Why Drink Brains?

“You’re in Cardiff, why drink Brains? Thriving micro scene nowadays…”

We popped to Cardiff yesterday, a city neither of us knows, and had a poke around the pubs in between bouts of architectural appreciation. The main things we wanted to achieve on this preliminary reconnaissance mission were (1) to visit the Tiny Rebel bar and (2) drink some beer from Brains, the dominant local family brewer, as near to its home as possible.

The above question was put to us on Twitter by veteran beer appreciator and Guardian letters celebrity Keith Flett (Twitter, blog), who spends quite a bit of time in Cardiff, when he noticed us Tweeting about a nasty, buttery pint of Brains Dark.

It’s an understandable question and we’re on the receiving end of, or see, similar every day. It can be frustrating to remotely observe someone missing all the good bits of a town you know and fearing that they’ll be judging it harshly by the places they do end up. We used to get a bit like this when we saw that people had been to Penzance and visited The Crown but not The Yacht, for example.

More examples can be seen in the response to Tandleman’s visit to St Albans before Christmas. His report made no claim to being The Definitive Guide and looked like just the kind of gut-instinct ramble we tend to prefer to regimented guidebook ticking but people couldn’t help responding with lists of the pubs he and E ought to have gone to instead, with an implied silent scream.

These days there’s almost nowhere in the UK that doesn’t have a couple of pubs preferred by the local cognoscenti and a quick bit of Googling or searching Twitter means that there’s really no excuse for wasting time and effort on sub-standard venues in a strange town.

Except that, for one thing, it’s half the fun. Being told exactly where to go and what to avoid is like using cheat mode on a computer game, or looking at the answers on a quiz. Trying to fathom the politics, dynamics and culture of a place you don’t know is a kind of puzzle and unless you’re on a mission, or perhaps a commission, then feeling your way around and making wrong turns is what makes it stimulating. Especially if you know you’re going to go back some other time, as we do with Cardiff, and Tandleman made clear he intended to do with St Albans, so a few duds don’t really hurt in the long run.

Then there’s the fact that the hive mind is sometimes wrong, or at least tends towards the safe. In the last couple of years, as we’ve got braver and more adventurous in our pub-going, we’ve discovered lots of lovely pubs that nobody ever seems to recommend, as well as a few bloody awful ones that lots of other people seem to love. And we do prefer pubs to bars, and especially tap rooms, towards which so many social media recommendations seem to steer.

Finally, there’s the importance of making our own judgement. If we swerved Brains because everyone else told us to we’d feel as if we’d been lazy. If we’re going to say Tiny Rebel is better than Brains we want that to be on the basis of having actually drunk a fair bit of Tiny Rebel and a fair bit of Brains in different places at different times, rather than just going along with the prevailing view. We have a soft spot for old family brewers, too, so there’s certainly no guarantee we will prefer the products of the micro-scene.

Ultimately, if you want to know a place you have to experience the mediocre as well as supping at the cream. You don’t know London if you’ve never felt slightly scared in a darkened underpass; you don’t know Cornwall if you’ve been to genteel St Ives but not down-to-earth Redruth; you don’t know most towns or cities if you’ve never been in the suburbs on a wet afternoon.

GALLERY: Home Front Beer, WWII

We recently discovered the Imperial War Museum digital archive which is (perhaps surprisingly) crammed with pictures of pubs, beer and brewing.

Here are some of the best shots of ‘everyday life’ on the home front during World War II shared under the terms of their non-commercial license. (Click the ID numbers to go to the IWM website for bigger versions and more info.)

A mixed group of uniformed men and a barmaid.
Allied soldiers in a London pub, 1940. © IWM (D 1725)
A dimly lit pub with soldiers in discussion.
Home Guard members in a pub in Orford, Suffolk, 1941. © IWM (D 4852)

Continue reading “GALLERY: Home Front Beer, WWII”

Pembrokeshire – great place for walking and drinking

The Griffin Inn, Dale, Pembrokeshire, Wales

The Pembrokeshire coast path, in South Wales, features 186 miles of gorgeous cliffs, hidden bays — and the occasional wonderful pub. I don’t mean that there are lots of pubs and only some of them are wonderful — more that pubs are spaced quite far apart in this part of the world, possibly something to do with widespread Nonconformism and therefore teetotalism. There are exceptions, for example Little Haven has three pubs, and I’ve already written about Solva. They must have been very sinful places. Continue reading “Pembrokeshire – great place for walking and drinking”

A pub crawl in Solva, Pembrokeshire

The Ship Inn, Solva, Pembrokeshire, Wales
The Ship Inn, Solva, Pembrokeshire, Wales

The small Welsh hamlet of Solva has three pubs within a hundred yards of each other, and there’s at least one more up the hill in Upper Solva. Only the Harbour Inn is mentioned in the Good Beer Guide (2007) but the other two are also worth some love.

