Back to the pub…

For the first time in months, I went to a bar on Friday night. As I have written before, I have more or less stopped drinking as I could not stand the hangovers any longer. But I was curious to try the new Guinness 0.0 so off we went to the Errigle on the Ormeau Road.

As I was going to try the non-alcoholic beer I was able to drive. As we have discussed, getting a taxi these days is very difficult. Being able to drive yourself is a big plus of staying sober, not to mention saving £15 in taxi fares.

I spent a great deal of my 20s in the Errigle, often 3 nights a week. I always preferred the quiet Oak Lounge at the bar; it was guaranteed you would meet someone you knew or fall into conversation with someone interesting. Friends who lived nearby once told me they worked out that they spent more in the Oak Lounge than on their mortgage – the joys of freedom before kids.

We got there early, about 6:30pm. Another concession to age is I can’t hack late nights anyway. The bar was busy enough and the door staff were making people wear masks as well as assigning tables. We got a table in the Oak Lounge and put the order in for one real Guinness and one fake one. To go off on a mini-rant: the Oak Lounge has never been the same since they took the carpet away. I know a wooden floor is easier to keep clean but without the carpet, it is harder to hear conversations as there are more hard surfaces.

A pint is now £5.20 in the Errigle, a figure which will make many of you spit out your tea in shock. £5.75 for a pint of Heverlee and Guinness Zero was £5. It is a far cry from £1 pints in the Queen’s Students Union.

The Guinness 0.0 is actually quite good. It is a bit like decaf coffee or tea in that you know something is missing, but it is 80% similar. If you are driving or just want to take it easy, it is a good choice. In bars, they serve it from special cans so if you are wondering can you do a half Guinness 0.0 then top it up with the real thing the answer is no. Personally, I would prefer a lower strength Guinness but I know they tried this and it never took off. Weirdly I still got a bit of a hangover the next morning; Guinness also seems to wreck my stomach even in small quantities. I am thinking of trying Gin the next time as I suspect beer no longer agrees with me for whatever reason.

YouTube video

The key problem is like the alcohol-free Guinness, the craic has also been taken out of bars. Everyone is at their separate tables, together but apart. Gone are the random chats in the toilets, gone are the ‘do you mind if we sit here’ that leads to a night of great chat with new friends. There is a certain tension in the air, that is hard to shake.

To be honest I would be in no rush back to a pub. I prefer to meet people for lunch, coffee or a walk. I can get a 2-course lunch in the Bengal Brasserie for less than the price of 2 pints, an absolute no brainer of a choice. A night out in Belfast could easily cost you £100. To be fair outside Belfast things are more reasonable, I paid only £3.60 for a pint in Ballycastle the other month.

Pubs are an important part of our culture. While I have issues with the quantity of alcohol our society consumes I think it is better for mental health that people drink in bars rather than getting full on their own in front of the TV. In Belfast, there are questions over the fact that a few key players control most of the bars. I would prefer to see smaller, quicker venues emerge. I was lucky to be around the scene when the great Chris Roddy was active, he had some mad bars over the years. By blocking innovation and new entrants the hospitality industry will be the cause of its own demise.