london pubs

Samuel Smith pubs are not cheap

It takes a long time for the reputation of a pub to turn around, and that can work both ways. For example, many people still believe Sam Smith pubs are good places for cheap beer in London.

We’ve been aware of their prices creeping up for years.

As we recall, the posh bottles went first. Oatmeal Stout and Taddy Porter were the choice of those in the know, and always cost a bit more.

But when they went up to £6, £7, £8 per bottle, it was clear things were changing.

The bottles eventually shrank, too, changing from famously fat full pints to 330ml tiddlers.

Then, on a recent trip, we paid around £7 for a pint of Pure Brewed Lager, and almost £6 for a pint of Old Brewery Bitter.

Again, we know, that’s sort of what beer costs in London in 2023. Fair enough.

When people on Trip Advisor are still advising tourists to go to Samuel Smith pubs for good value food and beer, however, there’s clearly a mismatch between reality and reputation.

We might also be more relaxed about these prices if we felt they were covering the costs of a good pub experience but…

Dirty glassware. Glum service. Grim atmosphere.

Evidence of a death spiral, perhaps?

We enjoyed one of our several recent visits to Samuel Smith pubs despite all of the above, because the building and location were somewhat magical.

It felt, though, as if the management were doing everything possible to test our goodwill.

At least the beer was good, though, right? Right? 

Well, no, not really, even allowing for the fact that it’s always had a mixed reputation.

We used to like Pure Brewed Lager. Now, it seems sweet and (ironically) cheap.

And though we’ve never been huge fans of Old Brewery, its limited charms are even harder to discern without the befuddling glamour of a bargain price.

There are, in theory, cheaper beers available, such as Taddy Lager, but they often seem to be unavailable in practice.

Go to the pubs if you like. Enjoy them, and the beer, if you like. But don’t tell anyone they’re great value in 2023.

Because these days, they’re more like Angus Steak Houses than Merry Olde Inns of England.

Germany The Session

Session #137: “Banana Beer”

This is our contribution to Session #137 hosted by Roger at Roger’s Beers.

Our introduction to German wheat beer happened long before we were interested in beer and before we’d ever thought of going to Bavaria.

It was at the Fitzroy, a Samuel Smith pub in central London, in about 2001, where the house draught wheat beer was a version of Ayinger brewed under licence in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.

We had encountered Hoegaarden by this point — it was ubiquitous in London at around the turn of the century — but hadn’t considered ordering any other wheat beer until a friend urged us to try Ayinger. “I call it banana beer,” they said, “because it tastes like puréed banana.”

At first we didn’t quite get it. To us, it tasted like beer. Weird, soupy, sweet beer. So we had a few until we understood what he meant. And yes, there it was — the stink of blackened bananas left too long in the bowl. “It gives you terrible hangovers, though,” he added, a little too late to save us. We couldn’t think of it for a year or two after that session without feeling a little overripe ourselves.

Pinning down anything relating to the history of Samuel Smith beers is trickier than it ought to be but, in the absence of firm evidence, we reckon it’s a safe guess that they started brewing Weizen in the 1990s, during or after the brief craze for wheat beer among the British beer cognoscenti (Hook, Dorber et al) during 1994-95. (As always, solid intel proving otherwise is very welcome.)

Sam Smith’s take might not have had the cool of a genuine import — the hip kids raved about Schneider — but it had the advantage of being both accessible and accessibly priced, and we can’t help but wonder how many other British beer geeks were first introduced to German wheat beer this way.


News, Nuggets & Longreads 28 April 2018: Training, Tadcaster, Telemark

Here’s everything on the subject of beer that piqued our interest in the past week from apprentices to diversity ambassadors, via one or two pubs.

If you like messing around with your beer at the point of consumption — blending it, adding strange ingredients — then you might want to try “roaring” your beer, Norwegian-styleLars Marius Garshol explains:

The first time I heard about it was in Telemark (southern Norway), where Halvor Nordal said that one of his neighbours used to sometimes heat the beer very briefly in a saucepan before serving it. His neighbour thought it made the beer taste fresher… Then, the year after, I visited Rasmus Kjøs Otterdal in Hornindal, 300km to the northwest, and he… explained what people did was to take an empty saucepan and heat it quite well on the stove. Then you took it off the stove and poured the beer straight into the saucepan. The beer would give off a fierce fizzing sound and a thick head would instantly form on it. It tastes great if you drink it right away, but doesn’t last long, he said.


For Imbibe Will Hawkes has written about a new apprenticeship scheme for brewers initiated by the people behind the Brewhouse & Kitchen chain but with 25 other breweries ranging from very big (Heineken) to tiny (Ignition) also signed up:

[Simon] Bunn and his team [at B&K] did consider running the scheme internally, but decided that it was an innovation that the whole brewing industry needed. There are lots of breweries in the UK, but not enough properly-trained British brewers…. He acknowledges, too, that former apprentices will often seek to move on once they’ve demonstrated their skills…. “They tend to go into jobs at bigger breweries, or as head brewer at a small start-up,” he says. “We don’t have too much turnover; I think we lose four brewers a year.”

