Thursday, November 1, 2018

On the Enduring Appeal of Pub Crawls

At the opening of his superb Three Sheets to the Wind, Pete Brown describes the apparently limitless attraction of the phrase, 'fancy a pint'? How many of our greatest stories begin this way? Like many others, I am not immune to this siren call, and many an interesting evening has begun in this relatively muted and spontaneous way, answering the request that you join someone for, also noted by Brown, 'just the one'.

But what of those times that lack this spur of the moment quality? Those sessions that have been meticulously planned in advance, with lists of pubs written, maps of streets scribbled, Good Beer Guides consulted? I refer, of course, to the phenomenon of the pub crawl.

Some of my favourite drinking experiences have been of this kind. Sometimes they are in a new place, a pub crawl pieced together via Google Maps and internet forums. Others are old, comfortable, routes that I've walked hundreds of times, with different pub stops being added and removed as if to a patchwork quilt.

The Merchant's Arms in Bristol, a pub crawl mainstay

The former are often voyages of exploration, laced with the potential for either great joy at finding some previously unknown gem or great disappointment that a highly-recommended venue is shut, has changed hands, or just turns out to be a bit of a dud. The latter are like watching a favoured film from childhood, populated with familiar sights, sounds, and characters. Some of the details are different to how you remember them, but the basic plot points are always more or less as you thought.

What is the appeal of a pub crawl? To commit to constantly upheaving oneself from a comfortable seat or away from a particularly good pint of a lesser-spotted beer? To have to brave the elements on an hourly basis? To deal with the logistics of getting from this pub to the next? I am not an especially adventurous traveller in a global sense, but give me a town or city with at least five recommended pubs and I transform into the Ranulph Fiennes of beer.

I've done two decent-length (six or seven venues) pub crawls in the last fortnight, both times showing visitors to Bristol around the joint, but even at this frequency the allure remains. The planning and anticipation. The beginning, as you set out to the first place. The hawking of the next stop on the route - 'this one's a cracker' (aren't they all?). The amusing encounters with characters met along the way. The one for the road. And then, in the day and week after, the reminiscences. The adventure recounted to others - 'you had to be there, really'. The hope that next time, never too long away, it will be even better.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Trillium, Bourdain, and the Broad Church of Beer

In late August I found myself in Boston, Massachusetts as part of my day job and took the opportunity to explore some of the Boston beer scene, not least in the hope of having some New England IPA (NEIPA) in its own backyard. I won't dwell on the actual beer too much, bar stating the (perhaps) obvious - it was very good across the board.

We could quibble about who is the most famous or notable Boston brewery for some time, but the name I heard most ahead of my trip with was Trillium. Trillium, for the uninitiated, are a famous, successful, and young brewery. Instagram-friendly, their hazy NEIPAs are renowned as some of the best examples of the style. 

A surprisingly reasonably-priced beer at the Trillium Garden on the Greenway

The queues at the Fort Point brewery feature heavily in online discussion of Trillium, and I wasn't let down on the days I visited. While there, I got chatting to a man in front of me in the maybe 100-strong queue. Having dispensed with the requisite Brit abroad chat, he asked me what I was there to buy. 'Beer', I answered. He laughed. 'Yeah, but what beer?' It transpired that I was at the brewery on the afternoon of one of Trillium's multiple 'releases' each week. Today it was a Triple IPA (which I ended up buying a can of) plus some others that I don't recall. When I turned the inquiry back to him, he told me that he had already that morning driven to Tree House Brewing Company (another popular outfit cut from similar cloth) but been put off by the crowds already in line, driven for an hour to the other Trillium brewery site outside of Boston (in Canton, Mass), similarly found it too busy to buy the particular beers he wanted, so had then driven a further half an hour or so into the city to try his luck here. Now that's commitment.

