Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Only here for the beer

If you asked most people about their reasons for choosing a particular pub, they would list factors such as the company, a relaxing atmosphere, food, watching TV sports, playing pub games or quizzes, or even simply because it’s convenient to get there. But few would say that it was because it sold a specific beer, or range of beers. Yes, beer does matter – they will choose between different beers on the bar, and the beer selection may influence a marginal decision between one pub and other. But few would visit a pub they otherwise didn’t like purely because they liked the beer.

However, if you are what might be called a “beer enthusiast”, obviously the balance of decision-making shifts in the direction of beer. Just how far was tested in a couple of recent polls carried out by Tandleman and myself. On the face of it, these seemed to produce contradictory results, with Tandleman’s poll showing 67% favouring “a fantastic pub” over “a fantastic beer”, while mine, which asked a somewhat different question, said 65% favouring “great beer, dull pub” over the opposite. I then ran a poll on my blog which, with a smaller sample size, came up with one of those pesky 52-48 results in favour of pub over beer. The comments on that poll can be viewed here.

Obviously the answer to a question like this very much depends on the interpretation you put on it, which is what must account for the widely varying results. I did wonder in the comments on Tandleman’s post whether people thought I was having a go at micropubs and brewery taps, but that certainly wasn’t the intention. Certainly these places don’t appeal to everyone, as suggested in this tweet by Matthew Lawrenson:

However, the simple fact that you are in like-minded company will make you feel at home – a pub being congenial is about far more than just its physical design. I recall someone in my local branch of CAMRA saying “I don’t care what the pub’s like so long as the beer is good”, but you do have to wonder just how many aspects of what he would regard as “pub hell” he would be prepared to endure just to have a pint he liked. Of course, in general, the pubs that offer beer that appeals to enthusiasts don’t tend to have the features that would really put them off, so the conflict of interest doesn’t arise.

It’s sometimes suggested that, in the early days, CAMRA members would often make a point about going in unappealing pubs purely because of the beer. There was some truth in this, especially in areas where the only place real ale could be found was a grotty dump, but the mere fact that a pub is plain and basic doesn’t mean you won’t feel at home there. The truly threatening pubs wouldn’t tend to get much recognition, or indeed many visits. And the other side of the coin was that, far more so back then than now, many attractive pubs that outwardly ticked all the boxes were distinctly cliquey, and you wouldn’t be made welcome if you didn’t fit in.

I make no secret of the fact that I very much come down in the “pub” camp, and as I wrote back in 2010 in a post entitled Wooden Wombs, “at heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer”. I’m very much with Mark here:

Forty years ago, I was certainly keen to seek out unusual brews, but that was very much a question of finding them in their natural habitat, not the present-day random selection of beers you’ve never heard of that you’ll never get the chance to try again. And that doesn’t apply if you’re just looking for somewhere to have a drink in your local area. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always lived in places where there has been a good choice of decent beer in a variety of pubs so I’ve never been forced to make that choice between good pub and good beer.

I’ve described my reasons for going to the pub rather than staying at home as “just to get a change of scene, relax, chill a bit, do some peoplewatching, get some mental stimulation”. Obviously I don’t want to drink bad beer, but that’s not my chief factor in deciding where to drink. I have mentioned before that I regularly visit some Sam Smith’s pubs, not because I think their beer stands out from others generally available in the area, but because their general ambiance makes me feel at home. If they decided to convert their OBB to keg, as some others have, then I might not go so often, but I certainly wouldn’t shun them. If I’m visiting a different area, my first thought is to consult the National Inventory of heritage pubs rather than check the Good Beer Guide for micropubs and brewery taps.

At the end of the day, what makes an appealing pub is highly subjective, and varies enormously between different people. In practice, it’s very rare that people are confronted with a clear-cut choice, on their terms, between “good pub” and “good beer”. However, by putting the beer offer ahead of every other factor when choosing a pub, beer enthusiasts are further emphasising the gulf between them and the general pubgoing population.

32 comments:

  1. 75% in favour of beer for me but I also have to like the pub, so I'm not keen on Spoons so however good the beer I'd likely swerve it, on the other hand I'd swerve a great looking pub if it's only got Doom Bar on.Im fussy.

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    1. I'd be pretty desperate just to go for a drink in Spoons. Unless they had Bass on, of course :-)

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie19 March 2019 at 21:02

      - or unless it was before 11am.

