We had a less than satisfactory time on the second part of our recent sort-of-holiday, which we spent in Birmingham (of which more in our monthly newsletter), but there was plenty of fun to be had down the pub.
We had a hit list of places we wanted to visit, either because we’d heard they were good, or because they were of historic or architectural interest. That’s just as well because – generalisation alert – it’s not the kind of city where playing it by ear works especially well. It seemed to us that the city centre is largely the domain of chains. Largely but not entirely, of course: The Wellington and The Post Office Vaults, both five minutes walk from New Street Station, between them have more than enough beer to keep the snootiest of drinkers happy for a weekend. We did also pop into Purity’s craft beer bar, Purecraft, and didn’t take to it – it was like drinking in Pizza Express – but we’d had a long day and others seem to like it.
To get to the rest of the interesting stuff, though, you have to brave the ring road (we spent what felt like hours waiting at traffic lights or wandering in subways) after which you find yourself very quickly in the kind of post-industrial streetscapes which can feel a bit ‘sketchy’ to an outsider.
Local favourite The Craven Arms, for example, is only just beyond the very centre of the city, but it’s not a pub a visitor would ever stumble upon, being up a side street, past a concrete car park, what looks like a half-collapsed estate pub, some wasteland, and those beauties above. But it’s not actually dodgy, as far as we can tell, and the leap of faith is totally worth it for the sight of this gorgeous exterior against the grey:
A hard-nosed Belgian farmer arrives at the historical brew house in the Flemish village of Bokrijk on an old Dexta tractor to pick up the spent grain… Rob Hynes makes a bee line for the tractor. “That’s a thing of beauty,” he says. “I used to own one years ago but I sold it. I regret that.”
The name dates from this period: contemporary accounts talk of a blasted land of spoil heaps and perpetual twilight, overcast by factory smoke in the daytime and lit by furnaces at night. J R R Tolkein, who grew up in south Birmingham, based his chief villain Sauron’s desolate domain in The Lord of the Rings on this landscape. Its name, Mordor, even translates as ‘black country’ in the author’s invented languages.
This time, we tasted three bottled milds from Dudley, Nottingham and Wolverhampton, the latter from both can and bottle.
The Midlands is a part of the UK where (in our admittedly limited experience) mild still feels alive – where ‘pubby’ pubs seem to have one on draught and might even offer a choice of different brands, or different types of mild. (See Barm’s 2014 account of exploring ‘England’s Franconia’ for more on this.)
Unfortunately – or, actually, maybe we mean fortunately? – lots of Midlands milds are cask beers by definition and either don’t seem to make it into bottles, or the bottles are hard to come by. The selection we managed to scrape together includes something from the supermarket mainstream, a mild with something of a cult reputation, and an outlying ‘crafty’-looking beer that isn’t sure exactly what it is.
We purchased all of these from Beers of Europe online:
Banks’s Mild (can, 3.5%, £1.49, 500ml)
Bank’s Mild (bottle, 3.5%, £1.69, 500ml)
Holden’s Black Country Mild (£2.09, 3.7%, £2.09, 500ml)
Blue Monkey 99 Red Baboons (£2.99, 4.2%, 500ml)
Taking them in order of ABV, we started with Banks’s (part of the Marston’s empire but still brewed in Wolverhampton, as far as we can tell) and decided to drink the can and bottle side by side in pint glasses.
Now, Bob Maxfield and his colleagues have launched a multi-author blog dedicated to ‘the love of beer across the Midlands and beyond’.
He’s looking for people to write on the blog and says:
We are keen to have different backgrounds and points of view on the site to discuss and promote all that is happening in the beer world in the Midlands. I’m happy for people to blog directly on the site or reblog from their own sites.
In other words, you can host a post on your own blog but also share it via the MBBC or, if you can’t be bothered to set up and host your own blog but have something to get off your chest, or only want to blog once in a while, MBBC will host the content for you.
We don’t imagine you have to actually live in the Midlands, either – it might just be that you’ve got something to say about the region’s beer and pub scene based on a visit or previous experience.
Selfishly, we’re delighted because this means there might be a more steady flow of intelligence on what’s going on in the region, and because we think multi-author sites might well be the saviour of beer blogging, taking the pressure off any one individual to keep coming up with material.