I’ll be down the PUB; or will I??
10/10/2011

DISCLAIMER: I don’t know if this post will make much sense since I am trying to get a load of stuff whizzing around my head into focus, but for now this is my best effort. I hope it conveys something of what I am struggling with.

‘I’ll be down the pub’. A phrase that countless generations of British males have uttered to describe most of the waking hours that they devote to socializing, and a phrase that I intend to use extensively myself when I travel home to England later this month. This visit however will have a slight twist, as some new, ‘non-traditional’ venues will be added to the usual list of public houses.

Spiritual

This visit home will be my first in just over four years. Since moving to the USA in the summer of 2000, I have traveled home on only two other occasions, so this trip is long overdue. The visit is partially business, partially pleasure, but since so much business in the UK is often conducted over a few pints anyway, I suspect a fair amount of time will be spent in the pub! The time spent in the pub on my visits home is not a trivial matter. Like many Englishmen almost 100% of my formative (social) years took place within the walls of these hallowed establishments, and therefore I have found it literally impossible to divorce any of my most profound human relationships from them.  The pub is what tied my family and friends to my social development. That all may sound ridiculous to your average American, but to English readers it’s likely to strike a chord. On my first visit home in 2002 after moving to the US, I broke down, overcome with emotion when I first stepped back into the pub (and BEFORE I had even touched a beer) – the connection is that strong.

As a result, perhaps the single most profound source of my acute ‘beer unhappiness’ in the USA has been the almost total absence of establishments that can replicate the unique experience of the English pub. Countless numbers of people have written about the truly spiritual, iconic and central role that the pub plays in British society so I don’t intend to cover all of that ground again, but suffice to say that the spiritual connection has been irreplaceable. The absence of those venues (and just as importantly the absence in the USA of the casual, ubiquitous role that beer plays in everyday life when compared to the UK) is at the root of my dissatisfaction with American beer culture.

As I prepare to go home this time, I do so against the backdrop of arguably the worst period for British pubs in living memory and perhaps, ever. When I say the ‘worst period’ I am talking exclusively about the number of pubs that have closed in the UK in the last few years, and not any other perceived issues. However, a closer look at the most recent stats suggests that the closure rate is slowing down significantly since a peak in 2009. It has always been my contention that, (a) much of these closures are related to the economy and not to any real change in the cultural habits of British people, and (b) that it’s only the poor, badly run pubs that are closing. The global economic situation is simply an undeniable part of the problem (and I know from talking to my friends that nothing has really changed in terms of their pub going), but more controversy surrounds things like smoking bans and the higher taxation of alcohol. Hopefully my visit will allow me to get a better handle on what’s really happening on the ground. In any case there are still somewhere around 54,000 pubs in the UK and I fully expect to find that they are continuing to serve as vital, social glue for millions and millions of Brits in the way that they have done for centuries.

New Breed

In addition to the traditional pubs that I intend to visit, I am also going to seek out a completely new breed of drinking establishment that has recent sprung up in the UK, that from afar, do not seem to fit into same mould. These new establishments have been described in many different ways by many different people, but The Rake in Borough Market, The Euston Tap in central London and The Bull in Highgate, represent what I would characterize as ‘craft beer bars’ and most definitely NOT ‘pubs’. In England the term ‘craft beer’ is going to confuse a lot of people right off the top. Thanks to CAMRA, the UK was never gripped wholly by watery, tasteless mass produced lager in the manner that the US was (as still is to some extent), and as a result the UK never had to go through the kind of beer revolution that has been witnessed recently here in the US. We usually refer to beer in one of two ways, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and since good beer was always an alternative to macro brands in a manner that was not (and in many cases is still not) in the US, the use of the word ‘craft’ was never necessary to distinguish good beer from bad. Great British beer remains almost exclusively associated with cask (real) ale, generally revolves around just a few styles such as Bitter’s, Mild’s, Stout’s and IPA’s, and is inexorably linked to THE PUB. In one respect one could say that the UK could use some education in relation to what represents ‘good beer’, and if I were to be completely honest I think that there is some truth in that statement, but either way the essence of what it means to be part of British beer culture will always revolve around traditional beer in a traditional setting. As such there’s no doubt in my mind that bars like The Rake and Euston Tap will NOT signal the birth of a whole new breed of British drinking establishment – there’s just too many centuries of real pub culture and too many 14th, 15th and 16th century coaching inns still operating as pubs in England – but in affluent, cosmopolitan areas they will likely do very well by providing a somewhat yuppified experience for those looking for something different. Outside of those metropolitan areas the idea of a bar like the ones mentioned here will be seen as utterly pretentious, expensive and ridiculous nonsense, but doesn’t mean to say that they won’t have a role to play in the future.