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    3. I'd actually seek out a pub with only well-kept Doom Bar on, Bull in Sawbridgeworth for one.

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  2. Professor Pie-Tin19 March 2019 at 15:54

    In my decades of propping up both sides of a bar I've found that if a beer is kept well then generally the pub is pretty good too.
    I can't recall drinking great beer in a crappy pub and definitely not crap beer in a great pub.
    Sadly crap beer in crap pubs is the rule rather than the exception.

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    1. Incapability Brown19 March 2019 at 16:11

      Good observation, prof. If I reflect, then my experience is pretty parallel.

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    2. It's generally more a cmatter of beer range than how well the beer is kept. I can't see that the enthusiasts would come running for a superbly kept pint of Black Sheep or Wadworth's 6X.

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie19 March 2019 at 19:30

      P P-T,
      Yes, we might expect well kept beer in a good pub and crap beer in a crappy pub.
      Maybe that's well kept beer in a civilised pub and crap beer in a pub focusing on televised sports.

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    4. I would struggle to break into a light canter for a pint of Black Sheep or indeed 6X even though I know you're enthusiastic about the latter Mudgie.

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    5. It's the only cask beer at the GBG-listed Anchor at High offley in Staffordshire, which Paul knows very well and holds fond memories for him :-)

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    6. The Stafford Mudgie20 March 2019 at 01:47

      Yes, indeed, plenty of happy memories of the Anchor at High Offley, far too many to recount on here.

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  3. In reality, its a bit of a non-question, seeing as there is a very strong correlation between great pubs and pubs that serve great beer, so its not a choice you often have to make.

    Having said that; we do happen to have 2 local pubs that fit this dichotomy; a decent but slightly bland pub that does food and good cask beer, and a pub that has more to offer in other ways (traditional bench seats, a pool table, a darts board and a big beer garden) but the beer is crap (GKIPA, but no one will touch that, so most people drink lager instead).

    Sometimes we go to one, sometimes we go to the other; depending whether we want to play pool, otherwise we default to the pub with decent cask beer. However if the beer in the latter pub was better, we'd go there every time.

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    1. The White Horse (Nellie's) in Beverley is a great pub, but is a Sam Smith's tied house, which some (not me) would argue isn't great beer. Plenty more where that came from.

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    2. A good example in Sam Smiths pubs, often great pubs and I am one who thinks OBB isn't all that, I'm happy with they're keg stout in these cases, but not all day.

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    3. Yes. The Crown in Glossop is a wonderful National Inventory pub owned by Sam and serving only OBB. But I regard OBB as a classic example of traditional beer.

      But the original poll is rather Manichean in that there is a large middle ground of decent but not great pubs serving decent but not great beer.

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    4. It is very much open to interpretation, obviously. Maybe it could have been better expressed as "Which is more important to you - range of beer, or wider pub qualities?"

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  4. The Stafford Mudgie19 March 2019 at 19:47

    I suggest that the “65% Great beer, Dull pub, 35% Dull beer, Great pub” result would have been quite different if “acceptable” had been used instead of “dull”.
    ‘Dull’ comes across as unduly negative but there’s nothing wrong to many people, especially of my age, with something that’s “lacking interest or excitement”.
    I would rather not have the educational historic photographs meant to add ‘interest’ to the internal walls Tim’s barns and I certainly wouldn’t want the ‘excitement’ of televised sport.
    Most proper pubs offer a chance of relaxing and getting away from anything too interesting let alone exciting.
    I read somewhere recently “Beer should be good. Beer should be fun. Beer should be inclusive”. ‘Good’ yes, ‘inclusive’ maybe but ‘fun’, no, that’s for the hipsters.

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  5. Apologies if this is off topic but... a view (via anecdote) from across the pond.

    For the last six years I've had a part time job that takes me to a town about 90 minutes away by car every month. I began to stop in, after finishing the job, for a pint (or two!) at a brewpub that served pretty good beer. Three months ago they changed staff. After the first instance with the staff I now just get in my car after the job's done and head on home.

    Cheers

    PS - Is this where I point out "that certainly wasn’t thei ntention." is spaced incorrectly? ;)

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  6. "The pub is known for offering snacks of dried insects, but we managed to avoid the temptation."

    Bloody hell.

    "but rather surprisingly one of the most impressive catalogues came from one of the younger members of the party still in his early forties."

    BRAPA wasn't there was he? :)

    "We even managed to have a discussion about Brexit without coming to blows."

