Beer Matters

“Pro Bono Publico”

Time was when (hang on, I seem to have started with that phrase before - “nostalgic old fool” I hear you mutter) nearly every pub had at least two bars. One bar pubs were a rarity: either those delightfully self-effacing establishments where you felt you were being served ale in someone’s front room or serious contenders for the “world’s smallest pub” title. Nowadays, big open-plan pubs are the norm. Even where there are separate rooms there is little to choose between them.

What has brought about the decline of the Public Bar? Is it some misguided attempt at social engineering or the removal of class distinction? Is it (more plausibly) the opportunity to charge Lounge Bar prices throughout? Are walls being demolished so that no-one should be too far from a loudspeaker spewing forth musical wallpaper? Whatever the reasons, it is a shame. The two bar system served a very useful purpose.

If you were thirsty after a day’s gardening, decorating or car (or bell) maintenance, you could enter the Public in your filthy working gear and have a few pints without offending anyone. There were no ominous notices about soiled boots versus smart casual dress.

On the other hand, if you were all dolled up for a night out, you could enjoy a drink in the comfort of the Lounge without having to rub shoulders with those whose brows were speckled with honest sweat and their clothes splattered with honest paint, grease or manure.

The Public Bar had other attractions; here was the dartboard, the bar billiards table, devil-among-the tailors and other such regional amusements. Man’s best friend was welcome to dip his damp snout in a packet of crisps and a bowl of mild, pretend to be a hearthrug or gaze soulfully at anyone who chanced to be eating.

Once, a public house – and the Public Bar in particular – was exactly that: open to all comers, providing they behaved in a reasonable manner. But things have changed during my drinking lifetime. Some so-called public houses even have bouncers at the door, a trend I find particularly repugnant. If a customer becomes objectionable, the Landlord has every right to throw him out, but to arbitrarily prevent people from entering is to undermine the spirit of hospitality which has been at the heart of the English pub for centuries.

As a rule, tied houses of the old regional breweries are the best bet for traditional two-bar pubs, although the penny or tuppence a pint price differential seems to have gone for good.

The most zealous proponents of the open-plan pub would seem to be the new pub-owning companies. The JD Wetherspoon chain has some admirable policies (wide choice of good beer, low prices, no piped music) but its houses are pure Lounge Bar; indeed, some of the newly-converted ones can feel more like an airport departure lounge than a pub. The company does not go in for Public Bars (though to be fair Wetherspoons could never be accused of opting for the higher end of the price range), nor the attributes associated with them. No darts, no dogs – and no jar of pickled eggs on the shelf behind the bar. Now, is that a sign of a real pub or isn’t it?

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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