WHILE we spend a lot of time talking about beer, the drinking experience encompasses so much more than just what’s in the glass.
There’s the glass itself, of course, which has undergone a revival in recent times.
The launch of third and two-third measures spawned a surge in attractive-looking goblets that have hugely enhanced the drinking experience while at the same time avoiding the awful Australian word ‘schooner’, which looked for a while like coming into fashion.
When you’ve got a 10% coffee stout swirling around a stemmed glass, it demands more than a name conjuring up connotations of a small measure of fizzy lager.
There’s also the ambience, food, entertainment... and then the pub itself. From 1990s theme pubs to country hideaways crammed with farming memorabilia, the atmosphere a pub creates can make or break the business.
This has also been a key battleground for pubs in the fight against preloading and cheap supermarket booze as they look to play to their strengths – come to our pub, because not only can we provide cask and keg products you can’t get elsewhere, but it’s nicer drinking here in our lovely interior than sitting in your front room, can in hand.
It all makes Britain’s Best Real Heritage Pubs, published by CAMRA last month, a fascinating read. For people who are into their pubs and beer there are plenty of familiar sights. Flicking through for the first time, I stopped to admire a picture of a particularly attractive wooden bar before realising it was the Central in Gateshead, which has become a key pin in the local beer map since 2010.
The entries for the North East might be fairly minimal but they showcase some of the best the region has to offer. There are only two for Northumberland, the Free Trade in Berwick with its unusual layout to allow off-sales customers to make their purchase away from the drinkers at the bar, and the attractively plain Edwardian rooms of the Star at Netherton.
The Crown Posada puts in a Tyne & Wear appearance, obviously, but again there are only four pages of entries. The Victorian splendour of the Stags Head in South Shields is included, while the beautiful wood and tile work of the Dun Cow and Mountain Daisy respectively represent Sunderland.
County Durham has another two – the Milbank Arms, in Barningham in the far south west of the county, and The Victoria, in Durham itself, dating from 1899, which it describes as the ‘best-surviving historic pub interior in the North East’.
Then there are the famous coaching inns and darkened drinking dens of central London and the City. My brother lives in London and once kindly took me on a tour of some of the most unusual pub interiors I’ve ever seen. The Olde Cheshire Cheese speaks of chop rooms, spit and sawdust, Dr Johnson and the heart of England. The Cittie of Yorke with its mock medieval hall is extraordinary.
It comes full circle, too. Just as a drink is partly about where you enjoy it, the interior also tells a story of the people who built it and drank in it over the years. A personal favourite was reading about the 17th Century Cider House in Worcestershire, one of the few cider-only pubs left in the country and one without a main room, with drinkers sitting in the garden instead.
There’s also mention of changing cultures and attitudes, from a description of the great pub building era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the ‘gentlemen only’ rooms of pre-1975.
While the pictures don’t always do justice to the grand interiors, the book as a whole tells a story of our drinking culture. Heritage pubs are just one aspect of this. Great pubs don’t have to be old – the cruise liner-inspired opulence of The Bacchus in Newcastle’s High Bridge is fairly recent, but makes it a delight for a wide range of occasions from after-work drinks to nights out and even (infrequent, admittedly) dates.
The Ship Inn at Low Newton crouches quaintly next to a beautiful view over the North Sea. A drink at any of these wonderful haunts proves it really is better in the pub.