Why Wetherspoon’s is my local

Some people aren’t fans of Wetherspoon’s but from a drinker’s point of view the chain has much to offer – especially if you live in a small town not yet reached by the ‘craft beer revolution’. Here’s why I think of JDW as my local and a look at its latest International Real Ale Festival.

I’ve always liked hoppy beers and the more I’ve learned about beer the more I don’t want to drink a pint of Doom Bar, Bombardier, Greene King IPA or similar – although there was I time I happily drank all of these (‘sure they had more hops in then, but that’s another story). But the thing is – even though we are in this new, exciting age of beer these beers (and/or others like them) are still huge sellers beloved of many drinkers and in a small town you might struggle to find much else. Unless there is a Wetherspoon’s pub nearby. Here, the flavour-seeking beer fan and the lover of malty, brown blandness can happily co-exist! And who knows, the latter may even develop into the former.

There are two pubs within three minutes walk of my house. I visit them occasionally as I want to do my bit to support backstreet locals but mostly when Beer Husband and I go out for a few beers we head into town to The Isaac Merritt one of two Wetherspoon’s pubs. We wish they would stock more dark beers or put Adnams Broadside on permanently but other than that we enjoy going there and it’s never long till we return – unlike the locals where months can pass between us popping in for a pint.

My local Wetherspoon's The Isaac Merritt, Paignton

My local Wetherspoon’s The Isaac Merritt, Paignton

The other day we took a trip to Brixham to walk around the harbour and hopefully have some lunch. We called in at several pubs. One had no cask ale (that hasn’t happened to me for a while!), staff in another ignored my husband for so long without serving him that he walked out, one had two beers on but lacked atmosphere – we stopped for a half but didn’t stay … guess where we ended up?

Again we were fed up at the lack of dark beer but nevertheless I found a beer that husband was happy to drink and I was overjoyed to smack my lips round a couple of pints of Black Sheep Reaper (4.1%) which was on as part of the Festival. It was a red rye style beer – which so often doesn’t float my boat – but this time did. It was a properly bitter, packed with zesty hops and rocking a rich fruity aftertaste. We stayed for something to eat and settled in for a couple of hours with our chess board. The only downside was that we’d made the effort to go to Brixham and we could have saved the £10 bus fare and gone to the local Wetherspoon’s! The Harbour Walk was great though – if a little expensive.

Brixham Harbour. The local Wetherspoon's is called The Vigilance

Brixham Harbour. The local Wetherspoon’s is called The Vigilance

Before too long we were back at The Isaac Merritt so I could partake of more festival beers. I confused the bar staff a little by asking if they did flights (the barman thought I wanted a trip on an aeroplane) but soon had three thirds of beer stowed in a paddle and ready to be sampled. The only fly in the ointment was the 7.5% beer could not apparently be included in the flight as it was more expensive than the others – a shame as being able to order stronger beers in smaller measures is only ever a good thing. I ordered a half to go with my flight and flew back to my table.

Not a trip on an aeroplane

Not a trip on an aeroplane

Like some other beer writers who have blogged on the subject I found some of the festival beers disappointing and lacking depth of flavour, the Two Birds Golden Ale (4.4%) lacked body to the point of being watery and the hops used created a synthetic orange squash type flavour that I’ve come across in a number of beers recently – such as another Festival beer Birrificio Lambrate’s Ligera (4.8%) and although Caledonian Brewery Trojan Horse (5.5%) was a wittily named attempt at combining two beer styles (an IPA within a schwarzbier) and included some decent hoppiness it was drowned by milk chocolate flavours that – for me – spoiled it. But this is what beer festivals are all about. A variety of beers, offering more of a chance of there being something for everyone with even the beers you don’t like providing something to talk about (Beer Husband and I spent quite a while discussing the flavour explosion that was Wicked Weed Freak of Nature (7.5%) although I still can’t tell you if I liked it or not!

Two beers I enjoyed though were Bateman’s Colonel’s Whiskers (4.3%) a hybrid mild/stout – which proves to me Bateman’s should play to their strengths and stay traditional rather than tarting about with dessert-style beers – and Sixpoint’s Bklyn Bitter (5.5%) which despite the apparent inclusion of American hops tasted pleasingly like a traditonal British Bitter.

JDW selects 50 beers for its International Real Ale Festival; 40 from the UK and 10 from overseas – albeit brewed in Britain which is another thing some criticise them for. (Why not import the beers instead of bringing the brewers over?) But with permanent offerings including the Sixpoint cans and Lagunitas IPA, and always some interesting cask ale on, any trip to The Isaac Merritt has an air of beer festival about it – but with the added bonus that there’ll definitely be a decent selection of honestly priced food on offer.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is I like Wetherspoon’s pubs. If I’m in a big city, or somewhere with a beer-led bar or pub scene – or even just one pub or bar with a reputation for great beer – then I’ll be there instead but the reality is not everywhere has that.

