England's Real Ale Renaissance
From London to York, Wainfleet to Titley, England is in the midst of a cask ale revolution.
Story and Photos by Owen Ogletree
When asked to describe the essence of Britain, a stodgy English statesman replied recently, “tea and biscuits.” Many members of Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) responded immediately with a resounding cry of “balderdash!” Compared to cask-conditioned “real ale,” which originated in the British Isles before pagan times, tea is a relatively recent import. What could be more quintessentially British than an authentic English ale in a personable, comfortable English pub?
In stark contrast to soulless, fizzy, kegged beers that almost took over England in the 1970’s, traditional real ale (a.k.a. cask ale or cask-conditioned ale) springs from the profoundly English tradition of racking young, unfiltered beer with yeast, hints of residual sugar and finings into sealed metal or wooden casks. A typical English pub stocks 10.8-gallon casks called “firkins” that are filled with ale served by gravity spout or hand pump. Real ale travels from brewery to glass without pasteurization or the addition of artificial carbon dioxide gas, and the beer evolves in interesting ways over a day or two of serving, due to interaction with air in the cask.
A true craft beer revolution now packs a full head of steam in England. But unlike the “extreme beer” craze in the United States, Britain’s rapidly expanding crop of microbreweries pride themselves on their production of elegant session beers with lower alcohol contents and light carbonation levels yet pleasing malt, hop and fermentation characters. England’s best real ale pubs usually offer citrusy, hoppy golden ales; amber, caramely classic English bitters; brown mild ales with very low alcohol levels; black, roasty porters and stouts; and the occasional potent old ale or barleywine. And as opposed to Belgian or German beers that are popular in America, English cask ale is usually far too delicate and perishable to make the long voyage across the pond.
Classic pubs make up a cherished social hub in England, but don’t expect to find real ale in just any old pub – it’s best to rely on guides such as CAMRA’s annual “Good Beer Guide,” which lists 4,500 of Britain’s best pubs. While less comprehensive than CAMRA’s yearly take, what follows is a look at some of England’s best places to experience the glory of real ale firsthand.
Most visits to England begin in the sprawling metropolis of London, and no better city exists in which to experience an immense variety of traditional real ale pubs. Grab a map and a one-day tube pass and head directly to the Market Porter. Situated just across the street from the famed Borough Market, Market Porter offers a huge range of excellent cask ales from the best regional craft breweries. A 15-minute walk from Market Porter brings pub explorers to the endearing Royal Oak, serving up the exceptional range of ales from the venerable Harvey’s Brewery in nearby Sussex.
Hop the tube again, head north of the Thames to the Holborn areaand witness the Victorian grandeur of the Princess Louise pub. Now owned by Samuel Smith, this pub serves the outstanding Samuel Smith Old Brewery Bitter from antique oak casks. The craftsmanship of the oak bar and gorgeous tilework make the Princess Louise one of London’s most well-preserved historic pubs – the porcelain urinals even hold a preservation order.
Next, walk east to Ye Olde Mitre, an old-fashioned alehouse tucked away on a tiny sidestreet in the jewelry center of the city. Mitre offers six to eight outstanding real ales in a small front bar, as well as a lounge space in the back. During the week of the Great British Beer Festival each August, this pint-size pub holds its own beer festival, with an impressive array of firkins rotating through the hand-pump taps. Also squeeze in a visit to the nearby Lamb, just a few blocks from Russell Square. Aside from the delectable cask ales from Wells & Young’s, take note of the ornate, rotating “snob screens” at the bar that once allowed Victorian patrons to order a quick pint without being noticed by customers in a less affluent area of the pub.
Arriving at London’s Euston Station, seek out Fuller’s Doric Arch train-themed pub just outside the main terminal. A few blocks away sits the marvelous Bree Louise. The owners, Craig and Karen Douglas, bought this rather run-down pub three years ago and converted it into a cask ale mecca. Cask racks in the back right corner of the bar house around 12 to 13 hard-to-find real ales on simple gravity pour, with the main bar sporting a half dozen traditional hand-pump taps. Order three or four half-pints at a time and enjoy a tasting comparison.
Nestled near the northern London neighborhood of Islington, the strictly unpretentious Wenlock Arms pub should not be missed. The owners and managers adore real ales and make a point to always have a thorough selection on tap, including a mild and at least one barrel-conditioned, unpasteurized cask cider. Octogenarians play the pub’s piano on many nights for the jolly crowd of regulars.
