Friday, 20 May 2016

The Ghost in the Shell: St Albans part 2

Over the past couple of years, a number of pubs have closed in St Albans as they have across the country. The last post covered these losses but this essay covers the survival, the change and the new ground. To keep it simple, I’m not including pubs from small villages around the outskirts of St Albans.


This city is big enough to host a legion of pubs, shops and restaurants but too small to hide secrets. When a pub closes, you can bet it’s being hotly discussed around the bars of those that remain. Pub-goers here are nomadic and speculative - setting up camp in one pub then pitching up at the next. Locals don’t so much do a pub crawl as patrol a beat and I count myself as one of them. Much to the surprise of the ale-swillers, some recently closed pubs re-opened. I want to focus first on four pubs that initially shut: the Great Northern, the Crown, the Peacock and Bar 62. The reason they weren’t in part one is because they didn’t become ex-pubs after all.

Recovery:


The initial line circulating following one pub closure was that it was becoming a house. The next time I walked past, I saw O’Neill’s written above the door and became privy to the next rumour - the improbable word went out that it was opening as an Irish bar but wasn’t affiliated with the chain at all (there is already one branch of O’Neill’s in St Albans). I accepted this but what I didn’t realise is that it used to be St Albans’ branch of O’Neill’s until the chain found a unit closer to the town centre. The writing I’d seen wasn’t new but old - the paint had been stripped away to reveal its tavern genealogy. What’s remarkable is that even though folk have been in St Albans longer than me and remember when O’Neill’s was there, it still didn’t quash the rumour. Anyway, it re-opened as a much improved pub and kept its original title: the Peacock.

A similar thing happened to the Great Northern and the Crown. The former’s previous incarnation showed a pub in the worst possible way: it wasn’t welcoming to non-regulars (of which there was only a handful) nor did it care much for hygiene or beer. The inside was dark and sticky. Ale condition was negligent. The garden could’ve been one of the best in town as it descends in stepped levels to a pleasant view of treetops over distant allotments. Instead, I saw the same mounds of dog shit on the patio every time I passed and watched them become ever more grey and fossilised. The line was that it was turning into a restaurant. It re-opened as a completely renovated pub with a good beer range and proper kitchen. 

the gleaming tap range at the Craft & Cleaver

The Crown, being a large building quite far from the town centre was written off as housing. Instead it was re-carpeted, refurbished, the garden re-landscaped and then it re-opened. It’s now more family and food-oriented but the beer range has also improved. Lights have been installed on the inside so people can see and punters actually fill it out now. It has WELCOME written in big letters above the door.

When a pub closes down and disappears behind whitewash and scaffold, it’s like the construction of a mausoleum…. until the word gets out that it’s re-opening as an even more ambitious pub in which case it becomes a pupating brick chrysalis. Bar 62 (previously the Pineapple) went through this metamorphosis. When it unfurled its drying wings, it revealed a creature that had hitherto been known only in the capital - a meat & craft beer pub. It took off as the Craft & Cleaver complete with long-filament bulbs, wood floor, vertiginous stools and glass doors.


Redirection:

Some pubs come back from the dead, others change the orientation of their “swing”.

What used to be the Harrow on Verulam Road is now Mokoko’s Cocktail bar. It has won awards and as a non cocktail drinker, I shouldn’t have much interest in it. However, this is a place where people go to socialise and enjoy themselves. My experience of cocktail bars is this: I have a 330ml glass of overpriced lager while my wife has a cocktail and the cost is roughly similar. I accept that pubs don’t do good cocktails. If the bartender has to read the instructions while a 15 - minute queue develops then it shouldn’t bother with them - a separate bar is the only solution. My suggestion - serve small bottles of 330ml imperial porters/stouts/IPAs/barley wines instead of weak lagers in these venues; they are equivalent to the cocktails and similar in alcohol. They also look good in a stemmed glass. Though Mokoko’s isn’t a beery place, it’s still a great bar. After all, cocktails are people too.


