Beer Matters

What makes a good local?

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” – Samuel Johnson

The other day I read on a beer mat (where else?) that the week of February 19th to 26th is “National Pub Week”. So it seems like a good time to talk about pubs again.

I have often said of the pub at the bottom of the road that it is “a proper local”. You may well ask what exactly do I mean by that? Indeed, I have been asking myself what I mean thereby. How does one define a “local” and what factors determine whether a pub is one or not? Any answers must perforce be highly subjective but here is my view.

For a start, the definition has little to do with the building itself. There are some fine and ancient inns of great character and historical or architectural interest which are clearly not locals. On the other hand, there are grotty 1960s pubs (you know the type – one storey, pink brick, sloping roof, plate glass windows – Whitbread and its subsidiaries commissioned loads of them) which undoubtedly fit the bill. The decor may be more relevant. Some breweries’ and pub chains’ house styles are more welcoming then others. Generally, a homely, uncontrived atmosphere - comfortable but not pristine and slightly chaotic - works best, but even the most ghastly “theme pub” can become a local.

And, I have to say, it’s not really anything to do with the beer either, though obviously good beer is high on my personal checklist when choosing a place to drink. There are pubs which serve excellent beer but lack that je ne sais quoi which makes a real local. And there are those which offer no decent ale at all but nevertheless convey the right atmosphere and clearly serve as locals to a loyal clientele (albeit one happy to drink keg lager, alcopops and tumblers of Bailey’s with ice).

It has even less to do with food. Good food is a bonus but not a prerequisite for a proper pub. On the contrary, when food becomes the raison d’etre, a pub rarely remains the sort of place you feel comfortable drinking in. Yes, I know a lot of rural pubs would be struggling to survive today without specialising in food and one can’t blame them for being enterprising, but it’s still a shame when a village has nowhere that people can go with their dog and their muddy boots for a quick pint and a chat.

For being a local has everything to do with people. The word implies a place that serves a neighbourhood or a community and it is just that. Typically, most of the customers live a short walk away and go there several times a week, if not every day. They tend to form little groups based on families, work, clubs or shared interests but are at least on nodding acquaintances with the rest of the clientele and have probably been frequenting the place for a long time.

Then there are the licensee and staff. A local is a place where you can expect to be met with a friendly smile and a cheery greeting and, if you are a regular, your pint is already being pulled when you get to the bar. The staff are important but the licensee even more so, particularly in a tenanted house where he or she has more autonomy than a manager (who is a brewery employee and unlikely to remain in the same pub more than a few years). The perfect licensee is a “character” and a good judge of character, one who knows his or her customers, welcomes the stranger and knows when to evict those who have outstayed their welcome (and whether it will be appropriate to let them back in next time or not).

A good landlord or landlady can make or break a pub. An example comes readily to mind. Close to our church is an ancient High Street coaching inn, a fine and fundamentally unspoilt building, but for years it had suffered the reputation of being somewhat of a “dive”. Then along came a new licensee, a youngish man who cared passionately about beer and had a clear idea of the type of house he wanted to run. Perhaps his vision was a mite too idyllic but it included having the bell ringers and cricket club among his regulars and the former, at least, were happy to oblige. After a couple of years, he left to work for a microbrewery. His successor was a temporary manager who didn’t care and seemed only interested in lager and loud music, so the place quickly went downhill again. Needless to say, we ringers soon took our custom elsewhere.

However, not long after, one of the newer breweries acquired the pub, installed a couple who knew something about beer and what makes a pub tick as managers, and back we went. This regime lasted a year or so until they left. Unfortunately the aforesaid brewery then started “re-branding” its pubs with a common name (the battered but friendly looking plaster lion which had hung over the door since time immemorial went to the skip before anyone could save it) and a style less conducive to post-ringing conversation and appeared to lose interest in the quality of beer. We voted with our feet again.

Most bands of ringers have a local, though I guess a good few will, like us, have changed allegiance more than once over the years, at least in urban areas where there is a choice. If you are proud of (or just satisfied with) your ringers’ local, I would be interested to hear about it. Please send me an , including: your tower, name and address of pub, ownership (brewery/pub chain), regular beers, food availability (none/lunch/evening) plus a couple of lines about any interesting features or what makes it a good local. All recommendations will be posted to a database on my website.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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