16 August 2010

Chester draws

Samuel Smith's pubs, eh? Always worth a laugh. I've never been able to spot one from the outside (is there a way?) but I always end up crossing the threshold, clocking the distinctive illuminated keg fonts, grinning, and girding my metaphorical loins for the hilarity about to ensue. For instance: has anyone ever tried their own-brand spirits and soft drinks, and are they any good? While waiting for my pint at a Samuel Smith's bar, I've started to feel the tug of my inner ticker saying "go on, order a Scotch as well, it'll only cost you about 50p". Next time I'll probably give in. This time I didn't.

We'd only just arrived in Chester, having hopped on the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and taken the train across north Wales (just €36 all in; can't say fairer), and met up with my sister who lives not far away in Shropshire. After a cursory wander through the town and a gawk at the fascinating local architecture (no really, they decided to put street level above the ground floor) we called in to The Falcon for refreshments. I was on the cask Old Brewery, the missus had a keg Dark Mild and the sister wanted a coffee. In a Smith's pub! How we laughed. Well no, we didn't. I marvelled that a twenty-first century pub chain can seemingly thrive without providing some of the basic stuff that twenty-first century people like to drink. Yes, yes, I know: it's a pub not a bleedin' Starbucks but isn't it interesting that they're making their money by being the no-frills, booze-only pure cheap pub, while JD Wetherspoon are raking it in by providing everything at low prices and packing the punters in? It's like they're opposite sides of the same pub coin. The Falcon certainly had a Wetherspoon-level of loud and scary drunks that afternoon. We moved on.

(So much for my opinion of Samuel Smith. For Samuel Smith's opinion of me, see this photo, courtesy of Bailey.)

After a quick spin around part of the walls it was time for pies and more beer. We'd had a recommendation of The Brewery Tap, flagship pub of the Spitting Feathers Brewery. It's a gorgeous pub with Tudor banqueting hall pretensions, though on a far smaller, cosier basis: olde worlde without being twee. From the range of house and guest beers I went for a Thirst Quencher, what with being thirsty and all. Alas, it was a case of false advertising. While there's a pleasant bubblegum front to this, it's all a bit grainy and musty behind. Far too difficult drinking for something of that name. Mrs Beer Nut faired much better with Anglo-Dutch Jasper's Ale, a sweet and full-bodied blonde.

The next round included Conwy Rampart -- the first boring brown bitter of the trip: a nasty phenol tang and loads of slimy, buttery diacetyl: not good. There was also the lightly creamy Black Swan mild from Buckinghamshire's Vale brewery. I ordered a pint of Spitting Feathers Old Wavertonian and was warned by the barmaid that it's a stout: "Is that OK?". I have to wonder how many people go "Arrgh! Stout! Are you trying to kill me?" and run away. I didn't. Just as well too: it's a beautiful light session stout with big dry roast flavours. One of those why-aren't-they-all-like-this stouts.

Off eastwards, then, to Shrewsbury. Marston's rules supreme in this part of the world and runs the local around the corner from where we stayed. We wandered in on the first evening, fingers crossed for something better than Pedigree or Banks's. I'd have settled for Hobgoblin but did much better: Shipyard Independence Pale Ale originated at Shipyard in Portland, Maine. Their brewer made a batch at Marston's for their summer season this year. And by 'eck it's good. Piquant citric hops wake up the palate, then sing it a sweet song of peaches and honey. At 4.2% ABV it's a beer to relax into over a few pints. Which is pretty much what happened.

More from Shrewsbury tomorrow.


  1. Yes, I have tried Sam's own brand spirits and soft drinks - they're RANK (my excuse is I used to work for them and was bought drinks, I would never pay money for any of these things). And as for the own brand wine, it's more like vinegar than a particularly bad pint of OBB. The pub I worked in did serve tea and coffee, though, but I suspect that was at the discretion of the managers, who also did the food.

  2. There's wine?!

    I've never had a proper sit-in session in a Samuel Smith pub but I'm definitely feeling the need for one now.

  3. In my experience Sam's pubs serve tea and coffee at times when they are serving food. They have over the years attracted a steadily more downmarket clientele as they have refused to increase prices except for duty. I can (just about) recall when the Falcon and the Boot were almost snooty in atmosphere.

    Did the Brewery Tap used to be called something else? King's Head, maybe? Or is it a new opening?

  4. Reading Tom11:53 am

    The Brewery Tap is a new opening, the building whcih has a Georgian frontage to the original Jacobean-era Hall shown in the photo used to house a Greek restaurant. The food in the Tap is pretty good too alongside a usually impressive selection of mostly local beers.

    In that area of Chester, The Albion and The Bear and Billet are also both well worth a visit, and I hear good things about the re-opened Ship across the Dee Bridge in Handbridge though haven't visited myself yet.

  5. Yeah, the Falcon had a bit of a faded-grandeur air, even though there were signs up about how it had been renovated relatively recently.

    I wasn't going to mention this about the food in the Brewery Tap, but since you mention it Tom, the pies were stew with a lid! Shame.

  6. stew with a lid<<

    Aaargh why are these things allowed to continue to masquerade as a pie?

  7. The lack of a consumer organisation tasked with teaching the public the difference between Real Pies and the ersatz alternatives, I'd say.

    At the very least, CAMRA's Good Beer Guide should have a little icon in the entries indicating the availability of Real Pie in a hostelry.

  8. I haven't any experience of Sam Smith's pubs outside London but the ones here do serve tea and coffee and not just at food serving times. You can usually spot whether it is a Sam Smith's because they are rarely on the main roads usually in the back or side streets and they don't have bright advertiments for products.

    I do like their pubs in general mainly because you don't tend to get groups of teenagers drinking in them because there are no recognisable brands on sale. I find their wines very sharp and their cola tastes like you are drinking liquid cola bottle sweets something my partner likes but I don't.

    A session is a great idea if you are going to attempt to work your way though their bottled beers but notso much if you want a glass of wine.

  9. Sign me up for the Real Pies campaign. Ahoy crusteteers!

  10. Of course, Sam Smith's have past form with pies.

    They later saw sense.

    They're not the only offenders in calling a bowl of stew with a crust on top a pie.

  11. Unfortunately I did not get a proper beery time in Chester when I was there before.
    There was something going on (horse race or something) and everywhere was packed out, including The Brewery Tap.
    Could not even get in the door of most places.

  12. Shame you did get the chance to eat in The Brewery Tap, my brother is the Head Chef there.
    I agree with the thoughts on the beers tho, I've never been but had Rampart and Thirst Quencher in bottles and they weren't great.

  13. Shame you did get the chance to eat in The Brewery Tap
    It wasn't that bad, Rob. Though your brother doe