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Monday, 7 July 2014

Crap Beer - it's the future

Friday, late afternoon. Stranded in Chesterfield waiting for The Beer Widow, who is attempting to come up the M1 from London to meet me before we go on to the Great Peak Weekender at Thornbridge. The journey will eventually take her seven hours (it should take no more than three), so sitting in Chesterfield station's dispiriting concourse isn't an option. 

I follow signs to the town centre and walk for about ten minutes without seeing a single shop, pub, restaurant or commercial premises of any description. I'm dragging a suitcase. It starts to rain, hard, and I'm getting desperate. There is no one on the streets: it's like 28 Days Later, only less pleasant.

Eventually a find a pub. In the window it advertises a 'wide range of cask ales'. I smile to myself and go in. On the bar there are just two handpumps: one serving Doom Bar, the other Greene King IPA. But there's a half pint glass over the GK pump, so my 'wide range' consists of Doom Bar. As I occasionally do at times like this, I order a pint of Kronenbourg. It's utterly undrinkable, so I drag my suitcase back into the rain.

A little further down the street, I spy a Marston's logo outside another pub, the Crooked Spire. Oh well, a pint of Pedigree will do. I walk in. Once again, there are just two handpumps on the bar. They look like they haven't been used for some time. It's not that the pumpclips are turned around: there are no pumpclips at all. The keg fonts are Budweiser, Becks Vier, Strongbow.

"Do you have any cask ale?" I ask.

"No," replies the barman. 

"Do you have any Marston's beers at all?" I follow up.

He just shakes his head. 

For only the second time in recent memory, I say apologetically that I'll have to try somewhere else because there's nothing on the bar I want to drink.

I walk a little further, starting to feel desperate, and finally I find the Blue Bell, advertising not just cask ales, but also craft beers on a permanent sign just outside the door. Relieved, I go inside.

The whole pub stinks of BO. Undeterred, I walk to the bar. Here is the standard selection of two handpumps: this time Hobgoblin and Jenning's Cumberland Ale. The weighty pump clips suggest they are permanent and unchanging. I look along the bar for the craft keg fonts. Finding none, I scan the fridges, but there's only Bud, Becks, Bulmer's and Koppaberg.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" asks the very friendly barmaid.

"There’s a sign outside saying you sell craft beer," I reply.

She looks confused. "Sorry?"

"Craft Beer?"

"What? CRAP beer?"

"No, CRAFT beer."

"Oh. What’s that?"

"There’s a sign by the door saying you sell it."

"I’m sorry love, I don't even know what craft beer is. I've never heard of it."

"I think they mean that," says one of the regulars at the bar, pointing to the Hobgoblin. 

But that would come under cask ale. They say they sell both craft beer and cask ale outside, I want to say. But I'm too confused. Could it be that someone who works here has never read the signage outside the front door? And why is it there anyway? 

"I'll have a pint of Kronenbourg thanks."


Over an excellent weekend at Thornbridge, I'm informed by many people that Chesterfield has some brilliant pubs selling a fantastic range of beers. I have absolutely no reason to doubt them. I just managed to pick a very unlucky route through the town centre.

On our way back home on Sunday, we decide to try again, and find a nice country pub on the outskirts of the city that advertises food served from 12 noon to 3.30pm. It's now 2.30pm. The pub is about half full - certainly not busy.

"I'm sorry, we've run out of food," says the bar person.

"What, no food left at all?"

"No, absolutely none." 

Some pubs simply don't deserve to stay in business. And I really need to get my pub radar fixed.


The Beer Nut said...

A very high proportion of Ireland's pubs advertise something along the lines of "Fine Ales, Stouts and Porters" on the outside. The vast majority offer no such thing at the bar.

Deeko said...

Grim, unbearably grim. Sadly I can recount the same story several times over during my own random outings. I admire the stamina to carry on to the next and try again, slightly deflated but with a determined optimism. Craft is out there..... somewhere.

Cooking Lager said...

sounds like a duff day out.

Get yourself the spoons app on your phone. That's all you need.

Richard Mackney said...

Reading this and an all too familiar memory of my family and I visiting new towns came to mind - usually touring the UK and not knowing what pubs to try. I used to actually think I'd struck gold if I found Doom Bar or Cask Marque.

