Saturday, 15 February 2014

Beerfuddled in Brum - Ten of the Best

While the New Year seems to have been hijacked with resolutions of detoxing and ditching the pub for the gym, I always feel it's the perfect season to stay off the wagon, banish the late winter blues with a pint by the fire and try and help keep some of this fair land's historic hostelries afloat. Or so I tell myself when I realise I'm half cut early on a weekday afternoon...

Thankfully there are no shortage of options for good drinking in Birmingham, with the generic Walkabouts and Spoons that line Broad Street - proudly advertising their toxic neon shots, cheap lager and student nights -  being easily bypassed for the charms of some of the magnificent back street boozers that pepper the Second City. 

First stop on our 'Top 10 tour' was the Craven Arms, handily just around the corner from our hotel. Originally owned by Holder's Brewery, it's a resplendent looking building, with its smart red brickwork and bright gold and blue Majolica tiling that decorates the exterior.

The Craven has recently been taken over by Black Country Ales (based in Dudley), and as well as serving a trilogy of their beers there are nine more, regularly rotating, real ales on tap, with plenty of rare and unusual drops to be found from breweries across the country.

I started with a Black Country Pig on the Wall, followed by a pint of the Fireside, while the Ewing chose apint of the Black Iris Rye IPA followed by of the Brodie's Pumpkin Porter (thankfully she only wanted a half, as it worked out twice as expensive as the others, at a whopping £7.20 a pint).

All beers were in fine condition, although we ended up swapping our first pints as I preferred the banana bread and and spice from the IPA, while the Ewing liked the liquorice and caramel flavour of the dark mild. 

While the beer was top-notch, I'm not sure we ate anything better on the whole trip than the home made cobs (roll, bap, barmcake, tea cake, bun etc.) kept on the bar. While I was sad we weren't going to be around for the local pork pie delivery - available every Thursday from 6.00 - these more than made up for it.

One with Sparkenhoe Red Leicester and red onion and one Blacky ham and Colman's mustard cut in half and washed down with beer and the football results. A perfect trilogy. The Craven is a wonderful pub, and the perfect antithesis for the sterile hub of rampant commercialism that is the Mailbox complex next door. A must stop for any beer lover.

Although we had Saturday evening date with a balti there was still time for one more drink and the next stop on the tour was the nearby subterranean Post Office Vaults, at the top of New Street in the town centre. 

As the name suggests, this underground drinking den was once the place you came to buy stamps and weigh parcels, but is now home to a bar that stocks over 327 different bottled beers - one of the largest selections in the country. A selection of different bottles, as well as dried hops and old photographs of Brum line the walls, and they've also got some nice Belgian beer prints.

We arrived just after the match had finished, and there was a veritable scrum to get anywhere near the bar. The result must have been the right one though, and despite the squeeze the banter was friendly and welcoming. A shout out to the two ladies manning the bar too, possibly the most clued-up service of all the places we visited.

With such a range of libations, there should be something here to suit everyone. We stuck to the cask ale, with a pint of the Byatt's Big Cat, a 4% bitter from Coventry, for me, while the Ewing chose another local brew, the Beowulf Killer Stout from Brownhills in Staffordshire, clocking in at a whopping 7.9% - something she had neglected to notice when choosing but quickly realised on the first, treacle-like, mouthful. 

This was a bruiser of a beer, dark and thick with the notes of coffee and leather and just the thing to set us up for our curry at Al Frash in Sparkbrook.

The following morning dawned fresh and bright, and luckily we both, somehow, felt much the same. First stop was the, Nicholson owned, Shakespeare Inn on Summer Row (confusingly, they also own another pub called the Shakespeare on Temple Street).

The Shakespeare Inn is a handsome Victorian pub on the edge of the Jewellery quarter. Birmingham was the centre of the British jewellery trade in the mid-nineteenth century, and many local gold and silversmiths would have called to quench their thirst; although, on a Sunday morning there was little sign of any craftsmen, save for a few harmless piss-artists already propping up the bar.

