Friday, 31 August 2012

Young’s Back Yard

The appearance in Crewe of beers that I’d previously associated with other areas of the country – especially the south east – led me to hunt out a leaflet that shows more or less exactly what I meant about the geographical reach of brews not being anything like as great not so long ago. In this I am indebted to Young’s, who used to publish a map showing all their pubs.

Yes, all of them: there were 149 at the time I picked up this leaflet – not sure where – which was titled “Real Draught Beer and where to find it”, with the reverse showing “A Complete List Of Young’s Houses”. You might have also found their beers on sale in the free trade, but I doubt that any of those outlets would have been significantly outside the area of the tied estate.

Take a good look at that map. Very few of the 149 are outside the M25, let alone 158 miles from Euston. Most are clustered within a few miles of the Ram Brewery in Wandsworth, with more in and around central London. There is a cluster around Croydon and Sutton. Many of those closest to the brewery were at the time getting their beer delivered by horse dray.


Click for full size version

So when was this map published? Not in the 1950s or 60s, but as recently as 1990 – the date can be seen clearly at the bottom right. So what brings Young’s to Crewe? Well, part of this is the move of production from Wandsworth to Bedford, with the merging of the Young’s and Wells brewing operations, but there is also the rationalisation of middling and larger players in the market.

Back in 1990, suppliers like Greenalls and Tetleys would have supplied many pubs in the area. Some still show the latter’s name outside. But the cask version of Tetley Bitter has effectively vanished from the area. All of Greenalls beers have likewise disappeared. The only reason that Thwaites has any cask presence is because the Nag’s Head has made Wainwright its regular real ale.

Other brewers that had served the Crewe area included Burtonwood and Bass, and neither are now served anywhere, in cask form. Nor is Manchester brewer Boddingtons, as its cask bitter has now ceased production. Small wonder that names like Wells and Young’s, as well as Greene King, which now includes Morland, are so well represented so far from their former heartlands.

So that’s why some cask beers are being trunked hundreds of miles to pubs in the town. And it isn’t only Wells and Young’s: Shepherd Neame of Faversham, as we’ll see, is available too. Young’s Ordinary isn’t a bad pint, but I can buy it in its London home, and on balance I’d prefer a few Tetleys, Thwaites, Burtonwood and Bass outlets. Just a thought.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

31 Duke Of Bridgewater

Visited On 19 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

It’s a long walk from Ford Lane, so I hope the last port of call this evening will be worth it. On the corner of Edleston Road and Wistaston Road, backing on to the railway, the Duke Of Bridgwater is now a Marston’s Pub Company house. For a few months in 2008, coincidentally during the period of the by-election campaign, it was the “Polish Pub” (the Azyl) but certainly isn’t now.

The pub has been here for, oh, rather a long time. It was well established at the end of the nineteenth Century. So what’s on offer this 21st Century evening? Wychwood Hobgoblin was on, but has run out. But there is a standby called Pedigree! And thank goodness for that. It’s very, very good – better than the pint in the King’s Arms, and that wasn’t bad. And not expensive, either.

It’s all one room now, but looks like the area where the pool table is was a tap room with the entrance further along Wistaston Road (which is still there). The service is fine, and of course soon after arrival That Football Match ends and Ingerlund are victorious. There is much relief all round, and generous acknowledgement of the Ukrainian goal that wasn’t. Because the match is over and it won’t count.

This is a highly agreeable pub. It’s got the usual Marston’s Pub Co extras, like coffee and food at lunchtimes, and free WiFi. This is the third and last Marston’s outlet to be reviewed, and had the Hobgoblin not have run out, there would have been a total of five different cask beers on offer, even though the Banks’s in the Cheese Hall was not up to scratch.

And, like the Robinsons houses, all Marston’s outlets offer cask beer. If they can do it, so can everyone else. Nice one to round off the evening – I’ll have to look in again sometime.

Monday, 27 August 2012

30 White Lion (Ford Lane)

Visited On 19 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

Walking south along Ford Lane, after sighting the pub but well before getting to the door, there is a roar from inside as Ha-roon-ay scores for Ingerlund from the challenging distance of around half a metre. This is followed by the beating of drums and the well known Ingerlund chant. So it’s safe to say that the White Lion is another of those pubs that does well out of being rather like a sports bar.

This is a locals pub just north of West Street (that part is significant, as future reviews will show) which has been knocked into one large room. There’s a pool table at one end and darts at the other, with screens placed so that no-one should have any trouble viewing whatever sport is on offer. But there is also this observation:

NO CASK BEER

At the time of this visit, there is a handpump on the bar with its clip turned away, suggesting they have cask, but have run out, but a revisit – we like to be fair and thorough – revealed that it had been removed, so not a temporary aberration. So what shall we choose from the assorted offerings of pasteurised and totally dead liquid? I’ll have a pint of Worthington Creamflow (tm).

The pub is heaving – and it was busy when revisited – and so has made a success out of going down a route similar to the Imperial. There wasn’t a bouncer on the door but the number of significantly built locals should make sure that anyone not able to deport themselves in a reasonable manner would be ejected pretty swiftly. Groups wanting an agreeable place for an evening out should be safe.

So what of the beer? It’s cheap. And bland. And, who knows, it may be mildly alcoholic. Fortunately the pint of Double Hop earlier has caused a mellowness, but I would hate to drink this nitro-keg piss* all night. Some folk do this of their own volition. And that’s not a pleasant thought, or prospect.

It’s a pity they can’t be bothered offering decent beer, though, because as I keep pointing out, all they’re doing is chasing a declining market. The White Lion spent some time closed recently, and could well have benefited from the recent closure of the nearby Delamere Arms (as well as a raft of closures on West Street, of which more later).

