Believe it or not there's a fair bit of beer politics even in the name given to beer made without any added gases, chemicals etc, because of course to the Campaign For Real Ale it's a case of "real ale" or nothing, CAMRA's perspective is that major brewers, and more recentl;y major pub companies, have done their best to destroy traditional British ale in favour of mass-produced keg or nitrokeg brands (they're called "smoothflow":) which cask fans see as being as different from the "real thing" as a craft cheese is from, well, Kraft cheese slices. Other drinkers who aren't so passionate merely see it as "good beer", which they might enjoy along with options like standard or premium lager, Guinness or whatever. And these days several of the very biggest pub companies are fully committed to cask ale.
What's all this got to do with West End pubs? Well, quite a lot, because the West End has the underpublicised distinction of being the greatest cask ale oasis outside Edinburgh - whose city centre pubs account for 70 per cent of all cask ale served across bars in Scotland. Since my Granny came from Barnton I can talk of Edinburgh with more enthusiasm than is usual for a fully paid-up Glaswegian, and particularly in the matter of beer. It would be impossible to imagine a pub like The Guilldford Arms or The Royal Ettrick or The Malt Shovel (to name just three of the best-known) selling anything other than perfect cask ale every time. Usually in Edinburgh bars the staple and flagship of any cask pub is Deuchars IPA from the city's Caledonian Brewery. Caley is not a microbrewery but a sizeable regional brewer which is justly famous for its cask ales, and particulary Deuchars IPA, a 3.8 per cent alcohol by volume blond ale which is generally termed a "session beer" - meaning that if you're not driving you can drink a fair quantity of it. and without becoming wildly inebriated. Its darker sister, Caledonian 80/-, is a bit stronger and more obviously full bodied. Deuchars tends to steal the limelight, its assiduous sales staff extending the Deuchars distribution empire ever further - for example into pubs in the wilds of the West Highlands which until recently had no cask ale at all. Deuchars is also a regular at West End pubs as diverse as Tennents in Byres Road, the Aragon ditto.. as well as The Lismore and sometimes The Judges in Dumbarton Road; and The Ben Nevis in Argyle Street, and no doubt others.
This year, too, Deuchars is getting an extra boost from its long-deserved triumph at the Great British Beer Festival in London, where of all the cask ales in these islands it was judged Champion Beer of Britain. It's a highly-hopped and highly-floral pint unlikely to appeal to people who enjoy mainly draught lager, but to its growing number of fans it's "The Embra Nectar" (copyright R Beers 2002) and a pint worth seeking out.
However, it is far from being the only star in the show. Enthusiasm in pubs where beer is "a big thing" has helped underpin the success of several enterprising microbreweries over the past five years, and the West End is an importanrt guest circuit in its own right.. At The Judges the selection, sourced through a specialist niche wholesaler - a dedicated enhusiast - features not only some of the best and most eclectic Scottish cask ales but also beers from, for example, the magnificent Durham Brewery - whose particular speciality is creating beers of the same strength as Deuchars. But while as refreshing and characterfuil as Deuchars they're quite different, and more than worth trying in their own right.
Scottish Ales you should be looking out for are, apart from Caley products, from outfits like Inveralmond, Bridge of Allan, Harviestoun (at Dollar), Houston, Isle of Skye, Orkney, Fyne Ales, Arran and Cairngorm - to mention just the ones that come immediately to mind. You may be able to find Broughton from the Borders on draught - some of whose seasonal ales in the past have been as good as anything on the market - and you might occasionally spot Sulwath from Dumfries. Atlas, launched by a young English ex-pat at Kinlochleven, is a distinguished recent arrival to the scene. Then there's Belhaven of Dunbar, not a microbrewery but a major pubs and beer firm whose best-known product these days is Belhaven Best, which of course is not a cask ale. But the company is proud of its cask tradition, and at The Doublet Bar in Park Road you can sample the (pretty strong) 4.8% abv Belhaven St Andrew's Ale; though my own favourite Belhaven cask pint is Sandy Hunter's Ale. Belhaven has been continually brewing since 1702, and is in many ways the elder statesman of Scottish beer - these days it's a highly successful pub-owning company and brewer, but it hasn't forgotten its beer tradition.
