I tweeted this while on a recent holiday.
I was in Edinburgh and had asked a few locals I knew ‘Where should I go booze?’. Not really a new question. I like going new places, and I really like drinking in new places. What was different this time, that I’d never really done before, was add a caveat; ‘…must be an old, reliable pub.’ I’m paraphrasing there, but basically I was asking for an old boozer, a well established public house that maybe you’d walk past if you didn’t know about it. A place that does have a rotating number of cask beer, but the keg selection basically stays the same, as do a large chunk of the drinkers inside.
This stipulation was new.
Over the past years, as I’ve gone through my own craft beer journey (as arsey as that sounds) I’ve wanted the craftiest of craft places. Exposed brickwork, big bronze piping leading to bold lightbulbs, concrete bars, fucking endless uncomfortable chairs, picnic tables, 10-20-30 beers on tap, countless Phoebe Bridgers songs playing out; I wanted that. And god forbid there would be a taproom in an industrial estate, damn, now you’re talking. Get on Uber and lets go sit in a drafty brewery with one toilet. Heaven.
Going to new taprooms in new cities you felt like you had discovered a secret society. This is somewhere that is in all the cool online lists of places to go, but only a few people dare to try it (or care to read the blog). This is adventure, this is truly experiencing a new place. If you hadn’t walked 30mins staring at google maps to find it then you hadn’t earned the drink.
And I do still find that exciting. I do like leaving city centres and wandering around areas that I’d never usually have gone. Feeling lost until you see that hand drawn sandwich board, or one of the brewery vans parked out front. That sudden relief and feeling of slight triumph is great. I had that feeling on the holiday the above tweet was from when we left Lewes down a busy road, eventually making it to Beak Brewery. White cliffs overlooking us, and pizza just about to be ready to order. Aye give us 2/3rds of Popple please, we’ve earned it.
On that holiday though, we also ventured out of cities to a few more taprooms. Taprooms we had never been to before. We left the centres, walked through residential areas, entered industrial estates, found the tell-tale signs of a taproom, got that excitement as we walked up. And yeah, they were taprooms. The brewery was there, the food truck was there, and we sat down with our beer and it all felt familiar in a very familiar way.
In the two taprooms I have in mind, they were cold (one outside, one basically outside), uncomfortable (sat under a big umbrella out of the rain, scaffold benches) and the beer just wasn’t that good. Definitely not bad, but when you’re looking up where to go next after a few sips it aint a promising sign.
This has happened fairly regularly over the past few years. That formula for a craft bar or a taproom has been molded into something thats possibly becoming a parody of itself. They hit a point a few years ago (mostly mimicking what they saw in America or in Brewdog) and don’t seem to have progressed much. The idea of a craft beer bar seems more like a sales pitch to customers rather than an attempt at showcasing independent beer.
Amazing taprooms and bars open every week though, just look at the Track Taproom, or Broad St. Social. Curated spaces that are comfortable, inviting and serve really good beer. Places that push drinking spaces forward; like Rivvy Tap, or bring in a euro feel to a modern UK bar; like Brownhill & Co., are out there. They are just getting harder to find in the crowd.
Which brings me to why I asked for old pub recommendations on that recent holiday. I wanted comfort and consistency and pissed up regulars and a line up of beers they’ve been serving for years. I want a local institution. Maybe a fire too, or a dartboard. Cushioned seats and copper topped tables. Bliss.
Maybe I’m just that jaded craft beer nerd now. Maybe I reached my 30s and realised I was a soft get who needed back support and more than one option of bar snack.
Or maybe its because pubs have something intrinsic in them that draws you in. Hearing older relatives tell tale after tale about being down the pub when they were younger, maybe you start seeing yourself in that role as you grow up. ‘Oh yeah, when I was your age, I was down at this taproom…’ will definitely be something I bore someone with in a few years, but will it have the same ring to it? Probably, aye. But for me, I want to sit in a place with a bit of history and have a 4% cask pale that maybe isn’t changing the world, but is consistently satisfying
Not all pubs are like this obviously, thats why you ask locals, so they can steer you in the right direction.
Kay’s Bar in Edinburgh was one such direction I was sent in and it ticked every box I wrote about a few paragraphs ago. Bangin’ cask that was kept beautifully (I started with a pint of Jarl), cushioned seats, snug areas, drunk locals talking about other drunk locals. The staff were friendly and seemed to care about the beer, including changing a beer for me when they were unsure about the taste. They welcomed us back (we went three times in two days) gave us whisky recommendations, had a chat, the toilet smelt vaguely of urinal cakes and bleach, it was just great.
You can get all those positive things in bars and taps, but perhaps my drinking tastes have changed. Where once I was all about the beer, the hunt for that special release or collab. That need to check it in and move on to the next new one. Now I’m looking for spaces that I enjoy. Spaces that serve beer to a high standard, that maybe isn’t the newest on trend style or brewery, but is drinkable and will help me relax and settle into a place I feel comfortable in, or even a place I feel at home in.
Words and pictures by Ross