Around this time of year, many bloggers come up with lists of “Golden Pints” which they have enjoyed during the previous twelve months. Now, as I said last year, that’s not really what this blog is about, and “the news that a new bar had opened where I could perch on an uncomfortable stool and pay £3 a third for beer that tasted like Ronseal wouldn’t exactly fill me with an urge to visit.” But here are a few of my peaks and troughs of 2015:
- Continued Achievement – no change from last year in Sam Smith’s for pub operator and the Armoury in Stockport for individual pub. Sams’ pubs have continued to provide ultra-keen prices and great atmosphere, and they’re currently engaged on a much-needed refurb of the Swan next to the station in Holmes Chapel. The Armoury is a classic street-corner boozer which is the go-to pub for the best kept Robinsons’ beer for miles around, and managed to become runner-up as local CAMRA Pub of the Year. The Magnet is an excellent pub in many ways, but the Armoury really should have won.
- New pubs visited – I finally managed to get to the famous Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen in Pembrokeshire, which is more in the nature of a pilgrimage. I was served Bass from the jug by the legendary Bessie, and saw a party of American tourists totally fazed by the whole thing.
Amongst more “normal” pubs, I was struck by the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice in Northumberland. While it’s in a spectacular setting, the pub, though very congenial, isn’t outstanding in terms of either character or beer range. But the attention to detail and the friendliness of the welcome reflected an operation that was doing everything it could to get things right, in sharp contrast to the grudging, slapdash approach you unfortunately encounter all too often.
- Pub anecdote – I walked into a Good Beer Guide listed pub that was advertising a 10% discount on cask beer for CAMRA members but, not having my membership card on me, I wasn’t in a position to take advantage. However, the barmaid asked whether I was a member and, when I replied that I was, she let me have the discount anyway. Possibly the sight of a middle-aged bloke, wearing glasses and jumper, scanning the row of handpumps might have been a giveaway. I put the difference in the charity box. Unfortunately, I ended up with a cloudy pint and had to take it back to the bar to get it changed, which I felt slightly bad about.
- Wizard. It’s rare to see a brewery launch a new “ordinary bitter” as a permanent beer, and this is a very good one. Inevitably it was dismissed as dull and bland by the hop fiends, but ordinary bitter isn’t meant to take the skin off the roof of your mouth. Actually it’s a rewarding beer with a good balance of malt and hops and a surprising degree of complexity, which provides a tasty lower-strength alternative in Robinsons’ pubs. I’m told it has been extremely successful.
- Best pub refurbishment – Hydes’ scheme at my local pub, the Nursery in Heaton Norris. I wouldn’t say this has improved it as such, beyond giving it a general smartening-up, and some of the carpet and wallpaper patterns are a touch garish. But they have respected all of this National Inventory listed pub’s original layout and stained glass, with the only structural alteration being the entirely sensible replacement of the disused off-sales counter with a ladies’ WC to serve the vault. It’s a big demonstration of faith in the future of the pub by Hydes and, with the help of a new but highly experienced manager, it has been trading very well and also selling consistently good cask beer.
- Worst pub refurbishment – as last year, Robinsons are the guilty party, with their work at the Bull’s Head in Hale Barns. This is a big, upmarket pub with an attached lodge. Maybe twenty-five years ago it was given a smart, clean-lined, comfortable interior in conjunction with multiple operator Kalton Inns. However, it has now been transformed into a fussy, over-styled mess which is one of those places where there are plenty of seats, but nowhere you really fancy sitting. In particular, the two south-facing rooms with bay windows have had all their fixed seating stripped out and replaced in one case by a steamer trunk in place of a table. Their website describes it as “a pub full of theatre and intrigue”, but I’d say it’s more a monument to impracticality and pretension. I have to say I am becoming seriously dismayed by Robinsons’ systematic vandalism of large chunks of their estate, against which the once-derided “Robinsonisation” pales into insignificance.
