Pandas and pubs

I can’t say I’m a big fan of pandas. Very fussy eaters, hopeless at reproduction and then we all have to worry about them because they look good as soft toys. Similarly I’m not a big supporter of saving crap pubs from extinction.

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Worth saving?

However there are few greater joys than seeing a pub coming back from the dead, returning to greatness or just doing what it does so well. Strolling in the Peak District tropics along the Monsal Trail heading to Litton it was difficult to imagine there was much wrong in the world. It’s a long time since my mate Andy and I knocked back fizzy pints in the poly bar at 18p a time but good drinkers are always good to walk with. (Included in that description are Mrs WM and Mrs RH our walking companions for the day. He says in fear of his life.)

The Red Lion at Litton has had its patches of ‘less than wonderful’ but with a new tenant at the helm for the last 3 years it’s back to being pub perfection. A former regular greeted us from the other side of the bar, happy in her work. This was going to be a good lunchtime.

Abbeydale’s Absolution was in top form, and Peak Ales’ Bakewell Best Bitter & Hartington Bitter from Whim were just as good according to the rest of the gang. The nosebag was perfect with my Derbyshire meze of local pork pie, chips and salad providing a solid day’s calorie intake.

The Bull’s Head at Youlgrave has over the last 8 months been closed, open, closed and open. Thankfully it now has permanent tenants. In just a short time it’s become the hub of the village. A place to go for a pint and a chat if that’s what you want. Music nights, fundraising quizzes, and tenants who care about the people in the village. Of course it helps that the beers (Marston’s family including Wainwright’s and Shipyard) are consistently good and the food is spot on.

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That didn’t take long

And last of all a pub that’s never failed to impress…The Crispin at Great Longstone. I’ve never been a big fan of Robinson’s  but of late they seem to have made an effort with Trooper (thanks to Bruce and the boys) and my pints of Double Hop IPA were well up to scratch. Also it has very good food and a recent refurbishment hasn’t changed the character of the pub. All of this fades in comparison to the landlord. Over the years he’s never failed to welcome us and chat when folk are ready. I can think of few pubs where the welcome is so good and so sincere.

There’s nowt so good as a good pub except perhaps a very good landlord/landlady.

In praise of Allendale

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Snow poles!

Whilst I scribble about pubs and strolling about, the beer often seems incidental. From debates with my mate, Clive of IPA, I realise that beer is now more contentious than politics or religion. More to the point what do I and my jaded taste buds know? I knows what I likes and it ain’t a mango sherbet sour in a can. Draught Bass from a jug is exciting enough for me.

However from my walking forays in the North Country one brewery stands out for me. In the Lakes and Northumberland, Allendale has become my first choice whenever I see it. I’m always suspicious when I see a wide range of beers from a small brewery but whatever the beer style Allendale seems to have it right.

Refreshing, not over hopped, but always interesting isn’t a bad start. Like another favourite, the Yorkshire Dales brewery, here’s a small brewer that knows its craft. Their brews are in no way dull, they manage to get an old grump like me to try new flavours. It’s also no bad thing that Allendale’s pump clips are a work of art and the pubs that serve their beers seem to be a cut above. The Northumberland Arms at Felton, Tweedies in Grasmere and Twice Brewed near Hadrian’s Wall are a good introduction to pubs that know what they are doing.

To top it all their bottles* seem to retain the quality of their beers and can be bought from the brewery en route across the North Pennines from Hexham to Barnard  Castle. To go all Shell Book of the Road on you, one of the most beautiful drives in an undiscovered corner of Northern England.

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All praise then for a craft brewer that only started in 2006 yet seems to have mastered the traditions of English brewing as well as developing a creativity to produce interesting brews. Bless ’em.

*Also available at Tebay Services on the M6.

Local pubs for local people?

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Nice bit of masonry, Adrian

I was in the Twice Brewed pub near Hadrian’s Wall recently. We were intrigued by their maps of the UK and the World with pins to show customers’ home locations. A pub in the middle of nowhere and a World Heritage Site, it’s not going to get much of its trade from local residents.

