When we visit Spanish towns and cities one of the cultural highlights that I know many of us love is the evening ‘tapeo’. Tapeo does not have an exact English translation but it’s the name for a quite simple concept. To ‘ir de tapeo’ is to spend an evening moving from bar to bar having one or maybe two drinks in each, and sampling the speciality tapa each bar has to offer. It’s quite often the case that bars will have a few signature tapas and so it makes a great night out to tour an area trying what’s best in as many bars as time or hunger allows. One could start with a fino sherry with some prawns, move along the street to have a small beer with some tortilla or empanada, then a stroll across the road to have red wine with a little ox-tail stew….and so on, and so on.
Looking back a few decades, I remember nights out with friends where I could describe the evenings as being English ‘tapeos’. Of course, we British have always missed the link between good food and good drink, except perhaps for a stomach filler before we set off or a curry to end the night. But, I used to enjoy the option to move pub to pub to sample the beer each one specialised in. In Derby in the early 80s this might mean starting in the Exeter Arms (then a Marston’s house) with their Pedigree, moving on to the Shakespeare for some Ind Coupe Burton Ale then to Ye Olde Dolphin for a pint of Bass (and so on). Portsmouth during student days in the 70s would be a crawl from Gale’s house (HSB), to Eldridge Pope house (Royal Oak), to Whitbread house (Pompey Royal). Each evening we could choose to drink our favourite beers in varied locations with useful breaks of a walk between pubs to rest the stomach and clear the head!
I doubt many would argue that the tied system had a lot to answer for and many pub managers struggled to make a living whilst trying to attract and keep a good customer base. However, for me, it was ideal to be able to choose what I wanted to drink and then make for an old haunt I knew served it well or, if away from home, to an attractive pub that advertised the brewery on its sign.
Today we have a rather mixed bag. Some areas are rather monopolised by one giant brewer (see article ‘Pompey…or is it Southsea?’ with its repeated reference to Fuller’s), whilst others have many free-houses that serve ever changing beers from near and far. The free-house model seems to offer a wide choice but I do question whether a bar displaying 6 or 8 or 10 pumps with ever changing obscure brews is really the drinkers’ paradise. Many’s the time I’ve gone into a lovely pub and had to scan the bar looking for something I know, or something of a similar style to what I prefer, only to have to compromise to avoid a range of either too strong or too weird offerings. It seems choice can mean different things to different people. A lot of options on the bar doesn’t necessarily mean real choice, and I worry that this is often not appreciated by today’s brewers and pub owners.
Here in Sheffield we now have a great variety of good pubs and many carry a dazzling selection of beers. Fortunately, some of the best do offer regular beers from local breweries so the customer isn’t forced to try their luck with a leap into the unknown. Good examples are the Fat Cat and the Kelham Island Tavern at Kelham Island, the Sheaf View at Heeley, and the Rising Sun at Fulwood. Modern-day pubs that cater for those who want to choose a beer they trust, as well as for people who enjoy the excitement of something ‘different’. However, I have to say that despite enjoying the best of the new era pubs, I do still miss walking from one brewery’s pub to another’s knowing what I’m going to have in each and being very comfortable with that.