Each of these companies, large and small, tends to run a portfolio which covers different tastes and strengths, so there is infinite variety to choose from across the spectrum - dark, strong, full-bodied beers that are now seen as deeply trad; blond, aromatic, refreshing lighter beers (like Deuchars; and ruby-red ales and stouts. Prices tend to be about the same as for continental lagers, or a few pence more than a standard keg pint, but aren't crazy - and it's a nonsense to think of cask as "posh" or "unusual" as it represents what all British beer was once about. But it does involve extra work and hassle for publicans, and it does need trained staff who know what they are doing. So a pub which serves cask is arguably investing labour and time in a valuable product. Even in places where it does well it is very seldom the main seller (there are exceptions) and being able to offer cask is more about being able to offer choice. In the West End there are large numbers of people, and by no means all CAMRA members, who won't visit a pub unless it serves at least one cask ale they like. This in turn creates a certain market, because if a group of firends go for a few drinks and a meal, and only one of them wants cask ale, chances are they'll all go to the cask place at least some of the time just to keep him/her happy.
One of the biggest West End cask ale stories of recent years has been the dramatic relaunch of The Bon Accord in Mitchell Street (just along from Cafe India and The Mitchell Library), a fine big pub commanding a spectacular and majestic view of lots of flyovers and a motorway - the giant Scalextric set which the city fathers, in their wisdom, installed to replace what was once described as the finest surviving Victorian townscape in Britain. But the council didn't knock down all the architecture, there's still the Mitchell and the smart streets surrounding it (home to Indian restaurants like the afore-mentioned Cafe; the Shenaz and the famous Koh-i-Noor), However as a place which you may be likely to stumble upon while out shopping some day it simply isn't on the map. You have to know it's there and decide to go there, which is why licensee Paul McDonagh calls it a "destination venue" - which in some ways is the best kind of venue. Decades ago the Bon Accord was a beer legend in Glasgow, one of a tiny handful of places to do "real ale", and was a magnet for the CAMRA set. It changed, and for many people was just never the same. Then a couple of years ago Paul acquired the business in a brewery deal, whereby he sells the brewery-supplied standard products (which are popular with millions of consumers) but can arrange for the supply of his own draught cask ales.
Very recently the pub became the Glasgow West CAMRA pub of the year, and no wonder. It stocks quality Scottish beers galore, and in perfect condition, and also has a wholesome food menu - all in a spacious, smart but relaxing interior. It's as if somebody has taken the idea of "the classic local" and brought it up to date. Paul admits he was beginning to wonder if he had made the right move for about a year, as word slowly spread that "the Bon is back", but a few months ago finally felt able to stage a modest celebration - because for scores of cask lovers it's now an indispensable jewel in the crown of Glasgow beer pubs. Paul told me he is delighted he misses passer-by trade, of the sort you might find in Sauchiehall Street, because he wants to cultivate a regular clientele, and get to know as many of them as possible. Increasingly he's finding the regulars don't come just from the West End but from all over the country - it's clearly established as a Glasgow place "you have to visit" when in town. There's music, quiz nights, sports coverage too - but cask ale is the primary offer, and, remarkably, it actually outsells the other draught beer products.
You can visit the Bon Accord Website at: http://www.thebonaccord.freeserve.co.uk/about_us.html
Walk over Charing Cross and up Woodlands Road and you find Uisge Beatha, which I mentioned in a previous article, and it's another pub which sees cask ale as an important part of the overall selection (and which also does Deuchars). This pub in particular gives the lie to the notion that all cask ale is consumed by middle aged, pot-bellied bearded chaps, as at least two thirds of the customers on a typical night seem to be students - not all of whom, contrary to myth, prefer fiizzy lager and alcopops. Also in Woodlands Road you'll find the beer-pioneering New Arlington, a straightforward and friendly bar which in its previous incarnation sold the magnificent cask ales of the now-departed Maclay Brewery - sic transit gloria - but which now sells great cask ale and a number of non-cask but high quality continental beers, notably Erdinger wheat beer. There are several other pubs, and they all deserve a mention, because most of them could probably stay open by selling no cask ale, but prefer instead to offer a "point of difference" to more mundane rivals. It's highly likely that Tennent's Lager will remain the favourite beer of Glasgow, and indeed Scotland, for decades to come (who knows?) but for cask fans - increasingly including many women - there is simply no substitute for a Deuchars or a Jennings - or some other favourite cask brand.. Tuggy Delap of Fyne Ales at Cairndhow tells me her next seasonal ale will be a summer session beer called Somerled, after the 12th century Gaelic warrior hero who founded the Lordship of the Isles - if anybody finds some before I do please let me know!