The lengths this man had gone to to secure a few cans of beer put me in mind of Anthony Bourdain's comments a few years back about craft beer drinkers, already discussed by Boak and Bailey among others. The general reaction to Bourdain's criticisms of craft beer and 'Mumford and Sons IPA' was that he was overegging the pudding somewhat and that 'critics of craft beer culture need to make up their minds whether craft beer is a minority diversion enjoyed only by a handful of freaks, or an existential threat'. Amen. My intention here is to contribute some further limited evidence in support of that contention.

Aside from the brewery based at trendy Fort Point, Trillium also run a beer garden (Garden on the Greenway) in a more offices-and-Irish Pubs part of the city that I visited twice. Perhaps the most notable thing about this was that, although there were a handful of the maligned 'people sitting there with five small glasses in front of them, filled with different beers, taking notes', the place was mostly filled with people who clearly had no idea that a) Trillium are a world-renowned brewery or b) that many Craft Beer Nerds would likely consider exchanging a limb for a night spent at the Garden on the Greenway. Most of them were drinking the lowest ABV beer on offer (the superb Launch Beer) and paying it basically no mind whatsoever.

I reflected on this with my drinking partner, also a beer enthusiast, and the analogy we kept stumbling back to was that of beer drinking culture, in pretty much all cases, being a Broad Church. Although Bourdain and others (on both sides) might see a major conflict brewing between Craft Beer Culture and Normal/Proper Drinking, I find it hard to identify where we might actually find the front line of such a conflict. If it isn't visible in the Trillium beer garden, at places like fully-fledged craft venues like Small Bar in Bristol, or indeed in standard boozers now selling Lagunitas IPA, then I am inclined to think it probably doesn't exist.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Do takeovers ruin pubs? A case study

Do takeovers and the accompanying refurbishment ruin pubs? I've had numerous occasions to ponder this question throughout my beer drinking career. My gut response is 'yes, they do'. I have had a number of pubs that were close to my heart fall prey to the cruel whims of an interior decorator clutching a wad of cash from the new owners. Think Changing Rooms but with added alcohol.

This week was the turn of The Griffin Inn, a charming old pub and still-functioning Inn in Bath dating from some time in the 18th Century. (Amusingly, in their history of Bath pubs, Kirsten Elliott and Andrew Swift note that it can 'only' be traced back that far. Tough crowd...) The pub had seemed (to me and some fellow regular visitors) to be doing just fine. It usually had four or more beers on cask (a Timothy Taylor offering, Bristol Beer Factory, and then two others generally from the South West) as well as a further five or six 'craft keg' beers (including Wiper and True, Beavertown Neck Oil, Brugse Zot, Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout, and Jaipur). Not too shabby as far it goes, and fairly decently priced considering, especially once a generous 10% CAMRA discount was entered into the bargain. Over what I can only imagine were hundreds of pints I drank in the pub, just the one was ever returned and that was at the height of this summer's heatwave and, therefore, somewhat forgiveable. 

                                 The Griffin Inn in happier days. Source.

However, in late September the word went out that the pub would only be open in its current guise for a few more days following its purchase by none other than St. Austell Brewery. Sadly, I didn't make it along for the send-off, notable for the free beer being handed out, but this did not stop me worrying about it all the same. My concerns were three-fold. First, did this mean we were going to see the replacement of the very good cask and keg range from multiple breweries with a more limited (if still good) selection from St. Austell and their other relatively recent acquisition, Bath Ales? Second, was the pub going to become a de facto restaurant? Third, would the interior itself be gutted?

