New Pubs and Old Favourites #2: The Cat’s Back, Wandsworth

The last pub was Jess’s discovery; this one was Ray’s. He visited with The Ring last October and we finally got there together in deep December.

All around it are colos­sal blocks of flats with lots of lights but appar­ent­ly lit­tle life, so that the pub seems almost like a joke, or a con­trivance by devel­op­ers.

The win­dows glow soft­ly, not throw­ing light out but guard­ing it, like a flame cupped in the hands.

It’s a Harvey’s pub – “A back-up Roy­al Oak,” we said, only half jok­ing. It real­ly does feel like its sis­ter at Bor­ough, only with a lit­tle less per­son­al­i­ty. The clien­tele seems sim­i­lar, too: strong Lon­don accents and nico­tine-stained knuck­les, with a rasp­ber­ry rip­ple swirl of pub­lic school vow­els and col­lege scarves.

The Cat's Back -- pub frontage.

Is this the kind of pub, we won­dered, that sur­vives through the cus­tom of peo­ple who have become acci­den­tal­ly wealthy as their objec­tive­ly quite unre­mark­able hous­es in Lon­don stock brick have rock­et­ed in val­ue? Peo­ple who have always lived here, who miss how it used to be, and cling to the pub – this nail house – as part of their iden­ti­ty as ordi­nary Lon­don­ers?

Ah, what do we know, but it’s fun to pon­der.

Old Ale illu­mi­nates the con­cept of best mild with­out say­ing a word. Cask Christ­mas Ale, head­less and sher­ri­fied, says some­thing about beer’s capac­i­ty to be both hum­ble and grand. Wise beer, Harvey’s.

We should start a pod­cast,” says one of the staff to some friends lean­ing on the bar and as they expand on the idea, laugh­ter over­takes them.

Some­one explains a com­pli­cat­ed con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry to an unin­ter­est­ed friend.

An elder­ly woman sits alone, ignor­ing her paper­back, eyes shim­mer­ing at some hap­py mem­o­ry, or maybe a sad one.

A dark vel­vet cur­tain rip­ples in a per­sis­tent draft.

Chainpub Encounter

Our mission to visit every pub in Bristol means we’re going to interesting places we might otherwise give a miss, like The Old Post Office in Fishponds.

It looks, sounds, smells and acts like a branch of Wether­spoon, but isn’t, which is fas­ci­nat­ing to us. It’s clear­ly part of a chain but unlike JDW pubs the brand isn’t bla­zoned on the building’s front or men­tioned any­where else that we could see.

This is a daft ques­tion but… which chain is this pub part of?” we asked the per­son who was serv­ing us.

It’s not Wetherspoon’s,” they replied instinc­tive­ly, even though that wasn’t what we’d asked. “Every­one thinks that but it’s actu­al­ly part of a com­pa­ny called Stonegate. I’d nev­er heard of them until I start­ed work­ing here but it turns out they’re huge. Great to work for, too – fan­tas­tic ben­e­fits and train­ing.” (All this offered freely and appar­ent­ly sin­cere­ly with­out any addi­tion­al prompt­ing.)

It’s true – Stonegate is a big com­pa­ny, run­ning almost 700 pubs and bars from behind the cov­er of sev­er­al well-known brands such as Yates’s, and Slug & Let­tuce. The Old Post Office is part of their Prop­er Pubs sub-brand: “Our Prop­er Pubs are the per­fect place to enjoy a qui­et drink, grab a mid-week bite, get togeth­er at the week­end or enjoy the best sports cov­er­age around.”

The pub itself isn’t love­ly – too plas­tic for our taste, lack­ing even the dis­tinc­tive­ness of decor Wether­spoon pubs gen­er­al­ly shoot for, even if they don’t always score. Nonethe­less, it was absolute­ly crammed with fam­i­lies shar­ing meals, and groups of foot­ball fans arranged in var­i­ous odd ways around their tables so that they could see the TV screens. It felt, as the cliche goes, like a pub tru­ly serv­ing its com­mu­ni­ty – buzzy and infor­mal, but smart with it.

