Saturday, 10 March 2012

Like the Pub? - Don't Like the Beer?

There are loads of good things in London and loads of bad. Like most places really. We'll all have our own lists I am sure. When it comes to pubs though, London has some crackers. Many of them are just how you'd like a pub to be - or rather - they are just how I like a pub to be. You for all I know, would like a big barn with blasting gangsta music, crack openly on sale, an underlying frisson of impending violence and wall to wall people drinking out of bottles - though of course why would you be reading my blog if you did?

Near our flat there are two, among the many, that I particularly like despite beery considerations. They are worth a mention as they seem to be real pubs. Proper places where actual people go more than once, rather than, as is the case with many parts of London, where they just end up after work, then disappear into every compass point there is. That is the nature of London of course, but people do drink there and some of them even seem to go to pubs to the extent that they are known by name and it isn't "Hello Love."

So what do I like about London pubs so much? Well often it is that they have nice original features. They will have lighting dim enough to make the place feel cosy, but bright enough to see a hand in front of your face. The sort of cosseting snugness that makes you feel once you are in, that the world and all its troubles are far away and can be forgotten for a while. There will likely be nooks and crannies - I like them - and often, there will be big picture windows, bric-a-brac, old brewery mirrors, snob screens, etched windows and an interesting and varied clientèle. There will likely be comfy bench seating and mismatched furniture, because it has been acquired over the years. It will shine like a new pin and a friendly barperson will smile at you and say "What can I get you?", not the moronic Manchester greeting of "You all right there?" OK I exaggerated the smiling greeting bit, but you get the picture.

I am not seeking, grail like, Orwell's Moon Under Water. Real pubs do exist, but the illusion is often shattered when you, the cask beer drinker, peruse the bar. Then your heart sinks. There is nothing you'd like to drink. Or you may even know in advance, because it is a brewery you don't like, that you are unlikely to find yourself more than marginally satisfied ale wise. (This does take some of us back to when someone in the company would say in a horrified tone, in response to a proposal, "I'm not going there. It's a bloody Bass/Greenalls/Tetley/Whitbread, or whatever house, while some other wise monkey would chime in "Oh c'mon. It's a nice pub.")

Ah yes. Nice pubs. One near me which we have gone into off and on over the years, is a Shepherd Neame pub. It is snug and cosy, long and fairly narrow, but it opens out. It has a mixed set of customers and ticks most of my other boxes. The beer just doesn't. Not the quality of dispense, but you just can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear - and Shep's cask beer is at best a sow's ear. But I - we - like this pub and among other things, the installation of a modern juke box which isn't played at deafening level, has found me, a music in pubs disliker,suggesting we go there. It has over a million songs this juke box and the pub barman chats to you, remembers you, discusses football with you. The other pub near us that we, well me really like, does have a reasonable choice of beer, but keeps it so badly you want to offer your services free, as cellarman for a week, just to show the bastards how its done. But I like it, though it has been knocked about a bit, because it is a really good pub in that kind of indefinable way you get sometimes.

Anyway, I suppose I have answered my own question. If you like pubs, the beer can never be your sole reason for going there. "Pint of Spitfire please and anyone playing that jukebox?"

Photo nicked from


Bailey said...

There have been times when I've wondered the quality of the beer and the atmosphere of a pub were inversely related.

But there are plenty of pubs with shite beer *and* no atmosphere.

Saga Of Nails said...

Back in October, when we were fixing and decorating the Bag Of Nails, an awful lot of people were asking me what I was doing to the place and when it would re-open. I explained that we had a lot to do, and gave them the rough opening time of a few months from then. So many people said to me when I was explaining what we were doing, 'Oh. It doesn't matter what you do to the inside, as long as the beer is good.' This was a response that infuriated me. If you truly don't give a toss about the decor, ambience or atmosphere of a boozer, then you may as well drink in a scout hall, with no pictures on the wall, and florescent strip lighting.
For me, the beer has to be of some kind of acceptable standard for me to stay for more than one, but the general atmosphere is much more of a pulling factor for almost all drinkers in this country.
As a landlord, you have to think of so many factors, to make your pub appealing to people, and therefore successful. The beer is just one of these factors.

