The Great Age of Steam

Beer signs at the Head of Steam bar in Birmingham.

We’ve been intrigued by the growth of the Head of Steam chain of beer bars for a while and Phil’s recent post prompted me to go out of my way to drop into the Birmingham branch while traversing the Midlands.

Founded by Tony Brookes in the North East of England in 1995, the original proposition of Head of Steam was that the pubs (with bottled beer, flavoured vodka, and so on) would be near city train stations, occupying railway property. In 1998 there were branches in Newcastle, Huddersfield and at Euston in London.

In 2009 when regional giant Cameron’s took over, with backing from Carlsberg, there were seven pubs in the Head of Steam group. There are now 15 bars, mostly in the Midlands and the North, with more on the way.

Based on my experience in Birmingham, the approach is to try to convince you you’re stepping into an individualistic place with personality and taste, not a Craft Pub Chain Concept. The signs are all ther, though: distressed and mismatched furniture, walls that’ll give you splinters, but with all the crucial bits kept conveniently wipe-clean.

Vintage pub seating and wooden walls.

There’s an off-the-peg Eclectic Playlist, of course — breathy indie switches to quirky ska and then, inevitably, to Africa by Toto — delivered through a state of the art Hospitality Background Music Solution.

And the food looks like standard pub grub disguised with a sprinkling of kimchi.

Now, all that might sound a little sour but actually I didn’t dislike the place at all.

There was an interesting selection of beer, for starters.

I was also impressed by the very chatty bartender who for all his patter knew when to pitch a recommendation and when to just pour.

As I was on a tight turnaround I only had a couple of small ones — Horizon by the Shiny Brewing Company, which didn’t touch the sides — hazy, refreshing, tart, and bitter; and an imported German lager, ABK, which struck me as pretty decent, too, in a literally nondescript way.

Cameron’s also spent some of the refurb money on ensuring there are plug points at practically every table which in this day and age is a not insignificant factor in deciding where to go for a pint in a strange town.

My first instinct was to say that it isn’t the sort of place I’d generally choose to go again but actually I had to concede that it made a good pit-stop while changing trains, being less than five minutes from New Street.

Then I found myself going a little further: if I lived in Birmingham, I reckon I’d probably end up there quite a bit.

I can imagine it appealing to non-beer-geek friends and family with its cleanness, friendliness, and vast range of drinks.

And I can certainly deal with the whiff of the corporate when there’s a cage of Orval and Westmalle to be enjoyed.

7 thoughts on “The Great Age of Steam”

  1. Used to love The Head of Steam in Huddersfield when I was at Uni there. You could sit out on the actual platform and drink your beer. When your train pulls in finish the pint and nip straight on. Much better than sitting on a cold bench in some horrible station with an overpriced bottle of water from Smiths.

    Haven’t been there for years now but the burgers were always good.

  2. It depends what you’re comparing with. If you see the HoS just as a fairly craft-y chain of bars, you won’t be disappointed and may be pleasantly surprised; the range of European beers is really good. What you won’t find (any more) is that range of beers backed by the commitment & expertise of a specialist bar – a properly curated beer menu, bar staff who know what’s what (but don’t pretend to know everything), consistently matching glassware. (You can get away with serving a pint in any old branded glass, but serving a bottle of Straffe Hendrik with a La Trappe glass just looks like you’re not making the effort.)

    1. Funnily, I know the lady who helps design the beer menus for HoS bars. She’s extreeeemly knowledgable and worked in a specialist craft bar for years.

      1. The menus aren’t her best work, then! As I said when I first encountered the now-standard HoS beer menu,

        the beer descriptions were chatty and twee (spare me the gnomes of Achouffe!); they also seemed to have been downloaded from somewhere or other into a fixed-format template, with the result that almost all of them cut off with a string of dots rather than…

  3. I’ve only been to the one in Hull, plus Tilley’s in Newcastle. Found both to be excellent, cask ale in great condition, heaps of good bottles, decent atmospheres. In fact Tilley’s is probably my favourite Newcastle pub (though I feel that’s in part because it was a good pub that was taken over by Head of Steam but not tampered with too much).

  4. Nice post. I think it’s a good addition to the Brum scene…particularly in that part of town. Birmngham is catching up nicely with the rest of the big cities in the UK and this sort of boozer will only help as it’s not traditionally a big ale/craft drinking palce (although I stand to be corrected!)

  5. We’ve two in Leeds. Central one (need train station ) I like, bar layout frustratingly means you can’t see all pumps at same time but proper old pub and friendly atmosphere. Beer range can be hit and miss for me but I’m a fussy git. Headingley is much larger, less of the old charm and suffers from being in a student area and trying to please everyone. Definitely too much in the way of Camerons and Heineken on the bar. Put me in a new town and if I spotted a head of steam I’m making bee line though, just here I’ve enough local knowledge to find better.

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