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.