Crediting others with sincerity

Why is it so hard for people to believe that other people really enjoy drinking the beers they say they enjoy drinking?

We saw anoth­er small out­break of sec­ond-guess­ing last week when Matt Cur­tis wrote in glow­ing terms about Har­vey’s Sus­sex Best – a beer we also hap­pen to love.

To para­phrase, the sug­ges­tion we saw float through the time­line was that Matt and oth­ers don’t real­ly believe Sus­sex Best is bet­ter than, say, Greene King IPA – it’s just that it’s trendy, or at least on the approved list of Beers You’re Allowed to Like.

The same think­ing some­times seems to be behind the dis­missal of ‘craft murk’ – that is, hazy IPAs and the like – and sour beer, lager, or any oth­er style you care to think of.

Here’s what we think the thought process looks like:

  1. I don’t like this beer.
  2. I find it impos­si­ble to imag­ine any­one else lik­ing this beer.
  3. Peo­ple who say they like this beer must be delud­ed, or lying.

The assump­tion that every­body else’s opin­ions are either (a) part of a herd response to hype or (b) delib­er­ate con­trar­i­an­ism… Well, it gets a bit wear­ing, to be hon­est.

After all, taste is a del­i­cate mech­a­nism. Even in this team, Jess is bare­ly sen­si­tive to light-strike or skunk­ing, while Ray is; Ray isn’t espe­cial­ly attuned to diacetyl, but Jess is.

We can’t speak defin­i­tive­ly for any­one else, of course, but we know this: when we say we’ve enjoyed drink­ing some­thing, it’s because we enjoyed drink­ing it; when we say we don’t, it’s because we don’t.

And we try to assume the same of oth­ers.

Of course there are times when you might ques­tion the motives of a review­er – do they have a com­mer­cial rela­tion­ship with the brew­ery? Are they paid to under­take PR on its behalf? Did it send them a lav­ish ham­per of free­bies?

We do also think that some beers are bet­ter than oth­ers, where ‘bet­ter’ means ‘more like­ly to appeal to peo­ple in a giv­en group’, whether that’s beer geeks, main­stream drinkers, tra­di­tion­al­ists or whichev­er.

But we’ve no rea­son to doubt that Tan­dle­man gained real plea­sure for his pints of Mor­land Orig­i­nal, or that Al found some­thing to appre­ci­ate in Ten­nen­t’s Lager, or that Brad has nev­er had a beer from The Ker­nel that was “any­thing short of out­stand­ing”.

On beer scenes

We’re currently working on a big piece about the Leeds beer scene, hopefully to go live next weekend, which has got us thinking about the very idea of ‘scenes’.

To qual­i­fy as some­where with a ‘beer scene’ there are a few require­ments, we reck­on:

1. Mul­ti­ple inter­est­ing pubs, bars or beer exhi­bi­tion venues. One microp­ub, tap­room or bar does not a beer scene make. And they real­ly do need to be with­in walk­ing dis­tance of each oth­er – the basis of a crawl. There prob­a­bly has to be at least one leg­endary, must-vis­it venue.

2. Pun­dit­ry. If you’re vis­it­ing Bog­gle­ton, who do you ask for advice? Who’s writ­ten a local guide, whether as a book, web­site or blog post? Have Matt Cur­tis, Jon­ny Gar­rett or Tony Nay­lor been in town tak­ing notes?

3. Events. Bot­tle-shares, meet-the-brew­ers, tap takeovers and the like. We don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly like events but there’s no deny­ing that they bring scat­tered beer geeks togeth­er, cre­at­ing and sig­nalling the exis­tence of a com­mu­ni­ty.

4. Fes­ti­vals, plur­al. Not just the local CAMRA fes­ti­val, although those are impor­tant, but alter­na­tive events organ­ised out­side that infra­struc­ture. Espe­cial­ly if they’re focused on par­tic­u­lar nich­es – lager, sour beer, green hops, and so on. (Again, we rarely go our­selves, but…)

5. Faces. The peo­ple who make things hap­pen, are at all the events, who drink maybe a bit more than a civil­ian might and put their mon­ey where their mouths are. They’re also the source of low-lev­el soap opera (Thingum­abob’s fall­en out with Woss­name; So-and-so’s left Venue A to work at Venue B). And, of course,  they’re the ones to watch when it comes to the next gen­er­a­tion of bars, brew­eries and beer busi­ness.

