The Pub That Does That One Beer Brilliantly

You know the kind of place we mean: it’s perhaps a bit curmudgeonly, perhaps a little old-fashioned, and everyone knows it’s the place in town to go for a perfect pint of [BEER X].

Most often these days, it seems, BEER X is Bass. Certainly in the West Country that’s the case, and there are famous Bass pubs in Penzance, Falmouth, Bristol and no doubt many other places. Here’s a bit we wrote for our now defunct Devon Life column:

Several pubs that sold great Bass 40 years ago are still doing so and one of the country’s very most famous Bass pubs is in Plymouth… The Dolphin on the Barbican is a place to drink, not to dine or pose. There is a range of ale on offer but the main event, as it has been for as long as anyone can remember, is undoubtedly Bass. An ornate plaque outside the front door advertises ‘Bass on draught’; a huge Bass banner hangs behind the bar; and the beer comes in straight-sided vintage-style pint glasses bearing the famous logo…. Though Bass may not be the beer it once was, at The Dolphin under the stewardship of veteran publican Billy Holmes, it still has some of its old snap and crackle, with a chalky dryness and a wonderful mild funkiness. It is unfussy but certainly not bland…. The Dolphin is by no means the only Bass stronghold in Plymouth, however. At the Artillery Arms in Stonehouse Belinda Warne has been learning its ways for 20 years. ‘It’s temperamental,’ she says, reflecting the popular mystique that surrounds the beer. ‘I’ve known it be fine and then, bang, there’s a clap of thunder outside and it’s turned bad in an instant.’

Becky's Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we'd still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).
Becky’s Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we’d still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).

Becky’s Dive Bar, all the way back in the 1960s and 70s, made its reputation on being one of the few places in London you would ever find Ruddles, for example, and we once made a pilgrimage to Putney in search of Timothy Taylor Ram Tam. (That pub sadly gave up on this unique selling point.) The Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury, a nice pub but otherwise unremarkable, is a go-to place for Theakston Old Peculier.

We reckon the King’s Head here in Bristol is on its way to gaining a reputation for its Harvey’s Sussex Best which seems to be permanently on offer and as good as we’ve ever had it. The Bridge Inn round the corner seems to have a similar relationship with Dark Star Hophead, a beer we still love despite its ups and downs.

For this model to really work the beer ought to be from another part of the country, the further away the better, and ideally one that doesn’t have wide national distribution through Wetherspoon pubs or other such chains and pub companies. But that doesn’t have to be the case: the selling point is really absolute reliability. If you fancy a pint of BEER X, the pub will have it, and because they always have it, and perhaps not much else, they’ll both know how to care for it and get through plenty. (See: Proper Job at The Yacht Inn, Spingo at The Dock.)

The publican has to hold their nerve, of course, when all the other pubs in the area are offering three, five, ten, twenty guest ales, plus kegs, plus bottles. How long does it take to build a cult reputation and a steady clientele around selling one beer really well? Years, probably — perhaps decades. And if a customer craving BEER X turns up and it’s not there you might find yourself back at square one.

What are some of your favourite One Beer Done Well pubs? Let us know in the comments below.

Why Drink Brains?

“You’re in Cardiff, why drink Brains? Thriving micro scene nowadays…”

We popped to Cardiff yesterday, a city neither of us knows, and had a poke around the pubs in between bouts of architectural appreciation. The main things we wanted to achieve on this preliminary reconnaissance mission were (1) to visit the Tiny Rebel bar and (2) drink some beer from Brains, the dominant local family brewer, as near to its home as possible.

The above question was put to us on Twitter by veteran beer appreciator and Guardian letters celebrity Keith Flett (Twitter, blog), who spends quite a bit of time in Cardiff, when he noticed us Tweeting about a nasty, buttery pint of Brains Dark.

It’s an understandable question and we’re on the receiving end of, or see, similar every day. It can be frustrating to remotely observe someone missing all the good bits of a town you know and fearing that they’ll be judging it harshly by the places they do end up. We used to get a bit like this when we saw that people had been to Penzance and visited The Crown but not The Yacht, for example.

More examples can be seen in the response to Tandleman’s visit to St Albans before Christmas. His report made no claim to being The Definitive Guide and looked like just the kind of gut-instinct ramble we tend to prefer to regimented guidebook ticking but people couldn’t help responding with lists of the pubs he and E ought to have gone to instead, with an implied silent scream.

These days there’s almost nowhere in the UK that doesn’t have a couple of pubs preferred by the local cognoscenti and a quick bit of Googling or searching Twitter means that there’s really no excuse for wasting time and effort on sub-standard venues in a strange town.