What used to be a pub called the Spotted Bull has become the Brick Yard - a wine bar. It’s in trouble from objections to extensions it built and is at legal war with the community it backs onto over its licensing hours. It seems there is little life therein when I pass it and its future is less certain. My main criticism is the frosted windows and maroon lighting - it reminds me of somewhere 18 year olds go to celebrate reaching drinking age with a bottle of pink Lambrusco thrown in. Why can’t we candidly look in and see adults, candles and red wine? I’d happily share a bottle of Pinot over an oak table top.

Rebirth:

12 years ago a pub on George Street closed down. It was called the Kings Arms. It then went through a multitude of incarnations. Just over a year ago it was a struggling restaurant called No 7. Not once did I see anybody dine in it and it subsequently died. Just up the road is an institution called the Boot. Its landlord acquired No 7’s premises and turned it back into the Kings Arms. It’s officially called Dylan’s at the Kings Arms (Dylan is the name of the proprietor’s chocolate labrador in turn named after legend Bob Dylan). It embraced craft beer and kept a trio of beer engines to keep everyone happy and now it heaves with punters. This is where you go for Darkstar, Brewer’s Union, Beavertown and Brewdog beers. It’s possibly also the only pub in Britain to boast a grey squirrel in bondage gear riding a badger under the auspices of a mounted Ibex. Rule Britannia! There is even a plan to start brewing here but no concrete details as yet.

the squirrel's definitely the dominant half in this relationship

The Veer Dharma Indian restaurant on St Peters Street closed down after the landlord ejected the business for non-payment of rent. The restaurant relocated about 800 metres down the road but once the whitewash had been removed from its previous site, the signage heralded a new pub! It’s part of a chain called the Beech House and seems to have an affiliation with Marston’s judging by the beer range. It’s a bit like a TGI Fridays reincarnated as a pub.

Both the Kings Arms and the Beech House prove that new pubs do open even if many are disappearing nationally.

Reseeding:

The Farmers Boy has been a brewpub since 1996 making it one of the oldest of the new wave. Landlord and head brewer Kevin Yelland has been brewing beer with New World hops long before it became the norm. The pub is home to the Verulam Brewery for onsite ale and has an alter ego as Ale Craft - beers that are sold on and off the premises. His most recent brew - A Romance of Hops - was a delicate piney humulone marriage to commemorate plighting his own troth on 2nd April. The same brewing equipment is also used by the Private Brewery of Bob and to make the house ale for That Little Place - a restaurant in nearby Harpenden.

still going strong - the Farmers Boy

The past couple of years have seen a resurgence in house brewing. The Verulam Arms almost became a block of flats a few years ago but is now a successful pub and restaurant. Its alias - The Foragers - conducts trips into the countryside with its customers and the yield is brought back to the kitchen and cooked. Even with the modern vogue for brewing with botanicals, the Verulam Arms stands out. Last summer I went in and had a glass of sham-pagne - this was a 2% elderflower ale served over ice and sucked through a straw. It tasted of lychees. Deceiving boletes mushrooms bleed red blood when you cut them, the juice then turns blue when it hits oxygen! This amazing ingredient was used in an oatmeal stout and served at the St Albans Beer & Cider festival last year. It gave the stout an umami taste a bit like the nori sheets used to wrap sushi rice. They have just taken delivery of a new fermentor and have also brewed with douglas fir pine needles, Alexander, sweet woodruff, cherry wood and home grown hops.

the addition of douglas fir pine needles add a refreshing menthol note to this IPA

The White Hart Tap on Keyfield Terrace got permission from her Majesty’s revenue and customs to brew and sell its own ale last year. Since then, landlord Steve and his staff have applied themselves to a commendable range of styles: heavy beer with Belgian yeast (one cask exploded in the cellar), American-hopped pale ales, fruity British bitters and a luxurious chocolatey dark ale in excess of 8%. Recently, some of the customers were invited to brew their own beer there and compete against each other on the bar’s pumps - the proceeds went to a local Alzheimers charity.

Reinvention:

We live in a changing climate. Whether or not pubs are closing or opening, the beer itself is proliferating. Not only is the number of native breweries going through the roof, but the stuff’s increasingly imported too. So where does it all go to get drank?

One restaurant has put together a beer/cider list and it isn’t just Punk IPA or Lagunitas. Here’s an edited version:

Staffordshire Pilsner Freedom Brewery, Burton-On-Trent, 4.4% 
Greenwich Pilsner Meantime Brewery, Greenwich, 4.4% 
Helles Organic Lager Freedom Brewery, Burton-On-Trent, 4.8% 
High Five American IPA AleCraft Brewery, St Albans, 5.9% 
Blonde Ash Wheat Beer Grain Brewery, Norfolk, 4% 
Classic English Ale The 3 Brewers of St Albans, 4% 
Organic Best Bitter St Peter's Brewery, Suffolk, 4.1% 
Slate Porter, Grain Brewery, Norfolk, 6% 
Organic Devon Cider Luscombe Drinks, Devon, 4.8% 
Polgoon Cider Penzance, Cornwall, 5%

The restaurant in question is Lussmans. It’s inspiring to see a restaurant that knows a good porter might compliment steamed mussels or a wheat beer could match cheese dishes, a bitter goes with a roast or a Pilsner with a curry. 


This image is of a renowned local business called The Pudding Stop. Obviously, it’s not a pub but a dessert bakery started by a runner-up from the first series of The Great British Bake Off - Johnny Shepherd. He has gone to the trouble of pairing desserts not just with Sherry and wine but with beers and cider. For instance on the menu, maple & pecan sponge pudding is paired with Camden Hells Lager. I’ve also seen stouts from Kernel and cans of Beavertown beers. This experience of beer as a complimentary pleasure is new - it would be familiar territory to Belgians but it hasn’t been to us Brits.

I have spent so much money here........

Lastly, this is the Beer Shop on London Road. It opened in 2013 after trialling a stall in St Albans’ Sunday market. The beer sold well. It now takes pride of place in an area of St Albans rapidly gentrifying and is going strong. As well as the known form of British, German, American and Belgian beers, it also stocks bottles from such disparate corners as Hawaii, New Zealand and Russia. The knowledge and expertise - including experience of brewing - is fostered by all three that work there. This is, in fact the beeriest place in St Albans as it’s a taproom too - 5 cask and 4 keg. This is where I first had beers by Kees, Cloudwater, Wiper & True, Green Flash, Jester King, Crooked Stave, Nogne. This is but a snapshot of a list that could go on and dominate the whole post.

Revitalisation:

It’s not possible to discuss St Albans and its pubs without mentioning a certain niche campaign group that has a strong connection to the area - CAMRA: the campaign for the restoration/revitalisation/real of ale (delete the appropriate words in the preceding sentence). CAMRA in South Hertfordshire still bears some of its original 1970s members and might be the most traditionalist branch in the country. It has its headquarters on Hatfield Road and a small pub on Lower Dagnall Street - the Farriers Arms - bears a proud plaque about where it all started. South Herts CAMRA keeps a beady eye on the popularity of craft beer (here defined as non-cask) and needs convincing of its virtues but it has helped threatened pubs stay open and is one of the reasons St Albans has 50+ pubs in such a small city.

*sigh*- brings a lump to the throat

I started the last post by pointing out that St Albans has weathered the cull quite well in regard to pub closures. What gladdens me is that as well as retaining a slew of good traditional pubs - some of which are getting even more involved with ale, it’s also changing the places where beer or alcohol is served and the demographics of the folk that frequent them. As much as I love cask ale and leather seating, I also crave the tastes of the modern craft brewing and the youth it attracts. I like the feeling of becoming an old codger surrounded by those that attained codgerhood ahead of me, but I also like the fact that wider audiences are increasingly being drawn to bars and beer and improving both. St Albans has over 2000 years of history - some of it pre-Roman. It’s good to know it’s got its gaze set on the future too.