6. Tourists. If beer geeks build their hol­i­days around your town, city or region, it’s prob­a­bly got a bona fide beer scene. In gen­er­al, it needs to be a city or larg­er town. Fal­mouth almost pulls it off, as did New­ton Abbot for a while, but there almost needs to be a sense that there’s just too much to get into a sin­gle long week­end.

What do you reck­on? Any­thing obvi­ous we’ve missed?

Crowdfunding in beer: danger sign?

Have almost started to think of crowdfunding as a danger sign. Why won’t a bank just lend them the money?”

We tweet­ed this in response to @bringonthebeer the oth­er day and it prompt­ed a few chal­lenges, includ­ing some that changed our think­ing, so we thought we’d unpack it a bit.

It’s just, real­ly, that it feels as if crowd­fund­ing is a com­mon fac­tor is a recent spate of beer indus­try takeovers and col­laps­es.

Mar­tyn Cor­nell gave a detailed run­down of some of the prob­lems with crowd­fund­ing in beer a few years ago: it’s not real invest­ment in most cas­es; and lots of crowd­fund­ed busi­ness­es fail, or fail to deliv­er on promis­es.

Most recent­ly, there’s been Hop Stuff and Red­church.

But we’re talk­ing about some­thing ever so slight­ly dif­fer­ent – that the very act of appeal­ing to the pub­lic for invest­ment seems increas­ing­ly like a red flag for the future of those oper­a­tions.

With hind­sight, in many cas­es, crowd­fund­ing often looks to us like a cry for help or act of des­per­a­tion.

Crit­ics of crowd­fund­ing some­times call it ‘beg­ging’ and it can feel that way.

When in day jobs we’ve been involved in rais­ing fund­ing, it’s been through banks. They’re unpop­u­lar, old school, not very ‘craft’, but they are part of our sys­tem of checks and bal­ances. If a bank won’t lend a busi­ness mon­ey, it prob­a­bly means that busi­ness has failed to present a con­vinc­ing case for its long-term suc­cess.

Some of the chal­lenges we got on Twit­ter did make us pause for thought, though: secur­ing fund­ing via banks usu­al­ly requires prop­er­ty as col­lat­er­al, which makes things tough for those who don’t own a house.

Some would no doubt say if you can’t man­age to buy a house, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t be aim­ing to expand a busi­ness to larg­er or mul­ti­ple loca­tions but giv­en the bizarre state of the UK hous­ing mar­ket, we’re not sure that wash­es.

Even so, when we see a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign launch, unless we know the brew­ery or retail­er in ques­tion has a cult fol­low­ing and strong mar­ket­ing game, it increas­ing­ly strikes us – right­ly or wrong­ly, on an instinc­tive lev­el – as a tar­get paint­ed on their flank: they’re weak, ripe for pick­ing off, and this is their last shot.

Of course we under­stand the appeal to busi­ness­es of crowd­fund­ing, and it’s not always bad news. We also know that many investors go into it with eyes open, as a bit of fun.

But the longer term prob­lem is this: if, as we read it, crowd­fund­ing is about the con­ver­sion of cus­tomer good­will into hard cash, every fail­ure or per­ceived betray­al reduces the amount of good­will in the col­lec­tive pot, and its val­ue.

Our pubs are becoming too posh, 1964

The January 1965 edition of A Monthly Bulletin, a publication about beer and pubs sponsored by the brewing industry, contained a letter which  seems to capture the exact moment the pub ceased to be a working class institution.

Writ­ten by one A. Bev­er­ley of 55 Har­ring­ton Avenue, Black­pool, the let­ter is actu­al­ly a response to anoth­er item of cor­re­spon­dence that appeared in “a nation­al news­pa­per”. Though they quote large chunks, Bev­er­ley does­n’t give the spe­cif­ic source and we can’t find a match in the GuardianTimes or Mir­ror.

