The July Session – Atmosphere

session-logo-r-sm.jpgThis month’s Ses­sion top­ic has been set by Hop Talk, and is all about atmos­phere. We have been chal­lenged to talk about:

…the Atmos­phere in which you enjoy beer. Where is your favorite place to have a beer? When? With whom? Most impor­tant­ly:

Why?

We thought that we’d focus on the why – what is it that make for a good atmos­phere?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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!

Old School Beer “Blogging”

Before blog­ging, any­one who want­ed to record some­thing inter­est­ing they’d come across to do with their hob­bies and inter­ests had to stick it in a scrap­book.

The West­min­ster Archive1 (which we’ve men­tioned before) has an astound­ing col­lec­tion of beer relat­ed scrap­books – 82 vol­umes in total – all of which were the work of a mys­te­ri­ous chap2 called “D. Fos­ter”.

Between around 1880–1900, Every time Mr Fos­ter came across any­thing in a book or mag­a­zine to do with beer or pubs in Lon­don, he copied out the sec­tion by hand. His scrap­books, of which there are between 10–20 per bound vol­ume, are metic­u­lous­ly organ­ised. The first 60-odd vol­umes cov­er Lon­don pubs from A-Z. Then there are vol­umes on beer and ale; drink­ing ves­sels; cof­fee shops; and so on.

It real­ly does read like a blog, and is a price­less resource of knowl­edge about beer. The copy in the Archive is the only one – it’s nev­er been print­ed or pub­lished – so if you’re in the area, it’s worth pop­ping in for a look.

Notes

1. The archives are on St Ann’s Street, in West­min­ster, and are open every day except Sun­day and Mon­day.

2. We’re assum­ing D. Fos­ter was a chap – the librar­i­ans didn’t know much about where the scrap­books had come from, except that their author was an “enthu­si­ast”.

Truman, Hanbury and Buxton in the East End

Tru­man, Han­bury and Bux­ton were one of the biggest brew­eries in Lon­don in the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies. They moved to Bur­ton in the 1970s, merged with Wat­ney Mann not long after, and then closed alto­geth­er. East Lon­don – the area imme­di­ate­ly around the old Black Eagle Brew­ery – is par­tic­u­lar­ly rife with small reminders.

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More after the, er, “more” link…

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Tru­man, Han­bury and Bux­ton in the East End”

Beer hunting in London: Stoke Newington

The beer cel­lar was look­ing a lit­tle bare this week­end, so we decid­ed to seek out some more. Hav­ing fol­lowed our own advice from an ear­li­er post, “sur­viv­ing a beer desert”, and tried out all the local shops, we thought we’d branch out and try to find some alter­na­tive sources of qual­i­ty brews. We reck­oned it would be inter­est­ing to go to anoth­er part of Lon­don to see what was avail­able.

So we head­ed to Stoke New­ing­ton, North Lon­don. Trendy but lived in, we had high hopes that we’d be able to find some­thing inter­est­ing to drink. In par­tic­u­lar, we were after (a) “pre­mi­um” ales and lagers (b) Baltic porters.

For the pre­mi­um stuff, we head­ed for “Fresh & Wild”, the organ­ic super­mar­ket on Stoke New­ing­ton Church Street.

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They have a small selec­tion of very nice British brews – Sam Smith’s organ­ic ale and lager, Hon­ey­dew from Fullers; also Rieden­burg­er, import­ed from Ger­many, although dis­ap­point­ing­ly, only one of their many vari­eties. (It was also, unhelp­ful­ly, labelled “lager” – yes, but which one?)

We felt in gen­er­al that they could have offered more of a choice, even if they were being strict about the organ­ic cri­te­ria, as there seem to be loads of organ­ic ales and lagers around now. At Fresh & Wild, the beer sec­tion seemed a bit of an after­thought (espe­cial­ly giv­en the enor­mous wine selec­tion).

We then trekked up and down Church Street and Stoke New­ing­ton High Street look­ing for nice beers in gen­er­al and Baltic porters in par­tic­u­lar. Com­plete fail­ure to find any Baltic porters (plen­ty of pale pol­s­ki lagers though).

How­ev­er, we did find an off-licence / con­ve­nience store with a great selec­tion of ales, includ­ing at least 4 bot­tle con­di­tioned ones and at least one from a brew­ery we’d nev­er heard of, always a good sign. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a good selec­tion of ales in a high street off-licence.  We were lim­it­ed to what we could car­ry, but came away with a cou­ple of Hook Nor­ton beers that are not wide­ly avail­able (Hay­mak­er and 308A.D), among oth­ers.

If you’re in the area, the shop’s called “Inter­con­ti­nen­tal Wines and Food” and it’s at 209–211 Stoke New­ing­ton High Street.