Chester Jan 2007
Last Updated : 14/04/09
Chester, January 2007.
t last, I thought, somewhere decent… I was off on yet another of my travels with work but, this time, it was somewhere I knew and – more significantly – somewhere I knew I’d find a decent selection of real ales and, with a spot of munificence from Bacchus, maybe a couple of scoops too! I knew Chester from my infrequent visits recently and my more frequent visits many years ago when I was desperate, and it also helps that I’m originally from near Chester!
So it came to pass that Chester was my destination for three nights and thus, after a bit of internet research on the Sunday, I was ready and armed with a list of pubs which I could have predicted before the research was even commenced – the Mill Hotel, Harker’s and Telford’s Warehouse. The only surprise was that an old haunt of mine, the Bear and Billet down by Handbridge, was now owned by Okells and apparently served guest beers, plus I found a couple of other places which I could poke my nose into in the admittedly lean hope of locating something micro but probably not scoopable.
Monday 15th January 2007.
Work finished early and so, after checking in to the slightly tatty Comfort Inn on Hoole Road, I trolled off into town to see what the day would bring. In complete contrast to the standard meteorological conditions of my recent trips the day was an absolute blinder – quite literally - for as I ambled along in the unseasonably warm conditions, my coat unzipped and hanging from my shoulders at a jaunty angle, the blazing sun shone directly into my eyes from it’s position just above the rooftops almost directly on my route; I wasn’t complaining, however, as having my retinas scorched was paradise compared to my recent experiences with being drenched every time I ventured out of the hotel door
I noticed, with barely concealed disgust, that my nearest pub was owned by Greede Kerching and so marched onwards resolutely towards Chester and the promise of some decent ale. I spent an hour or two wandering around the artistry in half-timber which is the centre of the city, buying a bottle of 1997 Quinta do Vesuvio port from a wonderfully traditional wine merchants based in an atmospherically musty-smelling vaulted cellar, then some unpasteurised Cheshire cheese from a well-stocked cheese shop along Northgate, before convincing myself that 15:30 wasn’t too early to start investigating the beer ranges in pubs…
As I’d ignored the McSpoons on Foregate earlier (I’d read that it wasn’t worth looking into and, basically, couldn’t be arsed) my first survey of the afternoon was therefore the Shropshire on Northgate Street; sadly it was selling Wells Bombardier only, and even more sadly it wouldn’t be the last time I’d run into this particularly poor excuse for beer during the evening’s trawl. I popped my head around the door of the impressive half-timbered Pied Bull hotel just along the road but, alas, the beer range was just the rather dismal Boddies, Bombardier (again!) and W&D Fine fettle, which I found a shame as it was a nice old pub with lots of character – but it would take significantly more character before I’d even consider imbibing any of the beers on offer in there – a world heritage site at the very least, and even then I don’t think I’d bother!
The first scoop of the evening.
I retraced my steps along Northgate and thence down Lower Bridge Street towards my first real hope of a scoop that evening, the Bear and Billet, but first checked if the notoriously fickle Albion was open. As expected it wasn't, and the sign outside read;
“When we’re open we’re open, when we’re closed we’re closed”
Which rather said it all really… so back downhill I went, checking out the Cross Keys on the way but finding only Pedigree, Brains SA and Deuchars there. After a quick look at the bridge over the river Dee I finally caved in to my beer lust and entered the Bear and Billet to see what was available; I was secretly hoping for a WC brew but knew that was very unlikely as it’s still mainly a hobby enterprise, although they do supply several pubs in the city sporadically.
I’d not been in the pub for approximately ten years and was slightly miffed to find that it had been subjected to a “café bar” type refit which basically hid the building’s history behind modern materials, but at least it was still there and – far more importantly – the beer range was considerably better than when I used to drink here in the early 1990’s! Okells may have made a right arse of the pub’s ambience but they’ve certainly done the business with the beer; six ales were available with three of their own and three guests on the pumps and, after a quick consultation with my Mini-Aston, I discovered that I required the Okells IPA (4.5%): result!
In keeping with my non-desperation ethos - which manifests itself in my trying to drink beers which I like as well as ones I require – I first went for a personal favourite of mine, Phoenix Snowstorm (4.5%), a lovely well-balanced beer, citrussy, bitter, tangy yet sweetish and malty with oodles of cascades showing a bit of thigh but not crassly revealing the whole leg as so many American beers I’ve tried do. I followed this hoppy beauty with my scoop, Okells IPA (4.5%), an amber and fairly hoppy, bitter beer with a bittersweet taste, but not quite interesting enough and missing that indefinable something which the Phoenix had.
