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.