Tag: Pubs

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You wait ages for locally based beer phenomena and then two come along at once

I’m starting to think there might be something in this beer lark.

Just a week after the Jolly Butchers reinvents itself as one of London’s top five beer pubs, The Alma on Newington Green is having a bank holiday weekend real ale festival.

The Alma is a pretty pub in a great location, on the border between N1 and N16.  Bobby Gillespie out of Primal Scream lives just around the corner, and he blew his entire wad of Indie Rock credibility a few years ago when he complained to the council about the noise from the pub.

It’s a gastropub – one of the best in the area – really nice food, freshly prepared, nice wine list, lovely staff, great atmosphere.  But up to now the beer selection has been nothing to write home about.

This weekend landlady Kirsty Valentine changes all that with a festival celebrating the extraordinary renaissance of London brewing in recent years.  There’s a full list of about twelve ales, all from Sambrooks, Brodie’s, Twickenham and Redemption, none of which existed six years ago (Twickenham is the oldest, having opened in September 2004).

And the nice thing about the mix, given that they’re drawn from four local breweries, is that there’s a really interesting array of beer styles in there – a few golden ales, a few session beers, and some stronger, darker stuff.

Some of the brewers will be turning up at various points throughout the weekend, and I’m going down there tomorrow (Saturday) hopefully to meet the nice man from Tottenham’s Redemption Brewery.

It’s three quid a pint (10% off for CAMRA members, not that they deserve it – sorry, Tandy etc – I’m grouchy about appalling behaviour by some stereotypes who were at the National Brewery Centre launch last night) and there’s a live band on Sunday.  It kicks off Saturday at noon and runs until chucking out time on Bank Holiday Monday.

See you there!

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The Jolly Butchers: my manor gets its own serious beer pub

I write for lots of different reasons, some of which go very deep. I’ve wanted to be a writer – of some kind – since I was nine years old. But among all the complex psychology, creativity and ego needs, there are a few more pragmatic reasons why I’ve wanted to write specifically about beer over the last ten years or so.
One of these is that I really love drinking well-made, tasty craft beers, be they American hop bombs, beautifully balanced real ales or perfectly made pilsners.
The trouble is, until a few years ago not many pubs served them. I much prefer drinking in pubs to drinking at home, and nine times out of ten I would have to settle for something deeply average.
So purely selfishly, I figured that if I wrote about beer, and I was really good at it, I might in some small way encourage the spread and appreciation of great beer, and that would make it more common in pubs, and that would mean I could enjoy better beer when I’m out. You might think I do it to turn other people on to great beer, but my ultimate motive is entirely selfish.
And it’s kind of working. I’m not claiming any measure of direct credit for the spread in good quality beer, the huge rise in imports and the critical and commercial revitalisation of cask ale, but I am part of a big wave of enthusiasm that’s pushing the spread of great beer.
My local, the White Hart, used to have one dusty Spitfire pump in the corner of the bar. Now it has three well-kept cask ales – Doom Bar and Tribute on permanent, and a rotating guest.
And as of today, up the road, opposite the bus stop, we have the Jolly Butchers.
Previously, the Jolly Butchers was a Stoke Newington institution – in more than one sense of the word. It was also known as Stokie’s Bar and Father Ted’s, each rebrand not replacing the previous name but adding fresh layers to to it, like the coats of grime on the windows.
It was populated exclusively by old men wearing what the late Pete McCarthy dubbed ‘Irish drinking suits’, those once smart, now shiny and stained dark jackets and trousers that are the uniform of a certain type of veteran drinker. They’d huddle together in a vast, derelict space to watch an endless diet of horse racing on the pub’s many TVs, pumping the change from their pints of Foster’s into a bank of gaming machines.

The pub had a certain notoriety in Stoke Newington’s broader population thanks to its 3am licence, but whatever business this brought in it clearly wasn’t enough: rumour has it the pub was losing thousands of pounds a week when it finally closed earlier this year. Twitter briefly flurried with comments along the lines of “Where are we going to go to have a late night fight with an Irishman now?” and then fell silent.

Two days ago I was invited for a sneak peak at the new Jolly Butcher’s.

