Tastings School - Geordie gems

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Geordie gems

Jeff Pickthall explores the great city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, looking for the best beer hot spots in the North East.

Few can be unaware of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It is not a namby-pamby city that watches the world go by without a murmur. No, it grabs it by the lapels and shouts in its face. Its reputation for liveliness isn’t a myth. It has been voted variously as ‘8th Best Party City in the World’; ‘Best City in England for Work and Study’ and ‘Second Best City in Europe for Social Life.’ Newcastle United’s relegation from the Premiership will do little to dampen the up-for-it spirit of the city.

The city’s distant roots are a Roman settlement ‘Pons Aelius’ at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. The Anglo-Saxon centuries after the Romans were gone were spent scrapping with the Danes and The New Castle was built in 1080 under William the Conquerer’s son Robert Curthose. The coal trade fuelled shipbuilding and repairing on the River Tyne. The Industrial Revolution took hold and railways, heavy engineering and armament manufacture put Newcastle high on the list of industrial powerhouse cities. The industrial decline of the latter half of the 20th century hit hard but the Geordie spirit was undiminished.

Newcastle city centre is the cultural focal point of the whole Tyneside conurbation. A large student population contributes to its cosmopolitan feel. Good public transport enables easy access into the centre. Many buildings are in the neoclassical style and were designed by local architect John Dobson in the mid 19th century. Grey Street swooping down to the river is particularly memorable.

Two aspects of Newcastle’s nightlife are widely known: The Bigg Market and Newcastle Brown Ale.

The Bigg Market is a circuit of lurid, deafening, sticky-carpeted bars for people who don’t wear coats in midwinter. Every weekend it throngs with exuberant Geordies. Conspicuously, the Bigg Market’s lamp-posts are decorated with anti-climb paint. Unfortunately it is a zone of N. W. D. (nowt worth drinking) for the beer connoisseur.

Newcastle Brown Ale is the internationally famous nutty, malty ale with a kinship to the Scottish 80/ beer style. It has been in production since 1927. In order to avoid looking like a fresher student the visitor should request “a bottle of brown” and should drink it from a half-pint glass. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Pedants among BotW readers may be delighted to note that Newcastle Brown Ale is no longer brewed in the city – in 2005 its production moved across the Tyne to the Federation Brewery in Gateshead.

In the diminishing number of pubs that still serve it, Geordies may also be overheard ordering “a pint of Scotch.” They are referring to Scotch Ale rather than whisky. It is a pasteurized, caramelly kegged ale, a living fossil from craft beer’s wilderness years.

Although the famous Brown Ale is stocked by almost all of Newcastle’s plethora of characterful pubs and bars there’s plenty more decent beer to choose from.

As well as Newcastle Brown from the Federation Brewery drinkers may also find local Tyneside cask ales from Mordue, Big Lamp, Hadrian & Border and Jarrow breweries. Mordue, winner of Champion Beer of Britain with Workie Ticket in 1997, was founded by brothers Matthew and Garry Fawson. Matt is our guide to the best beer-drinker’s pubs and bars in Newcastle.

The Cumberland Arms overlooks the Ouseburn Valley. The valley is the dividing line between the city centre and Byker.

The pub is listed in CAMRA’s National Inventory – a roster of pubs whose architecture and decorative features have remain unspoiled by the brutal hand of refurbishment and which offer an insight into the pub-going of days gone by. Only a cold-hearted cynic would say it needs doing up. Live music features strongly.

Acoustic folk styles dominate but it is anything but exclusive, snobbish or puritanical. As the ‘cellar’ is a room adjacent to the bar, customers have the option of having their pint through a handpump or drawn by gravity straight from the cask. Handpump is the default but staff are always happy to oblige with a gravity pour. Beers from North Eastern micros are always available. On our visit Mordue’s IPA and Jarrow Bitter (hoppy enough to almost be an IPA in its own right) were going down well.

The Free Trade Inn is a modern, purpose-built bar gleaming in pristine newness. Coquettish pinafored waitresses serve the North’s most sublime cocktails to a sophisticated elite usually preoccupied with their iPhones and pausing only briefly to flash their black Amex cards. Well no, that’s a big fib. The Free Trade is a much-loved pub where even the patina of age bears its own patina of age. The exterior shows signs of having had a recent lick of paint, that’s about it. Its lack of interior design or decoration is part of the pub’s unique charm. Its location on a hillside at the eastern end of the Quayside gives it an unrivalled view of the Tyne and its bridges and landmarks. Although the pub serves a variety of cask ales, if you are to drink Newcastle Brown Ale this would be the ideal place. On a mild summer evening take your beer out on the terrace, take in the view and you’ll struggle not to feel a frisson of Northern profundity.

Pink Lane near the Central Station was historically the city centre’s red-light district. You won’t necessarily find any ladies of the night there now but you will find The Forth, and L-shaped corner pub. It is popular with students, ex-students, wannabe students and those who prefer a decent beer in a louder, livelier environment than the average real ale pub. Gig and nightclub posters adorn the walls and hunched DJs spin their white label promos. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is always on alongside more local offerings.

