Wetherspoons Revisited

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“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.

6 Responses to Wetherspoons Revisited

  • @MikeMcGWirral says:

    As a drinker I’m in 2 or more minds about ‘Spoons – as you say there’s great differences between different pubs ability to serve cask well (from dire to delightful). I drink cask in my local one, which is usually very good for quality, but recently not great for interesting beer choice (big brewery beets + IMO poor quality local micro).

    I love the idea I can walk 5mins to a pub selling Lagunitas IPA, etc though (& yes they still struggle with the name & like you I’m not happy ordering just “IPA”, as I might get GK!

  • @SimonJ68 says:

    Interesting read.

    Where I live there are two ‘spoons, almost back to back.
    One is more drinking / food traditional and the other is a club / late night venue.

    The club one I never go to…. The other is quite a decent pub.
    Staff training and the mentality to serve quickly is something so many pubs could learn from. Having run a pub myself in the past I know it is hard, but many pubs seem almost determined to make you feel an inconvenience and have little idea how to manage a busy period.
    The beer, 8 casks on, all rotating regularly using the “craft” brews on license, local brewery offerings and the well known Doombar, all kept as well as if not better than any other pub, and cheap, so cheap. It is often cheaper to buy a pint from a local brewer cheaper in ‘Spoons than it is direct from the brewery.
    I am aware of some of the more dubious practices of the chain, but as a consumer, being able to buy a pint in one pub for £2.20 and the same pint in a pub 5 minutes walk away (owned by the brewer of the pint) is £3.60.

    Cost not the only consideration for me, but going out with friends for a few drinks, and it becomes very noticeable.

    PUNK IPA as is standard now, currently £1.50 in Tesco, £1.99 in ‘Spoons and £4.00 in our new “Artisan” bar that has just opened. I know which one of those three needs to change their business model.

    So, to summarise :-)
    Some of them are excellent, others not so much – but to hate them for beer or service I can’t really understand.

  • @MikeMcGWirral says:

    I even quite regularly eat the food at my local ‘Spoons – not bad. But even in a really good JDW, I’ve never been in one that had the real warmth & charm of the best sort of independent pub or bar.

    They do of course have a reputation for supporting UK cask beer, through their CAMRA vouchers & selling a ton of cask beer from big & small breweries. However, to small-ish breweries in particular they have a slightly different reputation – losing casks & indeed using/painting/destroying breweries’ casks to make pub displays etc is pretty common.
    Not offering very much money for your beer, is part of their business model. Not paying very swiftly is standard too.

    Also, some of the other pubs in the area might feel frustrated that your beer being on sale much cheaper in their local JDW makes their pub’s price look expensive, when they obviously have a different business model to JDW & it would be impossible for them to compete on price.

    Some breweries have decided to stop selling to JDW (or not start) for these or other reasons, but the draw of extra sales in the area you’re already delivering to is an obvious incentive to continue to supply, albeit at lower profit margin.

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