Saturday 24 December 2022

In a Neat Little Town

Many years ago when I was working, for a couple of years, I used to visit Belfast probably once a month or so.  I remember then that Special Branch paid a fair bit of attention to travellers, and at Manchester Airport, I was asked more than once for my reason for visiting.  "Business - Government business" was my answer.  I was quick to add that it was Social Security business and that was that. No such problems at Manchester Airport now, but I still find it fun, when asked about why I went to Belfast, to tell people that I used to advise the Northern Ireland Government. Well, I did, but it sounds a lot less impressive when I reveal that it was about how to integrate NI and GB Social Security computer systems.

So, last month we went for a few nights, just for pleasure and in my book, that was going to be trying out a few more pubs than I was able to visit then. Back in the day, my visits to pubs were fairly few and confined, more or less, to those that were near the famous Excelsior Hotel, where I usually stayed. This time, we stayed in a nice hotel in the Botanic area and as we walked from the bus station towards it, I was pleased to note that Great Northern Tower, where I worked, was still there and right next door to the famous Europa Hotel. I didn't remember it being quite so close, though opposite was the Crown Liquor Saloon, which I did.

After checking in, we set off to get the feel of the place and to visit a few pubs, more of which later.  But for now, I'll just mention one or two differences between Nornireland pubs and those in GB. Firstly, they just seem more professionally run. Most of the bar staff aren't teenagers with a combined inability to look you in the eye and the attention span of a gnat, but older men and women who clearly regard bar work as a profession. In short, the service was almost universally great, as was the conversational nature of the transactions.  The pubs varied a lot, but were clean, warm and welcoming. Not exactly like GB pubs, more like in Ireland, without a telly on every vertical surface.

Now what about the beer? Well, you won't be surprised that Guinness is pretty much the leading drink there.  I was though, a little surprised at the lack of imported brands, although there were a few (mostly lagers) from Ireland.  Some from GB of course and surprisingly few local beers at first glance, though I suspect the major brewers have much of the taps tied in one way or another. We started off in Robinsons, a fine big boozer next to the Crown Liquor Saloon. Our choice? Well, Guinness of course - you have to for your first at least don't you, and this was a fine example of what I regard as a pretty unimpressive beer. I had learned before I went there that the gas mix in Ireland - presumably including the North too - is a 75/25 nitrogen to CO2, whereas in GB it is 70/30, making for a less creamy and smooth pint than in Ireland. The atmosphere was good and late on a Tuesday afternoon, the pub was busy with a constant stream of people nipping in for one after work.  

Now I'll return to other pubs in my next post, but my final two observations are one particular one and one more general. Aren't the people there just lovely?  Everyone was so helpful and pleasant, from bar staff to bus inspectors - yes they still have them there  - and  a finer body of ladies and gentlemen you couldn't wish to meet unless you were a fare dodger of course, which we weren't.

And the last point? Belfast City Centre was pretty much like any other British City Centre. If you think it might feel a bit Irish - well, not to my eyes.

Next up Bittles Bar - Did we get thrown out for requesting a half pint?

There are some smashing restaurants around in Belfast too.  Together with great pubs, loads to see and do, and of course, the Titanic Experience, I recommend it highly.

Tuesday 13 December 2022

It Really Was That Good

It is often said that the best beer you have is not necessarily the best tasting, or the most technically competent, or even a combination of these two and other factors such as place and company - and that is very true. An ordinary beer in extraordinary company, or during a fantastic experience, will be remembered far longer than even a top quality beer, especially if the circumstances of that imbibing were themselves pretty unremarkable. Now this isn't of course a hard and fast rule, being more a rule of thumb, which generally applies. In other words, there are exceptions when the outstanding is remembered in a fairly mundane situation.

Thus, last Thursday, I was out with a pal in Manchester. Our respective lasses were imbibing with the Manchester CAMRA ladies, and we felt it incumbent upon us to provide moral support - albeit from a respectable distance. So we met in the City Arms Manchester, a neat little two-roomed pub in the centre, the pal being a regular there. Seemingly they have the Mankley equivalent of a stammtisch (local's table) there, but it wasn't mentioned by him, who has the entitlement, and I wasn't aware of that fact until much later. We therefore sat at a table of my choosing in the back room, after getting our drinks at the crowded bar. But I digress.

