I have a confession: I love JD Wetherspoon. Not that any of their pubs would be in my top ten, but who ranks pubs in order of preference anyway?
Wetherspoon as a pub chain will always have its detractors – in part due to its success at a time when still 25 pubs a week are closing their doors for ever. In 2009 they announced they’d open 250 new pubs and create 10000 new jobs. This year they went even further with chairman and founder Tim Martin announcing his intention to double the size of the company in the coming years.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Wetherspoon pubs. As a student in an unfamiliar town I knew I would at least be able to get a pint of decent ale from them. Moving to Northern Ireland 18 months ago would have been a lot harder had it not been for the fact that Wetherspoon pubs are dotted around the province. Without them the only place I could get a pint of cask beer would be Belfast. The food menu is varied and consistent from one place to the next, which is handy for a vegetarian as I know there are dishes I can eat. But it goes beyond that. Wetherspoon more than any other pub chain I can think of make the effort to be appealing to the full range of possible pub customers. From the early morning coffee gulpers to the lunchtime pinters to the full-on session fanatic. Its somewhere I could comfortably take both grandparents and grandchildren* and know they would be welcomed.
Aside from the community pub aspect Wetherspoon does a lot to promote good beer. They hold twice annual festivals with 50 beers from up and down the country. When the festivals aren’t on they make an effort to support local breweries and at all times they allow people to try before they buy. They also pioneered the use of third pint glasses for sampling during beer festivals which is a great way to discover new favourite brews. Recently they’ve also been making an effort to reach beyond the borders of the UK with brewers being flown in from far flung corners to brew for their festivals.
People might bemoan the fact that as a larger company they can demand prices close to the cost of production for breweries, but they are able to take beer close to spoilage that other pubs wouldn’t touch with a bargepole because they know they can shift it. Their nationwide presence means that any beer that gets onto the seasonal list can be sure of plenty of promotion up and down the country. Being able to buy the beer for less means that they can sell it for less and if people see that they can get a pint for cheaper they’re more likely to give it a go. There’s still a huge proportion of the UK that have not even tried real ale, but if even one percent of these can be persuaded to try real ale and one percent of those (that’s 0.01% fact fans!) go on to further explore beyond the confines of mass-marketed lager brands then that surely can only be a good thing.
Other people do not like the atmosphere, describing them as “soul-less drinking barns” this may be the case with some but I’ve also found some very warm and welcoming pubs within the chain too. They also make an effort to preserve historical exteriors and convert buildings to pub use (see photo), something that should be applauded with pubs being demolished left right and centre. The lack of background music (which yes, is probably a cost saving on broadcast license) means that you can have a good conversation with your neighbour without having to shout. There are generally plenty of tables too, how many town centre pubs/bars can boast that these days where vertical drinking has become the norm.
The Old Court House, Coleraine, a conversion to pub use.
Yes, Wetherspoon are not perfect. They are frequently understaffed but I find those staff that do work there to be well trained, professional and polite. There’s always room for improvement. I’ve had some dire pints in Wetherspoon pubs but no more so than in any other pub up and down the country. I’ve equally had some of my best drinking experiences in a Wetherspoon pub. Every year the Belfast Bridge Bar organizes a two-day coach trip around the Northern Ireland establishments to sample beers during the beer festival. This is free for participants and includes breakfast each morning too. I fully intend to go along this year too (stay tuned for the blog in November).
People are fully entitled to their opinion about Wetherspoon. CAMRA members who receive discount vouchers don’t have to use them. I don’t want to hear about your self-righteous non-use of them at the AGM or any other event. It’s your right to choose not to frequent Wetherspoon pubs but equally it’s our right to make up our own minds without hearing all of your negativity.I for one will continue to frequent their fine establishments.
So fellow bloggers, what‘s your take on Wetherspoon?
*I’m not even a father yet.
full disclosure: I am a CAMRA member but am in no way affiliated to JD Wetherspoon