04 February 2009

Requiem for crap beer

At the launch of the latest editions of his Bridgestone Guides to eating, drinking and sleeping in Ireland, John McKenna had some choice words for the much-lauded Irish pub:
Our pub culture is dying, whilst our restaurant culture is thriving. The Irish have decided to choose restaurants over pubs, simply because restaurants offer us service as part of the experience and service is a concept that is alien to so many public houses. The era of the pub is over.
And he's right. The cosy cartel which the publicans have enjoyed for several decades now, and the influence of their many friends in high places, have meant that they have never had to raise their game in the customers' interests. They've never experienced real competition nor had to take any risks which could have an adverse affect on their income. Risks like serving food or decent beer. I should add that Mr McKenna is no gastrosnob or vinofundamentalist -- pubs and beer get a very fair treatment in the Bridgestone media, and the McKennas are among the few mainstream Irish commentators to have recognised Galway Hooker as the national treasure it is.

My daily three-mile commute from the inner suburbs to central Dublin takes me past three pubs sitting derelict, having closed in the last year. I can guarantee you that not a one of them served anything worth eating or drinking, preferring to rely on the general assumption that a liquor licence and membership of the LVA amounted to a licence to print money. They were wrong. It took a while, but people evidently decided they would rather drink elsewhere. Add the value of the land to a property developer and the value of the licence to a convenience store chain, and the remaining regulars can sod off.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not yearning for a city full of swish gastropubs. The nearest thing we have is the Bull & Castle, and its sea of "reserved" signs on empty tables is the least appetising feature of an otherwise wonderful pub -- one backed by a successful high-quality restaurant chain so therefore a bit less averse to taking a risk on good beer, and where good food goes without saying.

No, I just think pubs would be facing a happier future than Mr McKenna predicts if they took a look at their customers for once. Shortly before Christmas I was sitting in The Long Hall, a fine Dublin pub firmly on the tourist circuit. Over my bottle of Guinness I saw a troop of Americans wander in, make themselves comfortable and, when the barman approached to take their order, they asked to see the desserts menu. On being told that no food was served in the place, at all, ever, the coats went back on and out they went. I wondered how often that happens -- foodless pubs are pretty rare in the US and UK. It's the sort of basic business sense that Irish pubs have never had to bother with.

The practicalities of food aside, it could be that pubs should simply be charging less for their beer and not, for instance, adding their own cut to any increases in tax or wholesale price, as they always do. And if they're chasing premium prices and a more affluent crowd then please give us something better than Tiger, Krombacher and the other dull yellow lagers which are treated as the height of sophistication because their TV ads are artier.

Give us quality. Give us variety. Give us value for money. It's not rocket science. The off licences and supermarkets can see how that works, and your response of having your friends in government threaten and cripple them is not going to work. Drinkers will not flock back to you the way they used to because you are not giving value for our money. We'll drink at home or we'll drink in restaurants.

Opting for the former the other night, I had a bottle of Brakspear Oxford Gold, poured to a hazy orange shade, with some bleu d'auvergne and onion cheddar on fresh brown bread. I'm well impressed with the beer, which has a beautiful earthy fruit nose carried through into a foretaste full of spiced oranges. It's organic, so I'm wondering if its Target and Goldings hops came from a country where alpha acids are more highly prized than England. Either way, despite carbonation that's a smidge on the high side, it's a fine example of what can be done with the basic building blocks of English beer. Along with the hoppiness there's an exciting gunpowder flavour to it I really enjoy and most associate with home brewed ales. Nice to see a commercial brewery coming up to that standard.

The acidity cuts beautifully through the creamy blue cheese, but fades in time to let the mouldy funk stand alone at the end, deliciously. The sweetness in the cheddar's onions is heightened by the contrasting bitterness of the beer, and vice versa. This was a good idea.

Last week I met with the PR chap behind the new Beer Naturally campaign, being run by Ireland's two macrobrewers plus AB-InBev. It's aiming to raise the profile of beer among the foody and winey types, and as such is a laudable exercise. I was surprised when he told me that enthusiasm was high in the pub trade for the campaign, since it looks to me like the kind of thing pubs would normally run a mile from: making good food and offering appropriate beer to go with it. If I could think of a single pub where there was a possibility of a nice hoppy ale and a simple plate of bread and cheese, I'd have been there instead of my kitchen.


