IT’S an awkward question, but an occupational hazard. Do you tell the brutal truth, or do you deflect, wriggle, spin and resolutely refuse to answer? Should you reveal your sources, expose your confidants, upset the locals?
This job undoubtedly has its advantages; the occasional case of beer delivered to the front door, the invitation to visit a brewery somewhere abroad, and the liquid lunch on expenses (somebody else’s), but those pale into insignificance when you’re asked the dreaded question. What’s your favourite beer? This is quickly followed by the second hammer blow; what’s your favourite pub?
The queries always land while you’re in the company of brewers and publicans; friends you have developed over the years; the business contacts you have built up; the trusting and trusted people who fall silent to listen to your reply. Your opinions count, they say; they respect your judgment and they all want to hear their own beer/pub/brewery get a glowing report – it’s human nature, after all – but in this questionable situation, can you really be blunt, candid and frank, or is this the time for dodging, hedging and stalling?
The question was asked the other week at a beer banquet in London. Tell us about your favourite pub; where, why and what? The slick answer is, of course, “it depends who’s asking”; the truth is, I don’t have one. Deflect. Well, I do, but there are different reasons for preferring one over the other. Wriggle. There are some I have fallen in love with for their architecture and others I adore for their all-embracing ambience. Spin. Some serve superb beer brilliantly. Sidestep. Some aren’t particularly pretty but there is certain style to what they achieve. Fudge.
Where do you begin? Not in the North-East, for a start. We have some fabulous pubs in Newcastle, Sunderland, Durham, Darlington and all over Northumberland from coast to county, and one or two are in my top five all-time, all-nations list. However, the 2007 Act of Deflection and Fudge – Subsection 2 (Cowardice) – prevents me from divulging their details. It’s a bit like naming your favourite child – while its siblings quietly await the announcement.
One of my North-East favourites (to be featured here early in 2008) doesn’t have any regular customers and, anyway, it closes at four o’clock every day. One treasure is in Edinburgh, one is in London, one Prague, one Brussels, one Bruges, one New York, and there’s one in Dundalk in Ireland – the name of which I forget, though its Guinness is the best and most carefully poured I have ever experienced (the bar sparked with reflected friendliness, the television trotted out horse-racing and the Guinness arrived long after the weigh-in, the commentators’ inquest, photo-finish deliberation and several replays).
Favourite pubs come in all guises. The Bow Bar, on Victoria Street in Edinburgh is a beer drinkers’ bar, a whisky connoisseur’s bolthole and a conversationalist’s soap-box. The pub could have been nestling on the steep street for centuries, but it actually dates back in its present form to 1987. Its interior timbers were salvaged from Dalziel House in Stirlingshire; its tongue-and groove panelling from a mansion in Motherwell.
The gantry, displaying 150 malt whiskies ranging from the classy, triple-distilled Rosebank through the sweetly-scented Glendronach matured in sherry wood to “ordinary” Laphroaigs and Glenlivets, is a work of art in its own right. The pub walls are adorned with old mirrors, brewery artefacts, railwayania, enamelled cigarette signs and printed ephemera. The two-legged tables are a real curiosity – fixed to the floor and with long and very narrow tops, they are perfect for shuffling around several pints and the day’s newspaper.
When it’s the choice of beers that decides my favourite pub, there’s nowhere quite like Brugs Beertje (Little Bruges Bear), it’s one of those places where life-enhancing experience meets 300-strong beer list in the three steps from door to bar. This is Bruges, Belgium – beer country – and I’m about to apply for citizenship.
Old advertising signs decorate the walls in the tavern’s two small rooms and the scrubbed tables wobble on the mosaic floor. (Is there something deeply sensual about a scattering of tiny tables for two, or is it the effect of De Verboden Vrucht at 9% alcohol by volume?). Brugs Beertje is unpretentious and very impressive. The slightly irritating classical music background – pseudo-Mozart when soft jazz would suit the mood better – is relieved by the scraping of chairs and the excited chatter of a stream of locals flowing in after work. Sheer class.
Decent barstaff help make a pub a favourite, too, and you don’t have to wait long for a drink at the Budvar Bar at U Medvidku (Little Bears) in the Stare Mesto district of Prague. The bar and its fittings are constructed out of copper – tubing, sheeting and piping – the walls are wood-panelled, the seating is pew-like and the atmosphere is terrific.
Barmaid Renata Czadkova takes orders; she waits on tables; she serves at the bar; she dishes out change from the purse strapped to her waist; she collects glasses; she washes glasses; she has half-litres of Budweiser Budvar – 10 at a time – ready to top up within seconds of the request, “pivo, prosim”; she wipes the counter down and tots the orders up. She is amazing.
Renata takes the odd breather, of course. Stepping back from the counter, she re-pins her hair, glances around to see that everything is Czech for hunky-dory, rolls her head around slowly, takes a deep breath... then starts collecting glasses. She probably sweeps up as well.
Further west, The Ginger Man in New York is a large thriving bar, given over to “suits” during the day and an eclectic, cosmopolitan mix at night. The entrance, where first editions of books sit in a glass case, is dedicated to JP Donleavy’s rite-of-passage, cult classic, must-read novel that hovers somewhere between sublime literature and beautiful poetry through a fog of alcohol (the Bronx-born, Dublin-based writer once admitted the principle of the book was “to make your mother and father drop dead with shame”). We decide straight away that its huge windows, wood panelling, stripped wooden floors and long run of high-backed stools pressed up against the lengthy counter constitute the archetypical New York bar. A handful of lunchtime customers sit staring over the bar through large mirrors. The same handful stare back. It’s for all the world like an Edward Hopper painting brought to life. A row of tables along the other walls – some in cubicles, others in the window spaces – invites waitress service, whether it’s fetching lunch or more beer.
Back home, a North-East star attraction is shrouded in an air of curiosity. The Sun Inn at Beamish Museum in County Durham is frozen in a 1913, post-Victorian time-warp – a living, working example of Britain at the peak of its industrial output and political influence. Publican Joanne Taylor serves customers by the tram-load and blends comfortably into a background of traditional ale, porcelain jugs and sparkling mirrors.
It was known as the Tiger Inn during its days in Bishop Auckland and was rebuilt, stick by stick, stone by stone on its open-air museum site in 1985. Along the perfectly preserved terrace – also reconstructed from prime examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture – are a dentist, a newspaper office, bank, Co-op, car showroom, sweet shop, Masonic hall and garage.
Unfortunately, The Sun Inn closes every afternoon at four – it’s a pub with few regulars, but thousands of tourists visit it via the award-winning museum. We’ll be paying a visit shortly and it promises to be an early highlight to the new year.
Now, the other question. Favourite beer? Shuffle, dodge, hedge, evade, bypass, skirt, circumvent...