The Victorian wrought ironwork and stained glass above the windows, previously boarded over, has been exposed. The walls have been stripped back to the brickwork and left unfinished, stylishly shabby, apart from one wall covered in trendy Fornasetti wallpaper.
The central bar that once dominated the centre of the room has been moved to the side, and an open kitchen has been built in the corner. And as for that bar, well…

There are ten handpumps, combining beers from London’s late-to-the-party but finally emerging range of craft brewers, plus regular beers from Thornbridge and Dark Star, real cider from Gwatkin’s and a perry.

Apart from the ales, there’s smoked beer Schlenkerla on draught, as well as De Koninck, Bruges Zot, Mort Subite Kriek, Vedett, Erdinger and Meantime Helles. Yes, all on draught. Then there’s a lot of Chimay in bottles, some more Meantime and a few others. The bottle range does need beefing up, but landlord Martin wanted to focus on getting the draught range right first.
I used to have to get on a train for two hours to drink Jaipur on draught. Now I have to walk five minutes to the end of my street. My plan has worked.
I can’t claim any credit at all for the Jolly Butchers though – Martin had never heard of me until he started placing orders for beers. But when he did, people kept telling him I lived locally and he should get in touch with me. I’m so glad he followed their advice.
The other day I chipped in a few comments about the beers as the staff were taken through a tutored tasting of them by Martin (behind the bar, above). Some of the Irish drinking suits were hanging around outside, curious, proprietorial. They’re still welcome if they’re happy with no racing, no bandits and Meantime Helles instead of Foster’s.
Martin knows what he’s doing – he also runs the Rose and Crown in N16 and the Wrestlers in Highgate. Both those pubs are tied, but the Jolly Butchers is a freehouse. As such, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on it and turn it into a beer shrine. Why? Martin is a beer fan, but not a beer geek. He enjoys a decent pint, but talking to him you realise first and foremost he’s a businessman. He’s reinvented the Jolly Butchers, taking it from one extreme of the pub spectrum to the other, purely because he believes he’ll make a lot of money by doing so.
“If this doesn’t work, that means I don’t understand pubs. And the thing is, I do understand pubs – I’ve worked in them all my life,” he says.
It’s striking that he had to wait until he could get a freehold to do this – that PubCos simply wouldn’t allow him to create this dream. When the Jolly Butchers makes more money than Martin’s other pubs, than other Enterprise and Punch pubs, it will prove what readers of this blog understand but PubCos, global brewers and mainstream media still do not – craft beer is thriving, and when forty pubs a week are closing, catering to craft beer is a sure fire route to profit.
See you there tonight.

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The Special Relationship

I just spent a couple of minutes trying to find a picture to illustrate this post, because that’s what you’re supposed to do on blogs – make it more multimedia and all that. But as soon as I started scanning potential pics, I realised this was one of those posts that’s best appreciated if we let your imagination do the work, so here goes...

Had a fantastic afternoon today in a Euston pub with Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from California’s legendary Stone brewery. They’re over in the UK researching a book on IPA, and having a once in a lifetime type of trip (note to self: pretend you only have ten days left in Britain, but three months to plan what you do in those ten days. What would you do?)
We had a good chat and traded notes, and even drank some IPA. After an hour or so, it emerged that Mitch and Steve hadn’t eaten lunch. It was Steve’s round, so he volunteered to order some food when he went up to the bar.
Ten minutes later, the food arrived. Both Steve and Mitch looked perturbed – the classic look we all get when we’re in a foreign country and we’re almost certain something is wrong, but we don’t want to kick up the same stink we would at home for fear of offending someone or being shown up as a clueless tourist who just doesn’t get it.
Eventually Steve said “Um… this is not what I ordered. I ordered a vegetable platter.”
I looked at the sharing platter between us, and felt the slow, cold-water-creeping embarrassment we all feel when we’re in our own country and we realise something is wrong, but only because we’re seeing it through a foreigner’s eyes, and we don’t want to kick up a stink because we don’t want our guests to think of us as some clueless hick who just doesn’t get it.
Eventually I said, “Um… yes, this is what you ordered. It is the vegetable platter. Look, these are deep-fried onion rings in batter. Onions are a vegetable. These triangular things are deep-fried vegetable samosas. They’ve got vegetables in. These nobbly things are… they’re deep-fried mushrooms in breadcrumbs. Mushrooms are a vegetable. And so is bread. These things here are curly fries. They’re made from potato, which is a vegetable. You recognise taco chips of course – made of corn, and corn is another vegetable. And this last one here, this grey cylindrical thing… I’m not sure…. hang on, I’ll taste it… oh. These are onion bhajis. Deep-fried onion and potato. So you see, it is a vegetable platter.”
Steve and Mitch were both silent for a while. Then, eventually, Steve said, “I keep forgetting we’re not in Southern California any more.”
“Look,” I replied, “If I turn the plate around there’s a bit of garnish on this side, and there’s a little bit of that that’s green.”
Gingerly, Steve reached for a deep-fried breaded mushroom.
But even though I’d already had lunch, I was the only one of the three of us who went anywhere near the bhajis or the curly fries.