This type of craft beer bar is hugely popular in the USA, mainly because if you are NOT in one of these types of establishments then you are likely to be in a tacky sports bar, with a thousand TV’s and only Bud, Miller and Coors for company. In short, in the US if you are NOT in the equivalent of The Euston Tap or The Rake, then you are not likely to be going to being drinking good beer, and you are not going to be in an ambiance that is anything other than ‘throw-away plastic’ and utterly devoid of character.

Events

Of course, these ‘specialty establishments’ dovetail perfectly with the way that good beer is usually consumed in the US. Here, craft beer is persistently associated with ‘events’, where big beer dinners, special tappings, tap takeovers (where all of the bars’ draught lines are simultaneously devoted to a single brewery for the evening), meet the brewer nights, organized tastings, limited releases and the like, are put together with an emphasis on a dog and pony show where huge crowds gather to queue for beer and generally make a colossal song and dance about the consumption of beer. This is of course is in complete contrast to the way great beer is consumed in the UK. After work, in the pub with maybe one or two friends or even alone, where one walks to the pub and sips lots of beer of the course of the evening without any kind of hysterical fanfare. In the UK it’s low, low key in a way that beer geeks in the US don’t often understand. This is emphasized by the fact that most of my beer drinking, beer knowledgeable buddies in the UK, have never heard of this new breed of bar, whilst American beer geeks have The Rake, Euston Tap and The Bull on the top of their lists when they visit London! Crazy. Little do they know that if they shun traditional pubs for these Americanized, craft beer bars, that they will be missing out on the very essence of ‘The Best Of Britain’ and what it means to drink beer in the UK.

My copy of The Good Pub Guide 1996

The Good Pub Guide 1996 with no 'craft beer bars' listed!

To be fair, I’ve never set foot in any of the UK’s new breed of establishments that I refer to in this post, so I guess only time will tell if they are as ‘American’ (and therefore to my acute disliking) as I suspect they will be when compared to the traditional, understated pub (from reading online The Rake looks a tad more ‘traditional’), but either way I should still be able to get a decent pint (or 16 oz!) even if it’s not a 3.5% mild! I wonder what I will find. We’ll see.


13 Comments

  1. Jaxbeerlover aka Azorie

    Nice read. I am sure the English get into fads with the best of them. I sure hope they resist the American way of running a pub. I keep hoping things will mellow out here in a few more years, after the ‘new’ wears off. Hard to say as only time will time if beer of a better caliber takes hold in the US or not.

    Its very hard to change if you’re from that culture, I do not think one “can” really, unless you can find a place near England in the USA? One assumes there are 1 or 2 “out” there. Maybe not.

    While I totally agree with with all you said, I wonder if your really in that denial phase? If you live here you just have to accept things and adjust. Blogging is a nice way to express things, but if you cannot adjust it “might” just kill you.

    Of course I do not think you really mean it that way. That said, one gets home sick, and for that there is only one cure.

    Reply
    • Ding

      I’m not sure I would describe it as ‘denial’, BUT I’m never going to able to ‘accept’ or ‘adjust’, so in that respect I am DOOMED to a perpetual state of ‘beer unhappiness’ in the US. That’s unfortunate for me but not something that I feel can be rectified. That’s life.

      Reply
      • Jaxbeerlover aka Azorie

        As in any text exchange, meanings are hard to “get”. I am not a good enough writer to convey how I truly feel in text. I was just responding to the perceived emotion in your blog post. Since we never met one cannot separate the words from feelings.

