Guest Post: Stono’s Favourite Suffolk Pubs

The Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds, by David (Brokentaco) on Flickr, under Creative Commons.
The Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds, by David (Brokentaco) on Flickr, under Creative Commons.

To help fill a gap in our collection of local pub guides, reader Clive Stonebridge (@stonojr) has given us a list of his favourite Suffolk drinking holes.

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I like traditional English session ales and Adnams’ Bitter. I’m a big fan of coffee stouts such as Dark Star Espresso, and not-overly-hopped beers with ‘new world hops’, e.g. Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold.  I’m from Suffolk and live locally, and have been a CAMRA member for 10 years. I’m also an occasional home-brewer and frustrated blogger/writer.

1. The Fat Cat, Ipswich
An Ipswich institution for nearly 20 years and three-time local CAMRA branch pub of the year, the Fat Cat was the town’s first new freehouse pub. Providing a traditional homely pub setting that has no television, fruit machines or music to disturb the hum of pub chatter, it is based about a 20 min walk from the town centre.

It serves a wide selection of continually changing cask ales (15+ on average) from its well stocked tap room, often including beers from its Norwich-based sister brewery, also called Fat Cat. There is also a good selection of European lagers, ‘real’ ciders, an assortment of Belgian beers in bottles, and a variety of wines.

Food comes in the shape of lunchtime rolls, or the shot-put sized home made scotch eggs (absolutely worth trying). From Sunday to Thursday, plates & cutlery and cutlery are also procided to patrons who want to bring food from local takeaways — a very popular choice all year round in the evenings.

During the summer, the well-kept beer garden provides additional seating space and occasional bank holiday weekend barbecues.

2. Dove Street Inn, Ipswich
A multi-award-winning cask ale pub for ten years, the Dove was most recently named Great British Pub Awards Cask Ale Pub of the Year 2013. It serves a wide range of ever-changing cask ales including some from its own range brewed in the micro-brewery opposite, along with a selection of draught foreign beers, ‘real’ cider and wine.

There are regular beer festivals  featuring 60+ beers in the beer tent, which is modelled on a German beer garden or cellar and provides a pleasant outdoor seating area in summer.

Landlady Karen’s home cooking and occasional weekend barbecues provide great food, with vegetarian options, and weary visitors can even book into the adjoining bed and breakfast which sits above the homebrew shop. The pub also runs its own loyalty card scheme.

3. Lord Nelson, Southwold
Adnams is synonymous with Southwold and Suffolk, and the Lord Nelson is where the locals go to drink. A three bar pub near the seafront, it serves the best pint of Adnams’ you’ll find anywhere in the county, and also does the best fish and chips too, with the fish in Broadside batter. During the winter, a roaring open fire keeps the worst of the North Sea coast’s wind and bleakness at bay while in the summer, the hidden beer garden expands the capacity of this very popular pub.

4. The Beerhouse, Bury St Edmunds
While Adnams is synonymous with Southwould, Bury St Edmunds is home to Suffolk’s other major brewer, Greene King, but The Beerhouse is one of the few pubs in the town where you’ll be unlikely ever to find their beer. Eight hand pumps provide a varied selection of cask ales alongside four ciders. Among the beer selection are often beers from the pub’s own brewery, the Brewshed. There are simple pub snacks and the pub has a nice outdoor seating arrangement which softens what is essentially a former car park, and where spring and winter beer festivals are held.

5. Butt & Oyster, Pin Mill
Featured in frequent visitor Arthur Ransome’s book We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, the Butt & Oyster is a Grade II listed building and features in CAMRA’s national inventory of historic pub interiors, retaining many of its original features from the 17th to 19th centuries.

The pub is situated on the edge of the western shore of the Orwell and, at high water, the river laps round the base of the building, and it is said yachtsmen could once be served aboard their boats by leaning in through the pub windows. These days, the windows merely provide picturesque, panoramic views across the Orwell Estuary, which attract many artists and visitors.

Primarily supplied by Adnams, beer is sold from four casks on show behind the bar, and the menu, as befits its location, is built largely around the local seafood. It gets incredibly busy and popular in the summer months so booking a table is essential.

6. The Triangle Tavern, Lowestoft
Billed as the most easterly real ale pub in the whole of the UK, and situated on Triangle Market near the town centre, the Tavern is the spiritual home to the Green Jack Brewing Co. It offers a minimum of six Green Jack ales every day with as many as four further guest ales and two real ciders at any one time across two bars, front and back.