I'll perhaps inevitably return to the subject of cask ale in the West End fairly regularly, but of course there's a much wider story to tell on beer and beer quality in general - so as time and opportunity affords I'll have a look at places which sell great Belgian beer (eg Brelin Ashton Lane is one of the few places in Glasgow to have served the highly-rated De Koninck on draught); German beer, Czech or Polish lager and all the rest. You can get the best of both worlds (cask and premium continentals) in quite a few bars these days, but one which springs to mind is the young-ish and friendly bar The Tap at the top of Kelvin Way (opposite the bowling green).
Cutting a long story short beer quality and variety in the West End is the equal of anything I've come across - and you get a great pint of Guinness, too, in Jinty McGuinty's in Ashton Lane.
This isn't to do with pubs at all, but it's a matter of some trade interest that characterful celebrity chef Nick Nairn is selling up his Nairn's Restaurant at Charing Cross, reportedly having decided at the age of 44 that he wants to spend more time with his young family - while keeping his interest in a special culinary school, and various culinary businesses. He doesn't have time or inclination to keep it up as the charming man on the spot in the restaurant, but reckons he's had a great mileage from a venture which has been a conspicuous success. But it's not closing, and will be sold as a going concern - so, while it's arguably sad to see Nick close an interesting chapter in West End dining history, there's always the reasonable hope that somebody with the same quality credentiials will move in. The price is a snip at £ 225,000 if you know anybody who's cash rich and a dab hand with the skillet.
An Evening Times story recounts that The Wickets Hotel, overlooking Partick Cricket Club, has lodged a planning application for a scheme to develop the site for 16 flats. The Wickets has been a well-known West End venue for years and is popular for its restaurant, its functions etc. With rocketing domestic property prices it's not unusual for hotel owners in prime sites to seek such developments, for straightforward business reasons, but obviously the locals feel attached to the place.
Drop a line if you've any interesting pub news: until next time -
Cheers, Roy Beers
How many pubs do you think there should be in the West End? The answer to that ticklish question probably depends very largely on exactly where you live and of course whether you use bars yourself on a regular basis. On one level the area is very fortunate indeed, even though it might not seem like it to some people whose sleep is disturbed by the whooping and roaring of Friday night revellers.
In both Aberdeen and Edinburgh city centre residents have been involved in long-running campaigns to curb licences and cut back on pub and club opening hours. In Edinburgh Old Town many would think they might have a point, since pubs open till 1am and clubs till 3am, but to 3am and 5am respectively during the three weeks of the annual International Festival.
The West End is - take my word for it - very quiet compared to the capital's historic Old Town of a weekend - or, come to that Glasgow's Merchant City, where residents are campaigning against large clubs and the prospect of a late-opening casino.
And that's despite the fact every major pub and club company in the UK would ideally like to open a venue in, say, Hillhead or Kelvinbridge.
Without going into huge detail suffice to say that this won't ever happen, as there are not enough sites of the size these companies would require; when largish sites do become available they are usually snaffled in smart style by adroit local operators; and in any case every plan has to go through both planning (council) and licensing board hurdles - giving ample opportunities for any serious objections to be registered. That, in a nutshell, is why there is only one club, (Cleopatra's at Kelvinbridge) in the whole of the West End, a situation which is unlikely to change.
Yet new pub outlets are continually added to the existing selection, as time and suitable sites (and licensing board approval) permit. Arguably 'the most ingenious use of space prize' goes to the Wee Inn at The Chip opposite the Ashoka West End in the alleyway leading to Ashton Lane. Though it has a low customer capacity I can confirm it has a high quality approach to its drinks selection, and attitude to customers; and is idiosyncratic (and unobtrusive) enough to be a welcome addition.
