london pubs

Notes from London in the season of the plague

London, a week before Christmas, mist around the tops of the skyscrapers, and the pubs are as quiet as country churches.

We had this London trip in the calendar for a while, planned around a work commitment, and designed to get a load of pre-Christmas family and friends stuff ticked off at the same time.

As news broke about Omicron, we considered cancelling, but those family obligations made it feel right and necessary to get on the train.

Then, as it happened, things got cancelled and we were there with not much to do except go to the pub.

As it had been a while since we last visited London, we had an urge to check in on old favourites – both pubs and breweries.

It’s interesting how we still perceive Fuller’s and Young’s to be essential touchpoints, even though the former is now a multinational and the latter isn’t brewed anywhere near London. 

We’re not alone in this: we noted that CAMRA’s London Drinker magazine still starts its brewery news round-up with news from those two, bloody-mindedness tied with nostalgia.

On the first night, our target was a Fuller’s pub in the City of London proper. Based on our observations of the Tube the day before, we guessed rightly that most places would be pretty quiet and, sure enough, our first stop, the Hung, Drawn & Quartered near the Tower of London, had only a handful of people trying to make the best of things beneath its high ceilings.

There seems to be a strange pattern with flagship Fuller’s and Young’s pubs which is that one of the cask ales will be outstanding, one will be fine, and one will be tired and/or about to go to vinegar. But you never know which it’s going to be.

In pre-Covid days, Jess would often ask for a sample just to find out which one was on shift as the stunner that evening. On this occasion, we had a pint of each and found that it was good old London Pride that was really in the mood to sing.

When it’s tired, or even a bit less than fresh, this beer can taste like cornflakes and dishwater; when it’s good, biscuity malt, flowery hops and stony bitterness harmonise beautifully.

For a moment, we relaxed. There was plenty of room, all was calm, all was bright. Then a group of people came and sat on the table right next to us – a bit odd in a mostly empty pub. 

That prompted us to move on to a pub we’d always wanted to visit but which had always been either too busy, or totally shut. That is, The Swan, next to Leadenhall Market.

This is pub is more passageway than building to the extent that most of the pub furniture was outside rather than in. As it was a fairly balmy evening, we sat outside, just to one side of some kind of work Christmas do, and enjoyed Jack Frost, Fuller’s seasonal special.

We hadn’t really appreciated this in the past and certainly early on in our blogging days used to moan that it was yet another brown beer in a range already full of them. We thought it was pretty dull and pretty sweet. Perhaps the addition of blackberries makes it hard to hit a consistent flavour, or maybe we just didn’t know what we were talking about. This time, at any rate, we found it exotic enough, with a touch of fruit, but generally edging into a Burton Ale territory, much like Young’s Winter Warmer.

Once we’d had that thought, we needed to find Winter Warmer itself so, the following day, we headed for The Founders Arms, a modern riverside Young’s pub which really is a lot better than it needs to be. It has an amazing view across the river; interesting, surprisingly decent food; and, of course, a solid line up of Young’s beers, plus St Austell Proper Job and others. 

Winter Warmer was on and, as the barman proudly announced, “Fresh from the keg.” (Cask.) It was as good as we’ve ever had it – something like a beefed-up mild with rich chocolate and smokey notes.

The Original (AKA Bitter, AKA Ordinary) was zesty, dry and delicate.

And the Special was vinegar, but changed without any bother.

We’ve often declared that The Royal Oak on Tabard Street is the best pub in London but we haven’t visited since the change of management and the refurb, at least as far as we can recall.

The refurb was fairly gentle but the pub has lost a lot of its greebling – no doubt the property of the previous guvnors. No more strawberry pink mugs. No more tatty paperbacks. Grey wallpaper instead of rich red.

The Harveys beer is still superb. Sussex Best remains the English Orval (we think we coined this phrase, so we’re going to repeat it) but, this time, somehow managed to taste both funkier and cleaner than we remembered it.

