Sunday, 16 December 2012

Up and down the main street

Rutherglen. The town to the south-east of Glasgow has been a beer desert for decades. So much so that the arrival of a Wetherspoons outlet is a source of celebration for local beer drinkers.

It’s not the only town like this. In the summer the CAMRA branch finds itself moving its branch meetings from one depressed Lanarkshire town to the next, one Wetherspoons after another, simply because there are next to no other local pubs in these places that sell real ale, good, bad or indifferent. (Mention must be given to the exceptions, the stalwart George in Hamilton and the Rowan Tree in Uddingston).
I was passing through, but took the chance to have a look at the new Spoons, An Ruadh Gleann, and give the manager the branch’s best wishes. The new pub is a converted wallpaper store, and vast. The interior design is modern too, in a break from the now rather dated Wetherspoon format from the mid-90s. Some elements are Rennie Mackintosh-inspired, I am told.

A split-level beer garden provides basking possibilities should the sun ever come out. A real innovation are the viewing windows through which punters can gawp into the disco ball-equipped cellar (yes, really). I’m not sure how interesting this will be for the average visitor, but sad beer geeks like me find it exciting to look at rows of stillaged casks and kegs. There would seem to be an opportunity for ale theatre in the event of a cellarman getting an involuntary shower from a lively cask in full view of appreciative customers; but I am not sure how much venting of new casks actually goes on in pubs in the evenings.

It was time to look at the other pubs and guess whether An Ruadh Gleann is likely to kill them off. I admit I approached the task I’d set myself with prejudice. I grew up drinking in towns like these and as soon as I could I escaped to the big city with more interesting beer (like Theakstons, as I thought at the time).

The Picture House across the road is probably the pub with most to fear from the arrival of Wetherspoons. With its interior resembling what Spoons pubs were like five years ago, it doesn’t have much in the way of atmosphere. It’s a Belhaven pub and claims on a sign outside to purvey cask ale, though once I get inside I find out they haven’t sold any for some time. It’s odd that Belhaven, who brew cask beer (although it’s a tiny part of their output these days) and are part of one of the UK’s biggest producers of cask beer, seem so uninterested in punting it in their own pubs.

They do have West St Mungo on tap, alongside the rows of half a dozen “premium” lagers claiming continental heritage: Stella, Staropramen, Estrella Damm. I choose a half pint of Staropramen, as it’s years since I’ve had it and I used to quite like it when it was imported as “Prague Beer”. It has a very slight nose of pils malt and smells and tastes mostly of CO2.

From the outside, the Vogue is one of those no-windows, burly-men-smoking-in-the-doorway affairs that looks intimidating. Inside, it’s a lively Celtic pub and it’s mobbed. There seems to be some sort of Christmas party going on. Or maybe it’s like this every night, I don’t know. There’s karaoke on in the “Lisbon Lounge”. I’m swimming against the stream with my pint of Tennent’s Special; as I look around it’s wall-to-wall Tennent’s Lager.

Around the corner, judging by the Union Flag bunting that festoons the outside, the Burgh Bar caters for the other side of the sectarian divide. Still there are more people (i.e. two) people drinking Guinness here than there were in The Vogue. The feel is decidedly different, more sports on TV, more bottles of Budweiser. As I sip my Tennent’s Lager, I notice too late that they still have the old survivor Sweetheart Stout in the fridge.

Dr Gorman’s, a cosy corner pub. The bright lights at first make me think formica-clad jakey dive, but the pub has been sensitively renovated at some point with a gas fire to set off the chunky bolted-down tables. Whisky here, as the Monopoly fruit machine flickers in the corner.

The pubs seem to cluster around each end of Main Street. I like towns that still have this structure to them. Five minutes and I’m at the other end. The Victoria still has the Tennent’s Taverns livery from thirty years ago; the lettering on the signage looks even older, but it’s become too dark to get a picture. It might well date from Victoria’s time. In the time warp inside, it’s one of these L-shaped pubs with two entrances and high ceilings. Nothing seems to date from later than 1985. Young lads are playing darts in the corner as if Facebook or cable TV had never been invented. I almost expect to see the Flying Pickets sitting in the corner. It’s become rare to see Younger’s Tartan Special in the wild, but here it is, still on the bar. It’s slightly caramel-flavoured.

You know what I’ve noticed? The keg beer in these old bars isn’t served as brutally cold here as it is in the city centre. I have thought for some time that most pubs would benefit from serving their cask beer one or two degrees colder and their keg one or two degrees warmer.

In Chapman’s, a large, looming building on the corner, the exterior is a strange exercise in cladding, while the interior remains Edwardian. From the interior, clearly this was once the posh pub in town. Established in the 1870s, I read behind the bar. The beer offering again drives me to whisky – though if I believe the clock still hanging in the bar, I could once have had Drybrough’s Heavy.

The Stirrup Cup is the last pub I visit. There is still a McEwan’s 70/– font, but there’s none. McEwan’s Export is on, though, so I have that in preference to the John Smith’s the landlord offers. It’s been one of the most popular keg beers for decades for a reason, in that it actually has a small amount of flavour to it, albeit mostly yeast and roast barley. Creamy texture too.

I was expecting a load of grotty, depressing pubs, and was pleasantly surprised to find that actually, most of them were pretty good and not remotely threatening. Rutherglen’s pubs have plenty of character and were full of people socialising over a glass of beer. I don’t think Spoons can compete with these places on community – in any case, they are so different they are surely serving different markets. I just wish the beer in the old bars were tastier.

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