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pubs

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.

Categories
pubs

Which pubs did you really miss?

When you haven’t been able to go to the pub for a while, which pubs you choose to visit first says something about what you really want, deep down.

The Marble Arch in Manchester came first, almost by accident, but not unreasonably. It’s an eternal, all-time-great national treasure.

Next, of course, came The Drapers Arms here in Bristol – our favourite and our former local, 228 visits to date. It was followed closely by the nearby Annexe, with its convenient pizza.

Then, rather to our surprise, it was The Portcullis – a pub we didn’t think we’d had time to develop a fondness for.

A potential new local, The Old Stillage, came next. Perhaps we’re craving the thrill of the new? It’s not an #EveryPubInBristol candidate because we’ve already ticked it, but that was back in September 2018.

Then, in London, we couldn’t resist Cask, a pub we perhaps thought we were slightly over. It can feel soulless, hectic, bad-tempered and expensive but… That beer selection. Those big windows. That collection of enamel advertising signs. Visiting last weekend, it couldn’t have been more delightful: as friendly and peaceful as an inn on the village green.

Next, we schlepped seven miles on foot, along the Thames and the barely-there River Wandle, to The Sultan in Wimbledon. We’ve only been once, and it’s hardly convenient, but something about it lodged in our minds. It’s not merely a good pub but, maybe, close to the ideal: on a back street; unpretentious; fully worn-in without being grotty; and with great, great beer.

Where next? Well, we’ve actually drawn up a hit list:

  • The Good Measure
  • The Merchant’s Arms
  • The Orchard

And, of course, all of Sheffield.

Categories
pubs

Nobody wants a backstreet corner pub on their backstreet corner

People sometimes talk as if the appeal of the neighbourhood pub is self-evident and universal… but is it?

We ran the above poll on Twitter after reading this admittedly rather thin PR piece via a property news website. It suggests that the presence of pubs can bring property prices down:

The homebuying platform [YesHomeBuyers] analysed property market data based on the number of pubs in each local authority and found that having too many options for a swift pint on your doorstep could be detrimental to the value of your home… In local authorities with an estimated 1 to 150 pubs, property prices averaged £289,479. This then fell by -9% to £263,041 in areas with 151 to 300 pubs and further again to £253,808 in areas with 301 to 450 pubs – a drop of -4%… The research shows in local authorities with 451 or more pubs, the average house price fell by a further -6% to £238,163, an -18% gap between those local authorities with the most and least pubs.

Unfortunately, we can well imagine this is true. Look at most suburban streets after about 8pm – they tend to be silent. Dormant.

In this context, even quiet, well-behaved pubs might seem disruptive.

We forced ourselves to have a really honest conversation about this between ourselves. Would we want to live next door to a pub?

We concluded that we wouldn’t be too bothered. We don’t have kids, don’t tend to go to bed before 11pm and, well, love pubs of all shapes and sizes.

Even so, we can understand why some people might not fancy it. You only have to look at some neighbourhood pubs to see the ghostly traces of low-level conflict:

  • Don’t stand here on your mobile phone.
  • Don’t smoke here.
  • Don’t sit on this wall.
  • Please leave quietly and respect our neighbours.

It’s no wonder, then, that when asked by a developer if they’d object to the pub next door being turned into flats, those disrespected neighbours might say, quietly, “Go for it, mate – knock yourself out.”

In the context of the battle for The Rhubarb, we’ve been thinking about why industrial estate taprooms might be thriving when pubs aren’t – and maybe it’s this.

Perhaps the neighbourhood corner pub is doomed, not because people don’t want to drink or go out, but because they don’t want to do it where they live.

As we put it in a Patreon post on Saturday, people want licenced premises, but “Not here, where we live, but over there, beyond the railway line, behind the jam factory, out of sight and out of mind.”

It makes sense, really. People are already used to going to retail parks and high streets to buy everything else. Why shouldn’t boozing zone itself, too?

Rezoning happens from time to time, remember. In the interwar years, pubs moved from city centre slums to suburbs and outer-rim estates. Now, that process might be reversing.

As far as we’re concerned, this is bloody miserable. Backstreet pubs on quiet residential streets are often the best of the lot.

And, yes, if you move next to a pub that’s been there for 200 years, it’s mad if you then moan about it.

Still, there’s some morning coffee to be smelled here. You can’t save pubs if you’re not realistic about how they’re viewed by people who don’t necessarily love them.

Once again, we find ourselves looking at micropubs as another pragmatic solution. They often close early – at nine or nine-thirty – and they’re usually too small to draw noisy crowds.

Categories
breweries

Are cult beers a thing?

I’ve been reading Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, published in 1981 when the idea of a cult film was quite new and, inevitably, it’s started me thinking about what might qualify as a ‘cult beer’.