  1. Great post!

    I am a bit sceptically of the Beer Naturally campaign, maybe the yellow lager and nitro stout campaign might be more apt?

  2. Agreed, very nice analysis.

    There's alot to be said for simplicity, and having something as simple as you had in your kitchen shouldn't be out of scope for most pubs. It doesn't all have to be gastro. I still recall with fondness the simple plate of cheese, salami, pickled onions and really hot mustard we got in 't Brugs Beertje. Perfect, simple beer food. Oh, and the service was also great and simple, not to mention the beer list.

    So, are the bar owners simply reaping what they have sown? Or are there a multitude of new factors coming into play what with recession and all that stuff?

  3. Thanks guys.

    Oblivious, I think the principles behind the Beer Naturally campaign are sound, but I agree it has a long way to go in making itself useful to the regular drinking public. I've recommended doing more to name actual beers of the various styles they're promoting, and where to get them, and hopefully we'll see that as it moves along. 'Cos no-one's going to be convinced to abandon their Pouilly-Fumé in favour of Miller -- that's a given.

    Adeptus, I'd like to think the former is the case, but really it's probably very complex. Irish society has moved on from the days when drinking Diageo and Heineken beer down the pub was the sum total of the social scene. In the cities we have more choice and can do our socialising in restaurants instead; in the country they've started taking a bit more of a dim view of people who have their six pints and then drive home. On-trade prices keep going up, while the choice and price in the off-trade is much more attractive.

    All of these are relatively new phenomena, yet the publicans' response seems to be crying foul, blaming others and trying to roll back the clock rather than actually compete in the drinks market. They're never going to sell beer cheaper than the supermarkets so they have to offer something you won't get elsewhere. And as far as I can see they just aren't doing that.

  4. Thanks for the good post.
    I go to Italy fairly often, and the pubs there don't have very sophisticated menus. But they have fresh panini for making toasted sandwiches, filled with gorgonzola, Parma ham, salami, tuna etc. They do not need a full kitchen for this, just a counter and a refrigerator. Theoretically you could have done the same in Dublin (or Oslo!)

  5. Its just that the sceptic in me suggest that the may come back and say the people really don't want this foreign beer. They just really want whats available at most pubs which just happens to be our brands.

    But I could be wrong

  6. Well Knut, there is the Great Irish Toasted Sandwich, served in its designer plastic bag. Though the last time I had one in a Dublin pub I nearly fell off my barstool at the price.

    Oblivious: the campaign is not trying to get swill drinkers to drink better beer. It's trying to get non-beer-drinkers to drink beer, any beer. There's no point criticising it for not doing something it hasn't set out to do.

    Converting the swill drinkers is our job...

  7. Well their site dose make food and beer pairs , where a lot of said beers are just not available in the majority of pubs?

  8. And neither's the food, as I mentioned above. Like I say, the trade seem to be interested so it's up to them to start doing better beer and better food to get the target market of this campaign in the doors.

    I was very pleased this afternoon to see the leaflets by the beer shelves in DrinkStore -- this is where it could really be useful, backed up by staff who know what they're talking about.

  9. I can't speak for the entire US, but in the state of Virginia it's a requirement for any establishment serving alcohol to also serve food. It's set up by proportion of each, but that's the gist of it. Doesn't mean you'll always get great food or service, but you're more likely to find both whilst out for a beer. Still, it's a combination that works, even if mandated by law.

  10. I can assure you that there are very large numbers of pubs in the UK, typically although not exclusively urban locals, that don't serve any food at all. It isn't a uniquely Irish phenomenon.

  11. Many interesting points here, not least the fact that we seem to agree on a beer at last! I love everything I've had by Brakspear.

    Food definitely helps broaden a pub's appeal although you can have a great pub without it, or with something simple. As you say, it's about offering something you can't get in the supermarket, be it a nice meal out, good atmosphere, a good space to meet your friends, that sort of thing.

