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:
I don’t like this beer.
I find it impossible to imagine anyone else liking this beer.
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.
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?
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 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.
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 Guardian, Times 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.