Pub life: at the craft beer bar

Keg taps.

Do you mind if we sit here? Guys! Guys! There’s room here! What do you want to drink? Uh, there’s like, one hundred different beers. I don’t… I’m not… Do you..? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, man, that sounds good, I might have the same. Same for you too? Same all round? Cool, cool, three gin-and-tonics, cool, cool…

* * *

Is it OK if we, er… Oh, ta.

Four pound odd for two-thirds of a bloody pint? You’re having me on, aren’t you? Two thirds!

And they’ve a list in there of about fifty bloody beers – do you know how many of them are bitters? None. Not bloody one.

There’s not even a red ale – nothing but pales and IPAs.

And not much under five per cent either, mind you. Ooh, gah, taste that… No, go on, taste it!

Nice!?

Nice?

It’s not bloody grumble mutter nice grumble slurp…

* * *

Hello.

I’m a princess.

Bye!

* * *

Is this OK for you, Dad? Not too cold? It’s OK, is it? If Mum goes… And I’ll sit… Are you sure it’s not too cold? Because we can swap seats if…? No? You’re sure?

Fine, OK, so, who’s having… Sorry, Dad?

Yes, that’s why I asked.

Yes, I know, that’s why I…

Right, fine, everybody up, we’re going inside. Because Dad’s cold. Dad’s cold. No, I wasn’t talking to you, I was telling Mum that you’re cold. No, she’s not cold…

* * *

Are you going to talk to me or just look at your phone? Because if you’re just going to look at your phone I’ll have to start bringing a book with me.

News, nuggets and longreads for 27 July 2019: Majorca, Manchester, meniscus

Here’s everything on beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from London brewers in Dublin to Irish pubs in Majorca.

First, some news – recently released statistics on pub closures seem to suggest that the rate at which they’re disappearing has slowed:

There were 42,450 pubs at the beginning of 2018 but 914 fewer by the end of the year, a rate of 76 net closures a month. But 235 vanished during the first half of this year, or nearly 40 a month, according to government statistics… The commercial real estate consultancy Altus Group, which compiled the data, said government measures designed to staunch the flow of pub closures appeared to be having some effect.


The Brown Cow pub.
SOURCE: Manchester’s Estate Pubs

It’s always exciting to see that there’s been a new post by Stephen Marland at Manchester’s Estate Pubs and this week we got two:

There’s the usual poignancy and the usual mix of photography, near poetry and history, now with added spice from notes by the late Alan Winfield.


Beer foam

At The Pursuit of Abbeyness Martin Steward has been reflecting on the magical properties of beer foam:

There is something in cask-ale culture that has long looked with distaste upon an abundance of bubbles. In this world, quite at odds with that of the bottle-conditioning Belgians, fizz is foreign. The bartender who can pump a pint of Bitter to the meniscus-straining lip of a session glass achieves the approbation of the penny-pinching pub-goer… These old geezers were the ur-Icemen… Do I commit an injustice against them? Is this an aesthetic choice, rather than one of economy? Or perhaps an ideological one—a manifesto statement on the seriousness of cask ale?


Alcudia
SOURCE: Lady Sinks the Booze

Kirsty is back! An account of crawling around Irish and English pubs in Spain might not immediately seem as if it’s going to be essential reading but her writing could make notes on a trip to Tesco entertaining:

Like everyone has a favourite ring on the cooker, everyone has a favourite corner of the bar, and mine is front right for both. I think I had a John Smiths, I can’t remember, but it certainly wouldn’t be anything either craft or Spanish. I was on holiday from more than work, I declared myself on holiday from beer geekery… When we returned to O’Malley’s the following day, our host actually greeted us. “How’s life Richi?” asked Darren with a cheery demeanor. Richi shrugged. “You want the real answer or the bullshit customer answer?” We asked for the real answer. “I hate my life, I hate my job, I wish I was on holiday like you, now what do you want?”


Partizan menu at Guinness
SOURCE: The Beer Nut

We hadn’t heard about the collaboration between English craft brewery Partizan and Guinness until the Beer Nut posted a typically sharp review of the beers:

It was odd seeing some internet opprobrium being meted out to London brewer Partizan when they announced they had created a collaboration series of beers with the Guinness Open Gate Brewery. Craft die-hards taking a pop at the macros and anyone too close to them is not unusual, but I didn’t see anyone having a go at another Londoner, 40FT, when it did something similar. Partizan seems to be held to a different standard… Three collaboration brews were created, two at Open Gate and one at Partizan. The theme of the series was Italian-style aperitifs.