As I supped the beers my eyes wandered over a beer list for their festival the following week – cheers then! – although I must state that the list was pedestrian in the extreme and only contained two scoops for me; a special from the Baltic Fleet and, annoyingly, a WC beer… ten minutes later, my beers finished, I was heading back up Lower Bridge Street and, having time to spare, I decided on a quick half in the Falcon, another pub which I used to frequent many years back, to see how Sam Smiths are doing with their sole cask ale these days.
The Falcon is a superb old timbered building which was refurbished in the mid-80’s, although Sam Smith did a better job of preserving the interior than Okells have down the road at the Bear and Billet. Saying that, quite how Sam’s can operate the “British lambic” (lambUK?) Melbourn brewery in Stamford, charge the lowest prices in the UK for their beers, brew such a superb range of bottled ales, serve all it’s real stuff in wooden casks yet still only offer one proper beer is a strange way of going about business in my opinion… as expected, OBB was the only cask ale available (66p a half!) but regrettably wasn’t as attention-grabbing as I remember; it was a dark amber, smooth and malty, toffeeish brew with some sweetness, a hint of hop, then a sweet, bland toffee-malt finish containing hints of brettanomyces (wild yeast) & liquorice.
Worth the walk.
With nothing else real to detain me I carried on plodding uphill, pausing briefly to check out the Victoria up on the “rows”, but only found the omnipotent Bombardier alongside Bateman Rosey Nosey on the pumps. Bypassing Sam Smith’s Boot I stomped up some claustrophobic steps which took me to the first floor of the rows and therefore onto Godstall lane, a narrow and rather cute narrow ginnel strung with shops and cafés, where my next destination was located; Dutton’s, a JW Lees pub, looking like the kind of posh bourgeoisie establishment frequented by merchant bankers sipping halves of “premium” lager and munching canapés, and although it seems to have these things it also surprisingly sells cask ale, which was what I’d come for.
I was stopped momentarily by a notice in the window stating that the pub would be closing at 19:00 that evening but, as the time was still only 17:30, I had plenty of time for a swift half of the only ale available, Plum Pudding (4.8%). I’d previously had this beer at a lower strength four years previously and couldn’t remember a lot about it, but one sniff and I knew all I needed to know; this was an artificially fruity beer (albeit not as overtly artificial as most) with far too much berry-like fruitiness to be serious. I must admit that I’ve had worse, actually a lot worse, but this beer wasn’t the highlight of the evening’s drinking, let me put it that way, and I was pleased when the reddy-amber fluid was finally finished.
It’s that bloody rain again!
Stepping back out into the narrow lane I suddenly noticed something was different; after a quick glance around it dawned on me that the cobbles had been speckled by a thin dusting of raindrops, and groaned to myself as I realised that the good weather hadn’t lasted and I was probably going to get soaked yet again by my current archenemy. Fortuitously the drizzle wasn’t particularly severe as yet and so, suitably be-hatted, I slithered along the cobbles towards the furthest bastion of real beer I was due to visit that evening: Telford’s warehouse.
On the way I checked out the Liverpool arms which, surreally, still sold Greenalls bitter and nothing else; I momentarily thought I’d gone back to the 1980s but then realised that, had I indeed done so, the pub would unquestionably sell mild too and I’d be on for a pint of that! A quick look into the Bull & Stirrup – where I’d scooped Higsons many years ago – led me to discover that this hostelry had succumbed to an even worse fate than selling Greenalls; it was keg-only! Next…
Five minutes later and I was attempting to find the entrance to Telford’s warehouse, which isn’t as easy as it may seem – it’s around the back of the building. The pub is a modern “venue” establishment which offers live and DJ’d music for those who like such things and is open until the wee small hours at weekends. Amazingly, it also sells real ale - five of them – and I was impressed with the range of beer which included two scoops and a beer from the local Spitting Feathers brewery. I began with a half of Conwy Celebration (4.2%) which, sadly, wasn't too good; it was bronze in colour with a faintly phenolic twang and a bland, blunt, dull sweet maltiness in the aftertaste. Undaunted, I followed this with a glass of Weetwood Cheshire cat (4%) and found this much better, having an almost oaty, grainy character, was tasty and mellow, and trailed off into a long, rich, malty, biscuity and hop finish.
