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”


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.