Finally, here’s a useful signpost:

For more reading check out Stan Hieronymus’s round-up from Monday and Alan McLeod’s from Thursday.

Laver’s Law, Victorian pubs and hazy beer

You start with Victorian pubs and end up pondering hazy IPA and mild – that’s just how this game goes sometimes.

One of the things researching pubs has made us think about it is how certain things come in and out of fashion.

It’s hard to believe now but that heavy Victorian look people expect in the Perfect Pub – carved wood, cut glass, ornate mirrors – was seriously out of fashion for half a century.

Look through any edition of, say, The House of Whitbread from the 1920s or 30s and you’ll find story after story of modernisation. In practice, that meant ‘vulgar’ Victoriana was out; and a plain, clean, bright look was in.

The Greyhound, Balls Pond Road, before and after modernisation.
SOURCE: The House of Whitbread, October 1933.

Slowly, though, Victorian style became cool again. We’ve written about this before and won’t rehash it – Betjeman and Gradidge are two key names – but did stumble upon a new expression of the phenomenon this week, from 1954:

Thirty years ago the Albert Memorial was only admired by the extremely naïve and old-fashioned; today, it is only admired by the extremely sophisticated and up to date. Thirty years ago the late Arnold Bennett was thought eccentric, and even a little perverse, to take an interest in papier-mâché furniture with scenes of Balmoral by moonlight in inlaid mother-of-pearl. Today tables and chairs of this kind command high prices in the saleroom and are the prize pieces in cultivated living-rooms. It is, in a word, once more ‘done’ to admire Victoriana. The slur of the old-fashioned is merging into the prestige of the antique.

That’s from a fantastic book called Victorian Vista by James Laver who turns out to be an interesting character. A historian of costume and of fashion more generally, he is best known for inventing ‘Laver’s Law’ which sought to explain how things come in and go out of style:

Indecent | 10 years before its time
Shameless | 5 years before its time
Outré (Daring) | 1 year before its time
Smart | ‘Current Fashion’
Dowdy | 1 year after its time
Hideous | 10 years after its time
Ridiculous | 20 years after its time
Amusing | 30 years after its time
Quaint | 50 years after its time
Charming | 70 years after its time
Romantic | 100 years after its time
Beautiful | 150 years after its time

This certainly works to some degree for pubs: Victorian pubs were naff in 1914, charming by 1950 and the best are now practically national monuments; inter-war pubs have recently become romantic after years in the wilderness; and we’re just begging to collectively recognise the charm of the post-war.

Naturally, though, with trends a constant topic, we couldn’t help test this on beer styles.

For example, does it map to the rise of hazy IPA? We definitely remember it seeming indecent and think we can now discern it’s decent into dowdiness.

Or 20th century dark mild, maybe? We’ll, not so clearly, because it reigned for years, even decades. But we could adapt Laver’s commentary on Victoriana:

Thirty years ago mild was only admired by the extremely naïve and old-fashioned; today, it is only admired by the extremely sophisticated and up to date. Thirty years ago CAMRA was thought eccentric, and even a little perverse, to take an interest in weak, sweet, dark beer. Today beers of this kind are the prize pieces in cultivated taprooms.

Mild might be in the romantic or charming phase, then.

This works best for specific sub-styles and trends, though. IPA? Too broad. West Coast IPA? Maybe.

And for beer, in 2019, Laver’s language isn’t quite right. Maybe this is better:

Ridiculous | 10 years before its time
Bold | 5 years before
Hyped | 1 year before
Hip | ‘Current Fashion’
Mainstream | 1 year after its time
Boring | 10 years after
Interesting | 50 years after
Classic | 70 years +

It doesn’t really work, does it?

But it’s a been a fun prod.

News, nuggets and longreads 20 July 2019: Friars, Fyne Ales, Fellowship

Here’s all the writing on beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from brewery founders to Blackfriars.

First, we don’t know when you’ll need them, or if you’ll need them, but here are two useful local guides to bookmark or otherwise file away for reference:


The bar at The Old Post Office.

A bit of pub ownership news: Stonegate has bought Ei Group (formerly Enterprise Inns). This adds 4,000 pubs to the Stonegate estate making it the largest in the UK. Never heard of Stonegate? Not many people have. It operates through sub-brands and tends to keep its name off fascias and in-pub collateral.


Certified craft.

