Our trip to Portsmouth gave us a chance to reappraise Brewhouse & Kitchen – a quietly successful chain built around onsite brewing.
We’ve been ambivalent about BH&K in the past.
Despite each having its own brewer, the individual bars trade under a collective name, with the same branding and similar décor.
As a result, they can feel a bit like business class Wetherspoons.
The beers rarely strike us as memorable, either, tending to the soft, hazy and, yes, homebrew-like.
Still, sitting in the Southsea branch on a Monday afternoon, we were struck by a few things.
First, how busy it seemed, given the time and day.
(We realise the above photo makes it look otherwise but that’s because we go out of our way to avoid snapping pictures of strangers.)
Secondly, the diverse range of people it served: solo retirees, young parents, ladies out lunching, students, builders…
Thirdly, some of the beer was strikingly good – specifically the Helles lager.
That latter was a false alarm, though, because we noticed “Brewed for us” on the menu and asked “By whom?”
Shepherd Neame, it turns out. We tend to forget that SN is a substantial UK lager producer.
The other beers were decent enough, though, on cask and keg, across a range of styles. It’s always nice to encounter a cask porter, for example.
At the end of our week in Portsmouth, on Friday lunchtime, we visited the city’s other branch, in the centre.
This was the very first BH&K, established in a former Wetherspoon pub, which was a former Brickwoods pub.
It felt warmer and more organically publike than the Southsea outlet.
There was brewing underway, too, filling the bar with the smell of hot malt.
Knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff were keen to talk about the beer and give clear recommendations.
We enjoyed a notably orangey Witbier and, on the barman’s advice, Rockingham American pale ale.
Both were solid, as good as many beers we encounter in craft beer focused pubs in Bristol. Think Left Handed Giant, for example.
“This is amazing!” said a bloke at the bar. “I’ve never heard of this place but look at all the different beers you’ve got. Weird thing is, I’ve got some friends who are proper ‘alers’ and they’ve never mentioned it once.”
And that’s true. You won’t hear “alers” talking about BH&K, just as they don’t tend to talk about Zero Degrees.
There’s something about chains that’s off-putting, however properly things are done. You don’t know the brewers, only the brand, and the beer can sometimes feel like an accessory designed to sell macaroni cheese and “small plates”.
We wonder if it might be different if each bar and brewery had it’s own name and identity.
Would “alers” feel warmer towards The Portsmouth Brewing Company at The White Swan?