Showing posts with label pubs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pubs. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

To a T

I spent my formative teenage years living in the Outer Hebrides, in particular for the geographically challenged the bit in the red box in the picture:


The blue bit to the west of the islands is, obviously, the Atlantic Ocean. That blue bit stretches all the way to Canada with nothing between. It is not for nothing that the islands are often referred to as being on the edge of the world. I loved living there, and there are still times when I have moments where I think it would be good to go home and raise my boys the relative peace and safety.

Like most teenage kids growing up in isolated communities drinking started at a relatively early age, I think I was 14 when I had my first sneaky can of beer, nicked from a fridge at someone's house during a party at which parents were free to bring their kids along. I am not counting here the cider my parents would give us as younger kids, or my dad's homebrew that we would drink from time to time. There is something about that first illicit beer, as I say taken from the fridge when the adults weren't looking, that means more than all your parents' enlightened attitudes toward booze.

Most definitely among those first ill-gotten cans of nectar was Tennent's Lager, at a time when the cans still featured the , scantily glad models that were probably many a teenage beer filcher's first crush. With said cans safely hidden in coat pockets we would head out to the garden and sit behind a dry stone wall, in the lee of the wind, and pretend like we knew anything about beer.

Such memories came flooding back when
Boak and Bailey posted a story about them drinking Tennents when in Scotland recently, and so I resolved that on my trip home in July to do likewise. Thus it was that on the first Friday night in the Highlands, Mrs V and I left the bairns with their grandparents and wandered up to one of my favourite institutions, the public bar of a Highland hotel, the Station Hotel in Alness.

Entering through the hefty, weather beaten, teal blue doors you land practically on the bar. In keeping with public bar tradition there is no carpet, old school wooden floorboards are the order of the day. There is no fancy furniture, a few barstools, well used wooden tables around the periphery of the room, and equally well used wooden chairs. My kind of bar.

Dotted around the bar are groups of working men, ignoring the barstools entirely, standing just shy of an arm's length from their pints. At a table in the corner, a mixed group of Polish seasonal workers, in many a Highland public bar when there are ladies present in your group, you sit at a table rather than stand at the bar. Mrs V and I took up station at the short end of the bar itself, I like to be at a bar when I am drinking, next to the gaming machine, flashing with promises of paying your drinks bill for the night if you are lucky enough.

The Station doesn't do craft beer, doesn't really do local beer either if I remember rightly. I am not sure it would matter anyway, basically everyone was drinking Tennent's, which apparently accounts for 50% of all lager drunk in Scotland. I didn't bother with pictures of my pints, perhaps for fear of being called out as the metropolitan middle class softie I have become, or because it was irrelevant to being out with my wife on a rare trip sans enfants.

The first thing that strikes me is just how fizzy the pint is, though given the laser etched nucleation points on the base of the branded glassware, is it always that carbonated? Given the never ending stream of bubbles, the head pretty much stayed put, it was actually a rather alluring sight, and possibly the first time I had drunk Tennents and been able to see it.

Taking a first mouthful, my initial reaction was that if I was served this at an American craft brewery, either as a pilsner or helles, I would be pretty happy. Sure it is no Port City Downright Pilsner, but it is not a bad pale lager by any stretch of the imagination. The flavour is mostly a grainy crackeriness, somewhat similar to a Jacob's Cream Cracker, with a similar subtle sweetness as well. Am I allowed to say that it actually tasted of barley? That's a thing right? Hops are not a major component of the brew seemingly, but what was there gave enough of a clean bitterness to snap the malt to attention, as well as wisps of floral lemoniness that reeks of classic noble hops, you know, the ones from Central Europe.

Four mouthfuls in and the pint was gone, a fresh one on its way, then another, and another as we settled into the buzz and banter of the bar. At some point a pair of young girls came in, one with ID and one without, dolled up for a night on the town and pre-gaming before heading into Inverness. The gathered older folks, which Mrs V and I have accepted we are now part of, shared looks of recognition of days gone by, while the barman gave the IDless girl short shrift, and soon they were gone, while hands reached out for pints and the drinking continued.

I don't recall how many pints I had, maybe 8, but I did wonder, perhaps out loud and a tad overly loud as Mrs V and I walked back to my parents' place whether an avowedly craft bar is capable of such an atmosphere? Merrily buzzed and with no regret whatsoever for drinking Tennent's all night, I fell into a happy slumber that thankfully the twins didn't disturb until about seven thirty the next morning. I would drink Tennents again several times on the trip, each time knowing that I would miss it when I got back to Virginia.

Maybe it is the Tennents I miss, maybe it's public bars in Highland Hotels. Either way, that session will live on in the memory, despite no pictures.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Try Offering Dry

A friend on Facebook posted this interesting little article in the Morning Advertiser today, which basically states that Dry January will "be the death" of the British pub.

The article goes on to state that 5 million British drinkers have signed up for the "official" Dry January project run by those tireless, puritanical, temperance folks of Alcohol Concern. The number of people completing the challenge in previous years is not mentioned. If my own observations of friends who, like me, attempt to take 31 days off the bevvy can be extrapolated out, I would not be surprised if fewer than 2 million people actually succeed.

I have mentioned in previous posts that I have little truck with either the official Dry January brigade or the plucky rebellious sorts advocating for Tryanuary, which encourages folks to break out from their normal drinking, preferably at some craft beer, leave your wallet with the barman, type place.

Now forgive me I am being cynical but could someone please just decide what exactly it is that is killing the British pub? Is it the smoking ban? Brexit? Climate change? It seems at times that anything that diverges from the image of Blighty as basically The Shire writ large is the greatest harbinger of doom for the pub industry.

Now forgive me if as a mere punter I am missing something, but haven't we just had the Christmas and Hogmanay period, when pubs are slammed to the gunwales pretty much for the entirety of December? Why was no one complaining that all these people out on the piss were putting too much money in the boozers' coffers?

It seems to me that rather than whining to the media about how a dip in custom is affecting their business's profitability, landlords would be better served taking on board the ethos of Tryanuary and give the Dry January folks an actual alternative to booze. I know too many places that only have some crap like lime soda as a non booze option.


