Source of cautious optimism of the year: The rebirth of the (good) pub
Is the worst over? The number of pubs per week that are closing their doors for good fell from 49 in mid-2009 to 29 in 2010. That’s still too many – but it’s an improvement.
That’s actually a net figure – more pubs are closing than that, but some of them reopen as pubs. In fact Christie & Co, a big pub estate agent, claim 60% of the closed pubs that pass through their books reopen as pubs.
And everywhere I’ve gone in 2010, I’ve seen great new pubs opening, and flourishing. In every one, the story is the same: here was a pub that, before the end, had chased the lowest common denominator in search of shoring up its income, with brighter lights, louder TV screens and music, karaoke and promotions on lurid drinks. In every one, the new landlord said to me something along the lines of “Before this placed closed, there was more money changing hands in the toilet cubicles than was being passed over the bar.” Pubs signal the kind of place they are as soon as you walk in, and attract custom – or not – accordingly.
And whether we’re talking craft beer pubs like the Jolly Butcher’s on my doorstep, the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico or the newly opened Thornbridge pub the Greystones in Sheffield, or revived community pubs like the Chesterfield Arms in Chesterfield or the Morgan in Malvern, these boarded up shells have been taken over by people who get that a good pub should be about good beer and good conversation. They’re reclaiming their roles as community hubs. People who haven’t sat together and spoken for years come together once more.
It’s not foolproof, but decent beer pubs offering good beer in the right location are thriving.
Buried hatchet of the year: The Great British Beer Festival
Regular readers may have noticed that I slag off CAMRA with some regularity. I don’t enjoy it, but it has to be done.
The first slagging I gave our consumer campaigning body was in my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, and the main focus of my ire was the Great British Beer Festival. I used to be drawn to it every year, and I used to hate it every year. I hated its unfriendly staff, its singular lack of atmosphere, and the fact that every single aspect of it seemed to actively alienate anyone who was not already a fully paid-up CAMRA member.
In 2009, I grudgingly admitted that much had changed, and despite reservations, it was getting pretty good. In 2010, I enjoyed it unreservedly.
We could still point to the appalling acoustics, the ludicrous situation whereby Meantime, a brewer of incredibly authentic traditional London beer styles, is not allowed to exhibit those beers in a London beer festival thanks to an irrelevant technicality, or the apparently growing hostility to the large regional brewers who kept real ale alive until the micro boom came along. It’ll never be perfect.
But there’s been a lot of thought given to layout and navigation, the foreign beers now get the space and respect they deserve, and the staff of volunteers have undergone a massive charm offensive, and are, on balance, as unfailingly polite and helpful as they were rude and hostile a few years ago. More than that, festivals are made by the people who attend them. The craft beer revolution and CAMRA’s more open body language have attracted a much broader spectrum of people, and GBBF now actually feels like a festival. It feels like a celebration of great beer on a grand scale – which is what it ought to be.
Big night out of the year: Kelly Ryan’s Euston Tap Farewell
Most sadly missed, Britain’s loss is New Zealand’s gain etc.
At the end of the year Kelly Ryan, Thornbridge brewer, brilliant public face for the brewery and perfect foil for the gifted but shy genius that is head brewer Stefano Cossi, decided to return home down under. He announced that he’d be having a few drinks in the newly opened Euston Tap on 1st December, if anyone wanted to come along and say goodbye.
Earlier that evening I’d already been to a Beer Genie Christmas beer tasting with my oldest friend, Chris. This was also a leaving drink of sorts, with Chris leaving London after 16 years to return oop north. Kelly’s party was in full swing when we arrived, with many familiar faces. Thornbridge Alliance, one of only two casks in existence of a beer brewed three years ago in collaboration with Garret Oliver, was on the bar, alongside several other Thornbridge solo and collaborative brews. I was asked for my autograph when I walked in, which was weird – I’ve signed lots of books and stuff, but never actually been asked for my autograph before, and certainly not on the basis of my appearances on a long-lost food TV programme four years ago.
There was already a certain giddiness in the air. With heady beers of 10% or 11% on the cards, I planned my night’s drinking carefully – three or four different halves, building in flavour and intensity, until finishing on the Alliance at about 10pm then heading home.
This would have worked if I was buying my own drinks, but on nights like this in the Tap that’s not always easy. Various indeterminate pints and halves began appearing in front of us. And then in burst Jamie, proprietor of both Sheffield and Euston Taps, bearing a heavy plaque that had been awarded him by a bunch of railway enthusiasts for the restoration of the Sheffield Tap, presented by none other than celebrity trainspotter Pete Waterman. More drinks all round.
And then it started snowing, heavily, and then pizzas arrived, and then it was snowing inside, because a bunch of polystyrene appeared from somewhere and Chris was tearing it into smaller pieces and throwing it in the air. Jamie was challenging people to arm wrestling contests at the bar, goading them with slaps around the face if they proved hesitant. I don’t think the stoic bar manager, Yan, ever actually called time or declared a lock-in. It just reached a point deep in the night where anyone who came to the door took one look inside and hurried away again. Kelly and his girlfriend Kat looked delighted, accepting endless drinks and occasionally even trying to buy one. The snow continued to fall and barley wine followed Imperial Stout followed Double IPA, and we stayed there, drinking irresponsibly, until about 2am.
One of those nights you’ll remember for years to come – the sheer joy of drinking great beer with great people. In the snow.
Local triumph of the year: London finally catches up with Microbrew revolution
In 2006, Ben McFarland and I spent a day touring Boulder, Colorado, while visiting the Great American beer festival. At that time Boulder (population, 85,000) had 15 breweries. London (population 7 million) had two that people knew about, and maybe two more that were known to real aficionados. It seemed bizarre that, in the midst of the UK microbrewing revolution, the nation’s capital, home to legendary historical breweries like Whitbread, Courage, Watney’s, Truman’s and Barclay Perkins, had fewer breweries than places like Sheffield and Derby.
In 2009-2010, that all changed. When the explosion came, it was all the more forceful for having been kept waiting so long. Sambrooks opened at the end of 2008, Brodies in 2009, and in 2010 we gained Redemption, The Kernel, Saints and Sinners/Brew Wharf, Camden Town and, a little further out, Windsor and Eton. With Fuller’s breaking new ground, Meantime moving to a new level, Battersea Brewing somewhere below the radar, Zero Degrees in Blackheath and the Twickenham brewery, London finally has a vibrant brewing scene once more. Not only that, across the board there’s a level of variety, experimentation and cooperation that gladdens the heart as it excites the palate.
So, lots of moans about 2010, but lots to be very happy about too. I think the trend towards interesting beer has proved not to be a fad. Now, when I tell people what I do for a living, about half of them say, “Oh yeah, beer’s pretty cool at the moment isn’t it? I was trying something new and interesting the other day.” I don’t know if we’ll ever get the sudden explosion of interest that cider got with Magner’s. But compared to when I started writing about beer, the variety and enthusiasm surrounding it now is phenomenal.
Here’s to more of the same in 2011.