Saturday, 16 March 2013

Mainstream to niche

One of the most noticeable developments on the pub scene over the last couple of decades has been the growth of the “specialist beer pub”, which has now become the favoured drinking haunt of the two overlapping (but not identical) groups of CAMRA members and beer enthusiasts.

But Cookie raises an interesting point on Tandleman’s blog as to what CAMRA members did before the multi-beer pub was invented, and indeed nails this type of pub pretty accurately:

Before CAMRA there were pubs. Some were posh and some were dumps. I gather you knew what to expect a short while after entering.

At what point did the "CAMRA pub" become a recognised type of pub? You know lots of hand pumps, Vedett beer signs, Paulaner coasters, Middle class berghaus fleece wearing public sector employee bearded punters. It could not of been early doors in the 70's. Was it an 80's or 90's thing? When CAMRA types decided to shun the pubs of regular folk and sit in their own inauthentic but safe beer enthusiast theme pubs?

In my recollection, the CAMRA members then just tended to drink in the “normal” pubs, although they favoured certain pubs over others on the grounds of:

(a) Owned by “favoured” breweries, i.e. Holts rather than Greenalls
(b) Reputation for keeping their beer well, and
(c) Generally “traditional” atmosphere
So let’s go back to 1983 and see what featured in the Good Beer Guide for Stockport – a time when I had never set foot in any pub in the town:
  • Arden Arms (Robinson’s) – still open, in 2013 GBG
  • Armoury (Robinson’s) – still open, in 2013 GBG
  • Blossoms (Robinson’s) – still open, now an “Ale Shrine”
  • Castlewood (Wilson’s) – long since closed
  • Crown (Boddington’s) – still open, in 2013 GBG as a multi-beer freehouse
  • George (Higson’s) – reopened 2012 after a period of closure
  • Old King (Bass) – recently demolished after being closed for a few years
  • Swan with Two Necks (Robinson’s) - still open, in 2013 GBG
The Royal Oak on High Street (in its original form) is offered as a “try also”.

Between them, those nine pubs are listed as offering twelve different beers – Bass XXXX Mild, Cask Bitter and Draught Bass, Boddington’s Best Mild and Bitter, Higson’s Mild and Bitter, Robinson’s Best Mild, Best Bitter and Old Tom, and Wilson’s Mild and Bitter. You could probably now find more different beers on the bar of the Crown, Magnet or Railway, although fewer milds. From the perspective of 2013, it’s an eye-opener that a pub such as the Old King, with Bass XXXX Mild and Cask Bitter (the successor to Brew Ten) on electric pumps, could even be considered for the GBG, but so it was.

Obviously now there is hugely more choice overall, but the enthusiasts tend to confine themselves fairly strictly to the likes of the aforementioned Crown, Magnet and Railway. Whereas before an evening out would consist of sampling various beers in a selection of pubs, now it tends to be more a case of drinking your way along the bar. I can’t help feeling that something has been lost, with the middle-class beer enthusiasts retreating into the niche of the specialist pub and no longer engaging with the generality of the pub trade.


  1. I can't say I've noticed such a trend.

  2. "I can’t help feeling that something has been lost, with the middle-class beer enthusiasts retreating into the niche of the specialist pub and no longer engaging with the generality of the pub trade."

    You have a point here, Curmudgeon and I think we've been somewhat spoilt in recent years by the rise of the specialist pub. 10-20 years ago we'd have been quite happy to stay in the same pub all night, even if it only sold one or two beers. Now we almost tend to turn our noses up at "one beer" pubs, even though the beer sold might be immaculately kept.

    I'm probably as guilty as anyone over this, especially as I don't go to the pub anyway near as frequently as I used to. There are occasions though, when I am quite happy to forsake the delights of the specialist pub, and these are when catching up with an old friend; spending some time doing the same with a family member I might not have seen for a while; when stopping for a well-earned break during a lengthy country walk or just enjoying a quie pint and my own company. In short, any time when the occasion itself is more important than the beer.

  3. This certainly doesn't apply to Norwich, we only have a couple of "specialist" pubs here (Fat Cat, Norwich Tap House, and the Kings Head on Magdalen Street) because there are so many other pubs that serve a decent pint, with anywhere from 2 to 5 ales on. To the point where a pub crawl is physically impossible as I'd be in the gutter half way round! I can name at least 10 pubs within 30 minutes of my house that I am more than happy to get a pint in, and I can be quite picky.

  4. Perhaps the phenomenon is more pronounced where there remains a substantial proportion of independent brewery tied houses (i.e. what CAMRA originally championed) rather than current or former pub company outlets which may now put on a guest beer or two.

    Having said that, a pub with Bombardier, London Pride, Wainwright and Doom Bar on the bar to my mind has less appeal than one with just Adnams or Bateman's.

  5. Looking forward to discovering the pubs of Norwich for myself, Pinto. I shall be in the city next month for CAMRA's National AGM.

  6. I enjoy "camra" pubs, for the record. I was just wondering when camra pubs started to be a noticeable pub type. It is a term I have heard people use as if some pubs are camra pubs and some aren't. It is not used just to denote cask beer but a wide selection of micro brewed beer and an absence of mainstream products. That absence is important.

    It has the features mentioned in the quote and further features are a beer mat wall. A wall decorated with beer mats of "uncommon to the UK" beer brands. Long obsolete pub games are often present to which only the select few know the rules.

    The Viz RAT joke is also often present in the form of train and railway memorabilia.

    The prices tend to be reasonable and the beer good. Rather than use price to filter out "undesirable patrons" they use the absence of mainstream products. This seems to make them distinctly middle class venues.

    A further appeal beyond beer geeks is I think the returned traveler. They are often the only pub in that area selling a particular brand of foreign grog.

    As for where people should and shouldn't drink, it is a free country and as I said, I like these pubs and own a berghaus fleece. Beer ain't cheap so why drink in places you like less? It does appear an insulated type of pub experience, though.

    The number of them makes them every bit the theme pub as the plastic paddy pubs that invaded us in the 90's. I gather they are not seen as such because there is not one corporate force behind it. It is an organic set of identikit independent businesses. That anti corporate vibe is an important element of their appeal too.

    I shall study them further with pint of pong in hand ;)

  7. It has led to a rise in prominence of the ticker community. And, as one, I can't complain about that!

  8. Now there is a question, Barry. I can see the appeal of the camra pub to a ticker, but does it encourage ticking or just enable it? That's one for thought.


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