The front bar has a more relaxed traditional look and feel with an open fire, and is where occasional live music is played on Friday nights. The back bar is more modern with games machines, pool table, and jukebox, and is where the world-renowned annual professional world thumb wrestling championship is hosted. Beer festivals are held throughout the year.

7. The Cherry Tree, Woodbridge
The building dates from the 17th century, though the tree itself no longer remains. With its traditional oak beams and sloping ceilings, the pub has a character that’s hard to fake in a town with plenty of history to shout about. The pub offers a selection of eight well-kept cask ales, the majority from Adnams, though several guest ales are usually on offer. Traditional food made with locally-sourced ingredients and a warm, family-friendly atmosphere makes this a popular local destination, with regular quiz nights and an annual beer festival. Accommodation is also provided in a converted outdoor barn.

8. The Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds
Listed by Guinness World Records as the smallest pub in Britain, it is Nutshell by name and nature. Though it might sound a tight fit,  this one bar pub, at 15ft x 7ft, has enough room to seat ten people and half as many again standing quite comfortably, though the record is claimed to be 102. The ceiling is covered in currency from around the world highlighting its status as a tourist attraction. Among many other novelties is a mummified cat found by builders carrying out renovations. This being a Greene King pub, the two cask ale hand pumps serve only their beer, usually IPA and Abbott Ale, but it is kept well, making this one of the best places to sample it in its home county.

Big breweries confused, middling ones confusing

Watney's Red Barrel

Every day, we come across something from thirty or more years ago which chimes with present-day issues in the world of beer. Here are a couple of related notes.

Observation 1: big breweries in the 1970s struggled to find a satisfactory approach to the ‘real ale craze’ just as the ‘leisure beverage’ companies they became are grappling with how to get in on ‘craft beer’ today.

Watney’s approach to real ale has so far been muted. It has experimentally introduced at a few of its London pubs, at 35p a pint, cask-conditioned beer brewed in Norwich. (It says its real beer travels.) There has been no big promotional fuss, and it is hard to see how there could be for a product whose appeal is that of not being a big-brewery mass-produced beer.

The Economist, 10 July 1976, p99.

‘Real ale’ being more clearly defined than ‘craft beer’ meant big breweries could easily produce products that met the technical criteria, but what they couldn’t do was make beer geeks love them. It was certainly real ‘real ale’, rather than ‘faux craft’, and CAMRA gave wary nods of approval, but Watney certainly weren’t in from the cold. They’d been the baddies for too long, and their interest in real ale just didn’t seem sincere.

Observation 2: regional/family brewers have always muddied the water. How do you make sense of them as part of a vaguely hippyish smaller-is-better, stick-it-to-the-man ideology?

Mr Protz, a former member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, has been attacked by the far Left for his defence of the small independent breweries with their ‘often feudal labour relations.’… ‘The problem is that political people, including the Left in Britain, have not yet realised that politics and the Labour movement does not stop at the shop floor,’ Mr Protz argues. ‘Beer is part of the leisure industry, and the leisure industry, how people enjoy themselves, is about money and power and influence — just as much as a factory. The middleclass consumer and the working man have been getting a bad deal.’

The Guardian, 19 June 1978, p4.

The Big Six all had the DNA of family breweries, but had lost their humanity. Regional brewers, on the other hand, were only ever a step away from becoming bad guys themselves. A little growth spurt; a takeover here and a closure there; a little too heavy a hand with the brewery tie and… well, look at Greene King, who were heroes in the 1970s, but now seem to be villains.

Picture by Martin Deutsch, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License. It was taken at an exhibition on the work of the Design Research Unit which we saw when it stopped off at the Tate Gallery in St Ives.

Dinosaurs revived

All we’ve ever really asked of big brewers like Greene King is that they make slightly better beer available in their pubs. We don’t expect them to ditch a business model that works for them, turn into Brewdog, throw hops at everything — just sell mainstream beer that doesn’t make us groan with dismay or turn and walk out of a pub. Pep it up a tiny bit, like St Austell did about ten years ago.

When Greene King announced that they’re sprucing up their range — dusting off the cobwebs, if you like — we were pleased to hear it. We’re also glad to hear that other big regional brewers are starting ‘craft beer’ ranges.

It’s a bit rich to moan at them for making crap beer and then, when they do something about it, to call them bandwagon jumpers and cynics. Do some critics want Greene King, Marston’s and Brains to fail? Do they need an enemy to kick against to define what they stand for?

