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I Just Like Pubs


I just like pubs.

The rise of the "micro-pub" has been rather incredible in the last five years. It often feels as though you will find one previously non-licensed and repurposed small drinking venue in every town you can name. They have become the anti-thesis to the Pubco and Tied-Lined controlled public houses, that have been losing customers on a constant downward trajectory for years. Their main positives are that they often seem satisfactorily busy and have a more diverse customer base than the more traditional pub.

Yet on a recent trip to Middlesbrough, I accepted something that I have always known.

I just like pubs.

My experience of Middlesbrough was one that I was going to form into one of my "Football and Pubs" ongoing blog series, having been in town for Huddersfield Town's away fixture in October, but so much of my visit was rushed and negative that I didn't feel any enjoyment trying to put it into words.

What did come from the few bits that I managed to write down was that simple truth...

I just like pubs.

I don't have all the details of Middlesbrough's pub history and can only speak from experience. When I lived in the area or visited frequently - between 2008 and 2011 - the North Yorkshire town had nothing in the way of good pubs. Even The Good Beer Guide's of the time, that were incredibly relevant in those years, listed only the town's Wetherspoons and maybe one other venue. In such a large working area, good beer was at a premium and so, it seemed, were good pubs.

But on my recent revisit, I was inundated with recommendations of new venues that had popped up in the town centre in the intervening years. None of them were pubs-come-good but were instead newly converted bars or shops into beer focused drinking establishments.

I was recommended 6 or 7. I made it to 4 or 5. I didn't enjoy any of them.

They weren't all a complete disaster. Some had reasonable beers on. Some had made some attempt to cover the walls with various themes, so that it felt as though you were somewhere other than a converted Clarks shoe shop. But they were all rooms; less cosy than the local Labour Club or Membership-only Institute. None of them were pubs.

Middlesbrough is the scapegoat here but I feel it all over. A trip earlier in the year to Scarborough yielded similar results. A couple of micro-pubs there, one vehemently recommended by a trusted friend, did nothing for me. Trips to places like Whitby and Southport have had me feeling the same. I even expected my drinking habits to change when my local towns introduced a couple of these small venues into their roster; drawing me away from my regular haunts. They didn't. They're okay. They aren't for me. 

I just like pubs.

There could be many reasons for this - some personal and some attributable to all. Sometimes the beer selection in these places is particularly average. I can forgive this in bigger pubs because the atmosphere holds it together. One particular Middlesbrough bar, with the word 'beer' in its title, summed this up well. It was just one large square dinghy room with uncomfortable seating. There was no pub-like atmosphere. The beer selection wasn't great. The quality of beer was even worse. It was another converted shop without a cellar and it showed. Okay... I can forgive that... but then I didn't enjoy the venue either. So what is the point?

They are often too personal, sometimes with annoying mission statements about encouraging conversations or 'arrive a stranger, leave as friends." I don't want my pub to feel like drinking in the home of a divorced Aunt or Uncle with Live Laugh Love draperies all over the walls. I don't want to feel obliged to join in the mediocre conversations about the latest streaming service series available. Sometimes I require to be left alone and that is difficult in these venues. Sometimes I want a private conversation with friends to remain so. Sometimes I want a personal moment with somebody close to me. Sometimes I want a spot to read or work or simply breathe. Pubs have provided this for years. 

It isn't just the micro-pub, under whatever definition that you use, that suffers from this. Many brewery taps or repurposed city centre bars give me the same feeling.

I mean no derision of the micro-pub. There are some that I truly adore, although often these are ones that have acquitted them so well that you forget that it hasn't been there for 100 years. I recognise that they are a better use for empty carpet shops on the high street than being an advertising board for circuses rocking into town. They just lack memory. They lack history. Sorry to sound like Giles describing the virtues of books over computers but they lack smell.

It is a week in which the beer drinkers of Manchester are clamouring to be the first through the doors of yet another brewery tap to open in the city. And I'm sure that I'll go soon. And I'm sure that it'll be a nice venue. And I'm sure that the staff will be great and that the beer will be interesting and that it will work fine as it is required to. I'm sure that it is a positive for the city. And I'm also sure, long before walking through the door, that I'll hold no passion for it; that'll be the latest in a long line of places that I'll recall in twenty years time with a slight head tilt and an "oh yeah... it wasn't bad there." But longing and nostalgia will never be present. It will never feel like the irretrievable loss of use that losing a long standing pub does.

These are personal preferences and not an attack on the increasing sector that keeps social beer drinking alive in this country. There are plenty of great examples of these types of venues. There are many that are busy and loved by others that I've not found personal enjoyment in. That is great that they are held in high esteem. The reason I didn't add Middlesbrough to my run of "Football and Pubs" series is that it would have been unfairly negative on the whole, and the recommendations from others suggest that a fair few people like these venues. The previous traditional pub offerings here were not providing the drinking experience that others clearly wanted.

But I just like pubs.

The threat to my beloved pubs has never been higher. The combination of the current recession (which is what it is) along with the long existing issues with tied houses and pubcos will continue to see their demise. More will fall and perhaps at a greater rate than the decline we were already witnessing. And I'll be incredibly sad.

I can't fix the pub industry. I can't make places more welcoming or diverse. I can't make those long standing halls appealing to new drinkers. But I will write about them for as long as they are there. For pubs are not the glue of society but the caulk that plugs the holes in my entire mental well-being. I will use them for all time.

I just like pubs.

*I love Middlesbrough and do not need anybody to tell me about the great place that they would recommend going there that will completely change my mind. Read the blog again.

**Of course I recognise that the long running issue with regular pubs is how unwelcoming or even unsafe they can feel to other groups. I appreciate that. This is simply written from my own perspective.

*** None of what is written here would stop me going in the micro-pubs and tap bars that I do enjoy. You don't need to tell me about a great micro-pub that you like or start defending them. It is okay.


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