Wetherspoons as public forum

We think about Wetherspoon pubs a lot. You can’t be British and do otherwise, really – they’re an institution, on almost every high street.

Lately, we’ve been consistently disappointed by the experience of drinking in them. They seem tatty, the quality of the offer declining, presumably as they struggle to retain the all important bargain prices as the cost of products go up.

But every now and then we’re reminded why they’re so popular: as truly public spaces, ordinary pubs and working class cafés disappear, Spoons fills the gap.

A week to so ago we found ourselves in a branch in east London with a few hours to kill, beginning at breakfast time.

It was quiet, you might almost say tranquil, full of natural light and the smell of ground coffee.

One man was there before us, and left after, leaning on a posing table, steadily downing pints of lager, conducting business on his phone: “I got a box of them Fred Perry’s coming in next week, and another load of them summer shirts – yeah, yeah, perfect for out and about in the day, nice fit for an older bloke.”

Another man came in, ordered coffee and a bacon roll, and then worked his way around the pub showing off a watch in cellophane, part of a new line. We couldn’t hear his patter, just the responses: “Lovely. How much? How many can you do? Alright, mate, I’ll give you a call Tuesday.”

An elderly man ordered his breakfast and a mug of tea using the phone app and when a member of staff brought it over, adopted a mock-posh accent to say, “I say, what what, jolly good, Jeeves! Any messages for me with the porter?” The waiter-barman laughed politely.

A gang of construction workers arrived, head to toe in orange, and apparently exhausted. They ordered full English breakfasts, teas and energy drinks, and colonised a corner.

A student bought a fruit tea and took an hour to drink it as she worked on her laptop.

A party in suits came in just before lunch, ordered lagers and wines, and rehearsed a sales pitch complete with slide deck.

People charged their phones, read newspapers and books, used the toilet, and generally treated the place as if it were a library or community centre.

The manager didn’t seem to object to the relatively small amount of money going over the counter. In fact, they made a point of reminding us that a £1.60 cup of coffee was bottomless.

What’s the idea here? To send a message, we suppose: if in doubt, go to Spoons. Whatever the occasion, whatever you want to eat or drink, whatever the time of day, wherever in the country you are, go to Spoons. You won’t be hassled or judged or, indeed, paid much attention at all.

It’s clever, that. Other pubs – proper pubs – might learn something from that.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 December 2018: Slavery, Philosophy, Wetherspoon Museum

Here’s everything that grabbed us in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from American history to donkeys in pubs.

First, picking up on the topic of the day, the BBC’s Chris Baraniuk has investigated the question of cashless pubs and bars in some detail. This line seems like the key to understanding the trend:

Ikea found that so few people – 1.2 in every 1,000 – insisted on paying in cash that it was financially justifiable to offer them free food in the shop cafeteria instead.


Monticello by Martin Falbisoner | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

For Good Beer Hunting Dr J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham has written an absorbing piece about Peter Hemings, the enslaved man who actually did the brewing with which President Thomas Jefferson is sometimes credited:

With several years of experience, Peter Hemings came into his own as a maltster and brewer, and may have taught these trades to other enslaved men in Virginia. On April 11, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “Our brewing for the use of the present year has been some time over. About the last of Oct. or beginning of Nov. we begin for the ensuing year and malt and brew three, 60-gallon casks successively which will give so many successive lessons to the person you send… I will give you notice in the fall when we are to commence malting and our malter and brewer is uncommonly intelligent and capable of giving instruction if your pupil is as ready at comprehending it.”


The Beach Bar

Martyn Cornell has attempted to tackle the world’s thorniest philosophical conundrum: what’s the difference between a pub and bar?

In the New Town where I grew up, all the estate pubs had been built to look like New Town homes on steroids, following the ‘pub as a home from home’ idea, but their newness stripped them of any of the ‘sense of permanence and continuity’ that all the pubs in the Old Town had dripping from every brick and beam, and they felt like zombie pubs, lifeless and without character. A bar, in contrast, never feels ‘homey’: indeed, I’d suggest that the slightest pinch, jot or iota of ‘a home-like character’ turns a bar into either a pub or a teashop.