Dominic, Thornbridge Brewery said...

When I lived in Manchester, there were two cases rather near to each other - Briton's Protection and the Peveril of the Peak - super pubs, lovely atmosphere but crap beer. And my all time favourite great pub with rubbish beer is the Albert in Withington. I have many a happy memory from there.

Neville Grundy said...

Saga: I suspect those who say they're not bothered about the decor, just the beer, would be quite unhappy if their pub was refurbished in such a way that it had no character or atmosphere.

I sometimes end up in pubs with uninteresting beer or occasionally no real ale at all when I go for live music. It's either that or not hear the music. There are, or should be, many reasons for going to a pub. A drinker who genuinely goes only for the beer is missing out a lot, both on pubs and on life.

Curmudgeon said...

Broadly speaking I would say there was a correlation between quality of beer and pub atmosphere, although there are plenty of outliers on either side.

Much less certain whether there is a correlation between choice of beer and pub atmosphere - most of the best real pubs don't have a massive bank of handpumps.

Birkonian said...

I've never subscribed to the 'Crap beer but good pub' viewpoint. If the beer is crap I don't want to go there there and therefore will be unhappy if forced to do so. Full stop. I'm proud that I've stuck to my principles for 35 years.

Paul Bailey said...

I might just about be able to put up with the decent jukebox, but Spitfire - no way!!

Tyson said...


Sorry, but i have to disagree. I don't think those are very good examples. Certainly, the Britons is a superb pub, but it's never had consistantly bad beer. If anything, the opposite.


I'm with you. I think TM has gone soft in his dotage. Anywhere selling Sheps slops is an automatic no-go zone.

Dominic, Thornbridge Brewery said...


In which case we'll have to agree to disagree. When I was an active young member of Trafford and Hulme branch, I distinctly remember GBG selection meetings where the Briton's struggled and I believe it was in and out of the GBG like a Fiddler's elbow. We always drank Lowenbrau in there. Granted, this was several moons ago, when Chairman Neil was in charge - things may have changed in the last 10 years.

My views may have been affected by the fact that the Briton's was the only pub I've ever been 'politely asked to leave' for being drunk (if we don't count that time in the Hare and Hounds on Rochdale Road -he started it and technically I left before the police arrived). But I did once have several pints with Tony Hadley in there one night; a memory I'll cherish forever.

Velky Al said...

There are plenty of good pubs in Prague with uninspiring beer - can't really say "bad" per se because the worst of the mass produced beers in the Czech Republic is brewed by the same guys as do Pilsner Urquell and if a pub has one they usually have the other.

Over here though in Charlottesville, I have recently found a pub that has a decent selection of beer and a proper pub atmosphere which is a major bonus!

GeordieManc said...


There's a big difference from not being in the GBG and having "crap beer" - at least in the current day Trafford & Hulme. The GBG entries are just nominally the best 15 - being 16th on the list doesn't automatically make your beer crap.

At the moment The Pevril is but the Briton's is not in the guide, but I can tell you last year it came very close (as I recall it may even have been 16th!). Neither are somewhere I'd take a beer fan seeking excellent beer, but equally I'd happily have a drink in either if was in the area (was in the Britons yesterday as it happens - all be it because I was delivering something).

Dominic, Thornbridge Brewery said...


You're quite right. But when I'm forced onto Inbev lager in a pub, I'll safely accuse the cask beer selection of being crap.

Things have changed in Trafford and Hulme though; there are a lot more good pubs and bars serving good beer, so coming 16th is probably a worthy placing. We had to scrape the barrel a bit in my day. Family brewery-owned Pubs from Urmston were getting in. Maybe you and Tyson have convinced me to pop in again soon.

Leigh said...

Definately. The beer range has no effect on whether it's a 'good pub'. that's up to the company, staff, setting and possibly location. Bad beer though, quality -wise, will always taint things.

Unknown said...

Great post.

I can drink world-class beers in a place where I feel comfy and relaxed, Where the music is perfect and no-one ever pisses on the toilet seat.

But sometimes I leave home and go to the pub.

Maybe it's the pursuit of an indefinable; the people you may meet, the beer you may find, the experience you may have.

