The Perfect Pub: Mission Statement – coming soon

Who wants to be a millionaire – well you can’t, but how about taking on a pub as a step to untold riches? I’m always in awe of those good folk who are prepared to serve whilst the rest of us enjoy ourselves. They have to be a bit different to everywhere else, the beer and food can’t have an off day and the landlord needs to make a living without it seeming to be just a business (see final paragraph).

My recent experience is all on the customers’ side of the bar but as a child (see earlier post on my granddad’s pub) I saw the hard-knock life that a landlord’s world entailed. Always running the bar, doing the books after the evening session and then getting a nap after lunchtime closing. A very tough life on all fronts – physical, mental and metaphysical. Not surprising that my grandma could lift 8 one pint jugs in her hands. And in a world of cash and dodgy practices no one could be trusted to stand in. Their only night off I ever remember was the annual Licensed Victuallers ‘do’.

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Granddad’s cufflinks: Perfect for the Licensed Victuallers

Since those days technology has improved the landlord’s lot but pub going has declined as legislation and other consumer choices have kicked in. However there still seem to be enough people who see a pub as their lifelong working dream – perhaps in part due to the joy of sitting the other side of the bar. Sadly I still stumble across pubs where you know within minutes that the new ‘mine hosts’ are ill-suited to running a successful pub.

I can’t see the long-term benefit to an operator of taking on lessees who won’t be successful but I guess the pubco’s will be even more keen to encourage the ‘dreamers with money’ if market rent only becomes an option. The pubcos websites still try and sell the dream to potential lessees and the Morning Advertiser featured pubs seem like nirvana rather than a bottomless pit to pour money down. A recent ad listed a village pub in Derbyshire that had ‘good potential for commuter trade’. I suspect it’s never seen a commuter in its life. Now That’s What I Call Marketing No 666.

Of course it’s not all gloom and doom – there are still pubs where I can walk through the door and all is well with the world. Like many I find it ironic that Wetherspoons brand-grabbed George Orwell’s ‘Moon under Water’ but I still believe in the search for the perfect pub. Interesting that the attributes described by Orwell haven’t changed a great deal, for some of us, in nearly 70 years.

On a stroll around St Albans with my mate Greedy we pondered as to why one pub works and another one doesn’t quite cut the mustard. And why is it almost an instant feeling as you open the door? Last night’s winners were the Farriers Arms and The Six Bells.

Open the door of the Farriers and it feels good to be in from the cold. Welcoming humour from the landlord, acknowledgment by the regulars and a solid pint of Betty Stogs from Skinners isn’t a bad start. It has that essence of the community pub – comfortable but unfussy, nooks and crannies for local groups and even an outside lav. And gentle encouragement from the landlord to have another.

The Six Bells, busy even on a Monday night and offering a good range of beers including a richly malted porter from the local 3 Brewers . The porter was a bit like a liquorice whorl and treacle toffee on bonfire night. The Six Bells is warm, friendly and the lighting is just right. It has that feeling of being loved and well run. I’m sure everyone is running in the background but all feels calm on my side of the bar.

As I said the pub magic trick is to make it seem it’s not a business but sometimes they can’t help themselves. The Old Chequers at Gaddesden Row has new owners. Their shiny website has no mention of beer but it proudly announces that the Mission Statement is coming soon. How did you miss that one off your list George Orwell?

“I don’t do food”

A week in Suffolk had me thinking about what makes a pub different to a restaurant. On the way we drove through Yoxford, a village just off the A12. I remembered some 30 years ago renting a holiday cottage in the village across the road from The Blois Arms, an Adnams pub. In those days, over for a quick pint – the landlord gave us a friendly welcome and asked if we were settled in to the cottage (he knew what was going on in the village).

His only interests were his customers and Adnams’ beer. “This is the only Adnams where John Adnams drinks beer, he’s more of a wine man you know.” How right he was. Our pints were enjoyed whilst he proudly told us he didn’t do food, we could bring a jug for filling and “lift up your little girl on to the bar so she can talk to us as well – here’s a sweetie for later”. In modern parlance it was a wet-led community pub. The pub was closed in 2007.

Blois Arms Yoxford Copyright Adrian Noble

I don’t want this to seem like a diatribe against Adnams – any brewer that produces a fine winter brew like Old Ale gets my vote. It’s a very well run business with a strategically sound diversification of the brand (that’s enough marketing speak) – as my son said, “they’ve really got it sorted”. It’s just that my week in coastal Suffolk (NW3 by the sea) made me realise that, for some areas of the country, pubs focussed on beer are heading for extinction.

By ‘focussed on beer’ I don’t mean there’s no food or that most of the turnover is from beer – it’s more complex than that. When I walk into a pub I want it to feel like it’s a pub, not a restaurant with a counter to place my food order. I want it to be different – not like every other pub. Faced with stripped pine tables and bare floorboards, large menu blackboard, all the tables in the bar set for lunch, it’s clear that if I only want a pint I’m not really needed.

You know the type of ‘pub’ – with no space for mingling I start to think I might as well be at a Carluccio’s or some such. There’s a danger in standing about because you’re likely to get mown down as another ‘trio of locally-grown sausages with cheddar mash and luscious onion gravy, artfully arranged’ passes by your pint.

I’m all in favour of food, particularly after a stroll, and I realise that’s where the margins are for pub operators. What I’m concerned about is that there is a risk of pubs forgetting why they have a unique character. Pubs in Southwold like the Lord Nelson and the old bar at the Harbour Inn still say loud and clear we’re a proper pub and everyone is welcome. Perfect for when you’re in need of rehydration after a windy walk along the beach.

However they feel like a declining breed amongst the identikit ‘gastro-style’ pubs that are beginning to be the only option in some places. What was once an interesting food-led diversion for the pub trade is becoming boring. It’s not fashionable, it’s dull and unimaginative. And fads often become outdated and require yet another expensive re-fit in short order.

If it don’t feel like a pub, I don’t think it is a pub, as the landlord of The Blois Arms might have said.

Ode to Sheffield

The perfect snog

The perfect snog

First of all I have to admit to being biased – three formative years long ago at Sheffield Hallam (and more recently for my son) and it has a hold of my heart. I’m never quite sure what makes any town or city feel safe but Sheffield city centre has always seemed welcoming for a night out. I suspect a city, where burly bus drivers call you love, Richard Hawley calls home and where Hendo’s is a life-blood, has to be good.

Way back when, I remember standing in a queue for a club with snow falling and a local lad in a T-shirt laughed and said, “I see bloody students are back” and looked at us disdainfully in our thick coats and then chatted to us – we were the gowns owned by the town. Similarly, I remember a late night when me and my mates, all in fancy dress, were chased on foot around a city centre car park by a copper. He eventually caught up with us, laughed at our daft outfits, and explained that he wasn’t going to arrest us, he just didn’t want us to drive a car in our state – good policing did exist in 70s Sheffield.

Our latest reunion with South Yorkshire started in deepest darkest Rotherham to watch United being thrashed by the Boro’. I’d not been to watch Rotherham (in Rotherham) since the 70’s when Malcolm Allison’s Crystal Palace were the visitors and Big Mal was in his Fedora hat era.

Back to the beer – I’ve decided that if you want to be in a pub where supporters of both football teams will mingle happily you need good beer and no blokes on the door. (On this basis I fully expect a CAMRA ‘What’s Brewing’ article soon suggesting that real ale can be shown to reduce football hooliganism when compared to the wicked effect of keg consumption – see earlier blog on village pubs). Pubs like the Derby Tup in Chesterfield, Finborough Arms (Chelsea) and The Great Northern (Burton) offer the best in decent beers and decent folk.

Anyway, the Cutlers Arms in Rotherham provided a good couple of local pints before the game and the New York Tavern with its full range of Chantry brews and other ales offered a post-match warm down. Both supplied beers in good nick and fast, friendly service. Perfect for a game at the tidy new home of the Millers – and many thanks to the supervisor who, after the match, generously escorted my mate from the Rotherham end to meet us at the Boro’ end and for good chat from the friendly copper from South Yorkshire’s finest on the walk from the ground. In the search for bad news, it’s not often reported that you regularly hear away fans thanking stewards and police after a game and the return of “have a safe trip home”.

Back to Sheffield…the night focussed on Sheffield city centre’s heritage pubs. First off it was the Thornbridge-owned Bath Hotel, with a wide range of its own beers and others in fine form, followed by The Red Deer. Somewhere along the way was a pint of Abbeydale’s Deception but why do I never see Brimstone in Sheffield?

The Grapes followed offering good ales & Guinness, a jukebox of excellent tunes (Sheffield songsters a speciality) and the interesting JFK memorabilia room. Strange to think that once upon a time an ‘Irish’ pub was about a friendly well run pub with live music rather than the mock ‘oirish’ nonsense found across the globe. Long live The Grapes.

After an excellent curry at Aagrah, we finished off with the cosy welcome that is Fagan’s – tuneful melodies, perfect Tetley’s and a wonderful snog (see gable end for details). A place guaranteed to make you smile & chat.

Sheffield never disappoints. Here’s to the next time love.

You can’t beat a decent scotch egg

A small session in St Albans last week. Whilst I’m always ready to take on some quality food at a gastro pub there is something special about a proper bar snack i.e. subservient to your pint and suitable for eating whilst leaning on the bar. We were wistfully discussing the days when the food choice was a pile of cheese cobs under a plastic bell cover, a jar of pickled eggs or the basket man with his jars of cockles and whelks in battery acid. Time has moved on and so has the choice albeit in a retro-style.

At the White Hart Tap there’s decent enough sit down food but what caught our drinkers’ eye was the home-made Scotch Eggs – it was the ideal bar snack, cooked to perfection and well-timed as we’d arrived after having a first pint at The Mermaid where I had an excellent Spooky Moon from Brentwood Brewery (more on them in a mo). Back to the White Hart Tap – the beers are well kept and there’s a decent choice on hand pump (perhaps lacking a bitter if I’m being fussy) and keg.

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I had a look at the beers on the Brentwood website as I’d not come across them before. It makes a change to see a microbrewery with a set of ‘regular’ beers including bitters. I’m sure the presence of some older heads has an influence. Anyway, the dark malty Spooky Moon was right up my street.

Our next stop was the Farmer’s Boy festooned with CAMRA certificates and in many ways the quintessential CAMRA pub – home to three breweries, hirsute customers and lots of ‘ticks’ to be acquired for the ‘beer-spotters’. The three of us had different pints and we all left them unfinished. As my mate said each beer had a taste of cheap 70s after shave. And this is where I think CAMRA gets it wrong. On our testing those beers were poorly kept and well below the standard of a craft beer keg never mind a decent hand-pulled pint.

We responded to the call of The Mermaid and escaped. With friendly chat, a beer for any taste and all superbly kept, The Mermaid must be right at the top of the list for St Albans’ pubs. We’ll be back.