Impressions of Birmingham Pubs

We had a less than satisfactory time on the second part of our recent sort-of-holiday, which we spent in Birmingham (of which more in our monthly newsletter), but there was plenty of fun to be had down the pub.

We had a hit list of places we want­ed to vis­it, either because we’d heard they were good, or because they were of his­toric or archi­tec­tur­al inter­est. That’s just as well because – gen­er­al­i­sa­tion alert – it’s not the kind of city where play­ing it by ear works espe­cial­ly well. It seemed to us that the city cen­tre is large­ly the domain of chains. Large­ly but not entire­ly, of course: The Welling­ton and The Post Office Vaults, both five min­utes walk from New Street Sta­tion, between them have more than enough beer to keep the snooti­est of drinkers hap­py for a week­end. We did also pop into Puri­ty’s craft beer bar, Pure­craft, and did­n’t take to it – it was like drink­ing in Piz­za Express – but we’d had a long day and oth­ers seem to like it.

To get to the rest of the inter­est­ing stuff, though, you have to brave the ring road (we spent what felt like hours wait­ing at traf­fic lights or wan­der­ing in sub­ways) after which you find your­self very quick­ly in the kind of post-indus­tri­al streetscapes which can feel a bit ‘sketchy’ to an out­sider.

Tower blocks, Birmingham.Local favourite The Craven Arms, for exam­ple, is only just beyond the very cen­tre of the city, but it’s not a pub a vis­i­tor would ever stum­ble upon, being up a side street, past a con­crete car park, what looks like a half-col­lapsed estate pub, some waste­land, and those beau­ties above. But it’s not actu­al­ly dodgy, as far as we can tell, and the leap of faith is total­ly worth it for the sight of this gor­geous exte­ri­or against the grey:

The exterior of the Craven Arms.

The inte­ri­or is noth­ing spe­cial, as it hap­pens, but still pleas­ant­ly old-school, 1980s pub­by. The beer offer (as so often we found in New­cas­tle) seemed designed to be demo­c­ra­t­ic: local mild and bit­ter (Black Coun­try Ales) at around three quid a pint, trendi­er cask (Cloud­wa­ter) for more like four, and some crazy keg stuff priced by the third or the half. Any hint of pre­ten­sion was fur­ther under­cut but the offer of cel­lo­phane-wrapped cheese rolls at a pound a pop, and some par­tic­u­lar­ly funky pork scratch­ings.

One of the most famous pubs in Birm­ing­ham is The Bar­ton’s Arms, the sub­ject of this won­der­ful film in the BFI archive. It was built as the 19th Cen­tu­ry turned to the 20th and sur­vived plan­ning and refur­bish­ment fever, leav­ing it stand­ing proud at the side of a main road along­side indus­tri­al units, tow­er blocks and super­mar­kets. Again, there’s noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with this set­ting – it’s what most of Britain actu­al­ly looks like – but inter­na­tion­al vis­i­tors espe­cial­ly might need a lit­tle encour­age­ment to walk or ride the bus out this way. (And our bus ride back was, to be hon­est, a bit scary.) Again, though, it is total­ly worth it for the beau­ty of the pub, but a full line-up of beers from Oakham, all tast­ing great, isn’t a bad incen­tive either.

Collage: various images of the Barton's Arms (stained glass, mosaics, snob screens).

Out the oth­er way, in Dig­beth, we went to look at the Vic­to­ri­an archi­tec­ture of The Anchor and The White Swan, set among decay­ing fac­to­ries and yet more waste­land, but with the tell-tale signs of pre-gen­tri­fi­ca­tion ‘arti­fi­ca­tion’ under­way – posh graf­fi­ti! Street sculp­tures! We returned to the Anchor for a pint on our last evening hav­ing heard that it was a local CAMRA favourite and liked it. Like some of our favourite pubs it did­n’t feel as if it was owned by any one par­tic­u­lar group: there were a few stu­dents, a bloke with a beard updat­ing Untap­pd on his phone, a mid­dle-aged cou­ple on a date and a bunch of lads of var­i­ous ages with ripe local accents play­ing pool. When a brief snatch of the theme from Eas­t­en­ders blared from the TV before the foot­ball match start­ed we thought, oh yeah – it’s a bit like a Brum ver­sion of The Queen Vic. The range of beer on cask, keg and in bot­tles was huge and inter­est­ing with it, rang­ing from mild (Hold­en’s) to Alt­bier, via the main­stream usu­al sus­pects. Again, qual­i­ty and vari­ety with­out snob­bery. It can be done.