        I feel your pain so to speak, one hopes one day you can find the answer. Win the lotto/power ball and open your own pub?? You’re not doomed you can always move back home? Right?

      • Ding

        Circumstances make moving home practically impossible right now.

      • Jaxbeerlover aka Azorie

        I hear ya, we want to move to the Portland, OR area ourselves, but it’s just too expensive and popular right now. There is always the lotto/powerball hopes. While it’s not England there are some nice pubs there.

        Hey, changing the subject, you had the Red brick smoked vanilla gorilla yet? Just curious if you would review it.

  2. Joseph

    Cheers to you, ding! Personally, I’d hate to go all the way to the UK only to visit an American-style bar

    Reply
    • Ding

      Well it remains to be seen if these bars really are ‘American-style’, but by all accounts they appear to be a long way from the traditional public house and are therefore (in my eyes at least) will not represent what British beer is all about.

      Reply
  3. ericmsteen

    “This type of craft beer bar is hugely popular in the USA, mainly because if you are NOT in one of these types of establishments then you are likely to be in a tacky sports bar, with a thousand TV’s and only Bud, Miller and Coors for company.”

    I feel the same way ultimately, at least here in Colorado…I moved to Colorado just over a year ago from Portland, Oregon where I was used to visiting the same pub four or so times a week and I’d order the same beer over and over because I could count on it being there and I loved it, and to me it wasn’t so high in alcohol content that it put me out early.

    I’ve been reading you for about that long, a year…off and on…and I never really figured out why you moved to ATL? What do you do there? I think there are better places in the US that have real pubs…not total UK pubs with true session beers, but close enough to make you happy.

    “Here, craft beer is persistently associated with ‘events’, where big beer dinners, special tappings, tap takeovers…”

    This is one thing I don’t mind. Although I understand your point on sensationalism, I’ve found it to be a way to meet a lot of people and to learn a lot about beer. It’s very very different from sharing a pitcher of beer, which still remains my favorite thing about beer, but it’s still a good time…but I’ll take your statement into consideration when planning/attending these events and try to come up with some more thorough thoughts.

    Anyway, thanks for another good post.

    Reply
  4. ericmsteen

    Oh, what I didn’t mention about this pub in Portland is that it is dark inside, low ceilings, you can hide there. In my opinion this is what I need in a pub. It’s not so dark it’s ridiculous, it’s not a lounge, but it feels like home.

    Reply
  5. Andrew

    Visited The Rake in April 2010, definitely more craft beer than traditional. I’ll be surprised if you find much “British beer” about it.

    I would definitely add CASK Pub and Kitchen in Pimlico to your list. It tends toward the “new breed”, but if any blend of tradition and craft will be to your liking, this pub would be it. I’ll be interested in your impressions, if you do visit.

    Reply
    • Ding

      Thanks for the tip, I’ll definitely try to check-out the Pimlico venue – there used to be a GREAT curry house in Pimlico that we nicknamed the ‘007’ (licensed to kill). Wonder if it’s still there!

      Reply
  6. Herrburgess

    “In the UK it’s low, low key in a way that beer geeks in the US don’t often understand”

    Exactly. As someone on BA recently said, US beer geeks seem to like the *idea* of beer more than they like beer itself. Germany, too, is low key about what they drink. A couple of Schlenkerla smoked beers with lunch…a couple more in the evening. All in a day’s work. I like to say that the German beer garden is that country’s best invention ever. Similarly, there is that intangible “living room” quality of the best British pubs that simple has not, and probably can not, be replicated anywhere else in the world. Glad to have had the chance to experience both in more than just a passing fashion. Enjoy your time at home!

    Reply
    • Ding

      ‘As someone on BA recently said, US beer geeks seem to like the *idea* of beer more than they like beer itself.’

      This is an EXCELLENT way of putting it! High quality beer in the US has this ridiculous, immense song & dance ‘event’ surrounding it all the time whereas in Europe we tend to grab a few, high quality pints, in a completely casual manner, just about everywhere we go socially.

      Reply

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