For Ferment, the promotional magazine of beer retailer Beer52, Matt Curtis has been reflecting on the tricks multinational brewing companies use in attempting to convince consumers that their beer brands are Well Craft:

Compare [1990s lager ads] to recent advertising by Maltsmiths—a pseudo-craft sub brand invented by the marketing masterminds at Dutch multinational, Heineken—and you’ll see something quite different. In its advertising there is no nod to the provenance of its ingredients or the brewery in Scotland where it is made. Instead we see a young, female brewer, cartwheeling over hose pipes and around fermentation vessels seemingly in celebration of the beer’s very existence. Honestly, if health and safety got wind of this there’d be hell to pay.


The Fellowship.
The Fellowship in 2016.

For Deserter Tristan Parker has written about the history and present incarnation of The Fellowship at Bellingham, south London – a pub we studied for 20th Century Pub and visited during its final days as a half-derelict, quiet, down-at-heel boozer. These days, though…

Locals seemed understandably pleased to have a buzzy new pub, as what felt like most of Bellingham appeared to be inside. This was a good sign: The Fellowship was redeveloped to serve the community and on day one that’s exactly what it was doing. Let’s hope that continues… Inside, it’s a vast space that still retains some of the look of the old venue, plus a bit of kooky art and kitsch wallpaper here and there. Reminders of the pub’s past also adorn the walls, including boxing gloves and photos of ‘Our ’Enry’ battling Ali.


The Blackfriar pub.

Meanwhile, Jane Peyton has been hanging out at The Blackfriar, a famous Victorian-Edwardian pub just beyond the boundary of the City of London, and expresses great enthusiasm for its over-the-top 1905 decorative scheme:

It’s show-time! That phrase sings in my head each time I visit London’s Blackfriar pub. If Walt Disney had been a pub designer this is what he would have devised. Every surface of this spectacular Arts & Crafts/Art Nouveau hostelry is decorated and then decorated again. More is more is more. If minimalism is your style then either wear sunglasses in this pub or go to the post-industrial concrete bunker boozer nearby.


Jonny and Tuggy Delap.
SOURCE: Fyne Ales.

It’s not often we feel moved to link to any brewery’s official blog but we’d like to see more posts like Fyne Ales biographical tribute to its founder, Jonny Delap, who died in 2009:

Born in Kenya and raised by his great uncle (his father threw him out when he was six years old), Jonny first came to the UK when he was 13 to complete his schooling, before returning to Kenya to work on his uncle’s farm. His goal was to gain enough experience to qualify for further study at Devon’s Seale-Hayne agricultural college, but there were a couple of bumps in his road back to the UK. Firstly, his father tried to have him kidnapped because he thought Jonny was wasting his time with farming and should join the Kenyan army. Fortunately it was thwarted when Jonny bought the would-be kidnappers a pint and convinced them it would be a bad idea. Secondly, the college wouldn’t admit him based on his time working in Kenya, demanding instead that his practical experience be undertaken in the UK.


Finally, here’s a fantastic photo of a late legendary Bristol pub landlord.

And that’s it. For more links and reading check out Alan McLeod on Thursday and Stan Hieronymus on Monday.

Our pubs are becoming too posh, 1964

The January 1965 edition of A Monthly Bulletin, a publication about beer and pubs sponsored by the brewing industry, contained a letter which  seems to capture the exact moment the pub ceased to be a working class institution.

Written by one A. Beverley of 55 Harrington Avenue, Blackpool, the letter is actually a response to another item of correspondence that appeared in “a national newspaper”. Though they quote large chunks, Beverley doesn’t give the specific source and we can’t find a match in the GuardianTimes or Mirror.

Here’s Beverley’s summary, though:

In complaining that “our pubs are becoming too posh” [they assert] that it is “virtually impossible for a man in overalls to get a hot dinner in the centre of many a big city”. He mourns, too, because many country public houses are attracting customers from towns at mid-day, offering “business lunches” and providing plenty of space for parking motor cars. Where is the working man in his working clothes to go? Will nobody cater for him?

This line might seem surprising if you’ve bought into the idea that food in pubs is an invention of the 1990s, or are of the view that food in pubs is somehow inherently un-working-class. But if you’ve read the chapter on gastropubs in 20th Century Pub, you’ll know otherwise.

But, anyway, Beverley is having none of it:

This type of comment ignores the realities of 1964 catering. If the character of our pubs is changing with the times, it is reasonable to assume, too, that the same can be said of the customers. The number of customers who go into bars in overalls at any time is dwindling. But the number of customers who, after working hours, change into well-cut suits to go into public houses with their wives or girl friends is increasing. These female companions not unnaturally prefer the comfort and amenities of a modern, tastefully appointed bar rather than surroundings that are dreary and outmoded.