Here’s Bev­er­ley’s sum­ma­ry, though:

In com­plain­ing that “our pubs are becom­ing too posh” [they assert] that it is “vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for a man in over­alls to get a hot din­ner in the cen­tre of many a big city”. He mourns, too, because many coun­try pub­lic hous­es are attract­ing cus­tomers from towns at mid-day, offer­ing “busi­ness lunch­es” and pro­vid­ing plen­ty of space for park­ing motor cars. Where is the work­ing man in his work­ing clothes to go? Will nobody cater for him?

This line might seem sur­pris­ing if you’ve bought into the idea that food in pubs is an inven­tion of the 1990s, or are of the view that food in pubs is some­how inher­ent­ly un-work­ing-class. But if you’ve read the chap­ter on gas­trop­ubs in 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub, you’ll know oth­er­wise.

But, any­way, Bev­er­ley is hav­ing none of it:

This type of com­ment ignores the real­i­ties of 1964 cater­ing. If the char­ac­ter of our pubs is chang­ing with the times, it is rea­son­able to assume, too, that the same can be said of the cus­tomers. The num­ber of cus­tomers who go into bars in over­alls at any time is dwin­dling. But the num­ber of cus­tomers who, after work­ing hours, change into well-cut suits to go into pub­lic hous­es with their wives or girl friends is increas­ing. These female com­pan­ions not unnat­u­ral­ly pre­fer the com­fort and ameni­ties of a mod­ern, taste­ful­ly appoint­ed bar rather than sur­round­ings that are drea­ry and out­mod­ed.

(Isn’t CAM­RA’s nation­al inven­to­ry essen­tial­ly the Drea­ry and Out­mod­ed Pub Guide?)

Bev­er­ley’s argu­ment is not only that “men in over­alls” in the pub are a dying breed but also that their suc­ces­sors, “who wear… pro­tec­tive cloth­ing at work”, prob­a­bly earned as much as, or more than, white-col­lar work­ers.

With the growth of automa­tion and the short­en­ing of the work­ing week, the over­all and boil­er suit may dis­ap­pear entire­ly, and the well-appoint­ed, well-warmed pub or inn, pro­vid­ing tasty meals and cor­rect­ly served drinks, should estab­lish itself yet more firm­ly in the design for a life offer­ing greater peri­od of leisure.

The punch­line to all this is, we think, quite fun­ny: the real prob­lem, Bev­er­ley writes, isn’t that pubs are being poshed-up but that, as of the end of 1964, the new aspi­ra­tional work­ing class­es had­n’t quite learned how to behave.

It is only hoped that, as high­er stan­dards are called for and met, appro­pri­ate improve­ments in human behav­iour also will devel­op. Licensees, proud of their “poshed-up” pubs, have dif­fi­cul­ty in believ­ing that change is for the good when expen­sive car­pets and table-tops are dam­aged by cig­a­rette burns. To be tru­ly ben­e­fi­cial, the winds of change… must blow some instinct of respon­si­bil­i­ty and sense of val­ues into the minds of those who are usu­al­ly the most insis­tent and vocal in their demands for lux­u­ry in the “local”.

It’s inter­est­ing to read this along­side those 1960s Bats­ford guides with all their talk of mut­ton cur­ry and beef fon­due, and oth­er accounts of the com­ing pub car­pets at around the same time. The mid-1960s were in pubs, as they were in art, music, lit­er­a­ture, film, some­thing of a moment as the tra­di­tion­al indi­ca­tors of class got jum­bled up or messed around with.

Fifty plus years on, peo­ple are still com­plain­ing about pubs being “poshed-up”, although these days the dis­ap­pear­ance of the car­pet in favour of bare boards is a key indi­ca­tor of com­ing posh­ness.

And the objec­tion seems to be less about class than atti­tude: pubs should be infor­mal, unguard­ed, live­ly and spon­ta­neous, not com­posed, curat­ed or man­nered.

We got our col­lec­tion of edi­tions of A Month­ly Bul­letin from Mar­tyn Cor­nell who kind­ly gave us his spares a few years ago. Thanks again, MC.

