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pubs

Further thoughts on the pubs of InBetweenland

A couple of weeks ago, in our Saturday round-up, we linked to a very informative, honest and thought-provoking piece by David Hayward at A Hoppy Place.

In it, he wrote:

“One thing that I am certain of – is that this ‘great unlocking’ has been far from that… To be quite frank, it’s been pretty shit.”

We’ve been thinking and talking about various things in this article ever since and thought we’d respond with a similar level of honesty about how our habits have changed.

Obvious caveat upfront: we are massive pub enthusiasts. We go out of our way to try new pubs and, in the beforetimes, would probably indulge in at least one multi-pub crawl per week. That preference underlies what follows.

First, then, we are probably drinking out slightly less overall than we were before. This is despite being several months double-jabbed and not that anxious, at this stage, about catching COVID.

When we say slightly less, what does that mean? We’re probably now having two pub sessions a week, maybe three, whereas it would have been three, maybe four, most pre-pandemic weeks. Our pub sessions are also shorter and we’re visiting fewer establishments per session.

We don’t think we’re drinking at home more, in terms of volume or occasions. We are making more of a fuss about it, so rather than mindlessly necking a few favourites in front of the telly, we might sit at the table, listen to some music, talk, and make an effort to try new beers or new breweries.

We very much recognise David’s point about the dangers of breweries selling direct to consumers like us. We have tended to order reliable beers from breweries we already know.

During lockdown, however, we did also try on a few occasions to mix things up, ordering selection packs from indie beer shops.

Now we’re out of lockdown, if we’re honest, our online ordering is probably focused on getting in staples and favourites – ironically, often from our closest brewery, Lost & Grounded.

That’s because we’ve been hoping to be able to try new stuff on draught when we’re out and about, rather than from cans and bottles.

We’re spending less time in pubs for a variety of reasons. Partly, we are still conscious of the risk of contributing to the spread of COVID, so we’re tending to space out our pub sessions so we can be reasonably certain we’re clear of infection before going out.

And, like many people, we’ve got a backlog of family and friends to catch up with and not all of those occasions take place in the pub, despite our best efforts. Some of those people are vulnerable, too, so we’ve been minimising other social contact before we see them.

We’re also in a new bit of Bristol so we’re still getting to know which pubs, bars and taprooms work for us. (Anecdotal evidence suggests lots of people have made bigger moves than this in the last 18 months, to new cities, or to the country, so maybe this is behind the more general issue David Hayward has noticed.) 

All of the above are temporary factors that might point to a recovery in our pub going habits at some point.

Having said that, we have also discovered new hobbies and exercise regimes as a way to stay sane during lockdown. That means there are now more things we want to fit into the weekend than before. As a result, we’re less likely to spend an entire afternoon and evening out on the sauce.

Working from home also means we’re less likely to do a big post work session in the town centre in the middle of the week or on Friday evening.

We find our tastes have changed, too. We’re now favouring pubs with outdoor spaces and taprooms, particularly when meeting with other people.

To our minds, a drinking session outside doesn’t really count as a risky activity so we don’t need to ration those in the same way as a visit to a cosy indoor space.

One final point impacting on volume of drinking out, and hopefully this is also temporary, is that, frankly, the quality of the beer available hasn’t always been the best.

This is not surprising given fluctuating supply and demand – but it’s felt unhelpful to point this out when the industry is clearly struggling.

To improve quality, most pubs we can think of are offering a smaller range of beer, which is a sensible response to unpredictable demand, but it has also tended to mean less variety, not just during the session but also from visit to visit.

We’ve had a few weekends where we’ve deliberately tried to drink new things and have had to go out of our way, or resort to ordering things that we suspect we’re probably not going to like. 

We’ve had a number of pints that are not bad, as such, but not especially good, either. Just ever so slightly tired.

Of course, we’re no strangers to a mediocre pint and they’re not the end of the world. It’s part and parcel of the pastime. However in this case, we’re talking about places that we know usually do excellent cask ale, so this must be a direct result of unpredictable customer flows. We’ve even heard bar staff indiscreetly saying as much when challenged.

So if you are running a pub, what can you do about us fickle customers?

Ultimately, it’s going to depend on the type of pub and the target market. Are your customers just being slow to return, or are they gone for good?

While you work that out, we’d suggest it makes sense to stick to what you’re best at. If you’re known for your cask ale, make sure it continues to be of an excellent standard and try to balance reliable favourites with both new things and bona fide classics. We’d happily trek across town to anywhere with Jarl on tap, for example, if we saw a post about it on social media.

Clear communications about rules and COVID precautions might help. While some people may not care, others do. We are aware of people who are less comfortable going to pubs now that there are no restrictions.