Warpigs in Copenhagen.
SOURCE: The Beer Nut.

We were intrigued by the Beer Nut’s observation that Copenhagen has become ‘Mikkeller World’:

Last time I was in town, the brewer’s retail outlets consisted solely of the little basement bar on Viktoriagade; now there are over a dozen premises in Copenhagen alone, with more worldwide.

And that’s not all – even flights in are awash with the stuff.


A side order of nuggets

Victorian illustration of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters.
Classics corner: Charles Dickens’s ‘dropsical’ inn

We promised to flag some famous bits of beer and pub writing and this week’s piece – one of Jess’s absolute favourites – is the description of a London riverside pub that appears at the start of Chapter 6 of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend:

The bar of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was a bar to soften the human breast. The available space in it was not much larger than a hackney-coach; but no one could have wished the bar bigger, that space was so girt in by corpulent little casks, and by cordial-bottles radiant with fictitious grapes in bunches, and by lemons in nets, and by biscuits in baskets, and by the polite beer-pulls that made low bows when customers were served with beer, and by the cheese in a snug corner, and by the landlady’s own small table in a snugger corner near the fire, with the cloth everlastingly laid. This haven was divided from the rough world by a glass partition and a half-door, with a leaden sill upon it for the convenience of resting your liquor; but, over this half-door the bar’s snugness so gushed forth that, albeit customers drank there standing, in a dark and draughty passage where they were shouldered by other customers passing in and out, they always appeared to drink under an enchanting delusion that they were in the bar itself.


Finally, here’s an old Tweet that’s new to us:


If you want more, check out Alan’s Thursday ‘beery notes’ and (thankfully back after a hiatus) Stan’s Monday links.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 6 January 2018: There’s a New Year for That

So it’s 2018 and apparently we’re still doing this every Saturday morning: rounding up all the news and commentary on pubs and beer that’s caught our attention in the past week so you can digest the very best with your weekend brekkers.

First, a bit of news, as broken by Will Hawkes for Imbibe: the industry-funded ‘There’s a Beer For That’ campaign is morphing into something else, abandoning consumer advice and engagement in favour of hard-nosed anti-beer-duty campaigning. From where we’re sitting this move makes sense: TABFT never quite came together, and bringing down the price of a pint seems to us to be about the only thing the beer industry might realistically campaign for that could increase pub-going across the board.


Wetherspoon pub sign, Penzance.

This next piece was actually published last summer but passed us by until it was included in a year-end round-up from At the Table and thus went mildly viral. In it Megan Nolan looks back on how, heartbroken and broke after the end of an intense relationship, she fell into the arms of that notorious seducer J.D. Wetherspoon:

On weeks when I wasn’t working, I went to a Wetherspoons near my house to apply for jobs. Limitless refill coffee saw me through to lunchtime, and then a soup and half baguette for £2.30. The pub had the atmosphere of a barely-maintained care home mid-morning. I stared in appalled awe at the elderly Irish men who congregated each day, faces livid with booze. I remembered stories my dad had told me about men in his hometown who had moved to London and failed to find regular work. They lived in abject poverty in shared bedsits, but when they came home for a visit to Ireland would scrape together enough to buy drinks for everyone at the bar – they so badly wanted to pretend they had made it. What was going to happen to me?


Fuller's Vintage Ale 2016.

We’ve been without fully functioning internet for almost a week (it’s back now) which meant we missed the window to turn a casual Tweet from New Year’s Eve into a quick blog post. Fortunately, Alan McLeod did the heavy lifting instead, reflecting on whether the high prices being asked for old bottles of Fuller’s Vintage Ale in any way reflect it’s value:

On beer trading marketplace, if it truly had that value I should be able to sell it back to Fullers or at least my government retailer for something expressing the wholesale current value. It’s been kept in a cool dark cellar and subject to optimum protection. As usual, my claims to provenance were impeccable. If I go back through my tax records I would likely be able to find the receipt for buying it. I expect it would say I spent something like $6.95 CND. Yet… the box was gone and the label encrusted with a bit of mould. Who would want that? I couldn’t sell my Captain Scarlet Dinkie toys in that condition – and I wouldn’t anyway so stop asking.

