A real ale pub that doesn’t feel weird

Dark Star Espresso Stout
Dark Star Espres­so Stout

On a recent busi­ness trip to Cheshire, I got bil­let­ted in Frod­sham. My taxi dri­ver vol­un­teered the infor­ma­tion that the pubs in town were decent and rec­om­mend­ed the Hel­ter Skel­ter.

Good call.

It’s point­ed­ly a “real ale pub” but with an extreme­ly mixed clien­tele and a gen­uine­ly relaxed atmos­phere. There were lots of lads and ladies drink­ing lager, some mid­dle-aged cou­ples on a dou­ble date, a few old ladies on a night out and, of course, a hud­dle of men with beards hav­ing an earnest con­ver­sa­tion over a note­book.

The beer was in astound­ing­ly good con­di­tion. Phoenix’s West Coast IPA offered a late taste of sum­mer and lived up to its mar­ket­ing (a weak­er Lib­er­ty Ale?) and Dark Star Espres­so Stout was sweet­er and chewier than from the bot­tle.

The beer was served with a sparkler, as you’d expect in that part of the world, but here it just seemed to give the head some body with­out turn­ing it into shav­ing foam. I’m com­ing round to the idea.

What is this pub get­ting right? Friend­ly staff, for one thing. Lots of infor­ma­tion, for anoth­er – a board behind the bar with a guide to the colour of the beers on offer is a stroke of genius. It helps that they’re not try­ing to beer­van­ge­lise to any­one: there are no scary signs telling peo­ple off for not lik­ing real ale, for exam­ple, and you can get a pint of Stel­la if that’s what you want.

And a bit of qui­et back­ground music does­n’t hurt, either.


Can a pub with football on the telly be any good?

Portugal warming up at the 2006 World Cup in Germany
Por­tu­gal warm­ing up at the 2006 World Cup in Ger­many

CAMRA guides to pubs often praise the absence of a TV screen, and indeed, a big sign out­side a pub boast­ing Sky / Setan­ta sports and a big screen is usu­al­ly syn­ony­mous with mediocre beer.

I can see why peo­ple hate TVs in pubs, because they can dis­tract peo­ple from con­ver­sa­tion and detract from the atmos­phere.

But occa­sion­al­ly, I do want to watch a foot­ball match in the pub, and I always have to com­pro­mise on the qual­i­ty of the beer (and pub) to do so.

Has any­one got any sug­ges­tions for places in cen­tral Lon­don that are real­ly good pubs with nice beer that just hap­pen to have a screen? Or are the two mutu­al­ly exclu­sive?

I sup­pose what you need is a pub that has sev­er­al sec­tions, where you can keep the foot­ball in a dis­crete area, so every­one’s hap­py.  In Ger­many, both dur­ing the World Cup in 2006 and the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships this year, loads of cafes and bars got in screens, but put them out­side, help­ing to cre­ate a fan­tas­tic street par­ty atmos­phere.

Inci­den­tal­ly, Zeit­geist is pret­ty good for big sport­ing events, but you have to choose your night care­ful­ly, as Bun­desli­ga and Ger­many qual­i­fiers get pri­or­i­ty!


Beer in Madrid

spainflags.jpgMadrid is home to some of the best art gal­leries in the world and some of the best bars too. Best in terms of atmos­phere any­way, but the beer is rarely any­thing to write home about.

Ron Pat­tin­son has put togeth­er a guide to bars in Madrid, which includes two brew pubs. As they are hand­i­ly with­in a minute´s walk from each oth­er, I tried them both togeth­er.

Natur­bier is on the busy Plaza San­ta Ana, which boasts many oth­er fine cerve­cerí­as. It has two offer­ings – rubia (blonde) and tosta­da (brown, lit­er­al­ly “toast­ed”). I slight­ly pre­ferred the Tosta­da, with its heav­ier malty flavour, but both are excel­lent – extreme­ly fresh-tast­ing and refresh­ing, bal­anced malt and hop flavours, and none of the unpleas­ant “home­brew” flavours you some­times get from brew­pubs. Pubs in Fran­co­nia would not be ashamed to serve these. Oh, and appar­ent­ly it´s organ­ic too.

Natur­bier also has a great atmos­phere – friend­ly staff and a good mix­ture of locals and tourists. So you can take your non-beer geek friends too, to expe­ri­ence the madrileño bar cul­ture. It also serves tapas, which is rather pri­cy (although nor­mal for that area) so I didn´t try any – but they do tend to bung you a plate of olives or nuts.

Mag­is­ter is just off Plaza San­ta Ana, on Calle de Principe. I think it´s sup­posed to be dec­o­rat­ed like a Ger­man beer hall, but it just didn´t feel like one. They make a point about giv­ing you free tapas, usu­al­ly a staleish bit of bread with some meat on it.

They offer a rubia and tosta­da too, which aren´t as good as the Natur­bier offer­ings – slight­ly acrid flavour, and didn´t taste as fresh. How­ev­er, they also offer a “cara­mal­iza­da” which is a sort of stout, and which I liked. It wasn´t the most amaz­ing stout flavour­ing I´ve ever expe­ri­enced, but the body and mouth­feel were bang on, which was a pleas­ant change from the last three months of lager tex­ture. If that makes sense. Final­ly, they were also offer­ing a “dou­ble bock” at 8.2%. This one was inter­est­ing. Like a not very good home brew­er’s attempt at a strong Bel­gian-style ale, with a slight­ly odd fruity taste. It might even have been off.…

Over­all I pref­ered Natur­bier for the atmos­phere, but Mag­is­ter is also worth your sup­port if you´re in the area.


1. Clos­est metro sta­tions to Plaza San­ta Ana are Anton Marti­n and Sol. It’s also about 15–20 min­utes walk away from Atocha sta­tion, so handy for get­ting a drink if you´re just pass­ing through. There is left lug­gage at Atocha sta­tion, but it can be a pain to find – it´s at the far end of the trop­i­cal gar­den, away from the plat­forms, under Sam­bar Kan­da restau­rant.