Friday, 14 August 2020

Only here for the pub?

I was recently reading a blogpost by Martin Taylor about the Hyde Park in St Neot’s, Huntingdonshire, and saw this comment that very much struck a chord with me.
25 years of trendy beers in “CAMRA” pubs and I suddenly find I prefer slumming it in scruffy market town boozers selling Doom Bar after seeing the joy in LAF’s posts.
“LAF” is Life After Football, who tends to write about pubs used by ordinary people that are never going to trouble the scorers for the Good Beer Guide.

This mirrors what I wrote ten years ago:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
I first became interested in beer in the late 1970s, when the landscape was very different from today. There was effectively a finite number of draught beers available from a slowly diminishing number of long-established breweries. Although a few beers enjoyed wide distribution, in general to sample a variety of brews you would need to travel to different parts of the country and drink them in the tied houses of their own brewers, which of course added to the thrill of the chase. If you wanted to try Mitchells or Yates & Jackson, you would have to go to Lancaster or its environs.

Pubs as such were largely taken for granted, although it quickly became clear that they varied widely, with some being characterful and welcoming while others were blandly modern or offputtingly gimmicky. Sometimes you found yourself visiting a dreadful pub for that occasional rare beer, but in fact that was surprisingly rare. Some pubs were fascinatingly old and quaint, and some were wrecked by heavy-handed renovations, but nobody had yet seen the need for a National Inventory of historic interiors.

Before moving to the Stockport area in 1985, I never lived anywhere there was a wide choice of beers available on my doorstep. Therefore in each area, for your local pubgoing, you had to learn through trial and error (sometimes aided by the Good Beer Guide) to distinguish between the pubs available to you, both in terms of their atmosphere and the quality of their beer. It became evident that, broadly speaking, there was a correlation between the two, that better pubs kept their beer better.

However, slowly but surely, a fundamental change came about in the nature of beer enthusiasm, in that it became self-referential. Rather than taking an interest in something that existed anyway regardless of their presence, the market began to change to accommodate their desires, both in terms of the beers brewed and the venues in which they are sold. It is hard to think of any other field that attracts an enthusiast following where this has happened to anything like the same degree.

The first manifestation of this was the rise of the beer exhibition pub. Initially these were only showcasing beers not normally available in their local area, but they were specific venues targeted at beer enthusiasts, which took them out of the more mainstream pubs. This was followed by the steady rise of microbreweries, some of whom produced brilliant and eye-opening beer, but others came up with samey product that sometimes verged on dishwater. But it provided a lot more beers to sample, and gave rise to the phenomenon of the beer ticker. At the time they were derided by mainstream CAMRA members, but it seems that nowadays everyone has become a ticker.

Out of the microbrewery scene came the trend towards extremely pale and hoppy beers, and then in the current century the bewildering variety of flavours and styles, often at extreme strength, under the banner of craft beer. It all becomes impossible to keep up with and you find yourself wondering what is the point.

Some may respond by saying “life is very dull if you never try anything new”, but that is really a straw man. I’m certainly not resistant to trying new things, especially if they are new permanent beers from established brewers that I am likely to encounter on multiple occasions such as, a few years ago, Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring. But if it’s a case of something so odd or immensely strong that I’ll just say “Well, that as all very well, but I’m not going to make a habit of it”, then it seems a futile exercise, and to see the pursuit of novelty as the prime purpose of going to the pub is completely at odds with the reason the vast majority of people do it. The idea of spending a whole day in one town drinking Bass and Pedigree is anathema, let alone the prospect of an afternoon in an estate pub on Carling.

On the other hand, I’m certainly not averse to visiting unfamiliar pubs. During 2019, I went to 111 new pubs, which is good going considering that I’ve already had 40-odd years to work at it. Of course some are far better than others, but every pub visit has something of interest. It’s an endlessly rewarding quest. And even the familiar pubs that you have been to many times before have something different every time you go. So far this year, unfortunately, due to the fifteen-week closure, cancellation of holidays and continuing social distancing and travel restrictions, I’ve only managed ten, half of which were on one trip to Burton-on-Trent in March.

As I said in the post from 2010, locally I often choose to drink in Sam Smith’s pubs, not because I particularly value their beer above others available in the area, but because I appreciate what they offer in pub terms – comfortable seating, an absence of TV sport and piped music, a general lack of noisy children and, while some do sell food, never being put in a position of being the lone drinker in a wall-to-wall sea of diners. Plus all of the customers are there for what the pub has to offer rather than specifically being beer enthusiasts. While I prefer cask ale to keg, if these pubs dropped the cask I’d probably still go there for the same reasons, albeit perhaps a little less frequently. Fortunately, while they have converted a number of pubs to keg, that’s not a choice I’m forced to make in my local ones.

To many self-proclaimed beer enthusiasts nowadays, life is a constant quest for the new and unusual, and the greater the strength and the weirder the flavour the better. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, if that’s what takes your fancy, but it drives a wedge between them and the general population of pubgoers that certainly didn’t exist in the 1970s, and makes them ill-placed to represent the wider interests of pub operators and customers.


  1. Great post Mudgie đź‘Ť I always go for the pub rather than the beer. Out of choice I'd drink cask but happily go to a pub that doesn't sell any if a good atmosphere.

