The paralysis of choice

Earlier this month, I returned to my university city, Nottingham, for an afternoon and evening of wandering between the local watering holes and reminiscing the good ol’ student days.

Anyone who has been to Nottingham will know that what the city lacks in sprawl, it makes up for in sheer pub density. It’s hard to walk for five minutes without happening upon several different places which would be lovely spots to spend an afternoon with a pint and a newspaper. For this reason, planning my Nottingham pub crawl required forward thinking and commitment to a plan. I narrowed the shortlist of my favourite pubs down to just eight. Drinking half pints would become necessary closer to the end of the evening.

We began the afternoon at Canal House, a pub operated by the Castle Rock brewery, set in a charming grade II industrial building next to the canal, complete with two resident narrowboats. As I stepped inside, many happy memories from my student days immediately flooded back. I headed to the bar, and my eyes were drawn immediately to the hand pull ale choices. I scoured the pumps for my old favourite, Castle Rock’s Screech Owl. I couldn’t find it, but I settled on a different pale ale from the same brewery instead.

As the bartender poured our drinks, I took a closer look at the various options on offer. The once small-but-perfectly-formed keg choice of stylish European lagers had exploded into a choice of more than 10 craft beers. Behind these, a tall fridge was well stocked with Belgian beers. Beside this, another fridge was filled to the brim with cans. I started to feel relieved that I’d made a snap decision on what to order, or else I might have been reading the menu for most of the afternoon.

“Is it like you remember?” my husband asked me.
My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.

Afterwards, we walked to Canning Circus (via an obligatory photo opportunity with the Robin Hood statue) to the Hand and Heart. It’s easily the best cave pub in the city; wonderful ambiance and music, plus far less touristy than Ye Olde Trip. Here, there was a much smaller selection than back at Canal House, and I felt more relaxed for it. Although we’d already eaten, I glanced at the menu out of curiosity. It was short and perfectly formed, just like the cask and keg range.

As we sipped our beers, we talked about how we felt that choice paralysis can be detrimental to a great pub. The places I like best are curators as well as distributors. Changing taps and rotating bottles are great, but I really don’t need a year’s worth of drinking possibilities thrown at me all in one pub visit.

Next, we decided to visit a couple of the places that had sprung up since I last lived in the city – lest I allow my yearning for the past to get the better of me. We stopped for a fantastic oatmeal stout at The Overdraught, a taproom for Totally Brewed. Wittily named too, since the bar occupies a former bank. We also loved The Barrel Drop, a Magpie Brewery micropub nestled in an alleyway. We were lucky enough to catch the opening session of an open mic night, and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming.

We ended the night at the Lincolnshire Poacher, another Castle Rock pub a short stumble away up Mansfield Road, to the north of the city centre. Despite the pouring rain, it was bustling. In the corner, musicians were setting up for a session. The cask range offered a fantastic choice from both long-standing and new local breweries. Lining the walls behind the bar, the whisk(e)y selection was as great as ever. We sat in the back room, where the wooden tables and leather armchairs looked as battered and as loved and as lived in as I recalled.

“This place is just how I remember it” I told my husband, beaming with fuzzy, nostalgic joy. Finally, I felt like I was home.

 

You can’t stop progress

As Thomas Wolfe’s novel so wisely observed, you can’t go home again.

I spent my student years in Nottingham. It was here that one lunchtime during my first semester, a fellow philosophy student convinced me to try a pint of cask ale rather than my usual lager. The beer was Harvest Pale from Castle Rock brewery, a Nottingham institution. Shortly after, I graduated to the slightly more toothsome Screech Owl by the same brewery. The damage was done; I was hooked for life.

In the coming years, my passion for cask ale would evolve and my tastes would turn darker. I’d sample my first autumnal ambers, plum porters, spicy ruby ales and oyster stouts. But of course, the first cask ale I had ever tasted would continue to hold a special place in my heart.

The Castle Rock pubs were some of my favourites in the city. In particular the Keanes Head, squirreled away on an alley overlooking a beautiful church, and Canal House, with its quaint wood-panelled interior and outdoor terrace perfect for the summer months. Pints of Harvest Pale cost £2.50 usually, £2.30 with a Castle Rock loyalty card, and £2.00 on a Monday. I will remember these prices until I die. Fortunately, it was entirely possible to drink great beer on a student budget in Nottingham, and it remains one of the many reasons that I’m relieved to have gotten out of London to study.

I landed back in the Big Smoke eventually, and of course the prices were a bit of a punch in the stomach. But there was a silver lining; my beer obsession was dividing and multiplying fast, and with hundreds of new drinking spots to tap into, it was impossible to be bored.

I returned to Nottingham every year or so in an attempt to rekindle the special connection I felt with my university city. Each time, I felt that we had grown apart a little more. The changes to the place I had loved so dearly became increasingly apparent. Taps offering trendy keg beers had appeared in my favourite boozers. Charming ‘spit-n-sawdust’ pubs had gotten modernising face-lifts.

Of course, it’s wrong to expect things to stay the same for ever. But before, there was something nice about the fact that in a fairly compact city which boasted a huge amount of pubs, local was the focus in nearly every one. You could spend an entire afternoon wandering between watering holes, drinking a different pint in each, and never drink a beer that was brewed outside of Nottingham. Maybe if you were out for long enough, you could get a beer brewed in Derbyshire. Just to get really exotic, y’know.

Whilst these beers are of course still available, they now share so much more of the spotlight with many others from down south and from across the seas. It’s just not quite the same community drinking experience that it used to be, from my perspective.

Back in London, I decided to embrace the changing tides fully, heading to The Rake with an old drinking buddy. It’s a tiny little bar nestled in Borough Market, and it was an after-work favourite of mine when I worked in London Bridge. This place is the opposite end of the spectrum from my old Nottingham haunts; I’m fairly certain that I have never had the same beer there twice.

I arrived hoping to beat the after-work rush. But alas, gone are the days when I could nip in at 5pm and catch a table. At 4.50pm, it was already crowded. Their beer board was as diverse as ever, but what had changed quite a bit was the prices. A few of the pints on offer cost an eye-watering £8.00. My friend and I exchanged exasperated glances. This wasn’t our little secret anymore; we would have to keep moving with the times and find a new one.