Ahead of the relaunch on Friday October 5th (more on which below), I scoured the website for clues. First impressions were good - the pictures suggested that the refurbishments were non-existent, the bar and other key elements remaining untouched in the photographs. On the cask beer front, there were also some positive noises - Bristol Beer Factory and Timothy Taylor were sticking around and another local offering (Electric Bear) added. Less detail on the keg front, but it didn't look too bad. I was less enthused by the extensive discussion of food - Bath already has more than enough pubs dressing up as restaurants. That said, all things considered this looked like it might be at the better end of the takeover and refurbishment spectrum - some limitations on beer given the new owners, but the basic ethos of the place would remain.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Myself and a few others arrived at The Griffin on Friday evening around 3 hours after the grand re-opening. The interior was quite wildly different. The bar seemed to have been changed (possibly just the top, though it was hard to tell) and, most notably, the keg dispense moved from the back wall onto the bar itself. This has had the effect of reducing the beer handpumps to a grand total of two (Tribute and Nova from Bristol Beer Factory in this case, plus two ciders). The keg offer, now far more visible, was dispiriting. I can't even remember what there was, but I vaguely recall that Korev featured prominently. Moving on from the beer, things went from bad to worse. The entire back wall of the bar-side of the pub (formerly home to the kegs) was now covered in a cage full of whisky, gin and, somewhat bizarrely, tequila. We subsequently noticed that each table carried a small flyer advertising this inauspicious development, boasting somewhere in the hundreds of bottles of things that were decidedly not beer. The old informal seating had been replaced by something that looked and smelled like a display in Habitat and, sin of sins, there was now dreadful music being piped over the whole affair. The wall opposite the bar, in an even worse development, was now mirrored and had things like a telescope adorning it. What fresh hell, etc.  Perhaps mercifully, the kitchen is not yet complete so there was no major food-driven change to note.

My companions and I were both angry and depressed. What had they done to our pub?! This sentiment, ugly as it might seem with that note of possessiveness in there, was potent given the fact that many of the people in the pub just weren't 'Griffin people' - at least, they previously weren't. Of course, one suspects this is exactly as St Austell would like it to be. The crowd was younger, drinking what seemed to be small vats of gin and tonic (something noticed by Boak and Bailey recently), and didn't seem to care that the music made it hard to enquire as to whether the CAMRA discount was still valid (I'm sure you can guess the answer to that one). 

For what it's worth, the two pints of Tribute that I had were very good and the barman assured me that the local beer (Electric Bear) would be on next. In between getting in my request that Proper Job make an appearance soon, I quizzed the staff about the sale. Their perception of the prior health of the pub was different to mine - 'it was dead in here a lot of the time' - and they liked the refurbishment. I was also told that the accommodation will remain above the pub as well, something that surprised me.

So, do takeovers and refurbishments ruin pubs? The case of The Griffin hasn't made me rethink my initial response, but it has made me think a bit more carefully about the question. First, these things are obviously all subjective to an extent - I'm sure some people hated how the pub was before. That tedious observation aside, I am maybe more concerned that this is simply the way these things are always going to go from now on. And it is in this context that micropubs and, different but in some way the same, dedicated craft bars are perhaps going to become panaceas for those who previously just wanted a pub, not a Spirits Emporium or Curiositie Shoppe or whatever.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Studying the Locals - a mini crawl around Redcliffe (Bristol)

Living in a particularly fertile beer environment (East-Central Bristol), it's easy to overlook the more understated pub options in favour of a taproom or streamlined craft bar when deciding where and what to drink on a weekend afternoon. More often than not, the path of least resistance for myself is a brief stroll to Moor Beer Company and/or Good Chemistry for an hour or so each followed by a half or two at the Barley Mow to finish. These are attractive options for a range of reasons: the beer is of a high standard across all three - no ropey cask offering here - and one can generally get some of whatever it is that one wants. A mix of dispense method, but more importantly a mix of styles, is present at each. So, if you fancy a pale, stout, something 'interesting' like a sour or rye beer, or the increasingly common craft lager, you will stand a pretty good chance of getting it at at least one of these three spots. All in all, then, I suppose a large part of the attraction lies in the fact that these are a known quantity - the beer will be diverse to a large extent and the quality will almost always also be there.