Now the bar was busy with the late lunchtime crowd when we got there, and we couldn't see the pumpclips for the lager drinkers standing at the bar - lager drinkers always do this - and you can't readily see the chalkboard in the back room either - stammtisch under it apparently - so seeing a Thornbridge beer, I went for it. Ruby Mild seemed a good choice. I bought it then, when the barman had a moment, I asked him the strength. "6.5%" quoth he.  Well, there was a reasonably long session ahead, so in for a penny etc. Wow.  What a beer.  This ruby tinted dark mild beer was spicy, mouth filling, luscious, fruity, complex and more. It was just gorgeous. No. It was quite simply stunning. So after singing its praises, and savouring it, I had another and would probably have had more if I hadn't had someone wiser than me with me. 

We left for our next pub with me still getting over how good this was.  On the way we bumped into a certain fellow CAMRA Chairman* and I was effusive in my praise of it. I urged him to deviate from his chosen path to try it. But I have the feeling my sage advice was disregarded as he was on a different mission.  We went on our way to other beers and fine though they were, I was still in thrall to Wilder's Folly.

So now that the moment has passed and I have gained a little perspective, what do I think of it? Am I still starstruck by it?  Yes. Without a doubt, it is the best cask conditioned beer I have had this year.

It was called Wilder's Folly and  is a collaboration between Thornbridge and Double-Barrelled Brewery.  According to Dominic Driscoll, brewer at Thornbridge, it was chock-full of invert sugar.  That presumably helped with both strength and mouthfeel.  You can buy it here, but I somehow doubt if the can will ever reach the peak of cask conditioning that gave me such a great drinking experience, so well done City Arms too.

*It was John Clarke, hot footing it to drink a tap takeover by Kernal at Cafe Beeermoth.  The photo was nicked from @BeerFinderGeneral, who gives it equal praise though was cheeky about CAMRA.  I couldn't get near the bar to photo it.

Friday 9 December 2022

Why Is This a Thing?

 On Wednesday, my car was going in for its service and MoT, and it had to be there early. So, duly dropped off at the garage just after a quarter to eight, I could either walk home - twerly for my bus pass - or better still get some brekkie.  It was also perishing, and I'd already spent a bitterly cold quarter of a cold hour defrosting the car, so cups of tea were my priority and as our local JDW was just opening as I walked past, unlimite
d refills beckoned.

Despite me being there on the dot of eight, a couple of other hopefuls were in, but I was first to the bar to place my tea order. The other two were separately selecting their usual prime positions by the windows. My main concern was to get my tea and a seat as far away as possible from the icy blast emanating from the door, so no issues there. The pub started to fill up with faces I recognised from previous visits. Seats were carefully selected and greetings exchanged. I got the odd "Good Morning" too as I warmed up with cups of Tetley. The next half hour passed serenely enough, punctuated only by the odd gale of laughter from the staff breakfasting near the bar.

However, the pace quickened up as the witching hour of nine o'clock approached. I'd moved on to breakfast by then. The usual JDW fare, but it was fine and certainly warmed me up. A few workmen, in for some snap, were added to the regulars who were by now folding newspapers and checking watches. The atmosphere was getting a little more tense as they approached the bar on the dot of nine.  Now in the past my observations were that the John Smiths would flow, but alas, not now.  That is no longer available, and it seems that the replacement,  Worthington Creamflow, does not hit that sacred spot. No, Stella seemed now to be the drink of choice, though one outlier was on Stowford Press Cider.

Now here's the odd bit. Several - well three of the punters including Mr Stowford - returned to their spot alone at their chosen table with two pints each. These were carefully placed in front of them. Why?  Why would you buy two pints for yourself at once in a rather quiet pub, first thing in the morning? I've noticed this before, but not only in the Middleton JDW, but all over the country. I remember, in Nottingham I think it was, a geezer returning from the bar at 9 a.m.with two bottles of Newcastle Brown - as if one wasn't already too many - and elsewhere too, this seems to happen.

So Dear Reader, next time you find yourself in a JDW just after alcohol sales begin, look for this strange phenomenon.   And if you know why they do this, do let me know in the comments.

