london pubs

The Dodo realises the potential of the micropub model

We only managed one round at The Dodo but it was enough to get a sense of its powerful personality.

The Dodo is a micropub in Hanwell, West London – a suburb beyond Ealing where various of our university contemporaries have ended up living.

People have been telling us to go to the Dodo for ages, every time we pass through West London. The time has never been right, though: either it was closed, or we had somewhere else to be.

On this occasion, we approached the Dodo at the end of a long walk, ready for a pint, just as the light was dying. Its fogged windows glowed an inviting yellow.

We entered and found ourselves at once in a crowd of weary well-to-do parents, their children carpeting the floor.

Squeezing our way to the bar, we had a moment to take in the décor. Pastel colours, bright light, handwritten signs, party balloons. (The Dodo has just turned six.)

Our first instinct was that it felt like a café rather than a pub.

One of the signs warned that children had to be gone by 7pm. Another, we noticed, told us to sit down and await “informal table service”.

Making our way to the back, we found a table reserved from 6pm. Grumbling quietly about the idea of reservations in a micropub, we took a seat.

Lucy Do, the proprietor, appeared moments later. Having followed her on social media for years, it felt like meeting a celebrity.

We watched with admiration as she whizzed up and down the length of the pub, from bar (front) to cellar (back), dodging precocious Archies and Annabelles, while carrying multiple pints, and taking orders for cans and glasses of wine on the way.

Yes, it is like a café, in the French or Belgian sense.

That is, an expression of an owner’s personality, calibrated over hundreds of hours of service to work for this particular crowd, and this particular guv’nor.

Warmly chaotic and sharply efficient at the same time.

This is what micropubs make possible: new ideas about what a pub can be, and which rules of the game it is obliged to follow.

Is the Dodo designed for us? Probably not. We increasingly lean toward trad trappings and dark corners.

But it doesn’t need us, because it’s already found the right people, who book out every table, and are known to each other by name.

And, anyway, the way you get more people to go to the pub is surely to have pubs for a broader range of people – not just pub bores.

bristol pubs

The suburban Bristol pub that became a Pret

The Victoria Inn was always a mystery: how long could it be before someone took on that handsome building and brought the pub back to life?

Unfortunately, it never happened, and now it’s a branch of upmarket sandwich shop Pret a Manger.

We walked past The Victoria , AKA The Queen Vic, every day for three years. It was at the end of our road, more or less, boarded up but intact. Ready to go when the call came.

When we wrote about micropubs for Beer Advocate we focused briefly on The Victoria, because it seemed to represent something:

It closed early in 2017 after a year of competition from the Draper’s. Did the micropub steal the “proper” pub’s customers and contribute to its death? The locals don’t think so. From talking to various fellow drinkers over the months, we’ve established that the Victoria was a fairly rough pub, struggling with public order issues. [Drapers Arms landlord] Garvan Hickey, for his part, expresses distress at the fate of the former neighbor: “I want pubs to do well. I’d like to see the Queen Vic open and trading as a pub again.” Not least, he admits, because he thinks a real run of pubs on that stretch of Gloucester Road might bring in yet more customers.

The Queen Vic in 2018.

Pubs in old retail units – small, compact, with limited hours – seem viable today in a way that grand old pub buildings sometimes don’t, especially outside city centres.

We heard news from time to time of plans to convert the The Victoria – to turn it into a “house of multiple occupancy” with a “courtyard amenity area”.

Then it was going to become a branch of Greggs the baker.

And, finally, last year, Pret came into the frame.

Do you remember when Pret was sort of cool? When we both worked in central London in the noughties, it was where you went for a treat at lunch. The sandwiches were expensive but actually, obviously better than you’d get anywhere else.

There was a falafel sandwich dripping with ketchup. Another with crayfish.

The bread tasted fresh and the staff seemed happy to be working there.

In his 2015 autobiography How to Be a Man: (and Other Illusions) Guns N’ Roses bass player Duff McKagan wrote:

[My] favorite place is a chain called Pret A Manger. I know they have some shops in the States, but they started here, it’s where I discovered them, and they’ll always be a London destination for me. Pret has hot and cold wraps of all kinds (try the hot jalapeno chicken!), healthy sandwiches, great salads and soups, and strong espresso. This is always the first place I try to get to when I go to the UK… Cheap, fast, and kick-ass.