How about offering traditionally made soft drinks, ditching the post-mix swill from Pepsi or Coke, like those made by Dalston's or Lovely Soft Drinks? Thankfully here in central Virginia most of my favourite places to drink also make their own ginger beer, and in the case of Three Notch'd it's bloody delicious.

Running a business means adapting to market forces and the capricious whimsy of the consumer, pubs are no different.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Faux Boozers for the Instagram Generation

This may come as something of a surprise, but I really don't mind folks who don't drink, horses for courses and all that jazz. I have even been known to go on extended booze free stints, beyond my annual January break - for the record, I find advocates  for both "Dryanuary" and "Tryanuary" tedious and smug in equal measure - if I fancy a break from the booze it is none of their business, in support or otherwise.

One thing though that is really guaranteed to get my goat is people who claim their don't go to the pub because of some particular thing, and if that thing wasn't there, they would go. Take smoking for example, now I am not, never have been, and never will be, a smoker, but I think the smoking ban is a piece of officious nonsense handed down from a government pandering to puritans. If we believe in the free market, then businesses should have been free to decide if they wanted to ban smoking in their establishments, or to introduce a smoking room. There are solutions that don't require total bans, though campaigners are rarely likely to opt for sensible compromise in this extremist day and age. From a purely anecdotal standpoint, many of the people I know who said they would go to the pub more if smoking were not allowed don't actually go to the pub any more than they used to. I should also point out that I don't hanker for the days of having to air out my coat from an open window after a night in a smoky pub, but I think the ban is heavy handed and a contributing factor to the crisis of the pub trade.

Anyway, this morning on Twitter The Pub Curmudgeon tweeted a article from the Morning Advertiser about people looking for a booze free pub like environment. I find myself asking the question, what is the point of having a "pub" that doesn't serve alcohol? After all, the dictionary definition of a pub is:
a building with a bar and one or more public rooms licensed for the sale and consumption of alcoholic drink, often also providing light meals
The English language does have several perfectly good words, and the occasional one nicked from French, for places that sell non-intoxicating drinks, and maybe even light meals, but for which a license to sell booze is not required, here is a select sample:
  • teashop
  • tearoom
  • coffee shop
  • coffeehouse (though somewhat sketchy places in the 18th century, what with the political intrigue and gambling that went on)
  • café (I guess for those cosmopolitan types for whom a solid English word isn't good enough)
For the non-drinker there are plenty of options of places to go, is it the pub's fault that they don't stay open until 11pm? Is it the pub's fault that they don't have an atmosphere to rival the local boozer on a Friday night? Nope, and so the pub need not be impacted because people who have no desire to do what happens in pubs by virtue of them being pubs want to go elsewhere.

Rather than lobbying pub owners to make spaces more appealing to them, how about frequenting the types of places already available and advocate for them to open later, have a broader range of drinks suitable for non-drinkers, and encourage a kind of pub like atmosphere to make them slightly less joyless holes of puritanical face pinching?

Coming back to the original Morning Advertiser article, I think this quote from perhaps the most puritanically named sober bar imaginable is very telling:
"Young people don't want to get drunk anymore...They care about how they look on Instagram"

Friday, October 12, 2018

Favourite Watering Holes

The inestimable pairing that is Boak and Bailey have a list of what look like wonderful pubs over on their blog today, and so in the spirit of shameless plagiarism I figured I would make a similar list. My list, by virtue of bouncing round the world for the last couple of decades needs to have the addition of dates for some places, as they have either closed down, or gone to shit from what friends have told me. In no particular order then, in we dive...


Pivovarsky klub, K?i?íkova 17, Prague

It really is inevitable that Pivovarsky klub is on this list, it was there that 13 years ago on Sunday I met Mrs V after all, and for the next four years before moving to the US it was our local. We lived about a 5 minute walk from the place, got to know the staff really well, had our wedding reception there, and still recommend friends that are visiting Prague to pop in. I remember how revolutionary the idea of 6 taps, 5 of which rotated, and at least 200 bottled beers seemed at the time, opening up a whole new world of Czech beer to me. Most of the time I drank in the cellar bar, sorry my American friends "basement" just doesn't cut it as a description for their subterranean space, sat at the bar, in the corner under the spiral staircase. From my perch I could happily engage in my favourite, well second favourite, pub pastime - people watching. I often tell this story, but one of the things we loved about PK was that we were such regulars that the staff knew exactly what Mrs V wanted to drink without having to ask (Primátor English Pale Ale), and usually had it ready as she sat down. In many ways the feel of the place was Craft™ before it became a thing, you know, stripped brick and shiny metal, with paler wooden furniture than many a traditional boozer.


Zlatá hvězda, Prague, 1999-2009

Comically poor beer, toilets that would disgrace a refugee camp, and an owner that was known to physically throw people out of his pub that were being arseholes shouldn't really make for a place that I loved and frequented regularly, but love Zlatá I did. It was the place that for all 10 years of my stay in Prague I watched football, mostly Liverpool obviously, but not exclusively. With a group of fellow Liverpool fans, as well as a revolving cast of English teachers, teachers at one of Prague's international schools, Finnish chefs on disability who supported Chelsea, this place could generate an atmosphere unlike any other sports bar I have known. Similar to PK, I lived just a 5 minute walk from the place for the last four years of my stay in Prague, and was known to pop in even when there was no football, the cavernous, cool, dark space being perfect for reading the international edition of the Guardian. Shame they never learnt to spell my name for my reservations, but I got used to being "All" instead of "Al".


The Bon Accord, 153 North Street, Glasgow

Only been here a couple of times, but both have been fantastic. A good range of well kept real ales, 25 year old Talisker just one of the superb whiskies available, and an all day breakfast that will keep you going for several days. Both of our visits have ended up with us sitting with owner getting bevvied, and remarkably he remembered us the second time we turned up, some 2 years after the first, so gets additional kudos points for that. During that second trip, on a Friday night, I mentioned to Mrs V that one of the things I miss about British life was Friday nights in the pub, without the need to worry about driving home, sadly in central Virginia regional public transport is non-existant and taxis cost several appendages.