Lamp advertising Ansell's outside the Spotted Dog.

The near­by Spot­ted Dog we’d noticed dur­ing our ear­li­er wan­der­ing, up a tat­ty-look­ing side street. Pre­sent­ing as an Irish pub (but not An Irish Pub Con­cept) and with a slight­ly for­bid­ding, gloomy look to it, we could­n’t tell if it was still trad­ing and assumed that, even if it was, it might not be all the wel­com­ing. Which goes to show that you can’t judge a pub by its cov­er (or that pubs aren’t always as good at sig­nalling their intent as they might be) because The Birm­ing­ham Mail told us it was one of the city’s best real ale pubs, and so it was. We found it warm and con­vivial, with cor­ners and cub­bies, scotch eggs to snack on, more Hold­en’s mild, and a few oth­er inter­est­ing beers too. The crowd skewed mid­dle-aged but they were all a damn-sight hip­per than us – artists and for­mer punk musi­cians, we rude­ly gen­er­alised as we squint­ed at the foot­ball on a tel­ly in the snug.

The Black Horse, Northfield.

The main event in Birm­ing­ham, which gets its own page in the excel­lent Pevs­ner city archi­tec­tur­al guide by Andy Fos­ter, is the sub­ur­ban improved pub­lic house. Birm­ing­ham was arguably the epi­cen­tre of the pub­lic house improve­ment in the ear­ly part of the 20th Cen­tu­ry and not only has more sur­vivors than oth­er parts of the coun­try but also some absolute beau­ties. We made a pil­grim­age to The Black Horse in North­field, built by Dav­en­port’s in 1929–30, which is not only an aston­ish­ing­ly love­ly and well pre­served build­ing (Grade II* list­ed) but also a bloody good branch of Wether­spoons. On a Mon­day after­noon it had a pos­i­tive buzz about it despite its vast­ness. And we all but fell in love with The British Oak at Stirch­ley – that social mix again, and a play of evening light through stained glass across pol­ished table­tops… Sigh. There were lots of oth­ers, too.

We had fun in Birm­ing­ham, and you prob­a­bly will too if you go with a thirst and change for the bus, but it’s not quite a beer drinker’s par­adise just yet, because the action is so dis­persed, and because it’s a tough place to be a pedes­tri­an. Hav­ing said that, it does also give easy access to the Black Coun­try, of which more lat­er…

Apolo­gies if we’ve made any geo­graph­i­cal or cul­tur­al faux pas here – we don’t know Birm­ing­ham well and this is point­ed­ly not a ‘guide to’. For that, see The Mid­lands Beer Blog Col­lec­tive and the local CAMRA mag­a­zine.

13 thoughts on “Impressions of Birmingham Pubs”

  1. I think Birm­ing­ham is real­ly up and com­ing, I like it there a lot. You missed a cou­ple of bars that give the scene a bit more depth IMO. Tilt is a great, mod­ern craft beer bar that’s clos­er to some­thing in Copen­hagen than say, Lon­don and Cher­ry Red’s cafe (oppo­site the towns Brew­dog bar) is a great Bel­gian style cafe that I like a lot.

    I reck­on anoth­er two or three spe­cial­ist craft beer bars will have opened there by the end of this year too. The demand is there.

    1. Well, we ran out of time as much as any­thing. Tilt would have been next on our list. We tend to agree that it’s going to be the next city to ‘go over’ but, actu­al­ly, reflect­ing on it dur­ing this vis­it, we did won­der whether the fun­da­men­tal shape of the city – ring roads, most of the life in the sub­urbs – will make it a bit less like­ly. Dig­beth sure­ly ought to be full of brew­eries and bars, Bermond­sey style, but (unless we’re miss­ing some­thing) it’s still actu­al­ly most­ly indus­tri­al/­post-indus­tri­al.