On returning from another taproom trawl, though, a voice begins to sound in my ear in the days that follow. 'What about the pubs?', it asks. What about the pubs, indeed. I know I live near a lot of great pubs and it's not as if I spend no time in them. But, truth be told, I don't actually spend that much time in them. Why is this? I think the above (forgoing the near-guarantee of quality and quantity) has something to do with it. And there's also the batch of nebulous worries that comes with entering a pub as a younger (no longer 'young' outside of relative terms, I'm afraid) individual or couple, especially at a time of week and of the day when the pub is firmly the territory of The Regulars. There is an ongoing debate in the beer community regarding inclusivity, but I (white middle-class male) don't think what I'm noting here is on the same scale as the more apparently systemic exclusion suffered by other groups. Instead, it's just that prickly feeling that one gets when entering what seems to have been marked out as someone else's space. You're not actually told to leave, but you're also not made to feel as if you should stay.

In any event, this weekend I decided to right this recent wrong and embark on a mini crawl around the pubs of my neighbourhood of Redcliffe/Old Market in Bristol and hit a few old favourites and one new venue (to me at least). We started at The King's Head, a very old, very famous CAMRA staple. The pub has a remarkable interior resembling a train carriage. When we arrived, about 4pm on a Saturday, although there were a few people sat outside (bravely given the chill) the interior was completely dead and, as a consequence, we had our pick of seats in the carriage seating area. On the beer front, there are always three cask beers on - often HPA from Wye Valley, Harvey's Sussex Best, and a guest that is currently Fuller's London Pride. My drinking partner and I both plumped for a pint of HPA. I am a fan of HPA, especially the way it hits that perfect note of sessionability and bitterness that lifts it above a lot of the pale 4%ish stuff one finds in pubs lacking drinkers of the more adventurous disposition. Unfortunately, our pints weren't too good. The beer wasn't quite off, but it probably shouldn't have been served. A cloying sweetness that was on the cusp of a terrible balsamic turn rendered it undrinkable once this had overtaken whatever was left of the grassier, fresher flavours.

                                  Photo source: Time Out

Onwards and upwards, we hoped. We had a look in at The Seven Stars, which promised a wide range of cask beers, but upon hearing the piercing sound of an acoustic U2 cover piped through an ailing PA system, promptly about-turned and headed instead to The Cornubia. The Cornubia feels like a set for some wartime drama - Union Jacks everywhere you look - and has an array of handpumps adorning the bar. We opted for a Small Beer by Sentinel Brewing Co. (of Sheffield, we found out) and it was excellent. Although a very low ABV, it managed hold a lot of richness and body and, compared to our pint of HPA, was borderline revelatory.

From The Cornubia we made the short walk to The Bridge Inn, maybe my favourite pub in the area. 4 handpumps are a mainstay plus a mix of keg, some of it interesting, some of it not. The Bridge always has Dark Star's Hophead on and yesterday had the intriguing Dark Star Table Beer next to it. Dark Star, now of the Fuller's stable of course, are consistently good in my book, and the Table Beer was no exception. Clocking in at a mere 3.1%, this pale but murky beer had a decent thickness to it and bags of hop flavour (from Cascade, Citra, and Chinook according to the website). If this was on at all after-work beer sessions, I can't imagine I would drink much else. I'm glad to see Dark Star experimenting in this area and I really hope this gets a wider distribution. 

Table Beers duly inhaled, we moved on to our final stop, The Old Market Tavern. This was my first proper visit to a pub that is only a few minutes walk from my abode. Why I've avoided it I'm not sure. True, it doesn't look like a great pub, but it equally looks just fine and the Wadworth tag on the pub sign instills some level of confidence. Entering, it's a totally different clientele to the other pubs - younger, fewer men, less beer being drunk. There are three handpumps - Rev James and two beers from Twisted Oak, one of which (Fallen Tree), we get two pints of from a surly barman. It's a session bitter, but thankfully not as dull or twiggy as the name of both the beer and brewery hint at. In fact, it's in decent condition and quite fruity in the mouth. The crowd does wear on us after a while (confirming our suspicions that we really cannot count ourselves among the young anymore), but I would consider a return visit, maybe on a weeknight. 

So, whither the weekend afternoon taproom crawl? It's probably not completely off the cards - we still had one dodgy pint and had some unexpected music at another pub - but it does confirm my suspicion that taprooms aren't the only place where the action is at in this part of town.