Devils Backbone Basecamp, 200 Mosbys Run, Roseland, Virginia

Some places are worth the hour it takes to drive there, said places are often also a factor in deciding where to go hiking of a weekend, the original Devils Backbone brewpub is one such place. When we landed in Virginia back in 2009, Devils Backbone was just coming up to its first birthday, and our first visit was on a tour of local brewpubs with a friend from the Prague days who was now living in Pittsburgh. That first visit was a bit underwhelming, mainly because the server got our flight all mixed up and let's just say expectations went all awry until we worked out the correct order from the menu notes. In those early years we would pretty often jump in the car to spend Sunday afternoon sat at the bar, surrounded by the taxidermy, reclaimed wood, and superb lagers. It was that commitment to quality lager that pulled me into Devils Backbone's orbit, and I have been a happy lager drinker because of them ever since. Some might baulk at spending money at an AB-InBev owned brewery, but Devils Backbone really looks after their people well, many of the wait staff having been there for almost ten years, and the fact that the beer keep improving as they invest in new shiny toys means I will always be able to get my lager kick satisfied at what I still think of as Virginia's best craft brewery.


Kardinal Hall, 722 Preston Avenue, Charlottesville, Virginia

As close to a German style beer hall as we are likely to get in this part of Virginia, and a pretty damned good stab it is too. Any place where I can get a litre of Rothaus Pils on draft has got to be a good place, add to that the excellent food, and this is somewhere my friends and I pretty often end up after a morning of hiking in the mountains. Admittedly I have to get used to the fact that "bratwurst" in America means something different than in Nuremburg or Thuringia, and so I avoid them so as to not be disappointed, but their Belgian fries are phenomenal. One of the great things about Kardinal is they actually have a decent sized and pleasant outdoor space that when the trees grow to maturity is going to make a really nice beer garden.


The Castle Tavern, 1 View Place, Inverness

The first time Mrs V and I wandered into the Castle Tavern was in 2014 when I took her for her first trip to Scotland, and the first time I had been home in almost a decade. It was Sunday lunchtime and my parents were at church, being good heathen folks my wife and I had wandered along the River Ness and decided it was time for a pint. Said pint was Cromarty Brewing's majestic Atlantic Drift, and in that moment I had found two new loves, a brewery and a real ale pub. Whenever I am home, the Castle Tavern is an essential port of call, anywhere that gets Timothy Taylor Landlord on cask is going to be a place I want to be at. If Mrs V and I move to the Inverness area in the future, it will be a regular haunt.

Photo credits
  • Pivovarsky klub: Mark Stewart

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Irish Pub

The pub is probably my favourite institution on earth. Whenever I am off on my travels I spend more time researching places I want to have a drink than I do what beers are available in a particular drinking hole. I guess that's what makes me an awful beer tourist, you'll not find me visiting places just because of the breweries that are there.

The kind of pub I like doesn't have to have a stellar beer selection of the latest, greatest, trendiest IPAs and the like. Some of my favourite places to drink when I lived in Prague sold the near ubiquitous range of Prazdroj, Gambrinus, and Kozel ?erny, but I loved them all the same. Beer is not the point of the pub, community is, conversation is, comfort is, consolation is.

As I have got older, my taste in pubs has tended more and more to the simple pleasures of a well cared for pint enjoyed with good company. If I wish to get rat-arsed and listen to the greatest cheesey hits of the 90s, I can do that in the comfort of my front room.

Any way, all this thinking about pubs is because last night I came across a wonderful documentary film on Netflix called 'The Irish Pub' and spent the hour and a bit of it in a fog of nostalgia, there being so many similarities between pubs in Ireland and those in the north west of Scotland where I grew up.

Here's the trailer, and if you have Netflix look it up for the whole thing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Idyllic Pubcentricity

The Pub Curmudgeon posted yesterday about the elements of a perfect pub, itself a commentary on an article in the Sunday Telegraph, and so I decided to think a bit more about what the perfect Velky Al boozer would look/be like.

Mismatched Furniture

Generally speaking I like the furniture in a pub to be wooden, preferably a bit battered, somewhat rickety, and occasionally wobbly. I don't want to feel like I am drinking in an IKEA showroom, unless said drinking hole has just undergone a renovation of course, if it still feels like IKEA a few months later something is wrong. I don't want every table to look the same, have the same chairs, and be entirely interchangeable. I want to pick a table, and even a chair, because I just happen to like that combination in it's location. I may be odd on this front, but that's ok.

Newspapers

This may be a tad controversial, but I like pubs that have newspapers available. They should be today's papers obviously, and there needs to be a selection from across the political spectrum and formats. If my ideal pub is back home in Scotland I want to see, at least, The Guardian, The Scotsman, The Daily Record, The Daily Telegraph, and whatever the local paper is. The only paper I would object to is The S*n, for obvious reasons. I don't want a pub to be a place where people of only one political persuasion go, I love pubs for the random conversations with different people that you have, if I wanted a focal point for homogeneous thought I'd sit at home and surf Facebook.

Outside Seating

Whether it's a beer garden, a patio, or a balcony I am a big fan of outdoor seating, mainly because when the weather is nice that's where the pub equivalent of day trippers go, leaving the rickety furniture and the bar safe for me. Sure there are times when I brave the bright lights of the outdoor seating area, usually when I am part of a group and the general consensus is to sit outside, but I am more often than not a creature of habit, and I like my seat at the bar.

Fireplace

Few things are as comforting in any room as a fireplace, the bigger the better. In the depths of winter, having trudged through cold and snow to get to a hostelry, the twin delights of a roaring fire and a pint of something dark and roasty just can't be beaten. If there are a couple of tables near the fire then the bar seat might even be sacrificed for the delights of scanning the papers whilst bathing in the warming glow of a well stoked fire.