FWIW, all we wanted to do was make sure our friends knew that the bottle of beer they were about to sling into the bathtub full of ice for general consumption during the evening’s debauch might deserve a little more ceremony in its consumption. Which, we guess, is part of the marketing value for Fuller’s of putting those seemingly mad price-tags on the beer. That and, as Alan suggests, encouraging people to buy twelve of the new batch rather than the usual three, just in case they might one day pay for a house.


Illustration: Testosterone.

We really didn’t know whether to link to this last piece from Bryan Roth for Good Beer Hunting or not. When we bookmarked it for inclusion it had yet to acquire any baggage — we just liked that it highlighted a different, less pointed idea of exclusion in the beer industry, which is to say not active harassment or directed prejudice but rather a constant background blokeishness that might be quietly off-putting to anyone other than a certain type of blokey bloke. That’s something we recognise in the UK industry, too, though of course it takes a slightly different form here.

Since then, however, the article has generated an enormous amount of drama and criticism, ranging from nitpicking complaints about journalistic protocol and structure (it is a bit of a ramble), to the now obligatory outrage over supposed ‘political correctness’, spiced with accusations of hypocrisy.

But let’s keep this simple: we read the article, we found it interesting, it is an attempt to prompt people to do the right thing, and we admire Mr Roth’s discovery of a new angle. It’s up to you whether you wish to engage in the wider soap opera but, as an article in its own right, it’s worth seven minutes of anyone’s time.


Marble Brewery beer mat.

Manchester brewery Marble is engaged in a dispute over a lovely but confusing beer called Pint which it sells not only as a cask ale but also in 500ml cans. Jim at Beers Manchester offers a heartfelt, understandably partisan summary of the situation:

Because a product – a beer – has a name “Pint”, it would appear that it would be ill advised to sell it in 1/2 litre cans. Because ONE PERSON reported it as being potentially misleading. Because its name was in bold – and the measurement information was in the same size as most other canned beers… So. Change size or rename an iconic Mancunian Pale Ale? … [If] it’s the latter, I’d like the numpty who reported this to Trading Standards to reveal him/herself. And explain the thought process that leads to a small business having to change something so special to me – and many many others.

(Much as we understand the frustration, as with the Tiny Rebel situation before Christmas, we find ourselves out of step with the general mood here. For one thing, we’ve always found Pint a pain in the arse to order in a pub — “Pint and a half of Pint, please” is vaguely amusing the first time but quickly palls — and, for another, can’t imagine anyone expecting Trading Standards, which after all has yer actual legislation to enforce, to give AB-InBev a pass in the same situation.)


The Session, that venerable institution that some say predates the invention of the internet itself, is in a spot of bother this month as the intended host didn’t get round to organising a topic due to a small matter of California wildfires. But at the last minute one of the co-founders, Jay Brooks, has stepped in with an emergency topic for Session #131, or rather three short topics. If you have a beer blog, or want to, now’s your chance to join in. We’ll be posting something later today.


We’re going to wrap up with one of our own Tweets — a poll, in fact, to which more than 700 people responded. For now we’re not going to offer commentary other than to say that this is a reminder of how dominant pessimistic voices can seem, and how unpersuasive they apparently are.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 November 2017: Fenlands, FOBAB, Froth

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from pastry stout to cask quality.

First up, Canadian beer historian Gary Gillman has done something that, for some reason, nobody in the UK seems to have thought worthwhile, and looked into the history of that most controversial of widgets, the sparkler:

The sparkler was invented and patented in the early 1880s by George Barker. He advertised the device for sale in 1885 and identified himself as from the “Crown Hotel, Ince, near Wigan”.

(As always the mention of a sparkler summons Tandleman to the comments which are worth reading for additional context.)


Dunwich sign.