Near Notting Hill Gate, Churchill Arms dishes out some of London’s best Thai food –made by a Thai family working in the back kitchen – alongside pints of Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter, London Pride and ESB. A few blocks from the Farringdon tube stop, the rustic Jerusalem Tavern serves as London’s only pub outlet for the unique ales from Suffolk’s St. Peter’s Brewery. Bricklayer’s Arms, in the Putney area, won CAMRA’s Greater London Pub of the Year award in 2009 and proudly stocks the entire range of cask beers from the renowned Timothy Taylor Brewery in northern England. Be sure to sample the Taylor Mild Ale and Landlord, the winner of Grand Champion Beer of Britain a few years back.
Fuller’s Griffin Brewery, London’s last family-owned, independent cask ale production facility, has manufactured traditional English ales in the London suburb of Chiswick since 1845. Visitors experience a blend of traditional and modern brewing methods, and cask ale samples in the brewery’s Hock Cellar and Mawson Arms pub top off the experience in delicious form. Advance tour booking at Fuller’s Web site (www.fullers.co.uk) is advised.
Berkshire & Oxfordshire
The Bell Inn in rural Aldworth is often called the finest pub in all of England. Owned by the same family for more than 250 years, the Bell serves up a friendly welcome, a superb range of cask ales and delicious crusty rolls filled with home-baked ham, ox tongue or local cheddar cheese. And the outdoor men’s room of the Bell – nicknamed “the planetarium” – lacks a ceiling. A short drive from the Bell is the Royal Oak in Wantage. A true friend of cask ale, the pub’s landlord, Paul Hexter, even has a local beer named after him. The runner-up for CAMRA’s 2010 National Pub of the Year, Royal Oak’s casks prove so popular with patrons that there’s even a secret backroom with special firkins on gravity tap.
A showcase brewery near the scenic Cotswolds, Hook Norton drips with history, atmosphere and bang-on cask ales. Much of Hook Norton’s equipment, including its old steam engine, dates back 100 years or more, and the brewery employs elderly neighbors to conduct brewery tours and tastings. Hook Norton bottles their Hooky Gold, Old Hooky, Double Stout and 12 Days Christmas ale for occasional import to the United States.
Burton and the Northeast
Since 1834, in the traditional brewing town of Burton-on-Trent, Marston’s Brewery has utilized the local hard water in production of exceptional ales, like Marston’s Pedigree. Grand oak barrels, known as “Burton Unions,” house a portion of the fermentation process, and this anachronistic system also employs unique swan-neck pipes to harvest excess yeast. Brewery tours and tastings are organized through Marston’s Visitors’ Center (be sure to call ahead). When in Burton, also make time to visit the new National Brewery Centre museum, set to open this summer. The original Museum of Brewing on this site, formerly the Bass Museum, closed in 2008 after being rebranded by Coors, which took over the Bass facility.
Nottingham, the legendary lair of Robin Hood and his merry men,now boasts a thriving pub culture. Excellent public houses such as the Lincolnshire Poacher, Canalhouse, Kean’s Head and VAT & Fiddle (the Castle Rock Brewery tap) make for a lively afternoon pub crawl. The city’s Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub dates from around 1189 and has sections cut into the bedrock under Nottingham Castle. The cellar once served as a prison dungeon, and the glass-enclosed Cursed Galleon model ship upstairs has not been cleaned or touched by human hands for many years.
Bateman’s family brewery, on the eastern coast of Lincolnshire in the small town of Wainfleet, offers a delightful tour experience, complete with a gift shop, a windmill pub, a bistro, an artifacts room, pub games and a brewery museum. The entire region seems completely enamored by Bateman’s “Good Honest Ales.”
The old industrial steel town of Sheffield now provides enthusiastic cask ale imbibers a rich selection of top pubs, including the enchanting Kelham Island Tavern (CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year for the past two years). Just around the corner from the tavern sits the Kelham Island Brewery and its associated Fat Cat Pub, home of the award-winning Pale Rider Ale. Thornbridge, another local brewery, began life in a toolshed behind a hillside manor house overlooking Sheffield. Visit the beautiful Coach & Horses, as well as the Sheffield Tap railway pub, to sample the delicious range of Thornbridge cask beers, including Jaipur, an IPA with citrusy hops backed by complex English malts. Featuring a dozen hand-pump taps behind the bar, Sheffield’s Devonshire Cat should also be part of any Sheffield crawl.
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery, in the York suburb of Tadcaster, produces an exceptional range of English ales, with the sole cask ale being their classic bitter, which is still kept in ancient oak firkins maintained by the brewery’s cooper. Extremely guarded and proud of its long heritage, Samuel Smith’s does not offer public tours, but the brewery’s splendid Angel & White Horse pub welcomes all.
York’s origins may be rooted deeply in violent Viking history, but the scenic town now offers locals and tourists an extremely pedestrian-friendly backdrop for sightseeing and pub crawling. Take a tour, offered daily, of the small York Brewery and sample their beloved Yorkshire Terrier, Centurian’s Ghost and Guzzler ales. York’s finest pubs include the Three Legged Mare, Tap & Spile, Maltings, Swan, Yorkshire Terrier and Rook & Gaskill.