The beer range wasn’t as tit­il­lat­ing as a typ­i­cal Spoons either with a small­er range of inter­est­ing bot­tled beers and no nov­el­ty guest ales. Instead, there were five pumps for Sharp’s Doom Bar, Fuller’s ESB, Harvey’s Sus­sex Best, Lon­don Pride and Wad­worth 6X, with the last two tagged as Com­ing Soon. If you’re going to have a line-up of old-school brown beers, though, Harvey’s and ESB are good choic­es – enough to get us a lit­tle bit excit­ed, any­way. Sus­sex Best wasn’t quite at its most thrilling but was still very good – quirky, dry, a lit­tle leafy – but the ESB… Well, that’s where we had a prob­lem.

The mem­ber of staff who pulled it saw at once that it wasn’t right, form­ing no head at all. “It might be the glass,” they said, and tried with anoth­er. This time, it was not only flat but also hazy, and obvi­ous­ly so.

Don’t wor­ry, just make it two Sus­sex Best instead.”

But at this point what we assume was a man­ag­er got involved, appar­ent­ly the final arbiter of whether a beer is off or oth­er­wise. He said firm­ly, even stern­ly, “No, it’s meant to be like that,” and rushed away.

Now we know, and you know, that ESB is not meant to be hazy or head­less, but the mem­ber of staff pour­ing the beer had clear­ly been put in a tricky posi­tion. So, chalk­ing it up to expe­ri­ence, we broke the dead­lock and agreed to take it, bear­ing in mind that it seemed to be a mere £2.40 a pint and, cos­met­ics aside, tast­ed accept­able, if a touch sweet and sub­dued.

Sit­ting out­side on the patio watch­ing the traf­fic go by we couldn’t help com­pare this expe­ri­ence to our recent expe­ri­ences in Wether­spoon pubs, where the slight­est com­plaint seems to trig­ger a full apol­o­gy and a replace­ment with­out hes­i­ta­tion. We wouldn’t want to draw any con­clu­sions based on one vis­it to a Stonegate Spoon­sa­like, and one fum­bled trans­ac­tion, but it’s cer­tain­ly a first mark on the score­card.

Dis­clo­sure: we sold a copy of 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub to some­one who works at Stonegate the oth­er day.

Yarrow, Alecost and Nightmares

Old illustration of yarrow leaves.
Yarrow leaves. SOURCE: Köhler’s Med­i­c­i­nal Plants, 1887, via Biode­v­er­si­ty Library.

I’m all about Harvey’s at the moment. It’s all I wanted to drink in London the other week, and about all I’m interested in drinking now we’re back in Penzance.

Last night, I pulled some­thing of theirs from the back of the stash that, some­how, I’ve nev­er got round to tast­ing before even though we got sev­er­al bot­tles as part of a mixed case last year: Pri­o­ry Ale.

This beer isn’t on sale any­more but think of this as gen­er­al com­men­tary on beer with weird herbs rather than as a review and it might have some use.

It’s 6% – a bit indul­gent for a school night but not mad­ly so – but the kick is in the small print. It was released in 2014 to mark the 750th anniver­sary of the Bat­tle of Lewes and was ‘brewed using ingre­di­ents that were avail­able to the Clu­ni­ac Order at the Pri­o­ry of St. Pan­cras in 1264’. The mash includ­ed bar­ley, oats and wheat and it was boiled with both hops and yarrow. It was then dry-herbed with ale­cost, rose­mary and thyme dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion.

I can’t lie – on read­ing the blurb, my first thought was, ‘Uh-oh.’ Thyme and rose­mary don’t real­ly work in beer, or at least I haven’t yet acquired the taste, mak­ing every­thing a seem bit sick­ly and savoury.

On tast­ing it, my first thought was of med­i­c­i­nal sham­poo, then of cough sweets, which I guess must mean some mem­o­ry of men­thol fir­ing in my brain. Ale­cost is some­times known by the name ‘Mary’s mint’ or vari­a­tions there­on so per­haps that’s what I was pick­ing up? The rose­mary and thyme rose up as the beer went on, over­rid­ing every­thing by the end, like some kind of cot­ton bag you might hang in a wardrobe to give your bon­nets a pleas­ant fra­graunce. Or a leg of lamb.

Most dis­ap­point­ing­ly from my point of view, it lacked that dis­tinc­tive Harvey’s char­ac­ter on which I am hooked.

It was not a relax­ing beer. Being kind, I’d say it was stim­u­lat­ing, but maybe nerve-jan­gling is more hon­est. It put me on edge. ‘I think this is going to give me night­mares,’ I said on turn­ing in.