Dave S, a regular commenter here, lives in Cambridge and has been pondering  The Psychogeography of Fenland Mild. As well as some rather lovely prose evoking the landscape of East Anglia he offers this incisive suggestion:

My advice to a brewer wanting to make beer with a ‘sense of place’ is that they should stop worrying about where their ingredients come from and look at where their end product goes to. They should sell locally, and drink locally themselves. They should see what people respond to – what makes sense for their local drinkers, in their surroundings, with their climate – and adapt and evolve to the place where they’re based.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 18 November 2017: Fenlands, FOBAB, Froth”

Spoonsgate

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

We’re not quite sure why restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin chose to review a branch of Wetherspoon in her new column for the Sunday Times but she did, and didn’t like it.

We haven’t been able to read the column because it’s behind a paywall so won’t comment on it directly except to say that from the generous quotes the Morning Advertiser has permitted itself here it does seem that she was offering a genuine reaction to the quality of the food. If you’re skint, one of those quotations suggests, the chippy is cheaper and better — a sound argument and surely one that (as intended) goes someway to mitigating accusations of pure snobbery.

But, still, this delicate rebuttal by the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush for the i newspaper chimed with us, bringing back memories of our teens and early twenties:

I’m not going to pretend that I adore the food at Wetherspoons, but it has, nonetheless, been responsible for some of the best meals of my life. When I was working in a shop and gradually tunnelling out from under my overdraft, a monthly treat for me and the rest of the staff was a trip outside of the store’s catchment area (where we could be certain of not bumping into any of the clientele) to have dinner at Spoons… It wasn’t good, but it was affordable, we could sit down without being hassled to move on and, crucially, you pay separately and upfront, with no anxiety about who was paying for what.

This got us thinking about how often Wetherspoon pubs are (to paraphrase a favourite line of the Pub Curmudgeon’s) distress destinations — somewhere you end up out of convenience, as a compromise or because, yes, you’re skint.

We often have a great time in Spoons but that’s usually because it’s so quick, easy and cheap (per Stephen Bush) it takes all the stress out of deciding where to go so you can concentrate on having fun with friends and family. You can walk in with a party of eight, including a teetotaller, a vegetarian, a conservative bitter drinker and a craft beer geek (actual case study) and be sure that everyone will have a reasonably good time, and that nobody will come away feeling ripped off.

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

But, at the same time, any one of those people, if it was entirely their choice and money was no object, would probably choose somewhere else.

Of course it’s not always a compromise. The lure of interesting festival beers makes Spoons the go-to place at certain times of year; some of the buildings are beautiful, important and/or atmospheric; and (controversial opinion klaxon) we’ve yet to have better chicken wings than theirs, and — believe us — not for want of trying.

More generally it’s fascinating how much coverage Spoons gets in the mainstream press, and how many clicks those articles seem to generate. It is very close to a universal British experience these days, after all, and heavy with cultural symbolism in the age of Brexit.

There’s a full chapter on Wetherspoon’s in our new book20th Century Pub, and as a result (disclosure) it’s apparently reviewed or at least mentioned in the upcoming edition of Wetherspoon News. We’ll be acquiring a copy or two of the magazine for posterity.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 August 2017: Breakfast, Blackness, Beer Festivals

Here’s everything in beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from breakfast boozing to totalitarianism.

For Vice Angus Harrison asked a very good question that yields interesting answers: who exactly are the people you see drinking in Wetherspoon between breakfast time and lunch? Knee-jerk assumption has it that they are tragic alcoholics living chaotic lives outside the rules of society but, of course…

You perhaps wouldn’t notice the pub was full of finished night-workers if you’d just walked in, but as soon as you know what to look for, it becomes obvious. The barman gestures to a table in the corner where six blokes in battered denim and dusty T-shirts sit hunched over pints. Upstairs, three journalists who have just left the news desk drink lagers before heading home for a sleep. In the smoking area out front, a member of Stansted’s lost luggage team tells me he often pops in around this time, on his way home from the airport.


Illustration: a pint of beer with Van Gogh textures.

