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.

QUICK ONE: Overlooked

Here’s an interesting question, in the form of a Twitter poll, from @ThaBearded1 who works at Twisted Barrel, a brewery in Coventry:

He is no doubt going to write or do something interesting himself based on the responses so we won’t get too involved in the specifics of this particular case but what he’s expressing does seem to be a common anxiety: that the next city over, or London specifically, is getting more than its share of attention in the national press or on prominent beer blogs.

We’ve written pieces relating to this on a few occasions, most notably here where we said…

…if writing about beer is London-centric, and it might be a bit, it’s partly because London is bothering to write about beer.

More recently we suggested that in 2017 what people mean specifically when they make this kind of point is, ‘Wah! Why hasn’t Matt Curtis written about it/us/here!?

We say, once again, that if you think your region is overlooked, you should make the case. Write a blog post or ebook, or put together a Google Map, showing where a visitor to your region can find local beer, the beer-geekiest bars and pubs, and give some suggestions for how they can get from one to another. Your target audience here is people on weekend breaks — why should they visit your city rather than, say, Sheffield, or Manchester, where there is so much interesting beer that it’s hard to know where to start? But also, by extension, bloggers and journos looking for advice on where to start.

‘But we’re not like those obnoxious Londoners/Mancunians/Leodensians — we don’t like to shout about ourselves because we’re so humble and unassuming,’ feels like a response we’ve heard several times in this kind of conversation, and that’s a bit… pathetic. It’s probably better to boast than to grumble, and wait for someone else to do the shouting for you.

And, of course, writing critically is good too — it’s a sign of maturity in a scene and can add credibility to your guidance. If a visitor follows your advice and ends up in pubs that are merely ‘meh’, drinking bad beer, they’ll think less of your scene overall.

We used to have a page here collecting links to town, city and region guides and pub crawls written by beer bloggers, but had to scrap it because they weren’t being kept up to date and too few new ones were appearing. It would be nice to revive that, or at least to know that there’s a guide out there to Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, or wherever, that we can point people to when they ask us, which they do from time to time.

Note: if you’re interested here’s what we wrote about Birmingham and the Black Country last summer.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 25 March 2017: Morse, Ma Pardoe, Mild

Here’s all the writing on beer and pubs that’s stood out in the last seven days, from Inspector Morse to the provocative nature of lists on the Internet.

The crime novelist Colin Dexter died this week which prompted veteran beer writer Roger Protz to dig out an interview he conducted with Dexter back in 1990, in an Oxford pub, naturally. Although it first appeared in CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newspaper, it isn’t primarily about beer, but that’s a thread throughout:

When he was in hospital a few years ago he dreamt he was winning a cross country race but he was more concerned with getting a pint of beer after finishing than being lauded as the winner. When he woke, slavering for a drink, he saw the dreaded message above his bed ‘Nil by mouth’.


Interior of the Old Swan.

The Wench at Black Country Pub takes us on another jolly, this time to The Black Swan, AKA Ma Pardoe’s, where the local dialect is as thick as the doorstop sandwiches, and every detail has a story to tell:

You may think me a little strange, but one of my favourite things about Ma Pardoes is the worn carpet that leads you to the bar. Now it’s not one of them fancy Weatherspoons carpets like those featured in Kit Calesses book and blog, however I imagine the many Black Country folk who’ve wearily trod that same path in search of fine ale, and the tales they have told.


Detail from a vintage ad for Tetley mild.

Ron Pattinson has a recipe for a Tetley mild from 1946, with this interesting aside:

It’s typical of a type of Mild brewed in Yorkshire, lying somewhere between pale and dark. Weirdly, all those years I drank it, I never realised that it wasn’t really that dark. More of a dark red than brown.


The Eagle Hotel.

Tandleman has joined the welcome trend of Epic Pub Quests (e.g. Cambridge, Bedford) with a mission to visit all 30 Samuel Smith pubs in the catchment area for his local CAMRA branch. Only four sell real ale but this kind of endeavour isn’t really about the beer — it’s about going to and observing places that might otherwise get overlooked. The second report so far filed has passages that would seem at home in a 20th Century social realist novel:

The Irish woman walked over and warmed her arse on the roaring coal fire adjacent to the card players. She asked no-one in particular if the clocks go back or forward this weekend.  There was some dispute about this, but it was finally agreed that the clocks go forward. The Old Irishwoman sniffed at this.‘Forward or back, you shouldn’t interfere with the fecking clock,’ she announced, eliciting no opinions either way.


A scared, angry mob.

For Good Beer Hunting Bryan Roth shakes a weary head at people arguing online with a US Brewers’ Association list of ‘The Top 50 Breweries’ by beer sales volume — an act as futile as debating the iTunes Top 10. Tying it into the buzz-phrase of the day, FAKE NEWS!, Roth says:

The backlash was swift. Pushback came over social media as commenters offered their hot takes while ignoring the factual basis of the list—it was, as it has been for at least a decade, organized by production levels. Even still, these internet denizens repeatedly asked, as if they were debating a listicle on Reddit, ‘how can you leave [My Favorite Brewery Name Here] off this list?’


Detail from Ansell's beer mat, 1970s: "Brewed in Birmingham".

News from Birmingham via Dave Hopkins at The Midlands Beer Blog Collective: The Birmingham Beer Bash is dead (or at least in stasis); long live the Birmingham Beer Bazaar! This replacement event has different organisers and, we suspect, might prove controversial — there’s already a bit of muttering on social media. At any rate, we’ll be adding this to the register of good and bad news, along with…


…the announcement of Leicester’s new specialist bottle shop, the awkwardly-named Brewklopedia:

The idea for the shop came about after the owners of 23 Wine & Whisky on Granby Street decided to introduce some local beers into their range… Manager of Brewklopedia, Kunal Kapadia, said: “We had a really good response, so we started introducing more beer from around the globe… ‘Customers quite liked the idea of having a separate shop in the city centre, so we decided to take the risk and jump right in.’

(Reported by Hayley Watson for a local news website rendered barely readable by intrusive ads — sorry.)


Finally, here’s a some soothsaying from one of the authors of the World Atlas of Beer which, we suspect, has the weight of inside info behind it: