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.

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.

The unwritten rules of round-buying

There are few things as odd as reading an observed description of your own culture’s unconscious habits, such as the buying of rounds of drinks.

When we arrived in Glasgow last weekend we browsed the guidebooks supplied in our flat and stopped short when we found a note, aimed at visitors to Scotland, on how to buy rounds:

Like the English, Welsh and Irish, Scots generally take it in turns to buy a round of drinks for the whole group, and everyone is expected to take part. The next round should always be bought before the first round is finished.

It was that last line that gave us pause.

We’ve never really thought about how rounds are paced, even though we’ve sometimes been aware of struggling to keep up with fast-drinking friends and family members, and  on other occasions of sitting with empty glasses waiting for the round-buyer designate to make a move.

Our Twitter followers offered varying points of view:

  • The fastest drinker sets the pace.
  • The slowest drinker sets the pace.
  • If you drink especially quickly, you should buy the odd pint on your own to fill the gaps.
  • The round-buyer should go when there’s a window of opportunity at a busy bar.

Which suggests that if there are rules, they’re flexible, and vary from place to place, and group to group.

We also looked at Passport to the Pub, a brilliant piece of work by sociologist Kate Fox from 1996 which attempts to break down in exquisite detail every aspect of pub culture for the benefit of non-Brits. She writes:

Don’t wait until all your companions’ glasses are empty before offering to buy the next round. The correct time to say “It’s my round” is when your companions have consumed about three-quarters of their drinks. (Beware: the natives tend to drink quite fast, and may have finished their drinks when you have barely started.)

She also adds, however:

Don’t be afraid to refuse a drink. If you cannot keep up with the drinking-pace of your native companions, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “Nothing for me, thanks”. If you alternate accepting and declining during the round-buying process, you will consume half the number of drinks, without drawing too much attention to yourself. Avoid making an issue or a moral virtue of your moderate drinking, and never refuse a drink that is clearly offered as a significant ‘peace-making’ or ‘friendship’ gesture – you can always ask for a soft-drink, and you don’t have to drink all of it.

There’s also a lot of good stuff on round-buying in the 1943 Mass Observation book The Pub and the People, including a note on how drinkers in Bolton in the late 1930s kept pace with each other to avoid awkwardness:

[All] our observations show that the majority of pub-goers tend, when drinking in a group, to drink level; and very often there is not a quarter inch difference between the depth of beer in the glasses of a group of drinkers… The simultaneous emptying of glasses is the most frequent form of level drinking. And it is (for reasons connected with the ritual of standing rounds) the most likely form of level drinking that is due to ‘anticipation’.

We suspect a fair bit of this still goes on today even if, again, those doing it don’t know it’s happening. Or maybe this is a bit of a lost art?

In practice, of course, all of these rules or customs are understood without being spoken, and possibly completely unconsciously. We moderate our behaviour based on the group we’re with, our knowledge of people’s financial situations, or their capacity for alcohol.

The only time strict rules are likely to be enforced is when we’re drinking with complete strangers.

Another thought: in a good pub, there are plenty of options for keeping pace without getting excessively drunk. For example, Pally makes the pace with pints of strong ale; Matey, drinking a bit quicker than they’d like, is on best; and Wossname, who keeps having to chug the last third of every pint, takes ordinary bitter at 3.7%. They all end up about as pissed as each other.

At our local, the Drapers, a further refinement can be found in the four-pint jug. First, choosing the beer is a real team exercise, leaving no room for fussiness. Secondly, sharing, while not strictly equitable, does solve the pacing problem: if your glass is empty, have a slug more; if the jug is empty, someone needs to get a round in.

Finally, Kate Fox also makes the point that it’s as bad to make too much fuss about equality in round-buying as it is to be seen as stingy. After all, it generally evens itself out across multiple sessions, or over the course of a lifetime of friendship – a boozy take on the concept of karma.

Only once that either of us can remember have we encountered someone who really broke the unspoken rules of round-buying, almost seeming to make a game out of avoiding paying their way over the course of months. Eventually, after about a year of mounting irritation, there was an intervention and they were forced to buy a reasonably-priced round in a Sam Smith’s pub in central London. This was, as you might imagine, an awful thing to witness.