Shock of the new and then a classic old theatre

Over the May-day bank holiday weekend my wife and I found we had the perfect opportunity to visit and interesting part of Sheffield’s heritage. Abbeydale Picture House is a grand old cinema from the 1920s that, although showing its age, is a gem of a building and was running a three day beer festival to open its theatre to the public. We were very keen to have a look inside as to our shame we’d not explored it before. As we expected to sample a few beers we thought we’d balance that by walking there and back (roughly a mile and a half each way). I’ve always found a good walk after a night on the beer really helps and gives you the best chance of a reasonable morning after.

As we approached the Picture House we came across one of Sheffield’s ‘craft’ beer shops which also acts as a tasting room, or in other words a very small micro-pub. I had heard a great deal about the Hop Hideout but was suspicious about its real ale credentials so I’d not personally checked it out. As we passed the shop my wife grabbed my arm and dragged me in with a list of reasons why I shouldn’t be such an old fart. Once inside I found that there were five keg taps but, I was politely informed, no cask beer. I was in a cask conditioned dessert with a very thirsty wife; there was nothing left to do but treat it as research and try out a couple of the keg offerings. My wife immediately chose a sour beer as she likes sourness in many forms. I chose what looked to be the best option in terms of strength to kick off a long night on the beer. The shop serves glasses in sizes from one-third pint up to one litre, so we were able to have thirds to give us an introduction to the new world of keg. Research dictated I try a second beer from the range, and I also managed to pinch a sip of my wife’s sour ale so I could see what was making her so happy.

There was an excited buzz in the shop from the group of young men chatting about the nuances of the the various hop flavours on offer and I must admit I liked the informality and the atmosphere of the place. However, despite my wife’s new found love for sour beer, I wasn’t won over by my drinks and also found them, surprisingly, rather flat; not what I expected from new generation keg. So, my conclusion is that the Hop Hideout is well set-up and run, and would attract me for return visits if there were at least one cask conditioned beer on offer.

After our keg detour we move on the Picture House via an accidental visit to the Picture House Social Club underneath the old cinema. The Social Club seemed a very good venue with good pizzas, good beer, and on that Friday a really good DJ. However, we realised we’d entered the wrong door so after a pint and a pizza left to find the correct entrance to the Picture House cinema and the target beer festival. With objective achieved we had a great night marvelling at the old cinema theatre and sampling the range of cask conditioned beers (although my wife found the Hop Hideout had a pop-up keg and can bar at the festival too!).

A slow walk home capped a really good Friday night out. So much so, we decided to repeat the whole experience on the Saturday (bringing friends)…..when I even had a bit of a dance in the theatre aisle to the festival’s headline band! Maybe there is life in the old dog yet.

The Spanish call it ‘el tapeo’

When we visit Spanish towns and cities one of the cultural highlights that I know many of us love is the evening ‘tapeo’. Tapeo does not have an exact English translation but it’s the name for a quite simple concept. To ‘ir de tapeo’ is to spend an evening moving from bar to bar having one or maybe two drinks in each, and sampling the speciality tapa each bar has to offer. It’s quite often the case that bars will have a few signature tapas and so it makes a great night out to tour an area trying what’s best in as many bars as time or hunger allows. One could start with a fino sherry with some prawns, move along the street to have a small beer with some tortilla or empanada, then a stroll across the road to have red wine with a little ox-tail stew….and so on, and so on.

Looking back a few decades, I remember nights out with friends where I could describe the evenings as being English ‘tapeos’. Of course, we British have always missed the link between good food and good drink, except perhaps for a stomach filler before we set off or a curry to end the night. But, I used to enjoy the option to move pub to pub to sample the beer each one specialised in. In Derby in the early 80s this might mean starting in the Exeter Arms (then a Marston’s house) with their Pedigree, moving on to the Shakespeare for some Ind Coupe Burton Ale then to Ye Olde Dolphin for a pint of Bass (and so on). Portsmouth during student days in the 70s would be a crawl from Gale’s house (HSB), to Eldridge Pope house (Royal Oak), to Whitbread house (Pompey Royal). Each evening we could choose to drink our favourite beers in varied locations with useful breaks of a walk between pubs to rest the stomach and clear the head!

I doubt many would argue that the tied system had a lot to answer for and many pub managers struggled to make a living whilst trying to attract and keep a good customer base. However, for me, it was ideal to be able to choose what I wanted to drink and then make for an old haunt I knew served it well or, if away from home, to an attractive pub that advertised the brewery on its sign.

Today we have a rather mixed bag. Some areas are rather monopolised by one giant brewer (see article ‘Pompey…or is it Southsea?’ with its repeated reference to Fuller’s), whilst others have many free-houses that serve ever changing beers from near and far. The free-house model seems to offer a wide choice but I do question whether a bar displaying 6 or 8 or 10 pumps with ever changing obscure brews is really the drinkers’ paradise. Many’s the time I’ve gone into a lovely pub and had to scan the bar looking for something I know, or something of a similar style to what I prefer, only to have to compromise to avoid a range of either too strong or too weird offerings. It seems choice can mean different things to different people. A lot of options on the bar doesn’t necessarily mean real choice, and I worry that this is often not appreciated by today’s brewers and pub owners.

Here in Sheffield we now have a great variety of good pubs and many carry a dazzling selection of beers. Fortunately, some of the best do offer regular beers from local breweries so the customer isn’t forced to try their luck with a leap into the unknown. Good examples are the Fat Cat and the Kelham Island Tavern at Kelham Island, the Sheaf View at Heeley, and the Rising Sun at Fulwood. Modern-day pubs that cater for those who want to choose a beer they trust, as well as for people who enjoy the excitement of something ‘different’. However, I have to say that despite enjoying the best of the new era pubs, I do still miss walking from one brewery’s pub to another’s knowing what I’m going to have in each and being very comfortable with that.