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Dropped out of circulation for a few weeks there while I was rewriting Man Walks into a Pub. Just got final rewrites off to the editor and am now resuming normal service.

Apologies if you entered the Budvar/Publican Why Beer Matters competition – it’s a month since closing date and it’s very remiss of me not to have done the judging by now. I’ll be resolving that asap.
Lots of great stuff happening over the next few weeks though – I’ll be posting about my recent trip to Denmark, the Welsh beer revolution, lager, and plans for Cask Ale Week over the next week or two.
In the meantime, here’s a column I did for the Publican when I was out after the Liverpool Beer Festival last week.

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Is the worst over for pubs?

After last week’s report that beer sales are not quite as shit as they have been, there’s similar cautious optimism this week for pubs – while not exactly something to shout from the rooftops, there are two bits of news suggesting that things have at least stopped getting even worse.

First, The Publican reported yesterday on claims from Merrill Lynch that pub performance is improving. The city broker chained that pubs face a brighter outlook in 2010, “with trade recovering, debt at manageable levels, regulatory concerns back to historical levels and property values having bottomed out”.
They were looking mainly at the big PubCos of course, and claimed in that the tenanted sector in particular was improving, with the underlying performance trend improving and top-end pubs showing “greater resilience”.
Today, this was followed by new data compiled for the British Beer and Pub Association by CGA Strategy, showing that the rate of pub closures slowed in the second half of 2009. We’ve spent six months quoting the horrible figure of 52 pub closures a week – that has now slipped back to 39 a week. Hardly great news – before we got up to 52 this was shocking – but after 52, it doesn’t seem quite as bad, and suggests that some of the factors killing pubs have done their worst.
A total of 2365 pubs closed in 2009, with the loss of 24,000 jobs. There are now 52,500 pubs in Britain – well down on the 58,600 pubs operating when the Licensing Act came into force in 2005. In addition to the loss of these vital community hubs, the Government is set to lose over £250 million in tax revenues this year, if the current closure level continues.
Food for thought for PubCo haters – in the second half of 2009 the rate of closure of free houses was far higher than tenanted or leased pubs – from July to December 575 free houses closed compared to 320 tenanted and 117 managed pubs.
The data also shows that pubs serving food led pubs continued to do better than those that don’t – just 130 of the pubs that closed were food led, with 883 drink-led.
It convinces me that while the trade is absolutely right to point fingers are factors such as supermarket pricing and in particular Thunderbirds Boy and his moronic tax rises, the recession has clearly been a particular bane to pubs, and now it’s easing, so is the pub’s plight.
The industry is by no means out of the woods and could still do with a helping hand from government rather than yet more punishment, but the pub is not going to die. Many (though I’ll admit, not all) of those who behave in an entrepreneurial way and continue to offer people something relevant will survive, and many are prospering.

I’ll be talking about this on Five Live’s drive time show later today.

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Polls and priorities

Bless you, you’re a liberal minded lot.