Unfortunately, it may be a case of waiting it out a bit longer and we think there will be long term winners and losers.

City centre pubs will need to find a raison d’être beyond cramming in office workers for two hours on Friday night. Previously unloved suburban locals, on the other hand, may find themselves with new customers, particularly if they’re clear about their offer.

A final note on micropubs, some of which are very dear to our hearts. The very thing that makes the good ones good – the cosiness, the chance conversations with strangers – are the sorts of things which will be the last things to come back in pub culture because of the very specific nature of this virus.

We’re hopeful and optimistic that they will eventually return but perhaps micropubs will need a little further help to weather the storm. Continuing to do takeaway seems sensible, for example.

We’ll leave you with a note of optimism. Last weekend, we went to The Drapers Arms. After a while, a couple of friends walked in and before we knew it, we were in the midst of the kind of casual chat we’ve really missed. The beer was great, the company was great, and we could see the path out of the woods.

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pubs

Every Pub In Bristol: the new, the remixed and the uncounted

It didn’t feel right to resume our #EveryPubInBristol quest until restrictions were lifted in full.

Even now, almost two months later, it’s not clear if we’re really getting a sense of any new-to-us pubs, based on our experiences of going back to pubs we do know well.

But then we thought, well, the point of this exercise isn’t to make a value judgement. We’re not reviewing.

And in the beforetimes, we wouldn’t necessarily visit a place at the ‘right’ time to really understand it and its place in the community – just whenever we happened to be in the neighbourhood.

So, we’re now back on the trail.

Our first tick since October 2020 was The Langton, in St Annes, which we mentioned in this post about grey makeovers, and which might be a candidate for our new local. 

However, we felt it almost didn’t count as a real tick as Ray had been before, both before and after its refurbishment. (Our rule is that both of us have to be present at the visit and at least one of us must have an alcoholic drink.) Still, that did mean we had a sense of what normal felt like.

Our first experience of jointly crossing the threshold a definitely new-to-both-of-us pub came a few weeks later, at The Wackum Inn. 

This was a great reminder of the point of the #EveryPubInBristol project.

A Greene King pub on a main road in an unprepossessing suburb we don’t know well wouldn’t seem especially appealing.

We were greeted at the bar by a very friendly team, however, and had a great pint of Greene King IPA (no, really) while the music ramped up to mark the transition from Saturday afternoon football to Saturday evening party mode.

There was a range of ages, from children hovering around the pool table to well-groomed youths to older folk watching the football or comparing tans.

It struck us as a well run pub with a guvn’ing couple (we think) working very hard to make sure their place has something to offer everyone while retaining some kind of distinct community character.

It’s given us quite the taste for more ticking.

***

One of our occasional debates is whether a refurbishment or a reopening after a long period closed counts as a new tick.

A visit to the newly-reopened Llandoger Trow sparked the argument anew.

Last time we visited, it was essentially a dingy Premier Inn breakfast room with far too many people in it and yet, somehow, zero atmosphere.

It’s now under the ownership of the Euston Tap team. It has been stripped right back and now feels a lot like a European multi-roomed beer hall – an impression underlined by the seriously impressive lager list.

It’s quite a change, in both mood and offer, but we decided it didn’t count as a new tick because, fundamentally, it’s the same type of business: an establishment on one of the most popular drinking runs in the city.

We’re delighted to have a place in town that takes good lager seriously but we suspect most of the clientele would go there whatever they sold, crawling in one direction or another.

***

We’ve been visiting tap rooms a lot this year, including some new ones. They don’t usually count as pub ticks because when applying the Is it a Pub? test, they usually fall into the ‘possibly’ rather than ‘probably’ category.

And we don’t tend to write about them much on the blog because, well, if we’re honest, most are kind of similar, with similar customers and similar weedy IPAs. We’ve simply always preferred pubs. 

However, new to us this year, and now one of our most regular haunts, is the Lost & Grounded tap room.

This is partly because of proximity to our house, partly because it has a large outdoor space that seems to always have a table free, but mostly because of some (usually) excellent Continental style beers.

It’s still not a pub, though. Maybe we need an #EveryTapRoomInBristol hashtag, too? And #EverySocialClub, while we’re at it. Short on pubs though it may be, our new neighbourhood has a few of these to explore.

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pubs

Why are all the pubs going grey?

We visited a pub at the weekend which had got a lot greyer since we first saw it and realised this might be a trend.

The Langton, formerly the Langton Court Hotel, is an Edwardian suburban pub which was refurbished a couple of years ago. As can be seen from the pictures, the colourful exterior has been toned down considerably.

The Langton Court, pre-refurb.
And as The Langton in 2021.

Inside it’s a similar story, with a variety of shades ranging from salt to slate to ghost’s breath.