For Eater Lauren Michele Jackson writes on a subject that feels especially topical, this week of all weeks — the thoughtless, politically charged, overwhelming whiteness of ‘craft culture’ in food and drink:

Craft culture looks like white people. The founders, so many former lawyers or bankers or advertising execs, tend to be white, the front-facing staff in their custom denim aprons tend to be white, the clientele sipping $10 beers tends to be white… The character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful. A lie by omission may be a small one, but for a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts.

(Via @robsterowski.)


Beer hall: German student society c.1897.

On a related note, Alan McLeod at A Better Beer Blog AKA A Good Beer Blog has been too preoccupied with the anxiety-inducing global political situation to write much about beer, until the two subjects came together in these notes on moments when fascism, communism and racism collide with our favourite drink:

Earlier this year, Hungary witnessed a bit of a political controversy over the appearance of Heineken’s red star – which Hungarian law considers a totalitarian symbol… In 2016, a brewery in Bavaria was accused of offering a Nazi friendly lager named Grenzzaun Halbe, or Border Fence Half… Then there are the old boys who, you know, just say those sorts of things…


Closed sign on shop.

For the US magazine Draft Zach Fowle gives a substantial treatment to a subject we’ve previously prodded at here on the blog: why exactly do breweries fold when they fold? It’s hard to get people to talk about this because it’s so raw, even humiliating, but Fowle elicited some great frank responses:

For us, it was really a production restraint. It’s simple math. Overhead was too high for the amount of beer we could produce in the space we had. There were all kinds of things that were always limiting: pump space, floor space, combined with the big cost of the space, the people we work with, and we were also a shared facility hosting several other breweries. That was something we were really passionate about, but these breweries are taking 20 percent of the space but not paying 20 percent of the overhead. We were basically landlocked in a very expensive building… I learned in this process that whatever money you’re raising, double it. Maybe triple it.


GBBF handpumps in action.

In the week following the Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA) Great British Beer Festival there has been, as ever, much debate about whether it works in its current form. Tandleman, who works there as a volunteer, says, broadly, ‘Yes’:

A great atmosphere, beer quality has never been better, I met lots of people I knew on trade day and enjoyed talking to them, our bar was excellently staffed by old friends and new and I had a really good time.  It is just as important to enjoy yourself as a volunteer as it is as a customer. Us volunteers wouldn’t come back otherwise and then, simply, the show wouldn’t go on.

But in a comment on that same post retired beer blogger John West (@jwestjourno) provides a measured and typically eloquent counter-argument, suggesting that GBBF is ‘under-curated’. He reference Benjamin Nunn who on his own blog, Ben Viveur, expressed his disappointment at the event:

Normally, I’d put that down to mid-life-crisisism, post binge-drinking comedown and my generally bleak outlook on life. But a few conversations with other attendees seem to confirm a pretty widespread view that this really was the most lacklustre GBBF for some time… There are always a few folks (I hesitate to generalise but very often older people from other parts of the country) who whinge about the GBBF pricing. This year they have a point…

(Disclosure: we got free entry to this year’s GBBF because we were signing books and are frequently paid to write for CAMRA.)


ILLUSTRATION: "Kill the Bill".

We feel no shame in including our own 4,000 word post on the rise of the lager lout in Britain in the 1980s, which we stupidly posted last night when everyone was in the pub:

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis… Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets… In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.


And, finally, here’s an illuminating nugget from Joe Stange:

Appy Meal

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

We’d noticed Wetherspoon pubs pushing their order-at-your-table phone app but didn’t feel moved to download it until Bailey’s parents started raving.

They first used it in Exeter the other week and rang us up to tell us about it, so excited were they. Bailey’s Mum:

The bar was six deep and we were knackered and then we saw the thing on the table advertising the app, so I downloaded it. We ordered drinks and food and they arrived in minutes, no queue! Brilliant.

Then, during the house move, we ended up in Spoons with them a couple of times, where they kept up the propaganda campaign. Bailey’s Dad seemed puzzled as to why we’d keep putting ourselves through the misery of queueing at the bar when such a wonder existed.

And that’s a good question — what had stopped us?

