Within the span of one week, I experienced a pub dichotomy. Visiting two purveyors for the first time- both boasting a craft beer selection- I was left disheartened by one and encouraged by the other. The former was a lacklustre attempt at jumping on the ‘craft’ bandwagon; it was a misjudged attempt at balancing on-trend features with a selection of beer that- frankly- fell flat. The most audacious of their offerings? Well, it was Camden Hells lager on keg and a handful of Beavertown cans in the fridge. I spotted no inclusion of ranges from the myriad of local breweries, which was shocking given their pedigree and proximity to this particular bar.
I’m reluctant to pass such severe criticism on a new business venture, especially at the risk of sounding like a pretentious or insufferable elitist. For me, the nadir was that this bar is within walking distance from my flat, yet my desire to return burns as intensely as my need to swill a syrupy Swedish cider- a range of which were prominently on display.
Onwards and upwards, I discovered the latter pub six days later in the form of Howl at the Moon in Hoxton. I was instantly smitten as I ambled through the door: everything appealed to me- the harmony of the quirky décor and fixtures, the inexplicable presence of a caged cockatiel on the bar, the laidback and approachable staff that- admittedly- weren’t as savvy on their beer as I expected. But it just didn’t matter. The beer selection was exceptional given the modest size of the venue: on keg, there were two iterations of Brew by Numbers, Wiper and True, Siren, Mondo and Kernel. I didn’t even get to the fridge, but a quick recce revealed an abundance of Kernel, Beavertown and Hammerton Brewery in bottles.
An immense beer selection is highly seductive and the obvious prerequisite of a good drinking pub- but I can’t help but wonder what the winning formula is? What designates one pub as exceptional and another as disagreeable? It all stems from personal opinion, naturally, and I acknowledge that I have a penchant for East London idiosyncrasies in the manifestation of upcycled church pews, plywood banquet tables and exposed lighting fixtures, all in a traditional boozer setting. Awkward space, stools pulled up at the bar- these endearing elements are always welcome.
My bugbear is manicured veneers, where bars exhibit random backlit displays of bottles (art?), chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling and décor and fixtures are all too coordinated. For me, this projects a sense of a slapdash, soulless shelf bar- a bar in a box- that is devoid of any desirable atmosphere. I occasionally find myself drinking at such establishments, usually in shopping centres, event spaces or airports. But given the option, I crave the balance of character and a solid range of beer.
But what about the ubiquitous taproom? Where do these fit into my spectrum? Usually modern, minimal and intentionally stripped bare of esoteric charm, they still appeal to me, but perhaps on the most primitive level- here, the variety of beer and the breweries represented are the focal point. Simply put, they deliver on their promise and the staff are usually highly trained and passionate.
I can always count on a Brewdog bar- although pouring their own ranges, they always have a generous guest menu on tap- or Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green to deliver on these fronts; this is why you’ll often spot me in deep concentration, scrutinising their ever rotating choices. Walking through the threshold of a taproom, you’re confident that you’ll find something worthy- even that elusive DIPA that you’ve been trying to track down for weeks (I found it in Brewdog Soho).
So, while the ambiance plays a significant peripheral role in identifying a superlative watering hole, it has to be unforced and inviting. Passionate staff also elevates the experience, especially when they can make astute and educated recommendations to scrupulous customers. Final commended flourishes include a wafting background soundtrack of a vetted playlist and an enticing rotating food menu. But now we’re describing a figurative beer nirvana- a rare idyllic venue- so what’s at the crux of a good bar here in reality?
Well, obviously, it’s the beer. But the interplay between an outstanding range of drinking and a touch of other elements can be the tipping point. Personally, I’m always happy at The Chesham Arms in Hackney, where I not only get a good pint, but can hunker down on a stool at the bar and always feel amongst friends- the kind of friends that delight in a good beer.