The funkiness had also leaked across into the Old, which is really a sort of best mild, but had got drier not through hops but yeast character.

Cask Prince of Denmark (2019 vintage) was well on the way to becoming full-on Imperial Stout with waves of coffee, port, old wood and leather.

And finally, an honourable mention for Christmas Ale, which we’ve only had in bottles before and never found very exciting – it’s just sweet! But on cask, it reminded us of something like Gordon’s Finest Scotch Ale: a Belgian-ish take on a sweet British beer. With a bit of strawberry jam to follow, too.

We had half the pub to ourselves here but realised after a while that the only other customers, on the far side of the bar, were former colleagues of Ray’s from his Civil Service days. We had a chat, considered joining each other on one table, but decided against it. Another time, perhaps.

The classics checked off, we went off in search of something more adventurous.

At Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake was as delightful as ever and lured us into trying their White Chocolate Pancake Stack, which was a bit of a mess. Like drinking maple syrup in coffee or, rather, a splash of coffee in some maple syrup.

Round the corner (ish) at the King’s Arms, we were pleased to find Burning Sky Porter – another of those straightforward but interesting dark beers that seem to be quietly in fashion right now. This pub was busier but everyone seemed to be committed to keeping at arms’ length from strangers and there was a reassuring breeze through the open door.

On our last day, we trekked to another old favourite, The Pembury Tavern, to drink our way through a full range of Five Points Brewing beers.

Lots were good but the standouts were (cask) Pale Ale, which is evolving towards Fyne Ales Jarl territory, and Railway Porter – which must now be The Main London Porter now Fuller’s can’t be bothered.

Actually, saying that sounds disrespectful to Five Points, and to this absolutely superb beer.

It tastes how you imagine a beer from the turn of the 20th century might: dense, smoky, warming, with bitter chocolate and coffee character, but beautifully balanced with subtle hops. 

We just could not stop drinking it and stayed for several more than we were planning to.

The pub wasn’t dead but it wasn’t busy either. Pleasant for us but worrying for them, no doubt.

Fingers crossed for January.


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.


Lateral flow before you go

We’re writing this because it seems not everyone knows you can order more or less as many COVID-19 lateral flow tests as you like, for free.

Along with vaccines, which are understandably getting more attention, this is potentially a gamechanger in trying to prevent what we saw last summer – a slow build up of cases which, as we learned the hard way, can easily turn into something worse.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of doing one of these tests, it’s a bit fiddly first time, but we’ve now got into the rhythm of it. You get a result in 30 minutes.

We’re being encouraged to do them twice a week and report the results – but you don’t have to, if you’re worried about the government abusing your data.

They are not always reliable, and a negative test should not be seen as a green light to do what you want. However, if everyone who was going to socialise did one before they went out, and then didn’t go out if they tested positive, that could play a significant role in suppressing any third wave.

It’s not mandatory – at the moment, anyway – but feels like it’s something we could all do, pretty easily, to help protect our fellow customers, hospitality workers and society more generally.

We’ll certainly be doing them regularly. Anything to help pubs stay open for good and make them really feel safe.

breweries opinion

Recognition, demand and supply

It’s probably too soon to make this point but… Some breweries have done better than others in the past year, haven’t they?

It’s been a rotten year for everyone, obviously, but nonetheless it feels as if there have been, relatively speaking, winners and losers.

Now, because it’s bad taste to boast, not many breweries are admitting to having adapted to the difficult circumstances of 2020 with any success. We did, however, notice this interesting piece on an accounting industry institute body’s website:

All that time spent on spreadsheets modelling scenarios paid off in May. This is when we switched our bars/taprooms to bottle shops. As only one staff member is needed to manage a bottle shop, it’s kept costs low. They’ve done an amazing trade because they’re based in suburban areas. With everybody working from home, customers regularly visit on their daily walks.

