Hi, my name is Martin

2020 has been a funny year. I had so much planned that I didn’t do. I had lots of reviews to write, lots of places to go, lots of people to meet. In January it seemed like an exciting year ahead. As it turned out I went to just about none of the places I intended to, mostly met other people at a 2m distance, and to cap it all I lost a good friend to cancer. I did have plans about writing reviews of how well the pubs were adapting, but it seemed to change every week and it just didn’t make sense to in the end. Surprisingly though, I did publish four reviews somehow, which seems amazing look back on it.

2020 did do one thing for me though, which was to make me think about what I value most. I don’t normally do New Year’s resolutions, but this year has changed that, and this article is in part a way of helping me stick to those resolutions. Hopefully it’s worth a read too.

Resolution 1 – support my local

I am sure that no-one reading this is surprised to hear that COVID has been unbelievably tough on the hospitality industry. Every pub and restaurant I have visited has spent a huge amount of time and money making themselves as safe as possible to be in – spacing people out, screens between tables, screens at the till, table service only, lots of handwash, staff all in masks. I have not been out to a pub or restaurant once this year and felt unsafe. By contrast, the supermarkets seem to be adopting a policy of “as long as most customers wear a mask somewhere on their head, everyone can do what they like”. Which is ironic, because I don’t need to go to the pub, but I do need to buy food. We have it back to front – the worst protection in the most essential places.

Now, I’m not advocating that even with these excellent measures pubs and restaurants should be open today. Given the rate of infections, I think the government are right to close hospitality venues at the moment. However, the way they have handled the hospitality industry in general has been shambolic. Stay open but don’t go to the pub, close the pub, open again, go and eat lots of food (but don’t get overweight), drink beer but have a scotch egg with it, close again with no takeaway. OK, do takeaway. And every change at just 24 hours notice, causing thousands of pounds in stock wastage each time. Our pubs are on their knees, and it’s likely that some will not re-open after this disastrous Christmas period.

Despite all of the shambolic things that the government have done, there is one thing that stands out to me as clever, and that’s Eat Out To Help Out. I can hear the people shouting at the screen in fury as they read this, but let me explain why I think this was clever. First of all, it encouraged a reluctant public to start going out again while it was relatively safe. Everyone was scared to go out in July (e.g. OpenTable bookings were down 53% year on year), but when EOTHO was introduced in August it was back up to normal. It kick-started the hospitality industry again. But more importantly than that, it was smart in the distribution of support. Because rather than just throwing money at all pubs and restaurants regardless of their quality, it allowed the public to vote with their stomachs for which venues they wanted to support. If you liked a restaurant or pub, you ate there and they benefited from your subsidised custom. The public were subsidising the places they liked to eat.

Eat out to help out is not my resolution, but it is a very long-winded introduction for me to say that my top resolution is to make sure I consciously support the businesses that I value the most. For me, that means my beer only comes from local pubs, taprooms and bottle shops. Someone suggested to me that’s because I want to see companies like Tesco, Wetherspoons and AB InBev go out of business. That’s absolutely not true. However, I know they will do fine without me buying beer from there, but the local businesses won’t. I want to make sure there is good beer in a good pub to go back to when things recover. So my first resolution is to spend my money on supporting the local businesses I still want to see still there in 2021 and beyond.

Resolution 2 – no to Dryanuary

During lockdown 2, I decided to not have any booze. Double Barrelled’s 2nd birthday party meant one night when I didn’t stick to that, but otherwise I was alcohol-free for all of November. And the whole experience was decidedly meh. What it did make me realise though was that being dry in November, catching up in December, dry in January and so on is just a silly way to live.

Instead of that, my second resolution is to stick to about 14 units a week (the UK recommended limit), but more importantly to spread it out over the week rather than binging it all on a couple of nights. That means no going down the pub and blowing it all in one night, which in turn means that I need to find good non-alcoholic beer to drink in the pubs. BrewDog do a few really good ones (Punk AF, Hazy AF and Nanny State), but I’d love to see our local breweries do a non-alcoholic beer too. Some of them produced some excellent lower alcohol beers (Siren’s Half Mast, Phantom’s Easy As Pi and Double Barrelled’s Applause spring to mind), and I’d love to see them move on to 0.5% beers too.

Resolution 3 – no anonymity

I have been accused a few times of hiding behind an anonymous account, and it made me consider why I am anonymous at all. When this blog kicked off it was going to be a few of us writing and it made sense to have a collective name. We also imagined that landlords might actually try and unfairly influence us if they knew who we were. Neither turned out to be true – I write this on my own now, and it’s absolutely not like I am a secretive Michelin critic that proprietors live in fear of. I’d hope landlords appreciate the occasional piece of constructive criticism to hear to help improve the business for everyone, but I can’t imagine anyone changing behaviour when I visit. So I have decided that in the interests of openness and transparency, I should unmask myself. So here I am in a carefully select picture that makes me look younger and more handsome than I really am.

My name is Martin, and I’ve lived in Reading for 23 years. I live in Caversham with my wife, 2 boys and a dog. I work in IT, currently for Google. Yes, that means I earn a good living, which probably colours my reviews a bit, and allows me to be able to make choices like my first resolution of not buying my beer in a supermarket. Not everyone has that luxury, and it seems only right to be honest about that.

