Wetherspoons is a mixed bag. Remarkably, nothing about it is simply OK - that mixed bag contains both the best and worst of British pubs. But recently, the balance for me is shifting. I'm becoming a 'Spoons denizen.
Now is the time to make your jokes about being pissed by 10am and shouting randomly at strangers. Done that? Good, let's carry on.
It started in the summer, when 'Spoons started selling cans of craft beer imported from the US at the ridiculous price of £1.99 each.
Sixpoint is a good brewery, and Bengali Tiger in particular hit the spot over a long, hot summer. But 'Spoons remained a distress purchase, a bedraggled, sad pub chain without soul that just happened to sell a few good beers.
But the chink in my anti-'Spoons armour had been opened. 'Spoons was now a place I would consider going. And the more I've been, the more I've liked it.
There was a day back in October when I needed to get out of the house with a manuscript and a red pen to try to sort out a sample chunk of a new book I'm writing. I like doing this kind of work in pubs - it focuses me and, perhaps counter-intuitively, gets rid of distractions. I went to a local craft beer pub - the kind of place I still remain overjoyed about, in theory, counting myself lucky that I live within walking distance of several such places.
I ordered a pint of cask beer and it wasn't good. I hate these situations. It wasn't that the beer was off; it wasn't displaying any recognisable faults, it just hadn't been kept with love and care and simply wasn't pleasant. So I thought that for my next pint, I'd move on to keg. BrewDog Dead Pony Club - perfect at 3.8%, an increasingly mainstream beer that wasn't strong enough to make me lose focus on my work - £5.20 a pint. They also had Beavertown Gamma Ray IPA, one of my beers of the year, brewed just a couple of miles from where I was standing - £6.50 a pint. And I just thought, that's too much for those beers. I don't like the quality of the cask, and I'm not prepared to pay that for a keg beer, and so I left.
Stuck for where to go next, I ended up in my local Wetherspoon's, the Rochester Castle on Stoke Newington High Street. And there, I found Devil's Backbone - an American IPA from a celebrated brewer - brewed under license in the UK, admittedly - for less than three quid a pint.
And so I asked myself, why should I pay £6.50 a pint for something I can get yards away for less than £3?
The arguments in answer to this came pretty quickly. But I found myself knocking each one of them back.
Yes, but it's a one off, this isn't a 'proper' craft beer bar.
Oh no? I'll admit the range will always consist of what is becoming known as 'mainstream craft', but those are the kinds of beers I prefer to drink anyway. As well as Devil's Backbone, there's a range of bottled craft beers including BrewDog, Goose Island and Lagunitas. They'll keep me happy for a session, at half the price of the nearby craft beer bar.
But Wetherspoons outlets are so soulless. There's no atmosphere there.
Yes, Wetherspoons are often big, echoey hangars, and the lack of music gives the air an odd hue. But most craft beer bars are sparse and spartan and echoey too, and the music they play is often shit, chosen by the staff to show how hip they are rather than to create the appropriate atmosphere for the space. Some of the buildings Wetherspoons have taken over and preserved are beautiful, and there's always a nod to its history in the decorations on the walls.
Wetherspoons aren't 'proper' pubs. They're managed outlets just like a McDonald's.
So are most craft beer pubs I know, whether they're part of a small branded chain or not.
The staff don't know what they're doing. They're disinterested.
I beg to differ. Wetherspoons staff may be trained to be just like their counterparts in chain restaurants, but in the Roch at least, I find the service to be polite and professional, with none of the sneering attitude I sometimes (to be fair, rarely) encounter in hip bars. I'm used to having to argue with the bar staff if I have to take a pint of beer back because it's off. In Spoons, I've had the best service I've ever encountered in this situation.
The quality of the beer is shit/they buy short-dated stock.
Wrong. Most Spoons pubs have Cask Marque. Their cellar standards are excellent. And I have it on very good authority that the short-dated thing is an urban myth.
Fine, but look at the kinds of people you have to drink with. They're awful!
My local Spoons has some dodgy characters, it's true. Especially the guys who sit by the window. They're casualties of life, the people who do turn up and start drinking at breakfast time, the people who have been forced out of the pubs they used to drink in by gentrification and £6.50 a pint. Some of them are shouty. Some of them smell a little ripe. There's no getting away from that. But inside, my local Spoons is a true community pub. It's where all the local posties gather when they've finished their shifts. There are always big tables of council workers and teachers, and a smattering of students. And no hipsters. None. I'm not having a go at hipsters, but I live in a multicultural, multifaceted community, and Spoons is one of the only pubs that reflects that. Some of the negative attitude about 'Spoons drinkers is snobbery, pure and simple.
Add to this the free wifi, cheap meals (with calorific content of each dish clearly displayed - where else does that?) the bi-annual real ale and cider festivals that include unique collaborations with craft brewers from around the world flying to the UK to brew here, and you have a proposition that would be celebrated by every beer writer and craft beer geek in the country if it wasn't 'Spoons doing it.
I'm not going to defend everything about the place, and I'll accept that standards vary across the estate an I just might have a good one on my manor, but increasingly, in many areas, J D Wetherspoon is setting standards for more 'serious' bars to live up to.
I never thought I'd see the day.
*Amended at 10am - I previously said that Devil's Backbone was imported. It isn't, and JDW don't make that clear. Thanks to Boak and Bailey for the clarification. Read their take on the crafting of 'Spoons here.