On Lists

Collage: nine pubs.

We contributed to a list that appeared in the Guardian yesterday in a special travel supplement billed as The 50 Best UK Pubs.

As these things always do, it has generated some passionate commentary – why only three pubs in Scotland? Why only one in Birmingham, or the whole of Sussex? Why not my local, or the pub run?

And we haven’t dared look a the comments section online – that’s just what we’ve gleaned from Twitter.

Although we’ve written plenty of lists ourselves…

…this is the first time we’ve been involved in one of these big pieces in a national publication and it’s been interesting to see the workings from the inside, so we thought we’d share a few observations.

Fifty pubs isn’t many

Why only one pub in [LOCATION]? Why only [NUMBER] in [REGION]?

Interesting questions. We took a moment to do the sums on this: it’s because 50 pubs equates to about half a pub for each UK county, or 0.6 pubs for every town/city with a population over 100,000.

That means that inevitably some places are going to get left out, and even those that are listed are going to feel underrepresented to people who know them well.

The list has to be manageable, too. Most pubs are important or special in some way, to someone, but sooner or later you have to get off the fence and give a straight answer: if you’ve only got so much time, don’t go there, go here.

And that’s before you take into account other requirements of a list like this, i.e. the need for geographical spread, and to cater to a range of tastes.

Not ‘the best’

Even if the headline says The Best, and the accompanying social media, and even if that’s what we’re all conditioned to assume a list represents…

Scott Aukerman's chronological list of Star Wars films to which someone replies "WRONG" assuming it is a ranking.

…people who write these things never intend them to be that, because how could they be? Pubs are even more subjective than, say, films, or books.

They can feel different on Wednesday lunchtime than Friday evening. Some are great in tourist season but terrible out, and vice versa. Between a reviewer’s visit and publication they can change beer list, staff, management or ownership.

But The Best is just how headlines and titles work, like it or not – full of superlatives and hyperbole, bold and punchy.

When we’re writing here on the blog, where we are our own editors, we can afford to be more subtle, using “our favourites” and other codes intended to convey that your mileage may vary.

But we’d get more clicks if we said The Best, and probably more again for The Worst. National newspapers, which rely on traffic and clicks, can’t afford to be so snootily high-minded.

Not just about beer

If you think it’s all about beer, most lists like this are going to disappoint you. We think a pub with no exciting beer can still be a great pub. It can certainly have a great view, or a great Sunday roast, or deep history, and so on.

Articles in national newspapers aren’t aimed at hardcore beer geeks.

The usual suspects

There’s a reason the same pubs crop up on these lists time and again: they are pubs that lots of writers genuinely like, and that there’s therefore good reason to suspect lots of other people will also like them.

We’ve been to lots of pubs we kind of liked, and found kind of interesting, but we wouldn’t dream of sending anyone else there without a lot of caveats.

Write your own list

It’s become a bit of a cliche to bat away criticism with a variation on: “This is my list. If you don’t like it, write your own.”

But that is literally a thing anyone can do.

Not enough Birmingham pubs on the list? We’d love to read and bookmark any take on Top Ten Birmingham Pubs.

(But a list of every halfway decent pub in Birmingham is basically useless – you have to be cruel and leave some out or it’s just the Yellow Pages.)

Not enough “unsung pubs”? That’s a great idea for an article – which are the best pubs that never get on to these lists? And what is it about them the prevents them achieving wide acclaim?

Lists are nonsense

We never take lists seriously. They’re fun, a particular angle on the world that you can enjoy for a moment, then ignore.

Or, of course, rail against. That’s the most fun of all.

These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs

Over a few beers the other week we found ourselves making a list of pubs we love and find ourselves longing to be in.

It’s not The Best Pubs, it’s not a Top Ten, it’s just some pubs we like enough to feel wistful for. We’ve been tinkering with it since and decided to share it.

Brains bitter at the City Arms, Cardiff.
The City Arms, Cardiff

10-12 Quay St, CF10 1EA
This is, in fact, the pub where we had the conversation. It was our first visit but love at first pint. The perfect mix of old school, new school, cask and keg, it just felt completely right to us. Worn in and unpretentious, but not curmudgeonly, and serving a revelatory point of Brains Bitter. (Not SA.) Is it an institution? We assume it’s an institution.

The Brunswick, Derby.
The Brunswick Inn, Derby

1 Railway Terrace, DE1 2RU
We loved this first time, and it’s still great. Flagstones, pale cask ale, cradling corners, a view over the railway, and the murmur of lovely local accents. Worth breaking a train journey for.

Continue reading “These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs”

The Most Important British Craft Beers?

British beer bottle cap.

In response to an article listing ‘The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers’ Michael Lally at Bush Craft Beer has challenged his readers to think about what might be on a Brit-centric version of that list:

I think we can define ‘craft’ relatively loosely and ‘important’ in a similar way to our US colleagues: It’s one that either changed consumer tastes or how breweries approach making beer. There are a few obvious ones: Punk IPA by Brewdog, Jaipur by Thornbridge, ESB by Fullers.

There’s a survey you can respond to including space to make your own suggestions but here’s some food for thought from us.

1. Traquair House Ale (1965)

Arguably the very first ‘microbrewery’ was Traquair House which commenced production in 1965. It demonstrated that it was possible for small breweries to be opened despite prevailing industry trends, and also that small independent breweries could often do more interesting things than their bitter- and lager-focused Big Six peers — this beer was (and is) at a hefty ABV and very rich.