Except that, for one thing, it’s half the fun. Being told exactly where to go and what to avoid is like using cheat mode on a computer game, or looking at the answers on a quiz. Trying to fathom the politics, dynamics and culture of a place you don’t know is a kind of puzzle and unless you’re on a mission, or perhaps a commission, then feeling your way around and making wrong turns is what makes it stimulating. Especially if you know you’re going to go back some other time, as we do with Cardiff, and Tandleman made clear he intended to do with St Albans, so a few duds don’t really hurt in the long run.

Then there’s the fact that the hive mind is sometimes wrong, or at least tends towards the safe. In the last couple of years, as we’ve got braver and more adventurous in our pub-going, we’ve discovered lots of lovely pubs that nobody ever seems to recommend, as well as a few bloody awful ones that lots of other people seem to love. And we do prefer pubs to bars, and especially tap rooms, towards which so many social media recommendations seem to steer.

Finally, there’s the importance of making our own judgement. If we swerved Brains because everyone else told us to we’d feel as if we’d been lazy. If we’re going to say Tiny Rebel is better than Brains we want that to be on the basis of having actually drunk a fair bit of Tiny Rebel and a fair bit of Brains in different places at different times, rather than just going along with the prevailing view. We have a soft spot for old family brewers, too, so there’s certainly no guarantee we will prefer the products of the micro-scene.

Ultimately, if you want to know a place you have to experience the mediocre as well as supping at the cream. You don’t know London if you’ve never felt slightly scared in a darkened underpass; you don’t know Cornwall if you’ve been to genteel St Ives but not down-to-earth Redruth; you don’t know most towns or cities if you’ve never been in the suburbs on a wet afternoon.

Boak & Bailey’s Golden Pints for 2017

Ah, the Golden Pints — a grim obligation undertaken out of habit rather than joy, a mere ‘circle jerk’, a relic of a past era of beer blogging…

Nah, we like ’em. We enjoy the chance to reflect, and to think about what we’ve actually been drinking and which beers have really stuck with us down the months.

We also enjoy reading other people’s. They’re often biased, full of odd choices, and demonstrate unabashed local boosterism… Which is what makes them great. When there are enough of them trends emerge and the same names to crop up again and again. And you know that beers and breweries from one part of the country grudgingly mentioned in Golden Pints from another must really be something.

We’ve decided this year that an important test of Golden Pint status is repeatability — in a landscape of infinite variety and choice, did a particular beer warrant a second pint? Did a particular pub demand a second visit despite the temptation to explore new territory?

With all that in mind, here’s what we came up with, omitting any category to which we didn’t feel we could give a decent answer.

Continue reading “Boak & Bailey’s Golden Pints for 2017”

Portman Group v. Infantile Can Designs

The label for Cwtch.

News broke this morning that a complaint against the design of the can for Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch has been upheld by the Portman Group.

The Portman Group is the beer industry’s organ for self-regulation, the purpose of which is, broadly speaking, to head off this kind of issue before things get really heavy. The complaint against Cwtch was that “a member of the public, believed that the product wasn’t obviously alcoholic, due to the design, and also had a particular appeal to children”.

We have a few thoughts on this.

First, we’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. As we wrote back in March 2016 craft beer cans often feature designs that mean they resemble soft drinks, and the borderline between fun and downright infantile is pretty fine. How do you design something that will appeal to a 19-year-old but not to a 17-year-old? This is an especially important question given that the former has been a large part of the success of the crop of craft breweries that have emerged in the last decade or so.

What perhaps doesn’t help is how often we see people chortling on social media that, tee hee, craft beer cans are great because The Man assumes you’re drinking pop! Heck, we’ve even played this game ourselves. And, vice versa, when people are constantly posting pictures of fizzy pop cans with variations on the joke, “This new IPA looks interesting.”

Then there’s a second point: the nagging suspicion we’ve had that Tiny Rebel have been following the BrewDog playbook (Brew Britannia, chapter 14) and angling for some kind of dispute in which they are the oppressed underdog for PR purposes. We’re sure they must have known that the packaging was provocative — teddy bears! Candy! Cartoon characters! — just as BrewDog knew Speedball was back in 2008. In addition Tiny Rebel seem to have been actively engaged in what we’d call ‘trademark baiting’, referencing characters owned by huge corporations such as Nintendo (Princess Peach), Disney (Darth Vader) and Sony (the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man). So far they’ve got away with it, as have Robinson’s, which we suppose makes it a win-win.