The interior is rather charming, in a pleasingly old fashioned way, with its dark wood panelling, flock wallpaper and mis-matched furniture. The front area is bright and open, but there is a warren of hidden rooms and alcoves at the back, if you'd prefer to have a more private rendezvous.

First beer of the day turned out to be my favourite drop on the whole trip, a pint of Pure Ubu from the Purity Brewing Company in Warwickshire. This creamy amber ale, with hints of orange, malt and toffee, proved the perfect breakfast beer.

The Ewing also enjoyed her libation, a spicy Nicholson's bloody Mary; tomato juice and vodka topped off with a draught of their own pale ale.

For a fiver, including a pot of tea and toast The Shakespeare's fry up was a decent effort - being possibly, along with the Sunday roast, the hardest thing to nail properly, with so many permutations and combinations of what makes up the quintessential English breakfast.

Here everything was present and correct, properly cooked and served hot; the sausages were peppered with the pleasant pop of mustard seeds; butter was the real deal; and the bacon was crisp-edged and smoky. I can't comment on the eggs, being an avowed avoider, but the Ewing ate her brace, then my two as well, so they must have passed muster. too.

After an afternoon spent enjoying a bottle of the eponymous Electric Ale and a home made chocolate cookie, while watching the Wolf of Wall Street at the nearby Electric cinema, we popped over the road for further libations at the Victoria 'Theatre Bar and Deep South Diner'.

The Ewing really liked this place, big sofas, nice and toasty, and some Southern-inspired food (their Cajun roast was on the Indy's 50 best list) from the Soul Food Project. Chance of a roast however were scuppered with early closing for their works do, luckily there was still plenty of time to enjoy a libation.

I eschewed the beer for a Red Snapper; a hangover lifting libation that mixed Beefeater gin with all the standard bloody mary accoutrements, substituting the more commonplace Tabasco with a few shakes of the blistering Louisiana hot sauce, and all garnished with a celery stalk - often cited as an annoying distraction, that threatens to stab you in the eye as you sup, but here proving a fibre and vitamin filled bonus.

The Ewing went with the Victorian lemonade, an almond and absinthe infused, gin-based beverage that was part of their two for one Sunday cocktail deal. Although she only wanted one drink the, very friendly and very persuasive, bar staff were insistent on adding double measures of alcohol so she wouldn't miss out.

The night demanded one more drink, and while the comfy sofas and warmth of the Victoria threatened to lull us into another round, I insisted we tried another hostelry. Unfortunately, rather like the Victoria before, both the Old Joint Stock opposite the cathedral and the Old Contemptibles by Snow Hill Station, were closed early for renovation/belated staff parties.

Undeterred we trekked to the Queens Arms, a handsome looking pub with a ornate mirrored bar stocked with a huge range of sprits and a decent, if small, selection of cask ales, and boasting a menu of local Lashford sausages and Moons pies.

While we had just missed the cut off time for food, a story that was becoming familiar, the bar was thankfully still open and it gave us the opportunity to partake in one of my favourite Black Country snack; a packet of 'Quarters', or Mr Porky's scratchings for the uninitiated.

These crispy lumps of pig fat and skin (maybe some bristles, if you're lucky) are one of my guiltiest pleasure, and sharing a bag, alongside a pint of Purity's Mad Goose Pale Ale was the perfect treat. Probably could have done with Gary Neville's dulcet tones blaring at a volume slightly lower than deafening from the screens playing Super Sunday, though.

First stop on Monday was to Hockley's Lord Clifden. Despite many trips to Brum, I'd never made it this far North into the Jewellery Quarter, but after looking through some Birmingham pub round-ups, good reviews of the Clifden gave me hope that it would be worth crossing town for.

While its smartly painted grey frontage looks fairly anonymous from the street, inside the Clifden it's a lot brighter. The pub advertises itself as a UAB (urban art bar), with the likes of Banksy, D*Face, Nick Walker and Army Lion colouring the walls. There is also famed garden area, complete with it's own separate bar, table football and ping pong tables and space for outdoor barbecues in the summer.