(Isn’t CAMRA’s national inventory essentially the Dreary and Outmoded Pub Guide?)

Beverley’s argument is not only that “men in overalls” in the pub are a dying breed but also that their successors, “who wear… protective clothing at work”, probably earned as much as, or more than, white-collar workers.

With the growth of automation and the shortening of the working week, the overall and boiler suit may disappear entirely, and the well-appointed, well-warmed pub or inn, providing tasty meals and correctly served drinks, should establish itself yet more firmly in the design for a life offering greater period of leisure.

The punchline to all this is, we think, quite funny: the real problem, Beverley writes, isn’t that pubs are being poshed-up but that, as of the end of 1964, the new aspirational working classes hadn’t quite learned how to behave.

It is only hoped that, as higher standards are called for and met, appropriate improvements in human behaviour also will develop. Licensees, proud of their “poshed-up” pubs, have difficulty in believing that change is for the good when expensive carpets and table-tops are damaged by cigarette burns. To be truly beneficial, the winds of change… must blow some instinct of responsibility and sense of values into the minds of those who are usually the most insistent and vocal in their demands for luxury in the “local”.

It’s interesting to read this alongside those 1960s Batsford guides with all their talk of mutton curry and beef fondue, and other accounts of the coming pub carpets at around the same time. The mid-1960s were in pubs, as they were in art, music, literature, film, something of a moment as the traditional indicators of class got jumbled up or messed around with.

Fifty plus years on, people are still complaining about pubs being “poshed-up”, although these days the disappearance of the carpet in favour of bare boards is a key indicator of coming poshness.

And the objection seems to be less about class than attitude: pubs should be informal, unguarded, lively and spontaneous, not composed, curated or mannered.

We got our collection of editions of A Monthly Bulletin from Martyn Cornell who kindly gave us his spares a few years ago. Thanks again, MC.

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.

J.B. Priestley in Bradford, on Sunday, in the rain

In his travelogue English Journey, published in 1934 but based on observations made in the autumn of 1933, the writer J.B. Priestley unknowingly foretells the fate of the public house.

We’ve been dipping in and out of this book, with H.V. Morton’s In Search of England as a companion piece, for about a year now. It lends itself to dipping, each chapter covering a different part of the country and complete as standalone essays.

In ‘To the West Riding’, Priestley lands in Bradford on Sunday evening as heavy drizzle falls, and is all but begged by locals not to go into the town centre: ‘“But there isn’t anything,” they almost screamed.’

He finds the warning accurate: there’s a Salvation Army band playing, a couple of cafés shutting up, and some shop window displays to look at, while young people ‘promenade’ – that is, walk up and down in the rain.

Ever since I can remember, elderly citizens have been protesting against this practice of promenading on Sunday nights. They have always been disgusted by the sight of young people monkey-parading in this fashion. It is, however, the same elderly citizens who have seen to it that nearly all doors leading out of the street shall be locked against these young people. They cannot listen to plays or music, cannot see films, cannot even sit in big pleasant rooms and look at one another; so they walk up and down the street… They have, of course, to get on with their mating, whatever elderly persons may think…

Priestley’s pub crawl is depressing. He finds the first one he visits very quiet with ‘five or six hobbledehoys drinking glasses of bitter’ and bothering the barmaid. ‘Nothing wrong with the place’, he writes, ‘except that it was dull and stupid.’

Pub #2 is busy with young men and ‘women of the town’:

This is not an attack on the place; I have not the least desire to see it closed… [but] cannot see why playgoing, listening to music, watching films, even dancing, should be considered so much worse – or at least more secular – than boozing with prostitutes.

The third pub is the liveliest, large and crowded, with some ‘little coloured lights in the lounge’.

That was all; nothing else, not even reasonable comfort; but it was enough, and every table, every seat was taken. Fifteen shillings’ worth of coloured lamps: this was gaiety, this was life; and so the place was selling beer, stout, port, as fast as it could serve them, to patrons of both sexes. I do not think any of these people – and they were mostly young, pairs of boys, pairs of girls; with here and there an older couple – could really be said to be really enjoying themselves; but at least they could look at one another, giggle a bit, talk when they found something to say, and admire the carnival splendour of the coloured electric lights.

