Categories
pubs

The death of the pub function room

It’s only when you find yourself trying to organise a wake that you realise the extent to which pub function rooms have all but disappeared.

Growing up in Walthamstow, East London, I think pretty much every pub had a function room – and that’s where we ended up after a lot of funerals, weddings, or christenings.

Pubs in Walthamstow tend to be pretty large, as is typical for suburbs, and, until recently, were invariably undersubscribed. You’d rattle about The Bell or The Duke’s Head.

Now, a lot of the pubs I knew as a kid have either disappeared (farewell, The Plough) or ceased trading (The Lord Brooke).

Many of those that remain have changed substantially, catering to the kind of people who can afford to buy houses or flats in the area.

Those big, empty back-rooms have become dining spaces, or permanent, busy extensions to the main bar.

Although the loss of what were effectively community facilities is bad news for people like me, right now, for pubs, I guess it’s good news. It means they’re too busy to justify a blank space.

And I know from a previous job that offering space for wakes is a really tricky business.

You’re dealing with customers who are struggling emotionally and can’t or don’t want to have boring conversations about logistics. Undertakers are trained to deal with this; publicans not so much.

And they can’t be sure about how many people are going to turn up – “No, we’re surprised too, we didn’t think he had any friends!” – and so fixing a price that works for both parties is a challenge.

Because of a general trend towards hosting weddings in posher places (country hotels, stately homes, the Maldives) it’s also harder to justify holding a room that only does any business when someone dies.

And of course this isn’t specific to pubs. Where real estate is at a premium, it’s hardly surprising that fewer and fewer businesses are prepared to maintain, clean and heat a dead space.

In a different context, the West Country council estate where Ray grew up, the function rooms have also gone. That’s because both The Pig & Whistle and The Withycutter have been demolished, leaving the estate publess. There’s a community centre but that’s one degree more utilitarian again.

One final point, though, to undercut the general “Fings ain’t wot they used to be in my old manor” tone: useful as pubs were, my parents and grandparents hardly ever visited them between big family events.

Researching 20th Century Pub, I asked my practically teetotal late grandfather if he remembered anything about The Lord Raglan in its prefab phase after World War II. Despite having lived around the corner for most of his life, he barely knew which pub I was talking about.

Nowadays, though, my family, and families like it, are more more likely to choose a pub as the venue for a casual social get-together. We use them all year round, not just when we need somewhere to set up a trestle table covered in sausage rolls.

Main image: The Chequers in 2016. I think it might be one of the few remaining pubs that does have a function room.

Categories
london pubs

The pleasing perpetuity of the Porterhouse

The Porterhouse used to be good. The other side of a UK ‘craft beer revolution’, and of a pandemic, does it still have what it takes?

Last week I was in London for work and wound up in Covent Garden with a couple of colleagues looking for somewhere to have a drink.

The Porterhouse leapt to mind, mostly because at the moment it’s really difficult to guess where will be busy and where won’t, and The Porterhouse is, if nothing else, enormous.

We also haven’t been for a very long time, and I couldn’t resist the urge to check in and see if this relic from our early beer ticking days was still doing its thing.

It’s interesting to compare my notes with what we wrote almost 15 years ago. Even then, we were describing it with warm nostalgia.

We first drank there in the early noughties, no doubt also for some work do or other, and kept going back.

It was one of the few places in central London you could get German and Belgian beer and we were trying pretty hard to tick Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers.

It was ways worth fighting through stags, hens and lads to get to the bar. As we wrote:

…it’s a beer-centred venue which could survive perfectly well if it didn’t bother dishing up any decent beer at all.

And now? Well, it really is much the same – a party pub with a beer list that’s better than it ought to be.

A photo of the paper menu
The beer list at The Porterhouse in January 2022

It’s been updated to reflect current tastes. There are a lot more British IPAs, for example. 

There are now two lager options, Temple Lager and Hammer Pilsner, both of which are more characterful than Chiller ever was. More importantly, they’re also branded to look like they might have been made by a medium-large British craft brewery from about four or five years ago. If you like Camden Hells, you might also like…

I only had limited time, so I skipped the various pale ales and went for continuity. Plain Porter (4.2%) is a really great example of this style – a slightly smoky, easy drinking, toasty beer with a hint of bitterness for a finishing flourish.

Oyster Stout (4.6%) is a little mellower, with a subtle sweetness that suggests richness rather than being cloying.

It takes a lot of work to make a central London business stick – it changes constantly, and always has. But now The Porterhouse has made it past 21 years, perhaps it’ll be there as long as its neighbour, which was founded in 1798.

Categories
homebrewing

Our cider experiment one year on

When I sought advice on making cider last year, the one thing everyone agreed on was timing – I should, the local gurus all said, leave it at least a year.

I don’t think my fermentation conditions were the best, truth be told. I put the vessels in the cupboard under the stairs, which is dark, but not particularly cool.

I also managed to grow mould in one of the carboys, but I’m pretty sure this is because (a) the carboy didn’t have a proper stopper (b) I had an accident with the emergency coronavirus flour sack and scattered the stuff all over everything. None of the other carboys, which were all properly sealed, had this issue.

I did try this cider at three months and at about eight months to see how it was developing. It was pretty raw but not totally unpleasant at three months.

At eight, it had begun to taste pretty mature and, it turns out, didn’t change much in the months that followed.

So how is it now?

It’s a gorgeous pale gold and very clear.

The aroma is ever so slightly vinegary, which isn’t a good sign, although the acetic aroma dissipates quickly and doesn’t carry through into the taste.