Manchester to Merseyside
Manchester is home to one of England’s best cask ale brewpubs, Marble Arch, whose tiny brewhouse cranks out a tantalizing bitter, a stout, a porter and even a golden ale with ginger. Manchester’s other top real ale destinations include the Angel gastropub, the award-winning City Arms, Lass o’ Gowrie, Old Wellington, Smithfield Hotel, J.W. Lees’ Rain Bar, New Oxford and the acclaimed Crown Inn in nearby Stockport. Don’t think of visiting Manchester without taking a short train ride to nearby Stalybridge, where the iconic Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar, situated right on the train platform, offers 10 cask-conditioned ales, Victorian charm and four rooms filled with rail memorabilia.
The new brewery construction currently underway at Moorhouse’s in Burnley stands as a testament to the popularity of the traditional microbrewery’s Black Cat, Pendle Witches Brew, Premier Bitter, Pride of Pendle and Blond Witch, all of which may be sampled at the cozy General Scarlett brewery pub across the street.
A short drive west from Moorhouse’s puts the beer traveler squarely into Thwaites country. The huge, old Thwaites facility in Blackburn produces subtle yet quite elegant session beers, such as Original Bitter, Nutty Black Mild, Bomber and Wainwright golden ale. Some bottled versions even make it to the States. The short journey from Blackburn across the hilly moors to Thwaites’ Grey Mare pub seems a small price to pay to partake of the delightful atmosphere, welcoming landlord and full range of cask ales alongside scrumptious English comfort food.
Beatles fans still flock to Liverpool on the banks of the River Mersey to visit the Beatles Story Museum and taverns where the group first performed. Real ale fans make the journey to Liverpool to enjoy the fine beers from the local Robert Cain Brewery, offering daily brewery tours and an eclectic range of pubs throughout the city. Sip a pint of Cain’s Finest Brewery Bitter in the local favorite Dispensary, enjoy a nutty Cain’s Dark Mild inside the ornate, pharmacological-themed Doctor Duncan’s, and warm up to a hoppy Cain’s IPA at the friendly brewery tap. Also worth a look-see in Liverpool are the marvelous house beers of the Baltic Fleet brewpub, the Eric Robertson antique wall murals at Peter Kavanagh’s, the sandwiches, salads and casks of the Everyman Bistro (on the lower floor of Everyman Theatre), the gaudy men’s room of the Philharmonic, a favorite pub of John Lennon, and the huge cask range at the Ship & Mitre.
Central England and Herefordshire
Every once in a while when traveling in England, an exceptional pub immediately makes an indelible impression. Peter Arden’s Cock Hotel in Wellington is one such place. Arden runs the pub with love and a very personal touch, serving up a tremendous range of eight top-notch real ales and a traditional cider from the surrounding districts. The old coaching pub has occupied this space since the early 18th century, with the only major change over the years being the addition of a Belgian-themed room.
Judges at Manchester’s 2009 National Winter Ales Festival awarded first place in the Old Ale/Strong Mild category to Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Ale from the Sarah Hughes Brewery in Sedgley, West Midlands. Visitors to Sarah Hughes can sample the brewery’s entire range of malty ales at the adjacent Beacon Hotel pub. This gorgeous Victorian-era pub features a tiny serving area just inside the front doors, a variety of comfortable sitting rooms and a backyard beer garden.
Hobsons Mild shocked lovers of English real ale in 2007, when it was awarded the Grand Champion Beer of Britain prize at the Great British Beer Festival. A modest but flavorful brown ale of only 3.2 percent alcohol, Hobsons Mild originates from a craft brewery founded in Shropshire in 1993 in a former sawmill. The brewery moved recently to an attractive new space on a farm near Cleobury Mortimer, and to insure freshness, Hobsons ships its real ales only within a roughly 50-mile radius. The Kings Arms pub in Cleobury Mortimer serves as its brewery tap.
The English beer writer Tim Webb says that, “Herefordshire is God’s own country – really the last bit of England that is still England.” The district offers lovely countryside, appealing small towns and charming pubs with local cask ales from the Wye Valley Brewery. Wye Valley’s owner, Peter Amor, made it his mission over the last several years to establish an exceptional regional craft brewery in Herefordshire. Confirming his success, Wye Valley’s Bitter, Hereford Pale Ale, Butty Bach and various seasonals and bottled selections, like the robust Dorothy Goodbody Stout, seem ubiquitous in the best pubs throughout the district.
Herefordshire also contains some of England’s best farmhouse cideries. Dunkertons Cider shop, located on an apple farm just outside Leominster, is a classic example, offering tastes and take-away bottles, including excellent vintage varieties. Many pubs in the region serve complex, unfiltered, unpasteurized “cask” ciders from wooden or plastic barrels.