We probably wouldn’t have remarked on it other than the fact we happened to notice another pub in town, of a similar vintage, that has also had a grey makeover.

The Fox & Hounds in shades of grey.

And we realised, hold on – this isn’t the only example we’ve seen lately, either.

The Queen’s Head, Easton.
The White Harte, Warmley.

Our assumption is that this is about trying to attract a newer, more aspirational crowd – or, at least, not to put them off. This preference for would-be classy neutralness mirrors recent trends in home décor sometimes referred to disparagingly as ‘the grey plague’.

There’s nothing new under the sun, of course. One of the key touchpoints for interwar pub design was suburban ordinariness, the idea being that the pub should blend into suburban settings rather than announcing itself with garish paintwork and advertising signs.

Speaking personally, the grey thing doesn’t really do it for us and we’d certainly be worried if all pubs began to look exactly the same.

Having said that, a new external paint job seems like one of the least harmful ways a pub can send a signal to potential new customers without alienating the old ones: things have changed here; it’s safe.

That seems to be what’s going on with the Langton, which was formerly fairly tatty and a bit forbidding – although Ray found it perfectly decent when he visited pre-refurb. The Langton still has its skittle alley and tellies showing football, attempting to balance its identity as a community local with a more upmarket food offer. Successfully, we think.

If a bit of grey paint is the price to pay, we’ll deal with it.

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pubs

Which pubs did you really miss?

When you haven’t been able to go to the pub for a while, which pubs you choose to visit first says something about what you really want, deep down.

The Marble Arch in Manchester came first, almost by accident, but not unreasonably. It’s an eternal, all-time-great national treasure.

Next, of course, came The Drapers Arms here in Bristol – our favourite and our former local, 228 visits to date. It was followed closely by the nearby Annexe, with its convenient pizza.

Then, rather to our surprise, it was The Portcullis – a pub we didn’t think we’d had time to develop a fondness for.

A potential new local, The Old Stillage, came next. Perhaps we’re craving the thrill of the new? It’s not an #EveryPubInBristol candidate because we’ve already ticked it, but that was back in September 2018.

Then, in London, we couldn’t resist Cask, a pub we perhaps thought we were slightly over. It can feel soulless, hectic, bad-tempered and expensive but… That beer selection. Those big windows. That collection of enamel advertising signs. Visiting last weekend, it couldn’t have been more delightful: as friendly and peaceful as an inn on the village green.

Next, we schlepped seven miles on foot, along the Thames and the barely-there River Wandle, to The Sultan in Wimbledon. We’ve only been once, and it’s hardly convenient, but something about it lodged in our minds. It’s not merely a good pub but, maybe, close to the ideal: on a back street; unpretentious; fully worn-in without being grotty; and with great, great beer.

Where next? Well, we’ve actually drawn up a hit list:

  • The Good Measure
  • The Merchant’s Arms
  • The Orchard

And, of course, all of Sheffield.

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bristol pubs

A new love affair interrupted

Last weekend we drank Belgian beer in Bristol’s most convincingly Belgian pub, The Portcullis in Clifton and, finally, felt as if things might be getting back on track.

It took us a couple of visits to this pub over the years before it really clicked. Unfortunately, the click happened in February 2020, and you know the punchline to that gag.

Last summer, when pubs reopened, we didn’t even consider The Portcullis. It’s compact and cosy – not qualities much in demand in recent times – and, anyway, we were generally sticking close to home for our rare pub trips.

Earlier this month, though, we sat down together and drew up a hit list of pubs we wanted to visit now that we’re both double-jabbed. Perhaps because what we’re really craving is a trip to Belgium, The Portcullis ended up near the top of the list.

That visit last February was a highlight of an admittedly highlight-light year and we had a distinct sense of unfinished business.

We walked to Clifton from Barton Hill, via Hotwells, wondering what we’d find. Would it be rammed and sweaty? Would there be tables all over the street? Plastic screens everywhere?

It was, thankfully, exactly as we’d left it, with the welcome tweak of a permanently open front door and a constant gentle breeze. We took stools on the shelf by the door – exactly where we sat last time we came in – and ordered at the bar. It felt thrillingly normal.

We hardly stopped smiling through that first round (Poperinge’s Hommelbier and Tripel Karmeliet, served in the correct glassware) as cautious, good-natured pub life went on around us.

Three men watched football on an iPad propped against the wall at the end of their table. An elderly regular was greeted with low-key delight as he made his return after months away. A student tried to order a pint of Leffe and was firmly told it comes by the half. The landlady trapped a wasp under a beer glass with a beermat and took it out into the street – four times. 

We carried ourselves out, trapped under a beer haze, after several happy hours.