It is very dry, unsurprisingly, but I found a teaspoon of sugar per pint was enough to take the edge off.

I was very pleased with the taste and aftertaste. It has a crisp, clean, fresh apple character that hangs around for a while and does what cider should: brings the tree back to life, even when it’s out there, stripped and spindly.

Its ABV is about 6%, which appears to be the standard strength for cider.

On the whole, I’m pretty happy with the end product and look forward to seeing how it develops in the bottle. We didn’t add any further priming sugar or sweeteners but, even after a fortnight, there’s a slight hiss on opening, but no fizz.

It mulled nicely, too, providing a great baked apple background to clove and cinnamon.

We would have liked to make another batch this year but there was no way we were going to go to all that labour on our own, and obviously, our plans for a neighbourhood cider pressing party couldn’t go ahead, coz, Plague.

We’ll do it again one day, though, despite the fact we’re moving away from our lovely apple tree. Much like George’s Marvellous Medicine, there’s no way I’ll be able to recreate the serendipitous blend of varieties donated by our kind neighbours so it will be like doing it for the first time again. Next time, though, we’ll definitely use a straining sock.

Categories
pubs

Ordering by app makes you look at the pub differently

We’ve now been to the pub three times since lockdown lifted, not counting various visits to the Drapers for takeaway – twice to a St Austell house and once to the Highbury Vaults, which is a Young’s tenanted pub.

In all visits, we’ve sat in the garden and used an app for ordering. The two apps are pretty similar and easy to use, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s the same underlying software.

This technology has been around for ages and is pretty affordable. When I was indirectly involved in running a large pub-hotel in Cornwall, I recall being offered a similar product during an EPOS update in about 2012, but not taking it up because, well, honestly, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to order like that.

But now, I can definitely see more places doing this in the near future, even quite small places.

This weekend, as we drank our electronically-ordered pints, we considered some of the ways apps might change pub habits.

First, it’s interesting that we caught ourselves going back to the same pub twice because, among other reasons, “We already have the app.”

Although the apps are reasonably easy to use, there is a bit of time required for setup and those of us nervous about data protection are reluctant to sign up with ten different apps.

Secondly, the availability of an app really brings the ownership of a pub to the surface.

We don’t tend to think about the Highbury Vaults as belonging to Young’s. It’s not as if they hide the fact but they have managed to preserve a distinct identity thanks to a quirky interior, home-cooked food and the fact the landlord’s been there for 25 years.

Now, all of a sudden, it immediately feels more of a corporate, homogenised space, even if the pub itself is still its lovable old self.

On a similar note, we expect that many Bristolians outside the beer bubble will be surprised to discover over the next few months that Bath Ales is owned by St Austell.

Thirdly, there’s an obvious points about transactions being potentially easier for some people (people on their own, those unable to stand at bars or place orders verbally) and more difficult for others who may not feel comfortable with the technology.

As long as app-based ordering isn’t the only option, and in both places there are waiting staff with notepads on the floor, then apps should enable rather than impede.

Finally, as social distancing continues – remember that as we write this, in England, you are only supposed to socialise with other households at a distance – remote ordering might provide a nice way to buy your mates a pint, whether you’re in the same pub or not.

There’s precedent for this: when the Wetherspoon app launched, there was a spate of stories about people soliciting drinks by sharing their table number on social media, only to get sent plates of peas.

If there’s one obvious improvement to be made, it’s the addition to apps of real-time information on how busy a given pub is. This might help reassure more nervous customers and match punters to pubs that need them.

Categories
breweries

Brewery merger amnesia

The recently announced ‘joint venture’ between Marstons and Carlsberg made us think about how modern brewery mergers are much more commercially savvy than 1960s and 1970s equivalents.

Nowadays there is a recognition that local brands are important and that if you keep then more or less the same then, after a while, people might forget that there is a new parent company.

A while back, for example, we were corresponding with a journalist about modern bitter brands and he was completely unaware that Marstons had taken over the brewing arm of Charles Wells.

More embarrassingly, I momentarily forgot that Magic Rock had been bought out by Lion in March 2019 – and I’ve written about Magic Rock at length on multiple occasions.

To be fair, it isn’t featured at all on their lovely pictorial history page, or on their about page, so maybe they forgot too.

We’ve also astonished friends by breaking the news to them that Camden and Beavertown are no longer independent. Those takeovers were big news for beer geeks but outside the bubble, people either missed the announcements, or instantly forgot.

And in one case, they were gutted about it, too: “Oh. I thought I was supporting a local independent brewery.”

You might say it’s too early to tell how things will play out with some recent takeovers. The Big Six in the post war period usually allowed a year or so before closing down breweries and rebranding products. (See: Usher’s.)

And consumer preferences change. During the takeover mania of the 1960s and 70s, CAMRA lambasted Watney’s and Whitbread for doing away with local brands. Now, you might argue that at least their uniform packaging and design was honest.

When there’s actual ownership and rights splits, provenance can be more obvious. So, for example, when Asahi bought the Fullers’ brewery, there was a requirement to set up a separate Fullers Brewery website to maintain the distinction between that and the pub operator. And that website does mention Asahi at a couple of points.

Interestingly, though, the first search results for “fullers beers” still takes you to the pub company’s website, so if you weren’t following closely, you might just assume it was business as usual.

All of this underlines that transparency isn’t a one-off event – ownership needs to be clear to consumers from packaging and promotional material on an ongoing basis.