And with that thought, it’s on to the next pub. It’ll be a moderately long walk.

*This is a personal opinion, and I’m sure that others think much more highly of the product. God only knows why, though.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

29 Bridge Inn

Visited On 19 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

Walking from the Horse Shoe back to the roundabout and then south on Broad Street is the Bridge Inn, which is next to the railway overbridge, hence the name. The roadway has been built up rather higher over the years, so you have to step down into the pub. Much of that is because the line running under that bridge was one of the first to be electrified using the high frequency AC system.

Why so? Well, at first, a conservative approach to wire clearances was taken, and everything had to give a full eleven inches from train to wire, and from wire to structure (like that bridge). So not only did a lot of bridges have to be raised up, but they also had to be raised up rather a lot. The clearances got reduced over the years to around eight inches. Not a lot of people know that.

So what of the pub, which advertises “Cask Ales” not once, but twice? Passing through a rather tattily painted door into the bar, we soon come to this conclusion:

NO CASK BEER

So don’t tell me, it’ll be a Guinness. Yes, a pint of “usual”, for those of you that remember very, very old adverts. And it’s not otherwise inspiring. The bar is fairly busy, but of course there is an Ingerlund match on. I attempt a little banter with the locals over this. One of them looks at me as if I just shat in his pocket. The barmaid doesn’t seem fussed about service.

Y’know, given that the Cross Keys closed down recently, this place should be enjoying more trade. Or perhaps it was worse when the Cross Keys was open. It just looks like a group of bods who have accepted that their fate is to spend all their pub attendance hours supping nitro-keg and hoping that no strangers wander in off the street. It’s eerily reminiscent of the Rockwood, but with live football.

And the competition isn’t up to much (it’s the other end of McLaren Street from the Captain Webb). But that pub, while it also advertises cask beer and also doesn’t actually have any, is at least happy and welcoming. The Bridge Inn, for the occasional drinker, holds no attraction at all, except in the using of the exit door.

Waste of time and money. Next!

Friday, 24 August 2012

28 Horse Shoe

Visited On 19 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

This evening, Ingerlund are playing Ukraine in a Euro 2012 group match. And it is warm and sunny. As a result, there will be lots of beer sunk across the town. So it’s daft not to, innit? We start with a trek across Crewe and all the way up Middlewich Street, then past the sorry looking boarded up roadhouse that was the Cross Keys, which may soon be flattened to make an entrance to a new housing estate.

Close by is the Horse Shoe, a Robinson’s tied house. It’s not the arrangement of rooms I’d expected: there is a separate games room with its own entrance, and I’m guessing that was the tap room in days gone by. There’s a very 1960s gas fire and detail opposite the bar. The room with the stage is set up with a screen and closed curtains for the Ingerlund match, with another screen in the games room.

So much for the preliminaries, what about beer? Well, it’s a Robinson’s pub and so there is no problem locating a cask offering. Double Hop? That’s a brew I’ve not sampled before. I’ll have one of those. It’s bloody excellent. Only later do I discover it’s a 5% brew! Maybe I should have taken it a little slower. There is also Best Bitter, sorry, Unicorn Best Bitter, and Build A Rocket Boys! on offer.

That’s the brew made for Elbow. The service is fine, the pint was topped up as requested with no problem, it’s clearly a popular boozer (although the numbers will have been helped by the Cross Keys being forcibly closed and abandoned recently), and would make a very decent local. And there’s a car park out the back.

That is the third and final Robinson’s tied house done. All three offered a choice of cask beer, with a total of five different brews. Ironic, isn’t it, that all those years ago the brewery tie was seen as one of the worst things about the industry, but for regional breweries like Robinson’s means you can get a decent pint and they don’t just cash in their property and run when they get the chance.

It’s a funny old world. Seriously good pint of beer, too. That sets up the evening nicely.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

27 Imperial

Visited On 12 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

So the evening finishes on the south side of the town centre at this large roadhouse pub fronting onto Edleston Road. The name is also abbreviated to Imp. There are two entrances but inside it’s one large space with room for pool table, stage and food servery as well as a long bar. And on that bar are two pairs of handpumps without pumpclips or any trace of recent activity.

NO CASK BEER

So that’ll be Guinness (again). I’m getting to be quite a connoisseur of this occasionally stouty nitro-keg, and can report that, while this one is fine, that in the Captain Webb had the edge. But they dropped a point for advertising cask beer while not actually having any. Any smokers out there? The Imperial has an outside covered terrace that might interest you.

It’s not busy, but there are plenty of folk in this evening. Yes, there is a Euro 2012 qualifier on, but it’s not Ingerlund tonight. The place is clearly popular. It’s welcoming and for whatever reason even has food on, which is much appreciated. The bar staff even give me a nudge to go and get some before it runs out, or they corner what’s left, for which no-one can blame them.

So how’s it work? The Imperial is effectively a “sports bar” kind of pub, and a regular live music venue. It’s secure when busy with someone on the door, so groups of all kinds feel safe. Many in that first category are susceptible to being swayed by the saturation advertising of keg and, er, “vogue” beers. Therefore the management can get away with not offering cask.

That’s a pity though, because there is only so much chasing of a declining market you can do, and with stuff like FastCask there’s no excuse. Just a thought.

Monday, 20 August 2012

26 Captain Webb

Visited on 12 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

So much for the Merlin – next up is this relatively modern estate pub on the corner of Underwood Lane and McLaren Street. Dating from the 1970s, it has a separate bar room (which has the pool table). It also advertises “Cask Ales” outside. This evening, most of those visiting are in the lounge, though, and so that’s where I head. There is a sole handpump on the bar, but pumpclip there is none.

NO CASK BEER

Yep, and by the looks of things there has probably been none for a while. So what’s it going to be? I’ll have a Guinness, which unlike that at the Raven is welcome after the long trek to the Merlin and back. I even get a shamrock on the head. That’s the head on the pint, folks. And, although Guinness, being nitrogenated and pasteurised, should be the same wherever you get it, this one is better than most.

For starters, I can tell that some roasted malt went into its production, so maybe the keg has just been put on, or they sell lots of it – or both. There is no unpleasant element in the taste, suggesting that the staff clean the lines regularly. But the fact remains that, although it is advertised outside, there is no cask ale (did I mention that?).

And that’s a pity: the regulars seem agreeable, the service is good, and they seem genuinely happy to welcome folks into their pub. But, as Major Dalby might have told Harry Palmer, if you claim to have cask ale, just make sure you’ve got it.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Ever Present PubCo

So far, this blog has discovered a number of disappointing or even downright dire pubs, and has mentioned that there is a reason for their state which will be explained later. So now I’m taking a brief break in the review process to talk about PubCos – the companies that run tens of thousands of pubs around the UK – and their involvement in the business.


Queens Park, Crewe

As I mentioned when talking about the Big Six brewing combines of the 1970s and 80s, most pubs were tied houses – that is, they sold only products of the brewer that owned them, as well as whatever the brewer produced under licence or sold via reciprocal agreement. Licensees were forced to buy wines and spirits through the brewery or its wine merchants, at a premium over supermarket prices.

Most of those tied estates have now passed to the PubCos. And the regime is not so different to that which went before: licensees are still forced to buy through suppliers specified by the PubCo, and at whatever price the PubCo dictates. Some aspiring entrants to the pub business have found themselves taken to the cleaners by a combination of their own naïveté and unrealistic PubCo revenue projections.

So which Crewe pubs are under the control of the PubCos? Of the ones already reviewed, the Cumberland Arms – where two keg beers had run out – has its lease for sale and is part of the empire of Admiral Taverns. We will encounter them again. The Merlin – a huge modern pub now reduced to weekend opening – has been scheduled for refurbishment for some time by Punch Taverns.

In fact, the longer the Merlin languishes in its unrefurbished state, the more likely it is that the site, already surrounded by recent build housing, will be sold off and the pub demolished. It wouldn’t be the only such casualty in the area, and if there is so little trade, it would be easy to argue that the business is beyond recall. Punch continue to suggest in its advertisements that the work will go ahead. Sometime.

And the Raven, steadily deteriorating down in Brookhouse, is owned by the S&N Pub Company, who are not enjoying much success in getting anyone to take it on. Now, no suggestion is made that the PubCos should behave like community charities, but the contrast with the old school of brewers’ tied houses is stark. Crewe has Robinson’s, Marstons Pub Co, and Lees tied houses.

These total seven pubs – two reviews yet to come – and all are doing reasonably. Moreover, all seven offer cask beer and one, the Duke Of Gloucester, is an outstanding pub. The thought enters that the PubCos might be more ready to cash in their assets first, rather than consider the community. The later reviews will not change this perception.

Something to consider when you’re letting your pint settle.

Friday, 17 August 2012

25 Merlin

Visited On 12 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

So from the Eight Farmers it’s down Mablins Lane and then a turn towards Leighton Hospital, but only as far as The Merlin, a recent build estate pub with a moderately tasteless frontage. It’s a long trek, so I’m hoping it might be worth it.

The pub sign is all wrong – there’s no Crewe magician connection. The connection of the town to the word “Merlin” is through the establishment of the Rolls-Royce plant on Pyms Lane (now Bentley Motors) which during World War 2 turned out thousands of Merlin aero engines. So that sign should show a Spitfire, Hurricane or Lancaster. Or perhaps all three.

The car park is empty. I’m getting a Raven feeling here, but onwards and onwards, eh? The bar entrance says to use the main door. So I continue to the main door, which is locked. It’s closed!

What’s this? “Welcome ... to FRI SAT SUN”? I kid you not, that is what it says. A pub that is only open at the weekend? What state is the beer going to be in for that? I doubt if it will have cask, and if it did, I wouldn’t be keen on ordering it. A modern estate pub that closes during the week? Come on, someone’s having a laugh. No, I’m not coming back of a Friday just to do a review.

This one is getting empty chaired. I’m sure I can find a suitable tub of lard to stand in for it. About turn, and on to the next pub.

And, as to why this state of affairs has come to pass, well, that’s something that will be covered later.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

24 Eight Farmers

Visited On 12 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

Why Eight Farmers? Heck, I dunno, cos it’s written, that’s why. This is a recent build pub of a similar age to all the nearby housing on the north side of Parkers Lane. It’s another Marstons Pub Company house, they refurbished the place at the end of 2010, and there’s now an outside smoking area too (thanks to the Crewe TV blog for that info). There is also a large car park.

It’s all open plan, with some seating areas raised up above bar level. You get the usual large screen TV – more Euro 2012, to no surprise – and the usual pub stuff like a pool table. It’s very spacious and so doesn’t look full, even though there are plenty of folks there. And it does food, all day, every day.

Anyhow, enough of that, what about the beer? Two cask choices this evening, Marstons Bitter and Jennings Cumberland Ale. I choose the Jennings, and it’s excellent. Happily topped up, and good value. Thank goodness they kept this brewery open after the takeover – unlike all those 60s and 70s buyouts that saw plants closed and trashed all too regularly.

Ah, there is also some maintenance to do. The bar staff take advantage of a quieter moment to clean the Marstons Bitter pump and line, which in Ye Olden Days of restricted opening hours you could schedule for the break between lunchtime and evening sessions. That’s no longer possible with all day opening. Reassuring to see it being done. If only all pubs did the same.

And that sums up the whole pub: clean and smart, welcoming, the beer’s good, and you could do a lot worse. As to why it’s popular, well, one more reason for that is about to be discovered, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

23 White Lion (Warmingham)

Visited On 12 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

A pleasant and sunny evening, and time to venture out of town. I did wonder whether to class this pub as being in Crewe, but as it’s only just across the railway from the Eight Farmers (review following) decided to include it. The White Lion is on the north side of the road just before Warmingham village. You should take care if walking – I visited on a summer evening – in view of road lighting and the narrow pavement.

This is a very well presented and smart pub. There is a separate tap/games room, and also a separate room for TV and eating, which this evening is showing a Euro2012 group qualifier. There is strong emphasis on food, with emphatic warnings that punters need to book ahead at busy times. But, although things are ticking over this evening, those busy times are not right now.

Fortunately there is also a choice of cask beer – Wells Bombardier and Deuchars IPA are on offer. I opt for the Deuchars, which is willingly topped up. It’s OK, and appreciated after the walk. There are folks taking advantage of the outside seating, but most are either chatting or watching the football. And one person orders food. I’m not sure about those warnings, although most reviews are positive.

Whatever, it’s time to finish up and move on to the next review. Oh, hang on a minute, it isn’t: when almost at the end of my pint, an apparition of beetroot complexion and XXXL size clad in an XL T-shirt emerges behind the bar and enquires gruffly “Are you having another?

Now, as Jon Stewart might have replied, two things here: not that the apparition was to know, but that was the same question I got asked at the Raven, and associating your pub with the Raven in my mind is not A Good Idea. And two, this may be a minority report I’m filing here, but that approach is not likely to generate very much marginal additional business.

So I have to advise the generously proportioned apparition that no, I’m not having another. And I hope he gets dressed soon. All part of life’s rich pageant, and if you’ve read this far, don’t let the last bit put you off visiting. It’s an OK pub.

And with that, it’s on to the next one.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Boddingtons – The Way We Were

Mention of Boddington’s bitter, now a thin and pale shadow of the beer once brewed in Manchester and loved by devotees, dictates I pause to survey another sad story in the annals of brewing. I first came across this beer in the late 70s, when I tagged along with a group from the Bradford University Real Ale Society, who had organised an evening trip to what was known as the “Failsworth Mile”.


The Smut Inn, on the A62, and now closed

This was a stretch of the A62 in north west Manchester which at the time had over 20 pubs on or near it which dispensed cask beer. The coach dropped us by the start of the mile, and the first pub, never to be forgotten, was the Smut Inn, a Boddington’s house with separate rooms and, as on every Friday evening, an elderly fellow providing waiter service.

The pale and very bitter beer, not strong but characterful, was never to be forgotten. And neither were other pubs on that mile, like the Old Post Office, an Oldham Brewery house (OB had around a hundred pubs). But, in brewing as elsewhere, nothing is forever, and not long afterwards Boddingtons bought out OB and did away with their beers. It wasn’t all about good guys.

And then Whitbread, which had helped to maintain Boddies’ independence from the late 1960s, took over the Strangeways Brewery and the brands in 1989. At first, the move was hugely beneficial: production increased, Boddington’s bitter went nationwide, and it became a well known brand. But then sales began to decline and Whitbread was taken over by the Interbrew group, later InBev.

Ultimately, the brewery was sold off for a fast buck to property developers, and nowadays the keg version of Boddies is brewed at the former Whitbread plant at Samlesbury, near Blackburn. The cask version was brewed for many years afterwards by Hydes in Manchester, until March this year when the brand was “discontinued”. InBev neglected Boddingtons shamefully.

So that’s why so many in the north west look a little sad when they recall Boddingtons and its well loved bitter: all that remains is an insipid nitro-keg imitation of its former self, a result of the owners selling up for all those pieces of silver, only to see the home of the beer trashed and the brand left to wither. As to that mile of pubs in and around Failsworth, well, that’s not such a happy ending either.

The Smut Inn carried on as a going concern until very recently, but is now closed. And much around that part of the A62 has been flattened to facilitate the building of the M60 around Manchester, so many of the other pubs have gone too. But we can get to our destinations quicker on the new motorway.

To mangle an old quotation, they made a wilderness, and called it progress.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

22 Earl Of Chester

Visited on 5 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the (not quite accurate) map

Last stop on this evening of miserable weather and wildly varying standards is this street corner pub on the traffic light crossroads of Wistaston Road and Flag Lane. I often walk past en route to and from Asda, and see the chalked advert for Lymestone ales (they’re brewed in Stone, the other side of Stoke-on-Trent).

But the place is almost empty, and what’s worse, the manager and barmaid seem surprised to have someone to serve. This is strange – the place has special offers on house doubles and bottled beers (including large ones of Fuller’s London Pride, not offered by exactly every pub in the area), and the cask is a very reasonable £2.40 a pint, so what’s the problem?

 “It’s the last pint”. And it really is the last one: there’s just enough to fill a pint glass before it goes all froth and air. Strewth, it’s midweek and they run out of cask. So Stonefaced is sort of OK, but no better. But the manager has a cunning plan to deflect any criticism: he blames the barmaid for drinking it all. Then he does it again. And a third time he does it, by which time it becomes tedious.

Maybe it gets better at the weekend, but this kind of pub should be attracting regulars every day. Maybe they gravitated to the Hop Pole or the Duke of Bridgwater (review later). The barmaid tells me it’s her night off tomorrow, and she’s going out ... to the Hop Pole. So that’s who won this territorial battle, then.

Whatever the problem it needs sorting. Maybe it’s a work in progress – apparently the folks here used to run The Park nearby (now closed) – but it’s worrying that there are so few in, and running out of cask after advertising it outside is out of order. Although the manager says Lymestone are delivering tomorrow.

Ho yus? Do they use FastCask? If not, then the stuff won’t drop bright for tomorrow evening. It may be ready for Thursday, but maybe it won’t. And if you’re selling a different cask beer – this pub had a delivery from Offbeat Brewery between my visit and doing the review – it might be a good idea to change the advertising.

Someone needs to pull their finger out sharpish here. It’s not as if there is a shortage of potential punters within a five minute walk of the place. I was expecting better. Very disappointing.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

21 Hop Pole

Visited on 5 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

The evening is not going well, what with the mediocrity of the Woodside followed by the dead zone hostility of the Rockwood. Now it’s back to Wistaston Road for the home stretch, and first port of call here is the Hop Pole.

Unlike the other two pubs, it’s welcoming and it has cask beer. They try to put three choices on, but this evening there are just two. Well, it’s two more than I’ve encountered elsewhere so far. Sharps Doombar and Mordue Workie Ticket are offered, and I have a pint of the latter, a dark, complex, interesting and enjoyable premium ale. And it’s from Newcastle.

Is that surprising? Well, for someone who started drinking in the 1970s, when the Newcastle Brewery and its Federation Clubs counterpart had gone keg and tank, turning much of the area into what CAMRA used to call a “beer desert”, it is. Workie Ticket is worth a sample. It’s very pleasant. But what’s the pub like?

There’s an interesting room layout, with the bar in the centre of the pub, then a large room with the obligatory pool table, and another room which I can only describe as 50s tavern style meets American diner. Different and quirky. And there’s a smoking terrace out the back. On top of all that, the place is ticking over very nicely indeed.

The Hop Pole apparently got badly run down not long ago, losing much of its older fixtures and fittings, but more recently has been refurbished and gives the impression of having received regular TLC for three or four years. It’s clean and tidy without being too polished. All of that, together with a regularly changing cask selection and plenty of punters, means guess what?

Yes, once again, IT’S NOT BLOODY ROCKET SCIENCE. You’d willingly walk a little further to drink at this pub. And so would I. A pub with something for most folks who may be willing to part with a little of their discretionary cash. Nice one.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

20 Rockwood

[Updates, three so far, at end of post]

Visited on 5 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

From the disappointment of the Woodside I walk north along Valley Road and into Stewart Street, past the more recent housing to a 1930s development typified by names such as Jubilee Avenue. And at the crossroads with Alton Street is the Rockwood, which looks a bit roadhouse-y but is not on a main road.

The immediate area is not inspiring, partly due to a group of yoof on their PratBikes (tm) on the opposite corner, who are loudly attempting an intellectually uplifting discourse in freestyle swearing. The pub looks as if some of the lights are out, but is in fact open, something I was concerned about as it’s for sale. Actually, the Rockwood has been for sale since 2009.

Walking through a very 1930s front door, I encounter a welcome comprised of deep suspicion combined with waves of hate for having entered the domain of a number of almost stationary locals. I love you too, guys. Resisting the urge to stare back at what I first thought were waxworks, I find that the barmaid is at least happy and smiling, although the product is not.

NO CASK BEER

Great. So what’ll it be, then? Oh, I dunno, let’s branch out and try a different NitroFroth MegaBrand Cooliflow NearlyTasty AlmostBeer. Boddington’s. I’ll have one of those. Dunno why, maybe it was a long walk from the Woodside. It’s thin and fairly cold. But, like all good NitroKeg, it’s consistently so. Meanwhile some of the waxworks play doms. Some discuss what they read in the Chronic about the Alex.

There is a big screen. It’s showing, I dunno, the sound is turned down. The lack of lighting is down to an area with a stage not being lit. But that part of the pub is the most interesting, as it has 30s uplighters and other features. In fact, the place is, apart from the lack of cask beer, a bit of a time capsule. It has leaded windows, although the walls are of cavity construction. It’s very mid 1930s.

There’s an awful feeling I get from the Rockwood. The regulars give you the kind of welcome normally accorded to the proverbial turd in a swimming pool, but without more folks walking in through that door, it’s going nowhere. It’s probably not old enough or significant enough to get listed, but it would be a crying shame to lose that interior and its fixtures.

As I finish up and leave, the group of yoof are still revising their pure and applied effing and blinding syllabus across the road. D’you know, if this pub got sold tomorrow to a developer who flattened it to build some upmarket apartments (there’s a large-ish car park out the back), nobody would bat an eyelid, and that would be a great pity. But the waxworks would have to move on.

[UPDATE1 16 September: a recent walk past the Rockwood showed that the car park had been emptied and gated shut, with the pub still for sale. The entrances are, for the time being, permanently locked and sadly the pub has closed.

If it cannot be sold as a going concern, indications are that it will indeed become another casualty in the ever changing pub landscape. It's always sad to see your own feeling that the place might not be long for this world made reality so soon]

[UPDATE2 25 October: the Rockwood has now been boarded up at both ground and first floor level. Part of the pub's signage has been removed and the For Sale signs have gone, the combination of which suggests that it has been sold, and not for future use as licensed premises.

Perhaps the building will remain, but with the Earl on Nantwich Road having just been demolished after standing idle for some months, the impression is given that the site is about to be levelled and redeveloped. So that 1930s time capsule will be lost. And yes, it will be a crying shame]

[UPDATE3 7 June 2013: the demolition men have moved in and the Rockwood is slowly being flattened. Some of the windows and parts of the roof, particularly chimney stacks, had gone when I looked in. So that time capsule interior will indeed be lost.

What will be built in place of the pub is not known. But it's a big site, and most likely it will be apartments. So that's another one lost]

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

19 Woodside

Visited on 5 June 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

Great food ... Great value” proclaims the sign outside. The Woodside is another food pub, located a long walk from just about anywhere in Crewe. And this evening, the weather is miserable and wet. Will it be a bad omen?

It’s a Cook House pub, one of a chain of just seven (website HERE). They do allegedly famous sausages, which is of little use to me as I had my sarnies before setting out. There is a couple larking about and blocking the entrance. Perhaps they are trying to tell me something.

And so to the bar, which boasts a battery of three handpumps, but hardly have I noticed these than the barmaid chirps up “None of these are working”. Well, with no pump clips in sight, I somehow guessed the bad news.

NO CASK BEER

It did sound as if she’d had that line ready. So what to select from the less than appealing array of shinily dispensed easy-flow extremely dead beer? Let’s have a pint of Theakston’s bitter, shall we? It’s the same colour as the cask version, and a slight challenge for the diminutive barperson with the tall tap. Blame the Scots.

Why so? The glass must be filled “in full view of the customer”, but only north of the border. Hence the tall fonts of legend. Not a lot of people know that. So what’s the beer like? Actually, you can tell that it was once Theakston’s bitter, before it get killed stone dead in the pasteurisation process. And it cost me 20p more than a pint of Pedigree over at Ye Olde Manor.

And the pub? Probably more room than Ye Olde Manor, except there are less folk at the Woodside. And it doesn’t seem to be doing much food business, either. Oh, hang on, there’s a screen with a kaleidoscopic pattern on it. What’s that all about? What? Christ on a bike, it’s a video jukebox, playing stuff like “Rat Trap”! What happened, did I walk through a time portal somewhere?

If you can’t get Theakston’s bitter in widget can form, then that’s one very small advantage of what I’ve bought over supermarket stuff. And that’s all. Not really welcoming, no decent beer, and I couldn’t give a flying foxtrot how famous the sausages are. Looks like there was a Decent Food Pub In South West Crewe draw and Ye Olde Manor won it. And the Woodside didn’t.

Another disappointment, and a waste of a long walk. Next!

Monday, 6 August 2012

John Smiths – The Rise Of National Ad-Mans’ Bitter

As I hinted in the review of the Grand Junction, there follows a short history of how a regional beer of no great distinction morphed over time into a national brand of arguably even less distinction. The story of John Smiths shows how the largest players in the brewing business first moved to wipe out cask beer, then ruthlessly rationalised and promoted to bring us the national brands we suffer nowadays.


There are still three breweries in the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster: apart from John Smiths, there is Sam Smiths, thankfully still producing the real thing, and the Tower Brewery, formerly part of the Bass empire and now part of Coors. The quality of the water was, as with Burton-on-Trent, a significant factor. John Smiths was, by the late 60s, a large regional player with over 1600 tied houses.

And it was an early mover to eradicate cask beer, going all keg by 1970. Not for nothing did the local CAMRA wags refer to it as John Bright’s. Then it became part of Courage, and here the ad-men entered. Previously, advertising spend had been pumped into lager and national keg brands, but then came a move to promote bitter, with John Smiths chosen by Courage to be part of the push.

So along came the campaign to push the idea that Yorkshire beer, with a head on it, was a product so good that the locals kept it to themselves, with all those unfortunate southerners fated to forever endure their strange headless ale. This ignored the minor fact that the style of dispense used for beer differs in different parts of the country. It’s got stuff all to do with the quality of the product.

But the ball had been set rolling, and Courage found that they could “export” John Smiths to other parts of the UK and make a success out of selling it there. The only other problem was that keg beer was “gassy”, but that was overcome by following the lead of Guinness and not merely pasteurising the beer, but nitrogenating it as well, with the added promotional benefit that it could now be sold as “smooth”.

And on top of that came yet another big promotional push, featuring – to his eternal shame – comedian Peter Kay. John Smiths was held to be “no nonsense” beer, which will generate hollow laughter among all those who are well aware of how much “nonsense” is required to get the product from what is actually brewed to the lifeless, chilled, and utterly bland liquid that emerges from the pump.

So John Smiths has become a megabrand. All over the UK, people see the promotion, as with brands of baked beans, breakfast cereal, detergent, fast food outlets, coffee shops, and clothing stores, and unquestioningly subscribe to the myth, without pausing to consider the lack of substance behind it. Cost accountants everywhere can rejoice and then sleep easy.

Fortunately, some can see that this particular king is stark bollock naked.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

18 Grand Junction

[Updates, two so far, at end of post]

Visited on 2 June 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

Having popped in at the Angel after a quick shop at Asda, I decide to look in at the Grand Junction early the same evening. Like the Angel, this is a recent build pub that replaces one of the same name, which was demolished to make way for the Market Centre.

And, like the Angel, the Grand Junction does not keep usual pub opening hours, only opening right into the late evening on Fridays and Saturdays. So what’s on offer? One large room with pool table and stage, with a smokers’ terrace out back, but once again this warning has to be deployed.

NO CASK BEER

This is despite there being two handpumps on the bar. So it’s a choice between equally grim AdMens’ MegaBland SmoothieBrown NitroKeg, then. I order a pint of John Smiths from the ridiculously flattering barmaid.

After securing the glass of mildly alcoholic brown totally dead but obscenely over-promoted fluid, I look round. There are a few punters, but not many, and this should not be a surprise: for food, there is the alternative of the Angel or the Waldron, for beer the Nag’s Head, Crown, or Wetherspoon’s in addition.

And what was the beer like? Well, like all nitro-keg, it is reminiscent of beer, but in reality is a lame imitation of the real thing. To depend on this kind of stuff – which, remember, you can get off the shelves at Asda – for any beer lover is to truly abandon hope.

In a word, this pub is Disappointing. And not worth a visit.

[UPDATE1 28 May 2013: the Grand Junction spent some time over the Christmas and New Year period closed when it would have normally been open, and now the shutters have gone up permanently. Enterprise Inns - another of the dreaded PubCos - are the owners, and are casting around for another tenant.

So, with the Angel having been put up for sale by Oakwell Brewery, that means both the new build pubs in the town centre have shut up shop. And like the Angel, as it's part of the new centre, it would not be possible to just knock it down]

[UPDATE2 7 June 2013: The Grand Junction has now reopened, and is advertising what look to be the same opening hours as before. And what also appears to be as before is the roster of keg and nitro-keg beers, so more or less the same as you can get in a can from Asda.

Indeed, the cheapness of these products was being proclaimed outside the pub earlier this week, which means another place chasing an ever shrinking market and competing on price - a competition that pubs will never, ever win, not while there are large supermarket chains in town.

Crewe's best pubs all offer the option of cask beer. This is not a coincidence]

Saturday, 4 August 2012

17 Angel

[Updates, two so far, at end of post]

Visited on 2 June 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

Before the Victoria Centre was built, there had been a pub called The Angel more or less in that gap between the Cheshire Building Society and Chatwins bake shop. In the name of progress it was demolished and in its place came the current Angel, which is a downstairs bar with its entrance between the Cheshire and Rymans stationers.

Those Cheshire investors need not worry about goings-on under the Building Society, though, as the Angel is under the stationers. Uniquely, it keeps shopping centre hours, opening from 1000 to 1700 hours and remaining closed on Sundays. Apparently this works for the licensee, and if they’re happy about business, that’s ultimately what matters.

There is plenty of seating with a more or less single room layout, with parts divided off by low partitions and raised up above bar level. The emphasis is on the bar, good value food, and providing non-alcoholic drinks like coffee to those who want them.

What’s a snack or meal cost? Well, a chip butty is less than £2, a burger and chips less than £3, and almost all mains are under £5. And the beer? This includes one cask offering, Oakwell Barnsley Bitter, which is also top value, coming in at under £2 a pint. It’s a darker bitter, which from distant memory is the same style that came out of Oakwell before John Smiths and then Courage obliterated the brew in the 1970s.

Just one of those is plenty for a lunchtime visit. Trade is steady, with shoppers and a core of locals. They must be doing something right, as there is plenty of competition for this market: Asda has a cafe, the bake shop has a sit-down area upstairs, there’s another eatery just round the corner, a fish and chip restaurant a couple of minutes’ walk away and of course the Wetherspoons nearby (review later).

I’m not a great one for drinks of a lunchtime, and live close enough to the town centre not to need to stop off for meals or snacks, so the Angel isn’t really my kind of pub. But the Barnsley Bitter is good, and it’s good value.

[UPDATE1 23 November 1910 hours: the Angel closed briefly during August, although it reopened after the holidays and I assumed this was just a quiet season thing. But now the doors have closed once more and the blackboards outside say "The Angel is closed until further notice".

No other information is available at the moment (if anyone has any, I'd be interested to hear it) and the "until further notice" part sounds ominous]

[UPDATE2 15 February 2013 1700 hours: the front door of the Angel now has a "For Sale" board attached to it. The sale is being run directly by Oakwell Brewery.

The Brewery's website does not mention the sale, the only suggestion of a reduction in the estate being a variance between their "30 community pubs" and "29 pubs" for which there are descriptions.

The sale - showing that the Brewery clearly does not want to look for another tenant or manager - looks like another reduction in the number of Crewe pubs. Bad news]

Friday, 3 August 2012

16 Corner Bar

Visited on 29 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

And so, back at the Station end of Nantwich Road, this evening’s long walk concludes with a look at the Corner Bar, which is part of the Royal Hotel. The last time I drank here of an evening was some time ago, before the current management took over. The beer offering then was fizzy keg and it was, not to put too fine a point on it, crap.

Fortunately those days are well and truly gone. Although the bar is quiet midweek – this place and the Box next door really get busy at weekends – that’s no excuse not to put on a decent pint. And the Corner Bar is the only place in town where you can regularly sample Salopian ales.

This evening just the two are on offer, Lemon Dream and Golden Thread. Decisions, decisions. It’s Lemon Dream, which gets the nod on the name alone. It’s not particularly lemony, but a pleasant golden coloured premium strength brew which uses wheat malt and even combines Goldings hops with Saaz, which latter you’d normally associate with Pilsner style beers.

In case you missed the music bar orientation, there’s a stage in one corner, guitars everywhere, and photos of dozens of acts that have appeared recently. And there’s also a seating area above the bar which looks a good bet for a quieter berth when the volume gets turned up.

There are also a number of interesting looking bottled beers available. It’s only a pity that there aren’t more punters visiting. There are worse ways to pass the time when waiting for your train, most of which involve tolerating our wonderfully-not-very-updated-much-since-sometime-before-1923 station. Pop in here instead, but keep check of the time.

What Is FastCask?

After my aside during the review of Ye Olde Manor – and no prizes for guessing that I may take a stroll down Nantwich Road to do a further analysis in the not too distant future – the FastCask concept needs some explanation.


Cask beer is naturally conditioned: it leaves the brewery not yet settled out, and the cask needs to be left in the cellar, or stillaged, to allow the yeast sediment to drop to the bottom, with the beer clearing, or dropping bright. And if your cellar is small and crowded, you can’t risk rocking or even jolting the cask, because that will unsettle the sediment and you have to let it settle over again.

This is one reason that some licensees don’t like cask beer, and a most convenient excuse for relying totally on NitroKeg MegaBrand SuperBland over-promoted and character free crap. And here the folks at Marston’s enter, with FastCask.

Here’s how it works: the beer is filtered to remove the yeast before the cask is filled, but to replicate the conditioning process, a pellet (Marston’s prefer to call it a “bead”) of gel, which contains yeast, is substituted. The pellets drop to the bottom of the cask more or less straight away and the beer can be served without waiting at least 24 hours – as is usual – or after the cask is disturbed.

Marston’s EPA was developed recently and is the most visible FastCask product, but Pedigree, Wychwood Hobgoblin, Jennings Cumberland Ale, and Brakspear Bitter are also available in this form. The first four can be found in Crewe pubs: there are four or five offering Pedigree.

It means there are no excuses for a pub with its own cellar – for which, read almost all of them – not to offer cask beer. As the Marston’s promo says, cask is the only product you can’t get at home. Everything else you can get off the shelf at Asda.

And it’s another reason why, when I walk into a pub and find no cask option available, I take a dim view. Is the hint getting through yet?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

15 Ye Olde Manor

Visited On 29 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

After another long walk, not that I want to just put plenty of distance between myself and The Raven, you understand, the end of Manor Way is reached. Here is Nantwich Road, home to that well known business income source known as Passing Trade. And in a prime position to tap that trade is Ye Olde Manor.

It’s a Crown Carvery (website HERE). So it’s food before pub, then, is it? Let’s go in and find out.

That’s a slightly difficult one: is this a food pub, or a pub that does food? That’s not as easy to answer as might be thought. The car park is usually well filled, and those punters come for the food before the drink. But my visit reveals many folk are here just to relax with a few drinks. Both groups are more than adequately catered for.

As with any food pub, every table gets a number, so if you decide to order food, that order finds you. And the menu is on all day, so those who decide to eat later on – rather than visiting a takeaway on the walk home – generate more custom (and there’s no escape, folks – they do takeaway too!).

But what about the beer? OK, OK, I’m getting there. Unusually, all pumps and dispensers have prices clearly marked, and that includes the handpumps that are serving Marston’s Pedigree and EPA. I have a pint of the latter, which is just over two quid and is very pleasant indeed. It may well be FastCask (I’ll post on this later) but it’s a nicely balanced session beer.

This should be no surprise, given the Cask Marque sign outside. So what kind of mix of punters is there midweek? Groups of blokes, the kind that might have walked there from Brookhouse – as I did – couples sharing a bottle of wine, friends gathering for a chat, office and shop workers on their way home, and of course those taking a break from their car journey: all are represented.

The bar staff are happy and smiling, the service is prompt, food arrives smartly, the place is a little lived in but welcoming, and that means this blog’s favourite phrase is about to be deployed once again: IT’S NOT BLOODY ROCKET SCIENCE.

If I lived on the Brookhouse estate – and I’m more than moderately thankful not to – I’d gladly walk here rather than endure The Raven. But you probably guessed that answer already. Another pub that has something for everybody. That’ll do nicely.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

14 Raven

Visited on 29 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

After a walk along Gresty Green Road and a number of footpaths – not recommended after dark – I arrive at The Raven (you’d more usually get there via Davenport Avenue or Brookhouse Drive). A recent build pub with a very empty car park. Not that I’m about to advocate driving and then having a few scoops, but it just looks, well, a bit bare.

A nearby new build housing development lies behind gates and a substantial wall. Some of the less new housing has seen better days. But it’s the pub that counts. The lease is for sale. But it’s open, so let’s have a look.

There are two rooms and not very many punters. But there are two handpumps on the bar. So is there any cask beer? Here’s the answer.

NO CASK BEER

Well, no there isn’t, “at the moment”. What is this, the Lawro fan club? One look at the pumps tells me they haven’t seen service for weeks, if not months. Be honest with your punters, for goodness’ sake. Oh wait, he is being: “Actually we’ve no bitter at all”. Whoopee. The Pub With No Bitter.

I’ll have a Guinness, then. That should be OK. In fact, at 50p more than I paid at the Cumberland Arms, it should be bloody marvellous. So I let it settle and check out the surroundings. The contrast with the Cheshire Cheese, from where I just walked, could not be greater. The floor may have been swept recently, but cleaned? Let’s not go there. There is very little in the way of bottled beer choices, either.

And there’s no sign that it does food, but at least every nearby takeaway has a flyer available. So not much of an offer for the passing punter. I take a few sips of the Guinness.  Then a few more. Then I pause. Something is not quite right.

And that something is that this is one rank bad pint of beer. There is a nasty metallic taste, and an even nastier aftertaste. Whether it’s spent ages in the pipe, or they haven’t cleaned the lines recently, or a combination of both, I ultimately don’t care. It’s vile, it’s virtually undrinkable, and it’s an insult.

Why anyone should part with their discretionary cash for this offering is beyond me. The only reason I carry on drinking is that, well, it’s the path of least resistance. At least there were no unpleasant later side effects.

Are you not having another?” asks the bloke behind the bar as I finish up and depart. Dead sodding right I’m not. If that’s the best that this place can do, it deserves to close, and soon, if only to put it out of its misery. An absolutely appalling pub. Really, really bad.