Pompey…..or is it Southsea?

I thought I’d write a piece on a recent trip to Portsmouth (aka Pompey) where I checked out how things had changed since I trod its streets as a struggling student back in the 70s. I booked myself into a sea-front hotel, bought a ticket for the football, and planned my own mini crawl around the area I knew so well in my first year at Poly. in 1976.

To support this article I was keen to get a good feel for today’s beer drinking culture in Portsmouth.  But with only one day free I focussed on the north of Southsea and the tight-knit residential streets between Albert Road and Fratton Park.

I travelled down on Saturday morning hoping to explore a little before the match (v Exeter). Traffic delays made time a bit tight but I did managed to find the first pub on my target list for a quick pint…and what an experience it was. The Nell Gwynne was a very good street corner local and was packed with a really interesting pre-match crowd. Let’s say the clientele and the atmosphere took me back to pubs close to football grounds in the 70s or 80s. Many of the blokes looked as if they dated back to those times (as I do) and although I didn’t advertise my northern accent I really liked the buzz and warmth of the place.

Saturday evening provided the serious research and I kicked off by visiting a favourite haunt of student days, the 5th Hants Volunteer Arms. To a great extent the pub hadn’t changed much at all except for the unfortunate presence of a TV and the even more unfortunate loss of the Gale’s Ales I remember with a passion. Gale’s were sold to, and closed by, Fuller’s of London. Fuller’s provide the beers for the 5th Hants and offer a version of the old Gale’s Horndean Special Bitter, but it’s an unexciting reproduction so my visit was a little sad. The pub was good but not with the feel of the old days!

Albert Road was unrecognisable from the 70s. Then it was quiet and work-a-day, now it’s lively and buzzing. My second stop was the Duke of Devonshire which had a selection of beers and a really good atmosphere. The local brewery I’d been looking out for was on the bar so the Duke was a perfect stop-off on the tour. Portsmouth’s Irving & Co. Brewers have an attractive range of regular beers (each with a Naval theme) and the one I sampled was Invincible (named after an aircraft carrier). Invincible was very good although, despite it claiming to be a full-bodied premium bitter, I would have liked a little more body myself. Still I am being picky and I’d certainly look out for Irving’s beers again.

Pub number three needed a trip into the backstreets north of Albert Road. The Red, White, and Blue is a welcoming street corner local. Another good mix of customers (young and old) and another very friendly feel. Again Fuller’s replaced the the original Gale’s, and their London Pride was excellent. A couple of streets away was the Golden Eagle. Again nestled on a street corner and again Fuller’s. Inside was lively with what turned out to be a rather good Status Quo tribute band (Stated Quo) playing in the bar. The London Pride went down nicely and the bouncing crowd made for a great short stay.

Finally a return to Albert road and yet another beautiful street corner pub. The Leopold may be an old pub but it’s been up-dated inside and done so in such a way as not to crush warmth and cosiness. At the bar there was a modern selection of beers too. Older breweries and modern breweries sat side by side. Plenty of variety on the pumps and the mixed crowd were very happy, as was I.

The Leopold was a comfortable place to sit and assess my tour and the state of Portsmouth today. Albert Road is a brilliant night out area. Something for everyone and everything close at hand. What is particularly good about the area, especially if I compare it to home in Sheffield, is the survival of many (but not all) of the small street corner locals. The ones that I came across seemed to be thriving with people popping out for a quick one, two, or maybe more. The friendly atmosphere of these local pubs was really warm and showed that a pub can still be what it should be… a great community resource.

The coming of Micro-Pubs

I’ve lived in Sheffield for over twenty five years and I’ve seen many developments, both good and bad, in the local beer drinking scene. The creation of so many new breweries in the city has been a very positive change; with so many of them being excellent they provide Sheffield with a vibrant beer culture. On the other hand, the loss of Ward’s Bitter with the closure of Ward’s Brewery in 1999 was sad, and many good pubs across the city have been either knocked down or converted into anything from supermarkets to flats. Some of the remaining pubs have been ruined through unimaginably bad internal modernisation, but fortunately there are also many that have been given very positive new leases of life. The Sheaf View at Heeley is one of my favourite pubs, and as I remember how it used to be I can’t give enough praise to those who bought it and transformed it to what it is now.

The latest exciting development, to my mind, has been Sheffield’s adoption of the micro-pub concept. A micro-pub is generally a small, simple drinking venue set up in what was a shop or similar outlet, with basic but adequate facilities and food limited to snacks. Sheffield was a little slow on the uptake; micro-pubs had already started popping up in other towns and cities around the country from late 2005. Some years ago I picked up on the micro-pub association and had been planning to check out the format in my home city of Derby where the Little Chester Ale House opened in 2012. For one reason or another I’ve still to make it to the Little Chester, but 2015 saw the opening of the Beer House on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield and I’m completely sold on the idea. It’s probably fortunate that the Beer House has been designed and run so well, although the two micro-pubs that have since opened in the city are both good in their own ways too. I do think the format is just what has been needed for a while. Simple comforts whilst ensuring high quality beer served by informed and friendly staff seems such an obvious recipe for success. I really hope life does continue to be be successful for the micro-pubs in Sheffield and especially the Beer House which as my closest ‘boozer’ could almost have been designed just for me!