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Friday, June 29, 2012

What's a Pub?

I'm really backed up on my blogging here--a fact you might find queer since the blogging has been so slapdash lately.  But let's dance around that and get to a topic raised by Ted Sobel, who dates his first visit to a pub to 1991--long after he'd been enjoying the smoky shadows of the poorer drinking holes of upstate NY.  I expressed confusion in comments, and he writes:
The first comment from my previous post came from a noted Portland beer blogger who had visited England for the first time back in November, and got to experience his first pubs. Or, was that first visit to the Raleigh Hills McMenamins the first? That's the question; do we have pubs here in America? What is a pub? Is it OK to use it as a familiar synonym for a bar or tavern or a restaurant that brews beer (brewpub)?
Thanks to that trip I took, I understand the distinction Ted's making.  For Ted, there is a platonic ideal of a pub, and it can be found, plentifully, on every other corner in every town on the Island of Great Britain.  It looks roughly like this:

Additionally, the circulatory system of these buildings must run with living cask ale.  I suspect Ted would allow apostasies like pizza or charcuterie in a qualifying establishment, but they should properly serve fish, fried deeply with a side of chips.  Meat pies, like are available at the Jack Horner above, also permissible. This would be a "proper pub."  Few exist in the United States.

Instead, we have a motley assortment of bars, taverns, and, lately, brewpubs.  Walk the streets of an American city and the places you'll find (scattered further from one another) often look like this:

These are the old-school bars, and they still greatly outnumber new-school places.  You find icy cold beer in them, fake wood paneling, pool tables, and video poker machine (at least around here).  There are upscale bars where you can get cocktails, a few craft beer alehouses which look like brewpubs, which themselves look, usually, like restaurants.  You almost never find cask ale, though fish and chips have made the transition quite nicely.  The experience, as I can now attest, is wholly different.

But this is actually a cause for celebration.  The places people drink beer reflect the character of the country they're drinking them in.  The British create lush, loving environments for their drinking, a reflection on the unambiguous emotion they feel for their national drink.  In Belgium, beer is no less a ritual, but it's a different one.  Food is involved and, far more often than in British pubs, women.  There they drink their beer from bottles.  I have been furiously reading about Ron Pattinson's many journeys to Franconia and the Czech Republic, and will this November be able to experience how those countries drink beer.

The US is a puritan country.  Drinking beer remains a slightly disreputable act, and that's why pubs close in on themselves and offer no windows to see the shameful acts inside.  The shift to open-air drinking brought about by craft brewing is family-oriented and far more public--a welcome change.  But like so much in the US, it becomes an expression of "lifestyle" and acquires the trappings of a Sunset Magazine article.  We still haven't developed ritual or created spaces devoted to the act of drinking that express a wholesome relationship to the devil's water.  Perhaps that will come.

In any case, when you're in a Belgian cafe, an English pub, or an American bar, you're in a place where the country drinks.  Enjoy.

Now, just because I have this picture on my hard drive, I offer you a picture of Ted in his native environment.  He is accompanied in the photo by the Beeronomist and Ann Wedgwood of England's Hardknott Brewery.  That's former blogger Stonch's pub, the Gunmakers.


  1. 2 cents from a kid of ex-pats. No proper pub serves fish and chips. That is bought down the road from the chippie. Who wants the stink of fried food in the pub which should only reek of the wall of cigarette smoke?

    Also, cask ale is a modern phenomena and its requirement a fiction of CAMRA. It is preferred for sure. And a theoretical few may have a continuous offering of it through perhaps the Guinness genome. But pub vis pub was quite pubby without it even if it is improved by it.

  2. I really need to get working on Part the Third, in which I will state that I don't think a pub necessarily has to have real ale and fish and chips. There are other factors that make a pub a pub.

    And, that unflattering profile of me in the third picture is not a beer gut but rather my passport and cash hanging around my neck in a pouch. I'm trim and svelte under normal conditions.

  3. Much to agree with here, but then I'm an expat Oregonian and late-comer to proper pubs, only having visited the UK less than a dozen times in the last several years. You are spot on with the bit about drinking places being dens of iniquity in the puritan US, as well as how this has been changing with the new beer movement of the last few decades.

    I take exception to two tangential things though. First, why use the dopey marketeering term "craft brewing", when you could just as easily say "new brewing"? It's a new phenomenon, but are the megabreweries where Sam Adams and Widmer are brewed really "craft" operations?

    Second, why November? Change plans and come in September -- not for the utterly lame Oktoberfest and its undrinkably bland "beer", of course, but because it will still be Bierkellersaison in Franconia (good going on calling it its own country, BTW -- this will earn you bonus points whilst here), which is the single best thing about the local Bierkultur. Then again, November does have the Brau-Beviale do in Nürnberg.

  4. I suggest you add 'taprooms / taphouses' to your list of where Americans drink craft beer. For me, a taproom/taphouse [or tap room/tap house] is defined as a bar within a restaurant with at least [arbitrarily] 20 taps of craft/artisan beer. These 20 taps are exclusive of BMC variants and AB-InBev and MolsonCoors foreign and regional brands.

    RE: 'craft brewing' is well defined by the Brewers Association. Boston Beer Co. is a craft brewer. Widmer is disqualified; AB-InBev owns too much of Craft Brew Alliance, Inc.
    RE: 'new brewing', American craft brewery have been around for 20+ year; eg, Boulder Beer, est.1979. Merely a quarter+ of the post-Prohibition era; but, not new.
    .. There is a generation of beer drinker who have alway known American craft beer. Surprising on initial realization.