A decent bottle range includes beers from Anchor of San Francisco.

The Newcastle Arms is on St Andrew’s Street which corners on Stowell Street, the city’s Chinatown. St James Park football ground is nearby and, on match day, like most other pubs in the centre, the Newcastle Arms fills with black-andwhite clad football fans. The pub is dedicated to cask ale – the names of the hundreds that have been served are chalked on blackboards behind the bar.

Sir John Fitzgerald Ltd has several renowned pubs in the city and across the region. The Bridge Hotel, The Crown Posada, The Bodega and the Bacchus are the most distinctive and memorable.

The Bridge Hotel is at the northern end of the High Level Bridge, built in 1849 by railway pioneer Robert Stephenson. Its top level carries a railway line and its lower level carries road traffic and it is one of the engineering masterpieces of the early years of railway. The pub features local and national cask ales and on clement evenings they best appreciated on the pub’s terrace overlooking the river and the Tyne Bridge.

The Crown Posada is Newcastle’s second pub on CAMRA’s national inventory. Its Victorian paneling, glasswork and ornate ceiling are a delight to behold. This long, thin single roomed pub can be crammed at the weekend but is otherwise a gem.

Westgate Road, if you wish, will take you all the way to Carlisle. At its eastern end is the Bodega. Again an a r c h i t e c t u r a l l y interesting pub – Sir John Fitzgerald seems to specialize in them. A spectacular domed ceiling never fails to catch the eye. A diverse array of cask ales again takes pride of place.

Something of an oddity in the Fitzgerald roster, Bacchus is a modern new-build pub. It is located on a narrow lane off Grey Street. Its interior is styled as an ocean liner from a more glamorous era. Cask ales and a good bottle range are the focus. The pub has a reputation for the exemplary freshness of its cask ales.

The second North Eastern pub company of great beer interest is Head of Steam.

The company formerly owned a legendary beer pub of the same name at Euston Station in London. Although successful, its three hundred miles from the company’s Northumberland headquarters caused logistical problems that led to its closure in 2005. Newcastle benefits from three Heads of Steam.

Opposite the Central Station is a pub that bears the name of the chain.

Customers enter at street level and either go downstairs to a small venue where young bands attempt to make their names, or go upstairs to the bar room. Old railway signs adorn the walls but it’s anything but a pub for old buffers.

Tilley’s is on Westgate Road just the other side of the Tyne Theatre from the Bodega. Unusual for the Head of Steam chain it is a proper pub rather than a building adapted from other uses. DJs often do their thing and a youngish urban crowd appreciates the good beers on offer.

Overlooked by the Cumberland Arms on the Ouseburn tributary of the River Tyne, The Cluny is a bar and music venue in an old Victorian whisky bottling factory.

Although long-gone from Newcastle, Cluny Whisky still exists as a brand in the USA. The modern but welcoming L-shaped bar room leads to an art gallery area from where the 250 person capacity venue is accessed. Gigs are listed for about 20 nights every month and well-known bands include the venue on their national tours.

Take-home cask ale is promoted with the slogan ‘Stuff the Supermarkets’ and quality imported beers, draught and bottled, are stocked.

If your visit to Newcastle is one of offices and hotel rooms with little opportunity to investigate pubs perhaps a few interesting bottles would help make the trip memorable. If so, Rehill’s of Jasmine is the place to go. It describes itself as a ‘specialist food and wine merchant’ but don’t let that put you off, it has a large beer selection. Its shelves groan under the weight of its extensive UK and international beer selections. Local beer connoisseurs know the shop as ‘Refills.’ Visitors to Newcastle may be entertained by a website and its spin-off book called The Burglar’s Dog. In it you’ll find reviews of Newcastle’s hundreds of nightclubs, pubs and bars all written in a hilariously pithy, often brutal, style. A beer guide, it ain’t: a good read, it is.

Ouseburn, Byker, Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
Tel: +44 (0)191 265 6151
Pink Lane, Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
Tel: +44 (0)191 232 6478
57, St. Andrew’s Street, Newcastle-upon-
Tyne, NE1 5SE
Tel: +44 (0)191 260 2490
Castle Square, Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
Tel: +44 (0)191 232 6400
31 The Side, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1
Tel: +44 (0)191 232 1269
125 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon
Tyne, NE1 4AG
Tel: +44 (0)191 221 1552
42-48 High Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
Tel: +44 (0)191 261 1008
2 Neville Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
Tel: +44 (0)191 230 4236
105 Westgate Road, Newcastle-upon-
Tyne, NE1 4AW
Tel: +44 (0)191 232 0692
36 Lime Street, Ouseburn, Newcastleupon-
Tyne, NE1 2PQ
Tel: +44 (0)191 230 4474
245-249 Jesmond Road, Newcastle-upon-
Tyne, NE2 1LB
Tel: +44 (0)191 281 4499
St. Lawrence Road, Byker, Newcastleupon-
Tyne, NE6 1AP
Tel: +44 (0)191 265 5764