- Off-trade retailer – upmarket North-West supermarket chain Booths have opened a branch this year in the suitably upmarket suburb of Hale Barns (just round the corner from the Bull’s Head), which isn’t too far from me and somewhere I regularly pass. Following my local Tesco culling its beer range, I decided to give them a try and wasn’t disappointed. They have a far wider beer range than any of the major supermarkets, including a lot of “craft” stuff, and at only slightly higher prices. If you spend over £10 at the weekend you even get a free national newspaper. Yes, there are specialist beer shops with more obscure bottles, but they come at a price and their range of everyday beers is often limited.
- Pub cat – to be honest, I follow more pub cats on Twitter than I encounter in the wild. It’s impressive how they manage to negotiate social media without opposable thumbs. But my favourite was a cute little dark tortie in the Bunch of Grapes in Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, who was happy to sit in one of those boxes normally used for charity sweets, placed on top of the bar. At first, I wondered if it was a stuffed cat, but in fact she was perfectly happy to be given the occasional stroke, and to raise her head and look around. The Draught Bass was good, too.
And the Bag o’Nails in Bristol, run by occasional blog commenter Luke Daniels, got extensive news coverage for its large feline population. Unfortunately I’ve never been there personally. Typically, the RSPCA weren’t impressed.
- The Red Lioness by Cathy Price, recording her quest to visit all the 650-odd pubs in Great Britain called the Red Lion. A noble endeavour, and it benefits from her not being a professional beer or travel writer and so giving a fresh perspective. But, ultimately, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, including plenty of amusing and insightful anecdotes, but at the same time often coming across as a list of “first we went here, and then we went there”. I like the fact that she ended up in a pub featuring Britain’s only democratically elected village idiot. I’m planning to do a full review in the near future.
- Beer blogging – in the early part of the year, Stonch, mentioned last year, continued to go from strength to strength, and assembled a team of contributors. Later on, one or two dropped by the wayside, and Stonch himself became fully occupied with a troubleshooting role in Manchester, but it continues to stimulate much discussion. Beer blogging itself seems to continue to wither on the vine. I’m likely to record my lowest tally of posts since 2007, which was only a half-year, and it looks as though Tandleman will do the same. I blame Twitter!
I was also pleased to see long-time commenter Martin Taylor set up his own blog to record his travels around the country in pursuit of visiting every Good Beer Guide listed pub. This is a thoughtful, well-written blog that conveys a strong sense of place. It was also good to meet Martin on our local CAMRA branch’s annual Hillgate Stagger.
- Unintended consequence – there was a huge amount of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in the twitter- and blogospheres over the news that ABInBev had bought well-regarded London craft brewery Camden Town. And I must claim some responsibility for this. A couple of weeks before, I bought a can of their India Hells Lager from Booths, and thought it was rather good, if pricey. As is well known, any beer that Mudgie enjoys can’t really be regarded as proper hardcore craft, so that must have been the signal for the vultures to swoop.
- Best public policy – as last year, George Osborne’s decision to make a third small cut in beer duty, and indeed freeze all other alcohol duties. Combined with the economic recovery, this has made a noticeable difference to the level of trade in pubs, which must be welcomed. If the duty escalator had continued for three more years, the typical pint would probably be at least 30p dearer.
- Most cheering news – the decisive rejection by the European Court of Justice of the Scottish government plans to implement a minimum unit price for alcohol. It’s not completely dead, but I’d be surprised if it sprang back to life, and this will also set a precedent that will affect similar proposals in Ireland. Maybe Cameron should throw down the gauntlet to Sturgeon and devolve alcohol duties to Scotland. I’d lay money they wouldn’t dare vary them, even if they had the power.
- Tourist attraction – Seaton Delaval Hall, just up the road from the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice mentioned above. A striking, monumental house designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in the early 18th century, where the central block was gutted by fire in 1822 and remains a shell, although fully roofed. Just down the road, Tynemouth Castle and Priory are also well worth a visit, with spectacular views over the mouth of the river.