I'd like to hope those days are now gone (for me) because of using mobile apps to find what's on locally. I still tour the UK on holiday and find that one of the best features of Untappd is to see what's actually being drunk, and where. I like that it's not a pub database - It's a live rating system that changes daily depending what's on. I now use it in every new town I visit and also at home when I want to see what my locals have recently stocked (I have good locals in Amber Valley).

For food I turn to the TripAdvisor app and I make sure I rate a pub well if the service and food is good. Your experience of the craft beer sign and no food is absolutely shocking and I hope that someone takes the time to rate these places accordingly so that I may avoid them :)

StringersBeer said...

Some pubs that need to shut down?

Wyreman said...

Enjoyed your talk at Thornbridge and liked the way you continued to to carry on whilst a group of children attempted to distract everyone turning cartwheels etc!!!Its Rare to find a landlord that's a good business man and is a beer lover and vice a versa. Its going to be the survival of the fittest with new pubs/bars opening who have switched on to changing tastes. I was impressed at the number of younger ale/craft beer fans at the Thornbridge bash glad to see they're spreading the gospel up there!

Anonymous said...

This is only about five minutes' walk from the station. Don't you have a smartphone?

Pete Brown said...

Anon, I saw that place while driving back through town yesterday. I almost cried. I do have a smartphone and from now on I will rely on that instead of the totally bogus idea I had whole writing Three Sheers to the Wind that I have some kind of good pub radar.

Cookie - I did finally find the Spoons (using my smartphone), and for as long as they're selling cans of Bengali Tiger at £1.99 Spoons my go to destination in any unfamiliar town.

Deeko said...

Serendipity is still worth a shot though from time to time, without it we wouldn't have these entertaining posts to read ;)

Cooking Lager said...

there is an urban myth that some spoons are discounting 'em to 99p Pete to get shut of short dated stock as you are the only guy necking them.

Andrea Waterhouse said...

What a shame. You missed the White Swan, The Rutland, the Market and the Chesterfield Alehouse. All are excellent pubs in the town centre and a couple of which you were right next to when you picked the bad pubs.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

‘only guy necking them’ — not so, I’m making a good try at it at the Spoons in Tiverton

sophieatherton said...

How AWFUL! With all the progress that's been made over the last decade or so this sounds like a tale from The Dark Days of Beer - which for me was the early 1990s and turning to Scrumpy Jack (!) rather than the mankiest tasting cask ale some pubs would try and sell me. It's like we're going two steps forward and one step back with beer at the mo. Sigh.

T_i_B said...

How on earth did you manage to miss the outstanding White Swan pub right by the crooked spire?

Or the Rutland Arms, also very good, also right by the crooked spire.

And then there's the Chesterfield Alehouse (micro pub), Tramway Tavern, Barlow Tap House, Reale Ale Corner (real ale off-licence with a couple of cask ales for good measure) and Rose & Crown all en route to Bakewell on the Brampton Mile. Chesterfield is not short of good pubs.

Anonymous said...

should have walked up to the chesterfield arms 2mins away from these pubs, 12-16 real ales, 4 craft beers, 5 real ciders also draught available...
great atmosphere, helpful and friendly staff with a great outside area.
what more could you want!

Phil said...

Fake or abandoned 'real ale' signage is a bete noire of Manchester CAMRA branches. That pub in Chesterfield's ahead of the game with its fake 'craft beer' sign!

Bad news on the JDW's front, though - there are still Spoons selling the Sixpoint cans without any discount at all, i.e. £2.99 or two for a fiver. (I saw a pub in Hartlepool where the 'guest ales' were going for £1.55 a pint; the £2.99 cans were flying out... not.) And there are quite a few Spoons where the cask selection makes you long for a Hobgoblin.

I was in a Spoons the other day with six (count 'em) cask beers - Exmoor Gold, GK IPA, Abbot, Ruddles, Doom Bar, and a 'house' beer brewed by the awful Coach House. I had the Exmoor Gold - which might have had a good name 30 years ago, but nowadays is just bland - then went for the Bengali Tiger. Nice drop, too, but £2.99 for 355 ml - dear me.

Dean Darley said...

A two minute walk away from what is I agree a crappy pub the Blue Bell are two great Real Ale pubs The Rutland and The White Swan and just over a five minute walk to The Market and The Chesterfield Arms also fantasic Ale pubs serving a wide range of local and world ales.
Most towns I've been to have a few gems for ale drinkers but they can be hard to find just don't believe all the signs on pubs there's a ton that say fun pub and I've been in a few but never had that much fun

Dean Darley said...

A two minute walk away from what is I agree a crappy pub the Blue Bell are two great Real Ale pubs The Rutland and The White Swan and just over a five minute walk to The Market and The Chesterfield Arms also fantasic Ale pubs serving a wide range of local and world ales.
Most towns I've been to have a few gems for ale drinkers but they can be hard to find just don't believe all the signs on pubs there's a ton that say fun pub and I've been in a few but never had that much fun

Becky Morgan said...

How can you specialise in pubs, beer and cider when you don't even research the place you're in? Surely it's common sense? Sorry, I can't feel sorry for you that you ended up in a crap pub. It's just a shame that through lack of research or a quick look on google you missed out on an opportunity to go to some of the fabulous ale pubs in Chesterfield. Chesterfield Arms, White Swan, Tramway, Tap House...the list goes on. Maybe do some research before you make judgements! When I go somewhere I've never been before I read up on it so I know what pubs, places to eat, things I want to do and have directions to get them before I go. Not impressed!

Pete Brown said...

Steady on, Becky!

I wasn't planning on being in Chesterfield for longer than twenty minutes - that's why I didn't read up on it and research it. I was just looking for somewhere to wait for a bit and get out of the rain, not trying to write a detailed critique of the town's real ale scene

It's a shame you missed the self-effacing tone of the post - and the real point of it. These awful pubs happened to be in Chesterfield, but pubs like them are everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Me and my mates have drank spoons in Dundee dry of Bengali tiger now. Gutting.

Craft beer and cask conditioned ales is the new "selection of ales and fine wines" to be plastered up any old place.

Cooking Lager said...

No one plans to be in Chesterfield longer than 20 minutes, Pete.

But sometimes life goes wrong.

Conan the Librarian™ said...

The White Lady in Corstorphine still has some Bengali Tiger, because I only discovered it last week...

Anonymous said...

In the age of modern technology, how on earth do you not have any beer apps! Or even a hard copy of the Good Beer Guide? You really only have yourself to blame here!

Becky Morgan said...

If you had a old Nokia or something I might think what I wrote was a bit harsh. However, I'm pretty sure you had a smartphone so you could have googled 'ale pubs in chesterfield' and used google maps to walk to one of them (a five minute walk or less to the nearest). Just looking at some of the comments here quite a few people are hinting at the same thing..

Gary Gillman said...

Points are well taken. Since beer is the staple offering of a pub, any pub should know what it is selling, offer a decent range, and ensure the beer is sold in top condition. Urquell or Budweiser Budvar, or a good German lager, can make up for a lack of good cask beer if fresh and served hygienically. But there needs to be interest in it and the trend seems the other way. This makes the need to check and research ever more important, yes, but that wasn't the point here: one should be able to drop in to any pub in the realm and find something good and of which the pub is proud to offer. Those days are past, IMO.

Also, reading this makes one pine for the days when most pubs carried bottle-conditioned Guinness. How Guinness was able to drop that and convince pubs to buy the bland keg draft is one of the great mysteries. The company had the chance to retain it and position it the way SAB Miller does Pilsner Urquell, it would have boosted the company's fortunes IMO and reinforced sales of the draft. They did it before the consciousness of craft beer took hold in the U.K. and Ireland (The Republic must be included as we see from Martyn Cornell's last blog entry). But it's not too late to reverse gears on this, Diageo. Two things need to happen: return of naturally-conditioned Guinness Extra Stout, and the same for Guinness FES.


Reuben Gray said...

Sam Parker and Myself came across something similar in Innerleithen, Scotland last year. We couldn't wait to get out of town and back to Traquair house. That said, the Traquair Arms hotel had a Traquair beer on cask as well as Landlord so it wasn't a complete wasteland.

Tyson said...

Unlucky but it's easy to say "use a smartphone" after the event so I won't go down that route. Still as far as I know you are the first to come across this-unfortunately misleading-craft/cask signage.

