Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 2014

* A Bitter Triumph *

Let’s hope the award given to Taylor’s Boltmaker leads to a revival of “ordinary bitter”

IT WAS GOOD NEWS on two counts that CAMRA’s 2014 Champion Beer of Britain award went to Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker – both that it was won by a long-established family brewer, and that the winning beer was one in the “ordinary bitter” category that often seems to be sadly underappreciated nowadays. Some years ago, Boddington’s used the advertising slogan “If you don’t get Boddies’, you’ll just get bitter”. Well, you won’t get Boddies’ any more, at least in cask form, but in a growing number of pubs you won’t get bitter either.

Yes, if you go into a tied pub of one of the independent family brewers, or Greene King or Marston’s, you will probably still find a beer on the bar in the 3.6% - 4.0% strength range describing itself as “Bitter”, and most new micros have at least one in their range. But in the vast majority of pub company outlets, or any “free house” that isn’t a specialist beer pub, you’re likely to be confronted by three or four of the widely-distributed premium ale brands such as Doom Bar, Cumberland Ale, Bombardier, Wainwright and London Pride, which are in a slightly higher strength – and price – band. “Ordinary bitter” is conspicuous by its absence.

Indeed, very often the standard ale in these pubs is a smoothflow offering such as Worthington, John Smith’s or the dreaded nitro Boddington’s, while cask beer is reserved for the discerning “premium” customer with his deep pockets. Yet, to pack so much flavour and variety into beers of such modest strength is arguably one of the greatest achievements of British brewing. And, at a time when high pub prices are a constant source of complaint and we are being urged to curb our alcohol consumption, making a wider variety of ordinary bitters available would help both our wallets and our livers. Let’s hope that the victory of Boltmaker leads to a revival of interest in what for decades was the staple beer of British pubs.

* Scattered in the Plough *

Scatter cushions are a pointless, fussy attempt to make pubs seem more “female-friendly”

THE LATEST bizarre interior design feature to appear in pubs is a proliferation of scatter cushions, which once you’d be more likely to find in your gran’s front lounge. They’ve appeared in a number of Robinson’s recent refurbishments, and they’ve even cropped up in Wetherspoon’s. And, not content with colonising the lounge side, they’ve started spreading to the vault!

The idea, I suppose, is to make pub interiors seem more female-friendly by introducing a cosy, homely, design element. But in practice nobody ever derives any comfort from them, and they just end up being chucked on the floor to free up more seating space. Surely it is appropriate for the “public” side at least to have an understated, functional, even austere design ethos of a somewhat masculine character, rather than being bedecked with fancy fripperies. And isn’t it somewhat patronising to women to imagine that they will be tempted into pubs by the introduction of fussy, chintzy soft furnishings that serve no practical purpose?

* Pile 'em High *

Where do all these peculiar pub trends come from?

IT’S FUNNY how these odd little innovations seem to sweep across the pub trade without any obvious prompting. Another one, which is trivial in itself, is putting beermats in a little pile in the middle of tables rather than spreading them out. Maybe this saves the bar staff a tiny amount of work, but it can’t have evolved independently in a thousand different pubs – the idea must have come from somewhere. You start to wonder whether there is some kind of periodical called “Daft Pub Trends” that licensees read and then slavishly follow.

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