The best seat in the pub

The best seat in the Drapers Arms, our temporarily takeaway-only local pub, is at the table tucked away beside the front door.

That sounds as if it might be draughty. It’s not. It’s protected from the door by a short projecting wall, making a corner that keeps out the worst of the breeze.

It’s somehow private, too. Someone might sit to your left, but never to your right, so you can’t get too badly squeezed.

And from this little table you can see every other drinker in the pub. You can see what’s going on, hear the best bits of the conversation and avoid being taken by surprise. (The last thing you want in the pub is to have your fight-or-flight response triggered.)

So that’s why it’s the best seat, as far as we’re concerned, and we had assumed our criteria for judging this would be universal.

That’s why back in those BC days when we texted friends to say ‘We’ve got the best seat in the house and the Gorge Best is good’ we were surprised when they asked us which table we meant.

We’d thought it was obvious.

But then when we think of other regulars at the Drapers, it’s clear they have their favourite tables too, and that they’re different from ours.

Our next door neighbours gravitate to the opposite corner, near the bar. Mr Priddy, who is in his late eighties, seems to prefer a bench midway along the wall. Some people, inexplicably, choose to sit on the pew near the bins, even when they don’t have to. The rack of CAMRA magazines at the other end of the bench from our favourite seat seems to lure lone drinkers. And Big Bantering Lads generally prefer standing along the centre bench.

We wonder what psychological factors impact on where people like to sit. Proximity to the bar? The ease of inviting others to share their table? The appeal of nesting by the warmth of the radiator? Being able to see who’s entering in case you need to escape?

Beyond the psychological, there’s the physical: some people like hard seats, others soft ones, while some daren’t sit down at all for fear of seizing up. If you have to nip out for a cigarette every five minutes, that uncomfortable perch in bin corner might seem more appealing.

In our case, it’s probably that we’re used to going into a range of pubs and have got into the habit of finding the ‘safest’ spot – one where we’re least likely to draw attention to ourselves which gives us some control over interactions with staff and other customers. We’ll end up at a similar seat, at a similar table, almost anywhere.

Which is your favourite spot in your favourite pub, and why? (Any seat in any pub looks pretty good at this point, mind you.)

Everything we wrote in May 2020

Another funny old month. Busy at work, distracted by distractions, but still drifting back to our keyboards to type up the conversations we have over pints in imaginary pubs.

This month, a lot of our energy went into a single post – 2,000+ words for #BeeryLongReads2020 on Usher’s of Trowbridge:

Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear… What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs.

We rounded up all the other entries here.


We also joined in with Al Reece’s revival of The Session with notes on how we were handling what was then a much stricter lockdown:

At first, it seemed some version of normality might be possible. The Drapers Arms was open, sort of, selling takeaway beer, and we could still ‘pop in’ to Bottles & Books, our local craft beer shop. (Remember popping into places?)

You can read Al’s round-up of the other entries here.


After a prompt in our email inbox, we got curious about whether any historic recipes for Bass might be in the public domain:

We know it has an ABV of 4.4%. According to this commercial wholesaler’s catalogue, it uses Golding, Fuggles, Progress, Challenger, Styrian Golding, Hercules and Admiral hops – can we assume this information came from the brewery? And from drinking it, we know it’s, well, brown – somewhere around 10 SRM according to analyses by home-brewers.

This prompted Ron Pattinson to share more details from his collection of Bass specifications.


Yarn

Jess wrote a piece that’s been brewing for a while. There’s something about the way she and other knitters manage their stashes of wool that has echoes of how people think about beer:

…specifically that sense of not wanting to knit/drink what you have, because it’s either not exactly what you want, or because it’s too precious to use up… Yarn, like beer, might be a limited edition – you may never be able to get that exact same colour/recipe again.


The Samuel Whitbread
The Samuel Whitbread as pictured in a 1960s architectural magazine – we’ve lost our notes on exactly which issue, though.

In 1963, Egon Ronay published his first guide to English pubs, covering London and the South East. It’s a fascinating historical document, for many reasons:

It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.


As the month wound-up, we reflected again on our ways of coping with lockdown, specifically the absence of pubs. Our solution involves a kind of self-hypnosis, and lashings of Jarl:

A clean glass, a rush slowing to a trickle, and 40 seconds or so later, there we had it: a perfect, pub-like, sunshine yellow pint of one of the best beers in the world… Over the course of the weekend, as we got through both mini-kegs, we never stopped saying ‘Wow!’ That prompted us to ask ourselves the tough questions: which is better – Jarl, or Thornbridge Jaipur? On this evidence, Jarl, being both more delicate and less lethal.


And, uh, just now, Jess posted a piece on pub cricket, a game she played with her family on long car journeys as a child.


We also put together our usual Saturday morning round-ups of news, nuggets and longreads:


On Twitter, we shared a lot of stuff like this, our most popular Tweet of the month:


We also put together 1,000+ words of fresh stuff for our newslettersign up here!

Games people play: pub cricket

Maybe one of the reasons I can spot a pub a mile off is early training playing pub cricket on long car journeys as a child.

Pub cricket, as we used to play it in my family, is based on spotting pub signs and calculating runs based on the number of legs on the sign.

So for example, the Red Lion has four legs.