For one thing, we had some ethical qualms — won’t this put bar staff out of work? Isn’t full self-service automation the next stop? (Probably not.) At-table ordering via apps and touchscreens has been taking off in US fast food chains in recent years (probably where Mr Martin got the idea, being a known McDonald’s worshipper) and similar debates have been underway there, too.

More selfishly, we had our doubts about how well it might work for fussy drinkers like us — would it make ordering guest ales easier, presenting them in a neat list with all the info, or simply give the basic core drinks list?

I kept thinking about all this, perhaps because I had some responsibility for procuring and maintaining electronic point of sale systems (EPOS) in my last job, and so, on Wednesday, I cracked and gave it a go.

My chosen testing ground was The Imperial in Exeter, a beautiful building so vast that (first hurdle) the app kept warning me I was 142 yards away from the pub when I was actually sat at one end. The app downloaded in seconds over the pub’s own free wi-fi and was incredibly easy to use — it was clearly tested thoroughly on real people before roll out. For ordering food, it worked brilliantly. Being on my own, with work papers and laptop, I loved the idea of being able to get served without the usual anxious glancing back and forth from bar-staff to table, worrying whether my stuff was about to get half-inched.

As suspected, though, it fell down on drinks. The Imperial has two bars each with different ales and the app ought to be a way to show picky ale drinkers everything on offer in one neat list. As it is, I could only order the cross-chain standards (Doom Bar, Abbot, Ruddles) so I ended up having to do the anxious bar dash anyway.

And, unless I’m missing something, there’s no way to apply the CAMRA voucher discount. Probably a deal breaker for many, but probably also on the project planner for a future version: e-vouchers with a pin code, saving on all that glossy paper, perhaps?

As I sat there, Billy no mates, I pondered those ethical questions and concluded that, frankly, if you’re in a Wetherspoon pub, you’ve already crossed the line — Spoonsland is a realm of pure capitalism, for better or worse. There’s also something pleasing, not to say amusing, about the idea of Tim Martin, arch Euro-sceptic, quietly introducing something like Continental-style waiter service to English pubs.

Overall, I was impressed, and can imagine using it for ordering the chicken wings to which I’m addicted, if not drinks. While that’s not quite the sci-fi future they promised us it’s pretty astonishing all the same.

Further reading: this article on the pros and cons of the app from the Independent, published back in March, is an interesting read that takes a balanced view.

The Young Ones

Wetherspoon's engraved glass "Est 1979".

Young people might not go to pubs but they certainly go to Wetherspoon’s.

A discussion about this broke out in comments a few months ago. Our position then, as now, is that people shouldn’t be too pessimistic: the pub is too ingrained in our culture to be abandoned overnight, and people are often drawn to it as they get a little older. But we have been observing with this question in mind and it’s true: ‘proper pubs’ (smaller, characterful, brown, bordering on grubby) do tend to be dominated by people in their forties or older.

(Research for our forthcoming book suggests that it has always been that way, really, despite repeated efforts by brewers to make pubs appeal to younger drinkers who they feared losing to the cinema, coffee bars, burger restaurants, discos…)

The reasons for that seem obvious to us. It’s partly a matter of atmosphere but more importantly, we’re certain, one of cost, with pints of even quite ordinary lager or ale costing between £3.50-£5. People on minimum wage part-time jobs, living off student budgets, or even pocket money, can’t afford to spend £15 before they even start to feel mildly merry. A few weeks ago a young couple (perhaps 19 or 20-years-old) sat next to us in the Farmer’s Arms and made a half of bitter each last an hour while they listened to the band, rolled their own cigarettes, and counted coppers for their bus fare home. It didn’t look all that much fun.

But there is one kind of pub where we’ve noticed the clientele skew consistently youthful and that’s the Wetherspoon’s chain. It’s odd, that, in some ways, because it doesn’t necessarily match the stereotype of a ‘Spoons drinker, and there are certainly plenty of older people there, too. But from what we’ve seen, and dredging our own 20-year-old memories, it does make sense.

‘Spoons is an easy place not to drink, for one thing. The younger drinkers we’ve noticed are often on hot chocolate, frothy coffee or pounding cans of energy drink. A typical party, sat near us about a fortnight ago, between them had one pint of bitter, two of lager, a can of Monster, and a pint of Coke. They were all eating, too, treating it almost like a diner.

