Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Under the radar

There are about 50,000 pubs in Britain today. CAMRA’s WhatPub online guide lists just short of 36,000 that sell real ale, leaving some 14,000 in the category of “keg pubs”. These often exist under the radar of CAMRA, and other compilers of pub guides, and surprisingly little is known or written about them.

The other day, Jeffrey Bell chanced on one in Folkestone, the Park Inn, pictured above. What is notable about the beer range is not just the absence of real ale, but the absence of any nod to the craft beer movement or indeed the 21st century. Jeff and his companions plumped for Guinness, although I suspect my preference would be Stella or Carling as Guinness tends not to agree with me. Martin Taylor has written about the Vaults, a surprisingly characterful little keg pub in Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, although that does offer “real” cider.

In the old days of the tied house system, breweries would often offer keg and cask versions of the same product in different pubs. However, with a few exceptions, such as Felinfoel and Sam Smith’s, you don’t tend to see that now. You wouldn’t go into a Robinson’s pub and find keg Unicorn on the bar. Instead, the ale range is likely to be one or more of nationally distributed smoothflow beers such as John Smith’s, Tetley, Boddington’s and Worthington, plus possibly a blast from the past such as John Smith’s Chestnut Mild.

While a large majority of pubs in Stockport serve real ale, there are still some prominent keg-only pubs such as the Town Hall Tavern on the A6, the Jolly Crofter on Castle Street, Edgeley, and the Houldsworth Arms in Reddish. The Jolly Crofter seems to do good business, and whenever I pass it during opening hours there seems to be a throng of smokers outside the front door. And one of Manchester’s most famous pubs, Sam Smith’s Sinclair’s Oyster Bar, remains defiantly keg-only.

By definition, a keg pub is not one that is seeking to attract new customers with an interest in beer, and is probably familiar with people walking through the door, taking one look at the bar taps, and walking out again. And it has to be said that nowadays, with real ale increasingly becoming a middle-class affectation, keg pubs tend to very much appeal to the working class, who of course can spot pretension a mile off.

They may be largely ignored by people who write about pubs and beer, but keg pubs represent a whole swathe of pub life that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

19 comments:

  1. It's always been obvious that people write about what interests them and ignore what doesn't. Why would a beer hobbyist or CAMRA gonk write about places they don't go in and don't interest them? Not going in a place that doesn't sell any products you actually want is regular consumer behaviour.

    The amusing thing is when people write from the perspective that the world revolves around their own niche, whether urban craft bars or real ale pubs.

    Whether CAMRA or craft bloggery, about 90% of the drinking world is ignored and as far as I can see is happy to be ignored. They don't actually want the attentions of beardies or bloggers.

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    1. But some of us are interested in and enjoy pubs for more than just the beer. I'd probably still enjoy going in the two Sam's pubs in Stockport town centre even if they were keg only.

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    2. OBB aside, all Sam's pubs are keg only.

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    3. What an utterly stupid comment.

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  2. Sinclair's is keg-only? Since when?

    I think well-kept cask is almost invariably superior to keg, which means that the clients of all those 14,000 pubs are missing out, and I'd like to see every one of them offering at least one real ale. Those may seem like odd or extreme positions, but they seem to go well with being a member of CAMRA.

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    1. AFAIK Sinclair's has been keg-only for years.

      The problem re your second point is that real ale has gone from just being a way of storing and serving "bitter" to being a discrete product in its own right, that tends to be avoided by drinkers who want to avoid anything inconsistent, challenging in flavour, or drunk by blokes with beards and woolly jumpers.

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    2. Pubs have narrowed their appeal to different segments of society. Not everywhere is for everyone. Pubs differentiate on things like age, social class.

      There should be pubs where beardie ale types have no interest in going in so those wishing to can avoid them. A refuge well away from the RATs, where no one will tell you the Pride is drinking well and you can neck your stella in front of the game on the big telly.