Then again, maybe we’re wrong. After all, the Portman Group’s judgement suggests that Tiny Rebel played ball throughout the process and have agreed to change the packaging.

Anyway, on balance, the judgement seems fair enough to us, and hardly draconian. It would certainly seem less controversial if it as AB-InBev or Carslberg in the firing line, wouldn’t it? This kind of back-and-forth over marginal cases is far better than hard-and-fast rules which tend to push the boundary back well into the safety zone. We would certainly start to worry, though, if these rulings begin to pile up and lead to, say, a de facto ban on the use of bright colours.

We came to this story via Charlie AKA @craftybeeress who blogs at craftybeeress.com — give her a follow!

Cask Ale is Too Cheap/Expensive

Illustration: Pound Sign/Pint Glass.

Cask ale is both too cheap and too expensive. Or, rather, both of the following statements are true:

  1. It is a problem for brewers that cask beer – culturally important and relatively more difficult to brew, distribute and serve at its best – is expected to be cheaper than other forms of beer on sale in the UK.
  2. Consumers cannot be expected to pay more for cask beer.

Let’s look at item No. 1 first.

We have testimony from multiple brewers that cask ale not only offers only slim profit margins but also comes with additional challenges not found with keg or small-pack products. Take this from Northern Monk, for example:

[Logistically cask is] a massive headache for us… It makes no sense for us to package in a format that we’re not really set up for, has a lower market value than other packaged formats and our beer isn’t particularly suited to.

Or, if you don’t much value the views of ‘upstarts’, here’s Roger Ryman of St Austell: “Overall profit on cask beer is wafer thin in free trade and national distribution where we compete against the many hundreds of breweries that operate in this market”.

So, competition is an issue but we also find ourselves suspecting that if it weren’t for certain oddities in the market – the gravitational pull of the Campaign for Real Ale, a historical expectation that cask will be cheaper than keg – cask would be a premium product costing more than most keg beers. That is sometimes expressed, for the sake of brevity, especially on Twitter, as “Cask is too cheap”, or “Cask ought to be more expensive”, or “I’d be willing to pay more”.

There’s a cheap rhetorical trick that often gets played at this point: “Oh, so you think £3 a pint is too cheap? Alright for you, moneybags.”; “So what you’re saying is that want to exclude poor people from cask altogether then? You elitist bastard.”; “You want to pay more? Are you quite mad?”

(Also a cheap trick: paraphrasing those rather than quoting specific examples, but we don’t want to get into beef with anyone in particular.)

The problem is, those latter voices also have a point, which brings us to item 2.

Nobody Has Any Money

Journalist Will Hawkes put this well on Twitter last week (and, indeed, prompted this entire post):

"People can't pay more. Wages have been in decline for years and will be for years. Brewers need to accept this."

As a consumer it can get pretty exhausting: support pubs, support small breweries, boycott supermarkets, support record shops, support bookshops, support struggling restaurants, support your local butcher, baker, artisanal candlemaker. Buy local, buy Fair Trade, buy British. Oh, and pay into a pension, and save for a rainy day, and put a roof over your head in a property market gone insane, and also we’d like you to go onto a contract which means we can’t guarantee your income from one month to the next. Oh, and it’s 30p to use the toilet now, by the way, because there’s no magic money tree and so on and so forth.

If somehow the price of cask ale rose by, say, 20p a pint across the board, it wouldn’t unlock some secret pot of money that consumers are sitting on. Indeed, it would probably push a significant number over the edge, reducing the number of trips they make to the pub.

“Well, drink less but better,” people sometimes say, but, honestly, if we drank much less we might as well give up and join the Band of Hope, even though going to the pub is our biggest leisure expenditure each month. (If you haven’t already done so try totting up how much you spend in the pub each month – the numbers are a bit scary.)

To us, and others like us, and especially those worse off than us, it doesn’t feel as if cask ale is cheap. The fact that some really cheap beer is available, at Wetherspoon or Sam Smith pubs, doesn’t ‘devalue cask’ – it’s a lifeline, part of the balancing act that means we can occasionally afford to splash on something special at £5 a pint.

So Mr Hawkes is right: brewers and their boosters need to find better ways to tackle this issue than berating or guilt-tripping. Equally, when a brewery makes a commercial decision to pull out of cask, or refuses to budge on price, consumers (and especially real ale campaigners) shouldn’t be turning the guilt-gun back on them: they’re doing what they feel needs to be done to survive in an ever-more competitive market.