Two years, two hundred pubs

We’ve now been in Bristol for two years and have logged every single official Pub Visit since arriving.

We start­ed doing this most­ly to remind our­selves where we’d been for the sake of #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol, but also decid­ed to log sub­se­quent vis­its to each pub, pro­vid­ing us with an inter­est­ing data set reveal­ing our habits and favourites.

Our def­i­n­i­tion of a Pub Vis­it for this pur­pose is that it has to be a pub, both of us have to be there, and at least one of us has to have an alco­holic drink.

(We’ll return to the sub­ject of what makes a pub in a sep­a­rate blog post, as this exer­cise has giv­en us a real impe­tus to define it bet­ter.)

We have cho­sen to define Bris­tol as the uni­tary author­i­ty of Bris­tol, plus any bits that join up to it with­out a break. So the pubs of Kingswood and Fil­ton (tech­ni­cal­ly South Glouces­ter­shire) are in, where­as the won­der­ful Angel Inn at Long Ash­ton isn’t because there is, for now, at least one open field in between the vil­lage and the ever-increas­ing spread of South Bris­tol.

Overall stats

We have logged 516 pub vis­its in total.

Almost 30% of these were to our local, The Drap­ers Arms.

We have vis­it­ed 216 dif­fer­ent pubs.

Our pace of vis­it­ing new pubs has slowed: we went to our first 100 in six months; our sec­ond 100 took a year; and we’ve only added 16 in the last six months.

This is part­ly because of geog­ra­phy – the pubs we haven’t yet vis­it­ed are hard­er to get to and more spread out – but also because we’ve come across so many pubs that we like and want to revis­it, rather than tick­ing new ones.

Here’s a list of all the pubs we’ve vis­it­ed more than once.

Drap­ers Arms | 150
Welling­ton Arms | 16
High­bury Vaults | 16
Bar­ley Mow | 15
Zero Degrees | 14
Brew­dog | 13
Small Bar | 11
Inn On The Green | 10
Grain Barge | 10
Hill­grove Porter Stores | 9
The Old Fish Mar­ket | 7
Bot­tles And Books | 7
Mer­chants Arms | 6
The Vol­un­teer Tav­ern | 6
The Orchard | 6
The Annexe | 6
The Bank | 5
Bris­tol Fly­er | 4
Straw­ber­ry Thief | 4
The Good Mea­sure | 4
Gold­en Lion | 3
Roy­al Oak | 3
Com­mer­cial Rooms | 3
The Can­teen (Hamil­ton House) | 3
The Old Duke | 3
Snuffy Jacks | 3
Hob­gob­lin | 3
The Hare / The Lev­eret Cask House | 3
Col­ston Arms | 3
The Grace | 3
The Vic­to­ria | 3
Christ­mas Steps | 3
Cor­ner 33 | 3
The Cot­tage Inn | 2
Nova Sco­tia | 2
The Bridge | 2
Pump House | 2
Mardyke | 2
Hare On The Hill | 2
White Lion | 2
Robin Hood | 2
The White Bear | 2
Beerd | 2
The Sid­ings | 2
Glouces­ter Road Ale House | 2
Kings­down Vaults | 2
The Knights Tem­plar (Spoons) | 2
The V Shed | 2
The Roy­al Naval Vol­un­teer | 2
Bris­tol Brew­ery Tap | 2
St George’s Hall | 2
The Gryphon | 2
The Green­bank Tav­ern | 2
The Oxford | 2

Are they really your top pubs?

Most­ly, yes.

Our top 10 includes two pubs that are there sim­ply because they are close to our house – The Welling­ton and The Inn on the Green.

The Welling­ton scored par­tic­u­lar­ly high­ly dur­ing last summer’s heat­wave, because it has Sulis, Korev and reli­able Prophe­cy. The oth­ers are all clear favourites of ours and appear in our guide to the best pubs in Bris­tol.

Porter
A pint of porter at The Good Mea­sure.
If you’ve visited more than once, does that mean it’s good?

Not always. We’ve had one acci­den­tal sec­ond vis­it, to St George’s Hall, a soon-to-be-clos­ing Wether­spoons, hav­ing for­got­ten we’d already been.