      1. In Birm­ing­ham the post-indus­tri­al rede­vel­op­ment most­ly gets direct­ed towards the oth­er side of the city cen­tre in the Jew­ellery Quar­ter where new restau­rants and bars are slow­ly begin­ning to take hold. Dig­beth suf­fers from the issue that out­side of the main road it is actu­al­ly quite dodgy at night (or at least used to be and still has the per­cep­tion of being) so it strug­gles to draw peo­ple out­side of big music events.

        Brew­eries are anoth­er mat­ter entire­ly as they are poor across the whole of the West Mid­lands par­tic­u­lar­ly in terms of mod­ern craft brew­eries.

  2. You’re gen­er­al­ly right about Birm­ing­ham in my opin­ion, although it’s a shame you did­n’t make it to Tilt. My pet the­o­ry as to why the scene has been slow to take off is that Mitchell & But­ler still have a stran­gle­hold on the city, even craft-ish, indie look­ing places like the Junc­tion in Har­borne are owned by them.

    And as Greg said above, it’s a mys­tery why the West Mid­lands still does­n’t have a top-notch craft brew­er.

  3. What Birm­ing­ham lacks is a trendy “craft beer sub­urb” like Chorl­ton and, to a less­er extent, Dids­bury in Man­ches­ter.

    1. That’s where you’d think Mose­ley or Kings Heath would come in, but, bar­ring Cher­ry Reds in Kings Heath, there’s not loads of beer spe­cial­ist places.

  4. There are def­i­nite move­ments on both counts for brew­eries and drink­ing spots, with some new brew­eries due to open and new venues open­ing. JQ are see­ing a lot of the new venues open­ing. Lack of inde­pen­dents in the cen­tre (of all types, shops, food and drink venues) is a major issue, so for the mean time you need a day saver on the bus to get about. We are try­ing to high­light, pro­mote and cel­e­brate as much as we can via Mid­lands Beer Blog Col­lec­tive.

  5. I loved Brum when I was stu­dent there from 95–98, sad­ly though my old drink­ing hole is no more, The Trees. I know they are cheesy as all get out but the O’Neil­l’s on Broad was a crack­ing place for a Fri­day night ses­sion, as was the Malt House at Brind­ley Place.…ah the mem­o­ries.

  6. With all the opti­mism in the world, demand still isn’t what some oth­er cities can boast, and for all the new­ness and crafti­ness of bars that open there is still an under­ly­ing pedes­tri­an­i­sa­tion of the beer offerin that out­shines the pedes­tri­an­i­sa­tion of the city cen­tre! As I’ve com­ment­ed before (in pub­lic and in pri­vate) there’s still a long haul ahead.

    The prob­lem as I now per­ceive it is that when the band­wag­on is mov­ing along slow­ly enough even the most bloat­ed and weighed-down can jump on it, crush­ing the nim­ble upstarts who leapt on it with vigour else­where and cre­at­ed some­thing unstop­pable before the main­stream and tra­di­tion­al caught up with the idea…

    It pains me to still take a neg­a­tive view, but Birm­ing­ham is still a slow (but steady) burn­er on the mod­ern beer front, for rea­sons tact­ful­ly observed in this arti­cle amongst oth­ers.

  7. As a few oth­ers have com­ment­ed, it’s a shame you’ve missed the vast major­i­ty of what feels like Birm­ing­ham is final­ly get­ting some­where, beer wise. It’s a nice start and as you say a list of his­toric or archi­tec­tur­al inter­est, but sad­ly feels a bit like some­one gave you an old CAMRA list and meant you’ve missed out on some gems. For that I’m sor­ry, I feel like as a city we failed to per­suade you to try some of the new­er places. I’d entire­ly agree that play­ing things by ear is not always the eas­i­est in Birm­ing­ham, some­thing I think a lot of us are try­ing to change. But I like think the city is friend­ly and, in my expe­ri­ence, bar­tenders are always keen to make recommendations…even to oth­er bars. And whilst rel­a­tive­ly new, the Mid­lands Beer Blog Col­lec­tive always offer­ing up great sug­ges­tions.