And do you know, some­thing cer­tain­ly did.

Q&A: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?

I was drink­ing a bot­tle of Prop­er Job yes­ter­day and think­ing about how I only start­ed buy­ing it after read­ing your blog. Lat­er, I drank some Beaver­town Gam­ma Ray and Mag­ic Rock Can­non­ball and won­dered if, by drink­ing fan­cy craft beers usu­al­ly mod­elled on Amer­i­can style, I was miss­ing some­thing. Can you rec­om­mend any peren­ni­al British beers, the kind of thing you per­haps take for grant­ed but that might have been over­looked by peo­ple who’ve only come to love beer since craft real­ly took off?”* – Bren­dan, Leeds

That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion and, let’s face it, exact­ly the kind of thing we semi-pro­fes­sion­al beer bores dream of being asked.

To pre­vent our­selves going on for 5,000 words we’re going to set a lim­it of five beers, and stick to those avail­able in bot­tles, although we’ll men­tion where there’s a cask ver­sion and if it’s bet­ter. We’re also going to avoid the temp­ta­tion to list his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant beers that we don’t actu­al­ly like all that much – those list­ed below are beers we buy reg­u­lar­ly and actu­al­ly enjoy drink­ing.

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

1. Harvey’s Impe­r­i­al Extra Stout is a big, intim­i­dat­ing­ly flavour­some, heavy met­al tour of a beer that makes a lot of trendi­er inter­pre­ta­tions look tame. It was first brewed in the 1990s to a his­tor­i­cal­ly inspired recipe. We didn’t used to like it – it was too intense for us, and some peo­ple reck­on it smells too funky– but now, it’s kind of a bench­mark: if your exper­i­men­tal £22 a bot­tle lim­it­ed edi­tion impe­r­i­al stout doesn’t taste mad­der and/or bet­ter than this, why are you wast­ing our time? It’s avail­able from Harvey’s own web store.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Q&A: Which Clas­sics Might I Have Missed?”

Time to Let The Old School Rejoin the Party?

This is an interesting Tweet from Matt Curtis who is currently doing some shifts in a pub:

One of our friends springs to mind: he likes bit­ter, hates ‘that grape­fruit thing’ and strug­gles to find any­thing he fan­cies drink­ing in places like The Craft Beer Co, despite its vast range. He has late­ly tak­en to putting his foot down and insist­ing on meet­ing in pubs with at least one old-school, brown, bal­anced beer.

So, yes, we reck­on pubs or bars with a craft iden­ti­ty (def 2.) per­haps ought to take account of this poten­tial mar­ket.

Of course many already do, often look­ing to craft brew­eries (again, def. 2 – found­ed since about 2005, graf­fi­ti on their pump-clips, etc.) to pro­vide some­thing a bit like bit­ter but with more pizazz – Amber or Red are the usu­al code­words.

But maybe that’s mis­guid­ed.

Maybe instead every­one should just acknowl­edge that the best old-school bit­ters are made by old-school brew­eries who have been doing it for 30, 40, 100 or more years, and embrace them.

Fuller's vinyl-record beer mat, 1956.
Fuller’s jump­ing on the pop music band­wag­on in 1956. Needs to be res­ur­rect­ed!

Five years or so ago the sight of, say, a Black Sheep or Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord pump in a would-be trendy post-gas­tro, pre-craft pub would have made us groan. Too many times we paid over the odds for some­thing stale, warm and head­less served in some­thing like an IKEA tum­bler. So point­ed­ly not serv­ing those beers, or Lon­don Pride, or But­combe Bit­ter, was a good way for Prop­er Craft places to sig­nal their intent: there’s no Per­oni here, only Cam­den Hells; we don’t have Guin­ness, try this Thorn­bridge stout; and we cer­tain­ly don’t sell any of The Usu­al Sus­pect bor­ing brown bit­ters. Then, that made sense. Then, we wel­comed it.

But now, that point doesn’t need ham­mer­ing home and so per­haps it’s time to let Fuller’s, Taylor’s, Harvey’s, Hook Nor­ton (def. 1) et al back into the par­ty.

We’d be quite hap­py to see Lon­don Pride, Land­lord or Sus­sex Best, in real­ly top con­di­tion, as part of the offer at the Craft Beer Com­pa­ny.

Or at a Brew­Dog bar.

[Exit left, pelt­ed with toma­toes.]