I had a pint of their house beer, the UAB Rotten Ale, complete with Johnny's sneering face on the pump clip. A decent drop. The Ewing had a floral and fruity pint of Matrix from the Salopian Brewery, both well kept and sufficiently thirst-slaking.

If you fancy a lager, the Lord Clifden also offers Estella Galicia, dispensed from it's brightly painted ceramic tap, and Budvar in regular, dark, half and half and wheat varieties.

The, not very great, pictures belies the greatness of our lunch; proper beer-absorbing, grub. Between us we chose the roast pork, apple sauce and stuffing bap, doused in gravy and served with crispy chips, and the home made fish finger sandwich, with tartare sauce and served on proper white doorstop bread.

It's been a while since I have had a fish finger sarnie, and this was a very good one. They also have a special link to Brum for me, as Stealth's house mates when she was at uni here used to whip up a round for lunch when ever I came to stay. Value bread, value fishsticks and lashings of mayo and ketchup; nothing tasted better to an impoverished student. 

Next was the Rose Villa Tavern in the heart of Hockley. An imposing pub, built in the 1920's and still retaining many of its original features, including an inglenook fireplace in the snug and smart cream and white tiling by Carter's of Poole (later Poole Pottery), which can also be seen in many London tube stations.

Since 2011 this has been a Bitters'n'Twisted venue (with six venues across town, including the Victoria) and as well as bringing the pbubback to it's former glory, they have ditched the alco-pops and lager to bring back a range of ales and craft brews, as well as, the ubiquitous and on trend, cocktail list and a diner style menu.

This turnned out to be the tipping point of our afternoon - when the Ewing and I, considering our evening dinner reservation at Purnell's Bistro, had to decide whether to go hard or go home. Of course, we went with the latter and I got stuck into the local Two Towers Brewery's Bhacker Ackhams, a thick and malty chocolate stout served in a dimpled pint pot.

We grabbed a spot at the back of the bar on a couple of high-backed church pews, which set the quasi-religious experience perfectly when combined with the late afternoon sun streaming through the ornate stained glass windows. A handsome and welcoming place to drink.

the Rose Villa Tavern on Urbanspoon

Last stop in the Jewellery Quarter was the Red Lion, sister pub of the Lorn Clifden. I had a Ruby Moby, from the Whale Ale brewery on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border; although, if it had been a few degrees warmer - even sat in front of roaring coal fire in the lounge - the Thatcher's frozen ' cider slushy' they keep on tap may have tempted.

The menu is very similar to the Clifden, ranging from the Brummie Breakfast - full works complete with steak and sauteed potatoes - through to Latchford's faggots, gravy and peas. At their Cow Club on Monday buying two steaks will also get you a bottle of wine gratis. 

As with the Lord Clifden, service was chirpy and welcoming and both seemed deservedly popular, even on a cold, post-Christmas Monday afternoon.

The Red Lion on Urbanspoon

With time for one last stop before our dinner at Purnell's Bistro, we returned to try our luck at the Old Joint Stock. This time they were open, and we had the opportunity to see the ornate interior from the inside, instead of trying to give the Ewing a shin up in front of the huge picture windows as we had the previous evening.

This grade two listed building was Designed by local architect Julius Alfred Chatwin (who also had a hand in Birmingham Cathedral, directly opposite) and was originally a library, before being converted into a bank. It has now been reincarnated as a Fullers pub, and the second floor hosts a custom designed, fully fitted, 80 seat theatre space staging a wide range of productions from Shakespeare to stand up comedy.

Refreshment came in the form of a pint of Frontier Lager for me and an Oyster stout for the Ewing. My first and only glass of the fizzy stuff on the whole trip, their new lager is, apparently, 'hand-crafted over 42 days combining the best of old world malts and 168 years of brewing knowledge' and was just the innocuous thirst-quencher I needed. 

