Once upon a time, before there were COVID restrictions, there were taverns that served small bowls of snacks for its patrons. They were mostly in Wisconsin and Illinois, typically at establishments with limited natural light but ample Natural Light. This custom began as a means to skirt regulations by serving the bare minimum of food to allow for liquor service. Over time, tastes and logistics forced bars to shift from fare like onions to bologna sandwiches to peanuts and other shelf-stable goods, including what I refer to as pub mix.
The term “pub mix” can mean many things. Is it the big clear plastic barrel of snack mix available at your local wholesale club? Something you make for guests at charades night? Or the aforementioned mixture set out in a shallow faux wood bowl as a complementary offering to tipplers? To me, the true pub mix can be all of these, the center of this moderately unhealthy Venn diagram.
But I think we can narrow it down better. I propose that there should be a common criterion for pub mix. It doesn’t need to be as complex as the tax code, but there should be some order. Without a shared definition, pub mix is too ripe for improvisation. Here are my criteria:
- There must be pretzels.
- There should be peanuts. No other nuts are allowed, including coconut.
- There must be at least two crispy cracker-like elements.
- There should be spices beyond just the saltiness of the pretzels, peanuts, or crackers. Not necessarily heat, just some spice variety or umami.
- No dried fruit.
- No chocolate.
- It should be sold at a price range that makes it plausible for pubs to stock the snack.
Adherence to these seven points results in a pub mix. Points five and six are critical, because these additions immediately push it into trail mix or bridge mix territory.
Rather than just state this and leave, I feel like some supporting evidence is in order. So to test my criteria, I reviewed the ingredients of eight different supermarket snack mixes that either had similar names to “pub mix” or were similar to things I have personally seen at a bar. For each item, I assessed its closeness to the platonic ideal as defined by the above criteria.
Components: Beer Nuts Original Peanuts, BBQ “Insane Grain” (cracker), nacho corn sticks, spicy sesame sticks, pretzel nuggets and honey mustard “Spuggets” (twisty-shaped pretzels)
Verdict: This mix balances nacho, barbecue, honey mustard, and spice along with the mildly sweet peanuts and standard pretzel nuggets. The flavors don’t conflict too much if you eat a handful, but they also sing on their own when consumed individually. All the criteria are met here, and the result is a supergroup of salty snacks.
Components: Corn kernels, salted and roasted peanuts, pretzel nuggets, sesame sticks
Verdict: Take away any of the ingredients, and this would fall to the bottom of the list as it no longer would be pub mix. But taken as a whole, the sesame sticks offer just enough contrast against the saltiness of the remaining ingredients. This is the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe of pub mixes. But at close to $7 for a 12-ounce bag, it’s expensive. Could I picture a tavern in Wauwatosa serving Harry and David snack mix? I cannot, which is enough to keep it barely out of the top spot.
Ingredients: honey-roasted peanuts, cheddar crackers, salted corn chips with flax, honey mustard pretzels, honey-roasted sesame sticks, chili lemon sticks
Verdict: This is similar to the Beer Nuts mix with some different flavor elements. Honey-roasted peanuts provide a strong note of sweet against salt, which frankly is okay in a mix like this. (Chocolate is never okay, but sugar is acceptable.) The cheese crackers look like whales, which is adorable. But again, this one comes at a steep price—close to $11 for 7 ounces—which knocks it down a peg.
Components: Rice Crackers, Pretzels, Honey Sesame Chips, Cajun Corn Sticks, Chili Cheese Corn Jax, and Wasabi Peas
Verdict: As poker is not bridge, poker mix is not bridge mix. But in this case, poker mix is pub mix. I love the spice of wasabi peas and the light crispiness of rice crackers. Despite this mix’s absence of peanuts I kept the score high because of the interplay of all the other ingredients. At $9 for 24 ounces, the cost is in line with the Beer Nuts mix and cheaper than the other artisan mixes listed above.
Components: Honey Mustard and Cheddar Cheese Twistix, Honey Roasted Sesame Chips, Oriental Rice Crackers, Pretzel Stix, Nacho Bagel Chips, Worcestershire Rye Chips
Verdict: Utz produces the affordable big barrel you can find at discount stores, and I’m surprised it didn’t score higher. But the absence of peanuts is a costly mark against this mix. The cheesy elements and numerous crispy elements almost fully compensate for the peanuts’ absence, and honey mustard, cheddar, and Worcestershire together offer an enjoyable spice profile. But there are no peanuts.
Components: Wheat Chex, Corn Chex, Worcestershire rye chips, pretzels, “squiggly” mini breadsticks
Verdict: There are overlapping ingredients between this recipe and the next entry on the list, notably the squiggly breadsticks and the Worcestershire rye chips, but Chex make great crispy elements, given its ability to trap seasoning inside their shells. Also, I should clarify that this is the pre-bagged Chex Mix available at your local grocery store, not “Original Chex Party Mix”, the recipe on the side of a Chex box. The homemade version would score much higher on this list due to the inclusion of peanuts and the exclusion of squiggly breadsticks.
Components: Two shapes of breadsticks (one cylindrical, one the same length but squiggled), Worcestershire rye chips, traditionally-shaped pretzels, short pretzel sticks.
Gardetto’s original recipe used to have a short, nubby breadstick with sesame seeds on it. These are sorely missed in this current blend, which seems to be mainly breadsticks and pretzels cut in different ways. The one-note spice, lack of textural variation, and absence of peanuts push this far down the list. It’s pretty affordable, though.
Ingredients: rice crackers, corn nuts, hot cajun sticks, peanuts, and praline pepitas
This is the only entry that did not satisfy the criteria for pub mix. Its cardinal sin is breaking rule one: there must be pretzels. This is a harsh penalty for something that, flavor-wise, is fantastic: a spicy, tomatoey crispy blend is counterbalanced with sweet seeds that compels you to go for another handful. Perhaps the makers had enough sense to recognize this isn’t a “pub mix,” which is why it’s billed as a “snack nut mix.”
Patterns among the sampled mixes here reveal that maybe there’s a universal standard for pub mixes after all. I sought snacks that had some semblance of “bar mix” or some likeness of snacks I’ve had in a bar, and surprisingly the criteria held up pretty well. This should empower home cooks and entrepreneurs to color within these lines and think of the next great pub mix. Just don’t skip those pretzels.