Which is another point in its favour. The menu is large, varied, and makes eating out, at a table with cutlery, accessible in towns like Penzance where otherwise it’s a tourist-price ‘bistro’ or Domino’s pizza with not much between. We’ve quite often seen groups of what must be sixth-form students having their tea together, perhaps prior to the cinema or some other activity.

It has room for the packs in which young people like to roam, too. Groups of six, eight, ten, with piles of rugby kit, or guitars, or costumes for a party, rarely struggle to find three tables to line up in banqueting formation.

And, being huge, it is relatively anonymous. They can shout, squeak, flirt and generally mess about without actually being the centre of attention, which they certainly would be in most other pubs in town. When Boak used to drink in the Walnut Tree in Leytonstone in the mid-1990s this was the main reason — because it felt safe and mixed, because she and her friends could sit in a corner and not be bothered.

If you’re a young parent, south of 25, ‘Spoons also seems to work. It is big enough and sufficiently noisy that your kid’s shouting and crying barely registers, and there’s plenty of room for push-chairs, colouring books and all the other accoutrements.

The question is, does all this breed new pub-goers, or only new ‘Spoons-goers? And that’s part of a bigger question about whether Wetherspoon pubs are really pubs, or only some strange, pub-like fast food outlet. It must be heartening, surely, that young people are out at all. If it was purely about cost, they’d be at home or in the park drinking supermarket beer which is cheaper again but, no, there’s an irresistible pull towards a shared public space.

QUICK Q&A: Which Was the First Wetherspoon Pub in the Good Beer Guide?

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

A week or so ago David Martin asked: ‘Rumour has it that Wetherspoons Milton Keynes was the first JDW pub to get in the GBG. Any idea if this is fact?’

We pretty quickly established that this couldn’t be true — beer and pub people are terrible for inventing and embellishing this kind of lore, unfortunately. But we couldn’t rest until we’d answered the implied supplementary question: which was the first Wetherspoon’s pub to make it into CAMRA’s annual Good Beer Guide?

There was no way to answer this other than ploughing through old copies with a list of early Wetherspoon pub names at hand. That, in itself, is harder to come by than you might think: there’s no official master-list with dates and many are no longer owned by JDW.

But we think we’ve got there, thanks in part, once again, to the wonderful pubology.co.uk. The first Wetherspoon pub in the GBG was, we can say with some certainty, Dick’s Bar at 61 Tottenham Lane, London N8, which made the edition for 1983.

We can be sure because in 1982 when this volume of the GBG was compiled there were only three Wetherspoon pubs: the original Marler’s/Martin’s/Wetherspoon in Crouch End (1979); this one, Dick’s Bar (1981); and J.J. Moons on Landseer Road, Holloway (1982). This is from November 1982, about when the GBG for 1983 would have been wrapping up to go to print ready for a launch in February:

Advert from the London Drinker, 1982.
SOURCE: The London Drinker, November 1982, via West Middlesex CAMRA.

So, that was a lot of work for a whole heap of Who Cares? but at least that itch is scratched. It’s interesting, we suppose, that it happened this early.

Obligatory pre-emptive plug: there’s a chapter given over to the history of the J.D. Wetherspoon chain and the rise of the superpub in our forthcoming book 20th Century pub: from beerhouse to booze bunker. Watch this space and all that.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 25 February 2017: Babylon, Oldham, Cologne

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer- and pub-writing in the last week, from memories of a glamorous landlady to, yet again, the question of sexism in beer.

It’s true: when any archive releases a new batch of digital content, public domain or otherwise, it is a beer blogger’s duty to search that collection for ‘BEER’. That’s how Alan Mcleod came across a Bablylonian cuneiform tablet from the 1st Millenium BC containing information on beer:

How is it that I can read a Mesopotamian clay tablet and pretty much immediately understand what is going on? If it was about religion, governance or astronomy I wouldn’t have a clue. But beer and brewing are not strange. They are, in a very meaningful way, constant. You can see that if we go back to column 2 where you see words for 1:1 beer, 2:1 beer, 3:1 beer and even triple beer. The ratio is the relationship of grain input to beer output.