    I’d echo Matthew’s com­ments, and every­one else’s, about Tilt, it’s a crack­ing place; Cher­ry Reds too; and even The Vic­to­ria down the road usu­al­ly has some inter­est­ing beers on tap, if not in bot­tles. All city cen­tre and inde­pen­dent. The ring-road that stran­gled the city cen­tre is slow­ly being erod­ed and open­ing up the JQ and Dig­beth – the lat­ter of which has been in a state of flux thanks to HS2.

    The Jew­ellery Quar­ter has just seen three new bars open with­in the last cou­ple of weeks and I’ve yet to make it down, but I hear good things. Two Tow­ers brew­ery have since relo­cat­ed and their old space is due to be relaunched by some­one else. Sev­er­al oth­er bars in are due to open in the area, and rumours of some new brew­eries too.

    It’s a shame that whilst in Stirch­ley at the British Oak you did­n’t get to vis­it Wild­cat Tap or stick your head round the door at Stirch­ley and Cot­teridge wines, both two of the best bot­tle shops in the city – Cot­teridge wines being well regard­ed nation­al­ly and has a tap room out back.

    But as oth­ers have said, for all the Miche­lin stars, Birm­ing­ham’s bar scene feels very much in its infan­cy. There have been some decent real ale pubs, many of which you’ve not­ed but the chang­ing tide has been very slow. Birm­ing­ham’s inde­pen­dent scene is scat­tered and whilst there are a few places in the city cen­tre, most belong to one “fam­i­ly” who focus more on spir­its and cock­tails, but even that is years behind the likes of Man­ches­ter, Leeds and Bris­tol. It feels like things are chang­ing at a rapid rate, and hope­ful­ly enough to con­vince you for a return vis­it, in time.

    1. Lau­ra – we knew about Tilt but just ran out of time, and the Wild­cat Tap was closed. I’m not sure those and the oth­er places you men­tion would have dras­ti­cal­ly altered our over­all impres­sion, though, which is that Birm­ing­ham’s city cen­tre is still rel­a­tive­ly short on char­ac­ter­ful places, and that you need insid­er tips, guides and maps to find the good stuff.

      More craft beer bars would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly make us feel warmer, either: what vis­i­tors want and what res­i­dents are after are often quite dif­fer­ent. Down here in Corn­wall, we’re quite excit­ed by Hand Bar in Fal­mouth because it has beer from up coun­try and around the world and feels a bit ‘big city­ish’, but peo­ple on hol­i­day (to gen­er­alise) want tra­di­tion­al Cor­nish ale in tra­di­tion­al Cor­nish inns, not some­thing that’s gener­i­cal­ly ‘craft’. You here the same thing about, say, Berlin, where locals are dead excit­ed about the arrival of Brew­Dog which we would­n’t both­er with if we were there on hol­i­day. (More on all this here, BTW.)

      1. I expect part of it will be what you define by char­ac­ter­ful places – The Vic­to­ria is a the­atre pub dat­ing back to the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, but lots of those oth­er places are new­er, because Birm­ing­ham has a ten­den­cy to pull down old build­ings. Although there are a few oth­ers – did any­one men­tion the Rose Vil­la Tav­ern or The Church, both pubs in the Jew­ellery Quar­ter, and of some archi­tec­tur­al mer­it. That’s anoth­er prob­lem with Birm­ing­ham, the city cen­tre was stran­gled for years by a ring road which I think is very slow­ly being erod­ed and try­ing to define the city cen­tre is an ongo­ing prob­lem. How­ev­er I think you’re right that insid­er tips and guides are required, it’s some­thing the city strug­gles with even for res­i­dents.

        A good point about vis­i­tors ver­sus res­i­dents, but it’s not as sim­ple in Birm­ing­ham which finds itself with­out a clear­ly defined tra­di­tion – or too many (met­al music, trade/industry, jew­ellery, cui­sine, conferences/festivals, car man­u­fac­tur­ing…). Tourism seems to be ris­ing year-on-year, but I sus­pect I could go out and poll tourists to the city and get a mul­ti­tude of rea­sons what brought them to the city. Which is why the tra­di­tion­al pub and the new­er beer bars are hope­ful­ly both of inter­est to vis­i­tors, just per­haps some more than oth­ers to dif­fer­ent groups.

        I think it’s safe to say Birm­ing­ham is a work in progress (not just for beer), but hope­ful­ly worth a return to.

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