Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 1999
* It Hasn't Been All Bad *
This month sees my fortieth birthday and therefore the completion of twenty-two years of (legal) drinking. Some of you might have imagined I was getting on for twice that age, but that ain't so, and I think the glowing reference last year to "More Than A Feeling" by Boston (possibly the finest rock'n'roll song of all time?) dates me fairly precisely. To mark the occasion, rather the usual grumbles and criticisms, I will reflect (in strictly alphabetical order) on some of the positive developments during that time.
The ridiculous mid-afternoon closing period, which dated back to the days of Lloyd George, has been swept away, even on Sundays. There have been no drunken riots in the streets, daytime drinking is far more civilised, and many pubs in all sorts of locations do well out of it. Allied to this, we finally saw the end of Sunday closing in Wales - pubs in every part of the Principality can now open all day, every day, thus removing one of the last vestiges of 19th-century prohibitionist legislation.
Civilised Pubs. Although sometimes at the cost of traditional interiors, in general pubs are far more welcoming, clean and pleasant than they used to be. The raw, dirty, threatening boozer is largely a thing of the past, and that must be a good thing, particularly for women, families and older people.
Guest Beers. In a large proportion of pubs, you now have the expectation of getting something different to the standard range of beers, and that the choice will change over time. This may sometimes lead to too many beers on the bar, but it's better than having to like or lump the unchanging products of a single brewer, and it increases the overall level of interest in beer.
Micro Breweries. I may have criticised those who concentrate on them at the expense of everything else, but they have produced many brilliant beers, made all the better by not having to compromise to satisfy a mass market. The world would be a poorer place without the likes of Hartington Best Bitter and St Arnold. In particular, they have been largely responsible for introducing the distinctive style of dangerously drinkable strong pale ales such as Summer Lightning and Porter's Sunshine, which have been my downfall more than once!
Returning Beer. In general, nowadays, if you have a cloudy or vinegary pint, it will be changed promptly without fuss. Responses from bar staff such as "Real ale's meant to be like that" or "Have you drunk much Crudgington 6X?" are now very rare.
Robinsons and Holts. I've always been a strong supporter of independent family brewers, but I will particularly salute two of our local favourites: Robinson's for their determination to plough their own furrow with scant regard for passing trends, their beers, which at their rare best can be superb, and the fact that a Robinson's pub is still, almost without exception, a proper pub; Holts for their amazing prices, their uncompromising, no-nonsense approach to business, and the very high standard of their recent new pubs, although their beer has not been all it should in the past few years.
Supermarkets. The choice of quality bottled beers, both British and imported, available in supermarkets today would have been thought quite incredible in 1977. British micro brewers are well represented, and there's a growing number of bottle-conditioned products. The diehard pub men may cavil, but it's a fact of life that people with an interest in distinctive beers are increasingly going to be buying them at Tesco and Sainsbury's, as they do with wine.
Wetherspoons. They're not perfect, far from it, but they have proved that you can develop a thriving business running what basically are proper, civilised pubs which give a high priority to customer service and value, and appeal to all age groups. The creation by other pub operators of copycat chains is testimony to the soundness of the concept.
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