Paul Smith said...

Writer, consultant and broadcaster? Expert on real ale? Couldn't find yourself a decent beer in Chesterfield? P A T H E T I C

Pete Brown said...

Oh, Paul, did you stop taking your medication?

I DID eventually find good beer in Chesterfield. But in case you misread it, this post is not about that. It's not a comprehensive review of every place that sells beer in that particular town. It is not a guide to the real ale pubs of Chesterfield. It is a comment, based on experience, about the lies shit pubs tell punters which, if you read the less hysterical comments here, you will see strikes a chord with people who have had similar experiences all around the country.

Sorry if you think I'm a fraud because I didn't have in depth knowledge of every pub in a city I've never been to before. Obviously I must try harder. In the meantime, I think you might find the comments section on the Daily Mail more to your liking than this blog.

Motor said...

When traveling, it's often fun to wander and see what you find, not set a precise agenda for each spot. It's sad when you later find that you missed something, but it's not life and death. The random finds on a wander outshine those that suck.

I understand that the point of the story was that many pubs everywhere lie (or don't understand that they are lying) about their offerings.

Cooking Lager said...

The point probably goes more for food than it does beer. That if you do a little research Blighty has many quality establishments. Pick places at random and you discover there is a lot of crap out there.

How many other European countries have this? Most European cities you find decent quality stuff chosen at random. The bottom level isn't quite as low as it is in Britain.

Is it Pete fault he didn't google the town he was in?

Personally, I think it's all the fault of Labour, lefties and Ed Milliband.

Dave Bailey said...

I have a smart phone. Often when I want it to give me information the bandwidth appears to be lacking. This appears to be especially true when in a strange town and I need, NEED, Google maps to just damn well work.

The place it works worst seems to be London. Works real well in The Lakes, providing there is a signal at all. My theory is that sheep don't use much bandwidth.

Anonymous said...

Odd that you accuse one responder of being like the comments section of the Daily Fail Pete, as a few people who've read this have commented that this article come across a bit like a Daily Fail hatchet job on Chesterfield.

Becky Morgan said...

I completely get your article Pete. I'll move away from my point about using smartphones. Chesterfield is a medium sized town like Wakefield, Barnsley and many others in both the north and south. The majority of pubs in the heart of these town centres don't sell real ale because people like us, here, discussing this article are not their customers. There is no point pubs like that stocking ale because it's expensive and it won't sell. They are the pubs that stock cheap lager, drinks such as WKD Blue and cheap spirits because that's what their customers drink. Their trade is Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights. Ale is a 'trendy' thing at the moment and a growth area and places will jump on the bandwagon just to put the words 'craft ale/cask beer' on a sign if they think it will bring in more customers. This is obviously appalling! This is the reason why I look before I go into any pub whether it be in a town, country village or a city. I'm glad these type of pubs exist because otherwise the type of people that frequent these pubs would end up coming into the pubs I/we like. Keep them open I say!

Saying all that. I'm glad you did find a good pub in the end in Chesterfield. I'm definitely tempted to go to the very awful Bluebell with a permanent marker and scribble out that sign!

AmberPete said...

all to familiar! And not just Chesterfield...

David Nicholls said...

Really pisses me off when I go anywhere that purports to sell something and then tell you they haven't got it.

Went into a village pub once and tried to order a very ordinary meal, and was told in a very customer unfriendly way that they were out of the of the key ingredients which were mushrooms.

At which point I pointed out that as mushrooms are quite exotic and rare I completely understood, and then promptly left the premises.

Ben Viveur said...

Most pubs are crap.

A significant proportion are really fucking crap.

We tend to forget this because most of the time we go to pubs we know are good or actively seek out recommendations for good 'uns - a confirmation bias that makes us think that the totality of all pubs and all beer is a lot better than it actually is.

Pick a random pub in a random town, and it's really unlikely that the beer will be any good.

Whosisbrew said...


That was the sound of this post going over everybody's heads.

Jim said...

Your beer blog is on the Casque Mark app for iPhone (which is how I found it). I use that all the time to find a decent pint in an unfamiliar town. Occasionally it lets me down but not very often. I take the point of the article but Chesterfiled has some great pubs and good beer. Use the force Paul ( electronic) and you shouldn't go far wrong

Tinshed Brewery said...