Priestley’s conclusion is that it would be better for supposedly religious towns to permit the breaking of the Sabbath if it meant ‘a choice between monkey-parading and dubious pubs’.

It strikes us that what he has landed on, in analysing one Sunday night in one town, is a diagnosis of the whole problem with pubs: they were the default for many people not necessarily because they were lovely, but for lack of any alternative.

As houses got better and bigger, more people stayed at home. As opening hours relaxed and the range of businesses in towns broadened (coffee shops, snack bars), pubs ceased to be the only option.

Their monopoly came to an end.

For more on pubs, including prostitution, fighting, spitting and riots, do check out our book 20th Century Pub. For more on Bradford pubs in particular hunt down Paul Jenning’s The Public House in Bradford 1770-1970, published in 1995. Main image above adapted from one supplied by Bradford Libraries on Flickr.

Scotland #4: the familiarity of Fort William

When we arrived at Fort William we recognised the atmosphere of the town immediately: it’s like Penzance.

Drizzle, mist, guesthouses, council estates and, of course, pubs.

The tricky thing about running a pub in a town like Fort William is that for half the year, there’s too much of a particular type of business: tourists who often don’t know how it all works and probably want dinner.

Then, for the remaining six months, there’s not enough business. You’re left with a handful of locals rattling round mostly empty pubs, if they can afford to go out at all given the seasonal nature of the employment market.

Also, a focus on local breweries, potentially laudable, too often means mediocre beer, or worse.

In this kind of environment, proper pubs can struggle to find a real identity, or deliver consistent customer service.

After a quick recce, we decided we might as well tackle #EveryPubInFortwilliam and we think we managed it.

A collage of pubs in Fort William.

The one everybody recommended was The Grog & Gruel. We didn’t have a good time on our visit between grumpy service, farting dogs and pass-agg encounters with Canadian tourists determined to nab our space. But it’s certainly a nice looking, pubby pub, and we can imagine having fun there under different circumstances.

The Volunteer Arms has a neat, traditional pub exterior with notes on the architectural significance of the interior. In fact, inside, we found it pretty plain and pleasingly down-to-earth. A friendly welcome on the first visit brought us back twice more, even though the beer was nothing special (a great excuse to drink Tennent’s). The appeal, we think, was that it felt like a city pub transplanted to the Highlands, and the balance of visitors and locals felt right.

The Ben Nevis kept trying to make us Dine but when we caved into pressure and ordered food, brought us the wrong stuff. We came twice, though, lured by a view over Loch Linnhe and a nice, manageable selection of whisky served in fancy glassware.

The first time we tried to visit the Maryburgh we were all but chased off by a strange man who blocked the alleyway to the door and stared us out with an unnerving Pennywise grin. The second time, we had to dash through a curtain of water from a broken gutter above the entrance. It wasn’t really worth the effort – this windowless basement isn’t a pub for out-of-towners and we only spoiled the mood with our anoraks and English accents. Still, more Tennent’s.

The Crofter was a bit Wetherspoony, but less slick. Someone growled at us because we blocked access to his vaping kit on the bar for two seconds while we ordered our drinks. The bar staff seemed to have end-of-the-season ennui despite it being early June. We drank Tennent’s.

Cobb’s is a strange looking modern pub by the railway station, above an outdoor supplies shop. We didn’t expect much from it but found not only good beer (Cairngorm Trade Winds) and friendly service but also a high standard of performed bar chat among the regulars: “He was an engineer before he retired. Any bridge you’ve ever heard of that fell down, he designed it.” The interior wasn’t anything special except that when the sun hit the skylight just right, it picked out one old gent at the bar with a heavenly beam.

Garrison West fancies itself a bit – all gin, craft lager and boardgames. We visited in the afternoon lull and found it friendly enough, if half asleep. The large range of beer seemed to have been chosen based on localness and the ‘craftness’ of the branding rather than any assessment of quality.

Finally, the elephant in the room: the local Wetherspoon branch, The Great Glen. It was permanently busy, from breakfast to closing, with locals and tourists. What did it do well? A huge sign in multiple languages explaining the ordering process by the door. Vast amounts of seating, albeit cramped in places. Huge windows avoiding that sense of leaping over a cliff-edge on choosing to enter. Orders by app, avoiding the need to speak to staff at all – handy if your English isn’t great. On the downside? It could have been in Teignmouth or Tenby, despite the typically careful application of Gaelic on signs.

Overall, we’d say Fort William isn’t a place you come especially for pubs or beer, though there’s enough choice that you’re bound to find one or two that will do the job between rambles.

