“Ooh, I love a bit of ‘Spoons.” I’ve uttered this phrase a number of times, in the tone of someone admitting a secret that makes them feel slightly dirty. It’s like admitting you watch Jeremy Kyle. (Disclaimer: we don’t watch broadcast TV in our house, so no Jezza for me these days!)
Back at uni in Leeds, I frequented the Hedley Verity Wetherspoons. It was fairly near to the campus, easy on the student wallet and they kept their beer in decent nick. It was a fairly versatile venue, a good meeting place for my Ale Soc pals and Raspberry Sambuca-drinking coursemates alike; I have fond memories of spending an afternoon there with the other half long before we got together, drinking pints of Wharfebank’s porter and pretending not to flirt. At the bar you would get the occasional old boy making surprised comments about a young woman ordering ale, but that goes with the territory.
The thing about Wetherspoons is that for such a homogenised chain, different branches can be of hugely varied quality beer-wise. At some, the cask is always on perfect form, at others, you wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. I must say, I’ve been in more of the latter. I feel like I may have been unlucky in this regard, as some people hold them up as an example of well kept cask across the board. As a company they obviously do value beer as part of their range, so it’s a pity that some of their managers don’t seem to be able to look after a cellar properly.
I missed the height of the Sixpoint cans craze as I had left uni by then and ‘Spoons was no longer a convenient meeting place. The other day a friend and I met in Wakefield for a long awaited catch up, and after spending some time wombling around the Hepworth looking at sculptures we decided it was time for a craft third or nine. Neither The Hop nor Harry’s were open yet, so we decided to relive our Ale Soc days and brave the Wakey ‘Spoons to see how their beer offering was faring.
Glancing at the cask range, nothing took our fancy, so we decided to investigate the cans and bottles in their ‘Craftwork’ selection. Between us we worked our way through the Sixpoint cans (Bengali Tiger was my favourite), Adnams and Lagunitas, before we were confronted with the option of Punk IPA or red wine as a final drink. The wine won. We also ordered a massive bowl of chips each, because carbs are good.
While we were there, a man brought a pint back to the bar and told the bar staff it was off. It was changed quickly and without a fuss, and the offending beer was taken off sale straight away. Excellent. The member of staff serving me did however ask what Lagunitas was, before stating that “most people just ask for the IPA”. With something like four IPAs on the drinks menu, you might be taking a risk by ordering that way… It did make me wonder how frequently anyone orders from the ‘Craftwork’ part of the menu. A quick scan of the bar led me to believe that we were the only ones crafting the afternoon away.
The topic of conversation that we kept coming back to was how bloody cheap everything was – I mean, £1.99 for a can of American IPA in a pub, bloody hell! – and whether that was actually a good thing. Of course, interesting beer being readily available in non-‘craft’ venues at an affordable price has got to be a good thing, right? But it could devalue good beer in the minds of those who don’t think about economies of scale and buying power, and automatically assume that all beer should be as cheap as in ‘Spoons. I think that on balance it’s a step in the right direction, even if some aspects of it may be problematic.
Revisiting Wetherspoons, I found it to be quite charming. Perhaps if it were my only option, the novelty of drinking decent beer in somewhere a little bit grim might wear thin, but I think if I had a local ‘Spoons with a competent cellar manager and frequently rotating cask beer, I’d be in there quite a bit.