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 I 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…
…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.