5-7 Taps

I am not a fan of the rage for pubs to have banks of taps hanging out on the back wall, neither yet an endless bronzed barricade of handles on the front of the bar. I actually like brass fonts and tap gantries, just don't want then consuming the length of the bar. I don't go to the pub to be intimidated by endless tap handles for breweries I have barely even heard of, and whose brewing ability is entirely unknown to me. The first thing that goes through my mind when I enter a pub with dozens of taps is do they actually have the custom to keep the stock rotating at a reasonable rate?

Genuine Choice

It may seem a little strange to not want infinite taps and then ask for a good choice of beer, but what choice is there in 50 taps of IPA, a solitary mass produced lager, and Guinness? Give me a pub with 7 taps and 7 different styles on those taps each and every day of the week. At least 3 of those taps should be permanently filled with excellent examples of, preferably locally brewed, best bitter, dry Irish stout, and Bohemian Pilsner. This is my ideal pub after all.

Rooms

I love pubs with a range of rooms to chose from, each with it's own character and regulars. A common feature of many a hotel in the Highlands is the public bar, a rougher environment than the lounge. Sometimes you want a quiet drink, sometimes you want to be somewhere a bit rowdier, if you can do both in the same pub then all the better. If a pub doesn't have multiple rooms then nooks and crannies can serve a similar purpose.

More than Beer

I am an unabashed beer drinker, it is rare than I choose wine, cider, mead, or any other alcoholic drink over beer, but not all my friends are enthusiastic takers of the malt and hops. Mrs V prefers wine these days, some of my friends don't drink at all, but I still enjoy hanging out with them, and so a pub needs to cater for a range of drinking options. Many pubs do a decent enough line in wine, cider, and spirits, but are lamentably piss poor when it comes to soft drinks, invariably the usual mass produced post mix swill of Coca-Cola or PepsiCo products. Stocking Fentiman's range of sodas would be infinitely preferable.

I'd like to think this such a pub would be fairly well liked by a wide swathe of folks, heck there may even be a business plan in there somewhere...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Where Good Fellowship Reigns

It was a glorious day, as many of the preceding 20 had been. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and we were sat on the early morning bus from Inverness to Glasgow. It was time to make the long trek back to our little corner of Virginia, and after 4 hours of beautiful Scottish countryside drifting past the window we were in Glasgow. Minor side note, while the A9 has an atrocious, and thoroughly deserved, reputation as something of a death trap, it is also one of the most stunningly beautiful roads I have ever travelled on.

I have always had something of a soft spot for Glasgow, I love the architecture, the vibrant city centre, and I have loads of Glaswegian friends. Although I have never spent more than a few days in the city at a time, I have enjoyed many an excellent drinking session in the city's pubs. When we were planning our few hours in Glasgow city centre, I tweeted for advice on the best places near Buchanan Street bus station for a feed and a drink. I had originally wanted to make it out to WEST, but decided that I would rather spend the time downing pints of real ale. Several answers came back, but I knew pretty much straight off where we would be spending our afternoon. We wandered to the edge of the city centre, through the crowds for the Commonwealth Games, under the M8, and having proven again that navigation by pub is a universal, into pub heaven.


The  Bon Accord is unassuming, unpretentious, wood laden, and clearly a place for serious drinkers, who know their onions when it comes to the delights of malted barley, whether as beer or whisky. Mrs V and I found a couple of seats at the bar, and got our first drinks in, Cromarty's Hit the Lip for me, and Kronenburg 1664 for her, in her defense she hadn't noticed the Budvar in the fridge, once the Kronenburg was done she was Czech for the afternoon. I would have stuck quite happily with Hit the Lip had I not polished off the last of the cask, did I mention yet that there we 10 hand pulls arrayed on the bar? With no more Cromarty beer to keep me company, a Caledonian Brewery Summer Valley filled the gap while I pondered what to have next.


One of the things I love about pubs is the people you meet, the random conversations with folk you are unlikely to ever meet again, whether the older gent doing the crossword next to Mrs V, the Patrick Thistle fan with whom I discussed the upcoming independence referendum (a conversation I pointedly avoided with my family), and most of all, with Paul, the owner. It's difficult, if not impossible, to describe Paul as anything other than a man of the world, urbane, sophisticated, and a mine of knowledge of whisky and beer. It was fantastic to just sit and chat the many pleasures of the demon drink. It was Paul that recommended I try the Kelburn Dark Moor. Oh. My. Goodness. What a beer Dark Moor is, served in tip top condition, a wonderfully complex, irresistible mild.


We ended up spending the best part of 5 hours at the Bon Accord before heading back to the bus station to pick up our bags and head out to Renfrew and our hotel for the night. 5 hours of superb, well kept, beer, supreme service, stimulating conversation, and an all day breakfast to die for. The Bon Accord is a must visit when in Glasgow, and the kind of pub that if I ever had my own, would be the role model.

Friday, August 15, 2014

To The Castle!

After our little sojourn in the realms of Virginia beer, time to head back to Scotland, and wandering along the banks of the River Ness. If you've never been to Inverness, and I thoroughly recommend you do, spending a Sunday morning strolling along the Ness toward Bught Park, through the Ness Islands, and back up the other bank, culminating in reaching the pub at opening time, is pretty much as good as it gets. Especially when the pub in question is the Castle Tavern.


Located behind Inverness Castle, the Castle Tavern was one of the places that I had researched before our trip. The primary attraction was simple, real ale. While I am not a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, you could happily describe me as a fellow traveller. The time we went by, it was still an hour to opening time, and we had to be elsewhere. So the next time, we got there right at opening time.



Walking past the rather fetching collection of tables and benches outside, Mrs V and I decided to grab a seat at the bar and I ordered a pint of Cromarty Atlantic Drift, a 3.5% pale ale which was moreish beyond words, and Mrs V had a cider. As you can see from the pictures, the bar is in many ways, classic British pub, it was love at first sight as far as I was concerned, especially as the beer was in fine fettle. One thing I particularly appreciated was the option to have three thirds of a pint, to try multiple beers, for the price of a pint. I took the offer, but decided to stick with the Cromarty, which was a theme in many a pub we went to on our trip.



