Beer Matters

Pubs Down, Beers Up

It’s been some time since the last Beer Matters and to those RW Survey participants who voted against articles on food and drink I do apologise – just blame the Editor and turn the page now.

I’ve previously bemoaned the fact that pubs are closing at an alarming rate – currently around 18 a week * – and it’s still a matter of grave concern. But I read an article with an unusual slant on this topic. The writer was suggesting that pubs need to close because there are simply too many of them. Eventually closures will slow down and we will be left with the best.

There may be something in this theory. A couple of years ago I started a webpage where I list pubs I have visited recently and which I am happy to recommend to others. And I am finding that comparatively few fail to make the grade. Admittedly there is a certain amount of preselection going on here – e.g. consulting the Good Beer Guide or the excellent whatpub.com - but even when I try a pub on the off-chance I am often pleasantly surprised. It does seem that there are more good pubs and fewer bad ones than say a generation ago.

However, I do have a couple of reservations. Firstly, it’s not only the bad ones that close. There was a pub in South-east London that had everything going for it –an impressive selection of well-kept beers, excellent food and it was packed every night. Then it suddenly closed. And a few weeks later it burnt down (I was tempted to say in suspicious circumstances, but that would probably be unwise). Successful pubs can close for a number of reasons –expired leases, proprietors retiring, or selling out to avaricious developers.

Secondly and more critically, there are only too many pubs if there aren’t enough people using them. I’ve berated my fellow ringers before for not going to the pub after practice and I shall continue to do so. If the pub was still the focus of community life for most people then there would be enough drinkers to go round, pubs wouldn’t need to close and there wouldn’t be “dry” villages where there’s no beer to be had for miles around.

But then with all those extra drinkers, who might not be as discerning as you or me, we might end up getting all the bad pubs back again. Or we might have trouble getting served – it does irk me slightly if I visit my local on a Friday night and find it full of part-time drinkers who like to sit at the bar facing sideways obscuring my view of the pump clips. I have much sympathy with the management of a Plymouth pub who last Christmas put up a notice to their seasonal customers saying something like “We’re going to serve Old Bob first because, unlike you, he supports us five days a week all year round and if you don’t like it you can **** off.” Then again, if it weren’t for the extra revenue from the occasional imbibers, Old Bob and I might have nowhere to go for a quiet pint on Monday evening.

It’s just occurred to me that I’ve hardly mentioned beer so far. For these cold winter nights you need something that’s strong †, dark, full-bodied, full-flavoured and heart-warming. Yet all too often so-called winter ales – and particularly gimmicky Christmas specials - are weak, thin and miserable. Even Winter Warmer - the beer that used to sustain Fleet Street journalists when served from a shaken-up cask (apparently that was how they liked it; perhaps they suffered from constipation), the beer that was drunk following a half-muffled quarter when the last Routemaster rolled into Streatham garage – has reappeared this year looking several shades paler and tasting correspondingly emaciated. Fortunately my local had a delivery of Palmer’s Tally Ho this week.

So what else can I recommend? There are some jolly good stouts around at the moment. Blackjack Stout, which I was enjoying last night, is a classic example of the genre. Or if you want a little extra heat you might try Bingham’s Hot Dog Chilli Stout.

I wanted to recommend a slightly unusual but very fine brew I had a few weeks ago. It was an India Brown Ale (or brown IPA) but I couldn’t for the life of me remember its name. So I did a bit of searching - actually quite a lot of searching – and I still couldn’t find it. But what struck me was the extraordinary amount of information on beer that is on-line these days (there are at least four beers called Maximus).

While the number of pubs decreases, the number of beers is increasing rapidly. There are now almost 1,700 breweries in the UK. Craft beer is on the rise almost everywhere. During my recent travels, I have drunk local ale in St Lucia and investigated brewpubs in Copenhagen. There’s probably never been a better time to be a beer drinker. Enjoy (as they say)!

Maximus Bibendus

* The rate of closures is about half what it was a few years ago, but has risen slightly during this year.

† Around 6% is good, but obviously you don’t need to drink it in the same quantities as a 3.5% session beer.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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