Wetherspoons fascinates me as a chain. It's a car crash of the really, really good and the irredeemably shit - there's nothing just 'alright' or 'not bad' about it. Someone in the press recently commented that the chain has replaced the working man's club, which I suppose is true in a functional sense, though it lacks the charm and the sense of belonging and ownership of the old WMCs that were still around when I was growing up.
A group of beer aficionados recently told me they didn't consider Wetherspoons to be pubs, but retail outlets: they don't have real landlords, there's no personality behind the bar and no individual character to your local branch. Well, there is - they make a point of making each branch reflect the local area and history - but it's decoration rather than something in the soul of the pub.
And yet, a higher percentage of Wetherspoons outlets have been accredited with Cask Marque status than any other pub group, there's always a range of decent real ales and while they may not be kept in as good condition as a top real ale pub, they're always drinkable.
Anyway, right now the really good outweighs the irredeemably shit by some margin, because the Wetherspoons InternationalReal Ale Festival has started.
"International real ale?"
Yup, as well as nearly fifty beers from around the UK, and a selection of international speciality beers, there are cask-conditined beers from countries you wouldn't expect.
I went to the launch of the festival on Thursday and met Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from Stone, who packed a bag of Centennial and Simcoe hops and came to Kent to brew Stone California Double IPA at the Shepherd Neame brewery.
Mitch said it was a privilege to brew at the brewery, and obviously enjoyed matching North American vision and invention with English brewing tradition.
The resulting beer is utterly beguiling: the hoppy punch that you only really taste in North America, countered by the smoothness and depth exclusive to cask-conditioned ale.
It slipped down distressingly easily. After a couple of minutes I noticed I’d sunk half a pint, and casually asked Mitch what strength the beer was. “Well, we had to compromise,” replied the man I suddenly remembered was responsible for beers such as Arrogant Bastard and Ruination, “so it came in just over 7 per cent.”
Not a lunchtime pint then. But this, together with the cask-conditioned Tokyo Black from Japan's Yo-Ho brewery, brewed a few weeks ago up at Marston's, makes it worth enduring any number of mad shouting old men to grab a pint.
The festival is on until April 14th - I can't see the Stone IPA lasting that long.