Whilst I suspect those from far away are more likely to pin home (more space and more reason), the maps illustrated how important visitors of all kinds are to pubs. Perhaps the word ‘local’ leads many publicans to focus on local trade – the regulars. Regulars – that’s regulars at nursing a pint, not buying food and letting the landlord know how important they are, perhaps?

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GBG pubs I’ve never been to?

The Twice Brewed had a range of real ales in good condition (Twice Brewed bitter, Cragnook Well, Trade Star from Firebrick and Wagtail from the wonderful Allendale). Their food was easily restaurant class and the welcome was perfect. But perhaps most importantly we felt like guests.

In the wise, and now ancient, words of Richard Boston, “Customers should remember that the pub is the guv’nor’s house, and usually his home,and should behave like guests”. I didn’t see any hand-written notices telling me to take my boots off, ‘no children near the bar’, or informing us that THESE ARE NOT PUBLIC TOILETS. I was merely expected to behave like a guest, welcomed at the bar and given a chance to choose my beer. I felt as welcome as the next man, regular or not. Few pubs can now afford to be like The Slaughtered Lamb (in American Werewolf in London) with regulars staring up from their beers and muttering about the moors at night.

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Tail waggingly good

Most ‘Locals’ aren’t local any more and the idea that local trade will see you right is outdated. That makes the complaints of many such as retiredmartin and pubcurmudgeon about keeping to published opening hours ever more valid. A visitor faced by a closed door is unlikely to try it again.

There was a time when visitors were the icing on the cake. These days, for some pubs, they are almost the whole Battenburg. If landlords would realise where their customers are coming from they’d not be left with crumbs.

They do know what they’re doing

I’ve recently visited a couple of freehouses that may show a new source of business skills for the licensed trade (as my publican grandad called it). Very different pubs but equally well run from a customer angle.

I was told by my mum (daughter of an Allsopps’ maltster) that I was taking her to a carvery for lunch. Definitely not my cup of beer, this was going to be all plastic food and smooth beer. As ever my mum was right about The Greyhound at Woodville. (One for retiredmartin, Woodville has a road called The City.)

The food was freshly made, very tasty and tremendous value. The 100 seat restaurant area was almost full on a Monday lunchtime with grey hairs much in evidence but also clearly the place to be dragged along by an elderly parent. It was very friendly service but business efficient with plenty of IT in use for ordering.

And although most drinking was keg and soft drinks, there was clearly enough throughput in the restaurant and adjoining bar to produce a decent pint of Pedigree. But perhaps that’s what you should expect from a chain, although as far as I’m aware the only other pub in this chain is The Mason’s Arms at nearby Donisthorpe. The owners clearly know how to run a hospitality business.

Secondly on our travels to the North Pennines we stopped in Barnard Castle for lunch and randomly selected the Old Well Inn, another free house. Friendly welcome from the family and beers ordered. Pleasantly, I was asked if I wanted any crisps or nuts with the drinks – that’s what I like, a business that seeks add-ons. My thoughts – this is someone used to running a business.

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The beers (Mother’s Ruin from Mithril and Guzzler from York) were in excellent condition, as I suspect even the TT Landlord might have been. The food included the home-cooked Butter Chicken, curry of the day. Best curry in a pub ever by far. Bit of a clue there. As I was tucking into the curry and had guzzled the Guzzler there was an enquiry as to whether I wanted another beer bringing over. Now I’m thinking, note to pubcos  – don’t bother running training courses for new licensees – just send them here to be customers. They’ll learn more.

Beers were praised and the son talked knowledgeably about the beers and keeping them in condition and holding them back until they’re ready to go on the bar. As Mrs WM complained about her failure to order curry it was suggested we should call in for lunch on the return trip home or perhaps come up and stay for their curry nights. Tempting sales pitch.