Actually, with hindsight, maybe this was a shark-jumping moment.

These days, over-extended and having struggled through COVID, the magic (oh, come off it, you can’t describe a packet sandwich as having ‘magic’!) has gone. And the staff certainly aren’t happy these days.

Seeing that branch on Gloucester Road, a grey corporate-branded blob where there used to be a bit of history, made us feel sad.

Neighbourhood pubs are already prime targets for developers and Tesco. Now they’ve got Pret, Subway and the rest to contend with, too. It doesn’t bode well.

But it certainly makes commercial sense, in an area full of work-from-home types who are more likely these days to want lunch in the suburbs than in town.

And in The Drapers Arms across the road, we noticed a folded Pret sandwich packet on one table, next to a pint of ale.

It’s not a crusty cheese roll but it’s decent enough boozing food, we suppose.


News, nuggets and longreads 28 January 2023: New Rose Hotel

It’s Saturday and time for a round-up of writing about beer and pubs from the past week, including fast pours and missing monks.

First, some old news, with a recent update. Chatting to someone in the industry, who lives and breathes beer in a way we don’t these days, we were astonished to discover that Belgian brewery Achel no longer has Trappist status. Back in 2021, the two monks who supervised the brewing process, and thus underwrote its Trappistness, left. It lost the right to have the Authentic Trappist Product (ATP) label on the bottle. Now, in 2023, it’s been bought by a local entrepreneur which means… we’re not quite sure. But it definitely won’t be Trappist, and will probably become an Abbey beer. (Via @BelgianSmaak.)

Scampi Fries on the wall in our 'little pub' during COVID.

For Pellicle Rachel Hendry has written about Scampi Fries, a snack so closely associated with the English pub that when lockdown kicked in 2020, we ordered an entire package for home, out of pathetic yearning. But like a lot of ‘traditional’ aspects of pub life, they’ve hardly been around five minutes:

As crisp-making technology progressed these flavour wars waged on with Smith’s producing some of the most iconic crisps known today: the monstrosity that is Monster Munch, the corrugated delight of Frazzles, the delicate crunch of Chipsticks. But it was their range of Moments – pillow-shaped cereal snacks that debuted in the 1980s – that were to become an instant pub sensation… The flavour drum is where the magic happens. Having just been fried, the scampi and lemon flavouring would be added, clinging to the fresh oil coating the shapes. There’s only one problem, when Jamie [Baxter] worked at the factory there wasn’t a single scampi flavouring in sight… “There was a Dover Sole flavour on the labels rather than scampi,” Jamie says.

A closed bar in Brussels in the rain.
SOURCE: Eoghan Walsh/Brussels Beer City.

Eoghan Walsh has been out with his Praktica exploring Brussels and, in particular, thinking about the pubs and bars that are no longer there:

Then our first child came. We went out less but I started exploring the neighbourhood more. If she was wrestling against sleep in her cot, I’d take her down the lift in the buggy and we’d walk endless circuits on the streets around the Vossenplein, her wrestling against tiredness, and me too… On these directionless walks I started taking more interest in the streets on our beat, and began to notice the accumulated contributions left behind by previous generations of Marollien newcomers. It was the abandoned cafés (or bars, pubs or estaminets – it’s never clear to me exactly what to call them) that most caught my eye. There was Le Foyer just down the hill from us on the corner of the Rue des Tanneurs and Rue du Lavoir, though the calligraphy on the window called it “Au Foyer”. The Foyer looked as if it could have closed a week ago or five years ago, it was hard to tell.

A clock advertising Guinness.

At Beer (History), Food, Travel Liam has shared an interesting nugget that feels like evidence of an alternate reality:

Ignoring the emphasising on ‘conditioned’ in the advert – which was possibly a way of making the kegged product sound more ‘legitimate’ – we will focus instead on the words ‘in half the time it used to take,’ and although it is unclear if they mean ‘new’ draught Guinness is now quicker to serve than when it was first launched in 1959 or just quicker compared to the older cask porter, we can see how at this time the speed of the pour and serve is seen as an important selling point by the marketeers in the company.

The Outpost, a railway arch bar on the Bermondsey Beer Mile.
SOURCE: Stephen Jackson/Musing Anorak.

