Sunday, 20 September 2015

If only you could bottle it

When he’s not engaging in juvenile rants against the Ebil Toriez, or claiming that a big brewery merger spells apocalyptic disaster, leftie beer writer Pete Brown can actually come up with some sensible stuff when he sticks to the knitting of beer and pubs*. Recently, he’s written an excellent piece for the Morning Advertiser about how atmosphere in pubs is arguably more important than either beer or food.

And he’s quite right, of course. No matter how good the beer or food, if you don’t feel at home in a pub you may not be inclined to linger, or to visit again. It can be very small or subtle things that deter people, or indeed make them feel welcome. He gives a couple of examples – 80s power ballads being played, and a massive plasma screen showing daytime TV. Now personally I’m more than happy for Ann Wilson to sing to me “how do I get you alone?” but I fully recognise that music needs to be tailored to the clientele. Indeed, I’ve often come across contemporary R&B/hip-hop music being played to customers with an average age well north of 50.

Clearly, “atmosphere” doesn’t just mean things I might personally like. A pub crammed with football or rugby fans watching the match will undoubtedly have atmosphere, as may one with a stand-up throng playing kickin’ music at top volume. It’s also generally the case that, regardless of the style of pub, more customers generate more atmosphere.

A while back, I tried to define Pubbiness, but it’s always something that is very difficult to nail. We all know when a pub has atmosphere, but it’s something that simply cannot be bottled. You certainly can’t easily transfer the winning formula of one pub to another, although pub operators often try. I could try to attempt a definition based on factors such as landlord involvement and interaction between customers, but that would probably fall flat on its face. It’s often the case that there’s a close correlation between atmosphere and popularity, but it doesn’t always follow. I’ve also noticed how some CAMRA members seem completely impervious to any question of pub atmosphere so long as they like the beer. I don’t think pubbiness is quite the same as atmosphere, although there is a substantial overlap.

I regularly visit a handful of Sam Smith’s pubs, mainly because they have an atmosphere that suits me. I know I can get a wider choice elsewhere, and maybe better beer too (albeit at a price), but the alternatives just don’t seem so congenial. If those pubs dropped cask OBB in favour of keg, which many Sam’s pubs have done, then, probably I’d keep going there. Because of the atmosphere.

And it can’t be a coincidence that Tim Martin has included “Moon” in so many of his Wetherspoon pub names, given that particular celestial body’s well-known lack of atmosphere.

* I created a second Twitter account to express my more general political views, recognising that introducing too much of a political element might alienate many of my beery followers. Perhaps Pete Brown would help his cause by doing the same.


  1. Pete Brown is, I feel, one of the few (only?) British beer writers who can actually write with a degree of skill. Having said that, his MA article this week, while raising some good points, still fell into the "will this do?" category for me.


    For me the pinnacle for pub atmosphere is a boozer in the City (by which I mean London, square mile-ish) post-lunch and pre-evening rush. The golden hours. You get a delightful mix of the well educated, high achieving, who can bunk off work at will, the professional skivers of whatever rank, those who don't work for whatever reason and a random smattering of tourists.

    The afternoons I've spent in such circumstances may count as some of the greatest in my drinking career.

    Of course it's impossible for a publican to affect such an atmosphere; all they can do is construct a suitable stage and hope the players decide to turn up.

  2. Arthur, of course the Gunnies isn't Square Mile - City fringes, perhaps - but we spent many afternoons as you describe. That real "Sixth Form Common Room" atmosphere was hard to beat.

    I remember once such scene with total clarity. I, the landlord, was lying full blast on the bench seating. At the end of the bar were you and Peter (both senior, able to bunk off at will), Dietmann (retired) and dotted about were Eddie (junior, bunking off an office job he wasn't bothered about), Nickbread (lazy idle piss steam, day off work) and Whitbread (doesn't work for very obvious reasons). Behind the bar was one of the dozens of barmaids to pass through during the years. Whitbread was demonstrating his batting technique with an umbrella. We were all shouting at each other across the room.

    A bloke who fancied a quiet pint and a read of his paper walked in, took one look at the scene and said out loud "sorry, this is too weird for me" and turned on his heel.

  3. Agree with above - 3pm midweek in Aldgate or Spitalfields GBG pub pretty much perfect, or one Sam Smiths Blackpool pubs any time. It's that him of conversation and anyone welcome, but no-one too loud or drunk yet.

  4. There's nothing like having sex on the pool table of the pub you own at the end of a night with all the punters gone,a till full of money waiting to be counted and a fresh pint ready to be demolished to conjure up an atmosphere.
    Although the moment the Japanese scored the winning fairy-tale try over the Saffas on Saturday and my local erupted comes a fairly close second.
    It's not often you see grown men cry with joy.

  5. Why the politics? I thought this was about beer, or is it just a forum for cheap shots and driving traffic to Twitter?

    And what the hell is climate realism?

  6. After this morning's revelations about Call Me Dave's student days I'd say Pete Brown is about as happy as a poke in a pig.

    I thang you ...

  7. News to me that Pete Brown's a Leftie.

    By the way, Curmudgeon, the answer to Ann Wilson's question is Wonga.

  8. @RedNev - a quick perusal of Pete Brown's Twitter feed would quickly prove that point.

    He is of course fully entitled to hold and express his views, but my objection that he unnecessarily introduces them into his beer writing when it is irrelevant.

    For example, I have a book called "Map Addict" by Mike Parker. What he says about maps and their wider significance is very interesting, but he rather spoils it by bringing in his own prejudices.

    Ann Wilson is asking me "How do I get you alone?" so it's a matter of opportunity - I don't think the possession of wonga on either side would make much difference. Unfortunately in later life she put on a huge amount of weight - I'd probably prefer her sister ;-)

  9. It was just a pun, CM.

    I saw Heart once in the 80s or 90s in Birmingham - excellent gig.

  10. Sorry, Nev, I completely missed that one :-(

  11. Prof, when you don't have a pool table you can do it on that big table just out of sight of the door. However if you hear a knock on the door from someone who's left their bag make sure you're properly decent before you steam down to open it lest you become a source of ridicule at the office opposite where you get much of your friday night trade from.

  12. I agree with you that Sam Smiths pubs have superb atmosphere ! No music, just good conversation. I was in the Old Hall at Heckmondwyke two weeks ago. Amazing OBB bitter from the wood, very reasonably priced, huge range of lagers, ciders, fruit beers etc for those who don't drink cask. Superb night ! Amazing to me why these pubs rarely appear in the co called 'Good Beer Guide' !!!

  13. What I like to do is "virtue signalling"

    This is where I don't have to actually do anything to help the poor. I can sit on my fat arse and enjoy my middle class metropolitan life but compensate by calling Tory MP's a c**t on twitter.

    Gideon, Dave and Michael Gove are my favourites to abuse. Try it, you'll feel better about paying £6 for a posh coffee as you ignore that homeless man outside the tube station.

  14. @Pedro - you forgot to mention IDS and his Nazi-style genocide of the poor


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