What’s going on at Wetherspoon?

After a long stretch without, we visited three Wetherspoon pubs over the weekend. Does any other type of pub prompt such strong feelings or such debate?

As we said on Twitter a few weeks ago, after a run of dismal experiences in Wetherspoon pubs in 2018-19, we struck them off the go-to list.

There were various problems.

For a good run, even at the once impressive flagship central Bristol pub, we just couldn’t get a decent pint. Beers we knew were good tasted bland, and beers we didn’t know tasted rotten.

The fallback option of a bottle from the fridge became less appealing with things like Tucher Weissbier disappearing from the menu.

Even the cheap-and-cheerful food began to seem like bad value, with miserable chips counted out onto the plate, or meals served cold.

The buildings began to feel tatty, too, as if a round of maintenance had been skipped to save money.

And the weird, all-pervasive Brexit propaganda posters and magazines didn’t help the vibe. Why were these pubs so angry?

Then the pandemic came. As our pub trips became fewer and further between, other pubs naturally took priority.

So, what did we find this weekend?

Jess visited The Robert Fitzharding in Bedminster with the local CAMRA women’s group. “Try before you buy!” was the advice the group gave her: “Some of the ale tastes like vinegar.”

She ended up drinking Ruddles, the default option in most Wetherspoon pubs for years now, and…

“Do I like Ruddles now? Has the beer changed or have I?”

Like its Greene King stablemate, Ruddles seems lighter and cleaner these days with a refreshing bitter finish. It still has that hot rubber, ripe apple thing going on, but with the power of good condition behind it, is a satisfying traditional pint.

And when it’s 99p a pint, you do feel like you’ve pulled off a heist.

The pub had the now customary sticky tables and slightly chaotic atmosphere, as if operating with about two-thirds of the necessary staff, and the clientele was a mixture of students in large groups and old men on their own.

Meanwhile, across town, Ray was at The V-Shed, a ‘Spoons in a converted industrial building on the harbourside.

This was never a favourite of ours among Bristol’s various Wetherspoon branches. It’s part of a waterside crawl popular with stags and hens and lacks the essentially pubby feel of The Commercial Rooms or The Berkeley.

Ray also found sticky tables, ketchup under his elbow, and staff who looked on the verge of breakdown. Saturday afternoon, though, is bound to be like this.

His pint of Butcombe Citra, at £2.49, was fine, if a bit warm.

“This feels more like a pub than the last place,” said Ray’s mum. “It’s got a carpet and you can hear each other speak.”

Acoustics are a thing they invariably get right, and which hanging out with people in their seventies really makes important.

Finally, on Sunday, we wandered to the village-suburb of Hanham where we ‘ticked’ The Jolly Sailor for our #EveryPubInBristol challenge.

The Jolly Sailor is one of those mid-period ‘Spoons pubs, the kind we remember drinking in as students and after university, with blue livery and gold script on the sign.

It was busy but peaceful with mostly older drinkers chatting in groups as diffuse sunlight warmed them through big windows.

Ruddles was, again, surprisingly, delightful, this time at £1.49.

Adnams’s Ghost Ship (£2.10) was good, too – a reminder of what a great beer this can be, full of citrus zest.

The tables were spotless and polished and the in-house mag sat there looking harmless, with a cover feature about Curry Club rather than, say, DOES TRUTH MATTER? We didn’t dare look inside, though.

Among many strange, fascinating things about JDW pubs is the status they’ve acquired in the stupid culture war.

As we’ve said before, love them or hate them, they’re now an established part of the pub landscape.

They serve different communities in different ways but right now, especially, offer a way for people to enjoy a session in the pub for less than a tenner.

If you’re competing with Wetherspoon, that’s no doubt frustrating, but that’s not a problem the majority of drinkers are currently in a position to do much about.

At the same time, they have, on the whole, got worse. Standards have slipped.

And those prices can only now be achieved and maintained by reaching beyond efficient, into stingy.

In the current touchy climate, that feels as if it might be a controversial statement, but we can only speak as we find.

We wrote at length about the history and significance of the Wetherspoon chain in our book 20th Century Pub. Do check it out if you haven’t already.


Pubs and loneliness

How do you make friends when you’re in your forties? Instinctively, I feel as if the pub must be the answer.

Recently, I found myself alone for the weekend and after a while, solitude got the better of me and I decided to go to the pub.

As I wrote years ago, I’m generally fairly introverted and happy with my own company

Two years of working from home has probably intensified that tendency, as has getting older and more set in my ways.

Sometimes, though, I need to be around people, even if I’m not joining in – and sitting in the pub with a book, part of it but separate, usually does the job. (Ross agrees.)

