Tuesday, 28 March 2023

They Have Sam's in London too You Know

No doubt, my many readers are wondering whatever happened to my series of visits to Sam Smiths pubs.  In fact, I often wonder myself why I have not returned to this rich seam of pub culture and idiosyncrasy. Perhaps I have a small lingering doubt about Humphrey himself reading how the denizens of his establishments really conduct themselves, as opposed to how he wishes they would. It is also true to say that I have some slight concerns about how he may treat landlords and landladies, who, perhaps, in his distorted vision, would appear by my words to have somehow failed to live up to his expectations. On that point it is worth mentioning that in every Sam’s house I have visited, the managers have singularly, and with good humour, tried their best to honour Mr Smiths instructions, however odd they may be.

Of course, knowing myself, it may be that I just have been as usual far too lazy to get out and about and actually visit the 20 or so Sam’s pubs that are still open in my area. That number is of course an approximation, given that Humph has already closed more than one of the pups already visited and reported on – no doubt for some minor infraction of his somewhat arbitrary rules. But as always, I live in hope that one day, all 32 pubs in my Rochdale, Oldham and Bury area may all be open, and that some may actually sell Old Brewery Bitter in cask conditioned form.

But I digress from my original purpose. A couple of weeks ago, when in London checking that Tandleman Towers South still exists, we ventured into Soho with the intention of having a look at how some of the London Sam’s pubs operate. While it has never been officially confirmed, it is known that Humphrey's son Sam is the supremo of all the Southern operations. Things are done differently there, and while recently in the North, innovations such as paying by phone and card have been accepted, it is true to say that no such restrictions have operated in London for quite some time.The reasons for this are pretty obvious when you look at the clientele. I think it's fair to say that in the absence of paying by card or phone Mr. Smith would find insufficient customers willing to pay by cash, as payment by such is, in London, the exception rather than the rule.

Also missing from most of the London pubs is the plethora of notices forbidding this, that or the other, though it is fair to say that the one prohibiting electronic devices is generally clear and present, butparticularly in the case of phones, is blatantly and wholly disregarded.

Our first port of call was the White Horse in Rupert St, more or less opposite the John Gielgud Theatre. It can best be described as a basic corner street local set out in typical Sam Smith dark wood, bare floorboards and a slight down at heel appearance. Old Brewery Bitter in cask format was available at £5.70 a pint, and was somewhat middle of the road in taste. E’s Pure Brewed Organic lager was an astonishing £6.90 a pint.  It is as well at this point to mention that Sam Smiths pubs in London are pretty expensive. Banish any thoughts of the cheap pint they used to be, and given the somewhat basic nature of some of the pubs visited, could be regarded as less than value for money.  The pub wasn't busy, but a steady stream of people wandered in, vaguely looked round and then blatantly zoomed downstairs to use the loos before re-emerging, pretending to consider drinks at the bar, before darting out the door.  At the bar more than one person sipped their pint while surfing their phone. The landlord, an Al Murray lookalike was clearly used to such behaviour and simply ignored all this while occasionally tilting his eyes in our direction.

Now, Sam's pubs are usually pretty good for people watching, but not in this case. The only real entertainment was a young couple, the male of which would occasionally lean in for a kiss, while the female would carefully move away. Fair dos, it didn't discourage him, and she happily allowed him to hold her waist. Likely she wasn’t keen on public affection, which is just fine. In fact, we bumped into them in a later pub and they seemed quite cosy. So, all was well.

Leaving this mayhem we walked a few steps to the Duke of Argyll, another Sam's pub but this time absolutely rammed.  This was a step-up in class. Multi partitioned, with each area jammed with customers, the lone bar person zoomed up and down at breakneck speed trying to keep up with demand. It took us quite some time to get served, and my pint of stout looked more like Coca-Cola. Clearly the nitrogen gas had gone, and subsequently the beer was poured as flat as could be. There was no opportunity to earhole the frantic barman, and frankly the poor bugger was doing the best he could. At last, when he had a second, I explained the problem with the pint and he offered an exchange. He took the opportunity in the meantime to call someone on his phone, who a few moments later emerged from upstairs to lend a hand. I suppose that was technically a breach of the rules too.