I thoroughly recommend JDW for early morning people watching.   You can guarantee something of interest.

Another thing. Seems JDW now sell 660ml bottes of Camden Hells.  In this case for a mere £3.69. Anyone seen it elsewhere?

Friday 2 December 2022

It's the Offer Stupid

 Cambridge Dictionary definition of hospitality: The act of being friendly and welcoming to guests and visitors:

We hear so much at the moment about difficult times for the hospitality industry.  Against a background of inflation and wage restraint, it is so obvious that there are major issues. These trials and tribulations are now featuring in mainstream newspapers and radio programmes, as well as, more obviously, trade press, blogs and podcasts.  These difficulties include, among other things, staff shortages, rising prices of everything supplied and sold to the industry as well as, lack of customers due to high prices and domestic and commercial difficulties caused by the effect of the huge increases in electricity and gas.

Of course this applies elsewhere, and the hospitality sector include restaurants, theatres, hotels as well as pubs and social clubs.  My interest, of course, is mainly pubs, so it is to that I turn in this brief post.  Now, I have used the term "It's the offer Stupid" in my blogs before.  I would draw your attention to this post in particular, which dates back to June 2013.  The main thrust of it, in case you can't be bothered reading it, is that back then, a survey said among other things that "People (47%) cite "poor customer service" as one of the main reasons not to go to a pub, along with the unwelcoming atmosphere(44%)."

I am reasonably sure, anecdotally at least, that it is highly unlikely that this generally negative view will have changed too much over the nearly ten years since the survey was taken. Service in pubs remains poor and yes I know the difficulties, but in these very challenging times you'd think that ensuring the customers are made welcome and accommodated as much as is humanly possible would be a very high priority indeed.  You really do need customers to return, so a small training investment in this basic area is really a no-brainer, and to make it even easier, the very people that you wish to convince are themselves customers elsewhere too, so it should be a relatively straightforward point to get across.

Let me give you a few recent examples.  There is a local pub that I don't go to that often, but which has picked up a decent reputation for food, though the wet trade is also a good part of the business, probably round half or so. It is a pub in which people still stand at the bar to drink, although there are plenty of other seating and eating areas.  On my once every two or three months or so visits, it is my experience that when you go in the bar staff are usually, if not actually serving, standing with their backs to the bar, gossiping.  This is quite annoying in itself, but on my recent visit, two different customers called goodbye to the staff with no response whatever.  When my time to leave came, I left unnoticed too, though I had stood at the bar for my two pints. When I worked in the pub, the boss then taught us always to say hello to new customers entering, and to thank them when they left. His simple logic? Make them feel welcome and they'll come back. That was in the times when pubs were bursting at the seams. How much more important is that simple act of appreciation now?  God knows what he'd have thought of not looking outwards from the bar.  It is simple. Look outwards, that's where the money is.

In my recent trip to Belfast, we met a couple of friends in a local brew pub.  They wanted to eat, and we didn't, having had a large hotel cooked breakfast and a meal booked later.  Firstly, it was odd that table service seemed to be mandatory.  Oh well, if that's what it is - fine.  We spent around three hours in there enjoying very good beer indeed, until the server came over to say she was going off duty, and we'd have to pay up.  This was odd, but we asked her to wait a moment while we divvied up the bill. "You can't" she said. "Someone will have to pay, and you can sort it yourselves later." What? There was no choice and to add insult to injury, a 10% service charge was applied as we were a table of four. So, I paid, was duly reimbursed by my pals, and we left, disgruntled and annoyed, for another pub.  

By way of contrast, I met three friends a few weeks ago in a pub in Manchester. We all ate and had several drinks. The friendly barman very kindly even brought drinks over to us old dodderers. When it came time to pay, and we asked to split the bill four ways, he said that as long as it came to the total, it was no problem. He got a good tip too, and we all agree we'll meet there again. 

So the message to pubs is to treat your customers well - they are all of your business. Say hello and goodbye and make life as easy as possible for them. Treat them as welcome guests. They have a choice, you know, and in these hard times, I suspect they will readily exercise it.

Oddly, the first two cases were individual business, while the Manchester example was a brewery managed house.

No such issues in our Belfast hotel, which really was welcoming to customers, as were the majority of Belfast pubs.