The thrill of the new

For ages, we’ve thought the trick to showing Ray’s parents a good time was taking them to proper pubs. It turns out we should have been going to craft beer bars.

Now, we’ve had some bloody good fun with them in places like the Merchant’s Arms and the Annexe, playing euchre and sharing bags of pork scratchings over pints of Butcombe or London Pride.

The other weekend, though, as we crawled around central Bristol with them, we were inspired to take them to Small Bar.

The specific trigger was a round of awful, buttery Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter at the William IV – a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all but does at least usually have cheap, decent beer.

We left feeling down in the dumps, the session in jeopardy, and Small Bar, Bristol’s craft beer central, seemed as if it might be the antidote – a short, sharp shock to jolt us all back to life.

“You might not like it,” we got in, preemptively.

Ray tried to identify something vaguely like Dad’s usual bitter and the staff reacted rather wearily, as if they get asked this all the time. In the end, it was two-thirds of Lost & Grounded Kellerpils that did the job. Ray’s Mum, who drinks lager when she’s not on whisky, got a murky pale ale – the kind of thing we don’t really enjoy, as a rule. And do you know what? She loved it.

In fact, they both thought Small Bar was great. It had a vibe, a bit of a crowd, and despite being the oldest people there by some stretch, they didn’t get looked at twice.

After that we thought we’d try them on BrewDog, which they also liked a lot: Punk IPA, it turns out, is a decent substitute for Butcombe. (Not sure BrewDog will be pleased to hear this, mind.)

They’re now planning to bring a couple of friends up for a craft beer crawl later in the summer.

For our part, we’ve learned a lesson: don’t make assumptions about what people will enjoy based on what they’ve enjoyed in the past, or based on their age.

Next time, we might take them on a taproom crawl – they’re probably cool enough to enjoy it, unlike us.

Scotland #2: A tiny taster of Edinburgh

We spent a day in Edinburgh – just enough time to be intrigued but not enough to claim that we’ve even begun to understand it. But, anyway, here a few impressions.

First, Edinburgh’s pubs, based on the two we drank in and a few more we peered at, feel more like English pubs than those in Glasgow.

The Stockbridge Tap, with two reformed vikings behind the bar, could have been in Bristol, not least because of the presence of Tiny Rebel, Electric Bear and other familiar names on draught.

The Stockbridge Tap.

There were some Scottish beers – Swannay Island Hopping on cask, for example, and Crossborders Heavy on keg – but we got the impression those were for the benefit of visitors like us. The Heavy was our favourite beer of the day, though, bundling cherry with chocolate with the dark crust of a day-old rye loaf.

Crashing a get-together of local beer geeks we heard English, Australian, American and French accents, and contributed our own chat about the West Country and Walthamstow to this off-brand blend.

The Guildford Arms.

On the way back to the station, tanks dangerously full, we stopped at the Guildford Arms which had caught our eye as we rushed past it earlier in the day. It’s at the junction of a passageway and a backstreet, like many of the best pubs, and projects a distinct gin palace energy. A handy board outside tells the story:

In the period 1880-1910 a unique breed of luxurious pubs were built. This coincided with major changes to the city including the demolition of old buildings like The Turf Hotel and The Bridge Hotel… Curiously, and perhaps as a reaction to it, pubs like The Guildford Arms were built during the height of the temperance movement: their opulent character was in marked contrast to the dark and dingy bars of Edinburgh where the ceilings were not often beyond the reach of a man’s arm.

Though we chickened out of trying to cover Scotland in the 80,000 words of 20th Century Pub that really does seem a familiar narrative.

Inside, it felt like a London pub: a bar at the back, not horseshoeing through the centre, as we gather is the standard in Scotland; large windows with ornate detailing rather than frosted slits; with all the carpet and brown wood you could wish for.

And Fyne Ales Jarl in fine condition. This is what lured us through the door, if we’re honest, and we stopped for a couple of rounds, watching locals and German tourists navigate around each other at the bar and bargain over table space.

“Shame you didn’t make it to…”

Well, here’s the thing: we’re at peace with the idea that we can’t get to every pub in every city on every visit.

Cramming ten pubs into a single day just isn’t much fun for us anymore; we’d rather than spend two hours in one pub and three in another than just 20 minutes each in every stop on a crawl.

We also know we’ll go back to Edinburgh sometime and have another go.

That’s what we have to tell ourselves, anyway, or these kind of drive-bys would break our hearts.