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.