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 replies on “Impressions of Birmingham Pubs”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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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