Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Barrels, Hereford

Some people will tell you that what makes a pub 'good' is the availability of good beer, ideally a wide variety of it from small and obscure breweries. Some might even say that beer alone defines the quality of a pub and that everything else is secondary, maybe even detrimental to their singular enjoyment of malt & hop. Food, families, televised sport, youngsters, dogs, locals treating the place like it's their local! These are all reasons that people give for pubs being less 'good' than they'd like. Trust me, I've heard them!

Each to their own of course, and pubs at their best may even succeed in being all things to all men, but I'm certainly not one of those who judge a pub purely on the quality and/or variety of beers available. For me, the essence of a good pub is not to be found in a row of bewilderingly labelled handpumps dispensing a lottery of beer styles and novelty flavour. For me it's more likely to be the row of locals propping up the bar, the quorum of drinkers shuffling Dominoes on a Sunday afternoon, the licensee with the time and inclination to chat with a stranger rather than spend the evening cultivating an impenetrable local clique. It's these things that make for a good pub in my opinion. These and many other things, and good beer of course.

Without the sociable chat and shared experience that comes with people who are prepared to engage with us over a pint, a pub can be little more than a functional and impersonal drinks retailer, a restaurant, a mini-beer festival, a 'geeky', mono-cultural experience. Which is not to say that these are in any way bad experiences, just different, not pub experiences in my view.

Some of the best pub-going experiences I've had in recent years have been those where I've popped in for a Guinness in a slightly dodgy but warmly welcoming back-street boozer. Pubs which may be entirely bereft of real ale or craft beer. Pubs which may be a little bit rough and ready, yet brim-full of vibrant, interesting, often slightly drunk locals, happy to talk and laugh, happy to share, maybe even happy to sing! It's this easy, sociable mix which is often missing from pubs in the 21st century in my experience. An optional extra rather than the main feature of pub-going.

Of course when a pub is at it's very best, the beer and bonhomie come together as a perfect package. The kind of perfection in pubs like the award-winning Barrels in Hereford. The cosy front bar of this flagship Wye Valley Brewery pub is the kind of place you're unlikely to escape from without being drawn into the conversation. For enthusiasts of proper pubs like myself, it's how all pubs should be, the local we all wish we had on our doorstep. Run with great care and more than a little love by both the brewery owners and licensee, and loved in turn by the eclectic mix of locals and visitors who beat a path to the Barrels and help make it not only one of the best pubs in Hereford, but certainly up there with the very best in the country. It also sells a very good pint of beer.

Like all the very best pubs, the Barrels hosts a wide range of activities in addition to the basics of offering a great pint. This includes regular music sessions, and a strong line-up of traditional games, including Cribbage, Darts, Pool, Skittles, and Table Football, with representation in several local leagues.

The fine Skittle Alley is located on the upper floor of outbuildings which overlooks a pleasant courtyard drinking area to the rear of the pub. Several teams call the Barrels home (left), with Winter and Summer competition in the Hereford & District Invitation Skittles League.

Note the use of 10-pin bowling 'skittles' at the Barrels, the standard for league play in Hereford, though slightly unusual for skittles in the South West of England.

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