Some­times a sec­ond vis­it might be to check out a change in own­er­ship or offer.

It might also reflect con­ve­nience. The Knights Tem­plar, AKA Hell­spoons, is right by Tem­ple Meads sta­tion and so a con­ve­nient stop before catch­ing a train. Now the bridge to The Bar­ley Mow has reopened, and The Sid­ings has decent Har­vey’s Sus­sex Best, we don’t expect to need to go there again.

But three or more vis­its and it’s prob­a­bly safe to say we like it. (Although we’ve fall­en out with the Hare in Bed­min­ster now it’s the Lev­eret Cask House.)

Not quite science

Of course the keep­ing of this infor­ma­tion dis­torts our behav­iour from time to time.

If we’ve got a choice between two pubs, we’ll some­times pick the one we think ‘deserves’ to be high­er up the rank­ings. And we occa­sion­al­ly give a pub a swerve because it feels as if it’s com­ing high­er up the charts than it ought to.

It’s still an expres­sion of pref­er­ence but… Well, it’s com­pli­cat­ed.

Wishful thinking

There are cer­tain­ly some pubs that would be high­er up the list if they were eas­i­er for us to get to.

The thing is, your local is your local. Part of the mag­ic of pubs like The Oxford in Tot­ter­down or The Plough at Eas­t­on is that they reflect and serve the com­mu­ni­ties they’re in.

We’ll drop in if we’re in the area, and some­times day­dream about how nice it would be if we did live near­by, but it would be daft for us to schlep across town to go there every week because… We’ve got a local. One that’s, you know, local.

We would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly expect these pubs to creep up the rank­ings in the next year, even though they are excel­lent.

Pubs such as The Good Mea­sure, on the oth­er hand, prob­a­bly will, because they offer some­thing dis­tinct we can’t get close to home.

(And in that par­tic­u­lar case, it’s rea­son­ably handy for the High­bury Vaults so makes a good end to a St Michael’s Hill crawl).

Some thoughts on Bristol pubs

In gen­er­al, Bris­tol pubs are good.

They tend to be friend­ly, even if they don’t always look it.

They’re extreme­ly var­ied – hip­py hang­outs, old boys booz­ers, gas­trop­ubs, craft beer exhi­bi­tions, back­street gems, fam­i­ly hang­outs, and so on.

They most­ly have real ale, even those that might not if they were in any oth­er city. We reck­on we’ve count­ed three (four if you think Brew­Dog is a pub) that did­n’t have any­thing at all on offer.

They’re loy­al to local beer, even if there’s no sin­gle dom­i­nant his­toric city brew­ery.

Your chances of find­ing Bass, Courage Best, But­combe or some oth­er clas­sic bit­ter are very high. The like­li­hood of find­ing mild is almost zero. Hop­py beers tend to be hazy, soft and sweet. (Not that we’re grum­bling but we do some­times crave paler, dri­er beers of the north­ern vari­ety.)

And we’re still find­ing good pubs: we only vis­it­ed The Annexe for the first time late last year; The Coro­na­tion in Bed­min­ster we dis­cov­ered for the first time a cou­ple of months back. No doubt in the final hun­dred or so there will be a few more crack­ers.

We’re not as sci­en­tif­ic about cat­a­logu­ing pub open­ings and clo­sures as the local CAMRA team in the excel­lent Pints West mag­a­zine but our feel­ing is that pubs are not clos­ing as fast as they were and that more pubs or oth­er drink­ing estab­lish­ments are emerg­ing.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, reflect­ing nation­al trends, pubs are more at risk in poor­er areas, and are (re) open­ing in wealth­i­er or ‘up and com­ing’ parts of the city.

Final thoughts

This has made us think hard about what makes pubs attrac­tive to us – although grant­ed, we’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly typ­i­cal cus­tomers.

Yes, it’s impor­tant for pubs to have a unique sell­ing point to stand out (that’s the pub with the heavy met­al, or eight types of cider, or amaz­ing cheese rolls) but, when it comes down to it, our drink­ing habits are pri­mar­i­ly influ­enced by con­ve­nience.

We sus­pect that’s fair­ly uni­ver­sal.