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.