Stephen Jackson at Musing Anorak has checked in on the 16 stops on the Bermondsey Beer Mile which, it turns out, is still a thing. (Even if we never got round to doing it.) This bit struck us as especially interesting:

Based in Northamptonshire and producing some amazing dark beers they [Three Hills] to open a second, smaller brewery, in Bermondsey. An impressive range of their own beers is available with some guests thrown in for good measure… A [few] doors down is the London home of Manchester superstars Cloudwater. A nicely decorated arch coupled with an excellent beer selection, both their own and guests… Another few steps and you are at the premises of another non London brewery, Moor Beer Vaults & Tap Room is the London presence of the Bristol stalwarts.

The wallpaper at The Wellington in Birmingham.

The Beer Nut spent Christmas exploring the Midlands including Birmingham where he got to ponder multiple pints of mild, and Shrewsbury which now has a craft beer bar, kind of:

I caught some flack a few years ago by complaining that the town of Shrewsbury lacks craft beer, and while it’s well supplied with the traditional stuff in cask and bottle, it’s useless as a destination to find out about trendy, murky, contemporary British brewing. I visited again over Christmas and discovered that, perhaps inevitably, craft has reached Shrewsbury. It’s in the form of Tap and Can, a pub beside the station in the familiar hardwood-furnished pseudo-dive craft vernacular. Still, there’s a decent cask offering among the kegs and cans, and that’s what interested me.

Finally, from Mastodon, an interesting blogging prompt, perhaps: what is the greatest beer bar in Europe?

…and from Twitter…

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.


News, nuggets and longreads 21 January 2023: The dolce vita

Here’s all the news and commentary from the world of beer that’s caught our attention in the past week, from Fat Tire to lemonade.

First, let’s look at the collective attempt to gauge how good or bad things might be in brewing and hospitality in the UK right now.

  • Tandleman observes that pubs feel a little busier than might be expected – but asks if it will be enough to balance out increased operating costs?
  • David Jesudason is worried, not only about the possibility of mass pub closures in 2023, but also by the apparent complacency of the commentariat.
  • Katie Mather feels the reckoning is here: “It’s the middle of January 2023 and what I thought might happen is happening – hospitality businesses are counting up their Christmas and New Year takings, falling short of their targets, and closing up shop.”

Fat Tire
SOURCE: New Belgium Brewing.

Stan Hieronymus asks a good question: ‘Why do people suddenly care (again) about Fat Tire?’:

I spent more time Tuesday looking at Twitter than I have in the last two weeks, maybe a month, working my way through various threads, wondering when those commenting last drank Fat Tire, or why they spent so much time typing words about the can, or if the rebrand will help New Belgium recharge Fat Tire, or in another words if “high quality, low impact” (a reference to the beer’s zero-emissions production process) will create more connections than “Follow your Folly” once did, or why a brewery should be obligated to make a legacy beer exactly like it always has even if it quit using the exact same ingredients maybe two decades ago, or for that matter exactly what a legacy beer beer is, or . . . whew . . . exhausting.

Wait, back up: the story is that an important American craft brewery, New Belgium, has rebranded and reformulated its flagship beer, Fat Tire.

Kate Bernot offers a to-the-point summary of what’s happened, exactly, and why it matters – “Since a peak year in 2016, Fat Tire has lost -52.2% of its volume in chain retail nationally.”

And Jim Vorel has tasted the old and new alongside each other.

The sign on the Brasserie de la Senne brewery

How is making beer like making art, or not like making art? And how is tasting beer like looking at art, or not? Eoghan Walsh has been reflecting on this question with Brasserie de la Senne in mind:

Alcohol features sporadically in Picasso’s works and judging by two of the still lifes in the Brussels exhibition he must have been a Bass drinker. But it was his late-era variations on the Old Masters that most caught my eye because earlier that same month, across town and in a very different discipline, Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de la Senne was involved in his own reinterpretation of a (modern) Belgian classic. To celebrate the 20th birthday of the brewery’s Zinnebir, De Baets had commissioned three brewers – Nino Bacelle at Dottignies’ Brouwerij De Ranke, Daniel Thiriez of the eponymous northern French brewery, and Brasserie de la Mule’s Joel Galy – to produce their own variation on de la Senne’s flagship.