We struck up conversation with a guy who'd come up from Kent for the day. He turned out to be an ex-RAF type and we passed an agreeable half hour with him telling tales of avoiding customs duties from various tours of overseas duty - a subject E knew a bit about somewhat oddly - while we dodged around, juggling our pints, to let people in at the bar. Frankly, it wasn’t a comfortable experience, though I’d like to go back when it was less busy.

Our final stop, nearby, was the Glasshouse Stores. We have been there before and remembered it just as it was. Long, thin, narrow and very busy. It was there that we bumped into the young lovers again, though I doubt very much if they noticed us at all. The pub was full of all types, but nothing of any great interest to the nosey parker. It was simply a Sam's pub with a typical London mix of people and tourists. The beer list was straightforward Sam's – I think the OBB was keg -  but this time my pint of stout was thick with a creamy head, though well north of £6 a pint. From our vantage point in the centre of the pub (fortunately we were able to nab a seat) we observed none of the usual Sam's forbidding notices. We left after one drink.

So, to sum up, in Sam’s pubs in Rochdale and areas you are likely to find the pubs are locals with a loyalty to the pub. In London Sam's pubs are just another convenient location to drink beer, have a glass of wine or whatever, while visiting a popular area. Of course, this is just a snapshot of three pubs, but having visited many, while some are more interesting than others, none have the idiosyncrasies and character you will find further away from the city. It is clear that's in business terms Sam Smiths offer a similar experience to other pubs. There is no price advantage, the pubs themselves vary from quirky and old-fashioned, to just played old-fashioned and a bit dowdy.

When compared to Humphrey’s ridiculous strictures in the North, it seems somewhat bizarre that in the same company, two different schools of thought apply to the way the pubs are run, with sometimes devastating results for pub regulars and managers alike. But that Sam’s for you.

On a previous, but recent London visit we went to the rather good Crown by the British Museum (no cask). There were some more obvious notices there about electronic devices, but again, completely ignored by the punters. 

I wonder if Sam's have got themselves ahead of the game pricewise and will refrain for quite a while? E who has scant regard to prices  is switching to Taddy lager when in Sam's pubs for the foreseeable.  Well, in London anyway.



Monday, 13 February 2023

Watch Out for Wednesday

Thursday is the new Friday some would have you believe - well, especially for those that work from home for part of the week. The logic is, if you can get away with it, that if at all possible, you don't work Friday and Monday. This makes sense, of course, as you then get a longer - much longer - weekend as it were, as you don't have that pesky journey to and from work.

Now I have a feeling that while this applies across the board in the UK, the effect is more acutely felt in London. Not only is there a greater concentration of workers, but almost uniquely, most still travel to work by public transport and are thus more likely to have a soothing libation after it.  I may be wrong, but I rather fancy that many journeys to work outside London are made by car and certainly in the dog days of work for me, after work drinking simply did not happen and that can only have got worse since then.  In London, however, the after work pint still occurs, and I always enjoy being there at work chucking out time for the bustling atmosphere.

A couple of weeks ago we were in London for the first time in ages - well last October - and after visiting some quite busy pubs on Tuesday night, on Wednesday I met my pal Nigel for a couple of lunchtime pints and a chance to put the beer world to rights. For convenience, we met at Woodins Shades, a Nicolsons pub across from Liverpool Street station. This was around late lunchtime, and it was fair to say that the pub was very quiet indeed. In fact, Nigel remarked that he used to work in the vicinity years ago and then the pub was always full at lunchtime. Not so now, it seems. 

Two or three pints later, after Nigel departed to his Cask Marque duties, I arranged to meet E nearer our neck of the woods. You get decent if expensive pints in the Culpepper, a quite posh and very attractive pub in Commercial Street, a ten-minute walk away from Liverpool Street. It has become quite a favourite of ours. I got there about half past three. It was deserted, and I remarked on this to the barman, who cryptically said it wouldn't be for long. He wasn't kidding. Within half an hour the pub was getting reasonably busy, and within an hour, by half past four or thereabouts, it was rammed.  