A few days later we were back, this time with my nephew in tow, and to my consternation the Atlantic Drift had kicked, as had all the casks from the previous visit. Ah well, Windswept Blonde more than filled the gap, and I discovered that a double dark rum and ginger ale is rather nice, strange things these youngsters drink.


With a good selection of real ales, staff that clearly knew their stuff, and an atmosphere that was friendly, laid back, and generally welcoming, the Castle Tavern would be a regular haunt if I lived in the Invernes area, and probably my local in Inverness itself. A great place.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Break Time is Over

I seem to have inadvertently taken a month off.

It's not that I haven't been drinking, I have had some wonderful beers in July, not least the simply magnificent Downright Pilsner from Port City in Alexandria. Why, oh why, don't more breweries do what it takes to make a pilsner in the proper, Czech, style? Masses of Saaz hops, lagered at length, and then as an added bonus unfiltered, as I said, simply magnificent.


It's also not as if I haven't been brewing. I recently bottled another version of my ongoing bitter project, as well as a rarity for me, an American IPA, which I am actually rather pleased with. In a couple of weeks it is the Dominion Cup, Virginia's largest homebrew competition, and I will be judging as well as having entered a slew of beers.


It's not that I haven't been hanging out pubs, talking with friends and colleagues about whatever stuff is going on in life. I have had some fantastic nights out, drinking good beer, with good people, in good places such as McGrady's.


Nope, I just fancied an inadvertent break.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In Praise of Singleness

Last week I walked into one of my favourite pubs in Charlottesville. The barmaid was at the taps pouring a beer, so I took a seat at the bar and allowed myself a cursory glance at the menu, I knew what I wanted. The barmaid turned, wandered in my direction and placed a glass of what I wanted right in front of me and asked how I was doing. For the first time in almost four years I didn't have to ask for a beer, the right one just came. Obviously the barmaid had seen me coming into the pub and knew what I have been drinking most since I finished my booze fast, Samuel Adams Alpine Spring. Being known to that level in a pub is, at least for me, a good thing. So, Tracy at McGrady's I take my hat of to you as a superior practitioner of your craft.

That little vignette of life popped into my head yesterday as a result of a Twitter chat about pubs in Prague. I commented that several of the pubs I would frequent in that most beautiful of cities had just one beer available, usually it was Pilsner Urquell, and how nice it was to be able to go to a pub, know exactly what you wanted to drink and that it would satisfy every time. There would be no umming and ahhing at the beer menu clearly written by Franz Kafka in his most verbose magnificence, no starring blankly at a wall of taps trying to find the needle in an IPA stack that I would actually want to drink. Nope, very simply you walk into the pub, acknowledge the barmaid/man and wait a couple of minutes while he pours you a pint.


One pub in particular, at least in my experience, ticked all the boxes for guaranteeing a good session. Tasty beer, tankové Pilsner Urquell, well kept, they had several awards for the quality of their pour, efficient staff, two fingers to go, here have another and keep 'em coming, a crowd of locals enjoying good beer but primarily enjoying the company of their friends (which is after all the whole point of the pub). That pub was called Bruska, it is up in one of Prague's suburbs, and it is a place I never once regretted going to.

Having a single beer on tap, though admittedly I think they had bottled non-alcoholic Birell, can be one of the most challenging things for a pub to do. Your regulars will come to know the beer very, very well, so you better have a good one. Also, because your regulars will come to know the beer very, very well, you better keep it in tip top condition because they will be able to tell when the lines need a clean or something is just not quite right.

Sure it is nice to go into a drinking hole and have a choice of 25 or 30 taps, assuming of course it isn't just 24 or 29 variants on American pale ale of differing India-ness plus Guinness, but there is much to be said for going to a pub knowing that the beer you will be drinking will hit the spot, every time. That you won't spend time trawling through the beer list and ignoring your friends. That is the mark of a quality pub.

Picture credit: taken from my book 'Pocket Pub Guide to Prague', picture by Mark Stewart.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Happy Discovery

Coming soon will be the 2013 Fuggled Calendar - yes I am that confident that crazies claiming that the Mayan Calendar points to the end of the world later this week are wrong. This year's calendar, as in previous years, will feature the photography of my good friend Mark Stewart, of Black Gecko Photography, and the theme is Charlottesville pubs. With that in mind, Mark and I headed off on something of a pub crawl on Saturday afternoon and evening to get the requisite pictures and generally hang out as we don't see each other nearly often enough.

I have mentioned many times, whether or not you were listening, that I don't believe that a pub needs to have great beer to be a great pub. Pubs are about people, about socialising, meeting old friends and maybe new folks along the way - most of my friends I have met as a result of going to a pub for some reason. One of the pubs that we visited on our trawl through the seedy underbelly of Charlottesville, or at least The Corner over by the University where students of all ages hang out, was Trinity Irish Pub.


I had only been to Trinity once before and while I knew it had the look we were aiming at for the pictures, I was a little worried about the beer selection as all I remember my wanting to drink the last time I was there was Guinness - pretty much my fall back beer if the rest of the selection is comically bad or just another bank of endless pale ale in varying stages of Indianess.


Things seem to have changed a little since my previous visit, sure they still had beer from the big boys, Guinness, Stella Artois and Natty Light (think Bud Light then remove flavour, aroma and drinking enjoyment), but also on tap were a couple of local brews, Starr Hill's Jomo and Devils Backbone Vienna Lager, there were another couple of 'small and independent' taps as well but I don't recall what they were. I started off with the Vienna but soon migrated to Guinness and have to say it was pretty decent.


Trinity was fairly buzzing, with a good crowd, a healthy mix of students and older folks, I assume plenty of them were getting their drinky on before heading to the Dave Matthews concert. Despite all that, the service was excellent, efficient and friendly, basically all I ask for in a bar staff. I am sure this is heretical but you don't need to be able to spout prosaically about hop varieties and decoction mashing to be able to pour a good pint.