This time, though, pleasant as it was, I felt a sort of hollowness.

Separation tipping over into alienation, perhaps, as Saturday afternoon whirled around me.

I realised after a while that what I wanted, truthfully, was a pint with a mate.

When you’re young, arranging pints with mates is easy:

  • shout ‘Pint?’ across the hall to your flatmate
  • text ‘Pint?’ to whoever happens to work nearby before they get chance to begin the commute home
  • catch the eye of a workmate and make a wavy pint-drinking gesture while wiggling your eyebrows

But people have kids, move away, get busy with work and family, get weary…

Before you know it, a pint with your best pals is something you do once a year, if you’ve booked it well in advance.

What I miss is low-commitment, low-intensity, spontaneity.

Problem one is a shortage of friends in the city I moved to in 2017.

I’ve been working on it, and I’m getting there, but it’s not easy. Certainly not as easy as when I was six and I could just wander up to other kids on the estate and say “Can I play?”

People keep telling me to join clubs and societies and, yes, that’s one way.

My weekly writers’ group has become important to me, especially as it met via video all the way through the pandemic.

Otherwise, though, that’s not my thing.

Pints are my thing.

The pub isn’t a big deal. It doesn’t require a subscription, demand regular attendance, or have prescriptive rules.

And the conversation isn’t limited to a single topic. Quite the opposite. If a session in the pub doesn’t range from telly to telephone boxes to the problem with the world today, the pints aren’t doing their job.

I sometimes find getting into a sulk is a necessary step in making things better.

Since my low-key freakout the other week I’ve convinced a couple of my fellow writers to detour to the pub after a group meeting, seen an old friend for the first time in almost a year and arranged to meet someone from Twitter for a pint.

Let’s see if I can keep this up.

buying beer

Liquid popcorn: finding a time and place for non-alcoholic beer

Tough day. Lots on your mind. Open the fridge, grab a bottle, loosen and lose the cap. Sip. Close your eyes. Sigh.

The after work beer is a ritual or ceremony for many people. It’s about scrubbing dirt and dust from the throat. Cooling down. Stamping a firm full stop.

We’ve seen it enacted in hundreds of films and TV shows over the years, too. Sarah Lund in The Killing springs to mind, slumped by her fridge, clinging to a green lager bottle for comfort as the corpses pile up.

Oh, yes, the green bottle. This is a job for a small amount of a small beer – something without a big personality.

A few months ago, with a plan to watch a film on an uncomfortably warm evening, I fancied one or two unwinders. With that in mind, I let my evening walk take me past the CO-OP. I wandered in and up the beer aisle and after a moment decided, to my surprise, to buy a four-pack of Heineken 0.0.

Let’s be clear about what happened here: I looked at it on the shelf and wanted it. I’d had it before and retained, it turned out, a fond memory of the encounter. I could have had Pilsner Urquell, or Krombacher, but Heineken 0.0 was the one that grabbed me.

So I grabbed it.

And over the past few months, that’s become a habit.

I’ve always been resistant to non-alcoholic beer. Those I’ve tried over the years simply haven’t tasted good. Or, at least, less pleasant than a glass of sparkling water.

I’ve tried quite a few other brands and, no, they don’t do the job.

Some low alcohol craft beers are technically impressive and enjoyable in their own way. The problem is that they often end up being rather intense. Very bitter, or very sweet, and heavily hopped to fill the hole. They’re not green-bottle after work brews.

No, it’s Heineken 0.0 that works for me. It is, first and foremost, not disgusting. It doesn’t taste cooked or artificial. More than that, though: it’s actually pleasant. I find it light, lemony and dry.

Other opinions are available, of course:

When I say non-alcoholic beer in this context is like liquid popcorn, that’s not a tasting note.

It’s about the part it plays in my personal slow shutdown rituals.

The bottle feels right in the hand. The foam prickles, refreshes and slips into the background.

And it certainly doesn’t make a fuss when you’re trying to concentrate on Randolph Scott, Gloria Grahame or some black-gloved killer roaming the streets of Milan.


The Universally Recommended Timeless Institution Pub

This is a version of a conversation between the two of us that took place in Whitelock’s Ale House, Leeds, in October 2021. We may have had a few drinks in us before we got to this point.

B: I’m calling it – I think this goes into our Best Pubs in England list.

B: Based on just this one visit? Wow. But I see what you mean – a real city centre Timeless Institution. Like the City Arms in Cardiff.

B: That thing where it feels traditional and unchanged but has actually morphed slowly through the ages. So it’s just about on trend, but doesn’t feel trendy.