The Swan with Two Necks has two.

The Coach and Horses has… well, there’s a question. In our version we assumed that if no specific number was depicted in the image on the sign then there could only be two horses, and would therefore count eight legs by default. And then get into a row about whether the coach driver should also be counted, of course, which was half the fun.

There were further questions of interpretation around pubs with Heads and Arms in the name. If a pub is The Queen’s Head, is it fair to assume the Queen also has legs?

Wikipedia includes further variants, including ways of deciding whether a player is out or not.

As Wikipedia suggests, this game was actually much better suited to the network of British A-roads, before the development of motorways.

To account for this, in my family, we ended up adapting the game as motorway cricket, which had complex rules based on the number of wheels on passing lorries. It really wasn’t so much fun, because pubs are better than lorries.

Did you play pub cricket as a kid? What were your family’s rules?

News, nuggets and longreads 30 May 2020: Farewell, Roger Ryman

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that struck us as especially interesting in this final week of May.

First, some very sad news: Roger Ryman, brewing director at St Austell and creator of Tribute and Proper Job, has died of cancer at the age of 52. This obituary by Cornwall-based beer writer Darren Norbury at Beer Today says it all, really. We met Mr Ryman a few times and he was always a pleasure to deal with and remarkably open in response to any question we asked.


Illustration: "Wodge of cash."

For his own blog, journalist Will Hawkes has written a piece breaking down the financials of a pub in lockdown. Could The King’s Arms in Bethnal Green, East London, be doomed?

“That is pretty much all down to our landlord,” Chatwin, 40, says. “I think at the end of the day, [with] him being an old publican and an individual as opposed to a massive company, we will be able to salvage that somehow… On the other hand, we owe a lot of suppliers money, about £30,000. Pretty much all of them have been pretty understanding because they are often in the same boat as us… But I think it will come to a crunch point. It’s a massive elongated chain, isn’t it? As soon as one person in that chain is like, “Fuck, I need money,” then the whole pyramid falls down. But at the moment everybody has been pretty nice about the situation.”

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 30 May 2020: Farewell, Roger Ryman”

The Method: mini-keg + music + maps

As the Current Situation rumbles on, we’ve got quite good at enjoying our weekends at home. For example, we’ve just spent two nights in Scotland.

Step one: get the beer right.

On any normal weekend in Bristol, we’d be grumbling about the lack of Fyne Ales Jarl, which shows up in pubs here perhaps once a year.

Jarl is a 3.8% golden ale with Citra and was the highlight of our trip to Scotland at around this time last year. For us, it has the perfect balance of bitterness (high), aroma (also high) and booziness (low) so that one more pint always feels both desirable and justified.

Now, obliged to source beer by delivery anyway, it occurred to us that we might as well order from the Scottish Highlands as anywhere else. So, two five-litre mini-kegs of Jarl arrived last week, with plenty of time to settle.

Mini-kegs haven’t always impressed us in the past, at least where they’re touted as cask ale at home. The ones they sell in supermarkets at Christmas, though fun and good value, often taste more like packaged beer than they do the mysteriously vital cask versions.

This Jarl though… Oh, boy! The moment we opened the top vent, it was as if we’d set loose a genie. The ghost of hop fields past. A controlled explosion.

A clean glass, a rush slowing to a trickle, and 40 seconds or so later, there we had it: a perfect, pub-like, sunshine yellow pint of one of the best beers in the world.

Over the course of the weekend, as we got through both mini-kegs, we never stopped saying ‘Wow!’ That prompted us to ask ourselves the tough questions: which is better – Jarl, or Thornbridge Jaipur? On this evidence, Jarl, being both more delicate and less lethal.

We paid £44 for two casks, including delivery and a branded pint glass. Keep an eye on the Fyne Ales website to see which mini-kegs are in stock.

Step two: music and maps

It’s almost a psychedelic experience if you get it right. Or at least a Magic Eye picture.

What you’re trying to do is trick the brain, even if only for a moment, into forgetting where you really are, under what circumstances.

If you’re tasting Scottish beer, looking at an Ordnance Survey map you last unfolded in the hills beneath Ben Nevis, and listening to the kind of music that would seem pandering and cheesy in situ, the mind submits to the fantasy.

If this is Fyne Ales, and those are fiddles, then this must be Fort William, which means we must be five days into a ten-day holiday in a perfectly normal year. So relax. Relax. Happy days are here again.

Desperate stuff, really, but we’re not proud.

Step three: reshape reality

One final trick is to change the physical space. For us, that’s meant spending 15 minutes on Friday night packing away the home offices and moving around the furniture in our front room.

If you put that small table here, if you turn the sideboard back-to-front, if you hang those pictures there, if you arrange the whisky bottles on the bookcase just so…

It’s still our front room.

But it’s our front room in fancy dress.

Just different enough to boost the intensity of the daydream and to make staying at home for the tenth weekend in a row somewhat bearable.

A few props help, too, like the catering-size box of ready salted crisps we ordered online. Because you only get those in pubs, right? Who in their right mind would have one at home, right? Ridiculous.

When we Tweeted a photo on Friday, someone asked – concerned, perhaps, or jealous – whether we were actually in a pub. And that, right there, is the point of the game.