vaguely regularly are multichoice freehouses or microbrewery ties.

  14. To be honest, I honestly can not remember the last time I walked into a pub with only one permanent beer on, let alone it being great. These days it seems to be none / three / ten+. I do remember back in the breweries owning the pubs days it was quite common that there was a goto pub for a certain beer in most towns, but there were generally other beers on offer too (most of the comments seem to ignore this part of the criteria).

    1. The criterion isn’t that a pub only has one beer on – Becky’s Dive Bar was known for the massive beer choice – but that it has one beer kept so well that the pub is known for that.

      But on the topic of pubs only serving one beer, but brilliantly – in 1990 we walked the Coast to Coast Walk, effectively a 192 mile pub crawl.
      One evening, we camped in the garden of the Blue Bell at Ingleby Cross, at the foot of the North York Moors. The pub had recently been taken over by a former jockey, and the only cask beer on was John Smith’s Magnet – a beer that didn’t last all that long in cask form at that time. The landlord told us that he had had no intention of keeping cask beer because he didn’t know how to look after it, but that the locals had told him that if he put just one beer on, they would drink it fast enough that he wouldn’t have to worry. So he gave it a try…
      The Magnet was absolutely superb. I have no idea if he kept that standard up, but on that night, it was the essence of ale – malty and fruity. I never had a pint of it as good again.

      1. Sorry my bad, re-reading it the meaning is clear, my wistful imagination had taken over! Bearing in mind the actual criterion, my nomination would have to involve a time machine, but back in the day the Robin Hood in Havant (near Portsmouth) used to serve PERFECT Gales HSB straight from wooden barrels behind the bar. A quick look on google shows it is still going strong with good reviews – unlike the Gales Brewery.

  15. Mudgie struck gold first up with the Anchor’s 6X, and Mike’s Bass in Stockton is the only other pub with just the one permanent, great beer that springs to mind. The old parlour pubs like the Pontfaen often get quoted, but can be inconsistent.

    One of the biggest irritants as a Bass fan is when Bass is put on “occasionally”, you really need to have it on permanently to learn how to keep it.

  16. Sadly long gone, the Oberon 45 Queen Street Hull (early-mid 19th century. Refronted c.1891) was well-known for its excellent Bass (and licensee whose name escapes me now) to which I can attest, having been taken there many times (and to many other pubs in Hull and around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire) from around 1980 when regularly visiting friends in Hull for over 30 years since the early ’80s. I don’t have any photos to hand but Granville was (and is) an inveterate photographer, many taken for his pub reviews in the Yorkshire Post. He’s still out with a camera (e.g. https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/457396905881600089/) and active, though no longer much of a pub-goer.

    BTW I picked this up – Number 42 on a list of Fifty “Facts” about Hull which are true/not true: the Oberon Pub, Queen Street, dates back to Shakespeare’s times (this must be true it’s on the Marina Heritage Trail audio cassette)
    http://www.greengates.karoo.net/hull/facts.html

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnmightycat/5820421237
    http://www.closedpubs.co.uk/yorkshire/kingstonuponhull_oberon.html

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