B: The range of beer is just great, isn’t it? Something for everyone. Local standards, some more experimental stuff, and a couple of regular beers.

[Editor’s note: from Five Points, which currently has custody of the pub.]

B: Why aren’t there more of these kinds of places? Every city in the UK ought to be able to support at least one. You know – the pub you recommend to everyone. The pub everyone recommends. Beer Twitter, CAMRA, your mate who’s lived in the city for years and doesn’t even really drink beer but just likes the atmosphere…

B: You need a bit of food to soak up the booze but it shouldn’t be a food place. It might not even really be a beer place. It’s a meeting place. A bolthole. Get away from shopping, take the weight off your feet, escape the weather, whether it’s too hot or too cold…

B: BANQUETTES! These places definitely have banquettes.

B: A sort of historic interior is important – even if a lot of it is fake.

B: So where are the other examples? Is London too big to have one?

B: It feels as if, with London, you’re lucky to get two out of three of: atmosphere, beer quality, universal welcome. There are definitely some great pubs in the centre, like The Harp, or those mews pubs – they probably get the closest – but the best ones are often standing room only and can feel a little cliquey.

B: Bristol doesn’t have one, does it? And dare we opine on Manchester?

B: No, don’t think we know it well enough. But I bet if we asked Twitter “which pub in Manchester would you recommend as a must-visit” you’d get some suggestions.

B: Probably the same with Sheffield, right? So does the existence of the Universally Recommended Timeless Institution type of premises actually mean that drinking options are more limited? Do places like Whitelocks and the City Arms become great because of a lack of competition? Makes it easier to keep hitting the sweet spot.

B: That feels a bit unfair to Leeds though – there are clearly other atmospheric city centre pubs with good ale. Why has this particular place managed to gain and keep this reputation? It’s not even as if it’s been in the same continuous ownership.

B: I’m going to start wanging on about genius loci if you’re not careful… What are you having next?


The strange case of the 40 litre limit

There’s been a bit of debate in the wake of last week’s Budget: was the Government’s decision to set a 40 litre eligibility threshold for ‘draught relief’ a sinister plot, or evidence of carelessness?

Though we’re by no means experts on the workings of Treasury and Number 11 Downing Street, between us, we have accumulated a bit of experience in this area.

During our time as civil servants, we were both involved in spending reviews and Budgets; Jess has been on teams auditing HMRC; and Ray spent the past three years writing about tax, including editing technical reports on budgets and fiscal statements.

With all that in mind, we reckon this is more cock-up than conspiracy but driven, in part, by biases built into the system.

First, in our experience, Treasury officials are by no means all mathematical geniuses and seasoned veterans, as you might imagine. They’re often careerist twentysomethings who studied arts subjects – assertive, confident, but not necessarily focused on detail.

Secondly, the extent to which budgets are put together in a panic shouldn’t be overlooked.

The details of the speech are often being finessed minutes before the Chancellor stands up in the house.

Policies are often announced before they’ve been fully worked up or, conversely, fully worked up but not announced at all, only coming to light when tax nerds read the background paperwork.

And the driver is very often “I need something that sounds generous I can announce – and I need it pronto!” (See also: veteran political adviser Damian McBride’s account of how Small Brewers’ Relief came to be back in 2002.)

Thirdly, we reckon we can guess how the 40 litre threshold was arrived at: someone at Treasury or on the Chancellor’s team asked someone at HMRC to tell them the usual size of a beer keg. 

Based on the fact that the vast majority of beer duty collected in the UK comes from national and multinational suppliers they said, “Well, usually 50 litres, I suppose.”

And how much is in a standard ale cask?

“That’d be a firkin at just over 40 litres. But it’s more complicated than…”

That’ll do, no time for fussing over details, need to get the dogs ready for Rishi’s photoshoot.

Or it’s possible they just Googled it, like most people would, and got directed to Wikipedia.

If they did check these numbers with anyone in the industry, the chances are that they reached out to those with connections to the Government. That is, we’d guess, Conservative-supporting national brewers who ship most of their beer in larger containers.

Again, that’s not a conspiracy, as such, but, if true, shows why government-by-network can cause problems.

A further indication that this wasn’t carefully worked out to the Nth degree is how tentatively the policy has been stated. It’s not due to take effect until 2023 and what was actually announced in the Budget was a consultation.

Cynics will say “Consultations are meaningless – they’ve already made up their minds!” Again, in our experience, that’s not necessarily true.

It’s likely that this policy will be implemented in some form but there is an element here of the Government asking other people to do its homework.

That means it’s well worth lobbying and responding to these consultations.

Under this government we’ve already seen quite a few policies being rethought when the public responds with anything other than delight. They do like to be liked.