Here’s how Mr Peary defines a cult movie in the introduction to the book:

Of the tens of thousands of movies that have been made, only an extremely small number have elicited a fiery passion in moviegoers that exists long after their initial releases… Cultists don’t merely enjoy their favorite films; they worship them, seek them out wherever they are playing, catch them in theaters even when they have just played on television, see them repeatedly, and are intent on persuading anyone who will listen that they should be appreciated regardless of what the newspaper or television reviewers thought. Strike up a conversation about movies anywhere in the country and the titles found in this book soon will be flying back and forth in frenetic debate. And as likely as not you’ll end up forcing someone to watch The Late Late Show to see a special favorite of yours or find yourself being dragged to some repertory theater to see a picture your well-meaning abductor has viewed ten, twenty, or a hundred times.

I certainly recognise something of the attitude of the beer geek in that description: “We just need to get a train and a bus, then it’s a short walk through an industrial estate, but trust me, it’ll be worth it…”

There’s also something appealing about the idea of a descriptor that sidesteps all those conversations about ‘craft’.

It’s not about whether a film is well made, says Mr Peary – “often the contrary” – or which studio made it (though many cult films are independent productions). What matters is that it has dedicated, even obsessive fans.

And perhaps also that it’s not readily available everywhere, all the time. You need to put in a little effort to enjoy it, especially if you want to see it on a big screen.

That’s why in Peary’s world, Citizen Kane can sit on the same list as Emanuelle alongside The Warriors a few pages on from Bedtime for Bonzo.

If cult beers exist, if that’s ‘a thing’, we might end up with similarly unlikely bedfellows.

Bass is probably a cult beer – a big name in its day but hard to find in its natural habitat, the pub.

Orval is, surely? Especially with all those instructions about storage and service. In fact, doesn’t Belgium rather specialise in cult beers all round?

Batham’s, too – the way people go on about it!

Schlenkerla Rauchbier, which people either love or hate, feels like a contender.

It would be easy for this to turn into a list of canonical beers, though. What’s not on the list? Anything you can easily find in a pub or bar in most towns, I suppose, which puts Guinness out of contention, even if it has T-shirt wearing fans.

What do you reckon might count as a cult beer? Something you’ve queued for, hunted down or gone well out of your way to drink.

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Generalisations about beer culture

The enigma of variation: how important is consistency in beer?

If you’ve ever spent any time with brewers at larger breweries, or reviewed archives, you’ll know that frequent tasting of the product to ensure quality and consistency is a key feature of the process.

For example, we know from talking to his daughter that a former head brewer at Guinness’s Park Royal brewery in London used to get through a crate of beer a week, not because he enjoyed it – he stopped drinking it when he left the firm – but to check the quality.

Then at the other end of the scale, we had an interesting insight into life at a more experimental, but regionally established craft brewery which we won’t name. We had occasion to hear the marketing manager talk to an audience of non-beer geeks about the challenges of fulfilling a then new supermarket contract:

“We now have to try to be consistent with this beer and hit the same flavour profile each time, whereas we know that when we’re selling to pubs, people just ask for our beers by brewery name – they don’t really care which one it is or how it tastes.”

We’ve been quite sneery about this attitude at times. It seems to confirm our prejudices about newer breweries not having the same technical skill or infrastructure as those which are better established.

But is that entirely fair?

If your market is craft beer bars, where people will tend to be trying lots of new things at once, does it matter if two brews under the same name have discernible differences in flavour over the course of weeks or months?

It gets more complicated again when you consider that even using the same recipe will give you essentially different beers over time.

Hop profiles change with each harvest, for example, even assuming you can get the same varieties of hop from year to year. We often think about Pete Elvin at the Star Inn getting seriously stressed about trying to recreate the hop character of Potion no 9 without access to Amarillo. Brewers have to tinker with their recipes constantly to maintain the sense of consistency –  it isn’t just a question of doing the same thing with the same ingredients each time.

Finally, there is the added dimension that putting a beer in a cask brings. We can all think of examples of beers that taste really different depending on where and how they’re served and, crucially, for how long they’ve been exposed to oxygen.

A key driver towards keg for craft beer pioneers like Alistair Hook was unwillingness to trust their beer to the cellarmanship of others.

For us, a little inconsistency introduced on the front line, in pubs, is part of the way we get to really appreciate a beer we love – not beer being served in poor condition here, just the difference say in drinking ESB that’s been on for one day as opposed to two, three or four.

It feels to us (classic fence sitting position coming up) that there is a happy medium between an industrial product that must always taste the same, and a wildly inconsistent beer. Or perhaps “medium” isn’t helpful here, as we’re much more aligned to the former end of the axis than the latter.

We want things to be consistent enough that we know what we’re going to get if we order the same thing twice, while still having scope to surprise us, just a little, in the subtle details.