Sunday 15 July 2012

Great exhibition

There’s an interesting post here by Boak & Bailey about the development of the “alterno-beer” movement in the UK. One point I made in the comments was that the dedicated “beer exhibition” pub, where the choice of beer was the main attraction, very much predates “craft beer” and indeed was firmly established not long after the birth of CAMRA.

A quick look through the 1979 Good Beer Guide reveals establishments like the Barley Mow at Tyttenhanger Green in Hertfordshire, the Duck on the Hagley Road in Birmingham, the Bat & Ball in Farnham, Surrey and the Windmill at Whiteley Green in Cheshire, all offering a choice of six to twelve beers from a variety of breweries. Clearly the demand for pubs of this type was already strongly established. I seem to remember the Barley Mow (now, sadly, I believe, closed) being described in one GBG as “more a beer exhibition than a pub”.

In about 1983 I remember being taken to the Fighting Cocks in Bradford, in an out-of-the-way spot on an inner-city industrial estate, but with a then incredible range of beers. The Duck & Drake on Kirkgate in Leeds was up and running in the mid-80s, and I think the Beer House in Manchester became a multi-beer pub around 1986 or 1987. The Crown in Stockport (pictured) dates back to maybe 1991, and by this time the concept had become so popular that it was being taken up by established breweries. Cameron’s converted a number of pubs to the Tap & Spile format, and Whitbread followed suit with the copycat “Tut & Shive”, which ended up being nicknamed “Tub o’shite”. By this time, there would have been few substantial towns in England at least without at lease one specialist beer pub with a bar groaning with handpumps.

Of course, as I wrote at the time, the Achilles heel of many of these venues was quality – if you’re serving twelve different beers, without the turnover necessary to sustain them, especially at slacker times, many will be warm at best and Sarson’s at worst. This inevitably led to something of a retrenchment during the mid-1990s.

My comment that “The more people who care about beer who drink in the multi-beer ‘freehouse’, the fewer there are to complain when their local switches over to nitrokeg” is even more appropriate today, when the beer geeks tick off the rare beers in their favoured 15-pump venue and don’t seem to care about the wider world in which local pubs are dropping like flies.

The Beer Orders led to a general opening up of the tied pub trade and actually, today, I’d say there are probably no more self-proclaimed “specialist beer pubs” than there were twenty years ago. But, in a sense, the wide choice has now gone mainstream, with many operators such as Wetherspoons and Brunning & Price routinely offering a choice of beers that in 1980 would have been considered worthy of an exhibition pub, and five beers a common sight on the bar of a pub company outlet.

Although it wasn’t given huge publicity at a time when the focus was firmly on “real ale”, these pubs often also stocked a good range of imported Belgian, Czech and German beers that you simply wouldn’t find in mainstream outlets.


  1. "...the wide choice has now gone mainstream, with many operators... offering a choice of beers than in 1980 would have been considered worthy of an exhibition pub".

    This is a really important point. At their best, in the right context, what exhibition pubs, destination craft beer bars can do is raise the bar a bit.

    When I left in 2011, there were three pubs in Walthamstow/Leyton alone that, ten years earlier, would have been contenders for 'best pub in London', based on the range and quality of their beer.

    Three guest ales is barely worthy of comment in London these days; when I first moved there in 2000, that was enough for a place to qualify as somewhere that 'takes its real ale seriously'.

  2. Martin, Cambridge15 July 2012 at 16:38

    Following on from Bailey's comment, I often read of CAMRA members' disappointment in enetering a pub with only three or four beers on, with ranges including Landlord, Golden Pippin and Pedigree described in withering terms.

    The upshot of this is the decreasing quality of beers I'm noticing in Beer Guide pubs. In four successive beers in South Tyneside over the weekend the beer was very dull, and no advert for real ale. All four had five or more handpumps. Only the more focused local in East Rainton offered a quality beer (Theakston XB).

  3. Martin, rather brings to mind this post.

    I remain convinced that most of the mainstream pubs are now carrying too many ales to ensure decent throughput - although, in my experience, the specialist pubs do better even if they have 12 pumps.

  4. Martin, Cambridge15 July 2012 at 18:05

    Curmudgeon - post from last Sep still accurate, even though I'd personally advocate day-to-day quality as the only consideration for inclusion (acknowledging subjectivity of that), so would argue for inclusion of Spoons where they're consistently good.

    As also noted here, quality over the week end often much better than on a Monday lunchtime (if open !)

    And yes, quality is propped up by the beer enthusiast who seems to stick to the ten or more pumps pubs such as the Wellington, Boathouse at Wylam and Ship & Mitre, based on recent evidence. Tales of CAMRA branch trips are becoming very dull.

  5. When I bought my first free-house in Exeter in 1986 there were no hand-pulls, I soon put that right, one of the first things I did was to install four pulls, 1 Local (Steam Engine) 1 regional(ish) Wadworth and 2 for nationally available ales on rotation every couple of weeks ... I think it played a significant part in growing the trade from 87 brewers barrels per annum to close on 800 brewers barrels over the next four years ... as did having a wide range of bottled beers ...

  6. If I walk into a pub to be faced with Landlord and Golden Pippin, I wouldn't complain. Landlord, when well-kept, is still an excellent pint. It's a pity there is so much prejudice among certain real ale drinkers against good regional beers. And yet, as far as I can see, most "innovative" beers I've drunk just seem to have had a sackload of hops chucked into them. Such beers will not gain mass acceptance, whereas a respectable but more conventional golden beer like Thwaites Wainwright will, and is (I'm seeing it everywhere).

  7. RedNev said: "Such beers will not gain mass acceptance."

    That's an interesting assertion because we've heard anecdotal evidence pointing both ways, and can't make up our minds.

    On the one hand Phil has rightly identified that, to a lot of people, the appearance of a beer such as Hobgoblin as a guest at their local is still an exciting event.

    On the other, a few people have told us that they didn't 'get' beer until they had a really hoppy, 'extreme' one.

  8. I base my view from chatting to various licensees about what sells well. The key word is "mass": I don't believe they will get the level of acceptance that Tetley Bitter used to have or Greene King IPA has now, or even Deuchars IPA, Landlord or London Pride.

  9. But then if you'd asked them about the likely prospects for pear cider or rosé wine in pubs ten years ago, they'd have given a grim prognosis... the consumer is a fickle creature.

  10. There is a clear trend of mainstream drinkers moving towards golden ales, but many of those are quite bland and not in any sense "extreme beers".

  11. Curmedgeon; the Barley Mow has indeed closed. In its hey-day there was an offer/challenge that if anyone managed to drink one each of the up to 17 beers they got their money back. There was also a very good barbecue, customers would purchase their meat and bread at the kitchen then go outside to cook it themselves. Where was Elfin Safety then? St. Albans now has the Blacksmith's Arms which regularly stocks up to ten Ales, all in tip-top condition at reasonable prices. Indeed, I believe they got an award for selling more Real Ale than Lager - for a city centre outlet that is quite an achievement. Most Ale enthusiasts who drink there also frequent others amongst the many smaller pubs in the area.


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