Fortunately, I had sat on a bench and was able to squeeze E in, as by the time she arrived, it was standing room only - and it isn't a particularly small pub.So what's going on? It seems, from what I can glean, that most businesses require workers to be in the office for a certain number of days in the week if working from home. It also appears that the day most choose to be in work is Wednesday, so if you want to go to the pub for after work chat and see your colleagues, Wednesday is the best day for it.

In these difficult times, working from home does pubs no favours, but this at least offers a glimmer of light if it is repeated elsewhere. Elsewhere in London, that is.

We also visited the new(ish) Aldgate Tap, which is dead handy for us. It seemed to be trading well on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It must help, it being so close to Aldgate Tube Station. Prices here are decent for London.

Talking about pricing. London is never cheap, but we noticed how much more expensive it was since our previous visit in October last year. I think the cask beer in the Culpepper had risen by the best part of a pound.

Monday, 16 January 2023

Busy or Not?

Recently there's been a fair bit of talk on Twitter and the blogosphere- does that still exist? - about how pubs are faring in January. Of course, most of this will be observational and anecdotal, and impressions given on, say a Friday night, may not give the full picture of how things would look at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, but that is the nature of the beast.  Even if you know the landlord or landlady well, they are hardly going to share their financial position with you, though if you know them well enough, you can certainly gain a touch more than if you just throw your head round the door and glance round.

My own view kind of echoes that of Boak and Bailey, and my general impression is that customer numbers and spend, is generally holding up fairly well, but on the negative side, outgoings for supplies and fuel may well be not only cancelling this out, but will in a great deal more cases than we'd like to believe, actually throw them into a negative situation. My own discussions with a few pubs would indicate that the cost of heating is really the main concern. After all, nobody wants to visit a freezing cold pub and heating a pub in the quiet times is quite a burden nowadays, hence the huge variation in opening hours that we commonly see.

Of course, this will ease as the weather gets better, but the big question, especially for those whose leases are up for renewal, is "Is it really worth it any more?" Looking at pub closures, some of them sudden and unexpected, the answer is, for far too many, likely a "No". While relief in the form of warmer weather is there for all, the sad truth is that looking forward there is quite possibly more of the same, as the war in Ukraine rages on and the fallout from that continues to affect economies. That, together with a reduction of fuel support for small businesses from the Governments, does not make soldiering on such an attractive proposition. Cold weather, sooner or later, is inevitable.

Another elephant in the room is price increases, though with the price of a pint being roughly equivalent to the length of a piece of string, that may not in the end matter quite so much as you might think. This varies of course, and while you are unlikely to have a clear idea ahead of time in a random visit to a city centre pub as to what a pint might cost you, it is much more noticeable in tied houses of local brewers for example, where the price of a pint is clearly known.  In my own locals, people often  approach the bar clutching their exact money and are acutely aware of increases. That doesn't happen so much in a free house, where, frankly, you could be charged anything at all. The dynamic is completely different.

So, back to the anecdotal evidence.  In the pubs I visited, last week, all were fairly busy, though in fairness, most were my local pubs, all with a loyal batch of regulars  - and that's as I'd expect. When you have a local that you are known in and where you know everyone, at least to nod to, you are likely to visit as usual, though of course, you may have the odd pint less.  I was also out of area on Saturday, in Bolton attending a meeting. Afterwards we visited a couple of pubs. The first, the Northern Monkey, a modern pub selling craft beer, was very busy indeed, as was the Wetherspoons opposite, the Spinning Mule, which could best be described as "rammed". I'm guessing the prices would be pretty dissimilar, though I can't be sure, as it wasn't my round in either. My final visit was to the ever popular Hare and Hounds in Shudehill, where the pub was pretty well stuffed as usual. That of course is expected from this venue, and this is a good point to add my usual advice to pubs. Concentrate on the offer. If it is good, even in hard times, people will come.