Public Bar etched on a Manchester pub window.

For the Guardian Rachel Roddy uses a recipe for cheese and onion pie as an opportunity to reminisce about a childhood spent in and around an Oldham pub:

A good slice of my childhood was spent at my granny’s pub, The Gardeners Arms: a large, red-brick Robinson’s pub at the bottom of Durham street… I remember her both in her housecoat buffing the brass tables and flushing out the pipes – good bitter comes from a clean cellar and clean pipes – then, later, when regulars had taken their place, coming down the stairs ready for the night. ‘You look a million dollars Al,’ my grandpa Gerry would say, Bob Seger curling out of the juke box in agreement: ‘She was looking so right, in her diamonds and frills…’

(Via @phil55494)


Fuller's Vintage Ale 2016.

Martyn Cornell wants to know where the hell all the 2016 Fuller’s Vintage Ale has gone:

Fuller’s is being tight-lipped about why the 2016 is now impossible to find: there are rumours that something went terribly wrong with the packaging, but no one seems willing to say. It’s a great pity, because the 20th iteration of Vintage Ale since it was first brewed in 1997, is a lovely, lovely beer, already, at approaching a year old, deep and remarkable.


Shipping container: KOLN.

Barm has been in Cologne and paints a wonderfully evocative picture of a busy session at a pub with a cult reputation:

When we arrive at 1620 there are already 60 people waiting for the pub to open at 1630. By the time the doors open the crowd has swollen to 80 or more. Thirty seconds after the doors open, every seat inside is taken… Because there is no choice, the beer pours constantly, never becoming flat or warm. One waiter is dedicated to pouring beer. Clack-clack-clack go the small glasses as he rotates the round tray underneath the tap.


An example of the iceman pour.

We’ve been ignoring the so-called ‘Iceman Pour’ — a weird trend among a small group of drinkers on social media that has some beer folk growling with irritation — but we couldn’t resist Richard Taylor’s attempt to explain its origins and appeal:

Users like theiceman13 and benhur345 love nothing more than running out of room in their glassware, pushing the limits of fluid dynamics by leaving a gently convex beer surface clinging to the tops of their Tekus. The rest of us look on in bemused wonder thinking that in our day something handed over like that would result in a trip back to the bar for it to be be-frothed once again. Although when the meniscus is wobbling like a week-old jelly it takes some skill to take the glass anywhere without it dribbling down the sides. As I discovered for myself.

After all, if in 50 years time we’re all drinking our beer this way, Richard’s blog post might end up being an important historical document.


Wetherspoons sign: All Ales £1.69.

If you’ve been trying to find an excuse to wriggle out of boycotting Wetherspoon pubs over CEO Tim Martin’s vocal support for Brexit Henry Jeffrey’s has you covered in an article for The Spectator:

This seemed to me the definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face; imagine turning down cheap beer because of the EU! But it also disrupts one of the fundamentals of a liberal society: that you do business even with those whom you disagree. Voltaire marvelled at this concept on his visit to the London Stock Exchange: ‘Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.’


There’s been a fresh flurry of articles about sexism in beer lately but John Holl, editor All About Beer, is doing more than merely talk about the issue:

We will not be quiet about this important issue. We want to do our part so that the next generation of beer drinkers can focus on the fun, the flavorful and the future. Beers that demean women or promote rape culture will not be reviewed or promoted in this magazine or on AllAboutBeer.com.

A lot of angry comments follow the article — ‘Take this leftist PC garbage and shove it.’ — and it is possible All About Beer will lose some readers and subscribers over this. But maybe it’ll gain some too.

(DISCLOSURE: We are occasionally paid to write for AAB.)


Green Bottles Standing on a Wall

Not happy about UK craft breweries switching over from 500ml packaging to 330ml? It’s only going to get worse, said Ed. And then, as if on cue, Weird Beard made an announcement


And, finally, here’s an interesting nugget of news: