Thursday, 21 October 2021

Venue to Visit : The Three Tuns, Bristol

Another "must-visit" stopoff on any Bristol session, especially if you're circling back towards the city from taking in the numerous pubs in and around Spike Island, this beautiful bijou boozer is very slightly off the beaten track but not inaccessible by any means, being just a short walk from the city centre in the Hotwells area.

We're lucky that it's still here. It temporarily closed just before Christmas 2019 before reopening under a new owner in the early part of 2020 with huge optimism.....

...and we all know how 2020 turned out. 

Fortunately it survived the pandemic and is back welcoming folk through its distinctive arched front door.

As you pass through said arch you get a sense straight away that this is a beer lover's paradise, from the CAMRA magazines and Good Beer Guides stacked up to the selection of beer on the bar.


Offerings include local cask and keg ales such as Bath, New Bristol, Bristol Beer Factory - and even some trans-channel offerings from Mad Dog.

The big draw about the Tuns though has always been its Irish nights for and by the members of the local Hibernian diaspora - live music and singing in the communal Irish tradition. As restrictions have relaxed Monday nights once more have taken on a distinctly Celtic tinge. 

This also briefly spawned a Cornish equivalent on Tuesday nights, which is when I first visited to drink Mena Dhu and belt out Trelawney in my Cornwall RFU shirt.


I paid my latest visit in January 2020 just after the reopening and have not yet had a chance to go back since; something I will remedy sooner rather than later. As yet another small-in-stature, big-in-character location, the Tuns is proof that good things don't always have to come in big packages.

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Venue to Visit : Cambrian Tap, Cardiff


The Cambrian Tap is one of the first pubs you'll come across as you make your way from the railway station down St Mary Street in Cardiff. Picked out in gold and black, this evocative city boozer sits on the corner of this busy, social throroughfare and another of Cardiff's famous streets; Chippy Alley, or to give it its proper name, Caroline Street.

Built in 1830 as part of the original Thomas' brewery which was sold to Brains in 1882, the Cambrian abuts a bar called the Brewhouse and a plaza of hospitality venues called The Old Brewery Quarter. 

It hasn't always had this name though. Between 2002 and  2015 it was known as Kitty Flynns, an unapologetic Irish bar right down to the tricolor flying over the door and the emerald green doors and windows which wished you céad míle fáilte. 

Kitty was a real person - a Cardiff landlady who managed the Royal Oak in Adamsdown. It was in her honour that the pub was renamed after Brains asked the drinkers of Cardiff for suggestions. With over 50 years behind the bar, Kitty lived a long life and only passed away earlier this year. This article from the Western Mail is well worth a read.


Kitty doesn't live here any more.

In April 2015 Brains wanted a dedicated outlet for their Brains Craft Brewery offshoot and Kitty's was refurbished, rebranded and reopened as the Cambrian once again.


All the brews - and the brewers too. See how many famous names you can spot.

It is a narrow pub with the bar on one side and a section of booth seating on the other, with a small section of additional tall tables to the left of the entrance. The toilets are down a staircase to the rear. On busy days a one-way system is implemented with a way in and a way out, as well as a doorman keeping an eye on the capacity levels, such is this place's popularity.


As it was....

so shall it be...

At time of writing the Cambrian is still a Brains pub, albeit up for sale. As such on the bar you will find Brains cask ale and a couple of surviving offerings from the Craft Brewery such as Barry Island IPA. It is also one of the outlets serving Brains' new lager Bayside, which replaced the long-standing guest lager Korev from St Austell.


My fondest memories of the Cambrian were of its February Dark Beer festivals. For a week the taps were taken over by dusky drinks of all kinds from all over the UK and beyond; from the sublime to the ridiculous. 


I really really hope the Cambrian survives the Brains fire sale, if not for the benefit of the drinkers of south Wales and beyond, but for the memory of Kitty Flynn whose service to the Cardiff pub scene will always be remembered. There is no pub like this in Cardiff - it is unique, special and deserves to remain open and frequented for many years to come.
 

Monday, 18 October 2021

Venue to Visit : The Bell Inn, Caerleon

Sometimes the best pubs are the accidental finds, or the chance recommendations, or the you-sorta-knew-about-them-but-never-went-there-until-now ones.

The Bell fits all of those. Tucked away in a street on the Newport side of the river Usk in Caerleon, to get to this 17th Century coaching inn from the village itself you have to walk past two other pubs, over a bridge, down a lane and round a corner. (See the "Mapped" page for exact location)

Or you could do what I do and cycle there. Caerleon is reachable from Newport by the excellent new Route 88 cycle route which skirts the river Usk and the Marches rail line before depositing you at Caerleon football club.

The Bell was initially a casualty of the pandemic, closing in September 2020. 

We are making this announcement with heavy, heavy, hearts; 
Due to the financial strain of the pandemic and with no help from our brewery with full rent and bills being charged without hesitation or remorse or any help for reopening, Charly and I will be unable to continue here at The Bell 
(Facebook)

It sat vacant until the new year of 2021 when a couple of local chaps took it on. After a refurbishment during Lockdown Three, it reopened in April 2021, with takeout food cooked by part-owner and head chef Ricky.

Like all venues in Wales, it reopened for outdoor/takeaway service on April 27th and then fully in May. 

The pub has a proper traditional feel about it with the merest touch of the modern and contemporary. There's plenty of exposed stone and brick walls, ornate light fittings and beautifully dark wood to set the mood.

On the bar there are two regular cask ales - Landlord and HPA - and one cask cider, Thatcher's Stan Cheddar Valley. Guest casks occasionally appear such as Adnam's Bitter or Wye Valley Butty Bach.





Pefectly poured cask pints from Timothy Taylor and Wye Valley

Keg offerings come in the form of the usual macro options, including Carlsberg and Guinness.

An exquisite food menu presents many exciting options such as cider-infused Scotch eggs, sourdough with Marmite butter, one of the juiciest burgers I've ever had and chips that are so thick they could almost stand for political office.

Outside there is an enclosed beer garden terrace with plenty of seating - both covered and open - and behind that there is plenty of parking. Overhead fly sparrowhawks and pigeons. Despite being yards from a main road there is relative silence here, the only noise coming from the chatter of the patrons.


Through the gate lies an expansive beer garden and, in the summer, sun terrace

One of the outbuildings has been converted into "The Shed" - a quaint and welcome seating area with its own cask bar which came in very handy during the Bell's recent Beer and Bacon festival.



Booking is recommended if you want to eat here - the combination of great food in a lovely location make this reborn, renovated, historical hospitable venue a hit with the locals - and those from further afield too.

Sunday, 17 October 2021

Venue to Visit : Head of Steam, Cardiff


The Head of Steam chugged into Cardiff's Church Street in October 2018, shunting out a branch of Harvester that was occupying the site up until then. I was midly peeved at first - I used to go to that Harvester regularly for takeaway salad boxes - but when I discovered a new beer bar was going to occupy the site, my annoyance gave way to excitement.

For a small-fry beer blogger like myself, it was an incredible honour to be invited to the press day launch the night before the grand opening. There were only two slight drawbacks - one I was unavoidably in work in my "real" job which, ironically, was on the railway; and two I was just coming to the end of one of my completely arbitrary, completely self-imposed dry months. So I resolved that when I finished work that Thursday, 1st November 2018, I would pop along. You can see that visit in the video at the foot of the page.

The Cardiff venue is one of 16 Head of Steam outlets in total. Launched in 1995 in Newcastle by Tony and Carole Brooks, the Camerons-owned chain is mainly concentrated in the north of England. The Cardiff branch is the most southerly - and westerly - of all.

The railway theme is present throughout, with a wood, iron and brass motif spreading throughout the two-level structure. Old beer bottles form a chandalier of lights. Old pictures and station signs from Cardiff Station punctuate the walls. There's plenty of beer branded ephemera too from Delirium, Anchor and others.

A grand central bar with three serving areas dominates the ground floor, with seating spread around in four separate clusters. A variety of seating options are available, with the leather armchairs near the front being my preferred option. There is a small overspill seating area on the first floor.

On the bar you get your choice of up to nine cask ales and ciders, about two dozen keg options plus as many bottles and cans that they can fit into their fridges. A welcome feature is that vegan and/or gluten-free beers are clearly marked out for those with specific requirements.

  
As you'd expect, Camerons' cask ales feature heavily and are rotated regularly

Quality reigns over quantity, an eclectic mix of both macro and independent beer brands are stocked, and I have had brewers off tap here that I have never had anywhere else this side of the M25.

Guest casks from all over the UK feature heavily


  
Favourites from the keg offering over the years: Omnipollo Agamemnon, Motorhead Road Crew, Rodenbach Grand Cru and Anchor Steam 

Cameron's, like most major brewers, have their own "craft" offshoot, called Tooth & Claw, whose new offerings have their own dedicated tap. The two which were offered simultaneously in winter 2019, the Nordic Ale and the Chocolate Orange, were particular favourites of mine.


As well as featuring their taplist on their website, giant screens around the venue (which, pre-pandemic, showed live sport) also display the cask, keg and bottle lists reguarly through integration with Untappd, which is a welcome and handy thing to have for the beer wanker planning out their afternoon's imbibing. Food is also available with hot dogs, burgers and pizzas the order of the day.


Now you see it



now you don't

The Head of Steam's staff are friendly, approachable, knowledgable, engaging and patient. It's a fantastic venue with a fantastic atmosphere. Plus as it's sat next to Bub's and the Old Arcade it makes Church Street a beer-lover's and pub-goer's mecca. You can have an entire day's session in this one twenty-yard space. Less time walking, more time drinking. 



Bonus: my visit on International Stout Day 2018:




Saturday, 16 October 2021

Venue to Visit : Waxy O'Connor's, London



A few years ago I was taken on a pub crawl of London by a mate who lives in Reading. It's where I first discovered the Harp (Day 2) and [[SPOILERS]] (Day 31). 

As we arrived in Leicester Square and stood adjacent to the ridiculous tourist-grabbing hellhole that is The M&M store, he said "OK, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find our next venue, Waxy O'Connor's."

Look left? Pret. Look right? The Swiss Court. Look straight ahead? Chinatown.

And then the most inocuous of round signs caught my eye. There wasn't a grand entrance to this place, certainly not on Wardour Street. A little red door, slotted inbetween various Asian restaurants and shops. 

/
Blink and you'll miss it

In we went.

And down.

And down......

Until we pushed open a heavy wood-and-glass door to see a pub like no other. Wooden beams, brick walls, stairs everywhere leading to little quiet dark drinking cubby holes. A huge bar spread out before you on the main floor of the building. Bright lights hanging from chandeliers making little sparkly reflections off every piece of cut stained glass and exposed metal.

Four bars are spread out over six levels. It's a Crystal Maze zone, a live Hogwarts and Queen video all in one.

And the buzz. One hell of a buzz. Every Irish person in London seemed to be in here.



Such a shame that my phone had such a sh*tty camera in those days

Waxy's (and its delightfully named, slightly more conventional overspill pub across the road "Waxy's Little Sister") are owned and operated by the Foundation Group's Glendola Leisure, a Middlesex company who run bars, coffee shops, restaurants and hotels across the UK. Waxy's has a cousin in Glasgow and, up until the pandemic, there was also one in Manchester.

On the bar is the usual big-venue fayre, albeit illustrated by some exquisite bespoke custom pump lenses. They have their own branded barmats too. 

Of course Guinness is on, and Murphy's, and my go to, the delightfully sharp Franciscan Well's Rebel Red which, although claiming to be from Cork, is a Molson Coors brand. Such is life.

I believe this was £6.50 a pint

I visited many times since then - including a memorable Six Nations Super Saturday when we literally turned up at opening time - almost banging down the door to be let in! - and watched two matches back to back, surrounded by several folk wearing every shade of rugby shirt. Being a big session we ate as well as drank on that occasion; the food was excellent - I had a sausage roll so thick it could have been a soccer player. 

On another occasion there was live GAA football on the big screen and this time the shirts that surrounded us were those of the Irish counties. We sat near one folorn Wexford supporter, who was less interested in the fact I'd visited Gorey mere months before than he was in his team getting pasted.

Waxy's is always on my tick-list of go-to venues in London if only for its uniqueness. I have never been anywhere else like it - yet.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Venue to Visit : The Pod, Newport


Upcyling and recycling

Earlier in this series I mentioned how the Cellar Door in Newport had turned an unloved retail unit into a micropub as an example of upcycling done right. Well a few yards away and over the river Usk, another example of giving something a new lease of life can be found in the form of The Pod.

Before the financial crash of 2007, Newport was receiving a relatively large amount of interest and investment. The cathedral town had recently become a fully fledged city. The Friars Walk shopping centre scheme was well into the planning and tendering phase, the Ryder Cup golf tournament was about to arrive at the Celtic Manor Resort down the road, and expansion of the University of Wales Campus Newport to include a new city centre location meant housing and digs were needed. 

One of the companies designated to build on unused wasteland on the eastern bank of the river were Taylor Wimpey, who dubbed their development Renaissance Point, and set up a rather fetching spaceship shaped sales office adjacent to the old Art College on Clarence Place.

If the name Clarence Place is dimly familiar, it's because it's the location of the long-closed and now horrendously dilapidated TJ's, the famous rock music bar. John Peel dubbed it "legendary." Oasis launched their career here while recording at the nearby Rockfield Studios. Other performers included Green Day, Skunk Anansie, NOFX, Muse and Primal Scream. Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love there. Catatonia filmed the music video for "Mulder & Scully" there. It was featured in FHM's Top 50 Music Venues.

And then, suddenly, its enigmatic owner John Sicolo was gone, and his club died with him.

Meanwhile, round the corner, it took nearly 9 years before "Renaissance Point" was built, eventually rising up in the cursed year of 2016. All this time the sales office had sat unused and empty, its futuristic and optimistic design becoming almost mocking and laughable to an increasingly pessimistic city used to disappointment.

And then suddenly, the flats were up and the office was no longer needed. But what to do with it? Former rugby player Paul Young (no relation to either yours truly or the Sad Cafe singer) saw an opportunity not to waste the building and in 2017 The Pod was born.

Initially opened as a coffee house - cum - cocktail bar, the Pod has settled into its niche as a cocktail, food and events-led venue that also offers a few beers. When it first opened, a 4.6% eponymous IPA was offered, although the glassware seemed to indicate it was a rebadged brew from Caledonian.


This was replaced, excitingly, with Budvar - making the Pod one of the few venues in my part of the world which offers this well-loved brand off tap, and the Nealko non-alcoholic option in bottles. 


Budvar in - and above - the glass

The food side is taken care of with burgers, pizzas and dirty fries, where the generous portions are more than enough for two people to share. 



If, like me, you have found yourself sitting outside more often than not recently, then you'll be treated to the veritable smorgasbord of Newport's architectural, er, gems. Immediately behind the contemporary curves of the Pod are the more classical lines of the Grade II listed Art Deco art college with its landmark copper dome, now apartments. Immediately opposite is the slightly less visually stimulating Clarence House, a largely empty, redundant carbuncle which sits atop the currently closed Riverside Sports Bar and an Iceland supermarket.


To the other side lies the River Usk, across which lies Newport City Centre, the Riverside Theatre and the giant Wave steel artwork. Nearby is the ancient Town Bridge with its beautiful light fittings and cherubs, abutting the riverside walk where cyclists and pedestrians breeze past on their way to the aforementioned newly built flats.

I will admit to being initially skeptical as to how much appeal venues like the Pod could generate in Newport. I will also admit to being wrong. This place gets packed on summer evenings and weekends. Newport's demographics, like anywhere, are evolving. The removal of the tolls on the Severn Bridge has attracted young professionals from Bristol across the water, enticed by lower house prices and council taxes. 

Places offering what the Pod offers were once unthinkable in this overwhelmingly working class, no nonsense, industrial port town. The Pod has proved they can work and are working. Newport is changing, and if the Pod is representative of that change, it's for the better.

BONUS : Read GingeyBites' review of the food offering back in 2019 here

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Venue to Visit : Blue Bell, Cardiff

Let me quickly preface this by saying this vignette is about the city centre pub which has recently had a change - or should that be reversion - of name; and not the other pub out in St Mellon's which used to be called The Blue Bell, and before that The Bluebell Inn but which is now called the Coach House. Got that? Cool.


Picture from Blue Bell Facebook page

Dating from 1813, the Blue Bell is a recent acquisition by the company that also runs Cardiff's Brewhouse bar, Retro nightclub and another ancient classic venue, the Philharmonic - the latter being rescued from lying dormant and abandoned for the best part of a decade before it was royally scrubbed up to become the overly majestic hotspot it is today. 


Regiment....dis...missed!

At the point that the pandemic hit, the pub was called the Goat Major, a nice but pretty run of the mill Brains outlet. Given the military moniker in 1995 after the mascot of the Royal Welsh infantry regiment, it always felt to me like the poor relation in a city with such iconic Brains pubs as the Old Arcade, City Arms and Cottage; despite being in no less a convenient place for tourism and rugby.

As the Brains/Marstons saga unfolded, the Goat was one of the first casualties but the opportunity was taken by its new owners. With a new gaffer came a new - or is that old - name, with the erstwhile epithet making a return. 

Back to the future

Me being the cultural philistine I was, I didn't realise this, and thought that a brand new pub had opened up. It took me a while to join the dots.

After a much needed but sensitive internal refurbishment and with the Brains casks swapped out for some from another Welsh brewery - Glamorgan - suddenly this old timer felt young and refreshed again. It's an anti-Rummer Tavern. Instead of being ruined, it's been enhanced. The interior is still the same classic city pub style with plenty of wood and carpet, but there's a new enthusiastic energy about the place that instantly makes me smile whenever I pop in. 

And pop in I do every time I go to Cardiff. Mostly because it's one of the few pubs around with an eponymous, named ale - Blue Bell Ale - which is a hell of a coup and is what first enticed me to visit. Served alongside other Glamorgan classics such as the superb Jemima's Pitchfork, this drop is a marketing manager's dream.

Drinking the pub dry...literally
Picture from Blue Bell Facebook page

  
Extra points for nonic glassware
(L-R : Welsh Pale, Blue Bell, Jemima's Pitchfork)


Elsewhere, unusual-for-this-part-of-the-world "craft" beers on keg such as Brixton and Camden complement the usual macro offerings. There's a full pub food menu, and plentiful big screens mean you won't miss any sport, even if like me you choose to be a bar wanker and perch on the end of the beautiful mahogany edifice.

The new owners don't seem to be squandering the chance they've been given to own and operate this classic location. With views of the castle, it helpfully abuts a craft beer bar and is just seconds away from the teriffically tempting triumverate of Womanby Street, Quay Street and Church Street; and is just minutes away from Cardiff Arms Park.