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.

Categories
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.

Categories
pubs

The meanings of pub

There is no universal understanding of what ‘the pub’ means – no single image that materialises in the mind at the sound of the word.

For us, it’s a space with low light, nest-like corners and the murmur of conversation. Though not right now, of course. Together with the world but separate. This is the George Orwell ideal, about contentment more than excitement.

Some hear ‘pub’ and think, oy oy, here we go, lads! It’s going-out clothes, perfume and lippy, aftershave and flash the cash. It’s laughing, shouting, hugging, tumbling into cabs, he’s not worth it, babe, I love you mate, you know that, don’t you, like a brother? Crawling, ranging far and wide, biting into life like a hot kebab.

For others, watching from outside, the pub is chaotic and dangerous – a place where people lose control, behave badly, practice a form of self-harm. They get pickled, get gout, disappear into the fog. Maybe they fight, or fall over, or superspread – “Please sell no more drink to my father…”

Some see the pub as a place where they’re not and never can be welcome – “He smelt of pubs/ And Wormwood Scrubs/ And too many right wing meetings…” Opaque windows, a glare from the doorway, no incentive to ever step across the threshold.

For our ruling politicians, up above the clouds, the pub is where you go for your down-to-earth-chap photo op, or to eat an informal meal in the Cotswolds, pointedly tieless in chinos and deck shoes. It’s a prop. Abstract. A line in a spreadsheet.

In suburbs like ours, there are those for whom the pub is the only manifestation of The Community. It’s where they see the couple with the poodle most Sundays and Nick the Electrician and Pete the Widower who keeps dropping his stick down the back of the radiator. The pub connects them to the world and makes it all make sense, for an hour or two, which is why it’s worth the risk.

All this is why when we talk about pubs, we’re often at cross-purposes – how can you keep them open/let them close? How can you love them/hate them so much? Won’t somebody do something.

Categories
pubs

Could all this help the neighbourhood pub?

Is it wrong to poke around in the ruins looking for something to be optimistic about? Maybe, possibly, all this will help revive the neighbourhood corner pub.

Of course we can only ever be tentative and won’t be remotely surprised if things go in the opposite direction, towards disaster, but indulge us.

First, we know that city centres are struggling as many people continue to work from home.

The narrative has coalesced around coffee and sandwich shops but central pubs, too, rely on commuters hanging around for a pint or two with colleagues.

Without birthday drinks and leaving drinks and fuck-it-it’s-Thursday drinks, they’re reliant on determined, deliberate pubgoers.

The few times we’ve been into town lately, pubs and bars have seemed quiet – handy for distancing purposes but not if you want to pay staff, pay suppliers and keep the lights on.

Local pubs out in the suburbs, meanwhile, though also struggling, seem to be doing a little better.

After all, sticking your nose in at the local is low commitment: you wander round and if there’s space, you stay; if not, you wander on, or get takeaway. And if it gets uncomfortably crowded, you can go home.

The Foresters Arms, a pub near us, has struggled through the last few years with periods of closure, changes of management and a basic Guinness-n-sport offer in an area which has all but fully gentrified.

Now, though, it’s buzzing seven days a week. We’ve never seen it so busy or so alive. Peeking through the side door on our daily walks we’ve noticed quite a few of the regulars from The Drapers Arms in the (sensibly distanced) crowd – not their first choice, perhaps, but maybe somewhere they’ve come to appreciate in recent months.

We’ve certainly become less fussy. On Monday, at the end of a long walk to Keynsham, we ended up drinking Peroni in an edge-of-town pub and loving it. Well organised, spacious and friendly beats central in 2020.

On that note, we’ve also wondered if this might be the saving of some of those big inter-war pubs you find on the outskirts of towns.

A year ago, people talked about ‘rattling round sterile barns’.

Now, as our ideas of busy and close have been forcibly re-calibrated, that’s distinctly more appealing.