  12. ... or decent beer.

    Curmudgeon, no I wasn't suggesting it was uniquely Irish. Merely that the extent of it is. Would I be right in thinking that the type of pubs you mention are the ones most susceptible to closure in the UK's current Great Pub Closure Crisis?

  13. "Would I be right in thinking that the type of pubs you mention are the ones most susceptible to closure in the UK's current Great Pub Closure Crisis?"

    To some extent, as it is wet-led pubs that have suffered most, and been most affected by the smoking ban.

    However, there remain plenty of thriving non-food pubs over here. For example, three of the current Good Beer Guide entries for Stockport - the Armoury, Olde Vic and Thatched House - serve no food at all, and the Armoury in particular is an excellent pub on a prominent site that is busy all day.

    The point should also be made that many pubs only serve food at lunchtime, but do most of their business in the evenings.

    I have to say, though, that in my experience of visiting Ireland that the availability of pub food was far worse than in most parts of the UK - see this post.

  14. And thsee thriving non-food pubs, correct me if I'm wrong here, serve good beer.

    I'll bet you your comparative experience of food in Irish pubs was a shitload better than your experience of beer in Irish pubs. Can you post the link again? That one comes back here.

  15. The link is here.

    I didn't really go to Ireland for the beer (although I did find some good beer in the North) and I have to say I wasn't disappointed. I don't mind Guinness, to be honest, but it tends to disagree with me.

  16. ... whereas I disagree with it.

    Yes, the situation in the North is a bit better, beerwise, what with the way it's the UK. I'm really talking about the Irish state here -- where the LVA and VFI ply their trade with more than a little help from their friends.

  17. Good post.

    A lot of Irish pubs aren't good, I can't understand why people the world over seem to think they're great. Especially in Dublin where even the small bars seem to be following the super pub model. Crap over priced beer and wine, loud awful music, people crammed into the place, soccer on the tv, etc.

    No wonder people stay in their kitchen or go to a restaurant.

  18. The Bloody Tan10:54 am

    Agree absolutely 100 per cent with you on this one.
    I live in a Cork town that is a regular spot for visiting tourists and of the six pubs in the main part of the town not a single one does any food of any sort - not even a toasted sandwich in a plastic bag.
    Tourists enquiring about food are met with a shrug of the shoulders by the pub owners and a mouthful of abuse after they leave before the owner goes back to complaining about how poor trade is.
    Even trade amongst local people has been decimated since about September last year and not one of these pubs has done anything to try to entice people back in.
    Last week I was in a smalltown in Hampshire the UK, well off the beaten track where three of the four pubs had full lunch and evening bar snack menus including steak and chips for £11 a head.
    Last night I tried a new restaurant/bar that has opened on the outskirts of my town and exactly the same steak and chips cost me €28.
    Is it any wonder that Irish pubs are dying on their arses ?

  19. Don't start me on Cork. I left work at 2.30pm one day, in time to grab a quick pint before the train home. No signs of life at the Bierhaus, Franciscan Well or any other of Cork's great pubs.

    And on asking a local what was up with that, I got "I guess their locations and not serving food would not make this option viable to be open all day". Which is incredibly backwards thinking, IMO.

    Oh dear. I appear to have got started on Cork.

  20. The Bloody Tan1:00 pm

    Oh do start on Cork please.
    I try to support all the pubs making an effort but of the two you mentioned I was in the Beirhaus a couple of weeks ago and it was freezing.
    Every single person in there had their coats on and one woman was even wearing her gloves sat at the bar.
    I stopped going in the Fransciscan Well some time ago after an attempt to chat about the beers was met with bored disinterest by the person behind the bar.
    The place also stinks of disinfectant.
    Counihans used to be a nice place in winter for a Duvel and a sarnie by the open fire while Mrs Bloody Tan did the shopping but that doesn't open at all during the day.
    Unfortunately I've come to the conclusion that Cork's pubs have long since given up the fight and concern themselves mainly with an 18-30 crowd getting hammered on long necks in the evening.