2. Litchborough Bitter (1974)

Another brewery with a strong claim to being the first microbrewery was Bill Urquhart’s Litchborough based in the village of that name near Northampton. The beer itself doesn’t seem to have been especially exciting but the business model, and Mr Urquhart’s mentoring/consultancy, directly inspired the microbrewery boom that followed.

Continue reading “The Most Important British Craft Beers?”

A Mixed Case of History

British beer bottle cap.

If you were to go to your local specialist beer shop or an online beer retailer you could put together quite an interesting mixed case of reasonably easy-to-find beers which would each tell part of the story of ‘alternative’ British beer in the last fifty years.

1. Worthington White Shield (India Pale Ale) — one of a handful of ‘bottle-conditioned’ or ‘sediment’ beers remaining by the seventies and an inspiration behind the IPA boom of the last twenty or so years. Alternatives: this was the emergency purchase for a real ale drinker in a keg-only pub; after White Shield, they’d resort to Guinness, so maybe that?

2. Courage Imperial Russian Stout — another bottle-conditioned survivor of the seventies, newly resurrected, which held the torch for imperial stout through a period when bitter was king. Alternatives: Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout.

3. Chimay Red — one of the first really exciting ‘world beers’ imported into the UK. To better appreciate it, imagine that you have only ever tasted about six beers in total in your entire life, five of which were bitters between 3% and 3.8% ABV. Alternatives: Westmalle Dubbel.

4. Theakston’s Old Peculier — the cult beer of the nineteen-seventies, sold at a premium in the hippest real ale pubs, and renowned for its terrifying strength. (5.6% ABV doesn’t seem so scary today.)

5. Anchor Steam — by the end of the seventies, the coolest imported beer in Britain, wowing visitors at the Great British Beer Festival in 1979 with its similarity to English beer (brown!) and dissimilarity to Budweiser. Alternatives: German Altbier was also very cool at around this time for the same reasons.

6. Butcombe Bitter — a surviving example of a late seventies ‘real ale revolution’ bitter. We don’t know the recipe, but, having spoken to Martin Sykes from Selby and Patrick Fitzpatrick from Godson’s, a theme begins to emerge: pale malt with a little black for colour; Fuggles and Goldings hops; yeast from the back door of a larger regional brewery.

7. Ramsgate Brewery (Gadd’s) Dogbolter— one of David ‘Firkin’ Bruce’s most famous beers was Dogbolter. Every Firkin brewer made it differently aiming for a broad specification of ‘heavy and dark’, and Eddie Gadd, who learned to brew with Firkin, continues to make it to his personal recipe.

8. Hopback Summer Lightning — if not the first ‘golden’ ale, then at least the one that inspired both Sean Franklin and Brendan Dobbin to brew ‘pale and hoppy’. Alternative: Exmoor Gold.

9. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — the other key inspiration behind ‘pale and hoppy’ cask ales. Again, it helps if you can imagine that you’ve never tasted Cascade hops before — perhaps spend a week drinking John Smith’s bitter to recalibrate your palate?

10. Rooster’s Yankee — an early ‘pale and hoppy’, now brewed by Sean Franklin’s successors at the brewery he founded in the mid-nineties.

11. Freedom Lager — arguably the first ‘craft lager’, in the sense that it was as much about packaging and presentation as it was the beer. Originally brewed by Alastair Hook in West London, we can’t vouch for how closely its current incarnation matches the original, but still… Alternatives: Meantime Pilsner or London Lager.

12. Nethergate Umbel Ale — there were a few breweries experimenting with Belgian-inspired ingredients in the nineties and Umbel, which contains coriander, is a surviving example of that trend. Alternatives: St Austell Clouded Yellow.

13. Anchor Liberty IPA — first brewed in 1975 one of the influences upon the resurgence of IPA in the UK from the mid-nineties. We’ve seen people ask if it’s become less bitter and aromatic: the answer is, probably not, but it certainly has a lot more competition these days. Alternatives: Goose Island IPA.

14. St Austell Proper Job IPA — like a lot of people, much as we love it, we thought this was a big regional brewery jumping on the US-influenced IPA bandwagon. In fact, it was one of the earliest such beers to appear in the UK. Alternatives: Marston’s Old Empire, Thornbridge Jaipur.

15. Brewdog Hardcore IPA — inspired by US brewery Stone in every detail down to the label blurb, this is a great example of the IPA escalation which took place after 2005.

16. Wild Beer Co. Ninkasi — the end of beer as we know it? Made with ten per cent apple juice and, fermented with wild yeast, and presented like champagne, it’s no wonder the brewers refer to it, rather pointedly, as a ‘celebratory drink’. (Disclosure.)

Unfortunately, we don’t think there is a single online retailer which stocks all of these beers, but Beer Ritz has several, as does Beer Merchants.

Notes:

  • This isn’t a list of the best beers or best breweries; if we’ve not mentioned a beer or brewery, it doesn’t mean we don’t like them.
  • Some of these beers are very different to when they were first brewed.
  • We’re still researching some of this, hence the vagueness in places.
  • It’s OBVIOUSLY not comprehensive.
  • It slightly defeats the object to drink beers from the ‘real ale revolution’ from the bottle rather than on cask…