I’ve recently been re-watching “The Cornetto Trilogy.” It’s a terrific series of farcical British genre spoofs from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. One thing I love about the series is the feeling that I’m getting a small taste of authentic British culture, a great deal of which comes from ubiquitous scenes set pieces anchored to a corner pub. In “Shaun of the Dead,” the neighborhood pub, The Winchester, functions almost like a character, and “The World’s End” — the 12th (!) pub on our heroes’ epic pub crawl — actually, literally, speaks. Clearly, Pegg and Frost are infatuated with pubs. In a 2013 Vulture interview, Frost says of recreational bar-hopping with Pegg, “We used to go every Sunday! We used to walk down into Camden at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday and spend the day. We’d mooch around and get Thai food and sit in a pub all day.”
That’s something you’re not likely to hear an American admit, and although it rarely needs to be said, it’s a concise example of what makes our culture so un-Continental. Whether it’s our history of temperance that’s shamed us out of being proud barflies, or the mere existence of the horrendous term “barflies,” the implication that a post-adolescent adult could spend “all day” in a bar borders on an a priori insult in American English. After all, who wants to spend more than a handful of daytime hours in a “dive,” a “club,” or a “bar & grille”? Even our crude imitation of British whistle-whetting culture, the “gastropub,” sounds more like something with a copay and a waiting room than it does a pleasant outing with friends, and what’s more, it rarely tastes better.
So when Americans go to an English pub, what do they think? Is it as much fun as it seems, sliding into a big wooden booth and flagging down a wizened old barkeep? You either love it or you hate it, says Andy Black, Head Brewer at Yorkshire Square in Torrance, California, an authentic British-style pub. “Folks seem to have a sublime experience or a disaster,” Black says, especially the “unfortunate many who manage to find the shitty ‘lager lout’ pubs,” as Black calls them. But for those who find the good ones, the experience is less equivocal. “Those that find the proper pubs often have a similar experience to myself,” he explains. “Sublime beers, a joyous atmosphere that transcends the generational and gender boundaries of most American urban bars.”
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Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s all beer nuts and smiles when it comes to bars across the Atlantic. British pubs are shutting their doors, depending on what fish wrap you’re reading, at a rate of between 20 and 30 a week. Many of those closures are local community pubs like the ones so lovingly rendered in Pegg’s comic oeuvre. Rising taxes are most often fingered as the chief cause, but drinking dollars are a zero-sum prize; the bars that can weather the higher costs are, naturally, the ones that will book enough tickets to stay open. It’s no coincidence that many of those pubs will be large, corporate chains.
“I fucking despise corporate pubs and corporate beer,” says Black. “Basically, they all look and feel middle-of-the-road, are geared for mass-market appeal, and miss all the points I like in a good pub.” It’s the uniformity that gets to him most. “I cannot stand the bullshit cookie-cutter garbage the corporate places turn out,” he says. “I can’t stand it that large breweries, pubcos, and such entities would treat consumers like mindless units. I think a local-focused pub with individual character will always be a better experience than anything trying to cater to tourists or a place trying to turn the pub experience into a fast-food chain model.”
But we Americans like fast-food chains here, don’t we? We like the uniformity of experience, the impossibly broad menus, the corporate hotline we can call to piss and moan. Even if, as I suspect, there’s something missing from our understanding of what bars can (and maybe should) be, is there any evidence that we’ll “wait for [our] beer to be poured ‘just so,’” as Black tells me Brits do? Do we actually want to live the social pub life, and sit at a big picnic table with half-drunk strangers? Or is that kind of thing like the weather in London — fun, but easily left behind?
If there’s one aspect of the British pub I can enthusiastically endorse, it’s the idea that beers below 5 percent ABV are, well, still actual beers. “Anything over 7 percent should be special-occasion beers,” Black says, and I think that’s right. “A troubling thing in the States is people having these ‘special occasion beers’ every day or expecting a brewery to have them on tap whenever the whim strikes.”
And again, this comes down to the culture. In England, if you want a drink, all you have to have is about 4 quid. In the States, you need money, sure, but you also need a reason. Celebrating something? Drowning your sorrows? Is it the weekend already, or just a “Thirsty Thursday”? How about a fun game to go along with it, or, barring that, surely some sports are on. Oh, and of course if you’re having pizza or wings you’ll be wanting a beer to go with, won’t you?
Here’s a radical notion: Drink because you want to (if you can, and if you should). Don’t feel like you have to splurge or overindulge just because this is your “cheat day.” Enjoy a shandy, or a light beer, with lunch, and stop at one if you want! Realize that it’s normal to enjoy a brewdog now and then just for the sake of enjoying it. And once you’ve got that down pat, go sit down next to a stranger and order him some fish & chips.
What I Drank This Week
Narragansett Del’s Shandy
This grownups’ lemonade is supposedly “a collaboration between two iconic Rhode Island brands.” Well, I’ve never been to Rhode Island and am only moderately confident I could point it out on a map, so I actually don’t even know which words in the title are the brands. Is it “Made On Honor”? “Refreshingly Different”? “Sold On Merit”? “Clam Shack”? I’m not sure, but all of these phrases are printed on the can, which is completely gorgeous by the way, and also quite tall (in order to contain all the phrases, presumably).
Again, without knowing much about what Del is, or if it’s a guy or a place even, I was surprised at just how close to lemonade they (it?) got with this one. You won’t confuse it with an especially robust or malty beer, but you might confuse it with Country Time. There is evidently a black cherry variant of this, and while I shudder to imagine what all is printed on that can, I bet it’s delicious, too.
Golden Road Hollywood Blondie
Full Disclosure: I drank this during the first grilling session of the year, so anything beyond “chuggable on a dare” was going to be a bonus. That said, I did like the one I had, although I didn’t feel the need to procure many more beyond that. There’s a sweetness to Hollywood Blondie that doesn’t taste like it comes from the fruit — it’s like a fruit tea, which is something we like to drink in the South in order to get as much sugar as possible into our bodies. I wish it wasn’t quite so saccharine.
Coney Island Hard Cherry Cream Ale
Of course, I kept the sweet stuff going this week with another spin-off of one of those three or four hard root beers that are always on sale at the mega mart. By comparison, Coney Island has not gotten as much of my goofy booze soda budget as, say, Best Damn Root Beer (& Friends; Anheuser-Busch) or Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s line, but as a certified cherry head and certified fan of CherryHeads, I was optimistic about drinking a dessert beer with a sandwich at 1 p.m. The sandwich was good, but the Hard Cherry Cream Ale was not. It’s like an 11/10 on the Cheerwine Scale. That’s … too much Cheerwine. Even for me.