Where does this leave us? Pubs may seem to the casual observer, to be holding up pretty well, but the underlying issues remain. They still need our custom, but we should always be aware, that like the iceberg, what you see on the surface, is only a fraction of what is actually there.

I had a chocolate and orange stout in the Northern Monkey. Boy was it sweet.  I'm noticing rather a lot of beers are far too sweet these days. Give me bitterness in beer. Beer needs balance, and that often can't be achieved just by throwing in certain New World hops.

My three locals will also be increasing prices at the end of the month as the cost of beer from the brewery increases. I'll be keeping my eye on that, but I suspect that won't make much difference.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

Belfast Pubs - The Conclusion

Following on from E's bout of sickness, we did the touristy bit. The Titanic Experience isn't just about the ship, but about Belfast. Suffice to say, it was brilliant, especially the "ghost train" trip of the shipyard with accompanying sounds.  You need to go there really to see what I mean - and very worthwhile it is, too. There was also entertainment on the bus back to the centre. Belfast's buses still have inspectors and as tickets must be purchased before entering the bus, it follows that spot checks are made.  Now they aren't soft enough to wait with the crowds at the Titanic bus stop, nor the one after, but a posse swooped at an obscure stop in the middle of nowhere. We were fine, of course, being old and law-abiding, but a young lad by us was frantically thumbing his phone as the inspector made his way toward him. "Too late for that" remarked the inspector as he asked for the lad's ticket.  Oddly, the fare dodger seemed to relax at this point - on a fair cop basis, I assume.  His details were obtained and, a fine of sixty pounds, was rammed up his arse. The inspector added insult to injury as he left, calling over his shoulder, "£60, plus the fare!"

This kept us entertained until we reached the City Centre.  E was still feeling crook, but gamely came along with me to the Crown Liquor Saloon, where I obtained us a booth and a very creditable pint of Oakham Citra. E stuck to tonic water. For my second pint, I noticed that they sold Belfast Black Stout by Whitewater Brewery.  I ordered one and this proved to be a very wise decision. Smooth, black, hoppy, and not at all cardboardy - Guinness to note. We were joined in our booth by a lad from Dublin and his young son, who had escaped from a family shopping trip, as the boy was hungry. He assumed I was drinking Guinness and expressed surprise at my choice. I assured him it was a very decent pint, but he looked doubtful.  We chatted amiably, though, as his son devoured sausage and chips. A very pleasant chat ensued as we agreed Belfast was a fine place. Alas, a third pint was denied as E felt a bit tired after her sleepless night, and fancied two or three hours kip before our booked meal later by the University.

We hopped on the bus and soon E was tucked into bed. This gave me a chance to nip out onto Botanic Avenue, as I'd spotted a couple of drinking establishments there. First was The 1852. Not my normal sort of bar, but it was laid back and had a few younger types idling around and some gentle music. I sat people watching with a pint of Open Gate Citra IPA, which while nothing spectacular was fine in the circumstances. Service was pleasant, and while I wasn't in a place where I'd meet someone to chat to, I enjoyed it so much, surprising myself, I actually took E there later on that night after our meal.  Just up the road - I didn't want to stray too far - was a place that looked fine, so in I went. It was a large modern bar with what looked like a full size cherry blossom tree behind the bar. It was rather stunning. I don't know what it was called, as it seemed anonymous outside. See Street View to get my point.  There was football on and again, Citra IPA, so chatting to this one and that one, a pleasant hour passed until I returned to the hotel. A bit different for me, but not worse for that - and very relaxing.

We met friends the next day at the Deer's Head, a brewpub, with very well-made beer in the modern style. That is hazy, but there wasn't lumps in it and we thoroughly enjoyed it, except for the slightly aggressive servers, the 10% surcharge for table service that we didn't want, and a complete refusal to split the bill between two of us.  We decanted after that to the friendly John Hewitt, an old-fashioned bar with very modern beers from Ireland and the UK. I'd certainly go back there. 