The blog does already mention this, but also in the interests of transparency, I own a small amount of SirenCraft shares, an even smaller amount of West Berks Brewery shares, and some BrewDog too. I try not to let it influence my reviews, but Siren in particular produce such good beer that you will hear me constantly rave about it regardless of my tiny fraction of a percent of ownership.

If you see me in the pub do come and say Hi, and feel free to tell me what reviews you agree or disagree with, and where you think I should review next. Perhaps I’ll even invite you along when we’re all back to normal in 2022.

Dolphin Brewery

It’s been 12 weeks since any of us have been able to go to the pub, so naturally my pub reviewing has been non-existent. I did have some places ready to write up (The Boundary and The Last Crumb), but it just didn’t seem right to write them up, because who knows what pubs are going to look like when they open again. I’m imagining lots of perspex screens and widely spaced tables. It’s going to take a mind shift to re-review. I’m not the only reviewer struggling with content. Edible Reading has filled the gap very nicely with weekly interviews and a weekly diary. The interviews are going strong, and I don’t know how he keeps finding things to put in his diary – if it were me, I’d get to Thursday night and think “oh no, I’ve run out of things to say. I’ll have to talk about my toenail problem”1. Rather than get into that situation, I’ve stayed quiet. That is until now when I’ve got something truly interesting to talk about. A socially distanced trip to visit Reading’s newest brewery – Dolphin Brewery.
1 This is poetic license. My toenails are awesome. Continue reading “Dolphin Brewery”

Phantom Brewing Co.

Taprooms seem to be cropping up everywhere around Reading, and the latest to join the collection is Phantom Brewing Co., which opened late last November. It seemed to come out of nowhere – the first I heard of it was a press release in the local newspaper of all places, and a lot of people seemed sceptical that it was even a real taproom. And in fact when it opened it wasn’t a real taproom, because they didn’t have the brewing equipment in at the time. But they have been up and running and brewing on-site for a few months now, so it’s time for a proper review.

Continue reading “Phantom Brewing Co.”

Bierhaus

Is it just me, or does the S at the end of the sign outside Bierhaus look wonky? Not that it really matters for pulling in the punters. I think it’s one of those places that you have to know it’s there and actively make an effort to get there. It’s stuck down a side street next to The Hexagon that most people don’t casually pass and pop in on a whim, so by the time you get there, it’s too late to change your mind just because of a wonky S. Continue reading “Bierhaus”

Zerodegrees

As a pub reviewer, I occasionally get invited along to openings and events (which I tend not to go to). However, this week Zerodegrees managed to trick me into going to their grand re-opening by not telling me about it and me coincidentally turning up for a long overdue review. Normally I’d not review somewhere on opening night, but given that they were closed for just 3 days, and that the changes were simply a lick of paint, and a neon sign, I think it’s fair for me to proceed.

Continue reading “Zerodegrees”

The Bird In Hand

On a cold winter’s day, what better to do than take a trip to a nice old country pub to have a few pints and some food by the fire.  I get that if you stumble on this review in July that’s not helpful, so substitute “on a warm summer’s day, what better thing to do than a trip to a nice old country pub to have a few pints in the garden” if that’s the case. Either would be equally true of this pub – The Bird In Hand, in Sonning Common. Continue reading “The Bird In Hand”

The Hope and Bear

This week I had the absolute, but unexpected, pleasure of joining the Reading Board Games group in the Hope and Bear for a night out. How can it be unexpected? Well, I invited Reading’s premier gin expert, The Gin Devil (Daryl) to come for a review with me, and when I suggested the Hope and Bear, he let on that he is not just the Gin Devil, but also the Board Games King (my words, not his), and started a board games night years ago that still runs there. I thought I was quite good at board games so happily agreed. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Continue reading “The Hope and Bear”

The Bugle

I have to admit I was surprised when I got a tweet from an internationally famous celebrity, volunteering to review of all places, The Bugle. In fact, she claimed it was the one pub in Reading she most wanted to see reviewed. It seemed implausible, but who am I to turn down the opportunity?

Continue reading “The Bugle”

The Crowne Plaza

Reviewing hotel bars isn’t really my thing. They are generally so impersonal with middle of the road beer, middle of the road food, and high-end prices. But the Crowne Plaza looked to be potentially different. It has one of the few bars in Reading where you can sit outside by the river, and it’s got an outside bar in collaboration with West Berkshire Brewery, so it was worth an investigation. Continue reading “The Crowne Plaza”

The Queen’s Head

I hate pubs with ambiguous names. It really distresses me to write about somewhere without knowing exactly what it is called. The Queen’s Head is one such example. Outside the pub it’s called “The Queens Head Inn” on the wall, “Queens Head Inn” on the sign, “Queens Head” over the window, and “The Queen’s Head” on the mirror behind the bar (the only version with a possessive apostrophe). To make matters worse, their Facebook page is called “The Queen’s Head PUB” (their capitalization, not mine), and What Pub calls it “Queens Head”, although notes that it’s also known as “Nob”. I’m weeping as I write this.

Continue reading “The Queen’s Head”