  5. Just my 2 penneth Alan, from someone who lives and drinks in the UK:

    1. Cask Ale is not a "modern phenomena".'Real Ale' IS a relatively modern concept and we get that you have an axe to grind with CAMRA, but conflating the two is disingenuous.

    2. "a theoretical few may have a continuous offering" This is misleading.
    Cask ale, good, bad and indifferent, is served in a great number of pubs, good, bad and indifferent.

    Within a half mile of my flat in a North Leeds suburb there are 8 pubs that I can think of. All of them have at least 4 cask lines alongside bottles and keg, a couple have 8. This does not include the bars in that area, some of which also have a cask line. I can't honestly remember the last pub I went in to that didn't have some sort of offering, however uninspired.

    Don't like anecdote? Look up the numbers for Greene King or Wetherspoons *hint* They all serve cask.

    I honestly don't know what to make of the "Guinness genome" perhaps you'd care to elaborate?

  6. Alan, I must have kept landing in improper pubs, then--fish and chips were everywhere. (Worst meal, by a mile, curry in an Edinburgh hotel. I asked for it.) I also echo others who point out the antiquity of cask ale--which, a thousand years ago, was all there was. In Britain and elsewhere.

    Ted, you're beautiful, babe.

    Erl, there's no winning on the "craft beer" debate. In North America, it's pretty accurate. Widmer's Gasthaus, for instance, is a great example of the modern restaurant-pub. (Their beer is also, aside from the volume it's brewed in, molecularly identical to craft beer made in smaller breweries. This is a thorny debate.)

    I may go in October. My visit will be dictated by my schedule, not Germany's (less than ideally, but there it is).

    Jack, on alehouses--agreed.

    Braukerl, thanks for the view on the ground.

  7. If you're passing through London on your way to the Continent in November we could have a pint at the Gunmakers. Wouldn't that be a hoot.

  8. @Jack R. -- really Erlangernick's 'new' brewing has been around for 35+ years (granted that's 20+, but so much more impressive), since New Albion Brewing Company, ets. 1976.

  9. Jeff
    RE: Alehouse v Taphouse
    To my disappoint, the number of 'results' of Google search significantly favors
    "ale house" over "tap house" [4.9X]
    "alehouse" over "taphouse" [1.8X].
    And, "alehouse [before 1100]" and "tap room [circa 1807]" are defined by; "taphouse' is not.

    Regardless, I suggest [some variation of] taphouse/taproom is more appropriate if the establishment purveys draught lagers and cider. YMMV

  10. @Jack R.

    I wouldn't limit "tap room" to being part of a restaurant. What about Anchor's famous tap room? Just a room with taps.

    And yes, I'm well aware that the industry group (not a consumer's group, if that's of interest to anyone) Craft Brewing Association or whatever they're called defines "craft beer" in a way that's convenient to them. The fact that Sam Adams is "craft" but Widmer ain't proves exactly my point.

    The idea of calling it "new beer" just occurred to me as I was writing the other day. It wasn't well thought through, and it actually sort of violates my own personal principle of many years: just call "our" beer 'beer' and the other North American industrial adjunct lager (NAIAL) 'industrial/crap beer'. Ours is what beer is meant to be, so call it what it is.

    Or call it "good beer". It's better than NAIAL, isn't it?

    OTOH, what happens if Alan Sprints decides to brew a Miller Lite clone? Is it "craft"? Is it all about brewer's intent? I know, the CBA would say it is, just because HotD meets their preferred business paradigm, regardless of what he brews. Or how.

    At any rate, Jeff, yes, I'm 20 years behind on this, but as a newly-hatched Ænglophile of sorts, I'm disappointed to see the term making such a ruckus in the UK. It has some use in the US, to differentiate "our" "new" beer from that other shite lager. But this doesn't really apply to the UK, where they've always had ale from small and/or private breweries aside from crap adjunct lager.

    Met up with Tim Webb last week on his bike tour across the continent, and he ALMOST had me convinced that the term is worthwhile in an English context. Almost.

    What's most mind-boggling to me is the question of whether XYZ cask ale can be "craft". Where I'm from, cask ale (regardless of whether it's really cask-conditioned or just keg ale run through a handpump) is ONLY produced by the new breed of brewers that would be the craftiest of all.

    And I'm not necessarily convinced that Greene King shouldn't be considerred "craft".

    But that's not what this post is about, is it?

    Wish I had a proper pub near me. A British one, but I'd take the Moon & Sixpence in a pinch if I could. Or even my old local, the Greenway.

  11. Or hell, call it "Oregon-style beer", since all beer brewed in Oregon is brewed at brewpubs, micro's, nano's, or grown-up micro's. That I could agree with and evangelise. Evangelize.

    (RIP Henry's.)

  12. Is this a good time to bring up the Beer Depot.

    This would have been a place to buy beer by the case and bring back your returnable bottles.

  13. Erlangernick, this is actually a topic I've discussed on the blog (try here for starters). I've discussed Greene King as well, though more fully in a discussion of Fuller's.

    The real issue is that the utility of "craft beer" in the US (still mostly intact) just can't be translated to countries that have breweries that are decades or hundreds of years old.