Hopefully you'll like our beer instead! We're a new micro-brewery opening in Kimbolton, please check out our Facebook page

Professor Pie-Tin said...

Imagine Chesterfield was a country and what you've got is Ireland.
Entire towns with exactly the same beer menu - lager,lager,stout,stout,Bulmers and Smithwicks.
And no food.
Fortunately the good folk at Beoir.Org regularly update the small but slowly growing number of pubs that buck the trend and stock something different.
And 'Spoons have finally beached their real ale landing craft on these shores.
Hope springs eternal but Chesterfield we'll remain for a little longer.

J Mark Dodds said...

Pete you know this. Those pubs you went into were tied Pete. That's why they were shit pubs selling a short range of beers.

You know about the Great British Pubco Scam. Have you written about it recently? Did you get wind of the legislation announced in the Queen's Speech? Do your readers?

It's what is all about. Fair Deal are switched on, if a bit polite about the massive white collar cultural crime which is pubco's asset stripping pubs all over the UK and blaming it on everyone but themselves, for every reason under the sun from smoking ban to red tape, changing consumer habits to being 'over pubbed' to beer duty, vat, business rates, the price of aluminium, wet weather, crap football teams, the price of Sky to there being too many shit publicans (people the pubco's vet hard before they rent a pub to them) - basically blaming everyone and anything while missing out the key FACTOR in the equation which is the pubco's charge too much rent and double open market prices for supplies, making their pubs unviable for the people they rent them to but very profitable for the pubco's. This is it.

The Great British Pubco Scam is what underlies the dreadful fears everyone in Britain has about going to new towns and unfamiliar territory without research or a local heads up for where the good pubs are. Without research you can expect to get bad pubs.

Pubcos' rent out pubs to tenants, saying they're looking for 'partners' to take over a 'great business opportunity' and they charge stupd rent saying there's loads of support that comes with it 'buying power and experience of decades of running the biggest and best pub estate in Britain' (they all say the same things) then rip the publicans off, selling them beer at double freemarket wholesale prices, until the publicans go bankrupt. As this is happening the publicans discover it's IMPOSSIBLE to make a living out of the business they put EVERYTHING into and they go into denial and then they get scared. There's nothing they can do. Their pubs get run down, the publicans get depressed, trapped in a downward spiral of not enough profit to invest in the business, and unable to make improvements to the pub which leads to even less profits and turns to losses they cannot stop, no matter how hard they work or how many hours a week they work without holidays all year, every year. They become exhausted, they can see no future, they they give up hope, their pubs become more and more run down, the beer choice worse and worse as they only order the cheapest from the pubco, the pubs become graveyards, their customers abandon them for better appointed, better looked after pubs that sell better beers at better prices and offer better value, the publicans go bankrupt, the publicans hand the keys back to the pubco or get evicted. The pubco rents the pub to another publican and the process begins again. Churn. Pub industry churn.

The pubs become so run down no one is stupid enough to risk renting it again and the pubco sells it to Tesco.



Anonymous said...

Because of course the reason so many Irish pubs have a poor beer range is that they're all owned by pubcos.

Pietro said...

I have never been in the last pub mentioned, so I cannot judge your "review". I don't know if your "Some pubs simply don't deserve to stay in business." was referred to both of them, but I can tell for sure that a pub is not only about beer. I have been just yesterday in "the Blue Bell" due to an open mic night hosted there. It was my first time there. I had a great time, playing with different kind of people who were very friendly with me despite of being a foreigner. Personally, I haven't find a better place than that until now in Chesterfield, speaking about the overall experience. What I am sure about is the fact that it's not up to you to decide who deserves to stay in business and who doesn't, because a business activity is not only about the product sold but about the overall experience offered. I can understand the fact that you have your specific opinion as beer expert and stuff, but again, judging an entire drawing for a wrong line is just synonym of ignorance.

Dave Pickersgill said...

Pete - after all the above, I assume you're going to the Chesterfield BF in February 2015 - assuming you've got a ticket for the Friday evening, I am more than happy to meet you mid aft & do a tour of interesting pubs no more than 10 mins walk from the station - we can then get to the Winding Wheel just after opening time