Back in the day when there were many large regional and local pub owning breweries, in Liverpool where I lived throughout the 80s, you often used to be able to tell at a glance, without entering the pub, whose beer was on sale. Then, when there was a pub on every corner and plenty in between, you didn't particularly need to have eyes like a shithouse rat to ascertain with a sweeping glance, whose ale you were going to encounter, or indeed where the nearest pub was. In that fine city they were everywhere. It wasn't just the corporate signage, though obviously that provided a major clue, but how the building itself looked. Back in the days when we played darts all over the city, that was a handy skill to acquire. We all cared "whose ale" it was.
If you saw a pale, yellow-tiled, flat fronted building, then you knew for sure it was a Whitbread pub, Whitbread having inherited that particular house style from Threlfalls, who they had taken over in the 1960s. Bass houses were broadly speaking distinguished by their distinct corporate black signage, built as a canopy around the entrance. A relic of the Bass Charrington days, the included red triangle was very easy to spot from afar. Higsons pubs were identifiable by the splash of red and black and the little square, lighted box that you could spot a mile away and which, as you got closer had the re-assuring words "Higsons" emblazoned thereon.
Tetley pubs were often bigger, though there was a mixed bag. Most were inherited from Walkers of Warrington and were brick built and imposing. Signage varied from the corporate "Allied Breweries" yellow and white to those that has a makeover and plainer gold lettering with, on the wall by the door, the Huntsman logo and "One of Tetley's Houses" increasingly visible as you approached. John Smith's pubs - fewer and further between - were invariably painted green and when Walkers pubs were brought back from the dead, their distinct shield like hanging sign was a beacon for the thirsty.
It wasn't just the outside that had a corporate touch that was subtle but definable. If you had been beamed down into most pubs, without looking at the bar, you'd have been able to order your drink and be sure which brewery's beer would be placed in your sticky mitt. Higsons pubs were predominantly red inside. Usually too they were well-worn looking and comfortable. They were often, though not always, small. Whitbread pubs on the other hand always had big tables and lots of heavy chairs and a sort of wallpapered look that gave the game away. Rarely did they have the standard round cast iron tables that were typical nearly everywhere. They were often multi roomed - and big rooms at that - and rarely had much of the standard bench seating. They did, in fairness look more cared for than some rivals. Bass pubs were often remarkably comfortable inside and well-thought-out. This belied their rather dull exterior. They probably hid their light under a bushel better than most.
Tetley pubs invariably - unless very small - were multi-roomed and often divided by screens and sometimes still had little snugs, which, if you got in first, you could hide in. They had the neatest and grandest pubs of all the breweries. Lots of leather seating and a lot of brass was a feature in many. They tended towards the ornate and plush, even in small pubs. Some bigger pubs had public and lounge bars, the public bar usually a bit more Spartan, but clean and the lounge well appointed. It was there you took your lass (or someone else's) for a quiet Saturday night drink. And there was Greenall Whitley. These wereoften, old-fashioned, with best rooms and differential pricing, but varying from plush suburban style boozers, comfortable and well appointed, to small intimate and rather bare looking locals. The white and red pub sign, of a Greek Goddess blowing her horn, was easily visible from afar, but the beer could split opinions.
Pubs then as now - varied immensely - but were usually well run and sometimes even welcoming. There was a degree of "corporate" but they weren't samey and soulless.
Looking at the bar of course gave the game away. (Mostly) plastic boxes for Whitbread, John Smiths and (sometimes) Bass. Electric pumps for Greenalls. Vinyl covered Dalex handpumps for Higsons and the Tetley Huntsman and handpumps for their pubs. Confusingly the coloured plastic boxes often dispensed real ale. As you travelled the country, you noticed the same kind of things. I suppose pub design followed a kind of template and pattern and still does. I doubt if a newly refurbished JW Lees Cheshire pub, if taken over immediately after refurbishment by say, Holts or Robinsons, would need much of an overhaul to instantly fit into their estates. Or vice versa.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
This blog mentions specifics; pubs and beer, good and bad. The opinions will be forthright, but you can always disagree, just don't be offended. Comments from those mentioned are particularly welcome and a right of reply is hereby offered.
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