Having polished off a few pints, taken an unhealthy number of pictures - the ones in this post are mine and won't be appearing in any calendar for obvious reasons - we moved on, happy in the knowledge that there was another decent pub to sit and enjoy beers with friends in.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Law of Unintended Consequences

For those of us who live in Virginia and love beer, July 1st will likely go down as one of the best days of 2012. It was on that date that law SB 604 came into effect, allowing breweries to sell pints of their products in their tasting rooms. If you come to the Starr Hill tasting room this Saturday I will, as a result of this law, be able to sell you a pint and, speaking from the point of view of someone behind the bar, I much prefer pouring pints than samples.


As a result of the law coming into effect there have been a veritable slew of breweries opening up with tasting rooms that are effectively pubs. Unencumbered with the requirement to have 45% of their on-premise business come from food sales, I can see more and more breweries turning their tasting rooms into bars. On a personal level I very much welcome such a move, anything that means there are more pub-esque places in the Commonwealth is a good thing in my book.

However, this does raise a question in my head. Given that the legal requirement for pubs and bars to have food is now effectively redundant, why is it still on the statute book? Wouldn't it make sense for the Governor to take a pro-free market stance and reduce the daft regulation and red tape around starting a pub, thus allowing pubs to focus on what pubs are for? Good beer, maybe some snacks and being a social centre for the community, oh and making a viable living for those who want to run a pub without the hassle of being a restaurant as well?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Please Sir, I Want Some (Balti)More

As I mentioned in Monday's post, I spent last weekend in Baltimore being shown the delights of that city by my best friend.

My friend and I have spent many, many hours in pubs in various countries in the thirteen years we have known each other. We have enjoyed beer in dives, expat hangouts, brewpubs and basically anywhere that sells alcohol, there was a time when we would buy a case of beer on a Friday afternoon to drink on our balcony in Prague before hitting the town. We have drunk in Czech cities, towns and villages, Slovak cities, towns and villages and now American cities, towns and villages.

In the weeks before our trip I did plenty of research on places that I wanted to go to while in Baltimore, even though, as I admitted on Twitter the other day, I am a useless beer tourist. I am not much of one for visiting breweries and doing tours, there are only so many mash tuns that I am interested in seeing, my interest in beer is primarily based on the fact that I like drinking it. Having arrived in the city in the early evening our plan was simple, get checked in and get checking out the pub scene, starting with a place to eat as well as drink.

That place ended up being in Fells Point, a pub called The Wharf Rat, which I had only learnt about on Tuesday or Wednesday last week, courtesy of Joe's post on cask beer in the USA. Having walked in, the first thing I noticed was a bank of five handpumps and made a beeline for that part of the bar. I could almost have whooped for joy when I saw the magic words "Best Bitter" on one of the pump clips. The bitter was from Oliver Breweries, whose head brewer follows my Twitter account and had warned me that he didn't think the bitter would be available at Pratt Street Ale House over the weekend. Moments later a proper pint of rich copper liquid with a nicely sparkled head was nestling in my grubby mitt, and what a delight it was, a perfect example of one of the most criminally underrated styles of beer.

Oliver Breweries was to become something of a theme of our weekend. Nursing hangovers on the Saturday morning after a somewhat boisterous crawl of pubs and bars, we wandered from our hotel to Pratt Street and the eponymous Ale House, home base of Oliver Breweries. I was hoping that they would, by some happy fate, have more of the bitter to act as a hair of the dog that bit us, though in all honesty the dog that bit us was more rye sized than bitter. Let me take this moment to thank the inventor of ibuprofen for his sterling service to the drinking classes, a handful of pills and my headache was on the wane.

With places at the bar duly taken, the bar itself being my preferred location to drink, I ordered a pint of Dark Horse, Oliver Breweries' mild - what a weekend, bitter and mild in the same city! Dark Horse was the ideal pick me up after the excesses of Friday, a subtly malty beer with just enough hop bite to give some balance and an superb moreishness. Our barmaid soon learnt that when we had two fingers worth of beer in the glass, it was time for a fresh one. It was almost like being back in Central Europe with an endless conveyor belt of beer deposited in front of us. When her shift came to an end, we decided to move on and try some other places, one of which I will talk more about on Friday. Eventually though we ended up back at the Wharf Rat for more best bitter, more banter and more just being a proper pub, eventually kicking the cask.

Pratt Street Ale House and The Wharf Rat appeal to two different sides of my love for beer and the drinking of it. The former has a classic American sports bar environment, good beer and good food, a place to sit and watch the game with plenty of tasty beer, but thankfully lacking pretension. The latter what I regard as a "proper" pub, a place where socialising is at the very heart of your visit, lubricated with quality session beer, a place that is unfalteringly down to earth. These are the kind of places where, in my unhumble opinion, beer and beer drinkers are most naturally at home, I loved them and whenever I am in Baltimore again, I will most certainly be stopping by for more.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Union Drinking

Some time back in the Spring I had a Skype chat with my best friend. At the time he was living in Kyiv, Ukraine and during the conversation he was drinking his homebrew pale lager which reminded him of Staropramen. Eventually it transpired that he would be back in the States for a few months, he being American, and that we should get together for a lads' weekend in his hometown of Baltimore.

Thus on Friday morning I took my first train ride in the US, to get from Charlottesville to Washington DC, where once he was finished with work for the day we would meet to make our way up to Baltimore and perhaps have a pint or two over the coming days. With several hours to kill in DC before meeting up, I hopped on the Metro (btw - I love public transport, civilised places have public transport) with the intention of going to Churchkey and sitting with my book for a few hours. Having walked for about 20 minutes from the nearest Metro station, I discovered that Churchkey doesn't open until 4pm. It being only 12.30 I headed back to Union Station to see if I could find one of the pubs I had read about. Just an aside, I know far too many pubs that don't open at a reasonable hour like 11am, I am yet to work out why such places are adverse to the capitalist notion of making money.

Having made it back to the Union Station area, I headed in the vague direction that I remembered there being somewhere to drink from Google Maps. I don't have smart phone and so the idea of navigating by phone is something I don't do. Anyway, half an hour of concerted bimbling lead me to The Union Pub, where I sat gazing in wonder at the Devils Backbone Vienna Lager tap in front of me, I had found my place. There I sat, reading the occasional snippet of David Hume's 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion' and feeding money into the juke box - if anyone reading this was assaulted by my choice in music - The Smiths, Rammstein, Die Toten Hosen and Gerry and the Pacemakers, then let me apologise.