The next day we returned home, but we had a hour or so to kill before the bus to the airport, so were first equal customers into Robinsons Bar, where we had our first pints. I ordered a Harp just because I could, and it was really rather good. Clean and bitter and very enjoyable, I necked a couple while watching more football. E was back on tonic, and we nattered to one of the bar staff, who simply came over for a chat. Great stuff. And that was it. A quick bus trip to the airport where, suffice to say, the Harp there - all locally brewed beers were off - wasn't as good as the Robinsons one.

So to sum up. Belfast was great for pubs, beer and touristy things.  It would have been even better if E was 100%, but fine nonetheless. The people were fabulous on the whole and I'd go back in a heartbeat.  Guinness was, I think, just about the most popular beer. Best pub overall? Robinsons.  Professional, friendly and in my opinion the best Guinness I had.

I realise we only scratched the surface of Belfast's pubs. Next time I'll dive deeper.  We did other things too. The Ulster Museum, Botanic Park and the Universities, the Palm House and Town Hall.  Lots of walking about - Belfast centre is pretty flat.

Best beer? Probably Capstan Aussie Pale by Bell's Brewery at the Deer's Head, but oddly, the Harp at Robinsons hit the spot pretty well too.

Tuesday, 3 January 2023

The Duke of York and Bittles Bar

I used to collect breweriana - the bits and pieces that breweries produce as advertising material - and still have a fair few items, though nowadays I no longer seek to increase my hoard. I do though maintain my interest in the stuff, Thus, I looked forward to the Duke of York in Belfast, which is renowned for a collection of mainly Irish brewery mirrors and other assorted paraphernalia. The pub itself is in a sort of wide cobbled alley. Inside it was warm and welcoming and really quite busy.  We got our beers - Guinness again - and found a seat to the right of the bar (or left if you are behind it) where we could see what was going on, always a prime consideration for me. The Guinness was fine as far as it goes, but it was no contest to the main attraction for me. Quite simply, every bit of wall, ceiling, door and window was covered in breweriana, mainly from Guinness, but as my eyes adjusted, also signs and enamels from defunct Irish breweries, some Scottish and English ones and breweries such as Bass that had brewed beer in Belfast. (As an aside, I have a Bass Belfast clock and yes - it still works.)

In addition to the main room with the bar, there is a further room which, fortunately, was quieter, while also having similar covering on every space.  It could just about be said to concentrate on mirrors, with some fantastic brewery and whiskey examples - some very rare I assume - as well as many other fine examples of collectables. I'd venture many are worth a bob or two.  The wall across from us, could possibly be said to major on clocks, mainly from Guinness, though there were plenty of other items of interest. In fact, my sole Guinness clock had one of its brethren opposite us and though ours still works - somewhat temperamentally it has to be said - the clocks here certainly did not.  All, or most seemed to be lit though, and while I wandered round to have a look, it was a great frustration that I could not examine them at my leisure. Firstly there were people enjoying their drinks in the way and secondly there just wasn't time. I really must return at opening for a proper examination, though frankly, to give it its place, I'd need several hours.

It really was a fabulous pub with a pleasant atmosphere and a nice buzz about it, but we had another pub to go to and left with a fair bit of regret.

A half mile or so walk took us to Bittles Bar. This is one of these flat iron bars where it is at the point of two streets.  It is a kind of Tardis in reverse, in that it looks bigger on the outside than it does inside. It also has a bit of reputation for quirky rules and an idiosyncratic landlord.  It really is small inside.  We were greeted at the door and asked how many of us there were. The reason became quickly apparent, as it seemed very full, but our guide/waiter/barman found us a perch, and we ordered our Guinness.  Now they don't serve half pints, so pints it was.  We took in our surroundings. Many paintings of poets, politicians and other characters adorned the walls. There was a lovely buzz of conversation, and indeed, not a spare seat in the house. It is table service only here. In fact getting near the bar to see what is sold is difficult, as somewhat uniquely, to use every foot of space, there are three tables in front of the bar.  No bar blocking here and little chance to see what is being sold, but I suppose you could just ask.

