Based on our week holidaying there we reckon Newcastle is a great city, a great place to drink, and we’ll definitely be going back.
For one thing, we loved the sense that there’s less of a stark line there between ‘craft’ and ‘trad’, posh and rough, town and suburb, than in some other parts of the country. The Free Trade and The Cumberland, for example, were both just the right side of grotty. There and elsewhere, basic but decent pints were available at reasonable prices, alongside more extravagant, trendier products, with no sense that one is better than the other.
At the Gosforth Hotel we had what might be our beer of the year, Allendale Pennine Pale, at £2.85 a pint, but we could have gone for pints of keg BrewDog Punk at £3.55 – about the price of Bass in Penzance – if we’d been in that mood. Prices were displayed clearly in front of the pumps so there was no need for embarrassing conversations or warnings over price. In fact, prices were plainly on show, as far as we can recall, everywhere we went.
All of this made for genuinely mixed crowds, even if there was sometimes a self-segregation into lounge and public bar crowds – literally where the partitions survived.
The Crown Posada was one of a handful of pubs that was so good we made time to visit twice. Even on a busy weekend night in town we didn’t have any trouble getting in or getting a seat. The beer was great, the service was fantastic, and there were cellophane wrapped sandwiches going at two quid a pop. It’s a tourist attraction but not a tourist trap. When we went back on Sunday lunchtime, though, we found it deserted – just us and a barman – and, as a result, much less charming.
The more full-on craft outlets – BrewDog, The Bridge Tavern brewpub – seemed out of place, superimposed rather than integrated, as if they might have been picked up in any another city and dropped into place. (If we lived there, we no doubt welcome the variety.)
There aren’t as many inter-war ‘improved pubs’ in Newcastle as in Birmingham (on which more in our next post) but we found a couple, manorial in scale, chain-branded, but otherwise doing what they were built to do nearly a century ago: providing un-threatening environments in which men, women and children can socialise together over beer, food and afternoon tea. They’re not much good for serious beer lovers – just lots of Greene King IPA, well off its own turf, but even that was in good nick when we did try it.
We came away with a clear impression of what seemed to us to be the dominant breweries in the region: Allendale, Mordue and Wylam were almost everywhere. We’d tried Wylam beers in the past and thought they were decent but we’ve noticed a renewed buzz around them on social media in the last year; now we see why.
Almost every pub we went in had one beer we really wanted to drink and most had a couple more we were keen to try, or already knew we liked. Across the board there was a tendency to provide a range from dark to light, and from weak to strong. Only in one pub-bar (the otherwise likeable Cluny) did we find ourselves thinking that the vast range of hand-pumps might be a bit ambitious – the beer wasn’t off, just a bit tired.
But even if the beer had been terrible everywhere it wouldn’t have mattered too much because the pubs are just so pretty – stained glass, fired tiles, decorative brick, shining brass, layers of patina – and often set beneath the cathedral-like arches of the city’s many great bridges.
And, finally, not in Newcastle but a short train ride away in Hartlepool, we got to visit our first micropub, The Rat Race – the second ever, which opened in 2009. We stayed for a couple of hours, interviewed the landlord, Peter Morgan, and chatted to some of his regulars, and to others who drifted through. We think we get it now and, yes, we reckon they’re probably a good thing.
This is a part of the world which, to our eyes, definitely seems to have a healthy beer culture. If you decide to pay a visit yourself – and you should – do check out these local publications for tips: