Why Drink Brains?

Brains stained glass, Cardiff.

“You’re in Cardiff, why drink Brains? Thriving micro scene nowadays…”

We popped to Cardiff yesterday, a city neither of us knows, and had a poke around the pubs in between bouts of architectural appreciation. The main things we wanted to achieve on this preliminary reconnaissance mission were (1) to visit the Tiny Rebel bar and (2) drink some beer from Brains, the dominant local family brewer, as near to its home as possible.

The above question was put to us on Twitter by veteran beer appreciator and Guardian letters celebrity Keith Flett (Twitter, blog), who spends quite a bit of time in Cardiff, when he noticed us Tweeting about a nasty, buttery pint of Brains Dark.

It’s an understandable question and we’re on the receiving end of, or see, similar every day. It can be frustrating to remotely observe someone missing all the good bits of a town you know and fearing that they’ll be judging it harshly by the places they do end up. We used to get a bit like this when we saw that people had been to Penzance and visited The Crown but not The Yacht, for example.

More examples can be seen in the response to Tandleman’s visit to St Albans before Christmas. His report made no claim to being The Definitive Guide and looked like just the kind of gut-instinct ramble we tend to prefer to regimented guidebook ticking but people couldn’t help responding with lists of the pubs he and E ought to have gone to instead, with an implied silent scream.

These days there’s almost nowhere in the UK that doesn’t have a couple of pubs preferred by the local cognoscenti and a quick bit of Googling or searching Twitter means that there’s really no excuse for wasting time and effort on sub-standard venues in a strange town.

Except that, for one thing, it’s half the fun. Being told exactly where to go and what to avoid is like using cheat mode on a computer game, or looking at the answers on a quiz. Trying to fathom the politics, dynamics and culture of a place you don’t know is a kind of puzzle and unless you’re on a mission, or perhaps a commission, then feeling your way around and making wrong turns is what makes it stimulating. Especially if you know you’re going to go back some other time, as we do with Cardiff, and Tandleman made clear he intended to do with St Albans, so a few duds don’t really hurt in the long run.

Then there’s the fact that the hive mind is sometimes wrong, or at least tends towards the safe. In the last couple of years, as we’ve got braver and more adventurous in our pub-going, we’ve discovered lots of lovely pubs that nobody ever seems to recommend, as well as a few bloody awful ones that lots of other people seem to love. And we do prefer pubs to bars, and especially tap rooms, towards which so many social media recommendations seem to steer.

Finally, there’s the importance of making our own judgement. If we swerved Brains because everyone else told us to we’d feel as if we’d been lazy. If we’re going to say Tiny Rebel is better than Brains we want that to be on the basis of having actually drunk a fair bit of Tiny Rebel and a fair bit of Brains in different places at different times, rather than just going along with the prevailing view. We have a soft spot for old family brewers, too, so there’s certainly no guarantee we will prefer the products of the micro-scene.

Ultimately, if you want to know a place you have to experience the mediocre as well as supping at the cream. You don’t know London if you’ve never felt slightly scared in a darkened underpass; you don’t know Cornwall if you’ve been to genteel St Ives but not down-to-earth Redruth; you don’t know most towns or cities if you’ve never been in the suburbs on a wet afternoon.

8 thoughts on “Why Drink Brains?”

  1. The other answer is – why not?

    Brains is an important cultural and historical part of drinking in Cardiff. Might not be the world’s most interesting beer, but I always find time for at least a pint when I visit Cardiff, wouldn’t seem right not to. It IS Cardiff, albeit certainly not all of Cardiff.

  2. But you’ve got to ‘ave a pint of Brains, enyew? Be daft not to. (Which is in fact my view on the matter.)

    You don’t know London if you’ve never felt slightly scared in a darkened underpass

    No, that’s definitely Leeds.

    you don’t know Cornwall if you’ve been to genteel St Ives but not down-to-earth Redruth

    Never been to Redruth (although I do know how to pronounce it), but I’ve been to Liskeard on a Saturday night – I shudder to think what it’s like midweek. Oh, and Penryn – the only place where we’ve been made to feel unwelcome in a pub before we’d even got in the door (an old boy tapped on the glass from inside and pointed us down the street – not towards anything, you understand, just away from his pub).

    Anyway, I totally agree. A Beer Destination tour of Manchester would probably consist largely of places I like the idea of but never actually get to (Marble Arch, Angel) or positively dislike (Beermoth, PSBH). The pubs where I’ve actually enjoyed spending time are mostly highly unfashionable; one of them’s even a Spoons.

    1. Leeds, Phil? Brum in the 80s. More scary dark underpasses then than choices of beers. Can’t think of many in Leeds city centre.

      I could’ve written that about Manchester, FWIW.

  3. It’s why I’ve all but given up on Tripadvisor et al when on holiday.Nothing beats coming across that tucked away bar or restaurant unexpectedly and having a great time.
    Nothing was new anymore that I hadn’t already seen on Google Street View.
    I managed to hitch-hike from New York to San Francisco as an 18-year-old before the internet was invented so I reckon I can stroll around Barcelona without a tablet in my hand.

  4. Enjoyed this (and following your tweets on the day). I studied in Cardiff and although I left 10 years ago I’ve probably managed a visit a year on average since then. The transformation in drinking options is excellent but some of the old(er) school pubs are still thriving.

    Your point on ‘gen’ is a tricky one – particularly with the advent of craft. It’s great to be able to find high quality craft beer in many towns and cities with ease. But then do you want to go to Cardiff and drink, say, Northern Monk or BrewDog?

  5. Good article and can relate to this on a few points as someone living in Aberdeen that visits Edinburgh frequently. There is always the usual pubs in Edinburgh that are mentioned (Hanging Bat, Salt Horse, Bow Bar) but each visit I seem to discover somewhere new that I can’t understand why I haven’t heard of before.

    On earlier visits I used to always try have a pint of Deuchars or something from the Caledonian Brewery as I believed that it would be the best place to drink it, being a local and traditional beer. Over the last few years though, along with Stewart, there has been a number of other Edinburgh breweries springing up (Pilot, Barneys, Campervan) that are producing beers I’d rather drink and only drink Deuchars in a pub with a more limited selection.

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