Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 1996

* Must Try Harder *

Since they opened, the two Wetherspoon's pubs in Manchester have come in for quite a lot of criticism in the pages of "OT", most of it, in my experience, justified at least to some extent. Yet surely the problem with Wetherspoon's is that they're aiming to do many of the right things, but often falling some way short of perfection. There are plenty of places which are infinitely worse - the two bars in Stockport's Grand Central complex, for example - but which haven't attracted anything like the same amount of flak, because we just take it for granted they have no redeeming features.

After all, a pub chain which offers a range of real ales, permanently low prices, rotating guest beers, regular beer festivals, traditional cider, all-day opening, decent food served all day, no-smoking areas, disabled access and no piped music, is doing most of the things CAMRA campaigns for. There's room for improvement, certainly, but basically they're on the right lines. The number of people using their pubs clearly shows there's a big demand for city-centre drinking in a quiet, comfortable and non-threatening atmosphere.

If they improved the training of their staff, did something to liven up their regular range of beers (perhaps by striking deals with regional independents) and put in some more bench-type seating to break up the large open spaces, there'd be very little indeed to grumble about.

* Spotting the Danger *

Until now, beer-spotting has seemed a fairly harmless (although occasionally irritating) hobby, which gives a few social inadequates an aim in life. But there's a risk that, if pubs pander too much to the spotters, they will end up alienating the majority of drinkers. Real ale is something to be enjoyed every day, not an obscure specialist interest. Most pub customers, I'm sure, prefer to see on the bar something they might have tasted, or at least heard of before, or if they haven't, something they might have the chance to try again if they like it.

When recently on holiday in Devon, I went in a free house where the choice of real ales was a national brand and some weird and sickly seasonal beer from Batemans (that well-known West Country brewery from Lincolnshire). No doubt the licensee felt he was doing drinkers a favour, but wouldn't most people have been happier to see a brew from one of the excellent local micros like Cotleigh or Exmoor, or even one of Batemans' regular beers such as XB or Valiant? You can hardly blame the locals for sticking to keg bitter with a lemonade top.

* The Real Ale Fitness Plan *

A passionate interest in real ale doesn't immediately spring to mind as an element of a "healthy" lifestyle. Yet the saving grace for the fitness of the dedicated imbiber is often the fact that his hobby is not one that can be responsibly pursued from behind the wheel of a car. Even making full use of public transport, they end up walking long distances in pursuit of the amber nectar, thus getting plenty of the sustained aerobic exercise that is supposed to be so good for you. I've come across a number of people who don't remotely resemble members of the Gladiators, and yet can set a cracking pace for miles, which would leave many self-styled sportsmen gasping in their wake. There is far more to fitness than just a single stereotype.

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