My poll on kids and dogs in pubs closed yesterday and the results are as follows. Based on 181 votes, would you:
Allow both kids and dogs in pubs? 38%
Allow kids bit not dogs? 6%
Allow dogs but not kids? 41%
Ban both dogs and kids? 14%
So 44% of you think kids should be allowed in pubs; and 79% of you think dogs should be allowed in pubs. The canines have it – Captain and The Beer Widow will be pleased.
I’ve actually changed my own position after some of the thoughtful arguments people have made and would now say that both should be allowed – it depends on the owner/handler, and tighter regulation should be enforced when either behave badly.
Now on to the next poll – one you may think is a bit sarcastic – I hope you think it’s rhetorical. After a week of unprecedented hostility from parliament, the health profession and the neo-prohibitionists, there has so far been very little reaction from the beer industry to the Parliamentary Select Committee Report on alcohol. Professor Poontang asked on my last blog post where CAMRA are in all this – as Curmudgeon replied, they’re seemingly too busy taking legal action over the issue of the beer tie. They’re quite possibly also busy writing their own manifesto for pubs, even though the BBPA have just written one.
And I’ve not had a single press release with reaction from any brewer, or seen any other industry comment. The BBPA sent me an excellent press release rebutting some key points, and that’s all the reaction I’ve seen.
I believe that 2010 is the year the industry must stop fighting and work together to counter the social demonisation of alcohol. But do you agree? Let me know in the new poll, right here—->

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Pubs and who they let in – a quick poll

Happy New Year!

Had a very pleasant New Year’s Day in The Spaniards, Hampstead – the pub I discovered in September at the Flying Dog event, and subsequently named in The Guardian as my perfect Boxing Day pub (which it subsequently was – we had a fantastic meal, great Christmas beers, and Richard and Judy were in there, with Judy wearing a huge pair of sunglasses, and even putting on reading glasses over the top of them to read the menu).

So we went back, and got there early to get a table, and enjoyed a very fine afternoon.
The sheer demand for tables meant there was a deal of tension in the air, with people repeatedly asking us how long we were going to be and attempting to nick a chair every time someone went to the loo.
But what made it really irritating was the constant screaming of bored kids, and the fact that a woman behind me repeatedly rammed my chair with a pushchair containing a fractious baby.
Now, I don’t have children – but I do have a dog. And one of the Spaniard’s many, many qualities in my eyes is that it’s the most dog-friendly pub I’ve ever been to. So I have a big personal bias: I regard a pub as being a bit stuck-up if they don’t allow dogs in – especially those who claim it’s against health and safety regulations or even against the law, which it just isn’t – it’s your decision who and what you let in your own pub and I respect that, but don’t lie to me – just have the balls to say you don’t want dogs in.
But I get irritated by kids in pubs. Or more accurately, by the parents of kids in pubs: parents who think it’s OK to wheel in a double-width push chair and leave it in the aisle. Parents who ignore their children and let them run around screaming, and smile at you when the kid runs past your table and spills your drink as if to say “Aren’t they adorable?” No, they’re really irritating. And parents who keep kids in the pub long after their bedtime, so they get grizzly and fractious – not fair on the kids, nor the rest of us. Living in a borough with a very high concentration of young kids, the joy of the pub is in part for me that it is an adult environment. That it should feel like a kindergarten is just wrong.
So my perfect pub would allow dogs, and ban kids.
But Orwell argued that kids should be allowed in pubs because pubs should be wholesome, universal centres of the community, and banning kids helps turn them into male-only drinking dens – his experience of such places was that if the bloke is in the pub, the woman has to stay at home looking after the kids. I see his point, and would agree with his view were it not for personal experience.
And anyone who saw Captain pissing territorially on the 17th century pillar in the front bar of the Spaniard’s yesterday would be well within their rights to argue that dogs are unhygienic and should be barred from any eating and drinking space. (He doesn’t normally do it, but there were lots of other dogs around, and some were cuter than him, which he hates. It makes him feel insecure.)
So am I just swayed by my personal circumstances?
Should the ideal pub bar children, dogs, or both? Or should it be as inclusive as possible and allow both?
I’ve set up a little poll over there—-> and would love to hear your views. If you leave a comment about this, please say if you have kids and/or dogs of your own, so we can see if our own situation dictates our views.

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Reasons to buy newspapers – or at least link to them

Tomorrow The Guardian travel section is running a selection of perfect pubs to visit between Christmas and New Year, that slow, out-of-time, strange week when you have no idea what day it is and can just sit by a pub fire with a book and the dog all day if you want to. They asked me for my suggestion, and it’s this pub below – check the newspaper tomorrow (Saturday) to find out where it is, and I’ll see you there lunch time on Boxing Day.

Also, today the Daily Express has a round-up of best drinks books of the year, in which they refer to Hops & Glory as “one of the drink books of the year” funnily enough. The value of those remaining copies continues to rise…