Using CAMRA’s “Good Beer Guide,” plan day trips to the small towns surrounding Hereford to sample cask ales at the best classic pubs. Highlights include Wye Valley’s Barrels tap in Hereford; the award-winning, cask ale-focused Green Dragon in Bishops Frome; Chequers and Bell Inn in Leominster; and the remarkable, rural and recently restored Live & Let Live near Bringsty Common. Also be certain to savor a gourmet meal at the Stagg Inn near Titley – this welcoming pub, restaurant and hotel boasts phenomenal cuisine and three real ales from Hobsons. Herefordshire truly embodies the best of rural English pub culture.
If you’re headed across the pond to England, be sure you seek out real ale at these standout breweries and pubs:
Market Porter 9 Stoney Street, SE1
Royal Oak 44 Tabard Street, Borough SE1 Princess Louise 208-209 High Holborn, WC1V
Ye Olde Mitre Ely Court, Holborn, EC1N
The Lamb 94 Lambs Conduit Street, WC1N
Doric Arch 1 Eversholt Street, Euston, NW1
Bree Louise 69 Cobourg Street, NW1
Wenlock Arms 26 Wenlock Road, N1
Churchill Arms 119 Kensington Church St., W8
Jerusalem Tavern 55 Britton Street, EC1M
Bricklayer’s Arms Putney, SW15
Fuller’s Griffin Brewery www.fullers.co.uk
Berkshire & Oxfordshire
Bell Inn Bell Lane, Aldworth, Berkshire, RG8
Royal Oak www.royaloakwantage.co.uk
Hook Norton Brewery
Burton & the Northeast
National Brewery Centre
Lincolnshire Poacher 161-163 Mansfield Road,
Canalhouse 48-52 Canal Street, Nottingham, NG1
Kean’s Head 46 St. Mary’s Gate, Nottingham, NG1
VAT & Fiddle 12-14 Queen’s Bridge Road,
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem
Bateman’s Brewery www.bateman.co.uk
Kelham Island Tavern
Kelham Island Brewery / Fat Cat Pub
Coach & Horses Sheffield Road, Dronfield, S18
Sheffield Tap Sheffield Station, Sheaf Street, Sheffield, S1
Devonshire Cat www.devonshirecat.co.uk
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery/ Angel &
White Horse Pub High Street, Tadcaster, LS2
York Brewery www.york-brewery.co.uk
Three Legged Mare 15 High Petergate, York, YO1
Tap & Spile 29 Monkgate, York, YO31
Maltings Tanners Moat, York, YO1
Swan 16 Bishopgate Street, York, YO23
Yorkshire Terrier 10 Stonegate, York, YO1
Rook & Gaskill 12 Lawrence Street, York, YO10
Manchester to Merseyside
Marble Arch 73 Rochdale Road, Manchester, M4
Angel 6 Angel Street, Manchester, M4
City Arms 46 Kennedy Street, Manchester, M2
Lass o’ Gowrie 36 Charles Street, Manchester, M1
Old Wellington 4 Cathedral Gates, Manchester, M3
Smithfield Hotel 37 Swan Street, Manchester, M4
Rain Bar www.rain-bar.co.uk
New Oxford 11 Bexley Square, Salford,
Crown Inn 154 Heaton Lane, Stockport,
Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar Rassbottom Street, Stalybridge, Cheshire, SK15
Moorhouse’s Brewery / General Scarlett Pub
Thwaites Brewery www.danielthwaites.com
Grey Mare Grane Road, Belthorn, BB1
Robert Cain Brewery www.cainsbeers.com
Dispensary 87 Renshaw Street, Liverpool, L1
Doctor Duncan’s St. John’s Lane, Liverpool, L1
Baltic Fleet 33 Wapping, Liverpool, L1
Peter Kavanagh’s 2-6 Egerton Street,
Everyman Bistro 5-9 Hope Street, Liverpool, L1
Philharmonic 36 Hope Street, Liverpool
Ship & Mitre 133 Dale Street, Liverpool, L2
Central England & Herefordshire
Cock Hotel www.cockhotel.co.uk
Sarah Hughes Brewery / Beacon Hotel
Kings Arms (Hobsons tap), 6 Church Street,
Cleobury Mortimer, DY14
Wye Valley Brewery
Dunkertons Cider www.dunkertons.co.uk
Barrels 69 St Owen Street, Hereford, HR1
Green Dragon Off B4214, Bishops Frome, WR6
Chequers 63 Etnam Street, Leominster, HR6
Bell Inn 39 Etnam Street, Leominster, HR6
Live & Let Live
Stagg Inn www.thestagg.co.uk