    True Pub Men. :)

    "Opposite us were two mature ladies, one of whom was drinking pints of cask, the other cans of Gold Label barley wine poured into a glass. "

    If you'd played your cards right, one of you could've been in like Flint there. ;)

    "but a couple stayed on for a curry in a nearby restaurant."

    Unless RM was one of them, I won't believe you.

    "the turnover in busy town-centre locations was obviously sufficient to keep them in good nick."

    Ye olde 'location, location, location' comes to the fore once again.

    Sounds like a great day out. One of these days...

    Cheers

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie21 March 2019 at 17:24

      "Unless RM was one of them" - no, he had made his excuses and was north of the border.

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  7. Whereas in my younger days I went in all pubs, nowadays it's just pubs that serve good beer. I find that these pubs are also friendly pubs to be in. The prices tend to be good too. These pubs just do everything "pubby" correctly - if they've got one thing right, they're likely to have got every other pub ingredient right too.

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  8. It’s different strokes for different folks as they say.
    The best attended CAMRA meeting I ever observed was in a microbrewery tap venue in midwinter. The premises were freezing, the seating was outdoor benches inside a microbrewery and the establishment was filled to the rafters with CAMRAs that never took their coats off and appeared to love every minute of the uncomfortable surroundings.
    When taking a few friends of the none enthusiast type around a few CAMRA awarding winning pubs, the pub with the clean tables, spacious room and nice smell was considered the best. The one with its own brewery was dismissed for smelling like cooked shredded wheat and the CAMRA favourite dismissed for sticky tables and grottiness. The nice clean place with the clean carpet was much liked.
    Neither group are right, neither are wrong. Both get what they want and steer clear of what they don’t. Neither appear to appreciate the others perspective, but neither appear to wish to or need to. Everyone appears to be getting what they want.

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    1. For someone I strongly disagree with on a few topics, Cookie talks a lot of sense at times.

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  9. I think Cookeie's hit the nail on the head.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie21 March 2019 at 20:28

      Indeed, I knew the time would come when Cookie could be taken seriously !

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  10. In that case gents, I feel the need to express an opinion you might disagree with.

    In my observation those on the beer enthusiast end of the scale can often use “beer quality” as a proxy for opinions about an establishment that they don’t wish to express.

    Regular drinkers will tell you honestly why they like or dislike a pub. The pub is nice and clean, the pub is full of deadbeats, the drinks are nice, the prices are great or a total rip off. They enjoyed it or they didn’t. The opinion is their own and of no consequence and therefore likely honest.

    The enthusiasts, the largest chunk of which are arguably CAMRAs, are more primed that such discussions are not idle and may be related to serious business, like beer guide entries or pub awards.

    Thus, they may be more inclined to praise or criticise beer quality as a proxy for simply saying the pub is their type of establishment that they happen to like and feel comfortable in. The degree to which this is a conscious act, in my observation, varies. Some consciously will realise it may be perceived as snobbery to dismiss a Sam Smiths or Wetherspoons for attracting some deadbeat customers and will instead suggest the beer is poorer than it actually is. Some I think simply feel more comfortable in certain places and this affects their enjoyment of the overall experience and they are inclined to thus genuinely believe the quality of the beer is actually greater than it is.

    Therefore, the dichotomy of pub quality or beer quality can be a false one, when people are arguing for a result they wish to achieve. Like for their favoured pub getting a gong or a pub they don’t like getting into a beer guide.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie22 March 2019 at 11:31

      No, I can't disagree with that.
      Cookie's hit the nail on the head again.

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    2. I agree too - people are basically choosing these pubs over others because they are used by like-minded folks. The bare, functional brewery tap and cramped micropub are not uncongenial in their eyes because they feel at home there.

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    3. No, no problem with that either.

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    4. Rings true Cookie but is our fixation with pubs and with beer a proxy for something else altogether? I sometimes wonder.

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  11. He's right you know, thinking about checking out a micropub or two myself tomorrow.

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  12. There are dead beats and dead beats.
    The good ones are polite, nod to you as you come in but take time to get to know you.They might be down on their luck, or they might be comfortably off but just like dressing scruffy. You can learn a lot about someone by how they treat a dead beat.
    Good pubs. A good pub, that you attend regularly, will learn and adapt to your tastes, at least a little. Maybe lay in the bottled beer you like and keep it the way you like. (I like my Guinness in a bottle, at room temperature.) Your custom and that of your friends is worth something.

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