Are you experienced?

There’s an interesting discussion over at B&B‘s (which is becoming my blog-from-blog – I’m spending more time commenting there than posting here) about what you might call the Great British Pub. Here’s a question from a US correspondent, with B&B’s response:

Q: Are pubs in the UK generally the quaint, homey, and instantly familiar and comfy establishments we’ve been led to believe?

A: Those pubs do exist but need a little work to find. There are lots of types of establishment calling themselves pubs which are actually restaurants, fast-food joints, dive bars, nightclubs and so on, perhaps with wood panelling and handpumps

I think that’s pretty much right – and, they might have added, there are lots of types of establishment dispensing hand-pulled beer and not looking like a pub, not calling themselves pubs or both.

The interesting thing about this question is how counter-intuitive the answer is. My immediate impulse was to think “of course that’s what pubs are like – dark wood, brass, plush seating, a real fire, the landlord’s cat and handpumps”. But on reflection that kind of establishment isn’t all that common any more, at least in towns. I can think of a few pubs in walking distance that are sort of pub-ish on that definition, but hardly any of them are places you’d go for decent beer.

So is the Pub Experience becoming divorced from the Beer Experience?

That’s one possibility, but it may be more complicated than that. On a couple of occasions recently I’ve looked down the bar at one of my locals and just not been very enthused. Yes, that looks like it’s pale and hoppy, but the pump clip describes it as ‘creamy’ – is that another word for ‘bland’? (It was.) Yes, it’s nice to see porter on sale, but is it likely to be a particularly nice or memorable porter? (It wasn’t.) Is there anything else I could have – anything interesting? Anything 5% or over, even? (There wasn’t.) I was drinking guest ales in two pubs – well, a pub and a bar – with well-earned reputations for good and varied beer; the breweries weren’t stellar, but they weren’t total unknowns either. And perfectly decent pints they were too, the kind of thing you’d drink in a pub (brass, dark wood, cat etc) and be well content. In an establishment that’s more of a beer palace than a pub, I felt a bit short-changed.

Then the other day – staying on the subject of change – I had a pint of Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, a really beautiful beer in excellent condition. I didn’t have time for another pint, so I followed it with a half of Burton Bridge Bramble Stout, an excellent example of how to use fruit flavours to enhance the natural flavours of a beer without overpowering them. Two very different beers, both of which hit the Beer Experience bullseye so hard they put a dent in it. And the two together cost £2.74; I was in a Wetherspoon’s.

In short: if you want the Pub Experience, you’ll probably end up drinking John Smith’s, or Bombardier if you’re lucky. If you want the Beer Experience, your best bet is probably somewhere with all the soul and atmosphere of a hotel dining room. And if you want to drink beer that’s perfectly decent but not terribly memorable, in surroundings that are quite nice but actually not all that comfortable, see where the CAMRA members and ‘craft beer’ fans go (and check your wallet).

I’m sure there are variations. Areas where the dominance of family & regional brewers hasn’t been broken – like Cornwall, or Stockport for that matter – may have seen less change from the old-school Pub Experience pub; smaller towns may have more pub-like pubs simply because the ‘bar’ look doesn’t have so much local appeal. (I have fond memories of York’s Maltings, which is as pubby as you like and served me some excellent beers from SWB and Magic Rock.) And my two locals may just have been having an off week on the guest beer front. They did make an odd contrast with the city-centre Spoons, though.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 18 February, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink | Reply

    And the bona-fide Pub Experience may well be found in a Sam Smith’s pub with its one real ale (if that) or an old-school keg-only boozer like the Albert in Withington.

  2. Posted 18 February, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink | Reply

    “I’m spending more time commenting there than posting here” — we very much appreciate your comments but would also be delighted to see you blog more often. Always an interesting read when you do.

    On the whole, you’re probably right to say that traditional pub ambience + really great beer are rarely found together.

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