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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