The (beer) revolution has come and although some seem keen to put them first against the wall I find J D Wetherspoon pubs offer a variety of excellent pints in locations otherwise, or nearly, devoid of good beer. It’s almost as if they were part of the revolution…

Beer Husband’s Top Three Reasons for Liking Wetherspoon’s

1. Hearing human voices instead of music.
2. Honesty – does what you’d expect.
3. Professional – rarely get bad service and if they do get something wrong they put it right.

… and mine

1. Beer range (although more dark beers would be appreciated!).
2.Nice staff, esp at our local where they also have good beer knowledge.
3.Food. It may not be gourmet but it’s reasonably priced and you know what you’re getting.

Wetherspoon’s latest International Real Ale Festival continues until Sunday 2 November.

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A woman walks into a pub

This post is a bit of a moan. If you don’t fancy reading a bit of a moan, look away now. 

A woman walks into a pub – the lounge bar of a backstreet local. It has a long behind-the-bar area which runs the length of both public and lounge bars. There is a man seated on a barstool in the lounge with a full pint. The female bartender (I’m trying to wipe out the term barmaid) looks up and sees the woman who has just walked up to the bar but does not make eye contact with her or speak to her.

A few minutes later the woman’s husband also walks into the pub and stands at the bar. The bartender looks directly at him and says, “I’ll be with you in sec.”

Eventually, having served the customers already waiting in the busy public bar, she comes to the lounge side and says, “Who’s next?” even though she has seen the woman walk in before the man and the other man, still seated at the bar, is clearly not yet ready for another pint.

“I’m next,” says the woman, orders two pints of Wadworth 6X and pays for them. When the bartender comes back with the change she heads for the woman’s husband to give it to him before correcting herself.

Woman walks into a pub drawing

Scenes like this one don’t happen to me as often as they used to but are related to the still irritatingly common ‘women at the bar are invisible’ syndrome – a form of apparently intermittent blindness suffered by bartenders who only seem able to see male customers. (Perhaps their female customers have been waiting so long they have literally become part of the furniture?)

I let this most recent example pass as I didn’t want it to spoil having a pint with my husband, but I knew – as do all women who have experienced this – that I hadn’t imagined it and that it amounted, at best, to very poor customer service and at worst to sex discrimination. I’m not equating it with the pay gap or other unjust things women suffer in the workplace – just using the phrase literally – discrimination on the basis of my sex. Men will be served first even if women are ahead of them in the queue for the bar.

As women are often still, illegally, paid less than men; sacked for becoming pregnant or not hired in the first place in case they become pregnant as well as having to endure a catalogue of other ill treatment based on being female, I doubt that discrimination at the bar will be eradicated ahead of these much worse examples of sexism any time soon. A word to the wise publican though: Make sure your bar staff aren’t doing this. In times of so many pubs apparently at risk of closure automatically sending 50% of potential customers to the back of the queue isn’t the smartest move.

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The Sample Room: Metropolitan Brewing Co/Greene King

The sample room are posts mostly dedicated to straight reviews of beers. This one looks at some new beers from Greene King brewed exclusively for Tesco and labelled Metropolitan Brewing Co – something which caused a bit of controversy among beery Twitterites…

MBC Twitter debate 1

Because (in the UK) we still can’t agree on an official definition of ‘craft beer’, when a large(r) brewer uses the c-word it puts a lot of people’s backs up. For many, craft brewer means microbrewer and microbrewer means small, independent brewery.

Late in 2013 Greene King announced they’d spent £750,000 on a new 30-barrel craft brewery to be called the St Edmund Brewhouse. The company was aware of increasing sales of craft beer and understandably decided to see if they could get a piece of the action. The resulting beers were average. Nicely made, reasonably drinkable but not earth shattering (or in my case, dancing) beers.

As well as introducing these new beers into many of their pubs they selected a number of  British and US craft beers to stock too and they held a training day for pub managers and other staff to explain what a big seller craft beer could be – at which (disclaimer) I delivered a session called Surfing the Craft Beer Wave which was aimed at informing, enthusing and providing a vocabulary for managers and bartenders to talk about the flavours found in craft beers. The day was a good one and people were genuinely enthusiastic. It was encouraging to see this big brewery with a huge pub estate showing some love for beer.

Fast Forward to October 2014. The lovely Greene King PR people (meant genuinely) send me a box of their latest beers, “A new range of distinctive brews crafted to experience and savour,” they were apparently developed in partnership with Tesco and according to GK Brewmaster Craig Bennett are, “A fusion of new flavours and brewing styles designed to bring drinkers fresh experiences and tastes to discover.” I don’t often write negative things about beer – but these beers just don’t live up to that description.

MBC Tweet

The Twitter debate wasn’t about what the beers tasted like though – it was all about the packaging, the branding and whether it was deceptive for ‘the UK’s no 1 premium ale brewer’ to release beers that appear to be from a new, small brewery when actually they are from a multi-million pound brewer with a significant share of the UK beer market. I suppose it comes as no surprise to me that big business will use whatever tactics it sees fit in the pursuit of profit – we live in a capitalist society after all – but perhaps it’s less of a worry if the product isn’t that good?