Peveril of the Peak

It’s a treat to have new writing about pubs from Katie Mather via Pellicle, for which she is an associate editor. It’s an account of a crawl around Manchester not drinking beer, but enjoying the pubs no less for that:

The Nag’s Head is an ideal pub if you love tall tales, wild overheard conversations, and the privacy of darkly varnished wood and heavy furniture. We become emotional, then giddy, then serious—at one point I take out a notebook and make business plans I will never activate. We hug, and we tell each other not to be silly. We have personal revelations. It’s not the lime and lemonade that’s encouraged this… Mulligans is a place for the living, and for living in. We talk with our hands, getting into topics we can’t believe we’ve never spoken about before in our many years of friendship. The live band starts, and we get another round of drinks and Taytos. Soon we’re dancing, totally sober, raising our arms and shouting along with the folk songs we know.

Four large steins of Spaten lager (detail from a poster c.1920s.)

Al Reece at Fuggled has been digging in the archives of the Austrian National Library again. This time, he’s found notes on a debate about drinking vessels from the 1890s:

According to one Dr Schulze, writing in 1890, “””you shouldn’t drink beer out of beer glasses”. Schulze went on to state that the traditional German bierkrug was far superior as it protects the liquid from the deleterious effects of sunlight. This fact might seem fairly obvious to us here in the first quarter of the 21st century, but in late 19th century central Europe, this was cause for much concern and investigation.

A pen on a table next to a beer mat and glass.

We’ll finish with a bit of blogging about blogging from Mark Johnson:

I do not think that beer writers, especially those of us who do this as a free hobby, are mandated to research and write about what you think they should be covering. Blogging is still about writing about what you want or at the very least feel comfortable doing. If you want certain topics discussed – start that conversation your bloody self and stop blaming others for talking about *shrugs* anything else that they want. If you want paid writers to cover it then create that publication and get those stories commissioned. You have the power. You just want others to do the work.

Finally, from Mastodon

Post from Kathleen Weessies
"Why roller skates were invented? 1851 description of delivering beer without upsetting the foam in Berlin. From Scientific American."

…and from Twitter:

For more good reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.

Beer styles

Electric Bear’s brand new old school bitter

“You can’t get a pint of normal bitter these days!”

This isn’t a problem we have in Bristol. From The Swan With Two necks to The Sandringham, there’s one available in most pubs we visit.

Bristol Beer Factory Fortitude, for example, or Butcombe, or Bass, or Young’s Ordinary, or… 

Maybe what people mean, though, is that this isn’t where the excitement lies.

Just being able to drink bitter isn’t enough.

One won’t do.

They demand a choice, in even the hippest bars, and expect brewery research and development teams to be pushing the envelope.

But it’s bitter, and that’s not how it works, is it? It’s been perfected. There’s plenty of room for variation, but not for innovation.

When we saw A Bitter This A Bitter That by Electric Bear Brewing on the bar at The Barley Mow near Bristol Temple Meads station we ignored it at first.

There were more exciting and interesting beers on offer, not least a couple of lagers, and we tend to default to lager when we want an uncomplicated beer to drink while we chat, rather than to think about.

But we had been talking about Bath brewery Electric Bear only the weekend before, when a friend told us that it had got new owners in April 2022 – news we missed at the time.

In this incarnation, the branding has become plainer and cleaner. Less circus bus chic, more organised fun.

Wondering if their beer was still decent, in general, we ordered a pint, for curiosity’s sake.

And we’ll be blowed if it’s not an excitingly good, totally trad, brand new best bitter.

Perhaps being served with a sparkler helped. It looked and tasted like something we might have been encountered in a pub in Sheffield or Leeds.

Some craft brewery takes on bitter can be too full of crystal malt, too dark, and too chewy. This was between gold and brown with a pleasing dryness and lightnes – and perfectly clear.

There was some funk there, too. A touch of nail polish. A bite of apple. Just as you might find in beers from, say, Theakston’s. Complex in its own small way.

It was too good to have just one, so we stopped for another.

During the second round, looking at the pumps, it also occurred to us that, based on recent experience, it might well be possible to turn up at The Barley Mow and find on the bar:

  • this straight-up bitter
  • Left Handed Giant’s straight-up dark mild
  • Moor’s straight-up stout

An opportunity to party like it’s 1929, half-and-half and all.