Of course, we’ll have to wait until we’ve tasted GK’s new beers. They might be just as bad and/or boring as their IPA. They might also be as hard to find as their much-vaunted mild — the kind of ghost products which haunt the “Our Beers” lists on many brewer’s websites.

Five suggestions for Greene King

Greene King, by all accounts, are puzzled and hurt by the disdain in which they (and especially their IPA) are held by beer geeks.

As usual, we (as Tandleman would say) sit on the fence a bit when it comes to Greene King: we recognise they make some good beers, but worry that their IPA is a Trojan horse — a beer so bland it has more in common with John Smith’s Extra Smooth than any other ‘real ale’.

However, inspired by this post at the Campaign for Really Good Beer, we thought we’d be constructive and suggest five things they can do to improve their image.

1. Instead of inviting critics and commentators one at a time to come and stand on your lovely roof and meet you charming head brewer, why not make a lot more information about how your beer is made available online? At the moment (unless we’re missing something) the website is all about branding and packaging.

2. Get out and try GK IPA as it is drunk in pubs all around the country: however subtle, balanced and well-made it might be at source, by the time it reaches, say, Exeter, it is usually, in our experience, warm, vinegary and flat. Has it got more market share than your quality control mechanisms can cope with?

3. As CAMRGB suggested, stop pretending that your pubs serve beers from a range of breweries and, in particular, nix the disingenuous London Glory. This is just cheeky and takes your customers for mugs.

4. With that huge London estate, surely there’s room somewhere for a pub which serves your full range of beers, from the rarely seen but apparently excellent mild, via Suffolk Strong, all the way up to the currently brewery-exclusive 5X? A flagship pub where you could send cynics to taste your best products as you intend them to be tasted?

5. On the subject of mild, given that anyone drinking GK IPA has already foregone any pretensions of youthfulness or trendiness, probably attracted by the low ABV as much as anything else, maybe there’s a market you’re failing to tap? We groan when we see your IPA on sale in a pub in Cornwall, but we’d be delighted to see your mild.

Some of this would also apply to St Austell and some other big regional brewers. If any of the above are already happening and we’ve missed them, let us know.

We need to talk about Greene King IPA

The sign outside a Greene King pub in London.

For a beer many people consider bland and over-exposed, Greene King IPA doesn’t half get talked about a lot. To us, it’s the cask ale equivalent of Budweiser — brewed to be nearly flavourless, not too intoxicating and uncontroversial. It was, in fact, for that reason that it was the first cask ale that Bailey got the taste for, many years ago.

Zak Avery, Paul Garrard and others stick up for it, however, arguing that it is subtle rather than bland, and that it suffers because it is often sold in pubs which don’t know how to look after it. The latter is certainly true, and also applies to, e.g., London Pride when not served in a Fuller’s pub.

Zak suggests that we and others who find GK IPA boring need to recalibrate our tastebuds. We know what he means — a pint of our usual after a fortnight in Spain last year tasted like an extreme hop-monster — but can’t agree that GK IPA is an unfairly neglected classic. If faced with a choice between GK IPA and a cold Cruzcampo, we’d take the latter every time, and that’s saying something.

We recently described GK IPA, rather than ‘craft keg’, as the thin end of the wedge in the battle against crap beer: it’s got more in common with John Smith’s smooth keg ales than it has, say, an exciting brown bitter like Harvey’s Sussex Best.

Which is not to say that people who enjoy it are wrong to do so, or that they’re not really enjoying it, just that it would be a shame if that was as far as they got. It’s like upgrading from Dairylea to mild cheddar and thinking you’re eating ‘proper cheese’. (That sounds snobbish but we can’t find any other way to express this — and beer and cheese aren’t things you need to be rich or Eton-educated to enjoy.)

What’s most frustrating, as Zak also points out, is that Greene King make some interesting beers, but their flagship brew just happens to be their worst.

Another beer which we’re beginning to think about the same way is Sharp’s Doom Bar. It’s hugely popular but, in our experience, often disappointing. We had a great pint of it a couple of years back but, since then, have always been let down by its dusty cardboard flavours and believe us, we keep trying. Recently, we had a pint alongside one each of St Austell HSD and Marston’s Pedigree, and Doom Bar lost. (But now we need to do that taste test blind.)

UPDATE (16/12/2011): we had another good pint of Doom Bar last night — bright, fruity and very alive. Still not a great hit rate but we’re not writing it off yet.