Spending a few hours sat a bar, with good beer and a good book really is one of my favourite things to do, and I think whenever I head up to DC again, The Union Pub will be my first choice place to go. They have a really good selection of beer, a nice atmosphere and from my experience of one afternoon, excellent staff. I was almost tempted to get my friend to meet me there rather than at Union Station, but as he had said to me earlier in the day, if we met in a pub we would probably never get to Baltimore...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Pub

Pubs. It is fair to say that I love the places.

There are few places in the world I would rather spend an entire day in, tucked up in a dark corner, or sat at the end of the bar, preferably with my back to a wall so I can glance up from my book or newspaper from time to time and simply people watch. My mind wanders back to Mrs V and I's trip to Oxford in 2008, I spent inordinate amounts of time in the city's pubs while she was at a conference. In one day sat in Far From the Madding Crowd (a more perfect name for my kind of pub simply doesn't exist) I read about 80% of the Iain Banks book I had bought in a bookstore just minutes before opening time.

A few months later and Mrs V and I were again on our travels, this time to Ireland to visit Tale of the Ale's Reuben and wife, though in his pre-Tale days. Sadly the pub in which we sat and watched Ireland play New Zealand in the rugby is no longer in business as far as I know. Sheridan's On The Docks was everything you could possibly want from an Irish pub, a peat fire, an excellent selection of beer, including the delightful Galway Hooker, and it was there that I had my first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In many ways it was like being in your own living room, with the benefit of a bar.

On our various travels, whether it be Berlin, Paris, Columbia or Charlottesville, Mrs V and I have found pubs in which to spend time and just relax over pints. I am convinced that regardless of whether a country has a vibrant, overwhelming beer culture or just a few major brands doing nothing weird and wonderful, pubs are almost universally the kind of places I like to be in.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Want Local, Don't Want Just IPA

Something that bothers me at times is how difficult it can be to find local beer on tap here in Charlottesville. I could almost understand it if I lived in a town with an obscure nano-brewery making a few kegs a week and nothing else, but there are 5 breweries within a 30 mile radius of town and at least 2 in the planning that I know of, and yet I can't remember ever seeing my favourite Starr Hill beer on tap in town.

Before continuing this post let me make something clear, I am not talking here about going to places like Beer Run where the modus operandi is to have an every changing selection of beer. I am talking about your every day restaurants, the kind of places you go for food rather than the beer selection (believe it or not I don't make my eating out decisions based on how many taps a place has).

On Sunday for example, having spent a few hours out at the house painting, Mrs V and I headed out to our local Mexican restaurant for food. Usually when we go to a Mexican restaurant I'll have a Michelob because it is often the best beer available, minor side note, I actually quite like Michelob on occasion, clean, crisp, very easy to drink and best of all the bottles are re-useable for homebrew. Imagine then my surprise that our local Mexican had decided to start serving New Belgium Fat Tire as one of their 4 draft beers! I can say that Fat Tire goes quite nicely with Pollo con Chorizo and at $5 for a 22oz pour no complaints on the money front either.

But why have New Belgium beer when there is plenty of local beer which is as good? This is especially galling when you live in a town topped to the brim with "Buy Local" enthusiasts.

When you do see a Starr Hill tap, and I am not singling out Starr Hill, it's just that they are biggest and oldest brewery in the area, it is usually for Northern Lights IPA. Now, I like Northern Lights from time to time, unlike many an IPA over here it isn't so weighed down with hops as to be like sucking a lemon sized grapefruit, but I don't think it is the best beer that Starr Hill makes. I think it is third behind Dark Starr Stout and Festie, an amber lager which is wonderfully clean and delicious, and criminally not seen on draft at all in my experience, outside the tasting room that is.

When a bar is so laden with American Pale Ales, IPAs and Double IPAs, it would be wonderful to see more beers like Dark Starr and Festie breaking the banks of pale hoppy monotony. So come come restaurants, mix up your beer list, and support your local breweries.

Monday, June 25, 2012

In Praise of Familiarity

Earlier today I sat down to write a post for this blog and my mind was blank, what should I write about? What would people be interested in? Questions flashed through my mind and no answers came forth to announce themselves. So I had a cup of coffee, read the news on the various websites from which I glean my knowledge of world events, the BBC and the Guardian mostly, caught up on the football gossip, hoping to see that Liverpool had sign Gylfi Sigurdsson.


It's not as if I didn't drink anything over the weekend. I drank mostly homebrew admittedly, mainly my German pilsner, though with some lime witbier and the few remaining ?erny Lev Czech Dark Lagers chucked in for good measure. I worked at the Starr Hill tasting room on Saturday, and yesterday after painting in our new house I sat with a large New Belgium Fat Tire to wash down some Mexican food. There was no beer revelation, nothing new to tickle and tantalise the taste buds, nothing worth taking notes about, though I have practically given up on that particular activity, and you know that's perfectly fine by me.


While it is true that I have never been the kind of person to go chasing half way across town just to try a particular beer, let alone to another country, I wonder if at times I lose sight of that fact that beer is just part of life? Since leaving the Czech Republic almost three years ago I have come to cherish, and miss, the wonderful solid predictability of being able to walk into any of my favourite pubs and be guaranteed a beer I would want to drink. Whether it was ?těpán at Pivovarsky Klub, Zlatá labu? at U Buldoka or even Leffe Bruin at my nearest Potrefená Husa.


Don't get me wrong, I love going to the pub over here, but there is often an element of doubt in my mind as to whether there will be anything I am in the mood for, given the frequent rotation of taps, and the near constant chasing of the new thing, the latest big beer and that which contains the oddest ingredients.