But there are plenty of other projects under development from other operators, or waiting in the wings. The G1 Group's licensed cinema complex is expected to open some time this year; if you have been in Ashton Lane lately you will have noticed that work has most definitely commenced on site - the whole front of the building has been smashed in and (when I passed) the cavernous interior was fully visible. This is a very big project by any standards, reputedly set to cost several million pounds, and when it's finished will Ã¢?? I'm told - consist of a large licensed amenity (most likely a bar-diner), a single downstairs cinema screen along previous lines; and an "arthouse" screen showing GFT-style films upstairs.
I also know that the huge space upstairs was never used for anything until now so it will be interesting, to put it mildly, to see what emerges. Completion date? This year sometime - my betting would be in time for the Christmas season. The Chandigarh restaurant in Vinicombe Street is to become an "upmarket" Bar-restaurant; and at the bottom of Byres Road, at Partick Cross, there's planning permission and licensing board consent in place for a pub on the ground floor of that remarkable Morrison development - the one which looks wildly out of synch with the surrounding Victorian architecture.
Incidentally, by common consent licensed property specialists see the bottom of Byres Road as just about as attractive from a development point of view as pubs-dominated Ashton Lane, and with good reason. Late last year the Scotsman ran a silly news story which predicted that the restaurant Gordon Yuill & Co was set to close - still not true these many months later - and suggested visitors would drive past the area in an instant; and that the area's customer base was made up exclusively of impoverished students. it was, putting it very politely in case there are children present, complete nonsense.
Within the space of a few yards you find some of the best licensed trade businesses in Glasgow, with customers drawn largely, but by no means exclusively, from the area itself. Gordon Yuill (the former 'maitre d' at Rogano) may indeed sell some day, if he decides he wants a lot of capital for another project somewhere - but that's true of any operator in the business with any outlet. For the meantime he is one of the higher-profile venues in a selection which neatly appeals to a very broad range of tastes.
Maybe the most impressive thing is that these and other outlets have improved the social fabric of the area without changing its essential character - an accusation frequently levelled at theoretically up-and-coming Leith.
The developing story in this corner of the West End is of course the Glasgow Harbour project, - of which much more in future. It's fair to say that in a few years time all those extra homes, and the retail and leisure district to be developed around Yorkhill, will have a very significant effect on the area. It is being billed as an extension of the West End but from the "licensed leisure" side of things we shall have to wait and see exactly what's on offer.
In the short term changes to the licensed trade scene in the area are likely to be mainly of the low-key variety, most of which won't be automatically obvious to the public. For example in Great Western Road, close to Kelvinbridge, major regional pub and brewing company Belhaven has taken over long-established traditional bar Wintersgills, an astute buy for the company in an area with few pubs; Uisge Beatha in Woodlands Road remains with its owners, the Clark Pub Company of Edinburgh, after a selloff of eight outlets (including the Captain's Rest in Great Western Road) to the steadily-expanding London Inn Group Clark Pub Company has decided to slim down its estate to concentrate on core assets (and, obviously, to free up capital), and Uisge Beatha - which older readers may remember has been through incarnations that have included The Three in One and Tom Sawyers) - will be one of just two Glasgow outlets in the company's portfolio: the other is Agenda on the south side.
Uisge Beatha, it's fair to say, has cemented its position as a first class Glasgow bar-diner of the sort which appeals to a very broad range of tastes, with students and pensioners apparently equally at home among the church pew seats and olde worlde framed portraits. It has a first class selection of malt whiskys, good cask ale; and excellent, well priced bar food - I can particularly recommend the haggis, neeps and tatties.
Since we're on Woodlands Road it's worth mentioning that probably the Area's best-known free house pub, The Doublet in nearby Park Road, is having something of a red letter year. Founded in the 60's (when I'm told it was a favourite with the "cavalry twill and MGB" set) it is a family enterprise which has been operated by owner Alistair Don since the early 70's. Alistair has changed nothing of importance in all those years, but has brought in little improvements like hanging baskets, outdoor tables on those few days when it's sunny; the latest in premium continental beers - you get the idea. The Doublet is a real local which is a particular favourite of journalists like Tom Shields, and has an enduring appeal which has weathered the considerable competition posed by that titanic enterprise The Hogshead, just across the road.