A very nice place for a jar or two, plus gorgeous views both from the ornate interior and out across to Birmingham Cathedral. And, as a 'pie and ale house', you can be sure of some filling food, including a locally-influenced sausage, chickpea and balti pie

Our final stop on our last morning, after a visit to the Bullring market for Seville oranges and the world's most expensive papaya , was a visit to the Wellington on Bennett's Hill.

There's a huge choice of beers here, with the ones on tap (usually 16) displayed on screens around the pub which list their name; the brewery, including if they're local; and rating - ranging from from A for the lightest pale ale, A to E for heavy stouts and porters.

Back to the serious business of the beer and, coming full circle from our first stop at The Craven Arms, I had a pint of Black Country Ales. This time it was the Bradley's Finest Golden, a simple, hoppy and refreshing bitter with a lick of sweetness.

With such a range of ales, they encourage ordering by number listed against each beer - I guess this speeds things up at busy times - but we managed to somehow bypass the protocol and just pointed at the pump clips in the the regular way.

The Welly, and sister pub the Post Office Vaults, doesn't offer food, but they are more than happy for patrons to bring there own, and will even provide plates and cutlery. Fortuitously, our route took us past Temple Row, and the famous Habanero Van, selling burritos, salads, tacos and (alcohol free) margaritas to the lucky lunchers of Birmingham.

My light and refreshing choice of beverage turned out to be a good call, as the chicken tinga burrito with peach habernero sauce and jalepenos was nuclear in its heat levels. Again, showing symetry with the cobs at The Craven Arms, it was also one of the best things I ate on the trip. The Ewing, normally a avowed burrito doubter, was equally pleased with her de-constructed burrito box; all the ingredients, this time with pulled pork and guacomole, this time served minus the wrap. Certainly worth a try if your in the area, although only masochists need apply to try their under the counter extra hot sauce.

So, Brum; we came, we drank, we drank some more. So with (famously) more canals than Venice; a brand spanking new, and very impressive, library; the glittering Bullring; a Walk of Stars that boasts such luminaries as Jasper Carrot, Noddy Holder and Nigel Mansell; and, of course, some cracking pubs; there's no better time to visit for a jar (or two).


  1. Brilliant Brummie beverage sellers....can vouch for The Lord Clifden the Welly, the Red Lion (both Urban Art Bars) and the Craven Arms......not so sure about the Post Office Vaults......a dump some years ago......a plea for The Woodman opposite Curzon Street Station and Millennium and beer excellent and food so cheap and such good value IMHO....

  2. Next time you'll have to try the Bartons Arms! Never actually been myself but it is something of a Birmingham institution, parents still rave about it - and there's supposed to be a decent Thai kitchen. Not far out of town - in Newtown. There's also a theatre next door (the Drum)! Anna x

  3. Been there brill Brummie pub......betcha dain't know that Charlie Chaplin stayed there when he appeared at The Aston Hippodrome (The Drum) in the early 1900's before he became a movie star and the 'Most famous Man in the World' with his little black bowler hat, ill-fitting suit and cane.....? Another 'Chaplinesque Brummie Factoid' is that according to a letter found in Chaplin's Swiss archive when he died in 1980, Chaplin himself was born to a 'Gypsy Queen' in a Gypsy Caravan on 'The Black Patch' in Smethwick, right opposite Matthew Boulton and James Watt's SOHO Foundry, where they powered the industrial revolution with Watt's steam engines......The fact is Chaplin's early life is shrouded in mystery with no-one ever having sight of his birth certificate......He was thought to be an East End Jew of European origins, but no-one really knows.....and for all we know 'The Most Famous Man in the World' who founded the United Artists Film Company was born in Birmingham (or the Black Country to be strictly accurate as The Black Patch is in Smerrick!!!!!

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  5. Many thanks for all the comments and suggestions. Interested to try the Bartons Arms and the Woodman, they both sound sound like the perfect places to lose an afternoon. It seems like a return visit is already in order!