  2. As a beer ticker, I'm surprisingly torn on this issue. On the surface it probably looks like I'm a very much a beer man as opposed to a pub man, but the truth is that I hardly ever drink at home and I have very little interest in buying beer from a supermarket/off license or getting it delivered.

    Even during the height of lockdown when I could get takeaway or deliverable cask beer, I didn't bother very much. Even when I 'needed' to tick the beer. Drinking at home just doesn't do much for me and never has. Give me a nice comfy pub any time.

    However, in the 'normal' world, I'll walk in and out of a pub without a second thought if there's no beer I want to drink there, however inviting it is.

    So while I vastly prefer drinking in pubs, I'm also extremely picky about what I drink and hate the idea of wasting time, money and calorie allowance on beers I don't need or don't like.

    I think we'll call it a 0-0 draw or a Hovis Best of Both.

  3. The Stafford Mudgie14 August 2020 at 14:26

    T'other Mudgie,
    It was early 70s not late 70s when I started but I also have gone from beer enthusiast to pub enthusiast and am in complete agreement with you here.

  4. What always strikes me is that the folk keen on ticking "new" beers at beer festivals seem to avoid new food trends at all costs, complaining on Discourse about the lack of chips.

    Each to their own.

    Kudos to Ben for avoiding home drinking and a lifetime in Hell.

    1. Yes, I'm sure I've made the point before that those who consider themselves as living at the bleeding edge of the beer zeitgeist are often extremely conventional in other aspects of their lives.

  5. Of course by the same logic of not being fussed about ticking new beers, you could say what's the point in trying new pubs if you're unlikely to return very often?

    I take your point though. I've returned to the familiar local, despite a fairly uninspiring beer choice. It used to be better but I suspect they are gauging demand and it may improve. Partly because I know the Covid rules. Popping into a new pub is now a mildly stressful affair if you don't know how they operate. There are some horror stories of being made to call up the pub to book a table in an empty pub despite being stood in the establishment.

    But yes, pubs are more fundamental to why I go than the beer, but I still avoid keg only ones if I can help it.

    1. The difference being that the number of pubs is effectively finite and they have some degree of permanence about them.

    2. Not too certain about that degree of permanence at the moment, but I'm sure that the majority of the professionally-run, and properly financed outlets will survive the current "situation."

  6. For me, I try to do 50/50, Victoria Inn + Jarl is a nice combo.

  7. For me it is always the pub first...or maybe the company I'm with...but beer is last (unless there's no lager!)

    I've had some great nights out in not great pubs because of the people I've been with, but I've never had a memorable session purely down to the beer!

    It is a good job we all like different things!

  8. As a semi retired ticker i find it hard not to go for the new beers.The pursuit of novelty is hard to shake off.

  9. "and makes them ill-placed to represent the wider interests of pub operators and customers"
    well yeh.

  10. I've mixed feelings on this one Mudge, as good beer and good pubs always compliment each other.

    Rather than re-invent the wheel, the post I wrote back in November 2013, sums up my thoughts that "A pint amongst friends" - normally within the confines of a pub or bar, sums up some of life's finest moments.

    1. The issue I'm highlighting is really more the unceasing quest for novelty rather than the choice of beers as such. Although there are plenty of people who miss out on some great establishments by refusing on principle of drink in keg-only pubs, or in pubs only stocking beers from Marston's/Greene King/Fullers etc.

  11. Im not sure which category Id fall in, Id have said I was more into the beer than the pub,but Im not constantly chasing novelty new beers, I dont seek out venues that do the feel the width rather than the quality selection, if a good pub serves a beer I like and does it well Ill happily spend all my time there drinking just that beer and enjoying the pub, so does that make me a pub or beer person, Id probably say I was a little bit of both, but dont good beers and good pubs not just go together anyway.

  12. As someone who is considered a beer ticker and uses a well known app to log beer, it may surprise people to realise that I prefer the pub to the beer.

    For me, if I walk by a new pub to me, I'm interested in the interior, the pub craft, and beer is on the bottom rung.

    Similarly when i visit a new town I hunt out the pubs. More than likely it becomes a pub crawl. Now if the pub has a beer I've not had before thats a double whammy, but I'm fine with ordering mainstream beers.

  13. I'm a bit of a split personality these days. I increasingly seek out the tried and tested on cask in pubs whilst being into varied and new craft beer at home. Out of house it's the pub and in-house it's the beer.

  14. It has to be the pub that is the first choice, over beers available, you could visit a pub that was crap beer wise, but be a absolute gem architecturally, what it boils down to is why do you visit the pub in the first place. For me it's a little escapism, something different from the day to day mediocrity of life, embrace it, it is something to cherish, a place other than your home, that you can visit and digest your priorities, hopes and ambition.

  15. Professor Pie-Tin16 August 2020 at 14:21

    More on the ' Fighting Irish '
    Breaking news in Ireland this morning is this video doing the rounds on social media of a trendy bar/restaurant in Dublin where things got a bit lairy.
    It is literally leading the news and looking at it you'd swear to Christ it was Sodom and Gomerrah.
    Of course the killjoys and pecksniffian Puritans will pounce on this as a further excuse not to open pubs.
    Instead of just having a quiet word.
    What a joyless and sanctimonous world this pandemic has produced.


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