The pub – if it can be called a pub – is built, as the name suggests, in an old warehouse built by Thomas Telford on the banks of the Shropshire Union canal, next to the railway, on the western fringes of the city and is like drinking in a brick-walled warehouse full of assorted tat which, I suppose, is exactly what it is. It’s a lot more sociable than this suggests, however, and as long as you go midweek and early the pub seems to be a good place for a few well-kept cask ales, or at least it was when I was there, and I’ll definitely be back at some point!
Outside I was less than joyful to see that the shower had morphed into a full-blown deluge but had little option than to plod along in it, munching the block of cheese I’d bought earlier, willing it to stop – or, at least, not get any heavier. My entreating of Zeus seem to pay off as, ten minutes later, I arrived at the Ship Victory – surreally marooned in the middle of Gorse stacks carpark – in what was by now no more than an unrelenting drizzle. Only one guest beer would be available here but I hoped it would be something local and good…
On seeing the beer on offer, Weetwood Cheshire cat, I experienced contrasting emotions; glad that it was this excellent brew, but disappointed that I’d not tried the spitting feathers beer back in Telford’s warehouse so as to have my first ever scoop in this relaxed, cosy locals pub. I remember visiting the Victory many years back and don’t think it has changed at all, still being full of locals chatting amongst themselves and partaking of the guest beer. One thing to watch, however, is that if you open the door too quickly and a darts match is in progress you can expect to bat the unfortunate thrower across the room with the door – which I suppose is better than getting a dart in the forehead as can happen in some pubs!
Happily the beer was just as good as in Telford’s and slipped down very easily. Five minutes later and I was on my way to the major visit of the night, the Mill hotel, which I hoped would provide me with a couple more winners to bump up my total to a fairly respectable level; I know this sounds like the talk of a desperado, but in my defence I must state that the Mill usually has a couple of scoops on and, anyway, the beer is generally of decent quality even if all 10+ beers do happen to be dud! After negotiating the complicated road system of dual carriageways and slip roads (well it seemed complicated at the time, although looking at the map now I can’t see why I found it so complicated; maybe the five pints consumed thus far may have had some impact on my inability to read a map) I finally arrived at this most unusual hotel which now extends to both sides of the canal via a rather posh new bridge.
The bar was busy, but it always seems to be so when I visit and, besides, someone needs to drink all those beers on sale! I scanned the bar for prospective winners and found three out of the ten beers available were tickable and so, ensconcing myself at the end of the bar, I quickly ordered my first winner in the shape of the strangely-named Wylam Not Pork (4.6%); this was a golden, nutty, earthy and maybe even marzipan-tasting brew, a touch unusual, with a bitter, nutty malt finish. I followed on with Bowland Chipping Steamer (3.9%), a pale, very malty and grainy beer with a full body and a sweetish, walnut-like, slightly bitter and dry finish.
My final tick was also a Bowland brew, this time their Sawley Tempted (also 3.9%), which was suspiciously similar to the Steamer yet with some additional toffeeness and more of a bitter character towards the dryish finish, leaving a very moreish aftertaste. I considered another half for the road, Purple Moose Madog’s, but the jazz band which had been laboriously setting up all the time I’d been there looked almost ready to begin their “performance” so I grudgingly abandoned the bar and trotted along to the next pub, the Union Vaults, which is merely a “couple of blocks away” in American… okay, it’s a couple of roads along on the right.
I usually have a swift half in the Union - although I’ve only ever scored one beer in there, Castle Eden Owd Henry in 1996 – as they typically have a Phoenix beer on the pumps which, in my opinion, could never be construed as a bad thing. That evening, however, the range was merely Wye Valley DG Golden and Caley Deuchars (neither of which I fancied) so I hastily beat a retreat and, crossing the canal via the little humpback bridge, made my way to the final call of the evening – the Harker’s arms – somewhere I’ve never actually scooped a beer but have usually found a Rooster’s brew available for my pleasure…
…sadly not on this occasion, and the six pumps were dispensing nothing of sufficient interest to me (think Hobgoblin and the like) to keep me there. Looking at my watch I saw that the time had only just crept past 20:00 but another scan along the pumps failed - for the second time - to elicit any spark of desire within my stony heart whatsoever and so, the evening’s scooping session at a premature conclusion, it was time to head back to my hotel where I discovered (unsurprisingly) that the bar was keg-only, but on the positive side enjoyed a huge leg of lamb on work’s expense… swings and roundabouts, I suppose, and it certainly beats a kebab (not the Nargis variety though, and yes I did find one the following evening!).
