One of the reasons we are doing #EveryPubInBristol is because we did #EveryPubInPenzance and discovered that we couldn’t always judge a pub from the way it looked.
We like to think we know pubs reasonably well and there were five pubs in Penzance that just never appealed based on the way they presented.
We decided to go to them all before we left and we found that one was much better than we’d expected and was added into our regular route; three were actually fine; and only one was genuinely bad. And because of our general interest in the history and culture of pubs, almost everywhere had something for us to observe or learn from, good or bad.
However, 252 pubs into our Bristol mission, we’ve started to question whether one visit is really enough for some pubs. So much of what makes up an experience in a pub is transitory – the staff who were on, the other punters during your visit – before you even get into what the beer tastes like, changes to the decor, and so on.
When pubs get refurbished and new managers take over, we do try to make an effort to revisit as this kind of thing can drastically change a place. But other changes might be more subtle – perhaps we visited during the day when there’s a calm older crowd and missed the fact it has a DJ and dancing on a Saturday night. Perhaps we visited on a particularly rainy or sunny day when the usual crowd stayed at home or went to the park. Perhaps the bartender who made us feel so welcome left for another job a week later and the place just isn’t as friendly now.
We think this is why it’s easier to judge places that have an identifiable guv’nor or guv’nors – that their personality, for good or worse, sets a fairly consistent tone for the place. And you can tell a lot by the regulars that they gather around them and the behaviours that are and aren’t allowed.
In contrast, the hardest places to form a view on are often managed houses, where staff and management turn over constantly. It’s hard enough to imprint a personality over what the pubco or brewery has decided is the in look this season (usually several years out of date) even when you do have a steady team.
There’s a pub between our house and the centre of town which constantly switches between being a decent pub with acceptable food and drink to a complete kitchen and cellar nightmare. We end up visiting every six months to see what phase it’s in. To be fair, we probably wouldn’t bother at all if it wasn’t on our way home.
This of course is where a good local CAMRA branch comes in useful, particularly if members are attuned to factors beyond beer quality – it’s great to get local intelligence on which pubs have changed hands recently and a hint as two whether the change is for the better, or the worse.
We suppose, in a roundabout way, what we’re saying is that pubs are like living things. That’s great news if you like exploring pubs because over the course of five years, 250 pubs might equate to 1,000 pubs, in terms of the experience of visiting them.
And another thought: perhaps this is why pubs that don’t change – that can resist it for, say, 20 years or more – feel so special.
If you’ve decided that you’re going to get into beer, the chances are you will go through a Belgian phase. You may, in fact, never come out of it.
Look at these obsessives, for example, who go to Belgium multiple times every year and find endless fascination in the country’s beer.
We’ve identified five factors that we think make Belgian beers to appealing to ‘beginner’ beer geeks – people at stages three to five – beyond the obvious fact that Belgium is home to many of the world’s greatest beers.
When you first encounter Belgian beer, there’s an impression of boundless choice. Even the most basic bars have lengthy beer lists, usually with enough options to offer something different throughout a weekend city break. The beers on offer range from brain-dissolvingly sour to syrup sweet, and often come with tantalising, almost romantic descriptions.
Most Belgian bars will offer a set of reliable classics – the Westmalles, Chimays, Duvel, and so on. So, while there is a lot of choice, it’s not like drinking in a modern UK taproom where the beers change constantly, week by week, like fugitives trying to evade detection. In Belgium, it’s easy to identify favourites and go back to them as often as you like, as you get to understand your own preferences.
Most Belgian beers are served from the bottle, and most of these breweries have been bottling for a very long time, so when you drink Westmalle Tripel it will taste more or less the same wherever you drink it, unlike with draught beer (and especially cask) where so much depends on the venue. Caveats apply: we have noticed consistency issues with Abt 12, for example, which put us off drinking it for a while.
On the ground in Belgium, at least, there are the matching glasses, the perfect pours and the general reverence for the product that seems to apply even in non-beer-geek places. Every glass of beer is the most important in the world at the moment it’s served. And if you like reading, there’s plenty to read, from the history of the distinctive yeast to the tales of individual breweries.
Pink elephants! Trolls! Peculiar glassware! It was made for the Instagram age. It’s just fun.
