Indisputably, England’s (and indeed the United Kingdom’s) beer scene is the most diverse and interesting in the world. Focusing on unusual styles of ale and a format of serving not commonly found anywhere else. It may be a consequence of being an island country with a long period in the year of damp, cold weather, but English beer drinkers still enjoy thick brown bitter ale served via gravity pulled cask. The distinct flavour and texture makes it a standout from most other countries.
Pub going was almost inevitable given the cultural inheritance of the country, as for a long period brewing was a safer way of drinking clean water, and the only brewing that made sense was on a large scale. People had more beer than they could drink, so invited people to drink it, even started selling it to other people. The connections were fostered ever more deeply until the emergence of taverns, beer competitions and the development of different techniques and standards which helped innovate and create new styles.
Even today visiting a true English pub gives you an umbilical connection to nascent pub-going centuries ago.
Unfortunately, the evolution of the scene has also meant lots of these ‘free houses’ were swallowed up by expanding breweries who were able to dictate terms to their now employees. These breweries were also subsumed into parent companies whose interests were in distribution and lowering manufacturing costs to deliver greater profits to their shareholders. This in turn made it hard for landlords to run their pub at a profit, or even to decide how their pub was to be run.
We have a situation now where many historic pubs are run and owned by chains who may at turns see the value in the heritage, but have hollowed out the community inside by standardising their offerings and creating the ‘chain pub’ feel. Sadly many city and town offerings are chain pubs whose concerns are chiefly about making a safe reliable place to go, even if that means mediocrity written long. We wrote about this in a feature article, ‘The Importance of being Distinctive‘.
The counter-reaction to this process has been the scene of Craft Beer, which has been a much needed shot in the arm reversing the process of awful macro brewed lagers reducing the choice and quality of beers and helped bring a wider audience into drinking different flavours they wouldn’t otherwise have considered. It was hoped this would help foster a renaissance in the traditional pub going scene, but this unfortunately has not happened.
Craft brewing has instead decided it wishes to operate in a niche, not only competing with macro-brewing but competing against real ale, meaning cask real ale, the premier product of England is further sidelined. Craft Beer breweries are savagely effective at marketing at young audiences, far more so than the likes of Budweiser and Heineken even, and unless there is a genuine concerted effort by craft breweries to make thick bitter cask ale in the English tradition, even this potential panacea will be lost.
In the drive to make families return to pubs many publicans have taken the decision to turn their pubs into sterile bland places which look like they have come from Laura Ashley catalogues with beige print wallpaper and sofa seating, and gourmet burgers that cost £13.95. Even on this front the traditional English pub in town and country is under attack.
There is a real danger that the art and knowledge of what makes an outstanding pub will be lost, or driven to obscurity. Every time someone decides a pub needs redecorating it is under threat. All it takes is one very foolish man or woman to destroy a century of character.
However, it is not all negative. The surviving traditional English pubs prosper not just because of their antiquity but because of their inherent quality. There are so many varieties, niches within niches too that it can be hoped that these are all captured for posterity and maintained, or even revived.
England is full of diverse places to drink: country inns, market taverns, station pubs, craft beer taprooms, brewpubs, micro-pubs, luncheon bars, gin palaces and – of course – the neighbourhood local.
The core identity is of the proud, whiskered-cheeked old man in the corner quietly sipping his bitter ale.
All the venues we have visited in England and rated 7.5/10 or higher!
Ratings Key (0-10)
Bars marked with (*) will take you to our full profile write-up