In a well-known Christchurch watering-hole, I was recently served a pint of beer with ice-cubes.
The teenage barmaid, who either did not know or, perhaps, did not care that I may have an inherited heart condition, explained her actions with the following words: "We always put ice-cubes in drinks unless people ask for 'no ice'".
Personally, I have never heard of anyone, anywhere, not even Australians, who want ice-cubes in beer. A proviso that there is "no ice", seems to me as redundant as ordering beer with the proviso that there is "no decomposing rat", or "no cyanide", or "no surprise icepick through my spinal column, please".
As it happened, the barmaid replaced my contaminated beer without fuss. But even as I quaffed it down, I still found myself profoundly dissatisfied by the whole situation. How could such a terrible error occur in the first place? What is the world coming to? Why doesn't the government do something?
It's no exaggeration to say that the subject of pubs is dear to my heart. In fact, viewed from a certain perspective, it could be said that I have made them my life's study. Apart from not putting ice-cubes in beer, there are five basic ingredients for a good pub. I never thought I'd have to spell these out (they should be a matter of instinct to every publican in the land) -- but times being what they are, it is perhaps appropriate for me to provide a gentle reminder.
The first ingredient, of course, is good beer -- by which I mean proper beer from a barrel. A decent bottled beer (such as Emerson’s or Three Boys) is all very well at home; but when you're in a pub you want the real thing. It should not be fizzy (the only carbonation should be from natural fermentation), and it should definitely not be sweet. The ideal pub beer should be hand-pumped directly from the brewing barrel into your glass; and will always have a decent head (no less than 10 millimetres). The only acceptable substitute for good beer, in my opinion, is very, very cheap beer.
Many people, of course, will tell you that this is where the list begins and ends. Good (or, alternatively, very low-priced) beer, they maintain, is the only important ingredient for a pub. While this theory is appealing, it is only truly valid when you are drinking by yourself. In a social situation, the pub environment and staff also take on an element of importance.
This brings me to the second basic ingredient for a good pub -- recorded music. There shouldn't be any. If you are having a social drink then, by definition, you must have conversation. If some moron publican is playing Kylie Minogue's version of 'The Loco-Motion' at maximum volume then normal conversation is impossible. Even recorded music at so-called 'conversational levels' leads to volume-creep, with the inevitable consequence that everyone in the room ends up shouting to be heard.
The question of live music is slightly more complex. It should, in general, be restricted to dedicated 'live music pubs'. However, it can be an acceptable form of entertainment in regular pubs on an occasional basis. In this context, 'occasional' means no more than once a month -- and preferably on a Tuesday evening. Obviously, any live music should be gazetted well in advance, so that regular customers can make alternative plans, if necessary.
The third ingredient for a good pub is sport. Although I have long advocated for the reintroduction of the death penalty for publicans who install sports television or fruit machines, it is entirely acceptable for patrons to play quiet games provided that they are not too active. Pool, snooker, and skittles are all examples of games that fall into the category of excessive physical exertion. Anyone who wants to engage in these diversions should visit a pool hall or bowling alley.
Darts, on the other hand, is perhaps the ideal pub sport, being almost indistinguishable from plain straightforward drinking. A game of dominoes is another permissible activity; although, admittedly, without the frisson of danger that accompanies a darts match.
The staff of a pub are the fourth basic ingredient. There is, unfortunately, a recent fashion for friendly barmen and barmaids. This is quite unnecessary and, indeed, can seriously detract from the enjoyment of the drinker. In my opinion, there are few things more uncomfortable than having to make chit-chat with perky bar staff. Pouring beer is a serious job, and employees should have the personality to match.
Former undertakers make very good barmen or barmaids, as do people who have recently been bereaved. A friend of mine used to attend a pub that employed a deaf-mute. He said (that is: my friend said, not the deaf-mute) that this gave the pub just the right level of solemnity. Customers were required to write down their orders on a notepad, but this was only a minor inconvenience in comparison to the non-frivolous atmosphere.
The fifth and final basic ingredient for a good pub is décor. The emphasis in pubs should always be on cosiness: dark colours, comfortable chairs and tables, and understated lighting. Booths are preferable to almost any other arrangement of seating. Decoration should be restricted to a few tasteful paintings: preferably oil, and preferably of nineteenth-century factory exteriors, or similarly sombre subjects. A stuffed fish is a welcome addition to any pub.
It goes without saying that even an empty warehouse is an improvement on those hideous fake-Irish and fake-English pub interiors.
Although such basic ingredients are completely obvious and straightforward, it is shocking that almost no pubs of my acquaintance conform to these standards. In Christchurch, the New Zealand city that I know best, there are several quite good pubs; but, alas, they all have major flaws.
The Twisted Hop, in my opinion, has the best beer in Christchurch. Unfortunately, its interior décor lacks cosiness, and its chairs are instruments of torture (they really should provide an osteopath for their customers). The Dux de Lux, on the other hand, while having good beer and being somewhat cosy, commits multiple sins in terms of sports television, loud recorded music (but also, I concede, good live music) and vegetarians. The Wunderbar in Lyttleton deserves mention for its admirable cosiness, but the beer is very indifferent (the last time I paid a visit, the best they could offer was Speights!).
I'd probably rate the staff club at the University of Canterbury as the best all-round pub in Christchurch -- that is, if it were actually a pub rather than a private club. The beer is perhaps not quite up to the standard that one might hope, but the staff are suitably surly (they treat you like shit, to be perfectly frank), and the décor is excellent. The club is situated in the former home of a murderer and is decorated with appropriately gloomy art.
In fact, now that I think of it, if they got better beer it would almost be enough to tempt me back to the life of an academic.