As a postscript to this report I did more or less the same outing a couple of days later and picked up a pair of scoops. As I was back early, I decided to call into the Bromfield Arms on Faulkner Street, just off Hoole Road, and was surprised to find this street a buzzing livewire (well, maybe not, but compared to the sedate B&B-infested Hoole Road it definitely seems like it) with chippies, late-night shops and no less than three pubs! One is Banks’ and so wasn’t even considered, one looks a bit pretentious, but the Bromfield was full of locals enjoying the football on the big screen; normally this wouldn’t have been my sort of place at all, but it seemed to have a decent atmosphere and the big screen was in a separate area out the back which kept it reasonably separate. The pub seemed to fulfil all the requirements of a “community pub” and was well patronised as a result.
As for the beer, there were four available; a Titanic brew I’ve forgotten, Wychwood January’s Ale, Landlord and something less interesting – this is a cracking selection for a local’s pub and one of the better ranges in Chester. I went for the Wychwood and despite the beer itself being rather bland and safe it was in excellent condition, served at a temperature which didn’t weld my hand to the glass as is common in such places, and was also a decent price at just over a pound a half. Well, the Bromfield may not be my kind of pub as a rule, but it’s in the top ten percent of it’s genre and Barras are doing a decent job with it… all that and it was excellently positioned for my hotel!
Chester is a decent drinking city and has been this way for quite a few years, although the days of Border brewery Mercian Mild and suchlike are long gone! On the upside, however, there are more pubs with guest beers than – probably – at any time in the city’s history, although the omnipotence of the atrocious Wells Bombardier is rather worrying when there are so many good micros within 50 miles of the city without having to lug that rubbish all the way from Bedfordshire.
A good little crawl can easily be done with (from the station) the following itinerary; Harker’s, Union Vaults, Mill Hotel, Ship Victory and Telford’s Warehouse. If you have more time then the Bear and Billet is definitely worth a look, although I don’t think many people will score a lot of beers in there as they seem to be majoring on quality not rareness – a good philosophy, but as I’m writing about scooping I thought I’d mention the probable shortage of ticks, unless one of the rare WC beers makes it onto the bar.
There are a few other pubs around the centre which it wouldn’t hurt to have a quick look in, but don’t expect anything world-changing; the best beer ranges are at the Mill, Harker’s and Telford’s Warehouse with all the others playing second fiddle to this “holy trinity”. Saying that, there is a decent enough selection of beers within the city’s pubs and it’s certainly enough variety to sustain a day’s drinking (not scooping) without having to resort to the same beer twice. As for scooping potential, well… let’s just say there are a lot worse places to be!
Bear and Billet - 94 Lower Bridge St, CH1 1RU
Mill Hotel - Milton St, CH1 3NF
Old Harker's Arms - 1 Russell St, CH3 5AL.
Ship Victory - 47 George St, CH1 3EQ
Telford's Warehouse - Tower Wharf, CH1 4EZ
Union Vaults - 44 Egerton St, CH1 3ND
Brewery Tap - Gamul House, 54 Lower Bridge Street.
Beer of the evening.
Quite a difficult choice as I had a few good brews during the evening, but after a few minutes of consideration I think I’ll award this unprestigious trophy to Phoenix Snowstorm (4.5%) in the Bear and Billet; a classic example of an American-influenced pale ale with character, flavour, complexity and downright drinkability yet all in balance with nothing out of balance or grating in the smooth, suppable yet characterful flavour. It scores 4 on the Gazza scale – excellent – and it warms my icy soul to see that I still love Phoenix beers as much now (on the whole) as when I first tried three Oak beers in the Badger at Church Minshull, near Crewe, back in 1991 right at the start of my scooping career… who says that everything good ends? Well, maybe most things do, but hopefully Phoenix and their deliciously citrussy brews won’t disappear for a long time yet – I’ll drink a White Monk to that!
My Google beer map of Chester is now here...
There's now a new pub in town worth a look! The Brewery Tap (the brewery's out at Waverton, outside the city) is Spitting Feathers' pub which opened at the end of 2008. It has eight real ales and is well worth a look being situated in a 15th century hall.
© Gazza 13/04/09. V1.1