They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but at the same time the familiar is a comfort, something reliable to go back to, knowing that it will be satisfying. Whether it is tankové Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic, London Pride in Southall or Samuel Adams Boston Lager here in the States, there is much to be said for those beers which are familiar, oh so familiar.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Drinking In The Rain

I wasn't expecting the rain this morning when I took my dog for his morning walk, but I have no complaints about it. I like rain in general, rainy days make me happy for some reason, whereas the heat and humidity of summer makes me grumpy and lethargic.

We often talk about beers which are great for a summer day, or for when you have just finished mowing your lawn, but we don't seem to talk much about the beers which are perfect for drinking in the rain, perhaps sat outside under an umbrella.

In my experience, the best beers for rainy day drinking are ones which lend themselves to slow savouring rather than 4 mouthfuls and its gone kind of things. Clearly then it has to be a beer which isn't negatively affected by the rise in temperature during the half hour or so of its existence in the glass. Just perhaps it is days like today, overcast, rainy and mild, that something like an IPA comes into its own? Preferably one hopped with English varieties, not lemon suckingly bitter and soul destroyingly strong, about 5% is plenty.

It would be a nice day to sit in a beer garden, covered by an umbrella, reading a book, or the papers, with a pint for company and listening to the gentle patter of rain against the leaves. It's that kind of day today.

Friday, May 4, 2012

In Excelsis!

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I spent a chunk of this week up in Washington DC at a conference and that I was hoping to find a good pub to while away a few hours after everything work connected was done with for the day. Eventually then a colleague and I jumped in a taxi and headed to Churchkey.

I had heard mention of Churchkey from various sources. Having climbed the stairs and had my ID checked, I stood in wonder at the bar. I barely noticed the 50 something tap handles crowding the wall behind the bar, for there, at the very heart of it all were handpumps, five of them. Yes, you read that correctly 5 handpumps in an American pub. Sure, Charlottesville has a couple of places with a solitary handpump but having a choice of cask ales was magical, perhaps even mythical. I have to admit though that I can only remember 2  of the available beers, because they were the two I drank, Williams Bros Midnight Sun Porter and a beer called Ape Must Never Kill Ape, a 3.3% abv beer from Oliver Breweries up in Baltimore.

I am planning a trip to Baltimore with my best friend in August.He is from the city and when we were flatmates in Prague in 2000 we drank shed loads of beer on the balcony of our flat while he told me that one day he would show me his home town. Suffice to say that the Pratt Street Ale House, home of Oliver Breweries is very much on our list of places to get slaughtered in. Quick side note, sampling dozens of weird and wonderful beers is all good and well, but sitting with your best mate getting totalled is the pinnacle of the drinking world. Anyway, the AMNKA is a session strength Belgian inspired dark ale, which according to the commercial description is made with:

"English pale malt, dark crystal, chocolate, carafa 3, Belgian biscuit and caramel vienna. Bittered with Kent Goldings and Czech Saaz, finished with Fuggles and German Tettnanger then fermented with Belgian DeKonick yeast and cold conditioned with vanilla beans"

Absolutely packed with flavour this beer is, a veritable melange of coffee, chocolate, toffee, grass and so many other flavours that you need a good few pints to really examine it well. I didn't have my note book so I had a good few pints just because it was so damned good. Another silly little aside, the glasses at Churchkey are 16oz nonic kind of things, which just look weird to my proper pint trained eye.

We sat at the bar for a good few hours, watching ice hockey, drinking beer and talking about work and life in general. We chatted with random strangers at the bar, naturally plugging this here blog, and if they come back and read this post then I hope they took the time to learn a bit more about the Scots language.

Churchkey seems to be finding that most elusive of balances, at least in my experience, of being a beer bar which keeps the tickers happy and a pub where regular drinkers feel welcome, and they have simply excellent bar staff. What a great way to waste several hours.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Is It Worth It?

Over the weekend the landlord of the Gunmakers in London tweeted about a female CAMRA member (yes, really, a female member of CAMRA - do they get issued with beardy wigs?) requesting her 20p discount for the pint she had just ordered and then being horrified at the price. The pint in question cost £3.90, which at current market rates is €4.67 or $6.14, and no CAMRA discount was forthcoming.


This got me thinking about the price of beer in a pub, because to be perfectly honest, it wouldn't bother me all that much paying £3.90 for a pint of cask ale right in the heart of London. When I was in Paris over the Christmas holiday, I was paying €8 (£6.68/$10.60) a pint at the various Frog and Rosbif pubs we went to. Even here in small town Virginia, Charlottesville is about three-quarters the size of Inverness, I regularly pay $6 (£3.78/€4.51) for a proper pint, as in an Imperial pint or 20oz, in the few places that serve them. The usual price for a 16oz American pint is about $5, which equates to £3.15 or €3.77.


I am deliberately not including the price of drinking the best lager in the world in Europe's most beautiful city, because the economics of beer are completely different in Prague - the most expensive beer is Pilsner Uruqell, while the phenomenal Kout na ?umavě 12° is usually about two-thirds of the price.

So, what am I getting when I pull up a stool at the bar and hand over my 6 dollars, 4 quid, or 4 Euro 50? Obviously I am presented with a pint of beer, hopefully with a nice head sitting atop the beer itself - I am not bothered about losing half an inch of beer in the glass to head, though I can imagine those asking for a 20p discount would quibble about that as well. A portion of the money, which having just changed hands is no longer mine, goes to the pleasure of having my beer handed to me by a member of staff. If I wanted to pay for the pleasure of getting my own beer, I'd install a coin slot on the fridge door. Assuming that the Gunmakers has electric lighting and some form of heating, a portion of the money will go to paying the bills, and of course the tax man wants his cut. Also, let's not forget that the landlord needs to make a living or there won't a pub for me to drink in.

It would be an interesting pie chart to see exactly where this £3.90 actually goes, and I would guess that the profit on a pint of cask ale in central London is fairly small. I also wonder if this is the main reason for the many pubs shutting across the UK these days, there simply isn't a decent living to be made.

The question then is, how much do you pay for your pint when you go to your local, and do you feel as though you are getting value?

Old Friends: Joseph's Brau PLZNR

I have to admit that there really are not that many things that I miss as a result of this pandemic. I am sure that comes as something of a ...

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