No matter where I go, it’s always another version of the same story. People understand the value of a community local pub.
Despite my job title, I don’t really want to talk about beer, brewing processes and ingredients. (If you fancy talking about that, I’d recommend a brewery tour, bookable through the Castle Rock website.) Instead, I want to talk about my personal journey in the industry, and what I’ve discovered along the way about the value of a good local.
Where it all started
I came to Nottingham in 2006, like many people, to go to university. But I quickly realised it wasn’t for me; the course wasn’t what I expected, and the lifestyle got old fast. So, a group of friends and I (most of whom conveniently lived above Greggs on Carrington Street), started drinking at the Vat and Fiddle. We preferred being able to have a sit down and a conversation. We also quickly discovered that having a few pints during the day was infinitely more enjoyable than binging at night.
After dropping out of university, I struggled to find a steady job. I lived in a house share in Sneinton, relied on benefits, and didn’t own much more than a suitcase of clothes. Things were pretty unstable, and I don’t think I knew how to look after myself. Eventually I got a job at the Vat, when a friend left his job there and offered me some of his shifts. It worked in my favour: the hiring system at the time was certainly a little skewed towards those with a familiar face. In the end, four out of the five people living in that house ended up working for Castle Rock while we were living there.
I can remember feeling really nervous starting. I felt like I didn’t want to bother people, to the point where the then-ops director mentioned my tendency to look out the window or down at my shoes. One of the first people to make me feel truly welcome was a guy known as Tiny Tim. He noticed how nervous I was and went out of his way to include me in jokes, even if they were occasionally at his own expense. On slow nights, he’d tell me all his crazy stories about his colourful career as a safe cracker. He used to say that he was the guy they squeezed through windows and gaps because he was so small. Still, he was a really good guy and looked out for me. I appreciated it and looked after him in return, in the best way I could: as a bartender.
They were all invested in the pub. They had a personal stake in the place.
I was always entertained by the clientele. At one end of the bar, you’d find Tiny Tim and a couple of ex-cons, and at the other end you’d find retired heads of police. Ironically, all would be drinking Sheriff’s Tipple. I started seeing the pub as a watering hole and noticing the value it provided for people. It was used by both left- and right-wing political groups, train drivers coming off long shifts and disgruntled passengers whose trains had been delayed, a motorcycle club and a board-game club. Owners of large, corporate companies had heated debates about capitalism with bohemian social artists.
If it ever got too heated, it was our duty as bar staff to step in and diffuse the situation. That didn’t stop certain regulars helping on occasion. It felt like they were looking out for me, and each other, and not just in volatile situations but in nuanced ones too, like Tiny Tim making me feel welcome. It became apparent that the main reason why people acted this way – jumping to defend us – was that they were all invested in the pub. They had a personal stake in the place. They all recognised the role the pub played as a communal hub and recognised their responsibility in maintaining the standards of the unwritten rule of etiquette.
The shared pub experience
It has helped me practice tolerance for others, as well as faith in others.
With experience, you learn that the harmonious balance of a pub vibe is mainly down to people behaving with decorum and consideration for one another, especially if you expect to come back the next day, or you want to integrate in a positive way with the people there. I think it’s important to consider what that desire to integrate says about the nature of the pub, and why it’s been such a big part of our culture for a millennium. It’s common understanding that the terms of engagement are somewhat fluid, and maintained in the abstract plane of acting in a way that you see to be a positive contribution to the shared experience of the pub. As well as vindicating the positive behaviour, it’s the stakeholder’s obligation to make an example of the negative. The latter of which, preferably, includes a light joke, so as not to make the negative contributor feel completely excluded.
It’s all a social skill, that can be practised on a local level but is scalable to how to conduct yourself in a wider context. It has helped me, at least, practice tolerance for others, as well as faith in others. My next discovery was to be why beer was at the centre of these ancient proceedings. I’d just like you to, for a second, imagine what a pub would be like without any beer. An example may help: You walk through the door and err… *looking awkward and turning to another person* ‘fancy a conversation?’ Beer is a social Swiss army knife. It’s main and most obvious use is being applied as a social lubricant. It’s also just as good a point of conversation as the weather and can be used as a means to show appreciation and thanks (‘I got you one in, it’s in the pipes’).
The social lubricant
When beer is introduced, all the other stuff can play out naturally.
Its more subtle uses are hidden in the details of interaction. The default status of everyone in the pub, but especially those on their own, is that they came for a quiet drink. They might be open to something more, but they reserve the right to be left alone. Anyone is within their rights to come to the bar, spend two hours silently enjoying their favourite tipple, say ‘thanks very much’, leave, and return the next day to repeat the process. It’s not even considered weird. In fact, it’s common! (Though, if you come back to my original point and remove the beer from this situation, this guy starts to look very suspicious.)