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  3. In Birkenhead I could reverse you comment to. 'While a large majority are keg only there are still some prominent real ale pubs.' The phrase 'craft beer' has yet to reach these parts.

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  4. Sent by Bailey of Boak & Bailey:

    I feel like I'd really have to go out of my way to find one, to be honest. The Railway Arms in Truro (formerly the railwaymen's social club) is the most recent one I can think of stumbling upon and even that *theoretically* has real ale, it's just always off.All the pubs in Penzance make some kind of gesture to real ale. The Pied Piper in Stevenage, which we schlepped to on research, supposedly had Abbot Ale and GK IPA, although both were off on our visit; the same goes for The Willow in Harlow. All the big inter-war pubs on estates in Birmingham, Newcastle, etc., had real ale too -- some of it not in bad nick, surprisingly. We did get looked at a bit sideways ordering it in one or two places, though.

    The last place I can recall going that didn't even *gesture* at real ale was a Brewer's Fayre on a roundabout in my home town because it's really a fast food restaurant with pub trappings.

    I suspect the reason keg-only pubs get overlooked is in very large part because keg-only pubs also happen to be unappealing for other reasons, i.e. they're not historic, or in attractive locations. The surviving pub on the estate where I grew up is, I gather from What Pub, keg only, but the reason my family never went there wasn't because of the beer -- it was because it was cold, tatty and unfriendly, shading violent! (My granddad didn't mind a half there on a weekday lunchtime, though.)

    Anyway, when does your series of profiles of keg-only pubs start....?

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    1. A WhatPub search of Redruth comes up with 2 from the first 10 results being NRA - the Rose Cottage Tavern and the Collins Arms.

      The same for Leigh in Lancs came up with 7/10, my home town of Runcorn 6/10.

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    2. Follow-up comment from Bailey:

      Not sure the Rose Cottage quite supports your argument.... http://www.rosecottagetavern.com/redruths-rose-menu-gallery/ … 'Chef's Four Course with Wine and Pilsner', etc. The Collins Arms looks more like the kind of thing you're talking about and WhatPub makes it sound quite appealing. FWIW, we tried to go in once, caught between trains, but it wasn't open.

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    3. The same search for Camborne produces 5/10 NRA.

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  5. I seem to remember writing reasonably often about achingly unfasionable keg-only pubs. Like here:

    http://barclayperkins.blogspot.nl/2009/03/one-night-in-folkestone.html

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  6. A search on WhatPub under Widnes produces 9 of the first 10 results as "No Real Ale", although some of them are actually in Runcorn. I asked on Twitter whether anyone could get the full 10, but a problem is that in Scotland, which is where you would be most likely to find it, the records of keg pubs are very much incomplete.

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  7. Hang on - 50 000 pubs in Britain, 36 000 of which sell real ale? That is one of those statistics which I seriously doubt the veracity of. In my small Scottish town, with satellites: 13 pubs. Real ale pubs: 0. Neighbouring big town, around 30 pubs. Real ale pubs: 5 afaik. Outwith Greater Edinburgh I reckon that would be entirely typical for Scotland. Now, I am sure that the percentage of real ale pubs in England is much higher, but will it really be 80% plus?

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    1. Someone on Twitter expressed surprise that the proportion of keg pubs was so high - it all depends on your personal experience. Remember that Scotland is less than 10% of the total UK population.

      I'd say in England as a whole it probably is over 80% of pubs serving real ale, and in some of the Home Counties such as West Sussex and Buckinghamshire it's well over 95%.

      I'm writing a blog on this particular subject which will appear over the next few days.

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  8. Yes I too despite being a cask ale fan do appreciate different styles of pubs whether cask or keg. The predominant factor for me here is the fascination of interacting and meeting with the local punters and clientele,and getting a real flavour of the town I am in at the time as a result. As such if in a random town although I will gravitate heavily towards the cask ale pubs,I will try any others in town,and consider it a special achievement if I've made the smartest venue in town and the most basic on the same night!

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