By Annabel Smith, Cask Marque training manager and Beer Sommelier.
Earlier on this year, I went to Bruges for the weekend with my lovely other half. I had heard many other beery people talk about how fantastic Bruges is, and we both felt it was a gap in our beer education. So under the guise of widening our knowledge we planned a trip to do some sightseeing, walking, but most of all to experience the beer. I’m a massive fan of Belgian beer and looked forward to sampling some unusual, quirky and inevitably strong beers. It was as beautiful a city as I’d anticipated (especially as it was snowing) and we visited a LOT of bars. Every beer was served in its correct glass, every bar had a beer menu rather than a wine list, and every beer we ordered was brought to our table. Service was exceptional and on more than one occasion we were recommended a beer by the staff. It was Beer Paradise. With my ‘work head’ on, I commented that we had a lot to learn in Britain about the way beer is served. But over the three days we were there, we never once sat at a bar, we didn’t engage with other customers, and we didn’t discuss the weather with the bar person. We were served our beers at the table, and chatted to each other, and played cards, and Yahtzee and hangman (yes, really). It was a totally different experience to going to a British pub. The beer was amazing, don’t get me wrong – but something was missing.
And it reminded me of some friends who have recently emigrated to a suburb on the outskirts of Auckland in New Zealand. They love their new life, but they’re a sociable couple who love their beer, and one of the things they miss is not being able to drop down to the local pub. There is no pub culture in New Zealand, no popping out for a couple of pints after work because the distances to travel are too huge. Socialising for them has now taken on the form of going round to friends (early evening) for a barbie, with a few bottles of ‘beer’ thrown in. No sitting at the bar, bumping into people you haven’t seen for a while. No getting to know new people through a shared love of a particular beer, or a common interest, or a mutual friend. No standing at the bar inspecting the range of pumpclips and trying to decide what you’re going to start with.
Going to Bruges was a great beer experience. My friends in New Zealand have embarked on an amazing new life. But I would desperately miss my local pub if it wasn’t there. I take pubs for granted, I take the huge range and variety of ‘real’ beer for granted. So on the journey home from Bruges (feeling a bit ‘beered’ out), when my other half said “Fancy a pint when we get home?” I jumped at the offer. We went down the pub, propped up the bar and got as much pleasure from telling everyone about Bruges and socialising as we did going on the trip itself.
The reason I’m telling you this ‘Tale of Two Cities’? Well, you never really appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone. We have the best pub culture in the world. Pubs may sometimes get it wrong with service, or quality, or environment, but we’re very, very lucky to have such a unique culture. And the rest of the world might want to look on and take note.