* * *
Are there downsides?
Well, perhaps the generally higher strength of Belgian beer might be offputting to the average British person.
It certainly took us quite a while to adjust to a sensible Belgian drinking pace.
And actually, the alcohol burn can seem overwhelming at first, like the whisky wall we wrote about in last month’s newsletter. We remember considering Chimay White undrinkable the first time we tried it because all we could taste was ethanol. Of course we love it now.
For some, the Belgian scene might also seem a little conservative. There are new breweries and styles emerging – certainly enough to quench our curiosity whenever we visit – but we guess it is difficult for new players to enter the market.
On the whole, though, Belgian beer strikes just the right balance between novelty and solidity. It’s vast but knowable. Often complex but rarely ridiculous. Very weird but absolutely everyday.
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?
“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 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.
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.
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.
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 bookThe 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.
What we should have paid more attention to was that our friends who weren’t especially interested in beer – who would turn pale if you accused them of being beer geeks – seemed to like Hells a lot. They were switching from Foster’s, Stella, Peroni, and (perhaps crucially) drinking Hells just as they’d drunk those other beers: by the pint, pint after pint.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see why they’d make the switch. Hells was light-tasting, reasonably strong, clean and clear; usually came in smart but chunky glassware; and the branding was nice – bold, contemporary, declaring itself a Londoner.
To reiterate, Hells certainly wasn’t the first British craft lager, but it might yet turn out to be the most influential.
It probably prompted Fuller’s Frontier (2013), Adnams Dry Hopped (2013), and Guinness Hop House 13 (2015), to name but three examples.
And we’re certain it’s why breweries like Moor have been unable to resist giving lager a go in recent years, even though that’s not something that seemed on the agenda for them a decade ago.
The recent launch of Carlsberg Danish Pilsner must also surely be a reaction to Hells, or at least indirectly, via Hop House 13 and the others.
Particular care must be taken to avoid causing serious offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age.
… while otherwise leaving things suitably vague, ready to be tested in practice if and when complaints start to come in:
The Code rules are written as broad principles. This means that the rules are not overly prescriptive and allow the Panel to interpret and apply them on a case by case basis, taking multiple factors into account (overall impression conveyed, producer response, relevant research etc). This ensures that the Code, and its rules, are flexible to different scenarios, fit for purpose and responsive to innovation in the market…
We reckon all this leaves brewers with a fair amount of room for manoeuvre, while also providing a mechanism for challenging them. Of course the first time it’s tested will either upset free speech types (if the complaint is upheld) or the complaining classes if it isn’t, but at least the first draft of a system is there.
The Advisory Service recommends that containers which are typically single-serve, and whose contents are typically consumed by one person in one sitting, should not contain more than four units.
Again, though, these are guidelines, not rules, and this section would seem to get as close to saying ‘PS. Does not apply to craft beer’ as could reasonably be expected:
Having more than four-units in a single-serve container will not automatically result in a product being found in breach of the Code; it is the view of the Advisory Service that the Panel is likely to take other factors into account when determining whether a product encourages immoderate consumption. It is not possible to produce an exhaustive list of mitigating factors but the Panel may consider: whether the container contained a ‘share’ message or a ‘per serve’ recommendation, how easily the container could be resealed, whether the producer was able to demonstrate that the contents were shared (by decanting) or typically consumed over more than one sitting, the premium status/quality of the product and its positioning in the market including the price at which it is generally sold, alcohol type (does the product degrade quickly once opened) and the overall impression conveyed by the product packaging (such as terminology used in the name and product description). The mitigating factors should be commensurate with the number of units (above 4 units) in the single-serve container. The Panel is also likely to take into consideration whether the packaging contains responsibility messaging, for example, the number of units in the container and a reference to the Drinkaware website.
And, one final bit of extreme devil’s advocacy: we’ve fairly frequently seen street drinkers – people obviously struggling with addiction to alcohol– with cans of BrewDog Elvis Juice at breakfast time in central Bristol. At 6.5%, and with four cans for £6 in Tesco convenience stores, it’s actually a reasonably economical and palatable way to get pissed.
So maybe the fundamental problem is the idea that there’s good booze and bad booze, when actually it’s about stable and unstable lives.