Detail from a 1929 German beer advertisement.

For Vinepair Evan Rail explains why you should be interested in Andreas Krenmair’s new book Historic German and Austrian Beers for the Homebrewer — that is, because it’s already having an impact in the real world, among brewers eager to find new territory to explore:

Though his book has only been out for a couple of weeks, its recipes have already started attracting attention from both professional and amateur brewers. Homebrewers have reached out to Krennmair with feedback after brewing his 1818-era Bamberger Lagerbier. London microbrewery The Owl & The Pussycat is currently serving its own Merseburger from Krennmair’s recipe, which he calculates at a tongue-numbing 125 IBUs.

(Disclosure: Mr Krenmair is one of our Patreon supporters.)

Humphrey Smith

Sam Smith news: the UK Pensions Regulator is prosecuting the Samuel Smith Old Brewery of Tadcaster and its chairman, Humphrey Smith, for “failing to provide information and documents required for an ongoing… investigation”. Refusing to respond to correspondence from journalists is one thing but ignoring agencies of HM Government is quite another. We watch with interest.

Dr Jackson-Beckham

Progress: the American Brewers’ Association (BA) has appointed an academic, Dr J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, as its first Diversity Ambassador. Dr Jackson-Beckham “will travel around the country to state guild and other craft brewing community events to speak on best practices for diversifying both customer bases and staff and to listen to current challenges in this area.” There’s commentary from Cat Wolinski and more quotes from Dr Jackson-Beckham in this article at Vinepair.

Portman Group logo.

Further progress, possibly, depending on your point of view: the Portman Group, which regulates packaging and advertising on behalf of the UK alcohol industry, has launched a consultation on its code of practice and is keen to hear your views, including plans to introduce “a new rule with supporting guidance addressing serious and widespread offence, such as sexism in marketing”.

Handpumps at a Bristol pub.

While we strongly disagree with his assertion that “people have never heard of… Boak & Bailey” — we are, in fact, extremely famous, practically household names  — this piece by Mark Johnson reflecting on the chasm between the so-called beer bubble and the wider world of beer drinkers in the context of the CAMRA Revitalisation vote is a good read. He writes:

People like cask beer.

People prefer cask beer.

There are a large number of people that are still drawn to pubs that serve a good pint of ale. For them, the fonts (or wickets, oh yeah) are where the eyes are pulled. The choices are singled out based on colour, strength, familiarity. They know what they like and they know what is good. They don’t always agree upon bitterness, haziness, adjunct flavourings or even silly names but they could pick out off flavours better than most without knowing their names.

Page spread from the booklet.

Those who enjoy wandering the streets of London will want to check out a new publication called Beer Barrels and Brewhouses: exploring the brewing heritage of the East End. It’s been put together by not-for-profit organisation Walk East working with locals, using a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. It is available online as a flippy-flappy interactive booklet and, we think, in hard copy at Tower Hamlets Archives.

(Via Tim Holt @BeerHasAHistory.)

And finally, a chance to buy an heirloom your family will treasure for decades to come…

beer reviews Beer styles bottled beer Germany

MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer

‘Why aren’t more British breweries tackling German-style wheat beers?’ Adrian Tierney-Jones has asked more than once. Intrigued by that question, we rounded up a few and gave it some thought.

Now, clearly, this isn’t one of our full-on, semi-comprehensive taste-offs — we didn’t have the time, inclination or, frankly, budget to get hold of a bottle of every Weizen currently being made by a UK brewery. One notable omission, for example, is Top Out Schmankerl, recommended to us by Dave S, which we couldn’t easily get hold of.

But we reckon, for starters, six is enough to get a bit of a handle on what’s going on, and perhaps to make a recommendation. We say ‘perhaps’ because the underlying question is this: why would anyone ever buy a British Weizen when the real thing can be picked up almost anywhere for two or three quid a bottle? The most exciting German wheat beer we’ve tasted recently was a bottle of Tucher in our local branch of Wetherspoon — perfectly engineered, bright and lemony, and £2.49 to drink in. How does anyone compete with that?

We drank the following in no particular order over a couple of nights, using proper German wheat beer vases of the appropriate size. What we were looking for was cloudiness, banana and/or bubblegum and/or cloves, a huge fluffy head and, finally, a certain chewiness of texture. That and basic likeability, of course.

london pubs real ale

Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s

We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.

When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suited drinkers all over the pavement and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was quieter and we slipped into the coveted back room. It’s an amazing pub, the Red Lion — really beautiful, full of cut glass and mirrors and warm light. There’s a reason Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swooning in Nairn’s London. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serving you that. It doesn’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and suggested something else. Impressive. Oliver’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, continues to be decent enough without igniting any great passion on our part. ESB, on the other hand, seems to get better every time we have it — richer, more bitter, ever juicier. Same again, please. It gave us hangovers but it was 100 per cent worth it.