The Harbour Inn has the best location, and therefore the lion’s share of the punters. It has fine views across the harbour and an ambitious menu. Beer-wise it’s a Brains place, offering the regular bitter and Reverend James. I have to say, I’m not a massive fan of these two. Perhaps I’ve never had a really good pint, but they really don’t do very much for me.

It’s cosy, and the young chap behind the bar was very friendly, although I didn’t much care for the older chap chasing families with children into their own special ghetto. “Dogs are fine, it’s children I can’t stand,” he said cheerfully to a couple on the next table from me. That’s Britain summed up for you.

Almost next door to the Harbour Inn is the Ship Inn, which also doubles as the Spice Galley, an Indian restaurant/takeaway. I’d never been in this place before, and rather expected it to be an unfriendly locals’ place. The barman ignored me initially, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, as he may not have seen me. I’m quite small.

It’s a Marstons pub, so had Pedigree and Long Hop on. They’d just had a beer festival, so on the other two taps were specials from that — something by Banks, and Golden Thread by Salopian. I went for the latter, and it blew my mind. I don’t think I’ve had a better pint this summer. It was in perfect condition, with a creamy head, and a gorgeous hop aroma. Flowery hops dominated the flavour but there were also hints of banana and clove in it. Wonderful stuff. I would have stayed to drink more, but I had one more pub to check out before the bus was due.

The Cambrian Arms looks a bit like a hotel bar and also has interesting food. On tap they had Tomos Watkin’s OSB which has a lovely heavy malt & marmalade flavour. They also had Bevan’s Bitter, from the Rhymney Brewery. This was a good deal hoppier than the TW, but beautifully balanced. I also had their Rhymney Bitter in the Farmers Arms earlier in the week, and was impressed. I reckon that the Rhymney brewery is a welcome new addition to the Welsh brewing scene.

The Cambrian Arms also had Butty Bach, by the Wye Valley brewery, but I didn’t have a chance to reacquaint myself with this delightful drop as I could hear the bus coming down the hill.

Boak

Solva is served by semi-regular buses Mon-Sat between Haverfordwest and St Davids. It makes an excellent end point for cliff walks from Newgale or Caerfai, St Davids. Just give yourself more time for the beer before the last bus leaves…

The Rhymney brewery is a comparatively new Welsh brewery. It was started in 2005, but is keen to draw links between it and historic breweries from Merthyr Tydfil. It has an interesting page about these breweries on its website.

My favourite pub

If I had to choose my favourite pub in the world, it would probably be the Farmers Arms in St Davids, Pembrokeshire. This isn’t because of its beer offerings or even because of the great atmosphere, but because all my early pub memories were formed here.

When I was growing up, we went to the Pembrokeshire coast every year for our annual holiday, sometimes as a family, sometimes with a large group of my parents’ friends as well. It’s a very special place for me, and I try to get back there every couple of years at least. St Davids itself keeps evolving – I remember it being a sleepy village for hardcore hikers in the 1980s, a bucket-and-spade resort in the early nineties, and now it’s like Hampstead-on-sea, with posh restaurants, and artists selling paintings to each other.

Because of its large beer garden, the Farmers was open to kids, and so was probably the first pub I ever went to, and certainly the first pub I remember. And obviously, because I was always there on holiday, the memories are all pleasant. When I walk into the beer garden now, there’s a little bit of me that’s five years old, really excited about going to the beach.

I tasted beer there for the first time, a sip from the parents’ pints. Urgh — how can they drink that stuff? I observed the pleasure that my parents and their friends got from drinking and chatting in the afternoon sun. I learnt that drinking too much makes you boring and repetitive. And then did it anyway, when I was old enough.

Here I also developed my strange love of pub fish and chips. Yes, I know it’s usually frozen fish and oven chips. But we didn’t eat out much when I was growing up, and so it was always a bit of a treat, and continues to be now I’m older and can afford to eat better stuff.

As a sulky teenager, I continued to love the Farmers, even before I could drink. Its status as the only pub in town has always made it a lively place, the centre of the social scene for young and old alike. There are always a surprising number of young people in St Davids — surfer types, I always assumed.

I’ve just spent an afternoon there with my mum, and it’s as charming as ever. Reverand James (Brains), Double Dragon (Felinfoel) and Rhymney Bitter on tap, all in good nick. Friendly bar staff. Same great view out of the beer garden. I’m sad to be missing GBBF, but extremely contented to be here instead.

Boak

The Farmers Arms is on Goat Street. You don’t need a map to find it as St Davids is a pretty small place. However, it is officially a city (the smallest in the UK) thanks to its beautiful 12th century cathedral. Its population is fewer than 2000 people, although this probably quadruples during the summer. These days it must also have the highest percentage of espresso machines per capita in the world.