And Dom - when you finally meet my wife, be careful when you tell her that you've drank with Big Tone. As a mental Spandau Ballet fan, she may try to scratch your eyes out.

Lew Bryson said...

Can't tell you how many times I've had this discussion with the American no end whatsoever. So many of them don't really give a damn about the atmo of a pub, to the point where there was recently a serious discussion -- that spread across several platforms online, and that I overheard being discussed in a bar, right in front of a bartender -- that centered on the idea that since everyone knows so much about beer, the bartender should just shut up and become a serving 'bot and not attempt to talk about beer at all.

I've never assaulted any of these people, but I've committed horrible crimes in my mind.

Saga Of Nails said...

Not being in the GBG doesn't tend to mean much in some cities. In Bristol we have at least 70 pubs which serve good. non national ales of a decent quality but we have only have 30 ish spots in the book. (Not a single JDW has made it into the book in the last few years.) Protz has a financial stake in the book, and far too much influence in it's direction. How can a book have any integrity when the criteria for inclusion can be different in different areas, and in some places more than half the pubs that serve cracking beer are not included. And of course the book is a year out of date by the time it's first published.

Because of these issues which are not being addressed, I asked my local branch that I want nothing to do with the book, and I do not want my pub included in it.

Tandleman said...

SoN: Tricky one, but if you opt out (and who knows if you'd have been in) it is your decision. AFAIK Roger is paid to edit the book and has no influence it the pub content whatever, unless as an ordinary member.

Saga Of Nails said...

Tandleman, considering the quality, range and choice of beers that we stock, it would be very surprising if the Bag didn't make it into the guide when it was eligible. It's a freehouse and I'm trying to sell the most interesting range in the city.

Protz doesn't choose which pubs go into the guide, but I thought that he had the final say on how many entries there are in each edition. This is my main gripe with the book. Ten years ago, there were a lot more pubs in the guide, but a lot less pubs serving a great range of ales. Surely the book should reflect the rise of ale over the last decade. There are some cities that have an unusually large amount of cracking ale pubs, but the book just doesn't reflect this.
In my opinion, as a guide book it falls short.

Tyson said...


I'm afraid you are operating under a false assumption there. RP doesn't have any say in how many pubs go in to the GBG; there have been other editors btw. The number of entries is set by CAMRA alone.

Some years ago, it was decided to cut the number included by 25%. Each branch or area has only a fixed number of possible entries, so choices will always have to be made.

Curmudgeon said...

The number was cut by about 25%; it has never been the case that there were hugely more pubs included than there are now. Also, given the wholesale keg conversions of the late 90s, and the wholesale closures of the 2000s, in most areas there are a lot fewer pubs in total serving cask beer than there were say in 1995.

That's not to say the best are not better, but to my mind quality needs to come well above choice as the key criterion for inclusion.

Saga Of Nails said...

Even a 25% cut is a stupid one to make in the Bristol area. I'm only talking about this area really, but the GBG just doesn't do the city justice. There are at least forty pubs that sell excellent quality local beer consistently that will never get a decent shot at getting in the book, because there are so few slots, and they might be in a rougher/more bohemian part of the city then the average member visits. One place has been selling four well kept, local ales, with a good turnover for four years now, and hasn't even made it onto the long list yet, because it's a young and trendy place and it's on Stokes Croft. (Where we had the Tesco riots.)
And the local branch do it democratically here. I might be wrong here, but I heard that not every branch does this.
There are more decent ale pubs in Hotwells, (where the Bag is) than there are in the whole of Newport, but the GBG doesn't take this into account. So the GBG lists all the JDW's and frankly some awful pubs in Newport, while 50+ decent pubs in Bristol don't get a mention.

Camra is only going to survive if it stays relevant, and the GBG isn't helping the cause these days.

Eric said...

Robbie over at the Refreshingbeer blog organized a Glasgow Pub Week, invited a nice pub with bad beer to serve cask. They did so well that they now have a permanent cask or two and he awarded them pub of the year.

Tandleman said...


It isn't a Good Beer In Bristol Guide. That's where local guides come in to supplement the GBG.