When beer is introduced, all the other stuff can play out naturally. If he wanted to, the guy could easily start a conversation with a member of the bar staff. Good bar staff will recognise their role here too, and naturally involve other people standing at the bar, especially if they know – from past conversations – that they’d have something to contribute. And if another person is standing there, enjoying a quiet pint and with no desire to embark on a conversation, then that’s fine. They can choose to listen or pay no attention at all.
So, what I’m saying is…all of this is very normal when beer is involved, and quite odd when it isn’t. The beer is necessary to facilitate these beautiful, natural social situations that you’d only witness in a pub. There aren’t many other scenarios in life where different people are just together, without a cause. Beer is the excuse to be there without a cause. Without it, you’re just loitering. I like to describe beer as the excuse and never the reason. It can sometimes become the reason, but I find that, when it does, it loses a bit of its nuanced purpose. People do go to the pub for the beer, but it strikes me as missing the point a little.
Cracking on with it
I fell in love with the community and the beer, and I wanted to contribute as best I could to it and uphold the values I’d learned. The brewery staff come around after a shift and, in particular, I was in awe of the head brewer Adrian. He was such a down to earth and considered character. Everyone respected him for what he’d achieved in taking the brewery to the next level, and how dedicated he was to the beer. I aspired to be like him. I set myself two goals: to learn gypsy jazz guitar from Hot Club Paul (a regular at the pub) and to learn brewing from Ade.
I realised that the only way to do this was to work hard, so I started reading about brewing, brewing at home, and occasionally helping out at a friend’s plant in Derby. I made it clear that my intention to get some work – any work – in the brewery. At that time Harvest pale had just won Supreme Champion Beer of Britain 2010 and serendipitously the brewery was expanding from the 25 barrel kit (capable of 75 barrels a week) to a 40 barrel kit (capable of 360 barrels a week).
* Fun fact time: Just to put that into perspective, if a person were to drink 8 pints a day 365 days a year, it would take around 36 years to drink a week’s worth of beer brewed at capacity.*
I drew on my time working in the pub and I used it as motivation to push through the work
Eventually, and probably as a result of the expansion opening up spaces for employment, I managed to get some work cask washing. At the time I had become fairly integral at the Vat, and the operations manager said he was happy for me to work in the brewery as long as it didn’t affect my work at the pub. As a result, I ended up working about a 70 hour week for a good year, starting at 6.30 at the brewery until around 2.30, going home, getting a shower and then starting at 5 and working through until 12 or 1 am at the pub. Rinse and repeat.
But for the first time in my life I knew what I wanted to do and why I was doing it. I drew on my time working in the pub and all the people that had been formative of my development as an adult, and I used it as motivation to push through the work. The more I applied myself, the more progress I made. When the space opened, I was finally given the opportunity to brew. 7 years later and now Ade has stepped down, I’m responsible for overseeing the production of all the beers we brew and work closely with marketing and sales. I’ve now travelled all over the country meeting people to talk about beer and pubs.
And no matter where I go, it’s always another version of the same story. People understand the value of a community local pub, and ensure those values are passed on and upheld, whether they are bar staff or punters.
Sowing the seeds of civilisation
The pub is a communal hub for news and debate, a solace, a sanctuary, the antidote to, and means of finding a point of reference for, everything else going on in the world. The pub has been around woven into our history for thousands of years. Beer is arguably the reason we exist as modern non-nomadic humans. It’s debatable that we settled nearly 10,000 years ago to start farming grain for beer production. The other school of thought is that the grain was grown for bread. I imagine it was probably both, but at the time they were literally ‘sowing the seeds of civilisation’.
Beer was the driving motivation behind a massive evolutionary leap forward for our species, as with the technological revolution of agriculture in the neolithic period, we were able to centralise and specialise means of production, enabling us as a species to support much larger settlements. It’s as necessary for our comfort and proliferation as clothes are on our backs. I reckon if you travelled back in time to anywhere in human history, you could find at least some sort of familiarity at a tavern or an Inn – some of which are still running today.
I feel no less than blessed to be carrying the torch of thousands of years of tradition and producing a product that at its core contributes something positive to British culture. To be able to spend my time writing this. I would argue that what pubs and beer represent in the abstract is at the very core of what makes us human, and beer is the spirit of the community.
Anyway, thanks for reading my rambles. I got some kind of point across about how beautiful pubs are. I know that you all know that anyway, or you wouldn’t be here reading this, but it’s nice to reflect and consider how lovely things are sometimes.