Unlike incompetent referee Keith Stroud at St James’ Park, the licensees of these freehouses really do know what they are doing. What’s the secret to running free houses in a difficult business environment? Well for a start both pubs are run by Indians (by birth/origin) with business experience. And as Mrs WM suggested it’s no bad thing to run a freehouse with a committed hard-working family in tow. Friendly welcomes, efficient business practices, and excellent soft sell techniques will win over customers. And perhaps as it becomes difficult to bring in chefs from the sub-continent and running Indian restaurants loses its appeal, there’s a chance that we have a new source of skilled pub operators coming into view. I hope so, we need them.

Subsidised coffee shops and sheds for middle class blokes

I have a business idea that I hope the Chancellor will support. It’s a chain of coffee shops in small towns where the market wouldn’t support a viable coffee shop business. The first financial requirement is already available with small business rate relief for many vacant premises.

My next stage should be easy given that coffee shops play an important role in community cohesion. I’d like the government to reduce taxes on small coffee producers so that I can then buy cheaper craft coffee for my shops. And also I’d like the government to legislate to stop nasty property owners getting a change of use on existing coffee shops given their key role in the lifeblood of the community and world peace.

I’m also hoping to get subsidies for small sheds for groups of middle class, middle-aged blokes but I hear that micro pubs have in effect already achieved that target.

The point of all this rambling? I’m unconvinced that micro pubs have increased consumer spend and therefore they must be taking money from proper pubs. I’m all for innovation and letting the market decide but for the reasons described above I’m not sure we have a level playing field for pubs v micro pubs. As increasing numbers of micro pubs hit the GBG (and hit trade in other pubs) we are, in my view, hastening the decline of proper pubs and we could be heading to a world of converted shops as our leading ontrade beer emporia.

The risk is that we could hasten the decline of the traditional pubs beloved of those on the Draught Bass wing of beer blogging. (I wonder how many pubs with just one real ale are in the GBG.) But perhaps that’s what most folk want?

 

Dickey the Donkey and the Perfect Pub

As CAMRA paddles round in circles whilst battling dodgy craft, I thought I’d continue my search for defining pub perfection. We set off on a stroll from the main part of East Bergholt, deep in ‘Constable Country’.

Our friends tell us we are doing a short stroll to a pub (with no food) called Dickie’s; but that’s not what it’s really called. There’s another one to add to my pub perfection list. Surely pubs known by an alternative name are always good?

We amble out of the village (the protest signs against major expansion insist that East Bergholt is a village not a town) and across the fields to arrive at the Royal Oak with a sign including the usual Charles II in the tree. So why isn’t it called Charlie’s?

The local lads are out the back playing petanque before the pub opens. We try the front door just before opening time and the landlady opens up with a friendly greeting and insists we leave our walking boots on. Inside it’s a Greene King pub that’s thankfully missed the corporate makeover. Quarry tiles on the floor and mock wooden panelling that reminds me of my grandad’s pub in the 1960s and the simplicity of the Duke of York at Elton in the Peak District.

We enjoy a pint of Nethergate’s Growler – tasting like tradition in a glass, but I suspect if I was in a blindfold even the GK IPA would have tasted fine. We admire the mish-mash of stuff in the snug including the photo of Sgt Bilko and his mates drinking beer. We convince ourselves it was taken in the pub but the landlady admits its just something her husband put on the wall – “he’s like that”, she says. Nowt wrong with a touch of idiosyncrasy.

The ‘lads’ come in for a well-deserved pint acknowledging us on their way through the bar and asking after our walk. (Back to East Bergholt along the Donkey Track since you ask.) We wander back past the well-fed horses and we’re happy that the world is good and populated with folk with a smile on their faces.

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Laminate feed a speciality

 

That was my most worthwhile pint for a while. So there’s more to add to the pub perfection list.

  • Pubs that aren’t called by their sign name
  • Landlords for whom the pub is part of their personality
  • Where everyone gets a welcome

PS As for the name, Dickey is East Anglian dialect for donkey and the pub is thought to have been called the Kicking Donkey beer house in earlier times.