The quirkiness of the place can be seen on various signs at the bar. A tongue in cheek (or perhaps not) one advises that due to Brexit, Guinness cannot be sold in halves. Another strictly advises "No human rights! No football."  It is highly recommended.

We ordered second pints, then things went wrong. E had been a little quiet and whispered that she wasn't feeling too well.  Oh. I'd been ill the day before, but it has passed. It seemed though I'd passed the bug on to E.  She had to get back to the hotel. Bravely, I supped what I could, and we left and rushed back to the hotel, where E spent the rest of the evening - it was around ten by then - and overnight throwing up.

Fortunately such bugs, while unpleasant, soon pass and the next day, E was much improved, though she didn't drink anything alcoholic. These things happen, and we just made the best of it that we could.

Bittles apparently sells 700 pints of Guinness a day and, according to the Guinness Guru (caution advised), has the best Guinness in Belfast. We enjoyed the visit and were treated very well indeed, though the famous landlord wasn't there.

That proved to be my last pint of Guinness of the trip. I'd given it a good go, but frankly, it is still a distress purchase for me. 

 Click on any photo to enlarge.

Monday, 2 January 2023

The Sunflower and the Northern Whig

After our earlier pint in Robinsons Bar, we set off for the Sunflower, the only pub on my list which is in the current Good Beer Guide and the furthest away from where we were. Oh, and yes, for once, I had a list. Now don't let that get you too excited, I didn't take notes of course, or even have the means to do so.  I'm not that keen, you know.  The walk took us away from the City Centre and into a somewhat run-down area. Nothing dodgy at all, but not exactly picturesque. The Sunflower was tucked down a backstreet and brightly lit, so, along with the security cage from the days of the Troubles, you could hardly miss it. My photo here was crap, but you'll get the picture here.

We were both rather surprised by how small inside it was, though I think there are other rooms elsewhere in the building. The pub had a neighbourhood character, and despite it being rather empty, it had a fairly cosy feel, though the welcome from the young staff was less than warm - probably in fact the poorest we were to have in our entire visit.  The sole handpump did not have Hilden beers as promised by the GBG, but something mainstream. I certainly didn't come all the way from GB to drink Shepherd Neame Whitstable Bay, so given that the other draught beers were pretty mundane, I opted for Beamish, which is sold in preference to the Big G. It was fine as far as it goes, but as the pub started to fill up with studenty lot, we decided to move on.  On the whole, a tad disappointing, though we did strike up a decent conversation with a fellow imbiber, which was good, as he mentioned a few worthwhile boozers to visit.

Our next intended visit was the Duke of York, but on the way, I was struck by a building we were passing. Who could resist a name like the Northern Whig? Certainly not this writer, so in we went. The building itself was constructed in 1821 in Bridge Street, as a hotel and gentleman's club, taking its name from an original club of the same name. Inside it is a cornucopia of marble and dark wood, with comfortable chairs and a huge bar up some steps.  It reeks of Victorian confidence and certainty. The impressive reddish brown wooden bar fronted an impressive array of bottles, but featured mainly local lagers and ales on keg and, of course, Guinness, which we opted for.  Sadly this was a fairly ordinary representation of the beer. On a quiet Tuesday night though, it was still a worthwhile experience for the building itself, which was fantastic. We agreed we'd have loved to see it rammed, which I am sure it would be later in the week.

But back to business. This was a Guinness night - more or less -  and we were on our way to two more top venues, passing the impressive Harp on the way. I'd have liked to nip in for one, but alas, time did not permit, and anyway E has only a limited tolerance for pub hopping.

What would we find in the Duke of York and the much lauded and anticipated Bittles Bar? Find out soon though, but as a spoiler, the night was about to take a turn for the worse.

There was a fridge full of cans in the fridge at the Sunflower, but they were on their side with the bottoms facing outwards and no obvious list.  Anyway, I don't visit pubs to drink canned beer. 

As another aside, Belfast is pretty compact and easily done on foot, though I tried my knackered knee's patience with over 16,500 steps. For context, that is of course what Retired Martin does between ticks on the same street.