Our pub culture is dying, whilst our restaurant culture is thriving. The Irish have decided to choose restaurants over pubs, simply because restaurants offer us service as part of the experience and service is a concept that is alien to so many public houses. The era of the pub is over.And he's right. The cosy cartel which the publicans have enjoyed for several decades now, and the influence of their many friends in high places, have meant that they have never had to raise their game in the customers' interests. They've never experienced real competition nor had to take any risks which could have an adverse affect on their income. Risks like serving food or decent beer. I should add that Mr McKenna is no gastrosnob or vinofundamentalist -- pubs and beer get a very fair treatment in the Bridgestone media, and the McKennas are among the few mainstream Irish commentators to have recognised Galway Hooker as the national treasure it is.
My daily three-mile commute from the inner suburbs to central Dublin takes me past three pubs sitting derelict, having closed in the last year. I can guarantee you that not a one of them served anything worth eating or drinking, preferring to rely on the general assumption that a liquor licence and membership of the LVA amounted to a licence to print money. They were wrong. It took a while, but people evidently decided they would rather drink elsewhere. Add the value of the land to a property developer and the value of the licence to a convenience store chain, and the remaining regulars can sod off.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not yearning for a city full of swish gastropubs. The nearest thing we have is the Bull & Castle, and its sea of "reserved" signs on empty tables is the least appetising feature of an otherwise wonderful pub -- one backed by a successful high-quality restaurant chain so therefore a bit less averse to taking a risk on good beer, and where good food goes without saying.
No, I just think pubs would be facing a happier future than Mr McKenna predicts if they took a look at their customers for once. Shortly before Christmas I was sitting in The Long Hall, a fine Dublin pub firmly on the tourist circuit. Over my bottle of Guinness I saw a troop of Americans wander in, make themselves comfortable and, when the barman approached to take their order, they asked to see the desserts menu. On being told that no food was served in the place, at all, ever, the coats went back on and out they went. I wondered how often that happens -- foodless pubs are pretty rare in the US and UK. It's the sort of basic business sense that Irish pubs have never had to bother with.
The practicalities of food aside, it could be that pubs should simply be charging less for their beer and not, for instance, adding their own cut to any increases in tax or wholesale price, as they always do. And if they're chasing premium prices and a more affluent crowd then please give us something better than Tiger, Krombacher and the other dull yellow lagers which are treated as the height of sophistication because their TV ads are artier.
Give us quality. Give us variety. Give us value for money. It's not rocket science. The off licences and supermarkets can see how that works, and your response of having your friends in government threaten and cripple them is not going to work. Drinkers will not flock back to you the way they used to because you are not giving value for our money. We'll drink at home or we'll drink in restaurants.
Opting for the former the other night, I had a bottle of Brakspear Oxford Gold, poured to a hazy orange shade, with some bleu d'auvergne and onion cheddar on fresh brown bread. I'm well impressed with the beer, which has a beautiful earthy fruit nose carried through into a foretaste full of spiced oranges. It's organic, so I'm wondering if its Target and Goldings hops came from a country where alpha acids are more highly prized than England. Either way, despite carbonation that's a smidge on the high side, it's a fine example of what can be done with the basic building blocks of English beer. Along with the hoppiness there's an exciting gunpowder flavour to it I really enjoy and most associate with home brewed ales. Nice to see a commercial brewery coming up to that standard.
The acidity cuts beautifully through the creamy blue cheese, but fades in time to let the mouldy funk stand alone at the end, deliciously. The sweetness in the cheddar's onions is heightened by the contrasting bitterness of the beer, and vice versa. This was a good idea.
Last week I met with the PR chap behind the new Beer Naturally campaign, being run by Ireland's two macrobrewers plus AB-InBev. It's aiming to raise the profile of beer among the foody and winey types, and as such is a laudable exercise. I was surprised when he told me that enthusiasm was high in the pub trade for the campaign, since it looks to me like the kind of thing pubs would normally run a mile from: making good food and offering appropriate beer to go with it. If I could think of a single pub where there was a possibility of a nice hoppy ale and a simple plate of bread and cheese, I'd have been there instead of my kitchen.