london pubs

The shit London pub, 2023 edition

It starts when you walk in: this Victorian building, this beauty that has survived two world wars and the better part of two centuries, has been gutted.

Strip it back to the brick. Install some off-the-peg neon signs advertising cocktails. Paint everything else grey.

Then on the bar, there’s what looks at first glance like incredible choice, until you tot it up:

  • Moretti lager (Heineken)
  • Amstel lager (Heineken)
  • Cruzcampo lager (Heineken)
  • Three Beavertown beers (Heineken)
  • London Pride (Asahi, pumpclip turned round)
  • Lager from a London brewery we’d never heard of

So you decide to try the local lager at about £7 a pint. And, yes, that’s just what things cost now, but it doesn’t even taste good. It leaves a sour taste, literally and figuratively.

You watch other people’s dinner come out and think, how do they even make burgers that small? Didn’t those used to be called ‘sliders’? And what would you call that number of chips? A garnish, perhaps.

As you sit in the corner two dogs yap at each other, intending violence, and you feel a nerve twitch in your temple. The owners don’t do anything. The bar manager doesn’t do anything. It just goes on and on and on and on and on…

So, you leave about £4.50’s-worth of acidic lager in each glass when you depart, in search of something better.

Between us, we’ve been back and forth to London a lot recently and keep ending up in pubs like this.

And perhaps we’re not alone:

Via Patreon, Alex says:

The bane of my life as a Blackfriars office worker is that people insist on, to name names, going to Harrild & Sons (bricks, handsome, soulless, and £7 Neck Oil) rather than walking to somewhere with a bit of character. I would be interested in trends behind it, as well as how far Heineken are hollowing out London.

It’s depressing because, for years, you could say that the beer in London might often be warm and flat, but at least the pubs were often atmospheric and attractive.

That feels less true today than a decade ago – though of course there are plenty of exceptions.

We know it’s probably not the publican’s fault, or at least not entirely.

Everything costs more, everything is hanging from a thread, and it’s still the case that nobody has any money.

And as one Bristol publican explained to us a few years ago, decisions about décor are often made by some far distant ‘head office’ in pursuit of this year’s hot demographic.

“They want to paint ‘Gin house’ on my outside wall,” they said, in total despair, “and I don’t even like gin.”

How can big pubcos and chains think this is sustainable?

If your pubs feel bland, miserable, and poor value, even fewer people will come through the doors.

Perhaps what’s frustrating is that it probably looks and feels like progress to them, just as every other round of blandification has for the past 60-odd years.

The interior of a modern pub with iron girders and leather seats.

On a more positive note, we were somewhat impressed by The Wapping Tavern, a brand new pub in a former industrial building not far from the river.

On paper, it’s got a lot of the same stuff going on, including yet more bare brick.

And yet, even mostly empty, it had something like atmosphere, perhaps because the building itself is old and interesting, and hasn’t been completely trashed.

There were a lot of TVs showing sport – as in, a lot – but they didn’t seem especially intrusive.

And on the beer front, it was doing more than pretending to be a craft beer bar. There was a long list of interesting keg beers and bar staff who were keen to talk about them.

As we sat there drinking Private Universe, an excellent collaboration between Elusive and Hackney Brewery, we felt quite content.

Not ripped off, not disrespected, not stressed.

That’s not a high bar, is it?

Generalisations about beer culture

Actually, you’re very fussy indeed

We’ve got mates who claim not to care about beer — who swear blind that they really have no interest whatsoever in what they’re drinking, as long as it gets them tipsy.

“Great,” we are fooled into saying, “then let’s go to this pub where they have interesting beer.”

They look anxiously up and down the bar. “I don’t recognise any of these and I don’t like bitter. Is there a normal lager?”

“Try this one.”

“It’s a bit strong.”

“Okay, well… what about this one?”

“Mmm. I don’t care, I’m not fussed about beer, really. Just choose me something.”

Then, for the next half and hour, they eye the glass in front of them as if it’s got a turd floating in it.

When it’s time for the second round, you ask what they want. “I don’t mind. Not that one again, though.”

At the end of the night, only half-joking, they say: “Next time, can we go to a normal pub?”

There’s nothing wrong with liking what you like, but don’t kid yourself that we’re the fussy ones.

Generalisations about beer culture opinion

What wedge?

Wedge Antilles from Star Wars. Get it? Eh? Get it? Say no more.

  • The smoking ban is the thin end of the wedge: they’ll ban beer, hamburgers and sex next, now the foot is in the door.
  • Craft beer bars are the thin end of the wedge: soon, we’ll all either be drinking tinnies at home or paying £12 a pint for kegged IPA in chrome-plated palaces.
  • Liking the occasional Brewdog beer is the thin end of the wedge: if you admit to that, you’re buying wholesale into their awful marketing gimmicks and supporting their diabolical plans for world domination.
  • Acknowledging that some keg beer can be pretty good is the thin end of the wedge: it can only lead to the total disappearance of cask ale from the UK.
  • Suggesting that one beer is better than the other is the thin end of the wedge: the next step is riding around in limos swigging from diamond-encrusted bottles of US IPA, whipping peasants and laughing at them as they drink their foul swill.
  • Going outside is the thin end of the wedge: it can only lead to getting mugged or murdered. Best stay indoors.

We’re not at all convinced there is a wedge and we don’t want to waste our time fretting at every change or development.

Why don’t we just see how things play out and, while we’re employing cliches, cross some of those bridges when we come to them?