And Jeff Alworth has covered some similar stories from the US:

We breweries of course sell beer by the case, and here in Oregon you can buy three cases at a time, per person.  So it’s pretty easy to stock up with minimal trips out of your house. I don’t think any of us realized this advantage when this all started. But in my mind it explains everything about why breweries were able to better survive this economic/epidemic crisis. Sure, delivery helps. But restaurants can do that as well and they haven’t fared nearly as well as we have. It’s funny, because it reminds me of the fact that for hundreds of years one of the main reasons people drank beer was because it’s safer than water. During this past year it’s been safer to pick up beer at the brewery than food at a restaurant—again due to the packaged durability of beer.

Breweries that rely entirely on the pub trade have obviously been at a disadvantage but those which rely on a certain type of pub trade even more so. The cut-price cask ale merchants, that is, whose beers nobody is ever delighted to see on the bar, but which they might tolerate at £2.50 a pint when everything else is a quid more expensive. Makers of rough and/or dull beer designed to please landlords with margin to make rather than drinkers. Let’s be honest, we’ve got Wickwar in mind, now deceased, but you’ve probably got a local equivalent.

Those which have done better, we suspect, are those whose names live near the front of everybody’s minds – the ones with fans, the ones that people will cross town to drink.

We ordered a box of Oakham beers this week, for example, because we haven’t had a pint of Citra in more than a year and missed it. In the past year we’ve also ordered from, among others:

  • Thornbridge (reliably great)
  • Good Chemistry (local, interesting beer, reminds us of The Good Measure)
  • Lost & Grounded (local, proper lager)
  • Fyne Ales (Jarl, Jarl, Jarl)
  • Elusive (varied styles, always interesting)
  • Cheddar (local, solid, reminds us of The Drapers Arms)
  • Bristol Beer Factory (local, reliable, reminds us of The Grain Barge)
  • Harvey’s (Sussex Best is the best)
  • St Austell (in honour of Roger Ryman, reminds us of Penzance)

We have tried to find ways to explore new breweries – selection boxes from online retailers, our standing order with The Drapers Arms delivery service – but when you’ve got to choose your weekend beer no later than Tuesday, you tend to stick to what you can trust.

As well as good beer, and the ability to distribute packaged beer directly to consumers, the breweries on the list above are known and liked. (Or were, at least, until the small brewers duty relief disaster.) They’re either old and venerated almost by default or they’ve invested serious time and energy into making themselves known through strong branding and an active online presence.

It will be interesting to see what’s on offer in UK pubs this time in 2022. Could there be (again, feels rude to say it) a survival of the fittest effect? Or will we find ourselves missing beers we couldn’t order to drink at home, or forgot existed?


The value of the unattainable pint

A full year has now passed since our last pre-lockdown pub trip during which time we’ve developed a little game we play when we’re out walking: how much would you pay for a pint in that pub over there, right now?

A normal pint, that is, under pre-plague circumstances – just one hour of normality, arranged, we assume, by some red-nosed relative of the ghosts from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Back in April 2020, it was The Crafty Cow that first prompted the question. A big Greene King pub on Horfield Common in North Bristol, the Cow isn’t a pub we especially like. But after a month without any pubs, it suddenly began to look quite appealing.

“Twenty quid,” was Ray’s answer.

“Meh… Ten,” said Jess.

Well, what about a pint in The Drapers Arms? Ah, now, that’s different. At least £75, we both agreed. By May, it had crept up to £100 and even the Crafty Cow was looking like a £50-a-pint delight.

Last week, having not drunk in (outside) a pub since early October, we asked ourselves the question again as our constitutional took us past The Oxford in Totterdown and concluded that, Christ, we’d probably pay £200 to be able sit inside and drink a single pint of Bristol Beer Factory Fortitude with a packet of crisps.

Playing this game is almost painful, at times. It also usually leads to the melancholy thought that, actually, if there was a cash-based system for temporarily restoring normality, we’d use it to see our parents in Somerset and London respectively.

But perhaps it also bodes well for the fate of pubs in the long run. Not only are people dreaming about them but they’re also itching to spend. Or maybe that’s just us.