Thursday, 7 July 2016

Donnington disappointment

From the description, Donnington Brewery, which I wrote about here, sounds close to perfection – occupying unspoilt rural premises in a picture-postcard location by a pond with a watermill, brewing distinctive, artisanal country beers, and selling them at bargain basement prices in a small estate of classic stone-built Cotswold pubs all within a few miles’ radius.

The other week, I ticked off yet another of their pubs, the Red Lion at Little Compton (pictured), right at the southern extreme of Warwickshire. A nice enough pub, and still retaining a public bar, but not really a write-home classic. This means that I have now visited 12 of their remaining original 15 pubs, a higher proportion than any other brewery in the country. I haven’t visited any of their three more recent acquisitions. Incidentally, the staff at the Red Lion must have misheard my order, and gave me the wrong kind of baguette, although when I eventually got the right one it was pretty good.

However, the reality doesn’t quite live up to the vision. For a start, while they’re almost all lovely buildings in beautiful settings, most of their pubs have been internally knocked around to a greater or lesser extent, and few can be said to have particularly characterful interiors. As I said before, “in the 1960s Mr Claude was bitten by the modernity bug, and many of them had been opened out and furnished in a faux-rustic style with wobbly-edged tables that even in the early 1980s seemed very dated.” The Black Bear in Moreton-in-Marsh, which was a particular offender, has now been further modernised and extended, and its main bar/lounge must be one of the most drab and characterless pub rooms I’ve encountered.

Plus their beers are never going to set the pulses racing. They were never outstanding, but even now BB always seems to have a slight haze on it, and any flavour, especially of hops, is very subdued. The low prices (typically £1 a pint below local competition) are some compensation, but no excuse. Sam Smith’s OBB is cheap, but it sacrifices nothing in terms of quality. Plus they now seem to have replaced SBA – a stronger best bitter version of the “ordinary” BB – with the more fashionable Cotswold Gold. I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds like something of a concession to trendiness. As far as I can see, there’s only one Donnington pub, the Fox at Broadwell, with its beautiful village green setting, in the 2016 Good Beer Guide.

It would be great if Britain had more small, long-established family brewers providing a distinctive product to a tightly-knit tied estate. And it’s also great that Donnington is still there and continues to plough its own furrow. But it has to be recognised that not all will quite reach the standards of Batham’s in terms of either pubs or beer.

Edit: Alan Winfield has now posted a trip round all 15 Donnington pubs in a day on his blog here. The photos show what beautiful buildings they all are, externally at least.

13 comments:

  1. You go in pubs ordering baguettes? What type of French rubbish is this?

    Get a cheese bap down you. Cheddar. None of that Brie.

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    1. It's all baguettes and paninis and wraps in Spoons, Cookie.

      You'll struggle to get a plain sarnie or batch in a pub nowadays.

      Delete
  2. Yes i always am very disappointed both by Donnington and Arkells. I was in the Nags Head in Great Malvern on Tuesday night. Lovely range of beer including Bathams Best and a stunning pint of Woods Shropshire Lad.

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    1. I've not been in an Arkells pub for years, and their beer doesn't tend to appear in the free or off-trades. I've heard similar reports from others, for example Twitter contributor "Pigtown Grump".

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    2. I'm not convinced that Arkells beer is that bad. There's an excellent pub of theirs near Ascott (Simon Everitt also positive recently) and Cheltenham's Adam & Eve still pretty good. Again, like many managed Greene King houses, just don't think cellarmanship a priority. Best landlords in the free trade round there ?

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  3. My experience too.

    I've struggled to explain clearly the average micro beer I had in Cornwall this week on my blog, but the lack of coolness and condition I associate with Donnington (probably visited half a dozen GBG pubs over years plus a few beers in free houses) was very familiar. Whether that's loose cellarmanship or inherently poor beer I don't know, but clearly local CAMRA agree on quality.

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  4. I've stayed at the Red Lion for a few nights, and it was great. But we did notice early on that we were being constantly directed to the dining side of the pub, which is a 100% restaurant, whilst we could see on the other side of the bar a pool room where all the locals hid, and who we'd subsequently join.

    A nice pub, a fantastic B&B, but by God drinking the same (perfectly good) beer 3 nights in a row made me hate it in the end.

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    1. Yes, there are far worse pubs in the Cotswolds, and I was allowed to eat my baguette and drink my hazy £3 pint of BB in the public bar. But, as you say, the lounge side is basically a restaurant.

      I don't begrudge paying £6.95 for a decent baguette, but that is a bit on the steep side. I'd say £5.50 would have been reasonable.

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  5. I did all of the Donnington tied estate on the 7th may 2011,this was a birthday treat from my brother who drove me round them.
    I think they have some really nice pubs in great locations,but i do agree the BB is a bit insipid.
    I think i have now got one more to do as i think they opened or took over another pub to the South of their normal trading area.
    My next blog will be of this crawl which also included four other pubs in the Costswolds to bump up the numbers of pubs done.

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    1. The three new ones are the Pheasant at Toddington and the White Bear at Shipston-on-Stour, which are both quite close to their traditional trading area, and the Red Lion at Castle Eaton in Wiltshire, which is quite a long way to the south.

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  6. Thanks for those which i did not know about,it is a shame that the White Bear is one on the new ones,i did it on 10th May 2015 while doing the other pubs in the town,i did have nice drink of Ilkly Mary Jane in it though.
    My blog about the Donnington crawl is in response to this blog of yours,how would i link my blog which will hopefully be published this afternoon to yours.

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    1. According to the Donnington website, they acquired the pub in July 2013, so you have been in it under their ownership. If you had an Ilkley Mary Jane presumably they were or are offering guest beers.

      I'll add a link to your blog to this post once you've published it.

      Delete
  7. I am sorry i got the date wrong for the visit to the White Bear it was 10th May 2013 a mix up with the last number.
    My Donnington pub crawl has now been published,i hope you like it.

    ReplyDelete

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