So here’s what I thought of the beers…

Under Currant Pale Ale (5%)

The beer poured a pleasing brassy gold with a small white head. Its aroma reminded me of a mixture of blackcurrant jelly and orange squash. There was a teeny hint of hop leaf fragrance too. I was expecting a powerful but fruity bitterness but instead I got a mouthful of juicy malt with a brown sugar finish and aftertaste. The main flavour was one of biscuits. There were hints of hops but it was as if someone had turned the volume right down so you could hardly hear (taste) them. It tasted just like any not very hoppy golden ale. To my palate it was bland – but so are many of the UK’s biggest selling beers because let’s face it the British (Indian restaurants aside) aren’t always the best at coping with lots of flavour.

Big Bad Wolf IPA (6%)

Similar colour to the pale ale, perhaps a little lighter. Virtually no aroma. First sip had meGK MBC brand Big Bad wolf screwing up my face and thinking, ‘weird’ but then it started to remind me of palma violets. I asked Beer Husband – who hates pretty much all the hops listed as being in this beer – to sample it. He said it reminded him of a scene from one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books in which Arthur Dent asks a spaceship computer to make him a cup of tea. It creates something with all the right ingredients but it tastes nothing like tea. I sipped again and taste lots of cerealy, brown sugar with a feint hint of perfumed flowers – although this was swiftly overwhelmed by malt. It developed a little more flavour as the temperature increased but essentially it was dull and in no way resembled a big, hoppy IPA or the description on the front label, “Huge hoppy character, brewed with 7 hop varieties and dry hopped for extra intensity.” Really?

Optical Infusion (5.5%)

I like the name of this one. A play on the addition of whisky – as served in the pub from an optic measure. This one is golden again with the same small white head. The aroma is of whiskey with woody notes, hints of vanilla and perhaps a little bit of baked apple with sultana. It has a soft woody whisky flavour – much like its aroma – but the whiskey is more bourbon that Scotch. It’s quite sweet but not cerealy like the two beers described above. I’m not sure how much of this you’d want to drink though. I manage about a quarter of a 330ml bottle before I feel like I’ve had enough. It needs to be boozier and more full bodied to carry off the addition of whiskey. I can’t help thinking adding whisky to beer is the cheat’s way of getting something akin to barrel-aged beer. It’s a quicker process and you can taste that in the resulting beer.

Brew T Amber Ale (4.5%)

MBC Brew TFor me this was the best of the four. It’s also the one that made me feel the IBUs (International Bitterness Units – a scale used for measuring levels of bitterness hops contribute to beer) listed on the neck labels of the bottles bears little resemblance to the contents – as this beer has the lowest IBU but had a good level of bitterness that I enjoyed – whereas the others claimed to have a higher IBU but tasted much sweeter to me. I am now considering having my tongue analysed in case it has some bizarre IBU-neutralising properties I am unaware of. But I digress…

This beer poured golden amber but didn’t keep its head too well. At first it smelled of sweet, white wine with a hint of light dried fruits but this soon disappeared to be replaced by an aroma of caramel with hints of something floral. It has a decent, bitter hoppy tang with an earthy-mineral quality. There’s a hint of floral flavour – as if a flower fairy has waved at you from afar but disappeared as soon as you tried to get a closer look – but mostly this tastes like a fairly traditional bitter which to me is no bad thing.

The biggest falsehood surrounding these beers is not the pretence that they come from a new microbrewery but that they are something new delivering a big flavour experience. These are average beers packaged to resemble the sort of beer which as come to embody the ‘craft beer revolution’, or the new age of beer, or modern 21st century beer – whatever you wish to call it. Beer lovers and new beer fans know there is something new and different going on in beer – and this is a traditional brewer’s attempt to jump on that bandwagon.

I don’t always think of beer as a craft (although literally it often is) I think of brewing as art. Some brewers can take those four basic ingredients and combine them in such a way as to produce not just a delicious drink but something inspirational, magical and memorable – like seeing an amazing painting that lives on in your mind. Not all brewers can do this.

No matter how hard some brewers try they will end up with, at best, something resembling beer that is drinkable and does the job but is instantly forgettable; at worst something that tastes (looks) like a kid’s drawing from play group. If you’re the parent you will love it and treasure it but to anyone else it looks like a random scribble in ugly, overlapping colours that have descended into a brown mess.

Great beer has something behind it that goes beyond thinking up a recipe that will sell. You can dream up all the branding and do all the PR in the world but unless the brewer has that certain something – or is allowed to fully practice his or her art – you may sell plenty of ‘units’ but no one will remember what they tasted like.

Greene King’s Metropolitan Brewing Co beers will be available exclusively at Tesco from 27th October. I’m interested to hear what you make of them!

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