Anyway, this year Alistair has been awarded a unique distinction - which is only really of interest to his fellow publicans but which is nonetheless important. Earlier this month at the annual conference of Scotland's biggest licensees' organisation, The Scottish Licensed Trade Association, he was duly appointed President. He has been active in the SLTA's Strathclyde area for many years and (you may have noticed) pops up on TV from time to time when there's some sort of pub-related issue on Reporting Scotland. To get an idea of what sort of league the Presidency puts him in he received his chain of office at the conference in Crieff Hydro from outgoing president Mrs Maureen McKerrow, licensee of the famous Globe Inn (one of Rabbie Burns's favourite haunts) in Dumfries: both enterprises are, in their different ways, what you might call the top end of the Scottish free pub trade.
Like many traditional Scottish pubs The Doublet is regularly involved in charity schemes of one sort of another. It has a regular Tuesday night pub quiz anyway, but this coming Tuesday it will be taking part in the biggest pub quiz in the country in aid of the organisation Capability Scotland, which works hard to gain better recognition of the needs of disabled people of all ages - just the latest in a long line of similar enterprises at this rather special West End "local".
To revert to my original question - maybe the best way to look at pubs is in terms of quality and variety, rather than just number of licences per so many hundred yards? At a recent Glasgow licensing board meeting the application for the new outlet planned on the site of The Chandigarh involved a detailed examination of every conceivable nearby pub licence within range of the intended site - measured out to within so many yards in each case. Fair enough, but when you consider one of them was the Terrace Bar at the Grosvenor Hotel (hardly a boisterous den of iniquity) you begin to realise there's more to consider than simply drink-dispensing units. You also have to take into account the nature and scale of operation - if a superpub company were to try and open a 1,000-capacity bar halfway up Byres Road it would raise an eyebrow or two: and of course such a project wouldn't have a ghost of a chance of gaining licensing permission.
But clearly there's a balance to be struck between the needs of residents and the "ambience" (or whatever you want to call it) of any local area. In Cathcart, for example the locals have, by and large, always been against pubs of any kind opening in their area, and their objections have generally been successful - on occasion to the chagrin of very experienced operators whose premises would have caused no problem. There's also the question of whether licensed outlets should ever be allowed to operate in city parks. Very many people say "no"., but - as at the Charing Cross end of Kelvingrove Park - is a vandalised and graffiti-spattered Victorian toilet a better alternative?
There's also the fact that not a few "pubs", that is outlets operating with a Public House Licence, are not pubs at all, but restaurants. This is because with a pub licence you have far more leeway as to where and when you can serve people drink, than with a restaurant or refreshment licence. You cannot, for example, pop in for a pint. You even find the situation where, as in one Edinburgh Old Town restaurant, the place has a public house licence from the licensing board but only restaurant-use permission from the Council's planning department- a daft anomaly which can lead to management being accused (usually wrongly) of "operating the place like a pub".
The trend is increasingly for actual pubs, and particularly of the newer sort, to operate more as restaurants - or as "bar diners" in which a lounge becomes the main dining area and the bar a place where you have a drink before your meal: Whistlers Mother in Byres Road is perhaps a good example of a place which is both a pub and a restaurant.
In future articles I aim to look at some of the area's best known bars in greater detail, and to speak to the licensees and bar staff who operate them successfully on a day to day basis. There's the born-again Bon Accord at Charing Cross, for example; Belgian music -friendly pub-restaurant Brel in Ashton Lane; Colin Beattie's Ben Nevis in Argyle Street; and the superb Lansdowne Cafe-Bar at Kelvinbridge - naming just a few random examples.
And from time to time I'll hopefully be able to flag up special events like competitions, music nights, whisky tastings and new menus - while inviting West End pub regulars to pass on news from their own favourite bars. I may even stray over the border into "city centre land" from time to time to look at some of the very few bars in town which match the sort of quality to be found in the west - acid test being whethe you can get there on a short subway ride from a genuine west-side subway station. Not, of course, that West End people are ever parochial.